Searching For A Lost America

CountryDiner

By GORDON GLANTZ

GORDONVILLE — If it is possible for a heathen to have a come to Jesus moment, I had one about 12 years ago when lost in the King of Prussia area.

It was in the dark days before GPS, and the directions we looked up practically had us driving off the road and into a ditch.

I did what was I taught to do – after learning reading, writing and arithmetic – and followed the long-held American right of pulling into a gas station to ask for directions.

No one there – not the cashier, mechanic or guy sitting behind the counter with his feet up – had a clue.

We barely found our way back home while feeling frustrated, having not showed up for a scheduled appointment, only to learn that we were a grand total of two turns and two minutes from the destination.

The tradition of getting directions at a gas station was clearly gone, as it was not the first time and not the last.

The type of full-service gas stations that guide you to the Yukon became an endangered species, going the way of using a phone book to call a movie theater on a pay phone for start times.

You can say it’s all a sign of progress, but we need to have progress with our souls intact, do we not?

While we have had the rise of a wonderful musical genre called Americana (an umbrella under which country, rock, folk, blues, blue grass – among others – can merge and mingle without the musicians feeling like traitors to their genres), many other forms of Americana are six feet under.

These deaths are not by a single stab wound, but by a thousand painful cuts.

Exhibit A: Sports.

What did we do as kids? We watched games on television, and then we went outside and mimicked what we saw until it was too dark (and sometimes when it was too dark).

Maybe we didn’t do everything fundamentally correct, but we played and played and played.

Sofia, now 12 ½, plays softball at the travel tournament level, and she has yet to ever watch one pitch of a game on television. We make semi-regular excursions to Reading Phillies games, but she doesn’t really pay attention there, either.

Everything she has done with the sport has been in a controlled environment with adults instructing her, either as coaches or individual mentors (or yours truly trying to act like one).

Truth is, though, she is a step ahead by putting down her phone long enough to put in the time.

Even if she did watch the Phillies and then looked to play outside – without adult supervision, leaving kids alone to develop skills such as conflict resolution – there would be no untouched open space anyway.

It seems every piece of suburban grass needs to have a house on it, lest western civilization turn into one big pumpkin by the pending stroke of midnight.

And then there is the sign of lost Americana, leaving me the most blue — the slow decline and gradual death of the neighborhood diner.

The operative word here is “neighborhood.”

I lamented this trend recently on a Facebook post, hoping my “friends” in that alternate universe would commiserate.

Some did, but others did not. Some suggested what I call coffee shops – places that open around 6 a.m. and close by the end of the lunch rush (2-2:30 p.m.) – which don’t qualify as a diner in my book (diners should technically be 24 hours, but that went by the wayside at the front end of the decline).

Others mentioned chain restaurants that are too big and impersonal – complete with elongated wait times – that don’t qualify.

Most fellow Facebookians chose to jolt me from my anger stage of the mourning process by letting me know of diners I could try out.

I was reminded of places in the city – South Philly, North Philly, Roxborough and my home ‘hood of the Northeast – that I already knew about.

No one mentioned New Jersey, where diner tradition is the next best thing it has going next to being the Bruce Springsteen state, but I’m not about to pay a toll and fight traffic just for a cheese omelet.

I also learned of diners in Pottstown, Reading, Collegeville, Warminster, Wyncote, Warrington, Wayne, Downingtown and even somewhere south of the Delaware River Gap.

That’s all fine and dandy. If I’m ever in any of those places, a diner will get my business 100 times before some chain joint.

It’s a way to soak up the local flavor, and get a feel for the community (often song fodder), as diners are – or were – a window into the soul of an area.

But I’m still a stranger in a strange land, and it often leaves me with an achy breaky heart (especially if the song is playing on the jukebox).

Every neighborhood should have at least one diner. It should actually be mandated by law – by the same municipal officials so quick to rubber stamp variances to overdevelop themselves into oblivion.

I know there are some diners around Norristown – in West Norriton, Audubon, etc. – but there is no way I can get there enough to be called “hun” by a waitress who already knows to bring me my decaf (caffeine kills) and large OJ.

I wouldn’t yearn for that so much if I didn’t have it, only to have it stripped away, one by one by one.

When we first moved to Blue Bell, there were so many diners within a five-mile radius that we practically kept a scorecard to make sure we were hitting each one fairly.

Once you achieve “regular” status, feeling like a regular on the cast of “Cheers,” you have a certain amount of responsibility to be a good customer.

And I was, tipping in the 25 percent range.

At least that’s what I believed while keeping faith in the dream of Americana more than the American dream itself.

This column appeared in The Times Herald on Oct. 13, 2019.

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