If the Fleetwood Diner were a person, it would be a cranky old man named Morty who wears a tattered fedora and suspenders holding up his ridiculously loose pants. He tells dirty jokes to inappropriately young women. He has an aversion to taking showers and he may or may not smell like dirty socks. But despite Morty’s shabby exterior, people are drawn to him. Drawn to him like hippies to a summer music festival, like bar hoppers are drawn to late-night, deep-fried snacks. He is a character, and one who attracts a crowd.
A person such as Morty is even more likeable (albeit tolerable) when one has had a few drinks under their belt, and the Fleetwood is no exception. All of the previous times I have visited the restaurant have been after a night of concert-going or drinking at nearby establishments, so many of the restaurant’s less than spectacular qualities did not appear themselves to me at all. Rather, I saw the endearing eccentricity through the haze of my post Cherry-Bomb buzz. I didn’t pay attention to how dirty the floor was because there were so many people packed into the place that I literally couldn’t see the floor.
But tonight was different. My sister-in-law, niece and nephew and I were one of three parties at The Fleetwood, despite the Art Fair’s having attracted thousands into the city. The Fleetwood seemed lonely and ignored. I imagined Morty in his human form, standing outside trying to cajole strangers to eat at his restaurant, asking them to come eat in one sentence, and then spewing insults at them when they decline and pass by in another.
It was odd to be in a place sober that I was so used to patronizing when I was not. I paid much more attention to the details of the restaurant itself. I noticed all of Morty’s age spots- the rust patches and water stains on the ceiling, the pop and coffee dried up on the black and white (although I use the word white loosely) tiled floors. But Morty is not concerned so much with how he looks as he is with serving good food that people will wait outside in the freezing cold for thirty minutes or more to eat. Morty is unapologetic for his oversights, and unselfconscious about his appearance because of them. Morty is who he is, as is The Fleetwood Diner.
And the Fleetwood invites its customers to be the same. A place that offers up a comfortable haven for absolutely anybody, from lawyers to change beggars to kids with brightly colored Mohawks (I actually saw one while I was there), to teenagers to the elderly who dine at the Fleetwood in the hopes of reliving a fond memory from their past. Everyone has a place and everyone is welcome. It’s like once we eat there we are one of Morty’s friends and he always invites us to come back.
So I was excited and a little nervous to introduce my niece and nephew to the Fleetwood- excited for them to experience the retro “blast from the past”-ness of the place and nervous that they wouldn’t share the same appreciation for it that their mother and I did. I couldn’t wait for them to see the splattering of stickers on the wall, ranging from bands to bumper to bubble gum. I thought they would get a bang out of the authentic looking stools lined dutifully at the counter and the novelty of being able to watch the cook prepare our food as we sat. But to my chagrin, they had no appreciation for the details that, in my mind, make this place so unique. To them, Morty’s bygone era quirkiness went unnoticed; their attentions focused more on playing with the silverware than noticing their surroundings.
I noticed, however, the almost uncomfortable blank silence that hung heavy in The Fleetwood like the metal awnings outside. Usually, (by that I mean at 2 am on any given night) a mix of music as eclectic as the clientele blasts from a little boom box propped on top of one of the refrigerators behind the counter, it’s blown speakers blaring scratchy sounds like Bob Marley, The Sex Pistols, or maybe even a little ‘50’s Doo-Wop. But tonight all I could hear were the volcanic pops of hot grease, the AC blasting its little heart out and little (boring) snippets of conversation from the people around us. No music at the Fleetwood? It was as if they ran out of Hippie Hash- something significant was definitely missing. The silence amplified the Diner’s sleepy mood.
Our waitress seemed sleepy, too. She was efficient, but not overly friendly or engaging. She did, after all, have the whole entire restaurant to serve. I counted six the stools at the counter, fourteen seats at the inside tables, and there had to be at least 4 tables outside seating about 4 at each- that’s over 36 potential seats to one little waitress. That was a lot of people to serve, so the fact that she plopped a pile of silverware and napkins on our table for us to distribute didn’t bother us so much. I imagine her as Morty’s great granddaughter, the “you-can’t-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks” attitude being concentrated through the passing on of generations.
Another thing that adds to the personification of Morty through the Fleetwood is the attitude. There is a unique manner captured amongst the sheet metal walls- one that is almost devil-may-care, or on the contrary, the devil-does-care, and he wants you to eat at his restaurant. It’s not only the attitude of the restaurant, but also the demeanor of many of its customers. During my late night visits, the inevitably inebriated patrons didn’t mind waiting a half an hour, didn’t mind the slightly less than presentable appearance. Going to the Fleetwood isn’t about getting gussied up and fancy, it’s about slinging a greasy spoon, fork and knife while fraternizing with your fellow bar hoppers.
Instead of a varied, colorful crowd, tonight’s patrons were just plain and simple. There was the newly-dating couple in their 20’s who sat at a table by the front window and made small talk, the college-aged girls sitting by the back jealousy window (which doesn’t open to the outside, but rather to the basement stairwell), and us. A few people came in and out to get carryout orders, but that was the extent of it. I noticed how much bigger the small diner felt when it was not bursting at the metal seams with people. The space seemed expansive with the longing for capacity to be fulfilled.
In an effort to try and redeem myself as the “cool aunt”, I brought my niece and nephew down to the bathroom for a pit stop (they had been asking all through dinner to go down there). We opened the door to the back steps (the bathroom is in the basement) and a wall of heat and stink and mustiness assaulted our noses. Trapped underneath the black rubber mat that covered the stair landing lurked smells that should not be found anywhere near a place where people eat. The stench was a mix of bleach, mildew, and bread gone bad. The odor that warned us to turn back around only encouraged my niece and nephew to follow the stairs down to the bathroom. It was like we were in the belly of an old ship- dark, dank, and damp with the black walls emanating an unfriendly vibe (That, or the inside of Morty’s belly). We turned the corner after the stairs and there was the bathroom- its unevenly hung door opened ever so slightly, daring us to even have a look. I pushed open the door and turned on the light. One of the walls was painted a chalky black, and the other a deep, dusty blue. Graffiti and phone numbers were scattered all over the walls. The garbage can underneath the sink was overflowing with used paper towels. The stink of “bathroom smells” was so strong my niece had to hold her nose to keep from gagging. “Awesome!” My nephew exclaimed, anything disgusting and putrid piquing his interest. I was disappointed that the thing they got so excited about was also the least appealing attribute of the place.
I was also disappointed at my reaction to the Fleetwood this particular Friday evening. I had looked forward to seeing this place as I was used to seeing it- busy, loud, and boisterous. Instead my expectations slumped like a runny egg yolk on one of the Fleetwood’s hash breakfasts. It seemed everything that had attracted me to this place previously was missing- the eclectic and friendly crowd, the garbled boom box tunes, and the party-like atmosphere. It was quite a letdown that instead of showing my niece and nephew a rockin’ good time in a retro restaurant, they had a mediocre time experiencing the Fleetwood as a drowsy, derelict diner.
While its ambience was lacking this particular evening, I know had we gone a mere 5 hours later I would have seen the Fleetwood Diner I know and (somewhat begrudgingly) love. “Morty” would have drawn in his usual crowd of friends and been in full swing- slurring rounds of dirty jokes and stories to anyone were they listening or not, his loose pants held up by suspenders as he danced behind the counter to the tunes all night long.