I visited an old friend this past week. I’ve known her since 1984. We spent lots of time together when I lived in Urbana, Illinois. We visited together at least once each week until she moved away in 2002. She moved to a small town near Schenectady, New York and changed her name. I knew her as the Elite Diner. Now she’s the Chuck Wagon.

I had to go about 900 miles to see her. According to the map, she was just a few miles off the road on my trip to Maine, so it seemed a good detour. Turns out it was a great detour.

IMG_0279I scoured the roadside as I drove down the Western Turnpike (Hwy. 20) hoping to see her at every turn. Then, suddenly, there she was. Just as I’d remembered her. Silver with red trim, the rounded corners, windows across the front. The Elite Diner.

She lived on the corner of Elm and Vine in Urbana the 18 years I had known her. She and her cramped parking lot took up the corner, so she looked bigger than she does now.

I parked and climbed a few unfamiliar steps, then entered surroundings that were familiar and comforting. She has not changed much on the inside. Same green and pink tiles on the floor with the same cracks in the tiles. The same silver, pink, and green on walls and ceiling, same booths, though reupholstered.

I sat on the same stool at the counter I had occupies hundreds of times, sometimes by myself, sometimes with one of my children on a stool next to me. The green Formica on the counter was the same. The seam in the Formica had been rubbed smooth and white from thousands of plates of food and mugs of coffee sliding over it.

I had spent hundreds of hours of writing, thinking, planning, or just gathering my early-morning thoughts. I’d had meetings with colleagues and bosses there. I’d commiserated with Bob the welder, who also had an infant son at the time. We’d compare hours of sleep or lack thereof from the night before.

But mostly, this became the place I shared with my kids. This was where we connected over coffee and hot chocolate, sometimes a sweet roll, sometimes a Number 9 (an unhealthy but totally satisfying plate of biscuits covered with hash browns and gravy). My children, now 32 and 25, never hesitated if I woke them before dawn, two full hours before their school started, as long as the question was, “Want to go to the Diner?”

I can’t tell you much about what we did while sitting there. We talked, or not.  Sometimes the talk was about school or homework. We listened to the music overhead and I sometimes I talked about (or made up stuff about) the oldies playing and what was going on with me when the song was new. And we watched and evaluated the cook as he labored over the fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, and other breakfast items being prepared. “Don’t pat the pancakes.” That’s one of my cardinal rules of breakfast cooking, if you care about tasteful, fluffy pancakes, that is. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for lots of things in life. That was something we always watched for.

IMG_0284I was sitting on this very stool the morning my daughter and I had a falling out that ended our trips to the Diner for a few years. It was a sad but necessary morning for each of us. As a friend of mine said to me, “Parenting is about teaching your children to deal with disappointment.” That was one of those morning when we each learned lessons we didn’t want, but needed.

But mostly, each stool and booth had soaked up thousands of moments that were so common, so mundane, that, at the time, it was easy to miss how immensely important and formative they were. Now as I sat there enjoying my coffee and breakfast, the naughahide and aluminum gave back some of my memories. I pushed back a couple of tears. I wanted to jump up and say, “Hey everyone. This is a sacred place. My kids and I grew up in this place. Let me tell you some stories of what happened here.” But the few locals there would have looked at me like I was crazy, and I would have been. The young woman serving my coffee seemed to know and appreciate a little of the history of the place, but the stories were for me and for my children. No one else needs to know.

As I was leaving, I patted the first stool at the counter. Twenty-four years ago I sat my son’s car seat on that stool while I was paying my bill. He was in it. I don’t know if he moved, if I bumped it, or if it was just the curvature of the seat, but he and the car seat crashed to the hard tile floor. He was startled, but fine. Everyone else was rattled. He became the focus of attention the next few times I brought him. By the time he could order for himself, the staff knew him by name.

As I passed through her front door, I thanked my old friend. I told her I’d probably never see her again, but I was glad I’d made this trip.

Father’s Day has just passed, and I realize it was in the place I learned a great deal about being a father. I got to practice there. And as is true in much of life, there is no different between practice and living.