Most people are either deeply embarrassed about sharing their political views when asked, or suspiciously overeager. If there’s a perfect way to assess just how America is divided, this is it. Ideological and even partisan allegiances are no longer the indicators they once were. Ours is a great Age of Idiosyncrasy. We are all unique; we are all cranks. Some of us are just more vocal about it than others. I suppose it begrudges the keepers of this cultural moment to hear that I am a centrist remnant. I don’t care to know what one’s slant on the world is, and some views are just too strongly held to be disclosed over Shake Shack. So whenever I’m asked about my own views, I’ve fashioned an answer that hews as much to economy as it does to the truth: “I believe in bowling alone.”
I have never read Robert Putnam’s landmark survey of the ups and downs of American community. But I know enough to know that Bowling Alone takes a firm stand against something I cherish, and so whatever else Putnam advocates is anathema, haram, not cool. Has Putnam ever bowled alone? I bet he hasn’t, for if he did he would understand straight away the foolishness of the stigma he imposes. Fine, I’ll leave you to your precious communal bonds, your civic virtues, your Elks meetings, your familial loyalties. Greater choice of lanes for me.
No summer was complete without at least one visit to Madison Plaza Lanes on a Sunday night, where you could drop nine dollars for unlimited games. Perhaps I did stick out somewhat. At the lane to my left I might have found a single dad with young children trying to find that sweet spot between bonding and boredom. At the lane to my right might have been a murderer of teens trying to manage much the same thing. They often appeared as if manifested from the ether, like two points of my past come to mock and tempt me. Fat chance, I say to that. The lane beckons like a one-way tunnel in which escape is my only objective, so long as I do not die in the gutter or leave unfinished business with a split. In the great atomization of America, this atom can break 150 on a good day. Well, 95. The world can wait.
The world, in fact, has no idea of how truly alone I can be. My biography, though brief at present, already reads in a long procession of solitudes. I walk for long distances alone. I go to the movie theater alone. I weave in and out of the stacks of the Strand bookstore alone. I go to the diner alone. It is that last one I find most agreeable, in fact.
I don’t know if the diner’s presence is any more pervasive in my home state of New Jersey than it is in any other part of the country. We certainly like to think it is: it goes hand in hand with the sense of possession we assert over earnest blue-collar balladry and cryptozoology. My solitude is really of a piece with the whole culture of the diner that is built around it. I live in a state that is both dense and sprawling, and it implies a peculiar psyche. “One of the things that made early [Dillinger Escape Plan] music so compelling,” Saby Reyes-Kulkarni writes in Pitchfork of the pioneering metal band’s legacy, “was the way it conveyed the horrific malaise lurking behind the generic monoculture of the band’s native New Jersey suburbs—a sound so ugly grown out of a soulless environment.” Caught in between the extremes of claustrophobia and boredom, New Jerseyans seek a middle ground where social existence, personal peace, and affordable nourishment are not in conflict. I am very much with them even if I prefer social melody to social harmony.
I’m not wanting by any means in choices of diners, each with its own unique attributes and advantages. The Prestige Diner is in a neighboring town, across from a Presbyterian church with a centuries-old cemetery. I’ve been going there for decades; it has had the same management throughout; it is ostensibly “my local.” The Summit Diner is a classic boxcar-shaped eatery, the kind you see on postcards. It only takes cash, the menu is over the counter, and state politicians frequent it for photo-ops. The Scotchwood Diner is on Route 22 and open for 24 hours on weekends. These aren’t even the limit of my options, but Summit Diner’s hours don’t fit my proclivities and I never go to Scotchwood unless someone else is driving.
I prefer to go at night, any time past 10 p.m. Prestige allows me the privilege by being open just late enough to go last minute and stay just long enough to avoid solipsistic languishing. I will sometimes order French toast, other times a slice of cake or pie, always with coffee. I can’t say that I don’t always avoid staring at my phone but the unreliable reception makes for a blessing of limitation. More often I bring a book for skimming or a notebook for scribbling. Ambience rules the diner. It’s like a library where conversation is more encouraged without being entirely dominant. In the later hours the crowd is sparse but still lively; the conversation reaches a peak eccentricity. Epic free verse of the day’s gossip, weighty debates on conspiracy theories or the hidden messages of films. One particularly late night, one of the waiters sat down at a table of two college-aged customers with a ukulele and strummed it aimlessly as he talked with them.
To say this is a single state’s dominion is not at all true. In 2015, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, John Legend, and Chrissy Teigen stopped at a Phoenix Waffle House following a Super Bowl event for a well-documented double date. “When you are at a Waffle House, your only real concern is the plate in front of you,” Lang Whitaker writes in GQ. “In the presence of pecan waffles, patty melts, and hash browns, dividing lines are set aside as all are equal, just trying to enjoy our affordable, delicious food that was prepared moments before it was plopped down on a freshly-wiped table by a usually busy server.”
Over time, though, the limits of dining alone—or bowling alone or movie-going alone, for that matter—begin to dawn on me. I’ve acquired an aesthetic more than an experience. My needs are just wants, part of an ideal to reproduce in real life the romantic minimalism of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Like all fantasies, its selfishness and cruelty are brought to bear against life’s more careful, people-friendly maneuvers. Some time in the ‘00s, Prestige removed its mini-jukeboxes and put up several TVs that blare cable news, and just last year they started serving beer, wine, and other “adult drinks.” Madison Plaza Lanes is now Stryxe, which has a “lounge bar” that serves wood fire-baked flatbread pizzas and looks like a strip club from the outside.
Solitude seems less optional when one realizes communal bonds are not as frayed as people assume: they just move on without you. It’s something I’ve come to accept. The diner as I’ve known it may go the way of postcard camp as the new future camp replaces it. And I will obligingly go that way myself. But I believe the substance of the diner remains solid even as the style is liquid. Even without controversies over privacy and data, social media’s interconnectedness can often veer into an intrusiveness that is as acrimonious as it is boring.
The diner—whether the lunch counter, the branded Waffle House, or a more family-friendly place—is a haven of anticlimax. It betrays a common notion of what we want when we want to lay low, a place where you want to hear others or don’t want to be heard, a place where no nothing is edited, where no one knows your name or where you know two servers’ names but always get them confused. Just as we can remake our closest approximations of Heaven and Hell on earth, so can we do the same for Purgatory.