In the winter of 2001, I was a low-rung waitress at the Cambridge House on St. Clare and Ohio, just steps from Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. The Cambridge House had long hours and fold out laminated menus with the full gambit of diner fare. Offerings included Greek omelets, Frencheezies, chicken tenders, tuna melts and a beautifully lit square glass display case at the front of the restaurant full of cigarettes, which you could smoke anywhere you wanted inside, and ash directly into your half-eaten French toast. This display case also had Big Red and Double Mint gums, which were so stale they made you wish you had just bought cigarettes.
The Cambridge House wasn’t a diner in that it was located in an old railcar. It wasn’t prefabricated of steel. The Cambridge House was a casual American quick service restaurant, a representative of a very specific way of eating well and eating fast in midcentury America that reflected the way that we moved (quickly) and the way that we ate (also quickly) but still catered to our desire for human interaction during mealtimes, or perhaps the simple formality of sitting down and taking a moment, if only for long enough to drink a cup of coffee. Diner culture has a built in series of visual clues that almost always serve to let you know that you’ll be able to get a meatloaf dinner or eggs over easy anytime of the day. The hip red glow of a neon sign. Vinyl booths by the window with low hanging globe fixtures. Counter service. From rows of coffee cups to loaves of bread below an arsenal of toasters; the mathematics of everything being stored and prepared in front of you. A decent priced meal. An American meal.
The establishment only accepted cash, with every transaction handled exclusively and inefficiently by a slow moving, grouchy cousin of the wife of the owner’s brother, Chicago-style nepotism at its absolute finest. This person’s management style consisted of falling asleep and then waking abruptly to yell at you. My uniform was a white blouse with black pants and a black apron in flammable polyester that took on the scent of anything fishy or fried. The blouses were just sheer enough that you could make out the lace of a bra if you looked long enough in the florescent light, and while I believe this was the intention, the Cambridge House was no Hooters. The waitresses were a world-weary, tired and incredibly mean bunch. These women were products of a time where women’s choices were not yet totally their own, and while many had proudly made it through personal strife just to come to work to fill jelly containers, they were shameless in their willingness to suck up to the management or drag each other under the bus. These women had an incredible tolerance for harassment and sexist jokes, and the restaurant dished it out like an All-Complete Dinner. Despite this, the waitresses set their hair, reapplied lipstick in the reflection of the chrome on the soda fountain, and dressed their aprons with jack-o’-lantern pins in October and American flag pins in July.
The Cambridge House had a long oval counter, and almost every surface was covered in pebbled pink Formica, worn at the counter from decades of elbows. The floors were dingy white and pink check, with every edge and corner from the tables to the display case for the pies and cantaloupes tipped in chrome. The wobbly stools were backless and low, and it was there at the counter that the true relics of Old Chicago would hold court. They would don their bowties and trench coats or their mink jackets and blue eye shadow, ride the elevators down from some of the most lavish midcentury condominiums; the Constellation on Dearborn, 227 East Walton Place, and the Astor Towers to make their way in walkers and canes across the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and into the Cambridge House of the 21st century, where a cup of coffee was a dollar and some change. Time at the Cambridge House was able to stand still for them, or at least slow to a comfortable pace. Compared to the Guess store and Burrito Beach, the Cambridge House was a strange, slightly slummy relic, and had barely changed a light bulb since opening in 1967.
Side work included wiping down the giant stainless steel reach-in, consolidating and covering French, Ranch and blue cheese dressings, and filling ketchup bottles from a contraption called the “Ketchup Cow” with funny looking udders that were constantly being fondled by greasy hands. Giant hotel bins held sugar packets, and I once saw a waitress smoke a whole cigarette while filling the sugars and talking to another waitress, ashing the smoke only with the movements of her mouth. Now that’s talent.
Amongst the valets, businessmen, doctors and foreign tourists who came for the Cambridge House’s Monte Christos and meatloaf dinners were guests of the Jerry Springer Show, which filmed nearby. Girlfriends with Shocking Confessions, Hillbilly Husbands and Reckless Pregnant Teens were given 25 dollar vouchers to eat at the restaurant. The vouchers couldn’t be used to purchase alcohol but could be used to buy cigarettes. The presence of a voucher usually meant that the You are Not The Fathers and Best Friend Love Triangles would order a pack of Camels, the ribeye with extra blue cheese crumbles and a baked potato; and everything else with an optional add on or mix in to max out the vouchers. Conflicts would erupt on a regular basis, and while I never figured out whether the guests were dining at the Cambridge House before or after the show, every night with them was a tacky dress rehearsal, me taking on the roll of a kind of short order Jerry Springer, interviewing guests about dressing choices and later on in the meal providing the results of a pregnancy test as well as a dish of orange sherbet. The intermission between the soup and the salad seemed like it was always the right time for someone to freak out, and these guests would ask for the remainder of their food be wrapped up to go, as if some internal alarm would ring, alerting them that they needed to fill their quota of wacky irrational behavior and disappear into the night.
I quit the job without notice. I was suffering through another boring night making no money, mindlessly filling saltshakers when I looked over to find one of the bussers leering over me. “Do you like tequila?” he asked. I don’t remember how I responded, but my answer was followed by a request to suck tequila out of one of my body cavities, and lucky me; I would be able to pick which one! I ran for my backpack and jacket and left the Cambridge House without a word to anyone, my face red and swollen from the angry, teary eruption that I knew would happen as soon as I walked out the door. I was disgusted and embarrassed. I never went back again.
The Cambridge House finally said uncle to the 21st century in 2006. Journalists and Chicagoans lamented the closing of the restaurant, perhaps the most well known being John Kass’s old fashioned choice of words in the Chicago Tribune that year, applauding the old fashioned prices, and the old fashioned waitresses for their observed lack of ambition and thus greater ability to do their jobs:
“The waitresses are waitresses, not “servers,” not actresses with attitude. They're grown women who work quickly and well for honest tips, in their crisp white blouses. There's no "theme" to the Cambridge House, unless the theme is that you can eat lunch for under $10, from a plate, like an adult, and the waitresses will ask if you want a warm-up on that coffee.”
I’ve never felt any direct empathy for the closing of the restaurant and remember feeling an odd sense of relief walking by to see the building a pile of concrete. The bad memories were now just bits of glass and rebar.
Despite my horrible time working in one, I am obsessed with diners. Seeing that flash of aluminum from the side of a road makes my palms sweat. A neon coffee cup swinging off the side of a building couldn’t be a more powerful suggestive sell. Vitrolite, Formica, vinyl, chrome; materials with that old fashioned slickness. Diners have the ability to track the passage of time, but then also freeze it. A counter spot for one allows a single diner to feel connected to the energy of an environment but still retain privacy. The diner is a subset of Americana that evokes a deep pleasure in me, but as the case with many situations where nostalgia is the driving factor, it’s often a letdown.
I’m gullibly romanced into eating at trapped-in-amber diners to find that the ambiance is the only thing that’s good. The waitress is covered in Taz tattoos, the omelets are flaccid, the coffee has no taste and Shania Twain is playing on the radio. The experience is terrible except for the aesthetics of the place. The food is bad, the staff is cranky, and the air vents are greasy. Then a week later the insides of the windows are covered in newspaper. Another crappy diner bites the dust.
My bad experience as a diner waitress left me feeling like I had been robbed of a part of Americanness that I would have otherwise relished participating in. Because of this, I am always willing to take a gamble on a good old diner, even if it’s a good old bad one.