#992: Morning at the Huddle House

October 12th, 2018

The woman in the hairnet with the inside-out Gildan T-shirt — the budget, budget, budget brand of the company that slings their high-end wares for top dollar at American Apparel — scrounged for the broken English that would get her the order of eggs, hashbrowns and single dollar bills in change rather than the five.

She shuffled from the diner counter to the vending machine against the wall.

“My dreams, they aren’t as empty,” The Who wailed from the radio as the woman fed the bills into the Lotto scratch ticket machine. “As my conscience seems to be.”

It was morning at the Huddle House Grill.

It’s a diner, a stock one called straight from central casting. A 24-hour affair with a counter, a few rickety booths and a glass front from which to watch the Brown Line end and high school students hustle north to Von Steuben, south to Theodore Roosevelt. As the woman in the hairnet bought dreams from a vending machine and Roger Daltrey narrated, a short-haired waitress clears a table and called from the counter to ask if I want a brand of hot sauce or the stuff they make there.

“The night guy makes it. They both make it, but mostly the night guy,” she said, walking up with an unmarked squeeze bottle of red. “It’s a 24-hour restaurant so they work 12-hour shifts.”

“And they still make sauce for the whole day?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Right?”

I put a daub of the hot sauce on my finger to taste. It was bright, spicy and delicious. I end up slathering my eventual eggs in it.

But the eggs weren’t there yet, and neither was the morning.

A rumbling, dangerous bass line started. Mick Jagger screamed that he wanted to paint it black and a tall, broad man who, if size can stereotype, looks like he played football in high school and still eats like an athlete in training, walked through the door smiling. He waved at the waitress and line cook and ordered a steak.

A woman whose stocking cap declared she’s a CTA inspector walked in and ordered a cup of grits to go, cackling and at one point bending over in laughter at what the person on the other end of her earpiece tells her. “It’s funny now,” she said, bracing herself on the counter as the waitress counted her bills. The inspector called the woman over to add the earpiece’s order to her tally.

High school students rushed by the window. They were fewer now, and late.

“Your friend’s here,” the woman said to the short-order cook.

He looked over his shoulder at the tall, heavyset man with the crisply cut gray hair and necktie walking up to the glass doors.

“He’s not my friend,” the cook said.

They greeted the man warmly as he came in, but he simply said “Number 2″ and sat down at the counter where he chatted with the cook in Spanish and demanded his favorite seat, favorite condiments, favorite type of the two maple syrups they had and, as the increasingly eerily appropriate radio playlist now playing Billy Idol shouted, “more, more, more.”

It was another boring morning. Another workaday life. Another tale of details and eggs and hustling students and the trains pulling in and out of the Brown Line terminus. The Brown Line doesn’t have two ends, like Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Purple do. The trains pull out, take a loop at the Loop and come right back here to pull out again. 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. each day — 5 a.m. on Sundays and holidays — a neverending neverending in and out past the Huddle House.

God, it’s beautiful. As fresh and bracing as the night shift hot sauce now bathing my eggs.

The woman in the hairnet and I looked out the window, ate eggs, watched the sun rise and dreamed.

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