Stories

The Melody Diner on Broadway, Part 1, by Romana Guillotte

#london #melody-diner

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, August 13th 1929

Variegated stains fanned from a corner pipe on the kitchen ceiling. At least the leak was fixed. Vinnie knew girls would want him to paint, and he wondered when would be a good time. Probably now– 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Not much going on in the diner at that time. He took a long drag from his cigarette, staring at the ceiling from the floor. Sometimes he laid there at night after the floors dried when he didn’t want to sleep. His philosophy was, who would want to eat from a kitchen where you couldn’t even lie on the floor? He dabbed out his cigarette and closed his eyes at the thought.

The kitchen phone rang and woke him. Vinnie grunted, not realizing he had dozed off. He stood up as he lumbered slowly to the phone.  “The Melody diner on Broadway…” Lips smacking as he rubbed the stubble on his face and head.

“Vinnie, it’s Harriet, open up.”

He peered through the serving hatch into the dark diner to see Queenie by the door under the streetlight, then Harriet across the street at a payphone by the drug store. He answered with a new grunt, hanging up the phone. Harriet and Queenie were early – meaning they were looking for breakfast. Harriet scurried across to join her sister as Vinnie opened the door, the bell jingling with satisfying familiarity. Harriet and Queenie were close enough in age to be mistaken for twins, and they were the typical night and day personalities to boot.  They were also his only friends, but he definitely wasn’t going to say that. “Haven’t I told you that you ladies will never make it in showbiz if you’re early all the time?” His cockney accent was heavier just after he woke up.

Queenie flaunted in, brown curls bouncing with her. She was the ‘fun’ sister, usually with a giggle on tap. “Oh Vinnie, what would you know about showbiz?” She waltzed past him, her sister rolling her eyes behind her.

“I know enough.” He closed the door behind them.

“Yeah, yeah. New York and all that…”

“London,” Vinnie emphasized the city of his birth, “has some showbiz elements too, and I was certainly there a lot longer.” He trailed them into the kitchen.

Harriet looked to add something, but her sister continued, ignoring the Englishman. “Well, we aren’t early. It’s almost 4:30!”

“It’s so dark in here,” Harriet turned on the rest of the lights as she stored her purse. She was the older, protective one who operated like clockwork. “Don’t you ever turn on any lights?”

“Vinnie! The stove isn’t on!” Queenie exclaimed.

“I was catching some ‘z’s…” Vinnie shrugged.

“Is that why the door was locked?”

“Hey, I’m one man. And no one comes in between 4 am and 5 am on a Tuesday, so opening a few minutes late won’t be terrible.” He heated up the stove. “What’ll it be?”

“The usual,” Harriet said as she started the coffee. Her hair wasn’t quite as short or as curly as her sister’s, but she put some behind her ear absently all the same.

“Right up. And you, Queenie?”

Queenie grabbed aprons off their respective hooks. “Give me something exotic!”

Harriet grinned at her sister’s enthusiasm as she took the apron. Vinnie was not quite on board as he cracked some eggs. “Define exotic.”

“Like oranges, or an avocado…or clams!”

Vinnie sighed. “Where am I gonna get clams? We’re nowhere near the ocean.”

“I bet I know someone who could get us clams,” Harriet muttered as she poured them all coffee.

He didn’t like where that idea was headed. “Let’s not ‘tempt that,” Vinnie finished Harriet’s breakfast and handed her the plate. “It’s not even 5 am yet.”

“Just an idea.” She shared her smirk with him, and he accepted it.

He cleared his throat to break the moment as he turned to Queenie. “Where’d you get that kind of idea anyhow?”

“We saw The Hollywood Revue last night!” Queenie became excited.

“Is that a play?”

She giggled. “No. It’s a movie. And all the MGM stars were in it.”

“Garbo wasn’t. Or Lon Chaney. I don’t think Novarro was either…” Harriet added thoughtfully.

“Well, almost everyone. It was great! And John Gilbert was in it. Swoon!” She pretended to faint onto her sister.

“You’ll have to fight Garbo for him,” Harriet pushed her sister back to her feet.

“Not if she’s not there.” Queenie smiled as Vinnie gave her a plate with the same food as Harriet. “Thanks.” And sat down with her plate.

“Did you like it?” Vinnie asked Harriet.

She shrugged. “It was all right. I thought John Gilbert’s voice was strange. Guess I hadn’t heard his voice yet.”

“So it was one of them talkies.”

The two women chuckled. “They are almost all talkies now.”

Vinnie smiled at his non-knowledge of the pictures. “Meh. What do I know?”

“Certainly not the movies.” Harriet sipped her coffee.

“Yeah. Don’t try and argue about the pictures with these two Arizona girls.” Queenie said proudly.

“Pssh. It’s hardly a state.” He made himself some toast and beans.

“Is too a state!” Queenie objected.

“You were born in old Arizona, not the current state of Arizona.” Vinnie gave a straight face, then smiled and they all gave a good laugh. The bell on the door rang for their first customer. “Time to work.”

Harriet handed over her plate and walked into the diner with the coffee pot. A tall, unmemorable man sat at the counter. “What’ll it be?”

“Coffee, and…is that the special? It says Monday.”

“Oh, sorry.” She erased the day, picked up the chalk, and wrote Tuesday.

“It’s the same thing? What sort of scam you pulling?”

“Sir, I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Harriet asked, rather jaded. “We aren’t exactly the Ritz…”

“You’re trying to shirk innocent customers…”

Vinnie overheard and called through the serving window. “Hey, did you have it yesterday?”

“Well…no…”

“Then what are you on about?”

Embarrassed the man looked to Harriet, “I’ll have the special then.”

“Great.” Harriet shot Vinnie a look. But Vinnie didn’t back down. The unremarkable man ate quickly, escaping within twenty minutes.

“Would you look at that?” Harriet held up a dollar, “He even tipped.”

Vinnie shrugged. “What are you trying to say?”

“That sometimes, I don’t need the English Bulldog in my corner.”

“You say that…”

Queenie overheard and giggled. “But we are grateful he is.”

“Thank you, Queenie. See, someone understands.” More customers came in, scattering themselves between the booths and counter, giving the trio plenty to do. “Now get back to work.”

 

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Stories

Soup Kitchen by Louis Rive

#creative nonfiction #london #nonfiction #shortstory

Fuck I’m ill. On the plus side, everybody else is too and that feels good. It’s raining today as well, gone are the shorts and the ray-bans, gone is the illusion of British summer time. This feels good too.

Today at work I get to spend the day in the basement. I was too hungover to wheel out in front of the guests last time, so now I am paying penance for my actions. I am to polish glassware.

The limescale in the London water forms little white splodges on the glasses, splodges which subsequently need to be rubbed off so that some matrimonially minded arseholes or matt-grey conference manatees can revel in the idea of cleanliness. They don’t see the rats by the bins or the traps clogged up with roach carcasses. They just don’t see white smudges on their glasses and that contents them, apparently.

Ironically the process that involves the removal of limescale from the glassware is remarkably multi-faceted. The industry standard cleaner for cleaning London limescale smudges from glasses is London water itself. This water is obviously packed with limescale, it being from the same tap etc. Effectively this is like cleaning up paint with paint. Great smears of limescale adorn “polished” glasses which, with a sense of due irony, will need to be re-polished by order of the management. Obviously the bosses don’t help or sympathise, their sole role in the whole sordid affair is merely to evaluate and obviously find my workmanship “poor”.

To get a glass to a tolerable state of smudging takes a minimum of three minutes. This has to be done for every glass in the building. There are over 400 glasses. Mathematically this represents about twenty hours of continuous work. My shift is only thirteen hours long. Added to the equation is the fact that the clients keep using the clean glasses to drink a variety of soft drinks, all of which are diluted with London limescale-rich tap water. Occasionally the boss comes in and drains a glass right in front of me before leaving it in the “to be washed” pile, its journey to the polishing basement begun in earnest. I stand and watch his fat face guzzling down the limescaly drink. I can see the small smudges forming as he slakes his thirst with a dramatic “ah”! I think he does it just to spite me and my mind inevitably turns to revenge. I imagine ramming the vessel into his smirking mouth, laughing as he spits out glass and teeth. I watch closely as small splodges of limescale form on the collar of his acrylic suit, showing up perfectly against the crimson hue of his own claret.

But in the end I do nothing as always and subserviently return to my job, which is smearing the limescale around the rim of a never-ending carousel of glassware. The manager tells me to finish before I leave, a task that’s literally impossible, Sisyphean even. The true definition of a permanent job.

I have been looking for a good analogy for how this city takes pride in fucking you at every possible opportunity and finally it came upon me in the form of soup, yes soup. From the great soup kitchens of Tottenham Court Road to the value bucket at Best-In, this watered down vegetable mush has long been associated with hunger, longing and destitution, the triumvirate of modern London. It’s a culinary pairing with those that society shits upon, time and time again, that and bread. Still I mentioned I was sick. The infection had spread to the area under my back teeth so a bowl of hot soup sounded like practical paradise as I needn’t chew.

Now the Vietnamese are the kings of this scene with steaming bowls of spicy broth, replete with noodles like wet horsehair. Luck would have it that there was a “street food market” around the corner so off I went.

£7.95. For a bowl of soup. This represents one hour and twenty minutes on the minimum wage, which is what I earn. One hour and twenty minutes of pushing limescale around a glass just for a bowl of soup. Ah London “street food” everything “street” but the price.

Then I remember the Chinese supermarket does soup in a cup. It says it’s hot and spicy too but more importantly it costs 70p. Even though 70p represents 7 minutes labour, or 2 1/3rd glasses smudged acceptably clean, for those paying attention. This is sadly how I think now, my unit of time measurement is the polished glass, metric or imperial? It really doesn’t matter.

I still buy it because I want some soup you see and I don’t want London to win again. You will be familiar with these contraptions that simply require hot water to create the Styrofoam-enclosed miracle. I go to an evening language course round the corner thinking they must have an urn and they do. There it sits, steaming behind a counter manned by an insect like man called Keith. Soon I will have fucked the system with my cheap soup so I ask Keith for some hot water. I am top of the town, cock of the walk as I watch Keith methodically fill up a cup from the chrome urn but then just before he hands it too me he stops and his finger turns to the till.

50p. For tap water in a university. Keith actually smiles as he sees my face visibly drop, deflated by the last minute winner. I was clearly not the first to be making instant soup on the sly, which Keith’s broken smirk testifies too. Now 50p is by no means expensive but it’s the principle of the whole affair. Some of the students pay £6000 a year apparently. If ever there was a physical embodiment for education being a business, then this was it. I was ill and weak though, with an infected tooth so in my shame I bought it and London won again, his shard shaped dick tearing another inch into my colon. I made the soup. It looked like iodine solution and tasted of chemicals, mainly chlorine. Next time I would just buy beer like normal.

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