At the Corner of Hope and Worry

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ELYRIA, Ohio

Another day begins with a sound softer than a finger-snap, in an Ohio place called Elyria. In the central square of this small city, the gushing water fountain applauds the early-morning chorus of sparrows. A car clears its throat. A door slams. And then: click.

The faint sound comes as 7:00 flashes on the clock of the Lorain National Bank building, looming over the square. The pull of a string -- click -- has sent life pulsing through a neon sign, announcing to all of Elyria that, once more, against the odds, Donna's Diner is open.

Its proprietor, Donna Dove, 57, ignites the grill that she seems to have just turned off, so seamlessly do her workdays blend into one endless shift. She wears her blond hair in a ponytail and frames her hazel eyes with black-rimmed glasses that tend to get smudged with grill grease. She sees the world through the blur of her work.

A dozen years ago, Donna found a scrap of serendipity on the sidewalk: a notice that a local mom-and-pop restaurant was for sale. After cooking for her broken family as a child, after cooking for county inmates at one of her many jobs, she had come to see food as life's binding agent, and a diner as her calling. She maxed out her credit cards, cashed in her 401(k) and opened a business to call her own.

Donna's Diner. Donna's.

You know this place: It is Elyria's equivalent to that diner, that coffee shop, that McDonald's. From the vantage point of these booths and Formica countertops, the past improves with distance, the present keeps piling on, and a promising future is practically willed by the resilient patrons.

It is where the recession and other issues of the day are lived as much as discussed. Where expectations for a certain lifestyle have been lowered and hopes for salvation through education and technology have been raised. Where the presidential nominees Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each hope that his plan for a way back will resonate with the Donna Doves, who try to get by in places like Elyria -- where the American dream they talk about can sometimes seem like a tease.

But for now, at least, the door to Donna's is open. So take a seat. Have a cup of coffee. Maybe some eggs.

This morning, as usual, Pete Aldrich is helping Donna through the new-dawn isolation, turning on the coffee and being compensated by food and tips from the occasional delivery. In his early 50s, well-educated and from regional royalty, he has hit some hard times, and may or may not have slept in his car last night, cocooned by his bundled possessions.

Pete tries, though, he tries. He often leaves straight from Donna's for a job interview, hustling out with purpose, no matter that his thick-lensed eyeglasses are missing one arm. Something will turn up.

That is the communal hope. Donna, for example, is dogged by the day's anxieties. Why are her receipts going down? What lunch special can she offer to clean out the refrigerator? Should she buy less perch for her Friday fish fry? Can she slide a month on her electric bill? Since she already doesn't have health insurance, what else can she cut?

"I'm just going in circles and circles and circles," Donna says one day, gazing through smudged glasses. "And not getting anyplace."

The fresh aroma of coffee face-slaps the air. Soon the Breakfast Club regulars, that gaggle of Elyrian past and present, will be here to renew their continuing discussion of what was, is and isn't in this city of 55,000. The presidential election sometimes serves as a conversation starter, like a curio placed between the salt and pepper shakers.

The talk will continue as yolk stains harden and refills turn tepid. Their Ohio is a swing state, after all, and their Elyria sits precariously on that swing. More Democratic than Republican, it has several global companies and the memory of many more; an embattled middle class and encroaching poverty; and the faint sense that the Next Big Thing better arrive before even its beloved park fountain, visible from the diner's front window, gets shut off.

Of course, the friendly political quarrel between the regulars Speedy Amos, 86, Republican, and Jim Dall, 89, Democrat, dates back to "I Like Ike" and "All The Way With Adlai." And John Haynes, lawyer, Democrat, and Jack Baird, councilman, Republican, will debate without ever changing minds. It will be others, the quiet, still-undecided ones, who will help to make the big decision, Obama or Romney.

The diner waits. Pete sips coffee and reads The Chronicle-Telegram through the damaged glasses he hopes to replace someday. Donna stands by the front door, near her Friday fish fry sign, peering through the plate-glass window with expectation. If it were only about location -- well, she has it.

Her diner, in an 1880s brick building at the corner of Middle Avenue and Second Street, sits along the central park, Ely Square, where the fountain's mist blesses those who linger and a statue of a Union soldier rises from slab memorials for every American conflict from the War of Independence (1775-1783) to the War on Terrorism (2001- ).

The diner is near the majestic old courthouse, circa 1881, now mostly empty, in some disrepair and too costly to renovate. It is a short walk from the sleek new courthouse, where the Judge, a regular customer (grilled chicken, cottage cheese, fruit), ruminates in his chambers with an unlit cigar in his mouth and a portrait of Che Guevara on his wall.

It is a few storefronts away from a temp agency, where a large man in an Ohio State cap (cheeseburger, fries) dispatches the work-hungry to fleeting jobs, and a short walk from Loomis Camera, 62 years on the square, where the nonagenarian owner displays a decades-old portrait of his wife, before her arthritis, back when she was a beautiful trapeze artist, an airborne ballerina.

Finally, the diner faces City Hall, where the new mayor (bacon-lettuce-tomato-and-fried-egg sandwich and a side salad) confronts the challenges of a postindustrial, recession-haunted American city. A fourth-generation Elyrian, Mayor Holly Brinda takes hope in the city's entrepreneurial hothouse of a community college and in northeastern Ohio's can-do DNA. But some nights she cannot sleep.

Donna also knows what it means to lose sleep in Elyria, as she stands beside her closed cash register, a diner's miscellany spread out before her: a jar of 25-cent mints that certain people think are free; a spill of business cards for Vinnie's Collision Center and LePue Drain Cleaning; a box of minted toothpicks favored by the Judge; a small Southern Comfort bottle half-filled with the maple syrup that sweetens Mr. Dall's pancakes.

When the diner's door is open, Donna can hear the aching thrum of another one of the Norfolk Southern freight trains that clatter day and night through the city. Bound for Cleveland or Chicago with endless containers of goods made across the country and overseas, they slice through Elyria, once more prominent as a maker of things.

The familiar freight-train siren can conjure memories of the writer Sherwood Anderson, who once ran a mail-order and paint business down by the railroad line. One Thanksgiving Day, he said goodbye to his secretary, walked out the door and followed the tracks east, out of Elyria. A breakdown, apparently, one that led to his fictional classic "Winesburg, Ohio," whose inhabitants, including some with distinctly Elyrian traits, ache for fulfillment.

Yes, Donna hears it. She also hears the Judge -- James M. Burge, the meticulously dressed administrative judge of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas -- as he sits at the table reserved for him in the back and dines on that same health-conscious grilled-chicken lunch, day after day.

Donna, you're working yourself to death. Donna, you're not making any money. Donna, you have a heart -- feeding people who don't have money, raising money for good causes -- but there's no room for heart in capitalism.

Donna, how about this? Close up the diner, come across the street to the new courthouse and run the cafeteria: five days a week, a steady stream of customers and no worries about utilities. If you're interested, I can try to make this happen.

The Judge's words linger.

Imagine: no electric bill, no heating bill, no worries about security, air-conditioning. ...

Imagine, too: no Donna's Diner, open to all of Elyria. ...

Donna has told the Judge that she'll think about it. Maybe one of these days she'll drive to Lake Erie. Sit on one of the benches. Gaze into the undulating blue. Clear her head. These are big decisions.

Kitchen Salvation

Cooking is vital to Donna. You can lose yourself in the stirring of sauce. You can nourish others and make things seem better, if only for a little while. This she discovered early on, as the turbulent marriage of her parents was upending her childhood.

Born on Flag Day 1955, Donna was the first child of a Navy man, Jerry Jacobson, and his Bay Village bride, Jean. But he refused to give up his beer and Black Velvet or his saloon romance with a woman named Sophie. Leaving a bar in Elyria one night, he drove into a telephone pole. When he awoke weeks later, he called out -- for Sophie.

With her household's cash being slapped on bar counters instead of the kitchen counter, Jean raised extra money -- between shifts at some factory or office -- by making "sweetheart soap" arrangements for her children to sell door-to-door. Meanwhile, as the oldest, Donna tried to fill the parental void.

One day, holding her baby brother in her arms, Donna followed her mother into a Cleveland saloon to confront her father as he sat beside a new girlfriend, this one with a beehive hairdo. The mother said the family needed money for food. The oldest child seconded the plea. The father said get lost.

After the inevitable divorce, Jean moved her four children to a government-subsidized house in Elyria, where Donna found solace, or control, in the kitchen. She began having dinner ready by the time her mother came home from work.

"She'd always put a tablecloth out, and in the summer there'd always be fresh flowers on the table," recalls Jean, 78. "Dessert would be pudding, or fruit cocktail."

Donna clearly preferred the kitchen to Elyria High School, which she found to be too big -- another way of saying integrated. She had spent most of her young life in the all-white bubble of Bay Village, 15 miles to the northeast, and now she was in a city high school with a healthy enrollment of black students.

She was intimidated by the unfamiliar, so she cut school. She became pregnant, so she got married, at 16. In the wedding photos, she and her husband look like children playing dress-up.

To say the pregnancy ended Donna's childhood is not quite accurate. In some ways, it had ended years before; in other ways, it continued. She tried to be a loving mother of two baby daughters, a doting housewife to a possessive husband, and a fun-loving young woman fond of the bar life -- all at once. Not possible.

Divorce. Temporary loss of custody. A second marriage. Two more children. A third marriage.

But Donna caught her breath, summoning the resolve that had once empowered her to confront her negligent father. She earned her general equivalency diploma. She tended bar and cooked at Stan's Villa in Elyria, across the street from the General Motors plant. She fed inmates at the Lorain County jail. She worked in marketing for the county blood bank.

One day in 2000, when she was ready for a change, Donna picked up a newspaper notice on the sidewalk that said the Lunch Break Cafe on Broad Street was for sale. Destiny. She somehow scratched up the $35,000, and spent that Mother's Day stripping the restaurant clean, even throwing out its toaster.

Driving through Elyria to her own grand opening, she thought, "I'm going to make them remember me."

The diner did well at first, with its 1950s décor and sandwiches named after iconic cars. It became the headquarters for Donna's annual classic-car charity event, her community project to bake cookies for soldiers overseas, her Christmas toy drive for poor children.

"She walks the walk," the Judge says.

This does not include all the food that Donna gave away -- to this event, to that person in need, to her father. Yes, Jerry Jacobson was back on the scene, a disabled alcoholic living above a bar in Elyria. But Donna took care of him; he was still her dad.

One day, he would be the charming Jerry, cadging beer money -- Two bucks, darlin', c'mon, two bucks -- or ordering hamburgers that he would sell for a shot and a beer down at Pudge's Place or Boomer's. The next day, he would be awful Jerry, telling Donna's customers that they would be better off at McDonald's.

Father and daughter had a contentious relationship right to the end. When he died of a heart attack in 2004, what could Donna do but place $2 in his coffin, along with a cigarette and a beer?

As downtown Elyria declined, like so many other American downtowns, so did Donna's business. By late 2009, she was preparing to turn the diner's neon off for good, but then she sensed a second chance: an ancient storefront on Middle Avenue had opened up that was larger, closer to the courts and offered a view not of Bugsy's strip joint but of verdant Ely Square.

Over several generations, many had used the three-story brick building at 148 Middle Avenue, in a stretch once called Cheapside, as their claim stake -- not to prosperity, but to the chance of it. The Candyland store, with sweets to cut the Depression's bitter taste. The H. W. Guthrie store, selling a dozen honey-dipped doughnuts for a quarter. The Roy E. Hultz store, for the supplies necessary to protect your barn.

The Jack and Jill children's store. Crandall's drugstore. Hess Pharmacy, for "sick room supplies, surgical belts and trusses." A real estate company, a title company, a law firm. The headquarters for local Democrats one year and for Republicans another year. Selenti's Pizza. Naples Pizza. Village Sub and Pizza.

In 1996, a proposal to demolish the building for a parking lot went nowhere. Two years later came Stackers Deli and Pizza. Then the Court Street Cafe. Then the Pulse Cafe. Now here was another aspirant, staking her claim in the Elyrian concrete.

Diner Regulars

The unseen sparrows of Ely Square continue to dominate the morning conversation, save for the occasional beckoning of another passing train. A parks employee lost in his headset hunts for overnight litter. Coins tossed for luck tremble at the bottom of the fountain's animated waters.

Inside the diner, the sole customer eats scrambled eggs, while Donna and Pete have the kind of meandering conversation that effortlessly links a new casino in Cleveland to the diner's broken dishwasher.

"Some guy at the Polish Club supposedly hit for 130 grand," Pete says of the casino.

"It's never-ending," Donna says of her own gamble.

The dining room is as narrow as a railroad car, with the Breakfast Club's front table and the Judge's back table bracketing six booths and three small tables in the middle, all adorned with sprays of artificial flowers. Along the wall protrudes a coffee counter stocked with customer-donated mugs: "John Deere" beside "Cabo San Lucas" beside "Jesus Saves."

In the cramped other half of the bifurcated space, the kitchen competes for room with a freezer and two large refrigerators and cases of food and foam to-go containers and ripe bananas and a tub of Country Crock spread and the latest soda delivery and stacks of mismatched plates and a bucket filled with stale bread saved for a customer who feeds the crumbs to ducks.

At the center of it all sits the squat grill, the sizzling altar guarded by Donna with raised spatula. Orders scribbled out by her harried waitresses -- her daughter Kristy, 38, and her granddaughter, Bridgette, just short of 21 -- are tucked into the grill's hood. But Donna knows her customers so well that sometimes a mere handwritten name will do. "Ken" means pork chops.

Donna knows their preferences, food allergies, moods, joys, sorrows. She knows to save some perch on Fridays for the Bullocks couple, Gloria and Forrest, who was born into a sharecropping family and is now a prominent civic leader. She knows to give turkey bacon to the retired judge who loves bacon but has heart problems, and to cut a distracting slice of lemon meringue pie for the cranky woman who bangs on the door with her walker and wants to know what's so good about the morning.

Even the people Donna doesn't know, she knows. Like that elfin man who comes in every Wednesday before going to the county sheriff's auction to bid for some law firm on the foreclosed properties that riddle Lorain County. He always orders coffee and plain wheat toast, always. Hence, his diner name: "Wheat Toast."

Donna knows how to handle the people who come in asking for a job. First thing, she escorts them to the grill to see if they can flip a frying egg. If not, the job interview ends.

She also knows how to handle Ike Maxwell when he wanders in, looking for money or food. Still built like a piston-powerful running back, he has not been the same since he was beaten on the head with a baseball bat 30 years ago. Once a high school football superstar who carried Elyria's Friday night hopes, he now loops its streets shouting "Golden Helmet," "They killed my brother" and other phrases that only a few Elyrians can decode.

But sometimes Ike's shouting becomes disruptive, even unnerving, and Donna has to order him to leave. He may protest by shouting a few names -- President Obama! Mitt Romney! Les Miles! -- but as he heads for the door, Ike often says something else, softly:

"O.K., Donna, O.K., Donna, O.K., Donna."

In this way, Donna's Diner has become a living thing, humming with the flow of the human condition, alternating between harried motion and fleeting rest. When lunchtime comes, an orderly chaos takes hold in the back, as the diner's telephone beckons with a "There's no place like home" ringtone and denizens communicate in a shorthand language rooted in the immediate.

"That's to go! That's to go! Put it in a box!"

"O.K., her Reuben went out. Are the tenders done? This is a crap microwave. This one's lettuce and mayo."

"I just spilled ranch all over the counter."

"I told Ryan I'd be there about 1:30."

"This have cheese-lettuce-tomato?"

"How much is French toast with scrambled eggs?"

"Four-seventy-nine. How come I only have two sausage links?"

"Hello, Donna's Diner?"

It can get to be too much, like the smell of toast burning. An unanticipated trigger -- a forgotten order, a returned meal, a splatter of ranch dressing -- can set Donna off, and her tirades will spill into the dining room like scalding coffee.

"Is she O.K.?" a customer asks one difficult day.

"My mom?" asks Kristy, the waitress.

"Yes," the customer replies.

"No."

Sometimes you can see why, as Donna hunches into the desk space she has carved from the back-room clutter and works through the mound of mail. "I'm looking for shut-off notices," she says, half-joking.

She also examines the income and expense figures she keeps in a brown spiral notebook. Last year, the daily receipts, in terms of hundreds of dollars, were in the threes, fours and fives; this year, they are in the twos, threes and occasional fours. Meanwhile, the expenses keep coming. Rent, $650 a month. Electric, $1,416 a month.

"My bug guy, my pop guy, my towel guy, my window washer," she says. Cable. Orlando Bread. Port Clinton Fish.

She tries to lower expenses. When her vexing electric bill shot up a while back, she sold off several appliances and bought a cheaper, more energy-efficient freezer. She spent Mother's Day shopping for wholesale bargains on eggs and dish soap. She bounces from Rural King to Sam's Club to Giant Eagle, looking for the cheapest coffee.

She cannot afford health insurance, she says; it would be $1,500 a month for her and her out-of-work husband, Tim, who has congestive heart failure at 57. A while back, she tore something in her left shoulder while pulling a heavy box of bleach down from a shelf at Sam's Club. Never had it fixed.

Life has become cyclical. Every night, Donna returns to her modest two-story house in Elyria, with its untidy backyard that she never has the time or the energy to reclaim, and stares at the television until sleep comes. Every morning, she awakens to worries, beginning with what to offer for lunch.

Every day, after expenses, there is not much left -- though, now and then, she peels off $20 to gamble at a video-lottery place she calls "the joint." And every week, after lunch, here comes Mark Ondrejech, the affable salesman for US Foods, a wholesale supplier, to provide counsel. He sits with her at a back table, opens his laptop and goes down his list.

"All your dressings are good this week? Meat broth, chicken broth, French fries? Onion rings, sauerkraut? Ketchup packets, crackers, chip bags? Foam containers are good? Dinner napkins, straws -- grape tomatoes. Steak fries, cinnamon rolls. "

But Donna is ordering less and less from US Foods. She has raised her prices ever so slightly -- two eggs and toast went from $1.99 to $2.39 -- in trying to strike the proper balance between fair profit and customer contentment. She is making her daughter and granddaughter occasionally pay for what they eat. She is holding on for better days, amid news that a new Taco Bell is replacing a downtown apartment building once occupied by Sherwood Anderson.

A Taco Bell.

All the while, the Judge's suggestion -- that she consider moving to the courthouse cafeteria -- preys on Donna's mind. "All you're doing is, you're working hard and you're entertaining your customers," she says he tells her.

But the diner's people matter to her: Pete, Speedy, the Judge, Gloria and Forrest, Ike, even that unpleasant woman who bangs her walker against the door. The diner matters. It all matters.

"I've got to figure out what I'm doing," she says. "When I get myself to this point, I can't see a way out."

Haunted by Fears

The Elyrian morning is now full-throated. Birds chirping, waters rushing, trains calling, music pounding from the cars stopped for the light just outside the diner. Sunlight paints the treetops of Ely Square.

Gazing at the park through her plate-glass window, Donna is reminded of a recurring image that she just can't shake: that of a short woman with unruly gray hair, hunting through the park's garbage for redeemable cans. Twenty years ago, Donna worked with this woman at a nursing home on East Avenue. She knew her to say hello.

The woman, Anna Hallman, redeems aluminum cans to pay a mortgage and make ends meet, getting about 50 cents for every 26 cans that she methodically crushes with her heel. She is 69, and other scavengers have kindly ceded to her the treasures to be found in the garbage bins downtown. And when she has had a good day, she sometimes treats herself to a meal at Donna's -- something that sticks to the ribs, like meatloaf.

Anna's situation haunts Donna. Too close. Too possible.

How she needs to step away from the grill and take that drive to Lake Erie. No breakfast orders being shouted at her. No bills demanding her attention. Just Donna alone, sitting on a bench and staring into the infinite waters that calm her, help her think. Big decisions.

But now she has customers. The first two members of the Breakfast Club take their seats at the front table. Coffee for both. No breakfast for one, eggs over medium, wheat toast for the other. Orders taken, the owner of Donna's Diner disappears into the kitchen.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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