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You’ll see us around town. Staring intently into screens, passably dressed, tipping fairly well to counter-balance our loitering. When a new fast-food place springs up we skip the giveaways and gimmicks and ask the eternal question: yeah, but do you have wi-fi and an outlet?
I am a laptop hobo. Not homeless; in fact I have a nice home on my favorite side of town. I’m the guy with the earbuds kicking out an Indie band you probably haven’t heard of yet. When you ask ‘table for one?’ and I reply do you have a booth with an outlet? you know I’ve arrived. Table 29 isn’t going to turn over fast. In fact, you might consider me a pleasant, well-mannered fixture.
If your day is going slow and you need a story to fill the time, I’m your guy. Travel has allowed me to tell you firsthand that the winter in Stockholm is just like Boston and that it’s nearly impossible to find the moon in Manhattan. That web page I’m on? If it’s not research for another article it’s likely something public about how good your service has been. Even if your food or service was lousy. So long as you have what I want, we’ll eventually get to know and like each other.
I’m not grounded to just one restaurant, or even city day after day. It’s best to spread myself out to a different place every day, even switching cities like David Banner.
You’re thinking, where does this all come from? I know a hobo whose wife chases him out the door first thing in the morning. Others are just too cheap or easily bored to pay for an office, so they opt to be on the go. There’s always a reason why we’re not home using our own power and internet; we’ve got work to do but get bored without others around.
So when you spot one of us around town staring into a screen for hours, or refill our drink seven times over three hours until the next shift comes on, give us a smile. And Google our names. We’re probably in a newspaper, magazine, bookshelf or boardroom near you.
TODAY’S LOCATION: SCRANTON, PA
There’s a three-door mantrap in the front of The Gourmet Diner on Route 11 outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. On inclement days, diners can bolt straight from their cars to shelter without the inconvenience of coming face to face with a hostess just yet.
Last night’s rain is gone. The asphalt is gray and dry. The woman behind the register says “sit anywhere!” so I slide into the first booth. Moments after fanny has met naugahyde, a woman wearing a nametag that says ‘Old Broad’ appears with a matching pair of coffee pots.
“You alone sir?”
She gives a nod, mentally counting menus needed.
“…But never bored!” I add.
She gives a chuckle. She’s too old to have not heard all the lines.
In these kinds of tightly constructed rooms you’re always on stage; small booths are separated by narrow wooden dowels, useless for containing conversation. Posts mounted behind each seat bear hooks that accommodate coats during winter.
Through the front windows facing Route 11, it’s ‘Return of the Rebels’ all over again. A group of gray-haired Sunday bikers fire up expensive engines. All wear standard issue black/orange t-shirts, American eagles and the name of a favorite dealership spread over their backs. They twist the throttles of spotless Harleys and roll toward the highway.
The menu doesn’t take long to scan. A dish with a number is always best. It’s easier on the old lady and minimizes the chances of getting it wrong. The most exotic order from this table will be a Coke.
“Can I get a Number 44?”
“You got it.” She scribbles and turns.
I’m free to study the ads on the placemat, examine the wood-paneled room, take in today’s random shuffle of patrons. American POW-MIA flags wave in the Pennsylvania breeze. I sip my Coke when it arrives. Mmm, exotic.
In places like this, you don’t take out a laptop. Northeast Pennsylvania diner etiquette, and any other place for that matter where things are rarely outside the norm dictates that a guy typing at the table next to you is A: a workaholic, or B: anti-social, or C: a reporter from the local paper, and no one likes them guys until it’s your turn to get your name in print for having done something awesome, or your kid/grandkid for having done something awesomer.
When that happens you’ll clip and hang the article on the fridge. Later that evening, maybe past acceptable hours, you’ll run out and buy all the other copies left in racks around town. Half of the next day will be spent clipping and mailing copies to relatives.
Or maybe – and this is a rare occasion – you might actually be somewhere at the right moment when something unusual happens. First report goes to a cop known either by name or through a relative. Then you disseminate out to anyone nearby. Finally, you spill the story to a reporter when asked.
You might clip that story, maybe not. Either way it’s a tale you’ll repeat to your cronies in diners like this one, until your last appearance in the paper, an obit you’ve written months if not years in advance. Usually flattering and simple, these life summaries rarely include ‘once witnessed a fire break out in the 1600 block of Keyser Ave.’
A ding sounds. The yellowed plastic case of a standard doorbell over the kitchen entrance could mean only one thing: food. Everyone stirs, like cattle wondering if their turn has come to trudge down the feeding chute and leave this cramped pen with a full belly. When the plates are paraded out by the old broad, knowing all eyes are on her, they sway in her hands, a judge anointing the winners.
The plates and the old broad pass to another family who arrived minutes earlier, having ‘made good time’ on the highway. The room takes a moment to witness their smiles, see the utensils drawn and plunged into newly arrived food. We turn away and read our placemats again.
Everyone else in the room has been fed by the time my Number 44 appears. During the wait, which seemed longer than a Second Coming, I’d pulled out the cell phone. Updated Facebook. Did a little shopping. Played Brickbreaker. I’m just about to dig in when a man older than the old broad stopped at my table.
“Ain’t you Fizz McGee’s kid?”
I haven’t lived anywhere near Scranton, PA for 35 years. I’d come back every few years for family. That became an annual pilgrimage to where I’m now hanging around every six months. “Pretty soon you’ll be unlocking your own front door,” I’m told. They don’t know the nomad life.
The old man stands there, and I idle my fork.
“Yeah. I’m his oldest.”
“I thought you was. Tell him I say hi will ya? Boy I haven’t seen him since forever. Heard you guys were in town. How’s he doin?”
“Good. Good. Well listen, tell your old man hello for me, OK?”
“You bet.” He waves and leaves.
I survey the room. No one paid attention to the exchange. I dig into the Number 44, knowing that when I do deliver the guy’s message, it’ll go something like this:
“This guy wanted me to say hello to you.”
“Yeah? What was his name?”
“Dunno. Tall thin guy. Gray hair. Brown shirt.”
“Jeez, that describes most of the guys I know!”
“Did he have a lot of gray hair or was it kinda thinner?”
“I don’t know. Thinner?”
I have to think about it. “Yeah.”
“And you saw this guy…”
“Monday. That was probably George Murphy. He always goes to the Gourmet on Mondays, and he always wears a brown shirt. Sheesh I think he was born with it on.”
He’ll then go to the phone, take out a small black book of phone numbers and addresses kept in a drawer. Its plastic cover has mostly peeled down to bare cardboard. He’ll flip to the M page and dial.
“George! Hey, it’s Fizz. Yeah. How are you?” There will be a big laugh. “Yeah, my son said he ran into you at the diner.”
A moment of silence.
And from here I’ll just be relieved because, by some completely outmoded, outdated system these two are back in contact again. But you can’t argue. ‘Cause the system works.
Like an old doorbell, a tired diner, and an old broad who shows up day after day, year after year, delivering plates of things you’ll never grow tired of.
MATT McGEE writes short fiction in the local library until the staff makes him go home. His collections 'Diversions' and 'Leaving Rayette' are available on Amazon, as well as his poetry collection 'We Liked You Better When You Was a Whore.' His new column, 'The Diary of a Laptop Hobo' chronicles the wanderlust that keeps us from going home