I became a writer because I was raised at a diner in rural Pennsylvania.
My parents opened the Chestnuthill Diner the first week of August 1984. The diner arrived the summer I turned five, and I watched, gaping, as its twin sections were maneuvered from flatbed trailers onto the concrete foundation that had been poured weeks earlier.
I celebrated my fifth birthday in a corner booth, pleased by the shiny chrome and flame-red seats, the flurry of waitresses rushing past in their brown-and-white striped uniforms, the tables bursting with customers. That was the first day the larger world opened up to me, the realm outside school and playmates, where real life really happened—the swear-laden frays between the cooks masked by radios blasting heavy metal, the combined whiff of grease and lettuce as the produce deliverymen wheeled their hand trucks in the back door, the coolness of the dough resting in the kitchen.
After school, on weekends, and for the next six summers, I would enter the back door of the diner on the heels of my mother, who trundled her coin bags, bookkeeping ledgers, and payroll checks. Past the bright bakery where dinner rolls and pies cooled on the racks, around the corner of whirring compressors and my grandfather’s work bench—he kept himself busy part-time as our fix-it man—stood the basement offices. The three dimly-lit rooms with thin carpeting served as bookkeeping headquarters for the two secretaries who worked alongside my mother, as well as my father’s office where he met with the Sysco salesman and other food purveyors. The usual surplus restaurant equipment was stashed in the corners and underneath tables—light fixtures, signage, menus, every kind of candy bar and gum you could think of for the glass case by the cash register. That was one of my jobs, to stock the candy case. I would also run the Bissell over the dining-room carpet, or stock napkin dispensers and set new place mats on the cleaned tables. But there wasn’t much else for me to do.
What I could do, however, was read and make up stories. I remember the books I consumed at the diner: Heidi, The Wizard of Oz, the Little House series. When I grew tired of reading, I turned to a notebook or confiscated some typing paper and wrote. I loved the dry-erase boards we used for note keeping. I spent hours kneeling on the floor, illustrating scenes from my favorite books and, later, creating storyboards of my own. Storytelling for me was always serious play.
Above, the restaurant beckoned. I would climb the back stairs to the kitchen mindfully, aware of the grease on the steps. The heat radiated from behind the line, the one place my younger sister and I were never to go; I would avoid the gaze of the teenage dishwasher peeling a giant mound of potatoes, or Clyde, with his nasal voice and taped-together glasses, clutching his push broom. At the counter there were always regulars to talk to as I sat and spun on the stools—an activity frowned upon by my father, but I did it anyway. In the diner, I met cops, plumbers, and truckers. My ears were always tuned for the unusual—the drop of a waitress’s voice signaling gossip, the laughter behind the closed door of Dad’s office as he talked with Al, one of the loud, cigar-puffing salesmen.
Tales and characters as strange and alluring as those in fiction showed up. There were the two Czech waitresses with names so long and difficult that we called them by nicknames; this was the mid-eighties, and according to my father, they had escaped with their husbands from behind the Iron Curtain, through the Alpine train tunnels at night, to Switzerland and the West. There were the Egyptian cooks who, if I happened to pass through the basement at a certain hour, would be kneeling in the shadowy corner on strips of cardboard, praying to God, whom they called Allah. There was Joan the Baker, always referred to by this phrase, as raspy-voiced and no-nonsense as a character out of Chaucer. She would sometimes let me help make the dinner rolls, shaping the dough into crescents. I remember her confessing her fears about her son in the way adults sometimes do when in the safe domain of children. He was a wild young man who tore down the winding country roads on his motorcycle; she said that one day this would be the death of him. I learned the value of quietude, and how if you just listened to people, they would open up.
There was my father’s friend Fred, the restaurateur who always stopped by for a steaming bowl of chili and conversation when out from New York City to visit his aging mother. Sometimes Fred had his friend Willie with him—they were the first gay couple I met. Fred must have pinned me for a budding creative, for he often showed up with a gift for me—one time a gorgeously wrapped hard copy of Eloise from the Doubleday store in Manhattan.
Back then my early works centered mostly on horse stories and prairie parodies of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But the restaurant teemed with material; it also provided the backdrop for many a family drama. When my grandfather underwent exploratory surgery for the abdominal pains he’d been having, it was in my father’s office that my sister and I learned the news of his cancer. “They opened him up,” Dad said. “It’s everywhere.” The first time I ever saw my father fall apart was behind his desk in that windowless, paneled room, surrounded by adding-machine tape and Rotary club flags. In the leather chair where I usually wrote stories, I wept.
It is strange, the threads that weave together real life with the imaginary. I don’t think about the Chestnuthill Diner much now, even when I return to my hometown and cross the intersection where it still stands, with new owners and a lackluster reputation. I pass it without a thought of what rituals took place in that subterranean space, the blasts of icy air from the walk-in freezers mixing with the bakery’s warmth, the school nights spent eating dinner in the upstairs rooms, as if those things had happened in another life.
My parents still live down the road from the diner. Oddly enough, Joan the Baker’s small house borders their property. This summer as my father and I passed by I asked, “What ever happened to her?”
“She’s right there, but we never see her,” Dad replied. “Isn’t that funny?” Then he shook his head, adding, “Her son was killed, you know. Speeding—coming back from the bars one night on his motorcycle.”
He had told me this in a phone call, years ago. “But does she bake anymore?” I asked. “Her pies were always the best.”
“No, I don’t think she bakes anymore.”
When people ask me how I became a writer, how one comes up with stories, I tell them something glib and easy, like, “I’ve been writing since I was small,” or “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write.” These responses always feel flat to me, not untrue, but barely scraping the surface of what I long to say, about the complicated, odd richness of an unorthodox childhood.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction recently appeared in The Southern Review. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the Ragdale Foundation.
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