AT DENNY’S WITH WAR HEROES AND A CAT LADY (Washington, DC)

by Noura Hemady on August 14, 2012

We were likely the first victims of DC’s limited dining hours that night. By 9:50 p.m., three restaurants had told us their kitchens were closed for the night. Sweaty, exhausted, and hungry, we sat at the bar without ordering drinks, dabbing our wet foreheads with flaky napkins, vacantly staring at the gymnasts flying across the TV screens. Any open food establishments to the west required a 25-minute bike ride. But that was too far away, and the intervening hill seemed insurmountable in our calorie-deficient haze. To the north: train tracks. To the south: homes until you reached the river. To the east: Denny’s, five minutes by bike on flat terrain. We opted for Denny’s.

We were the only people outdoors on this underdeveloped stretch of Bladensburg Road, with nothing but shuttered automotive workshops and decaying billboards beckoning the hungry to bleak Chinese-food-and-fried-chicken fusion restaurants. We cruised past a crisp new apartment complex, still encased by chain-link fence and grounds littered with construction equipment, demarcating the new frontier for gentrification in 2013. Next year, maybe, we’ll be surrounded by young couples taking their petite dogs for the last walk of the night, or people watering their potted plants on the balconies above. There used to be a diner across the street, housed in a 1950s gunmetal Airstream trailer. It went out of business last fall, its only remaining indication a square plot of dead grass with an errant bike rack in front.

And then Denny’s, a fluorescent oasis rising from the empty street, its promise of eggs, pancakes, water, and air-conditioning inviting us indoors. Inside, a young man nonchalantly greeted us and led us to a corner table, adjacent to a booth that was occupied by two elderly black men, both topped by veteran’s caps. They leaned intently over their burgers, deep in hushed conversation. I like to think they were trading tales of all the times they had lain awake in their muddy encampments in the verdant Vietnamese mountains, believing every rustle, every peep, was an enemy combatant. But they were probably talking about their wives nagging, or a son’s girlfriend, or a friend with a cheating spouse.

Across from us, a middle-aged woman in a long floral-print dress, her wiry gray hair loosely knotted atop her head, sat alone at a table, occasionally taking bites of her sandwich but mostly staring blankly onto the street. She would get up every ten minutes to smoke, then come back and resume her gaze. I was surprised she had no reading material, nothing to bide the time, not even an iPhone to diddle. I asked him: Isn’t she bored? How can you just sit there like that — nothing to read, nothing to touch, no one to talk to? He said: You know, no one ever stops and thinks anymore. Everyone always needs something to do. Maybe she’s coming up with some brilliant new economic theory; you never know. I should start going to restaurants just to sit and think.

By the time our food came — eggs, biscuits, and gravy for me, a chicken sandwich and a Caesar salad for him — an Asian couple, both in jeans shorts, had stepped in. They sat silently, heads bowed, without opening the menu. Two bike messengers arrived after them and loitered in the lobby, waiting for someone to seat them. They’d probably biked many more miles to get here than we had. How come they were so much less sweaty than we had been when we collapsed onto the bar stools, looking for food? Had they also come to Denny’s because it was the only open place to eat where you didn’t have to climb a hill? When we left at midnight, a well-dressed family with a young daughter in a white tulle dress had just received their platters of eggs and pancakes. They looked like they had just left a wedding, but who gets married on a Tuesday night? All three smiled as they devoured their food.

In the hour and a half that we spent at Denny’s, we outfitted all our fellow diners with detailed personal histories. Waiting for our eggs and chicken sandwich, we were in the company of war heroes, a lonely but potentially brilliant cat-loving lady, fatigued immigrant workers entrapped by the financial imperatives of their families, and road-beaten bike messengers with tall tales of near misses and miraculous escapes from city buses and taxis. We assumed that, like ours, their presence at Denny’s was entirely circumstantial: a wrong turn taken on the way out of town, a desperate craving for biscuits and gravy at 11:33 p.m., a needed respite from wives and children.

All the bowed heads, all the hushed conversations — they might have been creating stories about us, the two sweaty kids in shorts with backpacks who pulled up to Denny’s on their bikes, adorned with that look of mild confusion you get when stepping into an unfamiliar establishment. Two kids, whose uproarious debate about the Chick-fil-A gay marriage controversy occasionally collapsed into a fit of giggles and name-calling. Their silent nods and sideways glances: definitely, they agreed with my assessment of Palestinian socioeconomics. Or perhaps they thought we were utterly ridiculous and wondered: Shouldn’t those kids be at the beer garden down the street, sipping ten-dollar pints while waiting for their currywurst?

* * * *

Noura Hemady is a Washington, DC-based writer who should have more opinions on international development, but really just wants to talk about music, bikes, and DC culture.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: