Inspired by Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, we were tasked with spending a week conducting ethnographic research at a place of our choosing. My partner and I chose Denny’s (for reasons beyond the food, I know what you’re thinking). Part of the assignment included writing an individual paper on our experience. And here it is.
9.16.15, four-fifty pm.
I had been in class all day. I was just escaping three hours of Brand Analytics and I could not have been happier with our choice of Denny’s for our 'week at' project. Strategic move. Miranda joined us for our late dinner, and as expected, our conversations initially surrounded pancakes. Our waitress was incredibly kind. Not just friendly or polite . . . but kind. Good start. I scanned the room as we waited for our table at the podium. What would catch my eye immediately? Can’t miss an insight.
The man in the red shirt. He was eating alone, one of my biggest weaknesses. It’s worse if you’re a man and even more heartbreaking if you’re older. I don’t know why I have a hard time digesting the fact that someone is eating alone. I realize it’s completely irrational. And I think it’s harder for me to see men eating alone because subconsciously I see men as the weaker sex emotionally. Wrong, I know. But the truth. The man in the red shirt was sitting in the middle booth. He came alone, ate alone . . . left alone.
Three people walked in, a couple and an older woman. The older woman had a notepad. The couple sat across from her as she took notes. Couples therapy? Social worker? It was hard to tell, but to be honest; the conversation seemed lighthearted, so maybe something happier?
Another couple walked in, much younger. They pushed a stroller with a sleeping toddler. Three teens walked in next. “Let’s grab the usual table.” The waitress greeted every single guest that night with the kindest smile. Her name was Rebecca; I noted her nametag as she rang us up. I can’t believe it took me that long. Finally, as were turning to walk out, the toddler woke up. Groggy, foggy, and very displeased with the fact that he wasn’t in a bed . . . understandably so.
9.24.15, twelve-ten am.
My second time around I was equally excited about pancakes. I was tired and starving, as I had been moving stuff out of my storage unit all day. Once again, a strategically sound decision. A young black couple sat at the front, eating in silence. It seemed like a happy silence. Sometimes all you need is a good meal between you. Again, middle booth, a man eating alone. Different guy though. He was glued to the television but still somehow seemed to be savoring each bite. When the waitress brought him his to go box he gleefully told her he had enough for three more meals in that box.
Why do I get so upset when I see people eating alone? Ten minutes in, an older woman walked in. I told my friend Sarah, “I think she’s eating alone” and she assured me her husband was still getting out of the car. But she was alone. She sat right behind us, ordered a cheeseburger and coke right away. Five minutes later, an older man, (nice pants, button up, and bow tie) walked in. Incredibly tall. The kind of tall that makes you powerful, no matter your personality. He sat at the counter seats. He asked the manager wandering the aisle if she knew of this particular woman who worked at Denny’s once. It was apparent he had met her at a Denny’s; she must had been his waitress. But now they were friends.
The woman behind us got her burger. Sarah, now fully devoted to my project as well, pointed out how the woman slowly ate the burger, as if it were the last cheeseburger on the planet and she needed to make it last. I heard her tell the waitress, “I haven’t had a cheeseburger like this in years!” I made a note, next time, get the burger. But in all actuality, how great can a burger at Denny’s be? Where has she been that she hasn’t had a great cheeseburger in years? Jail? In a coma? Traveling to space?
9.26.15, four-fifty pm.
Sitting in my parent’s living room, I was spending my week off, as only one should; relaxing. My dad joined me for my third episode of Law & Order and some small talk. As he was asking me about my projects we came to my Denny’s expedition. He asked about the assignment; how were the people, and more importantly, how was the food? And then ever so casually, he mentioned how Denny’s was the first meal we ever ate in the United States. Interesting fact dad.
I found this incredibly funny and oddly satisfying. I have a weird thing about ‘coincidences’. I like to think of them as mile markers that prove I’m on the right path. But it also got me thinking about my time at Denny’s over the past week. I thought about the couple and their therapist, the man waiting for his waitress friend, the woman fresh out of her coma and eating her first cheeseburger in years.
All these people I had seen late at night at this Denny’s, they were all in this ‘in-between’. It had seemed that none of them really left the house that day to eat at Denny’s. They were coming home from a late meeting, or on the way to their next shift, or in the middle of a breakup. But it seemed there would be no other place to have these in-between moments. At least at that hour.
My dad said the reason we went to Denny’s was because it was late and we were starving and that was the only place open that felt like we were eating a real meal. Logical of course. But so interesting; to think, each place collects it’s people. Hospitals are for the sick or in need of medical attention. Schools are for those who are learning. At night, Denny’s had it’s own kind as well. They were the displaced, the ‘on-a-break,’ the ‘not now’ people. The ones who needed to eat, but eat well, even when other places were mopping their floors. Because real-life doesn’t end at closing time. Those who needed to forget about their day, with a TV and hot meal. Or those who wanted to savor the day, with a burger and coke.
Each person at that Denny’s made sense at that very moment. The couple with their child, taking a break as new parents. The man and his to go box, alone, on his own time. This fear of eating alone I had, sounding even sillier than I already had known it was. We all have these in-between moments. We have them because they are good for us, because we need them, because they keep us sane. Why would there not be a place for these souls to unwind?
10.5.15, ten o'clock, am.
We had planned to get to Denny’s really early that morning. But as life happens, there we were around 10 in the morning. The building was unchanged, yet the emotion it evoked was quite different. It was crowded . . . people in pairs or groups. The majority of them older couples, adorable of course. Not a single person eating alone; no silent meals between diners. Where at night the room felt like a pause, or a distant land, a twilight zone almost; the morning felt so . . . normal. The ebb and flow of life was palpable. The day was in motion.
It seems obvious; at night, of course Denny’s is a different place. Of course people are more active in the daytime. But what I found to love about Denny’s was how it could be a beacon for two distinct places in life. Two places we’ve all seen, but two places that could not be more different. How crazy is it that the mere functionality of Denny’s, that it is open late, creates this distinction. I'm not sure which one I enjoyed more. The day was easy, I couldn't really complain. The night had moments that felt uneasy. But to say I didn't enjoy them would be unfair. What does seem evident, however, is that these two need each other. They balance each other out. Which I guess means I don't have to decide. I 've got a place to go at all times of my life.