Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tuning Fork

One of the challenges of my current bout of unemployment is the fact that, without a workplace to go to every morning and the coworkers that come with it, my interaction with others has dropped precipitously. Not a huge deal for someone who likes quiet (I do), but there's one area in particular that I feel the sting: writing dialogue.

See, writing dialogue requires a good ear for how people really talk, and a good ear requires constant tuning. Tuning that would normally happen at work, but that lately, I find I've had to go out of my way for.

Not today, though. For today, quite by happenstance, I found myself at one of my favorite places to sit and listen: a diner. I'm not talking some fancy-pants chromed-out rail car diner, lovingly restored, and with a menu full of designer Benedicts; I'm talking about a hot griddle, bunch of regulars, got-a-lunch-counter-'cause-people-really-go-there-to-eat-lunch diner. The kind of place that hasn't changed since it opened in '53. The kind of place where neighborhood folks run into one another and wind up sharing a table. The kind of place where you can get two heaping plates of breakfast and a gallon's worth of coffee for just a shade over ten bucks.

The kind of place where you can hear gems like these:

Table One: Middle-aged, middle-class office-types talking health care. Conservative, by the sound of them, and so riled, they don't seem to notice they're all talking like they're arguing, even though they all agree. Every group bigger than two has got its alpha talker, and this one's no different: a peroxide blonde with a smoker's rasp that says government "guv'mint" and begins every sentence with "What people don't get is...". Money line of the table was, "What people don't get is Nancy Pelosi wouldn't let nobody read the bill before they voted on it -- she said they had to pass it to see it. So now our own government doesn't even know what's in this bill."

Table Two (with a cameo from Table One, the lone male of the group, who wandered over to say hello to two women in the booth behind me when his party made for the door):

"So nice to see you again," he said. A long beat with no reply. "You know my brother."

"Of course," the woman replies -- polite, distracted. "What's his name again?"

"You should know that," he says, surprisingly short toward someone he doesn't seem to know. And then, to her dining companion: "Who's this?"

"An old friend from way back."

"Really? I like old friends from way back."

And then he no shit sat down with them, as if distant, vague replies amounted to an invitation.

But my favorite table of the day was Table Three, occupied by a couple of genial old-timers:

Waitress: "What can I get you two?"

"I'd like a plate of eggs --"

"Sure."

"--but the yolks, and this is important, the yolks should be over medium."

"Okay."

"I mean really over medium. I'm very particular about how I like my eggs."

"No problem. What kind of toast would you like?"

"What are my options?"

She rattles off his options. He mulls. And mulls. And mulls. And then his buddy pipes up.

"You should get pumperknickel," he says. Then, to the waitress, as if it settles the matter: "He's Jewish."

"I'm not getting pumperknickel," the first guy says, mock-tetchy. "I don't like caraway seeds in my teeth."

The beauty of these two was, they had rhythm. They had banter. They had the waitress smiling. Heck, they had me smiling. So I kept listening. Once their order was in, talk turned to fishing (brown trout are particularly hard to catch.) The weather (78? Can you believe it?) And then, when their plates arrived, back to food. But even there, these guys surprised me, because it wasn't Egg Man who complained. It was his buddy. The waitress dropped his plate of pancakes in front of him, and he threw his hands up in distress and declared "I'm gonna need more butter" with all the weight of Brody telling Quint he'd need a bigger boat.

I swear, I wish I could've taken those two dudes with me. They were funny -- and they knew it. Charming -- and they knew it. But they came at it from a completely different place than anybody I'd write.

Or rather, anybody I would've written before today.