It’s because there’s nothing more democratic than a diner! I just love diners! They’re open, accepting places where one can read a book, drink countless cups of coffee, and not have anyone bother you. You might get a side-glance when you first go in, but soon you’ll be no more interesting than day-old pie – just part of the scene – which might include teens on a date, fingers entwined across the table, smiling at one another and sipping strawberry milkshakes; or an elderly retiree on a careful budget, solitarily nursing a cup of black coffee; or a bus driver who knows the first names of all the waitresses, ordering eggs “over easy,” along with country-fried ham and biscuits; or a local crazy person drooling on his shirt and mumbling irritably, so long as he’s not too loud and, even if he is, the waitresses will simply give him a “Shush;” or a businessman reading the financial and sports sections, eating a slice of apple pie while taking a break from his office pressures; or a group of women friends, grateful for a bit of uninterrupted time, delightedly sharing the neighborhood’s hot and cold gossip.
The light inside diners is usually bright enough to read by given the combination of daylight and indoor fluorescent lights. Outside, the traffic is rushing continually by – which is part of what makes diners so pleasurable – the outside world rolling by in a constant stream of moving lights and colors while we’re sitting comfortably inside, food on the way.
Diners themselves, however, aren’t really mystical in any true sense – except maybe passing in the night – but they do offer the single most important prerequisite for mysticism – clear and open spiritual space. Diner space has unique emotional, psychic and cultural aspects. For example, no matter how crowded a diner gets, there’s always enough room for everyone to get in. Even more, diner space is democratic space – i.e., there’re no special privileges in diners – no one has to make way for anyone else. Everyone takes their own turn – and can end up in a booth if that’s what they really want.
“Diner” mystics need the quality of freedom that’s available in a typical diner. Anyone, however, who believes they’re better than other people, whether due to higher education or greater knowledge, income or status, will never qualify as one. Diner mystics know, without thinking much about it, that they’re nobody special, and so are happy to take a seat in the next free booth, pick up the plastic-covered menu sitting on the table, and enter their own personal diner “heaven”! No one in their right mind would think that they can go into a diner and demand that everyone bow their heads in prayer or insist that the customers recite religious formulas together. If the waitresses couldn’t get this kind of person to leave, the cooks would, and if the cooks couldn’t, the highway patrol who are always sitting in the back nursing coffee, certainly would. My advice is to test everything you’re told the same as you would if you were sitting happily in your favorite diner.
The Jewish version of diner is a delicatessen, but with better pickles. Everything else is pretty much the same – a community hangout.
Once, long ago, God decided to send some lofty souls down from heaven (Hasidic teachers) to illuminate the darkness of exile in the Russian Pale. In like manner, God may, one day, send a few diner mystics down to us – brilliant sparks of spiritual light to sit in the back booths of diners, waiting for a signal to spiritually light up America. In early Christian times, it wasn’t uncommon for mystics to sit on tall columns out in the desert. Today, a “diner” mystic might be sitting on a counter stool, turning slowly back and forth, holding a cup of bitter-brewed coffee, and available to anyone who’s able to spot her.
Denny’s will never be a “real” diner. Chains, by definition, are in an “anti”-diner category. No true mystic would ever eat in one! Un-chained diners, on the other hand, operate free of franchise regulations. The cashier who’s worked there 20 years can say whatever he wants, for good or ill, while you’re paying your check, while the waitress who’s been working there more than 30 years will have her own personal style of tossing the plastic menus onto the tabletop, saying: “Coffee now, hon?” Diner employees frequently are from the same Greek family or may be their next door neighbors. A diner is a lot like a home. Families in homes aren’t required to live subject to the requirements of a franchise manual. Can you imagine a mother having to consult her franchise handbook before deciding where and when to send the kids out to play or to determine how many times a week she’ll be making love with her husband? People living in families do anything they want! They can be as functional, dysfunctional, enlightened or dim-witted, as they wish. It’s a “free country – and diners fit a free society, perfectly.
Why am I taking all this time to talk about diners and what, if anything, do they have to do with “mysticism”? I think it’s commonly agreed that there will be no real spiritual life without at least a certain minimum level of humanity. But how will people be able to achieve this if the world becomes increasingly regulated by the institutional requirements of multinational corporations which are now intruding, consciously and unconsciously, into every facet of our daily lives? The franchise itself is just a tiny nut or bolt in a much larger more elaborate corporate machine, designed by financial, legal and corporate experts working in mega-cities, like New York, London or Tokyo, who are striving to satisfy the quarterly financial requirements set by the investment world. Franchisee employees are fungible, paid at the minimum legally-required level, and treated as temporary in every respect, usually with no health or other employee benefits. Even the local managers are temporary. In general, you’re never going to develop a deep personal relationship with a franchise employee, except by accident. They have to do what they’re told, by carefully following the franchise regulations and procedures. Nor are you ever going to meet (nor would you want to) any of those responsible for preparing the franchise manual or managing the parent company. Yet it’s impossible for you to escape their influence. Franchises, along with the policies and procedures by which they’re run, are these people’s personalities projected into your world.
We need a lot more un-chained family diners in this country so as to restore civilized space back into our lives. The same would be true of family-owned pharmacies, toy stores, farms, etc.
Isn’t it a fact that our economic system has now evolved itself into a worldwide Darwinian money game, favoring those most skilled at playing competitive intellectual games?
Do we really want to end up living inside a worldwide economic machine beyond anyone’s control, even that of the United States Government? Do we really want a society where the people who end up with the most power and economic resources are simply the world’s best game players?
So, isn’t it about time for diners to start making a comeback! Spiritually, diners have always been even more open than the churches that sit just down the road. In a diner, one doesn’t need to affirm a specific belief system. It’s certainly true that diners won’t take you to God, but they also won’t drive you away from God either. Diners never waste your time. They feed you and leave you as free going out as when you first walked in. Can you really say the same thing about churches? Don’t you start feeling just a little bit restricted as soon as you enter the church parking lot? When you decide to join a church, you’ll become aware of the necessity for wearing a “uniform” – i.e., required exterior (clothes) and interior (doctrines). Diners, however, aren’t bothered about what you wear or think – whether you’re orthodox or unorthodox. Jesus himself was totally open to people – just like a diner. Anyone could come by, sit at his table and talk about God. Diners stay open 24/7 while churches, for the most part, are open only a few hours a week, mainly on Sunday. As a consequence, going to church is often wholesome, but is not necessarily holy. True holiness isn’t found in crowds, even well-behaved, well-dressed ones. Real holiness is usually a solitary affair. When a radiantly holy person enters a diner to eat breakfast – no one thinks a thing about it. That same holiness, exhibited in church, however, will probably make a number of people in the congregation pretty uncomfortable.
God flashes brief glimpses of Spirit down among us –usually in the deepest ambiguities of our lives – the times and places we’re the most fragile, puzzled and uncertain how to proceed. It’s the people who don’t think they know everything, and simply want to be with God, who usually turn out to be God’s people, that is, the nobodies. You can find them whenever you just take the trouble to look – in fact, they’re probably sitting at the counter in your local diner right now!
The kind of person who might be reflecting on God in a diner is certainly not restricted to any specific religious tradition. They’re able to allow all kinds of religious and spiritual thoughts to reverberate freely throughout their minds and souls. They might even let themselves take a few minutes to have fun “playing” with God. One day, I sat down and tried to think about God from as many different angles as I was able. What I came up with will be my next post – “Kaleidoscopic Images of God”.