In Search of Lost Time at the Miss Worcester Diner
I go to the diner searching for lost time, or looking to lose it. At the Miss Worcester, my diner of choice, I always order two eggs over easy, home fries, and rye toast. Before 9 a.m. coffee is often included, and the whole meal costs less than five bucks. Because a diner is rarely a chain, the food isn’t truly identical at other spots, but it’s enough of an archetype that I always know what to expect: the beginning of coming home, breakfast at a table where I’m always welcome. I don’t have to reveal myself as an outsider by scanning the menu’s offerings or asking questions.
Diners weren’t invented in Worcester, my home city—that honor belongs to the aptly named and nearby Providence, Rhode Island—but it’s where they reached their peak, evolving from rolling carts to full restaurants with booths and seats; some were stationary rail cars. T.H. Buckley of Worcester recognized the ease and affordability of the model, which could be wheeled to a new location in order to serve a shifting population, and whose low price, speed, and late hours made them the go-to dining choice for factory shift workers. Buckley began manufacturing “lunch cars” in the 1890s. Not only did the patrons come from factories, but the very establishments in which they dined came off the assembly line, too. (My great grandfather, Roman Lemanski, worked at a die cutter on the corner of Plum Street and E. Worcester Street, a mile from the Miss Worcester and a block from the Boulevard Diner. Both are still in operation, though it’s unclear whether my grandfather’s stint at O.M. Savel’s & Co. overlapped with either.) Today, diners manufactured by the Worcester Lunch Car Company, Buckley’s successor, are often listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and there’s a small central Massachusetts trade in oil paintings of local diners, but I contend that by being used, and lived in, these diners are not museums—or not only museums.
Former sites of industry and other markers of working-class life are having a fashionable, fetish moment among those with money. But my home diner, the Miss Worcester, is something living, not a piece of history at all—there’s a line out the door on weekend mornings, and the lunch car, which has been in operation since 1948 or 1949, serves cheap, good food. Yet it changes with the times: The menu, which is illustrated like an old-school sleeve tattoo, features a whole page of French toast options.
There are, of course, diners that are only museums. For instance, any diner named DINER, or The ’50s Diner, is trading in its customers’ limbic responses to chrome jukeboxes and poodle skirts. I’m a white queer woman; do these other diners tame that era for me, or allow me the fiction that I could have assimilated? (I’ve already assimilated, a Jew eating eggs fried on the same griddle as bacon, even if I never order it myself and only eat it off others’ plates.) Certainly the diners of New England, the ones with which I’m most familiar, are largely white spaces, though Worcester’s factories, and its workers, are not and have never been.
Have I deceived myself? What do we go to museums for, if not to see ourselves reflected in them, or at least to encounter the unfamiliar in a safe, contained space? I’ve eaten in many Worcester diners this year, and I’ve eaten more fried eggs than that, but for a lot of complicated reasons I haven’t visited my parents or seen their home. Yet at the Miss Worcester, just as at any diner only more so, I can be at home without going there.
Here I remember that a diner was once called a lunch car, that although the Miss Worcester has sat in the same spot for sixty-eight years, bricked to the ground, it once had wheels. I’ve taken many friends, both local and out-of-town, to the Miss Worcester for breakfast, and everyone I’ve ever been in love with has eaten a meal there, though they haven’t all met my parents. Stationary but with the potential for movement, the Miss Worcester is liminal—both/and. It doesn’t ask me to be anything I’m not, or to be anywhere other than where I am. When I travel I visit diners to ground myself; it’s a secular shul that’s local, specific, and diasporic: a mutable, accessible home. Breaking my yolk with a fork, dipping the toast in, I could be anywhere, and always I’m right here.