I was just sitting on the couch in the break room with all the lights off listening to This American Life, as I am want to do on my breaks, and the current episode is a 24-hour interview experiment done at a diner in Chicago called The Golden Apple. A staff of interviewers took shifts interviewing standard patrons at the diner around the clock, and the show develops a nice flow to it as the type of crowd changes and evolves: early morning construction workers give way to the self employed or the unemployed, who in turn relinquish their Pledge-wiped booths to be filled by the unwavering nudging and shifting of little bodies as families with small children file in, and so on and so forth.
The thing about this episode that caught my interest, besides its naturally unique content, was the interviews with the regulars. Here's an excerpt from the transcript:
Ira Glass: In the middle of the day, a muted light streams through the windows through a pale haze of cigarette smoke. At certain hours, it feels like everybody is smoking at The Golden Apple, three industrial smoke eaters on nonstop. At lunch, some customers come in, eat quickly, and head back to work after just a half hour, but they're in the minority. Probably 3/4 of the customers are regulars. Many of them stay for hours. Nick the owner says, some come two or three times a day.
Nick: I mean, they go home and sleep, of course. But this is their base. We've got Charlie right now in the restaurant that comes twice, three times a day. Floyd, which is right next to him. Mitch, Mitch with his son on the counter. He's a counter man. Mr. Harlen there with Steven, they come twice a day. Ross comes about three, four times a day. Al, two, three times a day.
There's a certain quality to being a "regular". Maybe it's the routine of it all; being a regular somewhere suggests you live by the same time table every day, that you are just another workaday schmoe trying to cobble together enough money to feed a family. Perhaps this - watery black coffee, or tearful, soft eggs, or the oversweet dregs of a vanilla frappe - is your respite after a long-suffering day of selfless virtue. That's what I imagine when I think of a regular; it's a term that goes hand-in-hand with sanctuary. A noble soldier, seeking some small reprieve from the mundane storm of their lives. This affords them a certain moral status that...may or may not be befitting of them. Conceptually, anyway.
And as a concept, and a trite version of a one-dimensional character, that's all well and good.
The reality of the regular is a much darker, gently nuanced human being. The term 'regular' in this particular sphere can be used for good, and evil. There are good regulars and there are bad regulars, and even within these poles there are hybrids; one man's torment is anothers interesting and casual conversation. Everybody has a customer they'd rather avoid and one they don't mind taking time out of their day to help on a personal level. Some regulars, like in the diner, just want someone to talk to. Some regulars are locals, some are scholars, some have been sent to this planet specifically to make you close 5 minutes late on the same weeknight, every week.
I, myself, am I regular. Or at least I am known, I suppose being a regular and being "known" by the staff are different things. The bartenders and waitstaff at the bar down the road all call me by my name, (super impressive on dates, if I ever went on dates. Or maybe just proof of alcoholism? Hard to say, good thing it never came into play) but I wouldn't consider myself a regular because I'm not "regularly" there. I think they remember who I am because one night I wore a shoulderless black frock complete with ornate brooch to grab drinks with coworkers, because I am a fancy debutante sometimes.
No, I am not a regular. Not yet, anyway.
There is something noble about the regular, I suppose, but there is also something haunted. They keep coming back, even though they're not paid to be there. They roam the same aisles or sit on the same stools for years, watching seasons change. In another sense, they are the details that color the world of retail or the food industry, or what have you. A rotating audience of customers is part and parcel of the job, no matter the job, but the regulars are the ones whose names you know. They are generally the characters of our stories, both horrifying and triumphant. Even staff come and go, but regulars? Some are permanent fixtures, simply put.
Booksmith fans, this is the last blog post I'll be writing for you, unless the store wants to outsource my thoughts and feelings from across the country. In less than two weeks I am packing up a van and heading west with a close friend - possibly to our complete and total ruin, but maybe not. If there are any owners of independent book stores in the Los Angeles area that read this blog post, I am fully trained in Wordstock and have over 6 years of book store experience, in the event you want to hire me. Working for Brookline Booksmith has been one of the greatest experiences in my life, and there have been many, many times when this store was more a home than any apartment I've lived in. It pains me to have to leave it when there are so many wonderful people working here, such bright and talented and funny booksellers, and when the niche I have carved for myself is so well-defined and so much fun all the time. I can't explain myself to you, readers, besides to say that in this life we do a lot of waiting around, waiting on jobs, on degrees, on lovers. We do a lot of thumb twiddling and crossword puzzling, which is inescapable and natural, but in the monumental event that they, the faceless powers that be, actually call your number to change your life and maybe do something amazing, you have to have the good sense to muster up enough chutzpah and go.
And if they don't?
I'll let you know on the other end, I guess.
I'm leaving the book store to you, reader. Please take care of her. Keep the staff silly and the money good. I will be back to check up on you, and until then? Stay weird, Brookline.