Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday Greetings From Einer’s Diner

It was 54’ on Christmas Day when I wandered into Einer’s Diner for my annual holiday dinner ritual. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when a chorus of “Happy Canada Day!” greeted me as I opened the door. Canada Day is celebrated in July but it’s easy enough for the regulars at Einer’s to become confused under the best of circumstances and this year’s unseasonably warm December only adds to their general befuddlement.

Hell, Einer’s regulars get befuddled if he moves a salt shaker on the counter, so it’s not surprising that this year’s April-in-December heat wave disturbed them.

Like many of the people who take Christmas dinner there, Einer’s is a place that time forgot. Of course, being located near Queen and Sherbourne in the heart of Toronto’s great hairy metropolis doesn’t help. And if time didn’t forget ‘most everything about the intersection – buildings, store fronts, garbage piled at the curb, the pungent smell, people – it certainly stopped, probably sometime in the late 70s or early 80s.

Still, those are the things that draw me back to Einer’s every year; well, that and a chance to catch up with old friends I haven’t seen since last year, before the fire.

You may remember reading in the paper that there was a terrible fire at Einer’s. Everything burned: The booths with the chipped Formica tables and green vinyl seats with indentations from generations of overweight backsides imprinting them, the counter with its 11 stools, the kitchen with its years of aromatic grime on the walls, the storeroom with the large tins of corn, peas and generic Jell-O powder, the linoleum floor with the deep, black scuff mark in the corner made from more than a decade of Eudora Phipps leaning her left hip against the wall when she wasn’t busy waitressing and shuffling the right heel of the white nurses oxfords she always wore with her uniform back and forth. Everything that smelled “Einer’s” was lost.

The arson squad investigated and concluded without much enthusiasm that the blaze was preventable and caused by carelessness. In one sense, it was: If Einer didn’t have four deep fryers going full blast – well, it was Thanksgiving and he expected a full house – chances are the damage would have been limited. On the other hand, it was really just a fire waiting to happen once the right combination of events happened in precisely the correct combination.

They did.

On the fateful mid-October day, one of those Cooper Mini cars was parked at a meter in front of Einer’s. The owner returned to his clown-sized car, squiggled into the too-small driver’s seat, started the motor and gunned the engine a few times. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a Cooper Mini engine cold start, but what the engineers and designers thought sounded sexy actually makes the same sound as a World War 2 German fighter, the Messerschmitt ME-109.

Now, to most people the sound wouldn’t register anything unusual. But to poor Corny Bledsoe, who’d been gassed in The Great War and enlisted again for WW2 where he spent five years as a private who never passed a promotion exam, the sound of the Mini engine roaring to life meant only one thing. In his head, he was back at Dunkirk.

“The bloody Jerry’s are strafing,” Corny shouted, his eyes wide in terror, his words more garbled and mumbled than usual, even when his teeth are fitting properly. “Everybody dig into the sand!”

Half the people in Einer’s didn’t even bother to look up. They were the regulars accustomed to an occasional, nonsensical outburst from Corny or one of the other diners who carries on intense discussions with people who aren’t in the room.

It was the other half that fuelled the fire.

In one of the booths, Leona Feltmate was slurping her way through a bowl of pea soup when Corny shouted his warning. Leona is about 80. Many decades ago, she had a brief moment of minor celebrity when she received the first breast implants in Canada. In those days, there was only one model: Hard and unyielding. Now, although she had become stooped with age, withered and quite wrinkled, she still has the same near-perfect, teasingly pert, breasts that she paid a small fortune for all those years ago. The contradiction between every other part of her body and her full, upright bodice made Leona the sluttiest looking octogenarian in all of Toronto.

When Corny shouted his warning, Leona leapt to her feet – too quickly. The hem of her dress caught in the heel of her right shoe, and her sturdy, right plastic breast got wedged up against the edge of the table in her booth. She was immobilised. Her two arms and one free leg went splaying all akimbo and poor Leona ended up doing a half-cartwheel out of the booth. Her dress ended up half over her head and half covering Corny’s, which only intensified his panic at being caught out in the open during a raid.

In the process of trying to free himself, Corny – with Leona still attached to him by the hem of her dress which had wrapped itself around his turkey neck – went bouncing over the counter like a beach ball. He and Leona landed with a thud, right on Eudora Phipps’ worst bunion. She reacted by vaulting backwards in the air, yowling in pain and grabbing at her throbbing foot. Corny, seeing a lifeline to safety, grabbed Eudora’s heel which caused her to catapult backwards, hitting Einer as she did.

Due to the noise of cooking and steam in the kitchen, Einer had neither heard nor seen anything that happened up to the moment when Eudora slammed into his belly, followed immediately by a half-blinded Corny Bledsoe who had not stopped screaming, “Take cover, boys!” and then the now shrieking Leona Feltmate.

At the moment of impact, Einer was holding a platter of frozen Tuna Treats. Einer is a large man – tall, round and plush – but even his girth could not slow the momentum of being body slammed by three people. His arms went up in the air, he stumbled, and the frozen Tuna Treats went splashing into the bubbling hot oil of one of the fryers. With a loud “Whoosh!” the oil sent a fire ball to the ceiling. Flaming grease splattered on the floor and into the other fryers, igniting what seemed like a century of accumulated cooking grime and who knows what else.

The rest was in the newspapers. The fire spread, taking Einer’s Diner with it. Fortunately, everyone got out safely. The next day, Einer came back to look at the smouldering ruins. Standing amongst the charred remains, he noticed a handful of forlorn regulars on the sidewalk who had no idea where to eat. Many of them didn’t know there were other places to eat because they only knew how to get from their walk-up flats to Einer’s and back again.

So Einer rebuilt the place, keeping it as close to the original as possible. For one thing, he was no decorator and his personal style – if that’s what you could call it – was a close match to the style of his restaurant. For another, he knew that it would be shiny new for only a week after he re-opened so what was the point? Anyway, he didn’t want to leave his regulars thinking he’d gone uptown on them.

Actually, I almost didn’t recognise Corny. He finally had cataract surgery during the summer so his trademark glasses, thick as the bottom of a pair of Coke bottles, disappeared with the increasingly thick cornea film that blurred his vision for decades and added to the challenge of driving his school bus route every day. The last few years, parents really started complaining about Corny who was having more and more trouble reading street signs along the route so he only sometimes were letting kids at a home close to where they actually lived.

Fortunately for Corny, a provincial law barring discrimination against blind and disabled workers – he’d been legally blind for as long as anyone could remember – meant he was able to keep driving a school bus until he hit his 70th birthday when chauffer licenses are revoked. That’s when he began driving a gypsy cab to earn pocket money. In fact, the first thing he bought after hitting the streets in his old Plymouth Valiant were new pockets: His old trousers were so worn that the pockets turned to fuzz eons ago; change kept slipping out and getting lost, literally costing him “pocket money.”

Such is life at Einer’s this – well, every – holiday season. I hope you and yours have as much fun over the holidays as I did at the diner and may you have a healthy, happy, prosperous and fire-free New Year’s!

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