We sit now in The Empire Diner soaking in something we've never before experienced here-Silence.
Sunlight shines through the 10th ave. windows, gleams off the Chromed Black Chairs that are up on the tables making this beacon of warmth look like a Retro-Futuristic Kindergarten Classroom waiting for the happy hungry noisy kids to return.
They will not return.
Two days ago, Friday Night, we served our last meals at the World's Most Famous Diner. The crowds came early and we were busy to the end. I came up from the basement prep kitchen and overheard bits of conversation; people remembering past meals here, past encounters, past celebrity sightings.
Different menu items ran out through the evening one by one- Lamb Burgers 86 ed at 10:30, Fish & Chips just past Noon, Grilled Chicken Cutlets around 9:45. We sat at table 82 in the cafe having a beer and trying to keep our smiles on when, just after I heard the waiters passing the word that our Hamburgers were gone, I got a text message from the kitchen-"Shut it down, we're down to Eggs and White Bread."
At 11:15 we closed the kitchen and I chatted with the couple sharing the last meal to come from our kitchen-a plate of French Toast, sliced banana already devoured. They had come here for their first date years ago, she said, and were now married for some time. I thanked them, picked up their tab and said goodnight to my business partner, to staff, and gathered my own wife and her bag into a cab.
Saturday morning Debra and I returned to the Diner to prepare for our Wrap Up Party- an intimate affair for 250 or so of our closest friends. Wine and Brie en Croute, Huge bowls of Chili, Beef and Turkey Sliders, Hummus, Giant Frittatas, Renate working like a smiling Mad Scientist at the Punch Bowls, re-mixing the liquors and the Lemon Ice as the day went on, always changing, always tasty and alwayseffective! A pair of rambling off the cuff speeches, a shout out to Carl who helped start it all in '76: the Diner, the Icon, The whole Chelsea Renaissance. An enormous Carrot cake cut into slices- four us us cutting, plating, traying.
All day and into the night former waiters, guests, managers who had once worked with us returned to say farewell, their faces, some burnished by time, some bearing the years with less grace, all expressed the grief of our departure, the joy of our shared memories.
A wonderfully boisterous party with Seniors parked by the counter, Renate's grand daughters and friend gently slipping through the maze of giant grown-ups, three babies, a couple of toddlers, one former waitress returned with her husband and growing clan, the sweet reporter from WNYC with her boyfriend, the former manager/waitress Betsy stirring up the crowd when she was hoisted aloft by her neck- (Don't Ask!), plans for future Empire Diners discussed, Photos taken, poems exchanged, hugs lingered over and departed friends remembered.
Again I took Debra and our daughter Sarah home early, exhausted in mind and body, and later heard that the festivities went on into the late night with some dancing, some declarations of love, some tears. It was just like any great party that lasted 34 years.