Monday, February 25, 2008

640. Diners and therapy

I've recently begun to eat at The Greasy Diner. Like many New Yorkers, not just single people but entire families, I eat out a lot. I am lazy, I don’t have much time to cook, it's expensive to make dinner for one, and I work at home—I need a break from my own four walls, lovely as they may be. My neighborhood boasts many diners: the Faux Retro one with good food, the Slightly Modern one with really excellent food, the Touristy, Expensive and Cutesy one, the Famous one with nasty waiters, and the Greasy one, where I refused to set foot for many years. One is assailed a half a block away by the aroma of stale fries. Formica on the sides of pale pink booths is chipping off, and prices are still painted in red and black on a big plastic sign, daily specials added to a dry-erase board next to a behemoth of a non-electronic cash register. Greasy Diner clientele are a mix of old men, single women, college students, and people who look lost and distracted. All the other diners have lines out into the street for Sunday brunch, but there's always a seat at The Greasy.

One day I realized that a tuna melt is a tuna melt, when you get down to it, and it's better not to pay extra for the decor, and walked in. The counter was full and I thought about Woolworth's, my favorite treat as a very little kid. My mother would let me order a hot dog, and if I was lucky I'd take home one of the balloon animals that hung from the ceiling above the counter. To the right of the restaurant was the pet department, sufficiently distant so that puppy smells wouldn’t intrude on the food but still close enough to let the squawks of parakeets accompany the clink of water glasses and whirrr of dozens of pairs of lips blowing on hot coffee. The Woolworth’s lunch counter was technically not a diner, but close enough, and I've loved them ever since.

There’s something very intimate about The Greasy Diner, even though we're a bunch of strangers eating solitary meals at separate tables. I feel we are united in our respect for the ordinary. Along these same lines, my latest addiction is the HBO show In Treatment, about ongoing weeks in the life of a therapist and his patients--compelling because it's about real people grappling deeply and messily, grease and all, with usual problems. Yes, there is an extra heaping of melodrama and beautiful Hollywood bodies, but these characters are real and complicated in ways I've rarely seen on TV. They remind me of my friends, or my fellow diners. The therapist is a piece of work, too—everyone is in the same boat.

It’s interesting to read reviews of the show, which range from brilliant to scathing. The most negative are bored by the spectacle of two people whining at each other in an unrealistically large office (but, therapy does exist outside of New York City!), and are offended by breaches of ethical conduct. Others applaud the daring of HBO to feature older actors exchanging smart dialogue, and a lack of storylines about things exploding or being taken hostage by terrorists. I watch and feel like a voyeur—like I’m witnessing a car accident but can't turn away. I hate myself for enjoying these people's pain, but it is such well-acted agony that I have to see it through.

In Treatment was based very closely (down to an almost identical script) on B'tipul, an Israeli show that became a national phenomenon. Hopes were high that it would have the same effect here—but I think we are too jaded. I can imagine that tough, sentimental Israelis would be drawn to a kind of cathartic mirror of their own political and personal situations. In the U.S., however, we just want to escape to Dancing With the Stars and pretend the problem is not ours. We gravitate to the Faux Retro diner rather than the Greasy one.

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