“He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it's probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”
Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
Writers gave up searching all-night diners for inspiration long ago. Gone are the Ginsburgian climes of breezy, Atlantic nights, charging oneself on diuretics and post-midnight paranoia. Instead we have wi-fi and digital itemized statements. Bad, but not necessarily in the way used by dilettantes to condemn the corrosiveness of the “corporate culture.” After all, the hunt for “a clean, well-lighted place” is what helped speed the demise of such famous late-nighters as Ernest Hemingway and Randall Jarrell—the latter possibly run down on his was to some all-night eatery. Surely then, if history is to be any sort of barometer, the more successful writers hunt inspiration in the daytime; preferably in rooms just above their regular boudoir and in clothes they’d never wear at the local bean counter. That’s what Stephen King does and I think that’s what Margaret Atwood does too. Truth be told, I’m not entirely convinced that these places held the kind of allure we seem to have attached to them. With the exception of a David Mament piece of about fifteen years ago, the amount of prose dedicated to the 24-hour restaurant is glaringly scarce.
But despite the apparent lack of inspirational juices, there is much to respect about the 24-hour diner and quite a bit to like. From maple-soaked Belgium waffles beneath a bed of twinkling Christmas lights (here’s how you know I’m Jewish—I misspelled “Christmas” twice while typing this) to a the feeling one gets seeking refuge from the ambivalence of the still sleeping world, they offer so much to love. Chicago suffers from no shortage of all-night restaurants that range from the sublime (Tempo) to the ridiculous (The Golden Nugget family) to the out-right frightening (Izola’s). None of these places are what one might call “literary conduits,” but when viewed in the proper context each one exudes a certain Beatnik charm. Sometimes, as I watch insomniacs sober up on grilled cheese and cherry coke, delirious in faded gray booths, I sense a little of what Hemingway was looking for—the intense human need for a place to “go.”
I played with the muses a bit last night while waiting for my mom at the 24-hour place by her (and, if things don’t change, soon to be my) house in the northwest suburb of Niles. The restaurant, a sprawling place, saturated with grease and smoke and the heavy sounds foreign tongues. Separated by dingy, oak dividers, Polish and Indian immigrants did their best to ignore each other and concentrate on their midnight meals while piped-in Elton John tunes marched the night onward. Waitresses look harried and wan. The name of the restaurant is Omega, but save for the owners’ last names and couple dollars of Greek currency tacked to the wall behind the register, there is nothing to suggest even a hint of Hellenistic influence—even the saganaki was long since been relegated to the back of the menu. I sipped coffee and thought of Edna Vincent St. Millay.
The carpet was caked with a thousand leftover sandwich crusts, the lighting hazy and dim. I could press my thumb against the table and see a vortex-like smear in the lubricant. Behind me a group of boys about nineteen years of age drank milkshakes and made fun of each other. I took out a pen and wrote.
But then my mom arrived and I stopped writing