Around 2004 I bought my first car while I was working for Treyarch. It was a 1994 Honda Accord, and I used it almost exclusively for visiting my then-girlfriend in Marin County, in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay area while I was living in Santa Monica (LA area) that summer, and San Diego the rest of the time. I put around 44,000 miles on that car in the year I owned it. The mileage was almost exclusively made up of these trips.
I always did them at night (for various reasons, especially traffic), and I always got very tired during the drive. After a few different flight plans, I managed to pick out the Lost Hills exit of I-5 as my one pit stop. It was in the very middle of the San Diego – Marin route (to less than a mile), and it had many gas stations and food choices to refuel myself and the car.
After a trip or few, I stopped in at the Denny’s, which was more appealing than the fast food joints in that I could sit down in a fairly nice area and eat, and it had a bar so I could chat with the staff, waking up my brain for the next leg. I ordered a Meat Lover’s Skillet. Eggs easy over, sourdough toast. As long as my water glass stayed full, I tipped handsomely.
And I repeated this a few times over the next month.
The waitstaff eventually got to recognize me, but they had a very high turnover, I don’t think I’ve ever been served by the same person more than 4 times there. The only constant seemed to be the cook that worked from 10pm – 6am on every day except days I didn’t drive (or so it seemed). She was thorough and always seemed to enjoy what she was doing, an instantly likeable sort of character. One day she came out from behind the kitchen window and had coffee at the bar, and we chatted.
She’d been recognizing me as well, and from then on, my food (Meat Lover’s Skillet, eggs easy over, sourdough toast) would be cooking before I’d finished parking, and we’d have a good chat while I ate.
A few years have happened since. I went through the Accord and a del Sol, long hair, short hair, and a mohawk, as well as the relationship that was the cause of my very frequent journeys. I went from making the trip almost every week, to only once every month or few. The food I ate eventually came off the menu, but I still got a Meat Lover’s Skillet, eggs easy over, sourdough toast every time, and whoever was waiting the bar that night would try to figure out some way to ring it up.
Of all the acquaintances I have, I think I’ve valued Chila (pronouced like Sheila) the most. There’s something fulfilling if not old fashioned about using business as a means to fill social needs rather than the other way around. I guess I’m just an old fashioned fool.
Tonight I showed up at the Denny’s, and I hadn’t been there in a spell. At least 5 months. Walking in, everything was wrong. The bar was gone, the brushed stainless wall behind the bar was replaced with trendy tile. The food surfaces and prep areas were unchanged, but partially hidden behind a wall of booths that had replaced my precious counter.
Chila was there though, and again somehow managed to immediately recognize me despite my new beard, glasses, and hair. I sat at the only table with a view of the kitchen window, and she took a break to chat, her over coffee, me with my water. They’d been closed for a week for the remodel a few months ago, and we agreed it wasn’t really an improvement at all. The Lost Hills exit is a truck stop sort of area, and bar seating made a ton of sense for hungry, lone travellers. It just wasn’t the same.
In some way, the spell was broken. I’ll be back again, but it really feels like an important chapter in my life has ended with the remodel of a Denny’s out in the middle of nowhere.
I ordered a sandwich. To go.