Combos was a small diner in an even smaller town where anybody who was anybody went for breakfast. All folks were welcome to stop by, as the building was situated within a mile of the little rural highway, but with rare exceptions the same dozen couples and two dozen individuals made up the entire customer base. The morning shift was run by the owner’s granddaughter, Lucia, who worked summers to pay for her college tuition.
One of the regular couples, a married pair named Pearl and Merle, showed up every morning promptly at 5:45 AM. Originally, they didn’t like the idea of Lucia serving them. She was just a “kid”, so there was a high chance she wouldn’t know how to properly cook the ever-important 3-eggs-over-easy-with-two-strips-of-crispy-bacon-and-raisin-toast-with-butter combo which both of them ordered every morning of every day. For the first week she was working, they sent back their food at least twice, because the coffee wasn’t strong enough, or the eggs weren’t runny enough, or the bacon was too crisp. Lucia bit her tongue every time they pronounced her name “Lu-see-uh” as opposed to her actual name “Lu-chee-uh”, and took their plates back to the kitchen. Her first impulse was to tell them if they didn’t like her cooking, they were welcome to scoot off to McDonalds, but instead she swallowed her pride and asked Pearl and Merle to show her exactly how they liked their breakfast prepared.
With this suggestion, the old couple’s demeanor completely changed. They explained exactly how to flip the eggs, which angle to lay the bacon strips, and how many seconds to wait before grabbing the toast out of the oven. Lucia listened with feigned enthusiasm, making sure they knew how much she appreciated the advice and would be sure to replicate it in the future.
After this episode, she purposely made their breakfast different every morning, but they always exclaimed on what an excellent cook she was. Lucia had learned a valuable lesson about human nature: most people don’t like change when they are set in their ways, but if you let them think they’re in control and getting exactly what they want, you can do no wrong. You are no longer a threat, an outsider, an upstart.
Lucia had been working at the diner for about 2 months when a stranger walked through the door and rang the bell at the cash register. She knew something was astir, because the usual hum of voices and din of utensils touching plates had completely ceased. Looking out the window between the kitchen and the dining area, she saw a slim man wearing a silk open collared lavender shirt with a small neckerchief . Her regulars were staring at him like he had brandished a weapon and demanded they empty their pockets. Lucia smiled and shook her head.
“Good morning, sir,” she called brightly, “what can I get for you?”
“Actually,” the man replied in high, affected tones, “I need some directions. From the looks of this place, I’m lost in fucking Mayberry.”
Lucia and the man laughed and began conversing. As they spoke, she furtively glanced around at the customers, who stared at her like she had suddenly sprouted two extra heads. She wondered if the man noticed, but with a twinge of guilt she realized he must be somewhat used to it from folks like this.
The man purchased a muffin and some to-go coffee and asked if she sold cigarettes. When she responded in the negative, the man turned around, bold as brass and asked the still-silent diners
“Does anyone have a fag I can borrow?”
Merle choked on his coffee and Pearl let out a distinct “Glory be!”
“What didja say, sonny? Borrow a WHAT?” asked Charlie May, who owned the local auto repair shop.
“A fag,” repeated the stranger cheerfully. He mimed smoking.
Charlie relaxed at the realization, and handed the stranger a match and a cigarette. The stranger thanked him, waved to Lucia and left.
As soon as the door closed, the diner erupted with angry whispers about what had just happened. Merle and Pearl chided Lucia for letting the stranger even do business with her.
She received disapproving looks and head shakes from across the room. One group in the corner of the diner started to get up to “make sure the stranger got out of town.”
Lucia found an indignant rage she had never felt before welling up inside of her.
“Now wait just one fucking moment!” cried Lucia, coming from behind the counter with a rolling pin. “sit your intolerant asses back down this minute!”
The men stared at her with mouths agape, but made their way back to their seats.
“Lu-see-uh”, admonished Pearl, “That man had no business….”
“No business, what, Pearl? No business buying a muffin and some coffee? Seems to me my job is to sell them.”
“He obviously was…” began Merle
“Different?” she shot back. “And what of it? Do we live in such a vacuum that we can’t let a stranger walk through our door and make him feel welcome?”
“His lifestyle is not riteous, Lucia,” piped in Reverend Morris, who folded his newspaper on his knee and stood up.
“He obviously was a….a….” continued Merle
“Fag,” offered Charlie May.
“Merle and Pearl,” said Lucia so everybody could hear, “every morning you both order the same breakfast. Exactly the same, every day. And that’s fine. Your neighbors, Floyd and Annie order a tall stack of blueberry pancakes and home fries. Reverend Morris, you have two fried eggs with rye toast. You all call it breakfast, you all enjoy your different combos. You’re happy, and I make money for school. Nobody argues that anyone’s breakfast preference is any better than anyone elses. Your Bible doesn’t burst into flames. Your kids don’t resort to Satanism and American doesn’t collapse. So, shut up, eat your breakfast and love your neighbors, even if they’re different.”