THE BLOG
12/10/2014 11:21 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

We Are Happy to Serve You

Gentl and Hyers via Getty Images

Everyone from New York knows the genre of restaurant known as a "diner." Diners have cheap food, they never close, they serve any meal at any time of day, and typically have as many items on the menu as the phone book -- back when we had phone books -- used to have names. At a diner you can eat breakfast at four in the afternoon or sip soup at six in the morning. You can have any one of hundreds of items at any time you like. Diners, at least until the '90s, were almost all owned by Greeks, or what we in New York call Greeks but who in Greece are Greek Americans. Diners are so typically Greek that they used to be called "Greek Diners," and when choosing where to eat people used to say, "let's go to the Greeks." This didn't mean you were going to eat Greek food (though you might -- the typical diner menu, even today, even if the diner has been sold to an Indian family or is operated by Mexican employees, invariably includes spanakopita, Greek salad, pastitsio, and moussaka). It meant: let's go to the diner. It is because of diners that every New Yorker knows (sort of) what the Greek alphabet looks like. Until the advent of Starbucks and the endless gourmet coffee-houses that followed in its wake, approximately 90 percent of the take-out coffee served in New York City came in blue and white cardboard cups emblazoned with the words "We are Happy to Serve You," written in fake Greek script.

At their peak in the late '80s there were over a thousand diners in New York City alone. Now that New York, along with every other major city in the Western World, has turned into a high-end shopping mall, there are far fewer. But nearly every neighborhood still has several, and everyone has their favorite. With diners, you always go to the same one, and you use the definite article when you refer to it. When you say "let's go to the diner," friends know which one you mean. The point of eating out, when you go to a diner, isn't to try something new. The point is to go with the same friends to the same place you've been to a hundred times, to sit in the same seat at the same table, to order the same thing, and to be served by the same waiter -- who always used to be Greek but now probably is from Central America and works for a Greek. The original Greek diner owner, if he's been successful (and many have) has over the decades finally made enough money to move out of the city and hire other people to run his diner, if he hasn't sold it all together.

This sounds like a happy ending, but to be blunt, the reason the Greek owner has enough money to do this is that he has worked his ass off for 20 or 30 years, clocking 100 hours a week, never closing his diner, never taking a break, and only very, very rarely flying back to Greece to visit his distant friends and family. The Greek diner owner may be successful, but he is also exhausted.

In October of 2012, a massive hurricane ravaged the east coast of the United States. She was named "Sandy," for the letter S, the nineteenth letter of the Latin alphabet: Sandy was the nineteenth tropical storm of the season. Sandy was an improbable name: usually given to perky blonde cheerleaders, it's not a name one would associate with apocalyptic events. But in terms of potential to damage the human landscape, she ranked number one. New Yorkers were warned to prepare. We filled the bathtubs with water. We bought flashlights and batteries. We hoarded canned food and bottled water. It felt exciting, but also scarily anarchic in the way of 9/11 -- which had taught all of us just how isolated the island of Manhattan can feel during a crisis. Millions of people living in skyscrapers on a tiny island in the middle of an ocean harbor is a preposterous notion once you're forced to consider it.

The evening of the storm, a curfew was declared. All businesses were ordered to close by sunset. As night fell, I hurried home through the empty streets. The wind was coming up, and branches were falling from the trees in the park. Two blocks from my home, I passed the diner -- my diner -- where I've eaten a hundred times. It was the only business in the neighborhood that hadn't closed. The lights were dimmed, and no one was inside. But the door was open and Nikos, one of the sons of the original owner, was standing on the front step. "Hey," I shouted. "Lock up and go home!" He smiled at me, then shrugged. "I'd like to," he answered. "But we don't have a key." The diner had been open for so many years that no one knew any longer where it was.