The Diner


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The Diner
By Bobby Neal Winters

Spring is the time of year when mathematical conferences are in bloom, and I've just been to one. This particular conference meets every year, usually in the South. Tradition, you know. People come from all around the world to be there, so they can feed their minds, and share their discoveries in every imaginable accent.

We mathematicians have language all our own. We discuss "semi-locally simply connected spaces" and "linearly Lindeloff spaces that are locally compact". These are just a way of saying "nice" in a particular, technical way. When mathematicians say technical, we know of whence we speak.

We meet in rooms to hear talks of fifteen, thirty, and 60 minutes. There is a hierarchy to the talks. The hour talks are given by respected, senior mathematicians, the half-hour talks are given by those who show promise, and the foot soldiers are given fifteen minutes to have their say. There are breaks every hour or so, and during them we stand and talk, sharing mathematical knowledge, horror stories about our students and university administrators, and in general discuss the concerns of people who are closeted in vine-covered buildings or breath the rarified air from an ivory tower.

I am an interloper in the ivory tower. My father was a truck-driver, and my mother was a beautician. Momma had finished high school, but Daddy had not. Most of the other folks in research mathematics have parents that were educated, white collar. In my field we talk about "lifting maps to covering spaces," but to my father lifting was something that he wore a truss because he had done too much of it. I learned early that my jokes were too coarse and my sensibilities were too blue-collar. I learned to keep my mouth shut, most of the time.

The motel where many of us at the conference stayed was just off the interstate. There was a diner by the motel that was a handy place to have breakfast. We theoretical mathematicians could walk in, sit down, and wait to be served. This is the sort of place that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You go there for breakfast at six or to sober up at three. It reminded me of the places that my father used to take us on those rare occasions we were on the road and had to eat out. Daddy's rule of thumb was never to go to a place that described itself as a "restaurant." Cafés were good, diners were good, but restaurants were bad. It was a question of cost.

At the good places, he taught my brother and me the appropriate etiquette in dealing with waitresses. Tipping was mandatory, but percentages were not specified. A dollar or two was sufficient, however, respect was more important. We were told never to refer to a waitress as "Honey", because people called them "Honey" all day, and it was a cuss word as far as they were concerned. I've never tested it.

All these years later, at a mathematical conference, I got to use what my father had taught me. I sat in a booth and listened to the waitresses talk. I watched them secretly. They broke into groups like my fellow mathematicians, and like us, they talked about business, wives, boyfriends, and the boss when he's not around, and they did it in as many accents as there were of them.

I looked around at the other booths, and they were filled with the other early-risers of my breed. People who wanted to be awake and ready when the first talks began.

The waitresses hustled out our orders, the cook is fried some more eggs, and the cashier made change for a twenty for another one of group.

The waitress came around one last time to refill my coffee, and I told her, "Thank you." She smiled and said, "You're welcome."

She brought the check, and I put down a dollar for a tip, paid the cashier, and left. I went to hear more about hyperbolic manifolds and unknotting numbers. A new girl who came on shift as I was leaving had eight hours to put in on her feet slinging waffles, sausage, and grits, and during that time I would be on my backside watching PhD's talking about slide after incomprehensible slide. She was doing something everyone recognizes as useful, I was doing something very few would recognize as useful, and yet I am paid substantially more, have fringe benefits, and a retirement plan. What's it all about?

I shook my head and returned to the world in which I have one foot. It is comfortable, prosperous, and semi-locally simply connected.

(Bobby Winters is the author of Grandma Dipped Snuff, writes a weekly column, and is assistant manager at The Pleasure Dome, a home for writers.)
I liked it. :)

There was no great crescendo, no stunning ideological conclusion, no astonishing moment of high drama.

It was simply a snapshot of ordinary life.

The fact that you capture them so well is what really endears myself to your writing. :)