The coffee is always ready at The Alley Cafe

EarlI’m in San Francisco’s Easy Bay, spending my last two days in America at my sister’s house, where her hairless cat is addicted to love like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m afraid I’ve only fed his addiction, so I escaped his reaching paws and relentless meows to walk down to the diner my sis recommended.

The booths are thin dark wood frames around ruby-red vinyl benches where butts have been leaving imprints for…years. I tried to find out exactly how many (years, not butts) but found only a facebook page filled with comments like “my grandpa used to take me there when I was young and now I take my son.”

The floor is brick-patterned tiles in shades of coffee with varying amounts of milk, or maybe the range of grease stains found on a cook’s apron. But not this cook. Her shirt is spotless, and the orange of the local baseball team, whose name is on the face of the clock, the framed newspaper clipping by the door, many of the caps scattered among the booths, and is welcome to my eyes in the city of my childhood.

The Alley CafeI am the only one who needs to look at the menu, and I bet it’s a large portion of eaters who order “g’morning Marjorie” without needing to add “I’ll have the usual.” I’m only assuming the affable waitress’s name is Marjorie, it could just as easily be Annie, Maggie, or Patty.

Within a minute of my sitting down, a man with some black left in his bushy mustache but none in his paper-white hair brings me the already well-read local newspaper, and everyone at the counter talks to everyone else. Conversation in the Alley Café is the melody above the rhythm of crackling grease.

Laughter is loud while the potbellied man with gaps between his teeth orders his breakfast straight from the cook, French toast, three eggs, and maple bacon, then he goes back to his story about being in the Air Force. That’s pretty close to what I order; my egg is sunny-side up without needing to be specified, the bacon is nice and crisp, and the bread in the French toast is so white it feels like glue before I’m even done chewing, but that’s fine for today.

Syrup comes warm in the little pitcher with the sliding top, filled to the brim and no drips on the front. The bottles of Tabasco sauce are large, and the little packets of jam come in a wicker basket, strawberry, orange marmalade, and Concord grape. I spread their familiar flavors on the toast of my childhood while my grandpa stirred his coffee.

There’s only one cook, and I was warned to be prepared for a long wait for my food, but that seems to be by design in this neighborhood diner, where neighbors catch up and faces are familiar.

48 hours before I leave it, I’ve found America.