Edward Hopper Goes New York
December 4th, 2020
At 9 a.m. on a Saturday, Sunset Diner is like an airport café. A line spills out of the door, and people stand on the concrete, tapping their toes while desperately waiting for coffee and catharsis.
In the worn crimson booths, there are always little kids with unbrushed hair and sticky fingers. They wear wrinkled P.S. 405 shirts and press their syrupy hands onto the tired pages of an ancient edition of The Cat in the Hat, which has lived in Sunset’s book box for as long as I can remember. At one of the tables, there’s a group of teenage girls giggling over Tropicana and wearing low-waisted jeans in an attempt to be “unique,” although everyone else in the neighborhood also seems to be imitating early 2000s trends.
Monday evenings welcome a different crowd; you can find the folks with briefcases, bags under their eyes, and black shoes at the counter. Just grabbing dinner on their way home from the train, their only company are the phones resting in their pockets.
You can always spot the outlier, the Waldo. They pace in front of the diner, waiting for a waiter’s nod of approval to sit down. They scrunch their nose at the thick scent of lemon soap and wet paper towels. New York is a Mecca for foodies, but Sunset Diner is a fly trap for clueless wanderers. Tourists flip through the menu for ten minutes and teeter down dangerous routes, ordering fried calamari or linguini. Regulars, on the other hand, know that a cheeseburger is the key to a sane stomach.
There is no one specific type of patron at Sunset Diner. The only thing these people share is their reason for being here: passable-quality food and an escape from their obligations and exhaustion. People are drawn to it—to its normalcy, its nuanced synthesis of mundane life. Because of this stubborn normality, Sunset Diner is a fixed point, a center of gravity that could be placed anywhere on the map, whether in a city or in a small town. Its unobtrusive familiarity is seductive, pulling people in like a center of gravity.
There is a promise that Sunset Diner makes when you walk through its door. There are no expectations and there is no change. It doesn’t judge, and all it asks in return is to not be judged for the outdated furniture. Sunset Diner offers consistency in a neighborhood that constantly evolves. Seventh Avenue shapeshifts constantly. The art store you visited to buy a pack of Crayola Air-Dry Clay on Monday might become Royal Nail Salon on Friday. The ornate bar where you used to see your elementary school teachers sipping beers together, with out of this world pretzel dumplings and cashew rice, might become a Mexican grill by next week. But Sunset Diner, the prince of sloppy floors and French fry gospels, will always stand proud—red awning, overly-staged portraits and all.
Because it never changes, Sunset Diner is a concentrate of oddly meaningful moments for me. At six years old, my mom told me over vanilla milkshakes that our goldfish had gone on a permanent vacation to Barbados. (I have come to realize that this was a poorly veiled euphemism on her part to spare six-year-old me from knowing the truth.) At eight, during one of our Wednesday dinners, my dad told me about his first post-divorce girlfriend, producing one of my best temper tantrums to date. At twelve, I had my last dinner with my grandfather, during which he lectured me with a spoon “to live without regrets.” At fourteen, I shared a slice of key lime pie with my first crush, to whom I never confessed my feelings.
As much as the place is a sort of homey monument to my childhood memories, so are the people who work there. Mick, the owner, is like a human encyclopedia. He remembers my father’s obsession with Elvis and the concept of raw-food diets. He agrees to make my sister penne with butter, even though it isn’t on the menu. Mick knows that I like Home Alone; “Keep the change, ya filthy animal,” is my adieu when I pay.
I imagine myself in twenty years, coming home for Christmas and stopping for a quick bite, only to see that Sunset Diner isn’t there. It feels like I’ve lost something—or someone. Sunset Diner is so deeply entrenched in my past that I can’t even imagine letting go. Where will the lost tourist go for a confusing meal? The teenage girls in jeans that I am sure will return to being high-rise again? The grubby-handed kids? What about my crush? What links us if Sunset Diner is gone?
But no. Sunset Diner is still up the block, sitting with its chipped walls and unflatteringly placed mirrors. Mick still lounges at the counter, wrapping muffins in cellophane. For now, this oddly inclusive restaurant, this pseudo-hole in the wall, remains.
*Names of people and places have been changed for privacy.
Photo taken by writer.