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Miracle of the Empress Diner
In the Empress Diner Hughie sat overflowing the stool closest to the swinging
kitchen door. It was warmest there and he had a good viewpoint from which he
could see Sylvia in the kitchen. He was chilled to the bone after driving all
night east from Cleveland, Ohio. After leaving the diner it would take another
hour and a half to get to Macy’s truck dock on 34th Street.
His breakfast was on its way down - he had eggs over easy with sausage and home
fries and a short stack with syrup. He was on his third cup of coffee when he
spotted the prune Danish in the cake rack.
“Lemme have a prune Danish, would’ja Sylvia? That’s a good girl.”
Sylvia picked up a sheet of waxed paper and fished a prune Danish out of the
rack. She put it on a small dish and turned to Hughie. “You want I should cut
for ya, Hughie?”
Hughie didn’t answer so Sylvia left the Danish whole. She looked at it a long
time before putting the dish in front of him. “What’s the matter with it?”
“Now ain’t that the damnedest thing?”
“What? What? There somethin’ wrong with it?”
“No.” She turned it this way and that, then held it up to the light so Hughie
could see. “What does it look like to you?”
“Prune Danish. What’sa matter with it, Sylvia?”
“Don’t that look like somethin’ to you? Look real close, Hughie -- can’t you see
Hughie squinted and tilted his head a little. “Yeah. Gee, ain’t that the
damnedest thing -- it’s ... er ... er.”
“Pope John Paul.”
“It’s creepy, did the cook do that?
“No, they come from the baker. D’ya suppose it’s a miracle, Hughie?”
Hughie shrugged. He was late already and he didn’t really want the Danish anyway
and he certainly didn’t want to get mixed up with a miracle. He thought to
himself he shouldn’t have eaten that short stack with the maple syrup - he felt
bloated and the thought of driving through the traffic on the Cross Bronx
Expressway didn’t sit too well.
But Sylvia, who had seen a million or more prune Danishes in her career, none of
which ever resembled anyone, was convinced it was a miracle. “Pope John Paul, no
less,” she told Phil, the manager of the Empress Diner in Paterson, New Jersey.
Phil saw it as an intrusion of his profit margin to be the owner of an unsold
prune Danish, but he finally gave in and let Sylvia keep it.
She took it home that afternoon, and to preserve the likeness she sprayed it
with clear lacquer. She was a single girl, a simple, uncomplicated girl, and it
occurred to her that no one would ever see it sitting in a dish on her bedside
table, unless that slow poke Hughie made a move. It would be better off, more
accessible she thought, if it were put on display in the Empress Diner.
For two weeks she worked on Phil. He would get a lot of free advertising mileage
out of this particular prune Danish if he exhibited it at the diner, she told
“Miracles are good business, Phil.”
“I don’t want nobody comin’ in here lookin’ fer miracles - this is a diner,
“They come in. They eat,” was her reply.
Sylvia was a good honest waitress. He didn’t want to lose her, so he gave in.
The lifelike effigy of Pope John Paul was placed in a plastic cake container and
given a seat of honor up front by the cash register. A tasteful hand lettered
card was placed with it giving the date, the resemblance to the Pope and the
wonder of it all.
The Empress was a popular diner on Route 80. Truckers and tourists alike stopped
there just before they lined up for the George Washington Bridge. It was not
long before the news got around. Word of the miracle of the Empress Diner spread
and Phil never had it so good. By the end of the month he had to extend one end
of the diner outwards into the parking lot, hire two more fry cooks and another
waitress. He even added a Pope Burger Special to the menu.
Rarely do miracles occur singly. They seem to be epidemic once they get started.
Miracles like company; witness Lourdes and Loch Ness which have become tourist
traps. Some doubting Thomases have even called them Baedecker Miracles, that is
miracles created to stimulate the tourist trade. Be that as it may, a downpour
of miracles occurred soon after the miracle of the prune Danish on Route 80.
In the little town of Clifton, New Jersey - a mile or two from Paterson, a
plumber telephoned the Jersey Herald and told them Holy Mother Mary appeared to
him in his basement window during the half-time ceremonies of the New York
Giants regularly every home game. A reporter was dispatched to check it out. He
saw something strange in the window at half time, and the longer he looked the
more convinced he was that the image was that of a woman with some sort of halo
about her head. The paper went out on a limb far enough to suggest that perhaps
there was a miracle going on in Clifton as well as Paterson.
Miracles continued to develop at an alarming rate. In Upper Saddle River the
leaky down spout of the Methodist Episcopal Church revealed the face of Lord
Jesus himself. There was no doubt about this one. The down spout was broken and
rusty and it deposited a remarkable sepia portrait on the white stucco wall that
could be seen from the street. Word spread like wildfire and the traffic through
the sleepy town of Upper Saddle River required twenty-four hour shifts to be
instituted by the small four man police department. Police barriers had to be
set up to keep crowds from trampling the church grounds and the handicapped from
throwing their crutches and prosthetic devices at the foot of the miracle.
Channelers, conduits and other soothsayers claiming to speak for the dead began
setting up shop in the parking lot of the Empress Diner, near the plumber’s home
in Clifton and the effigy in Upper Saddle River, promising direct communication
with Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, Marilyn Monroe and even Frank Sinatra. For
twenty five dollars a pop you could purchase CD recordings of conversations,
guaranteed to have been made live during seances with the actual voices of the
beloved and internationally known loved ones.
Interaction with the hereafter was definitely on the move in northern New Jersey
... but the mark of decay is always embedded in the blossom, just as our
miracles, in time, grew commonplace. The face on the church wall faded. The
football season ground to a halt and Mother Mary no longer came to visit the
plumber at half time. People can get used to anything it seems, even miracles.
Hughie still stopped at the newly enlarged Empress Diner on the eastward bound
leg of his run from Cleveland to Macy’s Department store in Manhattan. Together,
he and Sylvia would check out the Pope John Paul prune Danish still on display
in the cake rack next to Phil’s cash register. The little artifact had brought
Hughie and Sylvia close together, as close as it is possible for a traveling man
and a waitress to be. They were, after all, the first two people in the world to
recognize the Danish for what it was and although they were not Catholic they
accepted the Pope as a great world leader in the Judeo/Christian religion. They
also knew that he had brought them together.
Yet, they were not blind to the fact that, as time passed, the prune Danish was
looking less like Pope John Paul than it once did.
“I dunno,” Hughie remarked as they looked at it together, “the eyes ... the left
one. It ain’t there no more.”
“Yeah,” Sylvia agreed, “ ... and the smile ... he looks the way a man without
teeth looks when he smiles.”
“Hold it down, you two,” Phil said under his breath, “that kinda talk can ruin
business.” Interest on Phil’s bank loan for the diner extension was due the end
of the month.
It was apparent, even to Phil, that the prune Danish was deteriorating. He
considered rearranging some of its twists and twirls it as best he could to make
the resemblance more striking, but realizing his talents did not lie in that
direction, he decided to leave well enough alone -- it had an uncontested
reputation anyway -- that, and a series of excellent color photographs for sale
that in the end might make the actual artifact redundant. He kept his eyes open
for possible successors to the Pope John Paul miracle but aside from a few that
resembled members of his own family, he found nothing.
Hughie and Sylvia were no longer interested in miracles. They had found
something far more rewarding. On Hughie’s westward return trips to Cleveland,
Ohio, he invariably stopped again to have lunch at the Empress diner. He always
sat at the corner closest to the swinging kitchen door so he could watch Sylvia
in the kitchen. The unexpected dichotomy between her brown eyes, black brows and
bright brassy hair mesmerized him. He sat up straight and held his stomach in as
best he could when talking to her. He tried to minimize his broad mid-western
twang while discussing his adventures on the road, and keeping his swearing to
an absolute minimum.
Sylvia was both impressed and touched by his attention. She was also conscious
of the power of the prune Danish that had brought them together. To say she was
attracted to Hughie does not probe the depth of her affection. She had never
been in love and counter girls are normally immune to truck driver blandishment.
The attachment is unexplainable in rational terms and the route to Sylvia’s
heart was like a road under construction - full of detours and dangers. Hughie
drove carefully and followed each and every sign along the way.
On his westward trips back to Cleveland his round, well fed form became a
frequent overnight visitor at Sylvia’s modest apartment in Paterson, New Jersey.
It was during one of the re-runs of The Price is Right - they were sitting
together on Sylvia’s blue chenille sofa and Hughie guessed the retail price of a
Whirlpool Washing Machine would be $775. They looked at each other in amazement
when that identical price was flashed on the screen.
“I told you,” Hughie smiled.
“You’re something else!” Sylvia shook her head in admiration. They looked at
each other and it was immediately apparent to both of them that they could not
bear to be apart. Hughie could not drive off to Cleveland in the morning leaving
Sylvia alone in Paterson, New Jersey. She would have to go with him -- they were
There were no other permanent miracles in New Jersey that year - and none since.
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