Vanishing America

February 1, 2011

Just had breakfast at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.  With its timbered walls, waterfalls and stuffed fauna, Brookdale was a magical little bit of forest in the middle of the city when it was built in the thirties.  Its founder, Clifford Clinton, was a man who believed in the golden rule, fed people decent homemade food at fair prices, and whose motto was “Pay what you wish.  Pay nothing if not delighted.”  He went on to become, briefly, the mayor of the city.

Today this wonderful old place looks weirdly, kitchily old-fashioned. It is filled with mostly older people who come because the food is still hand-made and decent and the prices are still fair.  Early in the morning wizened old women slide their trays through the cafeteria line, helping themselves to enormous dishes of chicken livers (I suspect this is the most protein for the least money), and big bowls of cream of wheat with raisins and brown sugar. 

The women behind the counter are all kind, and they cook the eggs and pancakes with care.  “You want bacon with that?  No toast?”  And even this early in the day there is a lively business in lunch to go, as enormous men walk off with bulging sacks of food.

As I sat eating my eggs and drinking my coffee (“you want cream in that?”) I listened to three old men arguing politics at the next table. It was an erudite conversation – I had the feeling it has been going on for years – that ranged through the Middle East, to Asia and then settled back at home.  At points it veered into German, at others it settled back into disgruntled English.

It felt comfortable in that room, despite the sign that warned that tables could be occupied for only 45 minutes, and it made me sad to think of all the people who were grabbing something to go at a drive-up window and gobbling it down in their cars. Even in the middle of downtown Los Angeles – which is a fairly sad place early in the morning – this was a restaurant that has true nourishment on offer. Looking around I wondered how long it will last?  It seems like a quickly vanishing part of the American landscape.

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