All for breakfast, and breakfast for all

People discover and enjoy their diversity and their oneness in all sorts of places. My exploration of humankind has stretched from the highlands of Scotland to the southern tip of New Zealand, and a whole lot of unpronounceable places in between.

But none has brought me more joy than an unpretentious place in our neighborhood that serves breakfast all day. Breakfast all day! What delectable words those are, especially when you are able to reach even beyond the delights of bacon and eggs, home fries, pancakes and syrup, sausages, French toast, English and other kinds of muffins, doughnuts, and bagels with cream cheese.

I regularly share a table on Sunday mornings with a clutch of early risers as diverse as the food they choose with total predictability. If for any reason they deviate from their standard fare, they'd better start waving their arms as they cross the parking lot, or our server will have prepared the food - and will make them pay anyway.

Predictability is one of two things that never change in this informal breakfast club. The other is loyalty to one another despite the banter, which is often loud but always laced with laughter.

It's so easy to enjoy the uniqueness of each group. Hospital workers coming off the night shift with scrubbed hands and weary eyes cannot hide their eagerness to get off their feet for a few minutes and plunge into what they call the "really healthy food!"

Tiny children yelp with glee as they ride Dad's shoulders through the doorway. They don't know one plus one, but they know exactly how to add one sticky doughnut to another sticky doughnut and come up with two very sticky hands.

The police officers who glide up in their patrol cars are fringe members of the club. They insist they have no time to sit and chat, but they linger long enough to hear the stage whispers of a marine corps veteran who always sports the same battered service cap. He unfailingly gets a rise out of the cops by pretending they're not there while he talks about them in a loud voice.

The marine delivers broadsides at every newsmaker of the past week. He treats sports umpires, the federal government, and weather forecasters with equal brusqueness. He sets a high standard in repartee, much of it bordering on the vulgar.

But like all the club members, he's a humorist without malice. He gives everyone at least six chances. What's more, he has never failed to bring to breakfast - and afterward drive to church - a man about 15 years his senior who needs a ride, and then a supporting arm to get from the car to the counter.

Our newspaper seller has his reserved spot in the corner. He insists he belongs to the self-help school of journalism. He requires his customers to come inside to pay him.

He is never more cozy than in winter, when he puts his papers outside the door, plunks himself next to us, orders a hot drink, and even risks closing his eyes.

He knows the club members will make sure his customers leave the right money.

Presiding over the club with genial bossiness is the senior assistant behind the counter. She has everybody's "number," she says, and no one is foolish enough to step out of line when she is on duty.

She knows our family history, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. She can tell our jokes better than we can, and prompts anyone who needs a name or a date. She knows who likes the door open, and who wants it closed.

No one in the club has ever seen her without a smile on her face, and they would be the first to offer help if they caught her frowning.

I have learned lessons from every member of the club - from the juniors studying doughnut arithmetic to the seniors whose bluster is wrapped in smiling tolerance.

Most important, I have been reminded every week that it's all too easy to label people by their choice of food, clothing, or slang.

Breakfast clubs are more than just places to eat and to drink. They are sanctuaries for the lonely, ideal for preserving the rituals of shaking and holding hands, and perfect places for letting the aromas of good fellowship - even love - prevail over the smell of bacon.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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