Call her Mom. Everyone does. Jenny Bryant, 50, works the graveyard shift at the Tastee 29 Diner in Fairfax City. She scrapes and cracks, two eggs in the left hand, spatula in the right, her beehive hairdo angled toward the stainless steel exhaust fan. She walks slowly in the narrow space between grill and counter.
"Used to work in a diner in Winchester," said Mom, leaning over the steamy grill. "Called me the waitress with roller skates. I was a girl then, though."
Those were the diner days. In the wartime '40s, before golden arches and limited-access asphalt, the technicolor streamliners blinked from Northern Virginia two-lanes like summer fireflies. Back then, Tastee owner "Easy" Ed Warner was a rising star. Says so in the "From Dishwasher to Dinerman" story in the February '52 issue of Diner Magazine, since defunct. There's Ed's smiling face behind the cash register of his young Fairfax diner. Looks like a man with a future.
Today's owner, Leonard Milliken, 40, of Manassas, doesn't smile so much when he talks about the fall of dinerdom. "Things aren't so easy anymore," he said. "Part because of the economy, part because diners have pretty much seen their day."
By the mid-'60s, only 12 diners remained in Northern Virginia, according to Bob Parcelles, 57, longtime dinerman and owner of Bob's Diner in Fairfax City. Now, says Parcelles, there are fewer than five, and most have been forced to modernize to compete with the flashy marketing of fast-food joints. He said that 12 years ago, when his "customer count" dropped, he added a ranch-style steakhouse to his diner. That's something like welding a spoiler to a '48 Hudson.
According to Mom, who lives in Manassas Park, the only changes at the Tastee 29 have been in menu prices. After 42 years, it is the oldest of the surviving local diners and, boasts the staff, the best. "Thing of it is, this is gen-u-iiine," said Mom who, except for eight years on the assembly line of a sweater factory, has been working diners since her first job as a 13-year-old dishwasher in Romley, W. Va.
Like all genuine diners patterned after the original converted dining cars, the railroad-style Tastee was built in a factory and transported to the site. The clean chrome and blue-tile walls bear faded snapshots of W. D. ("Dub-yuh Dee"), the morning cook, and signs promoting 24-hour breakfast specials. The grill is out front, between a five-pot Bunn-O-Matic and a crackling deep-fryer. A narrow aisle separates the marble-topped counter from six black leather booths beneath bay windows. Near the door, an old, upright cash register sits beside a "one-for-the-road" rack of Alka Seltzer, Ajax unbreakable combs, peppermints and cigars.
"The Fairfax Tastee has all the physical characteristics of a classic," said Richard J. S. Gutman, author of "American Diner," a cultural history of diners published by Harper and Row in 1979. "But the people make the diner. It is, as diners traditionally are, a place where people come to feel comfortable and gossip. A friendly atmosphere, a home away from home for the regulars."
The regulars on Mom's shift--cops, wreckermen, kids in jacked-up Chevys--sit at the counter ("where the action is," says Mom). During the bar-closing rush around 2 a.m., they watch Mom wield the spatula like the maestro of a short-order symphony, serving up scrapple, grits and home fries to the sweet and constant drawl of waitresses.
"My boyfriend Jimmy has a '69 Camaro just for racing," said 27-year-old Loretta Musumeci to no one in particular as she carried two steaming plates of fried eggs and "taters" from behind the counter. "And you know what? He's already got it down by the tracks, with slicks on it. Yes he does . . . Old Dominion Speedway."
Donna Wolfred, 30, her feisty, gum-cracking colleague, turned on a swivel stool, chattering like a third-base coach at Sunday softball in Manassas.
"Keep your thumb outta the yella there Loretta, thatagirl . . . and you there, keep your feet off the furniture, fella, you hear? . . . thataboy . . . hey, hey . . . watch your language, watch it now, Mom don't allow no cussin' in here. She'll kick you right out."
She will, too.
Mom says sometimes there's trouble on the graveyard shift. "The kids that weren't raised right," fresh from the local bars, start acting crazy. Mom says the local and state police watch over the all-female shift.
Not that Mom can't handle things. She keeps a 33-ounce Louisville Slugger under the counter next to the napkin holders. Only had to use it once, she says. Seems two guys jumped a cop outside. "Don't like to see an unfair fight--ganging up, throwing paper racks and all that--and besides, the Indian's gotta come out sometimes," Mom explained, using her favorite expression for anger.
The Tastee regulars are treated like family. Nicknames are as common as eggs-over-easy.
Bill Gray ("Jaywalker" for his C.B. handle), 49, entered with his orange cap tipped low, cigarette smoldering. He works from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., cutting meat at the Consumer Supermarket in Rockville. Stops in for coffee on his way from Warrenton with fishing buddy Dick Cornwall, a "gearjammer" for Giant Supermarket. Loretta calls them "my customers."
"You been sucker fishin' with those big ol' rubber pants, Jaywalker?" Loretta asked.
Gray answered with a sharp nod and a hard drag on his cigarette.
"Jaywalker's the sucker," laughed Mom, shoulders heaving as she spooned up a plate of grits ("Georgia Ice Cream") before Gray asked for it. "Sittin' all by himself on that little bank with nothing to show for it."
Mom ambled toward Dan Connolly, a Bell and Howell executive, two seats from Gray.
"How ya doing, Pork Chop? More coffee?" asked Mom, wiping a plastic-covered menu as Connolly sopped up the last bit of sauce with his biscuit.
"You'd a been a cat, you'd a licked your plate," said Mom.
Jim Roberts, 26, is a chimney sweep in Fairfax City. He sat at the counter, toothpick in his mouth, soot on his jeans. Said he used to think the Waffle King, a Lee Highway restaurant, was cool until "Ma took me under her wing."
"Now I know this place is the best on the strip," said Roberts.
Hunched over the counter near the Rock-Ola was 28-year-old Reggie Scott. He works in a Manassas auto body shop during the day. Usually hits the bars at night, he says, and afterwards comes to the Tastee to see Mom and Loretta, sometimes stays until sunrise. Scott pumps quarters into the jukebox, nurses his "203rd" cup of coffee and watches Mom scrape the grill.
"Just between you and me," he said, leaning toward a stranger, "I'm gonna fix Mom's car for free. She's been taking care of me a long time, ya know what I mean? And besides, this place ain't gonna be around forever."