ELYRIA, OHIO — Bridgette the waitress glides through morning at Donna’s Diner with an easy, familiar air, as though she were born somewhere between the cash register and the coffee maker. She is a constant, like pancakes on the menu.
It has been this way since her hardworking grandmother, Donna Dove, opened the modest diner a dozen years ago here in the small Ohio city of Elyria. At 9 years old, Bridgette was taking phone orders, reciting daily specials and saving her tips for the princess canopy bed she had seen in a store window on Broad Street. Customers just loved little “Bridgy.”
Her mother and grandmother each became pregnant at 16, but little Bridgy Harvan, now almost 21, broke that emerging pattern. When not working, she attends Lorain County Community College, Elyria’s academic marvel. She studies her textbooks during the breaks in diner action, like a cartographer charting a path through the unknown.
All the while, though, she keeps an eye on her customers — especially the older regulars known as the Breakfast Club. They drink their coffee and reminisce about the days when Elyria was in ascent. She pours their coffee and tries to imagine such a place.
“More coffee, Jim?” she asks, wielding a coffeepot. “Dale, a refill?”
It is a small, unifying moment, shared between past and future in present-day Elyria, a city with cascading waterfalls and a declining downtown, Fortune 500 companies and a shuttered Y.M.C.A., upper-middle-class homes and homes in foreclosure, intense local pride and an acute need for economic rejuvenation.
“Speedy,” Bridgette calls to a white-haired man with a hearing aid. “Coffee?”
But as she patrols the narrow diner with coffeepot in hand, Bridgette is also juggling the hopes and obligations of a young woman trying to find her way. She is living with a boyfriend who is out of work. She is slowly inching toward degrees in ultrasound technology and business marketing. She is collecting coupons to save money. And lately she has been feeling tired, even a little woozy.
Bridgette can hardly be faulted, then, for not fully grasping the broad American experience to be found among her customers. With their anecdotes and war stories, these people provide the Elyrian context.
The Breakfast Club
Take the Breakfast Club. It began meeting many decades ago — before Donna was even born — at the old Paradise Restaurant on Broad Street, back when that commercial strip hummed. Its members carried “Birds of Paradise” business cards and flipped a coin daily to see who got stuck with the tab.
The faces changed with time, and so did the venue, as restaurants closed and downtown options narrowed. These days the gathering is at Donna’s Diner, in a 19th-century building on the city square, where the Breakfast Club’s nostalgia can create the illusion that Elyria’s manufacturing base never went away, that its commercial soul never fled to the Midway Mall on the city’s outskirts, near Interstates 80 and 90.
Here at the table, among others, are Jim Dall, who ran the Ford dealership, now gone; and John Murbach, who owned a prominent building-supply business, gone; and Janice Haywood, who with her husband, Tom, sold the finer things at Brandau Jewelers, gone.
Here, too, are Speedy Amos, who saw combat in both World War II and the Korean War; and Bill Balena, a bankruptcy lawyer whose business is hopping; and Connee Smith, who is related to THE Garfords, as in the industrialist Arthur Lovett Garford, the inventor of the padded bicycle seat. They used to say in Elyria that “Mr. Garford saved our butts.”
Bridgette and her mother, Kristy, take their orders, while Donna conducts the grill with her spatula baton, tucking at the whitening edges of eggs as she frets about unpaid bills and fewer customers. She is considering a suggestion by one of her regulars, a judge, to close the diner and run the cafeteria in the nearby county courthouse.
This, of course, would alter life in a small corner of Elyria and disrupt the general continuity of the Breakfast Club, whose daily gatherings are really extensions of the same never-ending meal. Conversations are left on the table, to be picked up like an unpaid tab the next morning, or maybe the next week.
These free-flowing discussions are salted with tidbits of Elyrian pride. The city’s founder, Heman Ely, a New Englander who came here in the early 1800s to build mills along the cascading Black River, is buried not far from the BP Station. The first chartered high school west of the Alleghenies is down the street. The First Congregational Church has stunning Tiffany stained glass.
The expected decorum at the table is the lack of it, reflected in everything from the mismatched plates and mugs to the occasional naughty aside.
“Good morning, ladies,” Dale Price, 70, a retired telephone repairman, says to his two eggs sunny-side up, jiggling them with his fork. But his plate has the last laugh; when he cuts into his sausage, juice squirts onto his blue shirt.
Eccentricities are tolerated. Everyone knows that Jim, 89, a fine athlete in his day, takes morning swims in his backyard pool, nude. That Dale always pays for his check with crisp $2 bills from the Lorain National Bank a few doors down. And that Speedy, 86, will inevitably bring up his battle career, for which he might receive a salute — partly in jest, mostly with deep respect.
As much as anyone, Speedy represents the Elyria that was.
Returning from World War II as a former Marine with shrapnel in his right arm — a piece of Okinawa — Speedy finished college at roughly the age that Bridgette is now, moved to Elyria from eastern Ohio and joined his uncle’s insurance agency, which was right across the street from where he sits in the diner. Was.
He rented a cheap room at the Y.M.C.A., bought a Ford from Jim Dall and joined the city’s upswing. Back then, you had the General Motors plant on Lowell Street, the General Industries factory on Olive and Taylor, and dozens of other manufacturers adding to the city’s prosperous din. Every side street seemed to have a tool and die shop.
From 1940 to 1970, the population doubled to more than 50,000, which meant a housing boom — and good luck finding downtown parking on a Friday night. There were three movie theaters, a J. C. Penney, a Sears, Merthe’s department store, the Paradise, on and on. At one point, Brandau Jewelers needed 24 employees to handle the demand for fine-cut diamonds and exquisite porcelain figurines.
Speedy began to make his mark here in Elyria. But when the Korean War broke out in 1950, he interrupted his insurance-and-golf life to innocently ask whether the Marines needed any reserves. Before he knew it, he was in the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, among some 25,000 anxious, frostbitten troops who were surrounded and vastly outnumbered by Chinese soldiers.
Before making their improbable, heroic escape, fighting through deadly roadblocks and the forbidding cold, the men who came to be known as the Chosin Few were instructed to destroy the contents in their wallets. Gone went Speedy’s family photographs, his golf club membership card, his driver’s license with an Elyria address.
Speedy eventually returned to that address, returned to all that he believed he had been protecting. He married Helen Lou Henderson — Lou, everyone calls her — and joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the V.F.W., the Red Cross, the Rotary. He fathered two daughters and lost a son at birth. He became a deacon at the First Congregational Church, worshiping beneath that Tiffany glass. Retired now, he volunteers with literacy programs and Meals on Wheels.
For many years, his wife says, Speedy never talked about his war experiences. But as time has slipped away, so has his guard. His prior life as a battle-tested Marine is now central to who he is. Every November, he puts on his dress blues — still fits — and leads a birthday celebration for the United States Marine Corps.
Sometimes, when sipping hot coffee just poured by Bridgette, Speedy can feel the ice-hard Korean ground and see the trucks plowing snow over the frozen, contorted American dead. Sometimes, when eating one of Donna’s sweet pancakes, he can recall tucking packets of frozen food close to his chest, so that his body heat might thaw a few beans to be scraped off and eaten.
Sometimes, when the Breakfast Club banter is lively and the diner telephone’s ringtone is playing “There’s no place like home” and here’s another round of refills, Speedy has that isolating sensation known to battle veterans: of being among those who cannot know what it was like, of wondering why he was among those to survive.
How the hidden enemy would taunt with bell rings and bugle bleats. How boots marching on snow made a soul-chilling crunch. And how being on the other side of the world, shivering and scared, can make a place like Elyria seem so improbable.
Keeping Memories Alive
Memories are welcome at the Breakfast Club. Memories are expected. Memories fill the time while waiting for Bridgette to materialize with a refill.
For example, the sight of a rock-solid man who seems off somehow, hustling past the diner’s window with head down, will prompt a “There’s Ike.” This, in turn, will spur wistful memories of that man, Ike Maxwell, as the unstoppable, all-everything running back of the champion Elyria High School football team of 1971, back when high school sports dictated the social calendar.
And, of course, after every high school game, and after every high school reunion, you simply had to go to the Midway Oh Boy restaurant for an Oh Boy: two hamburger patties, cheese and shredded lettuce, with a slathering of a white sauce of secret ingredients. “So that when you bite into it,” says John Haynes, a lawyer — and everyone laughs in anticipation, including Speedy, because they all know the sloppy wonder of eating an Oh Boy.
It’s an Elyria thing. It’s their thing.
Bridgette has been to the Midway Oh Boy, which is still selling its signature burgers on Lake Avenue. But she has no memory of the Breakfast Club’s version of Elyria, her hometown. Heck, she wasn’t even born when the Capitol movie theater was demolished — or was it the Lincoln? — and Speedy got permission to take some of the bricks that now form his backyard patio.
Bridgette graduated from Elyria High School in 2009. Before long, she had joined more than half of her graduating class of 444 students in taking classes at Lorain County Community College, an ever-expanding academic institution on 270 acres in the city’s northeastern end. Everyone, from the mayor on down, sees it as vital to Elyria’s future.
The college’s longtime president, Roy A. Church, says he is committed to helping Elyria — and northeastern Ohio — regain its economic viability, now that its once-dominant manufacturing base has been displaced by the service industry. The low-paying jobs listed by Bridgette’s Facebook friends provide a glimpse into what’s out there now: crew person at McDonald’s, associate at Jo-Ann Fabric, counter sales at Budget Auto, sales associate at Victoria’s Secret, crew member at Burger King.
To change this pattern, Dr. Church has gradually broadened the institution’s scope well beyond what is usually understood by the term “community college.” It offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees through its association with 10 Ohio universities. It provides job retraining. It works with local leaders to attract larger companies seeking to relocate.
The campus looks like the grounds of a large technology company, which isn’t far from the truth. It has an “innovation institute” where would-be entrepreneurs receive start-up money, office space and technical support. It has a “fab lab” where students — and the general public — have access to digital-fabrication tools that can help them design and create products. It has a center that offers packaging solutions for companies that make sensors. It even has a ready-made technology park, with building sites available.
Most of this is directed toward a central goal: to help Elyria and the region find the Next Big Thing.
“We’ve had to raise the aspirations — and the spirit — of the place,” Dr. Church says. “It’s a slow go, but we’re well into it.”
Bridgette is part of these raised aspirations. She sees her grandmother, Donna, working hard every day, without ever seeming to get ahead, and her mother, Kristy, waiting on table after table. “That’s when I decided I’m not doing that,” Bridgette says. “I need sleep! I need insurance! And a 401(k)! I need those things. I need those things.”
The diner days blend together like eggs whisked in a bowl. Then, one midsummer morning, a large birthday cake with white and orange frosting is placed on the long table reserved for the Breakfast Club. Little Bridgy is 21.
“Do you have enough breath to blow those out?” teases Speedy Amos, motioning to the stand of candles plunged into the cake.
Bridgette assures the man who is four times her age that, yes, she can do it. Her familiar air is on display. When two more members of the Breakfast Club walk through the door and into the small commotion, Bridgette calls out:
“Hi, girls. Do you want to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and then I’ll come wait on you?”
Sure, the customers say.
The song is sung, the cake is divided, and Bridgette returns to work. In a few weeks, she will be back at school, plotting a better future for herself and the child she is carrying.