No one these days is clear who owns the Dawton Diner. It was not built in and of itself. That almost block-long building was built back in the early 1940’s. A handsome two-story brick building, it was home to a group of small businesses that the western hill community of Dawton took for granted as servicing their immediate household needs. Which was true - never a part of downtown Dawton but rather specific to this hilltop community’s small requirement of the necessaries.
The business at the southernmost end of the building was a small milliner’s shop, named for its owner, Miss Adelaide, an elderly spinster who lived with her sister and brother-in-law in East Dawton. Next to her shop was Sandelli’s Shoe Repair, the in-residence shoe-repair man a happy Italian who played opera all the day long on his record player, with its steel needles and stiff arm he must lift on and off, and the records held in their brown-paper sleeves that he kept in a cupboard beside the handsome mahogany case of his gramaphone or record player. Next to his shop - and in the center of the building block, right where Dawton Diner stands today - was a small grocery store, Hill Market. Pricey but handy, featuring fresh vegetables and fruit. And a fine butcher, Mr. Kozinsky, who together with his wife owned and ran the market. It was posited that the Kowinsky’s owned the building for they lived in a large house in the more up-scale park area of Dawton. But no one knew for sure. On the other side of them was Top’s Tailoring, with its small compact gray headed and grim German gentleman tailor who measured and pinned and sewed all day long, his canary in its golden cage set swinging in summers by the breezes caused each time the door opened while in winters the canary and cage stayed at the back next to the sewing machine where the owner could be found bending to the light of a crook necked lamp as he fashioned suits and coats, skirts and jackets, or worked on a needed repair or re-fitting of garments for a neighborhood family. A man who kept to himself, living above his store in a tiny one-room apartment fitted in overhead, while the rest of the second story was filled with the stored goods of the other businesses. Finally, at the northernmost end of the building, was the appropriately named Corner Store, that featured two long low glass-fronted cases of penny candy, for children with pennies to spend and a soda fountain, as well as selling magazines, newspapers and other sundries. At the back of the store, set off by itself, was a tiny branch post office. Mr. Dexter, as austere a man as Elsie was a happy biddy, kept the Post Office. Elsie serviced customers of the soda fountain, the candy and all the other bits and pieces the store carried, like needles and thread, Vaseline, Bag Balm, fly paper, cough drops, letter paper and postcards.
All right - enough of history. That compact group of stores was, as I say, set in a single building running almost the length of one short block of West Dawton Avenue. In 2000, at the turn of the century, there were still several small businesses housed there - a dusty Radio & TV Repairs, an equally dusty Your Small Appliances, a 7-Eleven, a weekend flea market and, Donnie’s, a sliced pizza and candy store. Before the year was out, they each completed a gradual failure to thrive, ending finally in closing their doors for good. And Dawton Diner came to be, in 2001.
Retrofitting began early in that year on the huge conversion of the block-long building. When finished, it was composed of two grand two-floor apartments, with Dawton Diner featured, front and center, and the elegant individual apartment entrances set one on either side of the diner frontage. Ruby and Chef Belsen moved in, separately, immediately. Theirs is off-again on-again love affair of some twenty or more years. At the time of my stories, in 2012, they’ve had a decade of working together, all day long, 6 days a week, and have become much like a pair of old slippers, one right and one left, equally worn down. Who is the right and who the left changes periodically as will happen in long--term relationships.
The question as to who owned the building remains unanswered. Suspicions first lay with Ruby and Chef Belsen owning it together, as it was known from the start that they shared ownership of Dawton Diner. Then, since it was also well known that Ruby’s ties to Dawton and its surroundings go back generations, it was thought she might have inherited the building. Equally, Chef Belsen, from a long-time Fort Elder family, might have been deeded the block building, either directly or through some family default (he does tipple).
But neither of them is a talker. And over time, as happens to all speculation, interest dried up and blew away. No one cares. Just as the fact of the conversion of that sleepy group of dying businesses into two two-story apartments and the Dawton Diner at first solicited a mix of both the exciting and the disturbing to Dawton-ites, particularly those living next to and nearby, the sense of displacement and displeasure gradually dissipated. Along with any curiosity as to who and how and why the whole thing happened. People have adapted to the change. It’s the way of things. Slowly the new becomes first accepted, then commonplace. Dawton Diner, is now completely absorbed into everyday life on this hill part of Dawton. Even has become a kind of landmark -- certainly it is to the regulars.
It is my chosen setting for my intermixed stories of the people who are diner regulars and Ruby, Chef Belsen and particularly Sheckie. Diners, as a kind, are much like neighborhood bars. Both impersonal and at the same time places where ‘everybody knows your name.’ Everyone comes to know your name if you are a regular at Dawton Diner. Along with something of you. Life habits - to some extent. Food habits - for sure. Social preferences? - Well, as to that, it is indeed very only to some extent. For you can be quite one person in a bar or a diner and quite another elsewhere. As well, there are secret pockets in everyone’s life. A neighborhood diner is a place where the contents of such pockets can be strangely spilled. And where strange tokens are picked up or thrust upon and dropped into secret pockets to be forgotten about ‘til later when recognized as important if mysterious keepsakes.
Strange word, keepsake. Stranger still is are the tokens that become keepsakes. As strange - when you simply look at it - as much of life. Viewed simply - as observer only - such tokens are strange only at first and then, like all else, become simply familiar. Finally, if one is fortunate and aware and awake to it, they become important keepsakes. Symbols of a path taken that could only have been compassed by such an odd mysterious token. Dawton Diner is a place where such things happen. Thing at first strange then familiar and finally well-valued. As happens in the lives of such people as you will meet in these chapters. As has happened in my life. Or in yours.