Noble Savages: Life Beyond the Diner Confidential

Members of the United States national press corps? We need to have a talk. Come over, I don't want to have to yell this across the room.

...Look guys, I want to respect you. There was a time in my life when I wanted to be one of you. But then I watched you degrade, and in the last few years you've developed some...let's call them unfortunate tics that are getting out of hand. I really wanted to keep the political and social commentary off this site, because that's not what it's for, but at the same time many of my projects are informed by my life experiences, so this was inevitable and I'll put it off no longer.

So...This shit needs to stop. And by "this shit," I mean the Diner Confidential pieces with the old guys who are Trump voters. It's enough.

You guys hear this a lot, I'm sure, and given you general attitudes you may be doing it because people complain about it. I'm writing this anyway for two reasons. One, this time it was the AP doing this - when it's the New York Times, it doesn't matter what I think because I'm not in the Manhattan social register so I may as well not exist (the same thing that stops me from being published also means that no NY-based news outlet thinks I exist at all).

More importantly, I'm going to take this from a different angle than you usually get from the Extremely Online Left. I want to address this not from a political or demographic angle but from a storytelling angle - and you are telling a story when you do this.

So why does that story always start in a diner?

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This is one of the pictures the AP used to illustrate the article in question. It's folksy, I'll give you that. To the kind of people who think David Brooks is a keen observer of the American condition, it may even come across as "authentic," whatever it even means when white people say that.

Now, I don't know what the process for picking interview subjects looks like, at least not for a piece of this genre. Perhaps you guys are getting them in advance and arranging these diner interviews specifically for that Brooksian folksiness. Given the dubious screening process and homogeneity, though, I suspect that you are actually finding these people on site, meaning you must spend a fair bit of time hanging around these diners.

Initially, I can think of two reasons why you might do this. One, convenience - a restaurant is a public location with a predictable flow of people where one can hang around for a good long while for an outlay of a few dollars. Two, an earnest belief that the diner is some vessel of Real America where one can find Real Americans, thus making it a natural starting location for any such visit.

Either way, it creates a problem for me. You see, I come from a town called Pratt, Kansas which seems very much like the kind of place those high-falutin' journalists from the Big City might visit. Only we don't have a diner.

At all.

Funny for something that y'all associate so dearly with Real America, huh?

I spent a while rolling this around in my head, trying to figure out where your ilk might even start their Heartland Noble Savages tour. There's a bar and grill downtown, but it's obviously not open for breakfast - and you guys seem to love the breakfast interview. There's a donut place, but that's not quite the same (and also owned by Koreans, last I checked). There used to be a diner on the highway that had good milkshakes and really bad burgers, but it's been closed for probably twenty years, and I don't think they had breakfast, either. There's a restaurant attached to an inn on a minor road that does have breakfast, but I haven't been out that way in so long that I couldn't tell you if it was still open.

Finally, it dawned on me that there's only one place where you could do your little routine: Donald's Servateria.

Which, as you can see, has breakfast.
Which, as you can see, has breakfast.

The Servateria isn't a diner - it is, as you might imagine from the name, a buffet. At least, I'm pretty sure it is. I don't recall if I've ever been inside. Once, maybe.

Honestly, for the longest time I thought the Servateria was closed. That torn-from-1960 signage is the actual sign that it had all throughout my childhood, and it looks as out-of-place in context as it does here. I can recall seeing some ads for it on local TV affiliates when I was a little kid, but never again after that. I really thought it was closed, but no - it's just that it developed a specific clientele that was enough to keep it open, and thereafter they felt little need to draw in new customers.

To drop the pretense, the only time you'd see anyone under the age of sixty in the Servateria is if a patron brought the grandkids. Other than that (and the occasional road tripper who found such places charming), it was dominated by retirees. If you went to the Servateria looking for interview subjects, that's who you'd find - not a representative sampling of the town (let alone all towns), but a very thorough sampling of one particular demographic.

All of which unlocks a third possible reason why you're all obsessed with diners - you want to find these particular people regardless of whether or not they're representative because you want to tell a specific, masochistic, audience-baiting type of story. But that's not true, right?

Look, I can be as fair as anyone. I get that there's an appeal in meeting the locals on a trip into the hinterlands known as "Places Outside of the New York Metro Area," and it's so much easier if you can find one location where everyone gathers. Whether due to laziness or to misapprehension, you've decided that this has to be a diner - not a park, not a knick-knack store (which exist in abundance in small towns), not a cafe (to be found inside some of those knick-knack stores), not a Sonic Drive-Thru (the one in Pratt was a hell of a lot busier than the Servateria ever was). God forbid you find a community calendar and try and attend, say, a potluck or community sale or parade or local sports event - all places where you'd see a far more representative group.

So why not try that? Might it be because these are not high-priority articles, but mere space-filling clickbait?

I said at the start that I wanted to treat this as a storybuilding exercise, and here's the upshot: Opening a "small town opinions" article in a diner is a heinous cliche. It's the journalistic equivalent of starting a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in a tavern. You can whip up whatever excuses you want as to why you had to do it, but everyone knows that you put more effort into those excuses than you did into the actual product - and all the clever reasoning won't stop people from rolling their eyes.

Next time you do this (and clearly there will be plenty of next times), why not go to, say...a chicken noodle dinner? It might not be better, but at least people will sigh with a bit less weariness. And at least I'll get to read something different for a change.

(Fun fact: I have a short story about a kid whose town is invaded by journalists doing Heartland Noble Savages tours. I don't anticipate publication)

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