Regulars of Tom’s Restaurant keep the diner afloat amidst profound uncertainty.
By Willa Neubauer
Sporting a blue three-piece suit, Hank watched the Broadway traffic move from 112th to 113th St. one blustery January afternoon. He would have been able to see 111th St., too, if not for a portable heating lamp that hovered above him, obstructing most of his left-facing view. A waiter in a dirty apron had pulled the lamp clumsily along the concrete to Hank’s side, where it radiated orange light from beneath a shade resembling that of a Target desk lamp. Wet snow fell beyond the awning of Tom’s Restaurant, and Hank’s umbrella leaned beside him as he cut a piece of Canadian bacon and wiped ketchup from his spare mustache.
As I admired Hank in passing that day, I made note of two other elderly gentlemen crouched beneath their own heating lamps. The inside of the diner—empty except for one large, hanging portrait of Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer—lived up to former Barnard student Suzanne Vega’s eerie 1987 folk rock classic named after the restaurant. The song’s first lines, “I am sitting in the morning / At the diner on the corner / I am waiting at the counter / For the man to pour the coffee,” felt distant, sparking a sense of nostalgia for the Tom’s of Vega’s Columbia.
When Covid-19 reached its long-anticipated November spike in New York City, I noticed Tom’s iconic pink and blue R-E-S-T-A-U-R-A-N-T signage flicker and darken where the “U” and “A” formed fluorescent vowels above Broadway. From limited indoor seating to a scattering of chairs below its half-lit sign, Tom’s financial struggles have continued into the new year.
Its classic signage diminished, the newly-labelled “Tom’s Restarnt” no longer offers the sanctuary it once did to Barnard and Columbia students looking for a warm booth into which to slide. Stella Brown, BC ’22, has lived on 113th St. for two years and passes Tom’s nearly every day. Despite occasional flocks of tourists during the day, Brown noted, “Tom’s always played a role in the social culture of Columba in being a late-night spot after people would go out,” she said. “It was kind of a congregation spot, but now, since we’re all trapped inside and don’t have anything to do late at night, that’s changed.”
Moving through the snow past Hank and his Canadian bacon, I marveled at what remained of Vega’s image of Tom’s and the cozy late-night spot that Brown described. A classic motif of mid-90s New York after appearing in over a hundred Seinfeld episodes, the restaurant entered another pandemic year feeding three aged New Yorkers beneath a plastic tent and buzzing space heaters. But in its most feeble state, does Tom’s not now, more than ever, resemble the blueprint of a loyal neighborhood diner?
I am reminded of another line in Vega’s song: “‘It is always nice to see you’ /
Says the man behind the counter / To the woman who has come in / She is shaking her umbrella.” Tom’s, I know, is glad to see Hank sitting peacefully beneath his heating lamp each week, and I resisted the urge to tell him so when I passed by. He and his gray-haired friends are now as much a part of the diner as is Vega’s song. “It is always nice to see you,” I wanted to say, as Hank’s newspaper blew towards Broadway.
Today, I imagine Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer gazing from their signed portraits above the counter as an employee pours three more cups of coffee and the “R” in “Restaurant” flickers. Tomorrow, when the tent is reassembled and the heaters turned on, the fate of Tom’s will surely lie once more in Hank’s $2.50 cup of joe and rubbery circle of Canadian bacon.