"Two for non-smoking? Right this way." George's been manager here how long again? Probably since I've been coming here. He looks overworked today.

"How many?" he asks the trio standing before me in line.

"Three for smoking," one of them says.

"It's gonna be a few minutes." George turns his gaze to me. "Any seat you like, Ryan."

Ah, the beauty of being a "regular." I saunter up to a table in the rear of the smoking section and throw down my backpack. I set today's newspaper on the table, my smokes and lighter come out of my inner coat pocket, gingerly tossed atop the paper, and I quickly remove my jacket and sit down.

"Hey Ryan, how's it going today?" a cute twenty-something in the Coney Island greens inquires. She sets the cup of coffee down, and throws me some creams. Looks like today I have Jenny. Aside from the fact she's been working here for a few years, she's one of the nicest and best waitresses ever to yell 'Order up!' We chitchat for a moment before she says, "The 'usual?'"

Ah, yes, another perk of being a regular. The waitresses not only know your name, they know your eating habits. Which isn't too hard with me - 90% of the time it's a small hani, no cheese, no setup, with bacon. Occasionally I throw the egg sandwich with bacon curveball, or the "just a milkshake," but those days are few and far between. I've probably had near a thousand hanis since I began coming here back in '98, if not more than that. It's kind of hard to keep count of these sorts of things.

What I do know is that I've spent more on Coney Island food and drink than I have on cigarettes, both of which I started around the same time. I'd probably cringe if I saw an accurate total of my expenditures.

I free pour the sugar until I sense the coffee's been augmented properly, in go two creams, stir the spoon, and take that first sip. I don't care what anyone else says - The best cup of coffee doesn't come from a Starbucks, whole beans ground at home, or straight off a Guatemalan bush - No, the best coffee comes from a green or white 8 oz mug at a National Coney Island.

My first of many coffin nails comes out of the pack, to my lips, and as I light it and draw, my eyes begin to wander. The trim is 50's-diner gaudy, to the max. Green and white checkerboards, gold and chrome trim, sparkling bright red neon signs, touches of light faux-woodwork. No one in their right mind would mistake a National Coney Island for some sort of fine dining establishment, but it doesn't really purport to be one. You come in, you order, your food is up within 2 to 10 minutes, and you leave only slightly lighter in the wallet and much heavier in the stomach. The food is damn tasty, and did I mention the coffee?

Nonetheless, a decent variety of people frequent the place. There's the teenagers of course, who, for lack of the hangouts available in the boring burbs, find Coney to be a refuge where they can smoke underage and drink copious amounts of stimulant-laced beverages in safety. Then there's the old people. They're probably the only ones who've actually been coming in as consistently as I do. You'll see the same ones every day, sitting at the counter or in the front of smoking, their faces worn and grizzled as they drink their drinks and smoke their butts. Those are probably some of the scariest sights I see, ever. I can't help but see some of myself in them. Can't help but fear my fate is to die in a Nationala Coney Island, my cigarette burning a hole in my jeans as I lay gasping for air on the ground. I can see the obit now - "Choked to death on his small hani."

And there's me, sitting in a piece of Detroit history.

Few patrons care enough to look into the history of a place they may go to more than frequently. I know that if it weren't for my having worked at Best Buy or Dave and Buster's, I'd know nothing of their origins, despite how often I go there. Most people don't know that the first National Coney Island was built in 1965 in Roseville's Macomb Mall by James Giftos. They haven't the slightest that the enormous success of the tiny, 40-seater mall diner enabled a 2-store expansion into St. Clair Shores and Detroit in by 1971. Or that between 1986 and 1994, 9 new locations were added. For patrons in the Metro-Detroiters sub 25-year-old category, NCIs have been around as long as our parents have ferried us around to shopping centers and strip malls, and most have been there since we've had driver's licenses. National Coney Island is just a fact of life.

The hani arrives, and I begin the delicate process of ingesting it. Eating a hani is a science. You don't want anything to fall out, and you certainly don't want any of the gallons of mayo they put on them to squirt onto your nice black shirt. The key is to never put it down. If you need to flip a page in the newspaper or grab your drink, only remove one hand, and be careful. Like any skill, perfection comes with experience. You eat enough of these things, and you figure it out.

Aside from the perennial hani, milkshakes, and the classic ground round, there's the array of Greek fare, like gyros, salads, and fresh, homemade baklava. The breakfast and dessert menu is enough to put any Denny's to shame, and let's not forget the dish that it owes its name to, the Coney Dog. Though my distaste of cheese prevents me from enjoying a quadruple bypass in its entirety, I've enjoyed many a triple. There's something deliciously decadent about the occasional hot dog doused in chili and hugged by crispy bacon.

Aside from the money I've said goodbye to here, there's the time. But what times they were. Most of the days I've spent here were solo, just sitting, smoking, sipping on coffee, and occupying myself somehow. I'll always read the paper, sometimes do the word jumble and crossword puzzles, and when the weekly free rags come out, I always tear into those. If I've got more than an hour to kill, I'll break out the drawing pad or the notebook, and exorcise my creative demons while my pack empties and my hands grow more jittery with each caffeine infusion.

But even better were the times spent with friends. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the NCI was home for many of my introductions with acquaintances, friends, and in a couple instances, lovers. I've forgotten more conversations that took place in Coney than I've had elsewhere, a testament to how terrific the conversation can be when kicking back in a relaxing atmosphere with nothing else to do. Nary a night out doesn't either begin or end (or both) with a stop in here, because the coffee is always piping hot, and the food is always just what one needs.

Today was just a short stop. I've got other things to do, so I fold up the sections of my paper that I plan on keeping, gather my belongings, lay down a 25% tip, and hike up to the register.

Today Nicole is on cashier duty. "How was everything?" she asks. She's asked me that more times than I can count. I take in her beautifully styled auburn hair for a moment before I come back with my usual reply. "Great," I say, as if the phrase has lost all meaning from overuse. When the come in nearly every day and the food is consistently good, you have to wonder why they bother asking. Moments later I'm out the door and back in the real world. At least, until next time.

Node your homework strikes again

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