One Headlight to a Diner

Rings of pineapple on a record player with eggs and bacon

Diner Week – All Artwork by Viv Le

In “One Headlight”, The Wallflowers song omnipresent in grocery store checkout lines and CVS aisles in 1996, Jakob Dylan wails “come on try a little/nothing is forever/got to be something better than in the middle,” singing not of a loss of life but the loss of a growth into the thrill of tomorrow. It’s far too easy for those of us who live to see our years turn to decades, turn to numbers we believed we would never grow old enough to see, to grow compliant in our compound years. The death of the idea precedes the death of ourselves, far too often by a long stretch of time.

As I got older, I also lost sight of that growth, lost my grip on the idea that there was an uncertain future in front of me that I could choose to search for, if only I could leave all pretense behind. The journey to that destination started, as all good forays into the unknown do, in the booth of a diner.

I’ve always been a fussy eater, which like so many fussy eaters stems from an unrefined palate of sorts. I wasn’t choosy about the food I was eating because I was demanding something better; I was pushing food away out of sheer obstinance. A head so thick it couldn’t grasp the idea that, if you try it, you might like it. That a world of possibility exists in the most unlikely of places and that sometimes those places are the top of a pizza or the depths of a seven-layer dip.

***
In a former life, I ran an independent record label. We sold short-run vinyl records on colored vinyl by small-ish Canadian bands. It feels redundant to say this was before I transitioned. Nothing screams “still living as a man” quite like “me? I have a boutique vinyl-only record label”.

In the fall of 2015, we were invited by Pop Montréal to do a Saturday late-night label showcase of bands on our roster. This, to me, was a big deal. My partner and I had recently split. When we had still been together and we discussed the idea of my record label, she asked, fairly: “How will you make money?” and “how will you measure success?” I always said that being asked to do a big showcase would feel like we made it.

Looks like we made it.

My ex and I split when our worlds became diametrically opposed. She wanted to go back to school, move to a new city, challenge herself, and reach new heights. I wanted to stay in my hometown, drink myself to death, and stay up all night reading fictionmania when no one else was awake. Irreconcilable differences. She moved away to Montréal, and I stayed at home and worked very hard at digging my heels in so hard they bled.

When I arrived in Montréal two days before the showcase, we decided it was best to meet for coffee. Clear the air, say our peace. I ordered a large americano. Black. She laughed a little to herself and said “some things never change” as she ordered a drink I had never heard of in a language I wasn’t aware she was conversational in.

She forewarned me that she would be volunteering at the showcase in two days time but that she was excited to see how far I had come in our time apart. We drank our coffee, enquired at the health of each other’s families, and went our separate ways.

The night of the showcase, I walked into the space we were given: the beautiful upstairs of a gorgeous downtown Montréal theater. The sound guy was unpacking the PA system for the first time. He told me he had no idea how the room sounded, that it was rare to do a show up here, and that as long as the room — maximum capacity 300 – was full, it would sound great.

It was not full.

My now fiancé was playing in one of the bands we had put on the bill, and we lamented with each other in the green room about the presence of both of our exes, mine working the door to an empty room, and hers playing in the band just before hers was set to hit the stage. We didn’t know yet that we would fall in love with each other. Neither of us were ready for that.

Every upstairs has a down, and below us was a second theater where, entirely unbeknownst to me, Win Butler of famed Montréal-by-way-of Texas band the Arcade Fire was screening a documentary he made with his wife Reginé. To be followed by a dance party that he would also be DJing. I found this out an hour before when one of the artists in my showcase, also a member of Arcade Fire, said as we ate tacos down the street: “You didn’t know about this? Kinda feels like the sort of thing they would have told you.”

***
Our showcase was an unmitigated disaster. Peak attendance was in the low 30s, including staff and other band members and exes. Our final headlining band was drowned out entirely by the dance party downstairs, led by DJ Windows 98 (Win Butler’s extremely early 2000s DJ name), as it spilled out onto the street.

I did what anyone would do when your party is upstaged by one that even you would rather be at. I went back to my hotel and drank until I blacked out on the kitchen floor, my only comfort a frozen pizza I must have decided on eating but never got around to turning the oven on for.

The next morning, I took to the streets of Montréal in search of comfort. Anything to ease my weary mind. I walked down streets unfamiliar to me and searched in vain for a breakfast spot that would let me order in English, my terrible French a barrier to anything that on the outside seemed good and wholesome.

I stumbled upon a miracle. I found an empty diner.

I slid into a booth, felt the friction of the rubber bench seat as my jeans moved against its rough worn surface and ordered coffee, black, and waved away a menu. My rule at an unknown diner is to always order the classic breakfast. The test of any diner’s mettle is in the tried and true. You will learn a lot about a spot by the nature of eggs, toast, hashbrowns, and a random fourth element they provide.

I ordered mine with eggs sunny-side-up, rye toast, shredded hash browns, and fresh fruit.

In my best English/French mish-mash, I asked for no pineapple. I fucking hated pineapple. H A T E D it. And I was already in a pretty fucked mood, as one would be if you had drank yourself to the floor and woke up with the warm corpse of a formerly frozen pizza underneath you.

My plate came with enough pineapple on it to be visible from space.

I was down dirty in that moment, brought so low by the crushing weight of everything and everyone, and every little moment in my life had led me to my own ruin, sitting here in a diner in Montréal where, the night previous, my ex had seen me as an abject failure before leaving to go dance in the street to whatever disco records Win Butler knew about that I was unaware of.

I ate the fucking shit out of that pineapple. Fuck it, who cares anymore.

That pineapple changed everything.

It was perfectly sweet, dense, and tangy, kind to the palette. As I speared the second hunk of ananas with my fork, a server came over and apologized. She remembered now I had said no pineapple, and here I was with enough to live off for years to come. I exclaimed to her that this was the single greatest meal, the best pineapple, I had ever eaten in my life.

There, in the booth of that diner, destitute and worn to a nub, I pledged that this was a sign from some higher power. That I was supposed to challenge the things around me that I had held so tight to as truths for so long. For my entire life, I had told myself I hated this thing I apparently adored, and it ended today.

***
My rule became that every year I had to find one thing I always thought I hated, feared, or looked down on and give it a second chance. Pineapple. Tomatoes. Kombucha. The filmography of Jimmy Stewart. I quit drinking. One year, I changed my gender and sexuality all together. My name changed twice. My gender changed again.

I got a tattoo of a pineapple on my right forearm to remind myself there is always something good and hopeful in challenging yourself on your biases. That the death of the idea was the death of my desire to find something better for myself, and it was only in making an active effort to make a better path for myself that I found a new way forward. That night in Montréal brought me to the gates of ruin, and it was an unlikely source of strength that pulled me back from the edge when the morning came calling. Eating pretty good pineapple in a nameless diner showed me I could hold onto who I was while still allowing the idea of myself to be fallible and to accept change and be new and different and the same all at once. To quote Jakob Dylan: “Feel just like somebody else/Man, I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same.”

a white napkin with red print that reads AUTOSTRADDLE Diner Week

Diner Week is a 12-part series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 23 articles for us.

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