There Used To Be A Diner Here

Sometimes it would be 3am and there’d be 20 friends and pancakes and bacon after a night dancing away at Spit in Levittown. Maybe it was Sunday morning and waffles with my mother. A weeknight finding me too tired to cook so we’d head out to the diner for burgers and fries.

It felt like we were always there. The waitstaff, the owners, the busboys, all familiar to us, so familiar that we’d see them out at the grocery store and do that “I know you” nod. The diner — open 24/7, of course — felt like home.

Since 1955, the Empress Diner, on the corner of Newbridge Road and Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow, served up breakfast, lunch and dinner to locals any time of day or night. Eggs for dinner, grilled cheese for breakfast, a full five course supper of chicken parmigiana, whatever you wanted to eat, whenever you wanted to eat, the Empress was happy to serve you.

For a long time it was the diner. Before the Colony, before the Apollo, if you said you were going to the diner, you could only mean the Empress. It was a local landmark, a meeting place, a fixture of life in our little corner of Long Island. The local Kiwanis met there every Tuesday. We had my sister’s baby shower there.

I’ve lived in East Meadow my whole life, going on 56 years. So much has changed in that time. Business came and went, the landscape changed, the skyline changed with it. I no longer remember what was in some spots along Hempstead Turnpike where rows of strips malls exist now. Was there land? Trees? What was there? I can barely remember what was in the lot where the new Starbucks is, things change so quickly. There used to be a school in the back of the Walmart. There was a Carvel on Seventh Street. A restaurant where the liquor store is now. I want to remember the way things were, my favorite little grocery store, the old thrift shop, the five and dime store. I remember when Newbridge Road was two narrow lanes, when Eisenhower Park was called Salisbury Park, when there were more houses than stores along East Meadow Avenue. I try to keep these memories intact, try so hard to keep in mind what the town of my childhood looked like, as if holding tight to those memories will keep the influx of 7–11s and WE BUY GOLD stores at bay. But everything goes away, eventually. Goes away and is replaced by something less dear to your heart.

As the town and surrounding areas grew, other diners sprouted up. And the quality of life at the Empress went down. There was a time only recently — maybe four years ago — when we were still going once a week. My husband would get a BLT, I’d get a grilled cheese with bacon and tomato. We’d always sit in the same spot, have the same waiter, and in time he’d announce our order to us before we could recite it to him. He brought us our drinks unprompted— a coke and an unsweetened iced tea — as soon as we sat down. But the ever present owners who normally greeted you at the door with a smile were suddenly grumpy and surly. We could hear them yelling at the staff. There was a high turnover rate. Our regular waiter just stopped showing up one night. The food came out cold or wrong more often than not. And so we moved on to the Colony.

I heard first on Facebook that the Empress was going. First in the group dedicated to goings-on around town. There are always so many false starts posted in that group (did you hear what’s going in the old Home Depot? A Trader Joe’s! A Whole Foods! A Sam’s Club, no a Restaurant Depot! yea, it’s a CarMax) that I didn’t believe it and refused to entertain the thought. But then the family posted a farewell, saying it was time to pack it in. It was probably past that point, but I’m not going to belabor that. And even though I had give up on this particular diner, this mainstay of my youth and late night home away from home, I felt a pang of despair. Another childhood landmark gone. Another piece of my life to be torn down. There are so few things left from the bygone eras of my life, it’s as if I’m living in a different town. I drive around and look at all the fairly . new businesses and McMansions and feel my past slipping away from me, the memories ever harder to hold on to without the concrete evidence of them around anymore. And now this, now the Empress, the last real anchor of my Long Island youth.

When I heard the news I felt the twinges of mourning starting. I wasn’t really mourning the diner because I’d already considered it dead, but rather the passage of time, the death of things I once loved. I put on some Springsteen and sang along — everything dies baby, that’s a fact — which just seemed the right tone for the moment. I did some mental gymnastics and managed to tie the death of the Empress into my own mortality and spent the rest of the night in sort of a grief state, for my youth, for my town, for everything.

I went back to the town’s Facebook page the next day and there was talk that the owners of the Empress sold the place to someone who is going to remodel and open another diner. Everything that dies, some day comes back. It won’t be the same, though. Nothing ever is.

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