Farewell to the Empire

Sunday, February 4, 2024
"What did you do for fun when you were a teenager?" my son once asked me. "Like, what did kids do in the 80's and 90's?" And he stressed the word "do" as if we couldn't possibly have had fun lives, could we? I thought for a minute before answering him because how could I ever explain it in a way he would understand? Truthfully, we did nothing. And that was everything.

photo via original Empire Diner Parsippany NJ website 

This post is part of a series on my site called Momma Musings, where I share personal thoughts and feelings. I hope you'll check out my other posts, too, especially if you enjoy this one.


If you were a teenager in the 70's, 80's or 90's, then you know. You know the joy of being disconnected, of not having a phone attached to your very being and rooting you to the world. It was so easy to escape then, wasn't it? You actually had to stop at a payphone if you wanted to reach someone. And then there was the thrill of wondering who you would run into at a party, bar, club, or even...the diner. Ah, the diner! I relish the joy of Disco Fries, paper placemats, and menus as thick as novels. 

I would frequent a few New Jersey diners with my friends when we were teenagers. Tiffany Diner in Pine Brook was the original hangout for us (and number 32 on the table jukebox was my go-to song), followed by Versailles in Fairfield (where Sean would order his "runny eggs"), and Tick Tock Diner (before there was even a "Tik Tok"). And then there was Empire. Empire Diner in Parsippany was our place (do kids today even have a place anymore??).  This is where we'd go after a night out because it was open 24 hours. We'd see our friend Gus who worked there (we affectionately called him 'blue-eyed Gus' since his cousin 'brown-eyed Gus' worked in the kitchen, and hey, we had to distinguish them somehow). We'd sit in our favorite booth and order our favorite foods (french fries with gravy and mozzarella, toasted corn muffin with butter, chocolate brownies, a piece of chocolate layer cake- whatever we wanted!! I remember Gus bringing us a plate of chocolate frosting once, just because we asked).

There was a thrill to visiting our diner, too. You never knew who would walk through the door after a night out. Someone you had a crush on, maybe, or someone you hadn't seen in ages. A smiling face from school, or someone totally new to meet. Maybe they'd join you in your booth, or maybe they'd sit in the booth across from you. Maybe you'd exchange numbers and they'd call you later (on an actual phone). You talked about stupid things and laughed, and no one held a cell phone in their hands. No one made dumb videos for Tik Tok. No one cared who was 'online' or who was 'posting' on Instagram. No one had their head down while scrolling a screen. Here you were all together. There was a feeling of...what's the word I'm looking for here? Ah, I know! Freedom. You weren't tethered to anyone or anything. You were there in the moment. 

The diner helped us become adults. We learned to take care of ourselves here- ordered and paid for food, calculated tips, split the bill- all on our own. As my friend Mary explained, "We had to actually interact with one another, live, spontaneously, without the aid of Memes or links to Tik Tok videos. I grew up in diners. For a few years, me and my parents ate at Tiffany's nearly every single night. Our favorite waiter (Said), would bring me a small cup of their homemade croutons. When my parents talked adult stuff, I finished the games on my placemat, flipped through the jukebox, or played Ms. Pacman in the diner lobby. It was an extension of home and an important part in my childhood." I know so many people who felt the same way!

When I found out recently that Empire Diner in Parsippany was closing down, my heart broke. I swear I could feel it, like a crack splitting right down the middle. Because not only was Empire closing, it was also being torn down. Torn down! Erasing what once was, forever. I wanted to go one last time. I wanted to find my old friends, beg them to meet me there for one last plate of french fries with gravy. But alas, I was too late. By the time I read the article about Empire's demise, it was already gone.

Will the owners of Empire Diner ever really understand how much they meant to their patrons? So many nights spent laughing with friends, eating good food (did everything just taste better after midnight??). I am grateful for Gus's handsome, smiling face. I am grateful for those slices of chocolate layer cake, the joy of always feeling welcome somewhere. I wish my own teenager could know that feeling- the happiness in just being totally disconnected, yet connected- in a shiny vinyl booth with your friends. Farewell, Empire. Thank you for the fun times. No...thank you for the best times.






 











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