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I went to a real Midwest diner to talk Trump, election season cliché of 'Midwest diners'

Behold, a real Midwest diner: The Band Box at 729 S. 10th Street, Minneapolis.

Behold, a real Midwest diner: The Band Box at 729 S. 10th Street, Minneapolis. Star Tribune

On Thursday, the president of the United States brought a national spotlight to Minneapolis, which put me in the mood to go to a diner. It wasn’t so much to drown my frustrations in grease (though that’s always a plus) as to follow the natural inclinations of a journalist—diners, especially Midwest diners, are where reporters always seem to end up when they want to check in on the national mood.

Most of the time, these stories fit a curiously consistent template, one that’s specifically rural, white, and conservative. The patrons wear feed-store hats; they eat actual mountains of scrambled eggs; they’re sticking by the president no matter what. In the last few years, such dispatches from Flyover Land have become so commonplace as to be a cliché, parodied by McSweeney's and Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, critiqued in the Columbia Journalism Review, and turned into a Twitter meme

Of course, neither diners, nor the Midwest, nor even diners in the Midwest, neatly fit into those tropes—they’re not exclusively white or rural or conservative. Often, they’re quite the opposite. 

And so, a few hours before Thursday’s rally, as the MAGA hats and sign-wavers took their places in the streets and skyways around Target Center, I headed to the Band Box Diner, on the other side of downtown Minneapolis, in hopes of taking the pulse of the nation from a different vantage point.  

The Band Box really is an institution. It's 80 years old, a stalwart of the Elliot Park neighborhood, which has been in transition seemingly forever (out-of-town political journalists would probably call it “gritty” or “up-and-coming”). It’s a half-block west of North Central University, a small Christian school, and two blocks south of Hennepin County Medical Center. The clientele reflects the surroundings. 

Like pie, the American experience comes in many flavors. If you always find it bland, you're ordering wrong.

Brad Ptacek, the diner's owner, is manning the flat top when I walk in. There are only four other customers now, and just a few more will come and go in the hour I spend sitting and eating and chatting at the cardinal-red counter.

"It’s been quiet all week," Ptacek says, "but especially today. Some of the lunch regulars didn’t show up. Maybe it’s because of the rally." To this, server Heather Dalzen says, “The moron-in-chief is coming."

Everyone’s eating cheeseburgers and fries, including the two young black men setting next to me at the counter. They’re just finishing up as my own cheeseburger-and-Coke arrives, and the two other patrons soon leave, too, and for a while, it’s just me, Ptacek, and Dalzen. He has short gray hair and a black T-shirt with a drawing of the diner; she has long brown hair and a slate-blue hoodie; together, they have a 7-year-old son.

Ptacek and Dalzen are chatty, though it's hard to hear over the open-kitchen cacophony: the sizzle of burgers on the flat top, the hiss of fries in oil, the rumble of the vent. It’s all compressed in a tiny space facing the red-laminate counter and its eight stools. Quintessential diner. Real America. The vent hood is decorated with magnets—one says, “YAY! BACON!," another is an ad for the long-gone local bar Moby Dick’s, while another comes from Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

I ask if they've seen how diners are usually depicted in political stories, how they’re coded as a small-town thing, with conservative white customers. Ptacek nods. “It’s segmented,” he says. “They present what they want.” This diner, this neighborhood—they don’t fit that mold, although they're the very definition of "Midwest" for millions of actual Midwesterners. I think of the Brother Ali video shot at the Band Box years ago, for the song "Take Me Home."

"Our regulars are from all walks of life,” Ptacek says. “We used to have quite a crew in the mornings. A white guy who owns a construction company. An Asian cab driver. A transgender veteran.”

The topics carom from local politics and the minimum-wage law to the impersonal experience of ordering from an iPad at chain restaurants—and back, inevitably, to national politics and Trump. 

I ask how political conversations usually play out here on busier days. “It depends,” Dalzen says. “I’d say a lot of our regulars are just absolutely disgusted by [Trump]. We have this one guy come in all the time and he’s a wealthy young dude, middle 30s, you know what I mean, lives downtown in a condo, but absolutely despises him.” Others support the president, including many patrons from North Central, but also one or two regulars who live in the neighborhood, people you might not expect to be his fans.

As the conversation builds, Dalzen offers an extended point about the U.S. “abandoning the Kurds,” a well-informed, up-to-the-moment assessment of current events. If one of the other tropes of Midwest Diner stories is that the subjects medium- or low-information voters, well, that’s also not true here.

“The whole thing gets me really heated,” Dalzen says. “I mean, Giuliani, two of his associates were just arrested at the airport. The corruption is so rampant. And the fact that he conducts policy on Twitter—I mean, what?” Ptacek nods vigorously. They both keep working as they chat—he’s scraping the grill, she’s unloading the dishwasher in back, yelling to be heard.

Shift change. Ptacek and Dalzen turn things over to another server and cook. For a few minutes, Ptacek and the new cook take turns tossing a pan of grilling onions and watching over a mushroom-Swiss burger. I ask for my check and notice that it says “Grease for Peace” at the top. 

Maybe it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect at a classic diner, especially a Midwest Diner of recent lore. Then again, “Real America” always in the eye of the beholder.