November / Canaan, Connecticut

Love, Peace & Ice Cream

It’s a little before 9 a.m. when I pull in from the snow and sleet on Route 7 for breakfast at the Collin’s Diner in Canaan, Connecticut.

The griddle is always hot and on. I’m on my way to give a lecture further up the road in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and I’m early. And hungry.

Dozens and dozens of farm fresh grade A large, white eggs greet me neatly stacked and at the ready in repetitive steel bowls by the stove. Slices of bread wait their turn by the toaster. I grab a seat at the counter and reach for a menu.

Diners like this always deliver. I’ve learned this much from driving and eating on the road. You cannot screw up cooking eggs and you can not only get a pretty decent cup of coffee but also learn a heck of a lot about the town you’ve just driven into by sitting at any counter of any diner on the road in America.

Collin’s Diner is fairly famous. Movies and commercials have been shot in here and it is easy to see why. As a period piece it is exactly as a real diner should be, solid leather rounded counter seats, chrome gleaming everywhere. It feels authentic, homey and real.

And it’s warm. The warmth gusts at you the moment you open the second door. Ida, short, German and stout works the griddle. Katie, the other waitress, smiles, takes my order, and stands at easy attention watching the rest of the regular Saturday morning breakfast crew wander in. They all know each other. I gather that Canaan is not a very big town and this is one of those special meeting places. The older guys who are engrossed with the newspaper at the other end of the counter barb and banter with the cook. “How come the sign says open 24 hours and you close up at 6?” Ida laughs this off. She is all of 5 feet maybe 2 inches and seems like a griddle general at the ready. Silently she scrambles eggs, batters up breads slices for French toast, fries bacon, grills home-fries, sliding them effortlessly to one side of the griddle. All without missing a beat in the conversation.

I order my on the road ‘usual’; three scrambled eggs, wheat toast, French fries, not home-fries, coffee black with milk and Sweet & Low. My father taught me in high school before my first trip abroad that you could never really go wrong ordering eggs.

My eggs arrive quickly but while I’m watching Ida’s brilliant little dance at the griddle I now wish I had ordered pancakes. I think the quality of a place’s pancakes are the true test of any great eatery. Done right they are light, golden brown and cooked all the way through. They don’t leave a lumpy knot of regret in your stomach when you are finished eating  them.

I watch Ida make her pancakes. The batter bubbles up and instead of messing with them she waits and waits and waits some more. She refills the regulars’ cups of coffee and banters way past the time I would normally leave a browning pancake batter unattended. “Where’s your girlfriend?” she asks in a deep accent to the heavy-set guy sitting on the stool to my left. He reddens in response. “Oh, I forgot to call her this week. I guess she’s at home.”

My eyes stay fixed on that pancake. Ida finally returns to flip it. It is golden brown, perfect and as big as the plate she’ll eventually serve it on. Wow. Next time I drive through town I know exactly what to order.

Actually, I have an ulterior motive for being in the Collin’s Diner. I figured someone could tell me about the strange ice cream shop on the North side of town. ”It’s right on Route 7 across from the State Police building, as you leave Connecticut and enter Massachusetts. You know where I mean? “ I badger Katie as I stand to pay my bill. ”They don’t serve much ice cream in the winter around here,” is all I can get out her in response.

This ‘ice cream’ place is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen from a car window driving on any road. First off it’s closed. “As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen anybody in there or even on the property, “ Stephanie my friend from the Norman Rockwell Museum tells me later after I give my talk. “ I drive by it every day going to and from work and it is always been empty. And I can tell you for sure it has never served ice cream.”

Returning home on Route 7, I stop by this mysterious place to get a closer look for myself. There is a small white ginger bread-esque building that someone has lovingly trimmed in bright yellow and turquoise paint. But really intrigues me are the two mannequins, almost like you’d see selling junior men’s wear in your local Sears department store.

These two ‘display boys’ are the main lawn sculptures you first spy from the road. One is dressed in a Nero like Indian costume. He holds a huge yellow ice cream cone and stands atop a mirrored glass geodesic dome. The other mannequin boy is clothed in loafers and a short sleeved camp shirt. He cheerily holds a yellow hand painted sign above his head that reads, ‘Love, Peace, & Ice Cream.’

I laughed out loud the first time I passed by this ice cream hawking pair and I have been curious about this Canaan siting ever since. Maybe it’s a personal message to us travelers, a spiritual suggestion to slow down and add a little love and peace to the world.

Or maybe whoever built it wants us to eat more ice cream.

“You can never eat to much ice cream,” another friend reminds me. Amen. Or pancakes.

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