Paul Newman and the Cancer People

I had barely finished half my latté when the man at the counter yelled through his multiple lip piercings, “We close in five minutes!”

“Five minutes? What kind of independent coffee shop closes at eight o’clock?”

“Apparently this one.”


We bundled up to face the bitter cold that awaited, while debating what to do next. Neither of us knew of any other coffee shops in the area, and I wasn’t up for a bar. I could have easily called it an evening, but felt somewhat obliged to stay since our conversation had been cut short by the hipster barista.

We paused as we walked past a grimy looking diner, and although he acted like he had never been there before, I saw Robert nod at the woman at the counter.

“It’s either this, or the McDonald’s on Broadway,” he shrugged.

“Let’s give it a shot.”

As we entered, we walked past three gumball machines, two of which contained what appeared to be peanut dust. The third was half full of multi-colored Chiclets, and I made a mental note to check my wallet for quarters before I left.

The diner was empty except for a man mopping the floor in back and the woman at the counter. She was fifty-something with yellowish bleached hair and penciled-in eyebrows, and flashed us a huge smile as we entered.

“Sit anywhere you like.”

Our options were either stools at the counter or booths along the wall. I chose a booth near the window and straddled the wide silver patch of duct tape that was holding the seat together.

“You’re not too cold over here by the window, are you?” she asked, as she tossed down our menus.

“No, it’s fine, thanks.”

“Can I get you started with some coffee?”

“Actually, I think that’s probably all we’re having… unless you’re going to get something to eat?”

He flipped the menu over and then flipped it back again. “Huh. They got new menus. But no, no, I think I’ll just have the coffee. Decaf.”

Our waitress gathered up the silverware she had just placed down and went to make some coffee. A fresh pot, she assured us with a smile.

“So you’ve been here before?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, for breakfast a long time ago.”

A woman came in to use the ATM and left the receipt sticking out of the machine. There were two types of hot sauce on the table, which seemed extravagant for such a small diner. All three ceiling fans were different.

We talked about the Olympics and tiger attacks and thrift store books and how all of Chicago is just one good rainstorm away from collapsing into a giant sink hole.

“The Lincoln Park Zoo isn’t allowed to have elephants anymore, you know.”

“Really? Why’s that?”

“They kept dying. Now they’ve been banned from getting new ones.”

I wasn’t entirely sure I had my facts straight, but he didn’t know that, so I didn’t waver.

Our waitress set down our coffee and said, “See? Nothing like a fresh brewed pot of decaf. I hate stale decaf that’s been sitting around, don’t you?”

“Absolutely. Thanks so much!”

He was working his way through all the Ian Fleming novels, which he would then sell on eBay for a profit. I mumbled as I tried to explain what I did for a living, “It’s really boring… and people… and data.” Sometimes it’s good to play dull.

Two young men came in and sat at the booth across from us. The waitress seemed to know one of them because she teased him about not being dressed for the weather while she refilled our coffee cups.

“You went to Mexico? Whereabouts?” she asked the young man, as she leaned on her elbows across the counter.


“Where’s that?”


“Oh… Tijuana. You bad, dirty boy. People get into trouble there, don’t they?”

We went back to talking about the rising cost of condos and the primary elections, but every now and then I would catch part of their conversation.

“You can get prescription drugs there without prescriptions.”

“Yeah, and I heard that Mexican drugs are actually better than the drugs you can get in the States.”

I looked at the clock above the kitchen and announced that it was probably time for me to head home. We got up to pay, but our waitress was still deep in discussion with the young men.

“Isn’t that right?” she asked me. “Don’t cancer people go to Mexico to get drugs?”

“You mean like experimental ones?” Robert asked.

“Yeah. Like all the rich Hollywood stars used to go down to Mexico for treatment when they knew they were going to die anyway. Like Paul Newman and Liz Taylor and everyone.”

I was pretty sure that both Paul Newman and Liz Taylor were still alive, and I didn’t recall ever hearing that they had cancer, but then maybe that’s because the experimental Mexican drugs had cured them.

“Huh. I’m not sure.”

“Yeah… that’s all you see on TV nowadays is cancer drugs. Everything’s a cancer ad. I don’t even want to watch TV anymore.”

“That’s true – now that all the drug companies can advertise on TV, that’s all you…”

“I know! And then it’s even during the kids’ shows! I swear, I’m watching TV the other day and some little kid comes on and says, ‘I have a brain tumor!’ I don’t want to see that. I turned it right off.”

“Huh. Yeah.” I pulled out my wallet but Robert waved me off. The bill came to $2.80.

“I mean, I swear that that’s why everyone has cancer nowadays. Half of that is mental, you know? Watching all them cancer shows and listening to all them cancer ads… that’s probably causing it. I tell you, when I see that ad come on with that little kid and he starts to go, ‘I have a brain…,’ I cut him off right there and change the channel. No you don’t! That’s what I say.”

“Yeah, TV is pretty crazy.”

“Isn’t that the truth? I mean, whatever happened to Corningware ads? How come you never see those anymore? Nothing but cancer drugs. That’s why you don’t see a TV in here. Nothing’s gonna poison you here.”

“Well, we got that fresh pot of decaf to keep us healthy, too!”

“That’s for sure. Well, come back soon!”

I pulled my hat down low, close to my eyes, preparing for the inevitable blast of icy wind, then paused before stepping outside. I stretched out my mitten-clad hand as Robert held open the door.


20 Responses to “Paul Newman and the Cancer People”

  1. brandon Says:

    it’s true. nothing spreads like mental cancer. it’s like a cancer.

  2. vahid Says:

    She’s right, you know. It is all mental. I remember the time my friends in high school tried to peer pressure me into getting cancer, the jerks.
    (Oh, and I can vouch for the wares at the Tijuana pharmacy, btw. Remind me to tell you about it some time.)

  3. Miss Britt Says:

    This is beautifully done Jen.

  4. jenny Says:

    brandon: stop saying cancer on my site! i won’t have my site causing cancer!
    vahid: ooh, do tell, do tell! went to TJ for a quickie divorce and came back with a suitcase full of bootleg Prilosec?
    miss britt: thanks so much!

  5. Roy Says:

    Honest. I usually never laugh when someone says, “I have a brain tumor.”

  6. heather anne Says:

    a) I’m pretty sure spam in blog comments is what causes cancer. In which case I’m doomed.
    b) This was perfect.

  7. You can call me, 'Sir' Says:

    This is exactly why I love small diners. The food’s always good and the conversation….my God, the conversation.

  8. You can call me, 'Sir' Says:

    This is exactly why I love small diners. The food’s always good and the conversation….my God, the conversation.

  9. jenny Says:

    roy: then you should have heard the creepy child’s voice she used when she said it!
    heather anne: thanks! and if spam comments are a carcinogen, we’re ALL doomed!
    sir: it’s sooo true! i’ve been contemplating making that my regular hangout.

  10. Fiorello La Guardia Says:

    OMIGOSH…I don’t know which is funnier – the blog or all of your comments.
    Thanks, everyone, for a very gooood laugh!

  11. Tracy Lynn Says:

    That’s why my kidneys failed. People just wouldn’t stop talking about end stage renal disease. Bastards.

  12. Hilly Says:

    Oh Jen, this post was so beautifully written and it made me bust up laughing at the end.
    Corningware? Really?

  13. shari Says:

    Did she mention the harm from all those E.D. commercials? Sheesh, I’ll be glad when it’s not an erection year anymore.

  14. Cheryl Says:

    And what about cigarette ads? You never see those anymore either. Ah, the good old days before commercials gave us cancer.

  15. jenny Says:

    fiorello: it’s the comments, trust me. always the comments.
    tracy lynn: if i see one more TV ad about tiny kidney failure, i’m gonna punch someone in the kidney, just for you.
    hilly: thanks! and seriously – when was the last time corningware advertised? 1945?
    shari: ROFL! u so crazy.
    cheryl: it was the best of times.

  16. Don Says:

    Life as novel. I love it.

  17. Jessica Says:

    Am I the ONLY person who wants to know who Robert is?
    Wait. Oh God…am I the only person who DOESN’T know?!

  18. DD&C Says:

    I’m guessing Robert is Anonymous who came up with this drink:
    The Stranger, submitted by Anonymous
    • Berry Fusion Pucker
    • Absolut Mandrin
    • Absinthe (FYI – it’s actually legal now in the US)
    Am I right, or am I right???

  19. DD&C Says:

    I’m guessing Robert is Anonymous who came up with this drink:
    The Stranger, submitted by Anonymous
    • Berry Fusion Pucker
    • Absolut Mandrin
    • Absinthe (FYI – it’s actually legal now in the US)
    Am I right, or am I right???

  20. jenny Says:

    don: gotta steal ideas somewhere… :)
    jessica: yes, you’re the only who wants to know. nat’s the only one who knows, and even she didn’t want to know. it’s best you don’t know.
    DD&C: very interesting guess! it’s not correct, but an interesting guess all the same. i don’t know who submitted the absinthe recipe. i owe that person my blindness and dementia, however.

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