There’s an old Steven Wright joke where Wright says he went to a 24-hour grocery store only to find that the doors were being locked. He tells the guy, “Hey, the sign says you’re open 24 hours,” to which the grocery store worker responds, “Not in a row.”
There are no keys at the Golden Apple in Chicago. They don’t even have keys.
This American Life took notice and used an old standard journalistic gimmick — the tick-tock — and turned it into a captivating hour-long radio piece about the 24-hour diner.
This American Life didn’t have to work very hard to establish what life is like in a diner. It’s automatically relatable, and this story could have happened anywhere in the country. Thanks to places like IHOP and Denny’s, the imagery of a diner is engrained in our collective minds. That made the story challenging and workable at the same time. Hearing the ambient sound of the diner puts a listener there immediately. But the show worked hard at it anyway to make the descriptions entertaining.
Every detail that could be true of every diner was crafted to amuse. The Mickey Mouse pancakes arranged in violation in U.S. copyright law. The anecdote about the keys. The story about the kids who are told, if they ever get lost, to instruct the policeman to take them to the diner. All made this diner seem like a special place worth talking about, but without losing that down-the-street feel.
However, the transition music was annoying and at times inappropriate, as was the stupid Sex and the City time-filling tangent. But, to be fair, that reference was probably more relevant back when the story was actually produced.
What ultimately makes the story work was establishing characters and conversations. Those are what stick with you. The waitress who didn’t want to talk anymore, but didn’t want to be rude and did so anyway. The friends who dated once for a long time and still have unresolved issues but are strangely cognizant of them. The old woman who talks about her wonderful gay neighbors next door. The butcher who remembers his first cut of meat.
The characters work because they aren’t just soundbites in a vox pop. They get to speak at length. You hear their thought processes and stories and anecdotes. You understand who they are. And they’re honest. Shockingly honest.
More importantly, there is a range of characters from different points in their lives. The story, above all else, is a snapshot not of a place, but of life. The characters all come from different generations and perspectives and are all looking for different things in their lives.
The Golden Apple seems like the kind of place that even a disheveled guy like Steven Wright could feel just as at home as a sociable 17-year-old girl who is just looking to have a good time with her friends.