Writer & Photographer Caroline Corinne Evans Abbott is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this article. From her project ‘How Van Met Phyllis: Curley’s Diner, Stamford CT, The Ruby Slipper Project‘. To see Caroline’s body of work click on any image.
“Has anyone ever told you you have bedroom eyes?” He leaned in over the counter of the tiny diner and set down their food as her big brown eyes darted back and forth. For the confident, handsome, thirty-four-year-old veteran (a line cook for now), this interaction was easy, comfortable. For her – also a veteran, and savvy, but with a giddy laugh she never was very good at holding back – the interaction would have been a little less comfortable: she was on a date with another man. But my grandfather didn’t seem to care much.
That is the spark-flying story of how Van met Phyllis – and the story of how my maternal grandparents met. Hers was an extreme caricature of a position many women have encountered over the course of history – whether to follow the head or the heart. She followed her heart, and like their memory, the diner still stands today.
The year was 1948, and Curley’s diner in Stamford, Connecticut had been open for seven years, about the same number of years Van Gordon Evans, a southern gentleman with a strong jawline and an incurable sense of confidence, had called the north his home. There was instant chemistry, and through a series of events she never fully detailed, they were married six months later with their first of three baby girls arriving ten months after that.
My grandmother had an affinity for diners – frequently calling us from the land line of a local joint she had spontaneously arrived at to see if we would like to join her for a coffee, one of my greatest regrets in life is the one time I declined to join her on one of these occasions. But more often than not, we would end up in a booth at a diner, having a B.L.T., and talking about life: the future, the past, and the present. It was in those diners where I got my first sense of the world around me, of the community we lived in, and where she passed to me her unabatingly street-smart sense of class. Frequently, she spoke out against things she felt were wrong if the time arrived, but more frequently, she complimented that which she saw as good for the world. I gauged her reactions to the world around me partly in diners just like Curley’s, and in so doing, she taught me when to speak up and when to shut up.
Their courtship would have taken place as the height of Country-Western, Latin, and Big Band music led up to the birth of rock n’ roll. Most of their dating activities happened in and around the Southern Connecticut area where she had spent the latent parts of her childhood after immigrating with her family from Italy at the age of eight. But Curley’s diner is the stand-out landmark of their love story – itself as imperfect and inescapably charming as their relationship. The neighbourhood surrounding them abounded with visual disparity even then between the ‘rich’ sides of town and the poor, ramshackle places struggling with crime, violence, poverty, and drugs.
The diner was empty when I arrived, and admittedly, sticks out like a sore thumb in the heart of the increasingly gentrified Stamford, Connecticut, which in its efforts to beautify the neighbourhood has gone largely in favour of a more classic turn-of-the-century style. Skyscrapers and parking garages spring up all around, and construction sounds ring out in a clamour from behind the tiny parking lot, but inside there’s just silence. Across the street, town efforts to transform the neighbourhood into a bustling downtown are succeeding – it is a portrait of gentility with carefully restored brickwork and particularly-chosen lampposts. Black, Hispanic, and White workers can be seen ducking between the shadows of the buildings, working on construction crews while well-kempt Black, Hispanic, and White families enjoy the appeal of the restoration efforts below, driving into the city for a day of shopping while locals are an interesting mix of privilege and pain. But Curley’s is a quirky and quintessentially authentic New England diner, hosting senators, congressmen, and actors – DeNiro even filming a part of his film “Everybody’s Fine” at the counter.
“I love your shoes.” The waitress says in a very matter-of-fact way as she swings by the table. “Thanks! There’s actually a funny story about that – it’s kind of why I’m here”. I explain my Grandparents’ story and the shoes’ significance, hesitant at first and admittedly taken aback by the interior which looks more seventies than fifties despite the iconically original sign which still stands on the roof outside, but I am welcomed by her directness and interest. When I explain my grandfather’s opening line, she laughs and exclaims with great joy “I’d probably date him, too! And the Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie. Love it.”
Opened by Herluf Svenningsen, called ‘Curley’ for his golden locks in 1941, the diner has been a stubbornly-steadfast icon of Stamford for decades, changing hands in the seventies after being bought by Maria Aposporos. It has, literally, made it through hell and high water: surviving everything from the flood of 1955 which left southern Connecticut drowning, to gentrification efforts which would have liked to do away with the diner entirely.
In 2007, then Stamford City Mayor and now Connecticut State Governor Dannel Malloy’s Urban Redevelopment Commission’s efforts to seize the diner under Eminent Domain in hopes of replacing it with an apartment complex lost to Aprosporos in a hard-fought and very public Connecticut Supreme Court battle garnering attention from everyone from The New York Times to CNN.
Curley’s didn’t ‘fit in’ with the sleek gentrification plan for Stamford, and the ground upon which it rests was valuable. It gives off an anachronous vibe: clashing heavily with the art deco style taking over the newly renovated downtown with its fifties charm and even more out of place seventies interior. Aprospros fought back with a card as political as the one she was dealt, using powerful alliances and the press to establish security on her investment – after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight government claims of Eminent Domain, the battle ended in Aprosporos and her sister Begetis saving the decades-old piece of history from destruction.
Aprosporos, a Greek emigrant with thick white hair and friendly eyes whose accent is as steadfast as her commitment to the diner, has garnered plenty of attention and support from Republican politicians and community members as a result of her public battle with Malloy, at one point supporting Tom Foley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign for Governor in 2010, and serving on the Republican Board of Representatives in years prior. During his campaign for Governor against Foley, Malloy would later cite her involvement as a political move and claim no involvement in the Urban Redevelopment Commission’s decision to attempt to seize her property in Stamford.
Typically, the Connecticut Democratic Party’s constituency are proponents and defenders of arts, culture, and humanist ideologies, and gentrification projects tend to reflect the democratic majority’s reverence for the arts and historic integrity, even across party lines – Willimantic, Connecticut, once much more of a heroin hotbed than it is today, has made strong and continuing comeback efforts in recent decades, presenting a swinging comeback which regards the area’s original features and historic value.
Today, restaurant is an unapologetically authentic homestead for the family clan – Maria and her daughter chat away in Greek as they serve the community. As she directs her staff, she carries herself with the wary sensibility of a street-smart mother, as though watching carefully for the next political move which may jeopardise the integrity of her legacy. She carries with her the wariness of her generation, looking out for her diner like a child from behind the front counter, ducking in and out of the kitchen in her apron.
An African American woman and her son walk in mere moments after I take my seat – right across from the doorway my Grandfather may have walked out of so many decades before. In the quiet diner, she thwarts the boy’s requests for ham in his omelette order, explaining that it would cost more than they had — $0.50 more, to be exact – and that she had to eat, too. As they settle in and prepare to order, the waitress, who has overheard from the kitchen, comes forward to take their orders.
“Excuse me, ma’am, not that it’s any of my business, but I overheard part of your conversation. This is the best value on the menu” she points at the menu, explaining the volume of food for one order. “Let him get what he wants. I’ll make sure you have enough to eat. I’ll put the extra dollar in.” She leans down to the child, shyly looking over his menu. “What do you like to study in school?” she asks. He responds happily, explaining in fragmented sentences his love of math, science, and community. He’s gotten loads of awards so far this year. He’s an area local, it’s clear he has no Daddy but he’s too young to mind, and he likes ham with his eggs.
Some time passes and a local comes in, greeting the waitress with a hug. They ask each other about business and he sets about getting some lunch. It’s the authentic place for the ‘real’ Stamford residents to come, where on the other side of the street, wealthy shoppers frequent the attractive, restored storefronts.
“Let me see if I can find something for you… Ma! I’m goin’ out for a minute”The waitress disappears into the parking lot. Moments later, she returns with two items: an old article from the Stamford Advocate featuring the diner’s story for me, and a toy truck. I pour over the collection of images, and information, and naturally, order a B.L.T., then watch as she takes the truck to the boy. “Santa told me you’ve been good this year”, she says, stooping down to deliver the gift. The boy graciously accepts, and the waitress returns with a smile, saying “you keep doin’ good in school, okay?” as she walks away.
Curley’s diner represents a community through several parts of a very diverse whole, the underlying current of mankind uniting despite political, social, or racial differences to convene for one purpose: to enjoy some really good food and have a chat. Greek, Italian, Scottish, and Black culture, Liberal and Conservative, converging in one space with no animosity. Naturally, conditions are not always this idyllic, but for today, it was peace incarnate, and my Grandmother’s affinity for the American diner was alive both through her story and her legacy of acceptance. Their marriage was rife with differences – some more innately curable than others – but they loved each other, so they dove right in.
Maria represents a demographic which came to American in pursuit the American dream: much like my own Grandmother’s journey from Italy, and a demographic which is still very much alive and well today, but one which is challenged by hyper-conservative immigration reform proposals and adjacent media firestorms. When big business got in the way, Maria accorded with whichever political side could aid her in moving forward with her dream. But even with her conservative allies, she has not lost her socially liberal ideologies; serving food to the poor, sometimes lending money to regulars, and welcoming everyone, from white collar workers to prostitutes, to eat at her table. In the wake of the election, relations are tense even in the ‘quiet corners’ of Connecticut – but the American diner is still even ground on which to have a discussion or to learn about life from a stranger.
Diners and community gathering places like them are hotbeds of human interaction: in them, we meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. Frequently, they are tied to the romanticised ideals of American road-tripping, and frequently, that is an accurate connection, with travellers visiting from all over the country and the world. They provide common ground upon which ideas and differing philosophies can duke it out, ground upon which humanity’s most basic interests stand, and a chance for minds and hearts to meet. My grandmother’s view of diner meals as an occasional luxury was due to more than just her depression-era frugality: she saw the educational, humanist value to the interactions which took place within them.
I speak with Maria on my way out, talking about her experiences owning the Diner and the transitions which have taken place over the years. But charity isn’t new to Curley’s – in fact, Maria explains that the extent of their charity – feeding the neighbourhood poor, hungry, and prostitutes, had sometimes exceeded thousands of meals a week. She explains her battles to secure her business, her plans to eventually renovate, to keep improving, and to restore the building to a more original 1950s style: big dreams which transcend her age or any battles she may face in future.
“I’m planning to fix the sign” she explains, sounding almost sheepish. But as her daughter chats with the young boy’s mother in the background of our conversation, watching the young boy play with his new truck, Maria has no idea how perfect her diner already is.
By Caroline Corinne Evans Abbott