In preparation for our 10-hour stint at the Hi-Way Diner, a 24-hour restaurant off Highway 2 in Lincoln, we ate Amigos in the diner’s parking lot.
What lay ahead of us – the lifelong friends, impromptu musical performances and people-watching until we had to hold each other’s eyes open – we never would have guessed. Reporting for 10 hours anywhere is daunting, let alone a 24-hour diner known for its eccentric customers. Right off Highway 2, just minutes from downtown, our home for the night was lit by a majestic sign and impressively full parking lot.
Walking in, Jourdyn was taken aback by the decor. Antique signs and objects are bolted to every free space on the wall and ceiling. The tablecloths seem to be infinitely sticky. Neither of us knew what we were truly getting into, but posted in our corner booth, we were safe for the time being.
The crowd changed substantially from academically dutiful college students to a loud group of musicians when nearby bars closed. When they left, the longest half-hour of our lives ensued. Staying awake as the only people in a restaurant at 5 a.m. is not easy, and our eyes started to drift off to the dull hum of a vacuum. Just in time to jolt us back to life, diner regulars started to drift in and drink their coffee before heading to work, seemingly unaware of the vile shenanigans that ensued in the same leather booths just hours earlier.
The College Students
If you’re sober at Hi-Way Diner, you’re probably studying.
We met both experienced and first-time diners who occupied booths most of the night while cramming for finals and eating pie.
“I don’t feel bad for loitering because they’re open 24-7,” said A.J. Matthies, a senior business administration and marketing major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Matthies and his fellow students from the university were studying, as well as being entertained by the incoming crowds of guests.
“We’re all people-watchers,” said Kayla Hass, a sophomore inclusive early childhood education major.
They unanimously agreed when visiting the Hi-Way Diner, you should sit where you can see the door. Matthies also admitted to sometimes being one of the people who – on a different night – is entertaining to watch.
Mackenzie Miller, an undeclared freshman at UNL, sat in a booth with friends until nearly 3 a.m. She was a first-time guest at the diner, but wasn’t turned off by its unconventional 24-hour atmosphere.
“I don’t think it’s sketchy,” she said. “I think it’s really cute. It’s a good place to study.”
The Hi-Way Diner is often the last stop for college students after a night of drinking on the weekends, but on Wednesday night, the academic crowd remained mellow and studious until the wee hours of the morning.
At 1:12 a.m., James Burke, 24, stumbled into our booth.
He sat next to Shelby and inquired as to our presence at the diner. He then proceeded to talk for two hours, delving into life with his cat Juke and his job moving pounds of Satan’s “stuff” for miles all day.
Burke works as a musician by night. But he dislikes playing for the bar crowd, as they are unappreciative of his songwriting, he said. He said they often request cover songs instead like, “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson, which he’s not about.
Our new friend was willing to play his harmonica for us, which he retrieved from his friend’s car after proclaiming he was “goddamn good at the harmonica.”
Fresh off a show, he was tired, and he made that very clear.
“I stop here because I’m very tired,” Burke said. “And also because I’m very tired. And I hope to meet other people that are very tired.”
Burke’s witticisms were endless:
“I come here when other people are paying. I frequently stop here when I am certain that another person is going to pay for me not only to eat food, but also ketchup. My favorite thing to eat on the menu when someone else is paying is water. Then food because that comes next. Value fries? Do they have that? I will eat pepper. I will eat salt. I will eat garnishes. I will eat things that people say that they think are funny and I don’t because I am hungry. I will eat things that I don’t think are funny because I’m hungry, also.”
“I’m like the John Mayer that doesn’t get written about. But if you give me time, I swear people could hate me as much as they hate John Mayer.”
“I’m not going to drink this water … yes, I will.”
“Enjoy my meal? Enjoy my meal? Enjoy my ride home with a guy that has three kids from three different divorces? Yeah, I’m going to enjoy my meal.”
“Hey, guess what? I’m not trying to sleep with either of you. How great does that sound? Not good to me.”
“I’ve never been thrown out of Duffy’s.”
“I came here with a piano player who doesn’t have money.”
“The waiter is going to come to the table and tell me to leave because I don’t have money.”
“This is weird. It’s nice to have people pay attention to me again.”
“I work in hell. I work with Satan.”
“I spend most of my money on action figure Ninja Turtles.”
Among the group of regulars who stopped in for their routine breakfast and coffee before work, there’s a shared opinion Hi-Way is the most convenient option for their unconventional schedules.
“I get up early,” said Oris Smith, a 70-year-old Lincoln Public Schools bus driver. “It’s one of the only restaurants open before 5 a.m., besides Perkins. But I don’t like Perkins,”
Smith also shared his go-to menu items.
“I love their eggs and hash browns,” he said. “But I also love their oatmeal. They have great oatmeal.”
Cab driver Craig Barnadoe said he and other drivers stop in on their late nights and early mornings for sausage and eggs.
Another regular, Ron Colin, 65, has stopped at Hi-Way Diner at 5 a.m. every morning since his other favorite restaurant closed years ago, he said.
“I come here about this time every morning, read the paper, have a cup of coffee and head to work,” he said.
The regulars at the diner come in like clockwork, the first stop on a day that will wind to a close and ultimately bring them right back.
The employees at the diner never seemed to mind our half-day presence.
The night waitress, 27-year-old Stephanie Madsen, has worked at Hi-Way Diner for a little more than a year. After working Friday and Saturday nights, she’s accustomed to the waves of demographics throughout the night.
“After 2 a.m., it’s always drunk people,” she said. “It’s usually just people who want to finish off their night and have a good time.”
Rick Parent, the graveyard cook, works from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. five nights a week and claimed there are patterns in ordering for the rowdier patrons.
“The partiers usually order Hot Strippers, Haystacks, chicken clubs or the Number 5 breakfast meal with eggs, meat, hash browns and magic toast,” he said.
For having to deal with two reporters occupying their corner booth for 10 hours, numerous drunk individuals and other rambunctious folks, the employees of the Hi-Way Diners are extremely laid back.
Once the rowdies left, they were nice enough to refill our sodas and allowed us to pay for a $3.26 bill with a credit card.
We like to think we’re stronger human beings for having endured such a traumatic experience. Not physically stronger – our bodies will take years to recover. Not mentally, either – that will be an even longer recovery.
But emotionally, we are at our pinnacle … specifically from the ear candy that flowed from Burke’s heavy panting and slobbering into his harmonica.
This is an experience we will never forget nor ever attempt again. But really, we are very tired so will someone please come pick us up now?