How a quest for an all-day breakfast turned into a profound human experience

Jun 6, 2023

One of my several weaknesses in this life is the all-day breakfast. Let me explain.

I’ve been to various cities in North America, and wherever I go my first order of business when I wake up is to locate a greasy spoon. If I’m in a city for a week and I find a good spot on day 1, I become a regular for the rest of the week.

Yesterday morning I woke up in Milwaukee, sent here by Crier Media to interview the CEO of Harley-Davidson as they prep for their 120th Anniversary next month.

If you are like me, you haven’t heard much about Milwaukee. Yes, they brew a lot of undrinkable beer here, and yes the television series, Happy Days, was based here. Other than those two factoids, and some knowledge of the local professional sports teams, I knew literally nothing about this place. But all I wanted was my greasy breakfast.

The best way to find an all-day breakfast is to make nice with the front desk staff. Now, they probably don’t have the same affinity for the all-day breakfast like I do, but they are as good a starting point as any.

So, I arranged for the super nice lady at the front desk to compile a list of contenders at 6:30AM. I was still on Ontario time and had been up since 4:30. I chose the diner that had a menu for what I was after. Luckily, it was also the one that opened the earliest.

Walking along the river in Milwaukee was a surprisingly beautiful way to start the day. I had no idea how rustic and beautiful Milwaukee is, and I was actually taken aback at the architecture. Old stone buildings, some refurbished with modern additions, adorned nearly every street, only without the annoying symmetry you find in some cities. The place has history, and the multicultural vibe was friendly and hospitable.

The walk from my hotel to the restaurant was roughly 20 minutes. I arrived at 7:30 on the dot, but the neon OPEN sign was unlit. No worries, I thought, it will probably be open in a few minutes. But fifteen minutes later it remained closed. I asked a security guard at the building next door if he knew when it would be open, and he informed me that they were actually closed on Mondays.

It’s ok, I’ve been here before. An all-day breakfast veteran knows that when life calls an unexpected audible, you just get on with it and find a way to fulfill your insatiable craving for grease and egg yolk.

Just one problem – I was now a 30-minute walk from the next viable option. Even worse, I was feeling grumpy due to intense hunger. So, I did the unthinkable for a breakfast snob like me – I walked into the Hilton Hotel and took a seat at their lobby restaurant, one of those impossibly generic breakfast buffets for $14.99.

I could feel my all-day breakfast aficionado card being snatched away as I took my seat. It was only day 1, however, and I wasn’t going to let the sting of bacon in a warming bin get me down. I admit though, the idea of having to eat scrambled eggs was weighing on me. I mean, is it even a breakfast if you can’t dip your toast in a nice yolk, salted and peppered, chased by gulp of diner coffee?

I would never find out.

As I sat down, slightly disgruntled, to eat this so-called meal, something else caught my attention. That’s when the rest of my day completely changed, and looking back I am grateful the initial restaurant was closed.

A woman seated at the table beside mine, probably in her early 50s, was irretrievably distraught. Tears rolled down her face. She was having trouble breathing. She was rocking slightly back and forth. She dropped her phone on the table. Her cries were genuine, heart-wrenching, and profound.

Before I continue, I want you to know something. I’m from Toronto, and like many big city people I often stay away from other people’s problems, especially in public. I’ve been distraught in public before, and I can’t remember ever hoping someone would notice, never mind intervene and see me at my most vulnerable.

This woman seemed to be in the midst of a real trauma. She needed something, someone. So, against my normal instincts I left my table, walked towards hers and asked her if she needed some help. She gasped instead of spoke and looked at her phone on the table. There was a call connected. The person on the line’s name was John. So, I motioned towards the phone, asking her with my eyes if she wanted me to speak with John. She indicated yes.

John was her husband, and he had just broken the news that his wife’s mother had passed away.

I put the phone down and did the only thing I knew how to do at that moment. I gave this woman, this stranger at the table next to mine, my shoulder to cry on. She took it, and I had to stop myself from soaking her own shoulder with my tears. Truthfully, I wanted to weep with her, but instead I asked her what her mother’s name was. It was Deloris, and this was supposed to be a mother/daughter trip. This woman was waiting for her mom to arrive at the hotel, but instead she would never see her again.

My shirt was dampened by her tears, and I let go so I could pick up the phone and speak with John who was still on the line.

“John, is there anything you would like me to do for your wife as she is very upset?”

‘Can you please tell her that it isn’t her fault? She will be feeling a lot of guilt for not being there.’

“I can do that.”

I put down the phone and as per John’s request I looked into the woman’s face and told her she should know that despite not being there when her mom passed away, that I am certain her mom held her close in her heart. I didn’t really know what I was doing, to be honest. I just wanted to make this woman feel better.

“It’s not your fault,” I told her. “I know you wish you could have been there, and that there are no words that will make you feel better right now, but it’s not your fault.”

By this time hotel staff were coming over to see what the issue was, and I subtly waved them away. The last thing she wanted was a crowd. Let me rephrase – the last thing I would have wanted was a crowd.

I should tell you that she really was a lovely woman. She was apologizing to me over and over again, as if her sullen disposition was somehow a nuisance to me. It wasn’t. If I am being honest, I was sort of overwhelmed, but I was also strangely thankful. It made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a very long time; like I was useful to someone. My marriage had recently been broken, and I was traversing waters that were choppy and difficult. For all intents and purposes, my ex wife had dismantled me through years of demonstrable abuse. My self-worth had been depleted, and while I had been making some progress, I routinely fell back into a place of diminished confidence.

This woman, whose name is so unique that I am intentionally leaving it out to protect her privacy, had her life shattered while sitting in a public place. I couldn’t even imagine.

Before writing this, I reached out to a friend and told him the story. He told me to write about it, and I replied that I was worried it would feel like I was trying to tell an audience how fucking awesome I am. The truth is, it is remarkably easy to let a stranger cry on your shoulder. You just have to remember how you feel when your life is turned upside down.

This woman probably doesn’t know it, but what happened in that restaurant was as helpful for me as it was for her. I relearned how to engage emotionally after feeling useless and vacant. I rediscovered an appreciation for other human beings in general, at a time when I could not be farther from a meaningful, emotional space. I had been grieving the loss of my family unit for at least a year, and while my ex wife isn’t deceased, she often made me feel like she wished I was. Helping this woman, as selfish as it sounds, made me feel alive again.

And, let’s face it, I got to leave that nasty-ass breakfast where it belonged – cold and uneaten on my table. A small victory in the grand scheme of things.

It took about 20 minutes for the woman to collect herself enough to allow me to escort her back to her room. I told her husband that she probably was in no condition to drive and suggested he pick her up. We hugged in the hallway outside her room. I can still feel it, her body trembling and her tears still dampening my shoulder.

When I left her and went back down to the lobby, I asked staff to conduct a wellness check on her in a half hour. They said no problem. I went back to the restaurant, sat at my table, and paid my bill.

The walk back to my hotel was strange. I felt sad, moved, and light. Inside the lobby of my hotel the staff member who had made the recommendation asked me how breakfast was.

“It was unexpected,” I told her.

To the woman inside that restaurant, if you ever happen to read this, I want you to know that you helped me as much or more than I may have helped you. Thank you for allowing me to lend you my shoulder, and for making me feel human once again.

And rest in peace, Deloris. Your daughter obviously loved you with all her heart.

James Di Fiore

Blackballed isn't just a podcast name, it's a lifestyle for James DiFiore. James has garnered a massive following in the digital space for going against the grain. He says things no one else will.

Related stories