Ithaca's got Cornell, where Nabokov once taught. It's got Ithaca College, where Rod Serling once taught. It's got Gimme Coffee, which is yummy stuff. And there's a lot of physical beauty surrounding it. But otherwise this small Finger Lakes city is a pretty forlorn place, with many boarded-up businesses and a hangdog air about the downtown.
A case in point is the dejected atmosphere of the perfectly preserved Ithaca Diner, which has sat on State Street "forever," according to the waitress. Seventy years is more like it. The current owner, a friendly Greek fry cook, is the third in the diner's history. He, the salty waitress, and a burly fellow in back made up the staff. The clientele, scruffy and unhurried and all over 60, lingered over their coffees and omelettes, passing the breeze with the workers, or sometimes just sitting there. One got the impression that they had left the world behind long ago, or the world had left them behind.
It's a narrow place. A counter with a row of stools and a row of booths opposite. Orange vinyl upholstery. Coat hooks. Signs notifying diners that only cash was accepted and that they should keep their feet on the floor when they belong. I ordered the last Diet Coke of the day ("Let me see if we still have any") and a bacon cheeseburger and fries. The food came quickly on small plates.
The waitress complained that they couldn't get any good help. "A city full of people out of work, and they laugh in my face." Prices are cheap, but it didn't look like the diner—which closes after lunch—was particularly profitable. A sign in the window said it was for sale.
It would be a shame if it passes into history. The owner said old Cornell alumni still come in and talk about how they and their future spouse went on their first date at the Ithaca Diner.