I join Jerry at his table at Kim’s Diner on a surprisingly cold day in Waco, Texas. George ambles through the restaurant’s front door and sits down next to Jerry. “What are you eating?” he asks. Without looking up, Jerry responds, “Boris’s soup. He always makes it when it’s cold out. But he already left, so you should have been here on time.”
George laughs and orders a grilled chicken sandwich after the waitress reminds him of his new diet. The sandwich arrives, loaded with extra pickles, and George slides his side of tater tots over so Jerry can easily share.
“When we talk it’s usually a debate about who had it worse over in Vietnam,” Jerry comments. The two became friends six years ago and get together several times a week. They happily swap stories about one another, laughing as they recount their many adventures.
Jerry is white and a republican. George is black and a democrat. When asked if they ever talk politics, they shrug and then joke, “No! We’d kill each other!” before promptly returning to their tater tots and storytelling.
Anna, a young waitress at Kim’s, frequently waits on Jerry and George, and she knows them well. They comfortably slip into banter with her, complaining that she took too long warming up to them. “I did not!” Anna protests. She recalls, “I thought you all hated me because I messed up your order the very first time I served you,” and the whole group laughs.
Anna points across the room to another group of diners and explains, “That’s one of the church groups that eats here most mornings. They like to sit at those two central tables and then float around, mingling. Later in the afternoon an AA recovery group often comes in. One of the meeting facilities is around the corner, so we sometimes get a rush around lunchtime.” In another booth, a young family tears through pancakes and coloring pages, enjoying time together before school.
Jerry remarks, “I’ll often see the sheriff and his posse in here. It’s the funniest thing too because they’ll sit down just a few feet away from this other regular who has a criminal record.” He laughs, “They all happily eat their lunch, but I’m sure they know each other!”
Truly, anyone could come into Kim’s Diner.
Everything about Kim’s feels familiar. From the crisp red and white interior to the jukebox in the corner, this burger joint evokes all the iconography of a classic American age. As one of the oldest restaurants in town, Kim’s has operated in a few different locations since its founding in 1956. The current location is comfortably far from the bustle of downtown, and the restaurant’s towering, ruby-red sign is one of the most recognizable landmarks along Waco Drive.
Gene and Bill Stanley founded Kim’s amid a long career in the food industry. The Stanleys managed Kim’s until the early 2010s. In 2015, Boris and Matthew Crvenkovski bought the diner, and it is still under their management today. For over 60 years, Kim’s has been a constant fixture in the Waco dining scene. The beloved restaurant generates a sense of permanence in a town swept up in rapid change.
Common spaces like Kim’s also offer a location for leisure outside of home and work. They operate outside the realm of utility, illustrating what Madeline L’Engle calls “being time.” At Kim’s the only agenda is enjoyment. Customers enjoy delicious meals as well as membership in a shared space. This shared space downplays political categories and instead cultivates an ethos of friendship and belonging.
Another frequent customer is Max. The native Wacoan has been eating at Kim’s since he began coming with his parents in the 1960s. He fondly remembers stopping for Dr. Pepper floats as a child. Now, Max eats at Kim’s every Tuesday for breakfast before relocating to Dichotomy for the afternoon.
Max is well known by the servers at Kim’s. He prefers to sit in a booth along the far wall or at the bar. He and his wife used to frequent Kim’s on Fridays during Lent for the catfish platter, which he laments has been discontinued since the pandemic.
Max explained that although he often overhears political views at Kim’s that conflict with his own, this does not threaten his sense of belonging. He does not consider it his duty to engage with these customers. Though it might seem commonsensical to some people, others reject this kind of political restraint. Many people consider it their duty to correct a neighbor who holds a belief they consider wrong. They feel uncomfortable among contrary opinions and choose to associate only with likeminded people.
Max has a completely different idea because he thinks that politics can properly be subordinated to other goods. When asked how he maintains this view, he shrugged and explained, “Talking about politics with everyone just isn’t polite.” This statement is a quiet act of resistance. For Max, the intrinsic good of belonging overwhelms any need to turn the pleasant diner into a political arena.
Ultimately, Kim’s culture is sustained by customers’ willing participation in a de-emphasis of politics.
Jerry and George demonstrate a similar commitment. The friends know that they disagree; however, this does not pose a barrier to their friendship. In fact, they seem happy to acknowledge their differences. Jerry joked, “The only time we talk about politics is when I give George a hard time, pointing out that he seems to agree with Trump about a particular policy.” Jerry continued, “Our shared experience in Vietnam is the basis of our friendship. It’s a bond so tight, I don’t know how to completely explain it.” George replied, “I accept him. It’s no problem that we disagree.”
Politics cannot fulfill the human longing for transcendence. Therefore, a culture entirely fixated on politics is destined for burnout. Unnecessary factiousness, diminished creativity, widespread suspicion, and lasting malaise are the symptoms of this cultural burnout. The mending of our culture must include a reordering of our priorities. To challenge all-encompassing political agendas, we must identify alternative human goods.
While mainstream culture moves toward burnout, a charming diner in north Waco demonstrates a wholly different set of priorities. Gathering places that prioritize friendship and belonging over politics offer consolation for the loneliness and alienation of our age. These sorts of institutions are increasingly rare in a digitized, hurried world, but they are vital for sustaining a healthy civic culture.
Beth Butler is a senior from Waco, Texas studying philosophy and great texts.
Beth likes to watch old movies about cowboys, sit under trees at the park, talk about culture, and drink good coffee. She previously interned at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and currently works as a research assistant at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion and as a student assistant for Baylor in Washington.