Less than a month before the presidential election, a little diner just a short drive from my house made front-page news in The New York Times.
What happened next might make you feel a little better about America if you’re worried that we just don’t care enough about our neighbors anymore.
First, the backstory: Donna Dove has been running Donna’s Diner for 13 years in downtown Elyria, OH, on the corner of Middle Avenue and Second Street. Like so many small towns, Elyria has been hit hard by changing times, and Donna has struggled mightily to keep her diner afloat.
Donna’s always had her loyal customers, but it’s safe to say that, until two months ago, most people in my neighborhood and too many in Donna’s had never had so much as a cup of her coffee. Then Times writer Dan Barry and photographer Nicole Bengiveno discovered the little diner with Formica countertops, quirky regulars and electric bills that just keep going up and up. Their story, titled “At the Corner of Hope and Worry,” clawed its way into the hearts of people around the world.
This is not an exaggeration. Earlier this week, a friend and I stopped at the diner for breakfast and read some of Donna’s letters, and many of the entries in the red notebook she put by the cash register for guests to sign after the story ran.
“I wanted to remember them,” she said, handing me the notebook. “People are full of stories, you know.”
Yes, they are, starting with Donna. She took a break from cooking and pulled up a chair to talk about some of the customers who sent letters and swarmed her diner after the story ran. They came from down the street and across the country. A lot of them were journalists swarming the battleground state of Ohio.
“From New York to California, from Germany to Japan,” she said, shaking her head with a smile. “China, too.”
She’d never seen anything like it. “Packed,” she said. “Packed all the time. I finally had to call the mayor for help.”
By “help,” she means answering the phone and returning calls.
“Yeah, I did that,” Mayor Holly Brinda said, laughing, in a phone interview. “I care about Donna, and she was pretty overwhelmed. She also was getting some inquiries from businesses wanting to know about the city. I wanted to follow up.”