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The Old Man and the Diner

By Robert G. Achtel

During a stay in Sarasota, Florida in the spring of 2009, I prepared to shoot the front of a Waffle House restaurant on U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail, for what would later become "Oasis Diner“.

On the day of the shoot I had not figured out yet where the piece would go, but I was attracted by the aesthetics of the typical black steel and glass facade. Leaving the house, I met my friend Vern. He’d be around his garage at that time of the day, fixing up gear or taking care of his yard. Retired from his director position at PPG Industries, Vern had become a published botanical photographer, documenting orchids for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Discussing my schedule for the day and mentioning the Waffle House I was about to shoot, Vern told me about his friend, mystery writer Stuart M. Kaminsky (* 1934 in Chicago, IL † 2009 in St. Louis, MO). He revealed that Mr. Kaminsky used to write at that Waffle House during the night and that he also used it as a setting for his books. Of course, as one of his leading characters, a depressive process server by the name of Lew Fonesca, was a Sarasota resident.

I left inspired to capture this seemingly mundane restaurant, just having learned that it had already transcended into fiction and pop culture. When I arrived at the site, the Waffle House had just been closed down and the signage was about to be removed. A close call, but not uncommon during the recession of 2009. I also shot an abandoned Winn Dixie and a K-Mart during that stay, the latter became "All Mart" - both buildings have vanished since. It was during that time that ephemerality became a major theme of "The New World".

"Oasis Diner" eventually turned into a piece about saying your goodbyes, getting things in order, a place for that one last talk you may have with someone. I decided that it should be located in a remote, deserted setting and shot the material for the background at the Vasquez Rocks just outside of Palmdale, California, in February 2012.

I first met Vern in 1994. Ever since, I cherish the episodes he shared of the life he spent with his brilliant wife Renata. It would’ve been easy to mistake Vern for a grumpy old man. Having ticked off most of life’s boxes, easily allowing him and Renata to spend their retirement on their own terms, he just couldn’t let go. Let go of his disappointment with people and the way of the world. He wasn’t bitter, he just saw straight through many things you’re not supposed to. I was still growing up, and as a kid you get told that everything is going to be alright in the end. Looking into his old eyes, I eventually realized that that’s probably a lie.

Our last correspondence was about his recent E-Mail issues. He summarized: "The Spam was too much, but such is life."

Vernon L. Sawyer (* 1929 in Woodstock, VT † 2013 in Sarasota, FL) is pictured above (left) in North Carolina in 1964.

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