"Tom's Diner Day"
November 18th, 1981

by David Hammar
with assistance from William "UncWilly" Andrews
(Photo by Richard Croft)

Ask any member of the general public to name five Suzanne Vega songs and you'll probably get a puzzled look. At best, they'll probably be able to peg her as "That Luka Chick." At worst, you could be slapped with some type of restraining order. Start humming or mumbling that familiar "Doo doo doo doo, Doo doo doo doo," though, and just see what happens. You may still be slapped with a restraining order, but at least the judge will recognize the tune... "Tom's Diner" is undeniably one of Suzanne Vega's best known works, having sold well over a million copies and inspired an entire album of cover versions. Even before DNA remixed it into an infectious, audience-participatory sing along, it was a show-stopper -- a quirky little a capella number about nothing in particular, set at the restaurant later made even more famous by "The show about nothing."

"Tom's Diner" was written in Tom's Restaurant, it's really about Tom's Restaurant, on 112th Street and Broadway in New York City, and it was really written from the point of view of my friend Brian, who is a photographer, and had made a comment to me one day that he felt that as a photographer, he saw his whole life through a pane of glass, and always felt like he was the witness to a lot of things, but was never really involved in them. So I was sitting at Tom's Restaurant one morning, and suddenly I guess I got this weird feeling, it came over me, and I thought, 'well, if I were Brian today, how would I be perceiving these different things? And in a way it was supposed to be slightly humorous, and not entirely to be taken totally seriously. And also I thought of it from a male point of view. I'd originally heard it with piano in back, but I don't play piano, so it's a capella.  
 -- "Portrait of an Artist", 1987

When Suzanne performed at the "Prince's Trust" on June 20th, 1986, she even used the song as an icebreaker:

I remember calling my band up hysterically the night before, going "Oh my God! What am I doing? What am I doing here? How can I, as a single person, without my band -- I'm the only one here without my band. What should I do?" So I though, "well, I'll start with 'Tom's Diner,' and if they really hate it, then I can just leave. This'll be a real test -- like, if I can make 8,000 people shut up with my a capella little ditty, then maybe it'll be OK." And it was.  
-- "Portrait of an Artist", 1987

So we know what the song is about, but can we determine precisely when it was written? Though Suzanne (in the guise of Brian Rose), provides a great many observations, she really tells us very little -- even the Restaurant itself is only identified as "the diner on the corner", where "the man behind the counter" pours coffee, affectionate and/or simply fastidious women enter (or remain outside). Even the reference to a newspaper is vague:


I open
Up the paper
There's a story
Of an actor

Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of

Yet this, strangely enough, provides a real clue. Though Suzanne, in the her liner notes from 1991's "Tom's Album" recalls the song as being written "one morning in 1982," Brian Rose, in a 1982 article for "The CooP," places completion of "Tom's Diner" (which he describes as "an a cappella piece of whimsy and sagacity") somewhere between mid-1981 and mid-1982.

This broader "window" fits the time frame of the demise of actor William Holden, whose corpse was discovered on Monday, November 16th, 1981, in the apartment where it had lain for a week after Holden hit his head against the sharp edge of a table in a drunken fall and subsequently bled to death. The story wasn't reported nationally until Tuesday, however, and didn't appear in the New York Post -- one of the only two NYC papers with comics -- until Wednesday morning, November 18th, 1981.

Based on the layout of the Post itself, and Suzanne's recollections two decades later, it's almost certain this was the paper she sang about.

I open
Up the paper
There's a story
Of an actor


The tabloid-formatted New York Post features a front-page "sensational" headline and photo, but the story itself is on page 3, to grab the reader's attention as soon as they "open up the paper".

Who had died
While he was drinking
It was no one
I had heard of


In fact, William Holden was quite a well-known actor, but well into the waning years of his career by the time Suzanne came of age, so it's hardly surprising he was "no one she had heard of."

And I'm turning
To the horoscope
And looking
For the funnies


Though these actions would seem unrelated, they're actually not -- the single-section, 92-page New York Post isn't what one might call the most "reader friendly" newspaper, and on this day the daily Horoscope is buried about a third of the way in on the comics page. So the easiest and quickest way to find one's horoscope is to flip through the pages while "looking for the funnies" -- found on this date on page 30.

 

One reason Suzanne may not have included more specific information regarding her horoscope may have been that on this particular date, it wasn't terribly memorable:

Cancer (June 21 - July 22): Better not daydream or loaf on the job! Work performance may be under review.

So we can place the "story of an actor" events of "Tom's Diner" on Wednesday, November 18th, 1981. Or can we? There's just one minor hitch to this theory: The Post's forecast weather forcast for the day, which called for "Partly sunny" and "Clear" weather, with no chance of rain until at least Friday.


Confronted with this contradiction recently, Suzanne finally 'fessed up -- "Tom's Diner," it turns out, wasn't written about a single morning, but was actually about at least two mornings -- a composite of events she recalled when composing the song some months later -- and the rainy morning(s) in question actually occurred during the spring of 1982. Still, November 18th, 1981 is probably the closest we'll ever get to a concrete date for the "Tom's Diner" events -- the "rainy day in spring" is probably too vague, while the dates of other events, such as that of Suzanne and Jack Hardy's "Midnight Picnic" on the steps of the cathedral are probably known only to those present at the time (though Suzanne' suggestion that it occurred "once upon a time before the rains began" implies that it, too, took place in 1981.)

Twenty years later, "Tom's Diner" has become a true classic -- and next time you find yourself in New York City on the 18th of November be sure to stop by Tom's Restaurant for coffee.

 

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