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Ethnography Essay

The late night diner is one of the many staples of urban areas – they act as beacons to all those with no place better to be. Whether the bar has long since closed, or staying home just isn’t an option any more, 24 hour eateries are the place to be when all else fails. I recently made an educational trip to a 24 hour IHOP for some middle of the night hash-browns and ethnographic field notes. I was escorted to one of the largest tables in the room by a tired looking but albeit enthusiastic young man, and was surprised by how many people were actually there.

It was three in the morning, so I’d half expected to not see a soul, but there were always at least four tables being served. Among the clientele was a couple; a group of hoodlums whom I could only guess had been band geeks in another life; and, my personal favorite, a group of middle aged drunken sushi connoisseurs. Being seated closest to the sushi lovers, I got to eavesdrop on their conversations – and creepily bond with them, unbeknownst to them. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone in the room was varying shades of inebriated.

The conversation was fairly educational in the sense that they were all very proud of their sexual endeavors and had decided to meticulously compare notes. They were surprisingly comfortable with themselves, as well as those within ear shot. It was sort of a contagious comfortable-ness – there was almost a community in the grungy little IHOP. Every one there had probably been kicked out of somewhere else because of closing time, or discontentment – all of us came together not only for diner eggs and pancakes, but for a place to be.

Closing time had become the great equalizer, bringing people from all walks of life – from star crossed lovers to raucous sushi lovers – into their local IHOP, more for a place to be than anything else. Many forces were at work in that IHOP. The waiters were trying to make as much as they could off of tips, iHop stayed open late to facilitate all those who just weren’t ready to go home yet during the witching hour, and the establishment’s patrons were filling many societal expectations.

All of these worked together to create a very different aesthetic than one would see in the daylight. People were more uninhibited because of the late hour and whatever they’d been a part of earlier, yet certain societal standards and ideals were being held up – while others, such as quietness, were generally thrown to the wind. Meanwhile, my incredibly exhausted waiter worked to be as professional as possible while exerting the least amount of work possible – granted, that isn’t necessarily that different from the daytime.

This reflected the corporate values of IHOP that were at play. It caters to a very specific demographic – the less wealthy, and very hungry. IHOP is also one of the only places in its suburban zip code that offers 24-hour service. Which, I admittedly found surprising – I would have assumed there would be more places to go in the middle of the night, but realized very early into my pre-dawn adventure that there wasn’t much for one to do past midnight.

This proves not only that nothing good happens after 2am, but also that nothing interesting will happen either. IHOP was the only place with its doors open after last call, after the kitchens had closed, and after the kids still couldn’t head home but had to something anyways. It’s interesting how so few places were there for the people who weren’t ready to head home for the night – and how many people stubbornly refused to go home.

All the factors played together to set the scene for a bad Romantic Comedy (which undoubtedly could have been playing itself out in the corner booth, where the very young and very passionate couple were paying more attention to themselves than to their pancakes. All of the behaviors in the restaurant came together to form a cultural idea of the late night scene that one might get from the movies. People were far more uninhibited whether from lack of sleep, or intoxication, but they all still played their roles in the scene.

There was a delicate balance between outlandish behavior and the rules of interaction between wait-staff and customers at play. Multiple expectations came together to form a very unique dynamic. It is worth saying that people were in the IHOP at that ungodly hour to be seen. They at least subconsciously knew that they were performers in very large scale production, and decided to stay out because of their role in social norms. They chose not to hide away in their homes until dawn, because someone needed to uphold the night owl character.

Mumford argues in What is a City? That the city requires and creates drama, unlike the suburbs – which is interesting in regards to the very slim options one has in the suburbs past midnight beyond just going home. The percent of the population who want drama and tension (which in this sense are played out through late night excursions) is far lower in the suburbs, not because of the difference between structures in the city and the suburbs but because of the difference in mindset between these two areas (which also yielded the different structures).

The characters in the story at hand are therefore outliers, in a sense. They seek out an experience that one generally only sees –though is not exclusively- in the city, and have a more unique experience because of it. There was a surprising amount of diversity in the demographics that night (really, no matter what tax bracket you’re in, you’re not going to find a place open in Aurora at 3am beyond Wal-Mart and the very occasional late night eatery), which created even more forces at play in the room.

With every now demographic came a new set of ideas that were being prescribed to and upheld. Many sponsors played into the behavior of the performers. Societies’ concept of morality is a very large factor here. Many of the patrons had ducked in to iHop as a way to pass the time while sobering up and moving on with their life – which was caused by society’s laws and idea of moral behavior. While having a night out, they also were influenced not only by their preconceived notion of behavior that one is to have in the night, but also by the behavior that is not acceptable in society generally.

Being overly drunk in public is generally frowned upon, as well as driving under the influence, which explains why many people ducked in to the restaurant – it was the best place to go so their night out wouldn’t have to end, but so they could also start to sober up. A variety of laws are in place that work to discourage public intoxication and bad behavior that might happen during intoxication, but there are at the same time a plethora of ideas at play constructed by the media about youth and the role of alcohol and late nights into the youth culture.

It all plays into an equilibrium between two different sets of expectations and guidelines for behavior. The economy is also a sponsor of the performance. It is in the economy’s best interest that every performer takes on the role of the consumer, and consumerism is marketed from every angle possible so that every person will feel the need to participate. The need to stay out and continue the adventure is an idea partly concocted by the economy and media to influence people to connect the idea of leading an interesting life with products and experiences that can be profited off of.

By staying open all night, IHOP offers an experience to a select group of customers, who for whatever reason need to stay up late and have eggs and coffee. Performers, for a variety of reasons, all take part in consumerism as a means to the experience of staying out late, or getting away from something. The late night patronage of IHOP is indicative of much larger forces and ideas that influence society as a whole. Customers from all walks of life participate in a late night performance that reveals influences from the economy and society as a whole.

Each performer has a different reason for being there but plays into the greater whole of societal norms and expectations. A suburban 24 hour restaurant seems at first like an unlikely place for big ideas to be at play – especially when the place is sort of dead, and the customers look worn-out and inebriated, but every component of the large whole has meaning in its own way – and is essential for the bigger picture to exist.


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