"Hey! I need coffee!" a man in a plaid shirt shouted. Across the crowded diner, a harried young waitress raised her head.

"Coming right up!" she called, spinning into action so quickly she nearly knocked over a waiter who was precariously balancing two cups and a plate of steak. "Sorry!" she breathed, and rushed for the coffee pot.

"About time," the man grumbled, thumping his fist on the laminated tabletop as the girl poured.

A short distance away, the kitchen was awhirl with bodies. Workers dashed back and forth, from refrigerator to stove to sink to cash register, in a fervent effort to satisfy their restive clientele.

"Can we get some pie?" demanded a woman sitting in a nearby banquette. "Like, now?"

"I want to see the manager," scowled the woman's husband, as their waitress placed an entire, glistening cherry pie on the table in front of them.

"This coffee is cold!" yelled the man in plaid.

A new customer came in, straddled one of the silver and red counter stools, and immediately started in on a waitress: "I'm waitin' for my food," he said.

"What would you like?" she inquired politely.


"We don't have any." The waitress glanced around nervously. Near her on the counter sat a slice of melon on a pink plate. She slid it in front of the difficult customer.

"I don't like cantaloupe! I want hassenpfeffer!" the man griped. "What kind of restaurant is this?"

Good question! What kind of restaurant is it, indeed, where the patrons harangue the staff mercilessly and never say "please" or "thank you"?

Turns out, it is a make-believe restaurant, the child-scale replica of an old-fashioned American roadside diner that's a hugely popular part of the Port Discovery Children's Museum in Baltimore.

Everything in the place is touchable; the realistic-looking food (including a plucked chicken ready for roasting) is made of rubber.

On a recent summer day, all the cooks, waiters, and cashiers were young children. And the customers — every rude, loutish, ungrateful one of them, as evidenced by the actual dialogue you just read — were the children's parents.

Reader, I kid you not. As families wandered in, brightening at the sight of the place, it was jaw-dropping to see how swiftly the grown-ups turned from loving parents — the sort who take children on excursions — into stunningly crass models of bad behavior.

If an uncouth child were ever looking for a place of validation, this would be it. In a real diner, any one of these oafish adults would have risked a lapful of actual boiling coffee.

What was equally noticeable, though, was the comportment of the children. Despite bombardment by the aggressive discourtesy of their elders, they were positively seraphic — the very image of mild-natured tolerance.

"Have everything you need?" asked a pleased-looking server as he set down a bowl filled with slices of gleaming "ham" and "cheese."

His customers didn't bother to answer. They were picking up the food and making jokes about it.


Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.