"Give me a small Pepsi," the man barked, standing at the counter.
"Small?" the waitress asked.
"Small Pepsi," he repeated. "I don't want a bucket."
That was just the start of it. By the time Ken Van Meter of Brooklyn Park and a few other men at the counter had drained their cups and their mugs, they would make jokes about the waitress's nose, her bust and her value as fishing bait.
She would reply with politically incorrect remarks about mental handicaps and advise them that "Your mother's calling you."
From the outside, it looks like your typical Dunkin' Donuts,
another pre-fab facade along fast-food, gasoline alley: Ritchie Highway, Brooklyn Park. But inside the shop at the corner of Seward Avenue, the banter sounds more like something from a sitcom set in a 1950s diner, a throwback to the days before corporate image replaced human personality.
When Lois Zinkhan presides and the regular crowd ambles in, you don't hear much of that canned "Have a nice day" stuff. You hear about somebody's diarrhea, another person's failure to resemble Dolly Parton and many things not suitable for air play.
Zinkhan addresses her customers by name, and with some prompting can rattle off their usual orders like a school kid doing multiplication tablesz: "George, of George Welding, he's the coffee with cream and Sweet & Low on the side; Earl is de-caf with cream; Bill, black with cream and Sweet & Low on the side. . . ."
Donald Burke of Lansdowne ("coffee with a little bit of cream"), a loyal member of the congregation, said, "I just come up here to bull----. I forgot my boots today."
Next to him sat Van Meter, nursing his Pepsi and complaining in a loud voice about the size of the serving -- "Small, I said small." He and Burke got into a skirmish about Zinkhan's job performance, and Zinkhan walked over to intervene. Van Meter bristled.
"I'm sticking up for you, and you come here and stick your nose in," he said. "No wonder it's so big."
This is the same man who walked in one morning early this month with three roses for Zinkhan. He'd heard that she had just gotten her high school equivalency diploma, at 49 years old.
"Anybody who does that deserves something," said Van Meter.
To those who don't know the spirit of the crowd, the patter can seem harsh, said Burke.
"We've had strangers come in here, they hear how I'm razzing her, they look at me like 'You keep that up I'm going to bust you one,' " he said. "If we didn't do this, she'd think we were mad at her."
"There's a lot of them pick on me," said Zinkhan, who lives in Curtis Bay. "If I couldn't take it I wouldn't have lasted this long."
It's been five years since Zinkhan poured her first cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee here and served her first honey-glazed. She cannot, however, remember how this other business got started, cannot recall who fired the first shot in this good-natured volley of insults that has become standard practice on the 5 a.m.-to-noon shift.
"I always like to kid. Nobody believes it, but I used to be shy. Nobody believes that," said Zinkhan. She apparently has grown out of it.
"She's a good worker," said the owner, Epy Latagan, "but sometimes she talks too much. I have to tell her, 'Don't overdo it.' "
But Latagan is careful not to stifle Zinkhan entirely. It appears that she and the homey ambience she helps to create around dTC the counter are good for business.
Tom Bowen of Curtis Bay, a semi-retired upholsterer, noted that there are plenty of coffee shops around. But he considers this place home and he's been showing up just about every day for five years, usually talking with Tony Monczewski of Brooklyn Park, a semi-retired paper hanger and painter whom he met through business 40 years ago. In those days, the two men never found time to talk.
"I had my mind on my work," said Monczewski. "If I did get coffee, I'd take it with me and drink it on the way to work."
The dashing commuters are also among Zinkhan's regulars, and she finds time to chat with them at the drive-up window. There was the woman who used to work as a taxicab dispatcher, who pulled in about 11 one morning after a long hiatus from the shop.
"You still working at nights?" Zinkhan asked. "We don't see you anymore. . . . It's good seeing you again."
And then the former dispatcher took her order and drove off, turning her car north onto Ritchie Highway, past Jo-Lee Used Cars, back into the fast-food corridor where the help so seldom knows your name.