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Vermont Quarterly

David Lines '91

Counter Culture

Oasis Diner
Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Departments / Aumni Voice

Counter Culture

by David Lines ’91

In the end, it was as it began—fun, fast, and smelling of bacon. My earliest childhood memories are from the Oasis Diner, a place that was in some ways both work and home for my family. For almost fifty-five years the Lineses ran the diner in the heart of Burlington on Bank Street, a fixture for both UVM students and locals. During my years at UVM in the late eighties and early nineties, I would implore my friends to make sure they ate at the Oasis to help pay for my education. This was never far from the truth.

In 1954, my grandfather Harry opened the doors of the diner for the first time and my dad, Stratty, took it over shortly thereafter. My brother Jon and I took the reins in 1997, and last fall, after ten years under our ownership, the diner changed hands from our family once and for all.

We were the third generation of a proud tradition that had my relatives’ hands in at least three diners and one candy shop here in Burlington throughout the first half of the twentieth century. We survived by adjusting to and evolving with the current realities of both the local and global markets, always trying to do what was right for business and community alike. My brother and I decided early on that getting rich was not in our futures, but that we could have a good life here in one of the more beautiful places on Earth by making sure the business was stable and sustainable and by being good citizens of the world. We stretched and squeezed and juggled week by week, year after year, all while trying to kick out good food amongst myriad choices in downtown Burlington. We kept the restaurant running with a great staff that felt like family, if not quite the real family of my grandfather’s and father’s days.

Before getting there, however, my early grasp of reality was fashioned in Professor Mark Stoler’s school of realism, where I learned certain inconvenient truths about America’s global imprint well before a movie had to be made about them. When “carbon footprint” became buzzword, the Oasis had already put tens of thousands of dollars into energy-efficiency improvements to lower our electric, gas, and water impacts on the community. A local network of producers and providers helped us keep the Oasis fare fresh and real as we rid the stainless steel walls of trans fat. We recycled and composted 80 percent of our waste; our grease was turned into biofuel that helped run area buses; and much of our staff walked to work—living, breathing, and spending in the Burlington air every day. We found that having a smaller daily impact wasn’t just the right thing to do, but it also made us more sustainable and ultimately more successful in the long run.

Politics and food were often served together at the Oasis. The diner’s deep-rooted connection to Democratic Party politics traces back to Phil Hoff, the Oasis’s lawyer through the years, whose gubernatorial victory in 1962 signaled a shift in Vermont politics, the first time since the Civil War that this bedrock Republican state put a Democrat in the governor’s office. In our last days at the diner, Governor Hoff would still come by to eat a bowl of my brother’s delicious soup and muse over the way of the world and what we could do to change it.

The diner welcomed countless national, state, and local politicians looking to find the pulse of the community. Here they found real people doing real things daily. On a sweet summer’s day in 1995, President Bill Clinton stopped by to have lunch and chew over some politics with Howard Dean, Patrick Leahy, and Bernie Sanders. Walking through the door, flushed from the sun and glad-handing on Church Street, the first thing Clinton saw was the pastry case. “Look at that pie,” he said in the familiar Arkansas drawl. “Boy, that is some fine-looking pie.” (After a turkey sandwich and his trademark Diet Coke, the president ordered up a piece of fresh apple pie.)

During Howard Dean’s improbable and impressive run at the presidential nomination in 2003, the Oasis served as an alternative multi-media headquarters for the Dean campaign. CBS’s 60 Minutes taped a segment as the governor and Dan Rather shared a booth, and numerous national media traveled the same path to our door to dig up stuff on the emerging contender. Political science professor Garrison Nelson, who loves to talk the talk, as many former students will recall, was not much of a Dean fan. But as part of his sense of fair play, he would often bring national reporters by the diner so they could get the pro-Dean wisdom from other sources.

But far more familiar than those spotlight moments was the daily hustle and flow of work at a diner, the hectic slam of the weekend when an onslaught of thirsty, hungry, bleary-eyed customers poured in. Being there at the diner was often theater itself, a symphony of bedlam and harmony all coordinated to get out a tasty burger or some eggs for our customers, many of them very hungry boys and girls from UVM. Sometimes, my head would spin from the unexpected challenges that would inevitably arise; other times, I’d just grin through it all, this force of human nature packed in a small diner of seven booths and eighteen stools.

In 1994, I ran for one of the six Chittenden County seats in the state senate. During that campaign, I often told voters I got my high school education here in Burlington, my bachelor’s degree in English at UVM, and my graduate degree in political science at the Oasis. Again, this was never far from the truth. I lost that race but became a freelance journalist shortly thereafter, something that parlayed my experience into a nice little career.

Still, I was drawn back into the family business much like Al Pacino in the Godfather movies: “As soon as you get out, they pull you back in.” I could relate. Although there were the moments most of us know of unexpected and confounding angst through the bump and grind of daily life, we weathered them and always came out stronger, if not more sure of ourselves. The diner is now a Jewish deli set to begin its own history in this town. But the Lines family history—our knowledge and our wit, crafted by years of experience and aided by a grill seasoned with five decades of bacon grease—made us realize how fortunate and proud we were to be home-boys making a living in Burlington, Vermont.

Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue.

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