There are many metaphors for life – one of the most popular being the journey. The purpose of life is not merely to arrive at the destination, but to enjoy the entire journey. While I certainly subscribe to this view, I’d like to suggest another equally applicable metaphor: life is like a garage sale or a flea market. To the casual or untrained observer, most of the items look the same and are generally unremarkable. However, to an antique dealer or anyone else with specialized knowledge or a keen sense of observation, there are gems in that merchandise, hidden in plain sight.
I’d like to draw your attention to one of these gems – Tom’s Restaurant.
This summer my brother and his wife were planning a day trip to Manhattan. They were going to spend most of the day at the Museum of Natural History, in Central Park. I told my brother that that as long as they were in the general area, they might want to take a side trip up to Broadway and 112th street, to see Tom’s Restaurant.
I’m sure that this photo looks familiar to most of you – this was the exterior shot of the restaurant featured in the TV series Seinfeld – although on the program, the characters called it Monk’s, and the “Tom’s” part of the sign was never shown.
This humble diner – in the north end of Manhattan, tucked away at the north-west corner of Central Park – is actually iconic. It has influenced popular culture more than you realize. In fact, it is very likely that your life has been affected by this restaurant and events that took place inside it.
In 1987, Suzanne Vega released a CD called Solitude Standing. The first track was an acapella song (written in 1981) called Tom’s Diner. It was never released as a single, and only those who bought the album would be familiar with this original version. However, in 1990, it was remixed by a group called DNA, who added a drum track and other instrumentation. This version became popular in local clubs, and gave Vega’s song a broader audience. Here are a few bars of the original a capella version.
The diner that Suzanne Vega sang about in this song is Tom’s Restaurant. As Vega explained in an interview a number of years ago, she grew up in the Broadway & 112th Street area of Manhattan. Before her music career started, she was working as a receptionist, and she used to to eat breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant before taking the subway to work.
Fast forward to 1989 – two years after Solitude Standing was released. AT&T and Bell Laboratories, working alongside Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, were working on a way to encode and compress audio files. The algorithm they were developing was named after an organization that develops standards for audio and video files: the Moving Picture Experts Group, known by the letters MPEG, and pronounced M-peg. The audio algorithm was known as MPEG Audio Layer 3, or simply MP3 for short.
Two engineers, James Johnson and Karlheinz Brandenberg were working on the MP3 format, which compresses audio files down to 10% of their original size while still preserving almost all of the song’s musical information, frequency range and dynamic range. In an interview with a magazine called Business 2.0, Karlheinz Brandenberg said “I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm… somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing ‘Tom’s Diner’. I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice… and at bit rates where everything [else] sounded quite nice, Suzanne Vega’s voice sounded horrible.“
Brandenberg used Tom’s Diner as one of his reference songs. He listened to the song over and over again, and kept tweaking the algorithm until the encoded MP3 file captured all of the subtleties of Vega’s voice and sounded just like the original CD. In technical circles, Tom’s Diner eventually became known as “The mother of the MP3”. To be fair, other songs were also used, but Tom’s Diner did play a significant part in the fine-tuning of the MP3 encoding algorithm.
All this happened in 1989, just as the first season of Seinfeld hit the airwaves. For the next nine years, and for many additional years in reruns, the public would get to know Tom’s Restaurant as Monk’s – the meeting place for Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.
This unassuming diner on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street is easy to miss, and blends in with the other shops in the neighbourhood, like a single coin in a jar full of spare change. However, to urban archaeologists and those who can see beyond the ordinary, this restaurant stands out as a place that has influenced North American popular culture significantly during the past two decades.
To see evidence of this, the next time you walk down the street or drive past a high school, look around at the number people wearing earbuds and listening to their MP3 players. When you get home tonight, look through your DVD collection. You might own one or more seasons of Seinfeld. You may even own a copy of Suzanne Vega’s CD, Solitude Standing.
If you’re a fan of Seinfeld or Suzanne Vega, if you or your kids own a portable MP3 player, or even if you have an MP3 collection on your home computer, then your life has been enriched by this simple, unobtrusive little diner, Tom’s Restaurant.