Filmmaker Anthony Scalia grew up not far from the Bendix Diner, but he never knew anybody who had ever gone inside. One night when he was out late and it was the only place open, he decided to venture in. What he found was an amazing story that he details in the short documentary, Bendix: Sight Unseen. The film will be available for virtual screening on October 16 as part of the New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2022.
The Bendix Diner is located at the intersection of Route 17 and Route 46 in Hasbrouck Heights. It’s had quite a history since opening in 1947. The diner was featured in Weird New Jersey, served as the location of several tv commercials and films (Boys on the Side, Jersey Girl, and The Many Saints of Newark to name a few), and was recently named one of the best diners in America by Tasting Table.
But it was his waiter who provided Scalia the idea for his film.
“It was 2:30am in the morning and it was completely empty,” Scalia recalled. “I didn’t know anything about John Diakakis (the manager/waiter) or the kids. When they sat us down at the table, John poured a glass of water. I couldn’t tell he was blind, but I knew something was off because he just kind of hovered the glass of water in the air rather than put it down on the table. He made us take it. Then I started watching him a bit. Eventually, I said, ‘Are you blind?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m blind. That’s my son working the grill up front, he just got accepted into Harvard.”
John Diakakis has been blind since birth. He’s a single parent of three kids (Tony, Dimitri and Michael). The more Anthony got to know him, the more he learned how funny and interesting he was. John told him he was a stand-up comedian and had huge collections of sneakers and colognes. It wasn’t long before Anthony thought John would make a great subject for a short film. The original plan was for a seven-minute film, but the more time Anthony spent with him the more stuff he wanted to include. Eventually, the film wound up at 26 minutes in length.
In the beginning, John wasn’t that interested in making the film. Anthony had to keep pushing him to stay open a little later to shoot or to go to the comedy club. As they worked together, they became friends.
“Then I think he didn’t mind it so much,” said Scalia. “I realized that instead of trying to get everything shot in the diner and locking him there while I asked questions, I would say, ‘Let’s go grab a hamburger at McDonald’s’ or ‘Let’s go for a drive.’ That way, I would get the content I wanted and he didn’t feel like he was locked up. It was good for the film because it meant a bunch of locations. The diner is great, but how long can you watch it there?”
Watching John closely like he did, Anthony could understand how he was able to work at the diner. There’s a set amount of space and he learned where everything was located and how many steps it took to go from one place to another.
“What amazed me the most was the mental notes that he takes of everything,” said Scalia. “Without seeing something, he knows we need more napkins on the table or knowing your check comes out to this amount. Everything he does in his head to me is more impressive than any maneuvering around as blind. He’s just a human calculator! He has this amazing memory. That’s what amazes me the most. His mind is incredibly sharp. That’s his only tool.”
In the film, you see that memory on display. He rapidly rattles off the names of states and presidents, and takes Pi to a very long string of digits. His memory also involves his senses. He can usually tell what brand of sneaker it is by touch, even getting the color right. Likewise, he can tell which cologne is being sprayed, even ones he hasn’t used in many years. The film also shows him speaking the three languages he knows to a customer.
“It’s interesting because I guess I just see him as a regular working person,” stated Scalia. “He’s like a very unique person hiding in plain sight.”
There are two main things the filmmaker hopes people see in the film. First is the inspirational aspect of John’s story - not just him, but the way he raises his children. John is the kind of guy who believes anything is achievable. Even as a single parent with a disability, he never lets things stop him.
“I’m most impressed by how great of a father he is,” noted Scalia. “He genuinely cares about his kids and is involved in every aspect of their life. He’s not a helicopter parent at all, but genuinely asking things like, ‘Do you think you’ve studied enough for the Spanish test?’ or ‘What are your grades?’ and ‘How are you feeling?’ He really tries to keep their interest. He puts all of his effort into being a great father; he doesn’t let his disability get in the way of that at all.”
The second takeaway is to not judge a book by its cover or, in this case, a diner by its looks.
“Everybody I know who ever passed the Bendix Diner and never went in missed out on one of the funniest and greatest eating experiences you can have,” said Scalia. “This place has a story you couldn’t make up. The guy’s blind, his son’s going to Harvard … it’s inspirational, it’s funny and you might never know. So go into places like that. Try it, see it, because I would never have found the story if I hadn’t ventured out of my comfort zone a little bit. You never know what great stories you have in your backyard.”
Anthony Scalia graduated from Ramapo College where he studied film. He said he was always interested in movies, but it was seeing The Great Escape as a kid that made him want to be a filmmaker. That was the first film that led him to feel something after seeing it. He wanted to make films that could tug at people’s emotions as well and he’s done that with Bendix: Sight Unseen. After the experience of making this film, he thinks he might stick with documentaries.
“I love the style of documentaries,” said Scalia. “Bendix taught me a lot about filmmaking because the other documentaries were more fast-paced, almost news-style highlights. They were like five- to seven-minute pieces that you might see on a Sunday morning show — something that’s a quick explanation of this person and why they’re interesting — almost like a formula. I tried to put John into that formula, but it wasn’t working and I got frustrated. I didn’t understand why it didn’t seem right. Finally, I said I’m not going to dictate where the film will go. I’m going to let John dictate where the film should go — his personality, he’s always on the move. He goes here, he goes there. He’ll say funny things once in a while. Let that set the tone and the film will follow it.”
He learned a lot while making the film, but the experience was more than that.
“I spent so much time with him and we became friends,” said Scalia. “I call him all the time and I go there occasionally still. I’ll check in with him, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I’ll tell him about the film getting into a festival, ask how his son Michael is doing. I always call and check in and anytime there’s an update with his kids he’ll say we should hang out and I’ll go to the diner. I moved from Lodi, but I’m still only a half-hour away from the diner. I was there last week, just hanging out with him. We update each other all the time. He really is a great person. I definitely keep in touch with him and he’s excited to hear the news.”
Bendix: Sight Unseen was first screened in June at the New Jersey Film Festival Summer 2022 in New Brunswick. It is being brought back for an online screening on October 16, along with three other short films: Composition, Eureka, and Self Defense as part of the Best of the Summer 2022 New Jersey International Film Festival. The film package will be available at 12:00am for 24 hours. The New Jersey Film Festival Fall 2022 takes place on select Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from September 9 to October 16.