I Found Love at the Waffle House
February 18, 2020
Waffle House has a rich and storied reputation in my neck of the woods, the Deep South.
The no-frills restaurant chain, complete with sizzling griddles, strong coffee and sticky Formica tables, has become immortalized in dozens of song lyrics, many noting its denizens’ lack of social graces and the gaps in their teeth they have to show for it.
Yes, Waffle House regulars can be a motley crew, but, man, are they resilient. The running joke is that, weather forecasts be damned, you needn’t truly worry about an impending tornado or hurricane unless the local Waffle House is closed.
Of course, brawlers and truckers aren’t the only ones drawn like moths to that beacon of yellow light welcoming weary travelers off virtually every Interstate exit south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Even food snobs can be forgiven the occasional hankering for an order of scattered, smothered, covered and chunked hashbrowns.
My memories of Waffle House stretch way back to childhood; my dad used to take me there occasionally, a just-the-two-of-us outing, and I remember my astonishment when he told me once that we were living it up and ordering steaks. (Steaks at the Waffle House! It felt like wearing a ballgown to a drag race.)
But the Waffle House memories coming to mind just now are more recent. A couple of years ago, for instance, I had taken a very frail and elderly friend there for lunch. When I suggested dessert, his eyes lit up. “You think they have chocolate pie?” he asked excitedly. A waitress overheard, then brought him a slice of chocolate cream pie, along with an entire pie boxed up for him to enjoy at his leisure. All of it, she told us, was on the house.
Several months later, I was on yet another Waffle House date, this time with a very frail and elderly relative. (My social life, as I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, is the envy of all my friends.) After we parked, I was helping him walk from the parking lot to the entrance, and he leaned on me heavily, visibly unsteady on his feet. Suddenly, a waitress flung open the door and called to a co-worker, “Clear a booth for two,” then rushed to his side, holding one arm while I held the other. Our booth was waiting for us as we inched our way into the door.
And just a few weeks ago, I was at a Waffle House holding my toddler granddaughter, who picked this particular time to contract the stomach bug that had plagued her siblings earlier in the week. To put it indelicately (because, well, everything about this outing was indelicate), she began projectile-puking. While her parents and I tried to deal with the situation, a cheerful waitress materialized and assured us this was no problem; she was happy to clean up the mess. Every pair of eyes in the place beheld us with kindness and empathy.
I just finished an excellent book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell, about the importance of being attentive, aware of and in synch with our environment rather than skimming through it on social media, which tends to reduce us all to our lowest common denominators. In the non-contextualized world of Twitter, we aren’t fully dimensional human beings who may have just lost a job, received a crushing medical diagnosis or buried a parent (or even, God forbid, a child). We are stereotypes and soundbites who, at the slightest whiff of political affiliation, are marked as an in-group member to be validated or an enemy to be vilified.
When I see hateful and divisive posts on these topics, or any others that seem to give us carte blanche to be the worst versions of ourselves, I remind myself of these Waffle House outings. Odell’s book talks about the importance of noticing and honoring things like the trill of a chipping sparrow, the piquancy of a marigold or the majesty of a towering redwood.
I’m all for that.
But the kindness of strangers who help us at our most vulnerable points in life, particularly when every stereotype in the world would suggest otherwise?
That’s a thing of beauty that I’ll hold in eternal awe.
And I’ve found it, numerous times, at the Waffle House.