Three times, at three different locations I’ve seen Waffle Houses provide for a regular beggar.
The first was in South Carolina. Some sunburnt scarecrow hobbled through the door. A waitress tapped the manager on the shoulder. I assumed the manager had the tricky job of running off vagrants. Instead, she brought the beggar hashbrowns to go, and coffee with two sugars and three creams.
She knew how he took his coffee, which is how I knew he was a regular even though I was just drifting through town and never saw that location again.
On a second occasion, in Georgia, when a homeless guy wandered in, a cook shouted, “Dale’s here!” And Dale left with a plain waffle, a sweet tea, and a cigarette cadged off a landscaper.
Somewhere in the indistinguishable middle neck of Florida, another Waffle House manager did the same thing. Short on teeth, this beggar preferred grits.
Now it’s impossible that such a rule is written in any corporate booklet or slideshow, but some spirit of Southern Hospitality, maybe even Christian charity, does seem alive in Waffle House management.
At least, I choose to believe it is so, elbow to elbow with two friends in the yellow-orange light of a Florida location. There are a million like it, but this one is ours for now.
Which is not to say it’s all roses at Waffle House. Once, when served coffee in a mug with the last customer’s lipstick print on the rim, I asked the waitress, “what’s this?”
“Givenchy Dual-Tone,” she said. “Very in this year.”
She swept the mug away and came back with a clean one.
But thank goodness for soft yellow light. Sterile fluorescents are for jails, morgues, and public schools. Plus, they’re brutal on hangovers.
What better white noise than the vast metal field of the sizzling griddle to our right? Its sputtering fills the dead air in our sparse conversation. There’s nothing to say this late in the weekend but re-cap the events, the boozy barbecue, the lazy river, drinking card game, and the goofy volleyball game that would affront any decent volleyball rulebook. And now, mostly quiet, we wait for something to starch out the mean ghosts of white rum & tequila.
Speaking of which, our order has just arrived.
“They gave me a pecan waffle instead of peanut butter chip.”
“The cook probably read PC for shorthand. They scrambled my eggs over easy, too.”
The remember the poor, but forget my egg order.
“It’s all good.”
We eat. When Americans go abroad, even if they only eat healthy at home, even if they have sophisticated palettes, some night in their trip they will awake craving flavors such as these. The crispy hashbrowns. The greasy bacon. The artfully weak and endlessly replenished coffee.
It does a diner’s spiritual work, and that’s to feel like home, like a refuge, no matter where you are on the road.
If you’ll tolerate such a slim and esoteric category of analysis, if you have any patience for deaf cooks & sloppy dishwashers, if you’re attuned to any such thing, you must rate Waffle House poor in practice, but five stars in spirit.
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Camp alone in a swamp and you will believe in everything again, and I do mean everything.
My camping buddy bailed on me. Going solo this time.
A great yawning, swallowing mouth, that’s what the prickly tree canopy over the creek looks like as I paddle towards it. Right now, I’m in a kayak on a round lake that vanishes down into that slow, shadowy creek.
On the shore of the lake, there’s rental booth with a fat, pimply troll taking cash only for boats. He is a red, spotty, pig-nosed, blonde creature. Squinting through eyeglass frames dusted with yellow pollen.
This is not one of those well-maintained natural attractions, with pubs and craft breweries and brunch places awaiting return hikers. Finding an operating gas station took some work, to give you an idea of the barren surroundings.
This place is in the middle of moss-covered, pollen dusted, swampy, run-down nowhere. Awaiting return hikers here, is one half-stocked Coca-Cola vending machine.
I have no destination in mind, just planning on getting as far up the creek as I can before sundown. Going to hang a hammock for the night.
I pass a crew of three returning kayakers. Their loud chatter bounces off the water.
We saw alligators out there! One was just sitting there on the mud! He must have been fifteen feet long. I screamed the whole time! But It didn’t do anything.
They float on back to return what is due to the booth troll.
Now I’m paddling alone once more through streaky pollen water towards the arched branches with hanging vines and boas of light tan Spanish moss.
The tree canopy is knit thickly overhead. When the clouds roll over the sun, it gets very dark very quickly on the creek.
Now there’s no sound but the never ending ohm-hum of rolling water and sawing crickets and a host of chirping, croaking, creaking, swampy entities all burrowed in mud holes or crooked in tree branches, gibbering to each other about the one, weird boater out a little later than everyone else.
Shafts of sun still sometimes shine between the branches.
The farther I row, the larger the roots on either side of the creek get. At first, they were small enough to step over. Then they were the same length as the kayak. Now they’re big enough to paddle under, sometimes without even ducking. They are like footbridges but grown instead of built. Mossy tree bark sagging in flabs with old age.
The whole creek begins to look wicked. The hanging vines and Spanish moss sway like fake spiderwebs in Halloween haunted houses. Strange smells of swamp rot appear and disappear on the wind.
And of course, there are real monsters here.
Somewhere in the gurgling water, alligators are grinning, creatures older than the creek itself, anchoring themselves in the current. Every ring of rising bubbles could be a fish, or it could be a gator. I watch the banks but they are empty. Maybe the last kayakers of the night annoyed the gators so much they slid off the mudbanks and under the pea soup water.
When at rest, gators can do a two-hour breath hold.
If they’re working, they can still go twenty minutes no problem. When they take hold of you, they drag you into deep, dark water and just roll and roll down there. They can do it in an instant.
And there it is. Up ahead of me. First gator of the trip. Something green-brown, it must be a gator head, is bobbing up and down in the water. I paddle just a little closer to see for sure. Then float. I’m drifting towards it. I push my paddle flat in the water to brake myself. I stare at the bobbing object.
It’s a stump. A stump sticking straight up and down in the water. It’s bobbing straight up slowly, then straight down into the water. Then up. Then down. Then up. Then down under the water.
I peer into the forest on either side of the creek. Checking for what? Pulleys? Levers? Fishing line? I paddle closer to the living log. It bobs up. And sinks down. I smack it with my paddle, wondering if I’m falling into a trap. It tips sideways and floats downstream. Behavior more fit for an inanimate object. No longer looking like a living thing. I paddle on.
Up in the branches, a handwritten sign comes into view. It’s written in orange all caps letters.
“BLISHGREER SUNK HERE”
A person? A vessel? One name Blishgreer or two names Blish Greer? All caps and bad kerning. There is nobody to ask and no way to look it up right now. Nothing to do but float twenty feet over the deeply submerged bones or wreckage, ten feet under the memorial, and past the reach of any ghosts in the algal blooms.
The shape of the river expands out into a large, round basin, and there’s another handmade sign reading Lemon Lake.
Under the sign, rows and rows of roots have grown straight up. They’re wooden, but they look exactly like stalagmites in caves. They stand in tombstone rows.
The sun will be completely down soon. I should make a fire and hang my hammock. I paddle over to shore. I build up all the speed I can. Deep, long paddles. Hit the mud bank and grind to a stop.
Wedged still in the mud, I look around for snakes and gators and then get out of the boat. My foot sinks in the mud halfway up my shin, and for a split second, it seems like I’ll keep sinking. I grab one of those stalagmite roots, put my other foot on the base of a tree, and heave out of the mud.
I grab some line and tie the handle of the boat to a stalagmite root. Grab my pack from the kayak seat.
At least the ground is more solid the farther up the shore I walk. I pull out my hammock. I can’t believe how dense those straight up spikes look. I hang a hammock between two trees.
Time to gather long strips of bark, dry palm, twigs, bigger twigs, and branches for a fire. There’s plenty of fuel everywhere. That means Lemon Lake doesn’t get many guests.
I build my fire and light it. Fish the kettle out of my pack and fill it with a glug of creek water. Set it on to boil. Find my tea and granola bars.
I should have planned for a bigger dinner. With nobody else around, the evening feels too open and too empty. Cooking would give me more to do.
Long, loud whistle of the ready kettle. I make my black tea with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Unwrap a bar while the drink cools. I sit and stare at the creek, which crawls by slow as syrup and hypnotic as a snake. Gurgling, rippling and giggling but saying nothing.
If the creek could speak, what would it say? Again, probably nothing. It would keep laughing at you and your little problems.
It would say, your name is a role you accept and agree to play. Your wallet and pocketknife are props you pick up every day. And when the curtain pulls back on the stage of your job every Monday, aren’t you in position, ready to say your lines? I was here before your kind came up with a name for me. And I’ll be here after.
What’s hiding in the slug-crawl, the algal murk of the creek? The world is fantastically bigger and murkier than this creek. And it would be the simplest thing to do, to disappear in it.
The sun is down. I sit by the fire and drink tea by the creek. Night noises double in decibel. SPLOOSH. Something splashed into the creek on the other side of the water. Something big, it sounded like.
I can’t see the other side of the creek anymore. Fireflies flair over there in the black dark like sprites. The wind shivers through my camp. Palms rattle. Moonbeams shine down on the toothy, tall roots all around me. Mist generates itself around the spikes.
It’s time to get ready for bed. I take my hat and fill it with creek water. Pour the water into the bed of coals under the fire. It hisses and whistles and belches up white steam. It takes five more hatfuls of water to kill the coals all the way.
Now next to the one column of white steam, among the stalagmites and mist, under the moonlight, I’m gripped by a stomach-churning thought that this was all a great big mistake.
I get a mega-blast the one real message ghosts ever send, which is that ice-cold, full-body, skin-crawl and skull-buzz that wordlessly urges, “get out of here now, and don’t ask why.”
I have a careful look around, then I make myself ignore the chill and keep moving.
I can barely see my hammock hanging out there. I hit the button on my headlamp, and pick my way towards bed. Flop into the nylon. Wriggle into the sleeping bag. The night noises grow louder. Branches snap. Maybe squirrels. Something gives a long, wraith-like wail. Maybe a big swamp bird. Maybe the waterlogged spirit of bitter Blishgreer.
Somewhere out there, there are uncountable grinning gators and slithering snakes. Adding light snare to the forever-drone of creek noises. Swaying in the hammock in the darkness, sleep feels like it would be a great surrender. A failure of self preservation. It seems impossible to close my eyes, place myself at the mercy of the swamp and see what I get. But what else am I going to do? Swaying in the wind, I let darkness and the swamp swallow me whole.
Glowing pink morning arrives.
I roll out of the hammock and step between the stalagmites under me. Glass creek water. Golden light in the mist. Sweet, cool air. Humidity gone. I spark up my backpacking boiler and make a mug of tea. A hot mug of I’m-Alive-This-Morning! Tea.
Time to pack up camp and paddle home. The roots shrink from big enough to paddle under to small enough to step over.
And there is the top of one gator’s head. Thirty feet away. A long, slim shadow disturbing the creek water. More bored than anything else. I paddle past him without event.
The ticket taker booth troll, he’s just a kid with a summer job he hates. He checks a clipboard when I drop off my kayak.
The spell of the night has lifted. There’s nothing but the normal dirt and pollen parking lot and the long drive home.