Waffle Home

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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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