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.
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They make it look easy as a dream.
Riding green, foamy curling waves on a surfboard.
I rented one while I was back in Florida for a wedding.
Now, in the water off of Cocoa Beach, I’m getting chafed red by a giant, oblong, wobbling blue surfboard that wants to tilt, dip, and pitch me under the water at every second.
I can see other beginners not having much luck on their own tropical colored boards (yellow, pink, key lime green).
The board is twice my size.
Squeaks and slips right out from under me.
The water is cold, but it’s clean.
No seaweed. Cocoa Beach both sounds nice and is nice.
After getting swamped by a few more waves, I swim the board into knee-deep water. The new plan is to catch a little wave and just stand on this thing for once.
It works. I ride the board standing up for maybe ten or fifteen feet.
Feels like being a billionaire.
As I’m sinking down into the now ankle-deep water, I see my small success has not gone unnoticed.
“Can I try that?” a young voice screams.
It’s a bunch of kids. Maybe five of them. Three girls, two boys, and a mom.
One of the girls is asking.
“What’s your name?”
“Gemini,” she says.
“Ask your mom.”
“She says it’s OK!”
I need a rest anyway.
“Sure, give it a try.” I un-velcro the strap from around my ankle.
Gemini, her brothers and sisters swarm the board in a flash. They’re screaming and fighting over it like a game of King of the Hill. I have thrown an entire family into chaos.
Gemini secures the strap around her ankle.
While this may sound like snatching the crown, it’s a serious tactical error. The weight of her three siblings carries the board into shin-deep water. She’s being pulled along as it surges up and down in the water.
I have thrown an entire family into chaos. The blue board seems as alive as a giant eel, bucking and chucking brothers and sisters into the water.
They’re trying to stand on the sinking board. Look-amme-momma-look-amme. This doesn’t last long.
In under a full minute, they figure they’ve got my money’s worth.
They shove the board back to me. It floats towards me in the water.
Their mom calls, “Thank you.”
I return to trying to do short standing rides on the board in shallow water.
I can pop into a standing position and ride the board ten or fifteen feet at a stretch. Tomorrow I should do even better.
The sun is setting. The water is lighting up warm orange. It makes a shimmering, blurry reflection of the sky.
Cold water wipes me out.
After one more standing ride, I figure I can’t top that this evening.
Tuck the board under my arm and return to the shop as the sun goes down.
The last time I wore a suit was for a wedding in May, 2019.
After all, at many jobs, you only need the suit at the interview.
But where have my shirts and ties vanished to?
Some ties were snagged by scavengers in Brooklyn after an argument that ended with clothes getting thrown out the window.
Some shirts are dressing someone poor or thrifty in Florida after I dropped boxes off at a Goodwill before moving.
At least one shirt is sitting in the trunk of taxi cab in Medellin.
Now here are I am with a suit jacket and pants but no shirts and ties.
And the closest Macy’s is an hour and twenty minutes away by car. Rush hour traffic is slow. I will barely make it there before closing time at this rate.
The Macy’s is almost empty when I arrive.
I find the section with the men’s dress shirts.
Rows of identical shirts with sets of three numbers. Measurements, of course. I don’t know mine.
Signs are posted everywhere.
“We’ve suspended our fitting assistance services as a COVID-19 safety measure.”
I pick up a shirt.
It’s held stiff by a piece cardboard stock. It is filled with lethal pins. Tissue inside it crackles. I hold it up over my chest and glance in the mirror.
“Need any help, sir?”
A woman with a name badge asks me.
“Are you the one who helps people dress themselves?”
What a dumb way to ask that question.
“No,” she says.
“I don’t know my measurements at all.”
“We stopped helping with that for COVID-19.”
“Thank you, I saw the sign.”
“Let me know if you need anything else. We close soon.”
Loud speaker announcement overhead: ten minutes to close.
I look around.
This store is a big, lonely, unhelpful, place.
And I’m not going to get my shirt and tie before the television show tomorrow, am I?
“Perhaps I can help,” says a thick accent. Hard to say where the accent is from.
The speaker is an older guy. Argyle sweater, black slacks. Macy’s name tag.
“The sign says you can’t help me with the measurement.”
He stands six feet away. Squints his eye. Holds up his hand with thumb and forefinger apart like an old carpenter who doesn’t use rulers anymore.
“Seventeen, thirty-two, thirty-three,” he says. “Now stand shoulder to shoulder with me in the mirror.”
The starting COVID formalities are over, thankfully. Apparently, tape measures are what really spread disease.
“Would you say your neck is bigger or smaller than mine?” he asks me. “In thickness.”
“They look pretty similar, to be honest.”
“I agree,” he answers.
He brings me two a table of shirts of the right size.
I show him the grey suit I’m going to wear.
He grabs a cream color shirt and black tie.
Tucks the shirt into the suit and lays the tie on top. He gestures over the pairing.
“Here there is melody and counter melody,” he says.
His accent is too thick to ignore.
“Where are you from?”
“I am Armenian,” he says.
I shift my head and look at the dark tie.
“Hey. I didn’t notice it from the other angle, but there’s little glitters in there.”
“Where?” He shift the tie back and forth in his hand. “Ah, yes. It is wrong for you.”
He replaces the tie with another one.
“Here there is melody and rhythm.”
“It’s for a local TV show. That one might look weird.”
“Ah, nothing to make a rainbow in the camera.”
Loud speaker: five minutes to close.
“I know this rule,” the Armenian tailor says. “I was on TV once for music.”
“What do you play?”
“Symphonies, concertos, so on. Piano.”
He puts out a final shirt and tie pairing.
“Here there is melody and harmony.”
He makes a conductor’s grand gesture.
Yeah, that’s the best looking shirt and tie pairing he’s done.
“Ok, I’ll take it.”
We go to the cash register.
“They took away our commissions,” he says.
The bay lights overhead clang off. There’s one little lamp behind him.
“They want you to work with no tape measure and no commission?”
His forehead furrows and I can tell from his cheeks there is a pained smile under his face mask.
I look up at big, dark Macy’s.
“Hey,” I ask. “Do you write your own music, too?”
His eyes crinkle.
“I don’t like to say so, but since you ask,” he says.
He pulls out his phone. Plays a video on it. It is a symphony he wrote. A violin is playing. Then come deeper clarinets and cellos to harmonize with it. The music crashes into a big all-together repeat of the thing the violin was saying at the start.
“It’s amazing,” I say.
He tucks the receipt in the bag.
“Please enjoy your evening sir,” he says.
“Thank you, you too.”
He pauses the symphony on his phone, and tucks it into his pocket.
I leave the closed store, finding my way by the few security lights.
A roommate who threatened to cut my head off, a boss under investigation for murder. Enjoy these stories & more in my bookOdd Jobs & After Hours
Throw out all your stuff and leave.
Don’t hire a moving company.
Back in the deep dark early months of the pandemic, I was moving out of Florida back to New England.
I looked up the prices of a moving company online and did a casual tally of my stuff.
Laptop, guitar, one decent sofa, one decent bed. Button downs, t-shirts, jeans. Boots and shoes. I guess it is all worth trying to keep.
The total value of the belongings is probably three times as much as the price the mover quotes me.
Moving company sends me a date, time, and price.
The moving truck will arrive one week before my lease expires.
It is cheaper than renting a U-Haul myself. This plan should work.
I punch in the card numbers to pay.
Add an electronic signature.
The moving company’s first phone call brings trouble.
Hi, says the call center rep, can you confirm your identity with the account code?
I dig up the email and recite 13 digits to her.
“Can you tell us the exact square footage of all your belongings?”
“They’re not all packed up yet.”
“Well, make your best guess about how many boxes you will have! We’re trying to avoid any adjustment fees.”
But are they really, truly trying to avoid any adjustment fees?
I walk around with a tape measure. Condense stuff into boxes in my head. Give her an answer.
When I buy the approved 18″x18″ boxes, I need two more than I guessed.
I guessed three but needed five.
I call them back. After ten minutes of hold music, they ask me to confirm my identity with the account number. Time to dig up those 13 digits again.
The adjustment fee for two more boxes is gigantic.
Still spending less than I would to replace everything though.
Three days before move out date, I am working on my laptop from a mostly packed apartment.
When some of the rooms are empty, they echo again.
It sounded like this in here when I first moved in a year ago.
The moving company calls again.
“Hi! Before we get started, can you confirm your identity with the account number-“
“I’ll pull up the email.”
The rep asks if I have my own bubble wrap for dismantled furniture or if they will have to charge me for that, too.
I bet you charge per bubble, I say to the rep.
She doesn’t laugh.
The call center rep is peppy while she menaces me with each new fee.
It’s two days before the move. I must still disassemble a bed, a desk, a chair, bubble wrap them, and pack the kitchen where I have been cooking.
A video meeting is about to start for my job will start in ten minutes.
The moving company calls me again. Demand that 13-digit number again.
“We will be there in two hours,” the moving company’s rep says after the confirmation code.
“No, you will be here in two days,” I answer.
I recite the date on the email with the confirmation code to her. I’ve got it in writing. The truck can’t show up right now.
The rep explains, again with peppy menace, that in the fine print it says the company has a 48-hour window in which the truck may arrive, and the date in bold at the top is just an estimate.
“What? How do you estimate a date? When you buy a plane ticket do they say, ‘we estimate takeoff will happen in this 48 hour window, so just be ready to dash to the airport anytime we need you?”
She doesn’t like that question. Long explainers. She explains the fine print again. I get it, I get it.
Sir this, and sir that, she says. I tune it out and zoom in on the .2-sized light grey on lighter grey font that does specify, in round-about jargon, the 48-hour window she describes.
And there is my electronic signature under it.
Nothing much I can do.
“I have a meeting for work in two minutes. I can’t stay on the phone with you for long, but I can’t have everything packed in two hours.”
“Let me put you on hold and we will see about rescheduling, but keep in mind if you need to reschedule there is-“
“An adjustment fee?”
“Can you call me back when you know when you can be here?”
“No, we don’t do callbacks. Please wait on hold.”
Major key piano hold music.
The work meeting starts. I hang up on the hold music.
Three hours later, I call the moving company back.
Major key piano hold music again. The same four chords for forty minutes.
“Thank you for calling Go Mover, may I have your account number please?”
I dig up the email they sent me so I can read out the 13-digit account number they assigned me again.
Finally, they say they can be there on Saturday morning. But I must pay an adjustment fee just to get the date I was originally promised.
Saturday comes. No call, no show. No answer. I leave maybe seven voicemails.
My lease ends on Monday. I’ve got one Sunday to figure out what to do.
I call the apartment complex. Ask if I can please stay one more day till Tuesday. Just till the movers arrive.
The apartment clerk panics. Raves about a security escort out of the apartment for overstaying the lease. Raves about trespassing charges. Raves about personal object removal fees.
I get the idea, I say. I’ll be gone. Hang up.
The movers call me back. They ask me for the 13-digit account code they sent me.
Let me dig up the email, I say. They tell me they can now only show up on Wednesday.
“Just don’t bother. I know I’ve already sunk money into your company, but at this point, I just want you out of my life.”
I hanged up.
Which felt great for maybe two seconds.
Because after two seconds I was in an apartment with boxes on boxes of belongings, books, and furniture.
I now had no plan of how to get it out of here before apartment security escorted me out and loaded me down with fees.
Trespassing, inconvenience fees, charging me because they had to throw my stuff out.
I check the cost of renting a U-Haul and driving it up the whole east coast. It’s four times as much as everything I own. U-Haul does not want trucks in the north east right now, so the prices are spiked.
But for just one day, a U-Haul is doable.
I rent one, drive it to my apartment, and park it outside. Load in the mattress and bedframe. A few big boxes of clothing.
“Hey you,” I call to a stranger in a hoodie prowling around the mailroom.
“Need any free furniture?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ve got nothing in my place but me and my dogs.”
Have a sofa. Take the desk and swivel chair. Roll up the rug and walk it out. Want the bed? No, he’s got one. Salvation Army will get that.
As I leave, he shoves sixty in cash into my hand.
“I can’t take it all for nothing,” he says.
I triage my whole life. I want the books. The guitar. Need the laptop. Most of the clothes.
The rest, I load into the U-Haul. Truck it to Salvation Army. They say they accept full beds but not at this location. I drive forty-five minutes to Fort Lauderdale.
I return the U-Haul to the rental center. Drive my Toyota Corolla back to my apartment. Throw the few bags my life now fit into in the back seat. Twist the key and settle in for the long drive north.