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.
Enjoy this piece, and grab my book for stories you won’t find online.
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.
From a day in the seventies to a night at twenty-nine.
I must find my unmarked piece of land and pitch camp there.
I’m parked outside a now-closed auto shop after getting a tire replaced.
The sooner I start the better at this point.
No, I don’t have satellite coordinates.
I saw the route to the parcel once about four months ago.
Flew into the state, saw the land once in the daytime, flew out, called friend, & we bought the land. A lot has changed in between now and then.
Point being, I’m not completely sure how to get there. That’s just how it is.
Back four months ago, we drove alongside cliffs and past farms that all looked the same.
Red desert, junipers, and distant mountains. Chunky red rocks.
Beep, beep, beep, goes my truck with its one new tire a little bigger than the other three.
I’ve got one map with a disclaimer about its own inaccuracy.
The map shows an entrance one exit back down the highway. I turn on the audio book about the moon landings I’ve been listening to and start driving.
Weighing options as I drive.
The astronauts are on the launchpad in my audiobook.
Should I sleep in the truck and try to find my land by sunrise?
Around here, that’s how you wake up with a shotgun in your face.
They’re nice people, the locals. They just don’t like trespassers.
Drive 45 minutes back to a motel?
I’m already over budget. And I’m this close to my land.
With rising hills of smooth desert and the thistly shadows of juniper trees under the moonlight on either side of me, I truck farther.
In the darkness ahead of me, a white ranch sign looms.
Through that gate, somewhere on 40 thousand acres, is my 40-acre piece.
It is even darker on the other side of the gate.
Far past the reach of any streetlight or porch light’s glow.
The paved road has ended. I grab the lever to engage the four wheel drive.
Truck through the gate.
The whole truck vibrates, shakes, and rattles like a machine gun. Everything jumps off the seats. Slides off the dash. The mirrors shake.
Is the four wheel drive failing?
I open the door to look at the truck. The shaking is not mechanical. The dirt road itself has washboard paving.
Rock-hard ribs that seem like they could rattle the truck to pieces.
No way out but through.
Rattling & rumbling down the road. Let all my supplies tumble to the floor. I’ll get them later.
Headlights from another vehicle. It’s cruising at about 40.
White Toyota truck. I flash him down.
Ask him to confirm my location on the map.
He says the exit entrance I just found isn’t the one marked on the map.
He shows me our location, miles upon miles away from where I had guessed.
At the pace the roads allow, it should take over an hour.
I follow the other trucker for a few minutes.
My windshield is completely blocked by clouds of dust filled with yellow headlight glow. Blackness beyond that.
We come to a fork in the road.
Guide must go left while I go right.
We honk goodbyes and set off our separate ways.
My fork in the road dives downhill into a narrow, single-vehicle-sized path. Thickets and weeds crowd the edges of the path.
Chunky red rocks under the tire. Red rocks shaped like gigantic molars and eyeteeth – possibly ready to chew my tires to pieces and leave me here somewhere in the middle of 40,000 acres of nothing.
There’s a sign on a ranch fence, that’s good.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.
Nevermind, it’s not a good sign.
The moon landing audiobook talks about an incident in which, mid-flight, the Apollo vessel started firing its Abort Mission beeper alarm. A solder ball floating in zero G completed the abort mission circuit.
And my own truck, not long after that paragraph in the book, starts beeping again.
Nothing I can do about that. Working my way over piles of red rock. Rock-rocking and bump-bumping along in the cab. High beams shine on dust and darkness. Vast, blackness in the desert night.
There are mountain cats out there. Coyotes.
Beep beep beep.
Houston, disregard that abort mission signal. We’re landing tonight.
Beep beep beep.
Shut up you stupid truck! Just get me there.
Just kidding, Rhodie. Love you. You know I’ll get you anything you need.
Beep beep beep.
Rocking and rolling over chunks of boulders. Big empty, darkness out of all windows.
Am I still on the right track? I must be.
But look – there are no signposts marking anybody’s land out of the windows, and the acres I’m driving past must have been divided and sold.
I mean, they weren’t even going to stick a SOLD sign on my spot? No satellite coordinates, no sign, and of course, no address?
Which scrap of this desert is mine?
Beep beep beep.
Be quiet, you’re fine.
Just sign the title deed, and then cool, you’re on your own?
Over more chunks of boulder. The road turns back into washboard ribs.
I truck onward, weighing options. Rattle & rumble.
Beep beep. Maybe I could camp anywhere and search by daylight.
Beep beep. Maybe I should turn back. No, come too far.
Beep beep. SHUT UP, TRUCK! LET ME THINK!
Off in the distance, two green signs. Like street signs.
Wait a minute.
If that’s an intersection, it will tell me exactly where I am on the map.
Please be what I need you to be.
I get closer to the two reflective green rectangles visible through the cloud of red desert dust.
Yes, here in the dirt roads, desert, and mountains, one intersection is marked.
I find the intersection on the laminated paper map. The map shows eight quarter-mile by quarter-mile squares lying next to the road in between my current location and my parcel.
I could backtrack. Spitball two miles of distance without markers. Get close enough for a camping spot.
I turn the truck around.
Rumble nice and slow, trying to do distance arithmetic in my head.
To cover two miles at fifteen miles an hour, I’d need to drive how many minutes – ?
Wait. A second sign. It’s black characters written on a triangular chunk of red rock.
But it’s got a number on it. The number of the parcel next to mine.
A quarter mile farther. There’s a little branch on the ground. Invisible when driving from the opposite direction. But there’s a wooden board with the numbers of my parcel burnt into it.
I leap out of the truck. It’s still running. I kiss the wooden sign. Dust on my lips. Arms up to the clean, clear night sky.
“Rhodie, we’re home!”
Beep, beep, beep.
Pull onto the parcel.
Kill the engine.
Quiet like they had two hundred years ago. Four hundred years ago. Farther back than that, too.
Alone in the ancient quiet under the Arizona sky.
The temperature dropped like a rock in a pond.
Cold, stiff fingers grab lantern & tent.
Big wash of light on the grey-green thistles and red rocks.
Kicking rocks away for a little soft ground under my tent.
Watching for rattlesnakes & scorpions.
Miles from help alone in the ancient quiet.
Where is the wind? Not even wind is here to make the place feel alive.
Whip around and glance back.
Animal eye glint across the road. Chest height. Something big.
Maglite on. It’s a cow. Just a cow.
Back to the tent. Poking poles into their polyester sleeves and metal rings. Clipping plastic hooks.
Rainfly over. Chuck my sleeping bag & pad into the assembled tent.
Pull on sweats, hoodie, hat, gloves, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag.
I am now a big nylon caterpillar slip-sliding inside a polyester tent.
The temperature will be below freezing in four hours.