Tweeter calls out the old lady’s order, including the sober demand that the cook not burn her toast. Kathleen takes a phone order from a man who insisted with righteous admonition on a style of egg unusual for a breakfast sandwich, and a quick parking lot delivery. I left and sat on the on-ramp watching the turn lights blinking sleepily in the predawn blue and the drivers crouching menacingly to take their preordained spot in the order of things. We are a fussy race.
Mopar weekend fills the seats with men with light gray hair, mustaches, and denim shirts. Each one looks primed to poke his head under the hoods of classic Dodge muscle cars and marvel at the American compulsion to bottle lightning in a large black coiled mass of tubes and gears. Like last year Kathleen mourns the loss of the old Brice Road Mopar weekend burnout ritual, but Mike points out that the ritual’s new home, Heath, is just as unhappy. More pressing to Kathleen’s mind, instead, is 495′s shockingly low stock of coffee cups.
At first I’m blaming the angry looking woman with the wild gray hair for the noise level she decries, having just seen her walking away from the jukebox playing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” But the next four songs are Adele and she sings along to every single one of them.
Only a few regulars are here this morning, the type that two servers know well enough to sit with and chat quietly. Otherwise the 495 is overtaken with vacationers. They pack a week’s worths of essentials into their SUVs and minivans, and their family units into booths, as best as they can. In one booth, a grandfather and an infant granddaughter stare into each other’s face, wondering at the mechanics behind the eyes.
“I’m terrible at this,” Bev says while searching everywhere for her purse and phone at the end of her shift. Mike is the proud occupant of his new house at last, and discusses extensively the sprawling man cave under construction in its basement. Donna also closed on and moved into her new house, on the same day last week that her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Paula’s dad and husband both died of the same thing. After we talk she programs a couple songs on the jukebox and plays a sad, lilting R&B song about what would have been. The next song is, of course, “Killing Me Softly.” Meanwhile Steph, another waitress in her early twenties with two-tone hair, awakens throughout the 7am hour and calls each order with increasing melody and verve.
Susie walks up to Lana in the emptiness of the morning, turns to the side, and asks her if she looks pregnant. What follows is a seemingly unnecessary conversation about periods and morning sickness, the revelations from which nullify the original question. “Ugh. I CAN’T be pregnant again,” she mopes, halfhearted. “I already have three.” Meanwhile, Mike has no answers for me as to why the Dispatch removed their paper stand from its location in front of #495.
Donna snacks on a sausage and mustard sandwich—that is, mustard slathered between two sausage patties. She swears it tastes just like Italian sausage. Kathleen’s latest technological tribulation is her quest to restore her new digital camera to proper operation. Two old, round white women with canes and long, straight, stringy hair matter of factly revisit the darker haired one’s Facebook encounter with Jessica, who earned the speaker’s rudeness in her opinion (anyways, Jessica is redheaded and everyone knows, this woman says, about their tempers). The disagreement seems to orbit around the fact that someone shaved their head.
Donna theorizes that people change but others often don’t notice. Courtney agrees and yet they both goodness in it all. Now they’d like to see that goodness enter the hearts of the third shift crew, who are capable of leaving the place with syrup on everything, even the jukebox.
“They’re accomplished. You don’t need them anymore.” I don’t catch this waitress’s name, and something tells me I won’t see her again after today. She’s telling me why she collects people’s dropped grocery lists. “They’re clues to strangers I’ll never meet,” she says.
On why she enjoys jumping out at and startling strangers: “They have their haircuts and their shirts, what they want you to see, but in our lifetime of interaction, I see the real ‘them.’ It’s my way of keeping the humans human.” I just attended a , and all I could say is, “Good luck,” I say lamely, processing this seminar in strategically weird stranger relations I just attended. “In, you know, keeping the humans human.”
“Jackie the tranny” is their name for her. She’s a transsexual with a grizzled face and a rough black bowl haircut. She seems to wear the same bedazzled boot cut jeans and black leather jacket every week. It’s my inferior sense of smell that protects me from what others report to be the overpowering odor of cat urine that follows her. Like every other day she orders a coffee, takes it outside, squats and drinks, watches the Brice Road traffic pass by, then returns for a few minutes before tipping a quarter and leaving. She drives off into the sunny day in her filthy black Jeep.
Introducing our new girl, Merica. She’s sweet, egg-shaped, and maybe 20. The assistant manager teaches her how to keep everything in order, offering third shift’s work as an example of how not to do it. Jackie painstakingly instructs her in the art of refilling her cup to the level she requires. And gun dealer Gus, resplendent today in blood red jacket, ball cap, and sweatshirt, introduces himself as “Half Price Gus.” She takes it all in.
The new cook pumps his fist cartoonishly and shouts, “I’m the COLDEST!” when I tell him he fixed the best plate I’ve had in a long time. Davita is, sadly, right that humans cannot take compliments. But she is wrong in directing that insight to the cook. Before I leave, Donna tells me how the weather impacts her hot flashes. I am no help.
With the people you meet here, you can find a new job, Kathleen said, just not a husband. While our eyes burned from bleach indiscriminately applied by third shift to cover the smell of blocked drains, she told me of one particular suitor she wisely rejected, mostly on account of his already being married.
Davita (according to her name tag, Miss Mrs.) gets me change for a paper and Courtney (name tag: C Dub) cleans off a spot where I (or as C Dub says: Richford) can eat. Donna (no aka?) calls me “Love” when she delivers my plate. It’s never clear who anyone ever really is. Jackie’s stay is brief. She arrives, gets her coffee, coughs up a lung, an beats a hasty retreat to her black Jeep Wrangler warming up in the dark parking lot.
Hi, and welcome. This is Rich Lee. I love stories about travelers; but I’m from Ohio and I really like it here, so I’ve decided to stay put for a while.
If you love stories about travelers but you’re happy with your roots in the ground, you just have to learn how to explore the world right in front of your nose. To write a travelogue while standing still. Well, that’s the point of this blog.
Stationary travelers are all around us, and I bet in your neighborhood you’ll find them congregating at your local Waffle House. This blog will be my attempt to bear witness to one such congregation gathering every week in my hometown.
More to come soon. Just wanted to say hello, first. So stay tuned.
If your wandering here did something for you and you’d like me to know it, I’d be happy to hear it. Email me email@example.com