Road Trip: Day 2 in the "Don’t Say Gay" State
In the Waffle House just beyond the Highway 70S exit near Nashville, Tennessee, all is chaos at 11:30 in the morning on the Sunday after The Rapture.
More than just chaotic, it is deafeningly noisy. All the servers, line cooks, and wait staff are hollering to one another — not because they’re mad, but because that’s apparently how they do things at the Waffle House.
In fact, there’s one woman whose entire job is to stand by the coffee maker, just out of reach of the swinging door to the kitchen, and HOLLER out every single order, which the waitresses hand her on the rectangular yellow slips they’ve torn from their pads. She hollers them to the two cooks and the two preppers who immediately go to work putting plates together on a sort of assembly line. There’s one guy whose doesn’t do anything but bacon and sausage.
I’m imagining that, in Waffle House jargon, this job position is called “the yeller.”
Two hash browns scattered one light one steamed!
One scramble white scattered!
Triple over medium wheat plate!
Double white medium dry wheat side of hash browns in a ring!
I assume this is some kind of Waffle House code. But what with all the hollering, no one hears anybody else all that well, so there’s a great deal of hollering back.
Ya food’s up here!
One hash browns, you say?
I got that one! Next?
Everyone seems very good-natured and not nearly as stressed out as the swarm and clangor of the atmosphere suggests. The place smells like cooking, of course, but not like anybody’s home ever smells from cooking. There’s old grease and over-boiled coffee and occasionally a whiff of whatever cleaning product the waitresses squirt onto the tables before swabbing them off with a rag that looks like a corner of an old cloth diaper.
As I came in, I noticed a big red HELP WANTED sign in the front window. I’d never last a day in this place, which strikes me as the Hell of restaurant work, so I don’t find it at all curious that they’re looking.
When I get there at 11:30, the breakfast rush is just starting to wind down. There are 26 customers in the place and every seat is taken except one at the counter. That also happens to be where the cash register is located, I quickly discover, so people are constantly reaching over my left shoulder to hand money to the cashier, who asks everyone, “Everything all right?” as she rings them up. That makes me look up every time because I always think she’s talking to me.
As soon as another place opens up on the counter, I slide over. Before I do, I overhear an exchange between the cashier, a waitress who had stumbled over her own feet and careened into the cashier, and an old guy with a faded blue T-shirt and a pot belly who is standing behind me, waiting to be rung up.
“Watch out, Michelle,” says the waitress. “I’m fallin’ for ya!”
“You fallin’ for me, you say?” the cashier says, laughing.
“Uh-oh,” says Blue T-Shirt, “if she’s fallin’ for ya, now we got us a problem.”
The day after the Rapture in the Don’t-Say-Gay State and someone almost said it in a Waffle House on Highway 70S.
Anyway, there are 26 customers and 11 waitresses and cooks and greeters, and that’s not counting whoever is working in the kitchen, where I can’t see.
The coffee is gruesome and yet somehow comforting, just exactly the way I find cheap motels to be inexplicably reassuring. I don’t go for squalid, mind you, but a little bit seedy is fine by me. Fancy hotels, like fancy restaurants, make me nervous. I want a place I feel as though I have every right to take a crap in.
Anyway, with enough sugar in it, the coffee tastes like something I know, and that calms me down. The shouting starts to bother me less. My waffle is delicious, though the mini-pitcher of syrup that accompanies it is unspeakable, sticky in a way that suggests they’ve just plain given up on cleaning it. The hash browns are passable, though I asked for them extra crispy and they’re not. Maybe I should have gotten them scattered. Or in a ring. Unless I actually did. Still, there are pink, moist cubes of ham mixed in with the potatoes, and they’re so good I start considering that I might want a whole plate of just that ham, then I think better of it. (It is Tennessee, after all. If they don’t get ham right….)
When all is said and done: $7.32. In Jupiter, Florida, that’s about what you pay for the coffee alone, and absolutely no one calls you “Hon” or smiles at you like they think their job actually involves helping you feel welcome.
I leave my waitress $2.00. I know my tip doesn’t make one bit of fucking difference in her life, but I don’t have the money it would take to make a real difference. So it’s a communication I think she might understand, a way to say that I know she has a crap job and to tell her I can see she feels real tired today.
As I pay, the cashier says she hopes I have a blessed Sunday, and when I get to the door, another waitress, who’s outside making a call on her cell, opens it up for me and smiles as I pass.
They don’t say gay in Tennessee, and all the staff at the Waffle House have little American flags embroidered on the sleeves of their uniforms, and the clerk at the Walgreen’s chats with the guy buying nicotine patches about how God turned her day around, and there’s a Baptist freakin’ church on every block, but just like with the bad coffee and the cheap, frayed quilt on the bed in my motel room, I can’t entirely hate it. It’s what I grew up with, and all the major themes of that upbringing start to sounding in my head. I’m nowhere near home here, but it’s closer than a lot of other places I’ve been.