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Waffle House Revisited

I parked my car underneath the large sign — yellow Scrabble- like tiles with bold black letters that spelled out, “Waffle House.” I had arrived ten minutes early to meet a friend for a late breakfast. The diner was packed that day, and the hostess showed me to a bar stool. I sat down and took a look around. I haven’t eaten at a Waffle House in thirty-something years. I still remember the last time I sat down at one of the iconic counters. During my college years, my car broke down on the Interstate as I attempted to drive home for a weekend. My mother and brother came to rescue me, and on the way home that evening, we stopped at a Waffle House to grab a bite to eat. The food was fine. I don’t know why I haven’t eaten there since. There’s really no reason for my long hiatus. As I was lost in thought, my friend, Lauretta, burst through the glass door to the dining room. She loves Waffle House and frequents the eatery. For her, it’s one of her happy places — almost sacred. She’s spent hours there eating, talking to the staff and regulars, and even writing and editing her best-selling memoir, “The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life.”

“Hey!” she said, sitting down at the stool next to mine. Lauretta’s smile is like sunshine wearing bright red lipstick. “Have I missed anything?”

The waitress appeared before us, and without looking at a menu, Lauretta recited, “Order over well, hold the yolk; hash browns scattered and smothered, grill the onions first but don’t burn ‘em; dark wheat toast; and sweet tea.” I ordered two scrambled eggs, a piece of toast and a Mr. Pibb (Dr. Pepper’s twin brother). We watched the cook prepare our order just feet away. Three minutes later, a waitress set plates of hot food on the counter before us. “Well, what do you think?” she asked. “Nice, huh?” I realized that I was having a good time sitting on the bar stools, catching up with my friend, smelling coffee waft through the dining room, listening to the sizzle of bacon, the clink of utensils on plates and the banter of the behind-the-counter staff. It was a comforting, delightful experience. We talked about this and that. Both Lauretta and I grew up in Warner Robins, though we didn’t know each other when we were young. Like me, she shares stories about her family and upbringing. And like mine, her stories aren’t all beautiful, shiny “It’s a Wonderful Life” moments.

“Some people just don’t get it,” she said. “You can have a crazy family and friends and still love them with all your heart. I think people from other areas of the country just don’t understand us Southerners.”

I nodded, thinking about my favorite Julia Sugarbaker quote, “I’m saying, this is the South, and we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them up in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they’re on.”

Lauretta then began telling stories from her times eating at various Waffle Houses around the state. She shared the story of a fun, full-throttle sing-along to a Johnny Cash anthem — every person in the diner belting out every syllable of “Ring of Fire.” More than once, she witnessed a server look out the big plate-glass window and say, “Oh bless her heart,” then rush out into the parking lot to help an elderly patron walk from the car to a seat inside the restaurant. Another time, she watched a cook cut up an elderly customer’s order into tiny pieces because the gentleman had difficulty swallowing and was not able to use a knife. She’s witnessed the waitstaff quietly care for homeless men and women. continued from page

“Amber,” she said looking hard into my eyes, “I’ve witnessed the best of humanity under the Waffle House roof — everyday acts of charity, love, and courage.”

I looked around at the other faces in the restaurant with us that day. Everyone — staff and customers — was smiling and being kind to one another. Strangers weren’t strangers any more. They were all new friends just sharing a few moments of the day.

In today’s world of dueling opinions and political conflict, of “us and them” mentalities, welcoming, nonjudgmental experiences are rare. Somehow, Waffle House has found a way to help us celebrate our similarities and bind us back together, because let’s face it, we are all the same deep down inside. I don’t know how they achieve this grand feat, but they do. It’s miraculous. We paid our bill and headed out the door into the real world again. But weeks later, I am still thinking about Waffle House. I won’t let thirty-something years go by before visiting again. I’m going back soon, and this time, I’m taking my husband with me.

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