Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Waffle House: 2 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

Too much honesty can be a dangerous thing...

At Home on the Road

Starting in my early twenties, a quick visit to Waffle House for some pecan waffles and hash browns (scattered and smothered, nothing fancier, thanks) seemed like a natural part of any interstate journey. For a time, if I was heading on the highway for a lengthy drive, I couldn't imagine not going to Waffle House. The friendly yellow and black sign, the (usually) stained drop-panel ceiling, the jukebox filled with roadhouse tunes, the booths filled with chatting locals and tired-eyed travelers, these fragments (and a few others) have always brought to my mind a special set of associations. As far back as I can remember, Waffle House has called forth a different mode of social interaction, a place that can hardly be confused with most other chain restaurants.

I came across my first Waffle House on a northerly drive from Clearwater to Jacksonville, Florida. I'd finished an active duty Navy tour and was beginning my reserve hitch. JAX was the site of my two-week summer obligation. I was 22, give or take, and I was taking my first solo roadtrip. I remember opening up a map with a couple of friends and surveying potential routes. The interstate seemed like the way to drive, but a pal opined that I should take the smaller highway, 301, a diagonal course that cut through the state's interior.

Options unfolded with the map. The superslab would allow for more speed, but I wanted to savor the small towns that dot the interior of the state, places like Citra and Waldo and Lawtey (long before I learned about the speed traps that mar that region). I'd traveled a reasonable portion of the world, but I'd never driven a highway by myself. This would be my chance. I was anxious and excited, not entirely sure of myself. And just before I turned onto 301, I saw the sign for Waffle House. I'd heard of the chain but had never before had reason to visit. This time, my first time on the road, it felt right to stop here. Walking through those doors, I felt a kind of safety that's hard to explain, difficult, that is, without some discussion of fear.

Since I built my first fort out of couch cushions, claimed my own tree house in nearby Hammock Park (it was actually built by older boys who used the place to store girly magazines), and crafted my own Logan's Run fantasy cities of Lego bricks, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs in my childhood room, I've had a thing for enclaves, safe spaces within frightening places. Soft chambers, childhood fortresses, and fantasy cities promised safe divestment from the realities of being raised by a poor single mother in a house run by an extended family of violent drunks.

My most vivid memory of that time has me wandering into a screaming match between my mother and grandmother and finding my arms being pulled in opposite directions as they sought to drag me one way and then another, ripping me apart. In a home that could hardly be called safe, I had a room with a door that closed, and I used it frequently. But the room wasn't really mine and the home wasn't really ours. Soon enough we were on our own, without a place to stay.

Part 3 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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