Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Waffle House: 3 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.

We were on our own, without a place to stay...

We passed our time in a string of motels offering the neon flash of domesticity and detachment, and I solidified my interest in the ways in which people carve intentional spaces out from impersonal wildernesses, natural or humanmade. I never thought in such theoretical terms, of course; life was far more practical in those days. But so much of what moves me now began back then.

I remember those mom and pop motels along the highway possessing the exotic thrill of near-distance, just far enough away from what I'd previously considered home but not too far that I couldn’t find a ride to elementary school. During those evenings, I imagined other kids sitting in their dining rooms and eating dinner while I ventured out on my own to the diner attached to our motel, free to get whatever I could fetch for a couple of bucks. It was exhilaration leavened by the dull ache of apprehension. I could close the door to our tiny room, lock it even, but I still heard the cars race by outside, and I still saw the light of the sign through the closed curtains. Finally when my mom scrounged up enough money to get us an apartment, making sacrifices I cannot imagine to name, I remember being enclosed in our car by the gathered stuff of our lives, fitted tightly within laundry baskets of clothes, a few toys, and some books. I was safe but always moving.

Maybe that's what I meant about the feeling of safety that flowed from entering a Waffle House my first time on the road. I joined the Navy to get the hell away from home. I figured that staying too long pretty much anywhere was fraught with risk. Even a house, which other children crayoned as a sort of permanent mother's embrace when I was in elementary school, seemed ephemeral, untrustworthy, perpetually ready to collapse. But the Navy promised a short commitment and long distance. I did my years and cleared my head a bit. But my time ran out. At 22 I was married and renting. I was lucky to find someone who loves me, but those early years were rough.

We had a daughter, and I was working my way through school, handling my reserve obligation as just one more plate to keep spinning. Life at home was tense, often bitter, and the walls closed in on our tiny family as bills piled up and time ran short. Hitting the road, heading away, was my safety valve. And Waffle House offered the perfect form of temporary domesticity, a house without a key, a house without a father, a house that didn't need me. I could visit and enjoy comforts of home, share first names or not, and cut into a grid drenched with sweetness. I could order it all on a ticket. Waffle House was a poetry of safety in its ritual and speed, an exemplar of automobility -- a perfect site for auto-ethnography.

Heading South to Phoenix

So I'm sitting in a Waffle House on 59th Avenue west of downtown Phoenix. It's morning, and I'm sliding a dollar into the jukebox. I've traveled more than 20 years from those bad old days in Florida, passed through gauntlets of dissertation and job search and tenure, all to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in a Waffle House a day's drive from home, here to write an essay for no pleasure other than its creation. Back on campus, my promotion dossier is winding its way through the university bureaucracy. I know what the outcome will be, but I've been living in a state of functional panic for months anyway. Years, really.

Around me, the economy sputters and dies; things fall apart. Around the world, kids throw rocks and teenagers launch rockets, and I'm worried about my little office with its door that closes tight. I've gathered one mortgage and then a few more. My spouse and I have invested in a series of properties around the country just in time to watch the real estate market dive off a cliff. But now I'm far from that place and those anonymous cul-de-sacs, even though I've managed to carry a few bricks with me, loaded in the back seat of my Saturn (American made, but not really, safely nationalistic, but practical too), my own little intellectual fortress. "I'm going to Waffle House to write an essay," I say, and my colleagues ask, "What will you write about?"

I haven't a clue.

Part 4 of 10 appears tomorrow.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

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