Monday, August 3, 2009

Waffle House: 6 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.

Does Waffle House lead away from omnitopia or toward the same continuum?...

I can think of few Waffle Houses that sport a cactus out front, but this one on Baseline, just off I-10, does. I walk in and find one of the many varieties of Waffle House greeting. Some are cheery, some are wan, some are tired, and some are genuinely pleasant. But it's inevitable, I end up chatting with someone every time I pass through those doors. A woman wearing caked blue eye shadow offers me a piece of pecan pie, and I drift back to The Mamas & the Papas, "California Dreamin." Somehow I am here but not entirely here.

Further south in a Chandler Waffle House I bop my head to a jukebox tune, "Last Night I Saw Elvis At The Waffle House." A fellow serving tables shoots my way, asking, "Have you seen Dewey Cox?" In most contexts, his is an odd question. Here, not so much. As it turns out, yes, I have seen Walk Hard. Indeed, I listened to the soundtrack on the way here. Within a moment, he and I trade our favorite lines from the mockumentary until he leans closer in and asks in an almost conspiratorial tone: "What do you think of the rap version of "Walk Hard"? I dip my spoon into some Bert's Chili and think carefully. This moment is different than any other I've experienced in a Waffle House. And that's the point. This place is built for random connections. It is a locale, at least it is one of sorts.

That famed Waffle House jukebox also contributes to its sense of locale, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, illustrates how each store seems to convey its inhabitants to a common place in a manner fairly termed omnitopian. In my experience, Waffle House jukeboxes seem to offer a consistent set of choices. Waffle House standards include songs created just for the chain, such as "I'm Going Back to the Waffle House," "There are Raisins in my Toast," and (a personal favorite) "844,739 Ways to Eat a Hamburger." Some Waffle House jukeboxes are tiny units mounted over individual tables. But not in the Phoenix area. These jukes are big standalone monsters. Even without glowing lights or flowing water beads, these jukes are sufficiently impressive to draw attention. And when you plunk in your quarters or dollars, everyone's going to know something of your musical taste.

There's something wonderful about a jukebox that has been largely bypassed in our contemporary rush to create individual aural enclaves. When I was a kid, I remember huge boom boxes hoisted above t-shirted shoulders, and before that I remember transistor radios: mobile stations that crossed paths in intricate and complicated ways. Before that, I vaguely recall the ways in which stationary radio receivers played music from shops and stores around town, producing a happy cacophony of words and tunes. Pop culture was shared, for better or for worse, in these spaces of overlapping choice.

These days, an age of the clinically white iPod earbud, such sonic seepage is impolite, even threatening. You imagine that you might walk over to the car whose subwoofers are loud enough to crack concrete and chat with the driver -- say, could you turn that down a bit? -- but you probably never will. More likely you'll turn up the volume to your personal audio device and shut your eyes to the ugly world outside.

Thus the pleasure of the Waffle House jukebox: an invitation to play deejay for a group of strangers. Sure, there's risk there too. You really want to play Village People? Ooops. The truckers will look at you funny. Try again. Maybe something more classic: "New Kid in Town." But you press the wrong button and select that awful new Britney Spears song when you really intended to play The Eagles. No matter. Anyplace becomes this place with a jukebox.

And any place becomes an entirely different place at night.

Part 7 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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