Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Waffle House: 8 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.

"How are you?" "OK, I guess, for someone who just got robbed..."

Turns out that a dude had come in, sat down, ordered a meal, went up to the register to pay, pulled a gun, and demanded money from the till. He left just a few minutes back. At once I think about how fast I'd driven between the two Waffle Houses. The interstate's open wide this time at night, the speed camera sensors glowing red, and I made good time with no flash of the ticket machine. Perhaps that explains the action back on 59th. Customers are now chatting nervously and the cook and server decide to take a smoke break. A bit later when I visit the Waffle House on Country Club Road, it's clear that news of the robbery has made its way around the area stores. The cook gives me a careful once-over as I walk in. The server later explains to me, "It's that time of year. People get desperate during the holidays. And with layoffs and the economy, it's getting worse."

That said, I feel like things are winding down. Wherever the thief is, he's not here. It's time to engage one of my longtime diner fantasies, the stuff of dime store novels and black and white movies best watched on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I'm going to play Patsy Cline's "Crazy" on a jukebox at this ungodly hour. Some folks would prefer Frank Sinatra's "One For My Baby (And One for the Road)," but that choice seems a little too on-the-nose for me. There's a more subtle meaning to the song, "Crazy," when played late at night. In a quiet spot near the road, at a time when folks pull their hats low over their eyes, the kind of vibe Edward Hopper sought to capture with Nighthawks, "Crazy" is an admission of last-rung desperation, a willingness to do anything to set things right and an awareness that nothing can be done. The tinkling of those piano keys produces a slow rhythm of despair masked with a smile.

Yet, to me, the choice to return to Waffle House at this time of night is a performance, a pose, not an expression of the real thing. I've been married for over twenty years, and I have rarely felt close enough to losing my love that I would drown my sorrows in smothered hash browns and bitter coffee. I write this with the dim awareness of just how precarious my own life has become, as I wade obliviously further and further from the shore, ignoring the tug of the undertow. I sit in a Waffle House at 4:43 a.m., my quarter transforming the place into my own stage. Patsy Cline is on the jukebox -- I could hardly imagine a Waffle House without her, or Johnny Cash, or Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA"; it'd be like a Waffle House without syrup. Tonight I am a Nighthawk hunched over a burger, pretending that I inhabit some noir fantasy. Yet I am not here so much as I am caught up in my own silent reverie, the director of a movie only I can see.

Thinking on this, I return to a Tuesday morning a few years ago. I walk to the nearby theater to see Grindhouse. It is raining, cold and dreary, and I wear a heavy overcoat. I have already seen the double-feature of ersatz exploitation flicks, with their post-production film scratches and artfully "missing" reels; I understand the point: an homage to the kinds of lousy movies shown in skanky auditoriums that once housed burlesque shows or, even earlier, vaudeville venues. Grindhouse is a performance of malstalgia (yes, it is doubly-bad), something so intentionally awful that it seeks to return back to something kind of cool. I get the joke. So I drag my way up to the ticket window, prepared to creak out a one-word command. Not the cheerful, chirpy announcement of a happy foursome calling out their choice for an evening of safe entertainment ("Four tickets for the 7:15 Shrek, please!") but something guttural, dripping with whiskey, stretching out the miserable last syllable: "Grindhousssss," as if I'm some sad letch wandering Times Square just after the Midnight Cowboy took his last bus ride. But I can't do it. It's a Tuesday afternoon in my quiet bedroom community and the kids working the ticket booth won't get the joke. I'll feel silly and look stupid, so I abandon my plan.

That's what I love about Waffle House, the safety, the anonymity, the freedom of being up at 4:43 a.m. some place hundreds of miles from home. I do not come here to experience the communitas of meeting up with an old buddy, the friendly banter of a neighborhood crew of regulars passing the time. I come for the freedom of being unknown, the freedom to sit a while and then to return to the night without more than a brief word of thanks and a decent tip. So I sit here and listen to Patsy Cline's "Crazy." My motions become slower and I allow my fingers to drift over the table, drawing the coffee cup closer to me, leaning down to inhale the aroma, feeling something of that dull ache of childhood years.

I know the truth, though. My heart is not broken tonight. Indeed, I know that my spouse patiently endures these silly games I play, racing off to Phoenix for an essay on Waffle House, flying off to New York to drive silently back across the country to write my introduction to a book on omnitopia, even crossing the globe to wander the alleys of Hong Kong, all to gain some vivid understanding of urban life never known in my younger suburban shuffles. I drive and fly and race to perform moments of silent wandering, through memories never personally known.

Part 9 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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