Friday, August 7, 2009

Waffle House: 10 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.

I lied a bit, too...

Most importantly, I lied about where I wrote this piece. I did not write this essay in Waffle House; I wrote it at home. Yes, I did drive to Phoenix; yes, through the snow of the Mojave Desert; yes, barely avoiding a robbery late at night; and yes, the sound of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" transformed an early morning hour into something meaningful, at least to me. These things happened, but I wrote all of these words at home.

Just now I'm sitting in bed with my cat curled up on my lap, she who detests the cold and finds me more than suitable as a means to escaping the winter that creeps through our poorly weather-stripped doors. Outside, I can hear the sounds of children playing on the streets of our cul-de-sac as the sky darkens at dusk. I write this is an enclave called Scotts Valley, a one-hour bus ride from the halls where I work. I live in a community composed of people who are pretty much like me, middle class strivers seeking a safe investment and quiet streets. I write this as the cat groans and sighs in the pleasure of our darkening room, she and I warm and comfortable.

I tried to write this essay entirely on site, in "the field" as the silverbacks (and wannabe silverbacks among us) might say, but I never could get beyond hastily typed notes. I remember typing them and reviewing them again and again. Is that what I heard? Is that what I said? But I quickly forsook any effort to writing "the truth" of my experiences while I was there. Sipping a cup of coffee, typing out notes on my laptop, I was usually surrounded by folks who reasonably assumed me to be a journalist or an author come to make them famous. Consequently, my fellow patrons paid more attention to me that they would have otherwise. The act of writing in Waffle House undoubtedly skewed what I saw. I mean, really: other than college students cramming for exams or banging out a course paper, who comes to write in a Waffle House? And I stopped looking like a college student a long time ago. So I came home, guiltily, carrying a computer filled with digital scribbles and predictable photos.

I thought briefly about writing at my neighborhood Starbucks, a phrase just about as meaningless as one's "Neighborhood Applebees" (where I'm not sure that they serve anything that can technically be called "food," certainly not "apples," any more than they serve "neighborliness"). Sure, there was plenty of noise, a Waffle House hallmark, and Starbucks possesses the same sort of enclavic sensibility, perhaps even more so with its "black card," a clever device to transform Starbucks into something more akin to an airport terminal's private lounge. But one can hardly confuse Starbucks with Waffle House; the theoretical similarities and stylistic differences are just too distracting. It's better to come home as one would come to Waffle House, to a place where they call you "hon."

My home in Scotts Valley culminates a personal and professional search for enclave that brought me westward from Florida to California. It's a place where garage doors are larger than the porches, where we celebrate our community through holiday performances but generally leave each other alone (with some notable exceptions). It is a sign of the times in our age of anxiety. It is perfect for me. I fled a childhood filled with fear for the safest port in the storm, a hitch with the Navy. I then bounded into the cloistered confines of college years, learning to please those who judged me, selecting my battles with precision.

I made mistakes, so many mistakes, especially when admitting my weaknesses to friends better labeled acquaintances, and I found myself behind the closed door of my own tenured office space. I discovered the unhappy truth of so many academic lives: We who enter the Ivory Tower, searching for a fortress for ideas and a mote of separation from the dreaded "real world," generally manage to bring our own fears with us, locking them tight within our interiors.

Home, therefore, is the final freedom, the ultimate closed door. I have found shelter after all these years as the storms rage outside. I am safe in my protected intellectual space, a world in which I can drive hundreds of miles to sit in a cheap fast food diner and expect people to say, "Well, that makes sense." I admit this only from the safety of job security and the confidence that no one would every really publish an essay like this. I shuffle paragraphs, rehash quotations, double check song titles, and abandon any pretense at depth. Moments break and congeal, transformed into a story, an auto-ethnography of fragmentary shards read at highway speeds. Only in this way do I try to explain the bittersweet domesticity of Waffle House, my home away from --

Well, you know.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thanks to Tyrone Adams for inspiring this essay. While the book we envisioned did not (as yet) come to pass, I am grateful for your seductively written call to write something heartfelt about Waffle House. Anything that works in my essay owes much to your recommendation to tackle this topic. All errors that remain, of course, are my own.

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