Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Waffle House: 7 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.

Any place becomes an entirely different place at night...

Late one evening, about 2 a.m., I sit in the 59th Avenue Waffle House. At the table across from me, a guy and a red ballcap, a Bluetooth device stuck in his ear, sits with a forlorn looking woman. She's tapping on her mobile phone. Texting someone, I suppose. No, it turns out she's scrolling through an electronic assemblage of toots and beeps and whistles, selecting a ringtone. A server walks by and deposits some coffee: "I was wondering where those sounds came from," she says with a smile. Neither patron utters a word in reply.

I get up and slide a dollar in the juke: Eric Clapton's "After Midnight." No one seems to care. Soon thereafter the machine cranks up "House of the Rising Sun" (The Animals version, of course), and the grill cook whistles along. "Last Night I Saw Elvis At The Waffle House" follows, and the guy slinging eggs turns around:
"Who played that?" he asks.
"I did," I reply sheepishly.
"That's a good song!"
He then starts to sing a few lines. Finally I seal the deal with Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

The cook asks me: Why Johnny'd shoot a man in Reno ("just to watch him die") only to wind up in California's Folsom Prison?
"Maybe the guy he shot crawled across the state line," I offer.
"You sure have a taste in music, guy."
The caffeine is working its magic and I'm getting a bit jittery. It seems like a good time to head out and find another Waffle House, to check out the early morning vibe elsewhere. Just across the street, I spot a gas station and fill up. Behind me, tires squeal. An unmarked cop car races up and a young guy in a buzzcut races into the store where I'd been sitting. The place empties out. I have no idea why.

I head to the Waffle House on University. It's a different scene than when I first visited in daylight a few hours before. In normal times, this Waffle House seems fit into the omnitopian pattern, part of an office-park hotel complex, and the only place during my Phoenix fast food travels where I score free wireless (easy internet access is as essential to omnitopia as holy water is to a cathedral). But the mood is much more tense when I return at 3:43 a.m., just having left that strange parking lot scene on 59th. The server offers a menu, but I can tell she's shaking.
"How are you?" she asks.
"Fine. How are you?"
"OK, I guess, for someone who just got robbed."
Part 8 of 10 appears tomorrow.
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