I'm told Waffle Houses are peculiarly Southern institutions--basically they're the descendant of the roadside diner. They're usually long, squat brick buildings, in the classic diner car galley arrangement: a kitchen that takes up one long wall, counter seating and just a handful of booths. I don't think they could fit much more than two dozen customers in one. The menu's what you'd expect: breakfast served all the time, burgers, melts, chili and a few blue plate dinner type specials. And, of course, they're famous for their--you guessed it--hash browns. Okay, they have waffles, too, but they're really famous for the hash browns.
In a sense today has been unproductive, but only in a sense. I met a friend for lunch at Todai, a "Japanese seafood buffet" that's just opened its first location in Florida. Tampa seems to be becoming the place to do that rather than Miami or Orlando (and apparently even over other cities across the Southeast). After a worthy, sushi-heavy lunch, I went on to visit my mother for the afternoon.
My mother has just lost her cat. Zachary was a white seal-point Siamese, just a month shy of his twentieth birthday. Talkative and affectionate yet kind of irascible, he'd been her closest companion since I moved out for college in mid-1986. Shortly after I left, she moved to Ridge Manor, a town of about 4,500 in the easternmost part of Hernando County. Now, Hernando County wasn't exactly a bustling place in the '80s; I spent junior high and high school in Spring Hill, a sprawling nondescript development in the western part of the county. It was a huge set of subdivisions, suburbia with no urbia nearby to speak of. They got their first McDonald's when I was in high school and it was a cause for celebration.
Since then, Spring Hill has developed into one of those quasi-cities you see so often now: virtually everything you need within convenient driving distance (but nothing within convenient walking distance), with a selection of groceries and liquor stores and Wal-Marts and Home Depots a variety of strip malls and at least one of every major fast food chain and "casual dining concept" chain. Everything is right there--except there's no there there. No downtown, no quirky hangouts, no little parks. There were a couple independent pizza shops and delis and family restaurants, and some of them might be still be around--although to be brutally honest you know most of them weren't better than the chains that replaced them, even if the chains aren't that good. The area's gone from cow fields to homes to boomtown without ever having the chance to develop a character.
Ridge Manor hasn't had that problem.
When Mom and Zachary moved there, it had a population of around 4100. Since that time, it's gone up to about 4500. The interchange of State Road 50 (its "thoroughfare") and I-75 has been developed--going from a few gas stations and a motel to a few gas stations, two motels, three fast food restaurants and a small strip mall with a grocery store--but there's not much sign of new development just a mile away from there. I know development's been going on, but it sure hasn't been frenetic.
My mother moved onto close to two acres of land, and she got into the habit of walking Zachary. Yes, walking the cat. Zachary desperately wanted to be an outside cat, but he didn't have the temperment (or common sense) for it, so Mom accompanied him. Thanks to Zachary, she got to know most of the neighbors in a mile radius, took up birdwatching, and developed an interest in native plants and flowers. She grew up spending summers on a farm in Maryland, and while Ridge Manor is hardly a farm I think it--and Zachary--rekindled a love of rural life in her.
Now that Zachary's gone, I don't know what she's going to do. I'm not worried about her, precisely--she'll mourn, but she'll certainly go on. I'm not sure where she'll go on to. I think Zachary was the most concrete connection other than the land itself she has to Ridge Manor, even though she lives with her girlfriend and her ex-husband (whom she's still good friend with) lives a block away. She could move to Sarasota, into the house her mother owned; she's currently renting it out, and has been waffling about whether to sell it or save it for years. If she were to move after she retires in less than two years, I'd think Tampa would be a better choice--both less expensive and closer to more things to do.
But, it's hard to make a good prediction. Of course, I'm not entirely sure where I'll be in two months. Right where I am now is a good guess, but it's less of a given than it was this time last year.
Oh. That interchange of I-75 and State Road 50 has also always had a Waffle House there, which brings us back to where I started. After I finished dinner (Coke, cheeseburger with a side of hash browns and sliced jalapenos, a little over $5), I got a coffee to go. The restaurant was empty while I ate but four retirees came in as I was finishing up, and as I wait for a coffee to go, another family's walked in: a middle-aged man in a denim shirt and a cowboy hat, a woman in a gingham blouse and a denim skirt and a wide belt, and a matching little girl in a pale oh-so-country plaid dress. I feel like I'm on the set of Waffle House on the Prairie.