(Started, of course, yesterday.)
It’s the Fourth of July and I’m sitting in a Denny’s down the road from the house. Why? I want to be at a Waffle House and this is the closest I could come at short notice.
Let me back up.
Waffle House was — is — one of those places I’d been more inclined to avoid in college years than to patronize. In my mind’s eye, it was the epitome of country kitsch, cornpone Americana, everything uncool. I was hardly a cool kid myself, but like most kids cut from the “misfit egghead” cloth, by the time I left high school I’d become hip to being unhip, and there was a right way and a wrong way.
On the wall of Denny’s facing me is a poster in Italian, and the restaurant is generally clean, smooth jazz playing. Compared to a Waffle House, this is lush. Of course, Denny’s isn’t a real diner (despite rebranding themselves that way a few years ago); it’s a “family restaurant.” These have crowded diners out of the bottom-of-the-barrel table service niche.
Waffle House, though, is the real thing, a chain of Southern diners that hasn’t changed much since the 50s. On your third or fourth visit to a WH you realize the interior layout is modeled after a diner car, but they’re not calling attention to it, the way a Johnny Rockets type place would. Here, this isn’t a gimmick. It’s just the way it is.
Over recent years, I’ve come to appreciate Waffle House. The food, for what it is, isn’t bad, and it’s only a little more expensive than fast food. But the place most definitely is not a family restaurant. Sometimes you’ll see couples (often older ones), and every once in a while, particularly at busy moments, you’ll see families. But most of the folks you see are loners.
And this is, I think, what I like about Waffle House. There’s a melancholy to the place, but a comfortable, peculiarly inviting one. It’s not cornpone Americana, it’s quintessential Americana: the coffee shop. It’s a place you go to reflect, to escape, to chill out if that’s your parlance. It’s Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, served by the interstate with a side of hash browns.
So why the Fourth of July? I’d already seen fireworks, purely by being in the right place at the right time, and frankly, displays like that don’t have a whole lot of meaning I can connect back to the country, Francis Scott Key notwithstanding. And as much as I recognize the value of symbols, I never saw the point in pledging allegiance to the flag — if what you’re interested in is the republic for which it stands, pledge allegiance to that.
The last couple of years have heightened my leeriness, as some Americans have laid claim to patriotism as their sole provenance, declaring that one cannot simultaneously love your country and seek to change it. I want to shake them and say: can you imagine anything more radical than the notion of self-government at a time when monarchy was the status quo? As Barbara Ehrenreich put it, “Franklin wasn’t kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors.” When people tell me that dissent and social upheaval are unpatriotic, it makes me want to swear like a vice-president.
So I can’t think of a better place to be than Waffle House, or a close substitute. (Although I know there are better substitutes I could find than Denny’s.) Loners sharing communal space, a place that’s never a destination but always a rest stop on a journey. It is a place of comfortable alienation, and uniquely American. You can have the fireworks; I’ll have a bowl of Bert’s chili.
People who’ve been to Waffle House might know that each location has a jukebox, and each such jukebox has a half-dozen terrible country songs that extoll the virtues of — yes — Waffle House. Folk singer David Wilcox’s song isn't on them, but it’s the best of all:
at the Waffle House
if you’re facing some bitter truth
we’ll save you a window booth
and we will be waiting
when you, who have run from your home
when the silence of sorrow won’t leave you alone
and you, who are out here this late
be it heartbreak or highway or some altered state
when it’s time that you slow up
wrap both your hands around your cup
and stay until the feeling goes
as long as there’s broken hearts and dreams
and all of this highway in between
the Waffle House will never close
The only constant is change. And do try those hash browns.