Tuesday, October 27, 2015

come on-a my house

I had a very weird experience at a Waffle House almost 20 years ago. It was so weird — so very surreal — that I shied away from the iconic restaurant chain on countless family road trips over the years. Somewhere along the southern portion of Interstate 95, my family (Me, Mrs. P and our young son) had stopped for the evening at a midway point on our drive to Walt Disney World in central Florida. After one night's stay at one of the many motels that dot the off-ramps of the interstate, I loaded the car with our luggage and we set out for the last leg of our journey. Just across the access road from our evening's accommodations was a small, narrow, yellow-topped building adorned with a single line of sans serif type identifying the place as "WAFFLE HOUSE" — plain and simple. Seeing the establishment, I thought I'd grab a couple of cups of coffee for me and the Mrs. to perk us up for the next 300 or so miles. Mrs. P set our son up with a pre-pack bowl of cereal on his molded plastic car tray (that doubled as a play surface for a variety of "Thomas the Tank Engine" toy trains when he wasn't eating) and I popped in to the Waffle House.

It was as though I had stepped into The Twilight Zone. A hunched row of coverall-clad men lined the gold-flecked Formica counter. Some had heavy ceramic mugs poised at their mouths. Others shoveled forkfuls of breakfast into their maws, while still others worked their jaws to chew and digest what they had already eaten. On the other side of the counter, a large man wrapped in a grease-stained apron was bent over a smoking, open grill. His meaty fist clenched a metal spatula that he used to poke and prod a massive pile of hash-browned potatoes. No one said a word. The only sound was made by the spatula clinking against the griddle. (I expected the cook to turn around and reveal himself to be Rod Serling.) I stood by the counter waiting to be noticed. A waitress approached. Her stringy hair was pulled up and tucked under a droopy doily holding the mess in place. She wore a stained apron that matched that of the cook. (Perhaps it was the official Waffle House uniform.)

"Wut kin I getcha?," she asked with a tone that implied she was doing me a favor.

"Two cups of coffee to go, please.," I requested.

She looked at me as though I just spoke to her in a rare Swahili dialect. "Wuuuut?," she lolled in a lazy Southern drawl. I repeated my order, this time more slowly, trying to enunciate each word. She shook her head and fumbled under the counter for a minute. When she brought her hand back into view, her fingers were laced through the handles of two off-white ceramic mugs.

"We got theeese.," she said, gesturing at the mugs with her head, "We ain't go no other kinda cups."

"You don't have a cardboard cup with a lid?," I asked incredulously.

"Nuh-uh.," she replied as she frowned and shook her head. "Jes' theeese." She was interrupted by a ringing telephone which now took her full attention.. She lifted the receiver and asked, "Huh-lo?" A tinny, electronic voice chattered something unintelligible through the connection. The waitress dropped her hand holding the phone to her side and she hollered something unintelligible toward a man seated at the counter munching on a twisted strip of bacon. Still chewing, the man rose from his seat, dragged himself over to the waitress and took the phone from her hand. He spoke a stream of garbled words that were thick and muddled in Southern vernacular. I swear I could not understand a single word this guy was saying. When he had finished his conversation, he stared at the phone as though he had never seen nor held anything like it in his life. He pushed the brim of his mesh trucker hat back and said, "This phone don't got no hang up button on it. How do I hang it up if'n it don't got th' button?," he said mournfully. He examined the phone more closely, turning it over to various angles and narrowing his eyes as if to discover a secret hidden switch or lever.

Totally spooked by the entire scenario presented before me, I offered my thanks to the waitress and backed away towards to the door. I jumped back into the passenger's side of my car and asked my wife to just find a Dunkin Donuts, relating the otherworldly episode as she drove.

And that was it. That was the only time I ever set foot in a Waffle House. We have driven to Florida numerous times over the years, and we have passed many, many Waffle Houses (there is one at nearly every single exit on I-95 between Philadelphia and Orlando), but we have always turned our noses up at them as a meal option.

Until today.

Last Saturday, Mrs. Pincus and I embarked on another drive to Florida, again with our son — now 28 years old — and his girlfriend. Recently, I had seen some social media posts from a few touring bands (specifically President Obama favorite Low Cut Connie and national pastime rockers The Baseball Project) featuring late-night stops at Waffle House, with its kitschy, Americana charm on full display. As we made our way down the interstate, I suggested we stop for dinner (breakfast served anytime and what's more fun than breakfast for dinner!) at a Waffle House. According to our GPS and Google maps, we had many nearby locations from which to choose. I was rebuffed. As a matter of fact, I was triple rebuffed. I was willing to give Waffle House a shot at redemption, but I was out-voted and we pulled into a Sonic Drive-In near Walterboro, South Carolina. Now, I'm okay with Sonic, but, I really wanted Waffle house.

After a week at the Walt Disney World Resort and not a mention of Waffle House, we packed up the car for the ride home. We decided to call it a night at a creepy little Quality Inn in Lumberton, North Carolina. Surrounding ours and the other hotels, our food options included Subway, Cracker Barrel, McDonald's and Waffle House. My fellow travelers opted to order a pizza from a local Domino's. My suggestion of Waffle House was not even acknowledged.

Early this morning, we decided to forgo the complimentary breakfast to a.) get the hell away from the strange atmosphere of the Lumberton Quality Inn* and b.) get out on the homeward-bound road. Once again, I suggested Waffle House and, once again, I was dismissed.

We headed north and, approximately fifty miles from our morning starting point, we all began to feel a little hungry. We briefly drove through the desolate and sketchy-looking town of Dunn, quickly making our way back to the highway. Approaching Benson, we exited I-95 and immediately found ourselves staring at — you guessed it! — a Waffle House. Mrs. P turned to my boy and his girl crammed into the back seat of my RAV 4 and plaintively offered up Waffle House with a "let's just pacify Dad" tone in her voice. I detected a collective sigh of defeat as they nodded in reluctant agreement. We parked next to a big, maroon Harley and entered the joint, my son muttering "Are you happy now?," as he walked past me in the parking lot.

Where the magic happens.
We were greeted at the door by a smiling young man in a "Waffle House" cap and bow tie, who proudly and warmly afforded a toothy "Good Morning." We seated ourselves at the counter and scanned the colorful laminated menus. A cheerful waitress, whose name tag identified her as "Jaz," provided some of the best coffee I ever had. We each placed our order and watched with fascination as the well-rehearsed assembly line pumped out platter after platter with automated factory-like efficiency. Each person at the grill was tasked with a specific job. One guy manned the five smoking waffle irons. One guy oversaw four multi-slice toasters. One young lady flattened sizzling sausage patties and bacon strips. Another guy prepared the much-storied hash browns, meticulously adding each of the famous supplemental ingredients. The last guy had six frying pans simultaneously cooking eggs. It was truly a spectacle!

Scattered, smothered, covered, peppered.
My coffee was refilled by the smiling greeter after nearly every sip I took. Soon, Jaz flicked our platters to us like she was dealing cards in blackjack. They were welcoming, traditional American breakfasts and they were beautiful! I got two eggs — sunny-side up — a couple slices of buttered toast and a side of world-famous hash browns that were "scattered, smothered, covered and peppered." That's Waffle House lingo for "spread across the grill with onions, cheese and jalapeno peppers." I enhanced the dish with some of their own brand (the humorously named Casa de Waffle) of picante sauce from a fully-stocked condiment caddy, along with a few spicy splashes of Tabasco and I was in business. Everything was de-lish-ous! My travelling party was enjoying their choices as well. We ate and watched the grill-side "entertainment." Several staff members (including the happy crew at the grill) asked how we were enjoying our meal and, of course, my coffee cup was filled again and again. It was comfort food at its best, we didn't want to leave.

When we finally finished every last crumb on our plates, I did my best to hold back a few "I told you so"s, as my family sheepishly admitted that Waffle House was a pretty good choice for this and future travels.

Oh, we'll be back all right. Maybe next time I'll even try the waffles.


*If you find yourself in the vicinity of Lumberton, North Carolina... first of all, I feel sorry for you, but, if you are seeking a place for an overnight stay, I'd avoid the Quality Inn. I would suggest any of the other hotels at the Exit 20 complex. The Days Inn and the Howard Johnson's both looked nice. Hell, the parking lot of the Burger King looked nice in comparison to the Quality Inn (a misnomer if I ever heard one).

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