A Scattered, Smothered, and Covered Story
Copyright 2009 by Jason Brooks
Disheveled, discouraged, and desperately broke, I trudged into the Waffle House at Five Points in Athens, Georgia on a Friday night, hungry, frustrated and badly in need of a Biology Information transfusion. What I knew about biology wouldn't fit in a frog's spleen. With only a few days until the end of the semester, I plopped into a corner booth and laid out my torturous study materials, hoping for a miracle.
She came to the table, all smiles and sweet Southern charm. Her name was Vicky, "with a 'Y'," she emphasized, and she wanted to know what she could do for me.
"Well, you could take my biology final," I joked.
She smiled and said something to the effect of "Hell, no" and then asked what I would like to drink.
"Coffee. Lots of it. And keep it coming," I replied.
I knew that I would need an unending source of caffeine if I were to make it to Monday morning and my exam. And fortunately, the good people of Waffle House have never seen fit to do two things: charge by the cup or raise their coffee prices. There is nothing finer in the world than a bottomless cup of 69 cent coffee, especially when you're a third-year college student with less cash than Social Security.
"Anything to eat?" Vicky asked.
I meekly shook my head no. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I stole barely enough change from my roommate’s car to cover the cost of coffee. She sashayed back to the coffee pot and poured a steaming hot cup of deep black bliss into a slightly crusty mug. Then, being a sweet woman, she transferred it to another cup, this one a little cleaner.
She brought it to me, patted my shoulder and said, "If you need anything else, let me know."
"I might be here a while," I said, nodding towards the books strewn in front of me.
"Honey, we're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Take all the time you need."
And with that, she went back to the counter to help another customer.
A quick secret about WaHo coffee - or any coffee for that matter: if, at first taste, it's a little bitter - like maybe it's been sitting for too long or was simply brewed too strong - add just a dash of salt before you add your cream or sugar. It's an old sailor's trick that my grandfather taught me and it can make just about the nastiest cup of coffee as smooth as a politician's lies.
I got my coffee settled (1 dash salt, 2 packets of half-n-half, 1 pound of sugar) and began to go over my notes, which read like Chinese arithmetic. I nursed that one cup for over an hour, with Vicky making the occasional pass to offer a "freshenin' up" of the Joe. I turned her down each time, feeling guilty for being so cheap. Finally, well into the second hour, she just snatched the cup from my hand and poured me a refill.
"If you're gonna sit here that long," she said, "you're gonna at least drink hot coffee." After that, every 30 minutes, whether I asked her to or not, Vicky came by and refreshed my cup of coffee. She even switched out mugs for me when I finally took a potty break around three in the morning. And when the sun broke the sky outside, she waited for her replacement and told her to take extra care of me.
"He's studying so hard, like his life is on the line. So you be sure to help him," she directed the new server.
"Well, as long as he don't raise no fuss, I'll help him all he wants," snarled Veronica, the new server.
Shift change is not the best time to catch wait staff at their best. But it is the best way to get good food - the new line cook (his name was Benny, and he replaced Wallace, who had several large tattoos of naked women on his arms) shot me a plate of scrambled eggs with cheese and some toast. I told him I wasn't hungry, and he told me to eat it or he'd beat my head into the table.
I ate the eggs and the toast. I even used jelly.
That shift was uneventful, if you consider 4,000 hung-over college students trying to eat enough grease to negate the effects of the previous night uneventful. Saturday mornings at WaHo, IHOP and Huddle House are monstrous. So many people wanting to eat, so many people willing to push, shove and cheat their way to a plate of syrupy goodness, it's almost overwhelming.
And in the middle of all of the chaos are the servers, who are calling out 300 orders per minute, and the line cooks who are handling 300 orders from 6 different servers all at once, without burning or messing up one single order.
"HBs, double, scattered, smothered, covered, topped, diced, chunked and give it wings with a side of sliced pig nice and toasty! Pee-can discus with a side of snausage, two eggs over-easy with whole wheat toast! One T and eggs, medium, with extra cheese and a bowlful of Quakers!"
It's another language, and it's beautiful to watch and hear how well these people manage the chaotic tide. It's also deeply disturbing to see the class divide - how poorly the servers and cooks are treated by people who think they are better than them. I even heard one kid, who was in one of my classes that semester, say, "If you'll take extra care with my order, I'll leave an extra quarter for your tip, and you'll be able to get new rims for your Camaro."
I wanted to punch the guy, but the server he was talking to, I think her name was Carla, just leaned in real close and said, "Actually, I drive an Acura. Maybe you can save that quarter for something a little more personal - like a phone call to your favorite 1-900 number."
I love WaHo waitresses.
I ended up staying in that same corner booth from Friday night until Monday morning. Never left to take a shower, never ordered anything other than that one cup of coffee. When I got up to go to the bathroom, or to step outside for a smoke (yes, I used to smoke) the current staff would bus the table, careful not to mess with my notes, and they would drop me some small morsel of food - a slice of bacon here, a sandwich there. Once a lady complained that her waffle was "overdone."
The server, a skinny fellow by the name of Brent, brought it over to me and asked, "You want this?"
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"The person who ordered it is a..." and he proceeded to list some colorful phrases in describing the persnickety customer.
Loud enough for her to hear.
Later, when he brought her second waffle, looking much the same as the first, he asked if it was to her liking.
She smiled, took the plate and scarfed it down in record time.
I rolled out of the booth at six Monday morning. Shasta, the waitress who’d been on shift through my final hours of cramming, walked with me out to my car. I was bleary-eyed and not at all confident that I was going to pass my exam.
Shasta felt differently.
“I’ve seen hundreds of people come in and do the same thing you did,” she explained, “and almost all of them had a holier-than-thou attitude, like us servers should be grateful for their presence. I guarantee you most of them failed, not because they didn’t study hard, but because they weren’t the kind of people who make much of their own lives. They think life should just come easy.”
She stared at her left hand, the one that was scarred with grease burns provided by an abusive husband, a husband she had gotten the nerve to leave only three months before. “Sometimes, life is hard. But if you try, you can make it.”
I drove to my biology final thinking about what she said, and about the mnemonic device she had shown me for remembering skeletal structure. I was still thinking of her words an hour later as I walked out of my final with an 87 and a smile on my face.
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