Morning cracks open over Middle Tennessee like a giant farm-fresh egg. It bastes the mini-mall in gooey yellow sunshine, washing over the giant fluorescent Shoe Carnival sign. The letters blink a few times, then they're drowned, extinguished for another day.
The sun soaks the Bread Restaurant, bleeding through the tall windows, and my laptop casts a long sundial shadow that reads 7 a.m.. This is where I sit now, and where I will sit for the next eight hours. This is my temporary office on this first Friday of the traveling season, where I'll catch up on writing and coding and e-mail.
The WiFi is free, as long as you don't put a price on dirty looks from the green-aproned busboys and busgirls. Just as long as I step to the counter, buy a toasted bagel with hazelnut cream cheese, or maybe a seven-dollar designer pizza, there's not much they can do about me. The Bread Restaurant represents my ultimate subversion, the invasion of the mid-major reporter from Interstate-land striking deep into the heart of suburbia, taking full advantage of conveniences meant for SUV wranglers and soccer moms.
In Tennessee or Wisconsin or California or Alabama or Connecticut, the regular morning crowd at the Bread Restaurant is virtually identical, save for the regional accents. Between opening and the lunch rush, there are groups of two women tucked into leather-seat booths, each playing a pre-assigned role. One is the wronged wife, spinning endless stories of alienation, suspicion and dissatisfaction. The other, the comforter and enabler. "Maybe it's time to take the next step," she says. "You're strong enough."
The Bread Restaurant is the cradle of American divorce, it is communication without communication, it is where love goes to die.***
You can't get any work done at a Waffle House -- the waitresses are desperate, underpaid tip-leeches who are on top of you from cup of coffee to closed check. I come from a place with no Waffle Houses, so it's still a novelty. When I sit at the counter of a Waffle House, eating off the double-sided menu placemat, I think about how there are people in this country who will never eat at a Waffle House in their lives. Most of these people live in or near New York City.
They'll never know the joy and anticipation of seeing those glowing yellow cubes up ahead, the comfortable feeling that those 11 squares stand for a breakfast that'll never cost more than 11 bucks, no matter how many extras you get. Every American has a right to slightly undercooked eggs with a delicious bowl of hot grits, a pecan or chocolate chip waffle smothered in syrup poured from a warmed glass goblet. Everybody should be defined by their hashbrown preferences, have them typed onto their driver's license (me: smothered, covered, diced and peppered).
If the Bread Restaurant is depressing conversations set to lite classical music, the Waffle House is the final institution of humble small talk. After a doubleheader at Middle Tennessee State, a 10:30 p.m. conversation between the two waitresses at a local Murfreesboro location of the World's Largest Server:
"Art and I made jambalaya last night," said the overweight matronly one.
"I don't think I'd like that sausage and shrimp so close together," said a younger girl, who may have been a MTSU student earning some extra book-cash. "That's what's in jambalaya, right?"
"I think so," came the reply. "I put so much Tabasco on it, I couldn't tell."
Waffle House is the official restaurant of the good and honest and forthright America, the non-cynical America where nobody thinks Stephen Colbert is funny, the Country with the capital "C' where conservative Christianity is as natural and as unquestioned as a limb. It's the America that was betrayed and twisted by leaders who took advantage of its unquestioned patriotism.
On Saturday morning, outside a Waffle House outside Nashville, there was a 15-minute parade of motorcyclists clogging up the Briley Parkway, snarling traffic.
"That right there'll turn your head," the large white-haired woman said, refilling my coffee mug. "Ain't that a beautiful sight."
"That's, umm, a lot of motorcycles," I offered.
"It's for Vietnam," she said back with a knowing and solemn nod, a breath trapped in her chest. "That's why I said it was beautiful."***
Interstate 65 from Louisville to Nashville is a path I've worn out over the last four years of basketball travel. This is a main artery of OVC country, anchored by Western Kentucky, crown jewel of the Sun Belt. On Thursday, I stop briefly in Bowling Green ("Abraham Lincoln never slept here, but you can"), visit a dusty downtown that moved me so much that I interrupted The Official Wife™ at work the first time I was there.
"You have to come here with me," I said. "This feels like the hometown I never had."
I buy a cup of dark coffee at Spencer's Coffeehouse, where they're always playing Bright Eyes, but I need to keep moving. My phone doesn't work there, and that makes me nervous.
At a Love's along I-65, the racks are loaded, but it's all Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa. It's as if a truck driver got lost on the way to the midwest and dropped his payload in an area more interested in Louisville red or Kentucky blue. None of the UNI sweatshirts are as nice as the one I bought for the wife in Cedar Falls over BracketBuster weekend two seasons back., the yellow Panther head on the black hoodie that people always ask her about.
But in the back, on the coat rack, another find: a Montana State windbreaker for $15.95. The Big Sky, representing in the land of Big Blue.***
The night is dark, black and strangely still, sliced through by my lonely headlights driving south on Interstate 24. There's an exit up ahead, and those yellow chiclets on the gas-food-lodging sign melt like warm butter pads on my hungry heart. I pull off the highway and into the parking lot.
The Waffle House is nearly empty -- it's just me, an old man reading a battered novel in a booth in the corner, and the homely middle-aged waitress. She pours the coffee with a shaky hand.
"Sorry about that," she says moments later, dabbing at a sizable spill-pool with a pile of tiny napkins. "Guess I'm getting old."
"Tell me about it," I say idly.
And she does.Games: 11