January 20, 2008 1:37 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
On the road, general well-being is a complicated mesh of karmic gears, all of which must be humming and whirring smoothly to ensure smooth runnings. For example, there's cop karma, rental car karma, WiFi karma, digestive karma and gas prices karma. Those are only a few.
For two weeks, I was having a hell of a time with my Waffle House karma. It seemed like every time I stepped into the World's Leading Server, that yellow hut with the globe lighting, I was suddenly an undesirable unserviceable, despite the "house rules" that said they didn't discriminate against creed, color or tip size. It was almost as if they'd circulated my picture with the caption, "treat this guy like crap."
For instance, there was the location near Kansas City where I stopped for breakfast on January 2nd. I was the only customer there, and I took my regular seat at the counter. One employee organized silverware in the rack right in front of me, never stopping to acknowledge my presence. The line cook cleaned off the batter drippings from the station of four waffle irons, and the waitress in the corner took a cell-phone call.
Several minutes passed, and I couldn't stay polite anymore. "Am I going to get service here?"
The waitress snapped her phone shut, approached me, stopped and looked past me out the window. I offered my regular order -- coffee, two eggs over easy with grits, plus hashbrowns done four ways, smothered, covered, diced and peppered. Without writing it down, she turned, went back to her corner, and made another call. Nothing had been put into motion, the other two just resumed their chores. Finally, I got up, got out, and picked up some bathwater coffee from a Kum & Go.
That weekend, I was in Springfield, Mo. at a Waffle House off Interstate 44. When the hashbrowns came, there were big pieces of ham. Being a vegetarian, that's not something I would have ordered.
"This isn't right," I told the waitress, pointing to the hashbrowns. "These are chunked, not diced."
Then the grits. The bowl slid onto my plastic menu-placemat, its contents were grey and chunky like moldy styrofoam. If this passed for grits, no wonder hardly anybody likes them. I poked and prodded with my spoon, testing its hard, creme-brulee consistency.
"I hate to be the complaining guy," I said. "But these grits are ice-cold."
"I'm so sorry," she said in a tone that made me question my long-standing assumption that sarcasm doesn't exist in the Midwest. "Here, have another butter. Maybe that'll help."
I can't take any of this personally, though -- Waffle House is just something that never did translate to the heartland. This chain was born, bred and belongs in the great American South, and is a pale imitation of itself elsewhere... as out-of-place as a Red Lobster in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As if there needs to be any further reminder than the big "NORCROSS, GEORGIA" on every single yellow guest-check. The House is a Southern thing, you wouldn't understand.
A week after my experiences with the illegitimate WH, I found myself near Spartanburg, S.C.. I saw those 11 oversized, glowing butter-pads rise over Interstate 85 in the pre-dawn darkness, like a delicious morning waiting to happen. I pulled over, drawn in by the golden promise.
"Well, I ain't never seen a man so happy to eat a bowl o' grits," said the short, bespect' black woman behind the counter, fixing her hands on her hips. "You'd better save some room for the chocolate pie I'm gon' give you."
I write this now in an anonymous Bread Restaurant in Godknowswhere, America, far removed from the people and places I'm writing about. This is deliberate. Out there outside is more New, more unknown to process... but in here, in this familiar context, with the same burnt coffee and eclectic music and chessboard tables as any other Bread Restaurant anywhere else, I can recollect and reorganize reality into sentences and paragraphs.
In an endless array of American choices, we choose which consumer harbors give us the most contentment. Chains become landmarks, and there's money to be made in offering the same choice to people wherever they roam. These choices become patterns, which are occasionally mistaken for actual human personality.
Pure travel, the act of constant and prolonged exposure to the New, is rarely if ever achieved anymore here in the United States. It does exist, but it's terribly wearying. Comfort and sameness is needed, necessary, longed for. Familiar logos and brands and known service-quantities call out to us, offering the kind of bland sameness we crave. We need these ports and pods from time to time, else we face overload. Adventure, whatever of it's really left, needs to be turned on and off like a switch.
But if there are really true seekers and bedouins left, what of their journeys? Our land mass has been discovered, mapped, smothered and covered a thousand times over. The American adventure is little else than singular experience held up to a prefabricated template. We go to New Orleans for the gumbo, to San Francisco to ride the cable cars, to Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. "Tourist stuff," we call it. When one of these places does not deliver on its promise, just as when a familiar brand fails to deliver comfort, we complain.
There are no experiences and places free of expectations anymore, and this is how soft and weak we've become. How dare we have the audacity to hew and cry? Dissatisfaction is adventure, its very true heart. It's what we remember later in a sea of same -- discontent is something to embrace, not scurry from.
And so I broke from my route. On the way to Charleston, I made the conscious decision to leave the familiarity of Interstate 95 at Florence, S.C. and drive down Highway 52. I left the homogenized "road," the same asphalt as anywhere else with its green overhead signs and its gas/food/lodging, and ventured off the beaten yet ever-intact path.
Once free of Florence, the pavement glittered before me, twinkling with bright quartz. I picked one of four country stations from the dial, opened the window wide to the warm air as Rodney Atkins sang, "Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)."
This was indeed the real, hidden, true South. There was a front yard full of naked black children, a fat man dribbling a basketball down the center median in an Atlanta Braves jacket. From every red Chevy pickup truck, a Confederate flag bumpersticker or the rebel 13 stars flapping in the breeze from the antenna.
In Lake City, I stopped for a bite to eat. As soon as I opened my mouth to order, the other diners wheeled around to look at the outsider with the funny accent. As I ate my tomato sandwich and drank my sweet tea, hunched like Quasimodo over my white plate, I could feel the waiter's cross-armed stare on me. I made a quick note in my notebook about "service" being a concept reserved for cities, highways and suburbs with a constant flow of strangers. In Lake City, a place with no local attractions, they don't have any reason to treat you nice 'cause you likely aren't coming back.
Through battered towns like Kingstree and Saint Stephen, there are cops behind every billboard, and as my out-of-state plates rolled by, the radar guns slowly wheeled around to track my progress. As Rascal Flatts performed "Winner at a Losing Game" from the radio of a brand-new, cherry-red 2008 Ford Focus, I gripped the wheel tightly, looking out the windshield at the unfriendly landscape with panicked eyes.
Meeting back up with Interstate 26 near Goose Creek, I saw those familiar yellow cubes in the distance, pulled over immediately, and rushed headlong towards the comfort of the counter. If I couldn't handle the true South, I could at least settle for the mass-produced version.
"Well, you look like you've been through H-E-C-K and back and have lived to tell the tale," proclaimed the impossibly hefty waitress. "Go ahead, tell Momma where it hurts."
Fifteen minutes later, I got up to settle that famous yellow slip.
"Nuh-uh-uh," she said. "You sit yourself down. We don't get too many customers down this way... and you're so cute, we's gon' keep you. We're taking you hostage."
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