This post is not so much about corporate learning as it is about the kind of learning we absorb unintentionally when we least expect it. This is a true story, though it may have been embellished just a bit by taking pieces from several occasions where I immersed myself into the world of Waffle House at 2:30AM…or so. For those who have never had this opportunity in life, prepare for a little “cultural” learning experience.
Where better than Waffle House can one expect to experience humanity in all its splendor? To get the full impact, make sure you plan your visit around two in the morning or so; that way the experience is flavored appropriately with the salt of the earth…among other spices. When I walked in, the place was packed with the exception of a booth in the far corner from the door, right under the sign that requested reserving booths for two or more. It was 2:17AM. Being careful not to eyeball anyone directly, I contemplated the cast of characters that validated that another memorable mealtime event was soon to be had. All I really wanted was a double order of hash browns. Somehow I knew that a full breakfast would soon be ordered.
Sugar and spice and a butterfly tattoo spilled out of a yellow and brown uniform with one button too many undone. Krystal with a “K”, the waitress from any nightmare of your choice, leaned over my table and spat an automatic greeting in my direction, “Mornin’!”
It truly was morning, but I’ve been in there at 3:30 in the afternoon and also get greeted with “Mornin’!” Waffle House is one of the few places on earth that never seems to move out of mornin and into the rest of the day. Maybe it’s the world-famous waffles. Maybe only Rod Serling knows for sure.
“Mornin!” I replied, handling the local dialect quite admirably.
“Whaddaya have, sugah?” asked Krystal with a “K”, lifting her pad, pencil at the ready. She was abusing a piece of gum that had to be at least six hours old. Teeth flashed, as she mauled it with the enthusiasm of someone on crystal meth – then again, she may have simply had a few cups too many of their freshly ground and brewed coffee.
“I’d like two eggs over easy, a double order of hash browns with onions, an order of bacon, some raisin toast, and I’d like some grits on the side.”
“An’ ta drink?”
“Some of that delicious coffee would do me right,” I said, trying to add some levity.
“Hmmph, you ain’t been here afor have ya?” she asked accusingly, accurately describing the reputation of the coffee with a question, and not expecting an answer.
“After what I’ve been drinkin’, it ain’t much gonna matter,” I lied with an authentic drawl, trying to get synchronized with the whole drunk or stoned, redneck, hillbilly thing.
“You an’ ever’body else in this dump. Thank ya, hon!” she said, snapping the gum that resonated as though it had the consistency of silly putty.
To be perfectly honest, it really didn’t matter if you were in Norcross, Georgia; world headquarters for Waffle House, or in south central Indiana, either place was going to be thick with rednecks and hillbillies twenty-four-seven. Just as sure as gravity, you could bet on it any time of day or night.
The butterfly appeared to flap its wings when she drew a breath, flexing the muscles in her chest, to call in my order. “Billieeeeeeee,” she bellowed without turning away, “order in!”
Billy, the short-order cook, turned with slow deliberation and shot a hateful look in her direction. The only thing missing from his attire was the nub of an unlit cigar that had been chewed and sucked on for most of the night. It was hard to tell if the stains on his t-shirt were recent or were part of a more permanent landscape. What didn’t show beneath the apron, by my best estimate, was about two inches of bare belly pooched out between his belt and the bottom of the t-shirt. I prayed to God that he didn’t drop anything, because there’d be class-four butt-crack going on the instant he bent over to pick anything up. I’d guess he had been clean-shaven about three days earlier. The paper hat he wore, sharply creased front and back, hid most of the hair that should have been shampooed when he shaved…three days ago. The jury was out on how many teeth were still in his head.
Billy didn’t speak. He grunted. It sounded like something rather derogatory, but I wouldn’t swear to anything that would condemn a man brandishing a long-handled, stainless steel spatula. Something in his stance told Krystal to call in her order.
“Double plate like one – over easy – scattered and smothered – drop one bacon – raisin – grits in a bowl,” she fired at him, one fist on her hip, while her other hand held her order pad out in front of her like she was reading him the list of everything that was wrong with him. Not a lot of love going on right then.
It got better.
The twin brother of Jesus Christ, or maybe it was Charles Manson on parole, hard to tell which, sat hunched over a cup of coffee at the far end of the counter glaring at everyone that walked in. Steel blue eyes that only an Alaskan Husky should have cut right through to your soul. Frame those piercing eyes with the heavy beard and long thick hair parted down the middle half hiding his face, and you were left with an image that would stick with you for a while. He was scary looking. I was convinced that somewhere on his person was a very large knife. Had to be carrying a knife – a really big knife, or some other implement that he could use to cut out your heart.
By now, Billy, the short-order cook, had seven orders in queue. He was a pro, slinging hash browns expertly with that wide spatula while simultaneously flipping eggs over gracefully in an omelet pan with a flick of his wrist. The spatula clanged to the grill, as he dumped a ladle full of shortening into yet another omelet pan and broke three eggs into it with a single hand, one right after the other. His skill at breaking the eggs was nearly enough to distract you from the application of the shortening called Lo-Melt. The lubricant came out of a huge can sitting at the rear of the grill [to keep it from solidifying] and had the coloration of Quaker State motor oil with about eight thousand miles on it. I’d bet that that was what cholesterol looked like in its liquid state. I took a long drink of my coffee in an attempt to shake off thoughts of how quickly I could clog an artery.
Over half the booths were filled with Gen-Yers and a few Millennials in varying degrees of inebriation on who knows what. The remaining seats were filled with flannel shirts and overalls stuffed full of drunken hillbillies. They all were smoking. Chances were good that I was going to inhale the equivalent of half a pack of cigarettes and never have to light a match. The fact that I didn’t smoke was irrelevant. Everyone at Waffle House smoked one way or another.
Now I’ve been in some all-night food joints where you ran the risk of getting into a fight over a wayward look or a misinterpreted sideways glance – but not here. Everyone was too drunk or stoned to put up much of a fight. The good news was that Waffle House didn’t serve alcohol, so no one was going to get any worse off than they were when they arrived. The bad news centered around the fact that Jesus and his Bowie knife sat on a stool at the end of the counter between me and the only way out. Despite the lack of alcohol service, there was some risk to the un-stoned and un-drunk just by drinking the coffee. A fellow could get pretty fired up on three cups of Joe. I hoped for my sake that Jesus was stoned rather than fully caffeinated.
Krystal with a “K” came by to show me her tattoo again along with an offer to refill my coffee cup, “Shug, you want some more of this delicious coffee?” spat at me with more sarcasm than necessary. She was still working overtime on the gum.
It wasn’t until after I responded to her request that I realized how much risk I took. “Hit me, Krystal!”
This time she leaned over a little farther than necessary to ensure I could get a good look at the butterfly. She wasn’t at all bashful about it, and I swear another button had been undone. Despite looking away I wondered to myself if I had offended her by not being more attentive.
“Yer order’ll be right up,” she said, slowly straightening up, flexing for me one time to punctuate that she knew I could not help but take a glance.
Before I realized I was speaking, the words just came out, “That’s a real nice butterfly.” It must have been that first cup of coffee that pushed me over the edge, or maybe I really did not want to offend her, or maybe she was wrapped too tight and way too close to going postal for being ignored.
She grinned and said, “Why thank you, sweetie. I got me seven more tattoos.” And she winked.
Holy crap! Her whole demeanor changed and that unsolicited disclosure hung out there, dangling like bait, waiting for me to rise up and take it. She didn’t say where the tattoos were, and offered no clues. She just watched my face and waited – grinning and smacking her gum. I didn’t ask. I didn’t dare. I glanced nervously away from her stare and noticed Jesus looking at me with those I’m-gonna-cut-your-gizzard-out eyes. It would be my luck that he was her boyfriend and didn’t take kindly to strangers fantasizing over his girlfriend’s butterfly. I wasn’t but how would he know?
“Krystaaaaaal!” Billy croaked. “Got ANOTHER order up!”
She whirled around and snapped at him, “Jaaaaysus H. Christ, Billy. Ah’m a standin’ right chere, and it ain’t likely ah’m deaf neither.”
“Then pick up!” he grunted angrily. I think he added another expletive onto the end of what he said, but once again, I’d not swear to it. He still wielded the spatula, but by now I figured that he wasn’t brandishing it at me; rather, it was his only line of defense against a raging Krystal with a “K”. If put to the test, and they got into it, I’d have to bet on her coming out on top. Chances were that Jesus would be over the counter in a flash to gut poor Billy with that big ol’ knife. In the event that happened, I decided the ensuing ruckus would be my best chance to bail for the door.
She turned back to me. “Sweetie, yer food’s up. Ah’ll be right back,” spoken with an unwanted affection in her voice. Oh lord, she was falling in love, or worse, she was hell-bent on showing me the rest of her tattoos. To think that all I really wanted was a double order of hash browns.
Krystal headed toward a line of plates waiting to be delivered. Fortunately, she went to one of the other booths first. I hoped the extra time would help her forget I even mentioned the butterfly. I should be so lucky. A mental note was made when Billy never turned his back on Krystal adding credence to the fact that the spatula was indeed a weapon of defense. Jesus was still staring at me.
Finally, Krystal with a “K” showed up carrying my order with several plates lined up her arm. She served my meal and then leaned over, resting her palms on the table and asked, “What else ya need, hon?” The butterfly flexed twice, too many buttons still undone. It flexed once more, and then twice more. Could it be Morse code? I knew she was still hoping that I would ask for the nickel tour of the rest of her tattoos, but instead I asked her for some butter for my grits, and dared not look at Jesus.
“Wha’s this [bleep] on the juke box, man?” whined one of the pimply-faced Millennials, loudly voicing his displeasure at the mostly C&W play selection.
“Watch yer mouth, boy,” came an angry retort from a table full of flannels and baseball caps that advertised fishing lures, farm machinery and a couple local NASCAR favorites.
The kid whirled around, flat-brimmed hat sideways on his head, as one of the other flannels voiced his offense. “Di’nt yer momma never teach you no manners?”
“Ah got some manners for y’all right chere,” the punk said, taking a couple bouncing steps toward the table of flannels and grabbing a handful of sagging crotch, the universal gesture of something not very nice.
I wasn’t certain, but the situation could be rocketing toward critical mass and about to turn ugly at any second. There was a good chance I wasn’t going to get to eat. Jesus shifted his death-stare from me to the flannels and then to the punk with the pimples and handful of crotch. I just knew he wanted to cut somebody really bad. And to think that all I really wanted was a double order of hash browns.
The Jeff Gordon cap stood up, the top button of his overalls hanging open, and took a step toward the disrespectful kid. With attention turned away from me I thought that this could be an interesting moment brewing. I had a front row seat to sit back and watch this hayseed beat the snot out of this disrespectful little punk.
“Y’all sit the [bleep] down, or get the [bleep] outta my diner!” hollered Billy, punctuating the expletives I know for sure I heard this time by slamming the long handled spatula down on the counter about two feet from Jesus…who flinched, spilling his coffee into his lap, and everything came to a full stop. Everyone froze. It was impossible to tell what was going to happen next. All eyes were fixed on Jesus. I was convinced he was going to blow hell wide open and somebody was going to die. And to think that all I really wanted was a double order of hash browns.
The current situation blew my earlier theory that everyone was too drunk or stoned to cause any trouble. No longer did I wonder if there would be any trouble. Now it was a question of how much would there be, and would I lose a vital organ in the process. Jesus stood up with slow deliberation, and without saying word, headed toward the bathroom. As the outer door to the restrooms closed behind him, a sense of relief seemed to descend upon everyone. Attention returned to the impending dismemberment of the kid by 270 plus pounds of flannel.
“Ah said, y’all sit the [bleep] down!” Billy repeated his demand, the veins bulging in his neck, pointing his spatula at the pair standing near the jukebox.
They both looked at him like they had some history with that spatula, and the number twenty-four car slid back into his seat. The kid stomped out of the front door in a huff, turning around far enough to flip the bird at the table of flannels. NASCAR #88 made a quick move to get up and give chase, and the kid broke into a run and dove into a beat up old Neon to make his hasty exit. The flannels howled, congratulating each other on dispatching the disrespectful little brat. Billy just shook his head. Krystal stood staring at the whole scene switching her glare from the departing kid, to Billy, to the flannels, fists firmly planted on her hips and pummeling her gum with renewed vigor. Jesus was nowhere to be seen, and I took the opportunity to dig into my meal while things were stabilized.
The last piece of raisin toast was used to mop up what was left of my eggs. Krystal with a “K”, her butterfly, and seven more tattoos yet unseen had been by twice to refill my coffee. While I had been focusing on my meal, Jesus had come back out to his seat at the end of the counter. I looked up just as Billy poured him a fresh cup of coffee. No telling how many cups had preceded the one that had emptied into his lap. There didn’t seem to be any bad blood between them despite the near miss with the spatula and the resulting spill. That was a good thing because if there had been any retribution due to poor Billy, I’d have been a witness, and we all know what fate lies in store for the proverbial loose end.
Two more hillbillies came in and sat down at the table adjacent to mine. Krystal with a “K” came over, showed them her butterfly and greeted them with her standard, “Mornin!”
“Mornin’ Krystal. How you doin’, sweet thaing?” drawled one of the hicks, so drunk his eyes were mere slits.
The other one, who looked drunker than the first, said, “Shay Kryshhhtal, when you gonna’ show us th’ rest of them thar tattoos?”
She cackled and said, “Y’all boys got a snowball’s chance in hay-ell to see what I got a hidin’ under this here uniform. Only a right special man’s gonna get ta see what I got. And y’all can believe this…it ain’t gonna’ be neither one of you rednecks.”
She turned her head toward me and winked again like I was something special. A chill went up my spine causing the hair to stand up on the back of my neck. Jesus saw the whole thing, wink and all, and glared at me with a renewed sense of impending violence. I laid a ten-dollar bill on my six-dollar ticket and headed toward the door. I took great care not to look at Jesus on my way out to the parking lot. As I got into my car, it was hard not to look back through the window at my latest brush with…culture. Krystal with a “K” waved at me and blew a kiss. Jesus had twisted around on his stool watching every move I made. The flannels were watching too – grinning.
In the final analysis, I counted myself lucky to get out of there with another early morning breakfast at Waffle House under my belt; only one of eight tattoos verified; and no visible signs of bleeding. And to think that all I really wanted was a double order of hash browns.