After two more weeks working second shift, Debbie approachedme with a proposition that would radically alter the course of my life.
According to the grill operators and other servers, I had made substantial progress with my table waiting skills. If the reports were indeed accurate, she believed I was ready for reassignment to the 9 p.m.–7 a.m. third shift on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
The initial leg of the shift wouldn’t be markedly differentfrom the second shifts I’d grown accustomed to, but I wouldhave to be prepared for a considerable spike in volume after thelocal bars closed at 2 a.m. Because of the brisk pace, this offer wasextended to only the most competent servers. In fact, Debbie said,I should think of this opportunity to earn large tips from profligatedrunkards as “something of an honor.”
I appreciated her flattery. Despite my initial fumbles, myrapid ascension up a steep learning curve had been recognized. Iwould soon learn, however, that being asked to work third shift wasnot an honor in the same sense as being asked to speak at a Rotaryluncheon. Rather, manning the Waffle House on early Saturdaymornings with two cooks and two other servers is honorable workin the sense of 250 Texans defending an old Spanish missionagainst a Mexican army force ten times their strength. Third shiftisn’t about servers earning tips any more than a firefight is aboutsoldiers receiving combat pay. Like a gun battle, third shift is aboutone, and only one, thing—survival.
To my knowledge, no motion picture has ever attemptedto recreate the social dynamic of a Waffle House at 2 a.m. on aSaturday morning. Fortunately, the penultimate scene of OliverStone’s Vietnam War epic, Platoon, provides a suitable proxy.Cinemaphiles will recall that a hopelessly outnumbered U.S.Army battalion watches helplessly as its position is overrun byhundreds of frenzied North Vietnamese troops. In desperation, thecommanding officer finally instructs the Air Force to expend allof its remaining ordnance inside the perimeter of his firebase. Thescene concludes with the terrain being wholly consumed in thefiery blaze of a napalm airstrike.
I can’t tell you how many early Saturday and Sunday morningsI spent entertaining fantasies of a squadron of F–4 Phantom jetsstrafing the restaurant in similar fashion. If you can imagine WaffleHouse employees and patrons in the roles of the American soldiersand Vietnamese belligerents, respectively, then you have a prettyaccurate depiction of my weekends.
At 2:30 a.m., the restaurant doors explode. Within fifteenminutes, sixty barflies and club hoppers occupy a diner with seatingcapacity for only forty-two persons. I and two other harried serversstruggle to placate them as they drunkenly clamor for service.Plunging into the maelstrom, I ask myself which part of my jobdescription contains the phrases “crowd control” and “hangovermitigation.”
A young man boasts of the beauty of a lady that had recentlygiven him her cell phone number. His colleague is unimpressed.“Yeah, she had a tight little body, true dat. But the girl ismissin’ way too many teeth,” he responds.
The Casanova goes on to extol her other virtues (the list isdecidedly brief ) and argues to his confederate that bicuspids areoverrated to begin with.
I glance down to discover an obese girl I waited on 45 minutesago is cradling her face in her crossed arms next to a half-eaten plateof cheese eggs. I lean over the counter, trying to ascertain whetheror not she is still breathing. Before I can get close enough to gaugevital signs, she erupts, flailing her arms wildly.“Security!” she blurts out. “Look, Man, if you’re going toharass me like this, I ain’t payin’ for my raisin toast.”
No sooner have I begun to offer my apologies than her facecollapses back into her forearms. I retrieve two orders of scrambledeggs from the grill, passing by another narcoleptic customer whois snoring audibly. I deliver the eggs to a girl with ubiquitoustattoos and eight visible body piercings. She offers me a large tipin exchange for desecrating her companion’s double cheeseburgerwhile she adjourns to the restroom. I politely decline the offer.
A white man contends with two black women that his struggleto obtain company health insurance benefits for his gay partner isevery bit as important as Rosa Parks’s quest to desegregate publicbuses. The girls demur, and a civilized political discussion quicklydegenerates into threats of fisticuffs.“Security!” the corpulent patron yells again.
For many a drunkard, deciding what to eat is no small feat,and placing a correct order is practically a Herculean task. As I waiton a man in a camouflage t-shirt which regrettably fails to cover hisnavel, the value of menu pictures immediately becomes manifest.“I’ll have a cheesesteak,” he says emphatically, while tapping hisindex finger on a photo of a different menu item.“You mean you’d like a Texas bacon egg and cheese sandwich?”I ask.“Yeah, I want a cheesesteak,” he says.I invite him to examine the menu more closely.“Yes, that’s what I pointed to,” he said. “A cheesesteaksandwich.”“Would you like the sandwich that comes with bacon andfried eggs and American cheese served on Texas toast?”“Yeah. Y’all don’t call that a cheesesteak sandwich?”“We call it a Texas bacon egg and cheese sandwich.”“Really? ‘Cause ‘cheesesteak’ is a lot easier to say. Bacon eggand cheese is too many syllables, Man.”I concede the point and turn to his friend, who is comparablyinebriated. As he struggles to customize his hashbrown order, ourdialogue quickly degenerates into an Abbott & Costello sketch.“Make ‘em scattered, covered, and sluthered.”“I’m sorry, did you just ask for ‘sluthered’ hashbrowns?”“Yeah, Man—just like it says on the menu. Sluther it withthat . . . stuff.”“Onions?”“No, no onions. Just sluther ‘em for me.”“Sir, smothered hashbrowns contain onions. That’s what‘smothered’ means.”“That’s what I said, Man. Cover and sluther them, just holdthe onions.”I turn to the last man in the booth, who appears to have somesemblance of sobriety.“Do you know what he’s talking about?” I ask.“He’s just tied on one too many beers. Today is his birthday.”“That’s cool. Did NASA give him the day off work?”
I decide to call in an order of scattered and covered, hopingthat he’s too intoxicated to notice the difference by the time hisplate arrives.
Distracted by a group of college girls performing a horridcover of a Destiny’s Child song, I inadvertently scald a customer’shand with a plate containing a cheesesteak sandwich.I apologize profusely and provide him with burn ointmentfrom our first aid kit. His check is discounted by ten percent, themaximum amount permitted by company policy.“You know,” his friend says reprovingly, “this man is akeyboardist. His fingers are his livelihood. He should probably sueyou.”I hand him a five-dollar bill out of my pocket, considering thepayment a cheap insurance policy against getting my tires slashed.
Other customers show greater magnanimity when I fumble adelivery. While placing several drinks on a table where two couplesare seated, I knock a glass of Coke onto the booth seats. The youngman barely vacates his seat before the soda splashes.“I’m awfully sorry,” I apologize. “It’s a good thing you’ve gotsuch fast reflexes.”“No sweat Jim,” he responds. “Wouldn’t a been no harm evenif the pants had gotten soaked. The odds are real good that mytrousers and drawers are coming off in about ten minutes anyhow.”His male companion howls in laughter as his date playfullyslaps him. I thank him for his patience, and for creating such adelightful mental image. For some reason, my brother’s collegiatehijinks of hellraising at Waffle House no longer struck me asparticularly humorous.
I stave off a gaggle of hungry, impatient customers by excusingmyself to attend to the cash register. Ringing up the second tab, Idiscover that the credit card machine has just run out of tape. Forthe rest of the night, all customers must pay cash. The news is notwell received.
The only effective means of fighting the mob is an extremelypotent air conditioning unit. When the barflies get really out ofline, we set the thermostat to the low 60s. Generally, the frigidtemperature shifts their focus from harassing servers to maintainingtheir own body heat. Still, there are some nights when nothingshort of the concentrated blast of a fire hose would squelch the din.
Edward barks a series of contradictory orders at me. If I amringing out a customer at the register, I should be taking an order.If I am taking an order, I should be picking up food from the grill.If I’m picking up an order, I should be ringing out a customer.Things aren’t any easier for him at the grill, where he is swamped ina flood of orders.“Wait staff, drop your own waffles!” he cries, indicating thatthe responsibility for pouring batter into the waffle irons now lieswith the servers. This command is the military equivalent of “fireat will!” or, more accurately, “every man for himself!”
In the four feet of space separating the high bar from the grill,servers call in orders and pick up food as grill operators mark platesand drop hashbrowns onto the grill. The frenzy is reminiscent ofa commodities exchange; I can only marvel that the plates emergeunscathed. Seemingly, the laws of probability would dictate thatseveral of them should be dashed to the floor in pieces.
As the melee escalates, we keep all of the waffle irons constantlyfilled with batter (whether or not waffles have been ordered) just sowe will have them on hand to readily placate impatient customers. Icall in an order, pour batter into two irons, then return to the floorto attend to a customer. I retrieve the waffles when a timer soundsthree minutes later, noting that the elapsed time is the same lengthas the round of a prize fight. It certainly feels like I’ve been in one.
By 4:30 a.m., all customers have vacated the premises, andthe store is eerily quiet. The recent decadence is attested to by afloor strewn with used napkins, hashbrowns, bent silverware, syrupsplotches, and the occasional afro pick. Within another hour, theearly Sunday morning crowd trickles in. Many of these patronscarry Bibles and say prayers over plates of food that others hadcursed only a few hours before. I refill their coffee as subtly aspossible so as not to interrupt their scripture study.
As they read psalms, I am floored by the irony of our store’shasty transformation from Bacchanalian festival to house of worship.I remember St. Paul’s admonition that believers should not keepcompany or eat with drunkards, which raises two questions. Doesit violate the spirit of Paul’s teaching if the believers and drunkardsdine in the same establishment within forty minutes of each other?More importantly, was there a Waffle House in ancient Corinththat inspired this piece of doctrine?