Listen to this story
In Columbus, Ohio at the corner of state route 161, right before entering the freeway, there is a Waffle House. Today, it is sandwiched in between a nice motel and a Chinese food restaurant. When I was in high school, at Beechcroft high school — which sits at the other end of 161, it was sandwiched in between a significantly less nice motel and a strip club. It was a lively corner of an otherwise boring strip of road saturated with fast food chains and car dealerships. During my senior year of high school, my pals and I — 17 years old and too young to properly revel in any true indecency — would stay out late, driving around the city of Columbus with the windows down on weekends, later than our parents knew we were out. With the clock racing past midnight and tipping towards 1am, Waffle House was our endpoint. There was something about the worlds colliding at that hour, and a place that we could gain entry to, despite our youth. When the strip club let out and the truckers would spill over from the motel and the people would come, road-weary, from the highway, creating a cocktail of hopeful misfits crammed into booths across the restaurant, bringing their fists down on a table after laughter and letting the conversation sit in the air until their food gets cold.
Some of this is about structure — The setup of any good Waffle House makes it so that this type of forced community is inevitable. This is a diner trope, in some ways. But, even besides the obvious cramped bar space, a good Waffle House is narrow, with the tables and booths in such close proximity that your conversation is, by default, everyone’s conversation. Don’t go to Waffle House to argue with a lover. But if you do, expect someone you don’t know to fight with you through the end of it all.
It must first be said that the hash browns will not look the way you want them to, and, perhaps, not even the way you ordered them. On a good night — for once one enters the doors of a waffle house, it is night no matter what hour the clock is dressed in — the hash browns will merely be too crispy. On a bad night, they will be burned, a shell impossible to crack, with the occasional topping scattered across their face.
I suppose the truth is also that this is not particularly about the waffles, either. There is nothing entirely special about these — each still with an waiting and open mouth eager for the sticky and ordinary blessing of syrup to fill them. It is rare to have a place serve food, even though its legacy is not at all tied to the food it serves. Rarer, still, to have a place represent this despite having a specific item of food woven into its name. And yet, we have Waffle House, chapel of sticky floors and scattered potatoes, legacy of its own making.
Sometimes the things we’re hungry for aren’t served from behind a counter or whisked out of a hot kitchen. The nighttime is overrun with lonely hours — the kind that people run into in hopes to find someone who perhaps is echoing their particular brand of isolation. Even if it isn’t to fit into any greater bonding, but just to know that even in your loneliness, you are not alone. All diners that stay open 24 hours are good for this. It must be said that the 24 hour diner is an institution that is freeing in this way. Waffle House, though, is relentless in how unchanging it is, in who it faces, in the type of brief and small healing it can offer. It is like communion, in a way — everyone arriving at the same church at the same hour in search of the same blessing to sit on their tongues.
It must be said that Waffle House’s regional leanings might add to its narrative. Ohio is the northernmost point where one can pull into Waffle House for a late night fix. Beyond that, they are generally southern, not stretching along the Midwest in many other places. Depending on where you are, of course, the crowds change and the tone changes — both politically and generally — but the sentiment is the same. I have gotten into heated debates in a Waffle House booth and I have changed minds on music in a Waffle House booth and I have told a stranger I love them in a Waffle House booth and surely none of this will save the world for anyone, but it has saved me from a night where I felt distant and without a connection to a wide swath of people, even ones I wouldn’t consider outside of the walls of a place that cooks potatoes in large blocks on a grill, for longer than they should, until everything is black, with a slick shine of grease.
In Alabama last fall, I sat in a Waffle House at a table with people I love, which is something not unusual for my attendance in the space. People — poets to be exact — from all over the country, but many of them from the east coast, or a part of the Midwest that doesn’t know the Waffle House as I know it. My friend José, a passionate Chicagoan who had never eaten at Waffle House before, looked upon his hashbrowns when they arrived at our table, squinted and tried to stick his fork into their hardened core. After a few bites, he shook his head, unsatisfied, and began lamenting the overall food quality.
The thing is, José is right. Despite my numerous attempts to explain the draw of the Waffle House, it is hard to explain a feeling evoked by a place that, to many, must feel the same as any 24 hour diner, with worse food. But, I think this is what makes it what it is: the fact that to be here, you must truly want to be here, knowing that your hunger will satisfied, but only with the bare minimum of ingredients. To pull off of a highway at night or spill through doors with some close friends when your bed is calling is about more than a decision to eat good. The 24 hour diner that specializes in cheap, fast, late food is a part of the American establishment. The one that doesn’t make much of an attempt to win you over with its forever unchanging menu is aiming for something different, and perhaps something greater: a small and brief freedom.
The Waffle House isn’t freedom as we know it: the kind of sweeping freedom that pulls oppressive structures loose from their roots and gives everyone the ability to live and thrive in a country that might not want them to do either. But I still think it is worth romanticizing, for how it imagines the way a diner can become folklore. There are Waffle House Stories in every place that has enough of them. A robbery attempt where a bold waitress saves the story by pulling a gun. A wedding where half of the town shows up. In Columbus, there was the 2005 food fight in the old 161 Waffle House at 2:30 in the morning, when everyone inside, mad with sleeplessness but not hunger, threw half-eaten crescent-shaped waffles and handfuls of scattered potatoes across the room and the cooks joined in until everyone there was dressed with something they once wished to consume.
And that, truly, might be the perfect metaphor for Waffle House’s greatness: the food, merely a side note — disposable if an opportunity for a memory arrives. I want to dine no place that considers itself too fancy for a memory to be made with strangers inside of its walls, walls that are cloaked in grease and other unidentifiable stains. If we are truly to be a people who will do almost anything in the name of hunger, then I find it important to ask our imagination to extend the reach of what hunger is: not just about what we can take in, but also how we can allow ourselves to be fed, reach back, and feed others.
Both founders of Waffle House, Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner, are now dead. They died this year, mere months apart. Late in 2016, on a balmy morning in Georgia, I went to the first ever Waffle House, now a museum. I stared at the picture of Rogers Sr. and Forks shaking hands and smiling in front of it from decades ago, when the ground was first broken on it. May the things all of us build outlive us in this way: equal parts loud and fulfilling. An entire bridge between worlds. Waffles, yes, but beyond even that. A place to wash off whatever the night has put on you. A loud, sweet, trembling baptism. Just for you and your new, temporary friends.
About this Collection