As Yvonne and I continue to make our way deeper and deeper into the Deep South, I contemplate the last 48 hours. I now have an inventory of uniquely Southern experiences that I can cross off my bucket list.
After having experienced Ellen’s hospitality, it was Em’s turn yesterday. In short order, he made sure that I could now say the following:
I have boated and swam in Lake Norman, a huge gorgeous lake in North Carolina.
While being a passenger in Em’s boat, I have seen the massive waterfront home of NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin.
I have engaged in a conversation that reveals my complete ignorance of NASCAR terminology. Specifically, when Em said “that’s the home of Denny Hamlin; he’s the FEDEX driver,” I needed him to tell me that Hamlin made his millions not by delivering packages, but by agreeing to have Federal Express’s logo on his car, which he has apparently driven much faster than many other people.
Also, while a passenger on said boat, I have seen the section of Lake Norman that borders I 95. All around this part of Lake Norman are signs that say “Vessels Must Be Underway (as in moving) Beyond This Point.” Em explained that this regulation was a consequence of a spate of young female boaters stopping their crafts and flashing their chests at the drivers on I 77. This apparently caused many traffic jams, and, I’m sure, more than a few accidents.
I have gone to the annual NASCAR Speed Street extravaganza. By now you may have guessed that NASCAR is a big deal in Charlotte, North Carolina. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is here.
I have eaten fried Oreos at said extravaganza. They taste like soft Oreos covered in funnel cake. They are terrible for my body, and wonderful for my soul.
Yet for all of these experiences, one remained. We spoke of it reverently, in the same hushed tones that some discuss journeys to the Holy Land. Finally, this morning, Yvonne said the words that marked, finally, my pilgrimage to a Southern institution:
“Derek, there’a a Waffle House at the next exit. What do you say we stop?”
And so we did.
Waffle House, as Em was quick to tell me, does not sell pancakes. He kind of made it sound as if ordering pancakes causes all sounds to cease, and everyone to just sort of look at you. To hear Em describe it, if there was music playing on a antique phonograph playing a vinyl record, there would be the abrupt scratching sound of the needle flying off the record.
Waffle House serves basic eats: waffles, naturally, plus eggs, sausage, toast, coffee, and juice. There is also an egg sandwich that you can order. There is a jukebox that features, in its variety of selections, a number of anthems to Waffle House, including “The Waffle House March.”
The wait staff talk to you. Having been down South before, I never get tired of the way that Southern folks actually talk to you. If I told a Northern waitress that this was my first time at a restaurant chain, she’d just say “oh, that’s nice;” here, the waitress said “oh, we just had a little girl who came in here for her first time, and we gave her a Waffle House hat; let me get you one.”
I noted her kindness, and her keen perception. A lesser waitress would have asked me if I wanted a Waffle House hat. This one, of course, knew that I wanted to wear one with pride.
Everyone made a point of reminding me that Waffle House is open 24 Hours, 365 days a year (366 on leap years). Because of that, just about everyone with whom I’ve had a conversation down here recalls many late night Waffle House moments from their halcyon young adult years. They also made a point of the fact that the food practically arrives before you order it; it does, and it’s great road food.
After Yvonne and I were done eating, the waitress brought me my sacred Waffle House hat.
“You can adjust the size so that it fits your head,” she said helpfully.
“Thank you,” I said, clutching it as if it were some sort of relic from Lourdes.
Yvonne has informed me that once in Pensacola, many people will come up to me and ask me if I have been saved. As I sit here in Yvonne’s car and type out this entry with my iPhone between my legs, my Bluetooth keyboard on my lap, and my sacred Waffle House Hat on my head, I now know that I can answer, with complete sincerity, that I have sound salvation. I have been to Waffle House; my life will hereafter be so much the better.