In February, I resumed my solo road trip through the South. It had been two years. On these trips I meet my wife, who flies to Florida; we visit relatives, enjoy a short respite from Illinois’ winter and drive home together.
I visit country few people tour. I’d driven through a string of small towns on two lane W. Va. Route 250 in the Appalachian hills. It was slow going. On this morning I skipped the free motel breakfast and joined the river of vehicles flowing south on I-77. In just under an hour the Buick’s grille nosed over the Virginia state line. I had traveled 72 miles. The interstate is so fast.
The interstate is a veiny web of sameness laid out purposely to avoid towns. Interstates go through big cities, but small towns show up only as names on exit signs. Interstate travelers rarely visit small towns. If drivers need to travel more than a quarter mile away from the interstate, they’re angry. We want our restaurants and gas stations close to road.
I was looking for a chain restaurant found only in the South. Then I saw it, a black and yellow sign just off the Wytheville, Va. exit. Waffle House.
I sat in my favorite spot, the counter across from the griddle. A waitress slammed a mug of coffee in front of me. Something seemed different.
They had closed off a section of tables with yellow tape. There was one male cook, a woman training him and two waitresses.
“What’ll you have honey?”
I like it when waitresses call me sweet names. Can’t help it. I knew what I wanted before I opened the door.
“Eggs sunny side up. Wheat toast. Grits. Hash browns scattered, smothered (Waffle House lingo for grilled onions), peppered (with Jalapenos), and diced (with diced tomatoes). Large milk when you bring my meal.”
“You got it darlin’.”
The male cook looked intently at the order slip. He broke eggshells very deliberately.
A waitress yelled out a new order.
“Scrambled, hold the grits!”
My waitress, pouring me coffee, chimed in, “Think you can handle that, Kevin?”
Kevin looked up with a forced grin.
“What’s with the closed section?” I asked.
“Sugar, we’re dying for help. That cook training Kevin, who’s brand new, is leaving tomorrow. The other waitress has only been here a week. We’re lucky we’re even open.”
A bell rang. My waitress turned and brought my order back. We looked at it.
“It’s wrong ain’t it?”
“Yeah. It’s covered.” (Covered with cheese.) “I didn’t order that.”
“I’m so sorry.”
She picked it the plate and turned around. “Damn it Kevin, you got to get this right.”
Kevin slid the hash browns into the garbage, left my eggs, toast, and grits on the plate, and started over. When the hash browns were done, Kevin brought the plate over.
“Sorry for making you wait.”
“Don’t worry about me. You got enough critics.”
“I’ll say. This may look easy but it’s not.”
The eggs were just warm. The toast cold. The hashbrowns were wonderful.
When the pandemic screws up Waffle House you know the country’s in trouble. I hope it’s going better in Wytheville now. I wouldn’t bet on Kevin still being at the griddle though.