Revisiting a favorite story by John Vaughan, former Observer staff writer.
Photos by Gary O'Brien.
August 29, 1993
WHERE ARE YOU? We met last Sept. at the Waffle House on South Blvd. You: blonde, thirtyish, worked at Goodyear collections. Me: kitchen/bathroom remodeling contractor. Tired of eating at Waffle House.
Imagine the guy that placed that classified: There he sits at the Waffle House month after month, downing endless orders of hash browns, steak 'n eggs, grits and pecan waffles while he waits for a 30ish blonde who never shows up.
How many times has he heard a waitress call: "Order over light, scattered and smothered, one bacon!" How many times has he heard Tracy Lawrence croon "Alibis" on the jukebox: She's been cheated on an' pushed around an' left alone. . . .
Well, you can't go on like that forever. Even Waffle House food palls after a while. You finally learn to flinch as you walk in the door, knowing that two or three waitresses are sure to yell: "Hello! Welcome to Waffle House!"
We know about this. We hung out at a dozen Waffle Houses across the state for four days and nights recently. If there'd been a Day Five we would've cracked under the strain.
Why Waffle Houses? Because they're a Southern institution. Because there are gobs of them - at least 56 - in North Carolina. Because they attract all kinds of people. Because we like waffles.
Born in 1955 in Norcross, Ga., Waffle House Inc. now has nearly 850 restaurants flung across 20 states, mainly in the Southeast. The menu and the ambience in every one is the same, and it's as Southern as barbecue and collards - though neither of those delicacies appears on the menu.
University City Waffle House, Urbanspoon.com photo.
In many smaller cities and towns, the Waffle House is the only all-night restaurant around. It attracts people on all occasions. It's where you go after work or before the ball game, on the way to choir practice or after a tryst, before you make a fool of yourself, and after you get caught.
We listened to people talk about their problems. We chatted with busy waitresses and cooks. We ate hash browns six different ways. We grew morose listening to Travis Tritt sing "T-R-O-U-B-L-E."
We covered 1,500 miles of steaming asphalt and concrete. We saw the sun suspended like a ripe tomato behind the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk; we breathed the scent of damp sycamores beside the churning Nantahala, and watched afternoon shadows draw down the valleys of the Blue Ridge. We never did see a 30ish blonde.
But we met a man who's certain Earth is hollow, and that we're all living in the year 1959. We met another who thinks Americans should eat more chromium. And a Native American who outlasted four husbands and raised five daughters by herself - only one of them her own. Drag up a chair and listen.
Regular customers, unleaded coffee
We had hoped to eat our first pecan waffle at Kitty Hawk where another great invention, the airplane, got off the ground 90 years ago. But it was not to be.
We hate to tell you, but Kitty Hawk is totally devoid of Waffle Houses. The entire N.C. coast, from Knotts Island at the Virginia border to Sunset Beach at the S.C. line, is in a virginal state as regards Waffle Houses.
This seemed a reckless oversight by Waffle House Inc., until we realized that the coast has a slew of eateries that offer what we think of as Waffle House fare: hash browns, eggs, steaks, sausage, grits and waffles.
Kill Devil Hills, south of Kitty Hawk, has three such places. So our first trail breakfast came at 6:15 a.m. at the Stack 'em High pancake house, Milepost 9 on the Croatan Highway. While we downed flapjacks and scrambled eggs, owner Harry Kiousis gave us his unique explanation for all the new development at the beach.
"It's all those drug syringes on the beaches up North, " he said. "They're ruining everything here. People move south to our beaches to escape the syringes, see?"
How does he know this?
"Because every other person who comes here is from New Jersey. It doesn't do much for the aesthetics of the area, but what can you do?"
It's his little joke.
At 2:05 p.m. a waitress named Bernadette leans across a counter in Greenville with a pot of decaf. "You want cream with your unleaded?" she asks. Cream, please.
The Greenville Waffle House sits in the middle of a sun-baked shopping strip downtown. The place is quiet now: only four customers. Afternoons are generally slow at Waffle Houses.
At this hour you find local regulars like Al Lewis, a painting contractor. He hits the W-H several times a day. "There's a certain feeling of comfort here, " he says. "Waitresses have a way of making you feel you're among friends. They call me by name: How you doin', Al?' That brings me back."
A lot of W-H customers - 65 percent in some places - are regulars. They come not just to eat, not even mainly to eat, but to be among familiar faces and friendly voices. Waffle Houses like to say they treat their patrons like family. And most of them do, it seems.
For instance, the Waffle House at Exit 48 on I-40 in Asheville has a regular named Elliott Yarborough. He's 89: been coming in three times a day since the restaurant opened 10 years ago. Not long ago he went on vacation without telling anyone at the Waffle House.
'Friendly faces: Linda McMahan (right) and Carol Sams share a laugh during a midafternoon lull at a Waffle House near Asheville. Waitresses say they become close with customers. When Cary W-H regular Paul Russell died in February, workers placed a memorial plaque in his booth.'
When he returned a week later, he learned waitresses had called his home, two hospitals, funeral homes and police looking for him. When he walked in, waitress Grace Lunsford gave him a straight look and said: "Elliott, next time you go on vacation you better let your Waffle House family know."
Pace oozes, then rocks
The basic cycle at any Waffle House is an unending alternation between fast and slow: fast at mealtimes, slow in between, fast again late at night. Waffle Houses see every type, every trade and profession, and the types vary with the time of day.
The slow afternoon pace picks up about 5:30 and runs till 8, when you get dating couples, late-returning workers and single men on the prowl. Wednesday evenings you may get people on their way to prayer meetings.
Around 10:30, late-shift workers and other night people turn up. During the next hour the atmosphere changes subtly from calm to crazy. Somebody turns up the psychic burner, and the cap on the pressure cooker begins to rock. Security guards, mill workers, cops, square dancers, carpenters, ambulance drivers, insomniacs, topless dancers, cruising teenagers - the evening traffic is a river fed by many streams. It begins as a trickle and builds to a torrent.
Sheer madness arrives about 1:45 a.m., when the boisterous bar and nightclub crowd come in half-looped. "You just go crazy then, " says Debbie Train, a waitress in Greenville. "You scream and pound the floor, " says her co-worker, Teri Bodie. At this hour, from the Southeastern coastal plain to the Mississippi Delta and the Colorado Rockies, you can find Waffle House customers waiting for booths or counter space. They pile up on chairs along the windows; they jam the bathrooms; they rain quarters into jukeboxes that groan with the perpetual burden of country music: unhappy love. For W-H workers, this is trial by fire. It takes steady nerves, a good memory and the patience of Buddha to handle a restless, boozy crowd and keep orders flying toward the grill. At this hour waitresses aim for an average: 17 minutes to get each patron waited on, fed, paid up and out the door. How, you may wonder, can the human stomach deal with a lot of alcohol, followed at 1:45 a.m. by buttery hash browns, chili and diced tomatoes?
"The human stomach can't deal with it, " says Teri Bodie. "How do I know? We have to clean the bathrooms. We go in there and see where they've thrown up all over."
W-H employees also sweep the floors, fill the salt shakers and syrup holders, swab down the booths, polish the light globes, fill the ice bins and do a score of other jobs, besides serving patrons.
Waitresses sing out orders
A peaceful interlude arrives from 4 to 6 a.m., when the black sky above the parking lot slowly turns opalescent and the jukebox cowboys go home to sleep it off. Now the Waffle House sees farmers heading to the fields and third-shift workers heading home.
From 6 to 9 a.m. it's the breakfast rush. Merchants and lawyers, construction workers, repairmen, house painters, office managers: every species of day worker arrives for waffles, steak 'n eggs and hash browns scattered, smothered with onions, covered with melted cheese, chunked with ham, topped with chili and diced with tomatoes. The grill sizzles and the coffee flows like a black Niagara. It's on the breakfast shift, when things are really hopping, that some joker may wander in and punch up one of the 14 Waffle House songs on the jukebox. This bears some explanation.
Most of the tunes were recorded in a country-and-western vein by Mary Welch Rogers, who happens to be the daughter-in-law of Joe Rogers Sr. He started the restaurant chain with Tom Forkner nearly four decades ago.
Not surprisingly, all the songs extol the friendly atmosphere and great food at Waffle Houses. One is called "Waffle Doo-Wop." "Waffle House Family" is typical: Just come on in, you'll see; gonna treat you just like famileee. . . .
Now, in one of these songs (we won't say which) Rogers sings out food orders exactly the way the waitresses call them. And this is a nightmare for the staff. Busy cooks have been known to take orders right off the jukebox and put them on the grill. We didn't meet a single manager, waitress or cook who liked that song.
At 5:15 p.m. the sun is still a red glare in the western sky as we pull the pickup into the lot of the Rocky Mount Waffle House on U.S. 301 Bypass. The dinner crowd hasn't arrived yet. Two men - one in a black T-shirt, the other in a shirt with purple stripes - are discussing cars they've loved and lost.
T-shirt: "I always liked Studebakers. I had one that did 135 miles an hour. A Golden Hawk. They were simple-lookin' things, comin' down the road with them wings on 'em. I could get you one in good shape today for $1,500. People don't know what they're worth."
Purple stripes: "Best car I ever had was a '56 Turbo wagon. I shoulda kep' it. I saw it in a junkyard with the motor out. I tell you, I shoulda bought it back."
T-shirt: "When I was a kid I thought T-birds were sharp. Now I look at a T-bird and - heck. I like the Silver Hawk best.
Purple stripes: "Say, you know where I can get parts for a '58 LeMans? I tell you: It gets 11 miles to the gallon. But does it ever ride." He breathes out that last word, pronouncing it rahhhhd. It's almost erotic the way he says it.
'Car talk: 'I always liked Studebakers,' said the man in the black T-shirt, who was dining at the Rocky Mount Waffle House. 'I had one that did 135 miles an hour. A Golden Hawk. They were simple-lookin' things, comin' down the road with them wings on 'em. I could get you one in good shape today for $1,500.'
Leaning into food orders
Day Two and we're at the Hillsborough Waffle House off I-85. Cook Terry Mangum has just gone off duty after eight hours at the grill. Now he's grabbing lunch at the counter before heading to his other full-time job: a shipping clerk at a textile firm.
Ever wonder what short-order cooks think about while they're flipping omelets and shoveling sausage? Mangum, 28, told us: "As little as possible."
He cooks first shift, handling orders from memory as W-H cooks are trained to do. He tries to flow with the traffic, leaning into the orders as they're called, the way a tennis player approaches a ball. Sometimes it's just withering.
"It gets so frustrating - sometimes I just step back from the grill and count to 10. I learned to do that: I count to 10, then I work." White-shirted Jerry Baker, the manager, is here, talking about the importance of maintaining morale.
"You establish the mood when you come in in the morning. If waitresses aren't feeling good, you ask them about their families. You kid 'em a little, get 'em in a good mood. That's the key. Then customers come in, feel they're eating in a happy place, and come back again."
He tells of a traveling couple who returned to his restaurant six months after their first visit. "You 'member us?" they asked. The waitress not only remembered them, she told them what they'd had to eat six months earlier. But inevitably, most non-regulars are just faces. Their names are orders: Two Over Easy. Three Scrambled.
Life of a blonde
In the quiet afternoons you often see people sitting alone over coffee in corner booths. They just sit there, daydreaming.
The only blonde we saw on the entire trip was doing that. It was at the Kernersville Waffle House, at 4:45 p.m. She was smoking a cigarette and staring out the window at the stifling haze along N.C. 66. She was about 45, wore hot-pink leggings, and her eyelids sparkled with glittery eye shadow. Her name was Martha. We asked what was on her mind.
"Well, I'm getting an annulment from my third husband tomorrow, " she said, "and I have to deliver the papers to him 'cause I can't find anybody else to do it. He's a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. He's violent when he's off his medication." She has four kids by two earlier husbands. The father of the two youngest died of lung cancer, four years ago this very day. "He was a sweetie, " she says. Then she lets loose, spilling her misery. "I broke up with my boyfriend on Sunday. He can't get over his wife. They've been separated a year and a half. I don't know what the problem is. I got so I was scared of him. After you've been hit and cussed, it's hard to get over it." She's seeing a psychiatrist for these and other unhappinesses.
Has it helped? "It did till I learned how much he's charging me." Martha says she's "half scared of men now, " but still craves them physically. "Sometimes it's love I want. Sometimes it's not; it just - feels good."
She volunteered recently with a local AIDS task force. It sparked her nurturing instincts and made her feel useful. But the neglect of AIDS patients saddened her. "There's not much compassion left in the world, " she says, exhaling smoke against the window. "I don't mean for me; I mean for everybody. People don't seem to care anymore." She sat there a few more minutes, tapping a sandaled foot to a Garth Brooks tune: "Learning to Live Again." Then she paid up and left, crossing the parking lot into the white haze. You could see the hot-pink leggings all the way up the block, till she turned a corner.
Higher math of burger flipping
Day Three. At the Statesville Waffle House off I-40 and U.S. 21 we're staring at a tiny paragraph in one corner of the menu. It says Waffle House has found "at least 844,739 ways" to fix a hamburger.
Ordering cheeseburgers with hash browns scattered and smothered, we ask our waitress, Kim, to explain this astonishing claim. "Oh, that's just a figure out of the air, " she says.
It's not. It's higher mathematics. People at W-H headquarters say the 844,739 is a product of a math process called N-factoring: You take all possible ways of fixing a hamburger - with and without lettuce, with and without Worcestershire sauce, with and without tomatoes, onions, mustard, ketchup, chili, cheese, etc. - and multiply them by themselves, so to speak: 1 X 2 X 3 X 4 X 5 . . . .
Waffle House hired some Georgia Tech engineering students to do the factoring. They came up with 844,739 but noted it's an odd number - an impossibility. When you factor anything times 2, you're supposed to get an even number.
"We fixed that by adding the at least' before the 844,739, " said a company official, who for some reason didn't want his name used. "The crucial phrase is at least.' "
Now, if you're a math whiz and think this is wrong, please do not write in about it. We couldn't begin to understand your explanation. The jukebox at the Statesville Waffle House is playing "T-R-O-U-B-L-E." The hash browns arrive covered with cheese instead of smothered with onions. "The onions froze last night, " says Kim. This happens.
A huge balding man in the booth behind us has just spent 20 full seconds salting down his eggs. Now he stirs his hash browns into the eggs. Now he asks for the A-1 sauce. In another booth two men are talking intently. One is Carl Lyerly of nearby Cleveland, N.C.; the other is John Retherford of Stony Point, down N.C. 90. Lyerly has been a salesman for 60 years all over the Southeast. Aluminum siding, roofing, swimming pools, cookware, encyclopedias, training courses - "You name it, I've sold it, " he says.
'At the Statesville Waffle House, truck driver Jimmie Heeck salted his eggs for 20 long seconds before eating them.'
He was never paid a salary: supported his wife and four kids on what he earned on commission. You have to be good to do that. And Lyerly is good.
We're talking about Waffle House food, see, and pretty soon he says, very casually: "You know, in 1989 the USDA said they were gonna get leaner pork."
That so? "Yes. They knew a pig is a lot like a man: He needs caromium."
Caromium? What's that? (At this point you are a hooked trout.) "Caromium? It's a nootrient, " he says.
You mean chromium?
"Sure. Caromium picolinate. Makes your insulin work correctly in your body. It builds lean body mass without dieting or exercise. It lowers your blood pressure, lowers your blood sugar - cholesterol too, in many cases."
Retherford: "Helps authoritis, too. I used to take a bottle of painkillers a month for authoritis. I don't take 'em anymore since I started caromium."
At this point Lyerly holds up a small bottle labeled "AP-300 Natural Herbal Energizer." It's full of tablets that blend chromium picolinate with Chinese herbs, such as Fo-Ti and Gotu Kola. (The AP stands for Advanced Products, the wholesale packager.)
"Nine out of 10 Americans are deficient in caromium, " says Lyerly. "But not with these: You just take three a day - $30 for a month's supply. I have one girl in Charlotte, works at Marcia's Big Girl Fashions. First week, she lost 4 pounds. Second week she lost 8. Go talk to her. See if she isn't a happy woman."
And all this is possible, you see, because the USDA demanded leaner pork.
The mathematics of salvation
It's nearing dusk as we pull into the Kings Mountain Waffle House on I-85 at N.C. 161. It's been another hot day on the road, full of smoking diesels and inconsequential chatter between truckers on the pickup's CB.
We order waffles, look over the crowd, and instantly fix on one customer sitting alone at a small booth.
He's a frail elderly man with a long gray beard, wrinkled face and thoughtful brown eyes. He wears a yellow skull cap, baggy pants, white tennies and a short-sleeved shirt too big for his bony torso.
We watch as he lights a cigarette with great deliberation, then orders tomato juice and steak and eggs, scrambled. When the food arrives he meticulously cuts the steak into bits - but never touches it. Naturally, we ask him why.
"That's for the dog, " he says, gesturing with his fork toward a car in the parking lot. A white poodle named Christie is there, hanging out the window of a Pontiac.
Curb service: 'Donald Kistler, a messianic Jew, believes the Earth is hollow, with openings at both ends, and that the reign of the Antichrist will begin in about 10 years. At the Kings Mountain Waffle House he saved his steak for Christie, his poodle.'
Christie's owner is Donald Kistler, 70, a messianic Jew. For 17 years he's headed a tiny religious fellowship in Kings Mountain called Positive People Worldwide. It supports itself by selling health foods, calendars and copies of Kistler's book: "The Arithmetic of God."
Kistler says he was an Orthodox rabbi in Chicago when, around 1960, he decided that Jesus ("Yeshua") was the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. When he told his Orthodox parents of his new faith, they solemnly buried his belongings in a coffin and declared him dead. He's had no contact with them since.
He's vague about the name of the congregation he served in Chicago, before he married a Gentile, had five kids, divorced and began to move around the States. "It's a long time ago, " he says.
He takes a sip from a glass of milk. "God has revealed to me that the Holy Book has a mathematical structure, " he says. This fact, hidden since the foundation of the world, is based on Kistler's interpretation of certain symbolic numbers in the Old and New Testaments: 7 symbolizes Perfection; 14 means Salvation; 17 stands for Victory; and so on.
"Our Lord was crucified on the 14th day of the seventh month. He rose three days later. If you add three to 14, what do you have? Seventeen. And what is that? Victory."
Calculations like that have been Kistler's preoccupation for many years. He devised a Scripture-based calendar with 360 days, five fewer than the modern calendar. With it, he says, biblical prophecies all work out.
He figured out that we're now living in the year 1959, not 1993. And the reign of the Antichrist in Jerusalem is due to begin in 9-1/2 years, in what will then be, by Kistler's reckoning, 1969. This pleasant man had more news for us. There are 10 heavens, he said, corresponding to the planets of the Solar System (including a 10th planet recently deduced by astronomers).
The Earth is hollow, he told us, with openings at both ends, and a third opening will occur at the Mount of Olives at the Apocalypse. He said a lot more. But our brains began to feel as scrambled as the eggs he was eating. We thanked the rabbi, excused ourselves and headed down the highway, pondering the Antichrist.
Half a century of knitting
At 3:30 p.m. on Day Four we're sitting, exhausted, beside Homer Durham in a Waffle House near Tryon, off I-26 and N.C. 108. Durham, 65, has been a knitter in Southern textile mills for nearly half a century: Tryon, Morganton, Laurens, S.C., now Valdese, at the Alba-Waldensian mill.
He started out at 16, when nylons had begun to replace the silk stockings your great-grandmother wore. He made seamed nylons, "but then seamless came along and knocked us out, " he says. So he knitted sweaters.
In recent years he has knitted women's underwear. In an eight-hour day Homer Durham can turn out 960 pairs of panties: 80 dozen. He could outfit the entire D.A.R. in a couple of weeks. But he finds nothing humorous or titillating about this work.
"It's just a piece of fabric, " he says. "A pantie has to be seamed, then the lace put around the waist and legs; then it has to be dyed. Nothin' sexy about the part of the job I got - unless you got a very good imagination."
Devotion to raising daughters
At 10 p.m. we reach Murphy, our final stop, a few miles from the Tennessee and Georgia borders. At this hour there's only one place in town still open for dinner. It's a waffle house, but not a Waffle House.
It's the Royal Waffle King, a virtual clone of a Waffle House. It sits, a pool of friendly light in the blue murk, right next to the Comfort Inn. Even the shape of the menu is identical to that of a Waffle House. "I feel like I'm on a movie set and it's a Waffle House make-believe, " says Will Thorogood, 23, who's sharing a booth with a friend. "From the floor tiles to the little signs over the grill, it's just like Waffle House."
Seated by herself nearby is a big broad-shouldered woman with long black hair and sea-green eyes. She comes in about 10 every night and sits for two hours chatting with other locals. Only then does she order supper. This is Judy Panther, 44. In the past 20 years she's been a truck driver, barmaid, seamstress, Laundromat manager, waitress and beautician. Now she's a nanny, caring for the daughter of a Murphy couple.
'We met Judy Panther in Murphy. Part Cherokee Indian, she says the different races of humankind are like colored flowers in a garden. 'So why do people hate each other, just because they're different colors?' she asked.'
Kids have been at the center of her unconventional life. She married her first husband when she was 14 and he, 18. "He was a spoilt little rich kid, " she says. They had one child, a daughter. The marriage lasted nine years. Marriage number two lasted two years. "He tried to say I married him for what he had; so I walked off and left him with what he had."
But she raised the two daughters he had fathered by another woman. Panther says he never offered to help with expenses. Her third marriage was even briefer. "We were both out of work and there was only one job around. It was on a dairy farm, but the farmer wanted a married couple. So we got married. It lasted four months."
Her most recent effort was the best. It endured for seven years. He was a truck driver and she used to ride with him everywhere. "I was a hillbilly girl and he was a Yankee. He talked so funny, the first time I met him I had to ask him to repeat what he was saying three times."
He was traveling alone one night seven years ago when his truck overturned and he was killed. Panther misses him terribly. At the time of his death she had adopted two more orphaned girls. She has raised all five daughters alone. Today they're 32, 27, 26, 24 and 20. Two still live with her.
Nine years ago her kindness found yet another target: Returning one rainy night from a bartending job, she stopped on U.S. 64 for a young hitchhiker. The girl was 14 and five months pregnant. Panther took her home and cared for her till the baby was born. Later the girl married a neighbor of Panther's, and moved to Cleveland, Tenn.
She brings her son, Jonathan, for visits every summer. Why has Panther been so devoted to children? "I was able to have only one child myself, and I miscarried seven times before I had her, " Panther says. "Anyway, I had a very loving mother and daddy, and there are a lot of kids out there that don't have that.
"I'd get married a fifth time, " she says, "if I could find me a man who had a house full of small children. Because I'd know he needed me." Judy Panther, who is part Cherokee, reads a lot: anything to do with Indians and whites, or Afro-Americans and whites.
She says she wants to understand why some people are so full of hate. "It don't make any sense. It's like a woman that has a garden, with all different-colored flowers in it: Well, when God made the world we was all his flowers. So why do people hate each other, just because they're different colors?" We had no answer. But it seemed like the right question.
Even when hungry, people are nice
So that was our trip, or a big chunk of it. What impressed us most? The patience and kindness of people.
On more than two dozen occasions in five days we barged into strangers' lives with notepads, questions and cameras - invited ourselves to their tables while they were trying to get a little nourishment.
And not once did anybody say: "Get lost, I'm eatin'!" That simply amazed us.
Would we do it again? Sure. But without the hash browns. We no longer like hash browns.
'Waffle House hash browns come smothered, covered with cheese, chunked with ham, topped with chili, diced with tomatoes.'