The weather was ideal, so I rode my motorcycle in to work. I had left the house quite early, so I decided to stop off at a Waffle House for breakfast. When I pulled in and turned off the bike and removed my helmet, I saw two women in front of the Waffle House on the concrete sidewalk. Both women wore ragged, filthy garments. Their hair was oily. They appeared to be far apart enough in age they could have been a mother and daughter. Their clothes were stained black and greasy. The older woman sat with her back against the plexiglass of the Waffle House. The younger woman paced back and forth in front of the Waffle House, pulling strong drags on a burning cigarette in her right hand. Her eyes darted this way and that, back and forth, as if she were a caged animal. Her fingernails were bitten down to the quick and her cuticles were soiled and black. She continued to pace back and forth in front of the Waffle House. You could feel the nervousness. I walked past them and into the Waffle House. A young bleach blonde inside said, “Sorry, sir. Can you give us fifteen minutes? He is cleaning the grill,” pointing to the cook behind her who was shrouded in a cloud of steam rising from the griddle. “Sure,” I said. I got back on my bike and went and fueled up at the gas station across the road.
When I returned, the two women were still there, but they appeared to be angry with each other. They were both mumbling curses to themselves but the curses were loud enough that even I could hear them when I turned off my motorcycle. I went in again. This time, the cook said, “Sir, I appreciate your patience. Thanks for coming back.” “Glad to,” I said. He was a nice man. And then an older lady appeared and asked the words I’ve heard countless times at Waffle Houses, “Know what you’re having, hon?” I love that. “Yes, ma’am. I do,” I said and gave my order.
Over the next few moments, the food came and I began eating. Then, Thwack!!! The younger woman outside the Waffle House kicked the window. The cook looked up from his griddle. The bleach blonde said to the older woman who’d been my waitress, “Call the Po Po!” I looked out through the greasy window over my shoulder. The woman’s eyes were ablaze and crazy, Charles Manson eyes.
I finished. I cleaned up my table, laid the utensils on the plate in my habitual way, the fork on top of the spoon, and the knife between the second and third tines of the fork, and walked to the register to pay, trying not to appear nervous or agitated. The older waitress said, “The police won’t come for this stuff anymore. We’re stuck with’em.”
I finished paying, tipped the older waitress generously. She looked at me and thanked me. She was visibly nervous, visibly unhappy, visibly stuck. This was her world, day in and day out. I did not know what to say. I uttered some hackneyed phrase, I think, like, “I hope you have a good day,” and left.
I put on my helmet, started the bike, rode on to work. But I felt I had failed somehow—failed to alleviate suffering, failed to speak appropriately, failed to understand, failed to see how we have come to a place where law enforcement cannot/will not respond when desperate women camp in front of a Waffle House. One woman had kicked the glass nearly in, and yet there were employees–working, doing their best, trying to support their families, doing their best to wear smiles, greet customers, wipe down tables, and scrub the griddle.
I had failed to do something, anything, redemptive. I felt I had failed as part of a larger failure wherein a culture’s foundation has been destroyed, and where the good guys who once showed up are now handcuffed, and each man is on his own. Lord, be merciful. We have lost our way.