Some guys I've know for a long time who I drink coffee with at Waffle House.
Ben's the kind of guy who corrects you with "well" if you say "good." He's a stereotypical 'grammar nazi' who's a walking encyclopedia of information. If you're going to state something as fact in front of him, you better be damn sure you're right. It's not often you can prove Ben wrong about something. If he's reading this, he's probably groaning over any grammar or spelling mistakes I've made (before you text me Ben, I get it, there's probably a lot).
In Chapter 1 I touched on the origin story of how I ended up at Waffle House. The three people in this particular chapter are all connected to that story through their own various waffle origins. In a way, it all starts with Ben.
I met Ben while working in the Rides Department at the nearby Kings Island Amusement Park. I started a year before him, but we became supervisors around the same time and worked closely until I left. Ben ran a crew that staffed a group of rides in the "kiddie" area, an area that no one ever seemed to want to work in except for the folks who worked there regularly. Ben was one of those folks and he took a great deal of pride in running one fourth of the "children's" attractions. That pride is echoed not only in the work he does today, still at the park, but in his convictions and beliefs. Even if his opinions or ideas change over time - Ben stands by everything he does wholeheartedly. It's evident in the conversations you have with him as he dons an army coat and South Carolina hat, the uniform he wears when not in his work uniform. Ben and I differ politically, but I always found agreement in his musical tastes: Bad Religion, Streetlight Manifesto, etc. Ben is also the only person I've ever held a long time grudge against. In 2012, he broke up with a girlfriend while I was in another room trying to watch a movie on friendly terms with another girl who I had broken up with previously. He said goodbye to me as he carried his things out the door that closed leaving behind a heartbroken girl and an increasingly awkward situation. You can't really comfort someone about a break up, when you're in the same room with someone you broke up with. There's a lot more to the story, but for now I'll just leave it at this: I hate awkward situations and Ben has put me in one of the most awkward of my life. Truthfully, I don't hate him, but I haven't forgiven him.
Ben's Waffle House experience started when he was in high school. Saturday nights were when his girlfriend didn't have a curfew, they'd find themselves at the Mason-Montgomery Waffle House since it was one of the few things opened late that wasn't a parent's house. Like all Kings Island employees at one point, Ben would find himself at Kings Waffle from time to time. In 2009, he started to become a regular at the location on Beach Blvd.
"It wasn't my parent's house, it wasn't work," he says while remarking about how he'd be there sipping coffee when he couldn't sleep. Eventually, Ben assimilated into the larger community of regulars and picked up a job as a cook as Kings Island closed for the off season: "I was here everyday anyways."
Although Ben eventually returned to the park, never to be found at a Waffle grill since, he describes cooking on the second and third shifts as "fun," and it's where he perfected his preferred order of a "Texas Bacon Cheesesteak Plate (onions grilled on the side)." His regularity continued and he started pulling in other people like our friend Matt and myself.
"There's a community here built around a bunch of people. Not people who didn't have anywhere else to go, just people who didn't need to be anywhere else."
As Ben describes it, his "age and stage" in life has since changed. He's not at Kings Waffle as regularly as he once was. Even as we sat in a booth talking about his origin story, our waitress referred to him as "Ronny's Friend," since his face isn't as common around these parts anymore. He's made more time for himself, his girlfriend, his interests and his aquariums. Nevertheless, when I get the chance to share coffee with Ben at the low counter, we're usually there for several hours swapping stories and I always make sure to tell anyone around us who'll listen about how I'm still pissed at Ben for the awkward situation he left me in two years ago.
Ben's also the guy who introduced me to...
It was hard getting Matt to smile while taking his picture. Which is odd, because Matt is usually always smiling. Hell, when he's not, everyone around him will relentlessly harp on him trying to get him to admit what's wrong. There's a debate among Matt and I as to how we actually met. The way I remember it, from Chapter 1:
One day after work at KI, I joined some friends at a bar: Ben, his then girlfriend Liz, her roommate Sarah and this kid named Matt Wilkes. "How you doing, brother? It's been awhile," said Matt, extending his hand and a smile. He asked me how work was and what I had been up to before excusing himself to fetch another cheap beer. I would say it was good to see him again, but truthfully, I had no idea who he was. Ben filled me in: Matt was a former KI employee who now worked at the nearby and somewhat rival Beach Waterpark. According to Facebook, Matt and I have been friends since July 2008, but until I shook his hand that night in the summer of 2010 - I could've sworn I'd never met him a day in my life, let alone two years prior.Matt will tell you though that he remembers meeting me in the summer of 2008 while on break with Ben. Either way, Matt has become one of my closest and best friends. If "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is ever playing at the 20th Century Theatre in Oakley and you can't find someone to go with you, Matt's the kind of guy who will drop what he's doing and join you. Then while he's there, he'll strike up a conversation with the little kid sitting next to him, then get the kid's single mom's phone number.
Despite the crossed arm, stern faced demeanor of his portrait, Matt is incredibly open and friendly - a man who truthfully never met someone he couldn't have a conversation with.
Matt's first taste of Waffle House came when he was twelve and went to the Tylersville Rd. location with his grandmother. In 2006 he started working at Kings Island, landing on a rides crew with Ben. Matt will tell you he thought "Ben was an ass" when they first met. Ben will back that up by saying: "I made fun of him relentlessly, he was the new kid." Eventually the two became the close friends that they are today, despite Matt leaving Kings Island in mid 2008 in an incident we refer to as "The Conspiracy." Some say he was set up, others maintain their belief in the system. Only God knows.
Within a week though, Matt was back in the amusement industry across the highway at The Beach Waterpark. He landed a job in security chasing off angry customers and angst ridden, hormone driven teenagers who couldn't behave. He'd find his way to Kings Waffle down the street after shifts or on breaks from overnight security detail, often meeting up with Ben and I. I came to be close with Matt after endless conversations at the low counter, the same place we still meet up at today.
"The people here [at Kings Waffle] became like a second family to me," Matt says describing how he'd go out of his way to stop here on trips to and from the University of Toledo, where he graduated with a degree in Sports Management and Communications. I'll admit, there's been times I've taken Matt's friendship for granted, but he's one of the best people around. He's the kind of guy who'd help you bury a body because he's your friend, but he'd still report it to the police because it's the right thing to do. He's become affectionately known as "The Mayor," because anywhere you go with him he knows somebody there. Once, while on a trip to Chicago he and I were sitting on a bench at Navy Pier when he spotted someone he knew in the endless throng of tourists hundreds of miles from where we live. This was a few days after we ran into friends of his in Milwaukee.
Devoutly passionate about his Bengals, Reds, Alabama Crimson Tide and Nascar, you know Matt's at Waffle when his black Honda with its tinted windows rolls up. He'll be there anytime you need him to be. Whether you need someone to shoot the shit with or to accompany you on an impulsive adventure - Matt's your guy. He's also the one that introduced us to...
Unlike myself and the aforementioned likes of Ben and Matt, Nathan didn't work in the Rides Department at Kings Island. He tried to, but apparently no one ever called him back. He took his talents to The Beach Waterpark, starting out in the admissions department in 2010. The relationship between Matt and Nathan was a mirror of the relationship between Ben and Matt. In this case though, Nathan was the "new kid" who initially took Matt for "an ass" after Matt kept teasing a coworker for getting shot down when trying to ask out a girl working the parking tolls. Despite Nathan's reservations, he took up Matt's offer to hang out after work that night where Matt confessed he had a crush on the same girl who previously shot down their coworker. They were friends after that and through Matt, Nathan wound up with the rest of us at Waffle House.
Now the Operations Manager at The Beach and with three years under his belt as a U.S. Marine Corps reservist, Nathan is also a Political Science major at Miami University. If you ask him whose campaign he worked on, he won't truthfully say "Sherrod Brown," rather he'll dig up an exaggerated southern drawl and reply with: "Tea Party Express, I drove the bus for Michelle Bacchman." It's the same southern accent he slips into anytime he's lying, but not his actual accent of when he's pronouncing the word "Arkansas." In first grade, Nathan's teacher wrote on his report card: "Knows the word 'potato,' insists on saying 'tater.'"
Nathan is straight forward, honest and not at all afraid to tell you how it is. He's the kind of guy who you can argue and shout with for hours about something meaningless, but will still smile and shake your head at the end even if he doesn't believe you're right. He's the man who dubbed Matt as "The Mayor" and who likes to refer to me as "Chandler," due to his belief that I resemble the "Friends" character. He always has a practical solution for any problem you can throw at him and he works harder than most of the people I know. He'll sip sweet tea while taking down an "All Star Special," then hang out with you all night discussing amusement park logistics and mid term elections.
Next Chapter: Happy Halloween
Previous Chapter: "Free Coffee"