Tuesday, July 22, 2014

[Kings Waffle] Chapter 3: The Waffle Kids



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Americans have a love affair with diners, both in reality and in the way popular culture romanticizes them. The diner is a feature unique to the United States roadside. While the days of prefabricated stainless steel buildings have come and gone - the characteristics of the concept live on in the late hours of cuisine, counters, coffee and grease.




 Travel down any parkway in the northeast between Philly and Jersey and you'll pass scores of mom-and-pop shops serving up homemade pie and cholesterol. In the suburban Midwest, that sight is less common, rare even. Late night options are limited to fast food drive-throughs, raided refrigerators and the more stale chain eateries. 

There's Steak and Shake - where you'll find thin French fries and one waitress struggling to serve church groups that tip with Bible verses instead of dollars.

There's Denny's - "America's Diner," if you can find one around here.

There's IHOP, where you're lucky to get reliable service after 10 pm.

Then there's Waffle House, and while it may be a chain, the yellow tiled walls and pre smoking ban stained ceiling may be the closest thing outside of the Northeast to a true diner.

It's those diner characteristics, the ones that we as Americans romanticize, embrace and love that draw people to spend time there - whether you're passing through or just looking for a place to go when nothing else is open. It breeds regulars, it breeds "Waffle Kids." People like Erica, Ashly and Callie who would find themselves here after practices and performances at the nearby Kings High School drama program. They're some of the original "Waffle Kids." People who were just looking for a place to go and ended up staying.



Erica

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Erica is like many of the folks I know from Waffle House in that I don't actually remember the first time I met her. I sat in a car with her the other night sipping coffee and trying to solve the mystery that neither of us had answers to. Like so many others in that restaurant, we had just become assumed friends over time in the way regulars seem to do. 

Erica found Kings Waffle by way of Denver, Texas, Mexico, Canada, Alaska, Texas again and then finally Ohio. A UC/Cincinnati State student and "bookseller" at Half-Price books, she'll tell you that "books were my only friends until high school" where she met people like Callie and Ashly, the other two in this chapter. All members of the school's drama club, the three would often convene at Kings Waffle for coffee following practices and shows. Eventually Erica and the "Waffle Kids" merged into the larger group of other regulars. Despite disappearing from time to time due to other obligations and relationships, Erica has always found herself coming back here: "Waffle House is like family. It restores my sense of independence. Once I'm back, I just have to be here." 

At 4'10", Erica will accepts the nicknames of "Squirt" and "Little Bit," thankfully appreciating the humor in you using her as an armrest when you're a foot and two inches taller. She's an intellectual, someone who sees the world in a truthful sense and in perspectives unfamiliar to most. When she speaks, it's with purpose and when she listens it's with an empathy and understanding that show she truly cares. 

A scrambled cheesy egg plate, white toast and "bacon that still oinks" is what compliments Erica's coffee when she chooses something to eat before hanging out amongst the group on the "stoop:" a concrete curb surrounding the grassy berm in the parking lot. When I made Erica's portrait, I wanted to photograph her on the stoop, the area of conversation on nice nights and when the restaurant is too crowded inside. Normally, I wouldn't want a sign in the background sticking out of someone's head, but Erica insisted we keep the handicapped parking sign in the shot. She felt that it represented disabilities that could be considered "invisible," even if not reflected in outward appearance. As someone who has heart and lung issues, I felt the composition and her reasoning reflected a look into who she is and how she sees things in a way others don't.



Ashly


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I think the first conversation Ashly and I bonded over was how people consistently misspell our names (it's not "Ashley" and it's not "Ronnie"). This all took place while a group of us once played Monopoly in a booth when the restaurant was empty (yes Matt, we remember, you won). Ashly is the closest thing I have to a therapist and a hair stylist. With Ashly, the stoop out front can be a psychiatrist's couch, while her driveway and a milk crate can be a barber's chair. A stylist for Great Clips, she cuts hair about as well as she listens... which is to say: she's damn good. Everyone has problems they don't feel like discussing with anyone, but Ashly is one of those people you trust to hear you out. She won't bother you with cheap advice or delusions of false hopes, she listens. She also keeps a crate of Legos in her jeep. 

Ashly became a "waffle kid" as a freshman in high school, when Erica and Callie were sophomores. Visiting Kings Waffle has been a part of her routine ever since. 

"My friends are here."

For Ashly, these are friends who started as schoolmates and grew into something bigger along with the folks at the counters and booths around them.

Ashly never seems to have a lighter and will take a swig of your coffee/coke/tea without asking after she's misplaced her own cup. The occasional combination of a soft drink and butane is a small price to pay to have Ashly as your friend. She genuinely takes interest in helping the folks around her and often all it takes is hearing them vent - whether it's about your regrets and frustrations or why you hate Indiana Jones IV. 

She once told me: "I come here when I don't want to be by myself. There's always someone here, even if you don't know who." Ashly gets it, she genuinely understands.


Callie


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I've only met Callie in person a handful of times, mainly because her recent visits to Kings Waffle are on trips to her home and native Ohio from Los Angeles. Despite the few interactions we've had, she's probably the one who summarizes this whole Waffle House thing best. On a phone call with a three hour time difference, she stated: "there's something about the grittiness of Waffle House that makes you feel at home. You don't go there to look pretty or impress anyone. It makes you appreciate the simpleness of life, it makes you feel like yourself."

Callie might have been the first one to utter: "Do you wanna go to Waffle House?" to Erica and Ashly. There, they'd post up in their usual arrangement in their usual booth. "The place is this amazing, loving world you wouldn't expect to find. Even if you were the strangest person in the room, you were accepted. Anybody I got close to, I eventually brought them to Waffle House." For Callie, this place became a second home rather than just a place you'd sneak out to when you were supposed to be somewhere else. In a town where there's not a lot to do, Kings Waffle became the place to go and still is when she makes the trip home.  

Kings Waffle is a place that embraces the ideals of Midwestern hospitality that are often absent from the west and east coasts along with Waffle House locations. Sometimes it's just about the coffee that Callie declares as "bar none" compared to others. 

For the past year and two months, she has been making her way in LA carrying on the acting career she shared with Erica and Ashly. Bucking the stereotype of a struggling actress waiting tables, she left a job as a hostess to partner with friends and open their own business. Adrift Thrift Shop has been in business since 2013 and Callie has been continuing her acting career regularly.

Despite being 2,190 miles away, Callie summed up not just her experience, but what countless other have probably felt when they reflect on being here and countless other diners across America. 

In her own words:

In the middle of nowhere is the center of the universe.
A waterpark to the right and a cornfield to the left.

Here, I know, is my home.

The smell of grease and Marlboro Reds sets off sensory reminders that this place harbors no vanity, no judgement.
It has a sense of humor.
It has appreciation.
It has consideration and compassion.

No one's laughter is unwarranted or unwanted.
No pain unrecognized or unreconciled.

Are you new?
Are you tired and true?

We know you, so how long you've been sipping in the booth next door carries little weight.

People search in all the wrong places for this feeling. 
It comes free with a cup of coffee.

24 hours a day.
365 days a year.

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_________________

Next Chapter: "Free Coffee"

6 comments:

  1. Awesome story and pictures Ronny!!
    Love this

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  2. Amazing entry Ronny!! I'm really enjoying this series! While I've not visited as often as you at Kings Waffle, but each visit I take I can sense it's different than any other Waffle House around.

    There is a small family hole in the wall pizza place where I live, my family and I visit every Friday night. The people and food are why we go back, but we go also for the reason of we don't know where else we'd go. The customers and staff we've met are phenomenal so I can say that American diners whether they be mom and pop shops or chain, you find the best people in them!

    Thanks for sharing again!

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  3. Keep it coming. Enjoying it. Chris H - where is this pizza place?

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