Around the clock at Waffle House 

Smothered and covered on Cheshire Bridge Road

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click to enlarge JASON TRAVIS

Though third shift starts at 9, Ms. Shirley gets to work early, sitting at the counter and stepping outside to smoke cigarettes. Like Donna she is ageless, and also kind of ethnically ambiguous — her skin is dark, but she could be any number of races. There's something stoutly maternal about her, something both soothing and scary. She's horrified by the state of my table, littered with glasses and plates and coffee cups from friends who left hours ago. There is a gruff no-nonsense affect to the way Ms. Shirley moves and acts, and she has a deep smoker's voice. She calls everyone "baby."

After she's cleaned off my table and taken the first order of the shift, Ms. Shirley confronts me. She is the first person throughout my 17-hour stay to have done so. "They say you've been here all day," she says.

I nod.

"Why?"

Remarkably, I haven't really decided how to answer this question, or if I did have an answer I lost it somewhere along the way. "It's an experiment," I manage. My friend, who has not lost her mind or ability to make sense, does better.

"She just wanted to see what it would be like to sit here for a whole day. So she has her friends coming to keep her company."

"What do you get out of it?" Ms. Shirley demands.

"I don't know," I say. "Ask me tomorrow."

"How long have you worked here?" my friend asks.

"I've worked here for 10 years," Ms. Shirley says, "but I wouldn't sit at the Waffle House for 24 hours."

For the rest of the night, Ms. Shirley treats me with a kind of wary annoyance, the way you'd treat a crazy person who makes you a little uncomfortable. But she never stops calling me baby.

The third shift is the rock star shift, and at the Cheshire Bridge Waffle House, the rock stars are Ms. Shirley and her co-worker Jayme. Jayme is, like pretty much everything at this Waffle House, ambiguous. She is tall and slender with a man's body and the full makeup and coiffed hairdo of Whitney Houston. She wears the crispest shirt I've ever seen, the creases along the sleeves pressed into terse points.

Jayme has a lot of fans. At 10 p.m., a group of kids, two of them wrapped in fleece blankets, come in and hug Jayme at the door. Throughout the third shift, it's obvious that many customers come to this Waffle House for one reason: to see Jayme.

But my heart's with Ms. Shirley. She has style, in the way she calls orders in a throaty bark and in her blunt way of dealing with customers, and me in particular. In her 10 years at Waffle House, Ms. Shirley has worked at six locations, often brought in as the veteran third-shift server to pull together a staff that needs help.

My friends are now arriving post opera, post rock shows, post bar hopping. One of them feeds money into the jukebox and comes back to the table pleased with the song: "Why Would You Eat Your Grits Anywhere Else?"

Although the restaurants have always had jukeboxes, Waffle House has had its own music since 1984. The first Waffle House songs were sung by founder Rodgers' wife, Mary Welch Rogers, and there are a number of legends about the reasoning behind the advent of the company's original music. The official company line is that it just decided one day to begin producing its own music, and that the wife of the founder just happened to be the right person to do the singing. Waffle House is still producing music for its jukeboxes. On the website, you can see the latest development in Waffle House music: The Waffle House music video.

At 1 a.m., a group of guys comes in wearing leather vests and sparkly shirts at the same time as two women arrive, probably from a very different kind of club. The women are dressed in clubwear: silky pants, embellished shirts, knockoff Yves Saint Laurent bags. The men sit in a booth and the women at the counter, but they strike up a drunken conversation immediately.

The conversation starts out indecipherable and dirty, but quickly turns to the college aspirations of one of the girls. "You are going back to school, right?" the guy wearing a leather vest asks, his bare chest showing underneath. The girl, who has introduced herself as Alara, promises she will.

When the women get up to leave, there are hugs all around. Latia, the other woman, stands in front of the table of men and puts her hand on her heart. She says, with an expression of pure sincerity, "Oh my God, it was such a pleasure. Truly."

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