I eat at the Waffle House a lot because that's just the kind of guy I am. When I lived in Collier Hills, I was a single dad who rarely cooked. My daughter and I ate hundreds of meals at the Waffle House at I-75 and Northside.
When winter storms knocked out our power, we stomped through snow to get to the Waffle House. It was the only place open. Over the years, I've come to associate Waffle House with winter and Christmas. The chain started 50 years ago in Avondale Estates and now numbers nearly 1,500 restaurants. In a lot of small towns, it's the only place open on Christmas.
I love the comfort food. I enjoy the characters who work there. But most of all, I consider Waffle House a story store. There's always a lot of life going on inside if you pay attention. I have three favorite Waffle House stories, and they all happened at this time of year.
The first took place almost exactly 13 years ago. My daughter and I were eating in a booth one morning when I saw Sen.-elect Paul Coverdell finishing his breakfast. Although I had voted for Wyche Fowler, I got up and shook Coverdell's hand and congratulated him for the crazy little song that helped him win. I introduced him to my daughter, who was a shy little thing.
She suddenly piped up and blasted out Coverdell's campaign song like she was Judy Garland: "Let's put Paul Coverdell in the Senate and put Wyche Fowler out!"
Coverdell applauded and told her she had a pretty voice. She hasn't stopped singing since.
MY SECOND STORY happened two years ago at a Waffle House off Ga. 400 between Roswell and Alpharetta. I sat at the counter. The waitress had a spiky punk hairstyle and was bouncing around the cook like a puppy. She asked him something. I couldn't hear what she said, but I saw the cook flinch. He looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. He didn't say a word, but went back to scattering and smothering hash browns.
I leaned over and asked the waitress, "Excuse me, what did you ask him?"
"What does 'cat's ass' mean?" she said.
"What?" I said.
"Cat's ass," she said. "I was watching 'American Chopper' last night and this biker said, 'That's the cat's ass.'"
"I think it means 'very good,'" I said.
"Oh, no," she said. "He said it with a negative connotation."
She scowled. She repeated the phrase slowly in a deep voice, "That's the cat's ass."
"Maybe, it means 'very bad,'" I said.
"Well, my boyfriend and I called his dad, because his dad's a biker, and he didn't know what it meant," she said. "But wouldn't you like to be able to say it and just have the words roll out of your mouth spontaneously -- 'Oh, that's the cat's ass'?"
"Yes," I agreed. "That would be a beautiful thing."
My all-time favorite Waffle House story came from the unlikeliest source. Awhile back, I was teaching writing at the University of Georgia. A lot of my students slept through my lectures. One of the sleepiest was Jerry Pryor, the bass player for the notorious Athens band Drunk & Furious. One of the group's songs is "My Baby Looks Good with Two Black Eyes."
Jerry wrote the only story in the class that gave me goose bumps.
It was about a middle-aged, seventh-grade science teacher who worked a second job as a waitress at the Waffle House at Five Points in Athens. She had worked every Christmas Eve since 1981. And all the lonely people on what can be the loneliest night of the year came to see her.
She told Jerry that the Waffle House is "where everyone with nowhere else to go comes."
The waitress's name was Miss Polly.
"I'll have a cheeseburger with hash browns, scattered and smothered, and a Diet Coke," I told Miss Polly one night last week. I had tried to talk to her a year ago, but she's wary of publicity. I went back this year. She didn't want me to single her out or to ignore all her wonderful bosses and co-workers. "They deserve all the glory," she said.
Miss Polly didn't want me to use her last name or identify the school where she teaches during the day. She introduced me to the cook, Walter Rittenberry, and told him I was a reporter. Walter didn't mind talking to the media one bit. In fact, he broke out what amounted to a press kit. He was a great football player, a running back from the last days of segregation in Athens, who went on to play at Fort Valley State. He showed me a letter about his coming induction into the Athens Athletic Hall of Fame. He brought out a framed picture of himself in a Heisman Trophy-type pose.
"You look like a lineman now, Walter," I said.
I kept trying to get Miss Polly to talk about herself. She's barely 5 feet tall and wears round glasses with thick lenses, which she whipped off when I took out my camera. Her hair is short and blond and neatly swept back. Her name tag just says "Polly."
She came to Athens from Tennessee more than 30 years ago. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in education. She was married and had a son and was teaching in a nearby county.
Suddenly, she got divorced. She was devastated emotionally and financially. She desperately needed a second job and went to work at the Waffle House in April 1981.
For some Athenians, Miss Polly has become as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus.
It didn't start out on a high note. On Christmas Eve 1981, she went to an early service at First Methodist Church and then reported to work at the Waffle House. All she could think of was how sad it was to work that night.
"I was feeling so sorry for myself and, all of a sudden, my role changed," she said. "I was happy to be here to take care of people. There were so many people who didn't have any place to go, who were so far from home. That first Christmas there were so many people in tears. I do remember one of the saddest people came in crying. She was here about five hours and several people talked with her in the booth. That person didn't leave in tears."
Miss Polly had found her niche in life and accepted it humbly.
She's worked Christmas Eve and Christmas day ever since. She celebrates with her son Dec. 26. She used to fly out to California to see him. This year, he's in Athens.
One of her own favorite Waffle House stories is about serving the late columnist Lewis Grizzard not long after he had written that someone was "as ugly as a Waffle House waitress."
"Did you let him have it?" I asked.
"No," she said. "I treated him with kindness. He was in the back booth and I asked if he had changed his opinion about Waffle House waitresses, and he said, 'I would if they were all like you.'"
She smiled and said, "Everybody responds to kind words, a good cup of coffee and a good glass of tea."
Senior Editor Doug Monroe is spending Christmas with his kids in New York. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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