Words by Sean Dietrich
I was a young man. Four of us guys walked into an average Florida Panhandle Waffle House before sunrise. We did this every morning before heading to a construction jobsite.
Our routine never changed. First we visited the gas station to buy newspapers, scratch-off tickets, and Gatorades. Then we went to Waffle House. And we did most of this in silence because that’s just how guys are.
Guys aren’t big talkers. Especially at breakfast. They keep conversations to a minimum in the mornings.
Many women, of course, manage to discuss every biographical event since middle school. Whereas most males use two-word sentences to discuss the importance of a strong bullpen, then they clam up until their next birthday. Like I said: that’s how some guys operate.
Our waitress was young, lean, a happy person. There were traces of tattoos climbing her neck, and she had a sweet face. She couldn’t have been taller than five foot.
Four of us piled into her booth. She doled out silverware and menu-placemats. She took our beverage orders then announced, “Four coffees, coming up.”
Old-school waitresses are a dying breed, but Waffle House never seems to be short on them. I have traveled a lot during my half-cocked career as a writer; Waffle House always has great service.
Elsewhere in the world, food service workers are not always so amiable. And believe me, I am not being critical because I once worked in food service.
I’ve worked kitchen duty, manning fryers, scrubbing flat-tops, washing stacks of filthy dishes that were roughly the same height as the Space Needle. I’ve also worked front of the house—bussing, refilling glasses, and serving customers who insist on having their salad dressing served “on the side” only so they can dump the whole thing on their salad three seconds after you deliver it.
I read somewhere that one out of five food service workers develops a drug or alcohol problem. I would bet the true percentage is higher. The food service industry is a hard life.
But our waitress was so cheery. It was as though she was glad to be there. You don’t see that a lot anymore.
After we ordered our breakfasts, she hollered in Waffle-House-speak to the cook using a perky voice. And when our breakfasts arrived, she obsessed over our plates, making sure our orders were correct. Our coffees never fell below the rims.
That’s when she started telling us about her family, and about her kids. She talked about her day-to-day life as a devoted mother.
I think she just needed to talk to someone because to me she suddenly seemed lonely and exhausted beneath her Pollyanna exterior.
Sadly, she picked the wrong group of roughnecks for morning conversation. None of my constituents felt like a discussion. Their responses were polite but short. Again: these are guys we’re talking about.
She finally gave up trying and left us. I could see her feelings were a little hurt by the lack of interest.
We finished eating in silence. One of the guys read his paper. Two of us buttered toast. Another played his scratch-off tickets like every morning.
Johnny Paycheck was on the jukebox. The sound of a flat-top grill hissed.
We savored the stillness because our whole day would be spent zipping up sheetrock, operating jigsaws, shouting to each other from different floors. Silence was a privilege afforded us infrequently.
But my friend James broke the stillness. “Hey!” he said, still using a penny to scratch his ticket. “Hey, look!”
We craned forward to see what he was grinning at.
“I won!” he said. “I can’t believe I actually won!”
“You’re a lie. How much?”
“I won three hundred bucks!”
“Gimme that ticket.”
This caused a stir among us. Manual laborers, you see, rarely win things like other members of society.
Journalists win awards. Hollywood actors win little golden naked-people statues. High-school kids are awarded athletic scholarships. Little-Leaguers win trophies. Men who wear tool belts win squat.
We passed around the winning ticket as if it were a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. He won. He actually won. Three hundred smackers. I almost wanted to cheer.
Truthfully, I’m not sure why I was excited. They weren’t my winnings. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a way that was not always hopeful. Maybe it was because from a young age I believed that the proverbial glass was not only half empty but filled with fertilizer.
Life is not easy for everyone; it certainly isn’t easy for those born on the wrong side of the status line.
But this lotto ticket. It was proof that ordinary people sometimes win. And if James could win, any one of us could.
We suddenly became as chatty as a flock of hens. Our silence had evaporated completely. James offered to buy everyone’s meal. We let him.
After breakfast we stood, tipped our waitress, left James standing at the cash register, and exited the restaurant into the drizzly gray Floridian morning.
We all turned to watch James pay our ticket through the plate glass windows. And what we saw was something I’ll never unsee.
We saw James hand the waitress cash. We saw him collect change. We saw him smile. Then we watched him reach into his pocket to remove a winning scratch-off ticket and give it to her. We all saw the young woman’s hand fly over her mouth. We all saw James blush.
And when James emerged onto the sidewalk, we were all cheesing so big it hurt our cheeks. One of us might have even picked some dust from our eyes. But nobody ever said a word about it. No. We kept very quiet.
Because, you see, that’s just how guys are.