I hesitate when Roxanne asks me where I’m from. Around here, I get asked that a lot: grey beard, braided ponytail and red tennies – I don’t really quite fit in. Around here, people my age tend to look a little more serious: rumpled camo fatigues of senior mil staff away from the base, or the crisp dark slacks and embroidered polo that defense contractors seem to prefer. But the defense contractors here – they’re on expense, and I can’t imagine they’d be caught dead in The Waffle House.
I decide to give her the easy answer: “I guess I’m from California now.”
She smiles in a matronly way that seems natural for a woman of her age and position. “Nothing wrong with that, dear” and tells me the story of her younger brother Joe, who at 63 ran off to the Philippines with a girl less than half his age. I’m not sure I see the connection, but the telling is worth the tale. And I’m all about stories. When she finishes, she perches with her coffee pot, unsure how to handle a customer who only drinks water; but then a call comes from grill – order up – and she’s back to attending other customers.
I find something deeply fulfilling about being among strangers somewhere other than “where I’m from”, wherever that is, and I’m enjoying this place immensely. It’s the Waffle House on Northhampton Road in Norfolk, Virginia. Next door to the Oceans East Tackle Shop (“Because Fish Deserve Choices”) and Double Tap Military Surplus, it draws from the heart of the city’s working class military families.
Roxanne brings a pair of plates piled high with hash browns and eggs to the young couple across the gap in the counter. The girl is in fatigues, light brown face beaming with enthusiasm over something, while her boyfriend (I assume) listens intently and earnestly. Behind them, at the table, an elderly woman with hair that would inspire David Lynch sits quietly across from her husband, fussing over packets of sugar. There’s a mix here: white and black, young and old, military and… I don’t know. Working class. Yeah, we all work, but I get the idea that these folks have to work a bit harder for their breakfast than I do.
Mary brings me the hash browns, toast and eggs I’ve ordered. She’s about Roxanne’s age, with an air of Sally Field’s bliss-amid-chaos about her. Sitting at the counter, I’ve been watching her balance three plates while pirouetting past her younger, lumbering would-you-like-fries-with-that counterparts. A couple of times, our eyes have met, and she’s given me wincing “you know what it’s like” smiles.
“Anything else I can get you, my friend?”
She pats me on the back and says “I’ll be right back,” returning with a bottle pilfered from a table by the window.
A few minutes later, Roxanne comes by again to check up on me. Everything has a substantial layer of butter on it – the eggs, toast and hash browns, but it’s good, it’s all good. The two of them are checking up on me more than I’d expect, and I find myself thinking that everyone here is a regular; I, being the oddball, am adding some spice to the mix. As they are adding to mine, I realize. Part of why I like being here is how different everyone is from back home. And how, by reaching out and having these unimportant little conversations, we’re touching on the common humanity we share. Sure, I’ll bet if we started talking politics or religion, things might come off the rails pretty quickly – you can always find differences. But the things we share so outweigh the things we don’t – if we only remind ourselves – that being places like this, here and now, leave me feeling connected and grounded in a way that’s hard to understand.
Mary brings the check – $3.89 – and says she hopes I’ll stop by again. I tell her I hope I will, and leave a two dollar tip. It’s a small price to pay for a refill on my faith that we really can all get along.