Last night I walked from my hotel to the Waffle House for dinner. It’s an interesting location. Adjacent to the ocean in Biloxi, it’s built up off the ground. The only one I’ve ever seen built on stilts.
Hurricanes Camille and Katrina made a lasting impression on the locals.
The restaurant is decorated for Mardi Gras. Purple, gold and green garland drape the building and inside, there’s a Mardi Gras tree adorned with masks and ribbon. Quite festive. The only thing missing is customers.
Walking in, I startle the three workers sitting in booths playing on their cellphones.
A thin, pale, heavily tattooed woman gets up and walks toward me.
“Come on in. Please order one of everything before we die of boredom.”
I decide to sit at the counter in case they’re looking for someone to talk with, and soon after, a second waitress sets me up and strikes up a conversation.
“Whatcha havin’ honey?”
“Oh, how ‘bout a patty melt with hash browns?”
“Bacon on that melt?”
“Bacon or cheese mixed in with the hash browns.”
At this point it dawns on me that everything my doctor had instructed me to watch in my diet, other than Old Fashioned’s with Makers Mark, was back on the table. I was about to embark on a grease and sugar fest that would surely send my gastrointestinal tract into full revolt within the half hour. Maybe within 15 minutes. But I have an odd feeling that fate brought me to the Waffle House and that something more profound than irritable bowel syndrome or cardiac disease was about to take hold.
While the punk rock chick prepares my lard laced delicacies, my waitress wastes no time in starting a conversation. She explains this isn’t her store, but that she got called in to help for the night. I wonder why since there’s no one in the place. She goes on to explain that her husband also works at Waffle House, the one up the highway where you see all the car dealerships.
I have no idea where that is or even if it matters, but I nod my head as if I understand what she’s talking about.
The third waitress chimes in, “You’re too young to be married.”
“No, I’m twenty. That’s plenty old.”
My waitress states that she has three children, and the oldest is 5. I quickly do the simple math in my head.
“Wow. I bet you and your husband are working your butts off.”
“Yeah, I work a lot of doubles.”
“Who keeps the kids?”
“Must be tough making ends meet.”
“Yeah, we got behind on the rent. We’re supposed to pay it weekly and got behind, but they’re letting us catch up ten dollars extra per week.”
I now feel a deep sadness for this person. How on earth can they make it working at the Waffle House with three kids? What sort of life will their children have with parents that probably have limited educations or chances in a sink or swim capitalist society ? What sort of anxiety does she deal with on a daily basis?
I have some idea, because I was once a young parent on a limited income. I remember the stress. Wondering how I’d pay the utility bill, feed my children and pay for healthcare. But I also knew my life would improve. I had the benefit of a good education and was just beginning to build my career. This family probably never thinks in those terms. It’s just survive, day to day.
She brings the bill, and I hand her my credit card.
“Do you need a receipt?”
“Yes. I need to tip you.”
The bill was $9.23. I run the math through my head. Twenty percent would be around $1.80, but what sort of human being would leave such a paltry tip for a person that’s suffering? The money she needs to pay her past due rent is a pittance to me, so I decide to help her with the debt. I briefly consider the fact she could be playing me, but decide it doesn’t matter. So what. She’s working in a Waffle House. Add the zeros.
Then she picks up the receipt, walks to the register and glances down at the paper in her hand. She starts to cry. The cooks walks over to her, looks at the paper in her hand and then looks at me. She tilts her head toward her shoulder and smiles.
I say goodbye and tell them that we all need help from time to time. I say that one day they’ll do the same for someone else although I know it’s not likely they’ll be in that position. I hope they will, but have serious doubts.
But I don’t feel any sense of personal achievement as I walk back to my hotel. I know it’s just money. An easily renewable resource, and that I’ve done far too little. The money I spend stuffing my face with elaborate dinners (the Waffle House aside) could go to helping someone that can’t even eat dinner. I live too well and should be ashamed.
I feel anger. I’m angry that we live in a system where so many people scrape by and constantly live in fear of job loss, homelessness or the ability to get adequate medical care. Why affordable healthcare is such a moonshot for Americans. Why our schools fail young people. I decide there’s a way out of this mess, but there’s not enough will. Too much apathy, selfishness and lip-service Christianity. Too many people just don’t give a tinker’s damn.
I decide our most noble pursuit should be the end of suffering. Human and non-human. All human actions deserve scrutiny. Does the action contribute to suffering, does it alleviate it or is it neutral?
We should ask ourselves that question each day. Especially the privileged.
I start to recall something a well-known preacher in Memphis once said. He’d preached thousands of sermons over a long career to thousands of people. As a teenager, I didn’t listen to preachers too much. Still don’t. But one thing he said, probably around 1979, stuck with me. He said for most people it’s just “get all you can, can all you get and to hell with the rest.”
Ain’t that the ugly truth.
Some say the poor will always be with us. And to that I say, yes, but only because we allow it.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).
Amen to that.