“Sit wherever you want, sweetie,” the Waffle House waitress said.
I slid into my booth. Alan Jackson was singing overhead about the Chattahoochee. Birmingham traffic was whizzing outside the plate glass.
My waitress was Latina. She was older, but energetic, with the face of a cherub.
“What’re we drinking, hon?”
I told her.
She gave me a few seconds to look at the menu. But reading the menu took me a while; I was exhausted. Recently, my wife and I have been traveling back and forth between Florida and Birmingham, preparing for an upcoming move.
Over the last few weeks, we have been packing our entire Floridian lives into tiny boxes, and we’re about to move those boxes 263 miles north.
“Know what you wanna eat?” said the waitress.
“Eggs and hashbrowns,” said I.
She made a note. “Want anything done to your hashbrowns?”
“Yes. I want them drowning in enough grease to clog a municipal drainage pipe.”
“Wheat or white?”
“The kind I’m not supposed to eat.”
She smiled and wrote on her notepad. The waitress welcomed a few more patrons into the establishment. Then she tucked her pen into her apron and looked at me.
“You been traveling a long way today?” she asked.
“Why, do I look that haggard?”
“No. Not haggard just… A little droopy.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“Listen, hon, at my age, it’s either droopy or it don’t work anymore.”
The woman then recited my order to the cook. She read it in that wonderful Waffle-House language all servers use.
Long ago, I used to work as a short order cook in a breakfast joint. They made us wear a white paper cap known as the “confidence killer.” My favorite part of the gig was when waitresses would call out orders in diner-speak.
WAITRESS: “Alright, boneheads! Gimme Adam and Eve on a raft with some bad breath and one cup’a mud! And I need it yesterday, jerk-wads!”
TRANSLATION: Two eggs on toast, extra onions, and one coffee. Thank you, gentlemen.
While I was thinking about this, it dawned on me that the experience I just described, working as a cook, happened in Florida. Because all my memories happened in my home state. And now I’m leaving them behind.
Moreover, moving states means I’m leaving behind a lifetime of friends. Will I make new friends in Birmingham? Do guys my age make new friends?
Most of the friends I’ve made, I made when I was a young pup. But it’s not nearly as easy to make friends when you’re a middle-aged guy whose idea of a wild night is eating dinner past 4:30.
After a few minutes, the waitress arrived with my plate. She placed it before me. She turned to leave, but I asked her to stay.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question, ma’am?”
The woman leaned onto the faux-wood divider and nudged the bill of her visor upward, Will Rogers style. “Ask away.”
“Well, it’s just, I’m new in town, and I’ve never actually lived in a big city before. I guess I’m a little nervous about it all. How do you like living here in Birmingham?”
She took a few moments to think about her answer.
“Well,” she finally said, “I’ve lived here for forty years. Lotta people will poormouth Birmingham, but they’re all wrong. It’s a great town.
“I moved here from Texas when I got outta high school. My boyfriend got a job here and I came with him. I was pretty scared about leaving home. Was afraid I wouldn’t fit in.”
“So what happened?”
“What happened is, as soon as we got here, my boyfriend found a girl wearing a much shorter skirt. He left me. I was stuck in this city on my own with an infant daughter.”
She looked at her hands.
“But it was God who brought me here. God had my back the whole way. Birmingham turned out to be a great place to raise my kids. Great place to live. Met my husband here, we’ve been together a long time.”
The cook joined our conversation. He was a large man with his hair braided into cornrows and two prodigious arms made of granite.
“I grew up here,” he said. “Listen, our city’s had its ups and downs, sure. But what city don’t? This is a great place with great people.
“I tried moving away to Saint Louis when I was in my twenties, just to see what it was like. Man, it sucked. I couldn’t get home fast enough. I like to think of Birmingham as a really big small town.”
“Yeah,” said the waitress. “That’s a good way to put it. It’s a big small town. I think you’ll like it here.”
The cook smiled and said, “And just think about it like this, dude. If you worried about making friends, you just made two right here.”
They’re okay in Birmingham.