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 halfcocked 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 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 here. You don’t see that much 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 toolbelts 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.
Sandi. - March 18, 2021 7:25 am
This is the kind of feel-good story most of us relish. I hope James’ generous, unselfish act was repaid to him ten-fold in the weeks that followed. For certain the waitress never forget his kindness.
Joe Dorough - March 18, 2021 8:19 am
Big tippers bring so much happiness to waitresses that once they leave work they have to start another shift at home! I love to see them cry! With joy!
Marilyn Ward Vance - March 18, 2021 8:36 am
Leigh Amiot - March 18, 2021 8:52 am
A good read.
Not everything that I read online leave me smiling many moments later.
Tammy S. - March 18, 2021 10:18 am
Well now, that was a real good one! It truly is more blessed to give than to receive. Thanks for the reminder, Sean. Just beautiful!!
“In every way I’ve shown you that by laboring like this, it is necessary to help the weak and to keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, for He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ””
Acts 20:35 HCSB
Bill in Montgomery - March 18, 2021 10:36 am
Thanks for another feel-good story. I need it as I now start reading the morning newspaper. You’re the best!
Dean - March 18, 2021 10:41 am
Thanks for the smile this morning. Helps get my day off to a better start. Bless guys like James that help other people
Jack - March 18, 2021 11:07 am
Read every morning from the Pacific Northwest. Good for this southern boy’s soul. Thank you Sean! Beautiful story.
Pondcrane - March 18, 2021 11:08 am
“Filled with fertilizer” your a gem:)
Pondcrane - March 18, 2021 11:09 am
Jane - March 18, 2021 11:09 am
Bless you James………….ah, yes He did, I’m sure of it. That blessing was turned back to you many times!
JANET WILLIAMS - March 18, 2021 11:37 am
I love the way you consistently find and share the good in our world!
Susan - March 18, 2021 12:21 pm
I look forward to reading your post every day. Thanks so much for your words. It’s great to hear there is still kind hearts out there.
Lisa Weir - March 18, 2021 12:25 pm
Your stories could be country songs, Sean. At the heart of America are some of the best stories that have been made into country songs. This is not an attempt to upstage you because that’s impossible, but something I want to share with your readers who might have never heard this song. I feel like we fans of yours are kindred spirits because we love what you write. If I’m right, they will love this: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lgMd7WPDXZI
Sandi. - March 18, 2021 12:36 pm
Lisa Weir, sincere thanks for the link to this beautiful song with its important, memorable, heartfelt message. Listening to it brought tears to my eyes and touched my soul.
Pat - March 18, 2021 3:37 pm
Lisa Weir, thank you so much for the link to this song! I didn’t see the very end coming but God does work in mysterious ways.
pdjpop - March 18, 2021 12:43 pm
Penn Wells - March 18, 2021 12:50 pm
Yes. That’s all. Just… YES.
Laura - March 18, 2021 1:17 pm
You guys may not have been doing much talking but James was obviously listening to that waitress talk about her life and that is even more important.
claireaporter - March 18, 2021 1:30 pm
Awesome true story……we cross the paths of certain people as we walk through life for a purpose. A blessing to read this in the midst of so much “YUK” and negativity going on in our country.
Cynthia Russell - March 18, 2021 1:46 pm
Thank You for this Blessing to my Heart!!
Teresa Rains - March 18, 2021 2:24 pm
Yes, I’m wiping tears from my eyes. Jesus is always touching hearts!
Phil (Brown Marlin) - March 18, 2021 2:31 pm
Hooray for James! I love WH, too, but haven’t been in one since the you-know-what started a year ago. Late one night years ago in South AL a friend and I stopped at a WH after fishing pier lights for specks and reds. Our waitress was cute and sweet, but shy. I ordered some kind of “special” and asked her if I could sub grits for hashbrowns. She glanced at the cook who was grumbling over the griddle and replied, “I-i-i doubt it, but I-I-I will check.” She then asked the cook who never looked up as he screamed, “NO!!”
I could tell she was embarrassed and a bit scared of the guy, so I grinned and said, “No problem, hashbrowns will be fine.”
We didn’t tip her $300, but we for sure gave her a lot more than normal. My parting shot was, “You are a wonderful waitress. Tell the cook I hope he has a nice day.”
JACKIE LEON DARNELL - March 18, 2021 2:38 pm
Love it, GOOD stuff!
Linda - March 18, 2021 2:47 pm
This story touched my heart as do many of your writings. A few years ago, my husband and I stopped in a Tolbert’s, a Texas chili parlor. Our waitress was efficient, but she seemed tired and sad. As our meal came to an end, I took a scrap piece of paper out of my purse and wrote he a thank you note. “Thank you for being our server today. We appreciate you keeping our iced tea glasses filled especially with the spicy chili. This small jester made our meal much more pleasant. Even if no one notices, you do make a difference. Thank you again”. My husband left some cash on the table for the check and excused himself to the men’s room. While he was gone, the waitress came to the table. I gave her the money and note, telling her we didn’t require any change. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her as she read the little note. I saw her stand up straighter and smile. She came back to the table as we were leaving and told us how much she appreciated the note and it made her day. She gave us both the biggest hug. Since then I have left notes every time we go out to eat.
Kate - March 18, 2021 2:58 pm
Thank you again for reminding us there is much more good than bad in this world.
Iris Hamlin - March 18, 2021 3:18 pm
There are good and generous people everywhere and despite what we see on TV and what the media serves up everyday, you don’t have to look far to find them. You are my daily source of inspiration. I appreciate and love you, Sean. Thank you.
Tom Wallin - March 18, 2021 3:27 pm
God bless James! Thanks for sharing your story with us.
Jan - March 18, 2021 3:43 pm
Love this beautiful story!
Pat - March 18, 2021 3:44 pm
My mother always told me that if I did something nice for someone, just do it and keep your mouth shut about it. And one of my favorite quotes…”It ain’t charity if you gotta brag about”.
Linda Moon - March 18, 2021 5:49 pm
When I was a young girl I suddenly became very ill. My mama didn’t own a car, so our Preacher drove Mama and me to the hospital. Soon after arriving there, I fell into a coma that lasted for three days. When I awoke, my Daddy was beside my bed. I was hungry for breakfast food, so Daddy walked into town pre-Waffle House days to get some bacon and eggs for me. His actions spoke louder than any words could’ve ever said. Sometimes you quiet guys are just wonderful! The Preacher and My Daddy were.
Nancy M - March 18, 2021 5:51 pm
That was sweet and tender and heartwarming. I look forward to reading your column every day. We like Waffle House too but haven’t been there in a year. Fob James used to brag about Waffle House when he was governor of Alabama several years ago.
I like my salad dressing on the side, too, because I use very little. No matter how much I stress “just a little, a *very* little!” I always get too much. That’s why I get it on the side.
Thank you for writing every day, Sean. It means so much to so many of us!
MAM - March 18, 2021 6:36 pm
I just had to pick dust out of my eyes. And yes, some guys are just like that. I and the daughter of silent man and I’m married to one, but when either spoke or speaks, one listens! Me, the garrulous one, they simply ignore. 🙂
MAM - March 18, 2021 6:38 pm
I AM the daughter of…. Should always proof – ALWAYS!
Christina - March 18, 2021 10:40 pm
Kindness rocks! And silence is ok.
Bob Brenner - March 18, 2021 11:44 pm
What a heartwarming story ❤️!
Carolyn Sue Rhodus - March 19, 2021 1:24 am
Five Stars on this one ! Mr. Dietrich !
Julie - March 19, 2021 3:27 am
As soon as I read that your waitress’s feelings were hurt by the lack of interest from your group of guys, I KNEW one of you was going to make it up to her with a big tip!
She worked so hard to give you great service, and shared some of her personal life. How could you not feel her loneliness and exhaustion?
Then when James got a winning lotto ticket, I KNEW without a doubt that he would give it to the waitress!
Underneath that quiet exterior, you guys all have big hearts. James gave joy, and he got joy back…his blushing confirms that❣️
Suzi - March 19, 2021 4:35 pm
Once again humanity wins, God Bless you James
Chris - March 25, 2021 4:25 am
This made my day. I had to pick a little dust from my eye.