It was 12:21 a.m. There were no restaurants open in Fairhope at this untoward hour.
Unless, of course, you counted Sonic Drive-In. And if I wanted the joyous experience of dining in my vehicle, I could save time by dumping boiling grease into my lap.
So it was Waffle House.
I stepped into the surgically chilled air of America’s greatest eatery and found my usual seat.
Waffle House dining rooms are predominantly designed the same way. A Waffle House in Benson, North Carolina, for example, is set up just like the one in Albuquerque.
So I always choose the same seat. I always select the leftmost seat at the very end of the bar. Back of the house. Nearest the refrigerators. Against the window.
I sit here for two reasons. One, because the air conditioners at Waffle House will freeze your vital organs. Two, the air vents can’t reach you back here.
Tonight, our grill-person was named Larry. He was tall, with Rosie Greer shoulders and a perpetual smile.
I asked what he was smiling about.
“Oh, I always smile,” he said.
I asked why.
He shrugged his granite shoulders. “Customers need to feel like they’s at home.”
Larry is a relatively young guy. At least he seems young to me.
He recently suffered a heart attack. The cardiac event was so bad that his doctors weren’t sure how much destruction had been done. They placed him in a medically induced coma to reduce damage to his brain.
Life came to a standstill. His family went into a kind of half mourning. If you’ve ever had a family member in a coma, it’s exactly like going to hell, only with more vending machine food.
Larry survived his heart attack with almost no lingering effects. One week after he left the hospital, he was back at the grill, cooking.
“Cooking is what I do,” he said, flipping eggs with a gentle turn of his wrist.
Larry has been cooking since he was a child. He was knee high to an range stove when he learned the dark art of gastronomy.
“My mama was a cook,” he said. “She was a country girl from Mississippi, taught me everything she knew.
“I’d be in the kitchen with her, watching her do her thing, and I just sort of started cooking. I like to feed people.”
Not long after his heart attack, Larry had another major medical event. He had a stroke.
The stroke occurred on the left side of his brain, which temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body.
Not long after his first bouts of physical therapy, he was right here again. Scattering, smothering, chunking, topping, dicing and covering.
It’s taken Larry some time to get back into the swing of things since his stroke. He’s had to coax his arm muscles and hands into moving again. But he’s done the work. And he’s here.
If you met him, you’d never suspect this giant man had ever suffered a major cerebrovascular event.
I asked how Larry has managed to overcome some much.
“Cooking, man,” he said. “I come to work, I stand right here, I use my hands, I make good food.
“I meet people. I entertain customers by being happy and friendly. That’s what saved me. I just keeping going.”
His 10-year-old daughter loves to watch him cook at home. She stands in the kitchen and watches her mild-mannered father transform into Renoir with a spatula. He’s teaching her the family tradition.
Larry’s eyes become pink when he starts talking about his daughter.
He told me his girl wants to be a doctor someday. Then he said, “She’s my everything, man. I’ll do whatever it takes to make her a doctor, if that’s what she wants.”
When my food is ready, he slides a steaming plate in front of me. I can see Larry flexing his right fist, trying to persuade feeling back into it.
“One thing I know,” said Larry, “God won’t never give you more than you can handle.
“I gone through heart attacks, strokes, lost my mama to a bad disease. But I’m still here. God must got a purpose for me.”
I asked Larry what he thinks that purpose is.
He points to the flat top. “I’m here to do what I’m doing. Cooking is love. This is how I love people.”
If you ever pass through Fairhope, and you’re feeling hungry, find Larry.
Let him love you.
And if you feel like it, maybe return the favor.