Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Waysider

We were told we had to eat there. It was the cheese grits, the kitten-shaped pancakes for children, the fluffy biscuits, the red-eye gravy and center-cut ham steaks crowding out the dish of poached eggs, the bottomless cups of strong coffee and tall, beaded glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

In the fall of that year, I wasn't so sure that waiting on line for nearly an hour just to enter the Waysider for its locally famous breakfast was worth the hooey. We stood outside as the brutal morning sun, already yanking the thermometer on the side of the bank building into the hundreds, beat down on us.

The place was on Greensboro Avenue, a family-run diner opened in 1951 in a converted Victorian house butting against the busy rails of the Southern railroad line, where the Crescent took Yankees through Tuscaloosa, over the rolling countryside to Memphis on the river, down to the city of New Orleans. You could drive past the Waysider any number of times without seeing the small Alabama-crimson-and-white sign or the sudden turn to the driveway where hackberries jut into narrow parking lanes. (At the end of your breakfast, there would be leaves and bird droppings all over your car).

Word is that coach Bear Bryant himself was once a frequent diner, helping himself to the endless refils of coffee and plate after plate of hot, feather-light biscuits. Certainly the walls surrounding the two dining areas that held the 15 tables were covered with Bamabilia, photos of the football team, of white Southern families of local note, pictures of Tuscaloosa when cotton wagons and horse buggies rolled along the dusty streets.

And so you stood for upwards of two hours on some Sunday mornings to take one of the 15 tables, browsing through The New York Times or The Tuscaloosa News, depending on your cultural bandwidth, mopping up the sweat that trickled down your neck, wondering if the wait was worth the worry. Southerners lined up in their Sunday best, just arriving from services, men in light-colored summer suits and women with flowers in their bonnets, bibles in hand, and their youngsters squirming in the heat.

Once inside, you sighed in the sudden chill and the heady swirl of fresh coffee and bacon in air. You could take your newspaper with you, but it made the tiny space on your table even more challenging, with the immediate arrivals of iced water, orange juice, and coffee, and the first round platter of biscuits. When a writer like Margaret Atwood or Tobias Wolff came to town, you took them to the Waysider during the week, when the wait was brief. But the food somehow tasted better on Sunday morning, with reverent people chattering at the tables and dabbing napkins into the glass of ice water to pat away morsels of biscuits or grits from their lips.

The biscuits had no specific density and went down like buttery puffs of joy, until you realized you had eaten too many of them. Still, the waitress, frenzied between the packed tables, came back with a bright smile, a pot of coffee, and a fresh plate of biscuits seconds from the oven. You could dip them in your red eye gravy, in your coffee, or smear them with fresh strawberry preserves, put one up your nose, another under an armpit, and a half dozen in your purse or backpack for later. You had sex with them at the table, toasting your triumph with another cup of coffee before rolling into them again.

And on such a Sunday in the fall, days before Ronald Reagan was to make his only campaign visit to an American college campus--choosing Tuscaloosa for its ardent reborn conservatism and Saturday church of football--we were talking about him. I blamed him for all the resurgent woes of neanderthal behavior: the burning of a cross on campus to protest a Black sorority, the dangling of the Stars and Bars from a house on Bryant Drive, the huge American flags flown from masts erected in the beds of passing pickup trucks--all responsible somehow for the moronic utterances by the students in my Introduction to American Literature class.

My girlfriend Diana was giving me The Look. Self-justified, I rolled right through the red light; on I went, egged ever into my glory by too much coffee, pent-up vitriol from centuries of pogroms and disenfranchisement, and in the midst of my tirade I had said something along the lines of "That Fuckdog Reagan" with the delight and amperage that a Bama cheerleader might have uttered, "We're gonna beat the hell out of you!"

The waitress stopped filling my bottomless cup and went on to more deserving tables. My sweetheart looked down at the grits hardening in her plate. All about us the room fell silent as the congregation eyed the brute Yankee at his bloody hate pulpit, spewing negativity in what had moments ago been a sanctuary of gentility and well-intentioned words measured out in spoonfulls from a sugar bowl.

"Guess breakfast's over," I said.

"Guess so," said Diana.

It was not the first time I had diminished her by my outbursts, but it was nearing the last. I could see that now she had moved into new territory where she had unalterably decided on something that did not include my company. We left the Waysider, giving room to people who had waited as long as we had for the opportunity to come in out of the sun, and then, driving home in the ruthless, animal heat of the afternoon, I had become a Yankee writer who had temporarily run out of bright things to say.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

I'm very much in tune with this one. I've just been lucky enough that my person never left me, even though I still embarrass her. Well, she gave up being embarrassed.

Char said...

I'm loving the stories from my home state. This one really hit home.

tangobaby said...

I had to read this twice. First I was lolling around in the dreams of what those biscuits and grits must have tasted like because I've only had grits from a Waffle House outside of Atlanta.

But then I went back and read the rest. I know you're a smart and passionate individual, and with that personality comes an understanding. I happen to love people who have something to say, even if they don't always express themselves at the most opportune times. I appreciate that you care more than you self-censor. Although I'm glad you didn't get the tar beat out of you for it.