WaffleHouse, 5:00 AM on Saturday. I'm on my way to do trailwork in the mountains for the morning - cutting the deadfall off of Fore Mountain Trail down near Douthat State Park, so I'm up early and I need breakfast. And it happens to be the morning after prom. I didn't realize that until I walked in, but here we are. The place looks like a mushroom and feta omelette blew up somewhere around the middle of the room, and as the night has worn on and people have come and gone, they've halfheartedly dropped napkins at the mess without bending over. The girls are long gone, apparently, but three 18ish year-old boys are in a corner booth, the broken down aftereffects of a long and mischievous prom night playing out it's final hour, and one of them keeps shuffling from his booth back to the jukebox and putting on King Missile's "Detachable Penis" from the early 90's, long before he was born.
Detachable Penis is apparently hilarious if you're an 18 year-old boy on the tail end of prom night, which is at it should be, I guess. Over and over again, Detachable Penis. One of them knows all the words and can run through the whole bizarre monologue, and he doesn't hesitate to do so while another one, though clearly a little drunk, is trying to talk the girl behind the counter into giving him a job. My "salesperson" Kelli as her name tag reads - and I use the term "SalesPerson" very loosely, because at this hour of the night at Waffle House the menu pretty much sells itself - has a tattoo on the inside of her forearm: it's a bird cage, with the door open. The door is open, but there's no bird anywhere to be found, and I wonder what that means.
This is the length of the economic divide our country finds itself in - just how wide it yawns these days - and we're playing it out in a little vignette in real time. If the kids will just pay their bill, I assume Kelli can finish up and go home for the night, which technically will be the day. But she has to wait for these kids to wear themselves out first, to pay her, which is taking longer than she might have suspected. I'm at the very edge of this scene, pushing 40 years old - decades older, and certainly an entire sleep cycle ahead of these people - on my way to recreation the likes of which I don't suppose they care about.
For hours, I will climb up Fore Mountain with a chainsaw, brusher, rogue hoe, and spend an enormous amount of time, energy, money, effort, and consideration on what to cut and what not to cut - and what I'm doing is not even recreation - not yet. I am preparing to recreate. A month from now, 50 of my buddies and I want to race down this descent on $5,000 mountain bikes as fast as we can, and cleaning it up now is a way we've found to enhance the experience. So I'm doing all of this now, 100 miles from home, to have more fun on a vacation that I will take with my white, middle-upper class friends later. White Privilege, one might surmise, is spending an entire day preparing to vacation.
The Birdcage tattoo haunts me though. If the door is open, did the bird already fly the cage and is so far away as to not even be visible at this time? Is it, for example, on her back somewhere? Or was it never even there? Has the bird just not arrived yet? Is she two paychecks from finally being able to add the bird to the tattoo which, if you're reading the story at its most literal, represents getting away from whatever nightshift waitress paycheck situation she's in to begin with? She stands there, watching these three teenagers, not that much younger than her but also WAY younger than her, and she's basically a statue but not quite. I can't help but think she represents something. She fidgets, naturally. It's 5 AM, and she's out of cigarettes, so she bums a smoke from the guy on the grill, who is frying me a skillet of bacon, eggs, hash browns, and cheese that probably carries in the neighborhood of 3,000 heart-stopping or mountain-climbing calories, you choose, and she steps out back for a bit, and I never see her again.
"Prom night," the grill man shoots me a wink and sets the huge plate of shit down in front of me, and suddenly I'm in on this, if only for a few minutes at 5 AM when pretty much everyone who is awake off of exit 94, regardless of your pursuit, converges at The Waffle House. To love the mountain, I have found at times, is also to love its people.
"Pay your bills" the grill man tells the kids.
Kid #1 feeds the jukebox and selects Detachable Penis for what has to be the 10th time in the last hour.
"Pay your bills," he tells the kids again.
Kid #2 says hire him and he'll liven the place up. I'm sure he's right about that.
"Pay your bills, Please." the grill man tries this time.
When I leave, the full moon is setting in the West and there's just a hint of pink in the sky behind me, and those kids are still sitting in the corner booth.