Showing posts with label social distancing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label social distancing. Show all posts

21 May 2020

Tales From the Waffle House and other 24/7 Adventures


by Eve Fisher

Once upon a time in Hollywood - my Hollywood - I spent an awful lot of time with an old black bluesman named Solomon at a place called Ben Frank's on Sunset Boulevard.  I just looked it up, and it's listed on Rock and Roll Roadmaps, and it still exists, only now it's Mel's Drive-In.  (???)  But I liked it the way it was, a 24/7 place where Solomon and I could meet over coffee and cigarettes and sometimes a little food and endless conversation.  We often got kicked out, not because we were there too long - there was no such thing, at least not late at night - but because Solomon would have a tendency to eventually go off on a rap about how the only religion that embraced the full erotic aspect of God's love was Hinduism (and he waxed very poetic), and then hit on the waitress, who usually thought he was a dirty old man.  Maybe he was, but he was a damn good friend - in fact he saved my life one night at a place called the Free Church, which is a whole 'nother story, that maybe I'll tell another time.  And I love a good long conversation on something besides the weather and politics. 

That - and recovery from hangovers - is what 24/7 restaurants are for. 

Check out Waffle House.

Everyone who's ever lived in the South has eaten at Waffle House more times than they can count.  Open 24-7, there's no where else in many towns open at 3 AM where you can get coffee, breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  If they ever add beer to the menu, no one would ever leave.

The motley assortment of people at a Waffle House at any time must be seen to be believed - Sunday churchgoers and the local homeless all chowing down together - but there are those who only walk by night, and they know where they can come.  Granted, the glaring lighting and 3 sided floor-to-ceiling windows are hard on the hung over.  But that's the price you pay for pecan waffles and an accessible bathroom.

And then there's the floor show:  how many places, other than Benihana's, have their chefs in constant view of the clientele?   I've sat there many a time, feeling a little rocky, watching the master chefs of Waffle House flipping burgers, eggs, and hashbrowns all the while tapping, singing, dancing to the radio and/or joking with each other, flirting with the waitresses, and (in olden days) smoking like chimneys without dropping ash anywhere but the floor.  Amazing.

I remember when the local Waffle House in Bristol, TN was taken over by a Yankee manager.  The guy - young know-it-all type - came in and started giving everyone hell about all kinds of stuff.  Not that anyone was paying attention.  They figured he'd move on sooner or later, and if they had anything to do with it, it would be sooner.

"He wants me to go out and chip weeds in the parking lot," said our favorite late-night waitress.  "Now I ain't doin' that.  And I let him know it.  He said he'd fire me.  I said, when do you think I'm gonna find the time to do that?  He say, you can do it when things are quiet 'round here.  When does he think that is?  Four a.m., and it's pitch dark?  I'm not going out there.  And at five, all them people from the factory come in, they shift over, and I'm running the counter like my ass is on fire?  I don't think so."

Another order he gave - to our favorite day waitress - was that she quit putting raw rice in the salt-shakers.  "Where is that boy from, anyway?  Don't he know that if you don't put rice in the salt-cellars, they gonna turn into Lot's wife?  How else you gonna made that salt flow?  He ain't never been here in July or August, that's for damn sure.  You want your hash browns smothered and covered?"  Hell yes.

There was also the time when the carnival came to town, and apparently one of the carnies made off and made hay with the girlfriend of one of the cooks.  The cook didn't take it well, especially when the carnie showed up at the Waffle House for sustenance before the carnival took off on Monday morning.  Let's just say that no one was chipping weeds in the parking lot that day but the carnie, and it was mostly with his teeth, as the cook bounced him around the asphalt.

And there were always drug deals in the parking lot, the homeless / wino regulars taking a snooze in that back booth that's almost out of sight of the windows, the constant gossip, and the police who ignored all of it, because they wanted a pecan waffle, too.

And we were all snobbish with it.  A Waffle House in Wytheville, Virginia.  Everyone's smoking, including us.  It's raining outside.  Inside, a nice thick haze of cigarette smoke, frying onions, waffle batter, burgers, grease, and coffee.  Perfect.  A car pulls up outside, New York license plates, and a couple gets out.  They walk in, and the woman looks around and asks, "Where is the non-smoking section?"  The waitress didn't miss a beat:  "In New York City."  The couple left, and the entire restaurant clientele stood up and applauded.

Of course, I enjoyed 24/7 restaurants more back in the day when I was apt to be up and around 24/7.  (Now I consider 9 PM seriously late and generally don't answer telephone calls after 8.)  When I was in my early 20s in Atlanta, in between Waffle Houses, the go-to places were the Majestic Diner at Plaza Drugs and Doby's, both on Ponce De Leon.  (Photo at right thanks to GA State Library Digital Collections.)

Doby's Good Food restaurant exterior on Ponce de Leon, 1980Back then the Majestic was just known as Plaza Drugs, and was known for its drugged-up clientele.  We Doby's customers liked to think we were a little more normal, but come on, when you have people walking other people in on a leash at midnight, there's nothing normal going on.  Except for the fact that the walker and walkee were both just showing off.  But at least we knew it was abnormal, and we showed our disapproval by ignoring them, despite their doing everything they could to get our attention.  The waitress' attention.  Somebody's attention.  Anyone's attention.

NOTE:  The worst thing in the world is to be deliberately, flamboyantly shocking and depraved and have no one pay attention.  😉  That is the tragedy of adolescence - temporary or permanent - in a nutshell.

Anyway, I was a Doby's fan, because they had better food.  And it was cheap.  Back in the mid-70s, you could get a vegetable plate (four veg and cornbread or biscuit) for probably $2.00, and breakfast with meat for $2.75.  A 3-piece chicken dinner would run you about $3.25.  I remember this, because we were all poor, doing our starving artist thing in the Little Five Points and North Highlands areas.  Mary Mac's (which is still around) was too expensive for us.

But again, the real purpose of 24/7 restaurants is a place where a group of people could sit over coffee and conversation for hours.  Face to face, laughing, talking, gossiping, arguing, exchanging ideas and dreams, plans and artwork, for hours.  It was great. 

And I think that's what I'd have missed the most if I'd been born in, say, 1990-2000.

Because before the pandemic, the smart phone arrived and ate up the entire attention span of a multi-generational group that apparently had had enough of people, and wanted to spend all their time texting.  From grandmothers to kids, it's been all eyes and thumbs on screen, for years. 

So, why are they suddenly hungering for other people's live company?  I mean, we've all seen it:
  • the people in a restaurant, everyone on their own smartphone, no one talking;
  • the people in a park, on their smartphones, while their kids played and occasionally begged for their attention;
  • the people walking, on their smartphones, never looking up (one walked into our parked car at the grocery store a few years ago, looked at us, shook his head, stepped to the right, lowered his head, and kept going).
Smartphones destroyed riding on subways and buses.  The sights you used to see!  I'll never forget Rughead in Atlanta, who spent all day long riding MARTA, wearing the worst wig in the world, stapled to his head...  Or all the tags of conversation, which I would note down in my little scribble book.  "Ain't no way I'm gonna tell my sponsor everything, even if I am working my program.  I'm not going to prison, even for my sobriety."

Smartphones destroyed the old coffee shops.  Starbucks is simply a vendor of hot liquid; nobody sits and talks there, they're on their tablets or smartphones or laptops, but no one talks.  And coffee shops, from the 1600s on, were all about talk.  That's what they were for.  Ask Samuel Johnson.

Anyway, you'd think the smartphone crowd - like the militia / survivalist types - would be the last people to be bugging out during this time of social distancing.  But no.  Joni  Mitchell was right.  "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."



Maybe some day we'll all get talking again.  And make some new tales to boot.

Stay well, stay safe, stay home.

Meanwhile, Blatant BSP:

Check out stories by yours truly:

"Brother's Keeper" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

"Pentecost"  in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin, editor

"Embraced"  in Startling Sci-Fi.

Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond (The NEW Series Book 3) by [Adam Sass, M. P. Diederich, Eve Fisher, Mike Algera, Brian T. Hodges, Charlotte Unsworth, Jhon Sanchez, Scott Lambridis, Stefanie Masciandaro, Casey Ellis]AHM_MayJun2020_400x570



13 April 2020

Spare Time and Spare Parts


by Steve Liskow

We all need to fill much too much spare time right now, but social distancing is easier for a writer because it's part of our life anyway. Unfortunately, I may have domesticated Zach Barnes and Woody Guthrie too much and fear that I'll turn them into family sitcoms, so, for the first time since 2003, I have no novels in progress. I have a few ideas for short stories and a novella, but a few weeks ago I turned to the Nostalgia Plan, AKA Recycling 101.

I store pretty much everything I cut on flash drives or external hard drives: a line of dialogue or description, scenes I cut from novels or short stories, an interesting character, projects I abandoned, and even stories rejected so often I ran out of places to send them. I cannibalize enough to make it worthwhile.

I published Blood on the Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, in 2013, but I wrote the first version of that story late in 2003. In various forms, revisions, and under at least four titles, the book(s) received over 110 rejections.

Sifting through the wreckage, I found a complete MS called The Cheater, an earlier version of what eventually saw print. Between 2006 and 2008, I pitched it to 58 agents. Interestingly, three of them asked for a full MS, another asked for 100 pages, and two others asked for 50 pages or the first three chapters. They all turned it down, usually without comment, but one with the kind of rejection that makes writers crazy: "You're a good writer and there's a lot to like here, but I can't sell this."

No further explanation.

Eleven years later, I still don't know why that MS was rejected, but I suspect that it was because I changed genre in mid-story. The premise was that the PI who would later become Woody Guthrie met Megan Traine at their high school reunion and they teamed up to solve a murder that involved one of the their classmates. Alcoholism and domestic abuse were important themes, and I suspect agents freaked when the cozy went south.

A few weeks ago, I went through the book again. I even found two pages of revision notes from 2010, when I considered revising that 78K-word story for my then-publisher, who had a 70K-word limit.

The cozy high school reunion idea is autobiographical. I met the inspiration for Megan Traine at my own reunion. Although we graduated together (Our class graduated 691 students), we never met in school, and she became a session musician in Detroit. The reunion idea was the crux of several versions of the book, but I finally decided that was the problem and abandoned it for Blood on the Tracks. 

The Cheater, which I also sent out twice as Alma Murder, presented another problem. The PI was from Connecticut and his name was Erik Morley, but Megan Traine was constant through all  versions of the book. Her character deepened, but changed very little between 2003 and her real debut ten years later. I figured if I put her in Detroit with a different lover, she'd look a little slutty, so I decided to change her name and background. The plot would still work, and I liked the POV of the classmate, a woman accused of killing her abusive husband. She was a lawyer and a functioning alcoholic. So much for the cozy, right?

I studied my revision notes, revised them some more, added new ideas, and rewrote about 40 pages of the book. I changed Megan Traine's name and background and cut all the music scenes from earlier versions (Erik Morley still played guitar, another constant with Woody and one of the few things he had in in common with me).

It was like sticking my hand into a garbage disposal.

The more I read, the more I realized that Meg and music generated some of the best scenes in that book. Changing her would force me to re-write or cut parts that gave all the characters more depth.

Fourteen years ago, I loved the book and the characters and we were a team. The rewriting. . . not so much. It became a chore instead of a passion. I stuck it out for about three weeks, then remembered the advice all doctors have at the top of the list.

First, do no harm.

I was mutilating something I loved and the changes would make it different, but not better. I decided to leave the book alone.

Maybe I'll publish it someday as an eBook, and UR-version of Blood on the Tracks. If I do, Alma Murder still works as a title. Or, maybe, I'll just leave it sleeping on the hard drive where it's happy.

I was surprised that a 14-year-old MS still felt like I actually knew what I was doing. Now, the biggest change would be a global edit to replace the double-space after end punctuation. And maybe to eliminate a few semi-colons.  I have several short stories on that same disc that don't merit reworking. I guess this particular story was more important to me.

Samuel Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason other than money. But sometimes money's not enough, either. Sometimes we do it for love.


What do you have in your closet?