Friday, February 24, 2006

All I know about life, I learned at the Waffle House

In one of his programs, motivational speaker and guru Zig Ziglar tells his listeners that he thinks that everyone should write a book. You don't actually need to get it published, but just to write it will help you. As I drove to Camp Lejeune on Wednesday to pick up 1500 pounds of ammo cans, my mind wandered to this subject.

Thirty five years ago in February of 1971, I started work at the Waffle House in Tampa. For the next six years I experienced the wonderful world of 24 hour restaurants. Several years ago, a waiter at Tex & Shirley's made a memorable comment that I still use today. We had been discussing different people when he pointed to the front doors and said, "Sooner or later, every form of life imaginable will come through those doors." In one sentence he described my six years at the Waffle House.

I try to explain to people today that the Waffle House of 1972 was not the place that they know today. We had customers from all socio-economic groups. The Waffle Houses here in Greensboro seem to have a less desirable customer base but I'm not really sure. After spending six years at the Waffle House, I have been in a Waffle House less than half a dozen times in the last thirty years. It doesn't really matter, this story is about my years at the Waffle House in Florida.

I spent several years at the Waffle House on Dale Mabry in Tampa, a couple of those working the third shift (midnights). Through those front doors came people such as Doc Severinsen (Tonight show bandleader), Lawton Chiles (Senator and Governor of Florida), Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, some guy who was Col. Sanders parade double, John Matuzak, Pete Rose, the Great Malenko, a bunch of professional wrestlers, Oscar Ayala, Nathaniel Watts, and thousands of other characters.

One of my favorite memories is the night big John Matuzak, pro football player and "B" movie actor, got into an argument with some drunk giving the waitress a hard time. Matuzak shouted at him "You f***er! Out of here!", picked him up, kicked open the front door, and threw him over the Buick Riviera parked in the front parking space. The guy cleared the length of the Buick and landed on the pavement. The police arrived in time to keep Tooz from tearing the guy to pieces.

We used to get a lot of professional wrestlers. The bad news about those guys is that they have a few drinks and start believing that crap on TV. We had a disturbance in the parking lot one night involving some wrestlers and some normal people. A Tampa policeman arrived and using only his nightstick put three wrestlers on the ground and cuffed them in less than a minute. I am sure those boys had never been hit like that before.

Oscar Ayala, who was one of Tampa's first black policemen, was a regular late night customer. He was retired from the police department and ran Bexley's BBQ. He would sit for a couple of hours talking and drinking coffee. He was there the only time that we were robbed. The bad news was that the Big O was asleep in his seat during the robbery.

So what did I learn during my years at the Waffle House?? Here are a few things I can remember.

1. Doors and bad tempers are not a good combination. One day in 1974 , my district manager had been at the restaurant and left presumably to go to another unit. He locked the office door with my keys on the desk. After making several calls to find him and being unsuccessful, I made a quick decision. It was only a hollow core door so I put my fist through the door and unlocked it. I got my keys and went on home. A couple of days later, the District Manager was at the restaurant again. He asked about the door and I told him what happened. A few days later there was a deduction from my paycheck with a note that it was the cost of the door. A logical examination of the situation made me realize that I should pay for the damage that I had done. Logically, I had paid for a new door so I took the old one off the hinges and took it home. A few days later, the District Manager returned to find the door missing. A bit upset, he asked about the door. I explained that after paying for the door, it was now mine and I had taken it home. Blogger rules prevent me from placing his comments here! I still think that it was funny.

2. Not everyone passed chemistry. A few months after I bought the door, we had a new District Manager. One afternoon, we were getting ready to de-lime the dish machine when Chester walked in the door. He asked what we were doing so I explained the situation. He told me that we should not have been using Limeaway at $5 a gallon when we could use muriatic acid at $2 a gallon. He had us wait while he went to get some acid. A few minutes later, he was back to show me how to cheaply de-lime a dishmachine. He proceeded to pour the acid into the dishmachine. Unfortunately, Chester did not first drain the tank of the machine. The mix of dish detergent and acid produced a mushroom cloud over the dishmachine. It was like an atomic bomb without the radiation. We all ran out of the building gasping for air. As we sat in the parking lot, waiting while the fire department ventilated the building, the vice president of the company drove up. Having just arrived from Atlanta, his was a simple question, "What the hell are you doing out here?" My response was brief and to the point, "Saving three dollars." That was the last dish machine that Chester cleaned. He was gone a few weeks later.

3. Plumbers don't always read the plans and follow them. We had a recirculating pump to make sure that the rinse water at the dish machine was 180 degrees. We were getting ready to open a new restaurant and I went over to see how it looked. After a quick trip to the restroom, I went to find the job superintendent. In my brief visit to the restroom I discovered that the plumbers had 180 degree water going to the toilet. That warm, steamy feeling as I sat there briefly was not my imagination. As I graphically explained to the Construction Supervisor that the hot water in the toilet was a lawsuit waiting to happen, others listening were in tears from laughter. I will admit that it was the only time in my life that I used a food thermometer to check the temperature on water in a toilet.

4. I have always loved stupid people. ( More elsewhere on this blog) Most Waffle Houses were built the same. Big windows on at least two sides of the building so you can see everyone in there. Still about once a week, we would always get the Stupid Person of the week. They would walk by the windows, seeing all the people inside, open the door, lean in and ask, "Are you open?" The first couple of years I was polite and would just say "Yes". After that it degenerated into an opportunity to hone my sarcasm skills. One of my favorites was " No, we're just waiting for an idiot to lead us out of here."

More things I learned later or you can wait for the book.


At 2:55 PM, Blogger Mike said...

These are great. It'll be a good book.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous hugh said...

Waiting for the book.


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