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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Different Kind of Nativity.

She somehow found the energy to draw a smiley face after she wrote her name "Mary" on the back of the meal ticket. It totaled up to $23.40.

When we first arrived, I had misgivings even though this was my idea. The day after Christmas, burnt out on left-over ham and suffering from a mild case of cabin fever, I suggested we take the kids over to the nearest Waffle House for dinner. The poster in the front window said "Open 24 hours, Christmas and New Years Day." There were three other customers in there when we arrived, but they paid and left soon thereafter. The four of us claimed stools at the counter. The short-order cook had a three day beard and 8-inch mullet. The only waitress on duty moved very slowly as she laid down a paper napkin in front of each of us and deliberately put down a fork, spoon and knife. I don't always check for health department scores at restaurants, but I looked this time. 88. Not as bad as I expected.

While we looked over the laminated menus, I heard the waitress asking the cook how he managed to get the day off on Christmas. The phone rang a time or two causing me to wonder who calls a Waffle House. Was it the manager checking in or friends and family of the staff? We ordered 3 of the 20,092,096 variations on the menu. We all got breakfast - plus we ordered some sides for Ben then shared with him whatever we could get him to eat. Olivia is still a modified vegetarian, but she will eat eggs, so I ordered her some and gave her the waffle that came with my All Star Special.

The Jute Box played 6 songs for a dollar, a bargain I could hardly resist. As I entered the first of my selections, Olivia came over to pick out a couple of songs. She wanted to play an Elvis song. I'd already had my eye on one. The thing still played 45's and it was well stocked with Holiday Themed music, so somebody keeps it up at least semi-regulalry. I pointed out the mechanism to Olivia and found myself saying "These are records. They're what everyone listed to long before CDs." (What a dad thing to say.) Ben clamored off his stool at one point and wandered over to the jute box. He leaned forward and put his head against the glass and watched the turntable spin. Like a mirror reflecting upon itself, I remembered looking out through eyes that were about the age of his at the jute box near the door of Marcetti's Italian restaurant while the rest of my family sat at a booth on one side and waited for our pizza. My dad probably kept an eye on me then just like I'm watching him now.

While our food cooked and we were still the only ones there, Mary the waitress and the cook (I didn't get his name) chatted with us a bit. I noticed her rubbing her pregnant belly which showed, but not so obviously, through her navy-blue apron. She stretched and pressed her palms into the small of her back in the way millions of tired expectant mothers have done for centuries. This was her fourth. She had a 7, 6 and 5-year old. She was taking that birth control shot, but obviously it wasn't 100% effective.

The fry cook first said he had four kids of his own. Later we'd find out that his girlfriend was pregnant again. He had two by his first "old lady" who he hasn't seen for 7 years. The woman, not the kids. He was raising them. Now he had two by his current "fiancee" - 17 months, 7 months and another on the way. He said "They say God don't give you more kids than you can handle. They're wrong. I don't think I could handle the first two." But there was a tone in his voice that made you think he wasn't entirely serious. This is the second of 2 jobs he works so his woman can stay home with the 4 kids.

About the time our food arrived the place began to fill up. A group of five people took a corner booth. From their accents I'd guess they were on the road on their way back up north. One couple in the group had an obviously adopted asian daughter with them. A couple of tables of your common SouthEastern red necks arrived. Then a group of three Hispanics. A large black man came in just to buy a Coke to go. A cross section of American humanity that you could probably find in a thousand other diners in a thousand other towns on a thousand other days. For a moment, I lost myself in time and space and was just a part of a timeless American demographic.

I made sure the waitress noticed when I left our money with the bill so she wouldn't think we'd skipped out. I left a large tip, at least percentage wise. Still didn't amount to much. On the drive home I wondered if we'd spent more on Christmas this year than those two make in a month. I wondered what kind of opportunities life was going to offer to the 5th kid of a fry cook. I wondered what it was like for a pregnant waitress to leave her three kids on Christmas day to sling hash to whomever wanders into a Waffle House on December 25th.

Mary's fourth was on the way. Could anything good come from Nazarath?