Aerin It OutColumnsNightlife

Honoring My Father with Self Reflection at Waffle House

A good mourning

Aerin Spruill
Aerin Spruill

This month marks the one-year anniversary of my father’s passing. Last year, I wrote about the odd mix of emotions I felt saying goodbye to my dad as I drank alone on Elizabeth Billiards’ patio for their closing weekend. 

This year, I honored his memory by taking the day off and eating two of his favorites: Waffle House and Red Ginger. And of course, in my usual fashion, I also got rip-roaring drunk to drown the sorrow. 

I pulled up outside of the familiar Waffle House building, trimmed in yellow with the red awning and big, black block letters, and thought to myself, “Hope you’re hungry, Daddy.” I walked in and scanned the room, hoping for a booth, only to find that the bar stools were the only vacant seats.

That was probably a good thing. I find myself talking to him aloud in the hopes that I’ll conjure his form, and no one in Waffle House would’ve been prepared for me to have a “mental health moment” as I imagined him sitting across from me, pricking his finger to test his blood sugar before diving into his food and devolving into laughter out of sheer pleasure. 

I tried to put my finger on the only thing that had changed … the menu got an upgrade! Everything else remained the same. 

The vague but easily identifiable smell of breakfast with no discernible dish hung in the air, the cooks and their quippy banter continued without pause or shame upon customer entry, and the creeping fear of salmonella due to lackluster cleaning practices and food storage all welcomed me home.

The manager barked out orders then sauntered over with neither a smile nor a frown, “What can I get for you, darlin’?” 

“I’ll take the All-Star Special with grits, soft scrambled eggs with cheese, hash browns scattered, smothered, covered, and sausage.” He returned to his post to repeat my order aloud despite the fact that surely everyone cooking had already heard it. 

As I chewed on my first bite of eggs, my eyes welled up with tears, not because I was upset that the remnants of eggshells were ruining our reunion breakfast, but because the eggshells reminded me of how imperfect this meal always was. How imperfect my dad was. And how incredibly imperfect and broken I was even a year later.

No, this isn’t a critique of the culinary skills of the “chefs de cuisine” at Waffle House, but an attempt to draw strings between the frame of mind during the day and that of the night. The tangled web of mental health and coping mechanisms that are precursory but later fueled and soothed by my nightlife excursions. 

You see, at the very moment I felt eggshell between my teeth, I longed for the comfort that night would bring. For the first swallow of cider to shake his memory from my tears and to wash down my imperfect meal. For the hum of conversations oblivious to my grief to drown out my thoughts. For my “daddy issues” to melt away like the condensation dripping off the bottom of my glass. And for my attention to turn toward the plethora of people like me looking for ways to numb the pain. 

At night, surrounded by friends, foes and strangers, after all these years recording my nightlife experiences, two things have remained unequivocally constant: Everyone is going through or has gone through shit, and most of those people will try their damndest to drink or drug through it.

No, not everyone does this. Some learn how to cope in healthy ways. But in the corners of nightlife that I frequent, the “regulars” are the ones whose stories may differ but who align on finding solitude at the bottom of the bottle. 

It may sound grim, but for some, that’s all we have until we “figure it out.” That’s what this column is about. Yet another version of self-reflection on my position in the nightlife scene. 

It conjures the opening of “Praise God” by American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “Even if you are not ready for the day, it cannot always be night.” Though it’s currently being overplayed on Instagram reels, it no longer feels like a broken record. It sounds different since that lonely day at Waffle House.

In nightlife, there’s often a sense of camaraderie. A veil that brings many together and tries to hide the grim realities of grief, terminal illness, addiction, loneliness, depression and self-doubt among many others. But when the sun comes up, that veil is lifted. 

It’s then that we’re forced to figure out how to enjoy scrambled eggs with shells strewn throughout. The challenge then becomes bridging the gap in a way that we are able to make the most out of every day and night.

Read more of Aerin It Out here.

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