I know what it feels like to be in the weeds. The experience of becoming overwhelmed, literally whelmed over, as if by a giant consuming wave is possibly familiar to all professions, but the term comes from the restaurant business. To be in the weeds is to be frantically flinging boxes in a walk-in cooler searching for a single creamer to take to a customer who walked out 3 minutes ago without your knowledge, while your food for table seven leisurely dry roasts beneath the heat-lamps. A line cook bashes futilely on the call bell with his greasy spatula and your fellow servers reach over your withered French Dip to get their fresh Cobb salads. On the other side of the line the weeds are different; an endless chain of ticket chits clacketing off of the printer, down to the floor, where an order for an 8-top just walked away on the bottom of a dishwasher’s shoe. By the time you realize the order is missing you will not be able to find the server who took the order, as he is in the walk-in knocking over sheet pans of scooped butter before accidentally stepping on the last individual creamer in the restaurant.
So, I know the weeds.
Madison County Florida is famous for two things- turpentine and cock-fighting. They raise some of the fiercest long-crowers in the south and the turpentine is as rich and silky as a week-old puppy’s ear. The finest you ever soaked your dogs in. I don’t usually wear a suit, but I did yesterday and in my rush to get into Orlando traffic and look peeved in my rented black Mustang Convertible, I didn’t bother changing. So that is how I came to be sitting at the counter of the busiest Denny’s on Interstate 10, dressed for the occasion with a front row seat to a crew fighting like sailors fighting for their lives on a sinking ship.
When there aren’t other options a Denny’s serves a lot of audiences. The through-traveler, myself. The locals, greeting each other with “Well, wells” and parting with “God blesses”, they are unconcerned with the chaos, their children ratchet the gumball machine manically until a daddy says, “Now!” with a warning that implies some consequence they clearly respect.
Bikers, One Day at a Timers, teen couples, and traveling stucco crews fill out every seat in the house. A broad-shouldered white girl with a black affect asks me what I want to drink and I order a bowl of chicken noodle soup and an un-sweet tea. The tea comes sweet and the bowl comes with some sticky red stuff on the rim, but considering the situation the soup is hot and a general delight. The young stucco guy next to me fidgets with his phone and glances at my soup with envy. He has been here a long time, but he says he’s going to ride it out and see what comes.
I ordered a Cobb salad, my general go-to and in the 20 minutes I wait I watch each cook, busboy, and server closely from my ringside seat. That kitchen is game. The head cook delicately wipes the sweat from his forehead on a clean patch of sleeve on his poly-blend chef coat. He has got this. The servers? This is where the problem lies. So much fear in their eyes I am embarrassed for them. I realize I will never see my Cobb.
Not wanting to make matters worse I catch my server at the register and ask her if I can pay my tab and go. She looks at me and sees me for the first time. “Where are you sitting and what did you have?” I tell her, but the Cobb salad rings no bells. “Forget it” she says, “Don’t worry about it, just go.” “Wait a second” I tell her, flipping through the receipts which fill my wallet.
“For cigarettes” I tell her, handing her a five. “Well alright then” she smiles, “Thanks for stopping at Denny’s!”