WALKING INTO A WAFFLE HOUSE always feels familiar: the retro layout, the friendly staff, and the sweetly scented air of steamy waffles. When I was a kid, we mostly ate at Waffle House on road trips. My parents, brother, grandma, and I drove from Florida to Ohio and back again in an un-airconditioned station wagon (and later a minivan) every summer. After checking out of a discount motel, we would eat breakfast at the franchised diner, its bright yellow Scrabble-titled sign posted high in the searing Southern sky visible from the interstate. Scoring a booth by the griddle meant we could watch the cooks dance their way through orders. Once, an egg shortage made the whole diner in Hardeeville, South Carolina, stand still. Hungry tensions bubbled until a waitress walked in with cartons of eggs from the nearby Winn-Dixie. The restaurant erupted in applause, and the diner din resumed.
Micah Cash’s book of photographs Waffle House Vistas, produced while driving through the South in 2018, propounds a complicated love letter to the iconic roadside diner. The handsome hardbound book of 42 color photos, with accompanying essays by Laura Bullard and Maurice Carlos Ruffin, was published by The Bitter Southerner after a shorter version of the project ran in their online literary journal and became an instant hit. The book, now in its third printing, is available directly from The Bitter Southerner’s online store. The artist’s statement borrows from Walt Whitman, claiming that the restaurant’s clientele “contains multitudes.” Cash’s imagined “unwritten rules” of Waffle House state that, no matter who you are or where you’re from, you will receive good service if you are kind, respectful, and “don’t overstay when others are waiting for a table.”
My family has always called a Waffle House meal “dinner and a show” because of the open kitchen. Cash’s photographs move readers’ eyes from the stage of the griddle to the rapt audience seated in red vinyl booths and perched on counter stools to the windows and vistas beyond: parking lots and interstate culture. The view from store #687, in Richburg, South Carolina, offers an expansive patterned concrete wall punctuated by a silver Vac & Air station. In Newport, Tennessee, viewers look from store #652 onto a triad of motel signs, one with its rate in red lights, another advertising free breakfast and wi-fi, along with the truncated message “HELP WANT.” Through the plate glass we see American flags, cell towers, sunny skies, and rain clouds, Tennessee clay, and power lines that stitch it all together. By documenting what is seen through the expansive windows of Waffle Houses throughout the South, Cash calls attention to what we ignore while picking at our crispy, smothered hash browns. He asks us to notice and consider not only this pass-through environment but what our role in it might be, for good or bad. Some readers might even imagine they can spot their own reflections in the photographed windows.
Cash’s images are formally astute, with satisfying lines of vision: repeated diagonals, receding planes, and hints of the golden ratio. In each one, we look through windows framed by booth backs, jukeboxes, salt and pepper caddies, ball-chain shade pulls, and heavy laminated menus, out into parking lots. We see roadside businesses and even a few old houses, remnants of neighborhoods that were razed to support the burgeoning postwar car culture. People and food are absent, but we can feel them buzzing in the background.
The collected photographs record a business empire that has sprouted up along major roads to serve the practical needs of transient populations. An array of signs guides us through a landscape of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, low-end and extended-stay motels, vape shops, cell-phone dealers, and payday loan establishments, that articulated borderland we all move through in late-capitalist America. The few natural things visible through the windows are hearty, sharp-edged palmetto bushes, thorned bougainvillea, and thick-leaved Southern trees — things that can survive the harshness of the environment. There are few people or animals except in one haunting photo, Store #1774, Marion, North Carolina, where two small birds are visible: one sits on a wire regarding the other, a blur in flight. This one pulse of life is located at the halfway mark, the heart of the book, suggesting that viewers should take a moment and decide which way they are headed.
A Waffle House might seem like a melting pot of characters stopping in for a rest from their journey. In the foreword, Maurice Carlos Ruffin presents Waffle House as a kind of social panacea, where he has never been treated poorly. But the first Waffle Houses, built in the mid-1950s, were segregated, with the Woolworth’s counter sit-ins just a few years away. And there continue to be scattered reports of racial disparities in treatment and service. I want to know those stories. What have these windows framed besides the seemingly static roadside diaspora of corporate America? What if we could look through them 65 years ago: What would we see? And does what we see when we gaze across the parking lot change based on who we are?
The photographs allow a speculative space to open up in the viewer’s mind, asking us to interrogate our perceptions about prevalent social, economic, and political divisions. But Cash knows there are no easy answers, and the images, according to contributing essayist Laura Bullard, work to comfortably situate us in our own bodies and memories. What we find, she writes, are “our traumas, our histories, our hunger”: the vistas become a kind of scrying glass revealing the collective joys and suffering of the always-fractured, always-healing South.
While many of the photographs depict sunny views, a few are shot through rain-smeared or fogged windows; shades are pulled down or a bush covers the view. In these images, sweeping vision is denied and we are given a moment to catch our breath. A singular image, Store #2181 Birmingham, Alabama, is taken at late dusk, the sky a deep cerulean blue. The glowing amber globes that warmly light the dining room are reflected hovering, moonlike, over a neighboring Sonic drive-in, whose bays are empty but brightly lit, and whose rocket-fueled midcentury name suggests an elusive, atomically designed, utopian future.
The nostalgia evoked by the photographs is also deeply inflected by the social distancing enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, when such comforting “third spaces” have been closed to us. Third spaces are social locations separate from home and work: cafés, parks, and libraries — public sites where people congregate and connect. Their loss is so dangerous because it may feel innocuous, like a small inconvenience, but the absence of a welcoming place where we can stay as long as you like (so long as there’s no one waiting for our table) only leaves us more isolated. It pushes us deeper into our homes and onto skewed social media, further away from the wide swath of humanity.
There is a longing and a warning in Waffle House Vistas. Micah Cash shot these pictures before the pandemic, of course, but they are eerily prescient of the empty public spaces that were to come. Of course, he couldn’t have known of the impending disconnect and loneliness as the nation went on lockdown, yet his photos, beyond their nostalgia, express an almost dystopian mood. The parking lots, surrounded by live oaks and palm trees heavy with dead fronds, unkempt and forgotten, conjure an unpeopled future. The cars are still, the traffic lights are red, and the roads are almost always empty. Instead of documenting a vibrant, active world, Cash has recorded what current events have forced us to leave behind.
Amy Bowers earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College and recently published work in [PANK], Centered, and Bella Grace. Her essay “Manual” is forthcoming (fall 2021) in A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, edited by Randon Billings Noble and published by the University of Nebraska Press. A native Floridian, Amy now lives in coastal Connecticut.