What Life Was Like on the Last Day at the Waffle House

An account of the dismantling of an extraordinary ordinary place.

By Jessica Contrera from The Indiana Daily Student
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

diner tableAlessandro Cosmelli/Contrasto/Redux
TAP, TAP, TAP.

Bud Powell’s aluminum cane led the way as he circled the floor of Bloomington’s Waffle House. His Waffle House. On the last morning, before the waffle irons went cold and the pictures came down, before the lock refused to lock, before the claw crashed through the roof, the old man paced.

That Wednesday in September, the owner didn’t know what to do with himself. The smell of frying oil, the same greasy perfume that had greeted customers for 46 years, wafted into his nose as he wandered past the vinyl booths. He sat down, then stood up again. Bud—everyone called him Bud—checked on the dwindling supply of breakfast sausage, peered into the nearly empty freezers, tried to explain to his regulars why it had to be this way. “It’s time,” he said over and over.

At 79, Bud was tired. Except for Christmas, the restaurant was always open, day and night. Now a developer wanted to replace it with another apartment building for college kids. The offer was too good to pass up. “Where are we gonna eat?” the old-timers kept asking. “I don’t know,” Bud said. “Where am I gonna eat?”

This had been his place for 16,767 mornings. The weariness showed in his eyes, behind the wire-rimmed glasses, and in the hunch of his shoulders. After the Waffle House was torn down, he knew that he wouldn’t see most of his customers again.

Tap, tap, tap. Bud plodded past the grill, where the last of the eggs sizzled. The ever-dependable waitresses whizzed by, balancing plates, like today was no different. Most of the students had stopped visiting years ago. The smoking ban had forced out the puffers. Many of the regulars had died or were living in nursing homes.

Once Bud decided to close, it all slipped away even faster. Some of his staff had taken other jobs. The gum balls emptied out of the shiny red machine. No one bothered to mark the whiteboard with the daily special. Today, they would close at precisely 3 p.m. Bud checked his watch, ignoring the broken wall clock, its hands frozen for more years than he could remember, stuck in time.

The Waffle House was the second-oldest restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana, established after only Nick’s English Hut. Bud and his wife, Myra, opened the restaurant, one of the first Waffle House franchises in the state (not to be confused with the Waffle House chain popular in the southeastern United States), on October 10, 1967. During the following year, the Indiana University football team played in its first and only Rose Bowl, Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States, and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

It was the kind of place you could come to alone and still end up talking to a dozen people. Students stumbled in between late-night bar stops, and senior citizens rolled their walkers in before doctor appointments. Cops hung out there so often that the place was never robbed. The legends showed up from time to time—Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes—but it was the regulars who received special treatment. Everybody knew everybody.

You could bring your girlfriend, your kids, your mother-in-law. You’d scoot into a scuffed booth, turn your well-worn mug right side up, and look over the laminated menu, but you already knew what they were serving.

At all hours, you could order waffles. Or strip steak. Or corn dogs. But it didn’t really matter, because going to the Waffle House wasn’t about the food. It was about walking into a place where the fastest-moving thing would be the coffee pouring into your cup.

No matter what was going on in the world outside, no matter how your life was changing, the Waffle House would be there—the smell, the fake plants, the ceiling cracks—always open, always the same.

A week before the last day, the food was already running out. Dick Leyda, MD, slid into a booth for a sandwich and soup, a meal he ordered a few times a week. He kept it simple. “Chicken salad sandwich, please,” he told Mary, who had been working there for 24 years.

“We’re out of that, dear,” Mary said.

“Ham salad?”

“That too.”

Dr. Leyda settled for egg salad. He was one of the few people at the restaurant who wasn’t called by his first name. But mostly he’d been called dear or honey anyway.

A few years before, he had rarely been seen at the Waffle House, or anywhere else, without his wife, Carole. When Carole started needing a walker to get around, they’d still go to the restaurant. She’d order French toast and bacon from Hootie, one of their favorite waitresses. Always French toast and bacon.

At home, Carole wasn’t so predictable. Without Dr. Leyda really noticing, his wife had begun filling up their kids’ old rooms with newly bought items: shoes still in their boxes, beautiful shirts and dresses from Talbots in the closet, never worn. Carole had never been a big shopper and was certainly not a hoarder. “Dad,” said their daughter, “I think Mom is having problems.”

Carole received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Gradually, she forgot how to walk. When the couple went to the Waffle House, Dr. Leyda brought a caregiver to help his wife inside. Dr. Leyda read the menu out loud. Carole ordered French toast and bacon. Two years ago, Carole moved into Garden Villa, a senior center. She and her husband still ate together each morning, usually ice pops or chocolate bars. Dr. Leyda sang—“Amazing Grace,” “God Bless America,” and “A Bicycle Built for Two”—as Carole, who used to sing with him, mouthed the words. He always kissed her goodbye, and she always kissed him back, except for when she wasn’t ready for him to leave. When Dr. Leyda drove away, he headed straight to the Waffle House.

“How’s Carole doing this week?” Mary always asked, coffeepot in hand.

“Oh, good, good,” he said. “She lights up when I come into the room.”

Sometimes Dr. Leyda ate with Bud, sometimes with an insurance salesman, from whom he never bought insurance. Often he ate alone, but with so many waitresses who knew him, it wasn’t really like being alone at all.

On the restaurant’s final morning, Dr. Leyda kissed Carole goodbye at Garden Villa. He was pretty sure she understood he was going to their old place.

“Well, this is gonna be the last time,” he said. She smiled. He arrived at the restaurant and ordered eggs, toast, and ham. Bud continued his circling, waiting for his watch to read 3 p.m. The freezer was empty now, except for one lonely cardboard box on the bottom shelf.

John, the dishwasher, loaded each dish carefully into the industrial washing machine.

“Those are clean, John,” Bud said.

“I know, I know,” John mumbled. “Just doing it one more time, just to be sure.”

Bud’s son Eric came through the kitchen door.

“Are you ready to take the photos down?” Bud asked him.

“No, let’s just wait.”

A customer had brought a white sheet cake, decorated with letters made with yellow icing that read “Waffle House, 1967–2013.” Bud snagged a piece, found a booth, and leaned his cane on the burgundy tabletop. For years, he had sat in these booths, looking out the window and watching the world change in ways he never could have imagined. The A&W drive-in across the street, the bus station one lot over, the pizza shop next door—one by one, all of them had been knocked down to make way for more apartments for college students.

Within a year, a new five-story apartment building would rise right where he was sitting now. Bud glanced down at his watch again. Finally, 3 p.m. had arrived. This is it, he thought. He helped himself to a heaping spoonful of cake. And a few more.

“Bud, the door won’t lock.” He looked up. Larry, the day manager, stood at the booth. After taping up handwritten We Are Closed signs, he had just spent five minutes fumbling at the door. The place hadn’t been closed since Christmas, and now the key wouldn’t turn. “The north door,” Larry said again. “It won’t lock.” Bud almost smiled.

The next morning, Dr. Leyda and Carole started the day with mini Hershey’s bars on the patio of Garden Villa. They watched the residents move slowly in and out of the rehab center doors. Some of the residents waved to Carole. Dr. Leyda kissed her goodbye and pondered where to go next. Panera? Or Cheddar’s? McAlister’s? Maybe Bob Evans. He liked Bob Evans. Not the food. But Hootie, his favorite old Waffle House waitress, worked there now.

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