In times of distress, the diner chain is a personal safe harbor
EC: The Personal Waffle House Index
Credit: Photo by Flickr user Louise Gill

I'm dawdling over my hash browns (covered, peppered) because I'm afraid to go watch my mother die. She’s fading away in a nursing home bed just a few miles up the road and I know I need to slug down my coffee, pay the $6.90 check and point my squat, shaky rental car toward her. I know this, and yet when the waitress offers a warm up, I say yes, please. I pick at the small heap of jalapeño slices still lolling around in the last of the yolk smear and crunch into them one by one, grateful for the brief, euphoric rush each time. Now I’ll go. Now I’ll go. After this next one. After the next. It’s safe in this Waffle House and I do not want to leave.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency informally uses a color-coded metric called the Waffle House Index to assess the scope, impact, and scale of regional natural disasters. They’re not the only chain that’s factored in—FEMA looks at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmart as well to see how well equipped they are to handle the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other non-manmade chaos—but Waffle House is the one that hits home. Former FEMA director Craig Fugate began using the test during his tenure as the head of Florida’s Department of Emergency Management, and it breaks down roughly like this: Waffle House open and serving a full menu—green; open but with a limited menu—yellow; completely closed—red.

Waffle House is prepared for crises of all manner, stocked and staffed to the point that there’s a persistent urban myth that the doors have no locks. A Waffle House can operate with a generator, or no power at all. A Waffle House is designed to be open to serve at 1 p.m. on a sunny summer day or 1 a.m. on a frostbitten Christmas. (I’ve been there for both.) As Fugate famously noted, "If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That's really bad. That's where you go to work."

I’ve been at red for about 24 hours now. This didn’t register until my phone’s GPS flung me around the bend toward my crappy, hastily booked motel and thwack into the sunny-side-up glow of the Waffle House sign just a couple hundred feet from the lobby. I teetered back from the edge of a wail. At that point, it was almost midnight and this small mercy was the only one the universe had shown me since the texts started lighting up my phone at work. Near the end… Lungs filling up… You may want to… Subway. Cab. Plane. Car. Now what? I could go get a bite or—no. She’s sleeping peacefully, I was told. You try and sleep now. Waffle House will be there in the morning, I told myself. Finally, a thing that’s sure.

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Credit: Photo by flickr user kufismackrpk

I couldn’t rest, but I tried, waking in a start with my heart pounding, and scrabbling for my phone to see if there was anything new. Nothing. More nothing. That’s good, right? Each time I pried back the edge of the brown-out curtain, my North Star blazed across the parking lot, and I put it at my back to guide me back to bed. When I finally decided I’d had enough—or at least that I’d gotten all I was going to—I threw on a sweater and walked toward the light.

Goooood morning! The whole kitchen greets patrons as a chorus as they walk into the Mauldin, South Carolina Waffle House. I assumed a regular had shuffled in quietly behind me, but it happened for the next patron and the next—a possibly corporate-mandated bit of civility and warmth, but I’ll take it where I can get it. I wedged into a counter seat between one man in a nylon doo-rag and another in khaki Dockers and placed my order without thinking about it too much. Coffee, two eggs sunny side up, white toast, hash browns. It’s just a new verse in the kitchen’s music—maybe just a couple of bars—but it’s mine, and I’m grateful to be part of the song for the moment, let it carry me along. I know what’s coming next, but not when, so I’m giving myself this luxury. I’m scattered, I’m smothered, but Waffle House has me covered.

I drain my coffee, push back my plate, pay my check, yelp a "thanks!" back toward Toot the waitress, and walk out to the parking lot. I’m full and I have to let that stand in for OK for now. Waffle House will still be there when it’s all over.