Early Sunday morning, on the outskirts of Nashville, yet another young white American male wielded yet another AR-15 he should not have possessed, and committed yet another mass murder in yet another public place. While four more black lives were randomly blown to bits, and several others were saved in a heroic act by the 29-year-old Clay Shaw Jr., what most people will remember about this incident – if they remember it at all – is the half-naked killer who fled and eluded police for 34 hours.
Cable news loves a good chase story, of course, and this one was a whopper. Not only was a heavily armed “seminude” murderer on the loose in Middle Tennessee, he was the same guy who tried to breach the White House perimeter last summer, identifying himself as a “sovereign citizen” who needed to have a word with President Trump. The story only got weirder: the 29-year-old Travis Reinking was also, it seems, convinced that Taylor Swift was stalking him. And while Reinking’s copious firearms had been taken away after his White House incident, his father had legally reclaimed them, and returned them to his son, who on Sunday morning brought them to a Waffle House.
As soon as Reinking, an Illinois native with a Colorado driver’s license, was nabbed in Nashville on Monday afternoon, the media quickly moved on from this latest edition of America’s Mass Murders. But in the South, people won’t soon be forgetting this event. However enthusiastic Southern people tend to be about their weaponry and their 2nd Amendment – and however much they may try to look away from the many other atrocities caused by this attachment – this one hit home in an especially visceral way. Not because it happened in Tennessee. Because it happened at a Waffle House.
It’s never easy to explain to a non-Southerner what Waffle House means to practically everybody who grew up in Dixie. There’s just no good Yankee analogy – which makes sense, really, since Waffle Houses tend to be weird in many of the exact same ways that Southerners themselves are weird. The endless procession of boxed-shaped, brightly lit stores with yellow block-letter signs that stretches across the South – the Atlanta-born chain has expanded to more than 2,000 outlets – may look tidily generic. And it’s true that there is always some kind of not-quite-vanquished vomit smell lurking in every entranceway, because every Waffle House is open 24/7 every day of every year. Almost all the waitresses will alternately ignore you and call you “honey,” and all the food on the big plastic menu is a bit too greasy but also fast and abundant and almost mind-bogglingly cheap.
Like so many others, late-night college munchies led to my Waffle House baptism, along a garish North Carolina strip-mall highway between Durham and Chapel Hill; later, living in Alabama, I’d drive 30 minutes to my favorite scenic Waffle House, a notably clean one high on a lonely bluff south of Birmingham. Traveling for years to report on Southern politics, the first thing I learned to do in any new town was spend one hour in a Wal-Mart and two in a Waffle House, taking copious notes. You only have to spend a couple of hours in just about any Waffle House from Texas to Kentucky, just about any relatively busy time of day, to see and hear a microcosm of nearly everything about Southern culture and its particular local manifestations – good, bad, ugly and indifferent.
Anthony Bourdain, who claims to have had his first Waffle House experience while filming the Charleston episode of Parts Unknown, could hardly believe his senses. It was “marvelous,” Bourdain said, “an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation is welcomed.” There’s plenty of truth in that – especially the part about inebriated customers being welcomed with open arms. Aside from wealthy folks and Northern transplants who don’t care about having two days’ worth of food for $5.99, pretty much everybody in the South who isn’t allergic to eggs, cheese or grease eats at Waffle House. Cracker Barrels are for white suburbanites, but Waffle Houses are, by and large, for everybody. That is no small thing in the South. (Or anywhere else, for that matter.) And because there is no privacy in a Waffle House, your conversation will almost certainly be overheard if the jukebox isn’t cranking.
Everyone knows that Sundays, in particular, are the ultimate Waffle House days. As the bars start to close on Saturday night, the plastered frat boys, the clusters of out-late high school cliques, the strippers and the off-work second-shifters all coalesce. Eggs and bacon and waffles and hash browns and buttered toast are excellent things at 1 a.m., and sometimes even better whenever you manage to wake up the next day. By then, the church people – after or between services – are also occupying some of the booths, while a strung-out couple is about to come to blows as they argue whether her drug thing is worse than his goddamn drinking thing, and the two tables full of Delta Sigma Thetas keep playing hip-hop and singing along.
That’s the Waffle House we love to love. Of course, in such close quarters – in these square-shaped terrariums of Southern culture – things aren’t always so harmonious, of course. Some Waffle Houses aren’t quite so welcoming to people of color and “others.” Like any joint that offers cheap hangover comfort food at all hours, bizarre and messy and occasionally lurid things tend to happen in the parking lots and the restrooms and big orange booths. But that only makes Waffle House a truer reflection of how people live together, for better and worse, in the most diverse and most fractious, the friendliest and the meanest, part of the United States. It’s us.
Which is why the nightmare that visited Nashville around 3:20 on Sunday morning won’t soon be forgotten down South. If you grew up in the land of Waffle House, you couldn’t hear even the vaguest report without immediately transporting yourself into that restaurant, without hearing and seeing and smelling the confusion and the panic and the fear – without feeling it, at some deep-down place inside you. It’s what happens when something abstract, like gun violence and the bloody wages of 2nd Amendment extremism, refuses to stay that way.
Will the Waffle House shooting change the gun debate in the South? That would be too much to ask. If Dylann Roof’s Baptist Church slaughter in Charleston in 2016, the rural-church massacre in Texas in 2017 and the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, weren’t enough to overcome folks’ historical attachment to guns, what happened near Nashville will probably not transform Dixie into the nation’s hub of gun-control activism. But quietly, sometimes without even acknowledging it to themselves, even Southerners who are gung-ho for the 2nd Amendment and the NRA are softening, the same way their fellow gun-totin’ Americans have been. Their certainties are also increasingly shattered. They might still holler “Come and Take It!” on cue, some of them, but they can’t cling to the old-time ideological gospel with rock-solid conviction anymore, when the violence is wrecking the very things the South prides itself on. Even a place as cherished as Waffle House is no longer safe.