Florence stands halfway between New York and Miami and, more importantly for me, halfway between Palm Bay and the D.C. area. I have stopped there many times on previous road trips, though I honestly don’t recall it being the hotbed of “culture” it has become. I recall when the biggest hotel in town had an outdoor swimming pool that looked like a petri dish (a rather different kind of culture), and the main dining choice was a fried chicken joint that evidently didn’t change the oil in their fryers very often.
Or maybe I was just getting off at the wrong exit. This trip we stayed at the Red Roof Inn ($44 per night, or $49 if you want the Business King room with high-speed Internet), across from a massive shopping mall where all the fashionable women wore spiky-heeled pumps made from exotic animal hides with impossibly sharp toes that made me wince just to watch them walk. Up and down the street were chain restaurants and hotels and motels and strip malls and . . . well, that’s about it.
Florence’s nicknames are “Flo-Town” and “The Magic City,” though I think the only magic is the influx of tourist dollars to a city that is mainly a way-station. The Wikipedia entry says, “This 1997 All-America City finalist, with its historic homes and medical center towers, came together to form a cultural center for the northeastern portion of South Carolina.” I don’t buy it. The only thing of any historic importance that I saw was clearly the Florence Waffle House, right behind the Red Roof Inn, where we ate on our way up to the funeral in Maryland. (I thought I had eaten at a Waffle House somewhere many years ago, though frankly I remember pancakes, not waffles, so maybe that was a Toddle House or a Huddle House rather than a Waffle House.)
My brother and I were greeted by Shirlee, a bubbly black woman whose warm smile and effusive demeanor lit up the room. She knew everyone in the place by name and favorite breakfast, and those she didn’t know, she treated like old friends and family. Even though Connie, the tall, thin woman with long flyaway hair and a crooked grin, had worked there for seventeen years (and her mother, whom we didn’t meet, had worked there for nineteen), Shirlee clearly ruled the roost. This was her place, and she was the perfect hostess. The crowd was an easy and comfortable mix of races and ages, some talkative, some happy to exchange pleasantries and then drink their coffee quietly. If I could eat there regularly without damaging my health (besides the deliciously cholesterol-laden food, many patrons smoked, as they apparently do in all South Carolina restaurants), I’d happily become a regular.
We were tempted to see what other Waffle Houses along the way were like. But we were afraid that the others would pale in comparison to Shirlee’s Waffle House. Besides, you never know when you’re going to encounter a wedding in progress, and I didn’t want to intrude. So we contented ourselves with a second breakfast there, on our way back south.
Shirlee asked for details about Mom’s funeral (remembering my mention of it on the way north), and was amazed and moved to hear that I officiated. She let me give her some healing energy to help short-circuit the cold she was developing (though I called it “a laying on of hands,” using the biblical language that she was more comfortable with), and she blessed me and called me her brother, then made me an All-Star Special™ Breakfast with over-easy eggs cooked perfectly.
Sitting next to me was Holly, the young waitress who, Shirlee noted, was constantly fending off advances from patrons young and old because she didn’t want her big bruiser of a boyfriend to beat up any more of her customers — “Once was enough!” After she finished her coffee break and her cigarette, Holly made a serving of “hash browns all the way” for Connie’s significant other, who had come in after dropping off Connie’s daughter at preschool. Available options for the hash browns are “scattered” (spread on the grill), “smothered” (with onions), “covered” (with cheese), “chunked” (with diced ham), “diced” (with diced tomatoes), “peppered” (with jalapeño peppers), “capped” (with mushrooms), “topped” (with chili), and “all the way” (with all available toppings). Connie told her to add a side of grits to the order, and to top it all with a biscuit and some sausage gravy, because he liked it best that way.
There was a fourth waitress there whose name I never caught, a roundish, laconic woman in her twenties who likewise smoked (but never did so behind the counter), and who called out welcoming words to customers as they arrived but without quite the zest or genuineness that Shirlee displayed. Maybe it was because she tended to mumble with that cigarette in her mouth. The four of them made a glorious tag team.
I’ll be heading north again to visit Jim in Norfolk at Christmas time. Any guesses as to where I’ll be having breakfast along the way?