Driving across the country is a case study in disparities; a constant bombardment of contrasting ideas. What we’ve heard versus what we see. What we “know” versus what we experience. Preconceived notions and immediate realities. It is a field trip through news headlines.
And while I didn’t anticipate doing so, I started thinking about racism over breakfast at a Waffle House in Montgomery, Alabama.
I have always loved the Waffle House. The unpretentious seat yourself style. The way everybody says hello when you walk in. How quickly and seamlessly the line cooks crank out food based on orders shouted by the wait staff. It still amazes me to this day.
The Waffle House, at it’s best, is this unique locus of inclusive energy. Hungry families, truckers, and individuals of all nationalities coming in for good, quick, cheap food. In a world where we complain of not feeling seen, being taken advantage of, and being short of time, the Waffle House is the antithesis. It is a place where you are acknowledged, given a fair price, and served quickly. A simple formula for making people happy.
Unfortunately, the last few years have seen incidents of racial discrimination and violence at several of their locations. I wish I felt something more profound than sadness. But I am unable to. Are we all so different when we order a two dollar cup of coffee and an eight dollar breakfast? What is the anger, hurt, or misconception that makes anybody treat others as less than? It is so easy to be kind to others despite the narratives in our heads.
But we aren’t all listening to the same narrative. Our private beliefs and public histories often put as at odds from those we perceive as different. I refuse to believe those differences overwhelm our similarities; that there must be some middle we are closer to than we acknowledge.
It was this middle I kept thinking about as we drove across the South.
Avoiding the largest of highways, we stuck to secondary roads to see more of the country’s landscape and fewer sterile interstates. Hour after hour, day after day, it is impossible to ignore just how much land and space there is in this country. Land covered with horses, cows, and crops; empty to the horizon.
And in every town we passed, on every main road, there were Mexican restaurants. Some as small as shacks, some big and colorful with packed parking lots. All of them part of the local fabric in some way or another. I’m not sure what I anticipated, but my mind did not fathom so many Mexican restaurants close to a border that has been politicized as the last bastion between us and our arch enemy.
Of course, Mexican restaurants aren’t embassies responsible for diplomatic relations. It would be foolish to believe a restaurant would foster immediate goodwill towards its country of origin. But I wondered what it was like for the owners of those restaurants and their customers, sitting in those establishments as so much anger is directed at the border. How had we all become OK with such hatred as part of our daily language?
Coming from Queens, NY (the most ethnically diverse place in the world) I figured it might be due to a lack of exposure. It is easy to vilify somebody you have no interaction with and do not understand. But here were these restaurants, not on the fringes of cities, but in the hearts of them, on main roads. It was a clear indicator I was just as sheltered living in a big city as people in rural areas could be.
As we ventured further into west Texas, and signs of life became sparse, I couldn’t help but think about energy. The oil pumpjacks with their slow cyclical movement reminded me what is under those miles and miles of open land, how valuable it is. And not far away, sometimes strikingly close, windmills. Hundreds of them.
Pumpjacks and Windmills. Both capturing things we could not see turning them into energy we would one day use. And eventually, the anti-windmill signs on houses just off the highway appeared. Opposition. Anger. Worries of decreasing property values. Sustainable and the finite, in the very same space, co-existing in some measure of active but contested harmony.
We planned our road trip to spend only one night in each city before moving on to the next. And so these subjects I thought about for hours on end while in cruise control have already begun to fade from my mind. There was no great realization, no profound understanding. We were travelers watching the world through our windows, commenting, contemplating… and moving on.
As we enter a new bubble in a new city the juxtapositions and disparities of the country will remain. It is the least we can do to endeavor to see them for ourselves, through our own window, fleeting though the time may be.
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