Chris Verner: You'd be surprised who's up all night
?This will come as a shock to some of you, but I have eaten at a Waffle House in the middle of the night - and I was stone-cold sober.
This has occurred several times, in fact. I note this to reassure some of the local citizenry who have expressed concern that a 24-hour eatery on Innes Street may attract unsavory elements. Newspaper people, I'll admit, often fall into the unsavory category, but depriving us of pecan waffles and strong coffee will do little to improve our generally grumpy dispositions. (Depriving us of alcoholic beverages isn't going to improve things, either, but that's irrelevant to the current discussion.)
The back story: For many years of my earlier newspaper life, I worked what might be called the evening shift - clocking in around 4 p.m. to put out the next morning's paper, and clocking out somewhere around 2 a.m. (or later, depending on the night's mayhem). Dining choices tend to be somewhat limited at those hours, so I would often hit the local Waffle House with my co-workers (typically young and single) to unwind and enjoy an early breakfast, or a late lunch, depending on your perspective. I've eaten at Waffle Houses in Macon, Ga., Jacksonville, Fla., and Atlanta - and several others along various interstate highways. I've never had a scary Waffle House moment or felt threatened by the clientele - although I do recall one interesting cook who had a heavy beard stubble and some interesting tattoos. Maybe she had been in the Navy.
I'm not trivializing residents' concerns about crime or neighborhood stability in transitional areas. Those are real issues in Salisbury, as elsewhere, and residents have a right to raise questions or voice objections to proposed changes, whether it's a restaurant, annexation or a nuclear waste dump. As the resident of a suburban neighborhood recently plagued by a series of vehicle break-ins, however, I'm more concerned about the late-night safety of my own driveway than a well-lighted parking lot that's going to attract some public safety clientele.
Speaking of which: People have odd ideas about denizens of the night. Based on some of the Waffle House comments, people seem to think the world shuts down in the wee hours, with decent folk (obviously, that excludes journalists) having little reason to be out and about after dark. But as those who do "shift" work will tell you, there's a whole other world of people who live odd schedules - and may take a lunch break at 1 a.m., shop for groceries at 3 or need to gas up the car at 4 as they're heading home. They're largely invisible - unremarked and unappreciated - to those who enjoy more "normal" hours, but the world couldn't function without them.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 15 million Americans work full time on evening, night or rotating shifts. Immediately, you may think of law enforcement officers, firefighters or EMS crews and longhaul truckers. Hospital emergency rooms are open 24-7, of course, which means doctors and nurses are on the job, along with orderlies, X-ray technicians and pharmacists.
But this is only a shadow of the world of nighttime commerce and labor. Building maintenance often takes place at night, after everyone else has gone home. Factories like Freightliner often operate three shifts (at least when the economy is healthy). Warehouse distribution centers often operate around the clock, as do most large transportation services. (Ever wonder when those Fed-Ex and UPS delivery trucks get loaded for daytime deliveries? In an earler life, I worked at a UPS distribution center near Atlanta, unloading trucks and sorting packages in the middle of the night - and, yes, sometimes stopping at a Waffle House afterward. And in the age of digital communication, websites and server installations are often manned around the clock. Or should that be "womanned"? About a quarter of the female workforce is among this group.
Some of these night owls are there by choice. In my younger years, I preferred late hours; now, not so much. But for many others, it's necessity. It also may be unhealthy, according to researchers who've linked shift work (and irregular sleep cycles) with higher risk for cariovascular disease, diabetes and such. (I'm not suggesting Waffle House cuisine will cure any of that, but, geez, can't we give these bleary eyed souls a break?)
As for whether I'll be among the late-night patrons of an Innes Street Waffle House, chances are it won't be a regular stop, given my current schedule. But I can assure you, if you see me pull into the parking lot, I'll be there for eggs and hash browns, not to make trouble - and I'll be as sober as a judge on election day.
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.