A virtual play by Michael Doshier
We’re in Conway, Arkansas. It is night.
You take the exit and drive onto the Waffle House parking lot off US-65. Two seconds ago you crossed the city limits and now you’re here at its welcome center. Outside, teenagers dressed in either camouflage or Abercrombie smoke cigarettes, give each other piggy-back-rides, and generally act a fool. They’re a little tipsy. You’re intimidated but only cause they’re so young and immediately remind you of being that young, an emotion layered in complications ranging from jealousy to nostalgia. You walk in after gifting them with your precious nervous smile.
You sit at the booth and a 25-year-old waitress named Kasey takes your order. She’s a stunning Scarlett Johansson beauty – dirty blonde, a sweet face with crooked and missing teeth, a body to die for, and a welcoming, truly sexy alto voice and southern accent that makes your heart melt like the cheese grits on the cooker. She smacks her gum and gives you a smile. You just order a coffee, which I can humbly but confidently inform you is a mistake. I don’t care how hungry you are or are not - get the hash-browns –smothered, covered, chunked, and peppered. You won’t regret it (for at least another hour or so).
Please press play:
Over by the jukebox, which is playing this mess of a “song” (“Waffle House Family Pt. 1” is its name. There is, mercifully, no part 2) another Waffle House employee sits at a table, folding up images of Sassy Patty (late 50s), placing each photo in an envelope. You notice this process but pay little attention. She doesn’t notice you. She’s focused. She smiles to herself. She cries to herself. She leaves, and, with much hesitation, drops the envelopes in the mailbox by the adjacent motel. She kisses the palm of her hand and pats the mailbox twice. Once firmly, once incredibly gently. She lights a cigarette and moves to her truck, as the smallest tinge of the sun rises in the distance as if to accompany her on her way home.
I haven’t been back in years, but tonight, I’m feeling nostalgic (the teenagers got to me too) and I can’t sleep. I’m staying at my parents’ house for the holidays. I need a coffee and a chocolate chip waffle to fill the stomach with blood and pass me the fuck out (or however the human body works). I also need some company, being back at this establishment so deeply, intrinsically connected to my adolescence – a place where I once thrived at the ages of those kids outside. I used to make people just like you nervous (and yes, we are making fun of you once you’re inside.)
Tonight, I sit across from you.
On the one hand, I feel as if I have not found my soul mate. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in love in a real way, so I know I haven’t been in love in the soul mate way. But on the other, more prominent hand – the hand that you learn to throw a ball and masturbate with (my left hand) – I know that Sassy Patty was my soul mate.
Sassy Patty enters.
Sassy Patty was the night manager at one of the two Waffle Houses in Conway, Arkansas. The one we’re at right now. She wasn’t always the night manager. Like any worthwhile achievement, she worked her way up to night manager, the ladder of which included strong recommendations from my friends and I as we sat at our booth – THIS very booth actually - and wrote letters to the CEO of Waffle House about how perfect she’d be for the job. This wasn’t the only time we did that, either – one time, one of Patty’s waitresses
waitresses… Kasey, was in trouble with management for apparently yelling at a customer in a way that felt racially charged. Kasey assured us she had a black boyfriend, so we spent all of our energy that wasn’t being used inhaling hash-browns to write to Management about the progressiveness of Patty’s particular Waffle House (which we did – and do – believe in, by the way, but perhaps we should have considered gathering more proof than Kasey’s unseen and possibly fictional better half before attaching our names to Project Save Kasey’s Career). This was our relationship with Waffle House – it was our home, and Sassy Patty, and whomever Sassy Patty liked on her staff-
And whoever didn’t bug the shit out of me OR fuck shit up all the time behind the counter.
… were our family. We were 18.
Now look, I’m a writer in the sense that I really, really want to be. The new screenplay I was working on earlier this year featured a 20-page section about Sassy Patty. Two young adults visiting her at her home and smoking cigarettes out her window, discussing the ins and outs of her life, her opinions on current affairs and pop culture – which she would have even if she actually had no idea what she was talking about.
I’m right here, jackass.
Hey Patty, I’m struggling to remember something – who was the first person to win American Idol again?
Kris Motherfuckin’ Allen, that’s who. Only one that matters anyway.
It was a perfect Sassy Patty scene in that it didn’t progress the plot at all. In that way, it was similar to my time spent within the confines of this Waffle House in that it was a break from plot – a gated community, a shielded “safe space” with her.
The scene made no sense in regards to advancing the overall story, and the script was running fifty pages long. It had to be cut. Then, about a week after highlighting her section and pressing the delete button, I got a call from my best friend Raven informing me Patty had died. Months ago, actually; her second family just hadn’t been clued in yet.
Are you familiar with the idea of a “safe space”? Well let me tell you one thing, you’re sitting in one right now. And it’s a great idea, too – that we are responsible for creating an environment in which everyone is comfortable and welcome. It’s something I heard a lot about in R.A. training in college – something you get certificates for to place on your door so people know you’ve been trained to provide a space where they can feel safe.
Sassy Patty did not need any training.
Sassy Patty was a pioneer of safe spaces, having created one at her Waffle House without even realizing it or being told to.
Patty truly loved the Waffle House and would remind us constantly that
This is the best Waffle House in the STATE!
And then, to celebrate, we’d put “Friends in Low Places” on the jukebox and scream it together, her smoky growl taking the melody to places so low, Garth Brooks never dared dream them.
I knew Patty from the ages of sixteen to twenty-one. That particular Waffle House was the place to be, as it was one of only two establishments – the other being the other Waffle House – open 24/7, and teenagers hate sleeping at hours kept by adults. We would go there after we’d completed whatever our other night activity was – drinking, sobering up, watching movies, driving aimlessly around, or talking about deep shit while smoking packs on packs of cigarettes on our elementary school playgrounds. But visiting Patty at the Waffle House was never the after-party to any of this mindlessness; no, the other stuff was the pre-game. We were hungry and tipsy to the point that the mere concept of hash-browns left us in a daze of desire, let alone hash-browns covered, smothered, chunked and peppered (Waffle House language for cheese, sausage, tomatoes, and jalapenos added). And yet that wasn’t even why we went. Not even close.
You know, I’ve only been to the other Waffle House in Conway once, and it was because I was high and pleaded with my friends that I couldn’t go entertain a conversation with Patty in this state. I was terrified I’d act weird and she would take it as shade, or that I would act obvious and she didn’t approve of drugs – this is a few years before the medical marijuana progress of today, plus the state I was in was purely recreational. I later learned Patty wasn’t a stranger to a little Greenpeace International herself, and would have been totally fine with this part of my life. 23-year-old me wishes he could go whisper it into 18-year-old me’s ear so I could’ve gotten one more night with her.
From the ages of 16 to 18, I learned all about her time in the Navy. The time she got into a bit of a tiff with a fellow SEAL. This anecdote, interestingly, derived out of some Sassy Patty life advice.
I learned in the Navy that quitters don’t EVER win. Quitters get rolled under the staircase so that Sassy Patty don’t get in trouble! That’s what happens to quitters!
The woman on the receiving end of their brawl woke up and survived, by the way, and became one of Patty’s best friends (which is not surprising and sort of sums up Patty’s entire thing in a nutshell).
I learned all about all of the years she had spent as a truck driver before joining the Waffle House team-
I was the best trucker in the state!
I learned of the great love between her and her husband. I learned that he had passed and, while Patty went on an occasional date, she never expected to marry again. That was her one true love and he was gone. There was no point – and if you didn’t really catch my tone, Sassy would say that sentence as if it were a truly-meant shrug. I learned that this was one of the main reasons she didn’t fear death and instead embraced it, so that she would be reunited with him.
I learned of Sassy’s great love of Harry Potter.
We always tipped her well, though I hope well enough. I always remember feeling so awkward about the moment the receipt came. She was our friend, and we spent every night with her we could, yet the receipt was a reminder that Sassy didn’t get off ‘til 7am and couldn’t leave with us.
Patty and I took an immediate liking to each other that grew and grew as if it could never stop. Perhaps I wasn’t the most “popular kid in school,” a concept I don’t remember very well now but vaguely know was, like, a thing I thought about occasionally – BUT at Waffle House, it was cool to like Sassy Patty – and Sassy Patty loved the crew of which I was a proud member. She didn’t just love us, she knew our names. We were greeted, personally, one by one, when we walked through the door, like royalty. So we were always the coolest at the Waffle House; no matter who else was there that night, we ran the show. You can take all the pictures you want with this woman and caption them on Facebook about how funny she is and what a good time you had, but I’m over here laughing ‘cause I know Patty secretly hates this and probably you. She whispered it to us.
And then, after one final tearful night, I left.
For years while studying writing in New York, Sassy Patty was my muse. It started after I presented a sketch about her to my freshman class and got the biggest laughs of the day. I called her to let her know what a hit she was, hoping she understood they were laughing at her big vibrant incredible personality, not at a stereotype. …Hoping that I hadn’t painted her as a stereotype.
For the rest of my time in college, I continued to write about her – placing her in all sorts of scripts she could star in – not some actress to PLAY her, but ACTUALLY her. I made it my mission to make Patty Motherfucking Lytle a star! And every time I’d go home for Winter Break or Summer Break or Spring Break, she’d ask:
When am I gonna see ya on TV?!
And I’d explain, “YOU’RE going to be the one on TV, Patty! YOU are the star.” And I genuinely did think I was going to make this woman a star – this woman who was one of a kind, in the actual sense of the expression that makes you THINK about the expression, not just acknowledging it’s a cliché set of words and you know what they mean when put together. There was
She was the only individual that was this. This wholly unique, wholly perfect creature deserved the spotlight whether she wanted it or not (I never asked).
The closest I ever came was giving her a copy of the script I had written for her. She read it in the booth next to me, noted the inaccuracies I had made, but cried a bit and said she would be framing it. To celebrate, we put “Friends in Low Places” on the jukebox and screamed it together, her smoky growl taking the melody to places so low, Garth Brooks never dared dream them.
I never came out to Sassy Patty; I was far too protective of losing our bond and the many risk assessments I’d done in my head had always bolted out of the closet screaming a resounding “NOPE!” I wasn’t used to adults taking kindly to gays at this point – not enough of us in Conway had come out yet to watch our own community make the slow, beautiful progress it can boast now, nor had I moved to New York yet and seen a world where literally no one gave a fuck (except one randomly homophobic R.A. I met senior year who was probably super fucking terrible at creating safe spaces). And Sassy was a tough, God-fearing, Southern-with-a-capital-S woman.
The wannabe-progressive, rally-attending, hopefully-forward-thinking, hopefully-less-ashamed-of-myself-now version of myself cringes that I never let her know the “real me” or whatever – I guess the complete me, as I was never realer than I was at Patty’s Waffle House. To be honest, it just wasn’t worth it to me. If Patty was homophobic, I didn’t want to know. And I didn’t want her to know either, because losing her as the sun that set my soul ablaze with comfort and contentment in this place whose fabric I was never quite able to weave all 6’4” of my body and spirit into naturally and without shame, would’ve crushed me.
I don’t think she would’ve had a problem with it, though. When I asked her what she thought about Lady Gaga, she said
She reminds me of Boy George. I loved Boy George when he came out! People always tellin’ me, “But Patty! He’s a queer!” and I would say, “Hell, I don’t care!” (singing) Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma, chameleon, you come and go, you come and go.
Once while I was here with my friends Kalee and Marina, I was paying my tab and told Patty gleefully, “Marina and Kalee are on a date!” This wasn’t true, and I never told Marina and Kalee – both straight – that Patty spent the rest of her days believing they were lesbians and together – but I was drunk and morally saw nothing wrong with testing these waters using my unknowing buddies.
Well that’s nice! Looks like it’s going well! Why are YOU here with ‘em?! Come out and smoke a cigarette with me and give them some time alone! Jesus CHRIST, Michael!
See. I probably had nothing to worry about. And before our cigarette break, to celebrate the fake lesbian date happening before us, we put “Friends In Low Places” on in the jukebox and screamed it together, her smoky growl taking the melody to places so low, Garth Brooks never dared dream them.
I learned of Patty’s health problems my sophomore year of college while I was home on break. She told me over a cigarette that her doctor had demanded her stop smoking and she had a check-up the next week she wasn’t feeling hopeful about. A few weeks later, I heard she’d been fired for missing a shift.
And then, I couldn’t get a hold of her. She wasn’t answering her Facebook messages and her phone was disconnected. I asked around for new numbers, and finally got one from a reluctant employee I found on Facebook who told me shit had gone down when she was fired, and I wasn’t allowed to let anyone know where I got the number. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect Sassy to go without a fight.
I got ahold of her one more time over the phone. She told me she was doing better. Living with her family. I was happy to hear this. I promised her the next time I was in town, I would visit her no matter where I had to drive and I told her I loved her. And that was the last time I ever spoke to Sassy Patty.
You turn to look at our angel, but she’s out for a cigarette break. The sun has started to rise with a bit more intention, casting her shadow through the window and over our table between us. Kasey asks you if you want more coffee. Do you? That one’s entirely up to you.
I’m sorry I’ve taken so much of your time this morning, I just thought you’d like to know the history of this place and the star of this stage we’re sitting on. We’re enjoying our coffee on a Broadway set whose star flat-out murdered five nights a week in her prime. She was killer. She did the damn thing and never apologized once for it. And at this point, I’m unsure of my purpose without her – if my little rant is about appreciating your friendships because they can be taken from you, if in that sense it’s about the temporality of life. If it’s about the first person who I felt accepted by, or the first place where I felt accepted. If it’s The Amazing Tale of Two Wacky Worlds Colliding – that of a Rough-and-Tumble Navy-SEAL-Turned-Trucker Meeting a Sensitive, Closeted 16 Year Old and Forming a Six-Year Friendship that Felt Life-Long. (That does sound pretty epic, though, so let’s go with that one.)
All I know at this point is that Sassy Patty was one hell of a woman and has made many, many lives much, much happier and her death has shaken me.
Aww thank ya, baby, that sure is sweet of ya.
A cigarette only takes three minutes to smoke, baby!
One Christmas there was a Christmas tree hanging upside-down from the ceiling at Patty’s Waffle House. I guess this was Management’s decision because when we asked her about it, she responded
We decided it was a symbol of how upside down the world is. Other than that, I can tell you it’s straight retarded.
The world is an upside-down place, Sassy Patty. And that statement is offensive.
It’s gotten even more upside down – if that’s geometrically possible – with you gone. I pray there are other “safe spaces” for kids like me in places like Conway, Arkansas. I pray that each kid that needs one gets her own Sassy Patty whether in the local Waffle House or elsewhere. I honestly pray for these safe spaces for everyone whether they manifest themselves in a Waffle House or a bar or a Drama classroom or a drag club. I wonder if any of the employees at the other Waffle House of Conway were someone else’s Sassy Patty. I wonder if the space contained within every Waffle House’s perimeter is magical for those willing to see it this way – or perhaps forced to, given their daily experience in other spaces. One time, the rapper Fabolous – do you know Fabolous? No? Well, good. This dumbass went on an anti-Waffle House Twitter tirade, and I so distinctly remember how intensely my blood started boiling, how deeply offended I became and how silly I felt but how legitimate it all felt as well. All I could do was press the stupid “Unfollow” button, a move that he didn’t notice but one that made me feel so powerful for having stood up for something I believed in. I wonder if anyone else un-followed him that day for similar reasons. And then I wonder if any of these attempts to turn her legacy into something universal and accessible for all can even be valid, keeping in mind that she was so deeply one-of-a-kind. That maybe she was just our angel we were lucky to know. And maybe other people get something great, but no one else gets a Sassy Patty.
What I do know is, Patty, you formed the only truly safe space I’ve maybe ever found. And I thank you for it every day.
I hope you’re dancing with your husband. And I hope that even in heaven, you bring this song to depths so deep and places so low, even Garth himself hadn’t dreamed em.
Please press play:
Care to join?
Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots, and ruined your black tie affair
The last one to know, the last one to show, I was the last one you thought you’d see there
And I saw the surprise, and the fear in his eyes, when I took his glass of champagne
And I toasted you; said “Honey, we may be through, but you’ll never hear me complain!”
WAFFLE HOUSE FAMILY
Cause I’ve got friends in low places, where the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases,
My blues away; and I’ll be okay
And I’m not big on social graces, think I’ll slip on down to the oasis!
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places!
Michael Doshier is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of the electronic rock project Johnny Darlin and his visual EP Mr. Monogamy, all available at johnnydarlin.com.