Tucson’s Late-Night Church

By Matthew McNulty/El Inde

The bright lights of the Waffle House off Tucson’s Grant and I-10 pierce the night at 2 a.m. like a kind of comforting beacon to all who may enter. Inside, the quiet hum of the lighting feels almost like a church-like quietness, punctuated only by the scripture of the cook’s spatula on the grill and the crackling noise of eggs frying on the skillet.

The harsh white lights and tile feel almost clinical for a late night food run. Photo by Matthew McNulty.

Working the night shift isn’t for everyone. Joey describes the kind of late-night occurrences he has witnessed in his 11-hour shift running from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. as “Some crazy stuff.” He describes fights, public intoxication, and even having been robbed for a grand total of $65 from the restaurant’s register before—all part of Tucson’s nightlife culture. In fact, there’s a real element of culture one can feel on a late night at Waffle House.

There’s something mystical about watching Joey move around and work on the grill. Calm, slow, deliberate movements combine in an unbelievably casual manner to pop out full plates of food in incredible time. The time between my ordering two over medium eggs and hashbrowns with toast and it sitting in front of me may have been an already lightning-quick 5 minutes, but watching him do the work makes it feel instantaneous. The restaurant may be quiet on what seems to be a slow night; hearing the cooking noises at such a rapid pace is a musical soundtrack.

Joey knows everything there is to know about his workspace, and excitedly shares this information. Photo by Matthew McNulty.

In his words, Joey has “only” been working as a cook at Waffle House for 5 years, though he knew cooking was always his passion and what he wanted to do. It really took hold while he cared for his grandparents, preparing their meals for them. After their unfortunate passing, Joey applied for a job at Waffle House.

Joey describes his cooking with humility. “I cook how I would want to eat, no burned stuff, just properly done.” A statement that holds true looking at any of the number of plates he is stacking crispy hashbrowns and eggs on throughout the night. All this experience and his confidence behind the grill are so casually displayed, movements aren’t hurried, but they aren’t slow either. Just a confident, steady hand at work making all-day breakfast food for the masses.

After getting trained by his first manager in 2017, Joey learned to cook the options one can see on a waffle house menu. He has a small smile and cracks a quick laugh as he describes having to flip eggs basically nonstop for the whole day. He picked it up quickly and built his confidence behind the counter, even being able to flip eggs with both hands at the same time.

He doesn’t brave the night alone. Marilyn, the waitress, is also on hand. She has a similarly calm demeanor but gets excited when someone asks her about her day and life, taking orders and relaying them to Joey so he can work his magic on the grill.

Both know how hard it is to find brave souls like them who are willing to face the creatures of the night and work at Waffle House. Describing issues with prior employees and the need for new hires, Marilyn has had to also work the grill- if it was making scrambled eggs, she says, with a laugh.

The two of them share a unique chemistry, with quick quips to each other along with orders quickly and serving the food mere minutes later. Joey makes a whole meal over easy eggs, hashbrowns, toast, and bacon appear in a few minutes with such a casual demeanor. It speaks to the level of experience that he gained over 5 years as a short-order cook in such a hectic, fast-paced environment.

Having once been a Sign Language interpreter but growing tired of it, Marilyn always wanted to work with her hands. She has only been at Tucson’s Waffle House employee for three months, but still shares with Joey the experience of the job at hand.

She is currently working to support her six children, as well as going to school to become a massage therapist. Still, Marilyn giggles, recounting her three hours of sleep and several 5-hour energy shots she consumed during the day. With a school schedule that runs from 4 to 8 pm and a 9 pm to 8 am shift at Waffle House, she considers herself “nocturnal”.

This is a story about one Waffle House out of many. But it is easy to imagine scenes like these playing out at about any location: Whether it’s the family putting their spare tire on in the soft yellow light of the sign at 2 a.m., the college students headed home after a night out, or the truckers stopping for a meal and coffee.

Taking down the order with a pen and paper for a national chain Waffle House still does a lot of things the old fashioned way. Photo by Matthew McNulty.

The Waffle House at Tucson’s Grant and I-10  feels as though it’s a little cross-section of the country. An identifiable cultural phenomenon that anyone has either experienced or otherwise heard about. The clinical feel of white tile walls and floors and a harsh white and yellow color scheme of lighting plays tricks on your eyes in the night. Bathed in the soft yellow light of the front sign, with a help wanted sign on the door, the quiet refuge of Waffle House contains its own answers to what it means to be alive—and hungry—in this time and place.

The Beacon for the late night retreat, located right off I-10 and Grant Road in Tucson. Photo by Matthew McNulty.

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