Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) is one of my favorite paintings. There’s something uniquely inspirational in the drama and mystery of strangers gathered at a late-night diner. I also like it because it’s stylistically uncluttered, focused, and full of Mad Men era nostalgia. Recently, I had to pick up some friends from the airport at 5:30 am. Because I like to be painfully early, whether to catch a flight, or to pick people up, I left at 3:00 am. Naturally, I had some time to kill, so I dropped into a nearby Waffle House to see what it might have been like to be one of Hopper’s nighthawks. And also for breakfast.
After a few minutes on the interstate, I took an offramp and made a right turn onto an empty road. The darkness was occasionally punctuated by hotel marquees, stop lights, and an unmistakeable bright, yellow-blocked Waffle House sign. I pulled into the empty parking lot and backed my Jetta under the amber glow of the lone street lamp. At least someone might see me if I got mugged.
Through the windows, I saw a man behind the bar, most likely the cook, and a young lady seated at the end of the counter reading a book. Great, I wasn’t the only nighthawk. And someone should definitely see if I get mugged. I grabbed my trusty notebook from my book-bag and headed in.
There was an American flag sticker on the front door which I half expected to jingle with bells when I opened it. No bells. The globe lights above the bar bathed the dark walnut veneer of the countertop in a warm, diffuse glow. The air conditioning and refrigeration units droned in the background. A Touchtunes jukebox sat on the wall to my right along a row of red stools. It managed hit all the wrong notes of nostalgia and capitalism in one dirty, grey, plastic stroke. And who needed music when you have the soundtrack of clinking plates, and whisking eggs to accompany you?
“How ya doin babes? Just you tonight?” said the woman from the end of the counter. She was a young girl with hair as brown as the pecan pie she was having for breakfast, and judging from her black apron, also my waitress.
“Yup. Just me. Mind if I grab a booth?” I asked.
“Anywhere ya like. As you can tell we’re standing room only right now.” she said with a wink.
“I’ll keep my elbows to myself then.”
I chose a seat at the far end of the restaurant, by the window, right in front a sign that read “PLEASE RESERVE BOOTHS FOR TWO OR MORE GUESTS”. Oops. The waitress grabbed a pad from beside the register and sashayed up to my booth.
“What’ll ya have babes?” she asked. Babes. Not babe. Never babe.
“Let me start with a coffee” I said, looking around for a menu.
“I got you.”
A few seconds later, she brought me a single-page, laminated, red, white, and blue menu, because breakfast, after all, was the most American meal. It seemed like I could just point to a picture and get exactly what was in the picture. It took me a while to orient myself to the heiroglyphics. Did I want two triangles of toast, a yellow lump of eggs, and a floating disc of sausage? Or did I want white blob, a full square of toast, and yellow blob? I was still sleepy so I figured I’d play it safe. Steak and scrambled eggs please, with hashbrowns, smothered and coverd, which in Waffle House parlance meant with diced onions and cheese.
“You got it sweetpea.” Sweetpea. Things were getting serious now.
As she took my menu back, a white hatchback with Pennsylvania plates, and tinted windows pulled up to the window about twenty feet away from the diner and stopped.
“Was that car here when you pulled up?” she asked.
“God, I hope nothing weird happens tonight. It’d be great if nothing weird happened again.”
Again? I passed two Waffle Houses on the way to the airport and stopped at this one because I deemed it to be the safest looking one. Swing and a miss. As I waited for my breakfast and potential weirdness to be served, I opened my notebook and took in my surroundings. So this was what it felt like to be in the Hopper painting.
What was it about diners that alway made them feel so familiar? Was it the condiment carrier with the perpetually sticky bottles? The empty dispenser of palm-sized napkins with the syrup ring? The waitress brought me my coffee in a speckled, thick-walled, ceramic mug. It was hot, black, and tasted just enough like coffee. It met the absolute minimum definition of coffee, didn’t try to be anything more, and it was perfect.
The breakfast arrived shortly after on an oval plate. The steak was thin and shaped like no piece of meat I had ever seen before. The eggs were yellow and lumpy, just as the menu promised. The hashbrowns arrived with a very discernable, only slightly melted square of American cheese, fresh from the wrapper, slapped right on top. And I got a bonus four triangles of toast on the side. Aces!
My notebook laid opened on the table.
“You have the prettiest handwriting I’ve ever seen” she remarked.
My notes were in cursive. Rage against the dying of the cursive, I say. It was probably for the best that she didn’t clearly see what I was writing down. She might’ve thought I was a health inspector or a food critic. Maybe she thought that anyway.
A steady stream of nighthawks trickled in as I ate my uniquely delicious breakfast. A young black man with earbuds and a contruction vest ponied up to the bar while watching videos on his phone. A middle-aged white man with a goatee and a polo sat down two booths away from me, also ignoring the two person rule. After that, a lesbian couple, an older latino gentleman, and a sleepy looking freshman joined the fray. And thus the portrait was complete, the nighthawks, all together at a Waffle House at 3:00 am. And somewhere between the smothered hashbrowns and slices of toasts were little morsels of inspiration.
Author bio for Khoa Pham: I’m an aspiring writer from North Carolina. Being brand new to this craft, I’m trying to read and write as much as I can. I’m fortunate to have a colorful background that I can pull from to help me write my stories. I’m an actor, veteran, designer, woodworker, immigrant, and new father. Hopefully soon, I’ll be able to add published writer to that list. Writing has been a great outlet for me to get all of the ideas out of my brain space.
Follow him on Twitter as @khoadpham