One of those such towns was Slidell, Louisiana. Slidell is right there on Interstate 10, about halfway between New Orleans and Biloxi. Prior to that trip, I had never been to Louisiana, let alone Slidell. So, I was bound and determined to make there. Getting into the rental car, I headed east on I-10. By the time I made it to the toe part of Louisiana, it was dark. Since there were long stretches of bayou, swamp, and coastal marshes all around, there weren’t many lighted places along the highway. So, when I started seeing signs for Slidell, I got off the highway. Not knowing exactly where I was, I followed my gut instinct. I made a right turn at the stop sign, and low and behold, just ahead of me was a Waffle House! Growing up in the South of the U.S., Waffle House diners came to mean “Everybody is always welcome!” and that “Good food will always be served!” I knew I was home.
It might sound odd, but even there, in a town I had never been in before, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would find warm and welcoming people. I walked into the diner and found an empty booth. Turning my coffee cup upright and picking up a menu, I felt as if I could be in any of the thousands of other small towns around the world. A moment later, a waitress appeared from behind the counter. Seeing the signal of my upright coffee cup, she removed a coffee pot from its station, walked over, and began filling my cup.
“Evenin’, hon. Know what you want?”
“Yes, Ma’am. But first, am I in Slidell?”
She leaned back and looked at me inquisitively. “Honey, don’t you know where you are?”
“Well, not exactly, Ma’am. I flew into New Orleans; I’m headed to Biloxi; but I wanted to stop in Slidell, first.”
“Okay…” She still didn’t seem to understand.
“You see, I grew up listening to Jerry Clower, ‘The Mouth of the South’ and all of his stories about Marcel, the beer joint, log trucks, and Slidell. So, I’ve dreamed my whole life about going to Slidell, Louisiana and to southern Mississippi.”
“Well, Lord, honey – everybody knows Jerry Clower. And, yep, this here is Slidell. So, welcome!”
I smiled and almost teared up, I was so happy.
She grinned a big grin, set down the pot of coffee on my table and said, “It’s alright. So, you grew up in the South?”
“Yes, Ma’am. North Carolina.”
“Well, that’s still part of the South, so welcome home. What do you want to eat? We’ll make you something hot, and you’ll be all good.”
She took my order and went into the kitchen. Sipping on my cup of piping hot coffee, I sat there mesmerized by the sights, smells, and sounds of the diner; the lights of the traffic driving by; and the essence of everything going on outside. I kept saying to myself, quietly, “I’m in Slidell. Hot dang, I’m in Slidell! I can’t believe it. This is really cool. I’m in Slidell.”
If anybody else had walked by right then, they probably would have thought I was a crazy person, or something. That’s okay. I didn’t care. I was welcomed, and I could tell that I was.
Driving away, later, I thought about the essence of that moment and what made it so special. In looking back at the individual components and the overall whole, I realized that it was the feeling, instant friendship, and warmth of the place that made me feel so at ease.
As wonderful as the waitress had made me feel – even though I was a stranger in a strange place – I determined then and there to do my best to do likewise and pay it forward, whenever I could. I hope you’ll do similarly, when you have the chance with strangers you may meet.
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