HECTOR SCHECHNER JOINED ME at a Waffle House in Nashville in the early afternoon of Tuesday, July 4. Schechner chose this location for our meeting because this is the very same Waffle House — one in a chain of over 1,500 restaurants in 25 states — where Bill Hicks once sat alone and read part of a book, silently.
It was 18 years ago that Hicks’ late-night public display of literacy at this Waffle House provoked him to create the following routine:
“I was in Nashville, Tennessee, last year. After the show I went to a Waffle House. I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me.”
[Lip-smackin’, gum-chompin’ waitress sounds.]
“ ‘Hey! Whut-chew readin’ for?’
“Isn’t that the weirdest fucking question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for?
“ ‘Well . . . goddamnit, you stumped me! Why do I read? Well . . . hmm. I don’t know. I guess I read for a lot of reasons. And the main one is so I don’t end up . . . being a fucking waffle waitress.’
“Then this trucker in the next booth gets up. Stands over me and says, ‘Well . . . Looks like we got ourselves a reader . . .’ ”
WHEN HICKS WAS HERE, IT WAS with the late-night crowd — stoned teenagers with the munchies, and drunken grown-ups prowling for book readers to hogtie, drag to death and dump in a ditch. The crowd’s different during the day. And even though today is Tuesday, because it’s a national holiday it feels more like a Sunday, so Waffle House draws a Sunday-style crowd.
Every booth is filled. Every shoe has been shined, each pleat pressed and buttonhole buttoned. The air is thick with bacon and Old Spice.
Schechner points something out. It seems he’s detected an unusual pattern. I get up and walk around, as nonchalantly as possible, table to table, to see if Schechner’s right.
He is: Every table other than ours is occupied by a family of three, four or five. And in each family, at least one person is reading a book, in some cases out loud. A black, hardbound book, about the size of a DVD case, only twice or three times as thick. Schechner and I are the only people in the whole restaurant not reading or being read to.
“Holy shit,” I say, returning to our corner table.
“The holiest,” says Schechner. “I wish Hicks could see this. You didn’t happen to catch any of the titles, did you?”
GOD MAKES WAFFLES, SATAN MAKES COFFEE. Schechner and I consume both, and talk politics. Quietly, at first. “But if it’s going to last,” says Schechner, louder, “a democratic republic requires an acute lack of fucking morons. Doesn’t matter who the monarch is. I mean, it does, but it doesn’t. You know? As long as this many voters believe that the universe is a monarchy, we’re fucked. Fucked, fucked, fucked. Now even more than when Hicks was here. Which is fucking pathetic.”
I say, “Yup.” I say, “Maybe not so loud.”
So Schechner gets louder. Bad habit. “The only people who buy that Rove crap anymore are the ones who need pigheaded father figures.”
“Volume check,” I advise.
“No volume check about it,” Schechner almost shouts. “They need their Big Daddy to decide everything for them. Big Daddy in the sky, Big Daddy in the White House, right? Big Daddy to run the world like it’s a small-town general store, because otherwise life is just a sexually transmitted disease, right? Fucking morons.”
“Back in a minute,” I say, rising, trying to avoid eye contact with our neighbors. “While I’m gone, try to shut the fuck up.”
I RETURN TO FIND SCHECHNER settled considerably, pondering one of the framed Norman Rockwell posters. “Sorry about that,” he says. “If anyone starts to lynch you, I’ll tell them it was all me.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.”
Schechner claims that Hicks’ late-night reading adventure here took place on or around the Fourth of July, 1988. Today’s another election-year Fourth of July, right on schedule: two weeks after another failed flag-burning amendment, two weeks before gasoline prices drop. Like clockwork.
Hicks had this to say about that ritual:
“ ‘Hey, buddy, my daddy died for that flag.’
“ ‘Really? I bought mine. Yeah, they sell them at Kmart and shit.’
“ ‘He died in the Korean War.’
“ ‘Wow, what a coincidence. Mine was made in Korea.’
“No one — and I repeat, no one — has ever died for a flag. See, a flag is just a piece of cloth. They may have died for freedom, which is also . . . the freedom to burn the fuckin’ flag.”
Moved by the historic occasion, Schechner makes the mistake of reciting Hicks’ flag bit out loud. A bit too loud, for we receive what I believe to be many sincere expressions of profound disapproval from families as near as beside us and as far as the far corner of the room.
And it is from this most distant family’s table that a small white child is released and approaches. He must be about 8 or 9, and looks very much the way I looked at that age, when garbed to play the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy in a fourth-grade play.
Fauntleroy of Nashville stops at our table, all finery and curls. Poor li’l fucker. “Hello,” says Fauntleroy. “My name is Travis York Detamore, and this is a present from my family ?to yours.”
Master Detamore places a book on our table — a book like everyone else’s. “You don’t have to read it,” he whispers. “You just have to like it.” Then he scampers back to the far corner, ?to rejoin his proud parents, who wave. Schechner and I ?wave back.