I was trying to find the highway that would take me out of Wilmington, North Carolina, when I noticed the sign: White Front Breakfast House. I stopped. I really needed a cup of coffee.
Ten days earlier I'd packed my belongings and left my college in upstate New York to embark on an open-ended road trip. I began with the urgent sense that the journey might mark my last chance to discover something about myself and the world before the demands of life and a career took over, but all I'd learned so far was that $700 was not enough to sustain such an undertaking, especially when your car breaks down on the second day.
I found a stool at the counter and spread out my maps. My waitress wore a starched white blouse and a bouffant hairdo; I later learned that her name was Miss Dottie, and she'd been working there for 25 years. She smiled politely as she handed me a cup of coffee and a biscuit, but I could tell that she was curious. And why not? What was just beginning to dawn on me was probably obvious to her: I was lost.
The coffee was amazing, rich and dark enough to stand up to cream; the biscuit was warm and buttery, the best thing I'd eaten in days. Soon I was wishing I'd never have to leave the diner, that I'd never left New York-and that I was better at holding back tears-when a man wearing a white apron sat down next to me and asked, in a Greek accent, "Why do you cry?" He was John, the diner's owner, and within an hour he offered me a job.
The start of my waitressing career was less than auspicious. I delivered a customer who'd ordered sweet tea a cup of hot tea with sugar packets on the side and informed an incredulous couple that redeye gravy wasn't on our menu. (Anybody in the place could have told me that sweet tea is served over ice and redeye gravy doesn't need to be on the menu: it's a given at any self-respecting Southern diner.) In time, though, I learned to balance three plates on each forearm and to put in regular customers' orders as soon as I saw the people crossing the parking lot. One of them, Donn, always had corned beef hash on weekdays and, on weekends, pancakes. I waited on him no matter where he sat, which was usually booth four. Little did I know that he would one day be my husband.
Although I gave up waitressing at the end of that year and returned to New York to finish my degree, Wilmington called me back, and it's Wilmington that will always be home. I still take pleasure in breakfast at the White Front. My husband and I sit in booth four when it's open, along with our son, Kade, who loves the scrambled eggs with ketchup. Miss Dottie has since retired, but John continues to serve a classic Southern-diner breakfast, the best in town, where the coffee's strong, the biscuits buttery, and the tea sweet.