Ben Stein's Diary

Southern Sanity

Please, someone at Waffle House, move West.

By From the March 2014 issue

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Our last morning of a one-week stay in Greenville, South Carolina. Tommy is not feeling well, so Alex, our beautiful daughter in law Kitty, our angelic little granddaughter Coco, and our driver/pal Bob Noah, are eating brunch in the Spoonbread Room of the Westin Poinsett Hotel. 

It is a sunny room with floor-to-ceiling windows facing southwest flooding the light blue-and-white tile floor, the neat white tablecloths, and the beckoning buffet table. There are only a few other diners, probably because we are eating so late. Near us is a well-dressed woman in a wool suit like the ones my mother used to get at Lord & Taylor or Saks Fifth Avenue. She is with her husband, also well-dressed in a gray suit.

The woman came over to talk to me and get her photo with me. She is on the board of a number of local public/private partnerships and she is lively and articulate. She is also black and it makes me so happy that a black woman and her black husband are eating in the best dining room in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, sharing tales of executive and legislative leadership.

This is a story of what has been accomplished in the South, and in particular in Greenville, over the years. This is a city on the move, very likely the most rapidly growing industrial center in the South. It has no time for hate or racial fear. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of how magnificently the South has risen to meet and defeat the challenges of racism. I am thinking of how this country has shown its essential nobility in Greenville and all over the nation. Again, this country is far too busy to hate, and Greenville is setting the pace.

Our meal was superb. Scrambled eggs. Sausage. Bacon. Steak. Biscuits and gravy. Fried shrimp. Pancakes. Orange juice. This is all for less than 20 dollars per person in a room at least as elegant as any room I have ever seen in New York City.

Greenville has some of the best restaurants I know of. We start at the most basic—and also the most delicious—level, with The Waffle House. Probably this place is the most endearing throwback to the best of the 1950s. I usually get The All American: a waffle, city ham (no bone in), eggs over easy, and toast. Less than 10 bucks including orange juice. It is sad that there are no Waffle Houses in Los Angeles, but there are not.

Then, there is my absolute favorite dining spot on the planet, The Poinsett Club, a highly paneled enclave where people eat in perfect civility with the talented and beautiful Jean Begg at the piano playing my favorite songs, especially “That’s All.”

There is Tupelo Honey, a powerhouse of Southern food, with many kinds of chicken and potatoes and (my wife’s favorite) grits. The main street has more sushi places than I can count. Near the lobby of the Westin Poinsett there is The Nosedive, which has two-story windows and inviting music, and across the street there is The Carolina Alehouse, serving up ribs and hamburgers until midnight with such delicious fried onions you can hardly stop eating them.

I could go on but the point is that Greenville is welcome and nourishing—like your mother’s kitchen, only with a better chef than your mother (and no yelling at you about your homework or your grades). To be on or near the main street at night is like being on fraternity row in a college town, only there are men and women of all ages, and they are mostly eating, not drinking. The whole town knows my name and every face that passes calls out to me, and it’s like being back on 114th street next to Columbia in 1965. Only much better food.

Please, someone at Waffle House, bring yourselves out here to California.

I spent parts of two days at a bright, sunny secondary school here in Greenville called Christ Church Episcopal School. The building is happy, abounding with kids who look like they came out of the Brooks Brothers catalog. The boys and girls are not only good-looking but also inspiring, especially one 17-year-old economist who is going to be heard from. I am not going to embarrass him by saying his name, but he’s got big things stamped all over him. I am just in love with Greenville.

After brunch, we all caravanned (if that’s a word) over the Upcountry Historical Museum to see an exhibit about Greenville in the Civil Rights era. Photos of lunch counters. Of a mob that lynched a poor black man looking happy as they were acquitted—that was 67 years ago. Of Greenville native (and long-ago colleague) Jesse Jackson talking about the discrimination in education he faced as a young man. Then there were photos of marchers and demonstrators, and then of a blow up of a statute saying it was illegal in Greenville to serve food to white and “colored” persons at the same surface although “colored” could still buy food to take out. The amazing thing was that this was the predominant attitude about serving blacks and whites even in Silver Spring when I was a child. I assure you I saw this attitude in people extremely close to me.

What glorious progress we have made as a nation and a people.…

Then the bad times began for my wife and me. The Greenville airport was delightful, as always. Is it possible that all of the sane people in the nation had gathered in Greenville? It sure seems like it to me.

I consider Greenville, along with Midland, Texas (which has the most beautiful girl in the world working at its TSA checkpoint), and, of course, North Idaho, as the last redoubts of the mentally all-right.

But the airplane to ATL was a stone disaster. Cramped. Wildly overheated. Just painful to be in. Then, off to the departure gate to LA. As always, the nuttiest people at the entire airport were at the LAX departure gate. Just as if they had emptied a mental hospital and sent the people in it to LA.

There was a little, miserable s--t in the seat ahead of me. Even though he was a tiny little creep, he kept putting his seat right in my face. I had mad, homicidal feelings about him. But instead, I watched a great movie called Riddick about a hero in an outer space desert and then I read Military History Quarterly, my favorite magazine, until I fell asleep.

When we landed, I realized I had forgotten to call our usual car company. Like “normal” people, as my friend Bethany says, we had to pick up our own luggage and wait for a taxi. It wasn’t bad at all. We had a pleasant Iranian taxi driver who took us right to our house. The guy drove like a dervish. No problem at all. Then we had to struggle to lift our huge suitcases up to the second floor, and after that had to sulk and complain because we had traveled so far without a driver to meet us on the other end. Wow, are we spoiled babies.

Monday

Just pure exhaustion. Travel is a big thing.

Tuesday

And speaking of exhaustion, why did Barry want to be president when he is obviously bored by the job? His State of the Union was a bad joke of boredom and triviality. Does he really not get it? Job retraining rarely works. Oil and gas production are up despite his followers’ objections to hydrofracturing. How dare he brag about that? Then also, what is he talking about spending billions, trillions, to send kids to schools when they can barely get through the day without getting high and nodding off? I wonder if he knows that unemployment is falling because his pals are dropping out of the labor force altogether and thus making the employed a higher portion of the labor force.

There was no eloquence, no wit, just the plainest vanilla of big government promises.

It makes me long for Agnew and his fabulous phrases: “The nattering nabobs of negativism,” “an elite corps of impudent snobs,” and Nixon’s eloquence, “the great silent majority,” “a pitiful helpless giant,” and the best, truest phrase, “a generation of peace.”

Even Bill Clinton was better—far, far better. Clinton’s “The era of big government is over” has been replaced by variants of “40 acres and a mule.”

If Barry did not want the job, why did he run? 

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.