MOTEL BREAKFAST BARS (or how Southern Hospitality leads to David Phelps?) By John Watts


Travel writer Paul Theroux was right when he mentions how southerners go the extra distance with their hospitality.  Why on the recent one week driving plunge down south my wife and I shared together we came up  with more episodes of good old southern charm than all the  combined fingers on our several hands combined could  count of strangers taking extra time to make sure our questions where addressed and to attend to our general wellbeing.

At a gas station we not only got good directions the first time from the nearby stranger we approached; we also got a heavy dose of thoroughness and consideration.  The stranger returned to our car just in case his directions were at all vague and so he could review it again and make sure our outcome looked certain.  Very rarely in Northern Virginia would a harried gas pumper ever bother to invade someone’s personal space that many times, much less make friendly eye contact.

At a drug store we had the same clerk leave his cash register 2 times just to make sure we found the cold medicine we were looking for in the isle he pointed out for us and to personally add that she hoped we would be feeling better very soon.

But all this is just a lead in to the main event that I wanted to proffer as my ultimate showcase for testing southern hospitality–the motel breakfast bar.  It is amazing how ONE dedicated and exuberant breakfast bar attendant can make the most predictable chain that much tastier and special.

Indeed when your breakfast bar person is warm and gracious, suddenly your morning outlook brightens up and goes from a drab, grey farm house Kansas outlook to a dazzling Technicolor Oz hue. No longer does the motel feel standardized anymore—even if the flowers are fake and the picture frames were all selected in a calculated chain manner by a committee of business psychiatrists.

Yes thanks to this special, charismatic breakfast bar person you feel like you are in their private kitchen, for all the pride they exude.

And don’t we ALL need some reassurance and cheer in the morning when in the midst of a long road trip when we are pushing our comfort zone envelope?

Some of it is just good old common sense.

Surely the friendliness of the worker is generally indicative of the quality of the service and the taste of the food too as people that care more tend to sweat the small details.

Certainly socially adept workers are more motivated to attend to replenishing food and drinks—often with the efficiency of some hybrid creature having octopus arms combined with cheetah speed.  Even if the sausage links are lukewarm and the scrambled eggs are soggy.  A multitude of sins can be covered up when your breakfast attendant first utters that phrase, “Good morning Hon!”

And as a basic rule of thumb; greetings done in the mornings by us fellow human beings tend to be of a more sacred and galvanizing variety as they still come infused with some measure of HOPE and fellowship; well before the cynical, “business as usual” edges of the afternoon creep in with the verdict fast approaching as to how the day is to be written.

Still I would argue that the morning greeting being done in the south carries with it much more of a powerful exclamation point than anywhere else in the country.

We had several such special encounters at our various Hampton Inns and Best Westerns when we toured the areas around Memphis and Nashville.

At the Memphis Best Western we were greeted by the irresistible force of a lady that single handedly kept the breakfast bar restocked no matter the volume as she heartily called out “Good Morning Dear” to each and every guest stumbling out of the elevator for a new chance at a better life.

It takes a special person indeed to treat strangers almost like family in a work environment that changed customers so rapidly.  But the best breakfast bar workers wouldn’t want it any other way.   And soon enough, a ripple effect occurs, as normally tight lipped, non-morning people suddenly acknowledge others as positive eaves dropping and conversational starters abound.

Soon you are learning how to access the cheapest mode of transportation for leaving the motel for the city.  Secrets of a city and great personal insights flow freely and help you unlock great discoveries previously unknown thanks to these breakfast bar saints.  I vividly recall at the Nashville Best Western meeting a very friendly New Yorker who was traveling alone.  He told us that he supplied dorm posters to college campuses.  “God bless” he said as he returned back to the lobby to start his work day.  This was all due to the ice breaking presence of our breakfast bar lady.

This makes me pose the question—“was the New Yorker just naturally friendly or was the south influencing him to be that way?”

Perhaps the quirkiest breakfast bar encounter on the trip was at a crowded Hampton Inn at Columbia, Tennessee where it was obvious that a convention of respectable looking housewives and seniors were gathering and comparing notes.  What the buzz was about I couldn’t quite ascertain at first but I knew something was in the air.

The hotel guests introduced themselves as strangers but seemed aligned to some greater cause or mission.

And I badly wanted to know.  Was it a business group?  A religious retreat?

Turns out wrong on all counts.

The fervor and hubbub, I soon learned (thanks to my breakfast bar lady as you might have guessed) was all over a gospel tenor singer named David Phelps.

Groupies were flocking to see this guy David Phelps.  More precisely; they were attending some kind of annual Barn Bash at David Phelps own personal barn.

One encounter led to another and soon I was proselytized by scores of sedately sincere ladies each time I smiled at a new face or said “excuse me” to get closer to my appointed place at the breakfast bar.  “So THIS was why so many of the hotels along the exit where filled!” I exclaimed to one of his loyal fans.

And what a crush these crazy silver haired ladies had!  What commitment to their star!

It seemed to me that at every table and throng I stepped past, 2 or more woman were comparing notes about their favorite subject.  “Have you been to a David Phelps CD recording?  It’s something NOT to be missed.”

When I asked one lady if she SANG with David Phelps (for I was very naïve initially) she giggled and her face turned red as she told me: “oh, no—but I DO sing with him every morning when I apply makeup and take my shower and fix my breakfast and drive my car.”

Feeling like an alien that had been PLOPPED down in the middle of this scene, I was fascinated by not only the sheer devotion of this fandom, but by how SAFE and late in life it had arrived for these ladies!

The ladies probably thought of me as a novelty worth writing about in their respective journals (“hmm, dear diary, this man we met today has never heard of our own David Phelps.  Imagine!”) just as much as I thought them a novelty too on my end of it.

So that’s the end of my little story on breakfast  bar heroism and all that going the extra mile stuff that is a  legend built on solid fact down south.   We saw this time and time again on our car tour.  And not just by museum curators and salesmen that had something to gain.  I noted numerous occasions in my journal that made all the difference and provided so much color to the trip.

I guess the next thing I need to do is actually LISTEN to this gospel tenor singer named David Phelps.  Then I can return to the south and be ARMED and ready to respond when I see a gaggle of silver haired, salt of the earth mothers and wives groupies that are just BUSTING to tell the world why they have all gathered at this particular hotel exit and breakfast bar!

And to think–all these worlds of information were provided free of charge by all those aforementioned, irresistibly genuine breakfast bar missionaries.

For this sole reason do we will ourselves into our cars time and time again and hit that lonely ribbon of highway in the opposite direction of home!


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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