Yellow beacon of glowing hope

We flew to Charlotte to celebrate my birthday and see my family for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Our once-direct flight was cancelled once and rescheduled twice, becoming a red-eye connecting through Chicago.

We collected our bags and checked in at the car rental desk. We stood for an hour, watching a screeching child enjoy the sound of her echoing voice while her brother did speed-runs with her stroller up and down the crowded lobby. Mom shot video on her phone. Grampa began wrangling the children only after the grumbling of other passengers became audible.

Enterprise was simply out of cars. We each waited in line for a car to come in and be cleaned and handed off to us. Our Camry was still wet as we drove out of the parking garage.

While we snacked on the plane, we hadn’t really eaten and hoped to use our early arrival as an excuse to drop into Waffle House for breakfast.

The snafu with the car rental meant we were no long early and pulled into a Waffle House parking lot just a little before noon and discovered a line out the door and standing room only. Not the place to be in a pandemic. We drove away unfulfilled.

The following Friday, on my birthday, after a week of driving around North Carolina seeing old friends and family we tried again. Success! We arrived to the Waffle House on Independence Boulevard between the breakfast and lunch rushes. A handful of folks waited for takeout. The booths were mostly empty.

Waffle House parking lot

The man running the kitchen shouted over in our general direction that “y’all can sit wherever” and we took a booth by the window, overlooking a patch of grass and the road outside. A single, wet, dining chair stood alone in the grass outside the window.

We ordered coffees and I consulted the menu even though I knew exactly what to get.

I ordered a pecan waffle (for the table) and the Texas Bacon Egg & Cheese Melt with hash browns. This collects your eggs, bacon, and Texas toast together into a convenient sandwich. The melted cheese provides structural support.

My hash browns are smothered (in onions) and covered (with cheese).

This morning a new cook was training. Our waiter called out orders and guidance to the cook over his shoulder as he refilled coffee and took new orders.

The cook was fumbling a bit, struggling to keep up. Our waiter held orders in his head until he saw the cook had things back under control. There was no shouting or anger, just well timed instructions out to the grill in Waffle House lingo. Smothered, covered, number 2. We watched a short order cook being born.

We went to pay the bill. Our waiter told us the total was $200 and grinned devilishly. We all laughed and I over-tipped.

I spent a lot of time in Waffle House during those in-between years after starting college, before turning 21. Diners would get annoyed over my girlfriend’s clove cigarettes (a cloud of regular cigarette smoke was fine of course). We tried to be nice and we tried to tip. We were civilized but broke. Charlotte had no night life for anyone under 21 and coffee shops weren’t a thing yet. So Waffle House was that 3rd place that’s not home nor work. My feelings for the place are a tangle of genuine love, nostalgia, and irony which doubles back on itself to become pure admiration.

It’s in that spirit I wanted to recreate the iconic Waffle House sign as a piece for Instagram.

I can only imagine the Waffle House sign at night, glowing yellow in the dark. So I recreated each block of the sign as an illustration in Sketch.

Sketch is a tool used by user interface designers to draw buttons and widgets for web pages and apps. It’s totally the wrong tool to use for Illustration, which makes it perfect for me.

I created each letter on its own art board, complete with the hint of glowing fluorescent bulbs beneath plastic. I lightened and darkened some blocks to get that important irregular appearance that all these signs have. I made a few alternate versions of the F - on, off, and half-way - which I then animated to get that special flicker.

Animated image depicting a flickering lighted sign

“Waffle House” has eleven letters. I needed one more element to complete a nice even grid for Instagram. I chose to illustrate a fried egg.

This was fun to create. Instead of “painting” the egg is created from many layers of geometrically defined shapes, stacked atop each other with varying levels of blur and transparency to create the illusion of a rubbery fried egg.

Illustration of a fried egg

You can see the finished piece on my Instagram, or on my website:

View Art Button

And finally, if you’ve never seen it, enjoy this exchange between Chef Sean Brock and Anthony Bourdain at Waffle House.

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