Fayetteville at 3 a.m.

Roving writer Wayne Bell hits the streets to find out what’s going on in the wee hours

Flashback! It was just three short years ago and you would typically find me doing the same thing every Thursday evening. My friends and I would celebrate another week of grad school (because it was SO tough, compared to the real world) by going to Common Grounds or On the Rocks for dinner.  After dinner, we would venture over to Party on the Patio at Powerhouse for a couple of Kilowatts. This seemed to be the norm my first year of grad school, but by year two, we alternated with The Gypsy. Around 2:30 a.m., we would all look at each other and wonder what to do next. Our savior was a little Mexican restaurant that shall remain nameless that was located near Harp’s on Garland. On countless early mornings it would be full of college kids nursing potential hangovers. It had the worst Mexican food—make that food—in Fayetteville, but it didn’t matter. It was something to do—almost a right of passage for every college kid. The restaurant closed about two years ago, leaving a void.

Flash forward to now. Now, I get up at 6:15 every morning. I see Meredith, Matt, Al and Ann for the first 30 minutes of the Today show before climbing onto I-540. I work until 5 and then make a beeline for my spinning class at Pulse in south Fayetteville. After class, I sometimes take another class and it is often close to 8 p.m. when I head home. After making a quick dinner and catching up on my TIVO, I go to bed to start it all over again. I actually caught myself going to bed at 7:30 last week. There was a time when I would have thought I had a medical condition for going to bed at 7:30, but now I relish the opportunity.

So what is going on in Fayetteville at 3 a.m. these days? I pushed myself to out of my regular routine to find out. Here’s the scoop.

First to Wal-Mart
I can honestly say that I wasn’t the only one driving the roads at 3 a.m.  There was a handful of people getting pulled over by the cops and I even witnessed one lady trying to walk the line…unsuccessfully. But it would be foolish to say that the majority of people out were club-hoppers from Dickson.

More and more companies are offering night shifts at higher wages and a variety of local businesses operate a third shift. I hear my neighbors up on Markham Hill, rolling in at 3 or 4 a.m. on many mornings.

And, then there are those insomniacs. A growing number of people suffer from insomnia. It’s a real problem, not just one drummed up by the drug companies that sell their goods on those constant television commercials.  According to Wikepedia (where were you Wikepedia when I was writing my thesis?), 32 million Americans, or one in eight people report frequent insomnia. It’s a multi-million dollar industry that I believe Fayetteville entrepreneurs are missing out on. Much like my Aunt Sheila, Fayetteville should really start to benefit from other peoples’ misery.

Since most of the bars close at 2 a.m., what is there to do after that?

My mother used to tell me that the best time to go to Wal-Mart is at 3 a.m. because nobody else goes then. She was actually kind of right. There aren’t many shoppers at Wal-Mart at 3 in the morning. However, on a recent trip to the Wal-Mart on Sixth Street, the store was full at 3 a.m.—full of workers restocking shelves and full of giant pallets of merchandise blocking shoppers who were trying to navigate the aisles.

I asked a young lady named Sarah why she worked that shift and she said it was a second job for her. She said a number of people did the same thing.  I can’t imagine what that must feel like. I have a new found respect for people working that shift. I’m not sure if they receive a higher wage, but by all means, they should.

The thing that surprised me about Wal-Mart at 3 a.m. was the variety of people who were in the store. There were a lot of seniors, a few college kids, and a lot of people who appeared to have recently gotten off work from their primary job. I saw a number of familiar badges from a local poultry giant.

It became clear to me that many of these people weren’t electing to shop at 3 in the morning, but that it was simply the only time they could. As I left Wal-Mart, I noticed that a few Wal-Mart workers were also getting off work or leaving. That must be a difficult pattern to adjust to. I only wish Target—my first love—would consider staying open late.

Next up: Food
Next, I decided to get something to eat. I know of four restaurants that are open around the clock. For this evening, I decided to try the Waffle House. I walked in the front door and was taken aback by how busy they were. There seemed to be a number of truck drivers, a few college kids, a questionable professional (YES!), and even a family with a child (Hmmm). The thing that struck me most about my visit to Waffle House was the look of sadness on my waitress’ face.

Now I won’t even attempt to presume anything here, but I remember when I was getting my undergraduate degree in Jonesboro, I frequented a Perkins restaurant every night with my buddy, Cheadle. There was this waitress there who had the exact same look as the waitress at Waffle House. It’s a mix of sadness and hollowness. You can only imagine the patience and endurance it takes to consistently appear friendly and serve some of the characters who frequent these places at 3 in the morning. If college kids these days are anything like I was back in the Perkins days, it’s tough to cough up the change for endless coffee, let alone a 15 percent tip. Plus, what’s 15 percent of 75 cents to a waiter or waitress who’s working all night?

I sat down next to a woman who told me that she comes to this Waffle House at least three times a week in the early morning hours. She said that’s when she does her best thinking. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but she did look like she knew every other character and staff member at the restaurant.

A friend of mine recently described a similar situation that she encountered on a late night run to I-Hop. It’s sort of sad, and yet at the same time exhilarating, to see this entire early morning subculture that exists in Fayetteville.

More shopping
After my visit to Waffle House, I stopped by the only all-night Walgreen’s in Fayetteville. It was empty.  If I was the young lady working at the front desk, I would have been fearful. I asked her why she worked that shift and she said it was a great shift for getting homework done. I know a few night auditors at hotels who share the same belief. I have to wonder though how these people can train their bodies and minds to work around that schedule and still pull grades in college.

While I was at Walgreen’s, a rather suspect looking group of young guys came into the store. They were acting suspicious, pacing up and down the place without picking up any items. After a few minutes, they left. I had to wonder if the woman behind the counter felt pangs of fear every time something like this happens. I didn’t ask. I simply paid for my Arizona Tea and left. I wondered if they would come back. I worried about her. I have the same fear for peers who work the late night shift at gas stations. Now that more and more businesses are closing earlier, I wonder if my fears are shared?

What’s up in ER?
To conclude my evening—or I should say morning—I went to the Emergency Room at Washington Regional Medical Center at 4:45 a.m. It wasn’t that crowded. There were however a few sick people and a rather serious looking situation that clearly involved driving while intoxicated. The staff seemed rather high-spirited. They must have been chugging coffee. I noticed on the TV in the waiting area that CNN was beginning its morning news programming.

Back to my world
Looking back on the events of this early morning outing, I realized that my adventure wasn’t quite as bad as I expected it to be and that I did find ways to occupy my time. In reality there are only three hours or so between the time that Dickson Street closes and the time that a lot of restaurants and bakeries open for breakfast.

When I came home after my adventures in the real world, I noticed that there was activity in cyberspace in the early morning hours, too. There were a number of people on Yahoo Instant Messenger.

I reflected on my early morning venture when I got home. I realized I have a great deal of respect for people who work at 3 in the morning and tolerate undesirable conditions. I realized that in order for Fayetteville to truly be a city, there must be more “presence” at these early hours.

When I have visited New York, LA, even Little Rock and Memphis, I haven’t suffered from lack of early morning things to do.  However, in Fayetteville, it was a real stretch.

I’m not advocating that everything should stay open all-night and suddenly Bordino’s is serving Duck and Eggs at 4 a.m. But a great deal of this town is centered around college kids, with little to no responsibility, and they are looking for something to do when their hands finally wear out after playing PlayStation late into the night.

On a more serious note, we have a variety of workers who don’t get off until early in the morning, and they should have similar opportunities. I do commend places like Walgreen’s for staying open and even the Post Office for having limited or automated services that we can use at any hour. I have noticed that technology helps.

I occasionally suffer from insomnia and I used to rely on late night infomercials to put me to sleep. Now with the magic of TIVO or DVR, I can catch up on last week’s Sopranos on my own schedule. That is a nice feature of modern technology.

I suppose the final verdict on Fayetteville at 3 a.m. would be optimistic and yet disappointed. We have some opportunities, and yet in the end, we still yearn for crappy Mexican food and half-price drinks. Or, maybe I’m just yearning for the time when I could stay up till 3.

Categories: Features