Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Waffle Street by James Adams

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 2010

It's about: This is a memoir by James Adams, who worked as an analyst for a hedge fund at a major money management firm until he was unexpectedly laid off. In order to qualify for unemployment, the state requires him to be actively seeking work. Lacking any other immediate options, Adams fills out an application at McDonalds. He gets the silent treatment from Mickey-D's, so he expands his horizons. A few days later, he starts training at Waffle House as a server, and continues to work long, exhausting shifts there for the better part of six months.

The book aims to simultaneously educate and entertain. Anecdotes from Adams' personal experience as a waiter at a 24-hour diner are interspersed with informal lessons about basic economics and financial markets.

I thought: It is always a joy to be pleasantly surprised by a book. I cracked this baby open thinking I might have to wade through pages of Econ 101 pedantry in order to find a few humorous and/or poignant gems. And there is quite a bit of economics primer-type material that, honestly, wasn't very interesting to me. But Adams' tone is conversational, never condescending. He uses relevant, easy-to-understand metaphors, and explains things nicely in layman's terms. So the economics bits were not as tedious as I expected.

To balance out the educational stuff, the Waffle House stories were wonderful. I laughed aloud on several occasions, and I looked forward to opening this book each day because its characters (can they be called that when they're real people?) fascinated, amused, and puzzled me. Adams is at his best when he's drawing connections between Waffle House phenomena and seemingly unrelated situations; for example, the restaurant at 2 a.m. reminds him of a scene from Platoon in which a "hopelessly outnumbered U.S. Army battalion watches helplessly as its position is overrun by hundreds of frenzied North Vietnamese troops." That mental picture, wait staff v. inebriated customers, just makes me giggle. Also, he finds several opportunities to use the word "fisticuffs." Ha! That word will never stop being funny to me.

Adams does have a strong, distinctive voice. He's very intelligent and self-assured, the kind of guy you can imagine working on Wall Street. He occasionally comes off as cluelessly arrogant- a mention of the $800 shoes he wore to his first shift at Waffle House comes to mind. I understand the point he's making, but it's a tidbit that most readers won't find endearing. I have to hand it to him, though, for writing honestly and resisting the urge to put a shiny P.R. spin on himself.

As I got further into the book, I found myself enjoying the personal narrative more and more and the financial material less and less. But I can think of several people off the top of my head who I know would actually wish for more finance. So it's a matter of taste, I suppose. Waffle Street is a great choice if you're looking for a break from Literature-with-a-capital-"L" but you still want to use your brain. You just might learn something about the history of finance in the U.S. and be entertained. I enjoyed it.

Verdict: It's on my shelf!

Reading Recommendations: You will want to eat at Waffle House. Mmmmm, cheap diner food.

Warnings: none

Favorite excerpts:
"Since my argument with Debbie on statistical sampling, I had only conceived of one other application of material I had learned in business school- namely, the revenue potential of shared marketing arrangements. The classic example of this strategy is promoting Disney film franchises with plastic toys included in McDonald's Happy Meals. Because school-age kids are huge consumers of both fast food and animated media, the marriage works beautifully. Similarly, I envisioned Waffle House teaming with the county board of health in offering a discounted cervical cancer vaccine with every All-Star Special ordered between 2 and 4 a.m."

What I'm reading next: Atonement by Ian McEwan