Friday, March 25, 2016

Road Trip 2016-The End

I can’t figure out Florida.  It confuses me somehow.   My hotel was on the Interstate, which I wanted to leave, but I had gotten a late start.  I felt tired so I slept in, had a banana and a cup of coffee for breakfast at a gas station, filled up and drove onto the on ramp towards Orlando.  It was the path of least resistance.  I’d strike out into rural Florida later.

You can get lulled almost to sleep on the Interstate.  There’s not much new to look at out there.  It’s the same hotels, restaurants, and gas stations on the signs along the highway.  I didn’t play any music, just zoned out and drove.  It’s what I imagine truck drivers do, just keep the wheels turning, put in the time, and get closer to home.  In this case, I was going to be with my wife and family at the end of the day.

Before I knew it I was heading towards Orlando.  I successfully avoided Orlando as an American parent.  I told my kids I could take them to Mexico or Guatemala for more days than it would cost to spend four days at Disney World.  It worked.  I took both my kids on I Care missions, where they helped people and saw the world as it exists outside their own country, and never had to stand in line for Space Mountain or any of the other rides.  For that I’ve always felt blessed.

Orlando is huge.  The Buick and I were on Interstate 4, and I swear I couldn’t get out of that town.  And everything looked new.  That’s what confuses me about Florida.  What did it used to be?  Do they tear down every building after thirty years? Is this all new development?

My Dad, whose brother lived in Florida, and who visited there only once that I know of, for my Uncle’s funeral, didn’t care much for the Sunshine State.  He said it was all sand and swamp.  Central Illinois farmers get very snobby about their moisture holding black dirt.  He used to say that contractors would pile five concrete blocks, one on top of the other, on a potential building site in Florida, go for lunch, and if when they came back four blocks were still visible, they’d build a house there.  Not only that, but by the end of the month there would be a whole town built up around that one house.  He tended to exaggerate, my Dad, but he may have been on to something about Florida.  There is development, and there are lakes and swamp, and I have yet to determine if there is anything else.  But I’ve only passed through quickly.

After I got past Orlando, and Kissimmee, no easy task, I stopped at a Wendy’s near Loughman.  I went inside, had a lemonade, and studied my Atlas.  I was disturbingly close to Tampa, my real destination being Oldsmar tucked inside Tampa somewhere.  Florida is narrow.  You can’t drive far before you’re on the other side.  My last good chance to drive somewhere outside a metropolitan area was to take Route 27 up to 50, cut over towards Minneola, and follow that down to Weeki Watchee.  So that was a plan.  I asked the kid at the counter where I could pick up 27 and he pointed out the window.  The Wendy’s was on 27.  Good deal.

So I went north, thinking I was out of the Orlando/Kissimmee/Winter Garden/Pine Hills/Conway mess of houses and strip malls, but I found more of it.  On the map it looked like open country, and my map was a Rand McNally 2016 Road Atlas, supposedly up to date.  But instead of open Florida, there was a sidewalk running for a good three miles on my right, a sidewalk built where there were no houses, and on my left was one damn little subdivision of one story houses after another.  Not that I have anything against subdivisions.  Well yeah, I guess I do.  I was tired of them.
 
To make matters worse I never found Route 50.  Either it wasn’t marked, or I didn’t see it, but it never showed up. I became disgusted, was sure I’d gone too far, and turned back the way I came.  Didn’t see it the second time either.  So I continued, went past the Wendy’s and rejoined Interstate 4.  Both Rand and McNally, if they are two separate people, blew that one, as did my phone, which proved to be not so smart.  I gave up and let the crowded four lane limited access highway with all the traffic take me clear into Tampa where I put my brother in law’s address in my phone and followed it like a lemming to his house.  Actually I drove past it once.  I think I was looking on the wrong side of the road.

And thus the road trip ended.  After all the beauty of the back roads, the honky tonks, the unexpected discoveries, and the characters I encountered; my final day was solitary and dull, pounding it down the interstate like everyone else.  I’ll have to discover rural Florida another time. 


The trip ended officially when I saw my wife.  She was smiling and waving, standing by a carport, showing me where to park.  It was good to see her, good to be once again in the company of someone I love, back in the arms of someone who loves me. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Road Trip 2016 # 12

Savannah Georgia is old.  It was founded in 1733 about 20 miles up the Savannah River from the Atlantic Ocean.  It was and is an important port.  When the plantations of the South were growing cotton and indigo and tobacco for trade with Europe much of it was shipped out of Savannah.  And when ships from England and elsewhere returned they brought goods back to the colonies through Savannah.  It was an economic engine of the South.  When the Union Army marched to the sea toward Savannah a deal was struck outside the city that the city would concede if it was spared from burning and destruction.  That deal made Savannah the tourist magnet it is today.

When I guided the Buick off the interstate into the historic district it was jammed with tourists.  There were more old people on the streets of Savannah than you could shake a stick at, often old men in tow behind their wives who brandished maps and pointed down the street.  The men looked like they mostly wanted a park bench and a beer. Out of towners were mad to see Old Savannah.

I pulled into the visitor’s center, went in and got the aforementioned map, and discovered from the nice man at the desk that a popular city tourist route was easily drivable.  And so I cruised it, gliding effortlessly in the Buick past old couples huffing and puffing down ancient sidewalks.  They looked like their feet hurt.

The route was simple.  I went down Liberty Street to Bull and took a right.  In two blocks I was taking a little jog around a beautiful city park, a square called Madison, ringed by majestic old buildings, cobblestone streets, and well tended trees.  It was beautiful.  Every five blocks or so was another such square: Monterey, the larger Forsyth Park, then left on Gaston Street to Albercorn, left again past Calhoun Square, Lafayette Square, Colonial Park, Oglethorpe Square.  I parked on Oglethorpe square, extracted a cigar and a flask from my golf bag, grabbed a spot on a park bench, and soaked up a little southern ambience with a touch of whiskey and nicotine for good measure.

It was a fine day.  The sun was out.  There was a steady stream of tourists ogling the old buildings around us.  Tourists wear clothes they would never wear at home.  Many of the old folks had on funny hats and sneakers that were too white, bought new for the trip I think and just getting broken in.  A guide of some kind decked out in a panama hat and a pure white suit as if he was a southern gentleman was leading a group of Asian tourists through the little park.  He was a big guy and carried a cane, though he was young and didn’t need one.  The little Asian tourists came up to about the second button on the tour guide’s vest, where a gold watch chain was draped.  He was going on and on in an exaggerated southern accent, talking about Oglethorpe himself. 

General James Oglethorpe was the British guy, member of parliament, who first landed in Savannah, made peace with the Indians, named the 13th colony Georgia after King George of England, and planned the layout of the city, including the very squares I had been admiring.  He got rich in Savannah, he and his friends, though they first attempted to start a silk trade with mulberry trees which proved a bust.  Oglethorpe envisioned a Georgia without slaves, a ban that held up until 1750 when the cotton industry and wealthy planters overwhelmed the politics of that idea.  It was cotton that made Savannah the port, the plantations around it and the city itself, the commercial capital of the South.

Maybe we’ve always had our wealthy 1%.  Their wealth would not have been possible without the ownership of African slaves.  As I sat there having a nip and a smoke amidst the splendor of antebellum Savannah I tried not to forget the pain and backbreaking labor that made it all possible.  It’s invisible still.  You have to know it’s there.

I tooled around the boulevards and swank neighborhoods a while longer and then headed for the river.  There was a Cotton Exchange down there, some old iron staircases leading down to the river, where I imagined I would find dinner.  Besides dinner I needed a liquor store.  I was running low on Bushmills and sorely desired a resupply.
 
I parked in a swank old parking lot near the river and as if by magic lo and behold what was across the street but a purveyor of spirits, your high toned antique looking liquor store.  It looked tiny, but I ventured in.  The owner was a smoker, and his place stunk of stale cigarette smoke.  You forget how obnoxious that is.  Rather than shelves lined with booze there was a single bottle displayed of everything he sold.  And yes he did have Bushmills.  I made my standard selection and when he rang up a single bottle of the basic Irish mash I was surprised when he announced the cost to be $32.  The very same bottle I bought at Herman’s Liquors had cost me $18.  What you gonna do?  I paid and got out, stashed my bottle in the Buick, and made my way down to the river on narrow iron steps hugging an old stone wall.

The Savannah River is wide there.  Steamboats must have lined the bank while being loaded with cotton.  The old stone Cotton Exchange was a block away.  I strolled along River Street the opposite way, hoping to find a selection of restaurants.  I wasn’t disappointed. 

I chose the lower level waterfront restaurant of the Bohemian Hotel called Rocks on the River.  It looked good.  I didn’t consult Yelp or Trip Advisor.  I read the menu in a glass frame near the door and went in.  Nice place, not too big.  As I waited to be seated I could smell seafood cooking, and realized how hungry I was.  It was a long time since that dry Moon Pie.

The hostess walked me to a two seat table by the window.  It wasn’t crowded, but as we passed a couple seated near the door I thought I smelled irises.  When I took my seat I was facing them, a few tables away.  They were having drinks.  It had to be irises.  I grow irises in Ottawa, my Mom’s pale purple ones from the farm.  Transplanted them myself.  They smell like sweet grape jelly and lemons at the same time.  That was what I smelled, in the midst of the rich smell of crab and shrimp.

Thankfully our waitress smelled it too.  When she brought the couple their salads she said something to the woman about how good she smelled.  She shared the name of some hard to pronounce French sounding perfume.  They talked.  The man smiled quietly.  The waitress left.

They were a couple about my age.  The woman at the table looked nice.  She wore a pearl choker against a gray sweater.  He wore a sport coat.  They paid attention to one another, each looking closely at the other, both talking and listening.  I’d observed lots of couples on this trip who were stone silent, or both staring at their phones.  Couples give off vibes.  This couple’s vibe was affection and caring for one another.  They smiled and laughed.  You don’t have to hear the words people are saying to understand how they feel.  Body language says a lot.  They were both saying they were in love.  She reached across the table and touched his hand.  He wrapped his fingers around her wrist.  Another Leo Kottke song began to play in my mind.  You can listen to it here.


Along with the stirring travel instrumentals inspiring freedom that Leo Kottke graced me with as I made my way down the road in the Buick was that beautiful song by Bach “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” that is pure love.  It hit me, before I ordered my meal, that in addition to feeling free I was also lonely.  You can’t have it both ways.

Across from me was an empty chair.  I’d been there before.  When I travelled the trains in Europe fellow travelers would exit the train into the waiting arms of family and lovers on the platform while I walked quietly by with my backpack.  It seems like I’ve been going back and forth between those two songs forever; songs of righteous escape and love songs.  People can close in around you and make you feel like you can’t breathe.  And just about the time you shed yourself of them you realize there is nothing better, no moments sweeter, than those you spend with someone you love.  In a sense I’d been fleeing home and rushing back my whole life.  I don’t know how to resolve it, except to keep trying to find a balance.  I feel sometimes as if I’m running out of time.

The she crab soup was made with butter and sherry in the cream and that flavorful rare crab.  I savored every spoonful.  The shrimp and grits had a Creole sauce flavored with spicy andouille sausage. The grits were stone ground and formed into cheesy little cakes.  I had roasted asparagus on the side.  The Chardonnay was cold and crisp.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a simple yet elegant meal.  I was no longer in the Waffle House.  The couple finished their meal and walked out hand in hand.  I was jealous.

The sun was getting low as I left Savannah.  I wasn’t far from Florida.  Tomorrow would be my last day.  I got on the Interstate and drove to Jacksonville, taking an off ramp as I was nearly out of town.  I checked into a Hampton Inn.  It had been a long good day.  I felt a little melancholy.  I didn’t want my trip to end but I was ready for it to be over.  Is that crazy or what?  The bed in the Hampton Inn was soft and inviting.  I was out like a light.

Jacksonville Florida
Elevation             39 feet
Longitude           81.31’20”W

Latitude               30.19’55”N

Friday, March 18, 2016

Road Trip 2016 #11


I unwrapped the Moon Pie on SC Route 321 en route to Fairfax and it was dry.  I should have known better and bought banana, Moon Pie’s original flavor.  Salted Caramel is probably considered exotic in rural South Carolina.  God knows how long that Salted Caramel Moon Pie was on the shelf.  Maybe even he doesn’t know.

Fairfax had a traffic light.  Gifford was next, then Laury, before going through the relatively big town of Estill which had both a Family Dollar store and a Laundromat.  I’m guessing those two establishments draw a lot of people to Estill.  Where the residents of those little rural towns work or spend money is not clearly evident but one thing is certain, if those inhabitants do not have a vehicle their world would be very constrained and limited.

The land was flattening out completely and live oaks were starting to appear.  If I had to guess, I’d say at some point there I’d entered the low country.  As I approached Scotia I decided I needed company of one kind or another and peered into my CD sack, where I found a bootleg copy of the Armadillo album.  Its real name is Leo Kottke 6 and 12 String Guitar but for some reason the record company, Takoma, put a big Armadillo on the album.  The rest was history.

Leo Kottke was a kid whose parents moved around a lot.  Before he graduated high school he’d lived in twelve different states.  His family was musical.  He learned violin and trombone before picking up the guitar, which he has yet to put down.  A close brush with a firecracker as a kid and a later incident at a firing range in the U.S. Army got him an honorable discharge and serious hearing problems.  Some think that made him dive deeper into his guitar.  He attended college but quit, choosing instead to hitchhike around the country working as a busker, playing guitar on the street and wherever he could to earn money.  He eventually ended up Minneapolis.  Armadillo was his second album, is still his biggest seller, and continues to define him.

Armadillo was recorded in one afternoon, in exactly the running order of the album.  Most tracks were done in a single take.  You can hear a string break on “The Sailor’s Grave on the Prairie:” and he goes on to not only finish the song but include it on the album as is.  In the liner notes of a later anthology Kottke writes of Armadillo “the record took three and a half hours to do, and all I had to do was sit down and play everything I ever knew.”

A good review in the Rolling Stone helped Leo’s career.  Carl Bauer wrote: “With all the shit that has been released recently, it was a distinct pleasure to come across this album.  Kottke isn’t a new addition to the…school of grating, hypertensive guitarists, is you were expecting that.  He’s an acoustic guitarist from Minneapolis whose music can invoke your most subliminal reflections or transmit you to the highest reaches of joy…anything in addition to his guitar would be superfluous.”

I couldn’t agree more.  I know why Kottke doesn’t sing, as good as his voice might be it would only take away from that beautiful guitar.  I put the CD in.  As the notes filled the Buick I almost had to pull over it hit me so hard.  Why don’t I listen to music I love more often?  I remember when I first heard it.  I’d never heard a 12 string guitar played before. 

“What band is this?” I asked.  It was the same kid from Tinley Park in the dorm.  By this time he had quit going to class entirely and never left the dorm.  He only played guitar and listened to albums.
 
“It’s only one guy.  One guy, one guitar.  Can you believe it?”

I almost still can’t.  The style Leo Kottke was playing then, before tendinitis forced him to change, is known as polyphonic finger picking.  It’s done with complicated thumb and finger picks, is extremely fast and complicated, and yet even at the fastest tempos the notes are clean and crisp.  At least Leo’s are.  Some songs he plays on a twelve string, others on a six string, some with a slide.  Every song on the Armadillo album is written and played by Kottke except for “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” written by a guy named Johann Sebastian Bach.  Leo plays one of the most beautiful versions of that song you will ever hear.  On the morning of my wedding in 1982, attended by six people in addition to the two of us in a house in Seattle, I went to the market and bought a vinyl copy of Armadillo.  It was spinning on a turntable when she walked into the living room where I was standing with the minister that afternoon.  I put the needle down on that song.

Thirty three years and some change later my wife and I had our first conversation about this year’s road trip.  I was eating steel cut oats at the kitchen counter early in the morning, and we were talking about our upcoming trip to visit her brother in Tampa and her sister in Sarasota. 

“I’ll drive the Buick down again, you can fly one way and ride home with me.  I think this year I’m going to go farther east and head south through West Virginia.”

“Oh shoot.  I didn’t think you’d want to do that again.  Why do you?  Why do you want to be alone out there?  I worry about you so much.”

“Please don’t worry about me honey.”

We go through this a lot.  After she retired and was home to see me off to work each day she would ask me if I had my phone as I was rushing out the door and then she would call out

“Be careful.”

To which I would respond, sometimes from the garage

“I always am.”

Only to hear her constant response

“No you’re not.”

She’s right.  She knows me well but doesn’t understand what it means to me to be alone out here.  It’s important.  How can I explain it?  I think maybe Leo Kottke knows.  I hear it in his songs.  I imagine him hitch hiking with his guitars, anxious to get to a place where he can play, the songs running back and forth in his head.  Listen to this one.  It’s the opening song on Armadillo, the first many ever heard from Leo Kottke.  It’s less than two minutes long and called “The Driving of the Year Nail.”  You can minimize it on your screen and listen while you read.  Turn it up loud.  As you listen think how he must have felt imagining this tune, creating it, playing it.  The music comes from somewhere that lives next to the energy and freedom I feel when traveling alone.

Leo Drives the Nail

There’s a good chance that didn’t explain it for you.  Just as I know words can’t express music adequately neither can music explain motive in language we both understand.  I’m afraid you still don’t know why I’m out here.

When you travel alone everything is possible.  I learned that as a young man traveling solo.  There are no compromises.  Each turn, every intersection, all the towns, every new face, is an opportunity.  You decide if you take that opportunity or not.  Only you.  You venture forth or retreat, but no one decides for you.  Every day, every hour, every moment your life unfolds before you and is new.  The world is yours for the taking.  Nothing and no one holds you back except yourself.  And if you do it right, you lose yourself.  You become a mirror to the world, and the world is bright.  It shines.  I swear to God what I feel out here is life itself.  Whatever it is, I can’t get enough of it.  I need it like food and water still, even though I’m now old.  I don’t want it to end.

I kept driving.  Past Garnet was a little town called Robertville, which was unremarkable really except for the first Spanish moss I noticed hanging from the live oaks growing by this beautiful church.  I had to pull over.  It was too pretty to pass by.



By the church was an historical plaque.  I’m a sucker for historical plaques.  In fact, I may never have encountered an historical plaque I didn’t like.  Here’s what I learned from the plaque in Robertville, S.C..

ROBERTVILLE-named for descendants of Hugenot minister Pierre Robert, it was the birthplace of Henry Martyn Robert, author of Robert’s Rules of Order and of Alexander Robert Lawton, Confederate Quartermaster General.  The town was burned by Sherman’s army in 1865.  The present church was built in Gillisonville in 1848 as an Episcopal church, moved here by Black Swamp Baptists in 1871.

So there you go.  If you’re big on order, which I’m pretty ambivalent about myself, this is the town for you.  Also you have to admire the pluck of a little town like Robertville.  Burned down and built back.  Wouldn’t you be tempted to move the hell away if your entire town was deliberately burned down?  As it turns out Sherman’s army crossed the Savannah River from Georgia at Two Sister’s Ferry down the road, starting the Union’s Carolinas Campaign which was marked by orders to destroy assets and strike a blow to Southern morale.  Nearby plantations Pleasant Hill and the ruins of Black Swamp Plantation can still be visited.  Many slaves fled those plantations and joined Union forces on the day they burned Robertville.  The South underwent sudden traumatic change.  And there I was 151 years later standing in that rebuilt town next to a beautiful church moved there to bolster Robertville’s identity.  Was I the same man that on the first day of my trip expressed concern for the future of Leroy, Illinois?  I suspect Leroy, IL and Robertville, SC, will be here long after I’m gone.  I may not be able to imagine a future for rural small town life in America, but don’t bet against it.  Human beings and the spirit of the communities they inhabit are stubborn.

My journey through South Carolina was nearly over.  I put the Buick back on SC 321, drove through Tillman, and got on Interstate 95 at Hardeeville.  My next significant date with destiny that day was supper in Savannah Georgia.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Road Trip # 10


The world looked big as I stood by the Buick in the Waffle House parking lot. The day was bright and warm.  Wednesday I traveled a lot of miles and made up lots of time.  It was Thursday.  As I stood there I knew many of the people in America were working.  My trip would end tomorrow in Tampa, which was not far away, and as a result I had time to dawdle.  There’s nothing better than dawdling.  I’ve been dawdling since I was a kid and few things give me more joy.

I leaned over the Buick‘s hood and perused my road atlas looking for a good two lane road to take South.  I’d had it with the interstate.  I wanted slow traffic, small towns, funky gas stations, little diners.  I think I fit better into that America. Route 321 looked like a winner.  I could head over by Chester and get on.  It would take me towards Savannah, Georgia.  I had no idea I was so close.  Hell, I thought, I could have dinner in Savannah at some fancy place on the water.  I’d been to Charleston, but never Savannah.  Nice towns both of them.  Big, but nice.  It sounded like a plan. Breakfast at Waffle House, dinner in Savannah, rural South Carolina in between.  What could be better?

SC 321 was a lot like Illinois Route 9 that ran through our farm west of Danvers.  Hard road, lines painted down the middle and on the sides, but since the Interstate was built not very crowded.  South of Chester I went a long ways without encountering a town.  There were empty fields, little farms and trailers, double wides, nothing fancy.  It gave me a chance to relax.  I rolled down the windows of the Buick and listened to the wind for a while.  Although I’d brought CD’s of bands, I wasn’t in the mood for lyrics.  I was thinking of how I would write up the record of my trip.  Thinking about writing is just as hard as actually writing.  I was reminded of that when Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides, The Great Santini) died this week, and a quote of his showed up in social media.  Pat was not among my favorite writers, but he could tell a story.  He said this about writing:

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear.  If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.

I admit I had not up till now I have not had “profoundly difficult thoughts” or wanted to say “something life changing or ineffable in a single sentence.”  Describing a bite of chili dog or the sequence in which a Waffle House breakfast is put together hardly qualifies, but I did want to explain why I wanted to be out here in the first place.  It wasn’t jelling into words easily.  It required some hard thinking.

Down past Winnsboro I realized that 321 would take me into Columbia, South Carolina’s Capital and biggest town.  Population 134,000 and yet their biggest town.  That shows you just how rural South Carolina really is.  Despite its relatively moderate size I was in no mood to drive through Columbia.  I decided it was too big for this day of thinking.  Savannah would be plenty.  I zigged east.
 
In the parlance of the zig zag you zig first.  You can zag later.  I found a little blacktop road with no number, no line down the middle, and not much on it that promised to take me to Ridgeway.  It did.  It turned to gravel for a few miles, but then back to blacktop before it delivered me to Lugoff, where I picked up 601 South to Stateburg and St. Mathews. 

I like freelancing my way through America.  It seemed like it was just me, the Buick, and a bunch of semi’s hauling logs out there.  I ended up in Orangeburg where I began my zag, going west to Denmark where I rejoined 321 South.  Zig zag complete, Columbia avoided.  Nice part of the country down there.  I passed between Congaree National Park and Poinsett State Park.  Big Piney forest country.  I’d love to go back.  Will I? 

Past Olar I started looking for a place to stop and stretch my legs.  For no apparent reason I chose Sycamore.  Sycamore was unremarkable.  There are very few businesses in the little towns along SC 231.  What you tend to find are small independent gas station/food mart/take-out food/general store places.  Some of them looked to be the only businesses in their small towns.  Very limited one stop shopping is the positive spin on these places.  Food desert is the negative spin.  I wish I’d taken pictures, but there was something about my Waffle House waitress experience that made me hesitate.  People rarely stop on Caton Road to take pictures of me or my house.  Why should I press myself on them?
    
The little establishment in Sycamore was typical of the rest.  Old gas pumps on a concrete island that sat on a gravel drive.  Well, a little gravel.  Mostly dirt.  Flat roof concrete block cube of a building next to it.  I went in to see if there was something I might snack on for a light lunch.  It is remarkable how homogenous the candy bars are in America, in every state, right down to where they’re placed on the rack.  Heath bars and Mounds on the bottom, Snickers in the middle, Kit Kats on top.  The only departure from the trans America norm, that classic Southern confection the Moon Pie, caught my eye.  Flavored marshmallow crème with other yet to be determined forms of sugar between two cakey brown discs equally mysterious in content and nutrition.  They’d expanded their flavors.  I took the Salted Caramel Moon Pie.  They’re not that good, I thought.  Why do I do this?

A young black man in a hoodie was buying an energy drink from the lone employee, an tall Asian man who appeared to also be the owner.  Framing his spot by the cash register were signs hand written with Sharpie on cardboard:  “All Sales Final!  NO returns!”  “No tobacco products to minors!  No exceptions!”  “NO shirt, NO sale, NO service!”  “NO read magazines without purchase!”  “Restroom OUT OF ORDER!”  He was overseeing the black man’s counting of a large number of coins, not many of them quarters, trying to reach the total needed for the big bottle of blue stuff.  At the end of the count he looked up hopefully at the proprietor.

“You’re a nickel short.”

They both looked at each other without flinching.  It grew quiet.
 
“You need another nickel.”

The black man picked up the blue stuff and turned to walk back to the cooler.  I tossed a nickel on the counter.  He heard it hit and turned back.  The proprietor looked up at me with surprise.

“Thank you,” the black man said without looking at me.  He went immediately out the door.  The proprietor continued to look at me, his brown face made darker by a white scarf wrapped tightly around his neck.   Everybody was cold but me.  I had taken off my sweater and was warm in a white t shirt.
 
“Nice weather you’re having,” I said.  Weather is always a good ice breaker. I put the moon pie on the counter.  He scanned it with his little reader thing.  He apparently didn’t want to talk about the weather.
   
“One dollah eighty seven cent.”  His English sounded like the English spoken around him.  I guess it was natural.  I put two bucks on the counter and he quickly counted out a dime and thee pennies.  He looked at me coldly.

I put the dime in my pocket and left the pennies on the counter.  “Do you keep a penny jar for your customers?”

“No.”

“It might help.”

He said nothing.  I raked the pennies in my hand too.

“Is that bathroom really out of order?”  I thought I’d give it a try.  It worked for me this winter in Chicago at a particularly besieged looking BP on the corner of Cermak and Damen, the proprieter huddled behind bulletproof glass.  It was freezing cold,  I needed a bathroom badly before getting back on I 55, and  I thought I’d take a chance.  The outside rest rooms had been "Out of Order" for months it seemed.  I was both surprised and pleased that night when he handed me the key.

Back in South Carolina the man looked around at his empty store and smiled.

“No,” 

“Can I use it?”

“I suppose.”  He fished around under the counter and pulled out a key wired to a piece of broomstick.

‘This guy,’ I thought to myself as I went about my business in a perfectly clean working bathroom, ‘is not going to win the annual customer service award from the Chamber of Commerce.’

As I passed by the counter on my way out the store, handing the key back to the man behind the counter, I stopped a moment.

“Can I ask why you keep your bathroom locked when there is nothing wrong with it?”

“Of course you can.  I keep it locked because I’m tired of cleaning up their shit.  With all respect sir, you don’t know what it’s like living here.”

“Yeah I suppose but I am learning.  Enjoy the rest of your day.”
 
I walked to the Buick and pulled back onto SC 321, just as two young African American kids entered the store.  If you think white privilege doesn’t exist, in the North and the South, think again.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Road Trip 2016 # 9

When I woke in Richland South Carolina the sun was shining brightly from a blue horizon through the window above a loud and still blowing heat/AC unit.  As I went to shut it off I looked through the window and there before me, on the opposite side of the road, was a sight I’d missed during my late night arrival.  There it was in welcoming black letters on yellow squares - W A F F L E  H O U S E.  Screw the free breakfast.  I could almost taste the hash browns.

I had a quick wash, stepped over my receipt lying on the ugly carpet inside the door, threw my stuff in the Buick and drove quickly to their parking lot.  I was there in ten minutes.  Like a bee to a flower.  When I opened the door I could smell the griddle.  It was like coming home.

I knew a Waffle House was in my future when I left Illinois, I just didn’t know when.  My wife cares not to eat at Waffle House.  She had a bad experience a long time ago.  I had the same experience but it didn’t prove long lasting.  Maybe it’s because I’m a social worker and believe in second chances.  In any case, I haven’t been disappointed at sticking with Waffle House.
 
I walked in to a slim crowd that morning.  There was a woman at a table and a man at the counter.  I joined him a few stools away.  He hardly noticed me, seemed transfixed by his coffee cup.  I sit at the counter so I can watch them cook.  The griddle is just a few feet away.  I sat as close to the middle as I could.  It’s like a front row seat on the 50 yard line.  It was a good morning already and it had only just started. 

Two middle aged women were running the whole place.  They both cooked and waited on customers, rarely talking to one another.  They moved like seasoned pros, glided really, no wasted motion, everything fast and efficient, passing by each other silently.  My waitress appeared in front of me with a thick Waffle House coffee mug and a carafe of regular already in her hand.

“Coffee?”

“Please.”

“Cream?”

“Black.”

“Know what you want or you need a minute?”

“I think I’m ready.”

Truth is I was ready the moment I laid eyes on the Waffle House.  Who am I trying to kid, I was ready before I left Illinois.  I’d been waiting for this moment for quite some time.

She took a pencil from behind her ear and a pad from her apron. “OK go.”

“Two eggs over very easy.  Biscuits.  Hash browns smothered (sautéed onions), diced, (tomatoes) and peppered (jalapenos).  Grits on the side.  Large milk.”

“Regular grits or large?”

“Regular.”

“You got it baby.”

She stuck the order slip on a clip near the grill and never looked at it again.  My waitress/cook dipped a small ladle into a can and spread a large clear puddle of hot grease on the griddle with a smaller puddle beside it.  Next she took a portion of riced potatoes from a tub near the grill and laid it on the larger puddle.  They sizzled.  On the small puddle she placed a portion of raw onions.  They sizzled louder.  The griddle steamed.  My breakfast was underway.

Next she grabbed a small fry pan with her left hand and another ladle of hot grease with the right.  After setting the pan at the front of the griddle she took, without looking, two eggs from a nearby bowl with her left hand.  Did it all by feel.  As she reached blindly for the eggs she emptied the grease in the pan, returned the ladle, and put a small ceramic bowl on the work board in front of the griddle.  Shifting one of the eggs to her free hand she cracked the two eggs on the board, not the edge of the bowl, and with an egg in each hand pried each shell apart, spreading the halves apart as one might widen a picture on an I Phone, at the same time.  Try doing that.  She discarded the shells and went back to my hash browns.

With a giant silver spatula she raked and turned the potatoes, flipping them, making a pile, then spreading the pile out flat again.  She did the same with the onions beside the potatoes, and then raked the two piles together, gathering them again into a large pile.  On that newly constituted pile of potatoes and onions she sprinkled a portion of cut tomatoes and another of green sliced jalapenos.  Then she flattened out the pile a third time, pressing down with that giant spatula, salted it all, shook on a little black pepper, and finally let them rest.  She was so fast.  What has taken me twenty minutes to capture in words happened in twenty seconds.  She turned back to my eggs.
 
She poured the two raw eggs from the bowl gently into the hot frying pan.  The clear albumen turned instantly white.  She salted and peppered them.  As the eggs cooked and firmed up, she stepped to the steam table and vigorously stirred a pot of grits with a giant spoon.  When she decided they were properly blended she scooped me up a bowl, covering it with a saucer.  On the saucer she put two tan biscuits from the warmer.  She went back to my eggs, picking up the skillet.  With a flick of her wrist she flipped both eggs over.  She kept her hand on the pan and after a few seconds, the only seconds she was not in motion, slid them onto a waiting plate.  They were perfect, the yolks two identical equidistant yellow circles bulging up in another larger perfect circle of white.

She turned to the griddle where the hash browns were finishing. They were crispy brown at the edges.  With the giant spatula she flipped them one last time for good measure and scooped them up cleanly from the griddle.  Her scooping motion extended to my waiting plate where she laid them next to the eggs.  Putting the spatula down, she slid the plate in front of me.  On one side she put the bowl of grits and on the other the biscuits.  There is real beauty in a breakfast like that.  Symmetry and balance.  She put a glass of cold milk filled to the brim at the top of my plate next to my coffee. I had not seen her pour the milk.  It was a phantom coming out of nowhere.  She refilled my coffee cup.

“What else you need?”

“Hot sauce?”

She plucked a bottle of Tabasco, the old McILHENNY variety, from a station down the counter and put it in front of me.  Waffle House could do better than Tabasco.  They could offer Cholula, or La Victoria, or even Sriracha.  But I’m being wistful.  Waffle House is not after the snobby hot sauce crowd.  It has been in business for sixty years and maintains a tradition of offering food that is good and cheap.  I respect that.  I accepted the Tabasco gladly.

“You got enough butter for your grits and biscuits too?”

“I think so.”
 
“You better have some more.” She plunked another pat of butter in front of me.

 ”More jelly too.”  She gave me an extra packet of grape.

“Enjoy your breakfast.”

“Ma’am you can be sure I will.”

I don’t always say grace, acknowledging the bounty of life’s gifts, but I did that morning.  I’d waited a long time for a Waffle House meal.  I split a biscuit in two and buttered it.  It was hot.  With my fork I lifted the white skin off the top of one of my eggs and put it on the biscuit.  Yolk ran slowly onto the plate.  I dipped the biscuit into the yolk and took a bite.  It was absolutely delicious.  I closed my eyes.
 
I turned to the hash browns.  Nobody gets hash browns crispy and uniformly hot like Waffle House.  And who else puts jalapenos in their hash browns?  I gave them a little extra salt and sprinkled hot sauce on them.  Perfection.
 
And my god the grits.  Some say grits are grits, and perhaps they are, but Waffle House grits are hot and creamy.  Butter melts quickly on Waffle House grits, and when it does I put a double shake of pepper along with salt on top and whisk it all together with my fork.  It’s the blend, the feel, the goodness of those grits in your mouth.  It’s hard to beat.

Here’s another subtlety I learned about grits just that morning.  I was schooled in the word and how it’s pronounced.  The printed word looks straightforward: gr preceding the word it, ending with s.  Grits.  Four consonant sounds and one vowel, a short i.  Grits.

But when I heard another customer order his breakfast, a man who came after me and sat at a table behind the counter, it sounded somehow different.  At first I couldn’t figure it out.  Then my waitress came by and asked me this:

“How’s those gree-its?”

“What?”

Your gree-its.  How’s ya’lls gree-its?”

She somehow worked a long a long e in there.  It goes quickly, is hard to hear and almost impossible for me to say, but that little word is definitely different coming out of the mouth of a southerner than mine.  Gree-its.  You learn something every day.

I hated to leave the Waffle House.  I had limited trip time to be on my own and the odds of enjoying another breakfast equal in simplicity and taste, in such ambience, were long at best.  As my waitress took my dishes I thanked her, complimenting her on the hash browns, and asked

“Do you sell the mugs?”

“We sure do darlin’.  How many you wantin’ today?”

“Just the one.”

She went to the back and when she came out wrapped my cup slowly and carefully in paper towels, putting it in a takeout bag.  I probably could have ordered a cup online, but this made it more personal.

“Can I take your picture with it please?”  I had my phone in my hand.

Her smile disappeared.  “I don’t go for havin’ my pitcher taken much.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you for again for a great breakfast.”

“You welcome.”  Her smile reappeared.

The Waffle House.  Every time I leave one I hope it’s not the last.