I am still decompressing from my foray to the Midwest. I have to be careful. I do not want to offend. But I feel extremely uncomfortable when I'm in the middle of our country. In the early eighties, I spent some time in Topeka. I'm not sure which was more depressing, the flat flatness of Kansas, or the mental hospital in which I was ensconced. But I'm not willing to divulge those skeletons just yet, except to say, chalk up those years to teenage angst and an overindulgence in pharmaceuticals. So, quite possibly any trip to the Midwest summons up latent feelings of depression and inadequacy. Whatever the reason for my discomfort, I'd much rather fly over that part of the country in a tranquilized haze than kick off my shoes and set a spell.
To those of you unfamiliar with Alton, it is a river town in the Southern part of the state, across the Mississippi from St. Louis. There is an active steel mill and rock quarry, which produce many jobs. Alton has a riverboat gambling casino and three statues of note. Two of the statues are of Lincoln and Douglas in a feisty debate; Lincoln looking like a string bean in a waistcoat, Douglas looking like the Mayor of Munchkinland. And the other statue is of Robert Wadlow, Guinness Book's tallest man in the world. He grew to be eight feet, eleven and a half inches, wore 37AA shoes, and went on to be an employee of Ringling Brothers. On the outskirts of town, there is a huge mural of a piasa bird painted on a cliff. The piasa has reindeer horns, eagle talons, and a werewolf fangs. Native Americans believed this demon creature swooped out of the sky to take naughty kids away. Alton has brick lined streets with beautiful homes, and streets in great need of repair with boarded up homes. It personifies Midwestern values and traditions. Its cars are up on blocks, its porch swings creak, its mason jars are filled with sweet tea or hooch. Oh...and Miles Davis was born there.
Now that I've caught you up to speed, I need to speak directly to Alton itself...
Alton, you and I have been bickering ever since we've known each other. I come to your town every year with my children and my husband, who is one of your own, and we still can't seem to get along. To start with, why can't you acquire just one GOOD coffee shop? It isn't a luxury. It's a necessity!! But for eleven years, your waitresses unceremoniously plunk tepid brew onto the table, a good portion sloshing in the saucer, as if coffee were nothing more than Midwestern backwash. Coffee should be a strong consideration, not a watered-down afterthought. Weak Maxwell House does not suffice, and tiramisu creamer doesn't make the weak Maxwell House taste any better. Coffee should be a steaming, rich, unapologetically strong cuppa, rather than a mug filled with something that resembles the polluted Mississippi. If you don't want to go the megalithic Starbucks route, I understand. But for Pete's sake, at least get some Peet's.
And how about a bookstore, Alton? Then you can fill your bookshelves properly, rather than with dusty knickknacks of watermelon eating children and large-eyed raccoons. Never in my life, has the query, "Any good books lately?" been met with such empty stares. But an appealing bookstore, not a florescent nightmare. One that has armchairs and story hour for the kids and GOOD coffee for the adults. If it sweetens the pot, those bookstores also sell magazines about knitting and ammo and kittens.
And what's with the TV? Now, don't get me wrong. I like TV. But twenty-four/seven? Surely, Alton, you can turn it off every now and again. Especially when the Game Show Network plays reruns of Match Game '77. How many times can we hear Gene Rayburn set up Charles Nelson Reilly, "Dumb Dora is so dumb, she cooks bacon wearing only a blank."
I'm going to key you in on something, Alton. Couches and twenty-four hour televisions are traps. Let's say, you want to have a twenty minute visit, but once you sit in that well worn spot with the idiot box blaring, all sense of time is lost. You'll finally get up four or five hours later, and that's only because you have to pee. And when you play back what happened, any conversation you might have shared, how you spent a fifth of your day, you will not recall a single thing.
On the third day of our visit, my family succumbed to this unfortunate malaise. We were at my sisters-in law's. Two TVs were on in two different rooms, both showing children's programming, their volumes turned up, their content fighting to be heard. Michael's sister Karen, asleep on one couch. Michael asleep on the other. Michael's other sister, Rita, asleep with Sebastian and Maxie on the bed. Everyone in a state between dozing and comatose, except me. I was wide awake and getting progressively anxious and pissed off. I felt trapped in the straight-backed chair listening to the battle of the televisions, Cory in the House vs. Phineas and Ferb. I began to pace between living room and bedroom, hoping my movement would bother someone enough to wake. I focused on Michael, moving his big toe, slapping his knee. He'd rouse, I'd suggest we leave, he'd grumble and then go back to sleep. It would have been easier to budge a pig in shit.
But then I thought about it. Where would we go? What would we do? We'd either end up at his mother's where there is another couch, another TV, or at a restaurant where gravy is considered a vegetable.
This leads me to a very delicate subject. You are getting fat, Alton. It's time to watch what you eat. And I'm not talking about watch it go down your gullet. You must cut back on the red meat, the deep fried, the processed sugar, and anything that goes on top of anything else: gravy, sauce, Ranch, Thousand Island, whipped cream, sour cream, cream cheese, Cheez Whiz. Because I know you, Alton. You will eat the topping and leave the meal!
I'm going to use two words, Alton, and I don't want you to cringe. Fruits and vegetables. Fresh, not smothered in cheddar cheese or creamed in mushroom soup. I have two suggestions that had positive results for Michael's family. First, Greek salad. I made one for the Christmas family meal. Creamy dressing is not used and everyone loved it. Nothing was left in the punch bowl. That's the other thing, Alton, go out and get yourself an inexpensive salad bowl, and salad tongs while you're at it.
And if making salad sounds too labor intensive, sheesh, how bout a nice, juicy clementine. You know, those small, seedless, kid-friendly oranges that I am sure are genetically engineered. While you're lolling on the couch you can practically snarf down a whole box.
I don't mean to kvetch. The thing is, I really care. And perhaps my feelings run deeper than that. I've made a realization, Alton. Even though the McPike Mansion is known as the most haunted place in the country; even though the piasa bird may swoop out of the heavens; even though gang violence has escalated; and even though you have been home to both backwards-thinking ERA denouncer Phyllis Schlafly, and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassin, James Earl Ray, you are Everyplace, USA. You celebrate in your accomplishments and stand in the shadow of your mistakes. You're what Sarah Palin called Real America. You cling to your Gods and your guns and your fried Oreos unabashedly. You are Joe the plumber, Joe the exterminator, Joe the psychic, Joe the manicurist, Homo Joe the bartender. I know it sometimes seems easier to belly up to the drive thru, but do it for me, Alton. Get up off of the well-worn couch. Go for a walk. And next time I'm there, some GOOD coffee would be appreciated. Say it can be so, Joe.