Thursday, October 26, 2006

the fly-over states

Are the fly-over states underrated? Am I a Left Coast elitist snob?

Let's find out. There's only one way to know -- you can't just find the answer in Wikipedia. You have to go there. Check it out for yourself.

Last week I embarked on a four-city, three-state, whirlwind tour of the Heartland: Kenosha. Chicago. Austin. And just to sample my own Wal-Tussin DM, College Station, Texas. That should provide the balance sheet with enough entries.

Look out, Middle America! I'm coming through. On your left! And I'm keeping score.

Should it matter that the United flight I took to O'Hare had a selection of four buy-on-board snack boxes? The flight originated in San Francisco, so I don't think the Middle West gets credit for this surfeit of choice. I'm heartened especially by United's mysterious declaration, "All United SnackBoxes are sealed, and cannot be opened except by the person that buys the SnackBox." This must mean that you're guaranteed that the captain and crew have not pilfered your Mrs. Field's® milk chocolate chip cookie™ (so good they're both Registered and Trademarked!) nor tampered with your New York Style® Brand Mini Plain Bagel Chips (a full day's worth of adjectives on every label!). Eat your heart out, American Airlines!

No-one's spit on your Bagel Chips. But no points have been accrued yet either. Let's start the scoreboard running:

Middle West 0, Cathy 0.

The best way of getting to Kenosha from O'Hare is to take the airport bus. That'll drop you at Kenosha's own Brat Stop, so you needn't risk arriving at your first destination empty-handed (unless you're sly enough to pretend that your leftover Hormel® hard salami slices are a gift). You can emerge from the CoachUSA Luxury Liner warm, groggy, and disoriented from overheated bus air and stand briefly in the freezing wind of the dark Brat Stop parking lot wondering where you are. It's only 45 minutes from O'Hare, and already you feel like you've entered one of life's discontinuities. Traveling the interstices.

Inside the Brat Stop, the marvels of the Upper Middle West await you: the ubiquitous Cheese Curds (which are seemingly unavailable on the Left Coast); Foam Cheese Memorabilia, and a veritable autumn wonderland of Brats.

Might I suggest the "I Want It All" Gift Box?

A quick bus ride to Kenosha's Brat Stop -- that seems worth a point on the balance sheet, doesn't it?

Middle West 1, Cathy 0.

But wait. The bus ride is more complicated than it seems. I arrived 10 minutes after the 8:10 bus had departed. "Okay," I thought. "I'll just sit here in the airport bus station, read my Esquire, and wait for the 9:10 coach." I might've even said this aloud, because the Middlewesterners entering this transportation purgatory sat far away from me.

At 9:05, a bus had pulled up. I went outside and asked an appropriately pinguid man wearing a green windbreaker and holding a clipboard, "Does this bus go to Wisconsin?"

"Where do you want to go, lady? Wisconsin's a big place." He gave me The Look. The Look that says "Don't you go pulling your fancy-dancy Left Coast attitude here, little lady. We've got a bus company to run and it's a pretty darned big expanse of state here that we're covering. You should be glad we let people like you ride our buses at all."

It's a goddamned bus. I just want to know where it's going. I tell him, "Kenosha. Does this bus go to Kenosha?"

He tells me to go back inside. They'll announce the Milwaukee bus when it deigns to appear.

By 9:20, I've made friends (the Midwest is friendly! Middle West 2, Cathy 0) with the lady sitting next to me sucking down a historical romance with all the vehemence of a chain smoker. Together we decide the 9:10 bus might be... delayed. I tell her maybe she'd better ask the guy in the windbreaker about it -- I can't withstand any more of his withering sarcasm.

She's had a more satisfying conversation with the pinguid man than I did, but what she returns with is not good news. The 9:10 bus just didn't show up. Sometimes this happens. The Sunday night bus driver doesn't make it back to O'Hare. He gets distracted by something -- a tavern? a fish fry? a bingo game? -- between Chicago and Milwaukee. He gets distracted and doesn't show up. One of life's little mysteries in that most mysterious of all places, The Middle West.

Middle West is penalized one point, owing to relatively unreliable local transit. This isn't LA; ground transportation is used by regular people here, not just 'tards, crazies, and the silent uncomplaining Hispanic workforce that makes LA possible. With all these privileged people depending on the bus, wouldn't you think that CoachUSA would be reliable?

Middle West 2, Cathy 1.

By now, the airport bus station is full of milling Midwesterners. Big, white, milling Midwesterners with bulky luggage and tired-looking kids. Lots of kids. Grubby, hungry, and crabby from a day of travel, travel delays, and buy-on-board snack boxes ("You kids share that! It was five bucks!"). The 10:10 bus is the last bus of the day that serves the Chicago-Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee route.

Between 9:45 and 10, at least 4 buses dock in front of the bus terminal's wide automatic doors. My friend with the historical romance -- a retiree visiting her kids? a widow returning from an impulsive spree in Las Vegas? a serial killer with a wheelie bag full of body parts? -- trots outside to check on each of the incoming buses on our mutual behalf. I watch her luggage while she does so.

"That one goes to South Bend," she announces upon her return. South Bend is not a good substitute for Kenosha, which I have learned is her destination too. South Bend is not even in the right state. We are both Kenosha-bound and over that, we have bonded.

A little after 10, our bus pulls into the station. The driver looks sleepy and overfed, not lean and psychotic like a Left Coast bus driver. He starts silently taking stock of how many people are waiting.

A wave of panic fills the room. There might not be enough seats! Some people might not get on the bus! Oh no! No bus ride to Wisconsin tonight!

There's elbowing, scuffling, and line-broadening as my fellow Wisconsinites scurry into a messy queue stretching from the front door of the bus all the way back to the terminal. The line is shaped like the python that swallowed the pregnant sheep. I find myself pushed out of place by an aggressive blond family of 5. They use their wheelie luggage as armaments for battering my poor ankles. Then more shoving. Is that white-haired lady ahead of me crouched into a karate stance? AARP is obviously sponsoring free martial arts classes these days.

By the time it's over, I'm at the end of the line, bruised and dead last for my chance at a seat on the bus to the Brat Stop in Kenosha. My laid-back Left Coastiness has resulted in a failure to compete effectively. And my so-called friend reading the historical romance has deserted me; I notice she's made a bid for one of the prime spots at the front of the line. I had no idea Middle Westerners behaved in this way. No idea!

Middle West 2, Cathy 2.

As it turns out, all the pushing and shoving was unnecessary. There are plenty of seats, and by 10:53pm, I'm disembarking at the Brat Stop. My brother and Lunch co-editor is waiting to meet me at the 'Stop in his Saturn. He is wearing a knit hat and leather gloves against the incipient chill of winter. (This immediately warns the locals of his foreignness -- real Middle Westerners are still wearing shorts and t-shirts in late October.)

It's late, but it's never too late to go to Woodman's, an employee-owned supermarket in Kenosha that's open at least 24/7, possibly 25/8 or 26/9. Rumor has it that it's the largest supermarket in this great nation of ours. 250,000 square feet -- more than 5 acres -- of abundance.

Woodman's. You've never seen anything like it. The poetics of groceries in the large. It's an exurban supermarket as vast as the wide-open prairie itself, with rows of cheese and cheese curds and spreadable cheese products stretching to the vanishing point. Sauerkraut juice, size XXL! Giant jars of mayonnaise! Jello molds by the scores! Sausages in queasy-making colors and shapes! Gallons of clam juice! Mountains of smoked oysters!

I'm more than tempted to quote Allen Ginsberg on this, even though he was talking about a supermarket in Berkeley:

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?
What, indeed, was Garcia Lorca doing down by the watermelons? My brother and I shop briefly, trotting bleary-eyed down the endless aisles, and emerge, as so many have before us, exhausted. We are overwhelmed by the choices offered to us in the Middle West. Jon confesses that he's only gone to Woodman's once alone. It's the kind of supermarket that you can envision swallowing you whole. You might go in and never find your way back out. This is no puny Left Coast notion of too much: To wit, at Safeway, a dozen is just 14. This, my friends, is the real thing. A dozen here is a gross.

And it's too damned big for just one point; it's worth at least 3.

Middle West 5, Cathy 2.

I confess, I don't know what to make of Kenosha. At one time, it was a prosperous seat of American auto manufacturing; Ramblers, Nashes, and AMCs were all made here. Pacers too. Pacers! Captains of industry built suburban palaces along the lakefront. Swells from Chicago parked their boats in the tidy harbor. Workingmen drank elbow-to-elbow with the yachting crowd at Captain Mike's. Kenosha has followed the all-too-common trajectory of small towns in the Middle West: a narrative that opens with boundless optimism; an arc that folds in a boom, civic boosterism, decline, and rediscovery. Cycles within cycles of disappointment, recovery, and fresh starts.

It's the kind of place that's really struggled to keep up with the times. There's a wine bar, The Wine Knot Bar and Bistro. There's evidence of the metastatic incursion of Applebee's, Starbucks, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. There's an overpriced harbor side Best Western. Mom assures me it has bedbugs; but you'll be won over by the irresistible front desk staff with their Marge Gunderson Fargo accents. You'll be simultaneously charmed and sent scurrying at the least hint of any machinery that sounds like a Whisper Chipper. Kenosha is the kind of place that being in the least bit unusual ensures you some real estate on the front page of the local paper.

The Middle West. We'll have to give it another half of a point for trying (we'll ignore the bedbugs and the possibility of a Whisper Chipper):

Middle West 5.5, Cathy 2.

Jon and I worked up quite a Middle Western appetite sightseeing -- walking along the Lake Michigan bike path and squinting into the downtown store and tavern windows. The breeze was up and the boulevard cruisers had all garaged their street rods and muscle cars for the coming of winter. We eventually repaired to Yee's Oriental Inn, a classic Middle Western Chinese Restaurant.

It's newly fashionable to eat midcentury Chinese food: to feast on Rumaki appetizers; to slurp Won Ton Soup; to chow down on Chow Fun; to gum Sub Gum Chicken. If you're on the Left Coast or the Right Coast, you can mix it up with the celebrity crowd at Mr. Chow's: is that Mick Jagger eating an egg roll?

But if you're in Kenosha, you go to Yee's, where they still serve you fluffy Parker House rolls and pats of butter on the side (our server was upset that we left ours untouched: "Do you guys want to take those home?"); where the orange sauce for the egg rolls comes in a pancake syrup dispenser; where there's plenty of celery, green pepper, and water chestnuts for the inimicable midcentury crunch; where the Sweet and Sour Pork has nice big pieces of pineapple in it. No doubt about it, Midwestern Chinese food is a lovely genre that was snubbed during the earnest period of food sophistication that got its toehold in the 1970s. It was a loss when we turned our collective backs on a delicious plate of pressed duck.

Yee's has got to be worth at least 1 point for the cuisine; plus half a point for the seriously strong mixed drinks; and another half a point for the solicitousness of our serving person, who once again had one of those upper Midwestern accents and had never heard of a Cape Cod.

"Cape Cod? That's with clam juice, isn't it?"

You have to stop them before they go ahead and make you a drink with vodka and clam juice. Or at least I do. I have to stop them. Vodka and clam juice. That's ishy.

Middle West 7.5, Cathy 2.

The Middle West has a sizeable lead as I embark on the 8:49am Metra (the Union Pacific North for all you railroad buffs) from Kenosha to Chicago's Ogilvie Transportation Center, which looks disorientingly like a mall rather than a train station. By making 25 stops, Metra stretches out this journey to a whopping 96 minutes, making it exactly long enough to watch Jackass: Number Two, a movie that involves a dwarf and Johnny Knoxville doing a series of You Tube-worthy stunts. I understand its US box office earnings are somewhere over the $70M mark. $70 million.

I did not watch Jackass: Number Two. But given the 70 million dollar opening surge, odds are good that the other people on the 8:49 to Chicago had seen it.

I did the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle instead.

It was noisy on the train, but not too crowded, since a normal commuter is unlikely to voluntarily opt for a 96 minute commute and is even more unlikely to have an employer who sanctions a work day that begins at 10:45am. Interestingly, the 7:15am Metra Express train stops at 13 few places en route, but still takes 89 minutes. That's only a 7 minute saving. I'm doing the math: that sounds like 30 seconds/stop. Are passengers really moving that fast?

It was a long enough ride that I finished the Times crossword and read a story about pigeons too. Luckily no-one sat next to me. Let's give me a half of a point -- ineffective commuter transit works against picturesque Middle Western towns like Kenosha:

Middle West 7.5, Cathy 2.5.

Chicago is an expensive place to stay. I parked my scrofulous bag (the same one that spent the better part of a week last summer traveling without me) at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is neither excessively luxurious nor dauntingly boutique-y. Nor is it a deep discount at $429/night (which with tax, comes out just shy of $500/night). No celebrities gossiping about Julia Roberts's weight gain in the elevator. No movies being filmed out front. And my colleagues from New York City spent similar amounts for equally unremarkable lodgings nearby. I checked.

Why is Chicago so expensive? Is it the Giant Bean? Are hotel guests paying to keep the Bean buffed and shiny and birdshit-free? I'm fond of the Bean, but $500 is too much to pay for a hotel room that's not in Manhattan or Tokyo. A USA Today wasn't even included with the room, so I couldn't wake up to lurid stories about celebrity arrests, small town meth labs, and teen sex. Did you know that Scott Adams suffers from Spasmodic Dysphonia? Neither did I. I didn't get the USA Today that covered that story. Or that Snoop Dogg was arrested for possession of marijuana? I believe there's an expression that involves popes and bears and woods that one says after reading the article. $500 with nary a complementary copy of USA Today so I could learn about what's up with Scott or Snoop. Just a clean Bean.

I'd rack that one up for me.

Middle West 7.5, Cathy 3.5.

My next stop (after a 12 hour sojourn in San Francisco, just to recalibrate my Left Coast sensibilities) was Austin, Texas. Technically Austin may not be in the Middle West, but Texas is certainly one of the fly-over states, especially given its role in producing (coughing up?) Middle Western-style presidents. Technically, too, Austin may not actually be in Texas, but POTUS 43's chosen hometown of Crawford is not far from Austin. So it's fair game. Let's start with a one point deduction for Crawford's proximity to Austin; I'd like to weigh in on this administration. Just like that we have:

Middle West 6.5, Cathy 3.5.

By now you may be almost as confused about the scoring system as I am, but the thing to remember is that there can only be one winner, even if we have to go into overtime. One winner. Points can be added or subtracted from either side, depending. Got that?

You might think that Austin has always had winning ways, from its vibrant music scene and yearly SXSW Festival to the colony of bats that fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk. But we can't allow its quirky reputation to sway us, because our scoring system must adhere to a more rigorous standard than simply doling out points based on the fly-over locale's well-publicized upsides and downsides.

For the sake of an authentic Texas experience, I rented a Chevy Malibu instead of relying on dubious public transportation. A real Texan would never take the bus, not unless it had a personal rifle rack behind every seat and stopped at drive-thru liquor 'n' ammo outlets. As a cost-cutting measure, I stayed at the Holiday Inn on Town Lake.

I'm pretty sure the dwarf from Jackass was in the room next door, and Carlos Mencia's tour rig was parked down the street. One of 'em -- the dwarf or Carlos Mencia -- stole my USA Today (or at least mine was missing by the time I saw fit to open my hotel room door). And I think I may've paid extra for the coveted Highway 35 view: "Sure, that's Highway 35. But it's Highway 35 crossing Town Lake!"

But I like Austin, and during the course of the business day, I bought a 3 ounce bottle of homemade Aztexan Habenaro hot sauce, small enough to carry on in my scrofulous bag under current TSA regulations. Why would a guy working in a market research facility be hawking hot sauce? Oh -- it must be Austin. We'll give me a half a point for my minor hotel travails and give the Middle West a half a point based on Austin's legendary quirkiness (the dwarf and the hot sauce). Everybody wins, at least temporarily:

Middle West 7, Cathy 4.

Austin could've been more help to the fly-over states' case, but I had to move on. I had business to attend to in the fourth town of my tour, College Station.

The drive east reminded me of the upside of Middle West living: road trips are better -- much better -- than they are in crowded California. I headed out on 290 and took a turn north on 21. The radio was on loud and tuned to the embarrassing classic rock station, KLBJ, which was playing the Rolling Stones back-to-back (no need to be alternative here in the Middle West). My window was open. I was going as fast as I wanted to, with nary another car in sight. It was 70 degrees and sunny. I bought a packet of Twang in a convenience store in Elgin and kolaches (a regional delicacy) in a bakery in Caldwell. Before I knew it, I'd bypassed Snook and was pulling into the College Station Hilton.

Road trip! Local delicacies! Drive thru liquor stores with ice-cold longnecks to go! KLBJ! Towns with names like Dime Bag and Snook! Life is a highway! I want to ride it all night long!

Middle West 8, Cathy 4.

Excuse my exuberance. But darn! That road trip was fun. The Hilton, on the other hand, was an unholy blend of recent Aggies back in town for a weekend bender, older Aggies playing tennis, and some kind of engineering conference attendees, seemingly baffled by the chaos around them. My fellow Hiltoneers glared at me in the elevator, just the way I remember them doing when I lived in College Station. And my USA Today? Forget about it! No USA Today! A week's worth of travel with no USA Today. A girl could get paranoid about stuff like this. Why is everyone denying me my USA Today? Is there something I'm not supposed to know?

I'll spare you the details of my stay at the Hilton; after all, what's important here is that we're keeping score. And being awakened at 3am by two extremely drunk young couples arguing about whether the drinks in the College Station Hilton bar are worth the big city prices when you could just buy a bottle of booze and bring it up to your room is not worth any narrative energy.

It is, however, a way for the Middle West to fall behind in the points.

If it had been 1am, it would've been worth 1 point. Ditto 7am. But 3am is a rude time to be awakened and kept awake. Needless to say, the cost effectiveness of hotel bar drinks not a dispute that can be quickly resolved; it's a debate that's been going on since the dawn of time. It's brought philosophers -- and certainly better minds than those of my noisy neighbors -- to their knees. When I finally decided the argument had gone on long enough, I discovered my phone wasn't activated. Why no phone when I'd secured my room with a credit card? (This after I'd returned to the front desk twice because the card keys were no good.)

I've spent too long on this. Let's get to the point:

Middle West 8, Cathy 6.5.

It's getting close. Will the fly-over states be able to redeem themselves? Perhaps some Aggie traditions will tip the scales one way or the other.

Sunday's weather is just right for a walk. My first choice is to drag my companions through the Texas A&M campus to visit the doggie graves -- the place where Reveilles 1-N are buried facing the stadium's scoreboard. I've talked about this tradition before. But when we arrive at the improvised Pet Semetary, I'm shocked to see the eternal flame is absent. Shouldn't this be as sober a venue as JFK's grave site at Arlington National Cemetary? Sure, the graves are tidy and well-maintained and the doggie spirits can observe the scoreboard. But no eternal flame? A disappointment. I am oddly offended by this breech of tradition.

Middle West 8, Cathy 7.

There's a tradition, I'm given to understand, to put pennies at the feet of the statue of Sul Ross -- the beloved third president of Texas A&M -- during exams. It is a tradition that is much more ethically viable than, say, the competing tradition of slipping a hundred dollar bill in your blue book for your TA, and arguably a much cheaper way to ace your exams.

Studying? That never works. Look it up in Wikipedia if you don't believe me.

Neither the pennies by Mr. Ross's feet nor studying may turn out to be as effective as the ol' Ben Franklin in the blue book tradition. But certainly any of these traditions (one presaging Aggie roles as lobbyists and the others, a fallback to more innocent times in the Middle West) make more sense than placing pennies at the feet of James Earl Rudder, who as the 16th president of Texas A&M, opened university enrollment to women. I don't believe that putting small change at Mr. Rudder's feet is part of any acknowledged A&M tradition at all.

Yet that's what we found when we were taking our on-campus stroll. Perhaps the pennies are an appeasement for the misdeployment of a Roofie or for a loud 3am argument rather than an exam shortcut. In any event, I put several pennies there too -- not because I was looking for a blessing or forgiveness, but rather because I was about to go to College Station's tiny Easterwood airport and brave the rigors of Midwestern airport security. Best to get all the loose change out of the way.

But shouldn't confusing the vaunted traditions -- mixing up Sul Ross with James Earl Rudder -- cost the Middle West a half point? I think so. If you're going to have traditions, you'd best follow them.

Middle West 7.5, Cathy 7.

On the other hand, I've noticed that many staid institutions, my own Left Coast two-time alma mater included, are using brick-buying as a fund raising technique. It's easier to convince most alums to buy a brick or two than to sponsor a whole football stadium or biochemistry building.

Reading the bricks is educational. Besides learning that Texas A&M has alumni who continue to refer to themselves as "Booger" a decade after graduation, I also came to a rather startling realization about this brick thing: it's more lucrative than you'd think. Those Middle Westerners are a crafty bunch.

Look at it this way. We counted 800 bricks to an inset, and 16 insets to a walkway. At, let's say, $500 per inscribed brink, you've got $500 x 800 x 16, or 6.4 million dollars.

6.4 million dollars! And you have to pave anyway. What a swell idea! I've got lots of brickable area at home myself. This idea seems worth at least a half a point. For me. I can retire after all.

Middle West 7.5, Cathy 7.5.

I'm almost at the end of my tour of the fly-over states, and I think you can see what's happening. The score is tied. Underrated or not? What if I'd stayed a few more days?

A few more months? A few more years? What then?

I did that. The few-year thing. What you begin to notice is not the tie, but the way the game unfolds. In not-so-long, the scores converge. But the novelty wears thin: those steady gains outpace the big jumps. You're delighted to be back on the Left Coast. Or the Right one, depending.

Yet there's a certain appeal to the Middle West. I am tempted to mail myself a carton of cheese curds, a gross of jello molds, and a case of Fancy Feast from Woodman's. The Middle West: it's a good value.


Anonymous Leonard Okoth said...

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2:08 AM  

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