Lift up your downcast eyes, woman; there is a special place in heaven for you. O truck stop waitress, you sustainer of the long-distance voyageur, Cinderella of the service industry, underfoot guardian and caretaker of the linoleum empire... one day, when you finally fall from your weary stanchions, you will cast off your worn features and wrinkled skin, exchange your pleated polyester skirt for pillowy garments with thread counts in the millions.
This is not a place of cold revenge, mind you -- your ungrateful, grumbling low tippers and your minimum-wage tormentors will be far away, banished to that lower, hotter place. Yes, one day, you will leave behind your nametag and your happy-face flair and your aching joints for your final reward, a beautiful eternity of hourly foot massages and cloud-soft pillows upon which to rest your weary soul.
For as many truck stops that I've known and utilized, I have ever so rarely eaten at a 24-hour truck stop family restaurant. These are establishments with names like Iron Skillet, Country Pride, Country Hearth and Buckhorn. The biggest reason why I haven't gone much is because, as a vegetarian, they don't have much for me. I have little use for Salisbury steak, chicken fried steak, quarter-pound sirloins, surf-and-turf or double cheeseburgers, which is what's featured on their four-page laminated menus.
But on a Thanksgiving weekend Sunday night, triple necessity brought me to the Country Pride restaurant at a TravelCenters of America near Harrisburg, Pa.. I was hungry, sure, but I also needed a place to ride out the holiday traffic as well as a table to use my laptop on... I was about 50 e-mails behind, and needed to dash out a weblog entry. I figured I could have a quick meal, and that would buy me a spot for an hour or two so I could use the overpriced truck stop Internet.
I waited for several minutes at the "Please wait, Your hostess will be happy to seat you" sign before I finally realized there was no hostess at all, much less a happy one. There was one waitress overing the restaurant's 20 or so tables, most of which were filled. When I sat down at an empty booth, it took five minutes for her to cycle over to me.
Her name tag said "Peg," that archaic name that not even a Steely Dan song could make sexy, the name of a thousand thousand high school drama-club members and 1950's hop queens. I breathlessly waited for Peg to speak, and, and...
Nothing. Without a word or even a look, she had pen to pad, waiting for my order.
"Say, is that a salad bar over there?" I asked. It wasn't on the menu I had stolen from the rack.
"$8.99 with the carvery," she said without raising her gaze. "$5.49 for just soup and salad."
"I'll take just the soup and salad," I ordered. "And mozzarella sticks too. And coff..."
Peg was gone. I ventured up to the salad bar, picked up a plate... and what a salad bar it was. The lettuce was limp and soggy like wet newspaper, the pepper strips were hard and appeared calcified, their green color offset with the white trim. The radishes resembled tiny purple acorns. I put nothing but a small dollop of potato salad on my plate, which I later found to be laced with the snappy taste of fresh trout.
The mozzarella sticks came 40 minutes later, but I didn't and couldn't get any work done. The flannel-shirted truckers were watching an AFC West football game on a small screen in the corner, spontaneously yelling and whooping every few minutes. The light, hard and fluorescent and buzzing, seemed designed to get diners out of there as soon as possible. After idly dipping the crusty sticks into a pool of watery marinara sauce, I tried to flag down Peg. Several minutes passed, but our eyes met for the first time, and I was able to make the universal index-finger symbol for "check," a quick swoop-dip in the air that comes from the word's alternate meaning.
The coffee was listed on the bill, but it had never come.
I thought about leaving no tip, or a dollar, then briefly imagined leaving the ultimate patron-to-waitress insult: two pennies showing alternate faces, the dreaded "head up your ass" tip that I've only unleashed once, just once. Finally, I dropped five dollars on a ten-dollar check. I knew I was contributing to the problem, rewarding poor service and possibly reinforcing Peg's belief that people are going to tip anyway, so why bother trying at all.
But I couldn't do that, Road Karma would surely exact a punishing equalizer someday. Peg, sweet Peg, please get some sleep.***
For the past four seasons, I've been using a website called "Hotwire" to rent cars. I'm not a shill for them, and they don't sponsor anything I do or any outlet I'm affiliated with, but it's really a great service that sells remaindered space on airplanes, in hotels and for car hires (the airplane deals are, however, less than spectacular). You can get a car for about 15 dollars per day, with unlimited miles -- all they ask is that you pay the full balance in advance, and that you accept the surprise of which vendor you get (usually Budget, Hertz or Avis) only after the money's changed hands.
Counter workers at airports generally don't like Hotwire very much. It seems like it's more paperwork for them, or an extra hassle, or they lose some sort of commission or something. If you want to see a Hertz employee's demeanor change from super-cheerful to murderous in about 1.5 seconds, you can either tell them that their cat has dog herpes, or that you made your arrangements through Hotwire.
Or maybe they just see my name. I've also often wondered if I'm on some sort of greylist or blacklist with the rental car companies, or am in danger to be, because of what I do to their cars. When they say unlimited miles, I take them completely at their word. This auto, for example, will travel from Providence's T.F. Green Airport down to Philadelphia, further down through Virginia, and make several dipsy-do loops through North Carolina before being shuttled back to port in 10 days.
My first rental car of the season (the first trip was done in our family Honda) is a 2007 Hyundai Elantra, the next generation in Asian compacts. It's got Tennessee plates, there's an XM radio built in (so I don't have to wire up my mobile unit), six magic compartments in the front dash, and plenty of trunk space for a four-door sedan.
It's not designed for 6-foot-2 folks, though. The turn signal indicators are hidden by the top of the steering wheel, and if I want to see them properly, I have to put the seatback in "gangsta lean" position. For the first few hours, driving down I-95 on a clear and cold Black Friday morning, I don't notice that I'm signaling that I'm going right for miles upon miles, until somebody behind me puts their flashers on me.
No ma'am, I'm not an old retiree from Nashville off to see his grandkids, I'm just a tall dude stuck in a Hyundai.***
My mid-major merchandise luck is so good this year, it's extending beyond truck stops to regular convenience stores. Leaving a Central Connecticut State-Lafayette game on Sunday afternoon, I stop for gas at a quick-stop place down the hill from LC's campus. There's a cap rack next to the register... and lo and behold, there's a fitted Rhode Island Rams cap (in my 7 3/4 size!) hundreds of miles from my adopted, tiny home state.
It always helps to remember where you're from, and it's a fabric-covered celebration of my renewed coverage of the Atlantic 14 this season. And for six bucks, I can't not do it.***
The Official Wife™ never fell in love with Philadelphia like I finally did, four years into my stay there.
Not that I blame her. She never was around long enough to let it embrace her in its odd, old charms. We were married for a year before we moved into a house together, and she'd come down for weekends -- getting a few hours of sleep on Sunday night before driving the 300 miles north, under the cover of night, in order to make it back to Boston before 9 a.m. Monday.
And when we finally did start cohabiting, "Philadelphia" was a financial line item that hung on us like an iron yoke. We kept up payments in both places for almost a year, until she pleaded with me to break the lease. Once free of my old pad near the Drexel campus, I said goodbye to a city I'd lived in for seven years.
But for two short days in December, I can feel like I've never left, enter a time warp where I can live in the past with everything I have in the present. I stay at my friend Roni's apartment while he's away for Thanksgiving weekend with his family up in Jersey, a cozy flat in the Art Museum district. On Saturday morning, I walk out on the quiet sideways, shop for supplies at the Whole Foods and peruse the Inquirer
city section at a local coffee shop. And when noon rolls around, I go back to the ancestral home of this website, the place where a strong interest in college basketball turned into a passion.
When I try to make a list, the only three things that I really miss about Philly are the 8-mile running loop in Fairmount Park, Marathon Grill and Penn's old barn. It was, is and will always be, an anchor for my memories, the familiar and ongoing sameness that can only be called "home." In 2007 as in 1997 as in 2027, the Palestra's red and blue seats below, the grey iron beams above, will remain. The stained glass in the upper reaches really is stained -- the daylight, filtered through crusted windows, bathes the early games of the eight-team Philly Classic in a golden hue, just as it has for generations.
But the rest of city has passed me by, has kept moving, even only a year and a half after I moved away. There are improved buildings, new construction, different names. I take some new friends to Mad 4 Mex, the restaurant where I spent a thousand thousand late nights in college eating half-price veggie burritos, and drank a million million Tecates with line wedges at the circular bar -- but I can't find it. It's just three blocks from the Palestra, but I've forgotten where the sidewalk cuts hard into the block on Walnut Street. It's because the Dunkin' Donuts on the corner has a new sign, one that doesn't match my mental map.
"I think it's around here somewhere," I tell a small crowd, one quite underwhelmed with my knowledge of the city.
On my way back to that Hyundai Elantra on a Saturday night, after watching eight games in two days, I take the same route that I'd walked after so many Saturday night Palestra games, countless matchups between Penn and Harvard, Penn and Brown, Penn and Columbia. Leaving Cavanaugh's bar (where I'd watched every NCAA Tournament before I was paid to attend it), I made my way up 34th Street towards my old neighborhood. On the left, a new shopping plaza that was never there just a year previous, an Eastern Mountain Sports and a streamlined Starbucks. What had been there before? I can't quite remember...
The fading memory of a cherished place, overlaid by its present reality, creates pressure points and edges where things don't fit right, don't jibe. Where buildings and signs and stores have changed, those can sting and even hurt deeply. What you remember doesn't exist anymore, doesn't matter, exists only in worthless old photographs. It's the feeling of being erased off the map.
Up the hill, between Drexel's old gym and the Science Center, past the refurbished 7-11, out into the darkness of Powelton Village...
And I'm gone.Games: 22