January 13, 2008 9:09 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
This One's For The Valley
This one's for the Valley, the Missouri Valley. This is a tribute to that switch of strong and landlocked America that only sees the sun an hour after the right coast does, whether Indiana saves daylight or not. Let the light shine from Lincoln's boyhood home to his license-plate Land, across Iowa and the region's namesake Show-Me state, into the brilliant corners of Nebraska and Kansas. This one's for the very center of the Central time zone.
This one's for Republican voters, for corn-miles, for playing in Peoria. This is also for the Kum & Go, a chain of gas stations so blissfully unaware of itself. It's a special shout-out to the "Burgers & Cream" in Carbondale, Illinois, and to the 50-year-old old-time Steak & Shake in Springfield, Missouri, the one with the sign on the side that says, "We Protect Your Health." To the Buffalo Wild Wings locations from end to end, and to "Ski," the lemony-orangey hometown beverage of Evansville, Indiana.
This is for the diners, for the buffets, for size 42 pants. This is for skinny white kids in black t-shirts in the parking lot of the Jo-Ann Fabrics store at 10 p.m., clouds of cigarette smoke hanging overhead like bored ghosts, all gathered around a pair of beaten and bruised Japanese automobiles from the early Nineties. There's an Evanescence CD playing loudly over a severely taxed and tinny-sounding speaker system. It's the major-label debut, the one with all the hits on it.
This is for the slow turn of the key, for the sputtering rev of the engine, for the eternal marriage of machinery and freedom. This is for backseat sex, for endless squirming and stray elbows and not quite getting the angle right, for dejection and disappointment. This is for swearing that one day... One day we're going to get out of here, Maureen, and we're never going to look back.
This is for never leaving. Ever.
This is for the pimply, translucent kid in the blue Best Buy smock. "Pete," says the perfect-printed Dymo-label his yellow price-ticket nametag. This is for the line of pimply, greasy-haired kids in line at the Best Buy, all carrying XBox copies of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. No, go ahead, I just have to buy this ethernet cord and extra camera battery that I forgot to bring from home. No really, go ahead. I have all day. Tip's at 7:05.
This is for arenas filled to capacity on cold winter nights, for a whole separate basketball world overlaid onto the Big Ten like a presentation transparency. It's for fans who follow every result like we used to follow the NBA in times gone by -- every play analyzed, every player's weaknesses dissected, ever win or loss ruminated over for days.
Yes, this is for the Valley. Our country could never function without its strong-beating heartland, nor will it ever. They'll never rip it out of America's chest cavity, no matter how hard they try.
"And up"... it's the worst phrase there is in the Hotwire phraseology. It means they don't have any cars available at discounted rates, and you have to go it alone. Sure, they'll help you with the reservation, but you're at the mercy of the rental car companies, without the pleasant discount dot-com buffer.
When I looked for a rental car at Indianapolis from Dec. 29 to Jan. 7, there weren't any. Every day during the holiday break, I would check every six hours to see if they had any prepaid cars available for the 10-day period, and each time I checked it would read "Economy car: $16.99 and up." Admittedly, that's a long stretch to try and get a get a remaindered-rate discount for, and there's a holiday in there too. Finally, two days before I left Rhode Island for the Valley, I gave in and made a reservation with Alamo.
I still don't get the Alamo/National merger. They're still two separate brands, with very little discernable difference. They both sell car rentals at the same rate levels, but National's ads have a bunch of guys playing golf and Alamo's ads seem to feature black families. Oh, and Alamo takes debit cards, and National doesn't like them too much.
Upon arrival at Indianapolis, I took the half-Alamo blue, half-National green shuttle to the off-site facility and stood in line at the twin counters. When it was my time to be served, I hesitated. There was a black family at the Alamo side, could the guy at the National side help me?
"Can I help you?" exhaled the fat man in a button-busting oxford shirt. I asked him if he could do an Alamo reservation.
"I guess so," he said, looking at the ceiling.
I handed over my card and license, and he started with a barrage of questions. Age? Is this still your address? Would you like to take our loss-damage waiver insurance? Are you sure, you'll be liable for any damage to the vehicle? Are you absolutely, totally sure? Do you have proof of a round-trip ticket? This is a printout of an itinerary, do you have an actual ticket? Would you like a GPS Navigation device for twenty dollars extra per day?
And finally, "Your card's been declined."
"How much are you trying to authorize my card for?" I asked.
"Let's see here," said the clerk. "One thousand, four hundred and fourteen dollars."
When I got my chin back off the Corian-laminate counter, he explained that it was for the 10 days, plus a few extra hours, plus a fee for not taking their loss-waiver insurance, plus $300 because I didn't have suitable proof of a round-trip airline ticket.
OK, I haven't done so well at this basketball thing that I have that kind of money hanging around in my checking account. And like most Americans, my credit cards don't have that kind of available balance anymore. "You know, I could buy a car for that," I said weakly, and took the ride of shame back to the airport terminal on the Alamo/National shuttle, orange-wheeled luggage sadly in tow.
With the help of the airport's 10-buck-a-day WiFi, I logged back into Hotwire and tried to find a 10-day rental. Still nothing except for "and up." So I tried to get creative.
With a day off Monday, I could drive back to IND from Carbondale after my game at SIU on Sunday. Then I'd have all day to drive the 700 miles or so to Wichita. Sure, I had a few Long Ones under me so far, I could do that. So I Hotwired a three-day rental, then a seven-day rental, both from Indianapolis. When the money changed hands, both were from Hertz. I could live with that.
My car for the weekend was a 2008 black Toyota Corolla with Ohio plates, which somehow already had over 10,000 miles on it. (Probably a basketball scout had it before I did.) Not a car I could ever fall in love with, and after a weekend of two Southern Illinois homers and an Evansville game, I drove it back across Indiana to its home airport.
I marched directly from the car rental return to the counter. "How was your flight?" the nice Asian woman at the desk asked.
"I don't remember," I replied. She didn't get the joke, and neither did I, really.
I was issued, or perhaps punished by, a Mazda 3 -- a meandering and uninspiring putter I drove during my December trip through Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland. "It's in space number 178," she said.
Back out into the fresh air, and I searched around in the frost-covered lot for my car. After a few minutes, I found space 178, but the Mazda 3 was three-deep in a lengthwise stack of recent returns from the weekend.
The man at the gate came over, laughing at my bewildered head-scratching.
"Are you lost?" he said, smiling. His nametag read "Mohammed." "All the spaces have numbers, you know."
I pointed at my trapped car, and then to my rental agreement. "I don't get it," I replied. "Do they want me to lift it out? Like Superman?"
"You look to me to be too weak and scrawny for that," said Mohammed. "Pick another one."
"How 'bout this one?" I said, pointing to a gleaming Prius several feet away.
"Oooh, good choice. I'll check," he said, radioing in. A minute later, he had sad news. "I'm sorry, that's considered an upgrade. You only paid for an economy."
I was determined to fight for it, and fell to my knees in the kind of pleading that's usually reserved for girls who want their daddy to buy them a pony. Mohammed was on my side, and five minutes of sweet-talking the counter lady (including promising to buy her a chocolate-box for Valentine's Day), my rental agreement was rewritten.
"Just remember to press the button to start the car," Mohammed said. "And make sure you watch the digital display of the energy consumption while you drive, it's like a video game."
"I can't wait," I exclaimed. "A video game that saves the environment!"
"See you next Monday!" As Mohammed became an object farther away then he appeared in the side mirror, I happily waved back. Even if it was bruised a bit the previous Friday with my Alamo experience, my rental car mojo was completely repaired and intact.
I only had to gas up once on the way to Wichita.
On Saturday at Evansville, after a slow and bruising first half between the homestanding Purple Aces and the visiting Indiana State Sycamores, there's a surprise performance that somehow wasn't mentioned in the media guide.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the P.A. announcer boomed. "We have some special guests for you tonight. Please welcome the zany antics of... the Zooperstars!"
The Zooperstars, a troupe of giant inflatable mascots, are a staple of college basketball halftime shows during the winter and minor-league baseball games during the summer. Although there are a dozen or so characters in total, they usually travel in packs of three or four to their many dates across the country. "The Wildest and Craziest Show in Sports," as the company claims, has been entertaining crowds for the past decade with characters based on animal puns on sports star names.
The thing with the Zooperstars, however, is that they're stuck in the sports world of 1998. Enjoyment of the show requires timewarping one's mindset to a long-ago and faraway time before snarky sports blogs and 21st Century sports scandals. For example, the three characters we at Evansville get for halftime are 15-foot tall "Shaquille O'Seal," "Whale Gretzky" (in a copyright-sidestepping Rangers-style jersey), and "Dennis Frogman," based on a former basketball player I was just enjoying forgetting. He's got tattoos and noserings printed on his green inflatable body, wearing a feather boa.
For several minutes, the three mascots dance around the floor to a medley of tired old pop music -- dancing, inverting themselves to appear as if bouncing on their heads, and playfully bonking into each other. At one point, the Macarena is played and they all perform the steps in unison. In the assumed showstopping moment, Dennis Frogman goes wild on the court, ripping off his shirt to reveal tattooed inflatable pecs.
The southern Indiana crowd gives this show mild and polite applause. Perhaps it's because the performance makes use of 10-year old sports jokes, gags that have been played out since years started with ones. Maybe there's a cool reception because the Zooperstars have assumed that this assemblage is old-fashioned enough to enjoy outdated jokes, that they can get away with this. They do get ESPN in Evansville, you know, and they've been subject to the same endless highlight loop everyone else has.
During a media timeout in the second half, "Clammy Sosa" -- in a pinstriped faux-Cubs jersey -- waddles out on the floor. Before you can say "Mitchell Report," the rubberized clam rushes over to the visiting bench, where an "assistant coach" with a clipboard is trying to shoo him away. Clammy comes in close, then eats the ringer whole.
The fans love it. The cheers and howls of laughter drown out the accompanying music, "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It" (a Grammy Award winning song of 1984), which is playing over the speakers at full blast. One by one, pieces of clothing come out of the inflatable's mouth: pants, shirt, shoes.
Finally, the "assistant coach" comes out too, naked except for a pair of print boxers. The crowd explodes.
"If you're not entertained by that," I say to the radio man next to me, who's doubled over in laughter. "There's definitely something wrong with you."
I'm not the first person to think of the central Midwest as American utopia. Through time, people have gathered here and tried to create perfect societies.
During the 1830's in southern Iowa, for example, pantheist icon Abner Kneeland and his followers attempted to create a community enclave they named Salubria. Like many little utopias, Salubria ran into economic problems and dissipated within five years. Soon thereafter, adherents of French socialist Charles Fourier set up communal living in what's now Mahaska County. They called their experimental community Phalanx. Perhaps due to its horrible name, Phalanx died within two years.
Others had more success creating heaven on earth in Iowa. In 1851, a small group of dreamers started the Hopewell Colony, which evolved into a village called Hopeville that stood together until the 19th Century.
I collect this from a plaque at a rest area off Interstate 35, near Exit 4 and the Missouri border, scratching the information into a small Moleskine cahier in the dim shine of my headlights. The sun is far gone, having long since completed its arcing journey from the east, and the Missouri Valley is plunged into another darkness. Later, I unlatch the car seat of my rented Prius... my travel pillow under my head, my brown leather jacket over me, I drift off to sleep. I dream of Hopeville.
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