I have been traveling for a couple of days, and had one of those unfortunate occurrences where I happened to read a semi interesting article, but chose the wrong day to find it. I had a little gig in Arkansas this week, in a small, friendly and picturesque town in “Southern Arkansas” (this is opposed to “Northern Arkansas) which, if you look at a map will see at the southern end of the state. I’m not quite sure just where the magical dotted dividing line is, but like many states, everyone living there knows, so you simply have to ask. I have found as you travel the further into the heartland you go, the more “county” becomes the divisional title that people respond to. A county, in most places, would be the distance you could travel on horseback in a day, as long as you had a capable horse (General Quarters?) So it always surprises me when, in a long conversation, the pay-off line is ‘county’ related, rather than state or country. In 1985, as they announced the (how’s this for poignant) future ground-breaking of the Saturn auto plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, I had a conversation with a farmer who was ticked off at his neighbors for having made secret, $$$ laden deals with GM to purchase their farms, and ticked off at himself that he wasn’t one of the farmers who became seriously rich by selling to GM. He started into a long soliloquy about the richness of the soil, the way the loam let you plant anything, even a broomstick, and how you could watch in amazement as it would grow. He spoke almost lovingly of the quality of the land, and finished his sentence, “Yes, I do believe is some of THE finest land….. “ at which point I’m thinking ‘wow, this has got to be the most productive land in the country’… “ in Maury county.” Maury County? That was the twenty mile stretch of rural life south of Nashville, very country, yes, and no doubt capable of growing soy, greens, and who knows what else. But that the definition of his realm of description was so precise, and perhaps limited, threw me. It shouldn’t have. While the land all looked the same to me, I’m sure he knew what every acre of his own spread, and his neighbors’ looked like. He’d know individual trees, and streams, and places where the birds congregate. In many ways I’m sure that I was the provincial one, not he. I could see the world in perhaps, larger terms, more like Province or State or Soviet Socialist Republic, but did I have even an inkling of the intimacy with any of those places which he did with that farm land? Not a chance. I might know which Air France check in desk at Roissy to try for short lines, or where at LaGuardia you could avoid long security queues, but those are but brief and temporal, and don’t really relate to a reality you could blend into your daily life.
The first time it was explained to me (by a fellow co-conspirator) how to smuggle caviar out of Moscow’s old terminal (it required an inexplanable but very Soviet style layout which let you pass though one set of security for hand check, and another for baggage check, during which transit you laid the caviar in the piece just checked and sent it on its way. It wasn’t very James Bondian, but I did get butterflies the first time I tried it, feeling quite exposed (I was exposed), fumbling with a dog-food dish sized tin of Caspian jewels, having a tough time getting it out of my heavy parka, and into the unzipped luggage. I KNEW everyone in the building was staring at me (they weren’t) and wanted nothing more than to bust my butt (they didn’t) so it was not without adventure and elevated heartrate. But provincial? It was probably way more provincial in its own way than the farmer in Spring Hill lamenting the loss of the South Forty.
Sitting in the Little Rock airport this morning, I marvel at the extent that provincialism remains strangely out of place. This is, as far as I can remember, the only airport in the US I have been to of late where the security level (Orange!) announcements.. usually preceded by the illogical “This is a SPECIAL Security announcement”.. which, by the very nature of it being repeated every seven minutes means it is NOT very Special.. are done in English and French. French in Little Rock. I’m sure both the Quebecois who traveled here a week ago, and the 22 French social engineers here to study American football all appreciate it. But what is the point? Why not Serbo-Croation, or Mandarin. Let’s really get into it, and include Tongan and Inuit. The most amusing thing is that the French is done in that completely atonal un-French way that non native speakers seem to specialize in. Trust me, it’s NOT Maurice Chevalier with a top hat and cane strolling past Gate B4, singing “Sank Aye-vans For Leetal Gulls.” It sounds more like a Nevada-born French teacher who might have studied language at the BYU/LDS Missionary program in Provo (Utah) for two months, but was then sent for their mission to Idaho instead of Bordeaux. And while I’m railing about airports, what is it with the targeting habits of guys in Men’s Rooms. Honestly. It isn’t THAT hard to hit a urinal. Trust me, we have, every solitary one of us, been ‘practicing’ (like a violinist, not like an attorney) since we were 8 years old. It isn’t that difficult. Ladies, it’s roughly equivalent to holding a Dixie cup of water in your outstretched arm, standing on the edge of a swimming pool, and inverting the cup. Here again, it’s NOT that difficult to get the water into the pool, right? Maybe there needs to be some kind of remedial course, broadcast in English, Spanish and of course French, at the entry to the Men’s Room. Even a little video to remind us that the really tough part of the job is just lowering one’s zipper. It’s discoveries like this that can make a short easy trip into a “I can’t believe I spent the whole day just getting here..” trip.
But that isn’t (as Iris often says) what I wanted to blob about. Last night I arrived in Little Rock just as the Bulls and Celtics were thrashing each other in the NBA eliminations. Like most sports, I find that the playoffs are usually more interesting than the regular season, and almost always more fun than the Championship game series (this year’s Superbowl a very rare exception.) In some ways, more is on the line, just to GET to the Championships, and that’s why the early days of January seem, for me, to be the most fun NFL games of all. So I ended up at a famous old eaterie downtown (Little Rock is a small easily navigated place) called Doe’s Eat Place. I remember the early days of the Clinton era, this place was already decades old and famous for big steaks, reasonably priced cocktails, and tamales.
Hey, two outta three ain’t bad. The steaks are all meant to be shared (2.5 pound minimum) but I forgot to invoke the time-tested ski lift protocol for someone on their own.. where you start up the lift line and yell “Single!” in an effort to find another solo-ist to sit with. So I was stuck with a gorgeous T bone, a Jack Daniels and soda, and an old non-flat screen (bulbous screen?) TV over the bar with the basketball game unfolding.
I wouldn’t have mentioned any of this except for the fact that only yesterday morning I saw an news piece “Studies Confirm that Red Meat Eaters Live Shorter Lives.” Heck. Couldn’t you print that story tomorrow? True, I could have just gone to the grocers and bought a nice Apple, and a small yogurt, gone to the hotel and watched the game. But for twenty years I have heard about Doe’s and if you wait only to go to places like this when you are with a small convention of Milliners or Accountants – excellent sharers, all, you’ll never get around to knowing what all the hubbub is about. So, you just go, try and order wisely (no dessert!) and take mental notes. The steak was perfectly grilled on what must be the former U S Steel Furnace: crisp and blackened on the outside, and pink on the inside, and accompanied by a deliciously odd dual potato fest of side dishes (Fries [excellent] and roasted New Potatoes drenched in a swimming pool of buttah [also excellent.] ) The place was mostly cleared out by 8:30 save for a few hard-core diners, you know, the kind who bring their own high-tensile steel steak knives with them. The ones whose handles have been worn down by years of delicious dining, like the brassed off corners of an old black-body Nikon. And to be sure, I only thought about the news article a couple of times as I chomped on that steak. It was a kind of self-regulated back-and-forth since I had only myself to converse with – did the study really include all the data? Hey, look at a big steak and tell me that it’s good for you (I still think it can be.) I ended up coming down on the side of “at least I don’t eat like this every day of the week.” It was as if Doe’s were the inspiration for Arthur’s Tavern in Hoboken & Morris Plains, NJ, temples built on the foundation of the caveman ‘hunter’ (as opposed to the ‘gatherer’ which would be something like the Smoothie shop at WholeFoods) for whom a fresh steak combined with fire was the ultimate in survival food. The steak was great, watching the waitstaff refill the Heinz bottles with a huge pitcher of ketchup under the baskeball game at the bar was comforting. It was as if this little interlude was meant to take place no matter what the medical researchers had found in their studies. And because the game went into countless overtimes (well, I lost count) I was able to get back to the motel, the airport Holiday Inn Express, in time to see the last 15 minutes of a pretty good basketball game. I don’t know how many great steak houses there are in the area, but as I started to unpack, with the feeling of completion only a great steak dinner can provide, I thought “I may be a provincial kind of guy, but I can’t believe there is a better steak in all of Pulaski County.” And while I’m neither a gourmet chef, nor a food writer, nor even a bus boy at a “sit down” Dairy Queen, I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. We’re just sayin’…. David
(as always, click an image to see full size)