A chapter in an occasional series of posts documenting an autumn 2021 road trip through the Midwest. A continuation of the post, “The Road to Lansing and the Divine Revelation”
“I just feel like the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have been at a diner counter.” ~ Ramy Youssef
October 23rd, Lansing, Iowa.
It was a sparse crowd in NutMegs when I walked in for breakfast and to figure out what to do with my day.
NutMegs. It’s a proper coffee shop. When you walk into a proper coffee shop you see stools in front of a counter; you hear chatter; you likely hear an argument or two, local gossip, local politics and naturally, sports; you hear the clink of a spoon on a sturdy white coffee mug; the sizzle of a flattop hard at work. And the smells; breakfast meats and strong coffee. On weekdays, old timers finish a light breakfast and then hang around chatting with other old timers seated nearby or, hell, even across the room. Weekends bring the families, before a sporting event or after church. The moment you walk into a proper coffee shop, even on a chilly Midwest morning, you feel its singular warmth.
Yeah, NutMegs is a proper coffee shop. At least it seemed so to this stranger from the Pacific Coast.
Plain, straightforward, knotty pine walls, maybe fake knotty pine walls. I can never tell the difference. Walk in, and to your right is a display case overloaded with empty but still delicious calories; donuts, fritters, bars and assorted pastries. To the left, a set of shelves holds some prepackaged cookies and porcelain likenesses of milk cows – Midwest kitsch.
I took a seat at a counter that was worn and shiny, the erosion of scores of satisfied elbows.
A few stools over a burly man, an empty plate before him, sat nursing a few final sips of coffee. He wore the vestments I’d become used to seeing in small town middle America; faded denim work pants (preferably overalls) a flannel or denim shirt and work boots.
This attire was always topped off with a faded, sweat stained well worn cap, sometimes pulled low, other times, like in a proper coffee shop, worn back on the head, the better to look people in the eye when chatting. Never though, is the cap worn backwards (a good friend of mine holds the firm belief that only baseball catchers and submarine commanders should wear a cap backwards. Being a photographer, admittedly one of no repute, I firmly disagree. Try aiming a camera with a brim fighting your hands for space).
Worn back or pulled low, these caps are usually emblazoned with some farm equipment logo; John Deere, Case, or Tractor Supply.
It’s a raiment I came to call, Midwest business casual. I’d yet to see a suit but I hadn’t yet visited a church and didn’t figure to. I imagined that even attorneys, accountants, bankers and the undertaker must wear some form of this Midwest business casual.
Burly guy, coffee cup held up near his lips, was in the grip of a rerun of the old sitcom Family Matters, playing on the flat screen behind the counter. While back to back to back to back to back episodes of a long ago deceased sitcom seemed an odd choice over the usuals, sports or news, maybe pablum over controversy was a way to nail down a degree of coffee shop cordiality.
A rail thin blonde waitress, armed with a coffee pot and cup appeared in front of me.
She poured coffee, reached a menu to me, and before she could walk away, I ordered the Meat Lovers Omelet.
I sipped coffee, buried my head in my writing and tried to tune out Family Matters. A new episode began with the theme song that reminded me of why I detest saccharine sweet sitcoms.
“It’s a rare condition, this day and age,
to read any good news on the newspaper page.
Love and tradition of the grand design,
some people say it’s even harder to find.”
How long was I lost in my work? Long enough to look up and find that the breakfast rush was going full tilt. A woman, the cook I supposed, taking a break from the griddle, emerged from the kitchen. She wore a purple sweatshirt adorned with three glazed donuts that resembled doughy truck tires, and describing the wearer as “Glazed and confused,” worked her way down the counter refilling coffee cups while exchanging pleasantries with the regulars.
“Refill?” she asked me.
“Please. Say, if you had a camera and wanted good pictures of the area, where would you go.”
She took less than a moment to answer, “Mount Hosmer. It’s a park that looks down on the river.”
She turned to a guy who’d appeared at the stool to my right, “Mount Hosmer?”
“What about it?”
“For taking pictures. This man is looking for a good place to take pictures. I told him Mount Hosmer.”
“Yeah. Sunrise or sunset is best.” The man, wearing, of course, a faded John Deere cap, leaned forward and looked past me at a fellow to my left.
“Mount Hosmer. Right, Francis?”
“What about it?”
“A good place to take pictures?”
John Deere guy, looking satisfied that his job was done, turned his attention to Family Matters.
I asked the guy named Francis if the Field of Dreams ballpark in Dyersville was worth the seventy mile drive south. He was mostly noncommittal, shrugging and offering that it was a nice drive along the river and might be worth it for a baseball fan. I noticed that Francis wasn’t wearing the uniform. He looked dapper, like someone who’d just come from church for his post-service breakfast. He asked me where I was from.
(I’m not really FROM San Francisco. I live in Hercules, which, depending on traffic, particularly on the Bay Bridge, is anywhere from about twenty five minutes to two hours or more from The City. San Francisco lets the conversation flow. I don’t have to deal with a raised eyebrow, and a puzzled look and have to go off on a tangent to explain what and where Hercules is.
On the other hand, admitting that I’m from anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area can get me a derisive look and a ration of shit. The common reaction used to be along the lines of, “What a beautiful city,” but now that everything is politicized I’m as likely as not, to get a response about homelessness and poop on city sidewalks. I suppose I could lie and tell people that I’m from some area that isn’t controversial but I don’t think I could pull off a convincing Swiss guise.)
“I’ve spent some time in San Francisco,” he said. I’ve seen the Golden Gate, I’ve been to Chinatown. For our twenty fifth wedding anniversary the kids gave us a thousand dollars and we went to San Francisco. We walked from the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to Chinatown, and we rode the street cars.”
I mentally called bullshit on his claim of having walked from the Golden Gate to Chinatown. That’s a long ass walk.
And then he tossed it out there. “But I wouldn’t wanna live there.”
Here it comes, I thought, poop on the streets and unchecked liberals running amok.
“No, I wouldn’t wanna live there. Hell, I wouldn’t wanna live in LaCrosse (Wisconsin). Prairie would be okay.” I assumed he was talking about Prairie City.
La Crosse, a half hour away, with a population of over 51,000 was apparently too much humanity, or maybe in his view, inhumanity. Prairie City in the near dead center of the Hawkeye State, with a population of around 2,000 represented his red line.
I told Francis the story of talking to a woman in a gift shop in some random city in one of the Mountain States we’d visited during the spring. I’d praised the beauty of the mountains and told her of the times that I’d wanted to leave California, move to a Mountain State.
“And?” she asked.
I told her that after weeks away from the ocean, I couldn’t bear to be farther than an hour away from the ocean. The Pacific had been my retreat from COVID. On a weekday afternoon I would go to Gray Whale Cove south of San Francisco where I could, with the rare exceptions of a handful of people walking the beach or a surfer braving the frigid water, be the only person on the beach.
Francis, who’d moved from Iowa to Arizona, only to return agreed. “Something about the mountains, desert, ocean, whatever it is, we get attached to it. It’s like here, this wilderness area out here where I live…I’m lonely, I’m twenty-eight acres… We’ve got deer, we’ve got sand crane, we’ve got coyotes. Everything that there is, is in there. I’ve got five head of horses in there.”
Our conversation turned to horses and I showed him some images of mustangs that I’d taken in Nevada. He asked to see more pictures and I obliged.
“Those pictures? I can’t take em, but boy do I ever see em.” He went on about a field, where he’d spotted, in his eye, a photograph.
“I went by a house over there and there’s a fence down there and this gal is down there currying (grooming) about five horses and she’s feedin’ em, and it’s the wintertime and there’s three dogs that were jumpin’ around and the steam is coming off the horses where they’re breathing.” He paused, gave his head a shake as if marveling at the image, “You’ve got a picture!”
We talked at length about horses and dogs. He told me about a neighbor’s dog who he’d taken to.
“His name is Eddie. And he’s a hound dog. He’s a perfect specimen of a hound dog. And he’s got the ears and he’d ‘woo–woo’ like a hound dog. He’s some special breed. But he is so independent. I touched him – once. Now, most of the time he won’t come any closer than that cash register over there,” nodding with his head.
“But he got to a point, somebody else comes – strange car. He’d come right to me. I still own four or five acres out on the point there. I could build on it but I haven’t and I don’t think I ever will. I’m going to put up a couple of cast iron eagles and put a sign out there, ‘Eddie’s place.’”
Francis paused and added with admiration, “That’s a dog.”
Francis asked me if I was retired and I told him that I was. “I’m about to turn 68 and I’m out taking this long road trip.”
I asked Francis when he was going to retire and he responded, “I’m retired. I’m 84.”
That about bowled me over. I’d pegged him at maybe 60.
He asked me if my wife was back at the hotel. I told him my wife wasn’t along on this trip, explaining that the way I was traveling this time wouldn’t be to her liking, too Spartan, too rushed, a trip that in the end would leave us both dissatisfied with the whole thing.
He asked me where I was staying and I told him, “The Scenic Valley.”
Francis chuckled, “We call that the Lansing Hilton.”
He asked about kids and grandchildren.
“Two kids and four grandchildren,” I puffed proudly.
“I have 25 grandchildren. I’ve got great granddaughters. I’ve got grandkids who have their own business.”
I pictured Francis and his wife as having been high school sweethearts, the perfect couple who are pictured together all over their high school yearbook. They marry just after graduation and live happily ever after.
“I’m lucky in an unlucky way,” I said. “My daughter’s living with us trying to save up for a house and the grandkids are with us part time. She and her ex couldn’t make it work. He’s a good guy and everyone gets along fine. Sometimes dreams don’t turn out the way you’d planned.”
Francis chuckled, “You don’t have to tell me anything about that. I’ve got a granddaughter and they have eight children and she and her husband are divorced. So, what do you wanna know?”
We had a laugh at that one and it was at about there, when I decided I liked Francis; his easy going manner and the way he managed to inject some light, almost imperceptible, humor into a conversation.
He continued, “I’ve got a couple of sons in law and they got divorced. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just weren’t compatible with one another. I get a little ornery myself. The other day I was grumpin’ about something and my buddy says, he says, ‘You should live by the Golden Rule. You’re supposed to love others like you love yourself,’ and I said to him, I said, ‘Well hell, there’s some days I don’t like myself.” He said, ‘You know, that’s a hell of a good answer.’”
We laughed and he went on, “I have days when I don’t like what I’m doing.”
“I guess we all have those days,” I responded.
“Why did I do that? Why did I go there?”
“The only person I know who rarely feels that way is my wife,” I said. “She’s not stubborn about it, she’s just a damn fine and decent person. I wish I could measure up.”
Maybe he sensed that my next question would be about his wife. His response was quick and to the point. He told me that he’d lost his wife two years prior. “I don’t do much of anything anymore,” he added.
I thought back on my dad who, after mom passed, mostly moped and gave up on his own life until dementia filled the void.
And then Francis started describing his project to build a memorial park in his wife’s honor. He described a stream, and a bridge that would be built over the stream, and the bridge would be named after his wife. He’d invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into his project and had hired an architect to draw up plans.
“Well, it doesn’t sound like you’re not doing much of anything.”
“I’ve got nine smart guys working for me. I leave a lot of stuff to them.”
He returned to talking about his deceased wife. “My wife,” he said in a tone that seemed to border on anger. “If somebody came up to me and said, ‘Your wife said so and so, said something about somebody else,’ I could look him right in the eye and say, ‘Liar,’ because my wife, for all her life, she never…she always found the good in everybody else.” He was adamant, stretching the word ‘never’ to make the point.
I asked him if he had a website so I could learn more about his dream, maybe even donate. A man so devoted to his wife to build a park in her honor certainly deserved a boost if anyone did.
“Nah.” He admitted that he doesn’t know much about computers.
“I don’t even have a cell phone,” he said. “I’ve got a landline, and it don’t work half the time. Ain’t that awful?”
He turned back to his project.
“I’m bowing out,” he said. I had a moment to reflect on what that meant. Giving up on his project or simply bowing out in deference to life’s clock.
He continued, “You see I want to get this going. You see, at my age… I got one daughter who’s kind of enthusiastic about this. My sons are very busy right now. I’ve got my grandkids here but they’re too young yet…”
Francis had a way of leaving thoughts in the air.
“But as I can build this, as I can strengthen this…”
“Dammit I’ve got twenty-five of them out there and somebody might pick up on it. Don’t you think?” He didn’t sound angry or frustrated. If there was one thing I’d picked up on, it was that Francis was an even keeled guy. One of those people who, when they wig out and get angry, you’re left stunned, wondering what line was crossed and knowing there’d be hell to pay.
And then he turned to a Midwest fundamental, “And I also believe in divine intervention.”
I picked at my omelet and he continued, dropping what seemed like the punchline. “You know, I’m a big BSer, I’ve got a degree in BS.”
Swell, I thought, I could’ve been done with breakfast and on the road to somewhere and I’d been spending a half hour that I’d never get back listening to this old fuck moonshining me.
All I could do was laugh, “So have you been BSing me?”
“No I’m not BSing you at all. If I start BSing you, you’ll KNOW it. But what I’m saying is, if I got a chance I’d BS you. If I got to know you better, I’d BS you, I’d pick on you. I got a reputation. Like, I carry rumors.”
We both laughed and I couldn’t be certain about what either of us was laughing about. Was he enjoying the prank that he’d pulled on some naïve liberal from San Francisco? Was I laughing about being pranked? Or were we both just laughing over his reputation?
For all I knew this guy was a 55 year old computer engineer with no children, a jokester who liked BSing strangers in diners.
In the end, I left NutMegs headed for baseball’s Field of Dreams.
As I drove away, I wondered if I’d started out my morning being pranked by some stranger in a coffee shop. Just wondering, but only for a few blocks. What the hell, BS or not it was a good conversation and a good start to the morning.
As for Francis? I hope he gets his park completed.
Continued in the post Highway 52 — Southbound to Heaven.