The State of the Union Road Trip

In Editorial, Lifestyle on February 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Capturing the dichotomy between the two states of the Union

Phyne Dyning was launched as a counter to the pretentiousness of the foodie craze that has been sweeping across America over the past couple of years.  Unlike other food blogs Phyne Dyning seeks to bring new and exciting flavors to everyday dishes.  The average home cook typically relies on 10-14 menu items for the supper menu and uses take-away food to break up the monotony.

Phyne Dyning is not about economics or politics.  However, the emerging American reality is one where unemployment and underemployment results in food insecurity for many families.  And, even if job loss has not touched food providers, skyrocketing food prices are beginning to deeply impact what the home chef is able to bring home to prepare.

In recent months, The Phyne Dyner has seen a package of all-beef Polish kielbasa shrink from 16-ounces to 14-ounces, while the price for the same product jumped from $2.69 to $3.89.  An $18, 2-pound bag of bulk pine nuts has become a $25, 1.5-pound purchase.  Rising fuel and commodity prices will only add to the financial pain home chefs are just beginning to feel.

Phyne Dyning is undergoing a makeover.  If readers are seeking dinner ideas served alongside $40/bottle vodka, they will not find them here.  Menu items will draw from homegrown and locally grown produce and everyday supermarket ingredients.

Our portions will be sensible.  The Phyne Dyner was aghast when he picked up a popular foodie magazine and saw 6″ diameter, 1-pound meatballs (plus sauce) and 1.5-pound pizza slices featured within.  Gluttony has no place among phyne dyners.

The following article is a detour away from food.  Rather, it tells readers a bit about why Phyne Dyning has taken a different tack.

I love road trips.

All my life, I have looked forward to the adventure and excitement of an automobile ride through America’s verdant fields and smoggy cities.  In my mind, I can still smell the aromas of breakfast cereals produced in Battle Creek, Michigan.  The smells of “Stinkytown” (Gary, Indiana) with its steel mills, chemical plants, and refineries remain embedded in my mind.

The mills are gone, the refineries are shuttered, and the chemicals are now imported.

In recent weeks, I drove 1000 miles to the Gulf coast for personal business in Galveston, Texas.  The 22-hour trip gave me an opportunity to meet some people and make some observations about the state of our Union.

Convenience Store Clerk #1

Just outside of Oklahoma City, my gas gauge ruefully informed me that it was time to add more $3/gallon gas to the tank of my rental.  I pulled into a brightly lit gas station/convenience store.  Inside, hot coffee beckoned and a man with silvering hair slid a mop over an already gleaming floor.

“Howdy!” the man with the mop said in greeting when I breezed through the door.

I waved in friendly acknowledgement and made my way to the restroom to recycle some coffee from further up the road.

Afterward, I filled a cup with fresh coffee and made my way to the mop-man who now stood behind a counter sagging under the weight of gum, room-temperature energy drinks, and overpriced sunglasses.

It was just after midnight and the mop-man was talkative.

We exchanged comments about the weather and chatted with concern about the unrest in Egypt.  I commented that I deeply enjoyed driving at this hour because the road belonged to a few long-haul truckers and me.

“Yeah”, he sighed, “I always loved driving my rig at this hour as well.”  His eyes twinkled as he remembered.

“You drove a semi?” I asked.  “It’s none of my business, but how come you drive a cash register and a mop now?”

“The finance company took away my rig because I couldn’t make the payments.  Fuel was expensive, repairs, tires, licenses, and other expenses ate up everything I earned in a haul.”

“How long did you drive?”

“’Bout five years.”

“What did you do before that?”

“Army…twenty-two years.  My pension covered my home expenses.  So, at least we were able to keep the house.  In the army, my MOS (“Military Occupational Specialty”) was transportation and logistics.  When I got out, trucking seemed a natural fit.”

He said he may be able to return to trucking after a few years of paying back the finance company the difference between what he owed on his rig and the amount they were able to sell it for.

“I’m fifty-two, next week.  Might be too old to pass a DOT medical when and if the time comes.”

We visited for a few minutes more.  I shook the mop-man’s hand and made my way into the gaily-lit fueling area and back to my car.

On the road, the coffee was bitter.

The Rest Stop Sleepover That Wasn’t

Somewhere between Dallas and Houston, my eyelids grew heavy.  On my road trips, I disdain those chain hotels with their “complimentary” continental breakfasts.  I usually pull in at a rest stop, recline my seat, and sleep.  When I wake, I make my way to the restroom and shave alongside the truckers and other traveling men, splash some water on my face, and (after a breakfast of jerky) take to the highway again.

I pulled into the rest stop and walked to the map under the glass near the door.  “You are here”, informed me that I had about another five hours to my destination.  A teenager, dressed up like a Texas state trooper, emerged from the door of the nearby restroom.

“Excuse me, sir” I began…

(In Texas, anyone who might be older than you is “sir”.  Those in positions of authority, even if much younger, are also “sir”.)

…”Is it okay if I take some sleep parked out front?”

“Oh, it’s legal.  But I don’t recommend it”, said the young trooper.

I wondered if the trooper was the nervous, protective type.  Or, was he an authority figure of whom it was better to beg for forgiveness than it was to ask permission?

He stopped, pulled a cigarette from a pack beneath the red pocket-flap of his shirt.  He lit the smoke, pulled on it deeply, and asked: “Where ya’ll from?”

I told him I now lived in Iowa, but that “home” was Texas.  It was partially true.  I do consider the Lone Star State to be “home”.  I told him I usually slept at rest areas when on long trips.  Most of my native-born Texan friends do too.

“Normally, it would be alright.  But we’ve been having quite a few robberies of truckers and travelers at rest stops and picnic areas between Dallas and Houston and between Dallas and San “Antone”.  If you can, I really recommend finding a room.”

He finished his cigarette.  I thanked him for the advice and dragged myself sleepily into the seat.  A few miles down, I pulled into one of those places with the continental breakfasts.

The Night Clerk

The room was clean.  It smelled of bathroom disinfectant and clean sheets.  I slept soundly.

The next morning, I made my way to the dreaded continental breakfast.  Standing in front of the enormous flat-screen television showing more violence in Egypt, stood the same young man who checked me in over twelve hours ago.

“Looks like someone pulled a double”, I said in a sympathetic tone.

The young man smiled and nodded.  “Yep, but it’s more money for me.”

“Nothing wrong with that!”

I pressed the plunger on the coffee dispenser.  It gurgled pitifully in a death rattle.

A sign said the “free” breakfast ended at 10am…only ten more minutes.  It was unlikely the young clerk would make more coffee.

I reached for the juice pitcher with only a half-inch of (undoubtedly warm) yellow fluid ringing its base.

“I’ll make some more coffee, if you have time to wait”, said the clerk.  “It’ll only take a few minutes.”

He vanished behind a door with the deceased coffee dispenser and returned in a few moments.

We leaned against the serving bar.

In a few minutes I learned that my desk clerk had graduated from Texas A&M only the summer before.  He could not find work as an agricultural building designer.  The night-clerk gig made his truck payment.  He lived at home.  He was happy to get some overtime because the grace period on his student loans was about to expire and he would need hundreds more per month to keep those loans satisfied.

He was not sure about his prospects.  Every day he spent night clerking came after another day away from his professional endeavors.  He worried that he would become rusty or obsolete before “things got better for my field”.

I drank my coffee.  I handed him my room key in its little folder, two dollars folded alongside.  He looked puzzled.  Tips are rare for night clerks.

“Thanks for making the coffee and good luck.”

He smiled broadly and handed me my receipt.  Then, as is the custom in Texas, he reached across the desk and shook my hand firmly.

“Ya’ll take care.”

Food Sacks For Sale

I had taken care of much of my business and was standing in the lobby of the League City and Texas City Chamber of Commerce.  I was hungry for Creole, Cajun, or South Texas cuisine.  Rather than poke around the towns and take my chances, asking the locals about somewhere to eat was the logical thing to do.

The ladies at the Chamber gave me the name of a place where my Texas-casual appearance would be welcome and where locals could be found standing in line “at the supper hour” a few hours later.

As is typical among Texans, they gave me directions only a local could follow: “Turn left where the Chevy dealer used to be.”

Within minutes I was lost.  A grocery store ahead seemed to promise the presence of someone inside able to help me find my food.

The store, part of a Texas-wide chain, had seen better days.  The tiles on the floor were curled at the edges (courtesy of some hurricane), the coolers white enamel, and a few “Sale” banners drifted listlessly in the warm air currents above.

I found a seasoning mix I favored when I last lived in Texas and made my way to the checkout.  It would be “Yankee-rude” not to buy something and then expect free directions from someone working there.

As I stood in line, I read the news above the fold from newspapers in a rack.  More unrest in Egypt…

The lady ahead began to move out of line.  I would be next.

Something caught my eye.

“Buy this food sack for $3.50” proclaimed the scrawl on a cardboard sign above a paper bag containing flour, a (hopefully empty) butter tub, cans of vegetables, and jars of potted meat.  “All donated food will stay in this neighborhood.”

The checker, a portly African-American lady with heavy eyelids, waived me forward.

“Did you find everything you wanted?” she asked in a monotone.  She swept the jar of seasoning mix past the scanner and an equally listless “beep” sounded from the register.

“Yes, ma’am.  Thank you.  But tell me about these food sacks.”

The heavy lids lifted as she told me about construction lay-offs and how the jobs held by men in this largely African-American neighborhood had evaporated over the past two years.  She told me how the local churches tried to keep food banks running to fill the need.  The food sacks were donated to local churches where their contents made their way to the tables of area families.

I paid for my seasonings.  I mused how my anticipated Creole or Cajun supper would probably cost $50-60.  I reached into my pocked and took out my money clip.  I peeled off $35 and handed it to the checker.

“Put me down for ten food sacks.”

Her eyes lit up and she thanked me with the sincerity one only finds in the American South.

I made my way to my car.  I put my seasoning mix in the trunk.

My meal was excellent and served with icy mugs of beer.  It was 82-degrees outside and the frost melted off to form pools of water on the cracked vinyl tablecloth beneath them.

The “air conditioning” was provided through window screens.

The bill for my meal came to $22.  The food was excellent and the ambiance was pure coastal Texas.

Down the street, food sacks were being sold for $3.50.

Convenience Store Clerk #2

I always need to buy gas in Oklahoma.  This time, I gritted my teeth and willed the gas gauge needle back toward “F”, and pressed on toward Wichita.  Just outside the city, my willpower gave out and the needle bounced dangerously close to the “E”.  It was almost midnight and being stranded without fuel on the desolate Kansas Toll Road did not sound fun.

I pulled into a gas station/convenience store.

I tried to pay at the pump, but no joy.  I sulked my way inside.  I stopped at the cold drinks cooler and pulled out my tenth or eleventh Coke of the day.

Coca-Cola cuts the aftertaste of cigarettes.  I normally shun cigarettes.  But, on road trips, the nicotine keeps me focused on driving.

Nicotine, the last barely-legal drug of abuse.

I pulled out my credit card, the one that gives a fraction of a cent per dollar purchase to the Aircraft Owner’s and Pilot’s Association.

The middle-aged lady behind the counter picked it up, scanned it, and then looked at it briefly before handing it back.

“You a pilot?”  She asked the question without the awe I sometimes get from flightless humans.

“Yeah.  Been a while, though.  Archers, Dakotas, and Warriors mainly.  But it’s gotten so expensive.”

She nodded.

“I used to be an inspector for avionics built for MD-80s”, the clerk said with a sigh.  “The company moved to Mexico.”

The MD-80 is an enormous aircraft found in commercial fleets ferrying hundreds of passengers thousands of miles.  The amount of avionics equipment in one is staggering.

Now, to save a few pennies, those critical avionics used in similar aircraft are now assembled and inspected in a country where the water is seldom drinkable.

I’m sure it helps offset the cost of the coffee and pastries, prepared by the company chef, that are served at board of director’s meetings.

The clerk told me she finished her shift at the convenience store at 5am.  At 6am, she would report to the cafeteria of a local elementary school.  The former avionics inspector would make sure that the children did not throw their food trays into the trash.

The State of the Union

My road trip gave me more information about the state of our Union than did the applause-peppered speech given several weeks ago.

The speech told me about “recovery” and bold economic plans to “put Americans to work”.  After the speech, the opposing armies departed the battlefield and went to parties to quaff fine spirits and smoke big cigars under tall hats.

I think they need to take a jerky-fed, cigarette-sustained road trip.

The America in the fine speech did not resemble the America I had just driven though.


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