So this girl walks into a bar

Only in this case, it was a BP gas station somewhere outside of Davenport, Iowa at approximately 3:30 on Thursday afternoon. Keep in mind that some hours earlier I was in Chicago, living it up at the apartment of my friend’s aunt who lives on the 60th floor of a beautiful apartment building overlooking the lake. Now I am sitting at a gas pump, looking around and slowly realizing that I may have just driven straight into the twilight zone.

The gas station itself is placed strategically at the tip of this giant open parking lot which at one point in history, evidently served a purpose greater than just providing fuel to incoming travelers. Beyond the gas pumps and building, and across a vast empty parking lot is this old rundown 50s style diner — it’s one of those generic-looking vintage remakes that’s paneled in stainless steel and has a tall sign that must have once lit up to say, “DINER” in bright electric red letters. From the looks of it, this place hasn’t been open in quite awhile. Nor has “Mom’s Restaurant,” the ‘home cooking’ joint nestled to the left of the relic diner and to the far back of the BP. On the opposite side of the gas station and basically surrounding the entire perimeter of this asphalt desert there is nothing but dry corn fields for miles, upon miles, upon miles. The land is paper flat — it’s painfully flat, it’s the kind of flat that makes you feel like you are going to suffocate from boredom or isolation or abandonment or all of those things people like me, who have never lived in the plains or the flatlands, think about when they look at pictures of the midwest. Or, you know, when they are standing at a gas pump, idly pumping gas watching as a standard issue green and yellow John Deere tractor slowly drives past them from right to left, on the frontage road just beyond the edge of the rest area. 

No kidding. You can’t make this stuff up.

So I am standing there, pumping my gas, watching this tractor drive by and thinking to myself, “huh. Iowa.” Said tractor finally passes so I turn around to face the direction of the deserted parking lot in front of the deserted diner and note with some curiosity that there is a man with a giant cowboy hat and wranglers on, standing in the middle of this parking lot next to a giant red truck with a giant red horse trailer attached to the hitch in the same bright Americana Chevy red. Oh, and he is also holding the reins to a giant horse that he is now walking in circles around the parking lot. Dude walking a horse. In the parking lot. Off the highway. I am repeating the earlier thought in my mind about Iowa and making a mental note that this gas station scene is getting odder by the minute.

And then I walk inside. The gas station building itself is dead quiet, I mean there is NO music playing, there are no other customers, it is silent like crickets chirping in distance silent. So I use the restroom (painted neon green, by the way) and then go up to the cashier to pay for the bottle of water I have picked up on the way back from the bathroom. I didn’t even know there was a cashier around (note earlier statement regarding weird silence) and yet, as I walk up, I realize that there are in fact two cashiers sitting behind the register — an older south Asian man and woman who I presume to be husband and wife — who are just sitting there staring blankly straight ahead until I walk up and pay.  The wife then mumbles some sort of “thank you have a good afternoon” in this tired, bored sort of way before she returns to her post of sitting behind the counter and zoning out into space. It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. Silence. Staring. Blankness. Iowa.

Clearly the only thing left to do was to continue to drive west toward the inevitable border of Nebraska and beyond. In between the perplexing gas station experience and York, Nebraska where I am right now, there was, in fact, a whole lot of driving (over 6 hours), lots of corn fields (miles and miles) and approximately 5 episodes of “This American Life,” the National Public Radio show that I manage to find applicable to all social conversations and that for the last two days has been molding my perceptions of the world outside my car windows into these lovely and amazing anecdotes of underbellied American culture. (To be honest, I am not quite so sure this is a good thing — the thoughts in my head are starting to take on a very Ira Glass-eque tone. I am getting into the habit of pairing dramatic theme music with my inner monologues. I could very well be a spitting vocal image of David Sedaris by the time I get to California, awkward nasal whine included). 

Today’s theme, in keeping with the “This American Life” tradition of picking themes, was something along the lines of juxtaposition, i.e., the silent couple placed in front of the backdrop of corn fields, tractors, and cowboys with horses. Or the desolate, dusty brown streets and buildings of downtown York, Nebraska partnered with the sounds of Mariachi music whizzing by in raised trucks and men speaking Spanish outside the local bar. Even I represent to myself a sense of unexpectedness here — the Massachusetts license plates, my giant purple Nicole Richie sunglasses, just me in general being in a wee bit of town like this and gawking at people like I have been suddenly cut and pasted into a bad Thomas Kincaid replica (although, is there really any other kind of T.Kaid print? Seriously).

It’s just a passing observation from a very small and fast-moving lens, but I like the idea that the heartland of America is perhaps a lot closer to being truly representative of us as an “American” people than most of the public and the media give it due credit for. I like the notion that little towns like this are sorting through a kind of multiple personality disorder in terms of traditional cultures of many backgrounds coexisting, mixing, melding, blending, etc. in a variety of ways. I wondered today as I walked out of that gas station about the lives of that couple and how, when and why it came to be that they ended up living in Iowa. I wondered what they thought of it. I thought the same thing when I eavesdropped on the Latino guys chatting on the sidewalk, and then I pondered similarly, what the white policeman who pulled me over for having a broken headlight thought about the Latino guys, if he thought about them at all. And what does he think of his life here in this small town in the middle of America, if he thinks of these things at all? And then I thought, what do I think of ME in this town in this diner in this STATE?!?!?

“…And then I thought…maybe I’ll eat dinner”   — Mike Birbiglia, Comedian. “This American Life,” episode #361: ‘Fear of Sleep’

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