Saturday, June 8, 2013

Summer in Kansas: The Bone-Tired Barista

"Everything about St. Louis annoyed us — the tired baristas, empty restaurants." 
        - teaser on a New York Times op-ed, "Loving the Midwest" (June 8, 2013)

I smiled when I read that plangent line, living as I do these itinerant days in the Midwest, pillar to post between travel trailer and farmhouse, eating what I can find when I find it. Actually, I can't remember whether I smiled, or just snorted at some poor sap living in St. Louis who can't find a well-rested barista and thinks he's living in the Midwest. Anyone who wants to find a barista, tired or otherwise, should move to Portland. Portland is a hell peopled with over-educated baristas. For my part, I'd be happy to find even a bone-tired barista in Kansas, but they're pretty thin on the ground out here.(I heard one was spotted in Overland Park a while back.)

(Actually, I'm a quantum theorist)

As are restaurants, for that matter, not to put too fine a point on it. Here is the Midwest of song and legend, where the pickles are chicken-fried and the fish is frozen. Let me tell you how I spent my day, a day like every day in Kansas, a day bereft of baristas, fresh out of fresh-squeezed mango puree and organic kale smoothies. A day without soy derivatives.

First of all, when I awoke this morning, I was in Kansas and it was windy. I knew it would be. I had some orange juice, put the kettle on the propane burner in my trailer, and undertook to fill the niche role of auto-barista to a groggy and somewhat ill-humored old man in need of coffee. Then I got into my pickup truck with the cracked windshield, because I had to drive 160 miles to Colorado to swap out data cards in a bat sensor mounted on a MET tower in the dead center of a square-mile of cow pasture. 

 (Sorry, that's the MetLife Tower)

It was windy there as well, gusting around 35 miles per hour, which is of course why I have to go to places like that. Once I opened the gate, bumped my way a half-mile over rutted pasture, kept my notebook from being shredded to the four winds, retrieved my cap and drove back out the 25 miles to the interstate, I needed a good lunch and a barista.

Naturally there were none to be found - baristas, that is. I did find some restaurants of sorts, but they were observing business hours I found to be idiosyncratic, not to put too fine a point on it. They were empty because they were closed. Or vice versa. I finally made it to Colby, Kansas, the gem of Thomas County. (Colby is perhaps best known as the place where you see the portrait of "Wheatfield Jesus" along Interstate 70.)

 "Jesus, don't creep up on me like that!"

Along the main street I found the B-Hive open for business, serving a mid-afternoon luncheon. The B-Hive is not promising from the street - the windows are either fogged or hopelessly grimed with years of fryolater cookery; the lights do not shine through and beckon the weary or the desolate; the door seems closed and probaby locked. But it opened and I went in to light, warmth, the smell of charred beef and the glow of ESPN's NCAA Collegiate World Series on the wide-screen TV. It occurred to me to ask the good man at the counter if he could tune in to the regular Saturday Texaco broadcast of "Live at the Met," but I thought better of it when I remembered I was not in St. Louis nor was he a barista.

I asked for a menu and was genially handed the card propped on the counter in front of me - it offered the usual fare, which was a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a double of either (also available with bacon), fried chicken strips, fried chicken liver, and fried chicken gizzards. The hamburger tempted me but it was $3.90. The cheeseburger, at an even $4.00, won the palm. It was cooked on a short order grill while I watched and came buried in crispy hot french fries, in one of those plastic baskets that forces you to dig down and scrounge around in the paper before you come up with what you were looking for.

(Couldn't see it down in there)

Even though the menu would never have used the phrase (a St. Louis menu would have), this burger was a genuine "hand-crafted" job, a thick irregular ovoid in shape, black on the outside, pink and rare on the inside, the cheese a melted square of school-bus yellow. A good job all around and no chef in sight.

I was regaled, I felt as though I'd been treated fairly and with courtesy, in fact treated as well as the most well-rested barista could have treated anyone. Back on the interstate and off again in Oakley, where I drove around side streets following the water tower until I reached the fairgrounds where there was an antique and classic car show in which a local aquaintance had entered his '55 Ford F-100 pickup (red and other ways a lot like this one) . . .

Rex enters one of his cars in a local show nearly every weekend through the summer, unless it gets hotter than it gets in St. Louis, which is pretty often. He pulls a lawn chair out of the trunk of whatever he's driven there that week, parks it in the shade with the same guys as last week and the week before, hollers and boos as the judges hand out their awards in a singularly listless monotone (after they've adjusted the squeals and hums out of the public address system), hums along to the same crappy '50's and 60's music they play every week ("Little Deuce Coupe" again, anyone?), and goes home with a small plaque as one of the 25 best of show or whatever. It's fun, everyone there has known everyone there for years, and everyone has seen everyone's car around the local circuit a hundred times. I even ran into a guy from Colorado who lives just down the road from the cow pasture I had just come from. He had driven his '69 Malibu 120 miles just to sit in a lawn chair with everyone else.

By the time I found my trailer at the state park, it was nearly 6:00 p.m. and the neighbors were smoking meat on the grill. Every weekend, the neighborhood is redolent with the smell of burning flesh and the sound of conversation, animated or desultory. Strolling about in the warm evening I overheard two "buddies" (one of those Midwestern terms that leaves no room for any sexual ambivalence) in social congress over the barbecue grill. One was saying, in that slightly raised voice which generally presages something clever about to be put on the table, "We got a saying here in Kansas - if you want loyalty, buy a dog." 

"I got four o' them," replied the other matter-of-factly. Who needs a barista?

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