Listen to the Heartland

by Berck

[Reposted from an email, in case it seems out of place.]

As I walk around this my corner of St. Louis, I hear Eddie From Ohio’s, “Adios, Lorena” in my head and I think, “This, this is America.” Out here in the Midwest, the only pedestrians are the lower class and the rare traveler like me who isn’t going to rent a car. Sidewalks are few and far between, the are are no crosswalks and certainly no walk signals. The lights aren’t even timed such that you can cross them as it seems like there’s always turning traffic in the way. This is America.

My dining choices within walking distance are the Steak and Shake, Waffle House, Denny’s, Arby’s, Rally’s Burger, Jack in the Box and Church’s chicken. My best option so far has been a local Pizza place that delivers to the hotel: Imo’s. They sell “St. Louis style pizza,” which, despite my being something of a pizza aficionado, is not a style I know. The pizza is surprisingly good, and actually somewhat unique. It’s actually somewhat Italian in its construction–a thin crust cooked quickly with somewhat sparse toppings. Despite being round, it’s cut into small three-bite squares. Somewhat salty, but high-quality ingredients and overall good flavor. It’s the sort of local color a traveler hopes to find.

Since the simulator was malfunctioning this evening, my partner and I walked down to the only bar in walking distance. We’ve been in there three times now, and are apparently regulars since we’re on a first name basis with the bartender. The beer choices are abysmal: Budweiser or Bud Light on tap along with paltry collection of domestic water flavors, plus Corona. I opt for a Corona while my partner picks one of the domestic flavors. The bar is full of cigarette smoke (and I wonder how many states still allow smoking in bars) and, even worse, it’s karaoke night. A large, bearded fat man bellows an off key and barely recognizable version of “Walking in Memphis,” and I try unsuccessfully to imagine him 10 feet off of Beale. After 10 minutes, I manage to adjust to the smoke content of the atmosphere and survey the dozen folks inside. I’m not sure why they seem to be having such a good time, but I suppose there’s something to be said for beer and company. After all, why am I here? My partner and I don’t have much in common. He’s quite a bit older than me, retired from the Army, Special Forces. We talk about airplanes and when we get bored of that, something inane. I’d picked a few political arguments with him earlier, but I wasn’t in the mood tonight. “This is America, right here, this bar,” I tell him. He pretends to understand and agrees. I wonder if he does. I wonder if he knows how much I hate this bar.

I think about the owner of the bar, and wonder if he likes the place. As I walk down the street later (I like how walking makes me notice, think), I contemplate each business. Each fast food joint, convenience store, car wash, car rental, payday loan establishment. I survey the sexy mannequins in the window of the kinky lingerie store. Since when are there sexy mannequins? This, this is America. This is my America. I’m glad it’s here; I’m even maybe a little proud of it, but I don’t think I like it.

I think a bit about self-important businessmen, who seemingly have no other objective in life but to make money. I think about the fact that I’m going to be transporting them from one self-important meeting to another, and that this, too, is America.

I think about the young black waitress we talked to at the Waffle House the other night. She has several kids at home. She takes care of them during the day and works at night. She asks what we do, and then tells us about the one time she she took an airplane flight, and how she didn’t like it because it hurt her ears. I wonder if she’s happy, but I don’t want to ask. I hope she’s happy; I want her to be happy. She cleans some dishes, and I study the employment application by the cash register. There’s a page with a “pre-employment test” on it. It requires a little basic addition. Then it has a 6% tax table, and asks you to figure out the total tax on several bills. Finally, there’s a few questions that ask how much change you should give a customer in a transaction–and I realize that a lot of it is simply trying to determine if the applicant can read and understand English. I wonder how long I could work at the Waffle House. The employment contract at the back explains how all employees are at-will employees and may be fired at any time. It also explains that employees may eat up to 2 meals a day at the Waffle House at a discounted rate. The meal credits will be deducted from their paychecks whether or not they actually eat the meals. I’m somehow astounded by this proposition: “If you work here, you will pay to eat here, whether or not you actually do.” This is America.

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