Saturday, January 16, 2010

Treasure Island, Florida

The setting sun hangs low, casting its blinding glow over the Gulf of Mexico. I’m marching south at the shore, ankle-deep in the water, about to make an about face and head back toward the motel. Suddenly, something at sea catches my eye. I squint, and then I shield my eyes from the sun’s reflection, attempting to identify what appears to be someone walking on water. Hallelujah, it’s the Second Coming.

I’m about to drop to my knees right on the sand and mutter a quick Act of Contrition. Instead, I pull my camera from its pouch on my belt as the figure atop the waves continues to move in a northwesterly direction, farther out to sea.

But, wait, the sacred image may not register on my camera’s memory card. Regardless, I attempt to focus the camera and then I snap three times. By now, a woman on the beach, maybe 20 yards ahead of me, has turned toward the water to investigate. Not yet on her knees either, she too gazes in wonderment. Recalling my religious education, I decide the image on the water couldn’t be Christ. His return, I learned would originate in the eastern sky, and we’re facing west.

Soon I realize that the offshore figure, the “water-walker,” is a young man standing on some sort of raft and paddling with a wooden stick. Shrouded by the waves, however, the raft remains unseen from the shore. And the fellow’s upright position partially conceals the stick. Some Tom Sawyer wannabe, I realize, and not yet Jesus Christ. Amen.

from 2007

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Eat Fast & Step On It

“Look! A Bug!” The young boy leaps from his seat at the cramped breakfast room off the lobby of a Red Roof Inn along Interstate 75 in Kentucky. About eight years old, the kid crouches to examine the insect. “Uh, I don’t know what it is,” he announces in a voice loud enough to alert the half-dozen diners who spoon generic cereal from plastic bowls and sip orangeade from foam cups. “But it’s dead.”

Set up in an alcove between the front desk and an indoor swimming pool, the fluorescent-lighted breakfast area retains an odor of chlorine combined with the cigarette smoke that wafts from nearby guest rooms. In addition to the cereal and artificial juice, the limited offerings, placed haphazardly on a short length of counter, include white bread for toasting, packaged donut sticks, coffee, and powdered creamer. It’s all included in the price of a room--$69.99 on this summer weekend for a standard, double bedded accommodation with low-wattage light bulbs, thin towels, and threadbare sheets.

“Tommy, quiet down,” the boy’s mother scolds through squinted eyes, “these people don’t want to hear that.” Whether or not they want to hear it, everyone knows by now.

A retired couple dressed in crisp tee shirts and unblemished New Balance sneakers, and seated at the tiny table adjacent to mine, watches as the boy spies the bug. The woman arches her highlighted eyebrows and pouts her lips, an expression more appropriate for rodent infestation. Then she rests an elbow on the table and arcs a hand, like a visor, across her forehead to block out the scene. The husband stirs a packet of artificial sweetener into his coffee while chuckling at the boy’s antics.

By now, Tommy is rushing toward the counter. “I need a cup. I’ve got to catch this guy,” he blurts. Unfazed by the other diners, the boy grabs a foam cup from a stack beside the coffee pot and sprints back to the dead bug. Meanwhile, I peer over my coffee and glazed donut stick, expecting to spot a king-sized roach on the tiled floor. But when I stand and lean forward for a better look, I realize the breakfast room intruder is merely a beetle.

The mother rises from her chair and approaches her son, leaving some corn flakes and milk at her place setting. “OK, we’re going. Tommy, get away from there.” She grasps the lad’s hand and leads him away from the bug. “Doggone it,” she mutters, “I didn’t even have my coffee.” Clutching his mother’s hand, Tommy skips down the hall, the empty foam cup still in his grip.

The retired woman at the next table turns to her husband. She sighs and rolls her eyes, seemingly exhausted by this trivial ordeal. I stifle a laugh wondering how she'd react if that beetle had taken up residence on her pillow.

from 2002

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ellis Bros. Pecans
Vienna, Georgia

Off a quiet two-lane country road, just past a crooked sign that reads “Slow, Congested Area,” and opposite a patch of spindly cotton shrubs that borders a broad, dormant field, a notice posted on the trunk of a pecan tree reads, "Please do not pick up the pecans. Go into the store and purchase them.”

Below the tree, thousands of pecans lay scattered across the grass and the parking lot outside Ellis Bros. Pecans in Vienna (pronounced vie-eh-na), Georgia. With a noisy leaf blower, a young grove worker dressed in dungarees, a straw hat and work boots blows the dust and the fallen pecans off the pavement. Then a second worker rolls a small wire basket across the lawn to collect the loose nuts. His contraption resembles the noisy little popcorn popper toys that toddlers often push across the floor.

During the short drive to Ellis Bros. from Interstate 75 this November afternoon, I noticed an elderly woman on Tippettville Road with a similar implement, collecting fallen pecans beneath a tree at the roadside. Her car sat a few yards away on the grassy shoulder, beside a small orchard of persimmon trees where the orange ripened fruit hung like tiny pumpkins from the sagging branches.

Inside the store, long rows of banquet style tables extend from front to back, each one laden with plastic bags and containers filled with pecan delights. Aside from premium confections like the pralines and turtles, nearly every food product offered for sale is available for sampling. I browse and join the handful of other customers who taste dozens of varieties of pecans, from raw to roasted, from glazed to chocolate covered, from spiced to jalapeno, from cinnamon to yogurt coated. One slender young woman makes her way down the aisles, tasting sample after sample and savoring every bite. Meanwhile, her husband stands by, swinging an empty shopping basket.

In addition to nuts, Ellis Bros. offers homemade jellies and syrups, home baked pies and cookies, fresh fruit, ice cream and more. A sign on the back wall of the store reads, “Pecan wood for sale. Ask clerk for details.” Souvenirs include a line of biblical themed neckties, and tee shirts emblazoned with a clever imitation of the popular milk ad slogan. They read, “got nuts?” Well, half-an-hour and $32 later, I’ve “got nuts,” and they’re packed in plastic bags, ready for the drive home.

from 2008

Friday, January 1, 2010

Dew Drop Inn
Mobile, Alabama

A local institution since 1924 and Mobile’s oldest restaurant, the Dew Drop Inn on Old Shell Road specializes in hot dogs on toasted buns. More than just a sandwich shop however, the eatery serves fresh seafood, choice steaks, and a variety of southern side dishes.

With its rows of orange Formica tables and wooden booths, worn tile floors and wood-paneled walls, the Dew Drop Inn exemplifies casual. The place, in fact, hasn’t been remodeled in some 30 years, and it shows. But the dated surroundings only add to the restaurant’s character. Instrumental blues, piped through cheap speakers, sounds tinny yet fitting.

We arrive at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon—midway between lunch and dinner—to an impossibly crowded parking lot and a nearly full house. From construction workers to professionals in suits, all types patronize the restaurant. A smiling waitress dressed in denim shorts moseys toward our table. She explains the daily specials and even offers samples of the side dishes to help us decide. Dad and I have plenty of hot dogs back home in Chicago (on soft buns and minus the ketchup) so we bypass the house specialty and order an assortment of southern favorites at the Dew Drop Inn.

The dark gumbo, mildly seasoned and loaded with shrimp, oysters, and vegetables is an ideal southern coastal appetizer. We enjoy a breaded and fried catfish fillet—crisp and delicately spiced –and a 5-ounce, grilled hamburger steak covered with sautéed onions and brown gravy. Our sides include turnip greens with smoky bacon, creamed lima beans, tangy baked potato salad, white rice with brown gravy, and ordinary French fries. Sweet, warm finger-shaped hush puppies and crumbly corn bread complement our meals.

I usually skip restaurant desserts, but the peach cobbler served in a bowl sounds so authentic that I order one to share. Hot and sweet, with lots of peachy syrup and tender crust, this classic southern dessert provides an appropriate finish to our meal. The Dew Drop Inn serves beer and wine, and Coca-Cola comes in short 8-ounce glass bottles reminiscent of an earlier era. Entrée and sandwich prices are reasonable, but extra side dishes can increase the tab significantly.

The tasty southern cooking and informal atmosphere at the Dew Drop Inn add up to a satisfying and memorable dining experience. It’s no wonder the place has been around for decades.

from 2004