Wednesday, March 30, 2016
For a day and a half, ice pellets fell from the sky. The pellets were imparted stinging force by the wind and they bit into your eyes and cheeks and lips when you went outside. On the ground, the particles of ice lost their form and integrity and melted into slush. After dark, the temperature dropped a little and the pellets turned to snow and the snow gathered until it was a foot deep, smothering everything in a heavy wet blanket. The snow was all rotten – when you put your foot into a heap of the stuff, water spurted from all sides of the impression and a greasy ice formed under the sole of your boot.
For a few hours, everyone was trapped. The vehicles that ventured onto the streets cut grooves in the snow and other vehicles trapped in these tracks were unable to turn (or forced to turn, as the case might be) and innumerable accidents ensued. Avalanches of heavy snow slid off roof-eaves and plows churned by spraying water in icy fountains in all directions.
It was the first day of Spring and, in fact, the sun reasserted itself. By midday, the roads were completely clear, although the fields remained draped in the heavy crush of soggy snow. The weather worried me – I was scheduled for a deposition in Fridley, north of the Twin Cities, at 7:15 am on Friday morning. (I was deposing an orthopedic surgeon, a busy man, of course, and, so, the deposition had been scheduled so as not to burden his ordinary work load – the man saw twenty patients before lunch and twenty post-prandial as well.) It was 123 miles to the orthopedic surgeon’s offices where the proceeding were to take place and, so, I decided to travel on Thursday afternoon – a plan complicated by the Spring blizzard that was still inflicting harm mid-morning.
The sun emerged. The gutters filled with water. At the edges of the snowfields, grass that was already green showed. Color returned to the streets and the clouds broke apart. I waited until 4:00 to leave Austin and, at that time, the freeways were completely clear. The snow lingered in the country and the shoulders of the highway were gouged with deep trenches made by semi-trucks that had crashed in the blizzard – every two- or three-hundred yards, the median had been shredded by tow-trucks extricating the jack-knifed rigs. Mere passenger cars still huddled in forlorn groups, abandoned in the ditches or under the overpasses.
My initial plan was to reach the Twin Cities by 6:30 or so, attend a movie at the Lagoon Cinema near Lake and Hennepin and, then, continue north to a Holiday Inn Express hotel that I had booked about a mile and a half north of the office where the deposition would occur. There was nothing really compelling in the theaters, however, and the film that I planned to attend was a horror picture, the sort of picture that I don’t like to see in movie theaters because the experience is too frightening. (I like to watch horror films backwards on the DVD, that is, with all the scares and gore proceeding in reverse – a disfigured killer pulls a knife from a man’s chest, pushing a spray of blood back into him, and, then, the killer comically lunges back into the shadows; later, the acid or fire that scarred the monster makes a halo around his face, gently depositing new, unblemished skin where previously there were livid craters and striations.) Accordingly, I drove past my exit to the theater, traversed the edges of downtown, mesas of sports stadiums towering over the east and west flanks of the city, and continued north. I left 94 somewhere north of the old belt-line highway, now embedded in suburbs fifty years old, and continued along the river to a mile of open country, all that remained of the separation between the Twin Cities and the ring of county seats outside the Metro. The snow was gone and the empty fields criss-crossed with stagnant drainage ditches were barren and muddy. Highways angled together making vertices where there were big malls terraced like oversized pueblos and surrounded by acres of vacant parking lots and there were great overpasses leading east and west from the northbound freeway, concrete colonnades standing in marshes, small half-drained lakes that had been converted into water features complete with little fountains to decorate the frontage roads lined with brand-new, identical strip-malls.
I recognized only one landmark, a Half-Price Books located at 8600 Springbrook in Coon Rapids, a store that I had visited before, although, perhaps, farther south when it was located in another exactly similar building set in the wasteland between two crumbling malls. I had visited this store before, but couldn’t exactly account for when or why I had been in this area. Using my cell-phone, I deviated from the four-lane highway to a side-street and, then, crossed another big highway, one that was even faster and more restricted in access, than the one that I had been traveling. The hotel was in a kind of industrial park surrounded by featureless warehouses and barracks-like office buildings – here and there, the glass tower of a bank rose four or six stories above the flat-roofed commercial structures set down in the horizontal terrain like Lego-blocks. Sullen canals brimming with cold, black water grooved the landscape – franchise restaurants sat next to complex intersections that were shaped more like asterisks or stars than cross-roads.
The girl at the desk was cheerful. The room was a mirror of every other room in every other hotel scattered across these suburbs. It was cold and the heat couldn’t be effectively regulated. The TV told me that the elections were ongoing. Ted Cruz said that a certain man was a "rodent -copulator" and that he didn’t "want to copulate with Donald Trump," but I couldn’t tell who wanted to have sex with the rodent and who didn’t and the more that I thought about the film and audio clip that I had just seen, the more baffled I was.
After depositing my gear in my room, mostly a very heavy brief case full of medical records, I went back to my car. The car needed oil and had been operating a bit rough when I changed speeds – it was as if the transmission was stalling, catching in place, so that the car’s engine raced for a moment before shifting. I opened the hood and tried to access the oil reservoir but the the screw-cap was so tight that I couldn’t turn it. I leaned over the hot engine and cursed the car, twisting at the screw-cap as hard as I could until I felt that my wrist would fracture before the cap would loosen. This was disappointing. I had a quart of oil in the back of my car and a funnel as well but I was helpless to provide the necessary oil because of an elementary obstacle – I was insufficiently strong to twist open the oil reservoir. This was humiliating and filled me with a vague premonition of doom.
I planned to eat at the first restaurant that I saw and so I didn’t carry my cell-phone with me. Instead, I had a copy of Vachel Lindsay’s utopian novel, The Golden Book of Springfield, in my hand. I exited the Holiday Inn Express parking lot and took a winding road between loading docks, Montessori schools, and strange churches located in the pavilions of what seemed to be fitness and work-out businesses. The intersections were complicated by one-way roads and so I was channeled onto a big four-lane thoroughfare, the sort of avenue that you might find in New Jersey, a vicious, limited-access raceway impeded by interminable traffic lights every two-hundred yards. I passed a sketchy-looking Chinese buffet, dumpsters crowned by big, preening black birds, and, then, saw an Outback Steak House inaccessible on a little sliver of ground where two highways intersected. A few blocks later, I passed the Half-Price Books store and, so, was relieved at encountering something familiar – I knew this area. The parking lot at the Olive Garden was entirely full and, so, I made a turn and followed a boulevard to a Red Lobster.
Red Lobster, of course, is the most foul and detestable restaurant in the United States and I am well aware of the place’s sinister reputation, its tradition of misusing seafood most damnably. Beyond the Red Lobster, I saw the Broadway Bar and Pizza, a featureless building that was shaped like a Midas Muffler place or Jiffy Lube, a shadowy box with pickup trucks rooting at its walls. When I was in college, my father joined a team of researchers seeking the best pizza in the Twin Cities. For a couple months, twice a week, my father went with the team to taste pizza offered by various restaurants throughout the Metro Area – if I recall correctly, the venture was sponsored by a life-style weekly that catered to young people, either The City Pages or The Twin Cities Reader. (These were free periodicals devised on the model of the Village Voice, featuring some investigative reporting, movie and music reviews, ads for live-music and stand-up comedians, sex columnists, and, of course, restaurant ratings.) Ultimately, the pizza-critics determined that the Broadway Bar had the best pizza in the entire metropolis, a conclusion that my father always claimed was based upon his witty and analytical prose delineating with scientific efficacy the various characteristics of the pie – it was my father’s contention that exacting criteria had to be developed, that all categories of the taste-experience had to be itemized (crust, texture, freshness of vegetables and cheese, fragrance, disposition and density of meat, sauce, as well as the all-important synergy between sauce and crust, that is, whether the sauce made the crust soggy, or was merely ornamental, "painted on" the dough as it were or was properly slathered onto the pizza and, then, baked into the crust), and that the rigorous accounting methods be applied to quantify the work of the researchers, the data neatly displayed in spread-sheet form (using the best Honeywell word-processing equipment) and each criterion graded numerically. I wondered whether I should enter the Broadway Bar and inspect its walls – surely, in some remote corner, I would find a framed copy of the article from 1978, my father’s pizza-exegesis, a certificate that this small unprepossessing tavern made the best pizza in the Twin Cities and, therefore, the best pizza in Minnesota and, possibly, the best pizza west of the Big Muddy (since I expect better pies were, perhaps, baked in Chicago in those days). In fact, I fantasized that, perhaps, there would be a photograph of the merry band of pizza-critics and, standing at their center, I would see my father, balding with his neat, pointed beard, fat, and round, and happy, possibly the eldest of the students and young professionals appointed to accomplish this task. The system of one-way roads required that I drive through the parking lot to the Broadway Bar to reach the despicable and loathsome Red Lobster and, certainly, I should have stopped and entered the bar and scanned its walls for some sign of the great honor earned by the tavern in 1978, but the place was windowless, a fortress harboring only locals, turned in upon itself and guarded by the shabby pickup trucks surrounding the bar and, in any event, how would I feel if I encountered a fading, yellow picture of my father among his pizza-cronies alive and well and opinionated when, of course, he has now been dead for more than twenty years. It’s best not to stir the ghosts and, so, I looked away from the haggard-looking Broadway Bar and aimed my vehicle at The Red Lobster parking lot.
Red Lobster restaurants are always smaller than they look from outside, more cramped and lightless. In some of these places, the windows are small nautical portholes, usually smeared with a coagulant of the lemon buttter served with the fish. This franchise had nautical porthole windows but they were fake – the portholes with their faux-brass fittings looked onto stylized beaches with a swath of blue representing the sea and heaps of drifted sand in the foreground. A snow-fence was half-buried in the sand; some of the windows showed the ivory spikes of lighthouses occupying windy headlands. The booth to which I was ushered was too tight and the table ground against my belly and next to me there was a bar painted in a noxious green to simulate, I suppose, the bowels of a merchant marine freighter carrying fertilizers and illegal immigrants across some storm-vexed sea. A blonde girl stood behind the bar, slouched half-asleep with a "do not disturb" snarl decorating the lower half of her face. The other customers were troglodytes with receding brows, people with faces and figures that looked as if they had escaped from a Flintstones cartoon. Behind me, a table of roustabouts teased the waitress, joshing with her about the long road over which they had hauled ass to reach this northern State – the good ole boys were from Tennessee and proud of it and the slatternly waitress flirted with the men, ignoring the other tables where people were slumped over their food either drunk or insane or, perhaps, even dead.
The lobster is a nasty denizen of the deep, a creature thought to be possibly immortal – no one has yet quantified the life-span of these monstrous sea-arachnids in the wild. The word "lobster" is derived from the Latin locusta ("locust") mongrelized with the Old English lope ("dangly thing"), the word for "spider". Thus, a lobster is a cross between a pestilential locust and a spider. (In German, the situation isn’t any better – the Deutsch word for "lobster" is Hummer; in French, homard from the Viking humarr. According, to this etymology, a lobster bears a resemblance to one of those absurd and fortified sports utility vehicles – that is the "Hummer" derived from "Hum-Vee".) The ungainly creatures are not easy to eat. Indeed, it’s my experience that a medium size "chicken" lobster contains about three table-spoons of flaky white meat, generally tasteless, encased in carapace and entangled with slippery greenish offal. And this food was not always accounted a delicacy. Indeed, I recall a business trip to Connecticut many years ago during which I encountered evidence of the problematic history of the lobster as victual. Somewhere near Hartford, there was a knoll capped by a spiral staircase leading into the earth to an old mine once used as a prison. I recall the interior of the mine as a round basilica gouged-out in soft rock, the clammy stone walls marked with pathetic grafitti. There were some chains and solitary confinement cells sunk like cisterns in the wet floor and, then, a huge midden heap of lobster shells. In the 18th century, lobster was considered well-nigh inedible. Fisherman hauling forth nets of glittering tuna and cod were appalled to find the big and hideous lobsters trapped in their gear, sea-spiders waving their pincers about the sweet and succulent white-fish. Lobsters were considered garbage and fed to the very poor or prisoners. In the underground jail, the prisoners had rioted several times to protest their meals – they were fed on a solid diet of lobster morning, noon, and night.
And, so, I was seated at a booth, my book open before me on the greasy table-top, a tall glass of Schmidt Nordeast at hand. I didn’t want to wrestle with the lobster, crack shells and gouge meat, particularly because I abhorred the notion of drizzling lemon butter on the pages of The Golden Book of Springfield – if this occurred, I supposed that I would be obligated to eat those pages – and, so, I opted for something that could be consumed without the technology of mallet, cracker, or lobster shears. "I’ll have the lobster scampi," I told the waitress after she commended me to the pages in the menu featuring the franchise’s trademarked LOBSTERFEST. "Very good," she said, vanishing for a moment to return with a basket containing two malformed biscuits, sweet enough but without butter or honey.
I ate the crumbly biscuits and, then, drank some of my beer and the other customers engaged in marital spats or slapped their children who had become too loud and the cave-men gnawed on the empty lobster shells until the five-o’clock shadows on their chins glistened with a glaze of lobster juice and butter and the roustabouts were suggesting an orgy to the waitress who seemed mildly interested. My food arrived on a round, bowl-shaped plate, a snarl of overcooked and limp linguini drenched in a greasy, jaundice-colored sauce. Atop the linguini, eight or nine nuggets of rubbery lobster were strewn, small morsels flecked with orangish-red. Flanking the bundle of soggy linguini were two pieces of toasted white-bread, set alongside the pasta in an unsuccessful attempt to soak up the yellowish grease on which the noodles seemed to be floating. A shard of biscuit was also inserted under the linquini, presumably also a sop for the grease. The bread was sodden and slimy and the biscuit drowned in the oil was reduced to a scum on the grease. Nothing on the plate had any real taste – it was just a mess of different sorts of slime.
I ate the scampi with dismay. The tall glass of beer cut the grease slightly, but, generally, the food had the faintly disagreeable taste of rancid butter. I finished eating, downed the rest of the beer, paid the bill, and fled the place.
In the parking lot, my car rasped when I turned the key in the ignition. Of course, I was low on oil. A funnel and quart of oil in the SAE grade approved for my Honda was in the back of the vehicle and, so, I decided that I would try again to add the fluid at the motel. Emerging from the parking lot, I was immediately confronted by a conundrum – a one-way sign channeled me away from direction that I needed to go to reach the Holiday Inn Express. Turning in obedience to the sign, I found myself on a barren frontage street that ran parallel to a busy highway inaccessible beyond a fence and a filthy ditch. After driving a few blocks in the wrong direction, I encountered a wide, empty road leading in the right direction, three full lanes wide. I turned on that boulevard only to find that I was heading in the wrong direction on another one-way, the front of my car facing a solid phalanx of oncoming traffic that veered and honked as it swerved around me. There was no apparent egress in either direction and so I drove forward, burrowing through the outraged oncoming traffic to an on-ramp that I used as an escape, taking two more questionable turns until I arrived at a dead-end next to a shabby-looking liquor store. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes looking at the Map-Quest print-out showing me the way to Holiday Inn. People staggered in and out of the liquor store and there was broken glass in the lot.
I ventured back onto the highway. The roads were a system of one-way streets that converged at acute angles and, then, criss-crossed, diverging in a wilderness of strip malls and featureless commercial buildings. After driving for ten minutes, I caught sight of the emerald green lights of the Holiday Inn, but beyond a roaring freeway and, therefore, inaccessible. I followed the highway to a freeway, was siphoned in a direction that seemed wrong to me, and, then, tried to turn around at the first exit that I encountered. That exit was located in a dark sector, marshes and trees on low ridges, a ladder-like broadcasting tower rising overhead. I picked a direction that seemed promising to me, traveled on a county highway to another intersection, turned there and, then, drove a winding way to a place that I vaguely recognized – some disreputable-looking Chinese buffets facing one another across a busy intersection, the mesa of a Best Buy rising over a pawn shop. I made some more turns and reached the liquor store in its cul-de-sac decorated with smashed bottles. I went into the liquor store clutching my map, but the proprietor wasn’t interested in helping me – a line of young men with glasses knit together with duct tape and mullets were buying 12 packs of cheap beer. I asked one of those kids if he could help me find my way to the Holiday Inn. "I moved here," he said apologetically. "I wasn’t born here." Apparently, being born in this area, perhaps, in the shadow of the liquor store, was a prerequisite to understanding the highway system. We went outside and he pointed down a dark lane to an overpass and, with some more apologies, sent me in that direction. I found myself on an on-ramp propelled onto a freeway that ran adjacent to the Holiday Inn Express. At the next exit, I left the freeway and sought a parallel road running back in the direction of Holiday Inn. By my reckoning, this meant a left turn. I took a left but the road quickly deserted my intended direction and I found myself gliding through a vast estate of warehouses, all of them silent and shuttered, where the wet intersections connected roads that didn’t seem to meet at right angles. In a low area, there was a drainage ditch or a creek. I cut back toward the band of lights that I interpreted to be a major thoroughfare, found the highway but could only access it in the wrong direction. This required that I drive to the next red light and execute a u-turn. After this maneuver, lights appeared behind me, a red glare sailing in circles atop a cop car. I pulled hard to the right and stop on the shoulder. As I awaited the police officer, I speculated as to my blood alcohol level – how big had that "tall one" been? The officer was a highway patrolman prowling the frontage lanes and the access roads to the big interstate freeway riding on its high concrete pylons two or three miles to the north (or was it south?)
"What are you doing?" the cop asked.
"I’m completely lost," I said.
"I’ve been watching you," he said. "You made lane changes without signaling, bad turns, erratic driving."
"I’m completely lost," I repeated. I told him that I was looking for the Holiday Inn express.
The cop was wearing a huge plush-looking hat. He looked weary. After taking my driver’s license from my trembling hand, he returned to his car and I sat for few minutes, brooding over my bad luck. Then, the officer returned, handed me a warning and my license, and told me to be careful. I handed him the Mapquest print-out.
"Where is this?"
"Don’t know," the cop said. "I wasn’t born here."
I eased back into traffic and found that I was going in what seemed to me to be the entirely wrong direction. Other squad cars were patrolling the highways and pulling over motorists and I passed the traffic stops where the blinkers and red cherries of the cop cars were whirling with eerie intensity, illuminating the shoulder covered with ragged debris and the low trench between the boulevard and the frontage roads slimy with water and garbage. Afraid to make any more u-turns, I turned right, pulled into a parking lot, and, then, reversed my direction, taking a left at the stoplight. The oil light on my console was blinking periodically and the car seemed to stagger a little when it shifted. I made a couple more turns and saw the Holiday Inn Express but, unfortunately, on the wrong side of the highway and too late. I drove out to the freeway, turned onto that road, and, then, found myself in the desolate valley with the tree-lined ridge and the marsh and the tall broadcast tower barbed with red lights to keep lost helicopters and Cessnas from crashing into it. I drove back in the way that I had come, reached the liquor store, and, then, went in the opposite direction to that which seemed intuitively correct to me. This returned me to the ghastly Red Lobster where, no doubt, the plans for the orgy involving the roustabouts and the waitress were further advanced, the Broadway Bar famous for its pizza, and, in the distance, a range of neon lights advertising fitness places, yogurt emporiums, a Hibachi Grill. After cruising in circles in this area for twenty minutes, I found a sign directing the way to the Stonybrook Nature Center. I took that lane and found myself on a remote stretch of Stonybrook in a terrain that incongruously combined a braided stream and wetlands with enigmatic, unlit warehouses. I crossed some more lonely intersections, passed the Half-Price Books, and, then, beyond a mall surrounded by a quarter-section of vacant parking lot, glimpsed the green light of the Holiday Inn Express. Although the hotel seemed to be in the wrong direction, in a place to which the road would not lead, I persevered and the highway snaked this way and that, crossing another busy intersection and, then, running in quiet darkness to the place that I was seeking.
I parked the car, lifted the hood, and strained to wrest open the oil cap. But nothing would move. I dug in my coat pocket and found a tattered white athletic stocking that, perhaps, once I used as a snot-rag. I tried to improve my grip with the rag but still the oil cap would not turn.
When I entered the motel, the night-clerk cheerily cried: "Welcome back."
I went to my cold room on the fourth floor and tried to read The Golden Book of Springfield. The sentences didn’t make sense. I fell asleep but awakened at midnight with stomach cramps. I recalled the lobster scampi and those sodden pieces of toast mixed up with the linguini and, then, had to hustle to the toilet. After that episode, I kept the bathroom light on, but it was too bright and I seemed to be suffering some kind of photophobia. When I was in law school, I worked as a law clerk for an attorney called, Ray Rossini. Rossini was a prickly guy, very easily offended, and didn’t like my verbose writing style. (Ultimately, he told me that I would probably be most successful working for West Law as a book salesman – not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer, he told me in a way that he intended to be reassuring.) Rossini had a relative poisoned by e.coli in a shrimp scampi eaten at an Easter buffet. It seemed to me, as I writhed in bed with stomach cramps, that the food poisoning episode had involved a...what was it?...a Red Lobster in Fridley. I recalled the memorandum that I had written for Mr. Rossini and the complaint alleging food poisoning that I drafted. My head ached and my eyes burned and the dismal hours before dawn stretched out interminably.
Just as I fell asleep and was resting in relative peace, the alarm sounded. I rose, sorted through my exhibits for the deposition, and looked out the window – it was still dark, but a glimmer of ashen light rose over the warehouses and ponds like puddles strewn around terrain. I went downstairs, was greeted by another cheery girl behind front desk, and, then, ate some greasy sausage patties and eggs for breakfast at the buffet adjacent to the lobby.
The car rasped again when I started it, but the blood-red oil light didn’t activate. I drove tentatively, as if on slick ice, along the boulevards to the Orthopedic Clinic where the deposition was scheduled. The Half-Price Bookstore stood across the intersection, beyond a Burger King and a parking lot. The day was clear and windy. In the bright and seamless light, I recalled that the defendant in the scampi poisoning case had not been Red Lobster but, indeed, a Holiday Inn in Fridley, although obviously not the place that I was staying.
I am almost 62 years old. When will I become wise? When will I achieve some measure of competency in the world?
At the deposition, the other lawyer said that during the blizzard of the preceding day, he was driving through the city. Traffic was snarled and visibility was poor and there were innumerable crashes. Then, he said: "I passed out of the blizzard. I have never seen anything like it. Within one block, the sky cleared and there was no snow falling at all. Behind me, in the rear view mirror, I could see this dark wall of white. That was where the blizzard was happening. But I had come through it."
After the deposition, I went to the Half-Price Bookstore. I looked at books for an hour. The place was busy with suburban housewives, stay-at-home mothers with their babies and toddlers. I found several books that interested me but didn’t buy them. Being interested in a book is not the same as resolving to read it: the volumes in which I had a mild interest would just clutter my house and sit in a stack unread, probably, even on the day of my death.