September 19th: We spend the night slightly south of Nashville, in a hotel chosen at random that turns out to be right down the street from a Coldplay concert and is hosting the accompanying fan convention. We repack the truck — much better this time — and spend this day making a tedious run to Tifton, Georgia. At the next occasion I am called upon to give a toast, it may well end with “And may you never pass a day in Tifton, Georgia.”
The high point comes in Chattanooga, when I am able, finally, to paraphrase God’s Own Drunk: “Well, I don’t know what happened. I just spent two years planning and organizing and staring out the window, and the next thing I knew, I was on I-75 headed for Florida!”
Sidebar: Somewhere in America, in a great arc, lies the line that, for me, truly marks departure from the Midwest. As one stops for food, one notices that, unbidden and without permission, one has begun to receive margarine rather than butter in restaurants. This, of course, effectively ruins bread, rolls, baked potatoes, etc. Thankfully, the increase in margarine is offset by an increase in quality barbecue.
Al’s Virtually Infallible Tips For Identifying Quality Barbecue On The Fly:
* A sign featuring a anthropomorphic pig smilingly urging you to come in and eat his dismembered brethren.
* A greasy black smokestack on the roof. Eat no barbecue where this is absent, unless it’s because the pit is outdoors, visible, and working.
* Something Fear Factorish on the menu: ears, snoot, tails, etc. You don’t have to eat them, but they are the barbecue version of Calvin Trillin’s rule about menudo at Mexican restaurants — the presence of the unusual on the menu indicates a seriousness of intent on the part of the kitchen.
* A neighborhood that sets you to thinking about The Bonfire of the Vanities. Triple Bonus Points if the cars in the parking lot obviously cost more than the restaurant structure itself.
* Any barbecue south of St. Louis with an “Established” sign hung before the moon landing.
* Gold standards: Hand-lettered signs, barbecue served in structures in apparent imminent danger of collapse, extremely brief menus — i.e., “Pig Sandwich, $5. Large Pig Sandwich, $7” — and anywhere where the Pitmaster is elderly to a point wherein your conscience troubles you throughout the meal for not insisting that he take your seat.
September 20th: We repack the truck. Best effort yet. We hop in the truck and resume rolling south.
Honey is wonderful company in the car — when she has something to talk about. When she’s bored, the overall effect is that of traveling with a cageful of parakeets in the passenger seat: A lot of bouncing around and chirpy twittering and pecking at mirrors and that sort of thing. For those times, I have sports talk radio. The “SCAN” button on the radio is a wondrous invention.
So that day, minutes after leaving Tifton, I punch “SCAN”, and we hear:
…vzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhhhh and in Deuteronomy, we find an analagous situation faced by vzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhhhh is selling for twenty dollars a ton on the open market in the month of vzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhhhh mandatory evacuation of the Florida Keys is under way vzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhhhh and a crawfish pie and file gumbo, for tonight i’m gonna see ma cher
amio vzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhhhhhhhhhh and nearly drive off the road trying to find a “Back” button on the goddamn thing.
Let’s see how far we can get, I guess, and then punt.
Come 4pm, we are ten miles north of Tampa when one of the most spectacular rainstorms I’ve ever been in hits. The overall effect is one of driving eighty miles an hour through a ten-mile carwash. And this, I remind you, was but the outer fringes of Rita. It was great fun. It would’ve been even better had we not had fourteen boxes of irreplaceable paper in the truck bed. Fortunately, high speed creates a slipstream of sorts over an open pickup bed, so we were able to make it to the awning of a BP station without damage, where we waited for a break in the storm and and then bailed into a hotel during the break. In a successful effort to cheer up, we call Bern’s to file for an emergency dinner reservation.
September 21st: It continues to rain, on and off, and the radar map looks like an LCD screen that’s been stepped on. Being stiff from the car, we try to sneak in a little par-3 course called Ghetto Fabulous Public Links and get in five holes before the rain begins to come down harder and warmer than it does in a good-quality hotel shower. We drive back to the hotel in as little wet clothing as is legally possible, order a pizza, get a bottle, and hole up to dry.
September 22nd: I give the fuck up waiting and we spend $150 on a watertight rented trailer. While U-Haul installs the connection for the trailer lights on the truck, Honey & I wander across the street for coffee. We wind up trying cafe con leche, which I like very much and which puts me in mind, in a good way, of the bambina bellissima‘s mother, who once described her cream and sugar preferences to me thusly: “I prefer my coffee to taste like birthday cake.”
We roll southward out of Tampa, and proceed uneventfully to Alligator Alley, the I-75 extension connecting the southern end of the west coast of Florida with the east coast. T-Shirt Magnate Miami Tom — whose venture is officially open for business and is officially really, really hoping to sell you a unique garment — and Kendra the Hydrogeologist meet us for dinner south of Fort Lauderdale. Tom has suggested we go to “the fantastic restaurant that has Cuban food, on 18th and Hallandale”. I would have preferred he tell me the name, but I suppose I can find it from the intersection.
At the intersection of Hallandale and 18th is a homey little restaurant with a big sign outside that reads
As if that weren’t enough for me to fall permanently in love with the place, when Kendra the Hydrogeologist asks for a cup of decaf, the waitress — who otherwise appears to speak no English — looks at her as though she’d asked for a blowjob and says “No decaf.”
Post-meal, we decline farewell hugs, as our clothes are now on their third round of Deodorant Laundering and give us the texture and aroma of the towel used to wipe down the deep-fryer at a fish & chips restaurant recently shuttered by the Board of Health.
We arrive on Summerland Key at 11pm.
* On the first night we had dinner in Key West, home of the Half Shell Raw Bar, the A&B Lobster House, Camille’s, Blue Heaven, Louie’s Backyard, and many other nationally-recognized establishemnts, we ordered Pizza Hut delivered to the office. Hey, we were busy.
* In the next lot over from our temporary housing, the current tenant is an enormous green iguana.
* For financial reasons, we went to the Wendy’s we’d noticed on the way down for dinner on Day Two. Wendy’s, unbeknownst to us, is 45 miles up-island.
* Key West Naval Air Station results in a constant fighter jet air show.
* The UPS Store near the office does not hold packages, but they give you a preprinted card bearing the UPS corporate logo to their pickup location on Rockland Key. It instructs you to “Take the first left after Island Spice”. Island Spice’s full name is “Island Spice Adult Superstore”. When I went in for clarified directions, the girl behind the counter at Island Spice and I had this conversation:
Me: “Hi. Where is the UPS pickup warehouse?”
Her: “I don’t know. Lots of people ask me that though.”
Me: “That’s because UPS’s directions say ‘Turn left at the porn store’.”
Me: “On the card they give out. Here.”
Her: “Holy shit. Hey, Tony, look at this! This is why so many people come in there for UPS!”
* I have typed all this from a chaise lounge on the porch that overlooks the Straits of Florida. Don’t hate.