My brother and me get together once a year or so. For some reason we don’t go to each others homes but we meet somewhere. It’s a long story. It involves places like Little Rock, Milwaukee, Palm Springs, Chicago and others. This time it was Phoenix. I dropped him at the airport just short of 7 am and wanted to run up some miles before stopping for coffee or something to eat. There was a wind storm today. The desert usually has a breeze but today the wind was predicted to be 60 mph: hurricane strength. It started early and buffeted the car like a dame being slapped, front-hand-back-hand, by some tough guy wearing a fedora, in a 1940’s black and white. After a couple of hours of that I had to pull off.
That’s how I wound up in Quartzsite. There are two Quartzsite exits. I took the first. I like the business loops off the main road that go through towns like this. I’m always looking for a non-chain place. What used to be called a mom & pop. The kind of place that has almost disappeared, or have slipped further back inside towns where they can’t be as easily gobbled up by the chains. They’re predictable, they’re cleaned up and presentable but the chrome edging on the counter doesn’t shine up like it use to and the paint on the walls is far from fresh. Some of the booth seats are repaired with Mystic tape and the smell of thousands of meals and thousands of people linger in a pleasant way, a way no chain can match.
I sat at the counter and ordered the usual, chicken fried steak and eggs, rye toast. Four men sat in the last booth along the wall not far from me. They talked the way small town men talk to each other; with a wry modesty. I’ve heard it in many places. Restaurants like this, cafes, VFWs. It might go like this. One will ask the other what they got this year and the other will answer, a little beans, a little corn. That can mean a single row or thousands of acres. The answer comes with a slight smile, a slow blink of the eyes-the modesty I mentioned. A fifth man came in and sat at the last counter seat facing the booth.
What’re you havin’ here today? he asked.
A meeting of the minds, one of the men said.
Don’t look to me like there’s any minds to meet, chuckling to himself.
They ignored him so he turned to the waitress, who had come for his order, and said. Don’t look like there’s any minds to meet, he repeated.
Coffee? she replied.
One of the four men, a tall scarecrow of man with an Adam’s apple that had the shape and texture of a peach pit, stood up and put $2.00 under his empty cup.
Better put some rocks in your pockets, Henry. It’s windy out there, the waitress said.
Big surprise today, the ignored man said. He was dressed a peg or two better than the booth crowd, not more respectable just less like he labored for a living. He carried a tablet computer crammed full of paper notes. He could have been the mayor, an academic or a newsman. Big surprise, he said again.
The men from the booth looked at him but nobody asked him what the big surprise was, they just looked at him, unwilling to help him off the hook he snared himself on. Finally he looked at me through his thick oval glasses and I looked at my coffee. It needed my attention.
Big surprise, he said again. NPR’s coming here.
Finally one of the booth men asked, Coming where?
Right Here! he declared, pointing down to the ground that lay between him and them. Right here today!
What do they want?
They want to know what we do in the summer around here. It’s publicity for our town. He studied the men in the booth, then asked. What’ll you say? What are you going to tell them?
I’m leaving, one said. Got to get back to work. These two hour breakfasts cut into my day something awful.
Another made the universally recognized gesture for masturbation, including a bright toothsome grin and a sparkle in his eye.
I hope you don’t do that. It’s a woman that coming. The tablet man said. He turned on his stool and pleaded with the waitress. I hope he don’t do that. It’s a female reporter.
More coffee? she asked him.
Maybe when you go NPR won’t be about to show up but the foods good and the staff are nice people. It’s called Times Three Family Restaurant. Quartzsite Az.