Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Back from the Midwest

After two weeks on the road, my bed feels like magic. I wanted to spend all day in my shower, using non-trial size shampoo and non-hotel bars of soap. It’s good to have my stereo, my keyboard, my view of the parking lot (which looks like it’s finished, construction-wise), and mostly, it’s good to be back in today, after spending so much time talking about yesterday.

My big SUV got a slow flat while I was in Indiana, and I talked to 17 different people at Alamo, who gave me 17 different answers, ranging from “bring it back to O’Hare” to “drive on the baby spare for 10 days” to “buy a $650 tire and spend $100 and a day getting it mounted, and save the receipt and fill out a TPS report and send it in and wait 4-62 weeks and we might or might not pay you back some or all or none of it”. I drove to the South Bend Municipal cow pasture and barnstormer air strip and the Alamo there had like three cars and they were allegedly all gone, and there was some inter-location transfer bullshit that made them really iffy about giving me a car anyway.

So I topped up the tire, added just enough fuel to make it west, and hit the toll road. When I got to O’Hare, I expected a huge clusterfuck of trouble, and the inside of the rental building looked like Saigon 1975. A woman in front of me was trying to rent a car with no ID and no credit card other than a Target card, and went round and round with the clerk, to the point where I wanted to grab her and start shaking her while yelling “WHAT BIZARRO UNIVERSE LETS YOU RENT A CAR WITH NO DRIVER’S LICENSE OR CREDIT CARD?” Finally, after being asked “picking up or returning?” and answering “well both, and neither”, a guy told me to go pick any car off the lot, re-printed my contract, and gave me a free tank of fuel out of the deal. I got a new Rav-4 and hit the road.

I had something like 5 hours to kill until Sarah’s flight arrived that night, so I gave John Sheppard a surprise call and drove up to see his new place. 294 was a parking lot, so I took surface roads, and got a nice little tour of the northern Chicagoland burbs. It’s always good to see John and Helen, even in such a hurried visit, and I got to see the new homestead and four-legged members of the household. We went out for pizza at a place with plenty of dead animal on the wall and a tradition of eating peanuts and throwing shells on the floor. There were many talks of gloom and the remainder of the Cubs season, and then I had a freakout when I thought I had 20 minutes to get back to O’Hare, when really I had an hour and twenty, and a watch that was on Indiana time.

It’s almost impossible to pick someone up at O’Hare, even if you know their airline. Maybe if I was there more than once every 20 years, I would remember, but there are hordes of identical-looking parking lots sprouting from each terminal, and even with two cell phones and lots of “I’m looking at a sign that says Elevator bank 4 and has a picture of a wolverine on it” conversation, it took us a while to figure that out. Then, another trip back to Indiana.

Driving with Illinois plates at 7 MPH over the limit, you can guess what happened next. I got pulled over by an Indiana cop for the first time since, what, 1994? 1995? I handed over the Colorado license and the Illinois registration, and they came back with a warning. I’m guessing it’s too hard for them to write a ticket for out-of-staters. Or maybe they were just looking for drunks, suspended licenses, or whatever else. And get this, a night or two later, I got pulled over AGAIN, on old US-33, just before it gets to 19. This was a little more suspect, because it was a Goshen city cop, patrolling out on the area between Elkhart and Osceola. After he gave me the warning, I almost asked him “what the fuck are you doing out here?” He probably thought I’d never set foot in the Midwest before, when truthfully, I got my Indiana license around the time this dipshit was born. Anyway, don’t drive in Indiana with out-of-town plates and no Jesus sticker on the back window.

The rest of the Indiana stay was meeting after meeting. Different relatives, the same questions, reciting the same answers. It’s good to see people, it’s just tiring to answer the same questions over and over, until your conversations turn into morphing tape loops, and you can’t remember who you told what. It was refreshing to spend time with my nephews and diverge into Guitar Hero or Spongebob conversations, just for a change of pace. Two parents, two sisters, three uncles, two aunts, a bunch of spouses and step-kids and whatever else, and we managed to pull together about three free minutes to drive to my old house and see that the new people have a very fucked-up yard. There was also supposed to be a minor-league baseball game in there, but it rained so much, it didn’t happen.

Another drive, to Wisconsin this time. We spent a lot of time with Sarah’s family, and it poured rain most of the time. I got a couple of good home-cooked meals (no more chain food) and an excellent meal at Pandl’s Whitefish Bay Inn, which is this little restaurant that time forgot. And we got some not-so-fast food from Culver’s, which is an amazing little chain of hamburger joints gone wild.

We also made the pilgrimage to Lambeau Field in Green Bay to see the Packers play a pre-season game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, my first NFL game ever. Me and Sarah went with her dad and Dan, her sister’s boyfriend. I spent the trip up talking MLB and all things Brewers with Dan, who is a walking encyclopedia about that stuff. When we got there, we parked in the back of some restaurant strip mall for $20 and hiked in. This gave us a good survey of the tailgate situation, huge dudes with big mullets cooking brats and downing MGD and Jager while blasting unrecognizable Pantera-like metal from the backs of their trucks. Whory bleach-blond chicks in shorter than short cutoffs yelling WHOOOOO at every passing car. There was green and gold everywhere. EVERYWHERE. There were more Favre #4 jerseys than there are jerseys period at any Rockies game. And I loved it. The NPR totebag, Free Tibet bumpersticker crowd would denounce this as a lack of culture, but it IS culture. It’s the most perfectly cut slice of Wisconsin you could find. And that’s why I dug it.

Okay, so you go into this huge, newly-remodeled stadium, with a giant atrium, and more Miller Beer signs than a Miller brewery. When we went into the tunnel and out to our seats, it was weird. The field looked small to me, compared to TV games. 100 yards on a high school field or a college stadium is the same 100 yards in the NFL, although everything surrounding that rectangle of green was bigger and better and brighter. But when I looked down at that, I thought “shit, I could throw a 30 yard pass down there!” I had the same reaction at my first MLB game, where you’re so close, and the view of the whole thing makes it look small. On TV, it’s a giant video game, but when you’re yards from the dudes on the field, you see they are people.

We got the national anthem, and two F-18s flew over. It was some Catholic charity game, and there was a bishop on the field blessing the Packers or something. Dan wanted to know why he wasn’t damning the other team, too. As the game started, I saw the overwhelming number of commercials versus baseball; they show video and audio commercials on the big board whenever possible between plays. They played “Hell’s Bells” and I wondered if the bishop enjoyed that.

I followed the game, but I didn’t. I guess baseball is much easier to watch in that respect – less people out there, more contained game action, whatever. The one thing I noticed was that we had good seats – 50 yard line, 21st row – but they had metal bleachers, and had like 12″ of ass-space per seat, and you know the average ass width in rural Wisconsin is nowhere near 12″. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and trying to eat was a challenge. They did have excellent bratwurst, though.

A huge storm front rolled in, and it started to rain. We bought ponchos and jackets just for this weather, so I put on the poncho, and the rain stopped. I took it off, it started. I put it on, it stopped. This cycle repeated, and then it didn’t rain again for the rest of the evening.

The Packers lost, although the newspaper the next day praised only the good stuff that happened, and you’d think they had won. We drove back and Sarah hit an owl, which sounded like Randy Johnson throwing a fastball into the windshield, but amazingly, the glass did not break.

We finally got out on Saturday morning, me with a giant suitcase filled with 48 pounds of dirty laundry. On the way down to the airport, in Kenosha, we stopped at a real A&W with the drive-in and everything. The girl was trying to put the tray on my oddly-shaped, not-rectangular window, and as I messed with the controls (which are backwards from our Subaru) I managed to auto-quickie-open the window and dump the whole fucking tray onto the pavement. But the food was good. We got to O’Hare, ditched the car, flew back home, got the Subaru, and here I am.

I managed to not go to a mall the whole time I was in Indiana, and I managed to not eat any cheese curds the whole time I was in Wisconsin. (But we have a whole big box of stuff on the way from Mar’s Cheese castle that gets shippped out today.)

[I had a link to my pictures here, but the photo sharing service died years ago, so use your imagination.]

OK, now I need to start some work on this damn book.