Dennys Hell

Trip Start Jul 20, 2002
Trip End Sep 05, 2002

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Flag of United States  , Missouri
Wednesday, July 31, 2002

We'd spent a fair amount of the morning traveling across Indiana and Illinois -- two flat and endless fields of corn and soybeans -- most of the day at the Arch in St. Louis, and the rest of the afternoon hopelessly lost and trying to find and follow Route 66 out of the jumble of traffic-choked St. Louis streets. By the time we tracked down our road out of the city proper, the day was already growing rather long in the tooth. And by the time we'd located a suitable motel for the evening close to Meramac Caverns and the Jesse James and Antique Toy museums we planned to visit the following day, it was well past the bedtime of small-town Missouri, and getting pretty close to past my own rather liberal bedtime. The realization then set in that in my fervor to continuously find our way to the most disagreeable and menacing
crannies of St. Louis all in an idiotic attempt to find some frozen custard stand I'd read about in a guidebook, we'd completely neglected to get anything to eat during the day. My failure to track down said custard stand meant we didn't even have that small confectionary in our bellies. The only options presenting themselves at present were wrinkled hot dogs that had been rotating on a wire rack for twelve or thirteen hours at a gas station convenience store or a meal at Denny's.

In retrospect, we should have had dinner at the gas station.
Denny's was, to put it kindly, a wretched scumpit resembling the area behind a dumpster where unidentifiable fluids and bits of rotting meat and brown lettuce tend to congregate. The place was, at this hour, staffed entirely by bleary-eyed teenagers who fulfilled every nasty
stereotype imaginable about the youth of America. The tables were littered with teetering towers of sullied plates and stinking refuse. It was obvious by odor alone that, bereft as they were of any responsible supervision and left to their own devices, they'd simply stopped cleaning the place up sometime several hours beforehand. The stench of past-due chicken and warm mayonnaise hung heavy in the humid July air, air which was dotted with tiny pockets of gnats who were at least making more of an effort than the employees to clean away the
One of the kids shoveled away the trash from a booth and made a cursory wipe-down of the table before taking our complicated orders. BLT and a grilled chicken sandwich, two Sprites.
Then he decided to have a seat with us. I have the gift and curse of a youthful appearance. Though in my thirties, I can easily pass for a teenager with the exception of the fact that I don't wear carpenter jeans ten sizes too large and hanging off my ass. While it makes pulling off the debonair, man-of-the world appearance to which I aspire a chore at times, I'm joyfully aware of the benefits in terms of aging and health that come with my state, and I shall be forever grateful that in a time when my contemporaries are beginning down the long road of chronic back pain, hair loss, and irritable bowel syndrome, I'm still fit as a fiddle. Not one of those magical golden fiddles that the devil is always playing, but still a decent enough fiddle if you give it to someone like Charlie Daniels.
Unfortunately, this also means that teenagers often want to talk to me, mistaking me as they do for one of their own. Now I'm not so far removed from my teenage years that I can't remember all the stupid things I did back then, and although I am as irritated now as adults were then, I acknowledge that it is every teenager's right to make an ass of themselves. But this knowledge, empathy even, has its limits, and they were tighter than usual after a day of wondering why, if we were supposed to be heading west, we kept ending up in East St. Louis. I really wasn't in the mood to submerge myself in dead-end conversation with a sixteen-year-old Denny's employee.
"No shit?" he said in response to my response to his obvious first question. "You're from New York?"
"I live in New York, but I'm from Kentucky." It's a hair-splitting point, I know, but one I'm always compelled to make. I live in New York, but I'm not from New York and am not and never will be a New Yorker. I'm a Southerner in general and a Kentuckian in particular.
We're a proud and confused race drunk on Appalachian hooch and Bluegrass money, and we're all so confused about exactly where we stand in the grand scheme of things that during the Civil War, we simply fought amongst ourselves.
"Yeah," he repeated obliviously, "I really want to go to New York. You ever been on TRL?"
The only reason I, well past the age at which you should know what those letters stand for, knew what the hell he was talking about was because I'd spent a summer freelancing at Atlantic Records, where my duties included writing five-word ad copy for internet banners and
watching MTV's Total Request Live whenever someone from Atlantic Records appeared to whore their latest CD. Watching Willa Ford explaining why she was a "bad girl" had no bearing whatsoever on, say, my assignment to update The Cult's online tour diary with another batch of sad "has-been rock star who thinks he's packing arenas" antics, but still I had to pay attention while the fool of the day showed up to blather endlessly about what they thought was "off da hook" to Carson Daly, a grown man paid large sums of money to pretend like he takes
anything Willa Ford has to say seriously.
"I'd like to get on camera on TRL, you know, doing some crazy shit. That's how they pick you out to be in the audience, if you do some crazy shit down on the street."

I shrugged. "Not really my thing."
"No way! Really? If I lived in New York, I'd be out there every day."

Normally, not only am I forgiving of the shameful depths of youthful stupidity, I'm also rather on the talkative side, even with people I don't particularly like. Comes with the territory of being a Southerner and a storyteller. You don't get very far as either one without a tendency to launch into long-winded conversations with strangers about a really good pie you once had down in Savannah. But tonight I was feeling more New York and just wasn't in the mood, especially not for conversation as uninteresting as some kid's dream of one day standing
in a crowd and yelling "Yeahhhhh!!!" into a camera while a member of the Backstreet Boys tried to talk like he was from the streets. Getting lost earlier in the day had been, all in all, no more than mildly irritating. Eating at Denny's had been worse.

I was dying for ribs. Or for anything other than the pathetic looking chicken sandwich that had just been slung in front of me. I bit in, famished enough not to care, up to the point where I realized with some small degree of horror that the chicken wasn't undercooked; it was completely and utterly raw. A razor-thin layer gave it the appearance of being cooked,
but the insides were as cold and gelatinous and raw as if it had just come out of the Tyson package. What the hell had the cook been doing back there for the last fifteen minutes? No, scratch that question.
"I think you forgot something," I said to the girl who had brought me the plate.
"You wanted it plain, right?"
"Yeah, but I also wanted it cooked."
To their credit, we did eat that night for the price of two sodas. Everything else was free.
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