Friday, March 30, 2007

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Where is Southern Star?

Sitting in my room at the Hilton Garden Inn on Chestnut Street in downtown (uptown?) Chattanooga, doing email – kind of, as the Complimentary High Speed Internet Access goes in and out and becomes The Highly Infrequent and Often Inconvenient Internet Belch, and then the hotel-provided ethernet cable gets stuck in my laptop’s port because a piece of it is broken and it won’t come out even when I try to jimmie it out with the corner of my credit-card-room-key – and watching CNN, getting ready for “24” on FOX at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, 8 o’clock Central, because if you want a kick-ass show you better turn on FOX to watch government agents basically shred the Patriot Act in order to keep us safe from MiddleEasternChechnyanRussianChinese bastard slime bags… I watch Kirin Chetry ask some financial experts who are advising low-income viewers who get caught in mortgage schemes that promise jumbo mortgages on huge houses for the Average Joe and tell them to refinance in five years sure sure sure, and Kirin says, “Can the government monitor stupidity and ignorance, or not?”

She actually asks this. With a straight face.

Believe me.

OK. So maybe she just got too excited – she is, after all, admittedly, a cigarette smoker or at least used to be when she was on FOX News (now on CNN: defector!), and perhaps she hadn’t had a butt or maybe she’d had eleven too many – or maybe she was looking to ask a really probing, news-breaking, muck-raking, brilliant question to establish herself as a cable Sage, and what came out was…well, not exactly as she had planned it I'm sure.

I don’t know.

For a moment I felt sorry for her for asking such a question. It hung out there over the airwaves, and I waited for one of the financial advisor experts to kind of let out that little nose snicker we do when milk comes out that part of our body as kids at the dinner table when we’re stifling a guffaw. And then I was reminded that whatever pity I felt for her should be counter-balanced with understanding that there are six figures behind every stupid question of hers and a town car that brings her home after the show, probably to Great Neck, Long Island, or if she’s living in CNN’s Atlanta, then Alpharetta or Roswell, two places all the damned Yankees go when they move to the city that Sherman jacked up. And then I didn’t feel sorry.

More importantly, dinner was a bit of a hassle. I’d been steered by the good folks at the Hilton front desk to a “meat-and-three” restaurant called Southern Star ( (Readers will refer to my early 2006 entry on this style of southern cuisine, now archived, and you will have to buy it in a future book for a lot of money plus shipping and handling.) It was on Market Street just up the road on the left. So I drove my white Mercedes – yes, friends, Enterprise Rental Car upgraded me to this for $2 extra per day. I didn’t want it at first because it sends the wrong signals to my clients, or so I pleaded to them, but the alternative was a PT Cruiser, and I’d rather be in the Benz than in a Neon-engine American car that drives like an orange crate and, besides, the clients wouldn’t even see me drive up to their fourth floor offices the next morning.

I drove down Market Street and up Market Street…or up and then down. (I still don’t know which way is uptown, as the street numbers (4th Street, 5th Street, etc.) increase as you go south – I think this is intended to royally mess with us Yankees over the Civil War). I pulled over to ask a homeboy where Southern Star was. “Southern Star…?” I asked a bus driver. “Southern Star?” I asked pedestrians who turned out also to be tourists. (I should have known: they were wearing matching T-shirts.) I called the restaurant and the young man who answered tried to give me directions, but he couldn’t remember the cross street. He said, Yankee Boy, go back to Boston or at least move to Alpharetta. No, he didn’t really say that, but he thought it, I’m sure. I finally parked in the vicinity where I thought it was, and started to walk. I got to a corner where I thought it should be and called again. This time a woman answered who was not so exercised about the outcome of the Civil War, bless her soul, and she navigated me by phone to the front door. Reconciliation is so sweet.

I ordered sweet tea, smoked pork chops, cream corn, pinto beans and cole slaw. All good. The entrée and three sides were $8; the tea was $1.50. I was out of there with tax and tip for $13.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Thousand-Yard Stare

Rising at 4:30 a.m. to get the plane back to Boston was not difficult. I went to bed at eight after reading Les Mis for half an hour and told myself it really was 11 p.m., as I had had less than 36 hours to adjust to the time difference between Massachusetts and California. And as I closed my eyes and let myself drift, I told myself, I am really getting up at 7:30 tomorrow morning, almost like sleeping in, if you will.

I did wake up around 2 a.m. for a brief encounter with porcelain, routine, and then sleep was on and off until the alarm on my watch sounded.

A short Lenten devotional online. Thank God for bytes and bits. I packed my suitcase with Van Morrison and then a jazz band playing on Cinnamon Rainbows website. “Sold me out for a few shekels, then divided up my robes…they sold me out…” Ah, the essence of true Christian music. Music with soul, that has integrity and can be called art.

Downstairs, I asked a white guy at the front desk if there was a breakfast place open at that hour. It was about 5:15; my flight was at 7:30. He suggested a Denny’s in the direction of Anaheim; I told him I was flying out of Long Beach and was taking the 22 to the 405. (Why do they put the definite article in front of highways only in California? Others have wondered this; surely there is an answer. Wikipedia, the authoritative and unauthoritative source of most knowledge, doesn’t even have a reply other than to note its idiomatic usage.) He said, Oh, there’s a Denny’s down on the left before you hit the 22. On Harbor Boulevard. But not the Harbor Boulevard.

I walked to my car in yet more rain. This was two days in a row of precipitation, and the DJs on Go-Country 105 said that this constituted a “measurable rain event” for southern California. I love euphemisms and technical language; they make the mundane arcane. The DJs even laughed at the phrase. They had been playing appropriate “weather songs” like Garth Brooks’s “And the Thunder Rolls,” and Eddie Rabbit’s “I Love a Rainy Night.” They avoided George Strait’s “Clear Blue Skies.”

Denny’s would not be in my short list of restaurants were I to have more of a choice. In fact, I barely consider it a restaurant, because their food is barely considered food. It is to breakfast what a McDonald’s Big Mac is to dinner. Maybe one step up. Though arguable. I saw the sign and pulled across Harbor and around back of the restaurant into the lot. I was only the second car. Still raining, kinda hard in fact, so I dashed in after making sure the rental car’s headlights went off automatically after I locked the vehicle.

I was the only customer, and a man whose skin was deep brown-grey greeted me. For some stupid reason, I offered to sit at the counter (which had three spots), to save a table for someone else. There was no one else, nor would there be. It was freakin’ 5:20 in the morning. Sometimes my politeness and deference borders on the bizarrely oblivious. He sat me at a four-top. He looked Indian or Pakistani, black-grey hair combed back carefully over his scalp. Perhaps in reality he was highly educated and back home had been a math teacher or a civil engineer or prime minister. Here, he worked at Denny’s at 5:20 in the morning. I asked for coffee and orange juice. I read the frilly paper placemat which touted how Denny’s had scoured Latin America – “one of the premier locations for coffee beans: Columbia, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala” – for the best cup of coffee, so that “my second cup would taste as good as my first cup.” After I tasted my first cup, I felt they had some catching up to do for the second cup. I ordered country fried steak, with grits, scrambled eggs and wheat toast.

Two men came in, looking awfully transient-like. One used a crutch/cane and had a fisherman’s cap on. The other had on a soaked, blue football jersey with the name “Manning” in white block letters wearing off the shoulders. It hung on him like on a bent metal hanger. This man had two beaten plastic hospital bracelets on his right wrist. Had he both from one visit? Had he been out long from a first visit before landing back in for a second time? I knew his kind. Psych wards were filled with his type. I felt sorry for him. He had a week’s facial growth and blue eyes that pierced but did not focus.

My food came and I started to devour it, knowing I had a good 25-minute drive to the airport and had to gas up before I returned the car to Enterprise. There was a drop box for the key, and I could be on my way. Long Beach airport is small enough that I knew I wouldn’t have a long security line.

As I ate, I spotted to the left a large blonde woman with enormous breasts going behind the counter. She wore a red sweater, and her hair was dyed. She had a deep voice as if she really were a man – a transvestite or a transgender on a financial installment plan with a few months left to go. I could only see part of her profile. She addressed the prime minister and laughed, saying she had been a server there once.

They laughed and chatted, as Manning stared at the ceiling at the other end of the room and bit his fingernails, his bracelets frayed as though he had been discharged some time ago.

# # #

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Coming Spring 2007

Memories, Madness, and Midnight Snacks

A collection of essays by Howard Freeman. To get on the mailing list for a pre-publication offer, send your email address to