Road Surprise

Grey-black ribbons stretch straight and endless across this country. The Interstate Highway system serves one impatient purpose, getting from point A to point B fast, but little else. The interstate is deceptive, you assume you’re seeing the country, but in reality you’re barely a spectator peering from your window as the landscape whizzes past, avoiding real towns, communities. I prefer small roads to the interstate, except when urgency invades my travel plan.

I recently took the interstate to Cincinnati, Ohio because I had to “make time” and arrive at a selected hour, the surprise at a surprise birthday, but more on that later.
Racing along I yearned to meander through towns and along two lane trails, drawn by billboard appeal, “The World’s Worst Apple Pie.” I so wanted to stop, but the clock ruled. One sign boasted, “The Town of Motels.” Images swirled about my brain, but again there was that clock to serve.

Curiosity allowed a brief stop in Wheeling, West Virginia to inspect Charles Ellet’s 1849 suspension bridge. Wheeling had blocked off several downtown streets and like Poughkeepsie, lost business. A few pioneers struggle to breathe renewed life into the city, but the interstate and mall exits long ago lured away its soul.

An hour after dark I pulled over in Cambridge, Ohio. The Pakistani gentleman running the motel said it was hard, being a vegetarian, to get good food there and recommended a Mexican restaurant. I watched four Mexican construction workers eat and drink and flirt with the blonde waitress. The food was very good, authentic.

I abandoned the interstate at Zanesville and stopped in Somerset, a small town of about fifteen hundred. In the town square stands a statue of General Phillip Sheridan, on horseback. I took a walk. Down the street past, “Little Phil’s Bar and Grill,” I ran into a blissful retired fellow who reads the water meters. “I got till the 16th so I take my time, a couple hours every day, it’s good exercise. Good town here,” he smiled, “no real crime, everybody knows everybody else.” I smiled too. The coffee shop on the square was a friendly home cookin’ sort of place for breakfast, no fast food here.

The next town down the road was the home of another General, William Tecumseh Sherman. I stopped, but the house, now a museum, wasn’t open; so I drove on.

I lived in Cincinnati back in the early seventies. It’s a good city, livable and beautiful. “It’s built on seven hills like Rome,” people always told me back then. Up on Mount Adams, where the hippies and Johnny Bench once lived, townhouses are now selling in the million-three range. I shake my head and take in the view of downtown. I admire John A. Roebling’s 1867 suspension bridge spanning the Ohio River below, his model for the one in Brooklyn.

There is a food tradition in Cincinnati; Skyline Chili. Young Nicholas Lambrinides grew up in Greece. He dreamed of coming to America and opening a restaurant. He did, armed with a secret family recipe. Inspired by the Cincinnati skyline Nicholas could see from his kitchen window, he opened the first Skyline Chili restaurant in 1949. There are now more than 100.

The signature dish at Skyline is the “Chili 3-Way;” spaghetti covered with the secret-recipe meat Chili and smothered with cheddar cheese. Add red beans or diced onions and you’ve got a “4-Way.” Add both and it’s “5-Way.” You can get it on a hot dog, too, called a “Cheese Coney.” The chili has cinnamon or nutmeg in it, so it’s faintly sweet. It’s fast food, but irresistible.

My mission, the birthday surprise, worked this way. I was to be at “La Petite France,” a lovely French restaurant waiting to surprise my friend Karl on his 50th birthday. I arrived at the designated hour. The staff had been tipped off and was very accommodating. Karl and his wife Brenda walked in on schedule and there I was sitting at the table, wearing Groucho glasses and nose.

I didn’t say a word, just smiled. Karl didn’t say a word either; he simply stood there staring at me. Nearly a full shocked minute passed before he mumbled something incoherent, “What are you…ah, oh my, better sit down.” He grabbed a chair from a neighboring table. Fortunately no one was occupying it at the time because he didn’t even look, just sat down. Surprise birthdays will do that to you.

A lot of people are terrified of surprises and not just birthday surprises. They don’t want to be surprised by anything, ever. I feel sorry for people who fear surprise. Life is nothing if not a series of surprises. Who really knows what tomorrow will hold? Surprise is the spice, the magic kernel of fascination, of momentary uniqueness in our lives. If every moment were controlled, life would be mighty boring.

Karl is not one to fear surprise. After a minute his voice returned, we embraced, laughed most of the evening, made half-century jokes and enjoyed a delicious meal. Friendship, like surprise and good food, makes life worth living.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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