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.