by Akim Reinhardt
Not 7,500 miles this time. Nor a mad dash from one coast to another. Rather, a wiry triangle: the first leg from Baltimore to New Orleans; the second, up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to South Dakota; the hypotenuse, back to Maryland.
Abingdon, VA. I’m vaxed and boosted, but a bout of Covid has delayed the bon voyage. No time to stop in North Carolina for long overdue visits with family and friends. Instead, it’s straight down I-81, still a bit weary and taking it as far as I can. I support small businesses and try to avoid chains, which is not always easy out on the road, but I find a delightful independent motel called the Alpine Inn. It’s clean, it’s cheap, and it’s the best paid lodging I’ll have during my twenty-two night sojourn. I get dinner at a Mexican restaurant the cheerful motel owner recommends, assuring me they’ll do spicy if I ask for it. It’s close enough to walk. I sit outside. Every other customer is inside, and I have the patio to myself. I order a cerveza. I assume it will be a pint. It’s a quart. We’re off and running.
Nashville, TN. It should be only a five hour drive. But thirty miles outside of town, along a very rural stretch of I-40, I hit a flaccid snarl of traffic. It takes two hours to move six miles. I’m ninety minutes late, but still manage lunch with friends. Then it’s off to the airport where I pick up a compadre whose flown in from NYC; he’s a good sport, having agreed to hang out in the terminal and read a book for an hour so I can keep my belated lunch date. He hops in, we find a hummin’ community radio station, and are off. Next stop: Purgatory
Madison, AL. It’s only about seven hours to New Orleans, and we have two days to get there. My friend has scouted out minor league baseball possibilities. The Biloxi Shuckers, with their lurid Oyster mascot, are appealing, but we opt for the Rocket City Trash Pandas. Madison is just outside Huntsville, which has a NASA center, ergo the city’s nickname. And the minor leagues specialize in catchy marketing, thus the Raccoon mascot’s nickname. We roll into town the evening before the game, and I espy another independent lodging, the Madison Motel. What dark incomprehensiblities await us?
A piece of paper taped to the front door lists the room rates. They’re cheap. When I ask about availability, the young man behind the desk responds, “Yeah, we got rooms,” as if, you know, that’s what I really want. But I’m full of misplaced confidence after the Alpine. As a gift to my friend, who waited it out at the airport earlier that afternoon, I get the smoking room. As we walk along the hallways, every painted surface is chipped and scratched. We finally come to our door, open it, and confront a truly unholy aroma. It’s not just stale cigarette smoke. There’s something else going on. Something foul.
“Can we handle this?” I ask.
He shrugs, and in his thick NYC accent: “Eh, we’ll get used to it.
We drop off our things and immediately head to the Mexican restaurant across the parking lot. Once again I’m full of false hope spurred by recent experiences. The food is mushy, gringo slop. We walk down the road and find a thrift store. I pick up a scented candle for 23 cents. They have yellow and orange. I go with orange. Upon returning, we find the outside garbage receptacle overflowing with beer cans. In our room, I place it on the night stand between our beds and let it burn all night.
Having settled in for the night, we lay upon the lumpy beds and flip through the channels. At one point I get up and walk, barefooted, to the bathroom. The carpet is wet. I jump the first time my foot lightly squishes. The next morning I wake first and take a shower. There’s only one set of towels. I try to call the front desk only to find that there’s no phone. I walk down and inform the desk clerk of the situation. She tells me that I’ll have to bring back the first set of towels before she can give me another set.
We’ve seen no typical motel guests, and now I understand where we are. It’s a flop house, or in modern parlance, a welfare hotel. Last night, a line of pickup trucks driven by Latino workers filled part of the parking lot. I assume their boss has put them up here while they work a short term contract. There’s also a kid, perhaps twelve, heavy set. He’s roams the hallways at all hours, raiding the vending machines. During my two round trips to the desk to procure towels, I see some long term residents. Old men. They know the desk person by name, and she knows them. Probably Section 8 housing. There’s that kid again. I don’t ask why he’s not in school. The answers are too obvious, too American.
Our room door is open as we ready to depart, shouldering bags and checking we’ve left nothing behind. A couple of thirtyish men bounce down the hallway, one of them carrying a cardboard tray containing two Budweisers and a couple bags of chips. It’s 9 AM. They’re talking. They don’t sound happy. Immediately after passing us, the man holding the tray backs up and declares, “Let me check out some shit in here.” Sure, what do I care?
He walks into our room, takes a big whiff, and angrily yells “Carpet cleaner! Fuckin’ carpet cleaner ain’t dry yet! That’s fuckin’ bullshit. They shouldn’t a put y’all in this room. Fuckin’ tell ‘em. I know, I work here. That’s bullshit. Complain to these motherfuckers!” He’s earnest. I say I will. He leaves. At least now we now why the floor was wet. Honestly, I’m relieved; it could’ve been much worse.
A teenager’s now manning the front desk. He tells us we can have a packet of Pop Tarts if we want, he’ll get it for us; they don’t leave them out because people will take too many. I mention the wet carpet cleaner. He nods slowly; it seems he doesn’t know what carpet cleaner is.
First pitch at the Rocket Pandas game is 11:05 AM. Reminds me of what I read about some minor league parks back during WWII that would schedule late morning games for swing shift workers. But this isn’t that. It’s “Education Day.” Teachers are encouraged to bring their classes to the park so they can “learn something away from school.” We get seats away from where they’re packing in the ten year olds. I forgot to bring a hat. I got so many fucking hats, and I didn’t bring a one of them. Alabama’s a little bit closer to the equator than Baltimore. I get scorched. My face and arms are burnt to a crisp. It’ll be nearly two weeks before the peeling finally ends. And now I own a Rocket City Trash Pandas hat.
Again, it could’ve been worse.
New Orleans, LA. I was originally supposed to do research in South Dakota last autumn, but Covid restrictions wrecked that. So I’ve rescheduled and folded that venture into this springtime trip to NOLA for the first weekend of Jazz Fest. Thus the triangle. We have an Air B/B in the 7th Ward. People come and go. We start with four and peak at eight before losing one here and one there. After five days and nights of incredible music, food, weather, and bon vivance, me and a different friend head north.
Memphis, TN. After previously rambling through eastern Tennessee, now driving up to its western tip along the Mississippi River. Memphis is hosting an NBA playoff game, and the town is buzzing. We get dinner and then a drink before calling it a night. The next morning we visit the Civil Rights Museum. My friend is enamored. Me? The thing about American history museums is that I don’t learn much. I’m not cynical and overly critical, I just observe how they’ve chosen to present the past, what they leave in, what they leave out, what they’re aiming for and so forth. This one’s pretty good. Afterwards, we grab lunch and go.
St. Louis, MO. My traveling companion lived here for almost twenty years while working for a couple of different companies, including Anheuser-Bush. He knows the place. We get very good Italian food up on The Hill. There’s not much of an actual hill; it’s was just short for Dago Hill back in the day, he tells me. Afterwards we hit the river front casino. I drop a hundo playing poker, then head back to the room. He lingers and compounds his losses at craps. The days are starting to run into each other, become a blur. I don’t remember the next morning. No reason. I just don’t.
Lincoln, NE. We dart across Missouri. I drop my friend off at Kansas City Airport and continue on to eastern Nebraska. I lived here from 1995–2000. I was a DJ on the community radio station. I played a lot of city league softball and soccer. I got a Ph.D. I still have friends here, and when you only show up every five years or so, you try to see all of them, as impossible as that is in two and half days. Winding down the vacation end of things, I stay in a friend’s carriage house that he has refurbished and dubbed the Beach Cabana. He’s a helluva musician, and his guitars hang from hooks about the walls of the place. They sound beautiful, even when I play them.
Brookings, SD. Up I-29 to visit a former Lincoln friend who’s been at South Dakota State for about twenty years. I get along famously with his nine year old, telling her corny jokes and mildly censored adult stories. I once slept in a dumpster! One of their cats reminds me of one of my old cats, Shango, my all time favorite who’s been dead seventeen years now. This one sleeps with me the one night I’m there.
Pierre, SD. The work is in earnest now. Two days at the state historical society archives. Early the second afternoon, half the town blacks out. The archive is dark. We all gather in the lobby, its lights running on emergency backup. I keep things loose with some jokes. Are we sure Putin hasn’t just nuked us? I can’t help but notice this started with me breaking one of the urinals in the men’s room (it wouldn’t stop flushing). After about ten minutes, we’re back online. I finish up, thank the helpful staff, and hit the road. And yes, it’s pronounced “Peer.”
Kyle, SD. Pine Ridge Reservation. The archives at the Oglala Lakota College Woskape Tipi are a special place and special people work there. I’m honored to be and work there for three days.
Eastern IA. Two different sets of friends in two different towns, and two different pairs of children to wind up before I depart. I’m that guy.
Columbus, OH. Every time I pass through, this place seems more and more like the ultimate Midwestern pastiche. It’s a college town. It’s the state capital. It’s a blue pocket in an increasingly red state. It’s a sprawl of rapaciously expanding white collar suburbs. It’s a glistening downtown skyline and ribbon of parks. It’s a meth and opiate-riddled post-industrial rust belt shit hole. I almost stay at another flop house, The Roadside Inn, but I get the feeling a couple of fellas are sizing me up, so I slip away to the Motel 6 across the street. I eat at a Cracker Barrel. A dinner the size of two full meals comes to just over eight dollars. The one place, it seems, where the price hikes haven’t set in, and it’s killing people.
Grantsville, MD. My last stop for gas before making it back home. $4.35/gallon. The Democrats are fucked in the upcoming midterms. And the Republicans here just nominated a gubernatorial candidate who tried to restrict abortion when she was a state legislator. There’s a sea change coming. Who knows where I’ll end up next?
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com