Greetings from Old People Camp

Food for thought

December 5, 2012 

Suzanne Davis

‘After your parents leave, let’s start changing our lives” — two twenty-something women, sotto voce, over breakfast at Two Cats Cafe, Bar Harbor, Maine. What looked to be dad and brother had stepped out to use the facilities, and just like that, metamorphosis over blueberry pancakes! I had the pancakes, too, and while they were the excellent, I didn’t feel like they were life changing. But people can have different reactions to pancakes, I suppose.

I’ve wondered what happened after the parents hit the road for home. Did the girls give each other a tired, after-company glance that bespoke, “Oh, hell, never mind, it’s not worth the effort,” or did they straighten up the place, arrange a sublet and hit the road for the airport? Bali, Banda Aceh, Paraguay, Peru? That’s what I love about snippets of eavesdropped conversation — your mind can go crazy with the possibilities.

Unfortunately, my hearings kind of hit the skids, and I’m not the accomplished surreptitious monitor of conversations that I was in my youth. But I give it my best shot. And I must say, some of the most memorable moments occur in restaurants.

In a pre-Maine experience, en route to Chicago, we took an interstate exit to Small Town, Ill., in search of some quick food to go. A bar-ish-looking restaurant on Main Street advertised chicken, and it sounded quick — an assumption on our part that later proved to be ill-founded. Earl, the proprietor, welcomed us to his retro establishment, presented his magnetized business card which read, “Lorenzo’s — Since 1940 — Holiday Parties and Funeral Dinners — Chicken and Turtle Our Specialties!”

Earl was a congenial guy, and he seated us at a redtopped, steel-framed table with plastic-covered chairs, reminiscent of everyone’s 1950s kitchen. We conservatively opted for the chicken over the turtle and after a few pleasantries, which included the history of the family business and the fact that we were on a cross country odyssey, Earl left in search of the fowl. I casually surveyed the room and marveled at the ancient Schlitz beer signs and yellowing photos on the wall.

Eventually, the salads arrived. Unaccompanied (dare I say lonely?) iceberg lettuce, topped with “homemade” Italian dressing. It tasted suspiciously of Wesson oil and cider vinegar.

While waiting for our chicken, another couple walked in, ordered food to go and struck up a conversation with Earl at the bar. The place was fairly close and cozy, so naturally I learned that they were on their way to see Irene’s mother, whose only request was that Irene and her husband, Frank, stop in Small Town and pick up some chicken from Lorenzo’s.

Irene’s mother, it seemed, couldn’t get out like she used to. Earl sent in the order and then gestured in our direction. He mentioned that we were Californians who had dropped in from the interstate, and we soon discovered that it is easier than one might think to be sucked into a conversation about aging mothers and deep fried poultry. Evidently, in addition to the ’40s music blaring from speakers into the main street of town, the turtle and the funeral dinners, Earl’s chicken is famous — at least with mamas in southern Illinois.

A group can only discuss the virtues of fried foods for so long though, and eventually my husband, Mick, asked if the three had any suggestions for not-to-miss sights in Illinois. There was a pregnant pause. Earl and Irene and Frank looked at each other as if to search out magical answers in each others’ eyes. “Well, ... St. Louis is nice,” said Irene. “And Kansas City,” Earl added. Frank said nothing. The thought struck me that maybe they each had a subconscious wish to do some life changing, too. Perhaps they were longing for somewhere not-Illinois?

The chicken finally did arrive, nest like, in a plastic basket. Layers of doughy white bread, french fries and a deep fried chicken breast. Loved the company — the food not so much. For life transformation I’d suggest the Maine wild blueberry pancakes with genuine maple syrup. Sorry, Earl.

Since our return home, I’ve thought a bit about small towns and the people in them. I doubt Earl left his chicken and turtle, but Irene? She may be trekking Patagonia with the girls from the Two Cats Cafe. Frank? Don’t know about Frank.

Suzanne Davis is happily retired and living in the South County with her husband and their three dogs. Email her at suzdavis489@ yahoo.com .

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