I was running behind. Miles of untraveled road awaited to unfold north of Springfield, and it was already nearing lunch time. I wanted to stop at the legendary Anton’s Coffee Shop, looming ahead in my windshield. The experience at Anton’s begins at first sight: Towering tree-like beside the tiny coffee shop, the marquee sign stands in the unmistakable shape of an ice cream cone, a subliminal cue to start the salivary juices. But ice cream was the former tenant, maybe a Dairy Queen or a Dairy Belle or a Dairy Doodle, I don’t know. Now the whitewashed sign simply says “Anton’s Coffee Shop” in bright red letters.
Anton is there every day. Day after day, year after year, he pitches in with his busy staff at all points in the process: greeting and seating, building a billion varieties of omelets, busing tables, sitting and chatting with regulars, and taking cash. Anton belongs to a dwindling breed that doesn’t take credit cards. Or maybe the breed is growing. Since I had no cash, I kept driving.
My stomach lurched toward every restaurant my eyes reported. In a decision protested by both eyes and stomach, Erifnus swerved into a Burger King parking lot and parked next to a car with a canine prisoner inside. The car impounded a small lapdog, barking through a two-inch crack its owners had left in the driver-side window.
With absolutely no sense of adventure, I entered the Burger King and approached the counter, where an age-seasoned couple stood at the counter, employing all of their options before ordering their meal. They were excruciatingly particular. The attendant, a man about 35 years old who wore the look of hard life on his face and ink-scarred arms, showed the patience of a watchmaker as he guided the couple through the entire menu. The elderly man finally decided on his fare.
“Whopper. Burn it. No pickles, no onions, no ketchup, extra mustard, no mayonnaise.”
When the woman made similar requests, I chuckled out loud. “I wish I’d brought a camera,” I told the trio. “This is a perfect Burger King commercial.”
They looked startled. The lady began to apologize for delaying me while they made their painstaking order.
“No, no, this is great,” I stopped her. “You know, ‘Have it Your Way,'” I repeated the old jingle.
They chuckled too, to humor me I guess, in case I was unstable and might resort to murder-suicide. After all, they’d strayed from the protection of their dog, left to defend their car.
I ordered something simple and sat down to eat. A young Burger King employee limped past, on custodial duty. He moved with some difficulty and appeared only marginally responsive when I greeted him cheerfully. He went about his chores slowly, deliberately. I raised my sandwich to peel back the wrapper. That’s when I saw a middle-aged couple sit down at a table next to me. They held hands and prayed before they ate. I hoped their prayers included one for the young man who struggled with his chores and one for the hard-life counter attendant who struggled one day at a time.
Finishing my meal, I rose to refill my drink and leave. I held the door open for the elderly couple as we left. The lady turned to me and agonized, “I wish we had let you order first.”
“Not at all,” I reassured her. “I wouldn’t have missed that moment for the world.” They got into their car, and at long last the dog was reunited with his best friends. That sweet reunion between man and dog reassured me about the key to life.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, sharpened for another adventure, I watched the young custodian struggle to raise his arm, to squeegee the windows clean.
Erifnus merged into traffic, and we headed back toward wilderness, along a veneer of shops and houses and billboards and trailers and trash and blue signs declaring that for the next 2.2 miles, somebody’s gonna pick up all this shit.
–from A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart by J.D. Robinson
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