Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Sandwich and an Autograph

The first order of business on any trip to Indiana, where I grew up, is a breaded pork tenderloin. A breaded pork tenderloin sandwich may be on lunch menus in any number of states -- I don't know -- but I've never seen it on a menu except in Indiana. I think of it as a regional oddity that commingles with other oddities of the region, such as green peppers being called mangos, corn-on-the-cob being called roasting ears, and where one might be served something called rivel soup.

A breaded pork tenderloin could be thought of, I suppose, as a poor relative of the weiner schnitzel.

On one trip in 1997 to attend the 40th reunion of my high school class, I picked up my rental car at the airport in Indianapolis and headed north on US Highway 31. It is close to a two hour drive to my hometown. On every trip home I expect to run across a place to find the sandwich along this highway. I always have. But on this trip I didn't notice any place that appealed to me, and I realized that this or that place I remembered stopping at was perhaps no longer in business. Finally, just south of Kokomo, I spotted a likely place, one of the places I now remembered having been around for a long time. I knew they'd have breaded tenderloin, but I was going too fast; I was almost past it before I saw it. I thought of turning around but, no, I was sure I'd find something just ahead as I drove through Kokomo on the bypass -- the bypass is now so built up with businesses that it no longer serves its original purpose; it must be the most congested part of Kokomo. But even amongst all these roadside restaurants I could find no place that seemed like a tenderloin place; everything was something that is everywhere else in the country -- I saw a Papa Gino's, an Olive Garden, a Ruby Tuesday. It's depressing. Finally I reached the town of Rochester. I was almost home, just fourteen more miles to go. There'd been a drive-in, The Streamliner, as you enter Rochester's south side since I was in high school. I knew I could count on it. I found the site, but it was different. It was now a nightclub called Rumors.

Shit, I thought. I headed for the town of Akron, a little out of the way, but I was getting mighty hungry and the bright sun was wearing out my eyes. I parked near the main corner downtown and went into a place called The Farmer's Daughter's Cafe.

There were six or eight others inside, all farmer types. I would have sat at the small counter but as I approached it I saw that it was used more as a desk or as a waiter station than as a place to sit for a meal, so I sat at a table in the middle of the room. I ordered a breaded tenderloin sandwich and a strawberry malt. I sat reading the collection of letters my classmates had written ten years earlier; they'd been typed up and arranged in a binder by one of our classmates and passed out to each of us at the 35th reunion. I was re-familiarizing myself with my classmates ... how many children, what were their hobbies, what was their religious affiliation? The devotional aspects of many of them daunted me, and I wondered if they were christians or Christians; did they subscribe to the teachings of Christ or to the strictures of some church?

I don't suppose anyone who knows me will be surprised by my saying that my contribution to that collection is by far, far, far, the longest. I don't want to go look now but I don't think anyone else wrote any sort of narrative; no one but me used more than one sheet -- just the facts, ma'am -- while mine ran to thirteen typewritten pages. Thirteen pages without any mention of religious affiliation.

After my food came I continued reading while eating. I soon sensed that the waitress was coming to my table an inordinate number of times, wiping it, rearranging the condiments in their holder, asking if everything was okay, and so on, and then I detected that she was trying to see what I was reading.

Simultaneously I noticed that the woman behind the counter seemed unable to take her eyes off me. Every time I looked up she was looking at me. I thought: well, I guess they rarely see a stranger in this place.

When I was finished and walked up to the counter to pay I could tell from her eager look that the cashier had been anticipating this encounter.

"So," she said, smiling, pleased, "Shakespeare and Company, huh?"

I looked down at my chest. I was wearing a t-shirt from my favorite bookstore in Manhattan. It doesn't say "bookstore" -- it just says, Shakespeare & Co. - New York City.

"Oh ... yes," I said. "It's a bookstore I like to go to in New York."

She might have heard but hadn't listened to what I said. She was evidently excited to have in her restaurant someone whom she suspected was some sort of celebrity.

"I want you to sign this," she said, handing me the guest check. "And write that under your name," she continued, drawing an imaginary line across my chest. "I'd like to give you your lunch free for your autograph but I just can't afford to do that today."

I felt a bit awkward, caught off-guard. I looked over and saw the waitress beaming, apparently at the fortune of Akron's being graced by my presence. I wondered who they thought I was. I finally didn't want to say, "Hey, I'm nobody famous!" for I didn't see any good reason to spoil what was clearly a special encounter for them. I just wanted to get out of there and on my way, leaving them perhaps with something to talk about later.

Nor was I looking for a free lunch -- it's said that there's no such thing, but this might have been if only she had been able to "afford to do that today."

"That's okay," I said. I signed George Fitzgerald, Keene, N.H.; Shakespeare & Co. NY, NY. (I lived in Keene at the time.) I supposed that once she examined the signature she would realize that I was not whomever she thought I was. Famous people live in New York City, not in Keene, New Hampshire.

But no.

"I'm gonna put that right up here," she said, and she thumb-tacked my autograph to the wall next to the cash register. She showed me the one other autograph she'd collected, the one next to which mine was now pinned. It was that of a young French man whose distinction, aside from being a foreigner, was that he had, while hitch-hiking across the country, passed through Akron, Indiana. My hostess laughingly remarked that the only words of English he knew were cheeseburger and french fries. I wondered if this young foreigner had been as dumbfounded as I was by this gratuitous attention.

Then the cashier asked that, on my way out, I take notice of a stack of books near the door which were for sale, as the author of the book was a regular in this very cafe! (She'd apparently over-looked getting his or her autograph.)

Glad to be headed for the door I stopped to look and saw that the book was about the area's round barns. Giving it a cursory examination I saw that it was not a good product -- poorly bound, hand-printed text that wasn't attractive, and containing illustrations that simply didn't fetch -- hardly drawn better than I could have done, and I am not advanced beyond the stick-man level of drawing.

Meanwhile the cashier brushed past me and headed out the door. I watched as she looked both ways for traffic, and then scurried across the street into the bank that stood on the corner. I noticed that in her hand was a twenty-dollar bill, presumably the one I'd just passed her to pay for my lunch, and I supposed that she must need to get it changed into smaller bills right away.

I took her absence as an opportunity to get out of there so I wouldn't have to stand half a minute longer pretending to be interested in that sad book about round barns. I exited and got into my small Cavalier rental.

As I pulled away I saw the cashier and another woman staring at me from a window in the bank. I could hear the cashier saying to the bank woman, "I know he's somebody but I just can't place him."

I wondered if the size of my car and my lack of a chauffeur were disappointments.

I finally arrived at my sister Joan's just as her son Mike was getting home from work. He lives on the same land overlooking a lake as his mother, and as now one of his daughters and her family does, so that I refer to the place as The Compound, as in The Kennedy Compound. Mike came into Joan's with me to visit. I told them about my autograph recently pinned to a wall in Akron. Mike is one of the most fun people ever, and Joan is also one of the most fun people ever. They both crack wisely. We got to laughing so hard we could hardly stop. Mike had recently turned fifty and, a few days earlier on the phone, had jokingly boasted to me about how well he's aged -- c'est vrai, he didn't look more than thirty -- but now I said to him, "Yes, I agree that, as you were bragging on the phone the other day, you have aged well, but until you can walk into a restaurant in a strange town and electrify it with your presence I won't be jealous of your youthful appearance."

Joan and she and my sister Sheila would have to meet for lunch sometime at The Farmer's Daughter's Cafe.  They would take note of that autograph and brag to the women there that they actually know me, are actually related to me.

They never got this done.

Ten years later I pulled into Akron for another breaded tenderloin and strawberry malt, wondering if I might still be famous, and if my and a young Frenchman's autographs were still pinned to the wall.

But the Farmer's Daughter's Cafe had died.

The building was vacant.

Not even the sign hanging out front remained.

I was back to being nobody in Akron as I am elsewhere.

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

                                                                                   -- Emily Dickinson

P.S. I googled the name; The Farmer's Daughter's Cafe seems to have risen from the dead. There is an up-to-date listing for it in Akron.


  1. There is now a new by-pass around the by-pass of Kokomo!

  2. There is/was no better license plate than that of Indiana, where a tractor-driving farm woman two miles west on the County Road 900S crocheted complete Easter outfits including hats and purses for my baby daughters, and where her man gave my boys their boots from his auction pickings, where they cared for us with fishing poles, bear hugs, and delicious fried everything--"C'mon in!"

  3. Recently, well yesterday, returning to