The Best Things About Small-Town America

(Note: A short version of this story ran in the January 2019 issue of Pompano! magazine.)

I’m writing this in early December, in a small town in Louisiana. I’m here to spend a few days with my daughter (not the one with the granddaughter) in a small town about an hour outside of New Orleans. I flew in last night and am alone today, left to my own devices while my daughter is at work.

As it happens, she is house-sitting until tomorrow for friends who live in the next town over. When we arrived last night, I was struck by the utter silence, a lack of sound that is reminiscent of New Jersey. And I mean utter silence; here’s a quick clip:

 

“You’ll be ok here?” she asked anxiously. I assured her I’d be fine; I’ve got books to read and coff—

Oh no. It appears that there is no coffeemaker in this beautiful home. Well, there might be a coffeemaker (and I found ground coffee), but none that one would plug in; there may be one or two fancy kinds that I don’t recognize as coffeemakers (pourover, maybe, or some other “these make much better coffee” devices). In any event, I’m not about to attempt something in a machine that doesn’t belong to me, in a house that belongs to someone else.

However, I need coffee. It is unthinkable that I will go this entire day without it. It’s possible that there’s caffeinated tea here somewhere, but I can’t find that either. And this is not the sort of place where one can walk to the nearest whatever, unless you mean “the nearest mailbox.”

Coffee near me, Google

I automatically pull up Google Maps on my phone and search for “coffee near me.” Spin…spin…spin.

While it spins, I try my laptop. Nope. As best I can tell, there is no internet, either; if there is, my daughter forgot to leave me the password.

The spinning continues; finally, Google solemnly announces, “You are offline. Until you are online, your results may be limited.”

Limited, indeed. The results remain limited to an endlessly spinning blue dot. Undeterred, I set out in the car. I mean, this is America, right? There’s got to be a Starbucks within a mile or two.

I make it out of the neighborhood. Left or right? I wonder. Left looks promising, so I turn. Within a half mile, I’m confronted with an official-looking booth, out of which steps an official-looking man. This is some sort of guarded government compound; whether or not they have coffee, I have no idea, but I’m close enough to desperation to consider running the gate (in the movie version of my life, anyway).

What Are You Looking For?

He asks what I’m looking for and I say, “Coffee.”

This troubles him; he can’t think of anyplace nearby that might serve coffee. Not for the first time, I wonder if the plane I arrived in from FLL entered some sort of vortex while I napped. Perhaps we didn’t fly to New Orleans, I think. Perhaps we flew into 100 years ago, or maybe 50, since everyone is driving a car, and my cell phone works, if only to send and receive text messages.

He thinks some more, and recommends that I “go up to the end of the road, take a right, and you should run into some gas stations; they probably have coffee.”

I refuse to accept that there is nothing more than gas station coffee within, say, five miles of here. But as I go up to the end of the road and take a right, I realize, to my horror, that the road I’m on has no street sign. I try to capture a mental image so that I can get back here later, since I’ll have no GPS to rely on.

The Sandwich Shop

I quickly pass a few gas stations, but I really would prefer something other than gas station coffee (here’s the full photo of the gas station you see above; I was not stopping there for coffee):

Gas station in small-town America
The gas station, while charming, was not where I wanted to get coffee.

Soon, I see a cute little “Sandwich Shop,” the old-time kind with screen windows in the front that open to serve walk-up customers, and a few booths and tables inside.

The place is fairly crowded; if there was a jukebox, it would have stopped playing. I seat myself at a booth and realize I have no idea what the rules are here, and I’m clearly “not from around here.” Once it becomes apparent that I’m not getting a server, I walk up to the counter and grab a menu and take it back to my booth. I decide on a grilled cheese with bacon (hey, I’m on vacation!) and – of course- a large coffee.

As I approach the counter to place my order, I hear the server tell the couple in front of me, “Sorry, the menus are all out right now.” Whoops. I run back to the booth and bring back the menu.

Finally, it’s my turn. Is that coffee I smell, or is it my imagination? Clearly, it’s my imagination, because when I order, the server tells me, “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t serve coffee.”

What? What??? Clearly, this question shows on my face, because she responds, “I know! We were just talking about how we should probably start serving coffee.”

Again, I’m convinced I’ve entered a time machine. I ask her where the closest place might be for coffee. She is as flummoxed as Mr. Official. She thinks for a moment and says, “I don’t know – there really isn’t much around here – oh! I know! The McDonald’s right up the road.”

Right Up the Road

If you’ve spent any time in towns like this, you know that “right up the road” could be one mile away, or 45. Since I’ve already lost my trail of breadcrumbs to get back to where we’re staying, I’m reluctant to go too far. Thankfully, she tells me that it’s only a few minutes away and it’s mostly a straight shot (“Go back to the light, turn right, and you can’t miss it”).

OK, this I can handle. I go back to the light, turn right, and after two or three minutes, there they are – the Golden Arches. Say what you will, but one thing McDonald’s excels at is consistency. I know that I am now minutes away from a cup of coffee that’s going to taste exactly like it would in Pompano Beach. Whew!

While I’m here, I figure (“when in Rome”, and all that) that I can treat myself to food I haven’t had in over 10 years – a cheeseburger and what are still the best fries anywhere.

TWO Large Coffees, Please

I place my order for the cheeseburger, fries, and TWO large coffees (so I can be prepared for tomorrow morning). While enjoying my meal, I realize why I haven’t eaten this in ten years – it has little to do with health and more to do with, I swear, what remains the best worst food in the world. It’s beyond delicious. And the coffee? Nectar of the gods.

While I’m in the parking lot, I chance my GPS again. Luckily, it responds, and gives me directions back to the house. Since I know this connection to the world is tenuous, I screenshot the directions.

At the moment, I’ve been back for about an hour. The coffee is delicious; the world outside, silent in a way that it never is at home. And while I love Pompano Beach, today is a great reminder that we live in a vast country, a country that despite what you may think, is as different and varied as it might have been had I actually landed in a time machine.

So if you’re bemoaning the homogenization of America, there’s hope. And I highly recommend a few days in Louisiana to remind you that America is, in many ways, what it always was – hardworking people running their own small businesses, blissfully oblivious to the online shrieking that’s part of the daily lives of so many of us. If you’re worried about being too far from “civilization,” don’t worry – there’s almost guaranteed to be a set of Golden Arches within sight.⧉

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