The view from a small-town bar stool

barstool-image

The restaurant’s open sign was dark, but the thick, beveled windows revealed that a back table had four men sipping coffee. Behind them on the wall was a big-screen TV showing Saturday cartoons. I tried the brass door handle. Locked.

A temporary sign to one side listed seasonal business hours. I was 20 minutes early.

So, I left, but as I passed the adjoining hotel’s entrance, a white-haired man in bulging half-zip sweater stepped out. His sleeves were pushed up. A stained white towel hung over one shoulder.

“Care to come in for some coffee, sir?” he asked.

I stopped. “Oh, that’s fine, but I’m looking for a place to eat, too, and I see you’re not open yet.”

“That’s OK, sir. I’d be happy to serve you coffee until we do. You come in for some coffee?”

I nodded and said thanks as the man backed aside and motioned me in. The door was heavy and dark like the one for the restaurant, and it opened into a small lobby. Past the empty front desk, which had a slotted wall behind it and a numbered room key dangling from each slot, was a passage to the restaurant.

“Please sit anywhere, and I will bring coffee over to you right away,” the man said as he followed me through.

The restaurant’s décor was as dark and heavy as the door, assuring a gloomy ambiance even on the sunniest days. All the tables and the thinly padded chairs were against the far wall or close to the picture windows facing the street. A long, carved wood bar curved from beside the passageway toward the back near the big-screen TV, which had its volume set at just above a hum.

I slid onto one of the square-backed bar stools. They were aligned at 45 degrees toward the picture windows, through which one saw the gas station across the street starting to receive a flurry of business. The man set a ceramic diner mug in front of me and a one-page menu. He introduced himself as Mo, owner of both the restaurant and hotel. His accented English put his heritage closer to Europe than to the southern Illinois riverbank town where the restaurant sat.

“We’re not open for lunch until 11,” he said as he poured. “But here, you can see what we have, and I will make sure they get it going for you when we do.”

I said thanks. Mo pushed over a carousel of coffee creamer, sugar, and stir sticks, then went over to the back table and sat with the other people who I saw through the window. Though the room was warm, the three around Mo had on light winter jackets that bulged tight around their ample mid-sections the way Mo’s sweater did.

On my second sip of coffee, one of the men chuffed quietly.

“Sir? You called him Sir? When did you start doing that?”

“Shh,” Mo murmured.

“Looks to me like he should be the one calling you Sir.”

Two other voices chuckled. Mo ignored this.

“So, you sold your car?”

“Yep,” said the first voice. “$500.”

“Then let’s go out and get drunk,” the second voice said. More chuckling around the table.

“A 2007,” the first voice continued. “Needed $3,000 for the transmission. Not worth putting that much into it. Found someone in Jerseyville to look at it. Couldn’t get anyone in St. Louis to look at it for me.”

“Not much use going up there for anything,” said a third voice.

“How old’s your car?” Mo asked.

“Mine? Less than a year,” Voice No. 3 responded. “Didn’t want to deal with all that hassle.”

“Well, I would have fixed it up,” said a fourth voice.

“You? Whadda mean?” Mo replied. “You’ve got that big truck of yours. It’s not a month old.”

“That’s what matters,” Voice No. 3 said. “One of those big trucks. Or an SUV, the ones that sit up high off the ground so you can load stuff into it. If you’re going to buy something, buy something like that.”

“Yeah, don’t get one of those small trucks,” Voice No. 4 said. “They aren’t worth it.”

An outer door near the TV opened, and a young woman in a green Southern Illinois University pullover entered. Morning sunshine poured through just long enough to highlight the thick lacquer over the bar and the age of the men around the back table.

“Hello,” she said to Mo. The door thumped closed like a bank vault.

“Hello. I’ve already given the gentleman a menu. What’re you doing here so early?”

Voice No. 3 interrupted. “Change the channel while you’re at it. Something like the news. We should listen to what that new president is saying. Makes more sense than watching cartoons …”

“… More entertaining, anyway,” said Voice No. 4.

Chuckling went around the table again. Then all four took sips of coffee before the man with Voice No. 4 cleared his throat and rose.

“Yeah, well we’ll see how entertaining,” he said. “I want to see him actually do something.”

“About Obamacare?” said Voice No. 3.

“About that, immigration, anything,” he replied. Unlike Mo’s accent, his and the others’ fit the region. I wondered what they thought of Mo the first time they met him?

The others also rose and replaced the chairs under the table. One by one, they carried their mugs to the end of the bar and turned to leave in single file.

“See you later,” Voice No. 2 called over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mo.”

“You’re welcome, boys.”

Mo put the mugs on a tray disappeared through a door behind the bar. The woman was already busy wiping up the rest of the bar as the table emptied. On the TV, the channel remained unchanged. A “South Park” rerun was starting.

“So, I think Mo let me in because he saw me at the door,” I said to the woman. “But did I interrupt something?”

“Nah. Just their usual weekend gathering,” she answered as she brought over the coffee pot to refill my mug. She introduced herself as Jessica, a senior at the university represented on her shirt who after three years was working her last weekend for Mo before starting an internship. “Every Saturday, they’re here. You must have come up close to when they were breaking up anyway.”

“You open at 11. How early do they come in?”

“Oh, it can be early. Sunup sometimes.” She held up the half-filled pot. “This might be their third or fourth.”

As she replenished my mug, Mo reemerged and headed toward the lobby. It was still too soon to unlock the restaurant’s main entrance.

“Jess, I’m going home now for a little bit. Call me if you need anything.”

“OK.”

The lobby door thumped closed right as another woman emerged from the door behind the bar. Her gray-blonde was hair tied up above her neck, and her chef’s coat was clean but fraying around the collar and sleeve cuffs.

“So, where’s he going?”

“He’ll be back,” Jessica said as she replaced the coffee pot on its warmer.

“Well, text him to come back with ice. The ice maker’s out again.”

“Hmm.”

“And are we changing the channel?”

“They’re gone. Whatever.” Jessica turned back to me. “Do you have a preference?”

I said no.

She reached beside the coffee maker to pick up the TV remote, a black bar of plastic almost as long as her forearm. Jessica held it over her head with both hands. The channel change ended on Fox News and aerial video of women’s marches taking place that morning around the country. She set the remote back down and returned to work. The sound remained on the edge of audible.

The woman in the chef’s coat clicked her tongue at the images on the 60-inch screen.

“Yuh huh. I heard some sort of marches were happening everywhere today. Think there’s one in St. Louis, too, right?  I don’t have time for any of that.”

“Me either,” Jessica said without looking back up. She wrung her hands. “I just don’t understand what all the fuss … I mean, I’ve got too much else going on in my life right now to worry about anything like that.”

Jessica’s college major is criminal justice. In a week, she begins interning with the county probation office pushing paperwork she hopes will push people out of the legal system and into assistance. She knows that about 90 percent of the cases involve drugs – heroin and methamphetamine foremost among them.

She knows about 90 percent of the people, too. She grew up here; she understands their pain and the frustration causing it. Those people, not the marchers, are her inspiration, which is why her fingers are crossed that the internship turns into full-time work.

She is not optimistic, however – about the job or the people.

“If they get out, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Jessica explained after the woman in the chef’s coat left the room. “State doesn’t have any money – they get out and go right back to what they were doing: nothing. No jobs. I’m not saying jobs will keep them off drugs. But if there’s something out there they can look forward to, they might not go back to drugs once you get them off.”

Jessica glanced back at the TV screen, then at the floor.

“I mean, I know these marches matter. But Trump says he’s going to get us jobs. Right now, to me, that matters more.”

The greatest man from the Greatest Generation

Eugene Eisenhauer, 1924-2016

Eugene Eisenhauer, 1924-2016

On paper, Eugene Walter Eisenhauer was listed among the Greatest Generation. His country spent decades deciding whether he belonged on that list, and when recognition finally came he mostly ignored it.

Other things mattered more by then: his six grown children and their offspring, and thoughts of retirement. The southern Illinois economy central to his life was poor and getting poorer, and the lumber yard he owned was whittling down his peace of mind.

But in 1988, the federal government agreed that the risks Eugene and thousands of others took during World War II in service with the U.S. Merchant Marine qualified him for wartime veterans benefits. He submitted the qualifying documents behind a wave of nagging from his family.

I asked my father-in-law to tell me about his wartime life, about how he crisscrossed two oceans aboard creaking cargo ships to help supply the Allied war effort. Usually, he demurred. The few stories he relinquished oozed forth slowly, like tar dripping from a hot metal bucket. Each drip landed hard.

Like the one about a convoy crossing fast and alone across the North Atlantic late in the war. The Navy was too busy fighting elsewhere. So, the convoy’s only protection against enemy submarines was speed. But subs found them – as they often did – and Eugene watched from the center of the convoy as ships on the fringe erupted into brief towers of orange flame, then vanished into the inky black water.

Or the one about Eugene crawling hand over hand the length of the ship, a metal cable tied to his waist, so he could reach his watch station at the bow during a ship-tossing storm.

Or the one about an argument he overheard between his ship’s captain and a petulant Dutch harbor master who demanded that the vessel, loaded with highly volatile fuel oil, ignore safety protocols and weave through a line of floating mines to reach port.

It is difficult for us to understand now, at a time we equate self-promotion with personal and public validation, why anyone would keep stories like these to themselves. That ignorance spans a wide gap in our understanding of the timing and purpose of true patriotism.

In the 1940s, the threat of a dark future pushed in on America. In cities, towns, and farms everywhere, young men felt compelled to push back. They considered enlistment a necessity, not an option. But the Army and Navy were reluctant to take a man too scrawny to wear their smallest uniform size. In the Merchant Marine, however, Eugene’s slight build was a bonus inside the cramped cargo ships that raced to avoid the enemy.

During his service, Eugene passed through the Panama Canal half a dozen times and sometimes saw the coasts of Europe and Asia on the same trip. He rode in convoys and on ships traveling alone, and he watched the wake of torpedoes pass his ship to hit others. Until then, he never knew the world beyond a few farms surrounding his tiny hometown of Vergennes, Illinois.

When he returned, he settled in nearby Du Quoin, shelved his service medals and sharpened the same sense of purpose that had shaped his patriotism. He raised his six children on the hard fruit of driving milk trucks at dawn along winding country roads, and he hammered together homes from scratch as a construction worker. He also patched neighbors’ broken roofs during summer storms, cinched leaky pipes, and restored light to darkened homes – often at a moment’s notice and without pay – out of compassion, not out of obligation.

Eventually, Eugene partnered with other builders to open a lumber yard, then took it over as the partners trickled out. Along with more homes, he built friendships, respect, and a community-wide appreciation as solid as his service to the country.

All of those enviable qualities were reflected in the long line of mourners who streamed through Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Du Quoin to say farewell at his funeral. He was 92, and though he outlived many friends, and his wife by 18 years, the grieving included the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of those friends. In small, profound ways stretching across decades, their lives were enriched by this quiet hero of the war who returned to provide a much more heroic and lasting measure of service to his community.

To the federal government, Eugene Walter Eisenhauer symbolized the Greatest Generation. But to the people who revered him, that praise was far too small to describe his true influence.

Everybody’s already made up their mind

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

The sound of vomiting awakened me. The smell of it assured no return to sleep.

My roommate was coming out of his coma.

“That’s OK, that’s OK,” a woman told the gently groaning man who had just emptied his stomach and, I noticed a moment later, his bowels. “We’ll take care of that. You don’t worry.”

I heard but did not see any of this. A gauzy, cornflower blue curtain on a metal rod trembled from the activity behind it. Between gulps, the man apologized, his words wavering in the air.

“No problem, no problem at all,” said another woman. The pair sounded much younger than the man they were addressing. “Here, just roll over a little this way so we can get – there, that’s it.”

The whisper of changing bedsheets filled the room. The thud of something wet and heavy landed in a plastic bucket, followed by another thud.

My attention span rippled like water in a breeze. The drugs administered to arouse me from surgery were prying me out of a deathly slumber, but a mild grip continued. The analog wall clock said 3 a.m.

As I noticed this, the women emerged from behind the curtain wearing purple smocks, latex gloves, and their frosted hair bound up in small buns. Each clutched a bulging plastic trash bag and a facial expression wrought from a hard night. The air improved when they left.

My roommate coughed and cleared his throat a few minutes, then was silent. When next I heard him, the hands on the wall clock had spun around three times and sunlight dribbled through the window blinds.

I needed to pee – I could not remember the last time that happened – and so began focusing on how to do it. I had come out of surgery without a catheter and without the use of my shoulders. Long, raw, S-shaped scars curved beneath my arms. A tube jutted from the bottom of each scar. Beneath each tube, a plastic bulb collected orange fluid. Concentrating on how to squirm out of bed unaided softened the edge on my urge.

But in fumbling to stand, I brushed the room dividing curtain, causing one side to slide back on the rod. And that is when I met Clarence from Anna, Illinois. His drooping, swollen eyes stared at a muted TV on his side of the room. He had long white and red tubes running the length of his black arms.

“Hey, hi. Sorry about that,” I said as I grabbed at my loose gown with one hand and my rolling intravenous fluid pump with the other. Pain coursed from my shoulders to my ribs. The half-filled bulbs pulled on my scars.

“No, that’s fine,” he replied and waved to me with thick fingers. “Hope I’m not disturbing you. I guess I got a little noisy last night.”

“Nah. I wasn’t really asleep anyway. They kept waking me every hour to ask a question or poke me with something. How are you doing?”

“Better, I think. They tell me I was out awhile, so I’m not sure,” he said, groggily.

“You mind if I asked what happened?”

“Car crash. I was making a delivery and a woman plowed into my side at a stoplight.”

“You remember that?”

“I remember that much, then I woke up here.”

“So, you feeling better?”

“Yeah. I think one of these tubes is morphine.”

As the last syllable dribbled from his mouth, two other women slid past me, nodded acknowledgment, then positioned themselves on either side of Clarence’s bed. He greeted one as Mom.

“Ohh, baby, how’re you feeling?” She knitted the words together in a long, soft musical note.

“Mmm. ‘K,” he mumbled.

At that, I regathered my gown and rolling IV stand to address the business that forced me upright. When I finished and returned to bed in a way as innovative and as painful as I had left it, the conversation behind the re-extended curtain had changed from a lovely tune to legal matters.

“Police say she’s already got a lawyer …” the woman called Mom said.

“… and he’s already talked to them,” the other woman added. Clarence called her a word like “Sulee.”

“She was the one who didn’t stop,” he told her. “I was stopped and moved out a little to see past the car and then she was slamming into the side of me.”

“I know, honey,” Mom said. “And they know it. But she’s got this lawyer now.”

Piece by piece, the puzzle came together before me. Clarence was working his second job, floral delivery, and had pulled up to a flashing stoplight two blocks from his destination. Cars parked close to the intersection interfered with his view, so he stopped then inched and stopped then inched forward to see better.

He remembered flashing lights, a siren, and someone shouting questions at him. That was four days ago.

“Mmm, yes,” Mom hummed.

“But now you gotta get a lawyer, too,” Sulee said. “You gotta talk to somebody at the college. Got a lot of friends there, right? You’ve worked there a long time. Somebody there knows someone who can help, right?”

“Dunno,” Clarence said. “Maybe.”

“Oh, we gotta try,” Sulee said.

“Dunno,” Clarence repeated. “I mean, look at me, look at that town. Everybody’s already made up their mind.”