It is a high honor indeed to make a living traveling America’s roads, moving freight from one corner of the country to the next. Many is the time I’ve sat quietly in the driver’s seat practically dumbstruck by the awesome splendor of a sunrise, as it seemed The Almighty himself had taken a few minutes off from the world’s problems to splash a panorama of fiery brilliance on the canvas of the heavens. At such times, in the privacy of my mind, I’ve fancied truck drivers as modern day cowboys, working in the elements, sleeping with the freight, and living the life of a drifter.
Viewed through the windshield, America is almost a blur sometimes, an endless procession of mile markers and traffic signs, with only the dotted white lines of the highway to keep one company. The loneliest times are in the evening, when the darkness envelops everything save the little clusters of homes in the distance, their tiny shimmers of warm light glowing through the windows as diminutive rebukes to the inky night.
Behind those lights, life goes on.Parents tuck their children into bed. Families laugh together at the antics on television and the home becomes a refuge against the vicissitudes of an ever-coarsening culture. Meanwhile, the truck driver presses on, hoping to find a safe place to park for the evening, someplace with hot food, a shower, a well-lit parking lot and no prostitutes knocking on the door at all hours.
Every now and then, however, there is a reprieve from the normal routine. Typically, it takes a mechanical event that puts the truck in the shop and necessitates a stay at a local hotel. I had just such a respite recently in Indianapolis, landing me in a local hotel for the evening. Of the various dining options available (including the Nightly Running Of The Hungry People at Golden Corral), I chose a little dive of a bar and grill located next to a motel that looked like it had been airlifted from Beirut.
I may as well get the obvious analogy out of the way and tell Rob Long that this place was a bit like Cheers, only grittier. I sat next to a gentleman who, judging from his appearance, was a painter and, judging from his stories, was wired a little differently from most folks. Evidently, Jesus directs him to different bars to play the state lottery. One night, he told me, he won $2,400 after spending less than $200 on the little peel-off tickets. Then he mentioned something about a young lady and her family in the Philippines that he was supporting with his winnings, and in due course, the voices told him it was time to go to a different bar, and off he went.
The staff was as friendly as any I’ve ever seen, and the zany fun reached ever higher crests as the time passed. There were three bartenders, two of whom were off duty. They were both ladies and it soon occurred to one of them, I think, to nickname all three as A, B, and C, according to their respective brassiere sizes (A belonging to the solitary male bartender who was, in fact, on duty). He raised his shirt and established that he is, indeed, an introvert in that particular regard.
The laughter rolled on, the only thing saltier than the french fries being some of the language, though I confess to marveling at what a tight-knit little group had formed amongst the customers and staff at this neighborhood pub. Soon a rather large and jocular gentleman walked in and everyone in the joint hailed his arrival. He went straightaway to the music machine and purchased about an hour’s worth of songs and then bought a stack of peel-off lottery tickets and went to work.
Since all the fun and frivolity was happening at the other end of the bar once the painter/gambler abandoned the place, I moved closer to the action and explained that I wanted to sit with the cool kids. They immediately asked my name, and invited me to participate it the general fun.
I mentioned to the kind and attractive lady seated next to me that I hadn’t seen so many people having this much fun in a very long time. That’s when I learned that those bright and engaging smiles have a high price tag. The young 20-something lady bartender at the end of the counter, the one who was tossing back beer while serving as mistress of ceremonies and general ringleader for the care-free frivolity? She was widowed about a year ago. Perhaps the beer eases the heartache at least temporarily,…but now and then her eyes welled with tears and the look of awful and deep pain on her young face seemed as raw, and the torment as agonizingly fresh, as it must have been the day her husband died. Almost as a catharsis, she now seemingly derives the greatest pleasure from bringing smiles to the faces of those around her.
When the emotions overtook her, however, she turned and held onto the larger jocular man with all the lottery tickets spread before him. This gentleman, a Vietnam War veteran, had recently had to bury his 30-year-old son, and when he allowed his grief to surface for a moment, there was a hardly a dry eye to be found anywhere.
Then, when Garth Brooks’ song, “The Dance,” played, a couple of other locals walked over to these two grieving people and held them close, enveloping them in a group hug. These people, seemingly holding onto each other for dear life here in this wonderfully ramshackle little bar, as if to cement a bond strong enough to withstand the cruelest fate and yet with a hospitality warm enough to welcome a traveling trucker into their midst … they filled in the beautiful, yet hard-edged reality behind the two-dimensional figures that television simply can’t convey. To spend an evening in their company was to be reminded that the best and brightest smiles don’t come cheap. I hope I come back this way again soon.