How I Discovered America... Or at Least the Midwest

October 4, 2012
I had been in the car for 11 hours, when I arrived in Pendleton, Indiana, and a run-down restaurant called Deb & Donna’s Diner was seeming like an appealing option. I began looking for a place to park. It wasn’t difficult. If I had been back in New York City, I would’ve been driving around one block for three hours before finding an acceptable spot. In case I haven’t made it clear enough, I’m from New York City. The car, a beat-up ‘60’s VW Beetle, I had borrowed from my sister who lives out on Long Island. Despite its age, it had gotten me this far. Obviously a masterpiece of engineering.
Why, you may wonder, was I in some unheard of town in Indiana in the first place? I can tell you why I wasn’t there: I didn’t know anyone there. No family or friends. The town had no tourist attractions whatsoever. It wasn’t recommended that I should pay a visit here, nor was it on my list of 100 places to see before I die.
All I knew about Pendleton was that it had a population of 4,253. It had the single shortest Wikipedia entry I had ever seen. The last (and most likely only) interesting event that took place in Pendleton was the Fall Creek Massacre of 1824, when a group of white men murdered a peaceful group of Seneca Indians for no apparent reason. I only knew this much because of a plaque in the middle of town that cheerfully marked the spot of the murderers’ hanging.
I was here because a friend of mine was chatting with me, and said that you haven’t seen America until you leave New York. As a lifelong New Yorker, I had never really been outside the city myself, except to visit European cities, Los Angeles, and other places that seemed just as big, important, and interesting as New York. This never really bothered me much. What was the big deal about Middle America anyway? I thought of it as one vast cornfield that stretched from about Pennsylvania to California. The people who live there were a bit more than challenged when it came to fashion sense. They all voted Republican and lived in ranch style homes. They owned cows, pickup trucks, and guns. It didn’t seem particularly inviting, especially considering the fact that I could get shot by some gun-crazed corn farmer for trespassing. Now after visiting Indiana, I can confidently say that my friend was right. I had no idea what America outside of New York was like.
After that conversation with my friend, on impulse, I googled “10 most remote towns in the Midwest.” The first result? Pendleton, Indiana. I decided to go there. I put in for all of the vacation time I had coming to me at my job as a designer at Bounce, a hip branding agency in SoHo. My sister, Kiki, was reluctant to give me the car at first. It had been Grandma’s car during her 60’s peace protest days, so my sis considered it to be an heirloom, and had kept it perfectly preserved. I managed to talk her out of it using my amazing powers of persuasion. The conversation went like this:
Me: I’m taking a road trip. I need to borrow Grandma’s car.
Kiki: No.
Me (whining): But Kikiiiiiiiiiiiii...
Kiki: No!
Me (even whinier): Pleeeeeease????
Kiki: Oh, fine! Just shut up! You can come get it later!
Me: Thanks sis! Love ya!

And now here I was, actually in “America,” and I was tired and hungry. It was after 7 p.m., surely much too late for any Midwestern diners to be open. But Deb & Donna’s Diner had the lights on, so Pendleton was already exceeding my expectations. It had some hand-painted pictures on the window, beckoning me to “come on in,” and the sign on top of the roof promised “home cooking at its finest.” Some flowerpots decorated the outside as well as those newspaper boxes where you insert a quarter and it gives you a newspaper. There were four of them, each with a different local newspaper. I took one of each. They all had the same headline: Girls Cheerleading Team Wins Local Competition! Or some variation of that. Apparently, this counted as big news here in Pendleton. Maybe the team wasn’t too good, and it was a surprise that they won. Or, more likely, nothing more interesting ever happened here.
I walked in and strolled right past all of the tables, and sat down at the counter. What American would do otherwise? The tables were wooden, and the walls were covered in pale pink-ish, striped wallpaper. It reminded me of a baby’s room. It was sort of comforting. I could see through to the kitchen, where two women (most likely Deb and Donna) were baking muffins for tomorrow’s breakfast. Behind the counter was an older man, cooking burgers. He had silvery-grey hair, which was cut kind of spikey, and he wore wire-frame glasses. He had a lean, muscular build, and was wearing a red t-shirt with the diner’s logo, and jeans.
He turned away from the grill and said, “What’ll it be?”
The sign had promised, “Breakfast any time,” so I decided to order eggs and breakfast sausage. The man nodded. “Coming right up.” He cracked a couple of eggs onto the grill and started cooking. I had obviously never been to Pendleton before, but the man behind the counter looked vaguely familiar. As I watched him work, the feeling got stronger. I had definitely seen him somewhere before. Once he finished cooking my eggs, he put everything on a plate and put it down in front of me. It did look good. The man stood back and crossed his arms.
That was when I remembered. The old VW Beetle that I had been driving was preserved to be almost exactly how it had been when my grandma had owned it. She had always been a fan of pop and rock idols, and loved to read the fan magazines. One of her favorites was a 70’s rocker named Dexter Steel. She was a huge fan, and was practically in love with him. She would always make me listen to his records, and he was sort of cool. And on the sun visor in the car, held with peeling, old tape, was a picture of him that she cut out from one of her magazines. He was crossing his arms in the photo, which was also what the counterman was doing, which I think was what made me remember.
The man behind the counter looked just like Dexter Steel, except older. I think he noticed me staring at him, and asked me, “Anything else?” I said no, but then explained to him. “Well,” I started, “it’s just that you look exactly like an old-time rock musician that my grandma was always a fan of. She had sort of a crush on him. The resemblance is a little creepy actually!”
He laughed. “What was dream boy’s name?” he jokingly inquired.
“Dexter Steel.”
He looked at the ground for a moment, and sighed heavily. “I used to be him.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was speaking to my grandmother’s idol? It was sort of amazing! But… what was a famous idol like him doing in Pendleton, Indiana? I then remembered Grandma telling me that he had kind of dropped out of sight after a couple of albums didn’t sell. People speculated that he had gotten into drugs and partying. No one had cared about him since.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, surprised.
“After those albums didn’t sell, I realized that being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. People used me and befriended me because I was rich and famous. I had to be in fake, shallow relationships just for the publicity. It’s actually really stupid. Girls love you for a month or two, and then if you mess up once, you’re forgotten completely. It just wasn’t worth it. I decided to come here, because no one would be able to find me, but I might be able to find myself. I just wanted to have a real life.”
“Well, do you have one now?”
“I do. I’m happily married. I’ve got two kids, and I have Betsy.”
“Is she your wife?”
“Oh no,” he laughed. “She’s our cow. But I also have friends. Real friends. People who won’t stop talking to me the moment I refuse them money. And with this being such a small town, there’s a real sense of community. I’m much happier here.”
I glance around and lower my voice to a whisper. “But isn’t everyone… well, you know…Republican?”
Dexter started to laugh. “Deb! Donna! Come out here and get a load of this!”
The two women came out of the kitchen. He told them what I had said, and I was thoroughly embarrassed by that time. They all started laughing hysterically. Deb took a moment to tell me, “Don’t you know that Obama won Indiana in 2008? The misconceptions that some people have…” She then started laughing again.
We conversed some more, and I finished my meal. Donna directed me to the nearest motel, which was a very nice, very clean Holiday Inn. Another surprise. I had been expecting something much worse. I slept there for a night and drove back home the next day, all the while thinking about how different Indiana was, compared to what I was expecting. So, maybe they do own cows… but almost everything else was different. The people there aren’t all gun-crazed corn farmers. They’re actually really nice. In fact, I only saw one cornfield the whole time. And Dexter Steel really did seem happy there, even though it must have been a huge change from his rich-and-famous days.
I’m back in New York now, and of course I still like it here. But ever since my trip, I’ve kept in touch with the people of Pendleton. I even sent Grandma out to meet Dexter Steel. She hasn’t washed the hand he shook since. And I even still read the Pendleton Gazette online. It’s always nice to check up on how the girls’ cheerleading team is doing. This year they’re going to make it to the state championship for sure.

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