“left my comb in Ozona”
After watching my hands with chocolate chip cookies (well, it is vanilla bean noel, with sandy scrubbers), me and the family unit packed up, heading back out and across the country from almost whence we came on December 26, 2004*. We’ll soon be boarding the Princess Cruise ship on Saturday so my husband Eddie can fulfill his three-day gig with the featured jazz band, Eddie and I can spend some time alone if ya know what I mean and our son James can be with kids his own age, so that Eddie and I can spend some time alone.
Right about now, we’re in Las Cruces, NM, a casita-style Holiday Inn with an indoor heated pool and a Mexican restaurant, French doors, free high-speed Internet, the Cartoon Network on… I’m writing this, Eddie’s out in the lobby making calls and paying bills, it feels good to settle in early for once.
Instead of regaling you readers with what went wrong – surprisingly little if you discount back-to-back colds, now I’ve got it, controlling an uncontrollable three-year-old 24/7, a growing libido with nary a private moment or a vibrator in sight – I’m gonna switch-hit with some surprisingly cool finds, perhaps a change of habit.
For far too long, I’ve had my head firmly stuck inside the buttocks of Star Jones, theoretically speaking. It always had to be First Class A High End Brand Name all the way, thus branding me nitwit-picky.
I avoided dives like the plague. When I married a dive-loving man, who sought them out like crackers in the desert, I knew I either had to change my ways, learn to love dives too, or suffer. Usually, me also being manipulative, I avoided having to decide by subtly steering Eddie toward the cleaner, more known places while out on the hunt for good eats. Every other morning, I’d pass the dilapidated trailer known as a greasy spoon in the Lynnwood neighborhood on the way to the business Costco. Eddie tried it once with James last year, with glee, despite a nasty bout of the stomach flu. Not for me, too afraid of contracting a disease from the hobos that might frequent the joint or the hookers who might moonlight as waitresses, or really, every white face turned my direction the second the jangling bells above the glass doors swung open…looks like we got here a Chinaman.
On this extended trip, however, I learned to love dives out of necessity and lack of time to browse for a McDonald’s or a sit-down diner larger than a breadbox, recommended highly by the TV Food Network.
It started when we stopped at Gautier, Miss so I could piss. As I walked toward the back of a bp gas station/store/meat deli/pit stop toward the restrooms, I noticed a display case of fried chicken and fried okra, accompanied by a scent I hadn’t placed since childhood when a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken ruled. Making a mental note to tell Eddie to check it out, I took my piss, wiped and washed and rushed out. We bought two pieces of fried chicken and swallowed every bite up, licking our fingers, practically suckling on bones, while sitting in the parked car, engine running. It was the best fried chicken of my life. I even noticed a stray feather still stuck on a breast, but didn’t care, ate that too. The crispy crust was so delicious, it could’ve been in a food category all its own. And the meat inside was juicy, flavorful through and through; usually the inside’s hard as gristle and salt-free.
Then, we did it again in Louisiana, what we should’ve done on the way over to Florida when we got lost in the gristle of a jam-packed New Orleans on a Sugar Bowl searching for the world-renowned Café du Monde. Before heading to the border into Texas, we stopped at an exit on the fly, hoping to find a Cajun restaurant advertised on a billboard, found it closed in passing (everything was closed, in preparation for the Superbowl and Mardi Gras), then, right before the railroad tracks and the end of the line, we found another gas station with an attached store/food joint. I went to piss, passed fried chicken and a menu listing po boys and muffaletta, took note, told Eddie, and ordered.
Unfortunately, the lady behind the counter said she wasn’t doing muffalettas that night, but she could do po boys, so Eddie ordered a roast beef one, both of us not expecting much more than another dry sandwich ala Cuban. We took the sandwich, wrapped in white paper, grease showing through, back to our parked car, opened the wrapping and wept. Eddie took the first bite, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “You’re gonna like this,” practically forcing the sandwich in my mouth. I bit into the warmest, wettest, meatiest roast beef sandwich ever, it reminded me of a Philly cheesesteak, without the green bell peppers. It did have sautéed onions, melted swiss cheese, some weird mayo-like sauce, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, mixed all in between two soft, moist pieces of long French bread. So good, we ordered another, washed it down with bottles of Coke and a plastic container of this huge square yellow cake topped with pink strawberry-flavored icing.
In keeping with the gas station kick, we made further stops in Texas, tasting the best tacos and strawberry ice cream right out of Houston (“The freeway here is like a wormhole!”), hit Ozona again, that former oil boomtown turned blip near the highway. We couldn’t stay at the Best Western like we had the first time there, but the hotel lady recommended an Econo-Inn/RV Park down the street run by an alert but friendly Indian guy. She told Eddie the inn was very comfortable and clean, unlike the TraveLodge nearby, which allowed drinking locals to trash the rooms.
Eddie warned, “It’s clean, but doesn’t have any amenities.”
Our hotel room was larger than the $300-a-night stay at Disney World’s Polynesian Resort, our double beds far superior to any we owned, not too soft, but able to mold to the contours of our bodies; I didn’t need an extra pillow as a cushion, the mattress alone was enough. What amenities did I need, a butler?! Our second night heading back proved the most restful since the cold that attacked James eased up enough for him to sleep through (you should’ve been there our first night).
Before we went to bed, we picked up two BLTs and a fried egg sandwich from a café nearby, completely deserted, the size of a manufactured home, run by two Mexican-American ladies, white slightly toasted bread gave way easily to the tasty flesh inside, moist, not dry.
The next morning, we tried another café, even smaller, a wisp of a dirty-looking place you’d drive by without noticing… for the best breakfast we’d had on any travel, even those five-star resorts with the Eggs Benedict room service.
I ordered my usual two fried eggs over easy, grits and steak medium rare, expecting the usual mediocrity. But the eggs were done just right, not overcooked, swimming in the juice of the just right sirloin, no salt needed, grits a creamy, buttery accompaniment, the epitome of southern living.
From then on, I knew that every stop we made for my pissing would net us a great find we’d normally overlook on the way to a famous chef’s delight. It got to be a game with me, look for the gas stations in the middle of nowhere (plenty in Texas after Houston and before El Paso), wander around the kitschy stuff, the jalapeno jelly jars, the vending machine for spiky cock rings (oh to be male), into the local flavors hidden out back. I think those are the best reflections of the area, certainly the most complete of experiences.
When we passed over the Texas border into New Mexico—a two-day ordeal—Eddie and I cheered. We could’ve gone further, but so far, as of this writing February 8, 2005, 8:05 p.m., we’re a day ahead and we had to take a break early, having gained an hour. So we stopped at Las Cruces, where nobody stops anymore in the middle of February (they’re all at Disney World, eating overpriced, fried crap in the shape of Mickey’s head), checked into the non-descript gray building of a Holiday Inn, nobody here but a friendly nine-year-old boy diving in the indoor heated pool, sharing his plastic, multi-colored rings with our son. You walk inside and it opens up into this Shangri-la casita, the indoors opening into the outdoors decoratively.
I’m sure Arizona will be much the same. I’m not sure about California. Last I remembered, there weren’t many neighborhood mom ‘n pop gas station annexes, just a lot of brand-name fixtures, and boiled hot dogs. But by then, it won’t matter.
Btw, before we left on our trip back, we did finally make it to Melbourne Beach, FL, to taste of the infamous Bizzarro Pizza, twice. I took pictures, almost got arrested (j/k) by the proprietor for my camera action and ate so much pizza I’m now officially sick of it.
*On December 26, 2004, we departed our home in Washington, driving south through Oregon and California, then southeast through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama into Florida where my husband’s late parents’ house in Spring Hill was cleaned up for sale, a done deal, and the inner contents of their stuff cleaned out too. In the interim, we stayed in a hotel and later at Eddie’s cousins’ in Barefoot Bay, on the east coast of Florida. We headed out again on February 5, backward, and will until we hit Long Beach, CA, where we’ll board a Princess Cruise ship for a week to and from Mexico while Eddie does a gig, and I try to relax without catching another flu/cold bug.
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