Jenny and I sat at our table inside of the diner right along mainstream in Holbrook Arizona. The exterior, though we couldn’t see it from our seats had been painted a pastel pink. A shade that was surprisingly pervasive throughout the town, though I couldn’t tell if it was due to brighter red tones being faded from the southwestern sun or if they intentionally chose a color that matched the sandstone surrounding us so closely.
The interior had wood paneling on the walls and a fabric pattern on the seat backs that when combined with the beige vinyl underneath us made for a color palette that at one time was probably described as “Navajo”. The bacon and eggs were just that, standard diner fair though the hash browns did leave some room for improvement. I had covered my plate with hot sauce though which generally does a good job of making everything acceptable to eat regardless of the flavor actually embedded during preparation. The waitress/hostess/manager came up to us,
“I’m just going to leave this here” she said without making eye contact and slipped the check underneath my water glass that was already dripping in condensation so as to soak the teal and white piece of paper. It stared back at me, $24.63. At this point I should have been used to sales tax being applied to everything and making the numbers lose their rounded splendor as you go to pay but the shock was still there. I pulled out my card and looked at Jenny, “Do we pay here or at the counter?”
“Up there.” She pointed at the register though I could she was no more sure than I was.
walking to the counter I got my last chance to look at those sitting around us, inside this faded pink building with it’s layers of veneer on the interior. The man with the varying leg lengths and shoes to correct it staring at the back of the man without capacity to chew with a closed mouth’s head. To my left was a large table, what looked like it could seat a party of 14 and had done so recently. Empty glasses with used silverware and napkins were scattered about. Some dishes with food scraps had remained as well, perhaps to be picked up when things died down more. Though with only three tables in the restaurant currently I wasn’t sure how much quieter things could really get.
“How was everything?” The waitress/hostess/manager said to us without looking up. Her eyes were instead focused on the rapid clicking of her register, and without skipping a beat or making eye contact she pulled the card from my hand to continue her methodic clicking of the keys.
“It was great” I said, lying.
“Good, good.” She now moved to the credit card processor, typing in another set of numbers pulled from the register itself. $24.63 again. “If you’d like to leave a tip enter it here” she said as she turned the keypad around to face me this time. I mentioned that we’d left cash on the table, this piqued her interest. “Thank you, makes it easier that way, and keeps the government out of things ‘ya know?” I smiled and nodded as if I did.
I pulled a pen from the cup nearby, like most other things in the area it was branded for Route 66. This restaurant, and what I assume are most business in the area don’t have much else to go on. What was once a means to get past this city is now the only reason to stop. Restaurants, hotels, and convenience stores alike all selling a piece of has-been Americana at the low-low price of $3.99 per sticker. It didn’t take long for me to focus back on the task at hand, this pen, that sticker, the patch hanging from a spinning rack nearby. It was the same stuff we had seen regularly for the past few days. Each town with their individual claim to fame. In Winslow, AZ it was a song from the Eagles that played on repeat from a store across the corner.
“Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona and such a fine sight to see” they sing as a throwaway line in a middle verse of ‘Take it Easy’.
It’s confusing and understandable at the same time. This nothing line means the world to a town that outside of this song and the fandom that goes with it would be nothing more than a dot on a map people would think to stop at for gas or a bite to eat. But does that mean they have less a reason to exist? And so to see it here at the restaurant I’m standing in doesn’t come as a shock but a weird comforting sensation. Each trinket and piece of Chinese-made America offers up an individual piece of their lives. Without this, the restaurant we chose to eat at, with it’s pastel paints, wouldn’t have enough customers to remain open. I finish my signature on the small piece of thermal paper, and a portion of my money has been left here in Holbrook.
“Have ya’ll seen the movie ‘Cars’?” the waitress/hostess/manager says with more curiosity and interest than she showed throughout our visit and when discussing the food options.
“Yeah” Jenny and I reply, nearly in unison.
“You know Lizzie and Stanley? The old ones in that town from the movie?” She asks.
“Oh yeah” we confirm again with a timing that to an outsider would have felt scripted.
“Let me show you something” she says pulling out a three-ring binder. It’s nothing extravagant from the outset, black plastic vinyl covering and sitting on a shelf. To those looking at it behind the register it must have seemed like a repository of financial statements and business documentation. Yet from her facial expressions it was clear that this was her way of letting us in.
“They were based off my parents, Lizzie and Stanley were. Disney came here and sat right at this table,” she said pointing to one of the booths near where we sat. “And this,” she pointed at a photo in the binder, “this is my grandma with the animator. He brought his daughter in that day and they ate here before heading out down Route66 for inspiration. They came around a lot, were here for weeks, really trying to capture everything about the area.”
We stood there, flipping through the pages of this handmade photo album. Filled with pre-production images of the film and her family. I was unsure of what else to say, my mouth suddenly dry and without a thought crossing past. The silence was suddenly broken by a simple “If you’re looking for something else to do, the town museum is right around the corner. It’s run by the historical society. Free entry too. They’ve got all sorts of displays in there, some really neat stuff. I think you can even go and sit in the old county judge seat as it used to be the courthouse before they built the new up up on second street.”
I realized the logo pen was still sitting comfortably between my index and middle fingers twirling back and forth as though it had somewhere to be.
“Thank you” I said, “We’ll go check that out.” and we walked out the door. Leaving behind the fake wood paneling and pastel exterior paint. We left behind the dishes sitting on that large table nearby and the man with the different sized legs who was still slurping down his egg soaked hash browns. We left behind the imported stickers and patches that desperately wanted to be a part of this piece of America. And we left behind our waitress/hostess/manager/storyteller as we had no other choice.
It was clear in that moment that there are two people who embody this portion of the road, of Route66. There are those who must live it, who are forced to sit within the confines of a false history. One that praises the cross-country capabilities of a road that travels from Los Angeles, California to Chicago, Illinois. One that requires you to stop at small towns and tourist traps along the way, weather because of a genuine interest or a need to take a break there was a purpose to be served. And there are those who, like myself only see it as a fleeting moment. A place to stop not because we are forced to but because of a genuine curiosity. One that may not necessarily be satisfied with what we find or even to meet the expectations of the city itself. Because for every Winslow Arizona that may have a corner to stand on, there is an expectation that something of interest will be there. But if it’s not, even if it is simply the desire for one to survive the circumstances of their own restaurant on a dying road, shouldn’t we try and find something that piques the interest within us?