Why the hell am I driving home this late? I maintain my steering wheel’s slight rightward tilt so I don’t veer into the left lane. So much for that money my Mom paid National Tire and Battery two weeks ago to align my Taurus’ wheels after buying four new tires. It’s 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night, and here I am navigating Interstate 72 West, underwhelmed by Cental Illinois’ landscape. I wonder if this would have been more interesting had farmers not plowed what few curves existed in this land in order to create thousands of acres of farmland. It only takes a couple trips crossing the Land of Lincoln to understand the recipe for creating an agriculturist’s paradise. Start by building a little house in the middle of nowhere. Buy white siding. Plant fields of corn, soy, and wheat— promising green rows in the summer and dead brown wisps in the fall. Finish it off by planting a blue or red rectangular piece of glossy paper by the highway in October of every even year. Make sure it’s covered in bold letters, patriotic stars, and sometimes a donkey, but more often an elephant. Repeat every few miles.
My thoughts dart and zigzag, quick and insubstantial like electrons. There’s nothing outside to ponder— no problem, no mystery. So I create them my own in my head. Which should I drink first: my grainy gas station cappuccino (Buy Five Millstone Premium Arabica Coffee Drinks and get Your Sixth Free!) or my Grape Rockstar Energy Drink, which cost me 375 Café Credits at the Illinois Street Residence late night snack bar? Do energy drinks really energize me? Is this really going to be worth $3.75? Do people even realize that each credit is actually a cent, making it pretty damn cost-ineffective to buy 24 Dasani bottled waters for 3000 credits? That’s thirty dollars on something they could get for free from a faucet. Thirty dollars they could have spent on a new polo shirt or a season DVD. And what about the flavor of this energy drink: it’s grape, and grape has never been a favorite of mine, as far as drink flavors go. Not in juice or soda form. And what’s the difference between groundhogs, hedgehogs, woodchucks, and beavers? Does everybody know that besides me? Am I an idiot for not knowing the distinctions, or is that common? Outside is a blur of nothing, but inside is a maelstrom of everything-all-at-once-right-now.
And for all of my self-absorption, I manage to see a green sign to my right: SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS. Awesome. A city. And one that marks the approximate halfway point in my 170-mile cross-state journey from Champaign to Alton. My car’s digital clock indicates that it’s 1:40. My mind finally quiets down and I switch from think mode to look mode. Yup, yup, yup. . . Some big tubes spouting smoke into the sky. I see industry’s still going strong. Mostly I’m surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and government buildings. Nothing too exciting, but they’re still a nice change from the rural uniformity I’ve been witnessing for the past hour. It’s good to see evidence that there is such a thing as life after passing dozens of harvested fields. I remember again that there are colors besides the yellow of fallen stalks, the brown of earthen slop after a fall rain, and the black of pavement.
All too quickly, I’m on the southern edge of the state capital with the chore ahead of me to switch interstates from 72 West to 55 South. But I want to hang on to civilization, even if it’s just for a little while, before I plunge back into darkness. I wait for my body to rationalize a legitimate excuse to take the last exit into Springfield. I don’t really need to use a bathroom, so that’s out. I’m kind of tired, but I don’t have the money to rent out a hotel room for a whole night on a car trip that should take less than three hours. I see another sign, this one listing the restaurants at exit 92A. I know! I’ll go to Taco Bell! Why not? I could use a chalupa or gordita right about now. And most Taco Bells are open pretty late, right?
It’s 1:50 a.m. as my Taurus angles rightward onto the exit ramp. The ramp spits me into 6th street’s source. Wide-eyed, I search the sky for a lit Taco Bell sign, trusting that I will see it soon. The first few businesses are closed. But not to worry— Taco Bell will be open late. My merry mood subsides when I spy a dimly lit Taco Bell. There’s no way. There are still a couple cars parked there. Maybe the owner of this particular franchise likes to save a couple dollars per month on his electricity bill by turning off half of the lights during hours of low business. That’s got to be it.
I pull into the parking lot to get a closer look. Chairs are stacked upside-down on the tables, and nothing inside the building is moving except a few ceiling fans. The drive-thru menu is turned off. I finally concede that this restaurant really is closed, but not before hopping out of my car to read the business hours plastered on the front door. It closes at 1 a.m.? Psh. What kind of Taco Bell is this? This is a city of over 100,000 people, but its Taco Bell closes at 1? My lips spread in a bitter sneer, and I recall a night only a couple weeks ago when I bought a steak quesadilla value meal at the University Avenue Taco Bell in Champaign at 3:50 a.m. My home town of Alton has less than a third of Springfield’s population, but our Taco Bell stays open until at least 2. I mentally scoff at this preposterous blunder. Any restaurant that closes so early does not deserve the prestigious title of Taco Bell. It can be another combination of a Mexican food and a sound-making instrument: Tamale Trumpet, Burrito Banjo, Quesadilla Kazoo, I don’t care. Just not Taco Bell.
I step back into my Taurus and shrug off this outrage. Sure, this Taco Bell is already closed, and so is the McDonald’s across the street. And come to think of it, no business within sight is open. But maybe this is just the lame part of town. Maybe I’ll find something if I delve deeper into Springfield. I bet there will be dozens of maniacs jaywalking across some busy city street somewhere, hitting their favorite late-night grub shacks after a wild night at the bars. Here in a minute I’ll be one of them. It’s gonna be great.
About ten blocks later, I’m starting to doubt my initial presumption. 6th is now a one-way street, which dashes any hope of easily retracing my path thus far. With every sighting of a closed restaurant, my hopefulness hardens into determination. Why shouldn’t these places be open? I guarantee that right now in Champaign, there are hundreds of drunken college students wandering the streets in a daze— dazed at how many choices they have for places to eat! There’s got to be a place to eat somewhere. I’m too far into this quest to turn back now. At this point, finding an eatery is more a matter of pride than hunger.
I glance with eagle eyes at all four corners of every intersection for the next couple if miles. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I finally turn left onto a new street, only to discover that this street, too, is a one-way. Soon I am officially lost, but I don’t mind that. What does bother me is my realization that Springfield is dead; just as uninspired and uninteresting as the farms surrounding it. Instead of driving amongst a thousand indistinguishable plots of land, I’m driving amongst a thousand empty buildings. At every turn I am amazed anew that no one strolls down the sidewalks, that the only other visible life forms are a few other moving vehicles. I look into a car that stops at a red light next to me and see a father of middle school-aged children at the wheel. His wide open eyes search as his head darts from side to side. I’d like to think he’s looking for food, too, and that if we both had our windows rolled down at this intersection, we’d look over at each other and bare weak half-smiles. We’d shrug in acknowledgment of Springfield’s utter stagnancy. But instead of that, the family turns left where I go straight, and I head further into the sleeping city.
Eventually, I decide that I should end my northward progress. I should head back toward the interstate if I want to get home before I fall asleep driving. I find another one-way road, 5th Street, to take me south. If I drive south long enough, it should get me at least within a block of where I entered this God-forsaken city. It’s only after twenty minutes spent lost in Springfield and after turning back toward my destination when I finally find some open businesses: two bars a block apart from each other on the right side of 5th. I hear David Gilmour strumming the murky, subdued introduction to “Nightmare” over the Taurus’ factory speakers. I can think of no music more fitting for this situation than late-60s Pink Floyd. I drive past two guys conversing outside a bar, The Firehouse, one of whom is a hotdog vendor standing in front of his plain metal stand. I guess this is as good as it’s going to get. I parallel park in a metered spot on the east side of 5th and cross the street.
I approach the pair and begin to hear bits of their conversation. The hotdog salesman sports a matching brown-and-green camouflage jacket, shirt, and hat. He stands tall and straight on his steel-toe boots, but his expression betrays his stately posture. His eyebrows appear to be permanently down-turned in a drunken frown. His slurred speech slows his husky hillbilly voice to an even lower tempo than it normally would be.
“Is that what they call that cuh-ler? Muh-roon?” asks the camouflage guy, pointing a limp finger at his buddy’s taxi minivan. He guffaws at his own implied cynicism of non-manly colors.
The taxi driver’s mouth cracks open into what could be called a toothy grin if only he had all his teeth. My eyes zoom in on the black gaps between his yellow teeth. I shiver at the sight of his naked gums. Shreds of red flesh replace his missing canines.
“How’s it going?” I say as a greeting to the hotdog man and the cabbie.
“Perty good. You wanna hot dog er a brat?” It’s not a polite question asking me if I desire one of his fine products. He’s telling me I want something, but I get to choose which one.
“How much are they?”
“Alright,” I say, and reach into my back pocket. Three dollars seems steep for minced meat stuffed into an edible tube, but I’m not going to continue scouring the city for another place to eat. I tug three crinkly one-dollar bills out of my wallet and hand them over to the vendor, saying “I’ll take a brat.”
The hot dog man gropes for his buns in a dark corner of his stand. His frown becomes more pronounced.
“Sorry bout th’ bun. The last ones at the end of th’ night’r alwees the worst.”
“That’s OK. I just need some food. It seems like everything in Springfield is closed tonight. You’d think in a state capital, people something would be open right now.”
“Yalp, that’s how Springfield is,” he chuckles, then commences his professional duty.
Hot Dog Man nods his head without looking at me and opens the lid over the steamed dogs. Hot air escapes, and he slides a bratwurst into one of his last few buns. It must require a lot of concentration to do this job while drunk, because the process of selecting a bun and putting a sausage into it is taking at least half a minute. He hands it to me without smiling or saying “You’re welcome” after I thank him. The bread is a smidge on the hard side, splitting a fourth of the way up the seam as I lift the food to my mouth. I’m not too picky, though, so I don’t mind.
“Yeah, nothin’ happens here,” he says, now looking at me. “People here act like theyc’n flex, but they just can’t. They. . . Pretend theyc’n flex. But really. . .” Hot Dog Man trails off. I think he realizes that he’s repeating himself.
I could just leave now, but I feel like making some conversation. I’d hate to spend a half hour in Springfield driving around only to leave as soon as I buy a three-dollar bratwurst. Suddenly an idea pops into my head.
“So what do you guys think about Blagojevich?” That’s an appropriate question, right, what with the midterm election just two days ago and us being in the Illinois state capital? I bet I know their answers.
The taxi driver responds first by chortling.
“There’s not too much to think,” he says. I can’t help but stare at his gap-toothed mouth and his smiling, magnified glasses-eyes.
“I hate th’ bastard,” says Hot Dog Man. “I don’t really like Topeka, either. Topinka. Whutever the hell her name is.”
Their disfavor of Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich doesn’t surprise me, but Hot Dog Man’s critique of the former Republican governor candidate and current state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka does.
“Why don’t you like Topinka?”
The old man in need of dental care loses interest and walks off to conduct some business with drunk blondes in need of cab rides. Hot Dog Man ponders for a moment.
“She’s fer the gays,” he says. He states it as a fact without blinking or wavering.
Now it’s my turn to frown. I reflect on whether or not I should ask him something, whether or not it would be going too far to ask a guy I’ve just met a personal question. What the heck. I’m feeling impulsive tonight, so I might as well.
“Why do you hate gay people?” I watch his face. His frown deepens again. His downcast eyes are empty of emotion. I guess he’s never stopped to rationalize his bigotry. I don’t want his brain to explode, so I add another question: “Is it because you’re a religious man?”
“Naw. Useta be. Now’m just pisstoff.” Is that supposed to just make sense? Pissed off at what? What would a gay man do to harm him? I’m trying to picture a traumatic experience in Hot Dog Man’s past. All I can come up with is that maybe a flamboyant JC Penny associate discouraged Hot Dog Man from wearing so much camouflage and recommended ribbed turtlenecks instead.
“How boutchou?” he asks me. “You religious, er just pisstoff?”
This question catches me off guard. Do I lie to ensure that this guy doesn’t attack me? Judging by his fondness of camouflage, he probably owns a rifle or shotgun for the purpose of hunting. Do I stay true to myself and my beliefs? At first I feel pretty sure I should just lie and walk away, but the more I ponder the dilemma, the bolder I feel. All the petty problems in my head about my wheel alignment, the mundaneness of the Central Illinois corn fields, and the dilemma of what beverage in my car to drink first— they all dissolve. This is the first moment of conflict I’ve had all night about something that actually mattered.
“You know. . .” I say, and I remember my sister, a graduate of the Stanford University doctorate program for Sociology. I can’t deny her now— her and people like her living their lives in a way that hurts no one but offends all the Hot Dog Men of the world. Denying her now would be the same as Peter denying his friendship with Jesus.
“I don’t hate gays,” I say. After a thoughtful pause, I add: “My sister’s gay.”
And for a moment there is silence. This moment may be the closest Hot Dog Man has ever come and will ever be to viewing life from some else’s perspective. I’d like to think that, even if it’s just for this moment, he realizes that everybody has his own strengths and weaknesses and that we as Americans all deserve to live whatever lifestyle and obey whatever religion or belief system we want. But chances are, he’s not thinking any of those thoughts, because after I explain to him that I’m not gay, I just don’t hate gays, he just says, “Well, Um not gay, either. And if ya think I am, I c’n lock up muh stand right now’n start throwin’ blows.” He raises his arms to chest level and balls his right hand in to a fist, pointing at it with his left.
Amazing. Nothing to say about the fact that I have a sister who seeks romantic company with other women. Imagine: a young adult stands right in front of the Hot Dog Man and tells him that he disagrees with his views and even has a homosexual sister, and yet the Hot Dog Man has nothing to say about that. I guess it fits that he, being a person who will not even for a second pretend to have the mindset of anybody besides himself, would disregard a comment I made and change the subject back to himself.
His actions surprise me, but not because I didn’t expect hostility. They surprise me because I stop to consider something for the first time: this man operates under a train of logic that leads to his immutable belief that homosexuality is not a personal option, and those who participate in the lifestyle cannot be tolerated. There’s no doubt in his mind that he should hate a group of people he has probably never encountered in person, and that everyone else should, too.
Gays are bad. Duh.
What is it exactly that makes him think this way? His parents, by urging him to avoid boys who played with Barbies instead of G.I. Joes? His friends, by calling each other “fags” as a general-use insult? His Sunday School and confirmation classes? If it’s the latter, his church must have conveniently bypassed Matthew 7:1-5. Apparently when Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” He didn’t really mean it. It was a joke.
“I don’t think you’re gay,” I say. And I don’t. I don’t think there’s a man or woman in the world that would peg Hot Dog Man as a homosexual, and I don’t know why he’d even say that. He’s a gruff bigot who sells hot dogs in a lifeless state capital for a living. A real gay man would most likely prefer death over sharing any of those characteristics.
“Well, I’ve gotta bout 15,000 people’n this town that think Um gay.”
“Why?” This question I ask in honest incredulity.
“Buhcuz. I voted fer a pro-gays can’idate.”
I’m pretty sure all of the Illinois governor candidates are tolerant toward homosexuals, but I guess that is not apparent to Hot Dog Man. I don’t understand the significance of the particular number he’s using, either. Can this guy really have 15,000 friends? I guess he gets around. Maybe Hot Dog Man is a Springfield legend that 15,000 people grew up seeing and adoring. How ashamed they must be now that their beloved Hot Dog Man has voted for a governor candidate that doesn’t happen to be a homophobe.
By this time I’ve eaten the three-dollar brat and wiped the mustard from the edges of my mouth. Hot Dog Man is locking up his hot dog stand, and I have run out of things to say, so I ask him how late the bar is open.
“Late,” he says.
I peer into the bar’s glass front door, not really thinking about entering the Firehouse. I’m actually trying to decide how to either continue or end our conversation. I walk back toward Hot Dog Man and wave.
“Well. I’m gonna take off,” I say. “Have a nice night.”’
“You, too,” he replies.
And with that, I’m crossing 5th Street and plopping into my Taurus. As I start my engine, I see the maroon minivan taxi driver heading south on 5th Street with a few blondes in his two back seats. I think he’s still smiling that goofy smile.
I spend the remainder of my ride home a changed person. Meaningless self-absorbed thoughts no longer gyre endlessly in my brain. The door in my mind opens to the world around me after being locked shut for so long that I’d forgotten what it’s like to just gaze in awe of everything. There is more to life, I am discovering, than simply marveling at the sublime nature of all matters concerning myself. If I’m going to deride an outdoor food salesman for failing to consider perspectives outside his own narrow scope, I ought to follow my own advice. No longer are the farms along the interstate mere rough smudges but distinct and unique photographs. I note minute variations in all of them: in one field stands a barn on which silhouettes of a boy and a girl playing are painted; in another is a pair of grain silos, twin metal phalluses reaching heavenward; between a third farm and the interstate grows restored prairie grass, a rare occurrence in the ineptly-named Prairie State.
The encounter plays back in my head tens of times, replacing my petty musings of woodchucks and groundhogs with Hot Dog Man’s haunting frown and his malicious inflection of the word “gay.”