Clueless in America. Chapter 31

31.  Where has all of the Coffee gone?

So there we were, sweaty, dishevelled, slightly shaking and at a tourist information centre in Michigan. To say that we needed coffee was an understatement; I am sure a caffeine boost would have at best synched our heart rates and shaking, or at the very least just settled us down.

And coffee, that very dear subject, was one of the biggest changes I had noticed in America since our last visit. Last time we visited, coffee was free and everywhere. Often when driving along the autostrada(104), we would spot a sign that read something like ‘Stop, Revive and Drive, Sponsored by the First Church of the Great Shepherd’. So naturally enough, off the lovely smooth Oregon road we would go! Only to be confronted by a bunch of clucky, scarily happy American do-gooders determined to bless us with good free coffee, huge chocolate cookies and wishes of ‘Have a good day’. And if society’s do-gooders were not on the road, well we just needed to follow the information centre signs, because all of them had free, fresh take-away coffee percolating in anticipation of being taken for a drive.

But oddly enough, I seemed to be the only person in the entire world who knew this. Over the past number of years, I have told almost every American I know about how easy it is to get free coffee in  their country. Most of them looked at me as if I had two heads and a strange accent and then followed this up with a polite smile. This is a normal way for many Americans to politely disagree. Though it does seem that Americans’ methods of disagreeing vary according to their circumstances. For example if I had said ‘America had lots of free coffee and bad healthcare’, then I think many of them would have politely quizzed me. But better still, if I had said this with a CNN television camera trained on me with a live link to the entire world, then I would have been verbally challenged by someone throwing their arms around, on the verge of tears and screaming, not at me but at the television audience. Television cameras and live news feeds are definitely one of the demons for America’s international reputation.

But never mind, I am off the subject again. My point was that information centres were consistent with the rest of twenty-first century America; just couldn’t get a free coffee anywhere. And the strange thing is, everyone seemed to know this but me.

Another thing, as beautiful as Michigan was, it had disgusting water. With not being able to find a coffee, I walked to the water-fountain and filled up my water. I took one drink of it and spat it back out. What a bad day we were having…., a never-ending goat track, no coffee and bad water. We were narrowly saved by having heaps of peanuts.

Well we were hungry, it was lunch time. Sharon loves KFC and I love those ostentatious free-way fast-food signs.  It kind of passes the time during the boredom of driving and endlessly searching for wherever NPR has moved to on the bandwidth. Not only that, the signs are all designed for the sight-impaired and can be read, proof-read and corrected into English all at least a mile before the town. So we drove along miles of quiet free-way, past miles of brown grass on flat land and past spasmodic collections of gory shaped and coloured fast-food and gas station signs. We drove and we drove and we drove. We past towns like St Joseph, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Charlotte. We drove so long without a break and were so hungry and so sick of peanuts that the pages of our ‘Road Master’ were actually looking appetising. Then out of nowhere, which is also known as Potterville, Michigan, we spied a Taco Bell sign and out of frustration, decided to brave the lethal stares of at least all four of the local townsfolk and substitute our tired hopes of a KFC for this lonely, slightly tatty Taco Bell.

We were clearly the first customer that this Taco Bell had seen for quite some time. The ‘Fat Albert’ look alike behind the counter was so, so happy to see us. A wide warm smile spread across his cute chubby cheeks, whilst his dancing eyes wobbled around his skull in anticipation of an order being placed. He greeted us, arms spread out, with something like a ‘How ya’ll doing folks, what can I give you today?’ And then he did the weirdest of all things, he waited. He waited all of a few seconds, before slowly his dancing eyes narrowed and focused on us and his grin subsided into a confused frown. And I watched his face change from Santa Claus beauty to Homer Simpson bewilderment as the startled realisation dawned upon him that we did not have a clue what to order.

It is a peculiar thing about Americans. They seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to perceive what they want to order in every fast-food restaurant before entering the building. I mean, you watch Americans order food. They can walk into seemingly any restaurant anywhere in the country and walk straight up to the counter and order exactly what they want. I think the only reason why places like Taco Bell have menu boards is to humour us foreigners.

Fat Albert, the excellent advertisement for his food, slowed down long enough for his smile to return and his eyes to dance again. The sight in front of him clearly amused him. There we were, road worn, cranky and giddy from hunger, staring blankly at the menu board. From the outside it looked like the lights were on and nobody was at home. On the inside we were frantically trying to compare prices, pictures and words, but nothing seemed to make logical sense. So I asked Fat Albert, ‘What is good?’ American service industry strikes again, he started bouncing on the spot with excitement, with his ears twitching as he launched into a monotone monologue. Which of course, due to our hunger and culture shock we heard none of, but by now our eyes had fixed on a two-shades-of-yellow picture with a price beside it, which was somewhere near the bottom of the price tree. We pointed and grunted and he performed his joyful duty for us.

However unlike during my first American visit, when presented with an empty paper cup, I found a drinks machine and filled it up with root-beer. My drinks debacle happened on my first visit to Hill Country Texas. I was straight off the plane from nine months in New South Wales(105), which incidentally, minus a kangaroo or two, looks quite similar to this part of Texas. After being picked up from the airport, I was driven to a week long Camp Counsellor training session. At the end of the week we were all taken into town for a meal and this was my first taste of American restaurant culture. My poor little head was swimming and sinking well before we got to the restaurant, I was totally fixated on the car number-plates and the heat. Whilst I was dreaming, everyone else was focused on eating. Of course, they all walked in, ordered and were seated in about thirty seconds flat, whereas me, well I was last in the door, it took me forever to order, and then came my ‘moment’.

Yes, my moment. I ordered a 7UP. Upon hearing my request, the freakishly friendly perfect example of the American service industry presented me with an empty cup. I looked at this cup, picked it up and dreamily handed it back to her and said ‘Oh I am sorry, I asked for a 7UP, this is empty’. To which Little-Miss-Smiley-Freaky-Shoes replied, ‘Yes that is right Sir’ and handed me back the empty cup. Confused and tiring of this game really quickly, I picked up the empty cup and placed it on the counter in front of her and said, ‘Oh I am sorry, you don’t seem to understand, but I would like to drink a 7UP, this cup is empty’. She replied ‘I understand Sir’ and gave me back the cup. The only thing that my head was computing was this lassy’s irritating smile, the rest of it was like a popcorn machine on steroids. But then as if it was the beautiful sound of God himself, a voice perpetrated the clatter of combusting popcorn and rescued me from this fresh soda-pop hell I had stumbled across. Amongst the clamour I clearly heard the angelic words of ‘chirp chirp’. Somewhere on the periphery of my hearing was the blessed conversation of an Australian budgie. At last something that was familiar to me in this situation. I said to the still smiling bundle of perkiness, ‘Excuse me, I will be back’. And at that I fair dinkum ran to the pet shop that was a couple of doors down the strip mall(106). I went straight to the budgies and chatted away to them until my emotional instability faded enough to notice the concerned stares of the shop assistant. With my newfound sense of peace, I returned to the restaurant and asked the Little-Miss-Perky exactly how to get 7UP into my cup. Without batting an eyelid, she pointed to the drinks machine with a really cool turbo-ice-cube-chucker around the corner. And thus I learned about American drinks machines and having to fill up that cup myself.

The stuff on our plates looked more like Mexican vomit than Mexican food, but all the same it was quite palatable and filled a rather deep hole.

From here, Betsie, us and our bellies full of Taco Bell clamoured our way though Flint and on towards the Canadian border.

Next week read about how cute Canada really is and how road signs really should be written.

For past chapters click here. Or look on the side panel.

You may have noticed some bracketed numbers in this chapter. These numbers correspond with explanations and definitions that are in an accompanying glossary. To read the glossary you will need to by the yet to be released book. Sorry!

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