The alarm beeped at 4 AM. Unable to sleep and anxious about her flight, Pam was already awake and shuffled off to the shower. After she kissed sleepy kids goodbye, we stepped into the predawn light and walked to my car. Light from distant stars reflected across the expanse overhead, glowing reminders of far off places. Breakfast was a vague notion at this point, an internal journey from Point A, my sleep-deprived brain, and Point B, my stomach, to be delayed. Pam’s trip to the airport took precedence. We began our drive from south Kansas City to its far northern edge.
I drove through empty boulevards down Ward Parkway, around the Plaza, skimming past Westport and catching more delays at street lights than necessary. Maybe the universe was telling me to slow down and enjoy the chatter from Pam about past travels and flights. We were en route to pick up her travel pal, artist Anne Garney, but behind schedule.
Pam and Anne are flying to Washington, D.C. where they will see Gauguin: Maker of Myth, an exhibit of nearly 120 works by Paul Gauguin on display at the National Gallery of Art. Through Friday, they will see art, eat and drink at local restaurants, and take in a few monumental sights. Pam’s excited; I’m quietly jealous but thrilled that she will immerse herself in art – one of her many loves in life falling in priority below her children – for a few days.
I veered onto I-35 and zoomed past downtown Kansas City. Pam paid homage with a declaration of love for the city. The skyline and buildings were still dark and shadowy. 200 million announced the Powerball billboard, prompting a moment’s dream. Buy another lottery ticket, I noted. My red Ford Focus surfed along the exit to the Broadway Bridge and came to a stop at the light. I glanced at the concrete embankment on my left. Spray painted black letters stated: No trespassing.
We headed over the bridge and the glassy surface of the Missouri River, a mighty vein draining nearly one-sixth of the nation’s waters as it cuts through or along the borders of seven states by the time it reaches Kansas City, continues eastward across Missouri to St. Louis, and eventually pays tribute to the Mississippi River. Pam and I took our land-bound route north past the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport and the rail yard.
The fingers of my right hand traced the curve of Pam’s thigh. Her voice brought more comfort than morning news of protest, posturing, and conflict ranging from Arab Spring in the Middle East to the latest standoff between politicians over the budget deficit.
We wound through the Briarcliff development and parked in front of Anne’s condominium. Her lights were off. Pam called. Anne slept through her alarm. It’s 5:20 AM. Their flight leaves in just over an hour. After Pam placed a brief call, Anne emerged from the quiet interior of her building five minutes later. We exchanged hellos and laughter and then sped north on 169-Highway to I-29 past dormant strip malls, office buildings and car dealerships. Minutes later, the traveling duo walked briskly to the ticket counter with their carry-on luggage to check in and fly to the nation’s capitol.
Pam decided to not bring a camera. Earlier, she mentioned a restaurant that she’d like to visit where President Obama and Vice-President Biden often lunched. During the morning drive, she imagined the missed opportunity of seeing the nation’s leaders at lunch and not having a camera for a snapshot. “But I won’t see them,” she convinced herself. Probably not, Pam.
The passing notion of lunch was a subliminal clue to pay attention to breakfast, my stomach demanded. 6 AM. My guts had been patient and obliging. Where should I eat? I decided that I would forgo heading straight to work. The idea of sitting in front of a computer screen this early in the day soured like a jug of milk forgotten in a hot car trunk. I would enjoy a leisurely breakfast and still get into work before 8 AM.
My first candidate for breakfast was Happy Gillis, located just east of the City Market. I could grab a bite there and swing by Kim Long Asian Market to buy $2 bánh mì, inexpensive Vietnamese sandwiches, for lunch. I cruised through the sleepy neighborhood and stopped at the corner of Fifth and Gillis to find the cafe was closed. (Note: They open at 8 AM.) Not to be denied, I cut through downtown toward You Say Tomato but they didn’t open until 7 AM. I was tired, hungry and impatient on the verge of getting grouchy. No caffeine, no food, no waiting. I drove south, racking my brain for other options. Only later did I realize that I could have stopped at the City Diner at 301 Grand just on the outskirts of the City Market. Open at 6 AM, they could have calmed the inner beast. Instead, I headed to Room 39 (breakfast begins at 7 AM) and hoped they would be open unlike Mama Bell’s on 39th which didn’t survive a relocation and had been shut down for a few years. Not willing to wait for Room 39 to open, I slumped in my car seat, drove slowly down West 39th Street to Rainbow Boulevard and headed downhill to Southwest Boulevard.
If memory served me in my state of dizzying hunger, then I thought I might find something along the boulevard better known for Mexican food on the Westside. In the back of my mind, I resigned myself to merging onto I-35 and heading to work without sustenance. Lo and behold, Dagwood’s Cafe caught my eye just before the entrance ramp to the highway. (I’m not posting the address. Either look it up on the Google or drive until you find it which is half the battle, or adventure depending on how you look at it.).
I slid into a booth. The server said hello and asked if I wanted coffee. She had feathered blonde hair like the girls in grade school that sported the popular style four decades ago. I skimmed the menu and settled on the namesake breakfast dish – the Dagwood sandwich. Priced at $4.85, the sandwich was stacked with a fried egg, hashbrowns and meat of choice (bacon, sausage or ham) on Texas toast. Hearty, cheap, slightly greasy breakfast food. Finally, something to abate my hunger. I took a long pull from a glass of water, then a glass of orange juice, and relaxed in the comforting knowledge that food would appear before me soon.
A cluster of men sat a few booths away from me. They were practically fixtures, the kind of men expected to populate cafes and diners at six in the morning. Fleshy men with muscle stashed beneath mottled, sun-darkened skin and rounded layers of fat. Some hairy, some gruff, some flashing hardened eyes. They spoke in low tones with a cadence familiar and plain, far different from the peppy news chatter streaming out of the idiot box. Two guys wore caps, one wore a T-shirt; none of their apparel displayed ironic brand names, altered corporate logos or catchy phrases. I think the unspoken code at Dagwood’s didn’t allow irony to enter through the door.
They came from the same generation as my father, an airplane mechanic and safety inspector retired from Trans World Airlines after the company folded into American Airlines. It was a safe bet that at least a few of these diners had fought in a war. I wondered what work they had done or still did. One fella wore a flashy gold nugget on finger, the kind of ring that a character named Frankie Knuckles would flaunt in a mobster movie. Other men wore simple gold wedding bands. Where were their wives? Dead? At home slumbering in bed while the old guys met to talk about machines and politics?
I realized that I had made enough assumptions about them to fill a to-go bag. I found myself thinking about the job I had and began to justify how I earned money. I typed letters and numbers on a keyboard and shoved pixels into designs and images that would convey information on websites and printed brochures. For five years, I published an online magazine about people, places and events. That business reached tens of thousands of people, connected them, and shared news and information in a far more efficient, multimedia fashion than what these guys bantered about over coffee at a cafe table. For good measure, I pulled an old card tucked deep in my career file. Years ago, I earned a living with my hands as a kid out of high school, hauling catering food and equipment from rickety trucks onto sleek jet airliners, sucking in jet fuel and sweating through a uniform on the tarmac. I would have been one of the guys that loaded breakfast and drinks onto the jet that Pam and Anne boarded this morning, that is, if the airlines still served food. In the mid-Eighties, I made enough money each summer working for an airline catering company to pay for one year of college myself. I was determined not to work like that again, to have more career opportunities than my parents, to use aptitudes quite unlike the mechanical proficiency that my Dad possessed.
I glanced again at this assortment of retired men and working stiffs at Dagwood’s. I peered out the window and watched a trucker secure a shipment of metal at REW Materials. I thought about the nearby auto body shops and electrical supply business. A maroon semi truck cab was parked in the back lot. Blue collar men (and women) made things, fixed machines, loaded and hauled goods, ran shops and factories, and helped build the appliances that the rest of us ignore, take for granted or assume came from China. These people seemed quaint and outdated as the yesteryear Coca-Cola banner wrapped around the walls at Dagwood’s Cafe, or the Dagwood comic strip I used to read in the shrinking Sunday newspaper that I haven’t bought in years, but men and women of this older generation and today’s workforce keep the economy chugging even as rest of the world flits by in a flurry of Facebook updates and Twitter posts.
My Dagwood sandwich arrived hot and greasy. I pumped a few shots of hot sauce between layers of hash brown and eggs, re-aligned the toast and chomped down. The food was not fancy. The words “artisanal” or “locally grown” or “seasonal” or “sustainable” have never gained traction here. I knew that fresh farmer’s market goods have never appeared on the menu or would replace Wonder bread and Heinz ketchup. Some things change, others don’t. No matter. The food was satisfying and my hunger quashed.
I paid my bill and thanked the server. I headed to work where the buttons and passwords waited, wondering where I would be in forty years and what I would eat in the wee hours before the rest of the world stirs.
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