Sunday, September 25, 2011

Uncle Day Weekend - Part 4

In Part 3, we finally made it to Flagstaff after a full day of high country entertainment, including but not limited to, a dangerous lake, phantom meteors and motorcycles, and porta-potties.  Part 4 picks up after our arrival at the motel late Sunday afternoon. 

After a brief rest, we left our room in Flagstaff and got back in the car in search of a restaurant for dinner.  Our motel was to the east of downtown, part of a row of motels that parallels Interstate 40. We had no idea what we wanted to eat, so we figured we would drive through the heart of town looking for something suitable.  Crossing the railroad tracks, we turned left onto Flagstaff’s main drag, Santa Fe Ave, also known as the I-40 Business Loop, or more romantically, Route 66.  We called out the names of restaurants familiar and unknown as we passed them by, hoping something would spontaneously emerge, like a star in the east, that we all could agree on.  We reached the big curve that bent our line of travel from west to south, and the road changed names from Santa Fe to Milton Ave.  A mile or so ahead, the dreaded I-17 now loomed before us, and still no dining revelation had occurred.  Flagstaff is not a city we know particularly well, but this indecision over where to eat was definitely familiar territory.  I reproached myself silently for not anticipating this problem, for allowing myself to be lulled into complacency.  When it comes to eating out, anytime you set off without a clear destination in mind, you must accept the high probability of serious complications.   Now we found ourselves sliding towards the precipice of possible disaster.  “Well, what are you hungry for?” I finally had to ask.

“What are you hungry for?” It sounds like such an innocent question, doesn’t it?  However, in the history of civilization, “What are you hungry for?” may be one of the most trouble-inducing questions you can ask, right behind “Who said you could?” or “Why were you in the bathroom so long?”  It is a question that, for me personally, has led to some of the more frustrating, absurd, and counter-productive moments I can remember.  

When that question comes up, it’s usually because the person “in charge,” meaning the driver, is politely trying to build consensus among the parties involved so that the meal in question can be reasonably enjoyable, and you won’t have to listen to someone whine about every tiny blemish of the dining experience, and hear them complain about how “No one asked me where we wanted to eat.”  Even at its most innocuous though, it’s still a tricky question that must be handled with great skill and diplomacy.  A lack of firm leadership here can result in a relentless cycle of “I don’t know, what are you hungry for?” or the classic, and unconquerable, “It doesn’t matter to me, I’ll eat anything.”  Which may be true in theory, but when you actually mention a specific place, what you get in return is, “Not there; I have a shellfish allergy,” or “I just had lunch there last week,” or, “We better not.  I dated a waitress who still works there.  Things ended badly. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize anybody’s health.” This also opens the door for the guy who will take advantage of the opportunity to recommend the overpriced restaurant with crappy food and terrible service that no one else likes to go to but him, but who never gets the chance except for situations like these.  “Hey, I know,” he says, struck by feigned inspiration, “let’s go to Sal’s!  Everyone loves Italian food, right?”  No one wants to come right out and say “Sal’s sucks,” and since no one else seems to be as excited about eating at any particular place, you end up at Sal’s, eating the cold, cardboard pasta and regretting every minute of it.  This is the same guy, by the way, who almost invariably will have “forgotten his wallet in his other pants,” and will end up not only costing you a pleasurable meal, but his share of the tab as well.  All because you didn’t decide where to eat in advance.    

“What are you hungry for?”  Life-long friendships have been irreparably broken, entire families have fractured over this question.  There are two main reasons for this.  One is that hunger is a primal force of life.  It is important to understand that once a primal need has reached a certain level of intensity, rationality, like the deck chairs on the Titanic, is the first thing to go.  There is no reasoning with hungry people, and this makes even a relatively simple decision, like which way to turn to get out of the driveway, next to impossible.  People will kill if they’re hungry enough.  Remember that.  The other reason is that once you’ve gotten in the car, you’ve created the expectation that hunger will be relieved in a satisfying way, and soon.  If you have no idea where you’re going, and your forward momentum starts to bog down, as it almost certainly will, things can turn ugly in a hurry.  Mental capacities will be questioned, personality traits will be unflatteringly characterized, and issues of maternal birth origin will likely be broached.  And that’s if you’re lucky.  Many people don’t realize this, but the mutiny on The Bounty did not happen because Captain Bligh was an oppressive sadist.  What actually started the whole fuss was that, while they were sailing around one day, they couldn’t decide where to stop for lunch.  Bligh wanted Taco Bell, and the crew couldn’t make up their minds between Subway and Carl’s Jr.  One thing led to another, and before you know it, Fletcher Christian’s at the helm, steering the ship with one hand, and victoriously holding up a Western Bacon Cheeseburger in the other. 

There is a story, an urban legend probably, about one couple who went out to dinner on Valentine’s Day and never could decide what they were hungry for.  They disappeared that night, and were never seen again.  But, every year since, only on that lover’s holiday, people report seeing a white, two-door ’87 Ford Escort slowly gliding by each one of the local restaurants in town, the skeletal remains of a driver and passenger helplessly pushed up against the glass of the car windows.  Imagine that, trapped forever in a Ford Escort.  A fate worse than death, indeed.

Of course death, or even being set adrift on the Pacific with nothing more than a canteen and an order of onion rings, is a pretty bad outcome to suffer, but death is easy compared to the pure torment that can arise from not being able to figure out where to go for dinner.  At least with death, it happens, and then it’s over.  Anyone who’s driven around for an hour or more as restaurant after restaurant goes by, each one more unacceptable than the last, knows what I mean. Anyone who has had to endure the passing stages of hunger from merely famished to raving mad to gnawing on the steering wheel to gnawing on the metal inside the steering wheel knows the agony of which I speak.  The problem is contained in the question itself.  “What are you hungry for?” If you had been able to answer that question, none of this would have happened to begin with.  But because you didn’t know what you were hungry for, you pinned your hopes for success on external stimuli, as though a colorful sign, or a funny name, like the “Bagelmeister Meisterbagel,” or the shape of the building, or whatever, could tell you what you couldn’t tell yourself.  The answer to this question, like the answer to all deep questions of eternal truth, can only come from within. 

I’ll grant that sometimes dumb luck intercedes, and many times you realize that you just aren’t too terribly committed to figuring out what you are really hungry for.  In such cases, no real damage is done; you find a place to eat, and your impending face-plant from two thousand feet into the concrete sidewalk of life is averted.  But woe betide those unlucky enough to find themselves floundering beyond the point of no return, where it’s no longer about getting dinner, but about answering that infernal question.  The longer you go, the more important it becomes to get the answer, and get it right.  After all, you don’t want to drive around for ninety minutes, claim to have found just the place, and then, over the crème broulee, utter the words: “You know what? That really didn’t hit the spot at all.” Imagine the future ramifications of such a thing.  As a result, the pressure to find the right place that will truly satisfy that exact formulation of hunger increases with every restaurant you pass.  Minds stiffen, hearts harden, and the human will, so beautiful when its determination to overcome all challenges is witnessed in other aspects of life, yet somehow so ugly when seen in this context, becomes the implacable foe of compromise. 

Where does all this end, you ask?  Well, in the best of cases, the end is reached with mental and emotional exhaustion, and a capitulation to reality that brings the straggling survivors to the McDonald’s drive-thru window, or, for those who just can’t be in the car another second, Denny’s.  Believe it or not, those are the fortunate few.  In some cases, the misadventure comes to an end only when all parties have eaten their fill of the car, gradually lose interest, and eventually disperse into the night, coughing up bits of foam rubber.  Then there are the hard-core cases, the ones for whom the quest doesn’t really end with any kind of final resolution, but instead with a mere cessation of hostilities, kind of like Korea.  These truly damned are the ones who arrive back at their doorsteps many hours later, dragging their weak, unsatiated bodies to the pantry, grasping at, and then clutching a can of Pringles to their chests before passing out on the floor. 

And now here we were, facing that same range of possible outcomes in our effort to get dinner.  After such a glorious, well-executed day, the thought of having it all undone through my sloppy lack of planning was eating at my brain.  Only a few more closely-spaced stoplights separated us from potential catastrophe.  I could feel the haze of hunger settling over my mind.  Summoning up as much of my faculties as remained, I quickly tried to formulate a rescue plan.  I searched both sides of the street for a solution, while my mind spun through the all the information in my head about eating in Flagstaff like an open reel.  Both sides clicked at almost the same moment.  Just as we drove by, on the NAU (Northern Arizona University) side of the road, was Busters.  Busters would be our restaurant of last resort.  We doubled back at the next opportunity, and turned in off the street. 

Admittedly, to call it a last resort is completely unfair to Busters; after all, it is a perfectly fine dining establishment, and I’ve had several fine meals there; and aside from being on the pricey side in my opinion, I have no complaints.  In this case, being a restaurant of last resort has everything to do with its location at the very end of Milton Avenue, just before the road melds seamlessly into freeway, and the city suddenly ends. 

Not that it was a perfect solution by any stretch.  With its clubby, dark wood paneling, and it’s rather large selection of alcoholic beverages prominently displayed at it’s oversized oak bar, it doesn’t exactly target the Happy Meal demographic.  Oddly enough, it doesn’t appear to be aimed at the college crowd either, at least not at the kind of college crowd that actually crowds, typically over cheap drinks and wet t-shirt contests.  This is unconfirmed, but I believe that Busters is the kind of place students take their visiting parents and family to, to keep them away from the places where they really do their drinking.  And Busters charges accordingly to provide this essential service.  There was no way we would get out of there for less than $60, including tip, which was about twice our budgeted amount.  But, under the circumstances, and with a full awareness of the alternatives, I had few qualms about rigging the budget with improvised explosives and putting my finger to the button.

But we never actually made it to Busters.  As it turned out, there was a restaurant standing out on the blacktop parking lot like an island, partially obstructing our view of Busters.  Ni Marco’s Pizza, the sign said.  The parking lot was packed; it looked as though the cars were a plague of locusts and Ni Marco’s the last remaining blade of grass.  Yet, although the parking around the building was full, no one seemed to be waiting around outside.  “Hey, how about we try this place, Ni Marco’s Pizza?” Elizabeth asked.
“Pizza must be alright; look at the parking lot,” I replied.
“The kids love pizza,” she added.
“The kids love pizza,” I echoed, the relief in my voice obvious.

We entered Ni Marco’s pizza, and were immediately immersed in a pool of humanity engaged in all the various stages of the fast-service restaurant milieu simultaneously:  waiting to order, ordering, waiting for food, waiting for a place to sit down, eating, getting up to refill drinks and get more napkins, preparing to leave, and leaving.  Based on the sheer mass of occupants, it was obvious the fire marshal was being fed at Ni Marco’s, which I took as a good sign.  If the fire marshal was willing to eat their pizza and overlook the obvious hazards that come from overcrowding, the pizza must be pretty good.  I picked Maria up and held her close, to prevent her from being swept away in the powerful current of people circulating through the few channels with enough space to move through. 

Elizabeth, as she is so good at doing, was immediately scanning for the next available table.  She tugged my shirt, gave me the “go-ahead-and-order-sign,” and taking Jessica by the hand, dove head-first into the roiling sea of bodies.  Elizabeth’s not the tallest of people, and neither am I, so I immediately lost sight of her.  I said a quick prayer for their safety, and then turned my attention back to the menu. 

I was just finishing paying for our order when Jessica somehow popped back up next to me.  “Hey, you made it!  Good for you!” I exclaimed.  I was genuinely happy to see her in one piece.  She smiled self-consciously. 
“Mom got us a table,” she shouted.
I stroked her head.  “That’s awesome! Hey, can you grab those cups?”
She took the cups, and I grabbed the receipt, my debit card, and her other hand.  Together, we plunged back into the madness, Jessica leading us in the general direction of our table as though I were blind. 

Fortunately, our table was right next to the counter, so the trip was a short one.  We got Maria settled into, then out of, then back into, a high-chair.  Jessica and I took the drink orders, and somehow were able to make it back intact with full cups.  We waited for the pizza without much talking, since we hadn’t thought to bring our family set of bullhorns with us.  I did hear Elizabeth say something about how she thought there was a soccer or baseball team eating here, based on the shirts or hats or something.  “Team?  I think the whole league is here.”
“What?” Elizabeth yelled.
“League! I think the whole league is here!” I yelled back.
“Yeah!” she shouted, nodding with sympathy. “I’m tired too!” 
Maria passed the time by taking out every last packet of sugar and sugar substitute from the little tray on the table, organizing them intently in ways that only made sense to her, and then putting them back and starting over.  Our pizza and an order of hot wings eventually came, but of course it was piping hot, so we had to wait some more. There were some few flat-screen TV’s on the walls, but the only one I could see was directly over my shoulder.  It was showing baseball highlights.  The Diamondbacks had played the Giants earlier that afternoon, and at that point they were involved in a heated back-and-forth battle for the division lead.  I kept missing the score because it hurt to crane my neck around like that; and besides, people kept thinking I was staring at them while they waited to order.  I recognized the haze of hunger-based irrationality in their eyes, and decided I didn’t need to know that badly.

Things settled down considerably when the sports team/league finally left.  We were well into devouring the pizza and wings by then, and any frantic feelings we may still have had were being deliciously massaged away by that divine combination of pepperoni, cheese and tomato sauce, and the tinny tang of the meaty hot wings. Was the food at Ni Marco’s that good?  Hard to judge objectively; but hey, we all left happy in spite of the pandemonium, so who’s to say?  I know the fact that we had avoided dinner calamity and only spent $33 in the process made me feel extremely grateful. So here’s to you, Ni Marco’s pizza of Flagstaff, Arizona.  You may never know how you saved the Uncle Day vacation of one little family from Phoenix, but we shall always remember.  Every time we visit, we will remark to each other about “that time we ate there,” how crazy it was, and how good the pizza tasted.

But we still had the evening before us.  With full bellies and a reinvigorated sense of well-being, we were ready to push our luck even further. 

To be continued . . .


  1. HOw true! Such a simpole questions. it is not time for New Year'sresolutions, but I will try to be better about offering a suggestion of what I would like to eat...maybe!

  2. I agree that this question of "What would you like to eat" is truly a walk in a mine field. Often, you are asking a person, or people, who have been overtaken by the "Hunger Monster" and when the "HM" arrives, you could wind up being eaten alive - in proverbial sense, of course!

  3. Hope - Good luck with that! If you hit on a winning strategy, please share!

  4. Hutton - Hunger Monsters abound. You must hang out with a more ethical class of Hunger Monsters than I do, because I know some who don't limit themselves to the proverbial sense.

  5. ahh. I see. that would explain your missing left arm! :) Next time, pack a snack or we may have to change your name to Stubby!

  6. There's no need to get personal! And I'm not the only one to suffer that fate. Remember Garp?