“Should we try it?”
Bob and I were standing in front of a restaurant whose threshold we had never crossed, and I was having another one of my “stranger in a strange land” moments.
Changing communities brings a specific set of challenges. If you have lived in an area for many years, you take for granted that you know who has the best price on gas, who’s open late which nights, and where you can get pizza you would cheerfully kill for. You know the roads that resemble Mt. Ranier when it snows and the routes of the school buses that are impossible to pass. Those without “local knowledge” have to rely on an odd combination of referral, luck, and the time-honored kindness of strangers. As a resident of “the Valley,” a nebulous sort of location not found on a map, there are some hard and fast rules about traffic patterns and shopping habits that can really tank a tightly planned agenda if broken.
For instance, the concept of the three-way stop at a four-way intersection. The first week I was working in Sayre I nearly got creamed multiple times at corners where I would have bet the contents of my wallet that I had the right of way. I can still hear the conversation in my head: “Okay, I’m stopped. The person directly across from me is stopped. Here comes a car on my left. Naturally he is going to stop. So, forward I go and…scrreeech! honnnk! Hey! Why does he look so aggravated? He’s the one who blew through the intersection!” I left a wake of confused and angry drivers waving at me (not using all the fingers God gave them, by the way) as I drove off, equally perturbed. Finally I caught on to these tripod points. The first time I waved a hesitant newbie through a three-way trap I felt very wise, like I had untangled their Christmas lights for them. Life is a series of small triumphs, people, take them where you find them!
One of the things that impressed us on our preliminary visit to the region was the number of small, independent businesses. “Mom and Pop” are still major players in the Valley economy and we loved the idea of supporting more than just corporations. Those of us still getting forwarded mail, however, are uneducated on things like the holiday shopping schedules of all our neighbors. Our first December 31st, we thought that a couple of nice steaks would be the way to ring in the New Year. Moments later, I found myself in a tiny parking lot that was hosting a traffic jam. No one could move, but there was absolutely no stress or angst visible. In fact, people were chatting from car to car, mufflers filling the air with mist and windshield wipers slapping out happy tunes. Those who had managed to park were standing in the lanes exchanging holiday wishes with those inching past them. The meat counter was almost impenetrable, allowing me to develop an appreciation for the ballet-like movements of the staff as they doled out roasts, whole turkeys, and big smiles. Lesson learned. Now I go three days before the holiday and entered another hash mark in my book of local know-how.
When you are trying to find the eating spots that really click with you, it’s like opening an unlabeled can and dining on the contents. You have no way to know that, while the house dressing is good enough to take intravenously, the marinara could be classified as a hazardous material. Or never go there any later than 6 p.m. because the noise level from the bar forces you to yell at the waitress like she just hacked your 401k and bought an alpaca farm.
So, when a coworker recommended a great place for Italian food, we were grateful for the tip. Arriving at the address we found an ancient building, apparently dropped into the midst of an industrial campus by a sadistic tornado. There was an odor in the air that made me think that every junior high school boy in America had just opened his gym bag. We looked at each other.
“Sometimes these places have the best food,” Bob offered with forced cheerfulness while I searched for evidence of a recent health department visit. I called the person who gave us the address and she responded with the comfortable laugh of a local. “Trust me, and get in there!” Three years later, it is still a favorite place of ours with wonderful food and a warm atmosphere.
Our epitome of dining newness happened on a Friday evening when I spotted a place that bragged about their proficiency with chicken wings. I am a native of Buffalo, New York, place of origin for that hallowed substance that really should be its own food group. The restaurant had a lot of people inside, always a good sign, but as we stepped through the door, the entire room went silent. I don’t mean that a couple of folks glanced our way and continued eating. I mean everything stopped and all eyes set upon us like James Dean had just strolled into a girls’ prep school. I pulled up short and felt my husband collide with my back. For a moment, nothing happened. I had a frozen smile on my face and a growing sensation that “fight” should be told to shut up and “flight” should be handed the car keys.
Suddenly, the blonde-haired lady behind the bar sang out, “Okay, people! It’s just someone we don’t know. Go back to what you’re doing.” They did and we crept forward. She seated us with a gracious smile, brought our beverages, and then got down to business. “So, what brings you to the Valley?”
We told her that I had taken a job here and Bob was coming to join me in a couple of months. She brightened and turned to him. “Well, honey, don’t you worry about her. She’ll be fine. If she wants to come have a drink, a lady can sit at the bar by herself with no trouble.” My husband smiled his thanks and said, “Well, it’s good to know she won’t get hit on.” Our hostess frowned a bit and replied, “Oh, she’ll get hit on, but they will be real sweet about it!”
Off she went in search of menus, and Bob and I locked eyes in mutual wonder.
“Play our cards right and someday,” I said, “we’ll sail through the correct side of a three-way stop, remember not to order the marinara, and stare at people in the doorway.
“You want hot or nuclear?”