Truckstop Christmas Carol Karaoke
Gary, Indiana
December 17, 2001

Outside of Gary, Indiana I found a little slice of Christmas Americana. All I was shooting for was breakfast.

I’ve always enjoyed traveling during the holiday season. Something about the approach of the holidays gives us a common language through which we can share experiences, feelings, and thoughts that go beyond the surface prejudices and preconceptions we normally (and often unknowingly) carry. In that sense it is similar to what I’ve seen post-9/11. Our shared national tragedy is a deeper and broader version of the same Rosetta Stone.

The day before I had met up with old friends in Ann Arbor. After seven weeks on the road it was nice to have some semblance of connection, something that seemed all the more important after seeing the detritus of lives abruptly stolen at the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and a crater scarred field in Pennsylvania.

Before embarking on this journey I worried about what kind of weather I would encounter in November and December. Turns out I could have driven anywhere with impunity. Not only had I missed out on any crushing winter storms, with the exception of a light drizzle in parts of North Carolina and at the WTC I hadn’t even seen any precipitation to speak of.

Michigan screws up most good weather streaks. Park anything that far north and then surround it with really large lakes and you’re going to get nailed by something. By Sunday night the fog had rolled in and the rain went from a steady spray to torrential sheets. I was pushing through the night to get to Chicago.

Three jack-knifed trucks and huge highway crash sites later I began to question the need to get to Chicago. Then traffic stopped. Not slowed. Stopped. I parked on Interstate 94 somewhere just shy of the Michigan-Indiana border. Last time something like this happened to me was a year ago to the day, about 60 miles outside of Chicago. We were stacked up behind a massive, multi-car wreck on that one. It was snowing. We ended up having an impromptu Xmas bash on I-55.

No such luck in Michigan. Everyone stayed in their cars, quietly seething. Eventually a lane got cleared. I made my way slowly past the fourth jack-knifed truck of the evening. There were two cars wedged underneath the tipped over trailer. They were crushed. Ambulances and Fire Trucks clustered around highway patrol cars. Some dazed and bloodied people holding their heads.

Merry Christmas.

I didn’t feel like driving anymore.

The next exit up I saw a Comfort Inn sign. December is not a big travel time in this part of the country. There was only one other car in the parking lot. It was a quiet night’s sleep.

That’s how I found myself at 10am on a Monday morning at some non-descript, national chain, truckstop outside of Gary, IN.

Here’s a travel tip…if you go to an independently owned, rural diner always sit at the counter. That’s where the action and the conversation take place. That’s where the regulars hangout. If, however, you go to a truck stop that is part of a national chain, sit in the back near the server’s station. If there is any fun to be had, it will be back there. Some Truckers make regular stops at places where they know the staff. They get to know other drivers that pull through there. They hang out by the server’s station.

After going through this routine numerous times over the years I offer up the wholly unscientific observation that the wait staff at a truck stop restaurant will be female. I’m not talking about the mini-fast food places recently taking up residence in shiny new megaliths known as TravelStops. I’m talking about full service restaurants attached to a real live truck stop. The formula for determining if it is a truck stop vs. a TravelStop is elegantly simple. If it ain’t got a driver’s lounge and showers, it ain’t a truck stop.

Hunger gnawing at me, and realizing that now that I’m headed home, the opportunity to rationalize an artery-hardening, stomach clogging, heart killing truck stop breakfast is soon to end, I pull off on a quest for the perfect place to stuff myself full of lard and a lifetime supply of cholesterol. There are five establishments catering to truckers. I eliminate two of the five immediately. Don’t stop anywhere with a name along the lines of Country Kitchen, Country Kettle, or Authentic Country Cookin’. Nothing country going on in any of them. They are Denny’s without the convenient fall back of fried mozzarella.

I cruise the parking lots looking for both the highest volume of truck traffic and semi’s bearing Indiana and Michigan plates. Those plates likely belong to drivers working regionally, who know the area and the food. Two of the establishments pass the license plate test. One is sleek and new, clean, and has all the personality of a Bennigan’s. The other is run-down with a sagging roof, 1970’s style plastic awnings in a hideous faded turquoise and, by the back door, two immense women of an undetermined age decked out in apron’s and chef’s hats, jovially smoking. They wave as I troll by. I pull around the front. It’s called Moms. No apostrophe. Plural, not possessive. An adequate descriptor of the two women out back.

The winner by a mile.

I make my way through the restaurant and find a booth at the very back, dead across from the coffee service and the point-of-sale system monitors. A young, impossibly friendly, black woman…Adrian…pops over. No, “hi, I’m Adrian and I’ll be your server today” with a plastered on smile and forced friendliness. She is a whirlwind of laughter and smiles. I can barely keep up. I managed to fight through the saga of her trials and tribulations Christmas shopping over the weekend, her warning that if I’m traveling east the weather is “gonna get powerful bad”, a plea not to listen to a word spoken by someone named Rufus, and her critique of the coffee, which had been “settin’ in the pot a sight too long and tasted like somethin’ you’d put out to poison a gopher”, and ascertain that no matter what I do I should absolutely, positively, not order the breakfast buffet. The buffet this late in the morning would not meet my dining needs. “The biscuits is hard, the eggs cold and runny, the hashbrowns chewy, and don’t even get me started on the gravy…but if you see something you like up there, I’ll get ‘em to make you up an order fresh and just charge you for the buffet.

I mosey over to the buffet, take a look, come back, and tell Adrian I’d like scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, and biscuits and gravy. The regular price for this order is $5.25. The buffet price is $3.99.

Such a deal.

Adrian takes my order and launches back toward the kitchen like she was shot out of a cannon. I can hear her shouting, “Order up, got a hungry man out here, so let’s get this one moving.”

I hear laughter coming from the booth next to me. I look over and see a black man in his 40’s, missing his top two front teeth, wearing a dingy blue work shirt hanging his arm over the back of the booth. He’s got the friendliest face I have ever seen. He’s looking at me and laughing so hard he’s choking on his coffee.

This is Rufus.

“Boy…I cain’t believe it! No, no, no, no, no. I cain’t believe it! Help me, Lawd. Help me! I cannot believe what I just seen. No, no, no, no, no. I cain’t believe what I have just witnessed. It cannot be true! No, good Lawd, it cannot be true!”

It’s halfway between a sermon and a grade school football coach amused at the ineptness of one of his charges. He rocks back and forth, shaking his head, and clapping as laughter convulses him. Even though it’s clear that he’s laughing at me, it is infectious. I’m laughing. A big waitress named Amy who is taking her break sitting with Rufus, is laughing. Two young men sitting one booth beyond Rufus, all decked out in the latest urban rage, are rocking back and forth and guffawing uncontrollably. A young black woman who works the register at the truckstop plops down in my booth and lights up a smoke. She starts giggling. We’re all having a great time. I know the young woman at my table, Verna, has no idea what we’re laughing about. I have no idea what we’re laughing about, other than it’s me, but we’re all laughing so hard we’re starting to tear up. Adrian emerges into this group seizure, looks at the man missing the teeth, looks at the rest of us, wheels around on me and says, “I tol’ you don’t pay no attention to nothin’ Rufus say. I don’t even need to know what it was. This man is handicapped, now. He got a bad case of being truth challenged.”

This makes us all laugh even harder. While she stands there glaring at Rufus, he recovers the tiniest bit of his composure. “Boy”, he says to me “you can’t fall for that line of Adrian’s. She know you get the buffet you ain’t givin’ her a tip worth nothin’. She know that. I been watchin’ her play this game for two years now. Cain’t believe anybody ever fell for it. Ain’t seen no one buy it in a year…but Adrian what you call persistent. She don’t never give up tryin’ to sell that game. And you bit…boy, you bit like a fish seeing a big ol’ juicy worm just a-floatin’ at him. You know, that fish someday gonna ask ‘what the hell that worm doin’ floatin’ at me…ain’t never seen no worm swimmin’ before’…but no…that fish, he jumps right at that worm every time. Ain’t till he got a hook through his mouth he start thinking maybe it a little weird that worm was swimmin’ at him. You the fish, boy! You the fish! But I tell you…you look pretty good even though you got a big ol’ hook in yo’ face!”

And he’s convulsing and rocking again. As is everyone else. Except Adrian. She lights into Rufus with a good-natured venom. A big (which is redundant…there are no thin people eating or working at Mom’s) guy in a flannel shirt with a Peterbilt baseball cap and a poetic walrus moustache joins in. Adrian catapults out to the main part of the floor to take some orders. Finally the laughter dies down but now we are all old friends. Three minutes ago I didn’t know anyone here. Now it’s as if I’m at a Christmas party with people I know but maybe don’t see all that often.

We talk about Christmas, Amy’s children (they want some video game but she can’t afford the player let alone the game itself), Rufus’ children (his oldest is lobbying hard for a car… “Boy’s shoots for the sky”), Verna’s mother (a mean old lady), and Adrian’s aversion to working the dinner shift (Rufus: “Gettin’ Adrian to work dinner is like trying to get my baby boy to eat his vegetables…she talkin’ ‘bout NO and make that vegetable face just thinkin’ bout it…).

The guy with the moustache, Walrus for lack of a name, asks Amy if they still do Karaoke on Friday nights. She excitedly tells him that they now do it on Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday evenings. Amy is one of those fleshy, pallid, Midwestern women for whom the word matronly was invented. She has a warm, round face, a couple of chins, and real live rosy cheeks. Amy loves Karaoke. As does Verna. As does Adrian. Rufus comes whenever he can so he can watch Adrian break dance. He starts ribbing her when she bursts back over to our neck of the woods. Tells her she should do some break dancing to Christmas Carols. Amy chimes in that they’ve all been trying to talk her into just that. On Saturday, the 22nd they will be having the Christmas party for Moms, complete with karaoke. Rufus is once again overcome with laughter at the thought of Adrian busting some moves and singing “Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la”.

While they all laugh I’m still trying to process the notion of Truck Stop Karaoke.

Later, after it was all over, there would be a minor controversy regarding who started it. Some would say it had all been my idea. Others would say it was Rufus who first brought it up. For the record, Rufus suggested it, everyone else advocated it…I just sort of made it happen.

As Rufus went further into his flight of fancy about Christmas Carol Karaoke, the other folks got more and more enthusiastic about how fun it would be to actually do one. The Walrus thought it would be cool to do one impromptu, not as part of a Christmas party. Rufus ran with that, suggesting that a Monday morning 8 days short of Christmas was as good a time as any, a suggestion unanimously and simultaneously seconded by everyone. Amy and Verna attempted a mass buzz-kill by telling us that the manager would never go for it.

It’s a relatively simple task to wheel out the karaoke machine, hook it up, attach a mic, and roll. The breakfast rush was dying off and there was a little over an hour before a lunch crowd came in, so there would be a minimum of offense given should the event tick anyone off. The manager was painted as something of a militaristic ogre by Amy, Verna, and Adrian. They pointed him out. He was standing up near the front of the restaurant, in the wide doorway that leads to the convenience store.

He was gray. Everything about him was gray. Gray slacks, rumpled gray shirt, gray hair, gray skin…gray, gray, gray. From a distance he looked old. Upon closer inspection he was probably in his early thirties. Adrian suggested…no, challenged…Rufus to go ask the Carl, the manager, if we could have a karaoke session. Rufus concluded that such a task was clearly “white man’s work” and that I was the right guy for the job. I had earlier confessed to my shadowy past as a management consultant. One of the urban rage guys agreed, saying “send the man to go talk to the man”.

I had become the man.

No harm in trying.

I approached Carl and introduced myself to him. Then we took turns lying to each other. I told him I’d been through here before and attended a couple of the Karaoke Nights and told him that some of us customers thought it would be great for holiday spirits if we had a Christmas Carol Karaoke right then. He lied to me and told me that machine didn’t have any Christmas Carols on it. I called him on it, nicely. He backed down saying he didn’t really know if there were any on the machine or not, that he wasn’t that familiar with it. He then went on to tell me that he would surely like to and thought it sounded like great fun but didn’t think it would be appropriate to inflict that on all the patrons just because a handful of folks wanted it.

The thing is, when Carl said it sounded like fun, I believed him. The little gray guy certainly looked like he needed some kind of enjoyable diversion in his life. I went back to the back, grabbed Rufus, and we went from table to table throughout the restaurant lobbying people on the idea of a Christmas Carol Karaoke. No one objected. A couple of tables didn’t care one way or another, and most folks got into it. Like Carl, they thought it sounded like fun. I took this news back to Carl. He wavered a bit.

Most people, when they are teetering on the brink of something weird and fun happening, particularly when there’s still some anonymity, will do things they wouldn’t normally do. Rufus started a couple of tables chanting “Carl. Carl. Carl.” Others joined in. Soon, about 3/4ths of the place was chanting Carl’s name and clapping. I promise you nothing like this has ever happened in his young, gray life. He relented. He got a standing ovation.

I’ll tell you something else. The kid can sing. We eventually coaxed him up. He sang a no-frills version of O, Holy Night. After some initial nerves, he really leaned into it.

In typical fashion, the great karaoke uprising was something I had embarked on without thinking of the consequences of my actions. Once the machine was fired up and we were ready to roll, Rufus and the Walrus decided that, as their leader, I should go first. Walrus was earnest in this, as if it was a prize I had earned. Rufus was more like my big brother…always dreaming up and plotting some dumb ass thing to do and then getting me to go do it.

I did Blue Christmas. Elvis-style. The Walrus also did Blue Christmas, but a country version of it. The two young urban rage men, who were truck driving brothers from Louisiana and very nice, made the most creative use of the machine’s ability to change beats and arrangements and jumped into a hip-hop Silent Night. I can say without equivocation that you have not truly lived until you have witnessed a gangsta Silent Night. A Japanese man, traveling the States with his family, did an exuberant if incomprehensible and teeth grindingly flat Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another guy did Springsteen’s Merry Christmas, Baby. In response, one of the cooks came out, and in a fit of home state pride, did a Mellencamp-ish rendition of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Rufus brought the house down with a perfectly understated “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth”. Every time he sang the line he’d flash a wide smile that lacked the two front teeth.

Mostly it was awful, as karaoke is wont to be. Mostly it was fun.

Here we were, outside one of the most economically depressed, crime-riddled cities in the country, a mixture mostly of poor white and poor black (with a Japanese family and a wayward consultant tossed in for spice) having a goofy Christmas Carol Karaoke in a second rate truck stop. Making friends. Sharing some warmth. Loving each other just a little, for just a little while.

Our initial group was starting to break up and newcomers were arriving…people on a schedule, a little less open to the whole idea. Carl told us it was time to wrap up and we could only do one more. Verna elected Amy to do the honors of the last song. It was obvious throughout the festivities that Amy wanted to get up and do something. Despite her desire she was too shy. Verna and Adrian more or less dragged her to the little stage setup.

She picked the perfect song.

Throughout the hour or so we had been at it, people would wander in from the convenience store. Some joined in, most laughed or smiled and moved on. A trickle of folks paid their checks in the restaurant and came back to join in the Karaoke, mostly as enthusiastic audience members, a few jumped up and hacked through a tune.

Amy’s voice was only as strong as the microphone could make it, but it was pleasant and the tones of her soprano notes were crystal clear, and achingly sweet and sincere. She chose to sing “Celebrate Me Home”. Maybe it was her and her shy sweetness. Maybe it was the song, and it’s longing for home after having been away too long. Maybe it was that we knew this little moment had a taste of magic about it and we were sad that it was coming to an end. Probably it was some combination of the three. Verna and Adrian joined Amy as backup singers. Rufus and I hopped up to be her Pips, complete with cheesy dance steps.

I think everyone was singing. The two black urban rage kids and the Walrus in the middle, arms over each others shoulders, swaying and singing off-key. Poor black, poor white, singing our way into the holidays. Carving out a temporary feeling of home here in the middle of the great American highway.

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