Truckstop Christmas Carol Karaoke
December 17, 2001
Outside of Gary, Indiana I found a little slice of Christmas Americana.
All I was shooting for was breakfast.
Ive 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 Ive
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 hadnt 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 youre
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.
I didnt 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 nights sleep.
Thats how I found myself at 10am on a Monday morning at some
non-descript, national chain, truckstop outside of Gary, IN.
Heres a travel tip
if you go to an independently owned,
rural diner always sit at the counter. Thats where the action
and the conversation take place. Thats 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 servers 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 servers
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. Im not talking
about the mini-fast food places recently taking up residence in
shiny new megaliths known as TravelStops. Im 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 aint got a drivers lounge and
showers, it aint a truck stop.
Hunger gnawing at me, and realizing that now that Im 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. Dont
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 Dennys without the convenient
fall back of fried mozzarella.
I cruise the parking lots looking for both the highest volume of
truck traffic and semis 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 Bennigans. The other is run-down with a sagging roof,
1970s style plastic awnings in a hideous faded turquoise and,
by the back door, two immense women of an undetermined age decked
out in aprons and chefs hats, jovially smoking. They
wave as I troll by. I pull around the front. Its 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
over. No, hi, Im Adrian and Ill 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 Im 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 youd 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 dont even get me started on the gravy
but if you
see something you like up there, Ill 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
Id 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 lets get this one moving.
I hear laughter coming from the booth next to me. I look over and
see a black man in his 40s, missing his top two front teeth,
wearing a dingy blue work shirt hanging his arm over the back of
the booth. Hes got the friendliest face I have ever seen.
Hes looking at me and laughing so hard hes choking on
This is Rufus.
I caint believe it! No, no, no, no, no. I
caint believe it! Help me, Lawd. Help me! I cannot believe
what I just seen. No, no, no, no, no. I caint believe what
I have just witnessed. It cannot be true! No, good Lawd, it cannot
Its 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 its clear that hes laughing at me,
it is infectious. Im 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. Were
all having a great time. I know the young woman at my table, Verna,
has no idea what were laughing about. I have no idea what
were laughing about, other than its me, but were
all laughing so hard were 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 dont pay no attention to nothin Rufus say. I dont
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 cant fall for that line of Adrians.
She know you get the buffet you aint givin her a tip
worth nothin. She know that. I been watchin her play
this game for two years now. Caint believe anybody ever fell
for it. Aint seen no one buy it in a year
what you call persistent. She dont 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
aint never seen no worm swimmin
that fish, he jumps right at that
worm every time. Aint 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
look pretty good even though you got a big ol hook in yo
And hes 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 Moms) 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 didnt
know anyone here. Now its as if Im at a Christmas party
with people I know but maybe dont see all that often.
We talk about Christmas, Amys children (they want some video
game but she cant afford the player let alone the game itself),
Rufus children (his oldest is lobbying hard for a car
Boys shoots for the sky), Vernas mother
(a mean old lady), and Adrians 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 theyve 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 Im 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.
Its 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
Rufus to go
ask the Carl, the manager, if we could have a karaoke session. Rufus
concluded that such a task was clearly white mans 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 Id 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 didnt have any Christmas Carols on it. I called
him on it, nicely. He backed down saying he didnt really know
if there were any on the machine or not, that he wasnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 theres still some
anonymity, will do things they wouldnt normally do. Rufus
started a couple of tables chanting Carl. Carl. Carl.
Others joined in. Soon, about 3/4ths of the place was chanting Carls
name and clapping. I promise you nothing like this has ever happened
in his young, gray life. He relented. He got a standing ovation.
Ill 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 machines 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 Springsteens 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 hed 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
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.
Amys 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 its 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.