Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Local Color Local Colorless

The outskirts of Topeka are encrusted with mile upon dizzying mile of generic, geography transcending, could-be-anywhere mall commerce.

Walmart, Walgreen, Denny's, Chili's, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Outback -- the list is familiar, endless, and could be compiled in just about any American city.

Among the familiar, bland, corporate faces are smaller, local businesses -- maybe not beautiful in any conventional sense, but at least interesting. Well, I found "raw catfish nuggets" colorful, anyway.

If we'd had a hankering for corn dogs and satin freezes we could have stopped in at Bobo's Drive In, just as DK did with his family over 40 years ago. And if we'd wanted steak, we'd come to the right place. We counted four or five steak houses at a single intersection, including a "steak buffet." Steak was everywhere. Bobo's would probably have whipped us up a steak flavored satin freeze if we'd asked.

I contemplated doing a whole photo essay on the faux mansard roof, an architectural detail -- that's spelled a-b-o-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n -- that enjoys a robust popularity in Topeka. But, to be fair, I've had the same thought here in Waltham. More than our share of roofs sport this depressing little add-on -- an attempt at elegance that falls so far of its mark that it seems the epitome of architectural pathos. I can't pin the faux-mansard on Topeka.

The Kansas City Airport Econolodge was the acme of our trip through the nadirs of midwest commerce. From the pasty, sullen young woman in the lobby's plexiglass booth, to the plate of stale doughnuts that had probably been sitting on the lobby countertop since the "Continental Breakfast" 12 hours before (and that was still there the next morning) to the aspirin-comb-and-condom vending machine in the stairwell that led down -- yes, down -- to our room --

it was a strangely grayscale, practically film noir experience.

And what were those giggles we heard through the wall ? The giggles in one male and two female voices. The strangely non-erotic giggles that seemed to go on for hours and hours. The giggles that never rose to frank laughter and that seemed uncoupled to any television sounds. The giggles that seemed more akin to snickering than to merriment.

The giggles that were still there whenever the jet-engine-loud air conditioner cycled off. The giggles that followed me into a nightmare of being tailgated so closely by a redhead in a convertible that I could feel the pressure of it -- improbably and terrifyingly -- on the small of my back. The giggles that were still there when I woke, screaming, half impaled on an econobedspring.

Are we home yet ? I muttered to DK.

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