I was driving back from a quick trip out of town the other day, and -- on an impulse -- grabbed lunch at a hot dog stand by the side of the highway. I've driven by the place plenty of times (I used to live nearby) but hot dogs aren't one of my staple foods, so I'd never stopped before. But curiosity finally got the better of me.
"Jimmy John's," the sign read. "Home of piping hot sandwiches and the world's best hot dogs." Under the sign was a low brick building with an addition hanging awkwardly on one side. The place looked like it had been around forever -- or at least since 1940, according to the sign.
I went in and bought a dog and a coke and sat down to eat. It was pretty good -- maybe not the world's best, but a lot better than what you get from Oscar Meyer. And piping hot, too.
As I sat there eating, I gradually realized I was surrounded by someone else's life -- Jimmy John's life, to be precise. The walls of the place were covered with photos, newspaper clippings, posters, old calendars and plaques from various civic groups, all documenting the life and times of a hot dog stand owner in a little corner of formerly rural, now suburban, Pennsylvania.
There was a picture of a Jimmy John in an apron and bow tie, standing in front of his original stand -- a tiny box with a counter and an awning and nothing much else -- on opening day. There were pictures of the somewhat larger enclosed lunch counter he built after he returned from the war. And pictures of the existing brick building, which went up in the '60s. There were pictures of what looked to be every single pimply teenager who'd ever worked behind his counter -- and half his customers, too. There was a framed double-page spread from the local newspaper, commemorating the 35th anniversary celebration in 1975. ("Fight inflation, eat at Jimmy John's.") And there were pictures of his retirement party, his 85th birthday party and, finally, a clip of his obituary, dated 2002.
Interspersed with Jimmy John's memorabilia were other local scenes: A crowd watching a horse race at the Montgomery County fair, 1948. Putting the final girders in place on the Commodore Barry bridge, 1963. A newspaper story, with photo, about a two-story outhouse in a nearby hamlet, 1982.
I was looking, in other words, at a thick slice of Americana, dating roughly from the New Deal to 9/11. And looking at the tables around me, I saw a fairly representative slice of middle America -- a little thick around the waist and with absolutely no fashion sense whatsoever, ignorant of the world outside their borders and of much of what lies within them, obsessed with shiny material objects, gullilble in the extreme. But also friendly (sometimes to a fault), loyal, unpretentious, usually honest and often kind. The common man -- the same one who's been coming to Jimmy Johns for the past 65 years.
While I was sitting there a regular came in -- a real old timer, bent almost perpendicular to the floor. One of the girls behind the counter came out and helped him to a table and brought him his dog, and then sat and chatted with him for a moment, making sure he was doing OK. And for a moment -- just a moment --it felt good to be an American, surrounded by Americans.
And I thought to myself: "Well, I guess this is still a pretty great country after all."
But I was also painfully aware that the reasons why I felt that way had a lot more to do with America's past than its present -- much less its future.
I'm not a big fan of patriotism, at least not as most Americans understand the word. Patriotism is just another word for nationalism, and nationalism in my book is the modern equivalent of the black plague -- an incubator of xenophobia at its least, a killer of millions at its absolute worst. And we've seen enough of the absolute worst over the past century to understand where nationalism could ultimately lead: the extinction of the entire human race.
Good post. Go read the rest.
Jimmy John's joint sounds like a wonderful place, just like Powell's Electric, my grandparent's TV/radio/appliance store in the small town where I spent my early years. It was truly a place where everybody knows your name.
As a corollary, I try and support Mom & Pop businesses of all kinds. I will pay a few bucks more to avoid the megachains, unless some purchasing requirement forces me to. And then I'll seriously question whether or not I need the product.
Sadly, we just had to close a store like that, here in LA. After losing around $150K over the last 3 years, we gave up. Too many patrons in Mercedes SUVs saying "That lamp is $150? Too much! I'll give you $80 cash. No tax!" And then, of course, Eyewitness News has its "Shoppers Alerts" where it tells TV viewers to never pay retail, and alerts them to stores that are going out of business so they can reap the rewards of other's sad fortune and get the bargain. You should have heard some of the callous and greedy folks just crowing during our going out of business sale. "Ooohh, what bargains! Aren't I lucky" No, actually, you're an asshole.
With Wal-Mart lowering its prices so much it puts its suppliers out of business, TV spreading the cheap cheap gospel, and people of means demanding better prices, it's too much for Mom & Pop retail. Stores are closing in the San Fernando Valley at record levels. Jobs, livelihoods, and homes are being lost.
Freedom is on the march.
Oh yeah, remember when I posted my rant about the music business? Same deal. Another recording studio gave up this month. More later.
Update: Blogger works better in OSX with Firefox, however, it still wouldn't let me choose fonts. Weird.