Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Return to Lard Lake

I grew up in a place I’ll refer to as Lard Lake,* one of Chicago’s farthest-flung suburbs. When I was a kid I could hop on my bike and be out among cornfields and horse farms in about 10 minutes. And, of course, there was Lard Lake. You could swim in it, or if you didn’t want to risk a case of Swimmer’s Itch, you could sail on it or water-ski on it. It was pretty, too. By the time I was in high school, however, I was champing at the bit to get the hell out of Lard Lake and go live in a big city that had culture.

Last week I returned to Lard Lake to visit my dad. Knowing that there was no chance I’d get any exercise, I told my dad not to pick me up at the train station—I’d walk to his house. That gave me the chance to walk through the old downtown.

Lard Lake now has culture—of a sort.

Leonard Nimoy Is Coming to Town!

Nimoy Fest

I was also surprised to see that the shoe store (or “bootery” as its owners called it), where my parents bought my hideously ugly corrective shoes was still going strong. I remember the unctuous shoe salesman trying to tell me that the frumpy brown oxfords I was forced to wear were “hep.” I didn’t know what “hep” meant (not having been alive in the 1940s), but he couldn’t fool me. I mean, the shoes looked like something Frankenstein’s monster would have worn. The merchandise hasn’t changed a bit since I was a kid. How can a store like that possibly still be in business? But you know what? I was glad it was still there. Especially in light of the rest of my visit.

Before I pull out all the stops on my rant, let me just say that it was great to see my dad and my little brother. I just wish they didn’t live in Lard Lake. Apart from the downtown, which really isn’t terribly quaint or particularly well-preserved, the place could be any suburb of any city anywhere in the United States. Malls now surround the entire perimeter of the town like a giant, toxic Dunkin’ Donut. There’s Olive Garden, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Home Depot, Office Depot, Lowe’s, and Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks—all the mediocre places I try to never patronize. Behind the malls are identical crackerbox townhomes as far as the eye can see, where there had once been red barns and fields of soybeans.

My dad’s health doesn’t allow him to do much walking, so we drove from mall to mall in his big white Buick. It seemed like we were going out to eat a meal every two hours or so. One night we had dinner at an Outback Steak House. The place was packed at 5:30 on a Thursday (why?????), and we had to wait for 25 minutes. Imagine actually waiting for food from that place. But my dad loves Outback, and I didn't want to hurt his feelings so I just accepted his choice like the saintly daughter I am.

As I perused the menu trying to find something appealing, my dad declared that they had the best clam chowder in the world. So I ordered a bowl of that. The chowder was OK, but I’m sure, like everything at these corporate restaurant chains, it was larded up with a whole lot of extra butter and cream, or—more likely—butter-flavored oil and kreme. The worst part, however, was having to sit through the wait staff’s relentless upselling and their recitation of various scripted lines about the food. I felt sorry for the staff, actually. I’m sure they get read the riot act if they deviate from the script or fail to ask customers if they want to order a Bloomin’ Onion to go with their 4,000-calorie steak dinner. My liver and gall bladder are wincing just thinking about the greasy prospect of a Bloomin’ Onion.

By the end of my visit, I truly felt like I was being driven around in a foreign country. No comprendo that mall-o-centric culture. Lard Lake is just so different from the way it was when I was a kid (not that it was any great shakes back then) and from the place I live now.

I left Lard Lake after two days and returned to Chicago to visit my other siblings and friends. I have some issues with Chicago—issues that eventually drove me to move to Portland—but I felt nothing but relief and appreciation to be back in an actual city—a large city, with independent, locally owned restaurants like this one.

Big Buns & Pita

*I happened to Google "Lard Lake" just now and discovered that there's a real Lard Lake—right here in Oregon! What on Earth could people have been thinking when they named it that?


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