An American Roadside Café

/ by John Stubbs

This is the third installment of a three-part series by British biographer, John Stubbs, on his 2017 sojourn in California.


We spent a few months this year living in the United States, and took some time during our stay to see a bit of the country. I learned it was a land of anomalies, a place where you could rarely make a safe prediction. An hour we spent one afternoon in a roadside café will possibly give a sense of what I mean.

The diner lay fifty miles or so inside a state boundary. It would mean little to name either the state or the four-house town. A snow-topped mountain, sacred to an Indian nation, was the nearest landmark, some hundred miles away, with a sky of blue-grey cloud behind. It was lunchtime, one day in April this year, and we had been driving since the early morning. The building had cracked window panes, peeling shingles and a roof of corrugated iron. Reviews on Google gave the cafe 4.5 stars out of five.

Inside, despite appearances, was a well-run and welcoming eatery, where they could make up a bed for the night if you needed it. Memorabilia of country life filled the place – obsolete kitchen ranges, tin tableware and long-preserved crockery, hunting trophies and early photographs. There was a well-stocked cabinet of books for adults and children, and the genial, plain-spoken landlady immediately furnished our seven-year-old boy with paper and coloring pencils. “What’ll it be, squirt?” she asked him: The prospect of warm cookies and hunks of salt-sweet cinnamon loaf proved acceptable. My wife and I were given what our hostess called “fancy coffees,” bitter as sin with a porous dollop of steamed milk on top. The lady pulled a stool up to our table and began to tell us about her life.

“I came down here in the 60s, to help save the Indians, but when I arrived, the Indians were fine. So I ended up settling with Gus, and opening this place. We live on a ranch down the road you just drove up.” She was an east-coast college graduate, and when we told her that we were from Slovenia she knew, uniquely among all those we encountered in the States, that it had once been part of Yugoslavia.

Two more tourists entered the bar; smart professionals, a married couple in late middle age – both in jeans and ironed shirts. They asked for lemonades, and each received a pint. They sat with open guidebooks.

In the meantime, a large pick-up with flaking paint had pulled up, and a thin bearded man in his late sixties, wearing camouflaged trousers and a roughly matching t-shirt, pushed the door open. He had the dazed air of anyone who steps indoors from the baffling unlimited extension of American plains. Despite his difficulty adjusting to the shadow, he did not remove his sunglasses, a large wrap-around pair which concealed the upper half of his face. “What can we do for you?” the landlady asked, with cheerful forthrightness. “Some lunch, May’m, some lunch would be good,” he answered, looking about him. His forearms were little more than bone; his off-white training shoes combined strangely with his military fatigues.

We tuned out of the public discussion. Our son, as always, had questions. We had pleasant observations to make about the décor and the hospitality, in case we were overheard; and since it had just been my two-hour turn at the wheel, I had some silent gazing into coffee-foam to get on with. With a quarter of my attention, I gathered that the smart professional lady was delighted with the lemonade, but had hoped it might have been served “to go.” A remedy was found. The wife and I discussed logistical considerations, forgetting the company. But when we next became aware of our surroundings, some minutes later, we were startled to realize that bitter words were being spoken. The man in camo-trousers was unhappy with the menu.

“You don’t serve French fries?” he hissed.

“We’ve never served them,” said the hostess.

“What kind of place doesn’t serve French fries?”

Certainly he was unlucky, in the United States, on stopping off at the first restaurant in seventy miles, and finding that fries were not served there. But he was insensate. Everyone in the diner froze. He offered further verbal violence, and then decided to leave. As he stepped out, he cried, “I wouldn’t give your food to my dog!” The swollen door was too stiff to slam.

“Unfortunate animal!” The landlady called out after him. Then, “Funny feller,” she said, calmly.

The refined couple were staring through the flawed windows. “He’s still out there,” said the man. “Walking up and down in the car-park; shouting, it looks like.”

The landlady was utterly unfazed. “Funny feller,” she said again.

For my part, as I studiously mopped up crumbs of cinnamon loaf and exchanged quiet glances with wife and son, I was rather worried. I couldn’t help reflect on how we were a long way away from anyone who might help us deal with a violent character – from anyone, indeed, who might discover our bodies after the thin, martial man had taken an assault rifle from the back of his truck. Every roadside shop on our route had a plentiful stock of firearms for sale. I assumed they found buyers.

I admired our hostess, with her liberal arts degree of long ago and her permanent air of pure indomitability. I wondered how often she dealt with such trouble – and yet still stuck to her house policy of not serving French fries.

Another man had come in, and my wife looked at me as I breathed out audibly. The newcomer was also sixty or so, stocky, white-bearded, red-nosed, brawny-armed and tough-fingered. He looked about him in the obligatory daze of one returning from the great open spaces. He held his sunglasses as if expecting someone to take them away.

The hostess swiveled her head like a gun turret. “What can we do for you?”

He looked about in endearing bemusement, stroked his jaw and pushed back the peak of his straw trilby hat. “I’m not sure,” he wheezed. He took a seat at the bar. “A beer,” he said, but then changed his mind, resisting the impulse: “No, no, I shan’t.” He noticed the lemonade glasses. “What was this?”

He took a lemonade. Our hostess was soon speaking to the city couple, who were beginning, like me, to unwind again. “I came down here in the 60s,” she told them, “to help save the Indians…”

I strained my neck to look, and saw that the thin man’s pick-up had left the parking lot. The road in view stretched endlessly, towards the mountain and the snow; our hostess kept talking.

America, I thought later, leaning back on the passenger seat: A country of drift, of exceptions, of improvisations, where you never knew what you would find behind the next door at the roadside.

John Stubbs

was born in 1977 and studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge where he completed a doctorate in 2005. Donne: The Reformed Soul was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Reprobates was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.