If you're in Illinois, you don't even have to leave the state to see Paris, Havana, or Cairo. Lying within its borders are many towns with foreign names, all of which hint at the deep American need for heritage. How else to explain a moorish castle on the Mississippi or an Egyptian deli in Cairo? These towns are exotic yet familiar, like the missionary position.
But do these Illinois towns stack up to their foreign namesakes? Are there similarities? Differences? If I stop and ask the locals, will I be branded as a gypsy and tarred and feathered? I'm a curious guy, so some friends and I went looking for the old country.
Bob wasn't our man. None of his answers even remotely matched the password we were looking for. After failing to contact with the French Resistance, we get some burgers.
On the wall, a fantastic sign for "Hamms On Tap" eludes our understanding. Some mechanism makes a flowing river scene roll continuously past. The water in the scene runs in twisting eddies and rushes down waterfalls. A gentle light from inside the sign gives the river a flawless serenity. Fidel Castro would light up a stogie with pride.
We resolve to chip in and buy it, figuring we can get it for $70 or so. It turns out the sign is a collector's item valued at a $1500. "Valued" means somebody will actually pay that much money for something that stupid, so we quickly give up.
Refreshed, we bounce out of Havana and head west. A rare glacial hill looms by us and inky black mastodon cows stand atop it watching our passage. I could swear one of the cows yells "Babalu, Lucy!" as we get in the car.
Rumor also has it that Metz buried his pet dog Bingo with a big cache of gold somewhere on the property. Numerous attempts to exhume Bingo prove fruitless.
At a road stop south of Villa Kathrine I get some Swedish Massage oil from the vending machine in the men's room.
An abandoned flea market sits in what was once the downstairs ballroom. A defunct arcade version of Tetris, a game designed in Russia, stands idle in the corner. The magnificent dance floor is covered up by doormat-sized acrylic rug remnants.
This is a hard place, not unlike the ancient Sparta. Comforts are few and hardships are many. Discussion with the owner of the mall reveals the change from an agricultural community to a service economy is not proceeding smoothly. When I ask her how she feels about this change, she shrugs her shoulders as says, "What can you do? Grin and bear it."
A vacant school building stands in squalor, windows broken, swing set empty, as we approach the courthouse. I'm loading film when Tim discovers that the courthouse is occupied. In the back window, a legless mannequin dressed as Honest Abe waits for the passerby to peer through the cobwebs. He stares petulantly at the window frame, concentrating on nothing. He has no riddles for us.
Coffee at the gas station on the way out of town is only 25 cents and we discover that Cairo, is pronounced like Karo syrup by the locals.
No fashion models, no berets, no dangerous liaisons, no mimes, and no one offers us a skinny cigarette. We head north again and at last the clouds break up. A pale moon swathes the prairie in a deep pallor.
In Danville we stop for gas at a combination Burger King/7-11. After explaining our trip to the woman working there, she will not stop recommending towns for us to visit. After repeating a number of times that the towns need to have foreign names, I feel like I'm asking for directions in English in a foreign country.
The reek of a pig farm (30,000 head) about a mile west of the station makes me want to vomit. No more traveling.
We drive back to Chicago as fast as we can, cursing the new world order.
M.J. Loheed slaves away at a job in his spare time.
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The Journal of Substance, Wit,and Dangerous Masturbatory Habits