Arts, Entertainment, Living

Breakfast Special

Sunday, 10 October 2010 10:23 AM Written by

MERRILLAN, WISC. -- US 12/27, Merrillan Cafe

An oasis of humanity in a depopulated land of corn farms and Christmas tree nurseries, this small local eatery is getting busy at 7:30 a.m.

I had whizzed by earlier going north on US 12/27, aiming for US 10 and then Detroit Lakes, my next stop on the Steinbeck Highway. But after I discovered that all my pictures since Baraboo yesterday were lost, I had to turn back.DSC_0008

I have to go back to Mauston, 90 miles south, to retake some photos of the town where John Steinbeck stayed overnight exactly 50 years ago today.

I've learned the tragic way that you have to format a new memory card in your camera before you use it or all your photos can dematerialize, which 134 of mine did.

This cafe -- one of those local places they aren't supposed to make anymore but do -- is run by Kathleen Sullivan, who's had it since 1993.

Local farmers, hunters, ATV-ers, truckers and the rare itinerant journalist who stop in this town of 585 for breakfast are her customer base. The food is good, homey and cranked out by Kathleen in her tiny but efficient kitchen.

When I walked in six burly, bordering-on-too-heavy older farmers were relaxing in two booths drinking coffee. They were talking football, moaning about taxes, discussing land prices and kidding each other the way old friends can.2010-10-10_07.49.35

"If you paid your fair share of taxes, they wouldn't need to borrow money for a new school."

"You're a better negotiator than I am."

"You're all right. You know all the angles."

Someone they all knew -- obviously not a farmer -- walked in and sat down.

He had seriously white hair bunched at his shoulders. A white fu-manchu. Tattoos on both biceps and forearms. A floppy hat. And his black T-shirt -- cut to the armpits -- read "Born a genius. Slacker by choice."

You think he'd come in to discuss the latest news about Harley Davidson, but he wanted to talk Minnesota Badger football.

By the time I ate my perfect breakfast of two eggs over easy, sausage and American fries, four young studs came in, plus two duck hunters in camo and a middle-aged couple. 

When I left and started driving south to retrace my trail to Mauston, the cafe returned to normal.

Beverly the waitress was running from table to table taking orders, delivering plates and filling up coffee cups -- and praising Kathleen's work ethic at the same time.DSC_0010

 And Kathleen was still working the grill, whipping up picture-perfect breakfasts and no doubt happy she no longer had a stranger in her kitchen asking nosy questions and telling wild ghost stories about some guy named John Steinbeck.


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John Steinbeck's Hero Adlai

Saturday, 09 October 2010 02:56 PM Written by

 BARABOO, Wisc.  -- US 12 and 5th Ave.

Libertyville, Ill., sounds like it should be the HQ of America's libertarians, but it's not.

It's where Adlai Stevenson had his 70-acre farm and where John Steinbeck, his wife Elaine and poodle Charley stopped for a visit probably 50 years ago today, Oct. 9, 1960. Oct. 9 was a Sunday that year.

Steinbeck was headed north to Wisconsin, where I am writing this while sitting in the shade on someone's front wall in the amazing little town of Baraboo. DSC_0050_copy

A block behind me a street fair that would put the Three Rivers Arts festival to shame has been in full swing in Baraboo's thriving downtown since 9 a.m.

At least half of the county's populace is strolling along buying things like artistic rocks and quilts and brats cooked by guys who support a professional football team with the funny name "Packers."

I was at the Stevenson farm in the horsey part of Libertyville yesterday afternoon. Nicole Stocker of Lake County Forest Preserve (which owns the farm's current 40 acres) gave me a personal tour of the roomy farmhouse Stevenson lived in from the late 1930s until he died in 1965.

Click for a video tour of Stevenson's home.

Thanks to Nicole, I now know enough about the simple, practical but smartly designed Moderne/Prairie Style house to sell it if I were a Realtor and it was for sale -- big airy rooms with huge windows, a great Art Deco bathroom and a long back deck looking out at the lawn and blazing oak trees that stretch to the DesPlaines River.DSC_0117

Steinbeck and Stevenson were more than contemporaries and pen pals. They had several interests in common -- liberal/New Deal politics, agriculture, dogs and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.

Politically, Steinbeck was a Stevenson man, 110 percent. He desperately wanted him to be president, not Ike, in '52 and '56, and he helped Stevenson during the 1950s with his speeches.DSC_0093_copy

I've read some of the long letters Steinbeck sent to Stevenson during the run-up to the 1960 election at Princeton's collection of Stevenson papers. They are filled with advice, complaints, laments and highly partisan and semi-scurrilous comments.

Steinbeck hated Nixon and ridiculed Eisenhower for his poor syntax.

But he was leery of supporting Kennedy whole hog because he didn't trust what he termed "a bed-hopper" and because he would be hurt by the Catholic issue. He was still a Stevenson Man long after it was clear that Stevenson's days as the Democrats' standard bearer were over.

Nicole, who conducts tours at "The Farm," showed me around the house, which has been restored for tours since 2008 and is used for meetings but still needs work.

Most of its rooms need to be filled up with furniture, but Stevenson's study has his old desk, his books and his address book -- which happened to be opened to "S." Steinbeck's name and Sag Harbor phone number are there.DSC_0107

In 1960, Stevenson's place was still a working farm. He grew corn and soybeans and had a vegetable garden. He had horses, sheep and a pack of Dalmatians, all named after characters from King Arthur's Court.

He, like Steinbeck, lived frugally for a rich man, but there was a housekeeper and a caretaker on the premises. And one of his neighbors was Marshall Field, who owned a little department store in Chicago.

The way my crack staff of history detectives and I figure, Steinbeck and his wife stayed at the Ambassador East in downtown Chicago until Sunday morning, Oct. 9, 1960. Then they drove out to Libertyville to stay there Sunday night.

Stevenson's three sons were gone then and Nicole says the three Steinbecks probably stayed in the guest suite, where Eleanor Roosevelt slept when she popped by. Many historic figures of the era came to talk  politics with Stevenson in his ample living room -- from Robert Taft to JFK.

It's clear from Steinbeck's letters to his wife from the road that the next morning, Monday, Oct. 10, he was driving north on US 12 and his wife was jetting her way back to New York with plans to meet him again when he reached Seattle.

I would have corroborated that theory with Steinbeck's ghost, but Nicole and I did not see it at Gov. Stevenson's old farm. Just Steinbeck's name and phone number.

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Another Night, Another Walmart

Saturday, 09 October 2010 07:17 AM Written by

MADISON, WISC. -- Walmart parking lot

Made it here last night by 10:30. No other obvious sleepers at this Motel Walmart, but a few cars and a small bus kept me company.  This Walmart, store No. 2335 for those of you keeping score at home, is more humanely lighted -- fewer lights and lower wattage.

Thanks for listening Walmart!

Somehow I don't think they've responded yet to my plea to turn the lights down. I also took advantage of a teenage oak tree to block one klieg light. I was comfortable and warm. Woke at 5:15. It's 62 degrees now and another perfect midwestern day is dawning. Time to hit the road. My smart phone's "Places" app tells me there is a McDonald's .8 of a mile away.

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John Steinbeck Slept Here Too

Friday, 08 October 2010 08:54 PM Written by

 CHICAGO -- Ambassdor East Hotel

You can tell the Ambassador East Hotel is in a really good neighborhood because there's nowhere to park.DSC_0041_2

Actually, that's a lie and/or an exaggeration.

There are plenty of parking spaces on the curbs of Chicago's Gold Coast. But you have to be a constitutional lawyer from the U of Chicago to determine if you can park your car for five minutes without being towed to some foreign country.

 When John Steinbeck and his wife Elaine stayed at the glamorous Ambassador East Hotel in 1960, the hotel also had an annex across the street called the Ambassador West.

The two buildings were connected under the street by a "secret" tunnel, which was commonly used by the hotel's rich, powerful and famous guests to duck paparazzi and private detectives hired by their wives.

 President Obama, in town last night to hang with his Chicago boys, stayed at the Ambassador West, which can be seen below from the Ambassador East's famous Pump Room bar/restaurant.

DSC_0062Since he had enough security with him to take over a small dictatorship, the president didn't need the tunnel to fool the whorehounds of media or anyone else.

The tunnel is closed off these days, now that the Ambassador West is a condo, but in their day the likes of JFK and Michael Jackson used it to their advantage.

 I had cruised in to the Ambassador's gorgeous neighborhood of brownstones and apartments from South Bend with little trouble or traffic.

I came via I-90, the privatized-and-tolled Chicago Skyway and whatever other expressway the GPS Girl said I needed.DSC_0014_copy

 Gary, Ind., or what's left of it, is an amazing and dystopian sight -- a tall petrified forest of cranes, smokestacks and monstrous electricity towers that shows where the town that made the Jackson Five also once made steel in Pittsburghian proportions.

 There was some smoke coming from something in that gigantic industrial theme park to my right, so Gary must still have a little fire left in its industrial belly.  But it is nothing like the hell-with-the-lid-off that Steinbeck saw as he drove into Chicago before dawn 50 years ago.

 The Ambassador East was Steinbeck's kind of place. Like the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, where he would stay a few weeks later, the Ambassador is the kind of joint they don't make anymore.DSC_0029DSC_0052

 Glass, mirrors, chrome, heavy dark wood, marble floors, marble walls, marble steps -- it's got character carved into its old soul.

It's famous for its Pump Room, the dark and plush bar/restaurant whose walls are plastered 20-feet high with 8x10 black-and-white glossies of hundreds of celebrities and power people.

 The room was closed for lunch, but the hotel's general manager said the magic word and the iron gate was unlocked so I could poke around and pretend to be a real photographer.


For 20 minutes I searched for the face of Steinbeck, who was a regular guest. He may or may not have his mug posted there. But among the familiar faces I found beaming from the Pump Room's booths were Reagan, Nixon, Cary Grant, Jack Benny, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Gary Sinise and Bozo the Clown.

There was also a young guy with a wife and two kids who looked like he used to be from Pittsburgh -- Castle Shannon's own conservative bad-boy comic, Dennis Miller.DSC_0072

 My parking problem at the Ambassador East was solved the Chicago way -- with a bribe. Actually, it was a perfectly legitimate business transaction of the type that has made America the richest country in the history of earth.

 When I asked the Ambassador's doorman where I could park for an hour in the Gold Coast without going broke or to jail, he said, "Park where you are, I will take care of you." I can't spell out the sound of his accent, the way Steinbeck and other great writers can, but I'm sure it wasn't from Pittsburgh.

 Since I was parked at a curb spot the sign said was reserved for taxis, I quickly figured out the unspoken deal I had made with the street-smart doorman.

I gave him my keys and went inside the hotel while he did his doorman's job -- loading and unloading luggage, helping people open doors and pretty much doing the work of five men who were born in the USA.

 No specifics were discussed, but we both knew what would eventually go down. When I was done scouting the Ambassador, he handed me my keys and I put a piece of green paper with a 10 in each corner in his palm. We both said thank you and goodbye.

 No harm, no foul. A little bit of free-market capitalism -- black-market-style, maybe -- occurred spontaneously and voluntarily and silently on the busy streets of Chicago; two consenting adults considered themselves better off after their exchange.

 As I drove off for my personal tour of Adlai Stevenson's former house in the horse country of Libertyville, Ill., where the Steinbecks and Charley probably stayed the night of Oct. 9, 1960, I felt the economy tick up a tick.

Best of all, I said to my libertarian self, my little act of sidewalk capitalism involved no federal stimulus money.



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Going to Chicago

Friday, 08 October 2010 09:34 AM Written by

SOUTH BEND, IND. -- 2,648 Steinbeck Miles

 I'm inserting myself into the Chicago metro area today for two reasons -- exactly 50 years ago Steinbeck and his wife Elaine stayed downtown at the Ambassador East Hotel for about four days and they also visited overnight at Adlai Stevenson's house in nearby Libertyville, Ill.

I'll visit both places today to check them out for ghosts.

Downtown Chicago's Gold Coast is about 90 miles from here.

Off I go -- with a soundtrack provided by two of the favorite things my father passed along to me, Joe Williams and Count Basie.

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Steinbeck & the '60 Pirates

Friday, 08 October 2010 08:56 AM Written by

SOUTH BEND, IND. -- 50 Years Ago 

Steinbeck had only an AM radio in his pickup truck, but it was enough to keep him abreast of world events, the JFK-Nixon election and the Pirates-Yankees World Series.

On Oct. 8, 1960, the Pirates played Game 3 of the World Series, which was tied up at a game apiece.

The Pirates got thumped, 10-0, by the big bad powerful Yankees. After having been crushed 16-3 in Game 2, the sports world was busy writing Pittsburgh's obit.

Sports Illustrated wasn't helping much. It tried to jinx the Pirates by putting Vernon Law on its Oct. 10 cover.


Steinbeck was a serious baseball fan and listened to the Series as he drove. He seemed to be rooting for the Pirates, but I couldn't find anything definitive in his road letters. And I've found no reaction from him about the Series' amazing finish in the bottom of the ninth.

Every American was a baseball fan 50 years ago, when the NFL still wasn't even as popular as college football and hockey was as alien to Americans as soccer.

Not that there's anything wrong with soccer, but baseball was clearly the national pastime in 1960, not just the pastime of major market cities like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Cities like Pittsburgh still had a fair chance to get to the World Series -- and win.


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TV Q&A with Rob Owen
Submit questions for a future column.

This week's TV Q&A (after the "Read more" jump below) responds to questions “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Rescue Me” and a MIA KDKA-TV reporter. As always, thanks for reading, and keep the questions coming.
-Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV writer

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In Ohio's Sticks with Steinbeck

Friday, 08 October 2010 12:23 AM Written by

SOUTH BEND, IND. -- 90 miles from Chicago

 All is quiet now.

But Notre Dame is playing Pitt here on Saturday, so this town will be jumping by tomorrow afternoon. Haven't met any Pittsburghers yet, but it's only a matter of time.

The Jameson Inn, where got me a room for about $62 instead of the usual $90-plus, is a mile from ND's campus.  On Friday and Saturday night, because of the football weekend, this room will go for $299.

Getting here was a breeze. Traffic was light to nonexistent on I-90 after I escaped Cleveland.

When I dropped down to US 20, the route Steinbeck followed across the top of Ohio, I found a rural road that has not changed much in 50 years. US 20 runs through Indiana-flat farmland past stout old farmhouses, picturesque barns and little else until it cuts through towns like Bellevue, Clyde, Fremont and Perrysburg.


US 20 is their main street. Smaller towns have a water tower, a statue of a Union soldier in the town cemetery and maybe a Subway or a Dollar Store. 

Clyde has a Whirlpool plant. Bellevue has a newspaper.


In Maumee, a suburb of Toledo, I had my car's oil changed at a place on US 20 that we can be certain was not there when Steinbeck drove by -- the Rouen Toyota dealership. 

Once you are beyond Toledo, northwestern Ohio continues its perfect impression of rural Indiana. On US 20 there are no motels. No stores. Just farms and a few houses.


The only sign that humans lived on US 20 were the dust clouds farmers made as they shaved the dry yellow corn stalks down to the dirt.


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