Country charm. This is a term lovingly applied to just about everything homey in the Midwest. Need to put out a candy dish for guests? Why not find yerself a wooden goose with a bow around its neck and a basket in its beak brimming with M&Ms instead? Also, there is no piece of furniture that can't be improved with a ruffled plaid throw pillow. And for heaven's sakes, don't forget the apple-pie-scented potpourri.
I went home for Memorial Day, back to Urbana, Illinois, for the first time in 15 years. I rented a car and drove down from Chicago, remembering the University of Illinois T-shirts the kids from Chi-town would wear: "U of I: You Gotta Love the Drive!" They were, of course, referring to the scenery along I-57, which consists of corn, soybeans, and not a whole lot else. I also saw a set of progressive road signs about guns, which ended with a Web site for "Guns Save Life" (I suppose "guns save lives" was already taken).
Country charm, people, coun-try charm. Oh, and the patriotism! One guy down the street from my dad not only had Ol' Glory prominently displayed on a flagpole jutting out from his porch, he also had a 6-foot Statue of Liberty in the center of his marigold beds.
My dad's home doesn't smell like apple-pie potpourri. It smells like old books and burnt toast. It's around the corner from the house I grew up in. We walked over to see the old place, and I was shocked to find a Norwegian dude had bought it and was literally turning it inside out. He had taken every avocado-painted redwood board apart and rebuilt them facing inward, the bare wood showing, making a modernist boxy thing. He was in the process of putting a garden on the roof when we walked past. It's hard to see your childhood home completely demolished and rebuilt. I told him to beware the guinea pig skeletons in the backyard. Little does he know that at the snap of my fingers, I can will them to rise up from the dead and take vengeance.
All in good time, Norwegian. All in good time.
Most bars in my hometown are rednecky and full of yellow beer, but there are also joints where Grandma and Uncle Joe hang out to talk politics and stuff like that. Upon my return to S.F., I was determined to find a family-oriented bar that even remotely resembled that homey vibe. The closest I came was the Silver Cloud on Lombard.
The Silver Cloud felt like the proverbial hand in glove; the Mark Twain metaphor for Easy Does It Small-Town Livin'. The place takes up half of the block, with 50 percent of it devoted to the bar area and the rest to the restaurant. Mauve tablecloths and fake flowers in vases line the dining room. The menu is a fantastic amalgamation of Korean, Thai, and Italian specialties, with a liberal scattering of buffalo wings and hamburgers. There's a dancefloor/karaoke stage and a long booze counter. The night I was there, everyone in the place was over 50, including the staff. Lovin' it!
I sat at the bar and ordered a root beer, which the Cloud has on tap (cute!) in the form of Thomas Kemper. The bartender was a smiley fellow of possibly Korean descent. My second refill was free. Aw, shucks, thank you! I made a mental note to offer to help him whitewash his fence later.
To my right sat a woman and a man talking politics. She was in her 60s, with a sort of Aunt Polly up-do swept into a bun; he was a rather portly gent in a Giants T-shirt.
"She was saying that anything could happen," he said. "Like that Obama could be assassinated like RFK."
"Really?!" she said, wiping her buffalo-wings-stained hands on her napkin. "I can't believe she meant that! No wonder everyone is upset."
I fought the urge to interject. In my mind, there is no way that Hillary was being that overtly awful when she made the reference to RFK. What she said was dumb, but I think she was just giving an example of how things can change overnight in a presidential race.
I stayed hushed up, though, not wanting to interrupt. If this were actually the Midwest, I would be waiting for the right-wing interjections to the conversation. But no, this was San Francisco, where, despite a real undercurrent of racism — and, yes, sexism — people are a bit more open-minded overall. Illinois will always feel like home, but the Bay Area is now my permanent home. Fer sure.
"She has completely lost it," the woman continued, still talking about Hillary. She noticed me listening and gave me a big smile. The bartender came over and gave her more napkins, and she thanked him by name. She was regular. Just then I realized that some Muzak-type stuff was playing softly in the background. Gawd, what a place.
The bartender invited me to Sunday brunch at the Silver Cloud; the meal includes a free glass of champagne, according to the sign. I thanked him kindly, and didn't mention that I'm really not much of a breakfast person. Back in Illinois my dad had taken me to Urbana's version of a breakfast joint (I ordered lunch instead, at 9 a.m.). It was called Le Peep, with a chicken-in-a-beret-who-lives-in-France theme. The only thing "French" on the menu was the toast, and the walls were decorated with geese with bows around their necks (very Versailles) and Toulouse-Lautrec posters.
I scanned the Silver Cloud menu and thought briefly of ordering the Korean beef dish, but I only had $5 in my pocket. Therein lies the big difference between the Silver Cloud and Midwestern hangouts: the prices. The Cloud was indeed cheap, but no match for an Illinois eatery/bar: two coffees, two meals, and juice came to $17 at Le Peep. Mon dieu!
I don't mean to make Urbana sound like Mayberry. It is a university town, so it's a nice mix of townie and sophisticate. I was there to see a reunion of all the acts that were big in '93, back when Champaign-Urbana was supposed to be the next Seattle. The guys from the Poster Children and Hum were there, along with a ton of people I went to high school with. We sat outside and drank Sierra Nevada. The air was hot and sticky, just like I remembered. At 1:30 a.m., my dad called and said he was coming to get me. I was tipsy and smelled like cigarette smoke. I felt like a kid again.
At the Silver Cloud, the couple next to me had moved on to talking about gay marriage. They agreed that we should live and let live, which just happens to be my philosophy of life, truth be told.
I think I'll embroider that mantra on a ruffled plaid pillow for my home.