Sunday. Prarie Du Chien in the Serbian-run Holiday Motel opposite the train tracks.
With great relief we left the Dells this morning, next encountering a bonus restaurant not in my database, and the guy there, Jeff, was friendly and talkative to boot. We were very impressed with him. He is completely aware of everything going on in his restaurant at all times, even while talking to us. He had noticed us taking photos out in the parking lot before we came in. Every single customer who came up to pay their tab, he asked if everything had been okay. Even just wiping off a table, he did it with great vigor and attention. He said that he had tried to do a drive-through restaurant before, but now he is older and doesnt have enough energy for that. We said, You seem like you have plenty of energy! He said, No, when I was young I could party all night, until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then get up and go to work at 8; I cant do that anymore. He talked about the other Chinese restaurant in town. He had had a neighborly relationship with the previous owner; they would borrow things from each other when they ran out. But he warned us that the people who are there now are not very friendly, and said that he didnt understand that because Chinese people here should all help each other.
Sure enough, when we went to the other restaurant and asked if we could take pictures, the guy said bluntly, NO. You cannot take pictures. And that was it. I gave him the award for Most Unfriendly Chinese Restaurant.
Im surprised they were able to find room for the God Bless America poster.
After lunch we hit another town with one restaurant, which seemed kind of uninspiring but probably just because we were tired. Leaving there we ate some chocolate which revived us considerably for a nice drive on quiet two-lane roads through beautiful rolling farmland. We stopped at a yard sale run by a disheveled couple; their house was held together with Tyvek housewrap on one side and pretty much falling apart everywhere else, with many cats inside and a barking dog on a rope. They were selling total crap, nothing worth buying, including some very basic Christmas ornaments that she had made. They made small talk about LA freeways and road rage and then said, If someone shot you out here or ran you off the road off a bluff nobody would ever find you for years. We didnt take that as a threat, cant say why exactly.
The next town really did feel like the middle of nowhere. The Chinese restaurant was all but lost in an very long strip mall with an enormous, almost empty parking lot. The cashier there was obviously thrilled to see us. He showed us a picture of his wife back in China. She was beautiful and we said so, Irene using one of her few Mandarin vocabulary words. He replied, You are beautiful too, and then sincerely added, Any Chinese here is beautiful. He said he lives in a trailer with the other guys who work in the restaurant, I think there are four of them. He said there are only seven Chinese in the town (of approx. 5000) and 5 of them are men. If it werent for September 11th, he said, his wife and child would probably be here with him now, but immigration has gotten really difficult.
Part way through our conversation he became occupied with a mild late-lunch rush, so we sat down and waited to talk to him again. While he worked he kept beaming over at us. I said to Irene, Hes so happy to see Chinese people. She said, Especially Chinese females! He wasnt being lecherous or anything, just very enthusiastic. He offered to feed us: I make banquet for you! But we told him we had already eaten. He used to be a translator in China; his first translation was a book about Mike Tyson. Then he translated some other, more literary stuff. We talked about writing and telling the truth, and how sometimes you may want to write the truth but you cant. He said, This is what I am reading right now, and pulled a worn copy of Jane Eyre from behind the counter. He said, I have nobody to talk to, I wish I had people to talk to here... I talk all day but broccoli with beef is not really talking. When we left he nearly followed us out the door.
As we drove away I realized that the bachelor society is still the same 150 years later; we use the past tense and speak of it in the context of the Chinese Exclusion Act, but its not a thing of the past.
In this melancholy mood we arrived in Prairie Du Chien around twilight. We stopped in at a restaurant run by a Korean family. The building was all decorated with Korean motifs and everything about it was Korean except the food, which was the same old Wisconsin Chinese Buffet.
We checked into the motel and found dinner: fried catfish, the first fish Ive had in these parts that was done properly instead of cooked to death. Maybe has to do with freshness, being right next to the Mississippi. However that was all there was to say about it, really, and we came back and drank some ginger ale anyway because of all the grease.