It’s a sunny cool day in March, a time every year when Front Royal starts to show some promise. With the skies clear, you can look up from the dilapidated houses and empty storefronts, the tattoo parlors and grungy strip motels, to the blue-green mountains so close you’d swear they were your back yard.
Even Jose is up early today because we’ve got a date with some “radicals” at the Starbucks in the shiny new shopping area on the edge of town. There is almost nothing that can drag that man out of bed before 10 am on the weekend but I hear only minor grunts and groans this morning.
We’re founding members of the Coffee Party chapter here and the idea of hanging out with other concerned citizens who understand the folly of the Tea Party movement is like an all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco or New York City for us.
We’ll be able to drink city-strong coffee, eat decadent pastries, and chat with people who agree that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are dangerous clowns with an ugly, manipulative agenda. What could be more fun? It’s about as good as it gets.
Even though Jose is more motivated than usual, we arrive late, a bag of crafts in tow to keep Maggie occupied. The place is busy and they’ve gotten a good turn out for the meeting. About 12 people are huddled in the back around a few tables. Don’t laugh—it’s an impressive number of progressives for these parts.
We have to scrounge around for chairs and some of the other patrons seem annoyed that we’re monopolizing the place. Maggie finds a friend whose mom has come for the meeting also and they plop into big cushiony arm chairs where they can draw pictures of princesses and drink smoothies.
The assembled Coffee Party members are obviously a bunch of out-of-control leftists, probably socialists, maybe even communists. They’re cleverly dressed to fool the average Shenandoah Valley resident—one man wears a bill cap, a blue plaid flannel shirt, t-shirt, jeans, and work boots. A younger man also wears a baseball cap, jeans, and t-shirt.
The women are even more slick. Several older ladies look like mild-mannered grandmothers, but clearly, they’re out to destroy this country and every traditional value we hold sacred. Everyone should watch out, especially, for the woman disguised as a soccer mom. Her blonde bob may be cute, perky, and familiar but she’s all for a complete government take over.
This is how the local Tea Party members would see us. Even though, except for Jose, everyone here for the meeting is white. Once we manage to attract some people of color, we’ll really freak those constitutionalists out. If we can bring some folks to meetings who were active in the civil rights movement or are gay, maybe we’ll even get spit on. One can dream.
Our group includes an 85-year old ex-CIA operative, a young woman who studies endangered frogs at the Conservation Research Center here in Front Royal, a musician who plays traditional string instruments, a graphic designer, a librarian, a Spanish teacher, the chairperson of the local Democratic committee, and some others I don’t know.
In typical committee fashion, we talk in circles for a while about what we see as the key issues for our group. Some say let’s focus on bringing civility back to public discourse, some say we need to take action on health care, some are more concerned with finance reform. After everyone has their say, we actually come up with a plan and next steps.
Coffee Party chapters all across the country—over 400 of them—will be engaging in a day of congressional action in April or May. We’ve decided to try and meet with our congressman Frank Wolfe. We take a photo of ourselves outside holding a sign that says “Coffee and Frank Talk.” We hope it’ll do the trick and he’ll take notice.
Either way, none of us can sit by any longer and let anyone think the hysteria of the Tea Party represents us. It’s time for a more thoughtful majority to speak.
With the meeting over, we’re supposed to drive over to a winery in Fauquier County to help set up a fundraising auction for Maggie’s school but Maggie and her friend have other ideas. Since Maggie is an only child, I’m particularly susceptible to her need to spend time with other kids. It’s good for her and so we relent. We decide to ditch the auction set up and have lunch at that unavoidable local food establishment, that icon of old time country living—Cracker Barrel.
I must admit that Cracker Barrel has never been on my list of Places to Visit Before I Die. I was only vaguely aware of its existence back in our city days, so very very long ago. I used to think of it as the southern equivalent of Hoss’s Buffet, a mid-Atlantic chain with a vague and disturbing connection to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.
In reality, Cracker Barrel is the highest grossing chain restaurant in the country with over 400 locations, most near an interstate highway. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for a creepy dose of 1940s small town nostalgia, spit-polished and tied up with a big red, white, and blue ribbon.
As we arrive, I notice the “military rockers” for sale on the long front porch. What a great idea—a rocking chair emblazoned with the seal of any branch of the armed forces you choose. Because when you are old and creaky and settin’ on the porch, you want to remember your glory days blowing the heads off of your enemies or maybe you want to be reminded of the American men and women currently blowing the heads off of Iraqis and Afghanis or having their own limbs severed by roadside bombs.
Come to think of it, I’m sure our soldiers would love to come and rock a spell, even if it’s at the Cracker Barrel. I wish I could just pull them out of the current conflicts and plop them down right here.
We get a seat quickly at a round table near the door. I’ve been at this table more times than I can count and have a habit of gazing up at the portraits of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King on the wall above. I wonder if the Justice Department required those portraits as part of the 2006 settlement against Cracker Barrel for racial discrimination.
The company has a long history of allowing discrimination against people of color in its stores. It took numerous lawsuits before they agreed to adopt strict anti-discrimination policies. And it’s not just blacks who’ve struggled with the chain. In the early 90s, Cracker Barrel instituted a policy requiring employees to display “normal heterosexual values.” They’ve since removed that policy but in 2008 were given the lowest possible rating by the Human Rights Campaign‘s for their lack of workplace equity for gays and lesbians. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cracker_Barrel_Old_Country_Store).
The irony of all this hits me as I’m digging into a fantastically yummy slice of French toast. From where I’m sitting, I can almost bathe in the glow of glittery old fashioned candy and southern treats artfully displayed in the store area. They’ve taken on a sinister sheen somehow—maybe because they celebrate a time when America was a land of opportunity and justice only if you happened to be white, straight, and Christian.
I have to admit that like millions of other suckers I’m strangely drawn to the doo-dads and baubles displayed all over the store—the lotions, candles, toys, clothes, CDs, DVDs and hokey memorabilia. It’s bright and neatly arranged. It’s seasonal and always on sale.
So far, the Cracker Barrel in Front Royal seems to have bypassed the company’s ugly history. We’ve never had any trouble eating there with Jose’s obviously Asian family. In fact, the wait staff have been unfailingly cheerful and solicitous. Perhaps we are benefitting from all those law suits brought by brave and angry souls against Cracker Barrels in numerous other states.
To them, I take off my hat and say thank you.
I hate to admit it but I’m afraid it’s true that we actually like coming here, sitting near the fireplace, playing checkers, and browsing in the scary country store. With our busy schedules, eating at a chain restaurant with a corny theme is now the norm. It doesn’t hurt that the food is plentiful and inexpensive.
Maggie and her friend have barely finished eating before they are begging to go look around the store. We pay the bill, wrap up our leftovers, and head on over. Immediately, the girls grab those stiff leashes that have a collar with no animal in it so they can pretend to be walking an invisible dog or cat.
One of our friends spots a wall hanging that displays the ten commandments and assumes it is a list of joke commandments until she looks closer and realizes that it is the real ten commandments. The incredulity on her face makes my day. I’m really laughing at her—is she a Cracker Barrel Country Store virgin? I point out to her that she is gazing at the patriotic/inspirational Christian display. I show her my favorite plaque—an image of American flag in a field of flowers with a stiffly painted cardinal in the foreground facing the flag and seeming to salute it. The caption reads, ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.’ Sadly, the plaque is missing something. Maybe it needs this phrase to be added: “and will smite your ass if you even think about the separation of church and state.” Yes, then it would be perfect.
Jose spends a good 15 or 20 minutes talking at a toy parrot that records your voice and spits it back at you in at a ridiculously high pitch. “I listen to Sun Ra,” he makes it say over and over. Maggie makes it say, “I love Mama”—she’s getting bonus points for that.
We have a grand time making fun of the cheesier paraphernalia for sale. I almost buy a copy of a Left Behind movie because it would be both enlightening and terrifying to watch, like peering directly into the mind of the right-wing evangelical, the-apocalypse-is-coming-any-day movement. But I just can’t do it. Life is too short and my time to valuable to squander it that way.
Because Maggie and her friend are having such a good time together, we decide to let her go play at her friend’s house for the afternoon. She runs off and we chase after her for a hug. Then we get into the car and start to head home. As we pull out of the parking lot, I’m shocked to realize that I’m actually starting to feel grounded here in this strange little town. It hits me like a truck-load of chicken-fried steak that we have more friends and more of a purpose here than we ever had in our last neighborhood just outside DC, where we were too complacent and life seemed almost too easy.
Jose still misses the anonymity of the big city but I have always liked to feel connected in every which way—the twisted effect of growing up in a large family. We both agree, however, that with liberal progressive types such a minority here, you tend to appreciate each other more. And stick together.
As much as I’d like to never eat at a fast food or chain restaurant again, I know it’s going to happen. And as much as I want Front Royal to suddenly morph into a hip leftie college town, I know that also is not in the cards. So I’ll have to work with whatever humors and beauties make themselves known to me. We are not unlucky to find ourselves here in this time and place.
Later that day we run into the Coffee Party leader at the grocery store and then see another friend from that morning’s meeting at the fundraiser for Maggie’s school. She’s playing with the band as the sun sets behind those ancient blue-green mountains. At the break we laugh about what a small town it is.
Maybe, just maybe—in some sick and unexpected but steadily growing way—that’s fine with me. Even Jose, still dreaming of late-night city streets, seems to cringe less often at the Mayberry insularity that is so unavoidable here. It’s like we’re all characters in a Thorton Wilder play, only stranger and more real.