I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who frequents Denny’s all across this great greasy nation of ours for the sole purpose of updating her dumb blog. But I’ve always been a trailblazer like that.
Tonight I’m blessed with a bubbly waitress, Amy, who puts me at the table in the back closest to an outlet, then drags my power cord over the partition, around a row of ketchup bottles, and under the cash register to reach the coffee pot outlet. All so I can write. I love sweet Amy already.
“You a famous writer or someth’n?” she asks, popping her head over the partition.
“Ha!” I blush. “But no.”
Actually, I’m a starving artist now living in New York City who stupidly thought it’d be a great idea to save money by travel-writing from the road instead of an overpriced apartment. Besides being cheap as hell, I’d really missed living in the back of my truck like the good ole days. If I was a famous writer, though, I sure as hell hope I wouldn’t have to use Denny’s as my co-working space, but you never know in this dying biz!
“Well, you’re definitely the first customer who’s ever asked me to plug in your computer there.”
“I get that a lot.”
I’d tried using truck stop diners as surrogate offices at first—they’re open 24 hours, don’t mind me eating out of a cooler on my tailgate beforehand, let me order just one coffee inside, stay for hours at a corner table, and crash in their parking lot after I’m done—but I got sick of lonely truckers leering at me like a tasty pork chop with those bloodshot eyes of theirs, so I’ve since moved on. When you’re a woman on a tight budget sleeping in the back of a ’95 Toyota pickup all over America, you constantly have to assess which cheap public spaces are least likely to become the crime scenes in which the police will later find your severed limbs.
So Denny’s it is!
Tonight I’m working at the one in Cortez, Colorado, a town technically near the mountains but not at all like the kind of hippy-dippy mountain towns I’d lived in during my twenties. No ski bunny billionaires or pothead adrenaline junkies would ever set a plastic boot here. Nor would Phish or Widespread Panic be welcomed. Besides this diner and the Walmart Supercenter I’ll crash outside of later tonight, there ain’t much more to this podunk town than maybe cattle and the alfalfa grown to feed them. As a former raft guide on the Rio Grande, it’s hard not to judge the shit out of the people behind the industry that is both draining and poisoning all our rivers, but seeing them sitting around me, chatting with their loved ones over a stack of pancakes, I realize I’m a big ole bitch blaming them instead of runaway capitalism for the demise of our planet.
But I digress.
Just like all Denny’s, this one is full of plastic booths that stick to your thighs and laminated menus the size of TVs. There’s a cute old man at the counter swiveling on his cushy bar stool, sharing a chocolate milkshake and talking baseball with his grandson. More than any other restaurant I’ve ever been to other than the Waffle Houses I grew up on, Denny’s is America and I love that about it. Every foreign tourist should explore a Walmart or Denny’s if they want to have an authentic American experience.
After a few hours, though, Denny’s changes. Like some fucked up hybrid of Cinderella and Children of the Corn, all the peaceful clientele clear out when the wall clock strikes midnight, leaving behind just me, a bunch of empty booths, sweet Amy, and a handful of her coworkers. This calm before the drunk storm is usually when I pack up and leave Denny’s. But just as I’m saving changes to a blog post no one will ever read, I hear the roar of an engine outside. Aw, man. A monster truck the size of a yacht is pulling up, which is my cue to get the fuck outta here.
For a second there I think maybe a cow just strolled in the front door, which isn’t all that unlikely given that they outnumber the people in Cortez. But no, a petite little thing no older than twenty with a perm, cowgirl boots, and a Travis Tritt T-shirt emerges from behind the partition like an actress entering stage right. I can’t see who’s mrrrrrrr-ing yet though. Tangled in rope, she hops her way across the restaurant, drawing as much attention to herself as possible because she actually loves this thing she doth protest.
“Stop it, Cody. Yer such an ass-hoh.”
She, like everyone in this town it seems, has a Southern accent, which I find a bit bizarre given that I’m Southern and am pretty sure they’re not.
At the other end of the rope is Cody. Pot-bellied, freckle-faced, and barely old enough to be sent off to an unnecessary war, Cody smiles all lopsided thanks to a jaw-breaker-sized wad of chew in his mouth. With the arrogance of a frat boy and the maturity of a toddler, he yanks his little heifer across the restaurant, quite amused with himself.
“Come on now, ya little whore,” he says, giving out just enough slack for her to hippety-hop forward a couple steps before yanking her back again. Like observing a cruel child walking an annoying puppy, this scene is hard to watch.
“Stop it, Cody,” she demands in a stop-please-don’t-stop porno way. Since most women only allow men they’re either related to, employed by, or screwing call them whores or bitches, I’m assuming Cody’s the Dip to her Dot. On any other occasion, I’d feel bad for a woman being lassoed by her Marlborough Man in a public place, but not now. This chick loves it. Barf.
Right behind Romeo and Juliet is another couple, egging them both on because of course they are. All four squish into a corner booth, Cody shimmies the rope just enough to free one arm of his little heifer, then declares to an empty restaurant, “Shoulda hog-tied the little slut!”
My higher self tells me I should probably get the hell outta here. Drunk people are as unpredictable and irrational as toddlers, only way more destructive due to their sheer size, larger vocabulary, and access to adult things like cars, guns, and Twitter accounts. I’ve learned the best course of action is just stay out of their way and off their radar. Since I don’t want to draw attention to myself by standing up or get picked off on my way out the door, I make the executive decision to wait this one out. Drunk people tend to get bored real quick, so surely they’ll be on their way soon enough.
For the next hour, Cody has Amy run circles around the restaurant, fetching him anything he can think of just to be a dick. First a tea with ice, then no ice, then lemon, then more lemon, then another lemon, then a fork. As soon as Amy hands him the second fork, he looks her straight in the eye, holds it out in front of him, and releases it to the ground the way only humans in high chairs do. “Ooops… Guess I’ll need another.” As a former waitress myself, I hate how much this industry makes us mean people’s little bitch. God bless this woman. Every time she walks away from the table, he makes fun of her big butt or calls her a whore.
Cody’s girlfriend was right. This guy is quite the ass-hoh.
Since drunk people are terrible at multitasking and too easily distracted, a table of Moons Over My Hammy brings forth the much-needed eye in Hurricane Cody. I pack my shit real quick, but just as I’m about to make a run for the cash register, some Clint Eastwood-like fella struts through the front door all stoic with a blond on each arm, tips his cowboy hat at Cody, then takes a seat at the bar, sandwiched between girls way hotter than Cody’s heifer.
Oh man, you can just see the wobbly wheels spinning in that cloudy brain of Cody’s! Based on the way he’s violently gnawing on his slab of ham and glaring at the back of Clint’s head, ain’t no doubt this man child is plotting some major alpha male bullshit.
“Hey, Janine!” Cody fires across three tables. “Had that baby yet?”
Annoyed rather than embarrassed, Janine takes a deep breath, swivels around on her stool, and points to her tan, flat oven, which has no sign of a bun in it. “Does it look like I got an eight-pound baby in here?” she sasses, then swivels back around. “Ass-hoe,” she mumbles under her breath.
Cody thinks hard for a good comeback... “So who’s the daddy?!”
Janine ignores him this time, which doesn’t go over so well. Cody will not be ignored!
“Hear me, girl?! Who’s the daddy?”
Sensing impending danger, Cody’s girlfriend tries reining in her man with an elbow to the side and a few strokes to the male ego whispered in his ear. But none of it works.
“Hey now! I have every right to know who knocked up Janine!” he yells at his girlfriend. “It’s a free country ain’t it?”
With his back still facing Cody, Clint Eastwood raises his arms in the air and points with his thumbs at himself like someone delivering the punch line to that stupid joke “What has two thumbs and loves blowjobs.”
“Well congratulations there, Daddy,” Cody jokes.
Well I’ll be damned. Clint Eastwood may be a man of few words, but he just let the cat out of the Piggly Wiggly bag! Janine is with child.
Cody’s crew leaves the trio alone for a bit while they finish their food, which is good because Amy and all the employees have all but abandoned ship at this point. I haven’t seen anyone in a half-hour. After his girlfriend is done eating, Cody frees her other arm, not because that’s what a good boyfriend does but because he’s got other uses for this rope. Like lassoing ketchup bottles on the tables next to him.
Eventually, he gets bored with ketchup and moves onto things with bigger consequences, like huge plastic cups of ice tea. When he spills the first one, Amy appears out of nowhere with a towel and tries to clean it up. After the third one, though, she doesn’t bother coming back. Ever. Poor Amy here has had enough of Cody’s shit.
Cody’s table sure is getting a kick out of his little rodeo show, which does nothing but encourage him all more.
“Watch this,” Cody whisper-yells as he stands up and creeps up on the Clint Eastwood posse enjoying their plates of partially-hydrated corn syrup. Cody’s lasso just misses Clint Eastwood’s head, but clips his arm before landing on the floor next to him. Clint takes a long, deep breath like a Dad who’s about to flail his meaty arm around the back seat if his kids kick his seat just ONE MORE time. To be honest, I’m more afraid of Clint’s lack of a reaction than anything. This silent warrior type dude is gonna fuck some major shit up if Cody keeps at it.
Up until now, I’d been too amused by all the drama to actually worry. It’s like watching bad TV, only live and one person in the studio audience. But it’s clear Cody finally realizes Clint here is gonna whoop his ass if he doesn’t knock it off, so what does Cody do? Go look’n for other victims up front. He hadn’t even noticed me back in the corner playing Quiet As a Mouse, but I ain’t invisible. My time is coming.
I really need to stop staying up so late to work. This isn’t the first time this has happened since the big switch from truck stops to Denny’s. Just the other night, I’d stayed up late writing when all the drunks started to waddle in. The man in the booth next to me threw a temper tantrum when his waitress said, “I’m sorry, sir, I told you before, we don’t have peanut butter and banana sandwiches here.” He punched the table then stood up in huff to leave, but got dizzy and made a pit stop at chez Melanie. Thank God his friend was less drunk and fetched him out of my booth.
While Cody is busy with his reign of terror up front, I sneak behind the partition, knock a bottle of ketchup over, leave Amy a twenty-dollar tip, and get the fuck outta there.
At the Walmart Supercenter, I determine which way is north and park accordingly under the sole tree in the lot. It’s right next to a sketchy old truck but whatever. I need the morning shade of these leaves. Otherwise I’ll wake up at 7 a.m. because I’ll be baking like a rotisserie chicken in the back of this metal box.
Walmart Supercenter parking lots are the safest place for a (cheap) solo woman to sleep in. There are usually security guards patrolling the place every couple hours as well as 24-hour access to bathrooms. I’m a mountain girl and honestly love pissing outside, but concrete makes a mess. Pee splatters all over your leg and pants and there’s usually not much privacy behind a passenger-side door. Women can’t piss in bottles like men, so we need options.
When I’d lived in my truck for five years all over the West, truck life was an adventure but relatively safe as there were usually other nomadic dirtbag climbers slumbering in their trucks nearby. But this ain’t Joshua Tree or Yosemite, and this time I’m all alone in unfamiliar territory, mostly packed with corn and alfalfa. Somehow this monstrosity of a store run by billionaire sociopaths is where I feel safest other than the woods. I don’t want to get a shotgun pulled on me for trying to crash on a logging road like that one time, though, so Walmart it is! During the summer months, Walmart parking lots are full of RVs with families of four and Rufus the golden retriever. But now that it’s late August and the kiddos have returned to school, so I’m surrounded by legit homeless people, drunks, and tweakers.
Rolling into Walmart at 2 a.m. is not ideal either, as there aren’t many people here on the hunt for toilet paper and dog food at this hour. Just like Denny’s, it’s all drunks who, again like children, refuse to go to bed. When the coast is clear, I change into my pj’s behind my front door, army crawl into the back of my truck, and velcro my black curtains up so would-be serial killers don’t feel tempted by the sight of a woman with a headlamp reading in the back of her death-trap camper shell that’s only slightly larger than a coffin. Just as I’m getting all tucked in, I hear the sound of squealing girls pushing each other around the parking lot in grocery carts. Some are racing, others are purposely or accidentally crashing into each other, but all are good and drunk.
Turns out Cortez’s Walmart is quite the hip after-hours bar!
Monster trucks file in and start lining up next to each other like chess pieces, all with their engines still running absurdly loud. Other than the girls in shopping carts, no one gets out of the trucks. They just sit there, shooting the shit with each other out their windows, then back up and drive on over to a new space when they’re bored with that particular conversation, mingling around the parking lot like folks at a cocktail party.
I try going to sleep because I’m exhausted, but the insecure men revving their engines and blaring Kenny Chesney are making it a bit hard. That and I have to pee. After about a half-hour of holding it in, I finally crawl out of my truck and squat in the mulch of my little shade tree, which is thankfully out of sight of Club Wal-biza over there. Ain’t no way I’m walking the gantlet just to use a flushing toilet. As I’m concentrating, trying oh so hard not to get piss all over my pants, I feel something rub against my leg.
“What the fuck!!!!?”
Damn cat scared the crap out of me.
“Pssss, psss, psss. Whispers! Get on over here.”
I can’t make out a face because he’s in a shadow, but the bearded silhouette makes my old man neighbor in the sketchy truck look like a bad guy from Scooby Doo. Apparently Whispers had to pee too. We wave hello at each other, then I pull up my pants, jump back in my truck like a kid who’s convinced there’s a monster under her bed, and hide in my sleeping bag. As I’m laying there, trying to force myself to fall asleep, I recognize the sound of a truck missing its exhaust pipe. I peak out the black cloth covering my windows to confirm.
Cody does laps around the parking lot like the show-off he is, the headlights of his fragile masculinity piercing through my black shades occasionally. As I lay there like a possum playing dead, I realize just how bad of an idea it was to move back into my truck. I’d lived in this Tacoma for half my twenties all over the USA. Like all my friends working in outdoor adventure, I loved the freedom of the road, sleeping rent-free on the most beautiful logging roads in America, and never knowing where the hell I’d end up. I’d given up this cheap, minimalist lifestyle years ago to pursue comedy in New York City, an experience just as batshit crazy and exciting as white water rafting or any of the dangerous outdoor jobs I’d ever had. But New York is so overwhelming, it makes everything and everywhere seem easier. I was exhausted. And I missed my old life. My friends. The freedom. So I’d moved back into my truck for the summer to get a taste of the sweet sweet truck life again and consider returning to it for good.
Nostalgia is a bitch though.
It convinces you to hate your current life in order to fetishize an old one you can’t go back to. In your twenties it’s fun. In your thirties it’s fucking exhausting. More exhausting than NYC, and that says a lot. My other nomad friends all live in houses now and even have kids. They’ve outgrown truck life. But I’m still stuck in the past. In the fantasy.
Plus, the logistical and emotional impact of living in your truck is hard as hell at times, even if you’re choosing it like this here white privileged chick with a history degree she never used. And it’s nothing like #vanlife (for starters, you can’t stand up!). Don’t believe Instagram models. They’ve all got fummunda cheese in their pink parts from not being able to shower much. Think about that before you say “Fuck the man” and burn your life down to be “free.” Even though truck life is harder than van life, they both lack security and community. You don’t belong anywhere, so no one gives a shit who you are anywhere you go. It’s even worse when you’re single and a woman. Freedom has a hefty price. One I’m realizing I’m too old and tired to pay now.
I want my exhausting life in New York City back. At least there people know me and I don’t have to worry about getting murdered as much. Too many witnesses!
I finally fall asleep with the comfort of knowing this lifestyle is temporary. Just as I’m starting to dream, though, I’m woken by the sound of a chainsaw. In my groggy state, I immediately conclude fucking Cody or my sketchy neighbor are about to chop me up and feed me to the cattle. But then I realize it’s daytime and nobody would do that shit in waking hours. When I pull back a corner of my black curtains, I see a guy with a weedwhacker. Even when you have the perfect shade tree to let you sleep in, the damn landscaping crew will screw up your night of sleep.
But at least Cody is out of my life forever. Praise be!
After this trip is over, I hope to be done with Denny’s and Walmarts. If a foreign friend asks to see a real slice of American culture, I’m taking them home. To Waffle House.