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Road Notes: Back in a Hurry


Just flaunting Husker pride!

Last week, I went on a maddening, four-day circle through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and back to Iowa, revisiting all the soybean fields I had already been to. It had all typical aspects of a Derek Johnson-road trip: receiving field information right when arrived at the field itself, figuring out my route on the fly, lunches at Subway, dinners after 7 P.M., and pick-me-up lattes whenever a Starbucks fell out of the sky. It was so crazy that I didn’t share the blog post I uploaded on Tuesday morning in my Waupun, Wisconsin hotel until Thursday afternoon in the Washington, Iowa, public library. Most of the routes I’ve driven on before and have written about in detail, so I will simply share some of the highlights and lessons.

I made a valuable life-adjustment: I went to bed before 10:30 each night, the benefit of dumping my Netflix subscription and of not justifying an extra hour of cable I didn’t get at home. I can see how valuable that extra hour is during the day; that hour I would have spent watching TV was putting to better use, even if I just watched more TV. I am trying to adjust my life at home to the same schedule.


The Wisconsin River east of Bridgeport

I met the dairy farmer who does our test plots near Spring Green plots on the banks of the Wisconsin River. (For Husker fans, it is five miles downriver from where Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst grew up in Lone Rock.) Jim also raises corn and potatoes. I asked him if anyone in the area raises cranberries, a crop which requires field flooding, but he said no, the geography isn’t conducive to it, although he never has water issues himself. (More cranberries are raised north of Spring Green, up by Tomah.)

Good ear? I think so.

Good ear? I think so.

I’m more cautious of the speed limit in Illinois than in any other state because of the ticket I received in Peoria last year. When I crossed the Wisconsin-Illinois border on I-39, I passed two speed patrols in the space of about twenty-five miles. Still chasing that out-of-state dollar. At least they must be generating some revenue with the road renovations in the southern part of the state.

Tuesday night, I stayed in El Paso, Illinois, and dinner at Monical’s Pizza just of I-39. It was a nostalgia place with all this stuff on the wall from the 1940’s and ’50’s, and even though the pasta dish was generic and the sauce cheap, I enjoyed it because it’s not something I make for myself. It felt a bit bizarre observing the teenagers working there, thinking back to time working for Valentino’s. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them were dying to get out of El Paso.

I realized why Subway has the most locations of any restaurant in the United States: you can put one in a strip mall and don’t need to build a stand-alone building, you don’t need a fryer, and you need three or four employees to run one. Genius business.

Wednesday night, I could have received 20% off dinner if ate at the Iron Skillet off the Kingdom City, Missouri exit, but I didn’t because I worry truck stop food will upset my stomach. Okay, it’s because I’m too good for truck stops, but either way, I ate at Panhead’s, a Mizzou Tigers tavern. I’m such a snob, but at least I had a good pork barbecue.

I saw an Iowa State Cyclones flag on Iowa Highway 92 between Washington and Signourney. As I tweeted out on Thursday night, it was the first time that I had seen ISU house decoration closer to Iowa City than Ames. The ‘Hawks are trending down.

Little flower...

Little flower…

My biggest disappointment was that I didn’t patronize a local coffeehouse. I passed one in southwest Illinois in some town on Illinois Highway 16; it even had an used bookstore. But I didn’t stop, and on Thursday, I was too exhausted to even consider hitting up the coffeehouse in Washington, Iowa.

I was so exhausted on Thursday because I had been battling allergies the entire trip and had to pull off US Highway 24 by Mark Twain Lake in Missouri because my eyes had become so watery. The corn pollen, plus the weed pollen, proved to be too much.

Thursday afternoon, I burned through a stockpile of PTI podcast from July while I used minor highways to get from Peoria, Iowa to the I-80, then enjoyed the sight of rush hour traffic going the other way while I bolted to Ames. That night, I crushed a Culver’s chicken dinner while watching the NFL preseason.

I didn’t write anything down while I was driving, only because I wanted to see how things collected in my mind. Actually, I was forcing myself to take a break, although I should have worked on some of Husker writing. Now that weekly Husker writing is coming up, I need to find the right balance between writing and reading. And editing what I already have written.



The People I See at Culver’s

I walk into Culver’s in Waterloo, Iowa to get lunch last Monday, and there’s this older couple there standing with their backs to the condiment rack. The older couple in front of me tell this one guy to go ahead of them. I wince and hope they don’t invite me to move up in line, because I have no idea what I want. My indecision forces me to stand in front of the trash bin, creating an awkward situation when people have to throw their trash away. An older woman accidentally throws her plastic tray into the trash can, then reaches into get it. (I would have just left it.)
The older couple doesn’t invite to precede them, and I wait a while longer than I otherwise could have. The older couple orders coffee, which the girl behind the counter gives them in a diner-esque, glass cup. I settle on the prime rib sandwich and potato bacon soup, figuring it’s impossible to screw up either prime rib or bacon. The woman who takes my order is named Janet, looks 40-ish and stuck in life.
This Culver’s is in the middle of lunch rush of old people and odd families. I sit at a table for two. There’s a girl with a chocolate shake sitting at the table to my right, probably high school age, with a man who looks halfway between being her father and grandfather wearing a blue shirt and a St. Louis Cardinals cap. They eat fast and leave quickly. In their place sits a 50-something, power woman (first generation by the look of her short, gelled blond hair) in a pink suit jacket with a pink phone to match. She uses the phone all through lunch.
Across from me, a girl sits in 4-person booth by herself. Both she and the first girl are wearing gray shirts. She plays with her phone a while after she finishes eating, then leaves and is replaced by a group of three: a young professional man and woman who are suited up, and one hipster guy with an earring, backwards white ball cap, and shorts black and white plaid shorts. I can’t tell who the hipster is more associated with, the man or the woman.
Two tables to my left, two old guys are sitting together like they are at the coffee shop; one wears a shrine bowl t-shirt, the other wears a polo and discusses how long the Yankees game takes and other baseball topics
Directly in front of me, a pudgy woman is sitting with her kid who strews fries all over a burger wrapper. The woman leaves her garish purse in the booth when she takes her daughter to the restroom. Girl wears a shirt two sizes too big that seems to advertise a pumpkin patch. After they leave, a couple who looks like their our for their athletic weekend walk in a make-shift suburban forest sit at the table with their daughter. The daughter is to engrossed in her phone.
Two tables to my right, two women with lots of eyeliner wearing scrubs (nurses, probably) eat slowly and seem to be having a conversation about the men in their lives.
In the booth to the left of the one with the woman and her daughter, are two women who look like sisters with a daughter with a white and black spotted skirt way too short. They are not as classy as the nurses. Girl has brown hair that could look sly red at the right angle. When they leave, the woman and her daughter get into a car with TCU decals and Texas plates. Figures.
A couple sits next to me, my age and as Iowan as American Gothic. The redhead girl sits first, then asks her man to watch her purse when she goes to the restroom. He leaves his red fox racing hat on while he eats and wears the black t-shirt of a guy who goes out to the bar every Friday and Saturday night cause he doesn’t put his energy into anything else. She seems classy-nice jeans, nicer purse, decent sandals, toe nails done. Probably a bit out of his league, but she seems to have affection for him.

These are my lunch breaks when I’m on the road.


If You’re Counting Pennies, it Means You’re Petty: Thoughts on Tipping

A couple weeks ago, I was having lunch at the FarmHousE Cafe (my favorite eatery in Omaha-another subject for another blog post) and getting money to tip the waitress. The check was $8.22, and given that service was good not outstanding, I decided that I would tip just above the standard twenty percent. That was how I ended up standing up at my table, feeling like a complete fool as I counted out my pennies and nickles to make $1.71. I remembered how, while it was better than no tip whatsoever, I always hated counting out the pennies and quarters at the end of my shift.

As a former waiter and delivery person, I take tipping seriously because I know  how hard it is when a waiter cleaning up for a table who hasn’t tipped or driving to a house that you know won’t tip you (longest ten minutes ever), and how exhilarating it is when you get a great tip that carries you through the entire night. So I had have a habit of tipping generously, even to a fault. When I was at that lunch, I decided that perhaps I shouldn’t just tip with wide open wallet, but then I thought I should write down my tipping rules

First off, twenty percent is standard for a restaurant tip; your grandfather may have tipped ten percent in their day, but even if you don’t think it’s fair, everyone around you is tipping twenty percent are looking cheap and will get bad service.

If you are dining alone (life of a traveling man), tipping really is an art. When I spend three or four days on the road, sometimes the people I have the most personal interactions with are the people who wait on me, and I always try to be generous with them if I take up a whole table that could hold four people.

But now to the tip itself. When you look at the check, ball park twenty percent in your mind, and (crucial point) if you have  go either over or under in your approximation. What you consider: how soon the server greets you, attentive and pleasant the server was, especially considering the pace of the restaurant. Always let your mind wander this path when you consider the tip: I’ll at least give this person their twenty percent, but have they earned more?

So, here is a fundamental question on tipping: if the food is bad and the service is good, how should you tip? In this situation, I would tip a little over the twenty percent. Read the situation: unless the server submitted the wrong order or brought you the wrong thing, consider that a consider that a good server might have to overcome bad help. Remember, you are tipping the server, not the kitchen help.

Another situation: should you tip for exceptional food, no matter what? As long as the service isn’t bad, I would tip a little extra for food I really do like. Yes, you are tipping the server, not the kitchen or management. But, if you are getting a good meal that pleases you, be generous. You don’t have to tip forty percent.

Time is a huge factor. If I go to a restaurant and linger at a table, I tip more than if I eat and leave quickly. Lingering means they can’t sit someone in your spot sooner, so you take money away from your server. Plus in some cases, you may keep the server on shift longer. Be generous in these instances. Similar rules apply in the middle of the day, if they have to break from prep work to wait on you, be generous.

The golden rule for going under the twenty percent: don’t do it unless the server does something obviously wrong. If the server is attentive and concerned, even if there is a mistake with your order, don’t hold it against him or her. And if the food is good, and the server was a little out of it, don’t gyp him or her. Just give the standard twenty percent.

General rule: in restaurants you go to regularly, never tip below twenty percent, unless the service is really bad. If you go to certain place at least six to eight times a year (or more) or they know your name, make it a point to tip them generously, and on some occasions, leave a really generous tip. If you frequent a place, you will have a reputation there, and if you don’t tip well, the wait staff will be cooking up a fake smile all the way to your table. Granted, if the place is an IHOP or WaffleHouse, it is probably fine if you tip twenty percent every time.

Finally, a word about tipping at coffee shops. I briefly worked at a coffee shop, and we didn’t collect tips their, but many coffee shops do. Personally, I have never put anything more than spare change into a tip jar at a coffee shop. I don’t make it a point to tip every time at a coffee shop or Starbucks, but I have consulted with a former Starbucks employee who says that most baristas don’t consider tipping to be optional. I do try to tip every time at coffee houses I go to on the road (places I may never go to again), although I will admit I forget to do so. I have never put a full dollar bill into the tip jar, and I don’t know why a single person would A coffee shop, while there is some element of performance involved, doesn’t require as much service as a sit-down restaurant. One factor possibly in play-if there is one person working at the shop and if that person brings your drink out to you, give a little more.


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