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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tourist Among Tourists

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Another installment of my cross-country journey pieces chronicling the adventures my wife and I enjoyed while piloting a VW bus from New York to California and back. This one is datelined Cody, Wyoming, and was written Sept. 9, 1989. The Royal Palace restaurant has changed owners since our visit, but still is operating seasonally.


IT’S TOUGH TO BE a tourist among tourists. Especially when the summer season simmers down and you arrogantly expect some measure of privacy in your travels.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody is the avatar of the Wyoming town that bears his name. A large museum sits smack in the town center, and historic Sheridan Street is flanked by antique and antique-looking buildings that offer the tourist every comfort of the left-behind home.

In the Royal Palace Restaurant on a post-Labor Day Sunday morning it’s so quiet you can hear the compressor on the cooler. The thin sound of a pop radio station issues from behind the kitchen door. The large Rock-Ola jukebox is dark, perhaps unplugged for the season.

Proper Western obeisance is paid by the wall display of photos and old lithographs. There are at least three portraits of Robert Redford in his Sundance Kid costume, hanging near the larger-than-life black velvet renderings of Clint Eastwood and James Arness.

“Coffee?” The inevitable good-morning question at eateries everywhere, but somehow more sympathetic when asked with all this cowboy tradition around us. Terry, our waitress, has already asked after our health and the quality of our sleep, and I have no doubt that it is a genuine concern. That’s how western folk are.

We accepted large doses of the stuff and placed orders for a gitcherselfmovin’ chow of pancakes — blueberry pancakes a specialty, we’re promised.

That’s when the tourists barged in. Now, we ourselves may look and sound like tourists, and buy postcards and tee shirts like tourists, and drive erratically and ask obscure directions of puzzled service-station attendants like tourists, but we consider ourselves removed from the tourist mainstream and thus are able to giggle at the tourist-type antics of others.

So when this trio of white-headed women swooped into the Royal Palace and took the adjoining booth (the place was otherwise empty), we steeled ourselves for the inevitable fun.

It wasn’t long in coming.

The threesome wore the traditional seniors-on-tour attire of sweat everything — shirt, pants, socks — and sneakers. They fussed with their place settings and got down to business right after Terry gave them water and menus. The inevitable question got two yesses and a cry of “decaf!” Then: “How big are your biscuits?” demanded a woman who wore a University of Nevada sweatshirt. Asked back east, this question could be taken personally. But biscuits and gravy are a menu item here.

Terry made a C with her fingers and thumb. “The normal size,” she said pleasantly.

“All right. That’s what I wanted to know.” As the waitress left, another woman leaned over and said, “I wonder if they’re baking powder biscuits” in a whisper that suggested a horrible revenge might be forthcoming if they were.

Not to be left out, the third inspected her water glass. Water was brought to the tables in ice-filled carafes, the glasses left empty. “They didn’t wash this,” she announced.

We were almost getting a back-at-home feeling from the New Yorkish behavior of the three, but a single word clinched it. She pronounced it “warsh,” the same vocal styling we’d heard in South Dakota when being shown to the “warsh house” at an RV camp.

The U of N woman offered a defense. “It’s the water. I noticed that last night. You can’t warsh anything clean in the water they have here.”

“It’s true,” said the other. “I noticed it last night. You hold up a glass and —” She interrupted herself as Terry returned with the coffees. “Cream?”



“Half and half.”

The conversation resumed only after the various containers were delivered. It was conducted in that puzzling style in which a hand is placed loosely over the mouth as if to capture any words that might stray too far, but each mention of water or coffee or waitress was highlighted with a pointing finger. The subject of unwashable glasses continued with the additional worry of how the waitress could tell the decaf from the regular coffee when there were no orange-topped pots on the Bunn-omatic.

After breakfast was served and Terry returned with a refill, that mystery was solved. “Decaf has stripes on the pot,” the waitress said. She poured the last of it in the correct cup, then returned to the coffee station to perform what amounted to a housekeeping ballet.

She rinsed the dregs from the pot, then shoveled a scoop of ice cubes into it, which she swirled with a little warm water. She emptied that and shot the pot with carbonated water from the soda machine, which she scrubbed with a paper towel. She held the pot to the light and squinted at it.

The trio watched with wonder, agape. “Do you think she’s doing it on purpose?” one of them asked. “Spite,” spat the U of N. They bobbed their heads together like sparrows and began what might have been a fascinating analysis of the scene just witnessed. They were interrupted by the arrival of another three customers.

Again, senior citizens. (The seniors, like us, know that the best time to travel is the beginning of September. Unlike us, they also get discounts.) This party took the next booth over, and as they fell to fussing over the seats, our near neighbors grew quiet.

Pleasant Terry brought them water and menus, etc. In a shrill voice, one woman in the new party began to read the menu out loud. It went something like this: “Oh, look. They have a bacon and eggs breakfast. Two eggs, fried or scrambled. Bacon. Toast and homefries. Two dollars ninety-five cents. Pancakes, blueberry, stack of three. A dollar ninety-five.”

The U of N woman pursed her lips, shook her head and smiled. We knew exactly what she was thinking: Tourists. You can’t get away from them.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Nov. 25, 1989

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