Every Sunday I wake up early and drive a little over an hour west across the beautiful Flint Hills of Kansas to work in the tiny, bright diner of my dreams. The seven or eight hours that follow are not without challenge, but it is the most incredibly good time and most days I feel guilty that I get paid to do it. When I leave home the sun is usually just beginning to crest the eastern horizon. I watch the pale spread over the plains in my rearview mirror, it casts a mesmerizing amber warmth across the fields and farms. It is the exact color of the good plates my folks used when I was a kid. They called them “The Amber Glass Plates” and they only pulled them out for really special occasions. Driving west with this glow pushing from behind me always causes me to recall Christmases and Thanksgivings with the little glass of wine we’d get, and my tenth birthday. I guess when I turned ten they decided my most dangerous years were behind me, and in celebration of the idea that I might live to be an adult someday, they broke out the fancy plates. The amber gives way to pale pinks and oranges as a giant hot pink sun rises to wash the prairie with gold. I’ve lived a lot of places, but I’ve never seen anything as beautiful as a Kansas sunrise. It even makes Topeka look pretty.
So I begin every Sunday with beauty in my sight and love on my mind, and whatever music I want to listen to in my ears, no one begging me to play their favorite song again, again, again or whining that it’s their turn to pick. Sunday morning it’s always my turn to pick. I’ve logged hundreds of hours marveling at how perfectly my harmonies blend with Tom Petty. I can’t believe he hasn’t discovered me yet, but I’m just sure he will someday. The two of us will embark on a short tour under phony stage names, playing in all the dingiest bars because he’ll be tired of stadium crowds and I’d be too nervous to sing in front of more than thirty people at a time.
By the time I reach the toll plaza twenty minutes west, I’m sedated by the glow of the red sun behind me, hypnotized by the long shadows of sparse trees across the tall grass, and giddy with certainty that Tom Petty and I are going to stop to see all the weirdest roadside attractions on our tour.
That’s where we meet: me and Kansas Turnpike Collector Lisa#1175. Our encounters are always brief and always unpleasant.
There are usually three lanes open at the toll station at 6:30 on Sunday morning. I have a better chance of missing her lane than I have of ending up in it, yet I always hit her booth. Always. Lisa#1175 and I are cosmically linked by some invisible tether that pulls me through her lane every Sunday morning. By the time I realize it’s her in that booth, it’s too late to do anything but move forward for another very short, very unpleasant exchange in the middle of my otherwise perfectly meditative hour and fifteen minutes.
Lisa#1175 hates me. She really does. At first I thought maybe she just had one of those sort of unfortunate looking faces that make a person appear to be hacked off even when they aren’t. As our relationship has evolved over the last two and a half years, her expression has degraded from irritated to blatantly pissed off to see me. For a while I tried to win her over with music. “Maybe she hates Tom Petty,” I thought. Every week I’d pull forward with different music to try to impress her. I tried everything. Pop, Soul, Classical, Rap, New Country, Old Country, Mariachi, Balkan Gypsy, R&B, Gospel... no change.
Then we had the sticky money incident, and my hope of ever seeing Lisa#1175 smile was lost forever. I’m not a scientist, but judging by the viscosity of the sticky brown coating on the change in the ashtray that particular Sunday morning, I’m going to guess that someone spilled a coke in there the previous Tuesday. Of course, this was unknown to me until the precise moment that I reached into the ashtray to fish out my $1.15 as I approached the toll booth. I grimaced as I counted the money out and tried hopelessly to wipe it off with a tissue. Bits of tissue clung to the faces of the coins. I furiously tried to wipe them off on my dress as I approached the toll station and squinted ahead at the collectors in the booths in front of me. Someone behind me honked. I pulled into the far right lane. From the look on Lisa#1175’s face you would have thought I’d tried to pay her in mangled human fingers. That was two years ago, and from the look of things, I have committed an unforgivable sin in the world of the toll-taker. We will not be friends in this lifetime.
I guess Lisa#1175 might not have as much fun at her job as I have at mine. She probably doesn’t feel guilty that she gets paid. But I hope she has some favorites. I hope there are other regulars who bring at least a small smile to her naturally downturned mouth and a slight gleam to the eyes that always survey me with such contempt, maybe a hot guy in a swanky convertible who winks at her every time he hands her his $1.15. But those guys always have a KTAG and blow past me while I’m waiting in line to pay. Which raises a good question. Why don’t I buy a KTAG? It would save me time and money. It would save me the agony of trying to avoid Lisa#1175’s booth and, upon failing to avoid her, trying desperately to redeem myself for the sticky money incident and get her to like me. God, I hate it when someone doesn’t like me! I would love to say that I don’t want to participate in the automation of society, that I prefer human contact and that I’d like to think I’m helping someone keep a job who might not like it but sorely needs it. The truth is less romantic than that. I’m just lazy and I’ve always meant to order one but I haven’t gotten around to it, and likely won’t.
Lisa#1175 and I will just continue our dance, as the universe has demanded that we must. She will probably never like me and many years from now I will learn to be comfortable with that. By the time I’m on the west side of Topeka, ten miles or so from her stinging, loathsome glare, the prairie starts to really open up. The sun, higher on the horizon, begins to create amazing depth by casting long shadows from one hill to the next while mist still lingers in the pockets of the cool valleys. The interstate begins to roll, cresting one hill and giving way to the next, and each one opens up a new horizon in front of me. It’s a magical place, this prairie. And I am on my way to do what I do the best in the place I was born and with people I truly love all the way in the marrow of my bones. I give one last thought to Lisa#1175, and hope that she takes joy from something the way I do from this moment. I hope she loves something as much as she hates me.