What do you do on your 63rd birthday during a death-dealing global pandemic? This was the conundrum I faced as dawn broke the morning of May 1, 2020. I decided to get out of Dodge. My homeplace being ‘Dodge,’ where—all things considered—quarantine has been going decently. Or, at least as well as sheltering-in-place can go, from a deadly virus that has killed more than 63,000 of my countrymen and women.
(Did I mention Donald Trump has got to go?)
Our house is such that we sheltees-in-space (my wife, daughter, me and a majestically fuzzy tuxedo cat) have solitary spaces, to which we can retire when we start to scrape the chalkboard of each other’s nerves.
Plus, my daughter—who’d never admit to it—is a primo baker. Chocolate chip cookies. Sticky rolls from an ancient family recipe. Chocolate chip AND toffee crunch cookies. (They serve these—warm from St. Peter’s Brick Oven—in the Waiting Room to Heaven.)
The hits just keep on coming.
Out of the blue, a Southern Living magazine showed in the mailbox yesterday. Its cover features a cheeesecake shot of berry cobbler, promising a recipe inside. All sorts of packages of fresh berries—raspberries, blackberries, blueberries—now adorn the kitchen table the next room over. My wife got them as part of a curbside food order pickup she got from Kroger yesterday. (The system is breaking down from pandemic stress fractures. They’re overwhelmed with pickups—it took her three hours.)
Which is to say that, sweets-wise, lockdown with the womenfolk—the cat is a girl, too—has been fairly sweet and bearable.
But still. I was pretty sure they could use a break from me. I did not necessarily need a break from them, as much as a break from living at such quarters for weeks-on-end will fellow members of the species.
So, I pointed my car toward the river on a cool, overcast day.
A few days before, I had purchased an H. Upmann cigar for $9 from the liquor joint down the road. A couple weeks back, they hung a plexiglass virus screen, draped between the cashier and us customers, to keep us all from sending one other to the Great Humidor in the Sky.
I should note that $10 is my upper limit for a cigar expenditure. Plus, they need to be as mild as a cigar can be, otherwise I end up woozy and miserable, instead of pleasantly buzzed and aromatic. (Or foul and whiffy, as I assure you my daughter and wife would put it. Cigars are an instant social distancing tool if you need non-cigar people to back slowly out of your personal space.)
Googling just now, I am pleased to report that my birthday cigar was named after an actual guy, with a fine backstory. This is the way to be remembered:
Herman Upmann was a German banker who loved Cuban cigars so much that he moved to Havana in 1844. He set up shop as a banker and cigar maker. In the early 1920s his bank closed, but his cigar making lives on. Gold medals from various exhibitions as well as his personal signature adorn each box. An elegant cigar.
‘He was like an elegant cigar ….’
(I GIVE PERMISSION for that line to be used at my wake, whether ‘the Rona’ gets me or not. This is a codicil to instructions I gave last month on who should look after my three strung-out children …)
So, yeah. I headed to the river with Herman and his handiwork. No people, just a batch of Canadian geese and some frogs in the marsh. Quite a symphony. The lovely honk of the geese, now that I think of it, recalled my Dad’s wheezing sneeze a hundred years ago, only a dozen times every minute.
In the spaces in between, the lillypad squatters croaked, animated by what Allen Ginsberg once described in a poem as: “The million unutterable thoughts of frogs.”
I stole that line for a song inspired by the day and night I once interviewed and hung out with Ginsberg (who told me that Jack Kerouac gave him the froggy line.)
I smoked Herman’s cigar until it was a nub.
And, no, I never slept with Allen Ginsberg. (Future post to come about the encounter, maybe for the essay collection proposed below.)
On my way back home, I required food to quell the inevitable turbulence—Post-Cigar Stomach Syndrome. So, I stopped at Hillbilly Hotdogs in Lesage. I will have more to say about this entertaining joint, which I consider one of “The 7 Wonders of West Virginia.”
These two snapshots will give a sense of the synesthesia of the place. (And, yes, I am aware this is the second time on this site I’ve used the word ‘synesthesia‘ in 2020—which is the maximum number allowed by law per year, according to the American Literature Association.)
But in brief, Hillbilly Hotdogs is a seriously weird and wonderful place. Plus, they have vegetarian hotdogs, in addition to the nasty brew of shorn-off meats that go into many of the real things.
You really don’t want to know.
(Or maybe you do—and wish to make healthier hotdog choices? You could start with this brilliantly titled article: “Why hot dogs are not exactly man’s best friend.”)
But I don’t hold it against Hillbilly Hotdogs that “traditional hot dogs are made from a mix of pork beef and chicken [and] the cuts they start with are called trimmings pieces of meat leftover from cutting steaks or pork chops.”
You probably love yourself a hotdog. So, if you are ever in this neck of the woods, and if we survive our current, deepening Post-Apocalyptic Crisis—that is to say, Donald Trump and Trumpublicanism—get thee to Hillbilly Hotdogs.
You won’t not be able to take pictures.
It’s true. There is a hotdog sign as big as a Winnebago along a state route in rural West Virginia, just northeast of Huntington. And that sign has been the subject of years-worth of graffiti by lovers, haters, and people seeking a certain kind of immortality by writing their names, and memorializing their relationship, on the side of a giant hotdog.
And it’s also true that—in a rear-guard, too-late action to protect said hotdog sculpture from graffiti—there is a message stenciled in white paint on the wooden base of the giant hot dog, which reads:
“PLEASE DON’T WRITE ON HOTDOG.”
Which, come to think of it, is now my working title for a collection of essays on the weirdness—and occasional wonderfulness—of West Virginia.
I’d better hop to writing “Please Don’t Write on Hotdog.” After all, I was the only one—next to the bright-eyed and dear young hotdog hottie, Shannon, who took my order— wearing a mask on the day I stopped for a birthday dog.
PS: Oh, wait. I just recalled I made a 100-second video on Hillbilly Hotdogs some years ago, for a video series for my old newspaper. The video features a massively bearded fellow—Jerry Garcia’s younger brother, Larry Garcia. Or it might be by older brother, David.
I get Jerry, Larry and David mixed up all the time. Here’s the video:
PSS: Bonus, artified shot of Larry Garcia at Hillbilly Hotdogs! (Below.) I think he played kazoo with the band. You’re welcome.
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