I’ve spent the better part of this summer in Rhinelander, WI, a town of just over 7,000 located in the central-northern portion of the state. With the exceptions of plenty of fishing and the occasional trip to the beach, I’ve mostly kept a quiet and low-key presence, choosing to pass most of my time reading and writing. However, recently I had the following experiences while kicking around town.
The location of the Sportsman’s Flea Market was marked with hand-drawn signs that read, “Guy Stuff For Sale,” though for the record I didn’t see anyone at the door of the Masonic Temple, in the basement of which the market was held, preventing the admittance of non-guys. Laid out on folding tables were piles of what could best be termed antiques, though plenty of it qualified as junk: old fishing poles brittle as candy-canes, gigantic lures half the size of my forearm, spinning duck calls and floating plastic decoys. One man picked up a rifle and sighted it across the crowded room. Another was selling a patchwork of empty boxes, several hatchets, and an Iron Cross from the German Republic. I contemplated a decrepit fly rod but purchased nothing.
From there it was off to Joe’s Pasty Shop. If you’re not familiar, a pasty is the preeminent food item of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Originally developed for the copper miners who flooded the UP in the mid-1800’s, the pasty is simple fare and can best be thought of as a not-fancy pot pie. If you’re thinking the following—An inglorious pot pie is the preeminent food of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula??—that’s correct. There are a host of reasons why more people should go to the UP. The culinary is not one of them.
In the afternoon I went shopping. I wanted to find a small anti-slip pad to place on the console of my car to rest my phone on. Before going further, let me just note that I have shopped in many different countries on several different continents. The most challenging of these was Tunisia, where it took me the better part of a day to find a functioning ATM, withdraw money, and purchase contact solution. Little did I know what awaited me in Rhinelander.
I began at Menard’s, a home improvement store with shops across the Midwest. I made it 78-feet through the front doors when I came upon two (2) complete aisles overflowing with Halloween supplies. It’s worth noting that it’s currently the last week of August; we’re roughly as far away from Halloween as we are the 4th of July. But apparently the attitude at Menard’s was Calendar Be Damned!, and strewn there before me were piles of gorilla masks and vampire teeth, Ghostbusters onesies and tricornered pirate hats. What madness might be down the neighboring aisles? I shuddered to think. Anxiety shellacked me. Slowly, I retraced my steps to the parking lot. I fled.
I tried Walmart. I wandered through various department until I was finally approached by a young sales rep. I explained what I needed and asked if they carried such a thing. He thought a moment then said No. Do you understand what I’m looking for? I asked. He said No. I then asked the following foolish question: Then how do you know you don’t have it? He shrugged and walked away.
I went next door to Office Depot. The middle-aged woman behind the counter was wearing an ear-bud with a microphone pinned to her lapel, which gave her the air of an inconsolable teenager working a summer at the Gap. This microphonic setup has always seemed terribly stupid to me, and I felt embarrassed and ashamed for her, though she had asked for none of that from me. She did know exactly what I wanted and used her fancy on-person technology to radio a co-worker, who told her the store no longer carried such a product. She recommended the Home Depot across the street.
Having switched Depots I found an orange-smocked employee and explained what I wanted. He thought a moment then suggested I look in the flooring section. To avoid a run-around I clarified that he did in fact understand what I was looking for. He nodded his head and said Yes, he did. And you think I can find that in the flooring section? No, he said, in fact I’m certain we don’t carry that. He then pointed down the aisle where several 12-foot long pieces of vinyl siding were stacked. Maybe you could cut one of those down? he suggested.
I gave up on the pad.
I went to the local grocery store. In the parking lot I watched a Chevy Blazer slowly pull into a handicapped parking space. The driver was an old man, well into his 70’s, with a giant unlit cigar clenched between his lips. He entered the parking spot and would have continued entirely through its length had he not run into the cement pole that marked its end. Upon impact the car rebounded backward and shuddered, and from the passenger seat I heard his lady friend mumble, Oh my.
I had brought a backpack with me for the groceries. I do this to reduce waste as most plastic bags seem to end up floating somewhere in the oceans near Borneo. I’ve noticed that around here bringing your own bag to the store is often met with slant-eyed anxiety, as if something suspicious were contained within—say, a malnourished beagle or a talking parakeet that can also bedazzle jean jackets. I purchased five (5) items, and despite having put my backpack on the conveyer and saying that I wanted everything packed in it, my groceries were placed into three (3) separate plastic bags. I wasn’t in the mood to argue.
In the parking lot the old man sat in his Blazer. He’d lit his cigar and was puffing contentedly on it as I passed. I nodded and he said, Good morning. He then caught himself and added, It’s afternoon, isn’t it? I looked at my phone. It was almost 4PM. I adjusted my bag of grocery bags across my back and tried to smile at him kindly. I’m old, he added. I didn’t argue.