Monday, August 8, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Dealey Plaza. The spot where the first bullet hit President Kennedy, and in the distance the Texas School Book Depository Building. Oswald was in the right corner window, one floor down from the top.
by Carol Joynt

Some people drive away from a heat wave. We drove into the heart of it. A week’s road trip — mother and son — Washington to Texas. We made a mid-way stop in Nashville. The trip was always hot, temps rarely under 100 and once or twice as high as 112 — but it was also always interesting. I love America’s open road. There’s so much to see, hear, experience and, of course, eat. Road food is no diet but it would be a crime to count calories within 50 yards of a dry ribs place in Memphis or a Filete Cantinflas in Texas. It’s that simple.

Best of all, it’s healthy to get out of Washington. The city, the official city especially, is so into itself and alternately guilt-ridden or letting itself off the hook for bad manners, bad leadership, bad decisions. The power base (elected officials, media, lobbyists) inhabit a cocoon of each other's voices, and that’s the disconnect. In the midst of the debt-ceiling crisis I attended a dinner of Democrats, a few hundred of them, many members of the House and Senate and other big names in the party, and the speeches (and there are always speeches) barely touched on the crisis happening just outside the auditorium where we feasted on catered food and good wine, as if the mess was not happening. Like, “if we don’t talk about it, the sky won’t fall.” I laughed to myself but it wasn’t funny.
The lonestar state's flag catching a RARE breeze.
Out on the American open road the sound track is sometimes akin to beaming in voices from alien planets. My rental car had satellite radio, enabling me to switch between outer space, I mean the mainstream (CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews), and the local terrestrial stations. You have to search hard to find those stations that aren’t overrun with syndicated conservative rant, such as Rush Limbaugh, who spews and sputters, near ready to implode from the frustration of his self-proclaimed wisdom.

Authentic, regional local radio is quieter. People are talking — about themselves, to each other — about fear, honest frustration and anger toward Washington, and telling personal stories. The husband who lost his job a while ago and now the wife has lost hers. Or they can’t refinance the mortgage. Or, they are living almost entirely on credit cards. Health care. Education. Retirement funds, college tuition? Is anyone in charge? Do they care about us out there?

Outside the car windows, beautiful America rolled by. I love the way the terrain changed as we skirted the Blue Ridge Mountains, crossed the Cumberland Gap, and navigated through the smoky Great Smoky Mountains.
Texas, out of the car window, outside Dallas. Blue skies, few clouds, if any, temps in the triple digits.
Our first lunch stop was in Abingdon, Va., something of a foodie mecca just off Highway 81 at the Tennessee border. Our destination was Pop Ellis, an unassuming but authentic soda shop where even President Obama has visited. Photos of him are perched on shelves, newspaper clippings framed on the walls. I tried to imagine what it was like when he rolled in with the monstrous entourage of Secret Service, staff and media.

We had nachos, tuna salad, barbecue and a perfect banana split, and then back on the road.
Pop Ellis Soda Shoppe, Abingdon, VA.
Pop Ellis is a five minute detour off Highway 81 near the Virginia-Tennessee border. Worth the stop.
The nachos at Pop Ellis.
The banana split with a cherry on top.
The famous customer, President Obama.
We arrived in Nashville late afternoon and before checking into the hotel did a car tour of Vanderbilt University. It was 102 degrees outside and walking the campus did not seem appealing. It was quiet. I thought maybe there would be summer school students swarming the beautiful campus, but no. No people.

Our hotel, on the other hand, was bustling. I searched hard for the right hotel. I knew there were some famous older hotels in Nashville, but I was in search of newer Nashville, something with a completely up to date feel. I found it with the Hutton Hotel.
The reception desks at the Hutton Hotel in Nashville.
The lobby decor is a blend of south meets west.
Room 1205.
The bathroom. The hallways: cheerful, well-lighted, clean.
Nashville at night from room 1205 -- downtown a short distance away.
It has made Conde Nast’s “hot” list and I’m not surprised. Crisp service with a smile, modern amenities, a handsome room, a good gym, fine dining — an overall design esthetic of south meets west. Bono was a recent guest in the penthouse suite. Gwyneth Paltrow, the new country music upstart, is a patron, along with entertainment notables. Dinner in the 1808 Grille was relaxing, delicious and, again, busy. The crowd looked to be mostly locals, which is an added appealing vibe in a hotel dining room.

And since there was a crowd it means yes, not everyone is singing the blues. Or, maybe like me, they were disconnected from reality for a moment to simply enjoy life and family.
The 1808 Menu is a tapas-inspired interpretation of contemporary southern tastes. Tables in the stylish 1808 Grille.
The private dining room.
The friendly staff at 1808 Grille. Bourbon Old Fashioned, of course.
A trio of ceviche at 1808 Grille in Nashville.
Prosciutto with Fried Peaches, Pecans and a Basil Puree.
Sister Schubert's Grilled Cheese with pulled duck, brie and fig jam.
Fried Green Tomatoes.
The sides: mashers, mushrooms and seasoned tomatoes.
The short ribs.
Fresh pound cake, strawberries and whipped cream.
The Hutton has other virtues. It is only a few blocks from the Vanderbilt Campus, manageable minutes from downtown, and virtually just off the highway. I would stay there again just to stay there.

Before rolling out of Nashville we made a “must” stop by the famous Pancake Pantry. I’m not big on heavy breakfasts, but it’s tough to resist a legendary pancake place. The PP's are fluffy and cakey. Like the 1808 Grille, the big room was busy with locals. The staff are friendly, the coffee keeps coming, the pork sausage is excellent and my Swedish pancakes were just fine. Also, the price couldn’t be beat: $14.50!
Inside Nashville's Pancake Pantry.
Swedish Pancakes with Lingonberry Butter.
The tab.
Next stop Dallas, a ten-hour drive. Regardless, we could not pass Memphis without a meal and homage. We pulled up at Corky’s just as it opened at 11 a.m. Based on my research, we would score great food whether it was Corky’s, Payne’s or Cozy Corner. We chose Corky’s because it was just off the highway. On the outside it looks like just another roadside BBQ shack, but on the inside it’s musical memory lane with awesome food. I was on a date with Elvis, with the soundtrack filled out by Chubby Checker, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and Aretha.

In one bite I understood why people from Memphis swear the only place to eat dry ribs is in Memphis. It was a taste apart from any other similar barbecue. An incredible, addictive, dry-sweet combo with juicy and tender meat, falling off the bones, washed down with tall glasses of sweet tea with lemon wedges. Yes there were sides: excellent cole slaw and beans, but I focused on the ribs, and devoured them in the ravenous manner of a last meal, hands a mess of red spices when I was finished. Yes, I licked my fingers. Sigh. So good.
Corky's, where the parking lot fills up fast at opening time.
Corky's on the inside.
The walls are adorned with a history of great American, and Memphis, music.
Memphis "dry-rub" ribs, finger-licking good.
A banana and vanilla wafer pudding that would have won approval from Elvis.
We could not depart Memphis without at least a drive-by at Graceland. This is very easy to do. Elvis’s famous home, now a “museum house” and global attraction, is so close to the road there’s a pull-off lane where it’s possible to go slow and stare. There is a medium height wall that looks to have been signed by every human on the planet. The wall and the signatures go on forever. Across the street is a parking lot with Elvis's two jet airplanes, the bigger one being the famous “Lisa Marie.” If those planes could talk!

The Joule Hotel is old and tall on the outside and fresh and new on the inside.
Notably, the 34th anniversary of Elvis's death is next week.

It was tough to drive away from Memphis. Clearly this is a city, like New Orleans, that needs deep exploring. It seemed every radio station had great music, whether country, blues, R&B or rock. I must go back.

Many miles to go. Dallas loomed on the horizon at about 6 p.m., an hour where the temperature was still triple digits. The rush hour was so tame and sane compared to Washington’s. I imagined the soundtrack of “Dallas,” the long-ago hit TV series, as we approached the skyscrapers of downtown.

That was just one of the iconic memories banging around in my head. The other, of course, the biggest, was the assassination of President Kennedy. Since this was my first ever trip to Dallas, Dealey Plaza would be my most important stop.

Our hotel was another winner. The Joule is downtown, next door to the original Neiman Marcus. Dallas boasts it is reviving its downtown. I wouldn’t know because I was a first-timer. But we saw people walking their dogs; always a good sign.

The Joule is tall, handsome, a period piece. But while the building is older Dallas the inside is young, fresh, friendly, and smart. Maybe it’s Texas, or maybe it’s the Joule, but lots of smiles, and they were sincere. Everybody wanted to lend a hand.
The convivial lobby.
The TV and computer area equally adjacent to the lobby and the coffee bar.
The coffee bar. Fresh fruit for juice in the mornings, or anytime.
The Joule's happy, welcoming front desk.
Our room with a sitting area off the bedroom. The bathroom was adjacent to the bed.
The sitting room.
A view of the master bed with the bathtub in the distance.
And, oh, what a tub! Big enough for two, or three. The provided reading: Yohji Yamamoto. Why not?
On the ground floor is a Charlie Palmer Steak, with world class bartenders, and where the hotel also serves breakfast and must-have peanut butter French toast! (Don’t analyze the merits, just order them.)

Up on the roof is the “Poule,” a rooftop bar with a small but stylish infinity pool. Had it not been 105 degrees the roof deck would likely have been filled with happy hour customers, but it was 105 degrees and so my son and I sat there, alone with the staff, taking in the view, the contrast of old and new Dallas.
Charlie Palmer Steak at breakfast.
There's a newspaper for every taste.
Peanut butter french toast just before the being drenched in Bourbon maple syrup.
Well equipped and large fitness center at the Joule in Dallas.
The rooftop pool deck is a marvelous mix of beds, pool and views, plus a bar and table service.
Margarita and infiniti pool.
The modern luxury pool: outdoors, on a rooftop, with views of glass skyscrapers.
The Joule has a hotel car at hand to drive patrons anywhere within a 5 mile radius, so we happily accepted the ride to our dinner destination: Javier’s. I knew I had to eat at Javier’s when I read these bits in various reviews: “Haunt of the old guard.” “The rooms are filled with every divorcee in Dallas.” “All the men look like international men of mystery.”

Inside the cigar bar at Javier's. A must stop even for non-smokers.
Haha. Who could resist? Plus, the food, Mexican, not Tex-Mexican, was rated among the best in Dallas. Our waiter said that Troy Aikman is a regular, and also former President George Bush and wife, Laura, who live in the adjacent Highland Park neighborhood.

It was too dark to take photos, but trust me on this: the margaritas were special, the food delicious. And they do this weird little thing I’m told is unique to Javier’s, they serve butter with the chips and salsa. Our waiter said it was the “only way to go. Dip the chip in the butter and then in the salsa.”

When in Rome, er, Dallas ...

Whatever else you do, before departing Javier’s do stop in the Cigar Bar, even if you don’t smoke. The aroma is sensational, and the décor of leather and wood, mixed with the clientele, make for a singular Dallas moment. Really, if there were a J.R., he would be in that room.

Highland Park looked intriguing out the car windows. The streets are lined with high-end retailers, restaurants and the buildings seem to relate to each other, to have some human scale. I couldn’t see the homes in the darkness but given the locale I imagine they are human scale only by Big D measures.
The bar at Javier's.
The next morning was for visiting Dealey Plaza. It remains a busy Dallas thoroughfare, with the street on which Kennedy was shot sloping down to an underpass and ramps to the highways beyond. There is the “grassy knoll,” and there is the Texas School Book Depository building, which is now a museum.

These historic spots feel ordinary, not larger than life, and there’s no particular fanfare about visiting. We parked at a meter a block away and crossed the street to the grass. What is extraordinary, and almost shocking to me, was the “X” marked on the street at the spot where the first bullet hit Kennedy.

Where the first bullet hit President Kennedy.
I stopped and stared, reliving the Zapruder film, the first color photos in Life magazine, Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” and many indelible freeze frames from the legend of this event. I stood near the “X,” too, and took a picture with the School Book Depository Building so eerily in the distance.

There is a memorial marker but it does not specify that this is the spot where President Kennedy was shot. It says, “Dealey Plaza has been designated a National Historic Landmark. This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America.” Whaaa? Ford’s Theatre acknowledges that President Lincoln was shot there. Why is this plaque at Dealey Plaza so vague? I’m sure Oliver Stone could provide a nuanced explanation.

There’s a plaque, also, on the Texas School Book Depository building. It has several paragraphs devoted to miscellaneous building history and then, at the bottom, this last note: “On November 22, 1963, the building gained national notoriety when Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot President Kennedy from a sixth floor window as the Presidential motorcade passed.” From the markings on the metal it appears many attempts have been made to excise the word “allegedly.”

The experience of being at Dealey Plaza is quietly emotional, but it also conjures the perplexing controversies and conspiracy theories that remain attached to the Kennedy Assassination to this day. Dallas probably wishes it could all go away, a bad dream, but it never will.
The Grassy Knoll, across the way, as it has been for years and years.
The Grassy Knoll again, with the overpass up ahead. When the shots hit, no one knew what happened. It was too quick. At this spot Mrs. Kennedy tried to climb out of the back of the limo and her Secret Service agent caught her. Texas Gov. John Connolly was wounded.
National Historic Landmark, only no explanation as to why.
The plaque on the Texas School Book Depository Building, with much gouging having been done to the word "allegedly."
NEXT WEEK: Austin, The Four Seasons Hotel, restaurants, and more heatwave.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.