Dispatches from the corn desert

Editor's note: Nightlife reporter Chris Conrad took a much-need vacation and returned home to Illinois for a visit with family and friends.

The Mail Tribune lost track of him somewhere in the vast reaches of corn and Home Depot parking lots. The following dispatches, sent at bizarre hours over the past two weeks, are the last we heard of him before they mysteriously stopped.

Sunday, Dec. 2

Finally I've returned after two years exploring the West Coast!

I gotta say, things haven't changed in Southern Illinois. Except maybe they have.

When did people stop giving a damn? On the drive home from the Indianapolis airport I can't help but notice how run-down things are looking. Was it always like this? Yards are piled with junk. Trash on sidewalks. Homes with peeling roofs and stained siding.

Where is everybody? I feel like that guy at the beginning of "28 Days Later" walking aimlessly through an empty world that ended not so much with a bang or a whimper but an indifferent sigh.

It's not until I get to my hometown Casey that I see a few people shuffling along the street. They look tired and angry.

Tuesday, Dec. 4

It now becomes clear.

Here's a funny story that's not so funny. Today someone else's mail found itself in my parents' box. I leafed through the stack of letters because I'm a nosy creep. Apparently the new neighbor is sorely in debt and unemployed.

His unemployment papers were included in the stack. Figuring he'd need these soon, I drove the three miles to his house to play mailman. When I got there he cursed the mailman while producing a stack of someone else's mail he'd received in his box.

And there on top were the unemployment papers.

We both shared a fatalistic laugh and I hit the door. When I got home my dad was pulling into the driveway.

"Any mail?" the old man asked.

"Got it wrong again," I said.

"He better get it right by next week. I gotta file for three week's unemployment," said the old man. "That check needs to get here on time."

Saturday, Dec. 8

Why is it every time I come home tragedy befalls my friends?

During a visit four years ago my best friend Kris met the woman who nearly ruined his life. The last time I was back my old buddy John and his wife were preparing for divorce — right before they learned a baby was on the way.

This time the same buddy awoke on my third day back to his current girlfriend beating him about the head and shoulders. He called me soon after, explaining how he needed to probably spend the night at my house.

"Man she sounds crazy," I said when he arrived. "Probably need to drop that one."

"Ah, I deserved what I got," he said. "She learned about the girl on the side."

"When did you start cheating on her?" I asked.

"The day you got home."

It was then I realized I am a walking shard of kryptonite and should probably take up residence on the North Pole. If you see me coming, oh ye young couples in love, run, run the other way.

Sunday, Dec. 9

A funny exchange in the Uptowner, my old college bar.

Bartender: "We're starting to get good stuff in here from the West Coast."

Me: "Good idea. Oregon beer can't be beat, for sure."

Bartender: "Try this stuff right here, man. Tell me what you think."

Me (taking a sip): "That's OK. What is it?"

Bartender: "It's called Fat Tire. Dude, this is the nectar of the gods, I'm telling you. Got one keg in and people are flipping."

Me: "Technically, Fat Tire isn't from the West Coast. It's out of Colorado. You should look into getting in Rogue beers or maybe Pyramid."

Bartender: "I read about Rogue Brewery in a magazine. That stuff looks pretty serious. I think we'll stick to the Fat Tire. That's about as exotic as it gets around here."

Monday, Dec. 11

Midwestern cuisine is to die for. Literally.

I can't remember anything I've eaten since I got here. Spices are a cultural taboo. Corn is a universal side dish, along with mash potatoes. Sometimes I see people mixing the both together in an attempt to overdose on starch.

The food is like dining experience: You remember shoveling something into your mouth. Chewing happens at some point, then swallowing. A ball forms in your stomach and suddenly you're not hungry anymore.

I try to stay away from the dinner table, but somehow I've gotten fatter in the week I've been here. How is this possible?

Tuesday, Dec. 12

Went to see "No Country For Old Men" at the Showplace 10 in Mattoon.

I caught it in Medford before I left. It was pummeled by a room of boos when the credits rolled.

Medfordites didn't like the ending, which just sort of happened without traditional narrative logic, you know, sorta like death. The Coen Brothers have been criticized for sticking too close to Cormac McCarthy's ending and embracing his bleak world view.

However, this Midwest audience loved it. Something about violent killers stalking a desolate landscape without hope of redemption or escape seemed to register with these people, myself included.

I'm looking forward to returning to Oregon, but despite it all, the corn, the bad beer and the Home Depots which have now supplanted Wal-Mart as the box dungeon of choice, I still miss this place.

It's now back to the Uptowner for one last gourmet pint of Fat Tire.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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