Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ann Arbor's burrito wars

You've got to grudgingly admire the cojones on Tios Mexican Cafe owner Tim Seaver. 

He's a guy who, when the city of Ann Arbor bought the building he's rented for 23 years, waged a public-relations battle to force the city into helping him move. The city, almost ridiculously, did so, going as far as forgiving his final two months rent at the old location and expediting his new liquor license. 

"But I still wanted to beat up on them," Seaver told The Ann Arbor Observer

He's a guy who, upon finding a new location for his restaurant two blocks away from the original, solicited donations from customers in an attempt to raise $50,000 for the move. I am an educated man, but I cannot for the life of me understand why it would cost 50 large to move this business two blocks into a ready-to-use building.

He's a guy who dishes the worst Mexican food I've ever tasted and charges outrageous prices for the privilege of eating glop.

I've thought about Tios and Seaver a lot lately, in the context of a recently revamped burrito market in downtown Ann Arbor. Chipotle has arrived. One substandard Mexican eatery, Salsaritas, has already closed in the aftermath, and I wonder how long before Tios follows suit. 

Based on the fact Seaver resorted to hitting customers up for his move and is already in debt, according to this story, I do not expect it will survive. But what do I know? It has already stuck around for 23 years. 
I suspect that it has survived this long for a few reasons. One, for a long time, it just didn't have much competition.

Two, along those lines, Tios seems to be part of a certain group of Ann Arbor-area restaurants that are irrationally beloved by long-time town residents. For them, the usual quality barometers like food, ambience and service are secondary. Their chief criteria is homerism, and their opinions can be summed up like this: "If it's from Ann Arbor, it must be GREAT!" 

To these people, Tios has some hole-in-the-wall cache. 

To anyone who has eaten a Mexican meal outside Washtenaw County in, say, the past 20 years, Tios is disgusting. 
Burritos are filled with a porridge-like substance that masquerades as black beans. Meat is added in microscopic amounts. Guacamole, which costs extra, has the consistency of Jell-O. Pico de gallo is really, really bland. Heartburn is assured.

There's really nothing redeeming about Tios.

That's why I think Chipotle will ultimately win this battle. The demographics around town have changed enough in recent years that enough business people and college students have lived elsewhere before coming to Ann Arbor, and they now possess a base expectation for Mexican food. 

Chipotle simply tastes better. By a lot. (Random statistic: Chipotle spends 32 percent of its operating budget on food -- more than any other fast-food chain -- buying naturally-raised meat). Compared to Tios, it tastes far better, is less expensive and has a better location.

Looking at value instead of taste as the chief criteria, Tios still loses. Rio Wraps caters to the low-cost college crowd and tastes better. Not as good as Chipotle, but better. Taco Bell obviously, would be a fraction of the price, and I think that even tastes marginally better than Tios. 

Despite all of this, I do not wish for Tios to go away. There are enough vacant storefronts downtown that there's no need to add another victim to the dreary pile of economic casualties, especially a mom-and-pop operation. There's at least a few waiters and waitresses, not to mention Seaver and his wife, who depend on Tios for their livelihood. I wish them well. I hope they succeed.

If there's any reason to offer them hope, I think the fact Seaver now has a liquor license can potentially help his bottom line. That, and its delivery business is unaffected by the move. 

But the only thing that may ultimately save Tios is a commitment to serving better food at reasonable prices. 

Given that the restaurant is run by a man who threatens to beat city officials who have done nothing but bend over backward to help him, I'm guessing he's not eager to act upon that suggestion.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Synthesizing bromide in an argon matrix

Twenty-five years after his first attempt to test an air-based chemical laser ended in spectacular failure, it appears Dr. Jerry Hathaway's pet project is finally nearing success.

On Thursday, reported that Boeing piloted a modified 747-400 aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base and successfully fired a high-energy laser over the California desert. It was the military's first attempt since the original test destroyed Hathaway's home and equipment. 

"This was a significant test of the Airborne Laser's capabilities, demonstrating that the system has truly moved from the drawing board to reality," Greg Hyslop, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems told the Web site in this exclusive story.

First developed in 1985, the laser will again be tested in a missile shoot-down demonstration in coming weeks, building toward "lethal capabilities."

Hathaway, a long-time Pacific Tech professor, was unavailable for comment Thursday. Although Boeing officials could not comment due to the classified nature of the project, it is widely known that he has devoted his career to the Airborne Laser (ABL) project. 

His initial research famously ended when students Mitch Taylor and Christopher Knight learned of the military-based nature of their work, and sabotaged the first test by changing the coordinates of the laser's target.

Instead of zapping its intended target -- a JFK-esque motorcade -- the laser beam cooked a gigantic ball of popcorn strategically placed by the saboteurs in Hathaway's house. Heated by the laser, the kernels produced such vast amounts of popcorn that the Jiffy Pop shattered windows and unearthed the dwelling from its foundation.

The on-board laser then overheated and burned. Overall, the pratfall set the missile defense program back decades and destroyed Hathaway's academic reputation. 

Dr. Meredith, the dean of Pacific Tech, and a local congressmen rebuked Hathaway because he had misled students regarding the intent of their laser research, as well as administrators regarding his close ties to military officials.

Taylor went on to work as an earth-based engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In a twist, Knight immediately became a fighter pilot known as "Ice" at the prestigious Top Gun Academy outside San Diego.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

United Breaks Guitars awesomeness

If you have yet to see the above video about United Airlines purposely breaking a passenger's Taylor guitar, I wholeheartedly suggest you take a few minutes and watch United Breaks Guitars.

It is hilarious, and it details the airline's long-standing incompetence and criminal refusal to accept any responsibility for its negligence in purposely destroying a guitar, as witnessed by dozens of passengers.

You would think after this latest public relations blunder, someone at the country's worst major airline would think about taking steps to change the culture of this company. But as someone who has kept tabs on United's horrid customer-service reputation for the better part of a decade, I know it won't change a thing.

United has all the public-relations charm of Nurse Ratched.

It is a company that is irreparably broken.

You can see for yourself by reading thousands of customer-service complaints about the airline at, a web site which provides a courageous public service by shining light on the airline's years-long bumblings with scathing critiques. The vitriol is not only penned by passengers, it's also dished by employees who often tell harrowing stories about the company's complete disregard for safety. SOme of the whistleblowing stories on there are frightening.

One of these passenger letters was my own, a five-page, single-spaced screed, published back in June of 2002 in what was perhaps the angriest letter I've ever written to admonish a company for shabby treatment.

Thanks to the band responsible for the smash-hit United Breaks Guitars for jumpstarting this trip down memory lane. I'm re-printing my letter here:

To: Mr. Jack Creighton, CEO
CC: Aviation Consumer Protection Division

Dear Mr. Creighton:

There is a reason people are flying less nowadays. It has little to do with fear generated by the Sept. 11 attacks. It has everything to do with the fact companies like yours treat passengers like garbage.

Two summers ago, your industry went before Congress and promised to clean up its act after its deplorable performance through the peak travel season. Instead, all passengers face is longer lines, inexplicable delays and a further descent in service.

After that infamous summer, your company printed apologies for its blunders at the bottom of every itinerary. Typed, computer-generated words enhanced the warmth of the oh-so-sincere message.

Clearly, those words were nothing but lip service.

I am writing you today regarding my latest woeful experience on your airline, as well as the general malaise your company's incompetence has created in the flying public.

There are so many problems with your airline, I do not know where to begin. Let us start with my flight, United 428, from Denver to Newark, N.J., on April 19.

Upon arriving at the airport, I find the new security company, hired by United to replace Argenbright, has implemented strict new measures requiring every passenger to be finished with the check-in process one hour prior to departure.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this new procedure, except for the fact your staff is ill-equipped to handle it. And no passengers were ever notified regarding the change.

As is now standard, I arrived at the airport two hours prior to departure. But because you had so few personnel working in the front, I did not make it through this maze of a line until 50 minutes had passed. I was lucky.

An estimated 40 percent of the people in line did not enjoy such success and missed your new one-hour deadline. This resulted in general chaos and well-deserved anger, as passengers were re-booked on later flights to meet this new and previously unannounced change in procedure.

Lets skip that problem for a few moments. Lets pretend your ridiculously strict enforcement of a previously unannounced rule change never happened. Lets skip directly to the problems on board flight 428.

With the flight nearly completed, a freak thunderstorm hit the greater New York area and produced tornado-sized winds. Our flight was diverted to Washington Dulles. As aggravating as weather problems can be, I know they cannot be avoided.

What occurred on the ground at Dulles, however, was a disgrace.

After refueling the Boeing 777 at Dulles shortly after 5 p.m., ground control informed our pilot Newark would reopen at 6 p.m, and that we should be airborne no later than 5:45 p.m. and into Newark by 6:30 p.m.

Instead of making the best out of this situation, the heavy-handed pencil-pushers who run United Operations at Dulles decided to combine two smaller Newark-bound flights onto our plane.

First, we were told it would be one flight. So we watched all the passengers from this first flight climb aboard and find seats. After waiting nearly an hour, we seemed ready to leave.

But then United Operations told us they decided that passengers from yet another commuter flight would be transferred onto our plane. We had to endure the entire process again.

As one of your own flight attendants said shortly after the second announcement, "This isn't a flight. This is a disgrace."

At 8 p.m., approximately two-and-a-half hours after we could have left, we finally left for Newark. Aside from the fact we were denied food during the ordeal, we wasted countless hours on top of the initial weather delay.

Your operations department capitalized on our helplessness.

Your Newark Operations crew fared no better. Although we were only the third United flight to arrive after the fierce storm, according to a baggage handler, it took your ground crew 50 minutes to get our luggage onto the carousel.

Four hours after we were originally scheduled to land, already-flustered passengers had the added pleasure of waiting nearly an hour for their bags.

(And while we're on the subject of Newark baggage claim, I've stood in grimy New York City alleys less seedy than your baggage area. It is a cesspool).

But that is no surprise. From the beginning, starting with the awful security company you hired in Denver, to the end, every aspect of the trip brought nonstop aggravation. All of these problems fostered nothing but animosity toward your airline.

Of course, that animosity has existed since your wretched summer of 2001. But your poorly planned, knee-jerk responses to the Sept. 11 hijackings have only exacerbated these feelings.

Newly implemented measures are nothing more than a big dog-and-pony show, none of which would have stopped the tragedy. For all your PR-spin, you still do not X-ray every checked bag. You still do not bag-match, despite assurances to the contrary. You hassle your paying customers while allowing the real dangers to persist.

And all passengers get for your toothless measures are longer - and unpredictable - lines. An hour at check-in. Two hours in the security line. Another hour at the gate.

By the time I navigate the maze of your disgraceful check-in procedures and arrive at the gate, then fly to my destination, I may as well have driven. I can drive from Denver to Chicago, and arrive only two hours later than if I had flown United.

As more people realize this, many will choose that option, which will only have a worsening effort on your already-poor fiscal health.

Of course, these new procedures only magnified your pre-existing ineptitude. United already flirted with bankruptcy before that day, thanks to years of fiscal imprudence and the crescendo of anger during the summer of 2000.

While I have great sympathy and compassion for United employees who were affected by Sept. 11, I resent the fact United corporate shills milked the sympathy card before Congress and received a $15 billion bailout.

As a taxpayer, I am happy to support a troubled industry after the cowardly attack on our country. As a taxpayer, I am outraged you would request these funds under the guise of Sept. 11 relief, when in fact you are looking to recover from years of fiscal avarice and galling treatment of passengers.

Airlines go bankrupt for a reason, sir. One of which is because they can no longer meet the reasonable expectations of your customers. Why should taxpayers support your anemic airline when well-run companies, such as Southwest, turned a profit through bear-market times?

I have written my elected representatives, urging them not to grant you further financial relief and to let the free market work its course. I have also implored them to revisit the issue of passing a true passenger's bill of rights, which your lobbyists skillfully scuttled two summers ago.

Now, more than ever, passengers deserve that legislation. Two years later, you still treat customers as if you believe we are too inattentive to notice your incompetence or too apathetic to care. I can assure you the latter is not true. We have endured United's shameful conduct for far too long.

Thankfully, Jet Blue and Frontier are finally emerging as legitimate challenges to your monopoly of the Denver market. I am rooting for them to succeed, and will continue to fly them as much as possible.

You are not losing customers such as myself because people are afraid to fly. You are losing customers because you make it inherently inconvenient and aggravating to do so.

I long for the days when the worst complaints about airline service were regarding the food. Now, I hope for the day when United will follow Braniff and Eastern into the bankruptcy courts.

It is not out of any malice these wishes are born. Only when United is gone, however, will we receive efficient and responsible service from a major carrier in Denver. Until then, we can only vent our frustrations regarding your inane procedures, needless flight delays and empty promises.

Please save your canned apology letter for the endless list of affronts.

I've had enough of your company's hollow regrets. If you are not prepared to offer compensatory measures, such as additional Mileage Plus miles or class upgrades on future flights -- measures to show you are genuinely sorry -- than I have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with United.

Mr. Creighton, I understand you assumed the title of CEO only in recent months. I wish you well in your efforts to reverse the sagging performance of your company.

But after more than 50 trips in the last three years on your airline, there is only one lesson that reverberates through my mind.

At United, nothing ever changes.


Squawking VFR

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Taking a stab at Air France 447

Interesting story by Alan Levin in Monday's USA Today that suggests National Transportation Safety Board investigators could look to a plane crash from 35 years ago to perhaps explain what happened to Air France 447.

What's the connection?

Early focus of the Air France investigation has centered on the plane's airspeed indicators, which could have malfunctioned, causing the pilots to tragically misinterpret the readings of their most-needed instruments.

That sounds similar to what caused a Northwest Orient 727 crash in Bear Mountain, New York in 1974.

The USA Today story offers some nice play-by-play of the Northwest crash, but doesn't really get into the guts of the most important part -- the "why." Why did the pilots reacted the way they did to a malfunction, effectively stalling the plane and sending it into a graveyard spiral.

So we'll do that here.

A quick primer on the pitot-static system

There's six basic flight instruments that makes up what's known as the "six pack" in the instrument panel. Three of these -- the airspeed indicator, altimeter and vertical speed indicator -- receive their information from the pitot-static system.

(In bigger jets, the machmeter also receives its information from this system, which is important to note, given the accidents we're discussing. But in the interests of keeping this relatively readable, I'm not going to get into details that will put you to sleep).

In its simplest form, the pitot-static system is comprised of a pitot tube (rhymes with speedo) and a static port.

The pitot tube is typically mounted on a wing or the fuselage, depending on the aircraft, and looks like a little stick with a hole at the tip jutting into the wind. It measures the direct pressure of the air blowing into it. The static port, which is a little hole on the side of the plane about the size of a pinhead, measures atmospheric pressure.

Airspeed is measured by the difference between the direct pressure and atmospheric pressure is compared.

When the pitot-static system fails

Blockages in the pitot tube and static port, while not common, aren't particularly rare either. Ice can easily gunk up the pitot tube, so there's a heater on most pitot tubes. The static port can often get bug juice in or around it, so there's an alternate static source.

Even with those runarounds on potential problems, all pilots must know how those three key instruments are affected when the static port or pitot tube -- or both -- are blocked.

What happens when the static port is blocked?

Well, this is serious because it affects all three instruments. The altimeter will stop at the altitude at which the blockage occurs. The vertical speed indicator will show level flight, no matter if the plane is climbing or descending. The airspeed indicator will show a slower-than-actual speed in a climb and a faster-than-actual speed in a descent.

What happens when the pitot tube is blocked?

In a way, it's simpler, because only the airspeed indicator is affected. But it's also a more nefarious problem. The airspeed indicator will function as an altimeter, showing an increase in speed as the plane climbs, even if actual airspeed is constant.

Northwest Orient, 1974, Bear Mountain, N.Y.

So far, I've given you a lot of basic theory. Here's how it actually applies in the case of the Northwest Orient flight referenced in the USA Today piece:

Crews are usually trained in some capacity to maintain a constant-airspeed climb at such-and-such a power setting.

So imagine you're the pilots aboard this flight, thankfully a repositioning flight with only three crew members aboard. As you continue your climb through 16,000 feet, you notice that you're climbing at 300 knots when you should be at 200 knots.

(I don't know the actual figures for the 727 climb; I'm just using them as an example).

What are you going to do?

Keep in mind one of the basic rules of flight: Pitch plus power equals performance. These guys did what makes sense. They decreased their power and pitched the plane up in an effort to slow down to 200 knots.

Unfortunately, the Northwest pitot tube had iced over. Their airspeed indicator was showing a faster-than-actual indication, essentially functioning as an altimeter and increasing as they climbed. In reality, the pilots were on their target climb speed.

By decreasing their power and pitching the plane up, they slowed down to something slower than their stall speed -- remember that from our original Colgan post? -- and induced an aerodynamic stall and subsequently spun the plane into the ground.

AeroPeru 603

There's another crash not mentioned in the original article that's worth mentioning here, an accident involving an AeroPeru flight in 1996 that had multiple instruments fail because the nimrods washing the plane beforehand taped over the static ports and forgot to remove the tape.

It was a night flight in instrument conditions. These poor folks didn't know which way was up, how fast they were going, or whether they were headed up or down. They crashed into the ocean 25 minutes after takeoff.

There's a fascinating National Geographic special on AeroPeru 603 that I recommend watching on YouTube if you have a half-hour to kill.

While speculation centers on the pitot tube in the Air France crash and AeroPeru involves the static ports, this could nonetheless be a really strong comparison, in the sense that you have false instrument readings caused by massive problems in the pitot-static system ultimately leading to disaster.


Crews are trained how to spot anomalies between the instruments that would lead a pilot to realistically catch the error. On a typical flight in instrument meteorlogical conditions, there's a constant cross-check of the instruments in the six pack to verify and confirm information.

In the heat of the moment, could you miss something that leads to a crash? Absolutely. There has to be a lot that goes wrong to get to that point, but yeah, it is feasible.

You could make the argument that if the Air France 447 pilots had been distracted by a vicious thunderstorm and alarms buzzing about incorrect airspeed readings that there was enough confusion that they did precisely the wrong thing.

That's an awfully big leap to make at this point. I'm sticking to what I said the other day -- there's so much information still missing from the Air France puzzle, that it's not prudent to even make an educated guess as to what brought it down.

But since USA Today is offering up a theory, we'll dissect how it might have applied to Air France 447. Right now, it's as good a guess as any.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Update on regional airlines

In the wake of a string of deadly regional airline crashes, none more egregious than the Colgan Crash in Buffalo, the Federal Aviation Administration is finally taking some steps in the right direction.

It's listening to Squawking VFR.

After our special report detailing the safety chasm between mainline and regional airlines on May 19, the agency Wednesday recommended several changes that addressed the lapses that led to Buffalo as well as the overall safety of regionals.

A list of recommendations introduced included:

- Addressing fatigue. New rules governing flight and rest time for crews.

- Immediate development of a system for tracking pilots who repeatedly fail performance evaluations.

- Demand that mainline airlines ask their regional partners to "mirror their most effective safety practices."

- Upgrade training standards.

Overall, these are only ambiguous proposals, and there's a ton of pencil-pushing ahead before anything of substance gets done. But the fact the notoriously slow-to-act FAA is issuing these recommendations provides unstated acknowledgment of the severity in the safety gap between regionals and mainliners, which forgive me for mentioning, was first unearthed here at Squawking VFR.

A couple of things stand out from this report.

First, there's the simple fact that the Colgan crash in Buffalo is becoming a watershed moment for U.S. commercial aviation, the likes of which perhaps have not been seen since the crash of an L-1011 in Dallas in August of '85 that prompted sweeping interest, research and investment in equipment to help combat wind shear and microbursts.

Next, the most interesting of these proposals to me is the third, and it's also the one that leaves me most skeptical.

The FAA is essentially saying that regionals should be held to the same standards as the majors, which is great and everything. But one of the main reasons the majors contract with the regionals is because there is less-stringent requirements in place.

When you hire a pilot with 1,000 hours, you don't have to pay him or her as much as one with 10,000 hours. In terms of experience, it goes without saying that you get what you pay for.

And I'm skeptical of how that could really change or be legislated.

Don't get me wrong, it's good -- and past due -- that the FAA is trying. But whatever proposals they bring to the table will probably meet fierce resistance from the airlines and their lobbying minions.

I hope the proposals don't get watered down, because as I've stated before, the flying public deserves something more than the regional owners ducking the blame for an unenviable safety track record.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Air France 447

Despite overwhelming demand from my readers, I wanted to let you know the post on Air France 447 is going to be very slow in coming.

There's just so little to go on right now, that any speculation I could come up with would be merely a crapshoot.

Squawking VFR prides itself on at least making educated guesses when it comes to figuring out why planes fall from the sky. I can't come close to offering any insight right now, so we'll withhold the post until we can.

In the meantime, I've got a couple of other posts in the hopper that should be ready in the next few days.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A religious experience with Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers

Two things you need to understand about me and concerts.

1. Previous spontaneous concert-related road trips have ended in disaster.

A few years back, with a day off from work and an evening shift the following night, it dawned on me that nothing stood between me and a six-hour jaunt from Denver to Santa Fe to see the rollicking Philly-based band, Marah, play a little New Mexican bar.

This sounded like a terrific idea, so off I went down I-25 on a blazing summer day in a jeep with no air conditioning, my only companions a few Grateful Dead cassette tapes and the anticipation for the show.

I had seen Marah weeks before, when they blew the roof off some pissant dive bar on East Colfax in Denver, working themselves into a fervor worthy of a sold-out stadium crowd, not for the applause of a handful of mangy drunks sitting on bar stools.

Couldn't wait to see them again, sure that I was catching the next great American rock-n-roll act in its infancy.

So you can imagine that I vomited in my mouth a little when I pulled into the parking lot of that Santa Fe bar, walked to the door and saw a small 8.5x11-inch sign on the door that regrettably stated Marah's van, Adrian, had broken down in the Arizona desert, and that there would be no show tonight.

2. When it comes to seeing Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, I have even worse luck.

Every time they scheduled a show nearby, often when I lived in Colorado, I was out of town, in the midst of a Broncos playoff run, chained to the desk, etc. It felt like I suffered a dozen near-misses.

When Mrs. VFR and I actually made it to the Gothic Theater to see The Peacemakers, nee The Refreshments, I felt thrilled. Much like the aforementioned Marah show, my anticipation for a ballyhooed live act zoomed sky high.

So when Mrs. VFR developed a violent migraine two songs into the performance that forced us to leave, the experience wasn't all that surprising, given my track record.

Two weeks ago, Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers played an underrated little venue called The Ark right here in our hometown.

Where was I? In Chicago.

Where was I the next night when they played Chicago? Back in Ann Arbor.

All this serves as a long-winded preamble to what transpired last Wednesday, when I noticed on their tour schedule that RCPM would play Fort Wayne, Indiana, approximately about 150 miles southwest of here.

The mind started whirring.

Baby sitting? My visiting mother-in-law could provide support. Work? I could surely sneak out a few minutes early, leaving me with just enough time to reach Fort Wayne before 8 p.m. Mrs. VFR? Graciously on board with the plan.

5:20 p.m. I grab a few albums off the messy stacks on the closet floor for the ride and get out the door. I'm a little bummed that it's a solo venture, and that no Facebook friends could see the genius of this quick-turnaround trip when I scrounged for last-minute comrades. But nonetheless happy that, yes, I would finally see a RCPM show.

6:48 p.m. I'm admiring the rural farmland on an empty I-69. A beautiful sunset cast orange rays on red barns. I let the stresses of the job and the soon-to-be no job recede for the first time in weeks as the Rockwellian landscape blurred together outside the car window.

Tranquility was short-lived.

I come around a curve about 10 miles north of the Michigan/Indiana border and find a sea of brake lights and orange-and-white-striped barricades across the highway.

"Road closed."

A state trooper directs all traffic onto a single-lane road off the exit ramp, and I start doing math. Seventy minutes to showtime. Sixty-seven miles to Fort Wayne. Zero on the speedometer.

This looks bad. Immediately wonder if I should give up and go home, if I was going to spend an hour in traffic, if this is just the latest in my series of RCPM mishaps.

7:02 p.m. After zig-zagging through backroads in an off-the-map small town, I've navigate the detour, get back on the interstate and presumably avert the crisis. I'm also in Indiana, having crossed the border at an unmarked site.

In my peripheral vision, I catch what looks like a black plastic garbage bag slowly blowing across the highway. It's not a plastic bag.

Upon closer review, I determine the object is a Frisbee-sized turtle huffing it across two lanes of traffic. He's on the striped center line when I veer to the right to avoid him.

I thought of a symbolic chapter in Grapes of Wrath that describes just such a scene. There's only one truck far off in my rear-view mirror. I think he's got a chance. Godspeed, Mr. Joad.

7:58 p.m. I arrive at Come 2 Go, the venue for the evening's entertainment. Here, I'm hit with the second curveball of the trip.

Come 2 Go is not the bar I assumed it was, with peanut shells on the floor, cheap swill on tap and a country twang in the Hoosier night.

It is a church.

A pot-bellied man wearing army fatigues and a beret collects my $10 entry fee. An illuminated cross hangs in the rear corner of the establishment and casts a t-shaped shadow on the floor below.

Pictures of mission trips and charity events are on the walls. Chairs are set up on a carpet that surrounds a stage that, to the church's credit, seems decked out in state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment.

What to make of this development?

Mr. Clyne and his merry bandmates are known for enjoying their tequila during the show. Would this not happen? (No, it would not). Would they still be the fantastic live act I'd heard about?

8:50 p.m. The Peacemakers take the stage.

"How many of you have seen us play before," Clyne asks.

A smattering of hands go up, maybe a dozen.

How many of you have seen us play sober before," he asks.


8:55 p.m. If you haven't heard of them, they're most famous for writing the theme song to Fox TV's "King Of The Hill," although fans appreciate them more for their straight-up rock that sways into an alt-country style at times.

The Peacemakers are sort of like the Jimmy Buffett of the Southwest, specializing in escapist tales about banditos, missions and south-of-the-border hookers. They bring a mass of hard-core fans to Mexico every year for a couple of hard-core shows.

That's the sort of vibe with which they they kick off the Fort Wayne show, keying up "Americano," one of their signature tunes.

In the crowd, there's about five or six of us rocking out in front of the stage, with maybe a dozen or so others crowding around nearby but demonstrating less enthusiasm. Approximately 50 to 60 others are in attendance, and they situate themselves near the back of the room.

It's a wacky group of concert-goers.

I'd estimate 30 percent of the people there had gray or no hair. Thirty percent were teeny-boppers too young to frequent any alcohol-serving establishments. I'm pretty sure none of the people in the two aforementioned groups had ever heard of Roger Clyne.

Of the remaining third, ranging from 20s to 40s, there's about 10 who seem to know the words to the songs.

Nearby, there's two twins with fiercely curly black hair who look like asexual Pat from Saturday Night Live. They would stand six feet from the stage expressionless and emotionless through the entire show.

There's also an obese man wearing a pony tail and a Randy Moss Oakland Raiders jersey, but he seems to be in much better spirits.

9:00 p.m. Americano finishes.

There's a few awkward claps, but silence in the room.

I fear this is going to be a dead crowd, and a mailed-in performance.

9:01 p.m. Clyne smoothly transitions into Counterclockwise, another excellent choice I hoped would make the setlist. It's got a catchy pop sound that's Mellencampian at times, which I figured would be a hit here in Fort Wayne.

9:24 p.m.
Ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem:

So give your ID card to the border guard
Yeah, your alias says your Captain Jean Luc Picard
Of the United Federation of Planets
'Cause they won't speak English anyway

Everybody knows
That the world is full of stupid people
So meet me at the mission at midnight
We'll divvy up there

9:33 p.m. The crowd is stirring a little bit, just enough to eliminate the stony awkwardness.

Some of the folks, chiefly the asexual Pat twins, remind me of the people I met at the Christmas Cult Party of 1999, which I attended with my friend Brian Roth, at which I met Tom Petty, The Heartbreaker, not to be confused with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

The vibe is the same.

So much like I did at that party, I attempt to view my fellow concert-goers with a wide lens and enjoy the wackiness for what it is: A rock concert in a church. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I'm even trying to look on the bright side. An audience from all walks of life -- teeny-boppers, grandmothers and a few toothless folk -- unified by the holy spirit of rock-n-roll. Reverend Roger Clyne presiding.

That's kinda cool.

11:02 p.m. Whatever thoughts there are about the crowd, there's no mailing it in from the band.

They put the finishing touches a 2-hour, 15-minute show that is well worth the drive down, well worth the years-long wait. All told, they probably played about 24 songs, reaching back into their early catalog for much of the setlist.

They spent the last half hour or so taking requests from the audience, and finished the night with "Switchblade," a request from yours truly.

I was just as impressed with them after the show. Mr. Clyne and his bandmates stayed around and chatted with anyone who wanted to talk. No big-timing it out of the venue or anything. They have some serious cred, but they don't take themselves too seriously.

They heaped a good deal of attention on a kid who stood up front who looked about eight years old, and was definitely attending his first concert, which was particularly good to see. The kid ate it up, and walked out with a pair of drumsticks, among other souvenirs.

The guy who appeared to be running the show at Come 2 Go also did a bit of crowd-working afterward, making sure everyone had a good time and chatting with his congregants, all in a sincere, genuine fashion.

All in all, the Come 2 Go people seemed like nothing but nice Midwesterners. Kudos to them for their show and hospitality.

Someday, I'd love to hear their story of how they started dabbling in the business of hosting rock acts. For this night, though, it was time to hit the highway and get home.

11:48 p.m. Back on the highway somewhere near Angola, Indiana, and I realize I haven't eaten anything but a granola bar and banana since lunch. Desperate, I stop for my first bout of fast food since September 2007, when I grabbed some Burger King on the way to Nathan's apartment for our very first project meeting.

"Welcome to Wendy's, can I take your order?"

"Yes, what's the least-disgusting thing on your menu?"

1:37 a.m. After a fairly brutal drive spent enveloped in a blanket of thick fog, I finally roll into D-Town. Two vile strips of fry-pit burger lurch in my stomach, and I'm thankful to be home.

I check on Baby VFR, eat some cereal and sack out as soon as my head hits pillow.

All in all, a very enjoyable experience for a Wednesday night.

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