I am driving across the country for no reason other than that I have not driven across the country before and therefore there is too much I have not seen. This seemed like a good time to do that.
Seeing Asheville, North Carolina for the first time was wonderful; seeing Hazard, Kentucky again after 52 years was not so wonderful. It hasn’t changed very much.
I had in Birmingham an expectedly wonderful dinner at the Highlands Bar and Grill and I was disappointed by a return to dinner at the Boone Tavern Inn in Berea Kentucky at which I spent so much time in the early Sixties.
In the old days part of the adventure of travel, a big part, was discovery. That’s still true of course. I used to love in the old days seeing signs advertising a restaurant five miles ahead, then at three miles, then at one, and then coming upon it.
It’s still possible to do it but it’s harder. The Interstate highways are so easy and tempting and the old roads not always so good. And the Interstate system, drawing so many motorists, has it made more difficult for small local eateries that once depended on travelers to prosper now, even survive.
But the bland predictability of the Interstate’s food offerings – Shoney’s, McDonald’s, Subway, Sonic, Pizza Hut – makes it impossible for a curious hungry man to stay on those highways.
So I found myself driving down Route 331 south of Montgomery, Alabama and I began seeing signs for It Don’t Matter Family Restaurant. I was about three hours from Eglin Air Force Base, my destination (that’s another story) and when I came upon the restaurant, I turned into its parking lot
It was 11 am, Sunday morning and 22 cars and pick up trucks were in the parking lot. I looked at their license plates and nearly all were from Alabama. I took that as a good sign and parked.
The glass door had a prominent sign asking me not to wear my sidearm into the restaurant and when I entered I saw a cavernous space with many, many tables and on the left two banks of steam tables. The greeter said, “We’re buffet today. Is that alright?”
She led to a table and asked, “Sweetened tea or unsweetened?”
“You must know I’m a northerner,” I said. She smiled sweetly.
I went to the buffet and saw what others were putting on their plates. Braised beef, fried chicken, lima beans, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, an array of salads, and so on and so on.
A big man wearing shorts and a T-shirt was moving among the tables talking cheerfully to people and I asked if I might meet him. Of course he had a story:
Pete Hayes has a complicated life. He is master plumber and a master electrician who works full-time for the Montgomery school system. In real life, however, he owns this massive restaurant to which he drives each evening after work and at which he spends his weekends.
In another real life he owns Highland Kar care, an auto shop next door to the restaurant. In a real life to come he is going to open a barbecue restaurant. And in a former life he was a professional wrestler. That was life he liked best.
He was based in Atlanta and wrestled in a different town each night, the Carolinas to Michigan. On weekends he returned to Atlanta for a Saturday morning television show, then drove to Chattanooga to wrestle in the evening, then to Marietta, Ga to wrestle on Sunday afternoon and then back to Atlanta to start the week again. He was knows as “The Enforcer,” sometimes “Los Lobos,” sometimes “The Masked Superstar,” and in the last part of his career “The Skullmaster.” I gather he was always the villain.
He bought the restaurant not for himself but for his son. He intended to be there only on weekends and only to grill steaks. The first time he did it, he went to a butcher in Montgomery before driving back and bought twelve steaks. They were sold out in the first thirty minutes of the evening.
The next weekend he bought 24 and they were sold out in an hour. Now he buys whole ribs and butchers them himself. A sixteen ounce ribeye for $18. I asked how that is possible. He shrugged.
I have nothing to say about Mr. Hayes’ wrestling career but I liked the food in his restaurant and I loved the place. His story seemed to me such an American story – a high school football star from a small town who became a maintenance man and really loved wrestling, still does – now an entrepreneurial with no interest beyond family and work – certainly no thought of retirement.
“Why would I do that?” he asked me.