On Wednesday I rented a car and drove to Toledo. My friend John Hodgman would be talking on stage to his friend Sarah Vowell and that seemed like reason enough for a road trip. I don’t drive much these days so getting behind the wheel has come to feel almost exotic; a break from my routine and thus an odd but not unwelcome treat.
The route from Chicago to Toledo is pretty much a straight shot east and utterly unremarkable in terms of scenery aside from the industrial remnants of Gary, Indiana, which don’t require a trip to Toledo to see for a Chicago resident. But forgettable scenery leaves room for a mind to drift. I can’t recall much of that drift now but know it didn’t follow a pattern likely to be inspired by a walk or city bus ride—my usual modes of transport. I listened to podcasts too. Marc Maron talking to Ron Perlman, Terry Gross talking to Ray Liotta, and Brad Listi talking to Nicole Dennis-Benn. There wasn’t much traffic up until about five miles from my exit, when the tollway cut down to one lane for construction we crawled for about twenty minutes.
Because I no longer have a smartphone, I’d printed out the Google Map directions but managed to make a wrong turn anyway. I tried to correct course on my own but quickly gave up and asked for help at a gas station. Not having the internet handy forces one into more face-to-face interactions, which is not a bad thing for those of us who are naturally antisocial. As I passed under the tollway, Toledo’s city limits greeted me thus: You’ll Do Better Here.
The Stranahan Theater is an enormous brutalist edifice which I first drove up to from a side entrance. The path was decorated by a Private Property sign and a couple realtor’s For Sale ads. The place looked forlorn and deserted. Only a few cars in the vast lot and an old LED sign out front, periodically announcing that Pat Benatar and Dream Theater would be gracing the Stranahan’s stage soon. It was about an hour before doors were to open so I drove off in search of food.
Before leaving Chicago, I’d done a search of Toledo’s culinary choices, but nothing jumped out at me enough to print out more driving directions. Leaving the Stranahan’s lot, I turned in the opposite direction from where I’d come and quickly passed a completely ordinary-looking establishment called Ideal Hotdog. I doubled back and went in. I seated myself by the window and a friendly waitress asked if I needed a menu. The other diners were a couple solitary old men and a young family. I doubt any of them would’ve needed the menu. I ordered two Ideal Hot Dogs with fries. They arrived in front of me moments later, each covered in chili consisting entirely of crumbled meat. I texted John that I was in town and he asked if I could bring him a hot dog as a prop for his show.
I’ve known John since high school and it’s been quite a thing to watch his star rise. Each time he comes through Chicago his audiences seem to grow and his stage act seems to evolve and deepen. But Toledo’s not Chicago and judging by the almost deserted parking lot this show would not be a rousing success.
In the lobby a few fans milled around. Elderly women with nametags wandered about, making preparations to open the box office and stocking the snack bar with potato chips. One came out and announced that they wouldn’t be taking credit cards for ticket sales. This was a far cry from the typical Chicago Hodgman appearance, which usually sells out and seems carried along on the palpable excitement of his adoring fanbase of bespectacled nerds. In the VIP area to the side of the lobby, I handed John his hot dog and we made plans for drinks afterwards. To my surprise, by showtime the cavernous hall was more than half full. John’s polish worked well with Sarah’s deadpan reticence. Each read from their work. Sarah’s list of odd world despots included the three False Dmitrys, who were pretenders to the Russian throne and who I was very happy to learn about.
One of my favorite things about going to see John perform is the signing line afterward. In Chicago last time, this meet-and-greet lasted longer than his actual show. I love to sit just off to the side and watch the fans in queue psyche themselves up to meet their idol. What do you say to someone who means so much to you but doesn’t know the first thing about you? John is unfailingly gracious with these people because perhaps he’s not so far removed from knowing what it’s like to be in their place. At one point, Sarah remarked in mock annoyance, “You really take your time with them, don’t you?”
We drove to a deserted bar in downtown Toledo. Then crossed the street into a slightly less deserted one. There was barely anyone about on the streets at 10:30pm. A couple of John’s friends who drove in from Columbus joined us, while Sarah begged off citing exhaustion and having reached her socializing limit for the night. After a couple rounds we called it a night too. I had a four hour drive back in front of me and wasn’t about to do it drunk.
Twelve years driving cab and another three delivering Thai food have made driving almost effortless for me, but I was tired enough to pull into a rest area and take an hour nap. I made it back to Chicago by 4am, exhausting the rest of the saved podcasts on my iPod. I can’t say what Toledo meant with its You’ll Do Better Here motto and I’ll take a Chicago hot dog over an Ideal one every time, but I’m glad I went to see my friend and his friend get on stage and do their thing.