The Doc and I have been taking some local road trips lately. Some for business, some for go karts, none for pizza. But they always seem to happen on or near Fridays. The first one was about a month ago when we went to Iowa for some business. He grew up there so he knew the pizza scene. The first night we were there we went to Fong’s. (which wordpress was insistent on making “Fong’sFong’sFong’s”)
Fong’s Pizza & Tiki Bar just barely sounds like a pizza place. That’s because it’s a Chinese restaurant that happens to do pizza too. Now I love Chinese food, and I love pizza. But the thought of the combination (as well as the smell inside the place) literally made me nauseated. That could also have to do with the fact that we were in the car for more than 4 hours, and the only real stop we made was to the WORLD’S BIGGEST TRUCK STOP (I’ll let the Doc unpack that nightmare of a place). I like Nutella and I like chicken noodle soup, but I don’t want to mix them. The Doc and his buddy kept reassuring me that this was going to be good.
There was a wait, so we put in our names and walked around the city a bit, and came upon a nice little piazza not too far from the restaurant. Des Moines, like other American cities is experimenting with putting upright pianos in public places, and encouraging people to just sit down and play them. New York City had these back in 2010, and it was basically an excuse for every yoyo in the city to sit down and play “Heart & Soul,” and thus slowly deplete the city of its actual heart and soul reserves. Or “Chopsticks” (the psychic damage that resulted from that I’ll leave to your imaginations).
So I sat down and played one of the two pieces I actually know from memory (despite being a more than capable pianist, I usually need the music in front of me to be able to play anything). One of the keys was missing, and it was generally very out of tune, but what do you expect from a piano that’s been painted, and left out in the elements? After me, the Doc took the bench and started playing some Billy Joel.
Now I know that the Doc studied music in college, but what I didn’t know was that he can actually play the piano. I don’t know why this surprises me. It ALWAYS surprises me when someone can play the piano. Even when it’s a musician. I know that sounds terrible, but in my mind it’s like singer sings, trumpet player plays trumpet, conductor waves, drummer DRUMS!!!!! etc. And it’s not that I think I’m particularly good at piano. I’m an average player at best. I can get around and I can coach people. When I was at my most competent I couldn’t play a Beethoven piano sonata well.
And there are singers out there (Heather Johnson, Clay Hilley) who can run pianistic circles around me (not to mention Sarah Asmar, who can run pianistic circles and play the heck out of the violin, in addition to singing). So if it amazes me that a conservatory trained musician can play the piano, imagine how I felt when I heard the Doc sit down to the keyboard and play some Billy Joel with the facility and idiomaticism (is that even a word?) of a professional musician.
I may be exaggerating here a little bit. I was just basically in shock that my best buddy had a skill that was dear to my heart that I had no prior knowledge of. It was a nice surprise.
As was the pizza. We were finally buzzed back to Fong’s, and the Doc and his buddy ordered up some kind of tentacle pizza anxiety-fest. The menu options were horrifying. When the server asked what I wanted (I had been laying down because of the nausea), I told her “I want the westernmost pizza you can possibly make. What is the least Chinese thing you have here?” And again, I love Chinese food. I do not want it on my pizza. She suggested a cheese pizza with sausage. There’s some kind of very special local sausage, and the Doc and his buddy went to school with the son of the Sausage Tycoon. There’s a story there I’m sure, and the Doc is much more prepared to tell it than I am.
After the Doc and his buddy enjoyed an appetizer of squid testicles, or whatever, we got our pizza. A decent root beer helped to calm my olfactory nerves and the pizza I ate ended up being absolutely delicious. I remember the meat part of it being better than I expected, and what really surprised me was the sauce. I was half expecting it to be a Thai Peanut or Sweet & Spicy base (two actual, terrifying options). But it was just a basic marinara. Not too spicy, not bland at all. Just the right amount of salt and olive oil. Really delicious. This pizza would be absolutely ideal for take out purposes, and in a less queasy mood I might have even enjoyed the atmosphere more.
Now on the other end of the expectations/surprise spectrum, down a dark, disappointment-filled alley, across a boulevard of betrayal and an avenue of anger, we have electric powered gokarting.
There are definitely killer gokarting facilities in Iowa, but the best ones require your own kart, and the Doc and I haven’t gotten to that stage of the addiction yet. The only option in town was one of these corporate gokart places (can’t even remember the name, don’t care. It’s very much like the K1 places that have popped up everywhere).
Now let’s clarify something here: the type of karting we do is gasoline powered. We have steadfastly avoided electric karts, and it turns out we have for a very good reason. Sure, the gas powered karts leave you smelling like a shell station, sure a lot of the people who work at these places are barely competent teenagers who already have a Weltschmerz that would make Werther envious. Sure electric karts can technically go faster.
But there is a catch in all of this. These chain electric gokarting places have really disappointing lego-structure course set ups. If you hit a wall, the wall just shifts and you have a new course. Also, the people who run the show there determine how fast you go. So for our first race it was the Doc, me, and two other beginners. It was very fast, and pretty exciting. But the car handled completely differently, and you got the sense that you weren’t really in control.
This sense was heightened tenfold in our second race which was me, the Doc, and about 100 dudebros. I was a little worried that we might actually die, because there was so much unchecked testosterone, and it’s way more worrisome to race with people who have no idea what they’re doing, than to race with very competent aggressive drivers. This promised to be a mix of aggressive and incompetent. YAY!
But not to fear! The adolescents that were running the show made sure that all of our cars were SIGNIFICANTLY slower this race. How do I know this? Well, on the first race I had to brake around the 1st turn after the straightway. If I didn’t, I would’ve careened into a plastic wall. The second race I could easily make the turn without even coming off the acceleration. After one lap I looked up at the screen showing our times, and sure enough, it was almost 2 seconds slower than the first race. And the dudebros proved to be slightly more competent than we had anticipated, but not much. So every time there was a little accident, the cars got laughably slow. I’m talking like 2 m.p.h. slow.
This happened several times. It even happened sometimes where there was no discernible problem on the track. It was absolutely infuriating. I understand that it must be an insurance nightmare to open these stores and you probably have to have a real check on what newbies can and can’t do. Hell, at our favorite Chicago place we’ve seen blood (the Doc can go into that one), and in Dallas I saw a woman mow down an employee who was waving a flag at her twice in a row! So yes, the whole thing can be dangerous. But isn’t that why we do it?
I mean besides the fortune and glamour.