Although the 2020 presidential primaries are already heating up, you wouldn’t know it by looking around Hal’s Diner.
The patrons of this central Iowa institution aren’t paying much attention to the latest Twitter feud between Beltway insiders, or the most recent squabbles between senators. No, these folks are far more concerned about real issues. Issues like the recent cold snap, the price of grain, and an out-of-town reporter who has been occupying the corner booth at Hal’s on a continuous basis since the summer of 2016.
Here in real America, where they have never heard of computers, where “getting jiggy with it” will land you in lockup ever since John Lithgow banned dancing, people are skeptical that Congressional leaders have their best interests at heart.
Some, like Karen Elmire, a Trump supporter who favors a wall on the southern U.S. border, are also skeptical that a newspaper reporter should be taking advantage of Hal’s 24-hour, 365-day policy to write a 46-part, 520,000-word series on the forgotten working class of America’s heartland while waiting for her employer to respond to her many, many emails. Ms. Elmire, 55, openly wonders whether any of the Democratic presidential candidates can gain a foothold in her sleepy farm community, and at what point the manager of Hal’s will rid the corner booth of the “increasingly feral” reporter and her makeshift bed, which is allegedly just a hollowed-out vinyl bench full of leftover hash browns.
During the morning rush, I meet Jim Hines, a fifth-generation soybean farmer and Iraq veteran who doesn’t mind sharing a few bites of his biscuits and gravy with a famished reporter whose employer has stopped reimbursing her receipts from Hal’s, and whose raids on the breakfasts of patrons who get up to use the bathroom mid-meal are becoming progressively more brazen and, occasionally, violent.
According to Mr. Hines, “I’m not really that interested in politics, sorry.” Glancing down at the table, he adds, “Wait, have you been stealing people’s pancakes and carving them into little pancake people?”
In fact, there is now a whole community of Pancake People at Hal’s, a hobby derided as “weird” by Lori Jamison, who is here with her kids, 7 and 9, and for whom the economy is a key issue in 2020. To hear Lori tell it, the Warrensburg of today isn’t the small town of her youth.
“It’s safe, the cost of living is pretty low — it’s just a really good place to raise a family,” she says, evidently forgetting to add, “but folks ‘round these parts have sure had it rough ever since the factory up and closed.”
“Oh, look, kids, the reporter lady used a Sharpie to draw a face on that pancake,” Lori says, withholding any indication of how she’ll vote in 2020 while smiling and moving her children to a table further away from me and my new pancake husband, Tim, who was recently elected mayor of Spatula City.
Spend enough time at Hal’s, and you’ll see working class folks coming in at all hours to share a hearty meal, presumably do opioids in the bathroom, and maybe even dispense some homespun real talk to a reporter who has consumed upwards of 70% of her calories over the past 32 months from those single-serve packets of half-and-half. Folks like Jeff Duerson, whose pickup truck is just sitting out there on the lot, but could definitely be hotwired and driven several hundred miles eastward if it comes to that.
“I like that Kamala Harris, to be honest. But I’ll vote for whichever Democrat wins,” says Duerson, eyeing the residents of Spatula City with some degree of interest. Is he a mercenary, sent here to wage war against the Pancake People?
“What?” responds Mr. Duerson, betraying nothing about who he might be working for.
But these days, the question on everyone’s mind is not which Democratic candidates might make a campaign stop to mingle with the locals here at Hal’s, but a more practical one: which of those candidates would be willing to give a beleaguered reporter a lift back to the East Coast, free of charge? Will it be Elizabeth Warren and her tour bus? Bernie Sanders and his snowmobile? Beto O’Rourke and his 2004 Pontiac Sunfire? Which candidate will be the one to win the hearts of the voters and, at the same time, rescue the good citizens of Spatula City from the evil recriminations of General Omelette and his Breakfast Sausage Army?
In the meantime, the patrons of Hal’s will continue ignoring the bickering in Washington and just keep on living the way folks in these parts have been for generations: going to work in the day, eating food, sleeping at night, and occasionally defending themselves from an out-of-town reporter who is willing to replenish her hash brown bedding by any means necessary.