Willows is the type of place where change comes, slowly, if not surely. They billboard advertising Jerry’s Restaurant, just east of town on 162, stood strong more than a decade after Jerry lost his head-to-head competition with more upscale cousin Denny for the rights to serve coffee and eggs to weary travelers on I-5. If you’re thinking that Denny’s isn’t exactly upscale, then you haven’t spent near enough time in freeway diners. The remaining namesake greasy spoon in Willows, Nancy’s Airport Cafe on the other side of the freeway is the kind of place where the cheese on your omelette is just a slice of Kraft laid on top of hot eggs. The kind place that people take pictures of themselves in front of because its just so small town kitsch. Maybe that’s why it’s been able to stave off defeat longer than Jerry’s, but doubtless its time will soon come, as Nancy herself has taken leave of the restaurant named after her, and the people who took over have apparently failed to live up to even the most base of culinary standards. Change comes slow, but it comes alright. Making my way into town I pass the Jerry’s Restaurant sign and see it’s been painted over white, with a black, bold-faced font imploring passersby by “Don’t Drink and Drive,” like a subliminal message frozen in time. I guess that’s progress. Maybe.
Though “Don’t drink and drive” is a very valiant imperative, if I had my druthers, I would’ve started at an even more basic point: “Don’t Drive.” Willows is, according to the Census, 2.9 square miles in area, meaning that, even if you account for one side being longer than the other, walking it length-wise or width-wise from city limit to city limit, would be at most a walk of a couple of miles. From anywhere within the city of Willows to anywhere else in the city of Willows, one can walk in about as much time as it would take to have a phone conversation, or listen to a couple of songs on an iPod, or even better, think a couple of good, quality thoughts. Thus, you would think that the residents of Willows would take advantage of this proximity and walk their way to not only physical well-being, as walking is a damn good form of exercise, but also financial well-being as well, as even at $1.70 a gallon, gas still goes fast, especially when you’re driving the full-sized Chevys and oversized SUVs seemingly preferred by the denizens of Willows. But on a fine November day, walking down Sycamore St., the main artery serving Downtown Willows, I am joined by no other pedestrians, having the complete run of the sidewalk on either side. That’s not to say there are not folks about, quite the contrary; the streets were teeming with automobiles, and as I approached the center of Downtown, where the Post Office, the movie theater and the meager spattering of retailers and businesspeople yet to be displaced by Wal-Mart still abide, there was no lack of people going about their daily business. However, this business was conducted wholly by way of automotive transport. It was as if the population of Willows were a colony of invalids, with wheelchairs of a more recent make and model. Every so often I would be joined briefly in my walks by a wayward youngster, not yet old enough to assume his birthright behind the wheel, or even more occasionally, an adult pedestrian, though these were by and large those who either could not afford a car or had been stripped of their right to operate one, usually by violating the super-liminal directive posted on the outskirts of town to “Don’t Drink and Drive.” And though they most certainly saw it as being quite the punishment, I would, if I were not in such a hurry, try my hand at persuading them that they were in fact being spared the punishment their fellow townsfolk were subjecting upon themselves not only willingly, but at no small cost to themselves! But alas, I was always on my way to this or that place and did not have the time, or more accurately, the stomach for proselytizing.
Far more difficult, perhaps, would be the second possible extraction of the above mantra, “Don’t Drink.” Because Willows is a town that knows how to drink, if not necessarily when to drink, or how much to drink. The one industry that is yet to be impacted by the arrival some years ago of the aforementioned Wal-Mart, is the liquor store industry, which seems to be as strong as ever. Likewise, the one bar in town that stays open as late as bars should, the aptly named Long Way Home Saloon, was doing a banner on a recent weeknight, though the cars out front were proof enough to that not Willows folks were not only drinking, but driving, and doing both in conjunction as readily as ever, despite the best efforts of the eager police force. Like I said, change comes slow.
Tags: billboard advertising, census, cheese, city of willows, cousin, culinary standards, denny, diners, druthers, eggs, freeway, greasy spoon, imperative, long way home, namesake, omelette, passersby, phone conversation, point don, subliminal message, weary travelers