Afternoon in the Free State
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
Afternoon in the Free State
by Philip Denisch
Anneau, anneau! Darn! Every time the phone rings, I curse Tina (of Tina's Telephone Tellers). It never occurred to me to ask the telephone’s country of origin. Only after the installation did I notice the "Fabrique en France" sticker on the bottom.
"Hello--yes?" I eagerly say into the mouthpiece. I've been waiting for this call all month.
The voice on the other end says, "Are you ready yet?"
"Ready?" I ask. "I was born ready. I'll meet you there."
A mad dash for the door ensues. That call from my friend had an odd, Pavlovian effect on me. Every month Pierre (the chef at Gaston's Gallery of Gastric Gratifications) adds new selections to the menu. They are sometimes weird, sometimes unusual, and almost always delicious. That "almost" qualification comes from the arthropod additions a few months ago. While I am proud that I tried them, I don't think I'll be having them again anytime soon. There were those in the Free State who did enjoy them. "More power to ya" is all I can say.
Just a short trip across town and I would be deciding on which culinary rapture to treat myself. But how to get there? If there's one thing we are in the Free State, it's Free To Choose (happy birthday, Milton!). But this can sometimes cause consternation among its residents. The choices are many; but today, speed is the principal criterion. The last one there…pays. A free lunch in the Free State! Is this a cool world or what?
In my mind I run down the options. There's Crazy Carl's Copter Clipper, (main office used to be on Elm), but since I didn't call ahead, he may not make it here from the airport in time to get me to the restaurant faster than the alternatives. Besides, it's awfully expensive--probably more than the cost of a number of lunches. Although sometimes the satisfaction of victory outweighs the increased cost. Not today, though.
Let's see: The next-fastest would be Kooky Ken's Krazy Car-rides, but I wouldn't trust him to ferry pig iron safely. There was some talk a few months back about trying to restrict him from driving, "it being only a matter of time," as some said. More prudent opinions prevailed, and as he has not hurt anyone, no one could prove their prescience in the matter.
Another travel option was comfort. No one's ever complained about being taken for a ride by Lucky Lannie's Luxury Limo Lines. They are the crème de la crème of getting from here to there. The shiatsu massage seats are my favorite part. But today I needed fast service, and I didn't want to wait for Lannie to chill the bubbly while my friend beat me to the punch (spiked or otherwise).
Aha!, Yes I have it--Ted's Taxi. He could often be found around the corner, on Free Way. He liked to hang out in front of the sign that read, Department of Special Environmental and Ecological Services Bureau. Okay, so it was a park; empty except for grass, some bushes, a few trees, and a duck pond. No one ever accused Treehugger Terry, the owner, of not having a sense of humor. A quick dash down the block and I would be in the safe, speedy confines of his comfy cab.
Halfway there I couldn't help but pause, even in my haste, as I passed the road named Rand Way and its giant solid gold dollar sign at the far end. It really was magnificent, a tribute to the movers and shakers. A cool, inquisitive look from the security guards--not a courtesy, but professionally hired from Ragnar's Regiments, absolutely never on Elm Street--let me know I shouldn't dawdle if I didn't have any business there. Beside, I haven't dawdled in ages. On to the Free Way (yeah, I know, another yuk-yuk from the early signers) and Ted's capable conveyance.
I signaled to him as I approached, and he got my meaning. The car was started and ready to go as I climbed in. "Holy cow--is it the seventh already?"
I answered that it most certainly was. Ted apologized for not being right out in front. I guess he'd made a note about my monthly trip to the restaurant after last month's frantic pleading for the fastest way to Restaurant Row. He'd wanted to take me by the new water factory, at no extra charge of course; since I had failed to inform him of the urgency of my trip, I fear I was rather gruff.
After explaining to him the situation and convincing him not to drop me off at the next corner (or press the "Eject" button), he got me to the restaurant just after my friend arrived. With a wink he said he'd do better next time. I thanked him for not dumping me on the side of the road and apologized for being rude. Since he was graceful about it and charged a reasonable sum, I beamed him into my PDA for further use.
I've used him a few times since then. He was pretty close to being on time and always had an interesting thing or two to say about the Free State during the trip. It mostly consisted of pointing out the "Jason-slept-here." "Elizabeth-shopt-here." "Debra-taught-here" and "Joe-typt-here" signs. Every once in a while he had a more interesting observation about the differences between us and those across the river. It usually started with "Back when I was on the other side of the river…" and ended with how much better his life is now in the Free State.
Up ahead I saw the sign for the restaurant and no sign of my friend. I thought I’d beaten him. Just as I was about to congratulate Ted on a speedy job well done, I heard a sound I didn't like: the sound of a loud engine. Did my friend call Crazy Carl? Where was the closest place to land a helicopter? They would have to arrange ahead of time for landing permission, since most people know they can charge for that here. I poked my head out of the window to see where they were going, but to my surprise, all I saw was an airplane, not Carl's Clipper. "Ha. That can't be him. There's no place to land near here--all the roads are thin and have buildings near the street."
Then my heart sank; victory was snatched from within my grasp. As the plane flew overhead, a small dot appeared behind it. The spot grew bigger until I could see it was a person. A parachute blossomed, laden with a person coming in for a landing in front of the building we were just pulling up to. His shoes made a resounding slap as they hit the pavement. He had just gathered up his chute when I walked up and admitted defeat. I also commended him on his ingenuity in making the faster trip. After a quick greeting for the doorman, we entered into genuine excellence.
The maitre d’ greeted us with a curt but polite "How do you do?" The owner felt that a snobbish headwaiter who treated everyone as parvenu would help lend atmosphere. This worked especially well when you keep in mind that he only hired genuinely nice waitstaff. The bartender came over to take our drink orders. My friend enjoys dark British beer. They had many directly from the brewery in England--as always, duty-free in the Free State. I ordered my standard: one large glass of a carbonated cola beverage and one small glass of absinthe. I drink the cola and enjoy ordering something I know will never be outlawed here in the Free State.
Jack, our favorite waiter, comes to our table. He tells us the appetizer special is Panda Kebobs and we say, "Bring 'em on." It's amusing how we have sly grins on our faces, knowing that the rest of the world is worried about pandas’ extinction when just a few miles away at Patty and Paul's Panda Propagation Paradise, there are more bears than in the whole of China. It makes you wonder what the communists are doing over there after all.
what we've been waiting for: the menu. We scan the list of dishes
available searching for the latest additions. It's not that we
eat here so often we crave something new. On the contrary: I don't
think either of us have had everything on the menu, but novelty
is novelty. The chef realizes that newer items really have to
be spectacular to contend with the rest of the selections, so
they are often the best. I spot the first one, it's in the "pour
des démarreurs" section. "Pate foie de canard"
is the entry. Let's see…that's paste made from a duck's
liver--not quite my first choice, so I'm glad we've already ordered
My friend spots one in the seafood section: "concombre de mer et viande crustacéenne." What is this--French day? Having seen sea cucumbers in the wild, I decide to pass on this one. He also points out the: "les gros morceaux de viande de baleine avec de la sauce à calmar ont complété avec l'algue" I guess the longer the name, the more Gaston thinks he can charge for it.
My next find is on the "de la gamme" section: "grand morceau de rare cuit de vache" (received fresh daily from Buster Buck's Beefatorium). My friend says it is his current top choice. It's really a joy being able to order food cooked the way you want. With any restaurant, you are trusting your life. I trust this restaurant in the Free State more than those on the other side of the river. I am much more confident in a proprietor who concentrates on his business rather than on filling out government forms and pleasing inspectors who may or may not have an eye toward personal enrichment. Every restaurateur here in the Free State is inspected by each patron who comes through the door. They know if they ask to see the kitchen, they'd better be allowed to do so--and it'd better be immaculate. If not, they will walk out the door and to another establishment that is. Not that I'd personally like that kind of pressure, but I'd eat anything they serve here.
This leads to a joke Gaston likes to play.
There is usually one item on the menu that is decidedly unpleasant, and if you know French, you can spot it. For the rest of us it's a game to find which one is the "article truqué," in keeping with the French motif. I think I find it on the seafood page: "les vivant crabes juste dans votre plat." It was the combination of "vivant" and "crabes" that tipped it off for me. When I ask our waiter about it, he suggests with a wink that we would be happier with the "crabes morts cuits à la perfection" instead. At least I won that round. The most interesting item I find was the one I ordered, the "hibou rôti dans un lustre de sauce à écrou." My friend went with the "vache," and wondered how he never noticed it before. I guess when you can choose from twenty or thirty items, you miss some familiar ones.
After our appetites are sated (hardly a challenge, since the portions are always generous), we wait for the dessert cart. We don't always have room, but we always consider it. The pastry chef gets paid only for the items sold, and after hearing his story we always at least look. Besides, his cakes are the best I've ever tasted. He was a successful baker on the other side of the river until a local inspector found him using (gasp!) unapproved sugar. His shop was closed down, his bank accounts were seized for police department use, and his livelihood ruined.
Sadly, as good as everything looked, we just didn't have room. Since I had lost our race to the restaurant and had to pay the bill, my consolation prize was making the "check, please" gesture by pretending to write on my hand (I love that part). The bill was reasonable. If we had had this meal on the other side of the river, we'd surely have had to pay a lot more. It's amazing how great a difference less government can make—how much less costly things are here without all the regulations that affect everyone on the production line, from the farmer to the chef to the customer.
No regulation on the size of stickers identifying tomatoes as a particular kind of tomato. No tax on the fertilizer used. No tax on the gasoline for the tractor to plow the field; no tax on the land where the fields are plowed. No tax on the truck used to haul the food from the farm to the market. No licensing fee for the driver. No special use-tax on the tires on the truck. No peddler's permit needed to sell. No certificate needed to trade or barter. No credential needed to record the sales of your business. No onerous "Department of Health" worried more about signs in the bathrooms than whether the kitchen is clean. No income tax on the servers and workers; thus no need for the "It's not a tip--it's a gift" rigmarole. I could go on and on and on. I may get paid less; I also pay less, and that buys a whole lot more. And I'm not forced to use fiat government money, as long as the merchant accepts what I offer (I prefer the cool, Pieces-of-Porc coins).
Well, the meal is over. I bid my friend good-bye with a warning about next month: I'll beat him for sure (I'm still up on him, 3-4).
Now, how to get back. Reviewing my choices I find I am inclined to a horse-drawn conveyance, namely Horseman Harry's Horse-drawn Hackneys. A very relaxing and enjoyable way to return to the office. It will give me time to do something important: the rhythmic clip-clop can be conducive to an afternoon nap.
Also see: Evening in a Free State