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Back Home Again in Etna Green, Indiana

The Etna Green Cafe

Some places are worth revisiting–others not so much–but in the world of small town cafes, the Etna Green Cafe is a good one. I hold some eateries close for reasons not entirely related to food, although that is important in satisfying human desires. Positioned on the corner of Indiana old route #30 and Indiana State route #19, east of Bourbon and west of Atwood, on the sort-of-north side of the town, the parking lot is full of trucks. American trucks. Pickups. Trump Country.

I stop by Etna Green when I can, even though my relatives run a more up-scale espresso bar and cafe a few miles to the east, named The Crazy Egg. They have a great chicken-themed gift shop, make sixteen ounce lattes deliciously, and serve breakfast and lunch entrees from 7 am till 2 PM. But their yellow and grey metal chairs do not fit my body so comfortably as wooden ones.  So I happily support their espresso stand and take my breakfast hunger down the road, quietly. Some choices are made on ethereal and physical feelings of comfort.

The Etna Green Cafe is midst a revival–in decor, menu, and spirit. The son has succeeded his father in ownership and change is underway. Although change is difficult to some, I think happy days are ahead for this small town bastion of conversation and knowledge. The new paint on the east side of the building is a gorgeous shade of green. Of course it is!

Sneaking in for a bit of clandestine eavesdropping is difficult. Sam sits at a table just inside the door and notices who enters. On this day he is the conversational linchpin that holds the group of four on topic.  Before they noticed me, an almost stranger in their midst, the conversation is concerning Stormy Daniels’ interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN the night prior.

“Did you watch it?” Sam asks.

“Nah,” the man across and over replies. And they move right on to another topic. Apparently it is not worth the time to discuss. This surprises me.

But then Sam catches my eye, and says, “I know you. It’s been awhile. Can’t remember your name.”

I am found out, and give my name and he sharpens up. He is a large man in a while polo shirt, with a short beard and bulbous nose. I have walked into his domain and we both know it. Of course that’s  why I have come. I want to know what’s on the hearts and minds of those in small town northern Indiana– a deeply religious, farming community perched on the edge of dry, brown winter fields of cornstalks. A tough looking place, in cold not-yet-spring March. These retirees have not yet pulled up stakes for Florida.

Usually I come alone, hunker down in a corner table by the door, eat my food and scribble a few notes. But this time my husband is along, and he tolerates my banter with the men. I think they may have politened up a bit because he is along, but I’m not sure. His presence throws them off their game. They have that small-town respect for strangers.

I met Sam upon my first visit to the café, although he’s not the one I wrote the most about. That character died this winter, with his stories about riding horses as a little boy, and the later-told story about him and his quiet hit and run car accident. It didn’t take long for the café folks to figure that incident out, and an apology came eventually.

There are a few new-to-me men in the social circle this morning, so I plan to be guarded in my comments. No point in alienating them right off. Strategy is necessary if I am to measure the pulse.

The Café men seem to hunger for outside opinions and information—today’s group of four are arranged over a couple of tables. After my initial hello I get the first question: “Where are you from? Washington?” one asks.

“The other Washington.” I say. My hands begin to sweat.

“That other swamp is pretty deep,” someone says. I let that pass.

“Is Washington a Sanctuary State?” asks Sam.

“Seattle is I think,” I say. “But I’m from north of there an hour, in a big agricultural valley.”

“Do you agree with all that?” one asks.

I consider my answer carefully. I’m deep in Trump country, and yet I am often surprised by local, independent opinions.

“Where I’m from we see people’s lives disrupted by the INS— families broken up, farmers trying to figure out where they will find agricultural workers to take up the slack if they loose theirs. It’s not that simple,” I say. A few heads nod.

“Do you think the student protests again guns will change anything?” A guy I’ve not met before is asking. “Everybody ‘round here has guns. There’s a lady up the street that has an AR-15.”

“What’s she doing with it?” I ask.

“She just likes it I think,” he says. “She’s never fired it.”

I wait a full beat. “Not sure about the protests,” I say. “During the Viet Nam protest years things changed. Eventually. Was it because of the protests? I don’t know.”

“I’m a Viet Nam Vet, he says.”

“So was my brother-in–law,” I say. “Lots of lives were changed by that war.” He nods.

I get to ask the next question–something I’ve been hearing about from my relatives who own some long-haul trucks.

“What do you think about the new trucking bill, that restricts truckers from driving more than 11 hours?” I ask.

One guy, maybe Sam’s brother, starts telling me about his life in the trucking business, hauling— among other things—cattle from the mid-west to the east. Thirty-seven hours on the road, he tells me. “That business is gone, and the feed lots,” he says. “Now it’s all slaughtered on site, frozen and trucked to the point of sale.”

“But,” he says, “If you were still doing that, the new rules wouldn’t work. After eleven hours of running your truck, including loading and unloading time, the computer shuts your truck ignition off now. You can’t run for ten hours. Where are you when that all happens? Along the road somewhere maybe. The cattle would die if they had to sit those ten hours before resuming the journey. Who’s writing these rules?”

No one mentions the swamp. No one mentions which agency is responsible.

I shake my head, and recall several other conversations on this same issue I’ve heard during my stay in the Etna Green area. The  egg producers are complaining too. The traffic between here and Chicago, and unpredictable weather and traffic circumstances must be calculated into their eleven hour run, and it is complicated to make come out right.

“Watch for all those trucks pulled over in weird places,” they all say. “Engines shut down and they had to stop where they were.”

 

Tommy, the new Etna Green Cafe owner, shows me around the spruced up dining room with large, vintage photos printed on metal, newly painted golden yellow walls and decorative slat wood trim near each table. He points out new tables and chairs and lighting, too. The photos evoke previous decades in the life of the café, and point out an appreciation of continuity in some places. Especially in small town Indiana—towns that lost their highway through town decades ago to the northern bypass, saw their schools consolidated, and watch as their young people migrate away. A treasured, vintage matchbook collection has been donated by a previous cafe employee, and will be part of the new decor soon.

He is a proud owner, and I feel it. I noticed the new green paint on the exterior of the building the moment I drove up, and remark about it to the waitress as we enter. She bubbles with enthusiasm, and tells me about the menu changes too. I notice the full parking lot.  I notice the Amish cook working the grill, in her blue dress and white cap. She’s new too.

I can say my big pancake with sausages, and my husband’s french toast with powdered sugar and a slice of ham were perfect. Not trendy, not fancy, but solid. Reliable. Comfortable. Tasty.

I hear there’s a new menu coming, and a dinner menu some nights with specials and a salad bar listed on the outside reader board. There’s a new steak house a couple blocks east too, so maybe Etna Green is on the edge of a breakout as a place to go and be seen, a quiet place west of Warsaw with it’s orthopedic manufacturers including Zimmer.

When it’s time to go I say my goodbyes, but it takes three tries to get out the door. Sam and I still have things to talk about, but I’ve a plane to catch. He tells me, “You are the nicest, but I heard when you switched into your PC talk.”

I smile and blush. He’s got me there. “I’m just trying to get along,” I tell him. We both smile.

“See you in the summer,” I say.

“There’ll be a new floor by then and a patio out back,” Tommy tells me.

I believe there will be. I’ll search out Sam to tell me what’s new in the world from his perch in the Etna Green café. It’s worth the journey.

Etna Green Café, 112 W State Street, Etna Green, Indiana. 46524

574 858-9081

 

 

 

 

 

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Category: Indie It Travel, Uncategorized

About the Author: Ann Bodle-Nash: A free-lance traveler since the age of 11 months, little moss grows on her soles. With relatives and friends scattered across the globe, she finds frequent excuses to travel. But travel in the West is best--those quiet corners of weirdness are like light to a moth, burning with intensity, encouraging curiosity and discovery. She imagines the glory of 30 days of continuous floating and fly fishing on the Yellowstone River after watching a documentary on same. Currently living in Washington State with her husband.

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