Dennis and Sumayah were on a mission, in fact. But the shuttle for the Convention Center Marriott was busy with less important things, like getting guests to and from the airport, damn them. Didn't they understand the urgency of our dining needs?
We tried Uber. We were clever. We had figured out that unlike on previous tours, the Uber app offered us a quick, affordable alternative to cabbing around. But this was Little Rock, Arkansas, where clicking on the FIND ME A CAR button crashed our phones.
We settled for a cab and, $25 later, made it to the Waffle House. The world has never seen three people so happy for breakfast at 1 p.m.. Then it poured relentlessly, right about the time that we had cleared the plates.
Our waitress, Jusmary, who might have still been irate behind Dennis’ question early on about whether there was a “t” sound in there (even though there was clearly no “t” on the nametag), agreed to help us with cab. Thirty minutes later a cab showed up.
Since Dennis suffered the superfluous conversation during the first ride, he ushered me to Shotgun for this one. Wouldn’t you know that this yellow cab, whose backseat was clean simple leather, had shoddy upholstering in its front seat, which the driver had to clear of his personal items?
“Get comfortable,” he said, as if he could see that my collecting the collar of my Zara coat was a form of pearl clutching about gnawed seats, a junk food littered floor and an abused dashboard. "Where y'all going?"
“They’re sending us to Park Plaza Mall. Is it a good one?” Dennis asked.
“Yeah, I’ll get you there, it’s not that far.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Tim,” the driver said. “But people call me Pac-Man.”
I was so afraid to ask why. And it didn’t matter. We were off to more familiarity.
Until, after a long country drive, we got to the OUTDOOR mall.
“Why would they send us to an outdoor mall on a day of torrential rain?”
“I don’t know,” Pac-Man said. “There’s another mall the other way, between the Waffle House and the hotel. Y’all say you staying downtown, right?”
We were crestfallen, our trust of concierges instantly gone.
Then the conversation began, the one Dennis wanted to avoid.
“So are y’all choreographers?” the Pac-Man asked, as I de-tangled my backpack from the exposed wires under the glove compartment.
“Something like that.”
“You definitely not from around here.”
“What makes you say that?”
“White folks buy up shit, own shit all over the world then come stay here. Black folks come to Little Rock have to have a reason.”
I could swear I heard snickering in the back of the cab from one of the other two, probably Dennis.
After a minute of silence, Pac-Man said, “I hear Cher is in town. Playing at the arena.”
When I relented, telling him we were with her, he nodded that knowing nod of the quiet, observant neighborhood mechanic who misses nothing. His cell rang.
“Hello…I’m driving right now…no I’m glad you called me back, it’s okay…I lost your number, dropped it down the commole…hello…hello??”
I dropped my head.
“She’ll call back, whatever,” he said.
By the time we made it to the Dillard’s Mall, so called because Mr. Dillard of Little Rock had his store split on either side of the three-floor shopping rectangle, we had ratcheted up about $70 in cab fare. The driver was kind enough to circle the parking lot so that he could deliver us curbside to the destination.
Dennis felt better immediately; there was a Target down the street.
“You paying with a credit card?” the driver said. “I hate credit cards.”
The statement vied with the tip top customer service a minute before. But I figured all would be revealed soon. I passed the credit card to Sumayah to deal with it in the machine in the back. Pac-Man then grabbed the receipt-maker by its back, as it would not function without his squeezing its parts together.
“Piece of shit,” he muttered, waiting for it to print.
"It's fine," I said. "We will be fine."
“Y’all have a nice day.”
There was a lesson somewhere in all of this. But unfortunately, nobody had the resolve to learn it without a cup of coffee, which could not be purchased in the food court or at Dunkin’ Donuts (there wasn’t one) or a Starbucks (also missing).
We found out on the way out that in the bike shop upstairs, there’s a barista sometimes working in the back….