We ate at a family-style Japanese steakhouse where you sit with strangers around a square communal table with a grill in the middle. Most folks in the room were older, out for the early-bird special, but our table had variety. I sat next to a grumbling silver-haired ancient with a middle-age daughter and an 8-year-old boy. There was also a lonely guy in town for a machinery convention, a middle-age woman who whispered into her cell phone, and a shy couple who looked distressed by the likelihood that they were eating with their parents and grandparents after having done or were about to do what they were thinking about doing. The old woman couldn't figure out the menu and was worried about not getting enough to eat, so I reassured her. The kid had to go potty so his unruffled mother took him to the bathroom. She looked like absolutely nothing was going to bother her, especially not the old woman whose job in life was to do just that. When the kid was reseated, he said, loud enough to be heard by everybody:
"There are dead people in England!"
The grandmother looked pained until she found the proper answer:
"There are dead people everywhere, Tom."
The mother was still unruffled. The couple froze a little more. A gang of college women took over a nearby table and proceeded to display the immutable laws of female camaraderie: the dark-haired girls talked and smiled, the blondes just sat in quiet blondness, and the redhead looked uneasy.
Then Chef showed up. He was young and I felt slight terror when he started juggling the prongs and the spatula, which looked too much like a cleaver. His chopping of vegetables wasn't all too steady either, as one end of the broccoli landed in the old lady's iced tea, and one mushroom wedge in my beer. Throwing and catching the egg was positively heart-stopping, and I saw, for a brief second, the egg landing on one of the dating couple, making what was going to happen awkward if not impossible, unless it had already happened, in which case it was actually going to help the relationship. The egg landed with a splat on the grill. Chef built a volcano of onion rings with passing skill and lit a flame that fascinated Tom, but we knew that it was supposed to be a volcano, and there was no lava. The steak and the shrimp were seared beautifully and the full plates found their intended gustatory targets. The table settled into a pleasant buzz and strangers became companionable as we merged in the act of chewing.
Here is the funny thing: the restaurant was in Springfield, Mo., and the steakhouse was styled Japanese but was, like any Midwestern steak house, about steak. And the people were just like people, awkward and alive.
To get to Nakato, which bills itself as "the oldest but still the best" Japanese steakhouse in Springfield, you have to drive for a piece on old Route 66, past the Solo paper cup factory, a building that explains why modern art set deep roots in the Midwest. American roadside driving culture is all about boxes and advertising, signs and cubes, with one egg rotating in mid-air.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).