The trick is to ask the right question

Published 8:51 am Thursday, August 25, 2016

Big John Hudson bounced through the front door of Sarah’s diner, tossed his ball cap down on the big round table with the fervor of the flagman waving the checkered flag at a NASCAR race, and asked the simple question, “What city is the fourth largest in the U.S.?”

“Morning John. What’s new with you?” mumbled Harrison Winkle, as he continued to shovel forkfuls of biscuits and gravy into his salivating maw.

Harry had recently been experimenting with various fad diets — the kind that claim to boost metabolism and suppress the appetite — and leave a nasty taste. The last part wasn’t one of the claims, it was one of the side effects. Harry figured the lingering nasty taste must be the appetite suppressant — nothing tasted good for hours. However, all fads must come to an end and Harry gladly tossed off breakfast shakes made from pulverized sea kelp and faux bacon flavored tofu for walking the six blocks from his house, eating anything (and everything) he wanted for breakfast, and then walking the six locks back home.

“C’mon. Fourth largest city. Anybody want to guess?” repeated Big John, who had recently purchased a set of books, online, that purported to contain all manner of useful (and useless) information. The box set only cost John three easy payments of $24.95 (with a handling and shipping charge of $75). It even came with a special plastic display shelf, absolutely free (just pay an additional shipping fee). The irony of buying an encyclopedia via the Internet was lost on John.

“Can’t be Detroit,” mused Tommy Jones, the octogenarian elder statesman of the group. “I hear folks keep moving out … Understand there’s less than a million folks living there, now.” Tommy shook his head sadly, then gave a thankful nod to Sarah as she refilled his coffee cup.

“Probably isn’t a city in Wyoming, either,” added Mort Ellingson. “Detroit may be losing people, but I don’t think the entire state of Wyoming has a population equal to the Motor City.” He, too, gave a nod of appreciation as Sarah topped off his cup. “I’m betting they like it that way, too.”

“Probably not in Rhode Island, either,” offered Jimmy. “I think the Detroit metro area is larger than that entire state, if you don’t include the water.”

Sarah brought Jimmy to a momentary lull as she poured steaming, hot, caffeinated, goodness into his cup, “…by the way,” she said, “did you know it’s not really an island?”

“C’mon,” repeated Big John. “The fourth largest city in the U.S. Gimme a guess.” He was getting frustrated with his compatriots’ fixation on what Detroit was (or wasn’t) — and his inability to showcase his newfound knowledge of minutia.

“They discovered a new butterfly along the banks of the Flint river,” offered Jimmy, who had chosen to shift the topic, along with the geography. “It appears to have mutated and is thriving on the lead in the water. They’re calling it the Iron Maiden Butterfly.”

“The fourth largest …,” continued John. “C’mon guys.” His enthusiasm for showing off (or, at least, the hope of showing off) was dwindling.

“I think you should be asking where the fourth best place to live after retirement is,” countered Arnold Tobin. “I’m getting near that age and I’ve been looking into that sorta’ thing.”

“Why would you want to live in the fourth best place?” scoffed Harry. “Why wouldn’t you want to live in the best place?”

“It’s such a great place, it’s become too expensive to live there.”

“Then it isn’t the best place, is it?”

The conversation swirled around the big round table, completely disconnected from Big John Hudson’s opening query. Each member of the Circular Congregation Breakfast Club offered his best (albeit unsubstantiated) opinion on all things unimportant. The size of Michigan’s cities, gave way to the condition of the highways between those cities, which then gave way to the politicians in the statehouse that couldn’t pull their heads out of dark places long enough to get the roads fixed, to what was meant by the title of the song “In A Gadda Da Vida”.

As each took his turn pontificated on nothing at all, Sarah made her smiling way around the table, clearing dishes and refilling coffee cups.

As she reached Big John Hudson, she tapped him gently on the shoulder and said, “Houston — comes after New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.”


Larry Wilson is a mostly lifelong resident of Niles. His optimistic “glass full to overflowing” view of life shapes his writing. His essays stem from experiences, compilations and recollections from friends and family. Wilson touts himself as “a dubiously licensed teller of tall tales, sworn to uphold the precept of ‘It’s my story; that’s the way I’m telling it.’” He can be reached at