Dad wanted to take us out for dinner the first night we visit him in Owensboro. We all load up in his Chevy conversion van. Mom, who has had four major back surgeries in recent years, lies down in the backseat, chaffuered like a queen, with her little Chihuahua, Linus, perched on the ample shelf of her cleavage. The rest of us pile in. A belt in the engine strains out a constant squeal as we putt-putt down the curvy roads, which Dad steers through with alarming speed. We pull into the parking lot of The Cadillac Restaurant and Grecian Pizza Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky.

“This should be interesting,” Dad says. “Good people watching for you all.”

I’m immediately interested. My dad knows what good traveling is all about, but I want a bit more information. “What exactly do you mean, Dad?” I ask.

He pauses. “Well,” he says slowly, “Let’s just say that these aren’t what most people consider the highest class of folks . . . ”

“Awesome!” I yell, and hop out the van, quite excited, and head for the front door, the only door I see.

“Yeah, well you may want to use that other door on the other side of the building if you don’t want to walk through the smoke . . .” Dad calls out to us. He’s staying behind to help Mom climb out of the van. But, we’re already gone, my brother and sister and I, ready to investigate just exactly what kind of ‘good people-watching’ Dad could have meant.

I generally get really excited at the prospect of being able to patronize smoking establishments, if only for the sheer fact that they are becoming obsolete. For example, Chicago, the working-class party city of the world, just changed city ordinances to end smoking indoors, something I never thought would happen. We open the first of a set of double doors that lead to a vestibule full of candy and 25-cent novelty machines, and an invisible wall of heavy, stale cigarette smoke hits me full force.

We putter around in the vestibule for a moment, because Tammy sees some pink pirate fake tattoos in one of the machines. One quarter, two quarters, push! Clink-clink. Over and over, our brother keeps pumping quarters into the machine, until Tammy has just about every one of the tattoos listed on the display. Then he used his last two quarters for me, to get a “Homie” out of the next machine. I love those silly things.

In the vestibule, I notice the usual kinds of hand-written ads that people in a community tape and thumb-tack to the walls, ads for baby-sitting and yard sales. But there was one kind of notice stapled to the wall that I’d never seen before. It said, “You all may have known our brother, Thomas Sykes, known around town as Skipper, recently departed before his time. If you have any additional information about what may have happened to him, please call . . . ”

We open the second door leading to the inside of the Cadillac Restaurant. And instantly, we feel no less than thirty pairs of eyes on us. People have stopped talking and have shifted in their cafeteria chairs and booths to look at us. No one has an expression on their face. No one says a word, but all eyes are fixed on us as we walk through the restaurant and on to yet another set of double doors leading to a separate non-smoking room. The patrons’ eyes are like the paintings in the Scooby-Doo mysteries that follow the characters around. We are not the people watchers; we were the ones being watched. Everyone just keeps smoking and looking, the only part of them moving are their eyes as we walk past and their arms as they lift their cigarettes to their mouths.

The interior of the place is lit with bright flourescent lights. There are no walls in the smoking room, but the rows of tables are separated by walls of 25 and 50 cent scratch-off lotto ticket machines. The patrons are sitting at tables and booths and the place is full, with three smiling country waitresses running around. Everyone seems to know everyone else. In fact, the place feels like a bar, only there is no alcohol being served, everyone is drinking coffee, and it’s just too bright. There are pasty men with no teeth clad in grease-covered ballcaps, flannel shirts and overalls. Their beefy women, also puffing away, have bleach-blonde hair and big fake nails – some wear sweat suits. Everyone looks really tired. And although I have absolutely no evidence to support the feeling, later I ask Mom, “Does something illegal run out of there?”

We settle into a large table in the non-smoking section. They have a 4.99 blue plate special every night. I order the most obscure thing I can find on the menu, liver n’ onions with sides of beets and black-eyed peas, foregoing the safety of fried chicken or prime rib with the standard mashed potatoes. I really don’t know if the liver n’ onions was good, because thankfully it came to me smeared with brown gravy that would have made even a glass window pane taste good. The beets were strange and fizzy, as though they’d been marinated in soda water, so I sent them back, trading them for butter beans.

After our meal, we march back through the smoking room, Scooby-Doo eyes following us, like 30 pairs of silent ghost-eyes, the good people of The Cadillac Restaurant people-watching us folks who obviously just weren’t from around Owensboro. I will definitely come back to this establishment every single time I am in Owensboro. And I will sit one entire afternoon in the smoking room, watching.