What I like about Poe Ballantine is how he takes us out to the ragged edge of our towns, which are any town, as he stumbles around and across this country. In his collection of essays, Things I Like About America, Ballantine rambles all over and across the country hanging on by dime here and a quarter there. He takes most any job that will last a few days or weeks, cutting himself on sheet metal, or fending off the noise assault from hammering freight pallets together. He cooks in questionable kitchens with questionable people. Poe takes rooms in places most of us would eliminate on sight. He eats either the same fast food that's plentiful on the frozen streets of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin or the melting asphalt of Mexico. He notices how strip mall restaurants have red plastic roofs. Sometimes Poe eats wonderfully colorful combinations of supermarket fare. Sardines and oranges, or buys cookie cutter cheese burgers, homemade chile and apples. His KFC, has no wings...he's charming.
Poe reminds us that we really aren't all that far from walking a few miles by his side. That a Greyhound Bus trip or being caught in a storm haunt the dreams of millions.
A few months ago I met Poe at the big Wordstock festival in Portland. I found him most comforting. He encouraged me to move forward with my book. He recommended Things I Like About America, saying, "It's a better book than the others."
I liked the title anyway. Poe signed a copy for me and I moved on. Some of the things he likes about America are decent wages, the first snow in Wisconsin, and toilet paper in public restrooms. Some of the things I like about him are his beautifully sad descriptions of people, his ability to take us to the margins, on the side of the road, the aesthetic of cheap beer or wine, his constant humanity, and attention to all the detail that tumbles through this American lifetime. Poe has mastered the art of traveling blind while most of his contemporaries remain blinded by masters.