Friday, April 03, 2009

Summer Nights (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, Part 2)

Just before I got married to Sweetie, I made a mixtape to take on our honeymoon road trip to New York. The other day, I found that tape and decided to tell the story of our honeymoon through the songs on that tape. This is part 2. Click here for the table of contents.

2. Summer Nights:

I met a girl, crazy for me/

Met a boy, cute as can be:

The first full day of our Honeymoon began with that most romantic of errands, a trip to the grocery store to get some snacks for the drive. Our general plan was this: Drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to Niagara Falls, and then down to New York City.

We had one week, a rental car, that mixtape, and not nearly enough money. We had plenty of love, but needed some snacks, too, because day one was to take us from Madison to exotic... Cleveland.

The car was rented by my family as part of our wedding present. Back then, Sweetie and I had just our one usual car, the car we ultimately called "Denty," a maroon Hyundai Elantra that Sweetie had bought to use as her car, and which became the family car when my own Hyundai died.

My Hyundai had been less-than-affectionately nicknamed the Annoying Mobile, a name it earned a year before, when I had driven it to a court hearing about 4 hours north of where we lived. That was back in the time when I had my own business, working as a sole practitioner lawyer. Life as a lawyer on my own, at the start of my career, meant that I would take virtually any case, anywhere, if the person promised to pay me some money. I can recall one client who called me on the phone one day and asked if I could be hired for a criminal defense matter.

"Sure," I said. I talked a bit and then quoted her an initial retainer fee of $500.

"Can I bring only $400?" she asked. Four hundred dollars was two months' rent on my tiny, windowless office. Or, put another way, four hundred dollars would buy me twenty of the orange couches that made up 1/3 of the furniture in my outer office/lobby -- the other 2/3 being a matching orange chair and a coffee table. By "matching," I mean the orange chair matched the orange couch -- but both were a shade of orange that matched exactly nothing else in the entire world. I'd picked them up at Goodwill. All the best law offices are furnished by Goodwill.

That orange couch, though, was the single best piece of furniture I have ever owned. I miss it, and wish I'd saved it. It was so comfortable.

The client who was going to bring $400 called me the next morning and asked to move the meeting back a little, and said "I've only got $250, is that okay?" I was getting little warning buzzers from the lawyer equivalent of the Spider Sense, but $250 was $250 and I had about $35 in my business account, which doubled as my only account.

"Okay," I said.

She showed up, an hour later than even the postponed meeting, and said "I've only got $150." I took the case anyway. I defended her, got the charges dismissed, and sent her bills for years and years. The total I got paid from her was $150.

Which helps explain how I ended up at a court hearing four hours north of my actual office. Yeah, 300 miles seems a long way to drive for a hearing, but I had been promised that I would get paid for that case, too. A promise of payment seemed better than doing nothing at all -- then. Now, I look back and think If I wasn't getting paid, why was I working? They don't teach you the answers to those questions in law school.

The hearing itself was interesting in only one aspect: The lawyer on the other side, in arguing to the judge, pointed out that my client could hire a "hot shot, big city lawyer from Madison." I'd never thought of myself that way -- having driven up there in my 1987 Hyundai and wearing my $7 sportcoat from the discount rack at Target. I'd won the hearing-- as befits a hot-shot, big-city lawyer from Madison, and then had gone out to start my car.

It didn't start.

I tried it a few times, and it still didn't start. I sat there for a second, and wondered what to do. Settling in to live in that town, or walking, were the first two options that sprang to mind, and neither seemed great. Neither did calling Sweetie and asking her for a ride.

I did call her, going back inside to use a payphone in the Courthouse, and having to avoid people overhearing, including my opponent, who was still lingering around there. This was the winter, and I was way up north, and as it got darker out, it started snowing, too. I had to call Sweetie on a calling card and hope that she was in.

She was in, and I explained to her what was going on, and said that I'd try to find a tow truck or mechanic or someone who could come and take a look at it, and that I'd call her back later. I then flipped through the Yellow Pages and found a mechanic who had a tow truck and he agreed to come take a look at it. When he did take a look at it, he said the battery was dead, and that it had died because of something-or-other. Those weren't his exact words, but they might as well have been; whatever it was he said was wrong, I can't remember it now and it didn't matter then, except for one thing: the thing that he said was wrong was the exact thing that I had paid $265 a few weeks before to have fixed.

(That would result in my filing a small claims lawsuit against that mechanic and getting my $265 back, one of many suits I've filed on my own behalf in my time. Never make a lawyer angry.)

He got the car started and said this: "Don't shut it off until you get home, because it may not start again."

I thanked him, paid him the $50, and then started to head out. I had to stop for gas, which I did in town, and that was nerve-wracking because I had to leave the car running while I did that, and then leave the car running while I used the payphone to call Sweetie again and tell her I'd be home in four hours, more or less, but that she should hang by the phone in case something went wrong again and I had to call her.

Then, just before I left that gas station, I bought one of those giant sodas that you can only get at convenience stores, a bucket-sized cup of diet Coke to help wash down the cigarettes I'd be smoking on the way home.

That might have been the worst decision I ever made in my life, as there were almost no stops between that city and Madison, and certainly no stops where I felt like I could just leave the car running and go in and use the restroom, the result being that I had the most uncomfortable 4-hour drive of my life and I learned exactly how long I can hold it before tears form in my eyes. I got back home and went rushing in past Sweetie hollering Hi I love you how was your day as I made it to the bathroom.

The Annoying Mobile would give up the ghost not long after that, dying on the side of the highway and, as its final act in life, teaching me that the "Check Oil" light is more than just a friendly reminder, and we would then be a one-car family, that one car being Denty, the car that got its name when a bicyclist ran into the back of it while we navigated through rush hour traffic near the campus one day.

Denty was a singularly reliable car, never dying, never using much gas, always just carrying us around, but my family had opted to rent us a car for the honeymoon, and I wasn't going to complain about that. We set out for stop one, the grocery store, in our rental car on the first day of the honeymoon, with our suitcases and wedding outfits packed carefully in the trunk of the car.

Taking groceries along on a road trip was something that I'd learned from my parents, a cost-saving measure that not only provided cheaper snacks along the way, but also gave a chance to eat meals even if you couldn't find a restaurant, and had the added benefit of, one time in South Dakota, making us all violently ill when we, as a family, learned that mayonnaise doesn't take long to go bad in the South Dakotan heat. Sweetie and I would not be packing mayo on this trip, but we did want to pick up sodas and snacks to have ready in a cooler during our drive, both to conserve funds and because, well, when I'm driving, I like to have sodas and snacks.

That's one of the pleasures of the road trip: Road trip food. There are certain things that I only eat when I'm on the road driving, things like BBQ Frito Twists, and giant 144-ounce sodas, and beef jerky. It was only a few years ago that I actually realized that they sold beef jerky in grocery stores: I'd only ever eaten it by getting it from a plastic bin at a gas station or convenience store. Then, one day, The Boy asked us to get some beef jerky for snacks at home, and I said I wasn't going to a gas station just to get snacks, and he said they had it at the grocery store, that it was right by the frozen chicken, and it turns out he was right: they sell beef jerky right in the grocery store.

That just seems wrong. Beef jerky is driving food. "Driving food" is food that can be eaten with one hand and that won't spill or leak out. Big Macs are not driving food; McDonald's Cheeseburgers are. Restaurant pizza is not driving food; cold pizza is. Beef Jerky is driving food, and it's pretty much the epitome of driving food: there's no way to spill it, plus, if you drop it on the floor, you can pretty much just brush it off and go on eating it, as the protective coating seems to be germ- and dirt-resistant.

Our driving food of choice on the honeymoon consisted mainly of soda, a variety of potato chips, and "Lunchables." I couldn't resist the Lunchables: They had miniature hot dogs and miniature cheeseburgers. Suitably stocked up, we set out for a thrilling, romantic honeymoon.

Two hours later, we were still waiting for the thrill, and romance, to set in. Whenever I think about a road trip, I think these things:

Cool music on the radio. Great scenery. Snacks. Beef jerky. Soda. The miles flying by. Skycrapers, canyons, shadows flitting across the windshield artfully and cinematically, the kind of stuff that makes up a "road trip" montage in a movie.

But the reality of a road trip, if you live in Wisconsin, is this: All roads lead through Illinois. It's virtually impossible to drive out of Wisconsin and go anywhere interesting without first going through Illinois. To the east of Wisconsin is Lake Michigan; unless your car floats, you're not leaving that way. To the north is Lake Superior: ditto. To the west is Minnesota, which is boring and cold, and through which you can only reach greater and greater depths of boring coldness: Head west out of Wisconsin and you hit, in order, Minnesota, then the Dakotas, then either Montana or Idaho, I'm not sure which, but it's really the same thing, either way, and then Washington or Oregon, which in my mind are made up entirely of forests teeming with otters and bears and streams in which salmon are constantly heading up stream.

(That being one of two things I know about salmon: they head upstream. The other thing I know about salmon is my mom used to make salmon patties.)

No, to get from Wisconsin to anywhere you'd want to go, you have to go through Illinois, and Illinois (together with most of Indiana and Ohio, which are simply Illinois but further east) is composed almost entirely of sheer boredom. I have driven a lot of places in the United States, and I can say that there is no place more boring to drive through than Illinois. I have driven through the great plains, through Kansas and Oklahoma and states that appear to be completely devoid of scenery, and even they were more interesting to drive through than Illinois. Illinois has almost nothing interesting about it. The scenery in Illinois is composed almost entirely of the kinds of fields and suburbs and small cities and trees that are so nondescript, they fail to register as scenery at all. They might as well be cardboard cutouts labeled "Tree." "House" "Off Ramp."

The trees in Illinois always seem to be caught somewhere between Winter (no leaves) and summer (too many leaves.) They don't turn colors, they're not starkly bare, they have no flowers. The houses in Illinois, in my memory, are all gray. The grass: always that blah-yellowy-color that grass is in the Midwest around April 1, the color of the end of winter.

Illinois would have absolutely nothing going for it if it weren't for Chicago, and its highway Oasis rest stops.

Chicago is worth seeing -- but not if you're trying to get through Illinois. If you're trying to go to Chicago, the city is great: it's got America's largest skyscraper and neat buildings and a lot to do and see. But if you're trying to get past Chicago, the city is awful. In our family, "Chicago" stood for more than just a large city that wasn't too far away. It stood for The Worst Traffic Anyone Can Imagine: the "Chicago Rush Hour," which even as I type it now causes me to feel a moment of dread.

As kids, we were taught a few simple lessons over and over: things like "the neighbors will look down on us if they ever hear you kids fighting like that," and "the world is full of serial killers just waiting for their chance," and "Avoid the Chicago Rush Hour." Living in Wisconsin, you'd think that latter one would not be one of the Cardinal Rules, and/or that it would not be that hard to do, but you'd be wrong about both those thinkings.

You’d be wrong because, as I said, to get anywhere interesting from Wisconsin, you have to go through Illinois, and that generally means going through, or past, or around, Chicago. So when we were kids, every family trip began at 4:30 a.m., a time that was selected as the optimal time to avoid the Chicago Rush Hour.

When I grew up, and began to question some of the rules I’d absorbed growing up, the “Chicago Rush Hour” was one of those that I began to think about. Leaving at 4:30 a.m., from where we lived, meant that we generally arrived in Chicago at about 7 a.m., if not a little after that. When I was a kid, I’d never given that much thought. I’d instead assumed that Chicago had more traffic than any other city anywhere, because when I was young and we’d drive through Chicago, I assumed that we had avoided Rush Hour, so the fact that we were in Chicago and it was wall-to-wall with cars and Dad was swearing and we weren’t moving meant that Chicago had terrible traffic all the time; I never knew, when I was a kid, that “Rush Hour” meant that time from 7 to 9 a.m., and that we’d always, always, hit Rush Hour.

Chicago, at the time of our honeymoon, still held that fear for me, and so I had wanted to start early to avoid the Chicago Rush Hour. I didn’t even want to see Chicago on our honeymoon, for fear that the entire trip would be spent sitting in Rush Hour Traffic.

On the other hand, I did want to see the Illinois Roadside Oasis rest stops. That’s the only other thing that’s worth seeing about Illinois: the Oasis rest stops that they build on overpasses above the highway. From when we were young, I’d loved the Oasis rest stops. We’d be on a road trip with our parents, me and my brothers sitting in the back of our cars fighting about whose legs were touching whose, and then we’d all get a little quiet as we saw the Oasis coming up, a bridge across the highway, and on that bridge, a series of stores and shops and restaurants – usually a junky souvenir shop, and a place to get coffee and Illinois lottery tickets, and a McDonald’s or a Burger King. It didn’t matter, though, what the shops were. It mattered that they were there, and that they were there stretched across the highway. There were no shops like that back in Hartland, Wisconsin, where we grew up: People didn’t put shops across the highway. Whenever we stopped at an Oasis for gas, me and my brothers would crowd out and browse around the souvenir shops, finding our names on a license plate or wondering what the shot glasses with the State of Illinois on them were for, before getting back into the car and settling back in for a round of Alphabet Game and demarcation of whose portion of the back seat was whose.

But as we set out, Sweetie and I, on that first day of our honeymoon, those Oasis rest stops were far away, and before we would get to them – the only enjoyable part of the trip through Illinois—we had to first go through the tedium of the beginning of any road trip.

The beginning of a road trip is sheer boredom, even on a honeymoon – tedium and a long drive through familiar roads and familiar towns and familiar billboards that you’ve seen many times before. True, this was my honeymoon, and that was exciting, but it wasn’t as though Sweetie and I were just getting to know each other. We’d been dating and then engaged for a pretty long time, and so we were comfortable and familiar with each other. The thrill of the wedding was still there, the fun of the reception and the pleasant buzz of being married… married, husband-and-wife… but that buzz wears down when you’ve got 100 miles to go before you get anywhere even remotely interesting.

We drove down I-90 towards Illinois. I had a road map marked out with our path and knew more or less what we were looking for. This was the era before cell phones and before the Internet really caught on, at least with me, and before things like “GPS” and “Mapquest” existed, so we had a road map that I’d traced out our route on, hoping that I was reading it correctly and that I’d written everything down correctly. I had scouted out a route that would take us around Chicago – no Rush hour for us – and then curve east again towards Indiana and on to Cleveland, where we had to be that night to check into our hotel.

We chatted as we drove, talking about the wedding and relatives and the kids and how nice everything was, and we put in the Honeymoon Mixtape, and the first time through started what would become a habit on that trip: When “Summer Nights” came on, we sang along with it, me taking the John Travolta parts, of course, and Sweetie doing Olivia Newton-John’s parts. That was how we passed the morning: Singing along with the tape, talking, eating Lunchables and drinking the juice boxes, and avoiding Chicago’s Rush Hour, which I did quite successfully.

Too successfully, as it turns out. We drove for several hours, and never caught a glimpse of Chicago. Or the Oasis rest stops that I knew should be on the way. Or even a glimpse of a sign pointing us towards Indiana. Along with lacking a GPS, I also lacked a compass and was trying to steer not just by the map but by judging where the sun was in the sky to tell what direction we were heading in. The map, and my logic, said we were heading East and that in fact we were only a few miles from the Illinois-Indiana border.

The sun said nothing: it was mid-afternoon by then (we’d gotten a late start, making it all the more remarkable that we missed the Chicago Rush Hour) and in mid-afternoon, in May, in the Midwest, the sun is more or less directly overhead.

Sweetie had not been paying too much attention and possibly might have slept for a while. I didn’t alert her to my concerns that perhaps Map+Logic were wrong, and that we were not heading in any direction that we actually wanted to be heading. Instead, I continued to talk and listen to the tape and secretly I began watching road signs, trying to figure out what roads or cities we were near.

That was hard, because, again, outside of Chicago, Illinois is a Blah Wasteland that appears to be devoted entirely to growing Blah Yellow Grass, and appears, too, to have no cities anywhere. It’s as though Chicago’s gravity sucked all the life and interestingness out of the rest of the state.
Eventually, though, I saw a highway marker and a city sign, and announced that it was time for a rest stop. We found a roadside rest stop and Sweetie and I each went to our respective bathrooms. I hurried, and ran back outside to break out the map and retrace where we were versus where we wanted to be.

We’d traveled about an hour or two south of Chicago, and thus an hour or two south of the part where we’d wanted to head East into Indiana. We were on a direct collision route with Kentucky, if we wanted to keep going the way we were going, which we didn’t necessarily want.

I was busy trying to trace a route with my finger along through Kentucky and then back up to Cleveland to see if I could just play this one off as “This was our route all along” when Sweetie came back out and saw me looking at the map.

“What’ s wrong?” she asked. “Are we lost?”

“No,” I told her – because we weren’t lost, not anymore. I knew where we were. “Just checking our route to see how we’re doing.” I said.

“How are we doing?” she asked.

“A little behind schedule,” I said.

Then we hopped back into the car and I began to pull out, and I mulled it over: Head on to Kentucky and hope that we eventually find Cleveland? Or head back the way we’d come and hope that Sweetie didn’t realize what was going on? Which was worse, I pondered: Beginning my marriage by almost getting lost, sort of misleading Sweetie, and then confessing that I was not so great at finding our way?

Or beginning my marriage by driving through Kentucky and hoping for the best?

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