Tuesday, April 21, 2009

(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 3)

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.

3. (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher.

I opted, ultimately, to head back the way we'd come -- the way we'd been driving for about an hour. Sweetie noticed immediately. We pulled out of the rest stop and I turned left, back the way we'd come, and she said:

"Isn't this the way we came?"

I said, "Yeah," and then admitted what had happened -- that we'd missed a turn, somewhere or other, and that we were in the middle of Illinois (as near as I could figure) and that we now had to head back that way to get us out of the middle of Illinois and into the middle of Indiana.

Sweetie handled it with good cheer:

"Are we lost?" she asked.

I assured her we weren't lost, we were just off course, which was a totally different thing, and we went back to driving through the monotonous grasslands of central Illinois, listening still to the tape and occasionally talking.

I learned, early on in my relationship to Sweetie, that she never fully relaxes -- not when she appears to be relaxed, not when she's sleeping, even, and certainly not ever in a car. Sweetie may appear relaxed in a car, but she's not. She's tense and observing every minute detail of every point of the trip, from how fast I'm going to each and every car that exists in a 300-mile radius to how the car is positioned in the road to the noises the car makes to the tilt of my head.

That's a tough thing for Sweetie to have to labor with, since I'm more or less the exact opposite: I'm never more relaxed than when I'm driving. Put me behind the wheel of a car and I settle in and go on autopilot, doing two or three or four or fifteen things at the same time as I'm driving. Each morning, I commute to work and during my commute I'm not only scanning through songs on my iPod, but I'm eating my Pocket Breakfast and keeping an eye on my coffee, which is sometimes not in a travel mug and so needs to be balanced precariously on my lap or held in the same hand as my Pocket Breakfast, because the other hand needs to be free to work the iPod, and to shift gears, as I drive a stick shift. While that's going on, I'm trying to remember what it is I have to do that day, think up ideas for writing, and also come up with creative ways to be annoyed by everyone around me.

I also have difficulty talking to someone that I can't see. Living in the modern era, you'd think that would not be a problem, but it is. I hate talking to someone I can't see. (That's one of the ten billion reasons I hate telephones.) Talking to someone I can't see has always posed a problem for me, and has posed a problem in such contexts as, say, canoeing.

When I was younger, we'd take an annual family trip to go canoeing on the Crystal River in northern Wisconsin, piloting flimsy and easily-tippable fiberglass canoes down what might be the shallowest river in Wisconsin. I usually got paired up with my brother Matt on these trips, and I always made him sit in front because (a) I was heavier (a lot) and it made the canoe look stupid to have the back end pointing up in the air, and (b) I couldn't imagine spending two or three hours talking with someone I couldn't see. I would have had to spend the entire time turning around in the seat to talk to him and we'd crash or tip even more.

So when I drive a car, and talk, I turn my head to look at the person I'm talking to, a lot. This doesn't pose a problem for me, and it's not the cause of any of the six or seven relatively-serious car accidents I've had in my life -- none of which were my fault-- but it does pose, for some reason, a problem for the people I'm riding in a car with, especially Sweetie, who spends a lot of time telling me "Look at the road, not at me," and even more time tensing up, gasping, grabbing for the Jesus Handle, and trying not to yell.

I'd like to tell Sweetie "Look, I once ate spaghetti while driving through rush hour traffic in Milwaukee, in a stick-shift car, so don't worry about me," but I don't think she'd find that comforting.

As we drove through Illinois, and then Indiana, I noticed that Sweetie was tense, a lot, and that she was nervous, a lot. I tried to re-focus her and help her calm down, but the only thing that would help her calm down was, really, me not being me, and that was unlikely to happen.

Nor was it possible, really, to simply switch places. I don't do all those things when I'm driving simply because I'm insane; I do all those things when I'm driving because driving is boring. I only do them when driving is boring me. When I'd drive in New York City later on our honeymoon, when I drove in Los Angeles on our family vacation, when I drove through the mountains that lead to Hoover Dam, mountains that are cut through by roads that have precarious drop-offs of hundreds, if not thousands, of feet, I did not play with my iPod, talk to people, turn my head, or eat spaghetti. I drove.

The doing-all-those-other-things aspect of my driving (and turning to talk to people) is centered on that boredom brought on by driving. I didn't have to concentrate on driving through Illinois and Indiana and then Ohio because -- this cannot be pointed out enough -- those states are boring to drive through. They're just grassland and a few trees and houses that look like every other house everywhere.

But that boredom, and the need to do something other than simply sit in a car and stare out the window, and the need to do something other than just sit and talk, is also why I couldn't simply switch places with Sweetie and have her drive. In addition to being functionally incapable of holding a conversation with someone I can't see, I also get bored just sitting and talking. (That's reason number two of the ten billion reasons I hate the phone. I have to just sit and talk to someone I can't see. If you get me on the phone, know this: the odds are I will be doing something else while we talk. I will be surfing the internet, or chopping carrots, or giving the twins a bath, or raking leaves. The earpiece for cellphones has made it possible for me to talk to someone on the phone for at least a brief time, as has the speaker phone.)

So if we switched, as we did once or twice that day (and occasionally again throughout the trip), I was worse. I'd be fidgeting and looking at stuff and talking to Sweetie and playing with the tape player and grabbing stuff out of the backseat and in general going completely nuts. The only times in my life I've ever been able to sit still on a car ride are when I'm left alone to read something (I love reading in cars and on planes and trains) and the time I'd had my wisdom teeth out and then found out I had to give the eulogy for my grandpa three days later, so I didn't take any of the painkillers until we got back into the car after the funeral, at which point I took them and more or less zoned out for the hour-long ride home.

Reading on my honeymoon didn't seem a good option to me. "Here, Sweetie, you drive while I quietly read to myself" was not the most romantic of ways to celebrate getting married, I figured.

So mostly, I drove, and mostly I drove Sweetie nuts as we proceed across the vast Plains of Boredom that most people call Illinois and Indiana and Ohio. We made it to Ohio late in the afternoon, having barely paused through Indiana.

Ohio manages to out-boring even Illinois and Indiana, combined. It does that by having people travel on toll roads that go through nowhere (most of Ohio = nowhere) and by limiting access to those toll roads. You pay by the mile to drive through Ohio, which hardly seems fair; the state of Ohio should pay you to drive through it. But you pay based on how far you've driven: when you get on the toll road, you take a ticket. When you get off, the ticket is run through and you pay based on how far you went. We entered Ohio and took a ticket almost immediately, and for most of Ohio thereafter, we were on a highway that cut through immense expanses of boring terrain, two or three lanes in each direction, filled with identical-looking cars and with no discernible scenery in sight of anything. Just mile after mile of grass, and some small trees, and occasionally a glimpse of houses in the distance. Driving through Ohio is like driving through a post-apocalyptic world in which only a few people have survived, only the "Apocalypse" was not nuclear war or a comet hitting the world or elephant-like aliens storming in, but instead, the "Apocalypse" was the showering down on humanity a rain of tedium.

The only break in the Ohio turnpikes, really, came in the form of rest areas every 10 or 20 miles or so. These rest areas were not excitingly perched on bridges across the road, like the ones in Illinois. They were, instead, set off to the side of the road, and you got into them by pulling onto a little frontage road, like a pit area at a race track. Each rest area was identical to the previous rest area: a gas station, a souvenir shop, and a "Big Boy" style restaurant. They might actually have been Big Boy restaurants, for all I know now, but it doesn't matter if they were or were not -- if they were not actually Big Boy restaurants, they were some other restaurant that had moved into the Big Boy location and not changed anything about the restaurant, at all.

The thrill -- if it can be called that -- of that kind of rest stop wears off almost instantaneously upon seeing it, and they only got more boring as the day went on, although that may have just been the residual boredom of Ohio taking residence in our souls.

We filled the time singing along with the tape, which by that point we'd practically memorized. We had two numbers that we sang as duets -- "Summer Nights," and the song "If I Had A Million Dollars" by Barenaked Ladies -- and each time they came on, we'd sing along, each doing our parts.

We also changed the tape now and then, and talked about the kind of things people talk about 7 or 8 or 9 hours into a road trip (mostly: Keep your eyes on the road followed by I am followed by no, you're not) and crept towards the first day's goal: The Econo-Lodge in Cleveland, Ohio.

Those words, as I say them, strike fear into my heart, although it wasn't always that way. When I'd booked the hotels for our trip, I'd had one main concern in mind: cost. We were struggling on the money I made as a self-employed lawyer (i.e., none) and Sweetie's salary as a legal secretary, and so I tried to cut costs where I could to allow us the maximum amount of spending money for the trip.

One of the cost-cutting measures I undertook was to book us into Econo-Lodges for the whole trip. I'd done that based on my Dad's recommendation. Dad had come to stay in Madison when I graduated law school. I don't know why he did that, given that he lived only an hour away, but he did, and he'd stayed at the Econo-Lodge in Madison. I'd picked him up there and he'd shown me the room and the room was nice, the hotel was nice, and it was cheap. (As you'd expect, from a name that includes 50% of the word "economical" in it.)

So when the time came to pick our hotels for this trip, I'd relied on that, called Econo-Lodge's nationwide booking number, and booked us into Econo-Lodges in Cleveland, Buffalo, and Jersey City... the latter being because the Econo-Lodge booking person assured me that the Jersey City Econo-Lodge in New Jersey was just a short distance from Manhattan (or, as I called it, then, "Downtown New York City.")

We got to Cleveland late on the first day of the road trip, and Cleveland is a fairly large city to navigate through. I'd hoped that we might have time, that first day, to visit the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, something that I know is located in Cleveland and something that everytime I've had to go near Cleveland in my life (which is a surprising number of times) I've hoped to see... and something that I've never seen.

Because we were arriving so late -- it was after 10 p.m. -- we had no shot of seeing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Any disappointment I had about that was soon replaced by two emotions: First, love, because this was my honeymoon, after all, so it didn't matter what we did, so long as I was with Sweetie. And second, fear.

That second one came in because as we progressed through Cleveland and tried to find the Econo-Lodge, we got into worse and worse neighborhoods.

There are easy ways to tell, when you're in a strange city, whether you're in a good or bad neighborhood. The key factors to look for are not just bars in the windows, but "Jesus Missions," pawn shops, and liquor stores. The more densely concentrated those businesses are, the worse the neighborhood you're in.

And before anyone gets upset over that characterization, let me just say this: Pawn shops and "Jesus Missions," -- those rescue missions that help the homeless and desperate -- don't show up in wealthy parts of the community. There's a host of reasons for that, but the fact remains that they show up in the rougher parts of the city, and the rougher the neighborhood, the more that neighborhood will have liquor stores, Jesus Missions, and pawn shops.

By the time we found our hotel, we were running about three liquor stores, one Jesus mission, and one pawnshop per block. The only reason there weren't more of them is that the buildings in between the missions, pawnshops, and liquor stores were burnt out or rubble or boarded up.

We got to the Econo-Lodge and pulled into the parking lot -- it was, I believe, across the street from a combined Jesus Mission/pawnshop/liquor store -- and sat there for a second outside the "lobby." Behind us, a guy muttered to himself and shook his head and pushed a shopping cart across the cracked, broken pavement we'd parked on. There were no lights on in any of the rooms we could see surrounding the parking lot . The door to the office was metal.

"Well, we're here!" I said, trying to sound cheery.

1 comment:

lisapepin said...

The more I hear of this story, the more I love it. And I finally got to see a wedding picture! Thanks for that.