Friday, May 15, 2009

Another Morning (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 4)

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 4. Click here for the table of contents.

I got out of the car. It was dark. We were exhausted. I didn't know what to do. Somewhere there was the sound of metal scraping and I heard cars in the distance -- cars that I imagined were heading to nicer hotels in nicer parts of nicer cities.

I looked around and made sure that Sweetie locked the door without my having to tell her to lock the door. There were a few people up on the balconies of the second floor that were looking at us. The hotel was set up in a three-fourths square around the parking lot. Three sides of the square were the office and hotel rooms, two levels, the kind of old hotel where the doors open onto a balcony or sidewalk instead of into the interior. The fourth "wall" was the entrance to the parking lot and the road. There were, here and there in the hotel, the glow of televisions coming through curtains. There were, here and there on the balcony, the tiny pinpoint lights of cigarettes as people murmured and talked.

I turned and walked into the office with the envelope for the day in my pocket. That's how I'd divided up the money we had: The Envelope For The Day. I took the total money we had for the trip (not much) and divided it by days. The Envelope for Day One had all the money we could spend that day. Any not spent would be transferred over to subsequent days.

Inside my pocket was an envelope containing maybe $400 or $500 in cash and traveler's checks. There were similar envelopes in the car, one for each day. (On later vacations, we'd do that same thing and also set aside envelopes for certain things, like an envelope marked Universal Studios on our California trip.)

I walked into the office and immediately wished I hadn't. If anything, the office made me feel more unsafe and unsure. It was labeled "night office," and to get into it you had to pull open a heavy door, which let you into a little cubicle, not unlike the ATM cubicles in some cities only with more paneling and less clean glass and tile.

The paneling in the "night office" cubicle was dark and pitted and dimly lit with a lamp or two. There was no place to sit, and I wouldn't have wanted to, anyway. All around, even in the dim light, I could see cigarette burns and tears and marks on the walls and carpet. I wondered: Did people just blatantly grind out cigarettes on the carpet, as they were checking into the hotel?

The night clerk sat behind bulletproof glass. It didn't say, anywhere, that the glass was bulletproof. I just assumed that it was because it was so thick I could barely see him. He was behind what clearly was glass or plastic and was meant to be translucent, but it was only barely see-through. I couldn't tell much about him as he spoke to me through the glass and I told him who I was and gave him our reservation number (you know, in case the hotel was booked solid...) and he charged us the cash for the night - -about $40, as I recall.

I distinctly remember telling Sweetie, when I booked it, that the hotel was a bargain. We'd be saving money and that translated into more stuff to do and more shopping and more buying.

Or more getting shot or mugged or both on the first night of my honeymoon.

I was embarrassed and upset as I finished taking my change through the slot underneath the insanely thick glass and walked back out over the burnt-out carpet into the cool night air, where Sweetie sat quietly and nervously in the car. I was a man today. It wasn't just me anymore, it was me and Sweetie, and I was responsible for her. It's one thing to be a recovering slacker who's trying to make his way in the world when it's just me; it's another entirely to be that way when it's me and Sweetie.

Up until that point, I'd mostly been a loser or a student or both in my life. I'd taken time off in college and so I hadn't gotten my undergraduate degree until 1995. Between graduating high school in 1987 and college finally 8 years later, I'd worked at a gas station, a factory, a variety of fast food restaurants, a movie theater and other places, sometimes doing just that and sometimes doing those things and going to school. In school, I'd had jobs like tutoring and working in registration offices.

Law school had seen me get a little more serious, but not by much. While it was a lot of work, it wasn't a lot of hard work, and I didn't have to try particularly hard to get through law school with good grades. Mainly, it's just a lot of reading and thinking. There's no research papers or anything like that (mostly) and there's only one exam in each class, at the end of the semester. The goals of the exams are to parrot back as much of what the teacher told you as possible, and I did that more or less successfully throughout law school, while working at a slightly-higher-level of loser jobs: intern, then law clerk jobs which didn't require all that much of me, either. I'd paid attention, I'd done the work, and I'd gotten through law school and my jobs and then opened my own practice, which, like the rest of my life, hadn't been particularly hard -- or particularly successful. As of the spring of 2000, I had maybe 20 clients and had one or two trials under my belt (including one I'd won, against all odds.) I'd argued a case at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the payment for which had sent Sweetie and I on our honeymoon. But I wasn't successful. I had a small, two-room windowless office in the basement of a building in downtown Madison, an office furnished with second- or third-hand furniture, a file cabinet, and a phone. I got paid here and there and did a lot of work for the State Public Defender, which paid $40 per hour for work. That was a phenomenal amount to me; I'd never earned more than $10 per hour prior to that.

But $40 an hour doesn't go as far as it used to, not when there's rent and phone bills and computer charges and copy charges, and I wasn't exactly swimming in money. I also wasn't exactly swimming in responsibility. I'd go into work about 8:30 and read the paper and then do some work and talk to the other lawyers in the building -- other sole practitioners who were, like me, eking by and hoping to somehow make a living while not having a boss -- and go to Court and then pick up Sweetie from her "real" job and go home to our apartment. Some days, I wore shorts to the office, a practice that I didn't associate with people not taking me seriously until much later. Wearing shorts to the office didn't work out all that well, either -- one day, I got a call from a judge asking if I could come up to Court and have a bail hearing for a client of mine that had gotten arrested.

"I'm not exactly dressed for court," I told the judge's clerk.

"I'm sure it'll be okay," the clerk said.

"No, I mean I'm dressed more for the beach," I said.

The clerk put me on hold and came back and said "The judge said it'll be fine, we'll do it in chambers." That meant I wouldn't be in public, but rather back in the judge's office.

Only when I got to the Courthouse 15 minutes later, the judge was in the courtroom, not in chambers, and so I had to go into Court and make a bail argument wearing sandals, cutoff jean shorts, and a tank top.

I didn't win.

That also didn't cure me of wearing shirts to the office and didn't make me take my job any more seriously. I'd only started my own practice because I didn't know what else to do with myself, having no job and no prospects when I graduated. Having started my own business, though, I decided to do it "right," with "right" being what I thought was right, rather than, say, the actual right way to start a business. So I set my own hours and wore what I wanted to the office and tried to make it fun, never (back then) realizing that fun is not necessarily what being a lawyer is all about, and never realizing, too, that businesses are built not on fun but on things like responsibility and hard work and business plans, and that businesses are also built on things like getting clients to pay you, something that's harder to do if you are talking to the clients while wearing a "UW-Milwaukee" tank top.

I'd muddled through for nearly a year and a half at that, earning just enough money to get by and having things work out pretty well, but walking out of that "Night Office" in Cleveland on the first day of my honeymoon was a watershed moment. I realized, as I walked out, that it wasn't just me anymore, that I couldn't go on that way, couldn't keep just screwing around and trying to do things on the cheap and being all... insouciant? Maybe... about life. I had Sweetie and the kids now and had to be serious about things and start doing stuff right, earning more money, being more responsible, being a good husband.

It was a little late for that to hit, what with being 32 and all, and what with me standing with a pocketful of cash in a parking lot in the bad part of Cleveland with my new wife sitting in the car. But I decided that I was going to start doing things the real right way, beginning with keeping Sweetie (and me) from getting shot or mugged.

I pulled the car up to our room, on the first level. "Bring everything in," I told Sweetie. We had that nice-looking rental car, all new and shiny, and I didn't want any of the various gang members, criminals, and other ne'er-do-wells I was certain were watching us getting any ideas about getting our stuff out of the car overnight. So we made sure to unload all our suitcases, all the coolers and snacks and backpacks and cameras, and get them into the room.

I said loudly at one point "Well, that's everything from the car" just before we closed the room door, hoping that all the gang members, etc., would hear me and realize that there was no point in smashing the car windows to loot it. Then, as I said it, it hit me that we'd just given all the gang members, etc., a preview of all the stuff we had, and they might leave the car alone... but come after us in the room.

That quickly became the least of my worries, though. The room far superceded the idea that we might be mugged or shot or robbed. If we had gotten assaulted or kidnapped, at least it would have gotten us out of that room.

The first thing I noticed was the smell. Have you ever smelled rotten? I have -- in that room. It was so bad that I looked around for a dead body, hoping to God I wouldn't find one but hoping, too, that I would, because what else could be making that smell?

There was no body; the smell, I assumed, came from layer upon layer of mold and mildew, all of which seemed to be making up the carpet and bedspread. The bedspread actually felt, to me, wet and slimy. As did the carpet, which felt squishy under my feet as we carried all our stuff inside.

The room was laid out more or less like any other hotel room: a bed to the right, a small nightstand and phone, and a chair, and a dresser with a crummy TV bolted to it. When I turned on the light in the bathroom, I saw grime and dirt and, I thought, a giant bug. The TV didn't work that well and I didn't feel like watching it, anyway, as I wanted to keep one eye on the door in case someone broke in, and one eye on the bathroom in case that bug broke out.

Sweetie sat down on the bed and tried to make the best of it. "It's nice," she lied.

"No, it's not," I said. "I'm sorry." She said I didn't have to apologize and then asked if we were staying in EconoLodges on the whole trip.

I got distracted before I could answer by a hole in the wall at the top of the wall opposite the bed.

"What's that?" I asked.

"What's what?" Sweetie asked me back.

I pointed at the hole and said "That." I got up and squished across the carpet and looked at it. It was almost directly above the TV and I would have had to stand on the dresser and peer at it from the side of the TV to get a better look at it. I squinted at it from below.

"It's just a hole in the wall," Sweetie said.

"It looks like the kind of hole where there'd be a camera," I said.

It was after midnight by then.

"I don't like this at all," I said, looking at the hole as I sat back down on the moldy, lumpy bed.

"It's all right," Sweetie said.

But it wasn't. It wasn't all right. Muggers and giant bugs and hidden cameras and bad parts of town. I hated it and was feeling terrible. This was not the magical way that our honeymoon was supposed to begin, and I couldn't relax. Sweetie laid by me and began to doze off. I sat up and refused to lie down at all. I kept looking towards the door -- locked, chained, and with a chair in front of it - -then towards the bathroom, where, I swear, I could hear the bug, and then towards what I assumed, more and more, to be a hole with a camera in it.

It was so bad that I couldn't even bear to watch the local news on TV, and usually I love watching weird local news in new cities -- seeing the stories they think are important, the anchors who always look just a little off, the weather reports for towns I've never heard of. But that night, nothing pulled me away from my worries. I got up a few times, too, and peered through the curtains to see if the car was still safe.

Finally, at 1 a.m., I couldn't take it anymore. I looked up hotels in the yellow pages -- a phone book which was soggy and mildew-smelling, too, and which convinced me that they cleaned these rooms, between guests, by hosing them down -- and found a 1-800 number for Holiday Inns. I called it from the room phone and got a very helpful woman who said that she could book me into Holiday Inns for the rest of the trip.

"I'm in an EconoLodge in Cleveland, now, and I don't like it," I said. "I want something nice for my wife and I on our honeymoon," I finished.

"Let's see what we can do," she said. The next night, we were staying in Buffalo. She said "We've got a hotel near the airport that's very nice."

"Near the airport?" I said. I was skeptical, and didn't want to get burned again. I kept looking at Sweetie, sleeping on the Mildew Bed, and feeling bad.

"Hotels near airports are always nice," the lady told me. "Business travelers stay near airports and they want nice hotels." So I booked it. Then we turned to the New York City part of the stay.

"Where were you booked into?" the lady asked me.

"Jersey City," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"They said it's not far from Manhattan," I explained.

"They're right," she said. "If you can swim."

"Where do I want to stay?" I said.

"How about Queens?" she asked.

"How much will that cost?" I asked.

"What kind of nightly rate were you looking for?" she said.

"Well, the one right now is $40 a night," I said. "But I could go up to $100 or $150."

The lady laughed. "If you're going to stay in a $150 a night hotel near New York, you'd better have an Uzi," she said.

"How much would you say we should have?" I asked.

"I'd say $400 a night, but let's see what we can do." We ended up booking four nights at about $300 a night at a hotel near the airport in Queens. She was very helpful and very nice, and I figured our budget out again and re-enveloped everything. It all took only about 40 minutes and then I called EconoLodge's 1-800 number and cancelled all our reservations.

It was 1 a.m. Sweetie continued to sleep. I stayed up all night, feeling better about the road ahead, and hoping that neither muggers nor bugs would derail us now. At about 5 a.m., as the sun began to come up, I began loading the car. Once I had it all loaded, I woke up Sweetie.

"Come on, we're leaving," I said. She looked around in the dim room.

"Did you sleep?"she asked.

"No," I said.

I got her into the car and we began day two doing what we should have done five hours earlier: Leaving that crummy hotel behind.

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