Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Sea Of Love (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 5)

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 5. Click here for the table of contents.

Sea Of Love - The Honeydrippers

We set off on the second leg of the journey that morning, early, heading up the Ohio turnpike towards Niagara Falls.

I don't think Sweetie had been out of the state much before. I knew for sure that she had gone to California to visit her dad, not long before. That had been when we'd been in the early part of our relationship, and constituted the second time, or maybe the third, that I knew for sure that Sweetie had been out of state. Looking back, I think it was the third, because these are the ones I know of before we got married: She went on a trip to either New York or Washington when she was little, with her mom and dad. And she went with me to West Virginia to visit her mom and her brother and sisters. And she'd gone to Oakland to visit her dad, flying alone because we were still fairly new in our relationship and because I'd been in law school and was too poor to just fly out to Oakland for a few days, even if once there I'd be staying free.

That seemed to me, as we drove along that second day of our honeymoon, to be a fairly limited set of trips for Sweetie, although I wasn't all that better traveled. But I had not just a slightly-more-extensive set of travels on my part; I had the fact that I am, for some reason, the expert on things.

I don't know how I became an expert on things -- all things -- but I am. I've always been an expert on things, a role that just seems to cling to me the way lint clings to clothing. All my life, and more so as time goes on, people turn to me and expect me to know the answers to things, regardless of what those things are.

This happened to me before I was a lawyer. It happens more often now that I am a lawyer, but it happened plenty before that, too, even during that period of time when I was doing nothing more challenging, or intellectual, with my life than serving as a kind of security guard who guarded nothing but who read a lot: people expect me to know things, and to be able to do things.

That may be in part because I expect those things, and may be in part because I'm a guy, and guys, in general, are expected to know things or do things. And it may be in part because I do know a lot of things ,and can do a lot of things, although the things I know and can do are not, in general, helpful things or necessary things. I'm remarkably short on the knowledge of how to do things that are helpful or necessary, but that doesn't stop people from assuming that I'm the authority that I project myself as being.

Our honeymoon was no less an occasion for Sweetie to assume that I knew what I was doing and would be able to get us where we needed to go. We set out that morning from that terrible neighborhood in Cleveland and began driving, with the map in the car and a vague knowledge of the direction that we needed to travel in order to get to the next stop, a hotel near the airport in Buffalo, New York.

I've always wondered, every time I had to drive somewhere farther away than the grocery store, whether it would be possible to drive to a destination in America without using a map or directions of any kind. That is, I know it's possible; what I wonder, really, is how well that would work. I sometimes think: Could I just put my family in a car and decide to drive to, say, Miami and not have a map or directions, just head south and begin following the road signs?

That's how I picture pioneers doing it, after all: they headed west, or south, or (for some reason) north, without much in the way of maps or roads or signs or Mapquest. How could there have been maps, I think, when the continent hadn't been explored yet, beyond Lewis & Clark and de Soto? I think that and I look at maps of the United States and wonder at how they got where they were going. People heading from Boston to San Francisco in a covered wagon, moving that entire distance at a walking pace, for months and months and months, and their target was so tiny -- a city is really a miniscule dot on a giant continent, when you look at it that way, and how could they have found it? Head west until they found the ocean, then head north or south and hope they ran into the city?

Things had to have gotten easier once there were roads; at least then you would know that someone else had gone the way you had, had driven the direction you were going. The fact that there was a road, paved, with lines and such painted on it, meant that you were headed somewhere. If not the way you wanted to be headed, then at least the way someone else had wanted to be headed.

Then, once the Interstates came along, things seemed, instinctively, even easier -- those roads cut right through everything, straight, direct, with signs telling you what's coming up ahead. That's when I began to think it might be possible to just get in a car and drive to where you wanted to go, without mapquesting it or getting the AAA to draw you a "triptych" (something I've never liked. I find them confusing-- the directions change at random, so that on one page, the top is "north" but on the next page, the top is "west" and then "south," depending on how the road curves. I can't follow a triptych at all; it messes with my internal compass, which is already none-too-accurate.)

Then, once I imagined that it could be done, that one could simply get in a car and decide to head for Los Angeles or Phoenix or Rhode Island, I wanted to do that; I wanted to try a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants vacation.

That, in fact, is one of my dreams, one of the selfish things I'll do when I win the lottery/write a bestseller/somehow luck into money without ever working hard: I will load my family into a car (it'll probably be a new car) and we'll drive: just set off driving, say, west, and head for a new city every so often, finding a hotel as we go and seeing what there is to be seen. We'll do that until we're done traveling around America, and then we'll head around the world. It'll be like You Shall Know Our Velocity crossed with National Lampoon's Vacation. Only with a better soundtrack, because I'll have all 9000+ songs on my iPod (and finally a chance to listen to them all the way through.)

We kind of had some maps with us on the honeymoon; my Dad -- a Triple-A member-- had gotten us a triptych, and I had a road map of the United States that had major roads and such, and I had a vague idea of what to do, which was head kind of north east. Our car did not have a compass, so I was navigating the old-fashioned way, the way hummingbirds do when they come from Mexico back to the United States: using the sun to kind of judge my position and direction.

"How long until we get there?" asked Sweetie, imbuing me with authority and knowledge I didn't have, at all; I hadn't had any clue, really, how long any of this would take us. I had a rough idea how long it was from Wisconsin to Cleveland, because I'd driven that once before, when I'd gone along with my Mom and Dad and my then-ten-year-old sister on a trip to Maine, my role on the trip at the outset being "company for my sister Katie," who had only much-older brothers in our family and nobody to take a vacation with, and my role at the end being "company for my sister Katie while my parents refused to speak to each other," that Maine trip being at the very end of their marriage, and possibly one of the triggers that ended the marriage.

While we'd driven from Wisconsin to Cleveland on that trip, and driven from Cleveland to Wisconsin on the way back, I didn't have a very good idea how long it was, really, because it had been almost ten years before, and also because the tedium and tension of that trip had made it seem much, much longer than it really was. In my mind, each leg of that trip took several months.

"Not too long," I told Sweetie, hoping that "not too long" was vague enough to be correct no matter what, while not being so vague that I wouldn't continue to be the authority on things. As a newly-minted family man, I had to be right and in charge of things.

The Ohio Turnpike didn't get any more interesting until we left Ohio and crossed into Pennsylvania, a leg of the trip that always surprises me. There are facts and then there are things I think I know, and the location of Pennsylvania, as well as the cities that are located in Pennsylvania, manages to have separate answers in each of those categories.

It is a fact that Pennsylvania sits between Ohio and New York, and just above Maryland. It's also a fact that Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are both located in Pennsylvania. I know those things; intellectually, I know them to be true.

But those facts have nothing to do with things I think I know, and what I think I know is the location and geography of Pennsylvania, because in my mind, Pennsylvania sits north of New York -- where I also imagine Massachusetts sits, a stack of states: New York, then Pennsylvania, then Massachusetts, so that if you drove due north you'd go through them in that order. And, in my mind, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia exist in some other Pennsylvania, or maybe a state that has no name. Just saying that: "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania"... seems wrong, somehow, like saying "San Francisco, Florida." Or "Peanut Butter and Motor Oil." A while back, when it was pointed out in a news article that Senator Arlen Specter, from Pennsylvania, was a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I thought "Why?" Later in the article, it noted that the team is from his state and I had to think for a moment before realizing, "Oh, yeah, it is."

Entering Pennsylvania was weird, then, not just because I didn't realize (even with all the looking at the map and the triptych I'd done) that it was in our path, but also because scenery reappeared, or at least a simulacrum of scenery: there were trees and hills, the basic ingredients of scenery. The road went up for a while, then down for a while. It curved between lanes of pine trees and other trees. It rose gradually, and dropped gradually. Little houses now dotted hillsides scenically, instead of squatting, dirty and unloved, in the middle of cornfields or flat grassy land. There was green, replacing the yellow-and-brown-and-gray of industrial Ohio and farmy Indiana. The pavement became more pale in contrast to the blue sky and the green leaves and the slightly-less green roadside grass.

License plates, too, changed, and I've always wondered about that. We drove through Illinois, surrounded by Illinois plates. Almost immediately upon entering into Indiana, the Illinois plates disappeared and were replaced by Indiana plates. The same thing happened in Ohio, and now in Pennsylvania, too: Gone were the boring "Ohio: The Heart of It All" Plates and in their place were goldish-orange, with blue, Pennsylvania plates reminding us that were were in "The Keystone State."

Sweetie and I listened to the tape as we drove, mostly -- the Honeymoon tape, over and over-- and practiced singing along with "If I Had $1,000,000" by Barenaked Ladies, each singing one part of that song. I'd sing "If I had a million dollars and Sweetie would sing I'd build a treefort in our yard." Sometimes we changed it up, put in something else to listen to. Sometimes we just turned the radio off and talked while we drove.

Sweetie got sleepy for a while, but wouldn't rest. She's never been one to sleep in a car, especially when I'm driving. She has to keep watch, to make sure that seatbelts stay on and I stay on my side of the road and don't forget that I'm driving or get us lost (again) and she worries about those and a hundred other things while we're driving. She sat in the seat and struggled with her drowsiness, road hypnosis, and worries, juggling them all.

At one point, she was almost asleep and, as we drove by an exit sign telling us there was an exit in a mile, I asked if she needed me to stop so she could use the bathroom or anything.

"No," she said. "I'm okay."

A few more signs flashed by and I read them, too.

"Are you sure?" I asked her.

"Yeah. I'll be okay."

Another sign, and I looked over at Sweetie.

"Because I can stop," I said. The exit was approaching.

"No, don't worry," Sweetie said,and so I drove by the exit and kept going towards New York. "It's not like we're on a turnpike or anything," she told me.

"That's exactly what we're on," I said to her.

"What?" she said, and looked fully awake now. "We are?"

"That's what the last three signs were saying before the exit."

"How far is the next exit?" she asked.

I said "Not very far," even though I knew it was, in fact, pretty far -- nearly an hour, I thought.

We made it to the next exit and then kept going. The drive, in fact, wasn't all that long, as it turns out. If you went straight through, you could get from Cleveland to Buffalo in about three hours, another fact that surprised me. Cities always seem, in my mind, to be far apart. They seem to be far apart. They should be hours and hours away from each other. It shouldn't be, I think, possible to go from one major city to another major city in less than half a day.

California has it right. Every place in California, every major place, is a half-day or more away from every other place. When we would go there on vacation in a few years, with the kids, we would drive from Oakland north to visit my sister, traveling six hours one way to do that. We would then drive down to Los Angeles, traveling twelve hours to do that. Once in Los Angeles, we'd find out that San Diego was another half-day away. That's how you run a state, or set of cities: Each of them exists independently of the other.

Out East, and in the Northeast, that concept doesn't apply. People commute between states, which seems insane to me. How can you live in one state and work in another, commuting to a different state? I know that state borders are more-or-less arbitrary, but it seems that they should matter, or else why have them? If there's no real boundary between Connecticut and New York, why is there an imaginary boundary?

Having cities like Buffalo and Cleveland be three hours apart seemed wrong because of that, but for us, it wasn't three hours. It was more of a six hour trip, although it seemed even longer because we were still tired from the day before, and because I hadn't, in fact, slept at all the night before. Sweetie was a little better but I hadn't let her sleep, either. So we took frequent stops and stretched our legs and stopped for breakfast and then lunch and dilly-dallied along our route to Buffalo.

The fact that we were heading to Buffalo, too, was a surprise, although I think Sweetie suspected I'd planned it that way. It turned out that our second stop on the Honeymoon, Niagara Falls, was located in Buffalo, New York -- home of my favorite football team, the Buffalo Bills. So I was doubly excited as we neared the city, or triply-excited: I was married, on my Honeymoon, about to see Niagara Falls, and also going to be in the city where all my football heroes played. I expected that we'd run into them around every corner -- that I'd check into the hotel and turn around and see Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie and Peerless Price and others, all just hanging around. (In my imagination, they also wore their jerseys, making it easy to identify them.)

That's what I expect whenever we go anywhere that famous people live. I assumed, the time we'd gone to Green Bay for a long weekend, that I'd probably bump into Brett Favre every few minutes. (I hadn't.) When we would go to Hollywood in a few years, I'd anticipate sitting at stoplights next to Harrison Ford or Sean Connery, walking along the streets next to Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. (We didn't.) And when we were heading to Buffalo, I expected that I'd probably, at some point, have to say "Hey, Doug Flutie, it's been fun talking to you but I'm on my Honeymoon, so I'd better get back to my table."

(I didn't know where that conversation would take place. Just that it would.)

Also, I was a little nervous that we were heading for another disaster -- that the hotel would be as bad, or worse, than the Cleveland one was, that we'd be in some kind of Buffalo war zone at a hotel that was held together with masking tape and gumption. So I dawdled on the way there, for that reason, too, and when we first saw Buffalo, I thought Oh, crap, I was right.

Buffalo is ugly. Sorry, Buffalo, but you are: At first glance, it's nothing special. People living in cities, listen to this: Someone from your city should really go out and drive into the city from all possible approach routes, and look to see whether it's really ugly or not. I'm amazed that the approach to cities is so often so terrible. Drive into Madison from the East and you're greeted by smoke stacks and half-torn-down buildings and, about a half-mile from the Wisconsin Capital, a grungy section on the main road to downtown that features boarded up buildings and an adult bookstore.

Drive into Milwaukee and it's worse: It's factories and slaughterhouses and old apartments and the overpowering smell of yeast from the breweries.

Buffalo had that feel to it: Worn down and industrial and grimy and dead and looking like the whole thing was a bad neighborhood. We saw the city coming up and we both got kind of quiet, remembering the Cleveland experience all too well and all too recently.

"Maybe it'll be okay," I told Sweetie. Our half-day of semi-scenic driving and discussions about how eagles could, from a mile up, tell whether the thing they were swooping down to capture was a rabbit or a rock (Sweetie said they would swoop down and then back up and think, "Aw, I got a rock," a saying that we laughed about repeatedly on the trip) was behind us, and in front of us was the second ugly, kind-of-scary looking city we'd hit.

"I'm sure it'll be okay," I told Sweetie, and followed the sign that said Airport.

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