Thursday, July 09, 2009

If I Had A Million Dollars (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 6)

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 6. Click here for the table of contents.

If I Had A Million Dollars:

I talked to Sweetie, about two weeks ago, about the drive from Cleveland to Buffalo.

"Did you know it only takes about three hours?" I asked her.

"Really?" she said. Sweetie frequently responds noncommittally to nonsensical statements that I make. She doesn't want to get roped into some scheme of mine involving a trip somewhere, or putting the Babies! on a reality show, or letting my family visit.

"Yep. I Mapquested it. But didn't we spend, like, twelve hours on the road that day?" I asked her.

"Yes," Sweetie said. I think she was still worried where this was heading. In her voice, I coiuld almost hear: We're not driving to Cleveland, are we? Or Buffalo?

Sweetie worries about things like that. I came home the last two days from a trial in another county, and each time I raved to her about how scenic the drive was and how much I'd enjoyed it. Each time, I told her that I thought we should take a drive out that way someday, so that she could see the scenery, too. "Maybe a Saturday or something," I said. "Make a day of it, because it's 90 minutes one way." Then, yesterday, after dinner, we took the Babies! for a ride (they like car rides, even at almost 3 years old) and I headed out of town on a little-used road.

"Where are we going?" Sweetie asked me.

"Just driving around," I said. "You know," I added, "This is the road I've taken to get out of town to go to court the last few days."

"We're not," Sweetie asked, "Driving all the way to that courthouse, are we?"

So Sweetie is inclined to think just that: that my mentioning the distance between Cleveland and Buffalo, in passing, might mean that I'm thinking about just up and driving to Cleveland. Or Buffalo, or both.

But I didn't, that day, think we'd be setting off on a road trip. I was only trying to clarify my memories, to figure out why in my mind I remembered an exhausting, long day of driving and yet the Internet told me it was 3 and a half hours.

"We went to Niagara Falls first," Sweetie reminded me. "We drove to see the Falls and then checked into our hotel room."

And that cleared things up -- and I remembered more clearly, then, what had happened, or at least the order in which it happened. We hadn't gotten our first (disappointing) glimpse of Buffalo until we'd had our first (disappointing) glimpse of Niagara Falls, and then our second (not at all disappointing) look at the Falls, and then had gone over to Buffalo to check into the hotel that we were hoping, all day, would not be a scary rundown thing like Cleveland had been.

Niagara Falls, the falls, are spectacular, but only when seen from the Canadian side. From the United States' side, they're junk. Absolute rubbish, as the British might say, and as I wish Americans said, because it's colorful.

Part of the problem with the American side is the approach. Niagara Falls, the U.S. city, is crummy and rundown and old and kind of slummy looking; most of it looked as though our Cleveland EconoLodge would fit right in, except that there was no real fear of crime: Looking at Niagara Falls, New York, it was hard to believe even criminals would live there.

I didn't get it. Niagara Falls is a huge tourist destination. It's probably one of the top-known sites in the world. It is, at least to Americans (or at least to me, and I'm an American) probably the best known waterfall in the world. And if there's one thing Americans know how to do well, or at least interestingly, or at least not run down and crummy, it's tourist sites.

Americans love tourist sites. At least, I do, and I am (as I said) an American. But others must, too, or there wouldn't be so many of them. And I don't mean "unspoiled, natural-beauty, look-at-all-this-wonder-of-creation" tourist sites. I mean "mystery-spot, post-card-selling, t-shirt vending, make a penny into a souvenier" tourist spots. Americans can turn anything into a tourist site -- if there's nothing around to focus on, we'll ram a hole through a tree, call it the "Drive Through Redwood" and then sell golf balls with that saying on it. Got a bay near your city where the sea lions like to come and bark? That's nothing until you throw a Merry-Go-Round, arcade, "Bubba Gump's Shrimp Shop" and a bunch of T-shirt stores near it -- blocking the view of the sea lions but letting people like me buy an actual redwood that we'll then take back to Wisconsin with dreams of starting a redwood forest in our backyard.

We love tourist spots so much, and hate unspoiled nature so much, that we built a walkway out into thin air in the Grand Canyon. I once toured a cave -- and remember, when you're touring a cave, it's already been altered; those lights didn't grow there -- and in the cave, which itself was beautiful, the proprietors had put (I'm in no way making this up) Smurfs in one little cavern. Because, you know, the cave wasn't enough.

In Wisconsin, we have the Wisconsin Dells, a series of natural rock formations carved out by the Wisconsin River over the course of eons. I've seen them several times in my life, and they are neat to look at, fun to walk through, interesting to marvel at.

Around those Dells, we have built more waterparks than anyone can shake a stick at. There is a waterski show, a magic act, numerous fudge shops, probably 17 billion miniature golf courses, and a place to bungee jump. If you still want to see the Dells, in between watersliding with a mouthful of fudge, you can see them... by jetboat. Nature's just not as spectacular if you're not moving at 75 miles per hour past it, apparently.

And this is not a modern thing, either. As far back as 1888, Americans were touristizing nature -- doing so at the Dells through spectacle: A guy named H.H. Bennett helped popularize the Dells originally by having his son jump from the top of one tall rock tower to the top of another -- a feat that later on would be done by dogs, jumping nearly 6 feet across a chasm.

Any society that can figure out how to endanger dogs and teenagers in order to capitalize on nature could surely, I always assumed, make Niagara Falls into a spectacle. I anticipated, and hoped for, a wonderland of tourism at Niagara Falls: Ferris Wheels, go-kart tracks, souvenier shops with waterfall themes, old-timey pictures, theme restaurants... maybe even something that we could drive through (fingers crossed!).

What I got was: a slum. An abandoned town would have been more scenic. If you've ever been to any moderately sized city and driven around, then you've seen that part of the city that nobody really goes to anymore. There was once a factory there, or insurance company, or something that drew people to that part but made nobody want to live there, and which required a lot of concrete and buildings and railroad tracks. Now, that factory/insurance company/whatever is gone, and all that's left is concrete and shuttered buildings and faded paint and here and there a car parked but the cars appear to have been parked there for decades.

That's Niagara Falls, New York, USA. I don't recall, now, even seeing any person in the city on the US side of the Falls. I know that's crazy -- I know that someone must live there -- but I don't remember seeing anyone on that side of the Falls. I just have a hazy memory of faded paint and those parked cars and weeds: In my mind, there are weeds as tall as my waist, growing right out of the sidewalks of Niagara Falls, New York.

And driving up to the Falls on the US side is like that. I don't remember anything really special about it. I think there's a place you can view them, and maybe Sweetie and I did that, but we didn't stay around long in Abandoned Weedville; instead, we decided, and quickly, This is rubbish (see? It's fun!) and headed over to the Canadian side, across the large bridge that back then, before 9/11 and before Osama Bin Laden and before we all freaked out and started making everyone take off their shoes before going into Wal-Mart, back then you could drive across by showing a picture ID and nodding at the border guards. I'm sure it's different today; so many things are. If I were taking this trip today, I'd be concerned that I'd have to preregister with the State Department in order to take a picture of the Falls, and that the request would have to be submitted in triplicate 9 months in advance and that I'd still, for some reason, have to remove my belt. But back then, we didn't have to worry about that at all; we gave it zero thought: We just drove onto the bridge and headed into Canada.

The Canadian side of the Falls was spectacular, and was touristy, I suppose, but in a Canadian way -- that is, kind of classy. There were theme restaurants, but they were expensive theme restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood. I can't remember which of those there were - -maybe there were both -- but we went to one thinking maybe we'd get a bite to eat or a snack, and we wandered around in it looking at the rock music or movie memorabilia (whichever it was) and ultimately I don't think we got anything, because the restaurant was expensive. I believe we moved on without spending most of that day's budget on lunch.

Beyond the theme restaurants, there were hotels, and lots of them, each offering a great view of the Falls and each looking super-expensive. And there were some souvenier shops, including one right by the Falls that we went into and bought some junk at -- exposing us as typical Americans when Sweetie went up to pay and asked how much it would be. The teller added up the cost of the postcards and t-shirts we were buying and said the price, adding, "Canadian."

Sweetie then said: "How much is that in real money?"

What the Canadian side lacked in waterslides and miniature golf courses, it made up for in sheer spectacle. Once you see the Canadian side of the Falls, you forget there ever was an American side (and good thing, too.) The Canadian side has a well-groomed garden running along it, making for a nice pastoral stroll along the river and up to the Falls. Everywhere around the Falls is misty and kind of cold. (I'd opted, that day, to wear a sweater vest-and-button-up shirt combo with my jeans, which I thought made me look kind of preppy, but which my brother Matt, on seeing the pictures later, said made me look like a nerd.) The mist comes, I gathered, from the fact that a hundred billion thousand million kajillion gallons of water are going over the Falls every second.

That, of course, is not an exact scientific figure, but it might as well be. There's always a roar in the background as you approach the Falls, and that roar is all the water that is going over the edge, and has been going over the edge for decades, centuries, millennia, maybe... who knows? But it's a lot of water, and saying that doesn't tell you the scope of looking at just how much it is, how loud it is, how wide and fast and dangerous looking the river is.

I loved Niagara Falls, and so did Sweetie. But with that said, I don't know how it became such a romantic destination, how it became the honeymoon destination it's supposed to have been or supposed to be now. I mean, even Superman and Lois Lane went there on their honeymoon. But there's nothing romantic about it, at all.

There's certainly nothing romantic about the Falls themselves. They're great -- they're spectacular. They're the kind of natural thing that makes you just stand and look, without needing to say anything, for a few seconds when you first see them. They engage all your senses -- sound and sight, sure, but also touch and taste because of the water in the air, and a little smell, too, because all that mist and pounding leaves the stuff around you, and you, feeling perpetually like you're caught in a light spring rain and that makes everything smell fresh and new and clean (and a little damp, true.)

But looking at the Falls doesn't make you think romance, or boy, we should really start necking, or man, this is hot. They kind of have the opposite effect, at least on me: they made me feel small and insignificant, and also kind of like a wuss, because when I looked at them, I not only thought: Boy, that's a lot of water, but also this: Who would ever try to go over those in a barrel? Not me. So that's not the most romantic of feelings then -- staring at something that tells you: you are small, you are nothing, and also you're a bit of a coward.

Nor are the surroundings that romantic. On the US side, things were terrible; there's nothing romantic about a city that looks like it's made up of 100% abandoned rail lines. On the Canadian side, things might have been romantic, but they were too clean and modern and ... Canadian, and also too expensive, as I said. Having decided, the night before, to upgrade our hotels from "dangerous and disease-ridden" to "passable but expensive," I was now more conscious than ever about the money.

It also may have been that we were tired. But in either event, we were not so tired or poor that we did not take in some stuff. We bought, as I said, some souveniers, and we also went down to the base of the Falls. There's a walkway you can go down, with borrowed slickers (another word that's underused), and go stand at the bottom on a platform that never dries out; it's perpetually wet from the mist and roaring water that's not more than 200 or 300 feet away, towering above you.

The walk down -- like the rest of the Falls -- is not romantic. It's dark and dangerously wet and slippery, leading to a lot of helping of Sweetie but not in a heroic way -- in a I hope I don't accidentally get my wife's neck broken on our honeymoon kind of way. We got our slickers (see? fun!) and went down the damp steps and got to the bottom, where we stood together looking up at the Falls and trying to talk about them. That went a little like this:

Me: They're spectacular aren't they?

Sweetie: What? It's so loud!

Me: Never mind. I'll tell you later.

Sweetie: What? It's so loud!

Me: Later!

Sweetie: They're spectacular!

Me: What?

Again: Not very romantic. I was at a loss, all day long, as to how the Falls got its reputation as a honeymoon destination of choice. Then again, maybe that's something that's outdated, like Love, American Style; maybe my notions of what is romantic for a honeymoon were formed and set in stone when I was 8 years old watching reruns on Channel 18 instead of going out to play, and as a result, I still think that Niagara Falls is a honeymoon destination, while the rest of the world knows that was just a joke.

After walking back up the stairs and waiting for our hearing to clear (and our clothes to dry, because they got a little wet even under the slicker, we walked around the gardens a little more, took some more pictures, looked at the river, and we talked about the "Maid of the Mist" boats and whether Sweetie wanted to go on them.

As I asked that, whether she wanted to take the boat ride to the base of the Falls, I was secretly hoping she'd say no. I wanted to go on the boat rides. I thought they looked great. But I was, as the day progressed, more worried about money than I'd been that morning. I'm sure, now, that part of my worries were simply being tired -- and we were exhausted, especially me -- but a bigger part of the worries was that we didn't have much money, and most of it was intended for hotels. So as we'd walked around that day, I'd counted and recounted the money in my mind, figuring out how much we could spend and how much we should budget and more, doing that over and over, and I'd decided something: To help make the money last longer, while also making the honeymoon fun for Sweetie, we'd do only what she wanted to do, if it cost money.

I didn't tell Sweetie that. I didn't want her to worry about money. I wanted her to think that there were no worries about money, that the money was endless. It wasn't, not by a longshot, but I wanted her to at least think that. Maybe I couldn't actually give her a honeymoon that had an endless supply of money funding it, but I could create the illusion of one that did, by minimizing what I spent and maximizing what she could spend.

So I didn't tell her that I wanted to go on the boats. But I did ask her if she wanted to go on the boats, ready to pay for it if she wanted to do that. I wanted her to do anything, on our honeymoon, that she wanted to do. But as I asked, I hoped that she'd say no so that we wouldn't spend that money and things wouldn't be too tight.

She said, no, she'd rather not, and we decided, as we walked through the flower gardens alongside the Niagara River, that we'd head back across the border and find Buffalo and our hotel. That would have been about 3 in the afternoon, I think? Maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. Buffalo wasn't that far away, so it was only a little while after we hopped back into our rental car, put the radio on and waved goodbye to Niagara Falls that we finally approached Buffalo, New York, and only a little while after that when we would locate, near the airport, our second hotel.

Having spent the day worrying about money and being bone-tired from watching our belongings and never sleeping the night before, I could only hope that our hotel room in Buffalo would at least be passable. As we got nearer and nearer, I got more and more nervous and found myself hoping, more and more, that the lady on the phone, the lady who'd been so nice to me at 3 a.m. as I nervoused it out in Cleveland, hadn't screwed me over.

That was about when Sweetie said "I'm sure it'll be all right," and we turned into the parking lot.

I sure hoped it would.

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