Thursday, September 03, 2009

Mr E's Beautiful Blues (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 8)

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 8. Click here for the table of contents.

"God Damn Right, It's a Beautiful Day..."
-- Mr E's Beautiful Blues, Eels.

We parked at the Holiday Inn in Buffalo, New York, near the airport. I walked up to the front desk and noted with a great deal of relief that there was no bulletproof glass in sight, no cigarette burns, no bums walking through the parking lot. I checked in and got our key and we drove the short distance to our room.

When we opened up the door, we opened it onto a suite. I was flabbergasted, probably the only time I've ever been that in my life. This room was huge. Immense. Gigantic. And beautiful. It had a bed and couch and chair, dressers, tables, a hot tub in the corner, a giant TV. It was better, frankly, than our apartment back home, which had all those things (except the hot tub) but they weren't as nice, and they weren't as nicely arranged, and, too, the things back home weren't as surprising. After the night before in Cleveland, I'd been hoping that our room at least wouldn't be full of bugs and slime; I'd set the bar pretty low and had been more than pleasantly surprised.

While I started setting out our suitcases and relaxing, Sweetie made a phone call to the kids back home. She, too, must have been pretty excited about the room because that was the first thing she'd mentioned when she talked to them. I heard her say "You've got to see the room," and she was smiling. I laid back on the bed, my legs hanging off the edge the way everyone does, I bet, when they get into a hotel after a long day of driving, and stared up at the ceiling. Maybe things were looking up, I thought. Yeah, we had less money available than I'd planned on, but at least we could touch things in our room and didn't fear stray gunfire taking us out.

The day felt long and stretched-out. Looking back now, it feels like it should have been two or maybe even three days. The couple-hours drive from Cleveland to Buffalo had been extended by the drive into both Niagara Falls cities and we'd been dragging as we got to Buffalo. I'd been weighed down by the worries that the hotel would be terrible again, that I'd have to spend another night fixing it, that we'd run out of money before we got to a hotel where I could let Sweetie relax. I hadn't passed any of that on to her, and had silently fretted all day.

But now, laying back on the bed, my legs swinging and banging my heels against the sideboard, I could feel my energy come back, at least a little. Sweetie kept talking to the kids, telling them about our drive and about Niagara Falls and asking them if they were being good for Grandma and Grandpa, and when she finally finished, I asked her if she felt like going to get some dinner and look around Buffalo for a while. She was up for that, so we headed out.

The first stop was a Denny's, for dinner. Eating at Denny's may not sound that romantic, or romantic enough for a honeymoon, but neither Sweetie nor I has ever been much for fancy dinners or fancy restaurants. Our wedding itself had featured nothing more fancy than the hors d'ouevres that we'd barely gotten to eat any of, and some wine and beer, and our relationship to that point had been marked by a lack of fanciness that accompanied the lack of money we had as newlyweds. That lack of money made eating out something we did only on very special occasions, occasions like our honeymoon and almost nothing else because of the expense involved.

Eating out is always expensive, even if you just go to McDonald's or another fast food restaurant, and it's more expensive if you've got five people in the family. When we got married, Sweetie and I lived on a budget (we still do) that was extremely tight. Our grocery budget, most of the year, was about $80-$100 a week, for five people. We used to go grocery shopping with a list and a calculator, adding up the prices as we went to make sure that we wouldn't go over budget for the week. When we got near the end of the list, we'd see what excess we had left over and get some extras, ice cream or cookies or microwave popcorn, to fill out the budget.

At less than $100 per week, eating out is not something that can be done very often, and when we did go eat out, it was never at a fancier restaurant. That was mostly fine with me, though, because I've never been a fan of fancy restaurants and neither has Sweetie. That's what she tells me, anyway, and I'm inclined to believe her because she doesn't like fancy things even when we're not footing the bill.

When we were married, Sweetie worked at another law firm (something she did until I fulfilled all the promises I made to her.) That meant that we used to have to attend, at least once a year, a fancy dinner, usually for her office Christmas party. Her office Christmas party was a low-key affair, since the only people who worked at her office were two lawyers, her, and a part-time accountant. When they held their Christmas party, the four workers and their spouses came, so we'd get together, the 8 of us, at some restaurant for the Christmas party. Since her bosses always chose it, and they liked fancy food (being of the age and income brackets that they could like fancy food and fancy restaurants), we ended up eating at fancy restaurants at least once a year.

Sweetie actually went out more than that for lunches, too. Typically, her bosses would take her to lunch for secretary's day, and they'd all go to lunch for birthdays, too. She would tell me where they went, mostly to little places around town, and what the others ordered. Her bosses would get hamburgers that came with cabbage on them, exotic salads, things like that. When I'd ask Sweetie what she got, her typical answer was "Grilled cheese."

The nicest place her bosses ever took us to was a restaurant called "Quivey's Grove," a place that had been made into a restaurant from a bunch of 18th Century Barns or some such. The outside looked like an old-fashioned farm, and the inside looked like a bunch of rich people eating overpriced food. We went there, the 8 of us, for her office Christmas party one year, and ate things like "Salad That Looked Like It Was Made Of Stuff I Saw Next To The Sidewalk On The Way In," (not it's real name) and other typical-rich-person fare. I was underwhelmed by the salad, which had greens and stems and things that were purple, but I was overwhelmed by the entree, which was chicken stuffed with ham and cheese, and by the desserts, which had flavors and textures that poor people like me rarely got to experience.

Sweetie got the grilled cheese.

So when we went to Denny's for our honeymoon dinner, that was a pretty big deal for us. We'd be eating out most of the week, although it wouldn't get as fancy as Denny's more than one time after that, making a burger for me (and, probably, a grilled cheese for Sweetie) one of the most expensive, hoity-toitiest meals we'd eat on our honeymoon.

I don't remember what Sweetie ordered for dinner that night, but I do remember what she ordered for dessert, because of what she said. She was very tired by that point, almost unable to keep her eyes open at the table, and I was feeling drained and exhausted, too, waiting for my energy to perk back up. When the waitress asked us if we wanted dessert, I didn't, but I urged Sweetie to because it was our honeymoon and I wanted her to enjoy it. So she ordered some apple pie and when it was brought a few minutes later, Sweetie looked at it through half-closed eyes and said:

"Dutch Apple Pie. Otherwise it's just plain crust."

That was all she said. She then began eating and just looked at me while I waited for something to explain that. A verb. Or adjective. Or follow-up of any kind. Finally, I said:


Sweetie looked at me. "What?" she asked me.

"What'd you say?" I asked her.

"What'd I say?" she asked me. So I repeated her statement to her and said "What'd you mean?" She thought about it for a second, trying to remember what she'd said and what she meant, and finally said "I was trying to say that I like Dutch Apple Pie better because if it's not Dutch Apple Pie it's just plain crust."

I've never forgotten that quote, and I can't look at apple pie without remembering Sweetie saying that and feeling again the way the booth at Denny's in Buffalo felt, smooth and air-conditioned, the big table that was too large for just the two of us, Sweetie using a fork to eat her Dutch Apple Pie with ice cream, the general tired-ness and happiness that had settled on me as we sat there and relaxed. Every time, since then, that I see apple pie, or Sweetie orders apple pie, I say it again, sometimes to her, sometimes to myself: Dutch Apple Pie. Otherwise it's just plain crust.

It's not even funny, I suppose, looking at it from outside like this. It can't be explained, why it stuck in my mind or why I laughed, and why Sweetie laughed, why we both felt that was so hilarious after our brief conversation, chuckling in a tired and settled-in way. I think it was only funny because we were so tired, and because we were so relieved that the day had ended, 12 hours later, better than it began, that we had a decent hotel room and nothing bad had happened at Niagara Falls and that we'd been married now for more than two days and things were improving, going from being lost in Illinois and being trapped in the slums to a nice hotel room in an okay city with some apple pie and ice cream, a trajectory we could get comfortable with, a direction we both wanted to be headed in. We'd left behind the early hitches and problems and things were starting to look like they were going to be okay, now.

In fact, as we sat there at the Denny's in Buffalo, a second wind took over, and I sprung a plan on Sweetie, one that had been brewing in my mind for a while since we'd arrived in Buffalo.

People who know me, probably including Sweetie, will think that I'd planned this all along, but I didn't, because I hadn't known, until we'd selected the destinations for our honeymoon, that we'd be going to Buffalo. We originally weren't going to go to Buffalo at all, actually, or even New York. My first choice for our honeymoon had been the Grand Canyon and Arizona, which I thought Sweetie would like and which I thought would be interesting. I'd been to the Grand Canyon, but she hadn't, ever, and I wanted to see it again. Plus, I liked the Southwest and it would be warm.

We'd nixed that idea because of time constraints; driving to the Grand Canyon and back in a week meant, as I knew, long, long driving hours. I'd done it about 8 years before with my dad and we'd spent upwards of 6, 7, 8 hours in the car most days. You don't really appreciate just how wide America is until you try to drive nearly all the way across it and back in less than a week, as Dad and I did the week before Matt got married. Now, almost a decade later, I had to admit that Sweetie and I wouldn't do any better and that I didn't want to spend my entire honeymoon in the car.

We'd also talked about New Orleans, which seemed like a fun place to go, but had opted not to do that because, in the end, we weren't certain that New Orleans would be a fun place. We were not big drinkers or partiers, and outside of Mardi Gras and cemetaries, we didn't know what else there was to do in New Orleans. What if we drove there and there was nothing to do there, we wondered.

So we chose New York City as our honeymoon destination, and then I added in that we could go see Niagara Falls, because Niagara Falls is a honeymoon destination, and because Niagara Falls was also located in New York, making it seem convenient to go to both places, NYC and Niagara Falls.

That was how my mind worked then, no lie. If something was in the same state as something else, it seemed to me to be easy to get from the one thing to the other. I've never stopped thinking that way, either. When we went to California in 2002, I decided it'd be a piece of cake to visit not only Sweetie's dad in Oakland but to drive up to visit my sister Katie in northern California and the next day drive straight on down to Los Angeles (driving through Oakland in the process). When we went to Florida last year, I planned initially to visit the Everglades even though we were staying in Kissimmee. The Everglades turning out to be 3-4 hours away from where we were, I abandoned those plans and instead opted to go visit my brother, Matt, who was only just over an hour from where we were.

I should know better. I should know that the fact that things are in one state together doesn't mean anything, since I've repeatedly driven hours and hours around Wisconsin, driving once about 6 hours north to attend my brother Bill's first wedding reception. But I've never learned to make that distinction, to say that just because things are in the same state there's no guarantee that driving to them is easy. In my mind, it's far harder (and longer) to drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to Chicago, Illinois, because that requires going to another state, than it is to drive from Madison to Green Bay, Wisconsin. But I just checked it out and it's 145 miles from Madison to Chicago and 136 miles from Madison to Green Bay.

Despite having checked it out, I still, in my guts, feel that driving to Green Bay must be far easier and quicker to get to. It's probably genetic, since when my Dad and I went to the Grand Canyon, we stayed in Flagstaff to see the Grand Canyon and the next day decided that we'd quick drive over to Las Vegas to see what that was like. That's a four-hour, one way trip, but to us, it all seemed about the same because we were in the Southwest. That's the exact reasoning we used.

So when I proposed, for our honeymoon, that we not only see New York City but also stop by Niagara Falls, the only thing I thought was that it'd be easy because they're both in New York state and that meant they were close together. (And in making that assumption, I at least had a little bit of experience to go on, experience from the time I'd gone with Mom and Dad and Katie on an ultimately unpleasant vacation to Maine that started off well and finished up horribly. On that trip to Maine, I'd noted that we passed through some states pretty quickly, and remembered that as a fact: things in the northeast are all close together. I'd then also, apparently, lumped New York into the northeast and possibly New England.)

I hadn't known, when we planned to go to Niagara Falls, that "Niagara Falls" was not only an actual city, but that it was an actual city that was very close to Buffalo, New York, and that Buffalo, would be cheaper to stay in than Niagara Falls. I learned all that when I initially sat down to plot out our trip, reserving "Econo Lodges" along the way and booking us initially into the Buffalo version of Econo Hell.

But ever since I'd learned that, I'd had in the back of my mind that as long as we were going to be in Buffalo, as long as we'd ended up there entirely by accident and not at all on purpose as those people who know me and know that my favorite football team was the Buffalo Bills, as long as we were in that city anyway entirely by accident, I'd sort of had in mind what I then asked Sweetie as she finished off her Dutch-Apple-Pie-Otherwise-It's-Just-Plain-Crust:

"So, do you want to maybe take a drive and see the stadium where the Bills play?"

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