Friday, February 05, 2010

Paradise By The Dashboard Lights (From the Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 11)

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 11; click here for the Table of Contents.

From every vacation I've ever taken, I've got photos hanging on the wall of our home or my office.

From our Las Vegas trip, I have a collage of all the casino signs. The Washington D.C. weekend getaway with Sweetie -- nothing says romance like a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court -- led to a couple of shots of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Statue Of Some Guy Outside Our Hotel being put up.

Our honeymoon was actually where I began that practice, and from our Honeymoon I hung up exactly five pictures. Four are in my office: Times Square, a statue of Atlas holding a globe, the Statue of Liberty, and the World Trade Center.

The other picture is me, leaning against the empty locker Doug Flutie used in the Buffalo Bills' locker room. That picture isn't in my office; instead, it hangs in our family room, a position I picked because at the time I hung it, when we moved into our house back about 7 or 8 years ago, the spot where I hung the picture was a place where, I imagined, I'd see it a lot.

The spot where the Me-In-Front-Of-Flutie's Locker picture was originally hung was just above the bookshelf that served the dual purpose of holding books and blocking the electrical outlets the home inspector said never to use when he inspected our home. He'd gone through, room by room, looking things over and judging them and deciding whether or not we should buy the house, and then he took us through, room by room, too, and pointed out little things here and there, things like "You should get a railing for the front walk," and the like. When he got to the family room, he pointed to a grouping of electrical outlets, something like a power-strip only more home-made looking, jutting out from one molding, affixed to that area securely. It looked none-too-safe, even to my untrained eye.

"I don't know what that is supposed to be," he said, "But don't ever use it." I was, thereafter, afraid to even touch the outlets, even to remove them, so I just left them, leaving them there the way I'd left some of the more alarming-looking wiring in our garage alone. The people who owned the house before us apparently fancied themselves some sort of electricians, but they were obviously wrong about that, and obviously deranged, judging by their wiring.

Instead of hiring an electrician to fix it, or remove it, I hid the outlets behind a bookshelf, and put books and the downstairs phone on that shelf. And then I hung, above the bookshelf, the Flutie-Locker picture, doing so because the layout of the room, and how I had the room set up at the time, suggested that I'd be spending a lot of time in the reclining chair in that corner, reading and watching TV under the glow of the small lamp, looking up occasionally to remember the time that I stood in front of Doug Flutie's locker.

Things didn't work out that way. All these years later, the room has undergone several configurations as couches get replaced, chairs got wrecked by cats and thrown out, our old TV got replaced by the new big TV, our old coffee table with The Boy's name carved into it got taken by Oldest when she moved out and replaced by the new expensive coffee table that was subsequently wrecked by the Babies!. Through all that, plus even more new couches, playpens, the addition of satellite TV in our bedroom upstairs, and the purchase of a reclining chair for the bedroom when Sweetie was pregnant with the Babies! and needed a comfortable place to sit upstairs, the Flutie Locker picture hung above the bookshelf, even as the bookshelf ultimately got emptied of books (because the Babies! were throwing them at each other) and as the bookshelf got bolted to the wall (because the Babies! would knock it down and expose the Dangerous Outlets), and then the Flutie Locker picture got moved a couple of times, as furniture was rearranged and as the Babies! got tall enough to remove things from the wall, but not old enough to understand why they shouldn't do that...

... and now I don't know where it is.

Which is why it's not pictured here. But I still remember the picture, and my pose, and even what I was wearing in it. I remember telling Sweetie I'd be right back, and following our guide into the locker room, getting excited about maybe meeting some Buffalo Bills. (It was only later that it really sunk in that this was May, and that there would be no Buffalo Bills around.)

The Bills' guy led me through the locker room, which looked like every other locker room I'd ever been in except that it didn't have lockers with doors on them. Instead, the players had stalls, open to everyone, most of them empty. A few, including Doug Flutie's, had some shoes in them, or some other gear that I assumed had been left behind. Overall, though, the effect was less than impressive, and the impression I was left with was This is just like a high school locker room, really, which would have seemed disappointing except that at the time, I hadn't known what to expect, at all, so there were no expectations to crash. Looking back now is when I can see that it should have been disappointing: The locker room didn't look professional or glamorous or glitzy at all. It just looked like a locker room, and from this perspective later, I can see that I should have been let down, but I wasn't.

Instead, I was excited to be standing where all those Buffalo Bills I'd been watching on TV for so long had stood, had changed, had put on their shoulder pads and geared up to play football and go to the playoffs and get into those Super Bowls, standing where they'd consoled each other after Wide Right and the blowouts and the almost-wins, where they'd gathered to end up the season after each of the losses in the Super Bowls.

Standing in front of Doug Flutie's locker! I handed my camera to the guy showing me around and asked him to take a picture, as he'd done for Sweetie and I in the end zone out on the field. Then I had to struggle with how to stand, a question that arises anytime I'm in a picture. What's the best pose for this picture? Awkward and upright and arms hanging limply, like I'd done when I got my picture taken with Justice Scalia? Hands on my waist, arms akimbo, and brash?

I never know how to stand, not just in pictures, but anytime I have to stand, period. Standing is not something we instinctively know how to do, after all. That is, we know how to stand, but we stand unconsciously, unselfconsciously, just going ahead and standing up without thinking about it. But once we do think about it, standing becomes a task, and an awkward one at that. Think about it right now, as you sit reading this: think about standing, and it'll seem tiring and uneasy to you. I bet the first thing you thought of is my feet would get tired, and they would, because standing makes our feet tired, but we don't think about how tired our feet are until we begin thinking about standing. So it's actually thinking about standing that makes our feet tired.

And then think about where you'd be standing, hypothetically, and how you'd stand, and, if you're like me, suddenly you won't know what to do with all your limbs and your head and your posture. Lean against something? Look directly at people? Shift from foot to foot to keep your feet from getting too tired? Slouch? And what, for god's sake, do I do with my hands? I never know what to do, with those thoughts going through my head. Standing in line, for rides or the bank or the grocery store, causes me the same dilemma. Standing and waiting for anything poses those problems. Which is one reason why I'm lucky that my bank now has a TV behind the teller, so that I'm distracted during my wait -- not distracted from my boredom, but distracted from my thoughts of how to stand in line without seeming awkward, thinking all the while Where do I look? Should I chat with others?

I ran through all those options as I stood in front of Flutie's Locker, and ultimately chose as my pose a casual leaning up against the locker wall, one hand on my hip, the other holding me up on the wall of the locker. I'm wearing a gray sweatshirt -- a Parkersburg, West Virginia sweatshirt that I still have -- and my jeans and a goofy look on my face, the kind of look that says I don't know how to stand in front of Doug Flutie's locker but I'm very glad to be here in the presence of a locker Doug Flutie has also stood in front of.

And then, as so many things do in life, it ended, anticlimactically, with the picture being snapped, me walking back out of the locker room, meeting up with Sweetie again, and continuing our honeymoon, leaving as the two records of that moment only my memory and the picture.

We went from that unexpected highlight -- a weary, bleary trip to the Bills' stadium as a sideline to the rest of our day suddenly turning into a tour of the stadium and a photo-op -- on with the remainder of our day, which was uneventful but fun. We drove from the stadium back to Buffalo proper, and located a mall where Sweetie wanted to stop off and do some shopping. She wanted to look for some souvenirs for the kids, and maybe do some shopping herself. On vacations, I'd learn over time, Sweetie's preferred method of shopping is to browse malls and stores. She likes to shop on vacation, and I suspect that she likes to shop when not on vacation, too, but doesn't shop as often as she would like to out of financial concerns. I am of the opinion that Sweetie could shop more but doesn't, so that she can be fiscally responsible. On vacation, Sweetie cuts loose -- just a little-- and shops more, doing so (I believe) for the same reason that I eat even worse, nutritionally-speaking, on vacation: because that's the time to do it.

We spend so much of our life living within the rules, rules set by others, or society, or our own dictates of what is proper or right or fitting, that vacations are necessary. Bosses expect us to be at work, and to stay at work, and to work while we're there. We have to keep the car filled with gas and get dinner made and grocery shop and pay the mortgage. We impose on ourselves additional requirements, trying to eat healthy and work out and clean out the garage at least every so often, or mow the lawn as often as we absolutely have to (but not as often as our neighbors would like). Vacations are a time to break from all of that, to eat desserts at lunch as well as dinner, to eat out every day (one requirement I have of vacations is that I won't grocery shop or cook), to go to museums or tours or ride roller coasters, to stop at a gas station and get a snack even though it's pretty close to lunch. On vacations we can relax and do those things that we'd do all the time, except life won't let us.

A honeymoon as a vacation is a little different because while you're trying, on the one hand, to let down your guard and relax, have some fun and enjoy life, you're also still relatively new in the relationship (for most honeymoons, at least) and your relationship has just changed from pretty serious to So serious it takes a court to break you up, so there is on a honeymoon a feeling of I should try to put my best foot forward, and that tension makes a honeymoon both better and worse than other, regular vacations: It's better because you're learning to relax with your new husband or wife, but worse because you can't really relax, not the way you might if you just were on your own, or the way you will relax in a few years when you've been married long enough to stop sucking in your gut when she's around.

Sweetie was a little hesitant about wanting to shop after the trip to the Bills' stadium, but she need not have been. I'd tried to plan the honeymoon so that Sweetie could have fun, and enjoy it, and that included letting her go shopping if that's what she wanted to do. (Since Sweetie and I had never gone on vacation together before, outside of the trip to Parkersburg to visit her mom, I wasn't sure what she'd want to do on vacation.)

I assured her it was okay to go shopping, and in fact said I wouldn't mind because it'd give me a chance to go sightseeing, which is what I like to do on vacations. (In the back of my mind, I secretly also hoped that we'd run into one or more Buffalo Bills, now that it was more firmly on my mind. That kind of thing seemed possible to me, given that the city was small. Pro football players have to live somewhere, after all, and if they lived here they might well be at the mall, browsing through Pottery Barn at the same time as us, right?)

I didn't mind Sweetie going shopping, as I said, because I wanted her to have fun on our honeymoon, or as much fun as our limited funds allowed us, and also because I might see Buffalo Bills on the way, but beyond that, I didn't mind because another thing I've always liked about traveling is seeing new malls.

That sounds weird. But it's true. I love new malls. (Something I've remarked on before.) Heck, I just like malls, period.

There's something exciting to me about a mall -- the self-contained world of the mall, with dozens or more stores, all together, with food courts and shops I might never see otherwise (like luggage stores) and places to hang out (back when I was a kid, malls had arcades), has always been kind of an exciting place to me, going back to when I was a little kid and there were only a few malls that we ever went to.

There was Brookfield Square, which was about 20 miles from our house when I was a kid, a trip that was far enough away to make going "to the mall" an event that didn't happen all the time. That was the main mall we spent time at, as kids in the arcade and getting our back-to-school clothes at J.C. Penney's, which was, conveniently, just across from the arcade. There were other malls around, back then, but they were farther away and so we went to them less frequently. Those malls became more exciting and exotic seeming simply by virtue of their inaccessibility. (It didn't hurt that one of those far-away malls had an ice skating and a river, stocked with goldfish, in it.)

From early on, I was geared to like malls and see a trip to a mall as a fun and exciting thing, and it remains so to this day. The mall near where I live now, the mall I've been going to for years and years and years, still seems fun to me, so that when I take the Babies! there on weekends sometimes to play in the mall playground, I still get a little thrill as we go inside, entering usually at the food court so that I can ponder whether or not to get an Orange Julius. (I have always decided not to do so, so far, because I've only had one Orange Julius in my life, one I bought while Christmas shopping with Sweetie, and it seems to me that the second Orange Julius should be reserved for a special occasion, too. In that way, an Orange Julius can stay in the same category as Cadbury Creme Eggs, Egg Nog shakes, and trips to Sonic: something out-of-the-ordinary to celebrate a big occasion.) When I see new stores in "my" mall, I want to go in them just to look -- especially if they're new stores like the "educational" toy store that just replaced the book store in the mall, stores that are not only new but which have interesting new things in them.

The other malls in our city, malls I visit less frequently, are more exciting by comparison, even the World's Saddest Mall (which I wrote about here, and the fact that there are now three posts on this blog talking about malls should convince you I'm not just making all this up) has its share of excitement. The mall on the other side of town -- the East Towne Mall -- I go to about once a year, going there only that often so that the East mall retains its air of excitement and unusual stores.

It's the strange mixture of familiar stores, combined with the addition of stores I've never heard of before, combined with the unfamiliar layouts, that draws me in. The malls become something to experience, rather than just go through, and I wander through any new mall in any city I go to with the look and feel of a tourist, pausing to look at the candy store which, even though it sells the same candy as all other candy stores do, still seems interesting and unique.

It's with that in mind that I went shopping with Sweetie on our honeymoon, the first mall we stopped at being in Buffalo. We wandered through, with Sweetie stopping at some stores to browse, buying a copy of the Armageddon soundtrack on tape, and, I think, buying herself a shirt or two (but I might be wrong), and while Sweetie did those things, I looked at the new- and same-old stores, and took some pictures (I even had some people take a picture of Sweetie and I in front of a fountain in the mall) and mentally compared the Buffalo mall to the Madison malls. I try to imagine, when we take a trip and end up in a mall shopping, what it would be like to live there, to go to that mall to get my shoes or Christmas presents or take the Babies! to play. I wonder where I'd live, and what job I'd have, if we lived and shopped in that city. I try to picture this new strange mall -- so unfamiliar, but stocked with all-too-familiar stores and products, a mixture of new and old, same and different -- becoming my same old mall, becoming the mall I'd stop at on my way home from work, going quickly in to grab what I needed and scarcely noticing the fountain that I once had found so scenic that I'd had my picture taken in front of it.

Later on, after we left the mall, we took the rental car and drove to downtown Buffalo, to look around. It was getting dark, and we were getting tired, but I wanted to see as much of the city as we could, and so did Sweetie. My reasons were the same reasons I want to see anything: I want to see everything, and compare it with my life and imagine what it would be if that were my life. (I'm not sure why Sweetie wanted to see Buffalo. Maybe because I wanted to see it.)

The drive to Buffalo's downtown was the worst part of the day: A day that had begun with a fabulous and not-at-all-scary hotel room and then moved on to getting to walk onto the football field and see the Bills' locker room and then continued with shopping at an exciting new mall ended with a long, straight drive through what appeared to be a city made up entirely of abandoned buildings, and not just abandoned buildings, but buildings which appeared to have been abandoned only after a war had mostly destroyed them. My memory is of the light fading fast over buildings that appeared dirty and crumbling and sooty and scary, buildings where the bodies would be hidden.

Our perception of Buffalo's downtown was no doubt shaped by that drive in, coupled with exhaustion. We were not enthralled. We made it to the business-y section of Buffalo, demarcated by taller buildings and people in ties heading to warmly-lit restaurants, and we drove around a bit, but were disinclined to get out and look around. It was dark by then, and getting a little cold, and there wasn't anything we could see that we wanted to get out and look at or experience -- especially not anything in an area that was surrounded by a postapocalyptic wasteland of factories.

So we turned back around and headed out the way we'd come in, having concluded that "It's not a bad place, I suppose, but it's not much to look at." We made it back to our hotel by the airport, with our honeymoon suite sprawling out around us. I had my camera with the precious pictures of the Bills' stadium and locker room; Sweetie had her bags of stuff from the mall. We called the kids and said hi to them, and turned in for the night, ending day two of our honeymoon.

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