We decided to accompany my mother-in-law on a trip back to her hometown of Wabash, Indiana. Still skittish about taking our 15-month old, Eddie, on an airplane, we decided to drive. It was a 12-hour journey, but my husband’s parents, who were in their mid-eighties, said they would be driving, so we thought if they can do it, so can we. A few days before we left, we learned they’d decided to fly.
With a long journey ahead of us, we vowed to leave at 4 a.m. We pulled out about noon. My husband, Bruce, drove the first five hours, but when we stopped at a rest area, I told him I’d take over for a while. Bruce took Eddie over to a grassy field next to the parking lot so that he could run around for a bit after being cooped up in the car for several hours. I went to get gas. I’m not accustomed to self-service gas stations because in New Jersey, someone had the ear of someone and it’s now the law that we can’t pump our own gas. I put my card into the machine, and just as I was about to input my PIN, someone pulled up behind me and asked, “How do you like your Subaru?” We chatted for a about a minute, and by the time I turned my attention back to the machine and tried to input my PIN, it wouldn’t accept it. I tried to cancel the transaction so I could start again, but the machine jammed. I pressed “cancel,” over and over again to no avail. I got back into my car, backed up to the pump behind me and put my card into the machine, but it again jammed right after I input my PIN. I asked the man using the pump behind mine if he, too, was having trouble. He was not. I pushed the “Call for Assistance” button, three times. No one came.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said and jumped back into my car, backed up and tried to find a third pump, but by that time, all the slots for cars that have their gas tank on the passenger side were now occupied. I sped around to the front of the gas station and did a U-turn so that I now faced all of the pumps, a manuever that enabled me to get a pump usually reserved for cars that have their gas tank on the driver’s side. A bird’s eye view of the situation would show a bunch of people calmly getting gas, and one errant car buzzing around them like a fly trying to penetrate a closed window. I inserted my card, and this time it worked, though the nozzle kept shutting off prematurely as the tank filled. I kept having to pull the handle on the nozzle again and again to keep the gas coming out. When the pump registered $40, I figured it must be filled. I got back in my car and picked up Bruce and Eddie.
“What took you so long?” Bruce said.
I had been driving about 25 minutes when I whizzed past two state troopers sitting in the highway median. I saw in my rear view mirror that one of the two cars pulled out and got into my lane, a few cars behind me. What are the chances the trooper suddenly wanted to leave the median just after I drove by, and now wants to be in my lane? Coincidence? Soon, he was directly behind me and put on his flashing lights. The worst thing about a ticket isn’t the money. It’s the indignity of being scolded so publicly. I was once put in the “baby chair” in kindergarten because I cried in class. This felt similar. We pulled into a rest area, and he wrote me a ticket for $111. Bruce got into the driver’s seat.
At about 8.30 p.m., we pulled into Cleveland and planned on staying the night. I like to stay in old, majestic hotels, but the Renaissance, one of Cleveland’s most regal, was $239 for the night, and given that we just spent $111 on a speeding ticket, we opted for the Radisson.
It seemed adequate, particularly since we were leaving early the next day and would barely see the hotel. I overlooked the fact that we were directly across the street from a sports arena, but once inside the room, it was hard to overlook what sounded like a loud machine going on and off. The noise followed an arc, first revving up, reaching full speed, and then ramping down until it stopped, only to start again a minute or two later. I called the front desk.
“There’s a loud noise in our room. What the heck is it?” I asked, and began mimicking the sound so the clerk could identify it. He showed no recognition.
“I can move you,” he said. “I’ll keep you on the same floor.”
I hadn’t indicated a particular affinity for that floor, but I said all right.
I hung up and walked down the hallway, trying to figure out what the sound might be and whether the other rooms were likely to be better. I initially thought it was the ice machine but when I walked by it, I heard no sound. I walked all the way to the end of the hall and while the machine wasn’t as noisy down there, I could still hear it. I considered that it might be the elevator but thought it unlikely. A hotel couldn’t operate if its own elevator was so loud, people couldn’t sleep. That would be counterproductive, like opening a bakery near a foul-smelling landfill, or eating your young. I figured it was one of the big rooftop generators I observed outside our window.
Bruce and I decided I should go ahead to the restaurant and secure a table before everything closed. He would meet me there with Eddie. As I walked through the lobby, I told the man at the front desk that a new room wouldn’t be necessary.
“What was that noise anyway?” I asked.
“The elevator,” he said. “People in the room next to yours always complain, but I thought your room would be fine.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize the sound I was making. It was that he did.
We decided to have dinner at a restaurant owned by celebrity chef Michael Symon, of Iron Chef fame. I don’t watch Iron Chef nor have I ever heard of Michael Symon, but I figured if he’s famous, it’s hopefully for good reason.
The inside of the restaurant was lovely, possibly too lovely for a 15-month old, but the hostess didn’t seem to mind. She seated us in a beautiful dining room with a vaulted ceiling, little light bulbs that were suspended from the ceiling by long wires and were surrounded by chandelier crystals, and a view of the kitchen, which was wide open so diners could watch their food being prepared.
Soon, Bruce and Eddie arrived, and I ordered sweetbreads, despite Bruce’s warning. Eddie had pierogi, and Bruce and I had oysters, scallops and sliced pork, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. I also had two martini’s – enough for me to momentarily forget what sweetbreads were but not enough to stop me from remembering. And as soon as I did, I couldn’t eat another bite.
The next morning, I got up just before 7 a.m. to find a café with an internet connection in which I could do my morning copy editing job. It’s a job I’ve had for 10 years and do remotely wherever I go. The woman at the front desk of our hotel directed me to a new café on the adjacent street, but when I got there, I found it was closed. I wondered where the cafe’s owner got his morning coffee. Certainly not his own café. I went back to the street on which we had dinner and found a café there that was open. As I settled in with my laptop and coffee, I noticed the music playing over the sound system and got up to ask the woman behind the counter who it was. I can’t remember if she had a tattoo and a nose ring, or if that’s just how I remember her because she was young.
“I’ll go check,” she said and disappeared into a back room.
The man standing next to me at the counter said, “I did the same thing last week. I heard this great song and just had to know who it was.”
He looked to be around my age – mid- to late- 40s – and seemed to share my vantage point of modern culture – from about 10 steps behind.
“So who was it?” I asked him.
“Oh, this guy called Alexi Murdoch,” he said.
I was writing down the name just as the young girl behind the counter returned.
“It’s Outkast,” she said. “Wheelz of Steel.”
“Oh, Outkast!” the man said.
I guess he’s only five steps behind. I’d never heard of them. And it irritated me that they spelled “Outcast” and “Wheels” incorrectly.
As I sat back down, I thought about how far removed I am from popular culture, like a raft that’s slowly drifted out to sea, so imperceptibly that I didn’t realize it was happening until I looked back toward shore and could no longer see it – without my readers.