Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nor'easter, Part 2: Eat In or Pass Out


Nor’easter:
Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back.

First day: Night. Eat in or Pass out.


After a finger-numbing walk around the car, making checkmarks where indicated, promising to bring the car back with the same amount of fuel it has now—just over three-eights of a tank and why on Earth don’t they just fill the tanks and then ask you to bring them back full—we settle into the car with a plunk as we allow gravity to seat us. Low car. Too low.

We get direction to Easton, but fifteen minutes away according to the girl at the car rental. We ask where to eat, as it is getting late, but she has the suggestions one might imagine for around an airport and not one fast-food joint was more appealing, or less appalling, than any other. She is sure we’ll fare better in Easton.

It is an easy drive. And, as we drive, it begins to snow. Lightly. Lightly. East to nearly the New Jersey border. The roads are good and we make amazing time even in the snow. At nearly eighty miles per hour we are being passed by cars whose inhabitants must be getting younger as they drive, whose speech, if only I could hear it, would sound slower to my ears, whose color shifted strongly to the red. People driving so fast they will have to reset their timepieces ahead when they get to their destination to match local time.

Lee is speaking to Rachel on the phone. Where to stay? If not for her two cats, five dogs, and various other animals, we could stay with her and her Mom. The Estonian is the suggestion. She gives us directions. We follow them and become, after getting off at the correct exit, lost. Instantly lost. While the next day we would see how easy it, in reality, was, in the snowy dark, it is anything but. Finally, after asking several people in parking lots, we are directed to The Estonian Suites. Suddenly, as we pull in, I understand and then, just as suddenly, no longer understand the hotel’s name. The folks here pronounce it East-onian. And, indeed, it is named for the city and is but a few blocks from Lafayette College. But it is spelled as though it is named for the country, Estonia. And, apparent only as we pull up, it is a Holiday Inn Express.

Within, it is empty save two people behind the desk. Past this person is a large reception area followed by a larger comfortable lounge. There is also a computer area with Internet and I make note in case I cannot find such in the room. The price is more than I am comfortable with, though, in truth, that is not hard to accomplish, but less than most places we have stayed.

It occurs to me, I have never seen a hotel lobby this empty. So empty, the idea comes to mind that I could easily break out into a Robot Dance right here and no one would notice. No one but Lee, it would seem, who apparently hears the thought and steps lightly on my foot adding just enough inertia to keep me where I am. I think of a waltz instead. She steps slightly harder.

Classes started last week, at Lafayette, the clerk explains to us. Last week, there was not a room to be had in the county. This week, hardly a room is full and we can have our pick. Non-smoking, top floor please.

Like the lobby and lounge, the hallways are lovely as well. The entire hotel is lovely and only the small sign outside under the hotel’s name would give it away as a Holiday Inn. It is clean, nearing elegant, beautifully decorated, large and with a staff than cannot think of enough wonderful things to do for their customers.

We are going up to our room. It is coming on eight o’clock.

Lee calls Rachel again. Where to eat? No worries. She’ll come over and guide us. We’ll have dinner together. She arrives about a half hour later, after we have cleaned up, put some clothes away, changed and we head out to see Rachel waving fro outside of a minivan. Rachel gets into the middle seat, as do I and Lee takes the front passenger seat. After Rachel introduces her to Mom, we head out.

What does Lee want to eat, Mom asks. A cheesesteak, of course. No problem. We’ll go to Giamanies. We ride some twisty-turnies and arrive to a closed deli. Closed at nearly nine on a Wednesday evening. No problem, We can go to The Widow’s Tavern.

It takes us ten minutes or so down roads I could never find my way back on, through neighbourhoods and past buildings I really would like to return to in daylight to explore before we find The Widow’s Tavern. This is not a new building.

It used to be a stage coach stop and an inn of quite little repute. Marvin, perhaps the innkeeper, had an affair with one of the “house ladies” and, later spurned, killed her and placed himself dangling sharply at the end of a rope. As the story continues, he is sighted now and then at the tavern, turning this, dropping that, peeking here and there.

We walk in, have a seat, ask for menus, are told no food is served after eight but we are free to drink, hand back the menus, exit the opposite door and get back into the minivan.

At no time did I see Marvin.

All the while, we are getting the special “it’s too dark to see it but that is the ____ and it was built in ____ and now it is a ____ tour.” Lee and Mom are talking about Alek, of course. I have met mom, but Lee has not, and they seem to be getting along well enough. Rachel and I are busy texting Alek and being, more or less, pains.

Lee wants to know if he is OK. Alek is seventeen, has Dusty the Dingo home with him, transportation and numbers of three people ready and happy to assist in any way he might find useful. Alek sums this up by texting me "Mom's a pain."

Lee calls him and asks if he's OK. She does her mom thing. He does his son thing. The conversation ends.

Alek texts Rachel. "She is a crazy lady." Rachel laughs and shows it to Lee.

Where to eat. Mom tells us the only place that is certainly open is Tic Toc. It’s the place all the kids go, all the adults go, everyone goes to, it is always open and always has decent food. It’s just rather run-of-the-mill. Fine. No problem. We arrive at Tic Toc about fifteen minutes later and are now two blocks from the Estonian.

Tic Toc is a large diner. New Jersey has, by all accounts, more diners than any other state. We are but a few blocks from the Delaware River and Jersey and, apparently, diners spread. And the Tic Toc is huge by any standards. By diner standards, it is a behemoth. Remember the old Sports Authority commercials? “Rhode Island. It’s a small state but would make a huge sporting goods store. That’s us. Sports Authority.” I have passed though towns smaller than Tic Toc.

We are seated amid the glorious smell of commingled eggs and coffee, toast and potatoes. We each have a menu. And what a menu it is. Five pages thick, front and back and, as always, whenever I am handed a too-large menu, I freeze up and become instantly un-hungry. Lee takes the menu from me, points to a page and says to just look at this one page and order from there. Excellent. She has removed the fried entrées, the sandwiches, the salads for which I am too hungry and the deserts.

I order hash browns covered with vegetables, two fried eggs, a bagel and, and . . . what is this? Pierogies? It has been years since I have seen them—once or twice in a box from the freezer section (Mrs. T’s barely qualify) and it has been ten years since I have made them myself. I order potato pierogies—too many for me—and ask Rachel if she will split them with me, which she happily does. Everyone else has what they want as well. The iced teas and waters arrive and we are set.

It is busy. Teens, adults, old folk, groups and clubs. Packed. And we are served as though we are the only folks here. The food is quite good for such common fare and the pierogies, large, ear-shaped, boiled and then, in this case, fried in butter quite like my grandmother would have done, are wonders. I have two and let the other two go to Rachel.

We make our plans for the morning as we eat. She is afraid we’ll get lost going to her house so she will come to the hotel and we can follow her back, where we’ll all continue on in the rental car. She’ll meet us at eight. Rachel has taken the day off from tending the alpacas and we’re happy to let her take us around as she likes. One day in and around Easton, in the Poconos, with Rachel as our guide. I have a feeling there is much more here than I had anticipated.

Now, well past ten, we are quite full and more than tired. We pay, despite Mom’s protest, let them drive us the two blocks as, in the dark, we do not want to chance the uphill walk on ice, and we hug good night.

Through the empty lobby and up to our room. It is comfortable, quiet. We use two binder clips, we always carry in the suitcase, to clip the curtains together to keep the light out. Lee has her computer open and we take turns looking up various bits of what-to-do-ness. There is the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, there is the Appalachian Trail, Delaware Water Gap. There is Lee’s hand closing the computer. She is, of course, right. It is time to go to sleep if anything is to be seen though open eyes. Especially if we are to be out by eight.

And I am, frankly, more than ready for sleep.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back. First day: Afternoon and Evening. A Long Day’s Journey into PA.

My diabolical plan has worked. When my daughter was just old enough to reach the counters, open a fridge, use a can opener, I started cooking for her less and less. She learned to get a piece of fruit, make soup, pour cereal into a bowl she used a stool to get off a top shelf.

When she was adept at feeding herself, I started to feed her brother less as well. Soon, she was getting him a piece of fruit, making him a bowl of soup. Soon, he learned too. Anything they would need to live on their own, I slowly withdrew, let them take over.

It worked. Twenty-three years later, I am finally going on vacation. Without them.

*****

“What do you mean you’re going to Allentown without me?”

“We’re going on vacation. School starts before we get back.” Alek is seventeen and in his second year of college.

“You’re going to visit MY girlfriend. Without me.”

“Don’t worry, we won’t talk about you. I brought the naked baby pictures instead. Besides, Mommy has never met Rachel’s mom or dad.”

“But without me?”

“I want to see alpacas. Rachel works on an alpaca farm, right? Think I can get a tour?”

*****

I bought tickets on Allegiant Air. Fifty-nine dollars each way. Not bad. With the tax and charges, the fee for the bag, reserved seats so my wife and I would know we’d be sitting together, the added charge so we could change our tickets if need be, the total came to over four hundred dollars. We were flying into Allentown, Pennsylvania. Arriving at what the tickets said was Allentown International Airport. The return tickets were for Lehigh Valley International Airport. Strange, I thought, for the tickets to be for two different airports. Strange, but not quite as strange as an airport with two different names.

We are packing. It is eighty degrees now. It will be in the thirties, if we are lucky, when we arrive early in the evening. Packing for that requires bags that squeeze all the air out to vacuum-pack more clothes into a suitcase, the one case we paid thirty dollars to check, than we would during warm weather. We’re packing long johns and sneakers. We’ll be wearing our hiking boots, carrying our gloves, scarves and hats. I bought a messenger bag just for that purpose so I’ll know where all our things are, passports included, in case we decide to drive north to Canada. All the easier to walk through New York than having my pockets stuffed full of items. All the easier to stow under an airline seat.

The tickets are out of Orlando Sanford International Airport. Don’t confuse this with Orlando International Airport. Sanford is a half-hour further away, one fifth the size and ten times easier to navigate. I figure our two airports with nearly one name is as confusing to folk up in Allentown as their one airport with two name is to us. We’ve picked Rachel up from Sanford twice before. The first time, she walked out of the plane, looked around, turned to see what was beyond the windows. This was not Orlando.

Alek doesn’t want to be without the car. He doesn’t drive. He just wants it to stay in the driveway so it looks like someone is home even though the two motorbikes pretty much take care of that. No problem. It would be seventy-five dollars to leave the car at the airport anyway. No problem. We’ll take a shuttle.

No shuttles. Not to Sanford. It would be one hundred and fifty dollars to get one to go there. No problem. We’ll rent a car.

Thirty bucks for the car and fifty dollars to drop it off. Fifty? To drop it at a location where they rent cars will cost me fifty dollars? No problem. We’ll. We’ll… I have no idea.

Craig offers to drive us. Shelley offers to drive us. As a matter of fact, Shelley and Matt will be using their trip to Sanford as an excuse to go to nearby Mount Dora, elevation one hundred and eighty-four feet, to spend time with Matt’s Grandmother and Great grandmother. And they’ll pick us up four days later, thus ending their vacation. And the trip will be fun.

Shelley is a trip all on her own. A patient of ours, now a friend, I dare say, I met her at a Food Not Bombs picnic. Next thing I know, we were heading to Playalinda, she, Matt, Jazmen and Rhiannon. Then she was a patient and soon we were bartering for services. Help cleaning and filing for acupuncture and massage therapy. Everyone thought they are getting the better end of the bargain and was always a bit worried about evening it out, which is how barter should work. Any day Shelley had an appointment, any day we would see her dreaded (as in hairstyle) head walk through our door was a day Lee and I would be smiling. Now she is the office assistant and we can’t imagine the office running without her.

*****

The plane leaves at 4:20. Shelley and Matt arrive at our house at noon and the drive is two hours. The car is cramped but comfortable, the trunk nearly full before our one suitcase, one backpack and one messenger bag made their way there. At the last moment Lee decided the computer had to come, could not be left home. We had talked about getting a netbook but could not see spending the money on it for one trip. I am sure we will see this as an error in short order. She needs her email, to look up directions, do whatever it is Lee does with computers that, after these many years, I often still do not understand.

We are on the road with Shelley and Matt. Lee is excited. More than I had come to expect. More than I would have understood. It is surprising, delightful, enlightening and delicious. So excited she does not even seem to mind sitting in the back as we make our way up Interstate 95 to State Road 520. We need very little leg room and this is a good thing. On the road, suddenly, Lee exclaims, nearly squeals “This is so exciting. No destination and no time to be there.” This is only the second trip we have ever taken together, by ourselves. But each trip we have taken, and there have been very few over more than the last quarter century, has been on a timetable, at the summons or control of family, attached to an event, a wedding, bar mitzvah, funeral. This one has no event, no place to be and no time to be there. Only a time by which we must be on the plane to leave.

We exit State Road 520 for 417, and then, fifteen minutes later, get off and follow the signs for the airport. Exit, turn right. Next set of lights, turn right. Just under three miles later, after three signs telling us the Orlando Sanford International Airport is closer and closer, we see a large ground-level, curved the full perpendicularity from street to street, silver sign with silver letters announcing the airport to the left. It is quite hard to read and, at first glance, we think it is introducing us to the entrance of an industrial park.

We are in, follow the signs, park. Shelley and Matt come in with us and, when they know we are safely where we are supposed to be and the incoming plane is arriving reasonably on time, we all hug, we give them our thanks for the trip, wish them a good visit with their family, and they are on their way to Mt. Dora. We go to check in and collect our tickets. The cattle chute awaits.

Only we are not sure where to enter. We have long experience with such chutes. Many years queuing at The Rascal House and other Jewish delis - parties of one form a line here, two here, three here, four here, parties of five or more here please, mind the poles and no ducking under please – and we’re pros at following the taut ribbons as we inch closer, closer to the official at the end. This time, instead of an overstuffed pastrami sandwich on rye with half-sours and coleslaw, maybe a knish, at the end is a ticket to Allentown.

But where is the entrance? As we look, a uniformed man is moving the entrance to the queue, pulling one pole, then another. Four feet this way, then that. Entrance to one side of it, then another and, after each set of movements, holding his hand up, bidding us wait. The line forms behind us as the line between the ribbons becomes shorter, the end further and further away, backs to us, now facing us, now away from us again. Finally the end is in place and we are told we can have the pleasure of waiting with the others.

There is a gal behind us, a few people removed. She is not right. Deformed in a way I cannot describe, barely noticeable. I ask Lee to take a look and she does. Disturbed shen, she tells me. Her spirit is disturbed and it shows on her face. Not all physical deformity manifests from disturbed shen but all disturbed shen shows up on the body. An unbalanced cover may hide a glorious spirit but unbalanced spirit always shows up in an unbalanced body if one just looks carefully enough, is sensitive enough. Of course, this is a discussion we have had before. She has explained shen to me on various occasions. Shen, chi and jing being the three essences of the body in Chinese medicine. But, in this case, the shen was palpably disturbed, pressing on me from behind. The line moves quickly on.

Our Internet-generated passes are exchanged for actual airline tickets and we are on our way to sit quietly for an hour or so before boarding. Time to get out the laptop and watch a movie. Or maybe an episode of Dead Like Me.

No "Dead Like Me." It’s on the external drive at home. Lee looks for "Dexter." She’s never seen it and has just downloaded a few. Where are they? On the external drive. She cleaned her computer out and organized her hard drive. Nothing to watch on the computer. No problem. There is always YouTube.

We try logging on. A log-in screen instantly appears and that is as far as we get. No log-in. Failed. Again and again. We try everything we know but each is met with failure. Username and password. Guest guest, log-in. Airport name. All the usual public wifi log-in methods. Nothing. Time for a walk. We leave our things at the chairs. No worries. While this may not seem prudent to many, we never do worry about our things and they are always there when we return. Computers in airports. Purses on carseats. No worries.

And time for a walk there was. An hour or so and we walk the airport three times back and forth, seeing the same sights again and again noticing how much, how little, changes in fifteen minutes.

Back to our seats. We pull out an MP3 player. I have a video, “The Blue Buddha: Lost Secrets of Tibetan Medicine,” we had been wanting to watch and, being a narrative the sound quality was such we could easily share headphones, Lee gets the right and I get the left. I had meant to pick up a headphone splitter but that trip to Radio Shack simply never happened.

As we get ready to listen, a portly woman with a badge walks up to us and asks if we’d mind taking a survey and hands us each a form about a third the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. It has questions and check-boxes.

“Why is there no public Internet?”

“There is.”

“Then how do we get to it?”

“The username is Guest.”

“And the password?”

“That depends on how many people are using it. It only supports twenty people at once so it can be anything from 01 to 20.”

I didn’t even ask how we’d know the difference between attempting to log-in if it were over the twenty person cut-off and simply not knowing if we were logging-in correctly.

“How are we supposed to know this.”

“Yes, it would be nice if there was a sign.” She agrees. Good for us.

We fill out the surveys. Handing them back, a look at the badge tells me she is the airport manager. It would be nice.

But consternation and the surveys have taken a bit more than a quarter hour and it is quite near time to board. We walk the forty or fifty feet to the door and wait in line. It isn’t long before we are seated, by sections, and we’re putting our things in the overhead compartment. Our seats are the two inside seats, row 32 of 45. Lee next to the window and me in the center seat. I put my hat and messenger bag on the aisle seat. Within the bag is my wallet, other documents, maps, MP3 player, scarf and gloves.

We sit and wait. We wait. I fumble with my bag and take out the MP3 player, open my earphone case and unwrap the earbuds. Tiny and white, they shut out all outside sound. I use them with my Nintendo DS when I study Japanese or listen to my MP3 player in public. I rarely do either in public. I feel it impolite to shut the outside world out. Or, at least, to appear as though I am. I’d rather just do so without appliances. Even when walking I use open earphones that allow the outside world in. All the better for not getting hit by cars.

Around me, people are fumbling with bags, removing other’s luggage, rearranging backpacks belonging to people they have never met. Placing bags in overheads far behind them over as yet empty seats. Arguments break out sporadically, grow, arc, die.

A flight attendant walks into the cabin, up the aisle and to the center of the plane about five rows shy of us. “The plane should have departed fifteen minutes ago. The sooner you all get seated, the sooner we can think about departing.”

She does nothing about the arguments. Moves no bags. Stops no rearrangement. She is part stewardess and part superego. Part attendant and part schoolmarm. She is here to facilitate travel and, perhaps, for our safety, but certainly not for our comfort. And if we don’t take off because of our own shenanigans, she gets paid all the same. She is tapping her foot.

She turns to go and ducks into a row of seats to allow a woman to pass. This woman, to really pass in comfort, would need a row of chairs removed as well. I lean over to Lee.

“She’ll be sitting next to me.”

“Are you sure? Of course you are.”

“Positive.”

She checks her ticket. Looks around, down to me. Waddles forward, targets her spot, stands next to me. I move my hat and messenger bag, place them below the seat in front of me.

She sits in her seat. She also sits in my seat. She also sits in the aisle. I move closer to Lee.

The flight attendant is closing up shop and readying for takeoff. She has told several people to find space for their bags or to hand them to her to have them checked. She has removed one bag that was obviously too large for the overhead compartment when a passenger was removing several other passenger’s bags to mash his into place. She’s asking us to take seats. She’s tapping her foot again. She looks in my direction. Walks over.

“Ma’am, I believe there is a seat you would be more comfortable in over here.” Bless her. She moves her to a pair of empty seats a few rows forward. I can move my right arm again.

“You need mountain-time, don’t you?” Lee asks in a rhetorical whisper. “How far are the Poconos?” Not far from Allentown. Not far at all.

The engines whine louder, higher. We are told to shut our electronics off. I put my earphones in. The hope is I can pay attention to a lecture by Watts while we are taking off. It is a hope. I turn the player on.

“Please remove your headphones for takeoff.” She is talking to me. I nod. I pull the earbud from my left ear. When she walks by again, I tilt my head, still listening to Watts in my right.

The plane is moving. My plan becomes quite academic as the talking in my right ear falls into the far background. I want to yell for everyone to peddle. Seriously, I do not believe planes can get of the ground regardless of my understanding of the physical laws and properties involved. Peddle. Peddle. I am gripping the armrest. Shaking. Rocking. Tilting. Up. Up, Faster. Climbing. Losing, gaining and losing my stomach. This is not good for my nervous system at all. Not at all. I grab Lee’s knee and fear I have left a bruise. The plane levels out and I begin to breathe more calmly. More evenly. I am exhausted. Spent. Wrung out. We have been in the air fewer than five minutes.

Drink carts go by. I take nothing and shut off my MP3 player, put Watts away with the earbuds so I can hear Lee. Looking through the papers in the seat-pocket in front of me, she and I spend a few minutes laughing at the Allegiant Air goodies for sale.

A flight attendant walks into the cabin and, holding the microphone, tells us there is to be a raffle. While another attendant walks up and down the aisle taking money, she explains how it works. A fifty-fifty raffle. Some tickets win prizes. What prizes? The same die-cast planes, hats, can cozies, Mickey keychains and junior pilot wingpins we had just been laughing at with such contempt.

Five tickets for five dollars. Ten tickets for eight dollars. Twenty tickets for I stopped listening. This seems so absurd, I can only laugh as it moves forward. The tickets are going into a trashbag. Why not a barf bag? I go to offer mine but Lee stays my arm.

As the attendant comes through with the tickets and bag, people paying less attention than even I am are putting their plates and cups into the bag along with the tickets. Reminded again, over the speakers, the trashbag will be coming around later, this is the ticket bag. The next person deposits her crackers.

The attendant with the mic lambastes us for not buying enough tickets. Other flights had nearly one hundred percent participation. Why not us? Do we not understand a fifty-fifty raffle? A few more tickets sell. Lee is reading and I put my earphones back in, resume listening to my lectures.

She comes by and, pretending my ears are hermetically sealed, toss in Lee’s cup and can.

On and on she talks, berates until the tickets are pulled, one by one. With each kitsch distributed, she asks us to cheer. “Cheer like you won the lottery.” Why? To impress the people outside the plane listening? The fifty-fifty won (one hundred and forty-five dollars) and finally it is over.

The window is becoming more reflective. I can see more inside behind me than outside as we travel north and the sky becomes darker, darker.

The woman in front of me has a book full of diagrams. My imagination takes over without so much as a simple “May I?” and the diagrams detail methods of Satanic worship. They are devices of torture. I stare harder and harder between the seats until, finally, it clicks – they are diagrams for creative ways to make one’s bed.

Staring past Lee, the window supplies me with an overlay for the sky behind it. Courtesy of Google Maps, it details what I am looking at – what cities, what geologic features, what main roads. Touching the window, I call up information on the map such as population, elevation, sites, factoids and ephemera. None of it is correct, of course, because it is all in my head.

The cart comes back around for the refuse, cans, cellophanes, cups, paper plates. The light comes on to tell us to buckle the seatbelt I never unbuckled. The plane begins to descend. I press the floor heavily feeling for brakes, hurt my fingers on the armrest, let slip an audible series of heavy panting and a small yelp as the plane touches the ground. We have landed.

Off the plane. In the terminal at Allentown. I am immediately struck that the people look normal. Not normal as in I expected they’d look different than those back home but look, surprisingly, the same. No. They look different than the people at home and appear in a way my mind registers as normal. These people look real. They look right.

We grab our luggage and rent our car. Not the subcompact I had requested but an “upgrade” to a car I don’t want. A Pontiac G6. Too big, too low, too fast and too fancy. We walk outside to get it and, before we even get to the door, I wish I had gotten out my gloves. I toss the scarf around my neck. Lee is smiling. It’s cold. It is blissfully cold.