Back in the U.S.A., back in the bad old days

I’m writing this at a small table on the screened porch with all the windows open, listening to the dry tambourine rattle of cicadas in the trees while the sky whitens with heat after a cool, clear, slightly pig-manure scented morning. Classes start next week; every day brings a fresh wave of SUVs driven by parents, all of whom look to be about my age, unloading wholesome-looking kids and bedding and lamps and duffel bags onto sidewalks outside dorms and student houses.

It took us three days to get here from New England. Brendan drove; I navigated, kept things organized, offered frequent drinks of water, sang geographically appropriate songs (“And we know every inch of the way, from Albany to Buffalo,” for example, or, “Hey, ho, where did you go, Ohio?”), and phoned ahead to make hotel reservations. The first day was all gorgeous and green and full of sinuous mountain vistas and small-town picturesqueness—New Hampshire, Vermont, upper New York State. We ate lunch at the famous Blue Benn Diner in Bennington, Vermont; I had a BLT on gluten-free toast and a lot of cold, strong, unsweetened iced tea.

At sunset, we stopped in Syracuse and checked into the Parkview, a comfortable old “dog-friendly” hotel downtown. After we got Dingo walked, fed, and settled back in the car, because he refused to wait in a strange room with all those weird noises around him, we went to a nearby pub for a healthy, excellent dinner, quinoa-stuffed zucchini for me, duck breast for Brendan. Afterwards, we repaired to our hotel bar for a nightcap.

The next day, we turned north just before Buffalo and took a detour to Niagara Falls on a slow, wide boulevard instead of the Interstate. We drove past eerie miles of shuttered, once-glam vintage motor courts, used-car lots (“Bad credit? No problem!”), and dubious-looking fast-food places we’d never heard of.

We parked in the town of Niagara Falls in front of a restaurant that looked like a Swiss ski chalet and set off in search of grandeur. Right away, we found it. We crossed a bridge over the wide and turbulent river rushing down to the falls, then went through a small wooded park to the next bridge and crossed back to the other side. Then our luck changed. Our hunger levels, which had been manageable before, now took a turn for the dangerous. Some bird took a big wet shit on Brendan’s shoulder. Across the river, on the Canadian side, there appeared to be a Shangri-la of outdoor cafés and a glistening small metropolis, but over here on the New York side, it was tragically Disneyfied, the natural beauty wrecked with garish signs and ticket booths.

We’d been planning to eat at the ski chalet restaurant where we’d parked, but when I went in to get some water for Dingo, I saw that it was dark and overpriced and full of unpleasant odors. No way were we eating there, even if we keeled over from low blood sugar.

Now crabby and annoyed at this entire place, but determined to get a gander at the damned thing we’d come so far out of our way to see, we dragged poor Dingo (it was too hot to leave him in the car) past tourist-trap snack bars and tchotchke shacks down to the lookout point. And then magically, our moods lifted; we felt zingy and euphoric. We stood a few feet away from thundering tons of free-falling water sliding over the edge of the enormous horseshoe-shaped cliff and pounding into the seething pools below. Everyone’s hair stood on end from the ionic charge.

We grinned at each other. “What a perfect place to commit double suicide,” said Brendan.

“Then who would take care of Dingo?”

“Good point,” said Brendan.

Since most of the non-touristy restaurants in Niagara Falls seemed to be Indian for some reason, we ate odd, overly spiced, but ultimately edible chicken tandoori, lamb roghan josh, and curried vegetables with cashews and drank big fat glasses of passable Chianti. Dingo lay at our feet in the shade and drank ice water.

Then we drove back to the Interstate and hightailed it on out of there.  We soon left New York State and crossed into a small strip of Pennsylvania.

“It’s the Bitch State,” I said. “Do not speed in the Bitch State. They will swoop on you if you go one mile over the speed limit.”

“Pennsylvania is one of my two least favorite states,” said Brendan; he didn’t have to add that Connecticut was the other one, because I already knew that.

“Just don’t speed,” I said.

We could not have sped if we’d wanted to: everyone evidently knew about the Bitch State. Not one vehicle around us went above the speed limit until we all crossed into Ohio, and then it was a happy Interstate free-for-all again.

A few hours later, we ate dry–rub BBQ and drank margaritas at a joint called Shorty’s in Toledo. Then we spent the night at a La Quinta Inn. Our waitress at Shorty’s and the hotel staff reminded me with a shock of remembrance that Midwesterners are the friendliest, warmest people on earth.  Where does this niceness come from? What does it mean? It seems so genuine, so true. But how can it be?

The next day, we planned to drive straight to Iowa City without stopping, but somehow, because the air conditioning in the car was making my left eye stream with irritation, so I had to keep my eyes shut and couldn’t navigate properly, we found ourselves on the South Side of Chicago, taking a detour to a highway that would eventually, we hoped, lead us back to the Interstate. It looked a lot like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. It was mysterious and strange. I tried and failed to resist the temptation to sing a couple verses of “The Night Chicago Died.” My eye oozed and burned.

Bombing along 80 again, we rolled down the windows and turned off the air conditioning and did not stop or turn or take a detour again until we came to the North Dodge exit into Iowa City. We rolled through wide streets and parked in the driveway of our new 1930s bungalow and unlocked the door and came in, shellshocked and dazed.

We had been planning to buy groceries and cook dinner in our new kitchen on our first night here, but this was suddenly out of the question. After we fed Dingo and walked him around the block and unpacked, which didn’t take long, because we hardly brought any stuff, we went out to a nearby tapas place. This being the Midwest, there was a decided whiff of Chef Boyardee about the stuffed pequillos, but the cocktails were strong and excellent and the bacon-wrapped dates were as good as they always are.

We walked home and fell asleep almost instantly. This was Saturday night. It’s now Wednesday.  Since we got here, we’ve walked several times past the two places where I lived more than a quarter century ago: the ground floor of a shabby house just down the street from where we live now, and, up at Black’s Gaslight Village, the apartment my friend Sally nicknamed “the doublewide,” in the back of the main house on the second floor.

I was a whole different person back then. And I’m not the only thing that’s changed around here. The New Pioneer Co-Op, which was a fledgling little market in a shed in 1988, is now a state-of-the-art operation, a big, roomy emporium full of organic produce and beautiful cheese and fresh fish and grass-fed meats and excellent wine. The workshop itself, which used to be housed in the Soviet bloc-era English-Philosophy Building in ugly classrooms with fluorescent lighting, now resides in a handsome Victorian house on the river, with a modern, bright annex and library. There’s a great new café a few blocks away that has baristas with lip piercings, free-trade coffee, and leather couches; Brendan has already set up shop there.

And the Hamburg Inn, which was my old haunt 27 years ago, now has gluten-free buns.

On a blanket with my baby is where I’ll be

Back in the late 1980s and early 90s, when she lived in the East Village and belonged to two modern dance companies and worked long shifts as a waitress at various restaurants, my sister Susan coined the expression “Boat Day.” This was a day during which she floated on her bed all day in her pajamas, surrounded by books and magazines, gratefully accepting the cups of tea and plates of food her then-boyfriend was kind enough to bring her.  She was not sick, she was in perfect health, but she needed some time out, a restorative day of rest, solitude, and contemplation.

During that same era, when I also lived in the East Village and had started writing my first novel and was working as an office temp all around the city, I coined the term “Soul Spa Day.” This was a day during which I lay in the bathtub for hours, replenishing the hot water as necessary, reading detective novels and anything by M.F.K. Fisher, drinking tea while it was light out, then wine when it got dark, and slurping bowls of minestrone I’d made the day before from the contents of my kitchen cupboard.

During these days of doing nothing, fittingly, Susan and I also both played a lot of Solitaire and listened to NPR or mix tapes on our boom boxes.  And we screened all our calls and didn’t call anyone back until the next day.

We both still do this, decades later. Boat Day, Soul Spa Day – whatever it’s called, sometimes you need a 24-hour break from life.

Yesterday, I woke up with a to-do list as long as my arm and an impending (temporary) move to Iowa City three days away and an enormous backlog of emails and messages to respond to, following a very happy but very busy and chockfull summer of work and travel and activity and interviews and family visiting and deadlines.

Lying there, waking up, I felt no desire to do anything productive at all, all day.  In fact, I felt rebellious and lazy. I got dressed and walked Dingo along the sidewalk in the sparkling, lush, sweet Maine summer morning.  

“I don’t want to pack yet,” I said when I got home. “I don’t want to run errands.”

“Let’s go to the beach,” said Brendan. “Let’s have a picnic.”

Less than four minutes later, we were in the car, bathing suits on under our clothes, wearing our straw beach hats, headed for Cape Elizabeth. Dingo rode in back along with the beach towels.

On the way, we stopped at the lobster shack we call the Mail-Order Bride’s because of the busty, artfully made-up Russian woman we assume is married to the owner; she sits behind the counter and rings everything up with a fatally bored expression that says, “For this I leave Russia? To work in lobster store and be married to Maine man?”

They have excellent lobster salad at the Mail-Order Bride’s: mounds of fresh, tender, perfectly cooked meat bound lightly with good mayonnaise, served on some iceberg with thinly sliced ripe tomato, nothing else. We also got a big bag of Cape Cod sea salt-and-cracked pepper potato chips, a bottle of chilled rosé, and two bottles of water, mainly for Dingo.

And then we headed for Ferry Beach, forgetting in our excitement that they have a strict no-dogs rule in the summertime between 9 and 5. When we got there, the parking lot was full, so it was moot. We were out of luck. We drove a bit aimlessly around the back roads, wondering how to sneak onto a beach somewhere. No luck there, either.

“I know,” said Brendan. “The Inn by the Sea. They take dogs. We can use their beach.”

A minute later, there it was, the place where I took Brendan for his 30th birthday on a weirdly hot March day last year; Dingo came along too, and got to dine with us in the lobby restaurant alongside all the other dogs and stay with us in our room, where the staff had provided him with a soft dog bed and treats.

Now we parked in their lot and walked Dingo down their wooden boardwalk to the beach, and then we saw the no-dogs signs there, too. So we set up camp at a picnic table in the shade by the beach and ate our lobster and potato chips and drank our wine. The air was sweet and fresh and cool; the sunlight filtered through the branches of the trees to dapple the ground.

After lunch, we walked Dingo back to the car and left him snoozing in the backseat with all the windows rolled down. Then we came back to the beach, unrolled our towels, and lay in the sun in our bathing suits until we were baking hot. Then we walked into the green, clear, cold, lapping waves of the north Atlantic and paddled around. Back on our towels in the sun, we dozed, tingly and zinging and euphoric from lobster and wine and seawater.

After we woke up, we collected Dingo and drank more cold rosé on the porch of the Inn, sitting on a wicker couch with a view of the ocean, enjoying the fresh breeze in the shade. From the dog menu (yes, they have a dog menu), we ordered the “Meat Roaf” for Dingo. A big bowl of rice, ground beef, minced carrots, peas, and beans was set down next to his smaller bowl of ice water. Dingo stared at the waiter as if he might be an angel from heaven, then stuck his nose into the bowl and didn’t look up again until it was empty.

Then we humans were hungry again, so we drove to the new, fancy oyster place in town and sat outside in the bright sun and ate two dozen briny local mollusks with mignonette and cocktail sauce and drank cold muscadet.

After that, it was time for another nap; I awoke in pitch darkness to find Brendan shaking me gently. “You’ve been asleep for four hours,” he said. He had walked and fed Dingo; he had been up for two hours already. I discovered that I was wide awake and ravenous, so we went to the corner bar for their juicy, savory burgers with gluten-free buns and pimiento cheese.

This midnight supper was the perfect ending to our outdoor Boat Day, the Soul Spa Day of seafood and naps and potato chips and ocean air and sand and wine.

And now the summer is over, and our To-Do lists are longer than ever.

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