Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue. (Part 1)

We leave Boston’s Logan determined to be self-directed, free. I’ll be damned if I am going to sit there for up to four days, we were told by surprisingly kind customer service representative at the other end of the airline’s “Need Help?” red phone. Cheryl had done all the talking while the man-boy and I sat, he plugged into his I-pod, me stewing moodily in my thoughts while trying not to be drawn in by the elevated screen flashing the inevitably bizarre landscape of American “news.”

“Did you tell her we wanted to buy tickets? On any airline?” I say when Cheryl comes back to our territory marked with coats and bags, an empty sandwich box, my beer on the floor next to my seat, just waiting to get kicked over. “I think this is a good time to use that emergency credit card, you think?” Cheryl is smiling her way over through the crowds. She can manage her wan smile even under duress while I feel that at a certain point of aggravation with things, I deserve the luxury of a frown. After all, I’m now retired from the airline. I don’t have to sport the molded plastic smile anymore.

“There are no flights,” says Cheryl and sits. She is rummaging in her tote bag for something, her thumb still in the book she’s reading—a fictional meditation on cholera… “No,” I say with impatience as well as a flourish. “We’ll just fucking buy full fare. We’re never getting out of here as non-revs.” I glance at the man-boy who is still plugged in. He gets upset sometimes when I punch up my language. Something that happened in his past. But he’s still plugged in, oblivious.

“You don’t understand,” says Cheryl. “They aren’t selling anything for today, or tomorrow. We’re looking at Jan. 1, the earliest.” Three days away.

“What about American? United? If we’re going to go full fare…”

“None of them are selling tickets, Dave” she interrupts emphatically and then looks at me, waiting for it to sink in. Our situation. The man-boy is trying to read our conversation through the clamoring noise of classic rock and roll. Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Or his favorite, the Beatles? Classic or not, the three have virtually nothing in common with each, I think. But the man-boy is far ranging these days. Perhaps he’s turned down the volume…or turned off the I-pod which he can do discretely with his hand gripping it in the pocket of the coat he never seems to take off.

Cheryl looks at me and gives me her smile. This is the critical moment when a decision must be made, and despite my forceful language, I am going to wait for her. Being the older of us, she is the decider. What do they call it? The one who is pro-active. That way if it goes badly I can complain as the put-upon-one. And if it goes well…well, I’ll always be able to find something to harp on. Either way I won’t be the reason we’re going back into debt. Plus, I have a back up. Even if we don’t rent a car or buy three, full-fare tickets back to Salt Lake City, we’re paying a dog sitter $50 a day at, already, 15 days. Cheryl’s insistence.

“Let’s just rent a car and drive,” she says with what I’ve come to think of as Yankee, non-Western determination. “Let’s just get in a car and get the hell out of here.”

This is what I wanted her to say. The thought of sitting in this chrome and carpeted concourse—eating $15 lobster roll sandwiches—and counting my beers is more than I can handle. We’ve already had to drive from Portland at the recommendation of the gate agent there who told us our chances of flying non-rev, short-hand for free passes for airline and retired-airline employees, are better out of Boston. The agent, with carefully arranged hair to look non-arranged and bust that her otherwise tidy uniform could not hide, was standing with me in the Portland, Maine baggage claim room, the smell of plastic and sweat in the piles of tagged, tipped over and sometimes mutilated luggage—some with dust on them–the buzz of a fluorescent light above us. She was being inordinately helpful, as fellow airline employees are to each other—giving the inside scoop, the way around the problem that only those of our tribe can access.

The three of us leave the airport, gathering up our stuff that has spread out over six seats in some kind of effort to stake a claim on airport real estate while we wait. And we are at a distinct handicap. Our level of technology is woefully inadequate. I have only an old LG flip phone. No access to the internet where we can roam the standby lists, make new listings, look up passenger loads. Strategize. (Thus Cheryl’s earlier phone call to reservations.) Half of my desire to get out of the airport is based on the embarrassment of not having at least a laptop I can tool around on. But this punching of numbers on a phone whose tones I haven’t learned how to silence for my fellow, more tech-savvy Americans, is too much for me to bear.

We leave. Cheryl and I rolling our carry-ons, the man-boy carrying his for the same reason I carried mine everywhere for the first five years as a flight attendant: to distinguish myself as somehow tough, not gay like the rest of the guys in my class at Western Airlines. And we head down the escalator, through the corridor that splits off between arriving and leaving passengers and towards the heavy metal doors, complete with sentinel standing guard, through which once we traverse there will be no returning. Check Point Charlie.

We move to the door. It whisks open. The sentinel follows us with his eyes, unsmiling or just bored, one leg up on the chrome bar of his black-cushioned bar stool. What are we supposed to give him? Some kind of secret handshake to pass through?

Whatever.

In Baggage Claim I am frantically calling from the car rental booth lighted by every garish and stylish car rental logo available—which is to say all of them in this great country of ours. Frantic, because I’m convinced that the hoards of stranded passengers will be doing the same thing and that cars will disappear quickly. Cheryl and the man-boy have gone to see if we can claim our luggage (we won’t be able to; all three of them have left for Utah without us) while I stand guard over our meager belongings while trying to figure out whether Hertz, Avis or Thrifty will be our rental of choice.

Armed with a plan but with little or no accountability for making the plan, I am driven to make that plan happen, and am driven to walk out of the airport and into the rain that is about to begin to freeze, into the New England night and into the shuttle, my little family with our modest belongings slung over our shoulders, hats pulled down, I-pod glowing. We will motor over to the Mass Pike with a figurative flipping of the bird to the massively disappointing airline industry, the inconvenience of East Coast life. Yes, we will flip a collective middle finger over our shoulder without looking back. The Great American gesture of defiance and entitlement, like the glass John Hancock Tower standing on the back bay of Shawmut Peninsula and flipping off Mother England. But this time we will be shouting the equivalent of Screw Fucking You! to someone infinitely closer than Europe, or the Middle East—our touted enemies–or that great, brooding non-touted enemy, China. Someone infinitely closer, indeed. But first we have to get out of the rental car parking lot.

The attendant looks at me blankly when I ask her how best to get to I-80. For some reason, I thought 80 ran all the way from Boston across the fruited plains all the way to the West Coast. She hands me a map of greater Boston with an inset of Logan International, and keeps typing up the details of our Toyota Corolla with an $800 drop fee. She is a large girl, with an almost practiced, put-upon frown that doesn’t put up with any shit. I am more than familiar with that frown, having walked the aisles of many a Boeing and McDonnell Douglas contraption, the frown gripping my face, the beacon of a full body composition that says you are a professional but only skin deep. Don’t fuck with me, a variation of “Don’t Tread on Me,” from colonial times, but contemporized.)

I pull out my old LG, the flip phone from another age as thick with its faux-leather sheath as a bean and cheese burrito but not so tasty. We call our daughter (and the man-boy’s mother) Julianne who lives in Salt Lake with her boyfriend Travis. For the moment we are on speaking terms with her.

“Julie?”

“Where are you?”

“Boston. We’re driving home.”

“To Salt Lake?”

“Look. I need you to do us a favor.” There is little that suggests that which is life-affirming in a parking lot at night. Even less in an east coast parking lot at an airport. Something about plopping down behind the wheel of a car while vibrating to the sound of jet engines.

“Can’t you just buy a ticket?” she says. “You guys are going to be a week…”

“I need you to look up the northern route to Utah. I-80.”

Outside, the night converges as I remember dark, dirty Boston nights did when I lived here 24 years ago. Cheryl looks at me with patience. She is in trooper mode. Gonna get out of here in one piece.

I can hear Julie talking to Travis who is clicking away on his keyboard. The two of them in protracted, internally-heard cyber-speak…coaxing, thinking out loud with all the markers of our shared, webbed world.

“It’s I-90,” she says finally. You need the Mass Pike, I-90.

“Then where, where is I-80?”

“You sure you don’t want to go south to DC and across through Tennessee? The weather, you know. Freezing rain, snow…”

I persist. “I thought I-80 was a straight shot west to the Rockies, north of Denver.” Really what this is all about is that I don’t won’t to have to think beyond the nose of the car about what direction to go. Plus—and this is something I don’t really want to admit—I need the comfort of something familiar. “I wish I had a road that I could skate away on” to quote the warbling Joni Mitchell, and that road has to be I-80.

Julie gives me the directions. Cheryl scribbles them down, her glasses perched precariously on her nose, and I snap my phone shut.

There was a time when I was completely charmed by this, the colonial town of bean-ness. So charmed I didn’t want to return home after my two-year stint going door-to-door and canvassing in Harvard Square and Boston Common. But now there is only one way through my mental fix. One way out. And it is west.

The Mass Pike is broad and steely cold, be-lining in a concrete trough below the street level of the city. There are billboards flat against the cement walls on either side, one, I see out of the corner of my eye, touting the Goddamned-given rights to own a gun–a too-tidy reaction to the election of Obama over two years ago, if you ask me. Even so, in the yellow city crime light and dingy concrete canyon, there is a moment where it actually seems to make sense, this owning a gun out of some inchoate fear.

The man boy is in the back seat, legs folded sideways in the best Japanese-made car made in the U.S.A. (sort of) for our money (and good mileage to boot). It’s too dark to read his book on Lennon so he is just sitting in the alternating bands of light and shadow. He’s watching as Cheryl and I are, the world opening out in a thin ribbon of road. I am not above projecting what he might be thinking, and I am there—the man in charge—with a quick judgment of him. He can’t possibly know what lies ahead of him. For this, my live-in grandson, he can only be thinking that this is a drive a little further than Evanston, Wyoming where we have taken him to buy illegal fireworks; or Arizona where we visit Cheryl’s sister when the Maine winters get to be too much for her.

We take a pit stop at Gulf Mart, in West Framingham (or so the sign says). One of the infamous private/public partnerships: exclusive rights to road-weary interstate travelers in need of gas, or a hot dog on a limp white bun. The Pike reverberates behind us, and as the three of us cross the damp parking lot and into the brittle light of the shop, I am still in charge, having just spent more money than we have. We walk towards the chrome and glass bay of refrigerators. I can tell the man-boy is waiting for permission of some sort. “Whatever you want,” I say as off-handedly as I can. I am performing a kind of swagger motivated by a sense that I am the wagon leader here.

Cheryl is humming along in survival mode. She’s picking up huge bottles of water, one for each of us. Trail mix. Dried fruit, as if we’re in need of pioneer stores to load into our covered wagon. The next thing, I think, will be matches and a poncho. I head to the wiener department, snagging a road atlas on the way. We haven’t had anything since the $15 lobster roll sandwich at Logan, and the man-boy won’t figure out he’s hungry for something other than a candy bar until we get back on the road. I load up two hot dogs for him. One for me. Ketchup on his, but no mustard—the way he likes them. The dogs are my rough, inarticulate caring gesture for the one now taller than I am.

We get in line. The clerk is not much older than the man-boy and he is intolerably cheerful to the flannel jacket amassed in front of us, blue jeans and scuffed work boots with the metal showing through on the big toe of each. The clerk is smiling. Red vest in place. (“Can I help you find anything else.”) Eyes aglow. The man in front of us—in his late 30s—at least ten years my junior, is grizzled. Leaving work late. Probably drives a truck. The kind of Bay Stater you forget populates Massachusetts even three miles outside of the capitol. While the man-boy and I wait for “Nana” still eyeing the lip balm, I look at him and give him a tight smile. He pulses his eyebrows up, once. It is our short hand for acknowledging one another without giving away where each of us is. Our aerial handshake that, like a gangsta—knuckle bumps and fancy grips—speaks somehow as much of our distrust and suspicion of each other as it does any kind of familial intimacy. Nana arrives with everything, it seems, but a bathtub quickly filled with water.

“What?” She says sheepishly. The man-boy and I exchange another look, consummately sexist. But it is as good as it will get tonight, between him and me. A conspiracy of ridicule to elevate ourselves. The kind of vaulting brotherhood, hard-wired, even for me, a recently retired flight attendant for a major carrier who walked proudly the line between the sexes for twenty-five years without seeming condescension to the other half.

Back on the Pike, just before it starts looking like the Berkshires, we pay the exit toll and then angle south on I-84 towards Hartford. If we can just get beyond there, we can look for a place to overnight—maybe even get as far as PA. Compared to the Pike, our way now seems to be through the wilds, the Mass.-to-Connecticut countryside forbiddingly dark, towering pines on either side. Is this the real start of our journey? I tilt my head back into the narrow headrest. A sigh is in order. The way is now calmer.

I reach out to grasp Cheryl’s hand, still tight as a nut around her other hand, a fist. She isn’t ready to take my hand in return. Not yet. She pats me and says something about the number of miles we will need to log (490) if we are to make it home before we both have to go back to work on the 3rd. She is very much in charge here. What she says, we will do. I know that, and it is both a relief as well as an irritant. A contradiction that you would think I would work around, transcend, resolve here in my 49th year of life. It often means that I have to be on guard whenever we are in real, decision-making time: where to buy a house, how to think, and when to change lanes. On guard because I have to appear as though I have my own opinions, and more important, compelling reasons for them that sing with clarity.

But we are set in our ways. “Wicked” set, as her nephews back in Rhode Island would say. And so I do not, or cannot at this point, realign the dynamic. What drew me to her nineteen years ago was her certainty. Something that I was desperate to flee from after the end of my first marriage. All the certainty that had collared me into a bad marriage, a bad life and an impossible view of the world. But what is strong enough to wrest one from a certainty, of one’s youth, and of one’s family and of…everything, than another, equally certain certainty?

But all of that seems irrelevant now as we follow our headlights through the New England countryside because I am not only ordering the sigh after our harried jettison from airline land, I am inured by my beloved. It is the countryside, I confess. The land from whence she came coupled with the time that has passed—oh, I’ll just say it, nostalgia. I’m adrift in it, remembering how freeing she had made me feel and therefore how everything that spawned her settled sweetly in me. The hoary pilgrim homes, myriad hardwood trees and pine that grew without anyone having to plant them. The abrupt conversational style. Her father’s working-class-turned-upper-middle-class penchant for doing all things for himself, risking life and limb re-roofing that hoary pilgrim house with the 20 percent slope.

Cheryl, who is eleven years my senior, sometimes says that perhaps I would have been better off left alone after my divorce. That what she brought into my life has made me older before my time. But for me there is daylight in her smile even here in the dark. Even though her worried state leaning forward in the car and peering into a past life has yet to bend into a smile. And I remember that this is the place that she left by choice. This is her desert, just as Utah is mine—the place I entertain for the express purpose of someday leaving. And what has ostensibly made me older—the man-boy in the backseat, his head jacked back and to the left against the window, his mouth wide open—is, I’m sure something more than just an agent of age. But what I’m still not sure.

One Comment

  1. This is a fun and compelling piece of modern-day Americana. The tension, cynicism, and humor provide a richness to the story-telling that makes me want to read on. We’ve all been here – travel plans gone awry. But to go cross-country unplanned, in the dead of winter, family in tow…well, that takes some balls, desperation, and/or a simple lack of connection with reality. It definitely makes a good story line.

Comments are closed.