A Bus Ride to Say “I’m Alive”

I got on a bus at the corner of 33d and 7th. It was a big bus; red and black, with a white lightning bolt emblazoned on it. The message was clear: this bus was express, fast, and going places.

The driver, Miss King, was a black woman with frizzy hair and a wide smile. She was big, and as she walked down the aisle to use the bathroom before we started out, she asked people to excuse her. I guess she felt that squeezing her bulk through required an apology. It didn’t, really. She looked happy and comfortable the way she was. She shouldn’t have been apologizing to anybody. A man in his twenties wearing a red-and-black baseball cap (did he wear it to match the bus?) eyed her lasciviously when she passed by. They bantered for a bit, flirting casually.

The bus ride was long. Four hours and fifteen minutes. Not as long as a lot of the flights I’ve been on, but long enough. I slept for about forty minutes, but that’s it. Sleep and I aren’t the best of friends these days. I don’t know what happened between us. Maybe sleep was offended by me somehow? Personally, I feel hurt that sleep comes to visit so reluctantly and leaves so quickly after he arrives. Maybe we’re just playing a pride game now, neither one of us willing to apologize and make it up with the other because we each think that we’re not the ones to blame for this estrangement.

I thought that we saw Baltimore twice, but it was actually only once. The first time wasn’t really Baltimore. When we actually saw it, I was surprised because it looked exactly like I imagined it. There was a port that seemed to cover half the city with boxes and shipping-yard type stuff. The rest of the city was smoggy but beautiful.

Spring Break sounds like the name of a movie with drunk teenagers and naked blondes. Or maybe it’s a safety video about how to take care of trampolines. What spring break really is right now is a piece of family in Virginia, a road-trip, and a lot of homework.

I’m writing. I’m writing almost every day. When I don’t, I feel odd. A red Moleskine has become a new journal. It’s too conspicuous to be one, of course – it fairly screams “Open me!” – but I’m using it anyway. It’s important that I keep using pens. I never want to get to a point where I don’t love pen and paper anymore.

 

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Across Five States: Into Virginia

It seemed that the moment we crossed into Virginia, we hit real life. For real. We were stuck in a monstrous traffic jam of people leaving Washington D.C. for the day. So many people commute there, not to mention the fact that tourist season had begun, and so we felt that we were slammed back into reality, along with all the inconveniences it brings. As we sat on the sixty-six highway, we inched forward and began to cruise the local radio stations. We found some good easy listening, and settled in to wait.

The highway was bordered by high walls, and the directions were separated by hedges. We rounded a bend, and suddenly there it was. The Washington Monument. We could see its peak all the way from the highway, jutting into the sky like a beacon, heralding that we’d reached our destination. It was an exciting moment for all of us.

Soon enough we were taking the badly marked exit – Virginia seems to have a dark sense of humor and enjoys luring newcomers into a false sense of security by marking the exit well before it comes and then putting a tiny sign at the actual exit so you undoubtedly miss it – and driving into Arlington County, which was to be my brother’s new home. After some more muddling around with befuddling directions, we reached his apartment and discovered yet another thing about Virginia – the lack of parking, and the importance of tow trucks, which will tow any car that’s not marked by the right stickers placed in the right ways in the right corners of the right window.

This forced our hand. My brother and I unloaded the U-Haul at superhero speed, while my mother guarded it, just to make sure no policeman or tow truck would catch us unawares. Loading the truck had taken the better part of five hours. Unloading it took an hour, and we were drenched with sweat by the time we were done. By this time, night had fallen and we were all ravenous. We piled back in the U-Haul and found a dingy place to eat at, and afterwards found the only U-Haul drop-off spot in the area. It was a relief, seeing that truck for the last time, but we all felt a bit of a pang. It had safely conveyed us across five whole states, and as ungainly as it was, we had become proud of it – especially as we had the coolest U-Haul in the lost because ours had a picture of snakes on it instead of a U-Haul advertisement.

We took a taxi back to my brother’s apartment and, just like that, our move was done. We still had unpacking to do, we still had furniture to buy, we still had a whole county to get to know, but we were done. We’d moved my brother from Chicago to Virginia in two days. We accomplished what we’d set out to do. It was marvelous.

Across Five States: Into Maryland

We entered Maryland in the early afternoon. We drove on a main highway, and the biggest change I noticed was the lack of trucks and the return of cars. Regular cars, small, light, compact and sane – unlike the monsters we’d been driving with for the past day. Suddenly, we were the biggest on the road, including the SUVs, and there was a feeling of fear as we wove through the growing traffic that we would crush one of these tiny aluminum vehicles. It felt also like a return to civilization – we were suddenly around pleasure cruisers, commuters and road-trippers, instead of being around people who were doing a job as they drove.

All this, of course, was only because we were again on a smaller freeway, but commingled with the knowledge that we were so very near our destination, it caused a bit of a shock. It felt like we were almost done with this magical trip, so short but yet so full of experiences. When we stopped in Maryland at a Waffle House for coffee and sustenance, we came very close to deciding to stop at a motel again for the night and drive into Virginia the next day. None of us admitted it, but I felt that none of us really wanted this road magic to end – the feeling of being severed from any one time and any one place, belonging instead to constant movement.

In the end, though, we decided to push on despite everything. We still had unpacking to “look forward to” and we wanted to get it over with as soon as we could. We payed for our coffees, climbed back into the truck, and after some frustration over the rats’ water bottle leaking we set off again, knowing we’d be seeing another state in just a few more minutes.

Across Five States: Into Pennsylvania

A new morning dawned, bright and crisp – though the only reason it was crisp was the air conditioning which we’d left on all night. The moment we left the Day’s Inn, however, we realized just what kind of weather we’d stumbled into. It was hot, unbearable so, and humid to boot – and this at only seven in the morning! We loaded our essentials back into the U-Haul, blasted the air conditioning once more, and were on our way.

We were looking for a decent place to have breakfast, but we didn’t find any place that wasn’t fast food until after we’d entered Pennsylvania. When we crossed the state border, though, our hunger took a backseat in our minds as we gazed in wonder at the vistas around us. Almost immediately after crossing the border from Ohio, the mundane and endless flat-lands disappeared, giving way to rolling green hills. It was countryside at its most beautiful, alternating between vast expanses of grassy knolls and forests, dark and dense.

It was stunning, to say the least. There was so much wild vegetation that many of the trees were being choked by ivy climbing their very trunks, beautiful but deadly to the trees themselves. Here and there we could spot gorgeous houses perched between trees or amongst the hills, old-fashioned and grand. In the valleys between the hills we saw some large farms as well, which resulted in our delighted cries of “Sheep! Horses! Look, brown cows! More horses!” We were like children, seeing this foreign life that we’d all read about in picture books more often than seeing it around us.

We began musing about how someone would come to live here, and whether or not we would ever want to live in such an isolated place. We all agreed that we would love to live in a secluded and cozy house and write there for a season. I imagined what the winters would be like in such a place – wind and rain whipping the trees mercilessly, snow piling up and muffling the sounds of animals and the rustle of leaves. It would be like living in a fairy-tale, and yet, characters in fairy-tales always seem so lonely in the end.

We continued onwards, trying to solve crossword puzzles and keep out of the way of large trucks, and eventually we gave into our hunger and drove off the highway and entered a town. The name of the town eludes me, but we found a Denny’s there. I’d never been in one of those either, and it was another experience of discovering America. Our waitress was a darling, grey haired, plump and gruffly kind. She brought us all steaming mugs of coffee, which we were all desperate for. We ate a pleasant meal, finishing it off with a delicious Hershey’s chocolate cake, and made our way back to our seats in the truck that was already so familiar to us.

Across Five States: Into Ohio

Night had fallen, my brother was driving, my mother was holding the rat-cage, and we drove into Ohio. Music was blaring out of the speakers from my brother’s iPod, and the two hours driving in the dark were an experience unto themselves. Lamps were scarce on the highway, we were surrounded by trucks bigger than us [several of which were swerving alarmingly at some points] and we were just driving and driving, the road seeming to go nowhere.

A curious thing about the highway through Ohio – there are lots and lots of bridges going over it. Low bridges, just over the height of one of the huge trucks, that seem to go through from one city to another or to lead from one part of town to the other. What we enjoyed about these bridges was the fact that they were all named, the green sign hanging on the bridge for all those driving underneath to see. We passed some boring ones of course, but we found one particularly road with a wonderful name: Bittersweet Road. It conjured up the images of tragedy and drama, a small town in crisis perhaps or a pair of star-crossed lovers.

As my brother and I sang along to the wonderful voice of Amanda Palmer, the cabaret music of The World Inferno Friendship Society and the hilarious lyrics of Jonathen Coulten, the miles went by swiftly. Eventually, around eleven at night, we followed one of the many blue signs pointing to wayside motels. We chose the Day’s Inn, parked,  and entered.

“Excuse me?” my mother called to the receptionist. He was a young guy who was on the phone. He spoke to us, revealing an Indian accent.

“Yes, hello,” he smiled.

“We’d like a room for three – with two double beds please.”

“Long day of driving, huh?” he asked rhetorically, smiled, and asked my mother for credit card information. Once the transaction was complete, he handed us our room keys – the plastic card kind – and explained that we needed to enter through the back. We did so, and stuck the key in the lock, a plastic box with a red light showing on it. We slid the card in time after time, but it stayed resolutely red. Eventually, we had to go back and get the keys reprogrammed. It didn’t help. Tempers were running high by this time, in the tired sort of way that tempers run when their victims are especially weary. Again, we walked to the receptionist, and this time he got new keys and came with us to make sure they worked.

Finally, we settled in our room, sneaked the poor rats in and fed them and retired to surprisingly comfortable beds.

Across Five States: Into Indiana

Soon after beginning our drive from Chicago in our great, big, lumbering U-Haul, we passed through the border into Indiana. Here was strange country – mile after mile of flat land, soybeans and grass being grown around us for health nuts and golf courses respectively. Sign after sign advertised fireworks for sale in big block letters accompanied by smiling clowns or circus animals. We passed by rest-stops, termed in Indiana and thereabouts as “Service Plazas.” McDonalds, KFC and Wendy’s seemed to be the favored restaurants at said plazas, and although we stopped for coffee and fuel once, we kept driving past all these, choosing to wait for a real diner to show up.

We were in luck! A big sign by the road showed a picture of pancakes and bread read “Cracker Barrel – 20 Miles!” We all cheered. Our stomachs were rumbling, and although we were in good spirits and enjoying the smooth road and the fellow trucks rumbling along with us, we were all ready for some protein. When we eventually reached the exit, we turned off and followed the signs right to the snug parking lot surrounding the Cracker Barrel. As I found out later, every Cracker Barrel has a store filled with “old timey” sweets, tourist t-shirts, cheap DVDs and plastic souvenirs – all these in contrast to the truly beautiful rocking chairs that were lined up on the porch for sale and looked genuinely old.

We entered the restaurant, and for the first time, I understood and believed that there is an obesity problem in the United States. I never disbelieved it, per se, but I’ve always been in the big cities across America – Los Angeles, Chicago, New York – and in the big cities there are enough foreigners and enough so called “enlightened” people who are aware of their health and so I never witnessed more obesity than I would see anywhere else. But inside that Cracker Barrel I saw just how real this problem is.

We sat down at a table and were served by a nice young fellow whose name tag read “Chris.” It was wonderful to be sitting on wooden chairs surrounded by the smell of food after having sat cramped for hours in a small seat in a truck with the faint smell of my brother’s rats to keep us company. We ordered, we ate, and we went blissfully on our way, full of nutrients and renewed energy.

Moving Out

A week and a half ago [and it’s incredible to realize that yes, it was only a week and a half ago] my brother, my mother and I sat in my brother’s apartment in Chicago and sighed. It was a situation which merited sighing. We were surrounded by boxes, heavy boxes marked “BOOKS AND CLOTHING” or “KITCHEN STUFF – LOUD, UNBREAKABLE” or “BREAKABLE.” Besides the visible boxes there were also bookcases, mattresses and chairs to be moved plus a  dirty old futon couch that was destined for the big garbage bins outside.

Slowly, piece by piece, box by box, we lugged everything down the wide wooden outside stairway. The mattresses and big furniture were a challenge – we had to carry them together and balance the big things along the turns in the stairway. We were tempted to simply throw down some items, but resisted – a near thing, once we realized how awkward the bed frame and the futon would be.

It took us about five hours, but at around three in the afternoon all the furniture and boxes were secured in the U-Haul we’d rented. Bad tempered, bruised and hungry, we began our road trip across five states to move my brother from Illinois to Virginia.