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.

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About Kate Christensen

eater, citizen, enthusiast, curmudgeon
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14 Responses to Back in the U.S.A., back in the bad old days

  1. anntracy51 says:

    Glad you landed safely and that the food scene has improved a bit! It’s always interesting to go back to a once familiar place…

  2. celiathepoet says:

    I am sorry you went to the US side of the Falls without knowing. I am in Buffalo, and if you plan to drive back through, allow me to steer you to some actually excellent food in this city.

  3. Janet Osmond says:

    What a great story of your trip! Gave me real insight into driving and eating in US. Greetings from
    New Zealand!

  4. Veronica says:

    I love your writing, Kate. You make me think of Dickens. An American version :) waiting (impatiently) for the next installment from his hand. How lovely it is to read your writings. Your travels. Not the least perhaps because I’ve just spent some time in Berlin – and wish I could write about it as well as you’ve written about your journey (my mother always said that I could; that I should. Ha)
    And how interesting, another New Zealander responds to your post – Hello Janet.

  5. Deborah Reid says:

    Brendan’s humour at the lookout point made me belly laugh. As usual, thanks for sharing.

  6. guess who says:

    Loved this. Brendan’s comment at the Falls is priceless. :)

  7. Charlotte says:

    My late brother and I had a marvelous, giddy, giggly afternoon at Niagara Falls once when we were in our 20s. Bought many tacky gifts, stood in the ion-saturated spray, took pictures like tourists. Tacky human stuff aside — it’s an astonishing place.

  8. Dana Britt says:

    I, apparently, have been under a rock of some sort because I have just discovered your blog–well, yesterday (Happy Birthday, by the way!). Thanks so much for blogging, I really enjoyed reading and reading and reading your posts. I’m picking up Blue Plate Special from the library tonight, can’t wait. Please keep sharing with us :)

  9. ruhlman says:

    Hi Kate, want to write about Blue Plate on my site, and feature the lamb tagine. possible for you or your publicist to mail a copy of the recipe to (We met a few years ago at Key West Lit Seminar, and once shared agents. Congrats on the new book, loved it.)

  10. g bunn says:

    Hi Kate- I miss the Blue Benn. Great omelets but with a ‘towny’ feel to it. Well that all went the way of the ex-wife.

    BTW your radio interview drew me to your work. You’re quite a fetching sort. Thanks for these missives.

    Best regards, Gary Bunn Clearwater/New Orleans

  11. summer is not over, you ca still squeeze some joy out of it!

  12. Susan says:

    Welcome to Iowa City. I hope you enjoy living here again, and will be able to find time to explore and discover some of the hidden gems.

  13. “We…set off in search of grandeur.” I now have a new life mantra.

    Also a new mission to continue on having never been hit by bird shit.

  14. Bill says:

    just to let you know, C and I would have taken care of Dingo but we would also have been terribly sad to lose you both.

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