Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

We Sneak out of Michigan

6:40 p.m., Friday: Our glorious departure is now a panicked getaway. The three of us are wedged so tightly into our VW Beetle that Baby Ben looks like a piece of luggage with a head.

I’d imagined a grand occasion, sort of “Apollo 11” meets “Herbie Goes to Maryland.” Instead, we sneak out of Ann Arbor like theives in the night, weakened by hunger, with an overtired baby wailing from his dufflebag fort in the backseat.

We emerge from Ann Arbor’s Construction Area and Hundred-Mile Parking Lot and peel down US 23, where workers have decorated the shoulders with more pointless orange barrels a show of solidarity. On the left, we pass Ebenezer Baptist Church and Grain Silo. Benny scrabbles around under his blanket and drifts off to sleep.

We drag our weary behinds into a Friendly’s in Maumee, just before the Ohio Turnpike. Benny bounces in his highchair, shredding napkins and staring pop-eyed at fellow diners. Ron and I glumly eat our diet turkey plates (smothered in gravy) and peer at the map. The Ohio Turnpike curves under Lake Erie toward Cleveland, but we plan to break off at Highway 77 and find a hotel near Akron.

We aren’t on the Turnpike long before we turn into the giant concrete pillbox that is the Commodore Perry Service Plaza. The gift shop offers such vital travel commodities as plush butterflies on sticks. Also prominently displayed is a bright yellow self-help book asking “Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately?” I guess after driving across Ohio, a lot of people feel like giving up.

It was dark before we lurched onto a very bumpy Highway 77, the lights of Akron ahead, but our hopes of a quick hotel room were doomed. The sold-out Holiday Inn displayed a huge placard saying “Welcome NEC International Golfers.”

We fled south, desperate to escape the Golf Tournament Zone. At 11 p.m., in Nowhere, Ohio, I found myself in another Holiday Inn lobby. Five drunk, middle-aged bleach blondes surrounded the desk, keening for connecting rooms. “We made this reservation a YEAR ago!” the ringleader screamed.

The desk clerk nervously smoothed his comb-over. “We can’t guarantee specific rooms, only a certain type --”

“Connecting!” another one yelled. “You know, with the doors between the --”

“We don’t have connecting rooms, here are your keys --”

“We stay here every year for tournament!” the ringleader cried. And apparently every year they reserve the nonexistent connecting rooms. “Where are the ... we’re miles apart! We’re on SEPARATE FLOORS!”

“That’s not right ...”

“... Way the fuck out there ...”

“Connecting! We want connecting rooms!”

Attracted by the chaos, some drunk man wanders over and stirs the pot. “Give ‘em connecting rooms! You oughta have connecting rooms -- with a big bed -- for an orgy!”

I should’ve left right then. Instead I slunk over to a second hotel clerk and asked if there were rooms available. He said only smoking. Deeply relieved, I raced back to the car. “Get us the hell out of here,” I hissed to Ron.

We woke the next morning in a dumpy little hotel in Strasburg, outside the NEC zone. The landscape had changed, surrounding us with little mountain ridges and deeper forests. But our entrance onto 77 was delayed by a New Jersey man who left his van to talk to woman with Ohio license plates. It was an intense coversation; obviously vital enough to back up traffic for a quarter-mile.

Woman: How do I get to Zanesville?
Man: Sorry, I’m from New Jersey..
Woman: Should I take 77 or 22?
Man: I ain’t from here, lady. See the pukey yellow license plate? Now if you want to get to New Brunswick or Pompton Lakes, there I can help you. Pompton’s real nice --
Woman: What if I took 77 east to -- (sudden scream) Eeeek! A crazed silver Beetle with a bike rack and a baby seat is about to run us over for sheer stupidity! Look out!


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