Miss(ed) Manners

August 26, 2005

Miss(ed) Manners Road Trip: Days 7 and 8: The Voyage Home

Filed under: Column — missedmanners @ 4:28 pm

For any of you who didn’t get the Star Trek reference there, pat yourself on the back, you’re probably having sex on the regular. It’s actually a two-fold lame joke because they made far too many of those movies and this being the fourth and final installment, I’m feeling a little “Bones” McCoy up in this bitch. I am an amateur griper, not a travel writer, after all, Jim.

Day 6.5:

I start here because I would spend the next 24 hours on what quickly became my favorite road in America, the Natchez Trace Parkway. In addition to continually invoking images of mexican finger-food, the Natchez Trace cuts a diagonal swath across the entire state of Mississippi. There is virtually no traffic on it for the following reasons:

* It’s 50 mph.

* There’s a lot of bike traffic.

* It’s single laned and unseparated.

It’s a road made for viewing the scenery and I’d stumbled on it coming out of a gambler funk/blinding hangover out of total luck. Locals stay off it for the most part because it’s time prohibitive. Speed limits down south are almost always 70 mph on the highway, so why go and get stuck behind some tourist when you’ve got to get to the swap meet in 15 minutes? I realized I’d have the road, for all intents and purposes, entirely to myself.

Apparently I drove right through Jackson, you wouldn’t know it from the Trace, it’s encased on all sides by some of the most verdant forests imaginable. Every couple miles there’s a rest area where you can take in the sights or see an indian mound, which to my disappointment, has nothing to do with chubby Indians. Despite their frequency they are not gratuitous, there isn’t an ugly spot on that road.

Below are four of the choice stops I made possibly even in order.

I’ve finally found out what the difference is between the North and the South. The South sags. That’s right, like the sun ravaged breasts of an 80 year old man five years ino the Zone diet, it sags.

You know when you get into a subway car with no AC and everyone just looks tired and well, moist? Five seconds in and you’re slumped against a car door like Superman in a Kryptonite sauna. That’s what foliage looks like in the South, just laid out and saggy. It’s beautiful in that “I don’t have the energy to blossom today, so fuck off, Yankee” sort of way.

Most of the Natchez Trace is covered in forest, but every now and then you break out into these open fields. You just go in and out of these tunnels of green. The road’s a great metaphor for sex, only with a really leafy vagina.

This was somewhere southwest of Jackson, where I actually ran into a couple locals on the road. As one truck in particular came towards me, the driver gave me the steering wheel hand raise/wave. Which, if you grew up on a dirt road like I did, you’ll know is secret country talk for, “Heya.” It was comforting in a small town way. The same gesture is actually an insult bordering on death threat in Massachusetts.

The Ross R. Barnett Resevoir is awesome. Due to some road work (more on this later), I had to detour right next to it. The sun was starting to go down and I wanted to make it to Tupelo by midnight to find a bed.

Lake towns are the same no matter where you go, only the grimey restaurants change. They’ve all got the same boats, the same piers the same bunch of kids fashioning crude party flotillas out of drift wood to hold all night boozefests in the middle of the night above one hundred feet of water in the stupidest idea for a party of all time. That last one was a bit of a guess based on personal experience.

Day 7

I did make it to Tupelo and it’s not even close to being as good as the Van Morrison song. I think Elvis was born there or something, but since New Orleans I’d promised to keep my town interactions to a minimum. After spending the night in the hotel version of “That Seventies Show,” I got back on the road early. I snapped this pic somewhere near the Alabama border.

It was Friday and I was finally figuring out the whole trip. It was pictures like these that I was looking to get, roads like the Natchez Trace that I was looking to find. The day before I’d spent over 12 hours just driving, cruising at 55 mph and just looking around and it was the best day of the trip. After that day, time no longer holds any sort of meaning for me when I’m behind the wheel. If you just slow down and start looking around instead of just where you’re headed you’ll know what I’m talking about, let’s call it a “Driver’s High.”

I spent the whole day taking small roads through the Northwest corner of Alabama into Eastern Tennessee. I stopped to grab food outside of Chattanooga and marveled at the foothills of the Smoky mountains. It’s easy to have your inner conservationist aroused when travelling by state roads. Route 28 is highly reccommended.

On my way into Knoxville I saw something that threw me for a loop: ROAD WORK. Not road work like you know those signs that are everywhere telling you that speeding fines are doubled, no, I saw actual guys working on the road. I’d driven 3000 miles over seven days and I hadn’t seen a soul working, not one person doing any thing. But I’d seen over four hundred road work zones, and this was during the day, on weekdays, nothing. Good on ya, Tennessee way to maintain those roads.

I bowled in Knoxville and felt great. It was a good lane (not so stupid bowling!) and I broke 160. I aimed for Asheville, over the mountains in Virginia, where I hoped to find a room. On a Friday night. In a tourist haven.

Six hours later I was sleeping in the back of my rental car, ignoring a call from some friends out partying. It was a bitter reminder of what I hadn’t come to do, which was spend $100 on hotel rooms. I made up my mind that I’d spend the next day using all highway to get home.

Day 8

There’s not much left to report. I spent all of Day 8 driving home. I tried, unsuccessfully to drive through D.C. again but was thwarted by a hundred mile long traffic jam. After sixteen hours, plenty of detours and some swearing, I was back home.

New York and New Jersey drivers are far and away the worst drivers in the world. I realized that having a New Jersey license plate made people fear me down south, I was always given a thirty foot buffer zone, like I was an escaped convict fleeing the law with nothing left to lose. Now, back in the North, I was just another slow poke in the way. Horns honked, multiple lanes were crossed. Hey, fuck you too, New Jersey.

What was one of the things I really missed about New York? The radio. Southern radio stations are horrendous, they get horrible reception and they’re a mish mash of Clear Channel shlock and home fried country crock. New York has 102.7, the greatest radio station of all time, which I tuned in to as soon as I was within antenna-shot.

I parked in front of my apartment and looked at the odometer. 3,500 miles in 8 days. I was pretty impressed, but mostly tired. I cleaned out the car and brought it back to the agency the next day. I was of hoping the girl would make a mention of how I’d completely taken advantage of their unlimited mileage offer, but all I got was a bill.

As soon as I got home I tried to come up with a list of conclusions, things I’d figured out. I quickly realized that that was counter-productive to the central idea behind the trip. Sure I’d learned a lot things and come to appreciate the invention of the cruise control, but it wasn’t a Vision Quest by any stretch of the word. It was just a really long Sunday drive, where I got to see some really great things.

I’m just waiting for another really long Sunday to do it again.

August 12, 2005

Miss(ed) Manners Road Trip: Days 5 and 6.5: Big Easy Money

Filed under: Column — missedmanners @ 4:27 pm

Day 4.9
I got into Biloxi at around 11pm on Day 4, Tuesday night. It would mark the beginning of a dismal 48 hour period of my life where I would experience the full spectrum of gambling emotions: excitement, success, failure, regret, anger, bargaining and finally, acceptance.

I’m not a gambling man even though I started playing poker when I was five years old. The Great Aunt I had visited on Day 2 had tought me five card draw and a laundry list of shuffles, card tricks and slang were soon to follow. It was then and has remained for me a family activity.

Since then I’ve had very limited experience with casinos. My mind has always seen them as the excesses of Las Vegas, showgirls and high rollers. If you want a good reminder of how most of the regular world actually gambles, go to Biloxi.

I chose the Grand Casino, it’s right on the coast and large enough to make you think they’re just handing out cash to anyone who comes in. I found parking and excitedly walked by the first of nearly one million seniors I would see over the next two days.

Old people love to gamble. This is a fact and is as unarguable as the sun rising in the east or Tom Cruise being gayer than a maypole (I know this thanks to Bradley). They get on buses, in cars, trolleys or old-timey horse and buggies just to come see the flashing lights. The obsession makes younger generations’ proclivity for video games seem harmless, fun and educational.

Someone should let Tom Brokaw know that the Greatest Generation is currently sidled up to a Black Jack table and whittling away their retirement drowning in Dewers and soda. All I saw was old people. There isn’t a person under 65 between Biloxi and New Orleans. Even the dealers were old people, which is how I met Roger.

I was wandering around, looking for a place to lose some money when I saw a table completely empty with an older dealer standing around looking bored. It was Three Card Poker, a game I had no idea how to play (along with every other table game in the building). He motioned me over and we struck up a conversation. He taught me how to play and we chit chatted. *excitement*

Over the next few hours I ranged from being up to down to finally breaking even, the black chips that were my buy-in were literally burning a hole in my pocket. Even though I kicked myself for not having gotten out when the getting was good, I realized I’d spent over three hours, getting drunk for free. This is the kind of mentality that most of the retirees have when they’re at the tables. *success* *failure*

“I made it six whole hours and only lost $100.”

I heard similar statements from a lot of old people over the next two days and I began echoing them in my own head. Sure maybe I’d just blown $200, but it took me twelve hours! It’s like going to a firing squad and seeing how long you can dodge the bullets, great mentality right? *bargaining*

Regardless of how well or poorly I did that night I was happy I’d gone just for the conversation I had with Roger. We talked about everything, my trip, casinos, the geriatrics surrounding us, etc. He was a spy plane pilot during Vietnam and we chatted about politics, wars and technology. He filled me in on what to eat in New Orleans and eventually, I took off to find some sleep, but not before throwing away some money on a slot machine. *regret*

Day 5

In the morning I headed straight to Waffle House again and saw something great. No, not the sandy beaches or beautiful sun, it was a menu, a specials menu to be exact. Featured prominently on its laminated backside was a country singer, somebody named Trent or Travis or something, it was an advertisement for his new album. One of the hit singles’ names was, it was in black letters atop a waving flag, I shit you not, Honkey Tonk Budonkadonk. I laughed all the way to Gulfport.

I hopped on Rte. 90 and headed west. I had all day to make it to New Orleans and I planned on seeing some sights. It was a great drive, buffeted on one side by the Gulf and on the other by beach houses and those great low-hanging trees. Yeah, the same ones from Mobile, which as it turns out, does suck, since they were the only thing going for it.

With all this time to kill and the excitement from the prior night’s gambling experience fresh in my head I made an impulse decision to spend the late morning gambling.

The only thing more depressing than gambling at night in Biloxi is gambling in the morning in Gulfport. There’s even fewer people there and they’re even older and sadder. I played dodge the bullet for a few hours, came up a little behind and left, mad. *anger*

I made it into New Orleans around 3pm and headed straight to my hotel. I’d found a ridiculous deal at a tourist information center and intended to use it. What I got made me truly realize that you get what you pay for.

Down and out at the Empress Hotel.

The Empress Hotel’s rooms are so small it made me homesick for New York. The rules state: You can’t leave with your keys and you’re not allowed to bring home guests. I assumed it’s not that popular during Mardi Gras. I showered, changed and headed off to find some food and a bowling alley (stupid bowling).

Things to Do and Do Not in New Orleans:

Do: Eat one of those Muffaletta sandwiches, they fucking rock.

Do Not: Bowl.

There’s one bowling alley in the whole of New Orleans and it is horrendous. The lanes have this sick grey smear on them from over-use and you can see where the finish has been ripped up to a balsa-wood-esque texture. It’s on the second floor and the foundation has slipped a little in the east causing the ten pin to fall over about half the time.

The only thing that made it bearable was this little kid Chris who came in and tried to hustle me for some smokes and a few dollars. He hung out with me, marking up my scores, asking how to play the game and stuff. I gave him a cigarette and we chatted. When I eventually left in anger over the poor quality of the place he asked me for a few bucks, like it was conversation tax or something.

I let him know that I was from New York and that if he was going to try to hustle me that he should have at least tried to sell me something, like batteries or peanut M&M’s. I decided to head over to the Quarter and do what you’re supposed to do in Nawlins, get drunk.

Day 5.5-6.2: Bourbon Street

Bourbon street is Disneyland on alcohol. That’s really the best way to describe it. I mean, I’m a huge fan of drinking, besides food, clothing and shelter it’s my favorite humany neccessity, but New Orleans just takes it to a little bit of an extreme.

It was a Wednesday night and everyone was hammered by 6pm. It’s like Midtown. Every where has 3 for 1 happy hours and even though I was bar hopping and only doing one or two beers maximum at each place, the bartenders made it out like they were required by law to give me three.

After a brief stop in at a karaoke bar where I saw a blottoed Arkansas couple sing their hearts out to “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” I knew I wasn’t going to meet anyone fun from anywhere cool. So started talking to staff.

Eventually I met Sharon who was a vocalist for a cover band. I started talking to her because I’d already seen her perform, twice, in two different bands. Apparently they mix and match groups down there more than Van Halen and they just fill in time slots wherever possible. I tried to explain to her how they should have a messageboard or something but I think it just came out, “play some Journey.”

I spent the rest of the night hanging with the bartender and his shot girls at some place I decided to forget the name to. We danced and jumped around and laughed at silly people as the tooter girls wrestled acohol down tourist-throat. I think I promised some aspiring rapper guy that I’d show him around New York, ugh. Walking home dead-drunk at 2am in the summer heat was not fun.

Day 6:

The beginning of Day 6, Thursday, sucked a big one. I woke up hungover and sweaty. It was blindingly hot and I stupidly decided to hit another casino before going north to begin my trek home. I lost, not big time mortgage size lost, but I lost money that really didn’t have any business losing. I added a few new emotions to the gambling wheel o’ sadness: *self-pity*, *excessive profanity*, and *steering wheel fists of fury*

As I headed out west over the bayou and started to take in the beautiful scenery around me, soggy trees in waist deep water as far as the eye can see, I began to calm down. While I’d taken an impulsive break from the spirit of this trip to do some really stupid, cheesey and immature stuff, I was happy I’d done it. I’d certainly learned a lot about how something so meaningless as money can be so meaningful when it comes to gambling. I’d learned how no matter where you go there’s always going to be people hustling tourists. I’d also learned that you can hold a shot beaker in some really funny places.

Before heading north through Mississippi, I stopped at the big river that splits this country in half and promised I’d repeat this trip on the other side one of these days. Then I got in the car and started for home. (*acceptance*)

August 5, 2005

Miss(ed) Manners Road Trip: Days 3 and 4: Night Lights

Filed under: Column — missedmanners @ 4:26 pm

Now that I’m back I’m having a hard time remembering the exact details of my trip. When you’re driving long distances for long periods of time the places, roads and events tend to blend together, like memory Play-Doh, only less tasty. Again, this one’s a long one.

For a refresher I left off here:
(I added some pictures, by the way)

Day 3

I’d spent most of the night driving, wanting to make it into South Carolina. I felt that if I did a state per day I’d be making great progress. My lunch, dinner and conversation in Hillsboro had cost me a lot time, so I was intent of making use of larger roads to cover the distance.

Almost instantly I realized a couple of things. One, that trying to sleep in your car in Charlotte at the end of July when it’s 120 degrees outside is not fun. Two, that outside of New York things cost normal amounts. And of course, three, that everywhere in America looks exactly the same at night.

It’s absolutely true. Everywhere you go. The same fucking street names, the same fucking hotels, the same fucking mega stores. It was horridly depressing. Every major sub-city has one of these roads, you know the kind of road I’m talking about, four lanes, a divider and miles of homogeny. When I woke up I promised I’d never drive on a big road again for the rest of the trip.

So in the morning I struck out on Route 121 South into the rural lands of South Carolina. It was Monday and I had a friend in Atlanta that I wanted to see later that night, I had plenty of time.

South Carolina is country. Not country in the Toby Keith “I want to beat up some A-rabs” sense of the word, but rather, country in the “you so country, girl,” sense of the word. Long roads between little towns and lots of burnt out sheds.

Somewhere outside of Chester, SC I had the following thought, at what point in age do decaying transportational vehicle skeletons go from being trash to art? In the span of a few miles I saw the over painted husk of a dodge charger tucked behind a tree and a turn of the century beat up motor coach without its wheels next to a driveway. The latter looked like some piece of Americana you’d see in Westchester. Maybe they’re just reaaaaaaally old school white trash.

I got onto 252 West and headed towards Honea Path, because the name sounded cool. Some really great country out there. Long winding roads, little towns where the speed limit forces you to take a look around. There’s a certain type of homogeny to the towns here as well, they’re all similar in their planning. They all have a town hall, and diagonal parking around it. Little shops, luncheonettes and antique malls. For some reason the sameness here actually comforted me, it’s inviting because you know it’s the town’s own, they weren’t just put there as a market initiative.

As I headed towards Anderson, where I hoped to get some lunch I noticed something else. CHURCHES. Millions of them! People down south love them some Christ let me tell you what. If Jesus were around today he’d totally be the class president of every high school down there. They’re everywhere, along the roads, behind houses and in strip malls (yeah I know). Some of them are only one room and the name is longer than the building. The First Carlisle Southern Bapist Church of the Lord’s Prayer of Peace Through His Word of Love and Peace. Even better, they actually have a yellow road sign that says, “CHURCH” on it, just in case you didn’t know one was coming up and you were about to covet something.

They’ve got so many churches down South that this one town I drove through actually had a sign for all the churches within town limits. Like the town was the Foodcourt at the Mall of God and you might get lost finding the Orange Jesusius. I wish I’d taken a picture of it, but I’d gotten so wrapped up in another venture of mine, bowling.

In the days leading up to the trip I’d been trying to find some sort of narrative thread for the whole thing. You know like some kitschy thing that I could do in every town and I could totally tie them all together into some great American story. What a load of shit. Anyway, I figured bowling was a great idea right?

Wrong. As it would turn out I would spend much of my time on the road looking for bowling alleys. When I did find them, I would just bowl a couple of games and then leave, not really talking to anyone. If anything it was a great work out for my forearm, which as we all know, is very important. So I ate and bowled in Anderson, which was great. Stupid bowling. Then I hit the road for Atlanta, I had to see my friend Mike.

Mike works for an entertainment company we use to help plan events. He’s a part time DJ and party MC which means he knows how to turn a lame party into something you’ll actually have fun at. I didn’t know a damn thing about Atlanta other than you’re really cool if you call it HOTTTTTTT LANTA!!!! So I figured he’d be a good guide.

I took my time when I got there and drove literally around the city (it’s got one of those great beltways that circumscribe the major urban areas). Atlanta is by far, my favorite city that I visited. If you ever get a chance, go check it out, especially if you live in New York. It’s bad in all the ways we kind of wish New York was. People are laid back and nice and down to party.

We spent the night drinking and playing pool at a couple of bars. It reminded me of high school in that, “What’s next? Who cares?” Sort of summer way.

Day 4

I woke up with a slight hangover and hit the road (I’ve caned the fuck out of that term, huh?) and headed into Alabama. I wanted to make it to Biloxi by night, so I figured I had a lot of time to kill. I took 85 into the state and got off near Opelika.

After I played “Sweet Home Alabama” about forty five times I decided that it is indeed, very sweet. Just like South Carolina the back roads give way to expansive low hills and desolate country roads. I went through Union Springs and Troy.

I think every state has a town named Troy, maybe they’re all hoping to be looted and sacked by a rampaging horde of Greeks slinging Baklava, I don’t know. I asked at a gas station where I could find a bowling alley only to be laughed at for my Jersey Plates. No alleys around here, son, you’d have to head to Mobile. Which I did, stupid bowling.

It was outside of Troy that I first started to ponder the wonderful plant that is kudzu. This voracious climbing vine is almost as common as places of worship down in the southern states. It covers everything. Basically you end up just having miles of tree-shaped kudzu patches. I started playing, “What’s that kudzu look like” in my head to pass the time. Mostly, kudzu looks like leafy phalluses, but every now and then you see a Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus, pictures of which I’m sure have been offered on Ebay.

The most rural parts of Alabama have this great sense of accelerated history about them. You’ll see incredibly recent patches of development, attempts at hopping, skipping and jumping into the 21st century. Then, just a mile down the road you’ll see the left overs of an older age.

Like this hollowed out radio station:

One of the last things I saw before heading to Mobile made me giggle, an old lady who stored her walking cane in her gun rack:

By all accounts, Mobile is a pretty run-down city. My friends in Atlanta had said I wouldn’t be missing much by skipping over it, but I wanted my first touch with the southern coast to be in a place I’d remember. Honestly, I found it to be pretty charming. The main avenues have these low hanging trees that form tunnels for you to drive through. The houses are old and full of character. Maybe not my first choice for living, but definitely not that bad.

I pulled into a Waffle House to grab some early dinner and coffee, my hopes at finding a bowling alley discarded. While there I struck up a conversation with the waittress who, of course, used to live in New York. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a white girl from Mobile say, “Queens, represent,” while eating a Chicken McGrease ‘n Bacondeath at Waffle House.

Turns out her name was Jess and she’s a punk rock chick. Left Queens after a messy divorce with her kid to come back home. She instantly dispelled all my rosey imaginations of Mobile.

“Mobile has a way of sucking you in. Everyone I know only thinks of being here temporarily and then ten years later, you’re still here, two kids, three marriages and no way out.” I told her to come back to New York, at least there you can get Pizza.

As it started to get dark, I got back in the saddle and made my way to Biloxi, where I heard there was some gambling to be done. The awful Waffle still in my mind, I made up a Haiku in homage:

Scrabble letter sign,
Diabetes explosion!
Biscuits from heaven.

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