Connecticut Dreams

rest area

ON INTERSTATE 95 NEAR DARIEN, CONNECTICUT

Well, well.  This morning I find myself at a crowded rest area along the Connecticut Turnpike.  It feels like a return to the scene of the crime.

For three years, I drove back and forth on this highway nearly every weekend, traveling between law school in Massachusetts and my parents’ home in New York.

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since then, and it shows.  This is now a mega rest area, a veritable food court containing the likes of Pinkberry (a smoothie joint), Cheeseboy (melt sandwiches), Sbarro, Chipotle, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and a couple of other places I can’t remember.  It certainly is a far cry from my late night stops for fish fry and ice cream at HoJo’s on the Post Road in Milford.  But time moves on, and this transplanted Californian passing through the Nutmeg State feels as if he’s been lifted by a tornado and plonked down in the middle of another era/planet/zeitgeist.

Then again, after you’ve been on the road for a few weeks, all the truck stops, gas stations and rest areas start to look the same.  Case in point:  When we were in Manhattan, my wife asked me where one would find the Orthodox Jewish communities where men walk the streets in their Hasidic garb, including long black coats and trailing strands of white tzizit (prayer fringes).  I considered driving over to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, but this proved unnecessary.  We saw a few Orthodox down on the Lower East Side in the Rivington Street area and a few more in my suburban hometown in Rockland County.  But it was at the rest areas on the highways that we saw the most Hasidim of all.  They were there on the Palisades Interstate Parkway near the George Washington Bridge (Sign in the window:  “Kosher sandwiches sold here!”) and the one at the northern end of the Garden State Parkway in Montvale, New Jersey (we were thrilled to have made it all the way there from Brunswick, Maine on a tank of gas!).

But here in Connecticut, a class of middle school girls has burst rowdily into the rest area (surely they must have adult supervision somewhere?), causing my wife to have to wait in line  to use the ladies’ while I lean uncomfortably against a high table watching the bored young employee at Cheeseboy with the dreadlocks make it obvious to all the world that he’d rather be anyplace else but here.

I belong here, but I don’t.  I am of this place but I’m not.  I cut those strings long ago when I boarded a plane for California and allowed those pretty blue and green ribbons tethering me to my beloved Connecticut to float away into the same sky shared by the 747 bound for SFO.

And yet, I can’t seem to let go.  True, this place no longer seems like home.  And yet.

And yet.

Connecticut (yes, my Connecticut, dammit, the one 3,000 miles from my current residence!) is the only state in which I am a member of the bar and licensed to practice law.  (Not that I have ever done such a thing.)  After law school, I could not find a legal job anywhere (blame it on Reaganomics, the weak New England economy, my poor class ranking and no-name law school, insufficient initiative on my part —  you choose), returned to my previous work in the printing industry back in my hometown in New York, and worked my way back to Connecticut.  After two years in a dead end job and nothing but rejection letters from law firms, I started driving to Connecticut every weekend to pick up the Sunday papers.  Eventually (after bothering that poor HR lady every week for months), I was hired as a desktop publisher and moved to a tiny rented room in Connecticut, an unheated sun porch where I froze my caboose off all winter.  How proud I was to have those blue and white license plates on my car!  Yes, I did it!  I am Connecticut and Connecticut is me!  With no law firm willing to hire me (“oh, you’re hungry, you’ll find something!”) and my entire family having migrated to California, I sealed my fate the day I boarded that silver bird and yelled “Open sesame!” at the Golden Gate.

The memories, the conflicting feelings, they all come back as if not a day has passed.  Am I really here or is this just a dream?  It is lunchtime and hungry travelers swarm and swirl around me, claiming tables, calling to each other loudly across the cavernous space, searching for the rest rooms way in the back, beyond my line of vision.  Coffee!  Food! A line forms at Dunkin’ Donuts and Cheeseboy remains forlornly abandoned.  As if on cue (doesn’t it always happen this way?), an email pops into my phone from (of all damned things!) the Connecticut Judicial Branch, Client Security Fund.   How did they know I was in town?  Did I trip some invisible, emotional sensor, triggered by GPS and bitterness?

“Invoices for the 2016 client security fund fee have been mailed to attorneys licensed to practice in Connecticut who are required to pay the fee pursuant to Practice Book section 2-70…”

Every year, I pay the fee rather than resign my bar membership based on the off, off, off, minuscule, nonexistent chance that I will ever practice law a continent away in the only state in which I may legally do so.

Why can’t I seem to press “delete” on this dream?  Face reality, you idiot, this dream is dead!  What’s with the pretending?  Just who am I trying to fool?  This is getting to be some clingy, enabling relationship worthy of a daytime serial drama.  It has long outlived its usefulness and I should have cut the cord twenty years ago.  So why can’t I just let go already?

My wife appears with two large iced teas and we are on the road again.  Next stop will be lunch in Westerly, Rhode Island at one of my favorite sandwich shops from when I lived there in the early 1980s.  See?  Clearly, I am hopelessly stuck in the past.  Perhaps this is an innate hazard of getting old.

As for you, Connecticut, thou Constitution State, yea Nutmeg State, I will continue to secretly sing hymns of praise to your ocean shores, your green hills and the richness of cultural life in your cities.

And, like lovers everywhere, I shall sigh.

 

Cemetery

Cemetery

QUEENS, NEW YORK

My knees don’t work very well anymore.  Neither does my back, or any other part of my body, for that matter.

I bend over slightly as I scan every inch of ground around the edges of my grandparents’ gravesite, hoping to find a tiny stone to place atop the marble slab that bears the surnames of my grandparents and parents.  My surname.  A part of me is here, I realize, among the tightly squeezed together matzevot, stone markers and monuments, that seem to go on for miles in this cavernous Jewish cemetery next to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport.

The biting wind chills me through despite the sunny day, reminding me that May in New York is a lot like October in California.  I snap photo after photo with my iPhone, attempting to capture the gravesite from different angles so that all parts of it may be examined by my mother back in California, who is so concerned that it was not being cared for properly.  “They used to send me a bill every two years,” she tells me on the phone across a continent, “but then they stopped sending them.”

The late afternoon sun is raising havoc with my amateur photography efforts, casting shadows of me holding my phone upon nearly every image.  I move back a few inches, a bit to the side as I retake photos that didn’t come out very well the first time.

My efforts to find a pebble finally pay off.  Despite several attempts, it quickly becomes apparent that I can’t bend over enough to pick up such a tiny object.  I find a thin twig of some length nearby, a larger target that I am just able to grasp.  I use it as a tool to drag the pebble through the dirt until it is right up against my shoe and I can just reach it.  Victorious, I place it atop the large marker with our family names that sits at the rear of the plot.

It looks so lonely.  It is the only stone upon the otherwise bare, shiny surface of the marble slab.  Nearby, other markers are graced by a half dozen stones of considerably greater size, indicating that many family members have been there to visit recently.  It has been more than 30 years since I have been here last, on the occasion of my grandfather’s unveiling, a year after his death.  I know perfectly well that no one has visited our family plot in at least 15 years.

I have a hard time explaining to my wife why we place little stones atop big stone markers at Jewish cemeteries.  We don’t bring flowers or greenery, I explain, because we believe that we came into this world with nothing and should go out of it in the same way.  It’s not about how much money we accumulated or how many adornments others choose to bring to honor us.  In death we are all the same, a reminder that in life, too, our similarities far outweigh our differences.  Adding a pebble or small stone to a stone marker adds no substance that wasn’t already there.  It is a custom, a tradition, that is difficult to explain to anyone who did not grow up with it.

My mother’s parents are buried on a gravesite that holds eight plots, “four in the back and four in the front,” my mother tells me.  She herself wishes to be buried there, even though it she lives nearly 3,000 miles away.  My father says that, as far as he is concerned, we can stuff him in a gunny sack and throw him in a river.  Or have him buried in a veteran’s cemetery.  He really doesn’t care.  But it is here that he will end up one day, I know.  My sisters’ remains will end up in distant states, not here.  So it is extremely likely that the four plots at the front of the gravesite, nearest the road, will remain forever vacant, free of stones and ivy, but covered with rich green grass in the summer and piles of snow in the winter.

As for myself, following my visit I confirm to my wife what I have told her for years:  I am to be buried near our home in California, not transported on a plane to a city and state in which I have not resided for decades, a place in which I no longer belong, either in life or in death.

I suppose this sums up our few days here in New York:  It is clear that I no longer belong here, that whatever ties I once had to this place have long been severed.  In upper Manhattan, we happen to pass the hospital where I was born.  I point it out to my wife, but it means nothing to me.  We eat dinner at what once was my favorite hangout, but now serves as only a vague reminder of a less than halcyon past that may have been real or imagined.  “You see that woman eating all by herself at the last stool at the edge of the counter?” I tell my wife.  “That was me,” I say.  “That was me.”

On the way out of Queens, we are stuck in the perennial traffic jam that is the Cross Bronx Expressway.  While my wife drives, I take out my phone and begin composing an email to my parents, uploading photos.

Later, my mother calls me, expressing gratitude for the pics.  They are exactly what she wanted to see, she assures me, now confident that the gravesite is indeed being cared for.  “You saved me a trip to New York,” she tells me.

“Did you talk to them?” my wife asks me. At first, I think she is referring to my parents.  But then I realize she means my grandparents, whose graves we visited today.  “Of course not!”  I reply.  “Why would I talk to dead people?”

That may seem a bit harsh, but my grandmother died when I was five years old and, much to my mother’s chagrin, I barely remember her. My grandfather lived a lot longer, and I had a good relationship with him well into my teenage years.  He wanted to see me graduate from college, and that he did.  He was there in Albany on my graduation day, passing on rather suddenly about two months later.

I suppose I am not telling the whole truth.  I have indeed “talked” with my grandfather on occasion, and have even felt his presence in my life at certain moments.  I think of him every year on his birthday, September 7.  I am acutely aware that he has influenced my life in more ways than I realize.  But it is not on a cold and windy day, in a place where tens of thousands of stone markers are crowded together, in a world of ivy and marble and pebbles, an entire nation away from where I live, work and love my family, that I would go to have a talk with him.  That place is no more than a symbol.

For in a real sense, Grandpa will be with me always, wherever I am and wherever I go.

 

 

Grand Ole Opry

Opry1

NASHVILLE

We were amazed by the kindness and generosity with which we were treated in Nashville, starting with the Grand Ole Opry.

Months ago, we checked out the Opry website and considered attending a concert at “the mother church of country music.”  Yet we did not purchase tickets because we were uncertain of the exact date that we would be in Nashville and we wished to remain flexible.  Then, a week before our trip, I checked the Opry website again and noticed that tickets were still available for a Tuesday night show that included performances by Montgomery Gentry, Rascal Flatts, David Nail and Craig Morgan.  I called the Opry while we were sitting in traffic on the way to work one morning, only to learn that the only seats remaining were on the upper levels.  I explained that, due to my mobility difficulties, I am unable to climb stairs.  She put me on hold while she consulted with her supervisor and, to our surprise, found us seats on the main floor near the entrance!  Plus, we were charged the same rate as if we had been seated up in the nosebleed section.

As if that weren’t enough, the Opry staff member on the phone told us where the handicapped parking is, then offered to come pick us up in a golf cart and deliver us to the front door of the concert venue!  And this is precisely what they did.  We felt like celebrities.  The staff onsite were highly solicitous and ensured that all the arrangements went smoothly.

By the way, the show was amazing!  Rascal Flatts did not perform due to illness, but that meant that Craig Morgan got to do an extra long set.  The surprise of the night, at least for me, was the appearance of Jeannie Seeley.  A true country music veteran (unknown by many modern country fans), she has been a member of the Opry cast for fifty years.  Even at the age of 76, she blew me away with her rendition of “What’s Going on in Your World?,” made famous by George Strait.  Of course, her performance of “Ode to Billy Joe” was pretty cool, too!

All told, we had a total blast, notwithstanding a couple of thousand people squeezing into the gift shop following the show.

Below are a few photos for your enjoyment.  (I know, flash photography on an iPhone leaves something to be desired.)

Mississippi River Bridge

En route to Nashville:  Mississippi River bridge from Arkansas heading into Memphis.

Memphis Skyline

Memphis skyline

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Inside the Opry

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Montgomery Gentry performing

Opry David Nail

David Nail performing

Opry Jeannie Seeley

The incomparable Jeannie Seeley

 

A Dash of Kindness and a Dollop of Luck

Truman Museum

Truman Museum and Library, Independence MO

GOODLETTSVILLE, TENNESSEE
Regardless of how well you plan a long trip, you can be certain that not everything will play out as expected.  Indeed, the inherent uncertainty involved is among the draws of the open road.  You may be delighted or infuriated, but somewhere along the way you are likely to meet up with the unexpected.  Once you are away from the comforts and familiarity of home, you will necessarily place your fate in the hands of strangers.  This vulnerability is documented all the way back to the Biblical book of Genesis, where Abraham went to great lengths to treat travelers from afar as honored guests.  Even today, travel necessarily exposes us to the potential for disaster away from the supports of family and friends.  A dash of good luck goes a long way, but ultimately, we travelers must, like Blanche DuBois, depend on the kindness of strangers.

We have been on the road only five days, yet we have already been on the receiving end of many kindnesses, great and small.  Despite the persistent pouring rain making driving difficult (we miss the California sunshine dearly), our days have been brightened by the largesse of caring strangers, some outstanding business practices and more than a bit of serendipity.

On the first night of our trip, at a motel in Rock Springs, Wyoming, we awoke early to find that a portion of the carpet had become totally sopped with water.  As we were experiencing violent thunderstorms and heavy rain, I figured water must have seeped in from somewhere.  As I checked out at the front desk, I remembered to mention it to the clerk.  “You may end up getting mold,” I warned her.  I was shocked when she deducted $15 from our bill!  She clearly did not have to do this.  And this for something that barely affected us.

After another long day of driving in the rain, we slogged through Omaha and into Iowa, where we searched for a motel at 10 pm.  At a tiny local motel in Glenwood IA, the office was already closed.  But an employee, who appeared to have be sleeping, opened up for us and even let us into the room to use the toilet before we paid!  We asked him if there was any food to be found in the area and he pointed us to a Pizza Hut three miles down the road.  Just our luck:  It was Saturday night and they stayed open until 11 pm!  We were the only customers in the place.  Not only did we get two pizzas and two salads for $15, but they deducted $12 from our bill by applying a coupon that we did not have!

For decades, I have hoped to one day visit the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri.  Now I can cross this off my list.  When we arrived on Sunday, we were gobsmacked to learn that, of all the days of the year, it was Truman’s 132nd birthday and admission was just a dollar!

From the Doubting Thomas files:  We had to demand a refund when we arrived at a Nashville motel to find that they did not have a ground floor room for us as reserved.  “Where are you going to stay tonight?” asked the clerk.  “We’ll find a room,” I assured him.  “Well, good luck with that,” he responded, sarcasm dripping.  “Oh, we’ll find a place, even if we have to go out of town,” I assured him.  Due to multiple conventions that had convened in Nashville, all his rooms were booked.  The hotel next door was full also.  We made a few calls and, within five minutes, we had a lovely ground floor suite reserved at a hotel a few minutes north of Nashville.  God is good to us!

Truman1
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Truman3