Friday, September 2, 2011

Take Me to Another Place, Take Me to Another Land

I love road trips. I grew up with them sort of being standard fare. When my mother and I moved from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, we did so by 5-day, cross-country drive. Though he still lived in California, my dad would often fly out to Baltimore for events (much of his family resided there, as well as in other eastern seaboard locations); part of his itinerary would then be to make the four-hour-each-way journey to pick me up. I’d spend summers back in my sunny native land of SoCal, where my dad’s job as a Xerox sales rep (he was responsible for slangin’ photocopiers to universities all over the region) regularly meant I was riding shotgun with him from UCLA to Cal State Northridge and back, logging hours upon hours in his BMW 325e as it charged through the tan hills and long-blonde-haired valleys. And a portion of every summer seemed to find us back in the east, driving across upstate New York on our way to a weekend in Boston, or down I-95 on our way to a family reunion in Raleigh.

When I got old enough to be behind the wheel of my own car, it didn’t take long for me to forge my own paths. Washington & Jefferson College was only 30 miles from my mother’s house—a pittance to an experienced road warrior like me; but I trekked the roundtrip at least once a week, just because I could. Soon, with or without a copilot, I was making the four hour sprints to Baltimore for familial gatherings, or just to kick it with my cousins. And a couple of times, cousins strapped into my little Ford Escort LXE with me, I’d make the drive down to North Carolina. Eventually there would be many of the crazy trips with my crew that have been highlighted on this page—Ocean City, MD (twice); Washington, D.C. (three times); Ohio University (12 hours of madness); Thousand Islands, NY (oddly enough, no real great stories came from the weekend, which disappointed on countless levels); and various others.

What I’m trying to get at here, is that I like travelling by automobile.

And yet, with all of that, I was none too excited about my scheduled drive to Tennessee at the end of July for my father’s surprise 75th birthday party. For starters, the travel time (about nine to ten hours, depending on what state troopers are watching) from Pittsburgh to Chattanooga was daunting for a solo mission. And although my cousin, Mrs. Bluemoon (MB)—normally my closest ally in our family’s boozier episodes—would be there, she was most certainly going to be sticking to water and un-rummed Cokes, being that she was seven months pregnant. Which brings up another knock against attending this family gathering: MB’s pregnancy means that I’m one of the few 30+ year old members of our clan who have never had kids and/or been married. And I was rolling dolo. The last time I saw my family, I had The Ex with me. Though, I can’t say for sure whether or not that was seen as a step in the “right direction”…

Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to miss my pops’ big day. Nor was I going to pass up a chance to see a lot of other family who I hadn’t seen in years. So on the last Friday of July I soldiered up, tossing a suitcase in my trunk and a couple of newly-burned CDs on my passenger seat. I did over half of the grueling drive that night, stopping at a rest stop several miles past the Tennessee border at around 2 a.m. to sleep. By 6:30 I was back on my way, and by a quarter to 9 I was waking up my brother, “Big Bro”, from the front desk of The Chattanoogan so he could let me into our room. I showered the previous 14 hours off me, and then I crawled into my bed and slept until about 1.

For lunch, Big Bro, my stepbrother (“Step Bro”), my sister (“Sis C”), her boyfriend Mike, and I stopped at North Shore Grille; the guys tossed back beers (Red Stripe for moi) while Sis C used the Bloody Mary bar to ease the hangover punishing her for the previous night’s bar fun. Step Bro and I soon found a fun game to play while we waited for our food: “Pin the Tail on the Bar Slut”. I quickly identified my preferred practice target; she was sitting at the bar in a short and complimenting white sundress, her modest-but-beckoning curves highlighted by the portions of skin tactically put on display. She sat with a male suitor whose dingy mop of blonde hair would’ve made Kurt Cobain proud. Our booth was located at an angle that positioned me in a line of sight just a few degrees left of her mismatched beau, and I frequently caught her eyes straying over to treat me like an amusement park. I enjoyed the innocent (on my part) fun, and the smug satisfaction in knowing I could, if I really wanted to.

Step Bro found a practice target of his own. Well, actually, he found several. Being relatively fresh off a divorce, my 41-year-old stepbrother has been living life to the fullest, fearlessly flirting with and pulling tail in various states. His newfound freedom has turned him into the proverbial kid in a candy store. In this particular aisle he eyed up several treats, but the biggest gobstopper of all sat at the far end of the bar. She wasn’t a perfect ten in looks, but she was a perfect piece of low-hanging fruit: she was of impressive physical characteristics (…below the neck), she was sitting by herself, and—as I quickly discerned—she was one-step-forward-two-steps-backward-drunk. And remember, we were there for lunch. It was maybe 4 pm at the latest now, and she was doing a dead-on “drunk Sweet Dee” impersonation. From the little pieces of her slurred passing conversations with the bartenders that I could hear from our booth, I picked up that she was a server or bartender at some nearby bar or restaurant (maybe even that one), who was finally off-duty and taking full advantage of the liberty she had been granted.

Eventually, the other people at our table picked up on Step Bro and I discussing her merits. Sis C simply called us “dogs,” but Big Bro contested the woman’s physical qualifications. “She’s not even hot!” “You’ve gotta remember, though,” I countered, “it’s not about quality; it’s about quantity.”

(*pause* My sister might’ve been onto something.)

After lunch we did some shopping —well, Sis C did; the guys just tagged along—and then headed back to the hotel to clean up before making our way to St. John’s for the party. Somehow, I was put in charge of (1.) getting my stepmother’s laptop and a projector set up in the restaurant’s private room, where the party was being held, and (2.) getting everyone neatly tucked away in the room before the birthday boy arrived, to ensure a quality surprise. I couldn’t help but wonder just what it said about my family that I, of all people, was the one entrusted with these vital responsibilities. But, like a good sailor, I shouldered the weight. As I worked with a waiter to get the electronics connected and operating properly, I frequently sipped from a glass of Grey Goose and tonic and periodically checked on the arriving guests to be sure they were safely in the dining room and out of sight before the Admiral got to the restaurant. [Note: “The Admiral” is a nickname used for my father within our family; though he was a naval officer, he retired as a Chief Warrant Officer. But he is the oldest of his parents’ seven children, and therefore often stands atop the family’s chain of command, especially since the passing of my grandparents several years ago.] Guests continued to roll in, and trays of drinks rolled out; before long the Admiral arrived to a raucous “surprise!” With my work done, I ordered a third Goose & tonic and set about having some fun.

I caught up with aunts and uncles who I hadn’t seen in some time, I laughed with my dad and his friends while eating an excellent meal, and I repeatedly availed myself of the open bar. …So you can imagine my surprise when, near the end of the party, “the kids” were asked to stand up and say a few impromptu words about our beloved old man. I was light on my feet; my buzz fully pulsing in and around me, I started my speech with, “I’ll keep this short…” “Good!” interjected Uncle Red, as he dug his spoon into his dessert dish. Talking to a room full of people—family, no less—with Grey Goose feathers lulling my brain to sleep is an experience I hope to never have to repeat, though I seemed to make it through without any hiccups (figurative or literal).

Around 10:30 we moved the party to the hotel, where a jazz band was playing in the bar. Since just about everyone from the party was staying at The Chattanoogan—including the Admiral and my stepmother—for the night, the bar overflowed with my extended family. Step Bro identified “targets” all around (including our waitress, a cute Latina with a slight southern drawl); Sis C. (who was easily the drunkest among us) accused each of her siblings of taking pictures from her Facebook page for use in the night’s slideshow tribute to our dad; Uncle Red chortled from a barstool about one thing or another; MB sat taking it all in, occasionally sighing because she couldn’t fully enjoy the moment like she’s accustomed to doing; and I downed Stella draughts and just soaked in a rare night of being drunk with my family. The afterparty’s limelight fell on the older of my two sisters, though (“Big Sis”), who joined the band for a song, her beautiful voice expertly rocking the bar to its foundation.

But, being a hotel bar, the place closed at midnight. As people filed stumbled out, Step Bro spit some game at the waitress while I talked to our cousin Sherri and finished my last Stella.

Sherri: “So where’s [The Ex]? She didn’t make the trip down this time?”
Me: *choking, as I try not to spit beer all over her*

After closing out my tab with our waitress—who shot down Step Bro, but seemed to give me a sly smile—Step Bro and I returned to our respective rooms to change into casual clothes before venturing out. When I stopped by his room to collect him, he handed me a jar of Tennessee’s finest clear liquid and told me to take a whiff. The 130 proof moonshine inside proceeded to rape my nostrils. Step Bro laughed when I recoiled in shock. “Take a sip.” I took a quick one, expecting to digest gasoline. But, to my surprise, the garage whiskey was much smoother than its scent had led me to assume. Step Bro took a quick nip himself and then sealed it back up. “Just enough to warm you up.” He wasn’t kidding; after five minutes I felt like my liver had clicked on a heat lamp.

We headed to T-Bone’s Cafe, a small bar within walking distance. While Tennessee didn’t overwhelm with its percentage of desirable women [in fact, by contrast it helped make me realize, upon returning home to Shadyside, just how many beautiful women populate my neighborhood], a solid 75% of those I encountered during the trip were at T-Bone’s that night. The problem, however, was that it was mostly a “local” crowd as well, which meant Step Bro and I made little traction. Nevertheless, I was satisfied with watching him engage girls in conversation without a moment’s hesitation, offering them an opportunity to sit down and get to know us. The fact that none of them were taking him up on the offer was of little concern.

…Well, it would’ve been of some concern, if Stella and her new buddy Garage Brew weren’t slapping around my central nervous system like two rogue cops looking for a lead. Our conversation as we walked home to the hotel that night is precisely the type of event I want a camera crew on hand to cover; the slurred, nonsensical stream-of-consciousness coming from both of us must have been absolutely riveting. As Step Bro peeled off at his room’s door, he offered me another shot of moonshine; the only reason I’m alive to tell this tale is because I said “Fuck off!” and shuffled even faster towards my own door.

A few hours later I found myself in the middle of a terrifying dream: I was trapped in a pitch black tomb, all by myself, with no flashlight and no hope for escape. As I clawed at the walls in a panic, confused as to how I had gotten here and shaking at the idea of the slow and agonizing death sure to befall me, my fingers smacked a switch.

I was in the bathroom. I opened the door, turned off the light, and shuffled back to my bed.

Sunday saw Step Bro and I squinting when we stepped into the daylight; we weren’t the only ones hungover, but we were by far the most hungover members of the family. We joined several others in checking out of the hotel and moving into The Admiral’s house, which comfortably slept nine guests that night. The entire cast of characters, however, was at the house that day for a family barbecue. We polished off more than a case and a half of Fat Tire (Step Bro and I were largely responsible for that), more than half the Mason jar of moonshine (Uncle Red and my cousin—“The Lieutenant”—were largely responsible for that), a case of Rolling Rock, and a whole “mess” of ribs and chicken (stereotypes be damned, we went all-in on that shit), as the party rolled on, well into the night. By 4 a.m. I was falling face-first into my bed in one of the guest rooms, slurring to myself, “god I love my fam!”

I love a good road trip. And so does the Mason jar sitting in my liquor cabinet.

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