Two Nights in Middle America
Monday, 4th August 2003
Here is an account of my short time in Middle America. You’ll notice that there’s a lot about finding buses, getting to hotels, and general mishaps. I thought it would be nice to give a flavour of my new lifestyle, but I’m going to cut most of those out from future articles; you can just assume that travel related mishaps continue to happen to me with an incredible Python-esque regularity.
I left Pittsburgh for Toledo, Ohio on a Greyhound bus. After the wonders of Amtrak, Greyhound seemed far more British: grimy, people shouting at each other, more expensive than I expected and somewhat complicated to use. Very reassuring. The bus drove out of the wooded hills outside of Pittsburgh (we drove through another immense state park area) into the flatter country that was Ohio. A fellow bus user from the area told me that the highest hill in the Toledo area is man-made. We also seemed to have left the colonial era sounding names behind – we passed towns such as Mercer, Zienople (may have got the spelling wrong there), but also a Newcastle and a Kent.
The empty streets of Toledo
I arrived in Toledo about 8pm (on a Friday). The streets around the Greyhound station, which looked like it was the city’s downtown area, were completely deserted. Fantastically deserted, wide streets stretched off in the sunsetting light. Only a few cars on the road gave any signs of life. Toledo does not feature, as far as I could tell, in any major guidebook on the US. I only had a hotel reservation because I had stumbled across a cheap motel in a hotel directory I surreptiously leafed through once in a Borders book shop.
Apparently I could get there from the Greyhound station by bus. I wandered out into the empty streets with all my assorted bags, knees twinging a little from the weight. There was no sign whatsoever of where my bus passed through or how I could get to it, and no one in the station knew anything about it. I considered getting a taxi – but it was $20. Although darkness was approaching, this seemed like too much by far. Finally the random strangers on the streets started to know something about buses – apparently there was a major bus stand somewhere near by. I began to walk. Some cops redirected me, and finally, after they had circled back in their car to check I was going in the right direction, I arrived at the bus stand.
Buses were lined up for four blocks. Mine, I was informed, was at the far end of the blocks. I walked the first few blocks, running the last as I realised my bus was already waiting. By the time I took my bags off in the bus my t-shirt was quite disgusting, to the amusement of the other bus passengers.
The bus set off, through the town (which looked nice, but was generally pretty deserted too), out of the town centre, on to long roads punctuated only by Burger Kings, Steak ‘n’ Shake, Wendy’s (the sign proclaimed “Wendy’s welcomes salad lovers”) and others. Eventually the bus stopped – I was to walk beyond a nearby Holiday Inn and find my motel. By now it was pitch black in the sky, it felt like 3am rather than the 9:30pm it actually was. I walked through empty supermarket parking lots and arrived at a two story motel. I wandered towards reception. From the open door of one of the ground floor rooms came angry female voices. As I walked past two women became briefly visible, who looked suspiciously like they might be prostitutes. I got to reception and went to my room, which was large, a little dingy and with a strong musty smell. “Well, it’s thirty dollars, and this kind of thing is half the fun of travelling,” I told myself.
I ate supper in the waffle house next door. Everyone I spoke to was simply amazed that I was from London: “What are you doing here?” The waitress asked me where I was staying, and I told her it was the place next door. “Oh my God,” she said, “you hear of some crazy stuff going on there. Drug dealing, prostitution… I know people who’ve have had girls walk up to their door completely naked…”
I ate my burger and hash browns and left, somewhat more apprehensive. I debated leaving the motel and just checking in to the Holiday Inn next door. But I felt that if I couldn’t handle a potential business proposition from a call girl or drug dealer, how could I expect to cope with the presumably far more real dangers in Latin America and Asia?
I stayed, after some deliberation, and tensed every time I heard footsteps cross outside my door. I locked the door, put the chain on, then slid the heavy armchair under the handle, just for good measure. I also slept fully dressed. I’m not sure why, it just felt better.
I slept peacefully and woke up to my alarm clock blaring. Looking at myself in the mirror, my hair had flown off in all directions through the night, and my week long stubble was a deep dark forest on my face. I looked like some kind of slightly mad jungle scientist in some pulp film who lives among a remote tribe of hunters. I shaved, pushed down my hair, showered and left for Detroit.
In Detroit I met up with my friends Ben and Beth, who had also come to America for our friend’s wedding (Ben and myself had met the bride while we were all studying in Venice). The ceremony took place in a lovely small church, it was brilliant to be able to attend, the bride and groom looked great, and we threw rose petals over them as they ran out of the church after the service was completed.
The wedding cake
We then made our way to the reception, which started at 6pm. There are a few differences between American and British wedding customs. In Britain the bride throws her bouquet into the crowd of attendees after the service. Here, the man MC’ing the whole reception first called all attending single girls onto the dance floor. The bride threw her bouquet, and one girl heroically leapt out and caught it. Next all the single guys were summoned to the floor. I wasn’t at all sure what was about to happen, but the groom took his wife’s garter and threw it over his head at this scrum of America’s finest (and myself). I had ended up near the front of the group – the small piece of underwear flew straight over my head and three or four guys lunged for it athletically. It bounced off someone’s hand back towards me – a small jump, my right hand snaked out and I had caught it. Applause. Still bewildered about what was happening, I posed for a photo with the winning girl. Were the two of us about to be married there and then, were we about to be made some kind of King and Queen of something…? Evidentally not, as the girl refused to even look at me and ran away as soon as the photo was taken. Apparently this all simply means I am due to marry someone within the year – which will be interesting to write about. The night went on, the bar was free and I had blokes shaking my hand and saying “good catch” all evening.
The party went on until around one in the morning, when I retreated to our hotel room. In the morning, the three of us got up slowly and painfully, and flew to LA.