Monday, January 28, 2008

Salt of the Earth

A Weekend Travel Essay by Zinta Aistars

… is surely the ones we love and the ones who love us. I can think of no greater health benefit, no more effective medicine for however life ails you, than to spend time with loved ones. But add to that salt, yes, actual crystallized salt from the Black Sea, and maybe there is something more to the salt of the earth?

My main draw to make an impromptu weekend road trip to Chicago was, first and foremost, to spend time with the salt of my personal earth: my daughter, Lorena. What a joy to have her within reach again! For the past decade, my little girl, my blondie, has been long distance. From her freshman year at the University of Colorado-Boulder, to finishing her subsequent degrees at Florida State University in Tallahassee, she’s spent 10 months traversing the country with AmeriCorps, another half year crisscrossing Europe with home base in Prague, another season as an intern at an orphanage on the island of Trinidad, and at this moment is packing for an upcoming trip to Vietnam. My girl has been more a voice on a phone and a note on e-mail than a squeezable presence in my life. I have missed those blondie hugs and bubbling laughter, and don’t any of you be fooled by that long, blonde hair; my girl is wise. Her life has been far more rich and full than most in a much longer lifetime. I surely go to her for advice as often as she comes to her mama. When Lorena sent over a note a couple weeks ago saying she’d enjoy some company, she needed to say no more: I marked the first available date on my calendar, and was eager for my blondie-fix.

What to do? With my daughter in Chicago for not yet quite a year, and myself a little more than two hours away in Michigan, we had already enjoyed several such visits, each time finding some yet untried venue—museum, restaurant, hike, park, dog and pony show. For me, it was her company alone that was the main draw, but Lorena is not one to sit in one place long. Always something new to see, something different to try. The world must be experienced and conquered.

The moment I agreed to come out, my girl was already in planning mode. Nothing seemed quite on target, however, until a colleague mentioned in passing, knowing of my pending trip to the Windy City, a place called Galos Caves on Irving Park. Caves? In the city? Well, not quite. With just bare mention to Lorena, the deed was done. Reservations were made for two at “caves” constructed entirely of salt, mimicking actual salt caves in Poland. Here, the next best thing: a space constructed entirely of salt, complete with stalagmites dripping from the ceiling, glimmering crystal walls, and a floor of warm white crystals much like a beach. The idea was sit surrounded by salt and bliss out for near to an hour, absorbing the health effects… becoming brined, I suppose. Well, why not. I’ve always preferred salt over sweet.

Our Saturday morning adventure was set. Now, to get there. Luckily, the winter weather seemed to be holding. All week had been blustery, but Friday was a pleasant day, even with blue skies. My bag was already packed and in the trunk on my way to work, although driving to Chicago from my office in Grand Rapids would add about an hour. Soon as the work day was done, I was eagerly off.

Or at least I thought so. Driving my new car, I felt safe on these spiffy wheels, safe and secure. Until the dashboard light came on—shaped as a cute little mechanic’s wrench. Oh, this couldn’t be good. What could possibly go wrong in a new car? And naturally, here I was, a little over an hour into my drive, on a part of the interstate where there was little more than bare-limbed Michigan woods.

I peered closer at the dash. Beside the glowing neon yellow wrench was a notation: Oil Life 15%. I made a face. My own fault, of course. I had every good intention of taking the car in for its very first oil change the prior Saturday, but had blissed out on some far more pleasant distraction…. and forgot. Brunettes can be as flaky as blondes, I promise you, but in this case, I suddenly remembered my own girl, some years ago, on an impulse road trip from Tallahassee to New Orleans (prior to Katrina) in a new red Toyota. Somewhere between those two cities, her little car putt-putted and chugged and stopped. With a stink of burnt metal, stopped. She’d forgotten about those nasty little necessities in car upkeep such as oil changes. Gone desert dry, the engine churned on itself in a metallic ruin and ran no more. I got a frantic phone call from the deep south with my girl asking for emergency funds to the tune of a few thousands for a new engine. Either that, or the car would stay where it was, there for the scavengers.

Driving along the interstate to Chicago, my own dashboard glowing a golden wrench, I envisioned my revenge. Sweetie? I would say pleasantly on my cell. I’m on the roadside on the Indiana border and…

Instead, I called my son. I admit, there are times when it is a beautiful thing to have a real man in my life. He is that. My son with his muscled broad shoulders that lift all my heavy, heavy things, his big strong hands to open the tightly shut things, his flexing biceps that shovel my driveway of Michigan snow like it was powdered sugar. And oh yes, his mechanical mind that understands what is all Greek to me, all things wired and plumbed and nailed and pulleyed and connected to engines. When it comes to cars, I am as girly as they come. I turn the key here, I step on the gas pedal there, and that’s that.

“Markoo?” I coo on my cell, sighing in relief when he answers. “What do I do? There’s a wrench and something about oil and a light glowing and I haven’t the faintest…”

My good son slowed me down, reminded me to breathe, and did some quick Googling about Hondas. Being man, he chided me about the stalled oil change. Being sweet son, he then explained in intricate detail how 15 percent is better than 10 percent is better than zero, so not to worry, I will not splutter and chug to the roadside, but hey, if I do see some quickie oil change place on an exit, wouldn’t hurt to have a quick lube done, especially if it simultaneously lowers my blood pressure. Indeed. I send him love and kisses, click my cell shut, and watch the upcoming exits for promising garages.

Two exits later, explored in vain, I see a sign for Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. Two side-by-side towns, divided by the St. Joseph River, that I have yet to see. Apparently, now is the time. I regret the lost time to get to Chicago early, but there is nothing to be done about it, and I take the exit to see what I can see. Apparently, Benton Harbor is some distance off the main drag, and my eyes flick irresistibly to the glowing wrench on my dash as I drive further and further, at last seeing town. It is quickly growing dark, and it seems to me this is surely (with my apologies to Benton Harborites) one of the ugliest and loneliest looking towns I have seen. Dead buildings, lifeless and sad houses, shattered warehouses. No quickie oil change places here. I cross a bridge to St. Joseph, and the scene changes dramatically. A marina alongside the river, some bustle around the buildings, lights along the streets. Just… no quickie oil change places.

I wonder: how quickly does 15 percent become 10 percent become 5 become zero?

In my mind, I am moments from being stranded. St. Joe does not appear to be a bad little city, despite its absence of oil change garages, and I make a mental note to return some brighter day and explore, but for now, I give up and turn around in the direction of the interstate again.

It occurs to me to check the oil. I have never opened the hood of this car before. Yes, yes, I know, too girly, but my son was along when I purchased the car, his head disappeared under this hood for a satisfyingly long time and popped up again with high acclaim, so what need did I have to look where I do not understand? I am sure the stifled breathing on the other end of the line when I call again is a suppressed snicker when he explains how dipsticks are now plastic and yes, it is that very bright orange thingie with a loop on the end.

“See any sticky dark stuff on the end?” he prompts.

“Um, yeah. But is it enough?”

“I’m sure it is, Mom. Honestly, I am sure you can drive to Chicago and home again and back to Chicago again before that car will give up and die. You just didn’t have a nice warning light like that in your old Honda, so when you went a few thousand miles over your oil change time, you just weren’t aware of it. And you know you did. Welcome to a more advanced car. Is it very dark?”

“Kinda sorta.”

“Well, as long as it is kinda sorta. Close the hood, Mom. Make sure you take your head out first. You’ll be fine. You can find an oil change place in Chicago tomorrow morning.”

Oh, that sounds so sensible and reassuring and nice. I send more love and kisses, send praise up to the Good Lord for giving me a good son, click my cell shut, and head back out again. And I try very hard not to stare too much at the glowing neon wrench on my dash.

I have no problem forgetting about it when the snow starts. Not a few random flakes. A blizzard. Just like that. One moment I am whistling along, not looking at my dash, and the next moment, I am staring into a thick, impenetrable blizzard. Lane markings disappear, sparse traffic slows to 45, then 40, then drops down to just above 30, with cars guessing at lanes, watching reddening tail lights ahead for clues, of those who are equally clueless. I watch a semi fish tail ahead and slow down some more.

Funny thing. Winter and I, we get along. I have always moved in a northern direction. Where others fear a snowy road, it exhilarates me. Ice is a little freaky, but snow… it’s my mountain to climb. My seduction and my invitation.

My eyes glued to the white plain ahead, my right hand fishes around for a CD, and I pluck one out and pop in Annie Lennox, Diva. Perfect. I am now in my element. Glowing little wrenches terrify me, but a snowy road gives me a rush, and I settle in for the adventure, plucking the scarf around my neck loose. Now that I commute for an hour each work day morning, an hour back again, I have seen more accidents along the highway than I can count, and I have had a few close calls myself. A few weeks earlier, another semi had apparently not seen me as I was passing, perfectly placed in his midpoint blind spot, and as he moved into the fast lane with all his gargantuan bulk, my little blue Honda had no place to go but into the snowy median, dipping below. I pressed down on the gas to clear him, at the same time working to stay in the snowy gravel I now felt beneath my tires, then the soft of earth sloping down. He saw me. Little insect that I was to his behemoth, he saw me and swerved back. Just in time. And so I lived another day.

I was a tad trembly after that one. One minute here, next minute gone, I thought. But now I felt in control. Mechanics I do not understand, but snow is my element, and my tires bit into the white, my blood rushed in joy, Annie sang about walking on broken glass, tail lights beaded red ahead, falling together on a string and falling apart again, and I was happy.

Chicago, here I come!

Then there she was, rising from the snow and coming out of it. Spires and slender bulk, blinking lights, red, white, yellow, gold, an occasional green and blue, rows and columns. Chicago, where I was born, my first swaddled year in Wicker Park, and now my daughter has traveled about the world only to settle her butterfly wings here, a few city blocks away. The snow slows a bit, and I enter the Circle and emerge again, then Armitage appears, and I exit.

I park my car on the street a block from her house, where we have arranged to meet on the corner. She is coming from the city, catching a bus home, and I pull my faux fur-trimmed hat low on my head, pull my gloves on, wrap my scarf around and around my neck and hold my coat closed as I walk to the corner. The snow crunches under my boots, sloshes at the curb. I back into the curved doorway of the corner building and watch the snow fall over Armitage. Both sides are lined with brick houses and shops, traffic lights blinking green, yellow, red, and traffic moves smoothly by. The snow has become slow and lazy and dizzy, swirling down.

I know her walk before I know her face. It is a walk that owns the world, can take her anywhere. Blonde wisps curl out from her brown hood and knit scarf. She smiles only a moment before she reaches me, then laughs, and we embrace, and it is now my favorite day ever.

Two blocks down at Rio’s D’Sudamerica, we catch up at a white linen covered table and wavering white candles. Machu Picchu is painted across all four walls. My girl has been talking with me about a mother-daughter trip to Peru for a year now. Perhaps this year? We decide that I will get passport photos taken tomorrow and renew my poor forgotten passport. Life is short.

The menu is a selection of dishes from Peru, Argentina and Brazil. As are the wait staff. The atmosphere is beautiful, the dishes from Peru that we order are all beautiful, but the staff is slow, lazy and sleepy as the snow outside, and dark as the night. But for the negligent service, we relish our dinner, licking at our fingertips. I enjoy arroz con pato, duckling marinated in dark beer on rice with coriander, and my girl nibbles at lomo saltado de pisco, a traditional Peruvian dish of tenderloin and strips of tomato and onions and potato on white rice. We wait and wait and wait for our check, listen to apologies for the third time this evening, but are in no rush, and so their tip suffers only a little.

Life is short.

And we walk the white and bricked streets of Chicago, block after block after block, wandering in and out of random boutiques and cafes, stop in Burning Leaf, a cigar shop where I never tire of the surprise on the clerk’s chauvinist face when he realizes I know what I am asking for in a fine smoke. It is the last frontier of the gentleman’s club. I dump wooden matches on the floor, light a cigar, and Lorena and I head back out into the snow, lit sticks in our gloved fingers, dipping in and out of the streets, until she finds the cathedral of some unknown saint that she has grown to love. Services, she tells me, happen in a variety of languages, and sometimes she listens to a mass in Polish, another time in Spanish, another time in French.

Life is short and the world is small, very small.

(to be continued)

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