Monday, April 08, 2013

The Sisters Kalamazoo Take On New York, Part I

by Zinta Aistars

Turnpike 80

My days of working in communications at Kalamazoo College some years ago were rich with travel, perhaps the best part of my job there, and I thought my business trips were over now that I am full-time freelance ... but I was offered a trip to New York City to do an interview for the alumni magazine, and I grabbed the chance.

I invited my sister Daina to come along for the adventure. "The Sisters Kalamazoo," Stephen M. would later name us, introducing us to everyone this way, but that would come later ... Daina and I make a good team. I write, she is trained as a photographer, so it was wonderful to have my hands free of the camera while doing the interviews.

When we talked about an agenda prior to the trip, my sister had one item on her list: the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center. I agreed. She reminded me that she had not been to the Big Apple since we had been children. She was 10 years old that last time, she said, when our parents took us to the World Fair in NYC.

Different story for me. I'd lost count long ago of how many times I'd been to New York City. After all, I'd married a man born in Brooklyn, bred in Queens, who had later transferred to a job in Michigan to be with me. That meant many, many trips back to see in-laws, holidays and various occasions and non-occasions, and after that, countless business trips on my own. I guessed some 40 trips over a lifetime, so I had seen much of NYC, but the 9/11 Memorial would be new. Indeed, one of the last trips I'd taken to NYC had been on September 8, 2001, and I had stood on the top of the Empire State Building, snapping photos in all directions. Several included the two towers that but a few days later would be ash and rubble and tragedy.

I'd been back to NYC several times since, but the memorial had not yet been built, or I had run out of time to visit. This time, we registered for our visitors' passes online ahead of time and planned our one day of sightseeing around it.

Our trip began with Easter weekend. My Chicago beloveds came to visit Z Acres, my Kalamazoo beloveds arrived as well, and I hid 200 colored eggs throughout the 10 acres for family to find. No easy task! But so far, I've found only one egg the group had missed. And noted that Guinnez, my old chow pup, neatly picked up two, carried them further into the woods, and buried them, tapping the dirt down firmly with his muzzle. Perhaps next year, there will be egg trees.

When everyone went back to their homes, Daina stayed, and the two of us headed for the Kalamazoo airport to pick up our rental car. It was surprisingly difficult for me to leave Z Acres. No, by now, not surprising. Now that I've found Home, my wanderlust has pretty much dissipated. I was feeling ambivalent about this trip. Daina and I have developed a tradition of an annual sisters' trip, with most common destination being north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where she owns property and I own good memories.

When this opportunity came up, it made sense to head east instead. I was, I really was looking forward to it ... but driving down that long dirt drive through the tunnel of tall pines on Z Acres made my heart ache. My heart remained here.

But onward we go. At the airport, we hit our first hitch. That's a part of travel, and we both, having traveled a great deal over our lifetimes, knew it. Things go wrong, misadventures turn into the best travel stories, and we are enriched by it. This journey would not be without its glitches.

At the rental booth at the airport, I was told our reserved car was not yet available. Apparently, a derailed train over the weekend had brought in far more car rentals than expected. With double sighs, Daina and I settled in, surrounded by our luggage, and waited. When the car arrived, we found ourselves in the brightest, gaudiest neon green Mazda 2 I'd never seen. We'll be able to spot it easily in any parking lot, I shrugged, and my sister grinned.

And we were off. East on I-94, south on I-69, east on Turnpike 80. Ohio, where we both have lived for a time, seemed to be as bland as we remembered, flat and forever, but in part that effect comes from the turnpike, where every service area is identical. It felt like we were stuck in a repetitive dream. And Pennsylvania? Surely one of the longest, widest states, and we only made it a short way in before the day turned dusky.

Bellefonte, PA
Bellefonte, however, turned out to be a treat. An historical Victorian town that's only a short way off the highway, we were pleased to find good food at the Governor's Pub, and good walking, if buffered by chilly winds, up and down the town streets that appeared from another century. My sister, however, winced now and then. Her back was aching, and she wasn't sure why ... wrenched during the previous night's sleep? Popping an aspirin, then two more, she bravely marched on.

We figured we'd be in Brooklyn, New York, by mid afternoon the following day. Not so. Our next glitch happened as I drove the Mazda over a bump in the road, not big enough to see, not big enough to bother any other vehicles on the interstate, but the tiny neon green Mazda immediately hissed a protest, followed by a nasty smell. Rim on asphalt? It had taken but a moment, but our good luck held during our bad luck. We were close to an exit, Hazelton, and when we pulled off slowly, a Citgo station loomed, an AAA facility just down the street.

Phooey. Flat tire. A quick call to the rental company road assistance brought us Louis, an amiable fellow who seemed overjoyed to help, as if nothing better could possibly happen in his day. It took him but minutes to put on our spare, but then the realization hit that a spare is meant for maybe 30 miles distance, little more. Louis pointed back west on the interstate, rather than the eastern direction we had hoped for. To get to the nearest rental agency, we had to backtrack to the Wilkes-Barre International Airport for a trade-in.

At least two hours lost. We traded our neon green car for a fire engine red Chevy. Daina's back ached, but she took her turn at the wheel as we entered New York a few hours later. Already dark, nearing 9 p.m., our GPS led us unfailingly across the Manhattan Bridge, through the Holland Tunnel, and on to Brooklyn.

My interviewee in Brooklyn had kindly arranged with a friend to give us accommodations on Putnam Avenue in a brownstone, typical of Brooklyn buildings. Roman, the building owner, met us as we drove up, double parked, and helped us with our luggage. Seeing the tiniest parking space in front of the building, Daina threw up her hands in surrender, and Roman took over, true New Yorker style. He parallel parked our Chevy, nudging back the car behind, nudging forward the car ahead, as my sister and I winced, watching from the sidewalk.

"Rental, right?" he jumped cheerfully from the parked car, shrugging to indicate that's how it's done here, grabbed our bags and led us up the stoop to our apartment for the week. We found a grand space of elaborate woodwork, exposed brick walls in the kitchen, a fireplace, a bar, two full-size beds, and colorful Haitian artwork on the walls. Roman was born in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but he had met his Haitian wife in New York, now lived part time in Brooklyn, and took two trips annually to Haiti. He had just arrived from Haiti, but hours ago.

Long day. Very long day, long drive, and my sister fell into one bed, I into the other, and we were fast asleep. The following day would be our one day of being tourists, at least until evening, when we would attend a Kalamazoo College alumni event, and my work would begin.

Our Brooklyn apartment for the week

To be continued ...

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