(Written in Toronto, January 24th)
Finally, finally, the traveling will be over. Tomorrow at 1210 I’ll be flying back to Halifax. “Home” has been a pretty flexible concept lately; in 2005 I spent almost as much time on PEI as I did in Halifax. When I auditioned for that singing show in Charlottetown that April, I almost didn’t know what to say for “hometown,” and Bedford narrowly beat out Halifax and Souris. The six months I spent in Ukraine is by far the longest I’d been in any place since early 2004, and I have every reason to believe that figure won’t budge for a while. Anyway, you get the idea. It’s easier to do things at home, and I’m getting tired of my suitcases, and I found some fresh red transit tickets in my backpack (whoo-hoo! four round trips!), and an old friend from university just contacted me to go for a beer when I return, so between all that I’m getting almost excited.
Before I went to New York I had the chance to meet some friends – Michelle from my last program met me at a Bubble Tea and we chatted for a while. (I use “we chatted” as a friendly tease – I actually developed a sore throat by the end of the night.) It was really nice to see her, and her curiosity and questions really helped me sort through my experience in Ukraine. Michelle’s also really good at asking those “Wait a second…” kind of questions, which will help one recant a hasty generalization or help one realize that something in their testimonial doesn’t make sense, provoking wonder and sometimes even new hypotheses.
The very night before I went to New York I finally met Jolene in person. We’d been having false starts with this since late 2003; it was a pleasant relief to finally meet her and find out that neither of us are actually axe murderers or 40-year-old welfare earners (though we’ve been in contact since 2002 and we’re pretty straight on each other’s stories). She’s a very funny, energetic and talkative pharmacy student at the University of Toronto. We went to the Fox and Fiddle and later walked around downtown – we even saw people playing hockey in Queen’s Park past 2300! It was an enjoyable evening.
On the subway that night, I got a message from Ladan. She’d run into some difficulties and would not be going to New York as planned. This put a wrench into the works – there went my ride to New York. As my evening with Jolene progressed, I still hadn’t decided what to do. I got home after 0100 and was so tired that I just decided I’d sleep on it and make a firm decision in the morning.
The sun came up, and I sat at the computer looking at the bus schedule. I had already bought travel insurance and had my suit dry-cleaned in expectation of this trip. All my relatives would be assuming I was coming. Those were reasons to go, but it would mean a long and not inexpensive bus trip. Would this adventure be worth it? (The answer turned out to be “H**l yes!!”)
So I made a rash decision – I’m going! With barely two hours until departure I set the wheels in motion. By the time I was finished getting ready (and considering taking the bus and subway, which would have been a bad idea), Alex was home for the afternoon (he’d be flying out with Ruth-Ann in a few hours) and able to recommend a cab company. Before long we were soaring along the Don River. I bought a return ticket at the Coach Terminal, and just like that I was off to parts unknown! As we pulled out of the terminal, I thought back to my trip to Poland, which was almost equally sudden and rash (but at least had the transportation method decided upon much sooner!).
My rush had its drawbacks, of course; while we cruised the Gardiner Expressway I occupied myself by trying to contact my relatives in New York and cultivating a strong feeling of pride for how I was able to get this together on zero notice and how well I was able to pack my things so quickly…
Wow, look at those beautiful new apartments facing Lake Ontario. Let’s just get my camera out, set the white balance-
It wasn’t there.
Okay, don’t pani- ALEX!! Yes! Maybe he can find my camera and bring it to New York! So I got on the cell again (handy thing; I don’t think it was ever so useful as on this NY trip) and he pleasantly hopped down to the basement rec room and rooted through my things while holding the portable landline phone. Ta-da! So there was one major problem solved. I also had some difficulty contacting my cousin Bj at whose home I’d be staying, but this isn’t worth going into; it got resolved. I even spoke with Melaney back on PEI; thank goodness for my cheap long-distance card.
We got into some traffic in Oakville, but nevertheless we reached Niagara Falls in good order. As a bonus, I actually got to see the Falls, which were a wholly unexpected treat, not to mention I’d never seen them before. I had no idea we’d be crossing the Rainbow Bridge; I’d expected we’d go over one of the highway bridges to the north or south. So I caught a good long glimpse of the Falls as we approached US Customs & Immigration.
(Written in Halifax, way too late to be even worth dating)
That last, I can’t say I was looking forward to. I was excited, of course, but I was excited in the same way that you are when you’re caught between the crossfire of a mob shootout. I didn’t think I’d be turned back at the border, but if I ended up being that 1%…
Get off the bus, take all your things, and line up inside. I was nervous, and all the worst stereotypes and anecdotes of US border control were running through my head. Missed flights. Strip searches. Red flags. Hitching a ride back to Toronto. Good thing I had one of Ruth-Ann's house keys…
I was second last in line, and after helping a woman get her things through the door, we saw an officer approach with a yellow Labrador. The dog approached the bag of the person in front of me and took a few long sniffs, prompting the officer to ask if that person was carrying food. Yes, they were. I forget what the reason was. Anyway, officer and dog moved on, and the dog got a biscuit and a pat on the head. Then they went out and searched the bus.
I was sharing a conversation with the woman behind me about how specific (not to mention forceful) the questions we were overhearing were, and we had a few laughs to ease our tension. A mild-mannered fellow of Oriental descent was at the left counter having this conversation:
"What do you do?!"
"I'm a computer engineer."
LOL. Soon I was at the front of the line, and to my mild horror, I too had to go to the left counter. We exchanged civilities and had a short, friendly, yet through discussion about where I'd been recently (Poland and Ukraine), and why I was there. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This happened first:
"Where were you born?"
"Souris, Prince Edward Island!" I said with glee. (Only about 0.056%* of CanAmericans can say they're from** PEI, really. Most of the time I'm just happy that someone's heard of it.***)
"And where are you going?"
"Where are you staying?"
"I'm staying with my first cousin once removed. We're going to Manhattan tomorrow for my grand aunt's 100th birthday!"
"Oh, ha-ha…" he laughed dryly. "I like how you got that 'first cousin once removed' in there. 'Cause everyone on PEI's related, you know?"
I thought this was pretty funny and shared it with some of my family members when I finally arrived in Riverdale. Unluckily for me, they thought it was funny too, and I had to repeat this story each time a new relative appeared on the scene. I think I escaped with only a few dozen tellings. And I'm getting ahead of myself again.
* and ** - This was a slightly unconventional (yet uncomplicated) calculation – the numbers involved were: 328,539,175 "CanAmericans," which was derived by adding up the two populations as listed in the CIA World Factbook, and taking the current population of PEI (roughly 138,000) and adding the Island Diaspora (roughly 47,500 – this document is really interesting, and I once cited it in a Geography term paper) – then I divided the latter (185,500 total "Islanders") by the former and multiplied the result by 100.
*** - I suspect more people have heard of CA than PE, as California residents make up 10.3% of CanAmerica. ONtario, Canada's most populous province, comes in at 3.79%. AlasKa registers 0.19%. Almost two-tenths of a percent! Isn't that amazing? Okay, I'm going to stop this and get on with the blog. The point's been made.
I had time to get myself straightened up and refreshed before re-boarding the bus, as there were a few people held back for one reason or another. One foreign national didn't even have his required visa, but even he made it on the bus after some processing time, as I seem to recall. Anyway, my present impression of the US customs officers is overwhelmingly positive, although this may change if I do something silly like change the colour of my skin or get a late-model cell phone with highly accurate GPS and spend my first days in the USA suspended on tenterhooks in a meat freezer while Jack Bower shouts unequivocal obscenities while holding a paring knife to my right eyeball.
And now we were rolling through the city of Niagara Falls, NY. I really appreciated all the hotels and other businesses that flew Canadian flags, because it really helped me in the "don't freak out" department. You know, maybe I could get help from someone who understands before I get mugged or thrown in jail. Ah, but knowing what I know now, I had no reason whatsoever to be scared… yet.
The Robert Moses Parkway afforded excellent views of water, water, and sometimes even some water. On Grand Island on the I-190, I saw a few enormous white stretched Cadillac SUVs. These things were almost as long as our bus. But before too long, I had sort of settled in, spiritually speaking. There's really not that much difference between W New York and SE Ontario in outward appearance, if you'll pardon the generalization.
Before long, we pulled into the bus station just outside downtown Buffalo. We had an hour, so I ran into town in search of decent food. I wasn't just going to sit in the bus station the whole time, and I certainly wasn't going to eat a saran-wrapped sandwich and spend the rest of the way to NYC groaning with indigestion.
Essentially, Buffalo made me laugh. It was kind of a "I'm glad I don't live here" laugh, and the downtown looked like it'd seen worse days and was on its way out of a rough time. I looked at all the strange things; even "No Standing" signs were strange to me and took a second to figure out (in Canada we say "No Stopping," although it doesn't really say that, you just get an silhouette of an octagon with a red, dashed circle-and-bar over the works.). All the time I was in the USA on this trip I wanted to take a picture of me sitting cross-legged next to such a sign. Get it? But it never worked out. Next time, I guess!
One thing I couldn’t understand was why the security guards at the Bank of America building were gazing at me like a dog following a tennis match. I guess it’s good policy, but it felt kind of strange. All I wanted was to use the bank machine.
I found a hot tuna salad toasted sandwich and hot-footed it back to bus station with ten minutes to spare, having gotten much further away from said station than I’d meant to (which was all for the good). I found a place in the line for re-boarding.
We were getting a new driver in Buffalo, and at first I was really impressed with him. He checked, double-checked, tri-… and nontuple-checked his mirrors. I mean, this guy really cared about doing things by the book, which often seems like a good idea to me in matters of safety. He finally came into the gate to check our tickets. I didn’t get off on the right foot with him, sad to say. I had a minor ticket issue (or so I thought) – part of it was prematurely detached by the Toronto driver. And of course it says “void if detached,” so I felt a brief explanation was called for. He kind of ignored me and then took away the remaining two segments. That confused me a little, so I opened my mouth to ask-
“I know what I’m doing, goodbye!”
Fair enough. So we left Buffalo, but as we were heading to the Thruway, we got what had to be the wackiest safety and regulations lecture most of us had ever heard. On the subject of drinking or smoking in the bus washrooms:
“If you gotta go, go with a friend, ‘cause I’d hate to leave you all alone on the side of the highway.”
Also, he was adamant about cell phone ringers being off, and about keeping the conversations short and sweet. We found this all quite amusing, and it was certainly a reasonable request, as were the others that, if we followed them, meant that we wouldn’t “meet a friendly state trooper.”
So naturally, someone’s phone goes off at the next exit.
“I see there’s someone on this bus who doesn’t understand English! Don’t misunderstand me, I WILL turn this bus around…”
Nervous laughter ensues.
At some point on this drive, I got directions arranged with Arthur Sr. down in Riverdale, a neighbourhood of the Bronx. Aunt Shirley later called to tell me that I should probably take a cab up there instead of the subway. The deciding factor was that she offered to pay for it. =) Nice.
Somewhere after Rochester, a big 20-something guy in a t-shirt carrying his things in a garbage bag was looking up and down the bus for a working reading lamp. “You’re lucky that you’ve got a working reading lamp!” He needed it because he was doing some writing. Perhaps overly eager to have my First Conversation with a Real American, I asked him what he was writing about.
Two hours later, I knew his life story, his troubles with the cops, and even some things about gypsy languages. Actually, I can’t find any information about the languages he mentioned, which draws other things into question. I was also complimented on my watch. I spent a lot of time discreetly feeling my pockets. It’s a shame that all my instincts kept telling me not to trust him and to be even slightly afraid, and I wonder if he even knows those are the vibes he puts out. He even told me that he was aware that he was going on a bit, but that he didn’t get the chance to talk to people very much. In that sense I was happy to be an ear for him.
Some excruciatingly long time later, he got off, and my next conversation partner was a music student. He had heard bits and pieces of my previous “conversation” and laughed when I told him it was my first conversation on American soil in 15 years. “Don’t worry, we’re not all like that,” he joked. He was a soft-spoken Presbyterian who was anxious to tell me about the gaps in my other acquaintance’s religious ideology. True, he was easier to talk to, but then that made two Americans out of two total who felt the need to certify their religious beliefs with me. Truly, though, they weren’t “all like that.” =)
[Around this time the bus driver slammed on the brakes in the middle of the freeway and exclaimed, “Excuse me!? Excuse me?! Would you turn that thing off?!” We didn’t even hear the ring in question!]
In fact, and I just want to mention this now in case I forget it later, I found the people I met and dealt with in America by and large to be friendlier than in Canada, at least on average. Maybe there was nothing to it, but I found smiles and warmth in the places where I least expected any – the employees in the subway stations, for instance. They were great! (Except for that one station where you can’t transfer for free anymore, but the guys there probably get bothered every time a new train pulls in. I’ll get to that in a future entry. I’ve been watching too much Family Guy - it makes me want to keep stuffing in quasi-related microanecdotes.) And then there were the bus drivers (perhaps excepting the one mentioned here), and the cab drivers, and the fast food employees, and the coat checkers, and the indentured servants (private joke)… Now that I think about it more seriously, it might not be that there’s a difference in congeniality at all, aside from the way it’s expressed. (Canadians really like to prattle on and on and on about the differences between Canada and the United States because an embarrassingly large portion of our cultural identity lies on “not being American.”)
Okay, where was I? Ah, the Presbyterian fellow. Now he had an interesting opinion in that he was greatly opposed to pluralism. He felt that there was too much tolerance and wishy-washiness when it comes to other people’s beliefs. The idea that one person’s religion is as valid as another’s leads people to the idea that religion itself can be a flexible (and sometimes even absent) concept.
You know, I had to agree with him. Where he and I parted ways was that I wasn’t sure this was a bad thing. I grant that he would see religion as a code for living well in body and spirit, whereas I tend to see religion in terms of creation science, pipe bombs at reproductive clinics, holy wars, and the status of women. I really can’t be objective when it comes to religion, at least not to the standards I would like. Fortunately, the field of religious discussion only rarely calls for objectivity anyway.
Somewhere in the midst of our hearty discussion, the driver got on the PA again and said, “Will the two people having a chat back there please keep your voices down so the rest of us can enjoy the ride, or sit together, or something? Thank you.” This took us from whispering down to murmuring.
We reached Binghamton, which in the vicinity of the bus station in the middle of the night was so sorry looking as to be not worth mentioning except that it was our last New York stop before reaching Pennsylvania. That’s right, we drove through both Pennsylvania and New Jersey (and ultimately back into New York at Manhattan), so there are two more states I can say I’ve seen.
We came through the Meadowlands, which were rife with car dealerships and enormous stadia that I’d only seen on TV. It was mesmerizing!
And as we reached the shores of the Hudson River, I saw the Manhattan skyline, complete with full moon. It was a beautiful sight. It looked just like it did on TV, only more real. (How sad am I sounding? I sound like a Martian colonist’s son coming to Earth for the first time, which he’d only seen on video. Or a Newfie visiting Toronto in the Smallwood era.)
We even drove through the Lincoln Tunnel, and I thought of Men In Black as soon as I laid eyes on it. We arrived at the Port Authority. As I said to my cousins, it seemed sketchy yet safe. I came up onto the street to look for a cab.
“You lookin’ for a cab?”
Crap! It’s Ukraine all over again! “Uh, yeah, I want to go to Riverdale.”
“Riverdale? In the Bronx?”
“Uh… Um… Okay, just go into the street and get a cab.”
So I did; I got lucky a few seconds later when (word order double entendre unintentional) a Yellow Cab came up and I climbed in the back. I told the driver where I was going. He seemed a bit disappointed and told me that he probably wouldn’t be able to get a fare back onto Manhattan, but he took me with little complaint.
It was a really, really nice evening. My window was even open a crack as we zipped up the West Side. Just beautiful. At this point there wasn’t much to absorb but apartment buildings and trees, but it was interesting just the same.
We had a tricky time finding the right street when we got into Riverdale, and then we had a hard time finding the house, but Art Sr. guided me via cell phone and Uncle Shane came out to meet me. We came in, chatted for a bit, and then I slept with Jimmy in the dog’s room. I just really like the way that sounds, you know? Bj had even gone over to a neighbour’s to get a cot for me. I slept like a log.
I think this is enough for now. I’ll be back with more later this week. Take care, everyone!