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Queen City

March 10, 2011

The bus to Cincinnati is 45 minutes late and so is the bus that was supposed to leave for Memphis at the same time. There are dozens of people bundled up against the Chicago cold, strung out along the sidewalk with their luggage, all looking south. The two women next to me start discussing the poor state of public transit. “They’d better not ask me for my comment,” said the one in the headscarf. “Mmm-hmm” said the one in the tidy white hat. “’You’re late!’ – that’s my comment.” They laughed. The man in front of them chimed in that it’s still better than Amtrak, which is still late and costs, “three times as much. Three times! I don’t take Amtrak no more.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of me, I hear a mother screech at her small son who is busy stomping around after the pigeons fluttering by the curb and making pigeon noises. A pigeon has fluttered into the street and he looks like he means to follow. “PJ! Don’t chase pigeons!” PJ is returned to safety, dragged by his hand to the back of the sidewalk. He doesn’t stay there for long, though. There is something about a pigeon that is impossible to resist.

Finally, just when I’m starting to consider walking back to the rent-a-car desk I’d passed in the train station, the bus arrives. There is a mad rush for the door. PJ’s parents, who have two other tiny boys and one enormous suitcase, get to the front of the line. It takes three people to heave the suitcase up onto the luggage compartment of the bus. The man standing behind me mutters in my ear, “I think they have three more kids in the suitcase.” I smile and look at the case. “I think I see airholes,” I said and the man is not sure if I’m crazy or joking. Come to think of it, neither am I.

But now I’m parked on the upper deck of the bus, driving across the levees, nearly swamped with snowmelt, on the way to the Indiana border. It’s dark and quiet. Most are sleeping or texting or, like me, are plugged into headphones. Five and a half hours to go. Graffiti on a highway-side bridge: MADEULOOK. Yes, you did. We cross the border and leave Chicago behind. In my head I’m singing “Gary Indiana.”

There are miles and miles of farmland and then there is a wind farm and more farmland. We stop in Indianapolis to exchange passengers and keep going . Somewhere on the south side of Indy, a church sign asks, “Does your life stink? We have a pew for you!” I wonder whether this sign succeeds in bringing people in. I wonder what Sunday morning smells like.

By the time we get to Cincinnati, it is snowing hard in big wet flakes that nearly disappear into the ground, but not quite. Out the window, a large pig dressed as superman greets us from the top of the building. More and more buildings, each more German than the last, cluster around the bus. Then the bus slows down and drives right past my hotel before pulling up at a corner a half a block away. We all pile out and grab our suitcases and scatter fast. I check my watch. Amazingly, we are only five minutes late.

I check into the hotel and ask for the conference registration table. They direct me to a table on the other side of the lobby, which turns out to be the registration for a conference of mathematicians. “Are you a musician?” one of the mathematicians asks. “We’ve seen a lot of you. I’m not sure where their registration is, but you can always join us – we’ll take you!”

“Trust me,” I say, “You don’t want me.”

Eventually I find the musicologists, or where the musicologists would be if there were any, but I am too late. Registration has packed up for the day. I take this as a sign that I should not conference until tomorrow. I park myself in the lobby and pick up my email then head to my room. The hotel is old. That sounds like a bad thing. Maybe the word I want to use is “historic.” But really, the word I want to use is “The Shining” – enormously long hallways of bad carpeting that makes me suspect creepy twins lurking in the dark corners. I listen for the squeak of tricycle wheels. Suddenly I realize I am hungry. I grab my damp coat and, finding nothing spectral in the hallway, head back out into the snow and discover several good things: 1) a Starbucks around the corner, 2) a bagel place across the street from the Starbucks and 3) cheap sushi a half a block a way. I make a note of the first two for the morning and enter number three, coming out with a couple of fat hand rolls, which I take back to my room because the sushi restaurant is playing very unsushilike music.

And now I am sitting on my bed with the conference schedule laid out around me, trying to decide what to do tomorrow. As always, I go back and forth between wanting to hear papers related in some way to my own area of research and wanting to hear things that are totally different. Do I go to the session on Cold War music? Or do I go to the session with papers on Lady Gaga and Glee? Or do I hear the lecture on the Cuban danzón?

Right now the only thing I am hearing is my neighbor’s TV and cellphone conversations. The walls are paper thin. Lucky I brought earplugs. And aspirin.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. blackwatertown permalink
    March 10, 2011 9:42 pm

    I enjoyed your observations from the top deck. Thanks for distilling your journey in such an interesting way.

  2. Kallie permalink
    March 11, 2011 2:25 am

    Can just SO hear you telling the old man you can see the air holes in the suitcase then telling us later about questioning your own sanity. Shrieked laughing. The sushi sounds scary. At least it’s cold there, so the fish likely won’t kill you. I assume and certainly hope these papers include music! I vote for Cuban Dazon.

  3. March 11, 2011 10:13 am

    there is a part of me that would very much like to go to a scholarly talk on Lady Gaga and Glee.

  4. cranky permalink
    March 11, 2011 11:57 am

    I watched an entire episode of Glee for the first time this week and really liked it, unlike the other half eps I’ve watched, so I vote for Glee.

  5. readersguide permalink
    March 11, 2011 12:05 pm

    I understand this — the talks unrelated to my topic are always 100 times more interesting (at least on paper) than the talks I really need to attend. And in fact, the times I have actually gone to the unrelated talks, they really are a lot more interesting — not that that’s what you should do!

  6. Lilac Leaf permalink
    March 17, 2011 9:54 am

    Isn’t that wind farm astonishing? I pass that every time I go up to see Julia, and I’m always swiveling my head around for a better view of those giant propellers crossing the countryside. I’m also always trying to get pictures that convey the enormity of the things! 🙂

  7. March 17, 2011 10:09 am

    I have to say, I really love the wind farm. I look forward to it when we’re heading on a drive that way. It’s kind of eerie, especially on a sunny day when the windmills cast strange shadows, but it’s also kind of beautiful. I always wonder what it would be like to live there. I would love to see your pictures, if you can figure out a way to capture it. But I think it may be the way it surrounds you so completely that makes it so impressive.

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