It’s #EssayWednesday! Today I’ll be posting a travelogue of our family roadtrip to Ohio, which we went on two weeks ago. Remember, I’m posting 3x times a week, except on days in which I’m deathly ill, which was the case on Monday. Facebook said I had the flu. The Internet said I had bronchitis. But ultimately, rest and fluids said I had a really bad chest cold, because I’m better now, with the exception of the occassional piece of lung I cough up.
#ThriftStoreMonday will feature a new weekly thrift store adventure, as I explore the aesthetic, beauty, and personal connection of whatever crap I procure in my weekly dig.
#EssayWednesday is where I will post my long reads and deep dives into whatever subject I wander into that week.
#TheFridayList will feature a new form I’ve gotten into, where I post a list of something. It’s a very “Internet” form of writing, and I want to bring my unique take and style on it.
And now without futher delay,
The Surfing Pizza Goes to Ohio
So I went to Ohio. I’m an East Coast kid. I was born in Maryland, and lived here for all of my thirty-eight years. This explains how I used to swim in the creeks of the Bay and never lost a limb to severe gangrene. I was innoculated by birth right. I’ve been up and down the East Coast, but this was my first time venturing into the Mid-West. We went to Cincinnati.
The first question everyone asked us is “Why?
“You got family there?” they would ask in a somewhat suspicious manner.
No, we were going because it’s Spring Break Cincinnati, ya’ll. Wooooooooooo! Okay, that’s not real. The real reason is we were going to visit my good friend, who I met on a Michael Jackson message board in the late nineties. Driving one thousand miles roundtrip with the wife, two small children, and the dog to visit a Message Board Person. Woooooooooooo!
The truth is, we have met before and she even came to our wedding, so it was our turn to drive there. This is a long answer to justify Why Cincinnati, and I’m still not sure I have succeeded. But after reading my travelogue, you may just find yourself pulling up the tourism page and planning your stay.
Day One. Our children are four and two. We have to strategize everything like we’re moving to rural Iceland for ten years, and that’s just to drive down the street to Target. We’re not in the stage of life where we can stop at hip breweries along the way, check out roadside attractions, or dine in funky establishments. We were doing the Fast Food and Playground Tour of Roadside America.
The first playground we visited was at Constitution Park, in the working-class, scenic mountain town of Cumberland, Maryland. My father grew up in this town, two hours from Baltimore, so I know it well. I also know the playground well. Intimately well.
Traumatic Childhood Story Time! Old-school playgrounds used to have these coil spring riders. Usually it was a horse on top of the spring. The point was you could rock and whip on it. So of course, we rocked and whipped. We defied the basic gravitational laws of coils. And that’s why I still have the globule of angry scar tissue on my knee where the giant, dangerous spring somehow pinned my leg between the horse and metal. It was a freak accident. The metal coil made a deep incision into my knee, requiring fifteen stitches. Except in the 1980s, we didn’t do stitches. My parents put a Band-Aid on it and gave me a Kool-Aid Burst.
Those springs aren’t there anymore, in case anyone is worrying about the safety of my children. They played somewhat boredly on the sanitized, modern, plastic playground where no one got tetanus or pinned down by a hunk of metal.
Day Two. We had stopped overnight in Pittsburgh, where my children discovered the peak level of happiness there is in life: the hotel pool. It is only rivaled by wandering the hotel halls and surfing on the luggage cart. God, I love staying in nice hotels. The TV channels seem weird and foreign, even though they’re the same ones at home. The super-bleached towels feel stiff and soft at the same time. It’s ominous but angelic.
There’s the sad restaurant attached that tries so sincerely to be upscale with its little menu full of despair. You can even add an egg to your burger to be extra fancy or extra depressed. It’s all so romantic.
My wife and I have always connected over the words “Continental Breakfast.” As she says, “it’s one of our things.” It’s a modern day Baccahanalia, the choice of prepacked muffins and breads, cereals, fruit, eggs and potatoes, and a rotating “big item” like French toast. Our shared love for this might be why we’re married.
God’s McDonalds. We stopped for lunch at God’s McDonald’s in Columbus, Ohio. As I said, the children aren’t great in restaurants. Lighting money on fire would be preferable. So you start to get super picky and snobby about each drive-thru experience. The Wendy’s the day before had handed us the food in a gruff manner. The Dunkin Donuts forgot napkins.
At God’s McDonald’s, an angel with the face of young man carefully folded the bag over twice before handing it to me, as though he were crafting a divine origami owl. He made eye contact that touched my soul as he informed me the straws were in the bag. He handed me each item like he was handing me a kitten, unlike the Taco Bell yesterday that pushed the items out the window like a train going off the tracks. The buns on the sandwiches were supple, the fries were golden, the soda had the perfect ratio of carbonation, liquid, and ice. Or maybe I was just tired and hungry.
As we drove deeper into Ohio and towards Kentucky, the Jesus billboards became more ominous. We saw anti-LGBT billboards, signs proclaiming Hell is Real, and a listing of the Ten Commandments, of which I’d already broken at least two in the McDonald’s drive-thru alone while worshipping Mike, the drive-thru guy.
We got Jesus billboards in Maryland. We’re a southern state afterall. I’ve driven and stayed in the deep south as well — and yet, the Jesus billboards are a bit friendlier where I come from. They’re like “Jesus loves you.” “Jesus is coming for your ass, but still loves you.” “REPENT OR BURN IN HELL — but by the way, still LOVED.”
Ohio farmers don’t care about love. They care about HELL. One word, white letters, black background. In another mile, there’s a billboard for Candy USA, which is either an adult superstore or a wonderful place to buy taffy.
Finally we made it to Cincinnati Spring Break. Wooooooooo. It was great to see friends, relax in our Airbnb, and discover there was a great playground around the corner to take the kids to when they got that glint in their eyes.
Day Three. We took our kids to a beautiful indoor butterfly garden at the Krohn’s Conservatory. The butterflies particularly took to my son, landing on him and staying attached to him. One butterfly even stayed on him the entire two hours we were there. He became known as The Butterfly Boy to people standing nearby, as he was so gentle and graceful with them. It was one of those moments that makes you realize life is beautiful, all of the struggle of parenting is worth it, and maybe we should have ten more babies.
Afterwards, we dared to eat inside a White Castle, and everyone stared at us as he melted down over wanting to get a lid from the dispenser himself. Two kids is good. The world is overpopulated.
Baby’s First White Castle! It was our first time eating at a White Castle. They don’t exist within two hundred miles of Baltimore. Believe me, I’ve looked on Google Maps. It has always been a strange hollowness in my life. The billboards said I needed Jesus, but I really just needed these weird tiny sandwiches each contained in their own cardboard nesting holes.
We were embarassingly overeager, trying extra hard to keep our kids behaved, lest they embarrass us in this glorious castle where the cashier was high as fuck. I stuttered my way through the order, awkward and nervous as I stumbled over the foreign language combos. In the middle of my order, a random customer chewed out the cashier for handing her the soda cups disrespectfully. Over by the soda fountain, someone spilled their drink. No one mopped it up. The orange soda pooled on the floor like blood.
Our food took fifteen minutes. As everyone’s orders were backing up, customers became tense and agitated. It was all very grim. The food was bland, but also addictive. I felt I got some kind of quintessential experience. We took pictures for the photo album.
Day Four. We visited Cincinnati Museum Center, which is located in a stunning renovated train station. If we didn’t have kids, it would be great to fully explore the museum, stop for the local small-batch ice cream in the Graeter’s, and fully admire the artitecture. But with kids, the experience is “busted ass train table in the children’s area.”
Busted Ass Train Table is a communal third space for children. It’s the postcolonial sociolinguistic theory of their identity and community. It’s their space between school and home. Their gathering place, their watering hole, their place to fuck shit up.
Busted Ass Train Tables are similar in how Chinese takeout menus always have the same items: a mismatched assortment of Thomas the Train toys, some loose tracks that no longer connect, and a tunnel that all children immediately identify as the alpha item. Who controls the Tunnel is the kingpin of the train table. Younger, newer parents think its an opportunity to teach their fifteen-month old about sharing. Their kid swipes the tunnel from the kingpin, and the parent gently instructs them to give it back. That’s when the kid first learns the game is dirty and rigged.
My Impressions of Cincinnati. That drive-thru thin chili served on spaghetti, topped with an entire bag of shredded taco cheese and random ass oyster crackers is A HARD PASS. Wasn’t my bag. Apparently you either hate it or love it. The craft beer is solid, the local potato chips are solid, and there’s something called Papas Opera Cream Eggs that are a local Easter candy specialty that I might have to ask my friend to send a care package annually, because they were more addictive than cocaine.
I’m used to Baltimore and DC, where people very much live outside. People live in the street, they sit on their stoops, they are harder to navigate around than blue shells in MarioKart. It’s like this in New York and Philly, too, other cities I’m familiar with. In the Midwest, apparently people live in their houses. Except on the last day, when I got a parking ticket just over the river in Kentucky. Like everywhere, meter maids come out of thin air to nail you.
As I discovered the ticket, a man with a thick Kentucky accent rolled up to curse the parking people on my behalf. Literally, I only saw about fifteen people total during our stay, so this Cursing Parking Warrior appeared out of nowhere.
“Fuck ’em motherfucking assholes, you don’t gotta pay that, I’ve got four tickets I haven’t paid, and they haven’t booted me yet. You’re from out of state? Oh you’re good.”
Who was this cursing man who spies all parking tickets? Was he a prophet? Do I have to pay this ticket? The Internet says my fine will double and go to collections, and I could have a bench warrant for my arrest in Kentucky. Worth it for thirty bucks?
We paid it. Sorry Parking Prophet, keep fighting the man on our behalf, though. Fuck ’em.
Day Five. Back on the road. I buy an egg burrito from a countertop warmer in a gas station. I do not die within the hour. The gamble makes me feel alive, blood coursing through my veins. At each gas station we stop at, I also buy a bag of the local potato chips. Potato chips are one of those naked canvases in which you really taste the customs, culture, and currencies of a region. Yes, I typed that sentence with a dead serious face. It’s the truest thing I’ve ever said and you know it.
Outside of the hills of West Virginia, I began to see signs for and daydream about a place called Palace of Gold.
Remember the Hare Krishnas that used to collect money in the airports in the 1970s? Well, they used that money to build an ornate golden palace — The American Taj Majal — in Moundsville, West Virginia.
Hallucination Time! As they do, the roadside signs cast a spell over me. We could totally do this hour long detour up steep, curving, rural and questionable roads that terrify everyone in the reviews. We would walk barefoot among the peaceful ponds and free-roaming peacocks, to solemnly tour a religious temple made of gold and filled with wax figures of holy guru Prabhupada. The kids would love dining at the divine onsite vegan restaurant, even though my daughter only eats chicken nuggets of specific shape and texture. No one would knock over glass elephants in the gift shop.
My wife actually agreed! She knew how badly I wanted to go. We added it as a stop on the GPS. But as we got closer to the exit off the highway, it was approaching feeding time for the children, and we were all out of pre-feed. The pool and a beer at the hotel seemed much easier than whatever insane illusion I was spinning in my head. It seemed like a lot of work for a glass elephant souvenir that I suddenly wanted so desperately.
One day. The Surfing Pizza Goes to Palace of Gold is a very real travelogue in the future. Share my stuff so I can get popular, sell my book, get rich, and properly review the “Palace Gifts” gift shop, a place I just know is filled with mounds of awesome in freaking Moundsville.
Day Six. Home. But not before another epic gas station burrito, which was a quesadilla folded into a burrito filled with tater tots, weighing as much as my son as birth, and making me just as happy.
At the end here, I admit I love driving and roadtrips. I love gas station food. And I love you Mike, in Columbus, Ohio, blessed McDonald’s drive-thru savior, My Sweet Lord, Hallelujah, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.