Sunday, July 26, 2015

Bubbles and Byways

Screen grab from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, via
In late August 2001, Red and I were stuck in a bus on the tarmac at Logan Airport with about ten other people, waiting for quite a long time to board a tiny plane to Halifax. One middle-aged New Yorker became decidedly agitated about the delay. "When," he barked at one point, "will the passengers take precedence??" It was clear that this was a man who was used to taking precedence—though he mispronounced "precedence" as "pre-CEE-dence." While we waited, he regaled us with details about the economic and labor situation in Nova Scotia. Was he some sort of government minister? A high-flying analyst or researcher?

No, he was just a reader of an article in the previous day's New York Times. But it was as if he believed that he had attained higher, insider status, that he had become an owner of this knowledge, rather than a receiver—or, really, a customer—of it. By sharing "his" knowledge with a group of strangers, he was both asserting importance and at the same time transmuting someone else's understanding of a remote situation into his own. If pressed that day, I'm sure he would have acknowledged that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people had read (or skimmed) that same article, but if asked a month later how it was he knew so much about Nova Scotia... well, we'll never know. We did eventually board the plane, though not before I told him to shut his derivative yap, and he told me to go to hell. But that's not the point of this story.

Part of the point is that there is no one so provincial as a New Yorker. I remember well the day in 2007 when a longtime Manhattanite took me with bursting pride to the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. Where else, he seemed to say as he joyously swept his arms around, could one find the bounties of the earth on such luxurious display? I didn't have the heart to tell him that large swaths of America had had these places for many years by then. (This same Manhattanite, who is a dear friend, also expressed perfect bafflement about how one might visit Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, without renting a car.)

But the larger point has to do with how some of us approach travel, by taking stock of the places we feel we ought to see in any given city or region of the country. How is that "ought" constructed? What are we looking for, and how much of our identity—not only as travelers but as partisans of our homes—is at stake in finding it? Am I still a respectable citizen of Chicago if I fail to give a shit about the arrival of SoHo House here? Today's Times informed me that the West Loop was now a happening neighborhood on the account of that place—which I took as a way of reassuring today's New Yorkers that should they ever venture to Chicago, they can a find a place just like a place they already know.

I bring this up because Byways travels only infrequently overlap with those recommended by the "36 Hours" column in the Times, which is perhaps Patient Zero for  how a certain class of well-off domestic travelers understand the attractions of the rest of the country. I appreciate what the column does—each week, it suggests things a traveler might do in a weekend in a place that isn't New York, and often the suggestions seem pretty nice—but I'm conscious, too, of how it reinforces a particular view of America and particular sense of what traveling entails. It can quickly come to seem that anything in a region that does not resonate with the Times's view of it can't be "the best" and probably isn't even worth seeing or doing. What if I find myself at the former Copper Dome in St. Paul instead of Al's Breakfast in Minneapolis? What if I go to the South and don't manage to have some okra or a damn fine slice of peach pie?

(This phenomenon is not limited to food or hotels. When Red and I moved to Minneapolis at the very end of 2001, we were told by any number of New Yorkers in the arts that they "knew this incredible guy" there. Is it a surprise that they all knew the same guy?)

Byways travel is more haphazard. We love good food. We love good drink. But we don't love going to "it" places or to tourist meccas. We are willing to have our culinary choices shaped by the other imperatives of the trips—game times, other cultural destinations, driving times. Sometimes this leads to disaster, as in the terrible breakfast we had outside Savannah a few days ago. Other times it leads to Ria's Bluebird or the J&M Grill or the Boston Butt Hutt.

A sticky wedge of pie from the Butt Hutt. Sounds pornographic, but don't knock it till you've tried it.
This is long way around to saying that you can trust the mediatized bubble of the relatively well off, or you can trust more to the road. I live in a bubble of sorts in Chicago as it is—when you hear about all the shootings here, that's not my neighborhood, ever. It's pleasant. It's full of amenities. It's safe. I like it. But that's not what travel is for. Trust more to the road and you'll be disappointed and occasionally threatened for sure, but the potential rewards are so much greater.

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