(Excuse wonky formatting. WordPress issues.)
If you’re wondering what kind of traveler I am, I’d say I’m a meanderer.
A fully committed wanderer travels without a fixed destination, his appendages likely bearing deeply insightful tattoos in foreign characters, including one that, loosely translated in English, says: I go wherever the wind takes me, because the wind is unpredictable, at times hasty, others calm, coming and going on a whim, kind of like an uninvited guest that you sometimes wish you actually had invited, a wandering citizen of the world, which is what I am.
A meanderer, by my definition anyway, has an idea. I have specific sites I want to see, things I want to do. I just don’t know how or when I’ll get there.
Take San Francisco, for instance.
The planning process came in the form of an internal dialogue consisting of spurts of landmarks: Fisherman’s Wharf! Lombard Street! Golden Gate! A neat museum that looks like a palace!
Even with these things in mind, I allowed for the opportunity to be sidetracked.
It’s how Phil and I ended up paying for a a minute-long cab ride after walking for the better part of the afternoon in the general direction of some destination, hoping to run into a cab on the way. We didn’t. That is, until we stumbled upon a stray cab in a quiet neighborhood nowhere near the city center. It brought so much joy that we hailed it, disregarding that parts of the structure we were heading to were clearly visible from where we stood.
“You want to go there?” the cab driver asked. He had just returned, as promised, from dropping off passengers, probably sensing our desperation.
A $4 cab ride later (including the standard $3.50 fee upon getting in), we were there.
We tipped him handsomely.
It’s how we ended up biking 5 miles from the Wharf, through the busiest street with miniscule bike lanes (this, after years of not coming in contact with a bike), through bike paths, through bike-unfriendly paths, up a monstrous hill, to a friend’s apartment deemed the point of exhaustion and no return, our fatigued legs comforted only by shawarmas and falafels (To be continued in a later entry).
On this particular day, we decided to go to this museum at the suggestion of a friend who’d seen it while touring the city. Columns? Water? Palace-like structures? I felt my camera salivate.
After consulting our GPS-enabled mobile devices, Phil and I decided we’d walk there. And that’s when it got interesting.
Before going further, I should probably describe what kind of traveler Phil is.
Phil is Super Type A to the max. He indulges my impulses, but sometimes his orderly instincts kick in to keep me in check. It’s fine when I suggest things like, Yes, let’s bike to the Golden Gate Bridge even though we only have an hour before the last ferry leaves, which will likely mean we’ll have to make the exhausting trip back on our bikes, or on foot, or on all fours, crawling.
When it gets frustrating is when I know Lombard Street is in a certain direction because, you know, I have a sneaking suspicion the steep hill leads up to it.
“Wait,” he says. “Let me check Google Maps.”
I, in turn, indulge his compulsive need for structure and anticipate the glorious moment I’ll – no he’ll – say I was right.
The intensity with which people apply to landmarks can be jarring. It’s as if checking off sites were a competitive sport, with the losers being the poor saps subjected to viewing these pictures afterward (Hi, losers).
I’m sure my lack of actual touristy competitiveness comes from family vacations that required 7 a.m. starts and 11 p.m. lights out. They involved itineraries with too many to-dos and to-sees, and not enough to-enjoys.
Lombard, as expected, was winding.
This park, on the other hand, was tucked away in a quiet neighborhood. We took silly jumping pictures and caught our breaths under some trees.
Though we did reach the Wharf, there was nothing exciting or notable there. I kind of liken it to one of those things you have to see just because and, upon getting there, are immediately nonplussed about being there.
We eventually wandered over to the beach by Ghirardelli Square, where we watched two swimmers suit up for some laps in the cold water. One of them, the girl in fact, was training for this.
We talked to Jerry the watercolorist who, after denying my attempts to photograph him, agreed to a picture after being charmed by the bespectacled Phil.
Jerry, one of the amazing Jerrys we met in San Francisco, used to be a 9-5er but now spends his days painting and selling his art.
By the time we got to the museum, it was closed. No matter. We were there for other purposes. Phil and I paid our $4 cab fare and happily joined the loiterers still milling about.
“I’ll take it from here, little lady,” said Phil, architect extraordinaire.
He then led us in the complete opposite direction of the main entrance, causing us to walk the entire perimeter of the non-scenic backend of the museum before returning to our starting point.
It was fitting, really.
New York is the land of the haves and the have-nots: Those who have central air conditioning, and those who don’t.
The divide is stark. On the subway, there stand impeccably coiffed commuters while I struggle to hide the puddle of sweat pooling under my feet.
What heat? They seem to scoff. I still have goose bumps from my overactive centrally air-conditioned high rise on the corner of You Can’t Believe How Much I Pay for It and Just Because I Can.
The central air-challenged can dare face the wrath of the humid, heat island-laden New York summer, as long as they don’t mind lying in bed, hot air blowing across their sweaty limbs from an open window and two fans, one of which rattles loud enough for the person on the other end of the line to ask, “What is that?”
I did just that last week amid a heat wave.
Some nights it was cooler outside than it was in, the temperature in my apartment building rising the higher up I ventured. For the top-floor dweller, which would be me of course, it was gradual torture.
It didn’t help that my small room absorbs heat like a black sweater in the desert. Or that my window can only open as far as a block of wood can take it, given its absolute lack of ability to hold itself up.
“UGH,” I heard my roommate say not too far from where I sat.
He lay in bed with the lights off, his feet touching the floor.
“Are you… depressed?” I asked.
He’d had a rough day, worsened only by an arguably even rougher time installing our window units in our respective rooms. What initially seemed like our answer to the oppressive heat became nothing short of a tease.
Minutes after turning on our air conditioners, one of us fist-pumping in the noticeably cooler room, the power died.
Three times this happened, and each time the circuit breaker was unappeased by a change of outlet, an unplugged this or that, a lower setting. Three times we were doomed.
The first two instances I emerged from my room, laughing it off. “Must be a fluke,” I said. But by the third time it was clear it was a fruitless mission, the building far too old to simultaneously power two window units.
We talked to each other from our own rooms, too defeated for niceties.
“Are you sure it’s not unfair?” he said.
I’d just told him he should have his on for the night. I’d had an easy day and, despite it all, was in a great mood.
So there I was, wide awake at 4 a.m. unable to fall back asleep.
I’d say I tossed and turned, but that would have required too much energy. The sweat glands in parts of my body that I didn’t even know had sweat glands were working the night shift.
Memories of outages from simultaneous hair-drying with the former roommate resurfaced. If the circuit breaker couldn’t even take that, what made me think it could withstand two air conditioners?
My mind eventually wandered elsewhere.
I had delusions of camping out in the office. Of riding the air-conditioned subway ad infinitum. Of proposing to someone so long as he (or she) ensured we’d have properly insulated and cooled apartments in sickness and in health, and that we would move in together in that instant. Of mermaid transmogrification. Of cohabiting with my penguin brethren of the north (in the Bronx Zoo, that is).
When it’s hot, everything else is usurped by this predicament. Tossed aside are paying bills and cleaning the room you’ve neglected for months due to working too much and being out too much when you do find the time.
Googling the best places to position your fans and achieving sufficient airflow takes precedence. Which is what I did for hours, before and after my insomnia.
I was a barely functioning zombie for the rest of the day, though I somehow managed to churn out a story. I then decided to stay out that night long enough to render my body too tired to care about anything else but sleep when I returned.
It was an effective but costly endeavor. I’m still tired from it all.
Before you praise me for being an awesome roommate (which I am) and a lovely humanitarian (guilty, again), trust that my deed will not go unnoticed.
Just know the next time I have a crap day, and it’s ridiculously, sweltering hot out, my roommate better come bearing an inflatable pool, a bucket of rocky road ice cream, and an amazingly choreographed rain dance complete with artificial, strawberry-scented droplets.
He just doesn’t know it yet.
Thank you for all the great comments!
My heart fell. I’d spent the last five minutes taking pictures of shoes lined against the wall. The light cast a neat silhouette, the room full of things once owned by society’s ills. Or was it by officers? I couldn’t get the settings quite right, so it didn’t even matter. It had been months, several in fact, since I’d consistently used the camera.
The camera, a 3 or so pound brick that could double as a weapon to fend off attempted robbers, is older than most. Its indoor shots a struggle, its colors not as vibrant as an iPhone’s. Most of all, it was me. I was rusty.
In those five minutes, I’d missed the audio guide cutoff. What about the voices of former prisoners talking about their day to days? What about that epic escape attempt that killed a prison guard? What about —
“Just kidding,” he said. He hung one around my neck.
Museums are best spent alone.
I often wandered the halls by myself, at times looking out from behind bars. The term the Slammer, I found out, comes from the sound the metal bars make when they open and close. To the prisoners in Alcatraz, the sound was so consistent, so terrifying, that it often became unbearable.
I’ve read of forms of torture in other parts of the world in which a change in room temperature, in intervals of extreme cold and extreme heat, weakens the mind. It’s a constant state of not being in control, of never feeling comfortable — the uncertainty of just when the next modification will come.
In the slammer, it becomes a way of life.
On New Year’s Eve, celebrations throughout the city could be heard. Beautiful days, for the most part, reminded them where they weren’t.
It showed that life went on, its mundaneness highlighted by things happening elsewhere.
For one prisoner, “There wasn’t a day when you didn’t know what you were missing.”