Lunch Counter Ladies - Lake Erie Ride Part 1
It’s going to be awkward. We are on the second day of our circumnavigation of Lake Erie, heading toward Niagara Falls where I’ll meet with Freddie, my high school best friend who I’ve not seen for fifty years. I hear from others that Freddie is now the kind of outspoken ultra-conservative Rush Limbaugh type that I never get along with, being myself an intransigent Liberal shade of blue short of Communist red. When Freddie and I made contact and arranged to meet, we agreed to stay away from politics, instead drawing on a history of solid childhood friendship to explore rekindling a relationship. Given the political chasm, I’m not sure that’s possible. I dread fucking the trip up with a bad reunion.
I’m also going to visit my parents’ graves, which I have not done since before my mother died and was buried: events that I made no effort to attend, and for which I carry a fair load of guilt commensurate with my Roman Catholic upbringing. I am a recovering Roman Catholic, but you know what they say: “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Both my parents, especially my Mom, were formidable people and I wondered how I would explain to them why it took me so long to visit their graves.
My apprehension about both the reunion and graveside visit grew the closer we got to Niagara Falls, but my anxiety was partially abated by the kindness of Lunch Counter Ladies we would encounter.
The first day of our trip was a repeat of last year’s circumnavigation of Lake Huron: travel from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Port Huron, with a stop at the Wrought Iron Grill in Owasso for lunch, dogged the entire day by a warm rain that we mostly kept ahead of. We traveled with our friends John and Jill and stayed in the same Port Huron Comfort Inn as we did last year.
Jill and John are our ideal travel companions: they are our age and enjoy moving at a slower pace on secondary roads, and making frequent stops to look and stretch; they are optimistic and flexible and know problems and adversities are to be solved not complained about; and like us they have been married forty years so we can share and laugh about the vicissitudes of wedded bliss. Example: Jill told her kids that should John die mysteriously they should call the police and say Jill killed him. “Don’t hire expensive lawyers or investigators. Don’t waste your money. Just tell them I did it.”
The next morning I got up to clean the road grime off Big Ruby and found myself dreading the Blue Water Bridge crossing to Canada. All I could think of was last year’s crossing in heat so intense we could drink peanut butter. We baked two hours to get through customs in a line of trucks that haul garbage from Toronto to Michigan landfills because it cheaper than keeping the crap in Canada. Today it was much cooler but I told John I wasn’t relishing the wait at the bridge. That’s when he suggested we take the ferry out of Marine City, only twenty miles from Port Huron and on the way to Lake Erie.
The ferry crab walked the St. Clair River toward us belying the calm surface; a strong current moved a massive volume of water from Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair and from there to the Detroit River and into Lake Erie. A satellite view of this waterway complex looks like a giant python with the rivers being the ends and Lake St. Clair the bulge in the middle resembling a half-digested goat. Some geologists say the Lake St. Clair is the sixth Great Lake, while others think not. One thing is sure though: all the Great Lake connector rivers (St Mary, St. Clair, Detroit, and Niagara) move a hell of a lot of water. The Niagara River alone sends 64,750 cubic feet of water per second over the 167-foot drop of Niagara Falls.
We loaded our bikes onto the ferry and midway in the crossing, looking downriver toward Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. I remembered I had read that an early battle in the War of 1812 was fought on the Detroit River not far from our ferry crossing. In 1812 William Hull, a hero of the American Revolution, took crack Kentucky militia and crossed the Detroit River intent on establishing an American foothold in Canada. Hull and his men got their collective asses kicked, were pushed back across the river by British General Isaac Brock (who we’ll talk about later), and lost Detroit to the British — not a good day in American military history.
I have not given much thought to the War of 1812 since junior high, but the people around Lake Erie have: on both sides of the lake we would find a string of monuments and plaques memorializing the war and the men and women who fought it — being the warrior culture that we are, most of these tributes are on the US side of Lake Erie. In addition there are more restored 18th and 19th century forts and battlements surrounding Lake Erie than are around all other Great Lakes combined. Lake Erie is the second smallest Great Lake, and the shallowest, but it has seen more warfare than any other Great Lake.
Less than three minutes and we cleared Canadian customs and turned south toward Lake Erie. With the lake in sight we traveled east following a series of shore hugging secondary roads to Simcoe, Ontario, today’s destination and halfway between Windsor, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York. To our surprise most of the shoreline roads are built between the lake and any homes or cottages so Lake Erie is continuously visible much more than any other Great Lake that we’ve traveled (Lake Ontario is the final challenge).
Ontario is Canada’s most populous province, but agriculture dominates the flat to slightly rolling north shore of Lake Erie. There is nothing magical about acres of potatoes, and miles of vineyards, until they are nestled against a large body of luminous water that hosts small fishing villages, riotous gulls, bobbing row boats, and splashing children. The length of Lake Erie is oriented east-west, letting the rising sun flood the lake with intense morning reds and yellows, and tint it with pastel pinks and purples when setting. I was surprised to see that tobacco is still a cash crop in these parts.
About twenty miles outside Simcoe we were re-routed by a detour, which screwed my calculations. Black clouds in the north were coming toward us and Erie but I thought we could make it across the storm’s path without getting wet. The detour, though not long, gave the storm the edge and we got caught in a sudden massive downpour that soaked us as thoroughly as if we road our bikes into the lake. The intense wind turned Erie as ugly as our dispositions. Such an event on a motorcycle is like peeing your pants: it feels the same; initially you’re pissed that you didn’t head it off (in this case by donning raingear before the storm), then eventually you accept the wet warmth of your new status.
Ten miles to Simcoe and the rain stops and we pull into a mall parking lot to check John’s GPS for our hotel’s exact location — we are only a couple of blocks away. Jill announces her rain pants sprung a leak and she ducks into a grocery store looking for Scotchguard thinking it will waterproof her pants. John says no it won’t, that the reason her pants leak is because she didn’t get all the soap out when she last washed them, and everyone knows soap is a watering agent so that’s why Jill leaks. Jill says bullshit so we wait for her, my and Nell’s wet underwear feel like a petri dishes of fungal growth. Jill returns. No Scotchguard.
Finally we reach the hotel and I ask if they have dryers for us to use to restore our clothes. When traveling by motorcycle very little can be packed so every change of clothes is important. The desk clerk said they did not have dryers and I immediately knew we had to either pack wet clothes, thereby dampening everything else we brought, or had to tie the wet stuff to the motorcycle tomorrow and hope it dried in the wind as we drove on. “Screw it,” I said to myself, “I’ll deal with it in the morning.”
Day three of our trip and I’m up at my usual 5:30a.m. staring at yesterday’s wet clothes. I grabbed the plastic laundry bag that is located in every hotel room closet and stuffed the wet things in it and went in search of the big dryers the hotel must have to do its own linens and towels. I found a door labeled “Laundry: Authorized Personnel Only.” For a guy who has spent a career enforcing rules, I am rather cavalier about breaking them — at best this is an inconsistency, and at worst one of a number of hypocrisies that overlay my life and define me. I just don’t think many rules apply to me. The laundry door was ajar and I pushed it open and saw two large dryers: one loaded and working, and another empty and still.
Nobody else was in the room so I approached the still dryer to read the control panel and suddenly I sensed movement behind me. I turned and was confronted by a slender woman dressed in a gray hotel maid’s uniform; she looked in her early thirties with mousy brown hair and a round unadorned face.
“Guess I caught you,” she said softly.
“I guess you did,” I answered, looking for any hint of anger in her face. Instead she radiated a smile anchored on both ends with two of the loveliest dimples genetics ever produced.
I explained that we were traveling on motorcycles, had wet clothes, and had to find some way to dry them. She thought for a moment and reached for my bag and said, “Let me have them. Come back in twenty minutes.”
I thanked her and went to the lobby to get creamer and a spoon for the tea I fix for Nell and myself each morning. Nell was just getting up when I got back to the room so we indulged in our morning ritual of drinking tea and reading in bed. Nell is always on my shit for breaking rules so I waited until she was in the bathroom to sneak out to get our clothes. I figured with dry clothes in hand, Nell would berate me less. At the laundry room I found the maid with a neatly folded pile of our dry clothes, and there’s that dimpled smile again. I asked her name and she said Jodi. I fumbled in my pockets for money and, sensing what I’m about, Jodi shook her head no.
“Well Jodi,” I said. “If I can’t give you money, can I give you a hug?”
Jodi’s smile got broader and she held her arms apart; I stepped into her, put my arms around her skinny shoulders, and gave her a gentle hug. She laughed, slowly pulled away, and shooed me out the door.
Back in our room I proudly showed Nell our dry clothes and she said, “Uh huh. Where would we be without our Lunch Counter Ladies?”
Lunch Counter Ladies: Nell is referring to the inexhaustible line of women we encounter while traveling who we rely on to grant us important favors and give us advice that makes motorcycle travel easier. Lunch Counter Ladies are waitresses, hotel maids, gas station attendants, hotel desk clerks, and convenience store clerks. These jobs used to be held by men, but with few exceptions are now staffed by women, and from what we can tell, these women are mostly invisible to the people they serve. Lunch Counter Ladies go beyond the basic requirements of their jobs to be helpful while also being funny, warm, and playfully insulting.
Yesterday we stopped at a diner near Port Stanley, Ontario and the owner was in the process of closing for the day. We asked to use the restrooms and to get coffee and she agreed to stay open for a while longer. Inside the diner we discovered she sold Canadian pecan tarts, silver dollar size pastries that my parents and I would devour whenever we traveled in Canada when I was a kid, delicacies to which Nell instantly became addicted on our first trip together to Canada forty years ago. The coffee shop owner was amused by our enthusiasm for something I’m sure she took for granted.
While drinking coffee and inhaling pecan tarts I asked the owner how many kilometers we were from Port Stanley. She said, “You’re an American and you know kilometers?”
I laughed and said, “I might be an American but I’m not stupid.”
To which she said, “Well, the jury is still out, aye,” and then gave me a wink and precise directions.
The Lake Erie north shore is not noted for good beaches, but Port Dover, today’s first stop, is an exception. There are many little tourist shops in Port Dover and the draw is the broad, well-maintained beach and the long pier with bright benches and white railings leading to a candent light. Though Erie was flat calm and the day was warming fast, a statue of fishermen hauling in their nets, dedicated to those having lost their lives, suggested fatal lake conditions. During Prohibition another draw was that the Lynn River emptied into Erie at Port Dover and created a protected natural harbor.
Port Dover became the northern terminus for rum runners smuggling Canadian booze into the US at Erie, Pennsylvania; the crossing between these two points being at the narrowest and deepest part of Lake Erie. Erie’s maximum depth is only 210 feet, with an average depth of sixty-two feet. Shallow water is wind-agitated more than is deep and frequent storms make for chaos on Erie. Crossing at Erie’s deepest part is somewhat less dangerous than elsewhere, but still many rum-runners lost their lives supplying Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago with quality Canadian hooch.
Rum-running has a connection to my Mother’s family in that her father ran a still in the basement of their house in Niagara Falls, New York, before and during Prohibition. Mom remembers making weekly deliveries in her Polish neighborhood of two jars of Grandpa’s liquor to the priest and nuns at St. Stanislaw’s Roman Catholic Church where her family attended, a half a block from their home; other deliveries were to the local police and fire stations. Toward the end of Prohibition Grandpa’s still exploded and quick action from the loyal fire department saved the family home. With regret the Fire Marshal took Grandpa aside and told him it was time to give up the business.
Grandpa switched to making wine, which was less profitable but considerably safer. Besides, Italians were the other big ethnic group in Niagara Falls, and every third paisano produced homemade wine referred to at the time as Dago Red that was so dry it puckered your mouth like a frog’s ass. When it came to bootleg wine, the authorities didn’t give a damn and didn’t need to be bought off.
We soon crossed the Welland Canal connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. The Canal operates 8 locks that lift ships 326 feet, 159 feet more than the drop of Niagara Falls, and moves an average of 3,000 ships or 40 million tons of cargo a year. The Welland is built on much fought over territory. Scholars differ as to the cause of the War of 1812, and few mention the Welland Canal, but as I see it the Northern Colonies realized that for trade to flourish in the Great Lakes region a passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie would someday have to be built, and the only route that made sense was entirely in Canada across the twenty-six mile wide Niagara Peninsula. Although battles were fought all along the Ontario-Erie littoral, most were fought in the Niagara Peninsula. Control the peninsula, and you controlled the Great Lakes trade.
When we reached Erie, Ontario — where the Niagara River drains Lake Erie — we took the Niagara River Parkway toward the falls. The Niagara River is only thirty-four miles long before it goes over the falls then fills Lake Ontario, and the scenic Parkway, which Winston Churchill declared one of the most scenic drives in the world, travels the river’s length. Granted Churchill was a politician prone to hyperbole, but the tree-lined parkway affords a continuous view of the wide Niagara with its accelerating currents stretching the sun’s reflection, and small pocket parks hosting picnicking lovers.
Midway between Lake Erie and the falls is thirty-three square mile Grand Island, which splits the Niagara River. The river is no place to swim unless you lived your life on it and know the safe small coves. One such swimming place is on Grand Island and I could see that small sandy strip of beach from the parkway so I stopped to point it out to John. I walked over to John and told him that beach was where I lost my virginity to Nora, a high school sweetheart. I guess in a way the first Lunch Counter Lady I ever met was Nora, who helped me get through the usual existential teenage angst.
Thinking of Nora and the beach, Grand Island and high school, only increased my anxiety about tomorrow’s reunion, and the visit to my parents’ graves. To make matters worse, while in my haste to tell John about my formative sexual prowess, I forgot my helmet-to-helmet communicator was on until Nell’s voice said, “I heard that.” I knew instantly Nell would bring the subject up with Freddie.
Son of a bitch! Why can’t I keep my mouth shut?