The trip began just before the end of school. From the wood-shaving smell of third grade out into the clean winter air, sprung free by my mother who appeared at the little window in the classroom door like a treat. You were the one who got out early. You were the one walking down an empty hall toward the big triple doors of the school.
We were leaving school to drive to my grandmother’s house. These were the days before everything: Before we could Skype home and feel we’d done something meaningful. Before entertainment and education and music on-demand. Before the world clattered at us like a garish streetcar, wheels screeching, bells ringing, doors open and waiting to take us away from the present and into an unknown future.
Across the street was a little mall, Sharon Square, cut through by something they called an Arcade by its builders. The name endlessly disappointed me – there were no video games.
“An arcade is a covered walkway,” my dad told me, but that didn’t make sense. We walked through the arcade – the passage between a music shop and a liquor store. It was a drab place, dark and concrete, and we came out onto the parking lot facing High Street — Columbus’s main artery — and crossed the street to wait for the bus.
The escape was almost too much. I was buzzing. The rest of the kids were inside and my sister and I were free, out an hour early on a Friday.
The bus came a moment later. I didn’t wear a watch, but it seemed to come always, hissing outside our classroom window in the summer, flashing past when the windows were closed. It came now for us, this strange bulbous thing, clad in COTA red and blue or, if we were lucky, one of the older tan models. We sat on the seats up front, the heater burbling, the bus nearly empty.
1:30. Escaped. The school diminished in the distance, disappeared. The spire of St.Michael’s fell away as new buildings popped up. The Graceland Theatre. The computer shop across the street. White Castle. These places I wanted to visit but we had no time.
My father was waiting.
Through the side-lit streets we rode, heat coming out from under the fake leather seats, a smell of oil and polish and snow. I’d press my cheek against the bus window glass and feel the cold quarters of an inch away but in here it was warm and calm. People would hop on and off but the bus was mostly empty. It was early on December 23rd, and Columbus was a sleepy town especially around the holidays. This bus was our own. It dinged stops along High Street and we got off just before E. Broad Street.
It is up to all of us to keep that safe, strange feeling of disconnection and the invincible pleasure of just being.
This is Columbus’s heart, its downtown. In the distance the State House, up the street a creche at the Nationwide Building. Where the bus stopped was a fireproof storage building, a sign in gold leaf crackling on the glass. Here it was busier with cars rushing past us as we ran to the next bus. Older sedans rolled by on studded snow tires, but there had been no snow for a few days. The wet hissing was familiar to me – my father drove on studs most of the winter – and it made me think of a waterfall we had seen that summer, a dull roar over rocks, water cascading into a deep pool.
We boarded the Broad Street bus for the final leg.
Thirty minutes later, past the regal boys’ and girls’ schools, past low buildings that dropped away into bigger shopping centers with wide parking lots, past the mysterious Kahiki — the strange red, white, and black boat-shaped building — up to the shopping center across from DCSC, the massive set of warehouses at the edge of town where my father did inexplicable things related, he said, to Army Jeep parts.
He was waiting for us in his car, an old brown Mercury Zephyr. The car was warm and the trunk was packed full of presents and clothes. I had a backpack full of books and we started off on our three-hour drive.
I pulled the first book out of my bag before we hit the highway. All Things Considered’s sing song horn intro began as we began the slow roll up through the farms surrounding Columbus. My sister and I nestled into the depths of the back seat, bunched up against another spare front car seat my father had wedged in behind his own broken seat to keep himself from sliding backwards. We didn’t have much room but we were warm and close and sleepy.
It got darker as we drove and I had to put my book down. The hiss of the tires on the asphalt lulled us and there was nothing backlit to keep us up. I’d close my eyes for a moment and then wake again and look out at the edge of the world, hills rising up as we entered the edge of the Alleghenies, the moon low on the horizon, bouncing like a ball when I moved my head.
Hours passed as one radio station ran to static and another picked up in the country dark, high radio towers winking somewhere in a town far from the highway, talk radio turning into country into oldies into classical. We didn’t have a tape player in the car and so we were at the mercy of whatever radio fizzed through the night.
We’d be wakened by the car slowing and the radio turning down. We were near Martins Ferry, close to my grandmother’s house, in a place called Cambridge (which, in my young mind, was a bridge made of canes). Sometimes we’d stop for gas before rolling north along the river, the dark of the back seat cut through by the glare of harsh gas station fluorescents. This time we kept driving, up the river, past the high hills where my father once played as a boy, to the little street that turned down a smaller street to where my grandmother lived.
There is her kitchen light, a salve against the cold.
These long-ago memories aren’t important to you as they are me but it helps us remember just what we all have and what we’re all missing. I’m reminded of the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked from England to Istanbul before World War II at a time when there was little of the webbing that knits us together. He traveled in a vacuum, existing in a giddy collection of moments unavailable to our always-on minds.
“I lay in one of those protracted moments of rapture which scatter this journey like asterisks,” he wrote. “A little more, I felt, and I would have gone up like a rocket.”
Every one of us has these memories, and it is up to all of us to keep that safe, strange feeling of disconnection and the invincible pleasure of just being. We owe it to ourselves and the future. It, like my grandmother’s kitchen light, like the Moon over the hills, like the hiss of tires on an old road, is salve against the cruelty and confusion of a world that does not wish to let us be.