We called it the Rust Belt Honeymoon Road Trip. The hope was that the humour of the name would blunt the incomprehension of our plans. That never worked. People didn’t even pretend to understand what we were talking about.
Who would spend their honeymoon in Pittsburgh? Or Cleveland or Detroit? Who would use their honeymoon to visit all of them in succession? The only one who got it was the grown son of my new wife, Mary Kate. He worked as a mover and had visited some of the cities. “I like that,” he said. “That’s cool.”
Those places do possess character and cool, but it’s a stealth cool, hidden under decades of use. My wife and I like old things — old buildings, hotels, restaurants, bars. All of these can be found in Rust Belt cities, the kind that have been knocked about by fate and fickle commerce enough that they’ve hung on to their traditions by default. (We’ve had ample time to develop these preferences; we didn’t marry until our mid-50s.)
We had been impressed with brief stays in Rochester, New York, and Buffalo, New York, two one-time commercial colossuses. Both had handsome architecture and grand avenues. We felt certain that Toledo, Ohio, and Cincinnati and Indianapolis would hold similar charm. The idea of sun-kissed beaches of dazzling beauty and monotonous uniformity left us limp with ennui. A rust belt honeymoon was the ticket.
We began in Binghamton, New York, home of IBM and Rod Serling, near the border of Pennsylvania. We stopped mainly because my almost-grown son attends SUNY Binghamton. The three of us dined at Oaks Inn, a time-capsule of a red-sauce joint that felt straight out of a Scorsese film. Soft light, large Martinis, and lamb spiedies, a local specialty of marinated meat cubes cooked over charcoal.
Signs on the road to Rochester indicated that Mark Twain, the bard of the Mississippi, was buried, improbably, in Elmira, New York. So we pulled off the highway and visited him.
We hit Rochester and toured the Susan B. Anthony house. In Buffalo, we had lunch at the Anchor Bar, home of Buffalo wings, and followed the bartender’s directions to the cemetery where Rick James (author of “Super Freak”) was buried.
But by the time we got to Niagara Falls, we knew the jig was up. The streets were as empty as had been the highways leading up to them. We started our honeymoon March 13: supremely bad timing. As the coronavirus spread, America closed up. We knew we had to head back home.
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