Go With the Flow When You Walk In On a Family Reunion

Frontier Motel, Truxton AZ, Carol Highsmith photo, courtesy Library of Congress

Fatigue is setting in and you’ve been motoring eastbound (or north-, south- or west-bound) all day on Interstate Whatever. Up ahead at Exit 134 is a major-brand motel and, even though you find the parking lot choked with Family Trucksters, the somewhat worn out desk clerk says they’ve got a room.

Sure, there are a few kids in the lobby and the pool is going strong, even though it’s 9 p.m. But, it’s a good, comfortable room at a fair price. And it’s either here, or you’re dozing off and making your own exit from the Interstate.

The next morning… waffles at the free breakfast bar are all that’s on your mind. You enter the dining room and suddenly feel like you’re a kitchen scene from the movie “Cheaper By the Dozen.” Kids everywhere. Looks like several moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas; generations all running around while you’re trying to get your first cup of coffee for the day.

You’ve stumbled upon one of the favorite summer activities… a family reunion. All over America, especially it seems in the Midwest, big families scattered all over pick a spot on the map, book a few (dozen) rooms at usually an all-suite hotel, and show up for a weekend of family bonding.

It can be rather confusing if you’re not part of the group. For a few years, my job plopped me in highway-side motels for weeks at a time during the summer and while the place was mostly quiet during the week, on Thursday night they’d start to arrive. Pretty soon, a hotel with mostly business travelers, truckers — a fairly subdued and serious group — was transformed into the Brady household on steroids.

With sometimes only one day off of a 12-hour schedule, my Sunday respit was generally disturbed by a crowd of folks having a great time. So, I decided to go with the flow and, within reason, join in the fun.

The family reunion crowds are generally about the happiest folks I ever encountered on the road. Adults are catching up with others in their generation, reconnecting with great-grandma and grandpa, meeting cousins. Spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends are the ones with the dazed looks and different features — it’s amazing how facial features and body types go across the family tree.

At a Residence Inn outside of Columbus, Oh., a few years ago, instead of dashing in the dining room for a bagel and running back to my room to avoid the crowd, I decided to chat up the folks in line for the waffle machine. Turns out the family did this about every five years, with family members coming from as far away as Chicago and Macon, Ga.

There were new babies and significant others to meet, old times to relive and connections to reestablish. There were also transitions to experience, as a couple of members of the older generation had passed on during the five years. Life goes on.

Folks were really overly friendly and in a mood to talk and share their stories. For someone with a really small family, seeing 50 people all in the same room (most with the same nose and eyes) was pretty amazing.

So, when you pull off of Interstate Whatever and see one of those full parking lots at the motel, don’t dread it. Join the family.

My Washington, D.C. Picks

Ben's Chili Bowl, photo courtesy Ben's Chili BowlA friend’s upcoming visit to Washington, D.C. brought back memories of my six weeks there back in 2001. Yes, that 2001, it was when I was working for FEMA and was called to headquarters after the September 11 attacks.

The city was pretty quiet when I got there shortly after the FAA decided that airline flights could resume. By that time, everybody who could get out of D.C. did. Tourists exited, conventions canceled, lobbyists went to wherever they go. Auto traffic was way down but still snarled because of streets that were blocked off for security. I got back home on Halloween.

Our work group went out for lunch one day, walking over to the Ford House Office Building cafeteria. A few hours later, the anthrax episode unfolded; I had a day off the next day and stumbled into the news conference where Congressional leaders announced they would be leaving town en-masse for the first time since the War of 1812 or something.

I stayed part of the time at the Homewood Suites at Thomas Circle, which I found out was on the site of the German embassy up to World War II. Walking the same sidewalk as Nazi officials gave me the creeps, but that’s Washington. There’s a great little book called On This Spot that tells what’s been where over the years.

But that’s another story. In my six weeks or so there, I was able to explore a remarkable American city, seeing some of the off-the-beaten path sites. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl and “the Black Broadway,” 1213 U St. NW. Locals at FEMA HQ said I had to check out Ben’s, a Washington legend for not only its great chili and snack-bar fare, but the history. We’re the same age (both opened in 1958). Ben’s story goes that Ben and Virginia Ali opened their café down the street from the Washington Senators’ home at Griffith Stadium and in the middle of the night clubs, theaters and restaurants that catered to Washington’s African-American elite. Read more about the history on Ben’s website, but just know that over the years, the narrow restaurant in an old building turned into one of those where-the-elite-meet-to-eat places. Photos of political and entertainment celebs dot the walls. And the food ain’t bad either. I’m not usually big on chili dogs, but I tried the chili smokes and it’s worth the trip. It reminded me of the Beefmaster, a skinny greasy spoon that used to be in the old California Theater in downtown San Diego. Griffith Stadium is gone; the Howard University Hospital is now on its site and many of the clubs and theaters from the Black Broadway days are also history. The city has a walking tour through the area, well marked with frequent signs, that will take visitors on a great experience.
  • Maine Avenue Fish Market, 1100 Maine Ave. SW. Outdoor markets are few and far between and this one is the oldest. Predating even the (now moved) Fulton Fish Market in New York, Washington’s Maine Avenue market dates to very early in the 19th century. Nearly buried under Interstate 395, it’s about as waterfront as the Southwest Waterfront can get. Fish on ice as far as the eye can see, it still retains its original seafood glory, not succumbing to tourist-trap status as have similar markets in San Francisco and Seattle. You can grab something live or cooked here as a snack. For something a bit more developed, walk a ways to the local Phillips restaurant, 900 Water St. SW, flagship of a family-owned chain in the mid-Atlantic region. When I visited, it was a rather cool day so I skipped the chowder on the street for the comfort of the Phillips dining room.
  • Stan’s Restaurant, 1029 Vermont Ave NW. I remember my steak being OK, but not great, but it was just the ambiance of the place. Downstairs in a brownstone, red leather booths, small bar, just so Swanky D.C. This was before the martini boom, but I bet they serve a great one.
  • DuPont Circle. I can’t remember the place I ate here, but the area is packed with restaurants and clubs. Check it out.
  • Ford House Office Building Cafeteria, 416 3rd Street SW. The food wasn’t anything to write home about — and yes, it its a pick-up-your-own-food cafeteria — but for a yokel from San Diego it was fun to sit down among all the well-dressed folks at the hub of Our Nation’s Government. I hope when you visit there’s no anthrax threat.
  • Eastern Market, 225 7th St SE. Another back-to-the-past market, this one boasts it is the oldest outdoor fresh food market in the city, although it’s a couple of years newer than the Maine Avenue Fish Market. Oh well; they’re all really old. A variety of merchants have a variety of eats available, along with other goodies. I walked over from the Metro station, then walked back to Capitol Hill (and into the we’re leaving Washington congressional news conference).

Other stuff: I visited an old friend in charming old town Arlington; the Newseum and Holocaust Museums are a must as are as many of the Smithsonians you can get to. When you’re checking out the clubs, shops and cafes in Georgetown, be sure to look for the canals. Those were the high-tech transportation corridors of their day and one reason why Georgetown was there before Washington, D.C.

There’s also a whole list of things I want to do when I get back there one day. Bianca, wish I was going with you on your trip; have a great time!

From The Starlight Trip: Up the Space Needle

Here’s a blog entry from my Starlight 2011 trip that I forgot to post. Enjoy.

Thursday, Feb. 10, Seattle

I awoke in Seattle on Feb. 10 to a spectacularly clear day. One of those where the locals run to the Space Needle for lunch, where I was headed. The waiter, before serving my entree of mac and cheese with Dungeous crab, told me the restaurant does about a third more business on days like this.

Beautiful it was. The restaurant, called Sky City, rotates about once every 45 minutes. While dining on the mac and cheese, I was treated to views of the Olympic Mountains and Mt. Rainier, plus Pugit Sound and the city itself. A very pretty place in the sun.

And here’s a tip: it costs about $15 to ride up the elevators to the top. If you eat in the restaurant, the trip is included. So my $25 bill for the mac and cheese and a soft drink was actually $10… a pretty good deal

Backtracking a bit… My day started with a walk up to the retail area of downtown Seattle, home to the flagship Nordstrom store, southern terminus of the yesterday’s-tomorrow monorail to Seattle Center, home of the 1962 Worlds Fair.

While the region has invested in a variety of transit options over the last few years, it’s just now getting around to doing some renovation work on the monorail. It only makes two stops, one downtown, one at the fair site. I’m sure somebody envisioned it being the beginning of a regional transit system back in the ‘60s, but today it’s just a curiosity. The ride was bumpy and creaky, something that’s being fixed on the other track. Of course we all wonder why monorails have never caught on, but after 50 years they wear out just like everything else.

After lunch at the Space Needle and another creeky ride on the monorail, I walked over to the Pike Place Market for a look and was frankly disappointed. Although major renovation work is under way, unless I missed something it’s really now just a tourist trap. Very few of the market stalls are left. In most cases, fresh salmon has been replaced by beaded purses, instant “collectables” and tacky t-shirts. Too bad. Anybody out there ready to say otherwise?

I walked down the long staircase to the waterfront, under Seattle’s waterfront freeway (the Alaska Way, and it might be coming down in the next few years), looking for the old trolley that runs to Pioneer Square, near my hotel. Found out later the trolley quit running in 2005; too bad.

Seems like it might have been a downer day, but I got in a good walk in some brisk but sunny weather.

Dinner was at a great place recommended by the desk clerk at the Marriott Courtyard where I stayed and was just the next block over. Luigi’s Italian Village on the maps is really Luigi’s Cafe Bengoti. A real hole in the wall, about a dozen tables and a kitchen, right on the corner. My gnochi amaricci was wonderful… potato dumplings and bacon in a rich tomato sauce. Where’s the recipe?