We called it the Rust Belt Honeymoon Road Trip. The hope was that the humor 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 and Buffalo, two one-time commercial colossuses. Both had handsome architecture and grand avenues. We felt certain that Toledo 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, 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. 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 on March 13: supremely bad timing. As the coronavirus spread, America closed up. We knew we had to head back home.
I canceled all the hotel and restaurant reservations. There would be no cocktails at the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland; no visit to the jazz pianist Art Tatum’s birthplace in Toledo; no tour of the Detroit Athletic Club, where the Last Word cocktail may or may not have been born; no sinus-clearing shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis; no walk through the wonderland of modern architecture that is Columbus, Indiana; no chili in Cincinnati.
Instead, it would be honeymooning in place in Brooklyn.
We returned to a city entirely different than the one we left only days before. It was shut down and eerily quiet. But in this strange new world, we found ways to pick up where we left off.
Parts of old New York — as old as the places we had planned to hit to the west — were still nominally functioning in a sort of tourist-free diorama mode. Timeless joints like Peter Luger Steak House, Sam’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Cobble Hill, Brennan & Carr in Sheepshead Bay and Rao’s in East Harlem were doing takeout. McSorley’s was offering its classic ales and cheese plates to go.
We had the days to admire the city’s deep well of architecture during long, socially distant walks. And we continued our grave site tourism at Green-Wood Cemetery. I thought this must be what it was like in the 19th century, when Green-Wood was a popular strolling destination. Except with masks.
I asked Mary Kate if she wanted to give the road-trip honeymoon another try once things had returned to some semblance of normalcy. She didn’t. This was our honeymoon. It had been unique and unpredictable. Moreover, it felt like a continuation of what we had planned.
We longed to tour the Rust Belt because we felt those cities represented a world loved but fast disappearing. The pandemic made us realize how the same fate might befall New York. The shutdown had stripped the city of all the usual noise, traffic and distractions, leaving the mighty and distinctive framework of the quieted metropolis as a stark reminder of why people live here in the first place.
We spent the rest of our honeymoon money on the bars, restaurants and shops we loved and hoped to see again on the other side. Though not able to patronize any of these places in person, we were somehow more present in New York, and New York was more present with us, than at any time I can remember.
We took walks through the city’s many layers of history. One traced all five of the bridges that cross the Gowanus Canal; another touched base at each of the novelist Thomas Wolfe’s several Brooklyn homes.
The takeaway food and cocktails (a previously unthinkable and wonderfully illicit-seeming development!) somehow tasted better given the time, effort and risk involved. The lard bread at Mazzola Bakery and the sfingi at Court Pastry Shop, two institutions in our neighborhood, had always been top notch. Now they felt like miracles. Each time we returned home, we marveled anew at our luck that we lived in such a place.
Meanwhile, every day at 7 p.m., we go on the back porch and bang pots and cheer for the first responders. It’s an effort, and a city, worth cheering on.
“See you tomorrow!” the little girl from the ground-floor apartment says each day from her backyard after the whooping subsides. See you tomorrow.