Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Trip to New York

The two loyal readers of this blog will recall that in previous posts I've talked about my participation in the McNair scholarship program and its requirement for all scholars to present their research at a national conference.  The conference I chose to present at was the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), which this year was held in Ithaca, New York.  And any time McNair requires us to go somewhere (this was the third interstate trip I've taken with the program), they pay for all incurred expenses and also make all the travel arrangements.  Sounds like a sweet deal, right?


So last Wednesday, I left with three other students from my school to go to this NCUR conference.  Let's call these three guys Winston, Tweaker, and Brain.  Winston and Brain are also McNair scholars, and Tweaker was already friends with Brain, so we all got along well.  And we were all doing poster presentations, so we each had bazooka-sized plastic poster tubes strapped across our chests.  Lots of people were asking what our problem was.

With our various layovers and transfers, we ended up riding three different airplanes to get to western New York.  For me, this was almost too much to bear.  I HATE flying so, so, so much.  And not just the hideous fluorescent airport environment, the cramming all your toiletries into an impossibly tiny bag, and people rifling through your stuff, but the plane ride itself, which gives me terrible headaches and nausea and messes up my ears.  Of the 13 plane trips I've taken in my life, the only thing I can remember about each of them is sitting hunched over, concentrating on the zig-zag edges of my barf bag, my head throbbing, my stomach roiling and my mouth watering in anticipation of the bilious chunks threatening to explode from my insides.  The human body did not evolve to be catapulted through the stratosphere at 500mph, so why do we do this to ourselves?  Oh, it's fast?  What a bunch of horse shit.   

So around 10:30pm, after 13 hours of pukey plane rides, tiring layovers, and messing around with rental cars, taxis, and terminal buses, Tweaker went on his way to a real hotel and Brain and Winston and I finally pulled up to the bed and breakfast in which the McNair coordinators had arranged for us to stay.  This B&B was an oddly-shaped white building near the top of a hill, on a lonesome country road with no sidewalks, and a single eerie light anchored to its porch swept a chilly hand over the misty moonscape.

"What is this, a haunted house?" Winston cracked.

All I knew was that I was so exhausted I could have probably slept through anything.  We went inside and were greeted by a large, chatty woman I shall call Ms. Blobby.  She explained all the obvious things about the place, then took me to my room:

The B&B was right next to Ithaca College, where we'd be presenting, so we wouldn't need a shuttle or taxi, she said.  We could just walk.  She then pointed out the huge window in the center of my room to the city lights below.  "That big black spot is the lake, which you'll see in the morning, and Ithaca College is right down the hill.  And the remote for the TV...blah blah blah..."

"I won't be watching TV," I said.  "I'm going right to bed."

"Oh yes, you were traveling all day!" she cried.

"Yes, ALL day," I confirmed. 

"Okay, well, I'm just babbling 'cause I'm tired, but anyway, blah blah blah...blah blah blah...blah blah blah...and it's kind of cold in there but I've turned on the space heater...blah blah should warm up soon...blah blah blah."

Finally she stopped talking and I retired to the silence of my room.  Ms. Blobby was right--it was freezing in there.  As I explored the room, I checked the long radiators running the length of the bathroom and the sleeping area, and they were ice blocks.  I cranked the space heater all the way up.  I tried not to be bothered too much by this insane coldness, and instead tried to be amused by the circus-like tile work:

By the time I cleaned up for bed, organized my things for the next day, turned out the lights, and climbed into the frozen bed, it was almost midnight, and I realized I wouldn't be getting a full night's sleep tonight, either.  I had to get up at 6am to leave by 7:30 so I could find my way to the college, register, eat, and set up my poster for my 9am presentation.  I wanted to give myself lots of time to get there, because I had no idea which road to take to get there, and had only one little blurry, unscaled, undetailed map that the McNair coordinators had given me.  And I was scheduled to present during the very first round on the very first day of this conference.

And man, that space heater was good for the birds.  It was turned to the highest setting for 6 straight hours, did absolutely nothing.  I stayed in a tight fetal position the entire night, shaking and shivering, and the exact spot were I was laying got slightly warm, but if I dared move a finger or a toe, it would touch the ice-cold sheets surrounding me and I would start shivering again.  When I did finally slip away into dreamland, I had one nightmare after another about my presentation going all wrong.  That night was so horrible. 

So the next morning I woke up before dawn, and I took care to look immaculate, and I had my bazooka tube and my little map, and I was ready to just get this presentation over with.  It was kind of foggy and damp outside, and before I left I took a picture of the "lake":

And as soon as my high-heeled boot hit the road, it started raining.  Then snow-sleeting.  Of course I had no umbrella because I already had my hands full.  I just walked quickly in the direction that Ms. Blobby had told me--down the hill. 

So I was trudging up and down the muddy highway, though a couple different neighborhoods, in my ironed business dress, in heels, in the freezing rain, alone, with cars whizzing past me at 60mph.  And there was no sign of a college campus anywhere.  I saw a utility worker and asked him for help.  He said the college was not down the hill, but up the hill.  So I had to turn around and go all the way back up to the top of this goddamned mountain.  And it kept raining harder and harder.

See, if I had been staying in a real hotel downtown, I would have been able to catch one of the free shuttles that NCUR was providing for all students who were staying in those real hotels.  Plus there were city buses following the same route.  But no-oo-oo...we had to stay at a bed and breakfast out in the country, where there were no bus stops, no free shuttles, and no sidewalks.

So after 35 minutes of walking in the rain/snow, I arrived at the registration counter literally dripped wet and fucking pissed off, full of mud, exhausted, and steaming with sweat from all this fucking mountain climbing, while, gee, everyone else was totally dry.

I spent a while in the bathroom running paper towels over myself, through my dripping hair, wiping off the mascara that had smudged little black points under my eyebrows, blotting at the sweat streams running down my back.  And all this cleaning up meant that now I didn't have time to walk all the way to the other side of campus for the free NCUR breakfast.  So not only was I forced to skip the free breakfast at the B&B, but also the free breakfast at the conference.  And when I get that hungry, I just want to start throwing shit.

I had to do a lot more walking anyway, in my high heels, in the rain, to get to my presentation room.  After I set up my poster, I tried to clean all the mud and salt stains off my boots, but to no avail.  I seriously looked like I had stolen shoes from a homeless person.  I went back to my tripod and stood in front of my poster, and it was 8:58am, and I was looking around at all the other posters, which were way more solemn and sober and professional, and I loved that I had put a Beavis and Butthead graphic on mine.  I couldn't help but grin and chuckle a little, and I believe this gave me a certain glow.

Despite the rough start, my presentation itself was quite painless and even a little fun.  The 80 minutes went by quickly.  I knew my topic inside and out and was not fazed by any questions anyone asked, and a lot of people seemed genuinely interested in my research.  Even the guy who had a poster set up across from mine commented, "Wow, yours seems pretty popular!"  I kept an eye out for Brain, Tweaker, and Winston, because even though they were presenting at later times and on different days, I had assumed they would stop by my tripod and say hello.  But they did not come.  And then I realized it was stupid of me to think that.  Why would I think that?  They're not my friends.  So I erased my penciled plans to attend theirs.

After my presentation was over at 10:20, I carefully read through the entire directory to see if there would be any presentations on physical anthropology, but there wasn't a single one.  There were some other political science and psychology presentations that sort of piqued my interest, but those students had presented during the same time I had and were now gone.  The next several days featured hundreds of biology, chemistry, and engineering presentations with titles like:
  • Does Personality Change in Different Settings? Evaluating Boldness in the Siberian Dwarf Hamster
  • Nano-porous Silicon Substrates for Controlling the Nucleation and Growth of Hydroxyapatite in Hydrogels
  • Improving Feasibility of Continuous Extraction Systems for Organic Acids from Microbial Fermentations by Utilizing Phosphonium Ionic Liquids Impregnated in Adsorbent Resins
  • Role of Farnesoid X Receptor (FXR) and Liver X Receptor (LXR) in the Regulation of Vascular Calcification

For some reason, I wasn't really digging these topics.  So I went to the gymnasium/lunchroom and happened to see Tweaker, Brain, and Winston arrive.  I went over to them and Brain greeted me with a snide joke.  I ignored it and asked if they had trouble finding the place like I did.  No, they said it was very easy.  Of course.  Of course it was easy for them.  They had all morning to sleep in, to find a better map, and to take their time getting there, after the morning fog had lifted, when it wasn't raining.

I went to the less crowded side of the gym and ate by myself, thinking that was enough human interaction for the day.  I was starving but couldn't chew the tough, cold sub sandwiches because my braces were hurting, so after choking down a few chunks whole, I tossed my plate.  And there was no other food option besides chips and hard cookies.  The student supervisors patrolling the gym had decided it was too hot in there, so they propped open the outside doors that were right behind me, and suddenly I was enveloped in massive gusts of freezing cold air.  What is with this fucking place?  All I want is to be warm!  Why is that too much to ask?  And it's not like my sopping wet coat was keeping me warm.

I didn't care that the day's schedule was bursting at the seams with keynote speakers, hundreds more presentations, and evening tours of downtown Ithaca.  My basic needs of food and warmth were not being met, so I left the conference around noon on the first day, and never went back.  Instead I hiked down the cold, muddy mountain to the B&B, put on my frozen pajamas, turned on the frozen space heater, climbed into the frozen bed, and slept for the next 6 hours. 

I woke up around suppertime, starving, shivering, the tip of my nose cold and drippy.  I had been shivering for nearly 19 hours straight, and it was starting to get really irritating.  I bundled up in casual clothes and as I was locking up my room to leave and go find food, Ms. Blobby and some girl from Montana were chatting in the living room.  The girl was asking Ms. Blobby if she could turn up the heat because her and her group's upstairs suite was cold.

"Well, the thermostat is on 75 already," Ms. Blobby said.  "Hope, is your room cold?"

"It's FREEZING," I practically shouted.  "Both radiators are ice cold and have been since I got there, and that space heater doesn't do anything."

"Oh, well, I'll just have to turn it up for you.  I only had it on a low setting."

"No, I've had it turned on to its highest setting for the past 6 hours, and it did absolutely nothing.  My hands are cold, my nose is cold.  It's freezing in there.  You can go in my room now if you don't believe me." 

I unlocked my door, and Ms. Blobby stood in the living room and reached out her hand, apparently expecting a windy gust of air to blow out.  Then, instead of going in to see if she could somehow fix the radiators, she made all kinds of excuses as to why the heating system was failing, why the space heater sucked, blah blah blah. 

"Where are you from?" Montana Girl said, ready for me to say "Florida" or something, ready to snicker at me for thinking it was cold when it really wasn't.

"Wisconsin, " I shot back.  Yeah, that's right.  The land where our football team's home stadium is nicknamed The Frozen Tundra.  No, I'm not crazy, no I'm not a spoiled princess from California.  I know what cold is, k?  And that room was unbearable.

"You should just keep your door open," Ms. Blobby said, something that she would say to me over and over during my stay.  "Then all the heat from the living room can get into your room." 

I found this suggestion unreasonable, and did not comply.  I shouldn't have to expose all my electronics and valuables to theft just to make my room fit for human habitation.  If a room's heater is broken during the winter, no guests should be put in there.  I thought about asking for another room, but I had been assured that the heater was just about to kick in.  No really, just about to kick in.  No, for real this time.

I locked my door and left to pick my way down the muddy, rocky, shoulderless mountain highway, down into Ithaca city.  I didn't realize how dangerous this was until I found cars barreling maniacally around the sharp, hilly curves, skimming past me, blaring their horns.  I had been told that Ithaca was beautiful, but when I got into town, all I saw were blocks upon blocks of run-down, abandoned houses, and it reminded me of when I lived in southern Ohio, of the cardboard and tin shacks that the Appalachian people lived in. 

I finally reached the downtown area, which was swarming with NCUR students still dressed up in their business attire, their NCUR name tag lanyards dangling from their necks.  All the restaurants were packed to the brim with noisy people, all except for Jimmy Johns, which was nearly empty.  I placed my order there and asked directions for a grocery store, but the clerk actually refused to tell me where it was because I was traveling by foot and not by car. 


I then bumped into Brain and Winston, who revealed that they were on their way to have dinner with the Montana girls, and that they had not walked but taken the city bus from Ithaca College, because they had overheard from some other girl that NCUR students could ride the city bus for free if they showed the bus driver their lanyard.  But of course, I hadn't known this and did not have my lanyard, so I had to pay for a bus ride up the mountain to Ithaca College, from which I had to walk in the mud halfway back down the mountain, in the rain, to the B&B, where my room was still cold.

I was starting to think that this trip was sucking on so many levels, and that I didn't want to be there anymore, and that I needed to go home immediately.  I had already fulfilled my McNair requirement to present at a conference.  I had presented on a topic (civic engagement) that I no longer wish to research, in a field (political science) that I'll no longer be formally studying.  I'd already been accepted to grad school and had no reason to chat with the grad school reps that were roaming the conference.  What was I going to do for the next 2 1/2 days?  There was nothing of interest to me downtown.  I had brought homework, books, and movies, but the B&B was driving me crazy.  I thought of the students who had stopped by my poster and listened to me explain my research, and I realized that that was very nice of them and that I should do the same for other students, but I had been shivering almost continuously for the past 24 hours, and I was going into survival mode.  I'm dying.  I can't be here anymore.

That night, Thursday, I asked Ms. Blobby if there was a Greyhound station in Ithaca.  Upon her affirmation, I asked if she had the phone number for it, and of course that prompted her to ask why, and where I was going, what I was I trying to do, etc.  I only said that I had too much homework and needed to go home.  To my surprise, she let me use her computer to buy a will-call ticket online from  I found out that it would only take one day to get home, that I would be home by Saturday afternoon.  Woo-hoo!  I thanked her and printed out my ticket confirmation and itinerary, and went back to my room and did a happy dance.  Then I heard the radiator kick in, and I did another happy dance.  And then I slept well.

The next morning I walked into the breakfast room and saw Brain and two of the girls already there.

"I heard you're leaving," he said.

"Yes, and I'm SO happy," I said.  I could feel my eyes involuntarily smiling as I said it, although I was disappointed I didn't get to tell him and Winston myself.  I had kind of wanted to see their reaction.  Maybe they would have not reacted at all, or laughed, or asked if I was kidding.  But I would never know, because Ms. Blobby had blabbed, as I knew she would.  She soon came and sat with us.

"So your bus leaves at...?" she said.

"Two-thirty," I replied.

She chattered about buses and planes for some time, then turned to me.  "I feel so bad for you!" she exclaimed, blinking hard with amazement.

"Why?" I asked, puzzled.

"Well, you'll be on a...bus!"

I explained that I had ridden Greyhounds much farther than this dozens of times.  "It's not a big deal at all.  In fact, I prefer road travel to flying.  I hate flying."

"But it's so far!  Blah blah blah...blah blah blah...!"

Hmph. What a perfectly poetic misunderstanding.  Here I was, paying extra money out of my own pocket to extract myself from these unhappy accommodations, this weird town, this crowded conference, and joyed to the core that I'd be getting home early and would soon be back in my own warm soft bed, using my own computer, eating braces-friendly food from my own fridge, and being able to come and go as I please without anyone annoying me with questions as to where, or why, or offering unsolicited commentary on my travel plans.  And she felt bad for me!  I sipped my orange juice and savored the irony.

I'm not normally this bitchy when I travel, I swear.  But I've noticed a pattern.  When I make my own travel arrangements and am in control of where I stay, what I eat, how I get from place to place, I have a great time and experience few problems.  But when I am at the mercy of other people making travel arrangements for me, things always seem to get hairy really quickly, and I end up having a terrible time.

Conclude what you may.

Anyway, the Ithaca Greyhound station was, er, quaint.  Exhibit A - the bubbler ("drinking fountain"):

Exhibit B - the fortune-telling machine:

My first bus was delayed, which threw off the rest of my connection schedule, so I didn't get home till Saturday evening.  But still, I was SO happy to be on my way back to the Shire.  Actually I met a lot of interesting people on the bus, and learned several of their names and stories.  From Buffalo to Chicago I sat next to a delightful little French girl named Miléna, Miléna of Brittany.  Her English was fantastic, and we talked at length about Breton cider, Avalonian mythology, French and American politics, music, movies, culture, our shared love of literature and writing.  She gave me her email address and said if I ever visited Brittany and needed a place to stay, to contact her.  Aww!!  If I could pick a little sister, it would be her.  Or someone exactly like her.  So I'd say I made more useful social connections on the Greyhound than I did at this fancy-schmancy national conference.  

And when I flung open the door to my apartment, where it was warm and smelled good and was stocked with tasty foods and where everything was exactly as I had left it, I did another happy dance.  Then I unpacked and got back to eating normally, and dived into my yummy bed that smells like ME!  I slept so deeply and so long.  Then this morning I saw a Facebook message from one of the Montana girls, and didn't recognize the name or the face.  I had only met a few of them, and even then only in passing.  She wrote:

Hey there! I was staying in the [bed and breakfast] same as you were for NCUR. I'm so sad you left... I wish you would've stayed.... I think you wouldve had fun with us. But I understand after these two days ... In all, Best of luck to you!!!!!

Well, I for one am not sad.  That trip was aggravating all the way around, so I came home early, and I am VERY happy I did so.