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Tag: nostalgia

One for the road …

There are times – despite what you may believe – that my dog is not at my side. One of them was Saturday night.

Once or twice a year, a select group of friends and I make it a point to visit all the old-time bars – those among the dwindling few in South Baltimore that haven’t been upscaled yet.

I’m talking about the sort of neighborhood places that are named after a guy as opposed to a concept, the kind where you’re still  called “hon,” and where the food — if they have anything beyond bags of chips and a giant jar of pickled eggs atop the bar — is never  “encrusted,” just flat out fried.

As Ace and I prepare to hit the road, it seemed a good time to do it again – to say goodbye not just to friends, but to a few old, not yet gentrified bars that might not be here when I get back, including one that I’d just found out will be the next to go.

So we started there, at Bill’s Lighthouse Tavern.

Popular with old-timers and newcomers alike, the Lighthouse serves up huge portions of food, at affordable prices. When its owner Bill Wedemeyer died last year, his wife, Adele, kept it going, drawing in a steady crowd with its famous crabs, and impressive buffets on Ravens game days.

According to the sign posted in the window, Bill’s Lighthouse has been sold to new owners from California, who plan to transform it into “Café Velocity” and add outdoor dining. Currently, the only al fresco dining that takes place is done by the stray cats (like my former houseguest Miley) who are drawn by handouts from the kitchen staff.

After paying our respects at the Lighthouse, we moved on – first, right across the street, to Leon’s, home base of the Attaboy Club, whose members were holding a meeting in the back room, probably to plot their next bull/oyster/pig roast. The Attaboy Club is always roasting something.

Leon’s is unusual in that it has no outside sign. It’s a nondescript white building that caters mostly to a stalwart crowd of regulars. Yet it has always been warm and inviting when our old school bar crawl crowd shows up. My connection to it, as well as the Lighthouse, began when Ace poked his head through the door.

From Leon’s we moved on to Schaefer’s, whose bar is one of oldest in the city – a carryover from the days that male customers didn’t walk to the bathroom to relieve themselves, instead utilizing the trough-like drain that ran the length of the bar. (Not everything about the good old days was good.)

The sidewalks leading to Schaefer’s are emblazoned with the painted-on jerseys of Raven’s players, and in the back room, you can find a purple pool table.

Moving on to Rayzer’s just up the street, we got a bucket of pony-sized beers and blew a few dollars playing the video horse race game, learning, among other things, the difference between quinella and trifecta.

The last old school bar stop was Muir’s Tavern, whose glowing orange neon sign and upstairs turret give it the look of a medieval whorehouse, and I mean that in a good way.

As we arrived, Natasha, the bartender, stood outside. One customer, Mary, had run home across the street for a moment, and Natasha was worried that – Mary being small and the winds being fierce that night – she might blow away when she tried to return.

Alas, Mary made it back, and reassumed her position at the video slot machine. Our group kept itself entertained with the low-tech bowling game and Muir’s sophisticated Internet jukebox, which lets you download any song, it seems, in the world.

As you can see, though I didn’t have my dog, I had my camera along, and thanks to it and Iris Dement, we were able to throw together this tribute before we depart — a musical slide show about a slowly fading side of South Baltimore.

Montana: The love affair continues

John Steinbeck and I — in addition to traveling with our dogs, being about the same age when we set forth on our journeys, having the same first names, and a lot of the same letters in our last ones — share something else as well.

A mistress.

I have trysted with her three times — as a reporter in the early 1990′s, as a visiting professor in 2007, and as whatever it is I am now. She’s as beautiful and inviting as she was the first time we met — and, I’m sure, as she was 50 years ago, when she seduced John Steinbeck.

“I am in love with Montana,” Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley. It was his first trip to the state. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

He babbled on, as people in love do: “…the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda … the calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants … the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”

“Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”

Steinbeck — apparently getting into being “out west” — stopped in Billings and bought a cowboy hat. In Butte, he bought a rifle. He dipped down into Yellowstone National Park, but after seeing Charley’s reaction to bears that approached his car — “He became a primitive killer lusting for the blood of his enemy” — he turned around and spent night in Livingston.

Ace and I stopped in Billings, in Bozeman, in Butte, and have arrived in Missoula — with no new hats and no sidearms. I am considering investing in a pair of gloves though. Winter is clearly on the way. People are stacking their wood, squirrels are hoarding their nuts, and the sky is taking on that steelier glow it does here in winter.

Once again, the return to a place I briefly called home has triggered memories. The closer I got to Missoula — winding through the hills alongside the Clark Fork River — the more of them resurfaced, leading me to wonder how I could have temporarily misplaced them, especially those that were only three years old.

I guess, they go into deep storage, like the earliest nuts the squirrels gather — pushed to the back to make room for new ones. But I don’t think I get a vote in the matter; it just happens. Returning to a place seems to make them accessible again; I can — with a little help from a familiar sight, sound, or smell — pull them out of the disorganized file cabinet that is my mind, open them up and say, “Oh, yeah, I remember that now.”

It could be something as simple as the lay of the land — they way grassy golden hills climb up into the big blue sky, a sharp curve in crystal clear river, the golden outline of Tamaracks among evergreen. Just seeing the general scale and expanse of it all triggers Montana memories — even memories that have nothing to do with the scale and expanse of it all.

Nearing Missoula — and (after North Dakota turned bleak) getting to experience fall all over again — I was surprised how the yellows were popping on the trees, and by how many things were popping into my head.

Some of them were from nearly 20 years ago — visiting the Unabomber’s former, still forlorn, shack in the woods; hanging out in radon mines, where people soak in radioactivity to heal what ails them; documenting the influx of celebrities to the state, which back then were becoming as common, and unloved, as deer.

Some of them — memories, I mean, not celebrities — were only three years old, and less dusty: long hikes in the mountains; the little house we rented, dubbed the “shack-teau,” while I was a visiting journalism professor at the University of Montana; the peaceful (mostly) campus; my earnest (mostly) students; and how we chased the muck train — as it began transferring mining waste that had collected in the river outside Missoula 100 miles back east to a little town called Opportunity — for our class project.

Memories that had faded like ghost signs kept returning — of fellow professors; of time spent at the student newspaper, The Kaimin; of a party, or two, or three, or four; and how I didn’t (really, really didn’t) want to leave when the semester was over. Because I flat out loved it.

And therein — on top of returning to a place, seeing and smelling it — is one of the keys to recalling times past, at least for me. Your brain alone can’t always take you back there; sometimes, it needs an assist from the heart.

The ghost signs of Butte

Here’s my theory: The more ghost signs a town has, the more ghosts it probably has, too.

Butte, Montana, it should come as no surprise, has plenty. Of both.

Here are some of the ones that, during just 30 minutes of driving around town one day this week, we came across  – touting  cigars, beer and hotels that have all been long outlived by their hand-painted advertisements.

Flor de Baltimore was a cigar brand that appears to go back at least a century or so. I’m not sure if its named after Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland, or the city. I’m guessing Flor means flower, which isn’t the first thing that Baltimore brings to my mind, but maybe the imagery the city evoked was different back then.

Most of the signs are for hotels — long since gone, but luxurious in their day, and even fireproof, which was a good thing considering all the mining executives who were probably lighting up Flor de Baltimores in their beds.

Those were the glory days, though — back when the copper mines were thriving and Butte was a rollicking city of 100,000.

Now, only about a third as many people live here. Mining, though it still goes on, is nowhere near what it once was. You can’t find a good whorehouse when you need one (and they say the defunct one is haunted). And nobody’s drinking Butte Special Beer. It was brewed by a company that, more than 100 years old, closed in 1963.

There’s a big difference between what was in Butte and what is in Butte. Some look at Butte and see a depressing town; some see a fight-hardened survivor, a town that’s testament to man’s resiliency. Some see only its rough edges; some see its rich and colorful history, faded over time.

The New Tait hotel is not only not new anymore; it’s non-existent, but the old sign remains, as does the building, since converted into apartments.

Butte is the hometown of Evel Knievel. One of its tops tourist draws is a huge mine pit, part of a Superfund site that encompasses the historic district as well. If towns can be eccentric, Butte is — and quite proudly so.

But it’s also haunting — a place where the sun and clouds cast shadows that crawl, tarantula like, up and down its high hills; where mining has left poisons lurking, zombie like, beneath the surface.

Today, Butte is equal parts defunct and funky; gritty and, if you look hard, graceful. The ghost signs bring back memories of the freewheeling greatness that was; but they also are reminders to Butte that, in some ways, it’s a has-been.

But has-beens — and I know some, personally – seem to love regressing to the glory days, recalling better times. When the present’s not so great, the past seems more worth revisiting.

The trick is to not get stuck there — to appreciate what was, but keep looking at what could be … all, of course, while not forgetting to appreciate what is.

Before it fades away.

Reflections on an American icon

One can see fall in an Airstream, or one can see fall on an Airstream.

Here, we do the latter, allowing the shiny aluminum trailer, a genuine American icon, to reflect, in addition to all else it is a reflection of, Autumn’s many hues.

Call it Artstream — a term I just invented, I think, that I will sell to you for $10,000. It is going to be all the rage, unless someone has done it before, in which case it will be half the rage (and $5,000). If you’d prefer to just have one of the photographs, they are only $1,000.

All proceeds will go towards buying me an Airstream of my own.

Why? Because they’re awesome.

Seeing them being pulled down the highway, like big toasters on wheels, always lifts my spirits, and passing one provides a good opportunity to check myself out and, if necessary, fix my hair. Best yet, they take me back to yesteryear, where, I know, I’ve been going a lot lately.

They’ve got a pretty fascinating history, as explained on Airstream’s website, starting in 1929 when Wally Byam purchased a Model T Ford chassis, built a platform on it, and began his attempts to fashion a self-contained home on wheels.

After experimenting with canvas and tents, he built a tear-drop-shaped permanent shelter atop the platform that enclosed a small ice chest and kerosene stove. He then published an article, “How to Build a Trailer for One Hundred Dollars.” When readers wrote Byam for more detailed instructions, he began sellling them, for one dollar each, earning $15,000.

In 1932, after building several more trailers for friends in his backyard, Byam rented a building and the Airstream Trailer Company began.

Byam, according to the company website, was “a visionary who grasped the societal urge to journey and commune with like-minded people.” He was prone to wearing blue berets and, in addition to his fashion statements, was a master promoter, showman and dreamer.

His company’s list of trailer industry firsts would go on to include the first holding tank, the first pressurized water system, and in 1957 the first “fully self-contained travel trailer.”

 He once described his quest as building a trailer that “my lovely old grandmother might tow … to the middle of the Gobi Desert, there to live in gracious metropolitan luxury … without reloading, refueling, recharging or regretting.”

In the process, he came up with a form that, like old Coca-Cola bottles and McDonald’s arches, would bypass ephemera and get all the way to icon – becoming a shining one, no less.

So, no, I’m not really the artist. He was.

Grandpa’s house is for sale

 

You can repaint a house, remodel a house, update a house, but there’s one thing that no amount of changes can erase — the memories.

Some of them came back to me the minute I pulled into the driveway of my grandparent’s old house in Saugerties, N.Y., triggered by the crunch of gravel; more yet when I climbed the wooden stairs where the “Kingston Dairy” milkbox used to be; and even more when I rounded the corner on the vast front porch and was hit with the slight smell of mildew — the same one that was there 50 years ago.

That’s exactly what I came here for — not the mildew odor, but the memories, grown fuzzy over time, covered up by the subsequent layers of paint of my life.

Being there, I found them reinstilled by the sight, smell and sounds of what used to be my grandparent’s house: The hollow thud of my own footsteps on the wooden porch, the giant, climbable sheaths of slate near the back of the property, the sounds of highway traffic darting by — more now than when I fell asleep upstairs, waiting for the next passing car.

Standing outside the home, memories whizzed by as quickly as the cars — of my highly tidy grandmother, of my jokester of a grandfather, of my great grandmother who lived in the backroom, of pinochle and pot roast, of hot tea in the afternoon with tons of cream and sugar, of morning eggs and toast popped from a toaster that, when not in use, was always neatly blanketed with a cover that said “Hot Toast Makes the Butterfly,” of a certain cookie, a raisin-filled wafer whose name eludes me, but that we enjoyed before bed with ginger ale.

My grandparents are long gone, and the last time I saw the house was in 1999, when the Woestendiek family reunion was held in Saugerties and we descended on its current owner, a New York City lawyer, begging for a peek inside.

She kindly obliged back then, so I figured she wouldn’t mind — especially since she no longer lives there full-time — if I dropped by for another look. The house, once white with green trim, is now cream colored with burgundy trim. The old windows have been replaced with modern ones.

I peeked in a window and saw the kitchen, much modernized since the days my apron-clad grandmother would whip up the best dinners I’d ever tasted. And there was one more difference — a “for sale” sign in the front yard.

I called Amy Lonis, the real estate agent listed on the sign, and explained to her I wasn’t a potential buyer — much as I would like to be — but was interested because it had been my grandfather’s house.

She agreed to meet me the next day and let me inside.

Inside, it was a far different place than it used to be — lots of old furniture still, but filled with modern art, painted by the current owner.

The arms of the sofas and chairs were no longer neatly draped with the lace doilies that my grandmother was quick to set back in proper position whenever they got rumpled, as they inevitably did.

Even though it has been majorly revamped, with some new walls put up and some new windows added to let the sun in, with what used to be great grandma’s room turned into the laundry nook, there were still plenty of reminders of the past. While the bathroom has been equipped with a jacuzzi, I’m pretty sure I saw the old claw-footed bathtub — the one I used to watch Ivory soap float in — stored underneath the house.

Seeing the old house rekindled enough sweet memories that I wanted to buy it.

It would be the perfect place to write another book, even with the whizzing traffic, I thought. And how wonderful would it be to hold the family reunion of all family reunions — back at the place where the family got started?

Why didn’t I snap it up? For about 268,000 reasons.

With about 5.7 acres, it’s listed at a pretty reasonable price. Unfortunately, I’ve never been as frugal and money-wise as my grandparents (he was the village tax collector, and grandma did the books at the family laundry in Newark.)

They moved to Saugerties when doctors told him country living would be better for his health.

Apparently, it was. There, they would have three boys, starting with my father.

My father remembers, when he was but a toddler, going into my grandfather’s car, somehow releasing the parking brake and rolling down the driveway, across the highway into the field of apple trees across the street.

If traffic then — on the road from Saugerties to Woodstock — had been what it is now, I probably never would have happened.

After visiting the house, and dropping in on the town of Woodstock, I was headed back to the campground thinking about dinner. I stopped at the only grocery between Woodstock and Saugerties, a place run by an Englishman and featuring mostly goods imported from England.

I did find a can of Spam, though — the last one — and what I thought were those raisin cookies we used to eat at grandma’s. I bought them, too, and opened them up the next day for breakfast.

They weren’t the same thing. These were filled with currants, and had a crunchy wafer instead of a golden soft one. These were called Garibaldis.

When I opened them, even though they were a year from expiring, they crumbled in the package. When I tasted them, I made a face. I threw them away at the next garbage can.

The moral of all this is that — oftentimes at least – you can go home again. You can — at least in your mind — relive your past. You can even find the obscure cookies of your childhood, or at least what you think are the obscure cookies of your childhood.

Just don’t expect them to taste exactly the same.

Recapturing the past, one cow at a time

When John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley left Long Island for their cross country trip, Nixon and Kennedy were vying for the presidency, Russia was seen as the biggest threat to America, and I was seven years old, learning along with my classmates that the place to be during an attack — nuclear or otherwise — was under my desk, with my hands over my head.

Between the sturdy formica desktop, and my fat little hands, what harm could possibly come to me?

Despite those repeated drills, I felt safe growing up on Long Island — not too far from the cottage in Sag Harbor where Steinbeck lived and wrote. Not even Nixon scared me. In fact, before I knew any better, I was a fan.

Possibly I liked the near symmetry of his name. Possibly, though I don’t think I had hit the rebellious years yet, I was for Nixon because my parents were such big Kennedy supporters.

I remember, on a fall trip, probably just weeks before the election, sitting in the back seat of my parents Buick station wagon — the back back seat, which faced backwards, affording me a fine view not of where we were going, but of where we had been. It also gave me an opportunity to campaign for my man, Dick. I tore up sheets of paper, wrote “Vote for Nixon” on them with pencil, then licked them, hopefully avoiding lead poisoning, so they would stick on the inside of the back window — at least until my saliva dried up and they fell off and had to be licked again.

The drive to my grandparent’s home in Saugerties, 100 miles north of New York City, took about two hours — but, given our eagerness to arrive, it seemed much longer. “How many more miles?” I’d whine as we tooled along the New York Thruway.

As I headed there this week — in another nostalgia-provoked variation from Steinbeck’s route — my thoughts went back to those trips, and to 1960. So many things have changed over the 50 years since, and so many have not.

We still feel threatened. We’re still, politically, divided, and prone to showing our colors on bumper stickers. We’re still, as a society, as restless and impatient as a child in the back seat.

In many other ways, the world’s a different place — that child in the back seat being a perfect example.

In the 1960′s, I passed the time by reading (until I got car sick), campaigning for Nixon (until it got boring) and playing games. Most commonly, it was the cow-counting game. I would choose one side of the highway, my brother or sister would choose the other, and we’d each count the number of cows on our side. The one with the most cows won.

Today, I see children in passing minivans and SUV’s watching movies on built-in television screens, texting, talking on cell phones, listening to iPods and playing video games — all but oblivious to what exists outside the car.

One on hand, it seems another example of how we’ve grown less in touch with the world around us, more insulated, more computer-bound, less likely to relate to the earth we’re on and the other humans who occupy it.

When I was a child, we’d actually look at the scenery — especially when going through a “Fallen Rock Zone,” where I always watched for some to fall, but never saw any. Today’s youngsters, from what I see, might briefly look up from their video game, at their parents’ urging, when passing an amazing vista. But then it’s back to the little computer screen.

Not to sound too much like an old man — and not that I think counting cows necessarily makes for better adjusted children — but with all the beauty, in terms of scenery and people, that Ace and I have seen in our travels so far, I’m struck by how many people seem to ignore it, tuned in instead to their electronics.

The same seems to hold true outside of the car. On the street — be it Phoenix or Philadelphia — I see people so wrapped up in talking, texting and checking their email that they are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them.

Sure, some of those messages they’re sending and receiving may be urgent and necessary, but moreso, I think, being constantly “in touch” gives us a sense of importance, and  — like the gummy underside of my elementary school desk — a sense, false or not, of safety and security.

I think, too, that all the gadgetry is how we cope with boredom, how we fill our lives  – the modern day equivalent of whining “How many more miles?” rather than shutting up and appreciating the particular spot you are in.

Maybe it was a longing for the good old days — and the older we get, the gooder they seem — that drew me back to Saugerties, with no real plan other than driving by the old farmhouse my father grew up in, triggering some recollections of my grandparents, seeing how the little village had changed, and walking the streets of neighboring Woodstock.

Heading south from Albany, I pulled off the thruway and got on Highway 212, which runs between Saugerties and Woodstock. Rounding a curve I spotted the Centerville Fire Company — the landmark that, back in the 1960s, served as sign that we were almost there.

That was another game — being the first person to see “Grandpa’s fire house.” He was a member, and served as chief, of the volunteer fire department, as well as being tax collector for the village of Saugerties.

Being the first person to see Grandpa’s fire house was a far more important victory than winning the cow-counting game – more important than who might be attacking whom, or any presidential election. And it meant there were only three miles left to go.

Old habits being hard to break — even 50-year-old ones — I found myself rounding that curve, turning to Ace, and saying, out loud, “I see Grandpa’s fire house.”

Once again, I won.

Home is where the Hyatt is

 

Yesterday, I went searching for a piece of my past and found Hilton and Hyatt instead.

The house where I spent my seventeenth year – not quite 40 years ago – is gone, erased without a trace and replaced by a Hyatt Place hotel with, for your pleasure and convenience, Starbucks coffee and ample parking.

One purpose of my continuing journey across America, with my dog Ace, is to revisit some places of my past – both those I have recollections of and those whose memories, like some dog’s used-up bone, are buried in my head and difficult to locate without help.

On this trip, we’ve tried to dig some of them up. The triggers, we’ve found, can be a road once traveled, a scent once smelled, a song once heard,  or a human reconnection, be it with childhood friends, or college buddies.

Passing through Raleigh, I felt the need to visit the last house I lived in, before going off to college in nearby Chapel Hill — or at least the place where it once stood.

It was on Wake Forest Road, just a block or two off the beltline (I-440), once a sparsely populated stretch that ran from the town of Wake Forest into downtown Raleigh, lined, back then, by lots of woods and homes spread far apart.

Now, as it nears the beltline, Wake Forest Road is a lot less foresty. It’s Anyexit, USA, with a Denny’s, a Day’s Inn, a Marriott, a Hilton Inn and, on the property where I once lived and roamed, a Hyatt Place. Once nearly rural, it’s now upscale suburban – an area where weary travelers can get a tasty meal and a decent room exactly like those they got in the previous town and will get in the next one.

But 40 years ago, I can tell you, that same swath of land, now mostly paved over with parking lots, had character. Man, did it have character. Read more »

They saw him running about after butterflies in the text stored in the definition of the canoe in and out of her back.