Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Notes on Trip to Pennsylvania

I was in greater Philadelphia, where most of my relatives, including all of my parents and siblings, still live, for Thanksgiving. I still go there about three times a year, so I usually don't think it worthwhile to record the visit on the site, but I think this time I will.

First I have to get this out of the way: There was a real northeast Philly girl working the counter at the Wawa on Oxford Avenue who had the kind of hair I like--dark, piled and pinned carelessly and luxuriously like a big swirling soft serve ice cream on top of her head, etc. It sent a wave of sensations over me that I identified as partaking of 'home' and a certain lost life with which I never connected, and which was seemingly never meant to be mine. Nonetheless I immediately felt a sentimental kinship, doubtless unshared, towards this attractive person whom I imagined as having sprung from the same patch of earth and cultural milieu as I had, who was one of the tribe, so to speak, of which I was by birth a member, though I became pretty quickly lost to it. She said "Have a good one" to me when I left in the ironic, coolly reserved manner intended to convey toughness with which many native females of that city are wont to address strangers, but I was actually comfortable with it on this occasion. It had become reassuring to me.

The more polite readers may now be thinking to themselves "all this over a cashier?" But I have always had a thing for shopgirls, though we can't even really call women of this class shopgirls anymore. Indeed, one of the various absurd trips and adventures I used to plan in my young days was going to be a driving tour of the back roads of the northeast, staying in cheap motels and luring such girls as I encountered working at convenience stores and supermarkets and K-Marts in these towns that time had passed by back to my room to drink cases of Schaefer and Genessee (these kind of girls can really put it away) in cans with the lights dimmed and the curtains pulled, occasionally picking up someone a little more upscale at the local library or bookstore to try to keep it real. Yes, while the genuinely intelligent and serious members of my generation were mastering multiple foreign languages, or the medical arts, or computers, or devising means of fostering economic growth or providing clean tap water in Africa, I was dreaming of someday being great enough to casually seduce the skinny blonde with a chronic sinus infection working the express lane at the Stop N Shop in Elmira. Surely, any mature readers must say, these are the ravings of a idiot (I prefer madman, but no one believes in madness anymore). But in all innocence, at the time I thought this was the way all the most interesting people really lived. The heroes of books and movies and songs, at least recent ones, are never depicted doing any hard work, or if they are, they are usually looking to quit and hit the road at the first opportunity.

The problem of work, incidentally, once I got to be nominally an adult, was probably the major stumbling block to my being able to remain in Philadelphia. Every job I ever had there was so miserable, and the prospects for ever getting anything bearable seemed so grim, that I began to interpret the situation as the City's gods being determined, for some inscrutable reason, to drive me away. The connections of my large extended family were, alas, of little use. One of my aunts got me a job essentially as a janitor for some small-time entrepreneur she knew, who then wouldn't pay me, and whose office I had to stalk for several weeks in order to get somebody to cut me a check, which sorts of confrontations not being the kinds of thing I get a big charge out of anyway. Another place I worked, one of those small, stuffy city offices where lifelong neighborhood men who are walking heart attacks waiting to go off like to scream and hurl invectives at each other for no apparent reason other than to relieve boredom, was under investigation by the FBI or the IRS shortly after I left. Work culture in Philadelphia generally is, like much else there, marked by a certain dogged negativity and exaggerated sturm und drang that being at the bottom of the pyramid I just couldn't endure for 40-50 hours a week. In short I wasn't strong enough to cut it there and I had to bail out--a second time, the first being when I went to college--to a softer, less demanding environment.

On Saturday we went to a model train show in one of the now disused stations (Ogontz for anyone familiar with the area) in my old neighborhood. The state of Pennsylvania in general is mad for anything connected with trains, real or toys. Apparently I am too, for while we were invited to this exhibition by my brother-in-law, Mrs S pointed out that this was the third model train-themed attraction we had gone to in PA in the last two years. The first was the almost incomparable Roadside America which is out beyond Reading, and which I cannot recommend enough to anyone passing through that area on I-78, as it takes an hour at most to see the whole display. This is the kind of place that has framed and autographed photos of Pat Boone and Fox News personalities (that guy with the glasses and the stiff wall of blond hair especially stands out in my mind) hanging in the lobby. The many hundreds of buildings and other constructions which constitute the miniature world were built individually by hand by one man from the 1920s to the 1960s. The result is an idealized version of what Pennsylvania, especially the mountainous and industrial towns of it, looked like around 1943, which seems to be generally agreed upon in PA model train circles as having been the state's golden age, for all of the competing exhibitions are set in this same period. Usually at least once in your tour around the great room where the set-up is, they will dim the overhead lights and make it nighttime in Roadside America, there being however many hundreds of little street lamps, bridge lamps, lit-up stations, etc that you do not have to fear being groped or pickpocketed. At this juncture too there is a little light show projected onto the far wall of the building, featuring Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" accompanied by shimmering juxtaposed images of Jesus and the American flag.

The third place we went by the way was the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum in Strasburg, which is out in Amishland (the Amish have a longstanding and I suspect twisted relationship with trains and railroad culture). This place is actually mostly real trains.
Since I do drive back and forth between New England and the Mid-Atlantic so much I get very tired of taking the same roads all the time, and am always trying to find different ones so long as they don't add too many hours to the trip. Lately I have been going on state roads all the way across Vermont and picking up I-87, the New York State Thruway, in Albany. I don't quite know why, but I like this road. Going west I have been on the Thruway as far as Utica, to which I took my ever suffering family on a weekend trip a few years ago because I had never been out that way, and I wanted to see what it was like, and I liked that too. The Thruway makes my old home highway, the PA Turnpike, to which it is similar as far as conception, very limited access, the exits 20 miles apart and all that, really look like a dump. Besides being surprisingly (to me )well-maintained--the roads in Pennsylvania have to be the worst-maintained in the country, and I would have assumed that New York would have even more problems in that regard--the lanes appear to be wider, or the merging traffic on-ramps better designed, or something. One never feels, even in pretty heavy traffic, that the other cars, or barriers, are anywhere near you, which is a source of constant stress on other highways. One of these days I will probably do a series of comprehensive articles on my favorite roads, bridges, train and bus stations, bus lines, airports, rest areas, etc, but I will spare my public those ruminations for the present.

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