Miscellenea (Part 1)
My half-hearted efforts to support local businesses in my Christmas shopping this year largely failed. I am not used to the kind of personal interaction that involves bantering with salespeople, and especially thinking of them as authorities on their various lines of goods to whose expertise I should appeal in making purchasing decisions. This is doubtless emblematic of wider cultural decline, but such habits of sociability need to be cultivated, and if a long grown person has never been forced to practice them, he isn't going to have them. Then of course the gradations of most products above a certain level of obvious cheapness are of little interest to me. I am usually more than content with a good of middling quality. Then other of these small business-people are shockingly bad salesmen. I went into an independent hobby store on Main Street which had not been open long determined to buy my 8-year old son an old-fashioned kind of model ship that you build yourself. I was the only person in the store, which immediately made me a sitting duck for the proprieter, who looked to be of that school of people who spent most of the time between age 14 and 22 playing Dungeons and Dragons or some such thing. I was poking around among the modest selection of model kits on display and he yelled from behind the counter "Can I help you?" I replied no and continued poking around, apparently unconvincingly, because thirty seconds later he demanded to know the age of the person for whom I was shopping. I reluctlantly answered this question. "I don't really have anything here for eight-year olds." Well, I guess that was that, wasn't it? The brown-haired girl working the cash register at Michael's craft store did not interrogate me about my purchases (though I might not have minded so much if she had) when I was driven there to get the thing I wanted.
I have similar difficulties shopping at my local independent bookstore, though it is pleasant and has an adequate selection. The owner however is just a bit smug for my liking. His literary taste as far as I can discern runs towards displays of cleverness, the more extreme and inaccessible the better, and antagonism to almost anything that might have a chance of genuinely appealing to any mind that could easily be tarred by the label 'conventional'. He is one of those tiresome individuals who seems to genuinely believe he has managed to escape mind-enslavement by the mass media and the ruling establishment (I should add that he went to Harvard, so he probably considers himself part of the ruling establishment even though he runs a small bookstore cafe in New Hampshire as opposed to a New York investment brokerage or whatever they are called) while everyone else has not. Buying a volume of Camus or, God forbid, one of the old New Yorker writers from this guy gets a smirk that struggles to contain itself from bursting into laughter. Weightier, or at least cleverer and less utterly cliched stuff, Gogol, say, or Mann or Thomas Pynchon, merits more of a raised eyebrow and a looking over, presumably to gauge one's capability of seriously taking on such a work. People who buy The Da Vinci Code? Given that his expectations of the local customer base appear to be pretty low, I assume he must have reached a comfort level with this class of patron. And besides, he has to pay his bills, right?
My wife, who apparently presents herself to educated people as one of their own kind in a way that seems to be beyond my ability to project, I should note gets along much better with this gentleman. He even cracks knowing jokes to her. One Christmas, while buying an installment of a popular children's series for one of our nephews, he quipped to her in a tired monotone, "Another victim of Lemony Snicket. Truly a series of unfortunate events." One wonders how long he had been waiting to break out that line...
I went down to Pennsylvania for a couple of days over the Christmas holiday. I don't stay long, because my family gets on my nerves--I probably would not go at all except that my wife, with her exquisitely attuned sense of propriety, thinks it is important--but I enjoy the trip at least. The way down, although 3 days had passed since the not-especially-big snowstorm which somehow managed to cripple that part of the country for several days, took 11 and half hours--that would be 4 hours from Concord to around Milford, CT, which is normal, and 7 1/2 more from there to Philadelphia, which is excessive. The roads in the New York area were essentially immobilized. After inching along for more than an hour to get over the bridge into New Jersey my children claimed to be dying of the need to use the bathroom, so I got off the highway in that jungle that is Ridgefield/Passaic and could not get back out of that local traffic for another hour after that. I usually have a pretty good tolerance for highway traffic, but getting stuck on local roads is a soul-sapper. "This part of the country has become unliveable" I declared. My children wanted pancakes, so we had dinner at the IHOP in Watchung. My own dinner was terrible, but everybody else--even the wife!--enjoyed their food a great deal, so I was satisfied. Also the decor of the restaurant struck me as being very New Jersey somehow, which pleased me. It had these forlorn yet half-festive cardboard and crepe-paper Christmas decorations hung up, which reminded me of something my grandmother would have had, and the likes of which I never see, or least never notice, in New England. Also the place was huge, open, and nearly empty except for a handful of scraggly families, which gave it a further poignancy.
The fiasco which the snow produced in that region however does not bode well for the ongoing functionality of this society. This was not a major snowstorm by any stretch of the imagination, and 3 and 4 days later, with the sun out and the temperature rising to nearly 40 degrees, I passed by an incredible number of still unplowed sidestreets. Even worse, I had the opportunity to pass or drive behind a number of plows and salt trucks, and whoever was driving them frequently gave the impression that they had received faulty training in how to use the devices on their vehicles. One salt truck I got behind in New York on the way home--by which day the need for any more salt on the highway was long past, anyway--was conducting itself in an especially odd manner, shooting its supply of salt upwards so that it came raining down on the hoods and windshields of the cars around it, which I have never seen a truck do in New England to quite so extreme an extent, though I have lived there for many years at this point.
I have reached the age where whenever I go back to the old neighborhood--neighborhood in this instance incorporating an area 20 or 30 square miles in size--I wonder how many more times I will ever be back. Lately I have still been going down 3-4 times a year, though many of those occasions are a stopover on the way to somewhere else. However, my mother is likely moving within the year out of her house that has been in the family since 1957 (ed--as of June 2011, this has been put off to at least of couple of years further into the future), and while she won't totally leave the region (one hopes), there is talk of moving 10 or 20 or 30 miles out of Philadelphia--she is about 2 blocks out of it now--and those places do not have the same associations obviously as the Cheltenham/Abington neighborhood does. My relatives will probably live a great many years yet, but perhaps I will cease to have so much cause or desire to visit them. I took care to go to a hoagie restaurant that dates back to my childhood--such places (that date back so far) now are grown rare--and had a cheesesteak with a side order of cheese fries, that horrible delight of old times, the number of which such meals I have remaining to me surely dwindling to a low number now. Indeed, like Dick Clark I feel it incumbent now to stay up until midnight on New Year's Eve, as I sense that any year could be the last one, and, despite the essential absurdity of the holiday and the letdown when everyone abandons the party and goes to bed at 12:15 or so-- is the excitement of any other event so rapidly exhausted?--I still enjoy the day in a kind of morose way.
I have more miscellaneous subjects but I think I will save those for another post.