Road snapshot: Laconia, N.H.

Note: It’s Thursday, Sept. 25, and I’m hanging in the cozy confines of the Licia and Mason Beekley Community Library in New Hartford, Ct. I met a nice woman named Donna yesterday, and she suggested I come here and look for Larry. By all accounts, Larry is a wonderfully talented musician who wears dresses, miniskirts and furs. Kind of like a real-life Klinger who’s not bucking for a Section 8.
This is a great library. All public libraries are good. Here, if you’ve got a buck, you can Keurig yourself a cup of coffee. I went out to the Behemoth and found exactly 10 dimes loitering about the disgusting floor of the cab. I felt a little slovenly dropping those dirty dimes into the slot, but, well, a nickel is a nickel, a dime is a dime and a dollar is a dollar.
The helpful librarian, and helpful is the de facto adjective to describe librarians, told me Larry usually comes in to check his email just before closing, which is 8 today. He’s got a job somewhere, which keeps him busy during the day.

Linda Van Valkenburgh holds down the fort at New England Porch Rockers in Laconia, N.H., where she's taken up caning.

Linda Van Valkenburgh holds down the fort at New England Porch Rockers in Laconia, N.H., where she got inspired to take up caning.

Sept. 22, Laconia, N.H. – It’s Monday morning, but it’s not your average Monday morning in Tilton, N.H., still basking in the dizzy afterglow of the NASCAR weekend. I stopped into the Golden Arches Cafe to pick up my free coffee. The NASCAR infestation hadn’t abated yet. A long line of luxury RVs wound its way west along New Hampshire 140, bound for Tilton and the I-93 junction.
They all had to pass McDonald’s to get there, and Americans just can’t seem to pass McDonald’s without stopping. I mentioned all this to the nice young woman who took my order and poured my coffee. She rolled her eyes.
“They were here for breakfast,” she said. “And they’ll be back for lunch.”
I thanked her for the coffee, wished her a nice day and found my way back onto 3 north. Ten miles later, I was in Laconia, yet another former New England mill town. I was out of postcards, and suddenly they had become rare objects.
That’s how I met Linda Van Valkenburgh at New England Porch Rockers. She sure was friendly, and she did her best to help. She even made a couple phone calls to see if anyone of her counterparts knew where the postcards were hidden.
I hate to feel indebted, so I purchased a $4 handmade card with a lovely New England autumn scene.
Linda grew up in St. Louis and left after graduating high school to attend American University in Washington D.C.. She’s move around a bit, but she has lived in New Hampshire for nearly 30 years.
“My 50th high school reunion was this weekend,” she said. “I didn’t go. I don’t know anybody there anymore.”
I asked the difference in collective character on opposite sides of the Connecticut River.
Are Vermonters really so different from New Hampshire folk?
“Oh yes,” she said. “They used to say there are more cows in Vermont than people. Vermonters are kind of backwards. New Hampshire is in the 21st century.”
I figured maybe that’s why I couldn’t find any postcards around here. The postcard is nothing if not an anachronism. Just like me.
Linda is so sweet. After I paid for the card, she rummaged through her purse to find me a stamp, as if she owed me one. She couldn’t find one, and actually felt bad about this. I was relieved. But she is firmly in the corner of New Hampshire.
“We have four beautiful seasons here,” she said. “Wherever you go, anytime of the year, it’s beautiful. I am getting a little tired of winter, but where else can you go and have four feet of snow on the ground for three months of the year?”
I thanked Linda for being so nice and moved on to the Laconia Antiques Center, where I found a wonderful collection of vintage postcards, classified alphabetically by state. I bought two from Vermont and a few from Washington.
Outside, the sun poked through an opening in the clouds and warmed my spirits. I walked to Mill Plaza, home of the Belknap (hosiery) Mill, which the historical marker touts as the oldest (1823) unaltered textile mill in the country. An emaciated woman who looked 70 but might’ve been 40, stood by her car smoking a cigarette. I asked if she could direct me to the post office.
She thought about it for a few seconds, then smiled and pointed north along Beacon Street. “It’s right over hee-yah,” she said. I thanked her, mailed my postcards and returned to my Laconia tour.  I strolled up and down Main Street.
I don’t mean to be impertinent, but for a town in a 21st century state, Laconia looks like it got stuck in 1964.
The Second Feature store sits right next to Laconia Antiques Center, the former Bloom’s Variety Store. Antique shops and vintage clothing stores are strung out along the street.
The Colonial Theatre dominates the block, and oozes decay in all directions. A note on the marquee wishes it a happy 101st birthday, though it debuted in 1914. The forlorn relic has been closed for more than a decade. In 1915, the local newspaper touted it as “one of the handsomest play-houses in New England.”
Maybe so, but today it is more ravaged than Blanche DuBois. The trim surrounding the bay windows upstairs looks like it hasn’t been painted since 1964.
New England Porch Rockers sits on what they call Vintage Row. Other establishments on Vintage Row include Dan and Pete’s Thrift Store, aka Thrifty’s. The Goodwill is next to Thrifty’s. The Salvation Army store is across town.
The only signs Laconia is flirting with the 21st century were the U.S. Armed Forces recruiting center at 526 Main Street, the Family Dollar and a sign inside Laconia Village Bakery urging patrons to “Like us on Facebook.”
I felt bad for poking fun at Laconia, so I stopped in to pay my respects to Linda on my way back to the Behemoth. The phone was ringing off the hook at New England Porch Rockers. Everyone was looking for Jeannie, the owner.
I asked her one more time about New Hampshire, if she’d ever leave it. She lives with her husband, James, in Sanbornton, which sits about five miles north of Tilton.
She said she’s learned, after several moves and marriages, to be circumspect.
“Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve said,’this is it. They’re going to have to carry me out in a body bag,'” she said. “So, who knows? I like New Hampshire. I’m happy here. You never can tell what tomorrow will bring.”

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Woonsocket, Rhode Island: You Can’t Scare Me I’m Sticking to the Union

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Sept. 27, Woonsocket, R.I. – Yesterday, all I knew of Woonsocket was that baseball Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie was born here. That was a while ago (1874).
Ninety-seven years after Larry Lajoie made his debut on this mortal coil, I learned that little nugget about Woonsocket. Which means I hadn’t learned anything new about this northern Rhode Island mill town in more than 40 years.
You might say I took the long way around to get to Woonsocket, which sits in the cradle of America’s industrial revolution. Woonsocket lies just 27 miles down the Blackstone River Valley from Worcester, Ma. I drove 118 miles to get from Worcester to Woonsocket. Well, I’ve never been known for efficiency.
Today, in an effort to chip away at my Woonsocket ignorance, I visited the Museum ofWork and Culture on Main Street. At $8, it is a stone-cold bargain. There are two 15-rominute films, the first offering a concise and thoughtful overview of Woonsocket’s industrial history, the second covering the rise of the Independent Textile Union.
Lajoie’s parents came here as part of the flood tide of Quebecois migration that turned this town into a French-Canadian stronghold. Their farmland increasingly failing to produce satisfactory yields, Quebecois came here by the thousands and thousands, lured south by pie-in-the-sky promises that capitalists have always fed the people they hoped to exploit. To seal the deal, mill owners handed out free train tickets. Later they would deduct the cost of those tickets from employees’ paychecks.
Those French-Canadians are a plucky bunch, though. They survived unfavorable conditions, and even thrived. They adopted the motto “La Survivance!” in a drive to sustain Francophone folkways, language and culture. Soon they became the dominant ethnic group in Woonsocket, comprising as much as 75 percent of the population.
Woonsocket, I learned, had a pivotal role in the development of the American labor movement. In the late 1920s and early 30s, as the New England cotton industry buckled and then collapsed in the face of competition with southern mills, workers, including children, faced increasingly onerous conditions. It was dangerous, uncomfortable work. The ceaseless clangor of machines rattled eardrums. The mills were cauldrons of insufferable heat and humidity. There were frequent speed-ups on the line. Foremen exacted favors from workers in exchange for decent work. And if you didn’t like your job, there were a hundred people who’d grab it yesterday.
Fear was always on the side of the owners.

Into this milieu came a man named Joe Schmetz, a skilled mule spinner and socialist radical from Belgium. Schmetz emerged as the driving force in the founding of the Independent Textile Union. All workers, skilled and unskilled, were included under the ITU banner.
Then, in 1934, a great textile strike swept across the nation like a prairie fire. With 400,000 workers walking off the job, it was the largest strike in U.S. labor history. Following the lead of his southern counterparts, Rhode Island Governor Theodore Green summoned the national guard. On Sept. 12, during a protest outside the Woonsocket Rayon Plant, the only mill to remain open during the strike, all hell broke loose. A 19-year-old boy named Jude Courtmanche, who was just walking by the demonstration, was struck by a bullet and killed.
Bloodshed in Woonsocket and elsewhere helped sway public opinion in favor or the workers, giving the ITU a critical momentum boost. By 1941, the union had 1,200 members.
My favorite part of the museum tour was upstairs, and it wasn’t the baseball exhibit with Nap Lajoie at center stage (for the record, I didn’t realize Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett, aka “Old Tomato Face, also was a Woonsocket native). It was an exhibit showcasing the triple-decker tenements. You ring a door bell and got to hear recollections from three different tenants in one building. One of them is a fellow named Harvey LaRiviere. After noting that 90 percent of the people in his neighborhood were of French-Canadian descent, he said:
“It didn’t matter, because everybody seemed to be happy to me, more than they are today. Today it don’t seem like they’re satisfied. In them days, we were satisfied. It didn’t take much to satisfy us, but we were satisfied.
“How we lived through it, I don’t know. But we made it. I’m happy it’s all gone. I wouldn’t want to go back to them days. Never.”
Yeah boy, Harvey sounded as if he was damn satisfied, I mean really satisfied, to be alive in those days he’d never want to go near again.
I left the museum and took a walk around Woonsocket. The architecture is outstanding. The town has more than its share of handsome buildings. Many cry for renovation, but beauty shines through the decay. The mill owners might have been parsimonious bastards, but they knew how to put together a nice-looking little city.
Nowadays Woonsocket is reeling and scuffling to figure out some vision of the future. Which is the trouble facing most former mill towns. A lot of squirrelly looking young men walk the streets smoking cigarettes and trying to appear dangerous. Maybe they’re looking to make a score or a sale, or just trying to look cool. There are plenty of social services offices, and plenty of vacant storefronts.
But there’s life here. You can eat Chinese, Thai or Tandoori. New York Lunch on Main is the real home of weiners, or wieners, depending upon which part of the signage you’re reading.

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The Hanora Mills, a lovely stone building, has been converted into low-income housing. The Providence and Worcester Railroad depot, dating to 1882, is a real jewel. It was lucky. The brick and terra cotta structure got a makeover for the 2009 Richard Gere vehicle, “Haichi: A Dog’s Tale.” The sculpted likeness of Haichi sits out front of the depot building, next to a marker which says it was “gifted to the citizens of Woonsocket by the students of  the Beacon Charter High School for Arts …”
I mean, really. Why must we always turn nouns into verbs when perfectly acceptable verbs already exist? But the best part of the refashioned depot, which now houses the offices of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, is it is a “shellfish-free” building.
Farther downtown, the Stadium Theatre has been renovated and turned into a Performing Arts Center. The lineup is retro-comatose, with Don McLean’s November date topping the bill. If you buy tickets, which range from $36-$96, you are guaranteed McLean will perform all his ancient hits, most notably “American Pie.”
My mind reeled back to Bellows Falls, Vermont, which was touting Mavis Staples’ upcoming performance. Bellows Falls also had a handful of really cool, vital acts on the way, stuff right in my wheelhouse, including Billy Bragg, Michael Tarbox and the criminally obscure Jon Dee Graham.
Not so the Stadium, which has Jo Dee Messina and the Blues Brothers to look forward to in addition to Mr. American Pie. I guess we all have our preferences.

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Woonsocket, Rhode Island: Jody and Me

My new friend Jody DiLazzaro.

My new friend Jody DiLazzaro.

Woonsocket, R.I., Sept. 27: I sat here in the McDonald’s, struggling to put my superficial exploration of Woonsocket into words. Then Jody DiLazzaro blew in like a human blizzard and dumped his life story – as far as he understands it – on me in a dizzying span of 15 minutes.
Funny, it is. I had considered taking a drive around town in hopes of stumbling into a character. Sometimes all you have to do is sit on your ass and mind your own business.
Some days I can’t get my wife to talk to me, but it seems I can always count on the loquaciousness of sweet, nutty strangers.
It all came to pass because of a dead cell phone battery. Jody and his girl, Angela, just got back from California, where his film career is taking flight. They went out to dinner to celebrate, and then for a romantic walk. Then his phone died, threatening to ruin the mood. By the way, Jody said, he’s in a feature film – due out next year – called “Lord of the Lizards.” And a TV show called “Baker and Done.”
“You can look it up,” he said.
I did, and I’m still looking.
Angela’s also his agent. The bad news is Angela has lupus. It’s in the third stage, he said. She’s living on borrowed time, and it’s breaking his heart. There is pain in his lustrous brown eyes, which are cloaked deep beneath his prominent forehead.
She got up and walked away. He looked a little anxious. I guess she’s uncomfortable with him sharing so much with strangers.
“She wonders why I talk to people and open up to them,” he said. “In the Bible it says to love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. If you honor those two commandments, you’re honoring all 10. You see what I mean?”
He learned how to play football and baseball in Woonsocket, then moved to a rival town and had to face his old mates in high school. Which was bad for them, because he was good.
I asked how he met Angela.
“My grandfather was dying in the hospital, and she was dying in the hospital,” he said. “This beautiful woman was all alone in a room across the hall from my grandfather, and no one was visiting her. I walked over one day. I asked her if she was all right.
She smiled, and I opened my heart into her.”
Somewhere in there I got what I think is the full rundown on his pre-Hollywood CV. He worked at FedEx 15 years. He’s a CNA, with a specialty in muscular dystrophy (do CNA’s have specialties?) He cut his teeth in local theater. He’s got another movie in the pipeline, a Christian vampire film titled “Real Blood.”
Now they’re trying to figure out if it’s safe for her to carry a baby. He’d rather get another 10 years with her than risk it all on childbirth. Besides, he said, they can always get pets. And they can adopt, because they both have clean records. Neither has been in any trouble whatsoever.
Well, that’s not exactly true. The Internet sure is an exacting mistress. Things happen at a dizzying pace in the Web universe. Five minutes after Jody walked out of my life, we were reunited as Facebook friends. Five minutes after that feelgood moment, I was reading about the trouble Jody never got into.
I wasn’t checking up on him, I swear. He’d said his big theater breakthrough came in a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” I Googled “Jody DiLazarro and Woonsocket theater” and found nothing but trouble.
In 2012, in the midst of a late-December snowstorm, he called in a report to Woonsocket Police. A strange man, he said, had broken into his house and put a gun to his head. When police had survived a harrowing journey through Woonsocket’s snow- and ice-bound streets and arrived at his place, he was sitting on the front steps with his head in his hands. He then proceeded to get into a scuffle with two cops.
When it was over, he was charged with filing a false report, two counts of assaulting a public official, resisting arrest and possession of an unlawful weapon (a folding knife with a 3.5-inch blade). The cops, however, really laid it on thick about how they risked life and limb driving their cruisers through the Blizzard of 2012. So there.
Oh Jody, Jody, Jody.
He bought a house downtown when he was 22, after he gave up the booze. It was one of those triple-decker tenements which were popular during the heyday of the mills. Originally his parents lived on the ground floor, his brother on the top. He lived in the middle. Then they all bought their own places and moved out.
He was forced to deal with real-life tenants. It all went OK for a time. Then the recession hit and everything went to hell.
The woman upstairs got pregnant, and her boyfriend lost his job. The ground-floor tenants fell on hard times, too. Now he had to pay the whole freight, the mortgage, the sewer, the water, the electric, the taxes. It was burying him. He did manage to walk away with $25,000, so it could’ve been worse.
He held a hamburger in his hand, which he said he bought for a homeless man, because likes to share his success with others.
Jody DiLazzaro is 41 year. Still he looks like the prototypical Italian-American stud.
“I walk out onto the street Hollywood, and beautiful women just surround me,” he said.
But Angela, she’s his life. It’s a case of true love, and now things are looking up. They’ve had their share of struggles, that’s true. But now his career is about to rocket to the stars.
“I’m not on the top, top yet,” he said. “But we got hope and we got faith, and now we’re building confidence.”
Oh, yes. He has a problem sleeping. He’s on drugs, you know, “ambien and stuff, like they give pilots.”
Everything started to click into place.
His homeless man turned up, and he unplugged his phone and shook my hand and thanked me for talking with him. Before he got away, I staged a brief photo shoot.
When it was over, he leaned in toward me and offered some parting advice.
“Those pictures might be worth big money someday,” he said with a big smile. “So, go get rich.”

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The Bank of Colebrook, Connecticut

Bob and me. We make a cute couple, eh?

Bob and me. We make a cute couple, eh?

It’s 3:30 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 27 in Woonsocket, R.I. I came here because I couldn’t sleep and the Great God Google informed me the Planet Fitness here stays open all night, every night. It does not. Fortunately, the adjacent McDonald’s does, and I even got an iced coffee on the house.
So things are looking up.
I left the wonderful Licia & Mason Beekley Library in New Hartford on Thursday afternoon and made my way back to Colebrook, hard by the Massachusetts line. I wanted to thank Bob Ziegler for allowing me to stay on his property, and I wanted to spend more time with him and hopefully get a photograph. When I got there, I pulled into the parking lot in front of the antiques emporium and turned off the engine. By the time I stepped out of the Behemoth, he was on his way to greet me.

**********

Sept. 25, Colebrook, Conn. – Whether he is crazy like a nut or a fox, Bob Ziegler is my kind of guy. His antiques emporium on Route 8 in Colebrook, Conn., radiates eccentricity.
That’s what lured me here in the first place. By his own confession, after 25 years it has deteriorated into little more than a junk shop.
But he sells cars and boats and anything you might want to buy. At least that’s what he says. When he says he’ll buy the Behemoth and give me a ride to the bus station, I’m not entirely sure he’s joking.
“There’s not much I haven’t sold,” he said. “I’ve sold everything, and I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen prostitutes walking down this road. I’ve seen trucks go by loaded with freight trains, helicopters and anchors the size of this barn.”
Inside and out, this place overflows with a cornucopia of discarded objects, from the ordinary to the bizarre. There are paddles and pots and pans; sleds and snowshoes and skates; washboards and bowls and birdhouses; lamps and ladders, tennis rackets and trunks; saddles and stuffed animals; posters of Brando and Brinkley; and there are toy ponies right next to pictures of naked women.
There are a collection of humorous posters, several warning visitors not to steal. Another features a picture of obese women and the tag: “The Only Thing Still Made in the U.S.A. Are Big Fat Asses.”
There are a dozen copies of a CD called “Spirit of America” by a singer named Denise Nicole, and one sign touting the practice of Walter Grossman M.D.
A rusty bathtub in the front yard advertises boats for sale. And there is a tractor in a tree.

A tractor, a tree and my camping spot from last night, courtesy of the one and only Robert W. Ziegler.

A tractor, a tree and my camping spot from last night, courtesy of the one and only Robert W. Ziegler.

There’s an Indian brave with a turkey perched on his right bicep and what looks to be a bundle of dynamite emerging from the fowl’s feathers. The weirdest element of his collection, perhaps, is a grimy, headless mannequin clad in a Speedo bikini. A small rubber serpent pokes its head out from the crotch of her panties.
I ask him about all the nutty flourishes that define this place.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” he said. “And it makes people think I’m a fucking psycho, so they leave me alone.”
Bob has an abiding passion for money. He wants people to leave him and his money alone, but then again he doesn’t. As we stand in the yard chatting, several passing drivers toot their horns in his direction.
He is friendly and generous, yet dogged by paranoia.
“When you have money, people are jealous,” he said. “They hate you.”
Money. It’s what every conversation seems to revert to, sooner or later.
Yesterday, when I told him I was from the Philadelphia area, he said his favorite bridge is in Philly. I said, “huh?” And he said the Ben Franklin is his favorite bridge, because Ben Franklin’s image graces the $100 bill.
Tattoos on both of his wrists testify to his love of lucre. On the right, the words “Cash Only” bracket a dollar sign. On his left is inked “Bank of Colebrook.” The same message is scrawled in chalk on the front of a rusted safe that sits out front of the antiques porch.

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Here and there, he casually drops references to his money. Outwardly, he cultivates the air of man who doesn’t give a shit one way or the other. The dirt-stained hoodie, jeans and work boots give him the look of an everyday stumblebum.
“I’ve got fancy boats,” he says. “I’ve got one worth $100,000. I’ve never used it. I’ve had it for 14 years.”
I ask if he always wanted to be a multimillionaire.
“Yes,” he says quickly. “Ever since I was 14, when my father beat the shit out of me for the last time. I decided right then and there I was never going to depend on anybody ever. Never.”
His voice rises with genuine emotion, as if the memory still has the power to make him recoil in horror.
He likes to mention famous people who have paraded through this joint. Like Penny Lane says in “Almost Famous,” famous people are just more interesting. And so he tells me about a woman, an heir of the Bacardi family dynasty, who is a frequent customer.
“This was a great business,” he says. “The great thing about this business wasn’t the money, though that was nice, it’s the people you meet. The Bacardi woman, the Radars (Gary Burghoff), Paul Newmans and what’s his name, Bill Murray. I’ve met some very interesting people.”
He takes me into the barn to show me some pictures and other memorabilia. First are a series of photos showing the 186-year-old house across the street which he bought and then tore down. The taxes, he explained, were just too onerous.
Next he digs out a yellowing newspaper clip from the mid-50s. The photo at the top of the story was taken in New Britain, Conn., and features a street peddler named Joseph Henchick and his 12-year-old assistant, Robert W. Ziegler.
Then he holds up a concert poster from 1966 and asks if I’ve ever heard of “Jim Morrison and The Doors.” The poster advertises a Doors concert at the Underground Cavern in Greenwich Village. At the bottom it names the Master of Ceremonies as one Bob “Zigo” Ziegler.
Goddamn Internet. This poster is a widely circulated fake. There was no Underground Cavern on Bleecker Street in the Village. The original fake listed Jefferson Airplane as the supporting act. There’s one in circulation listing a Vicki Kotrys as MC.
I’m a little saddened, but hardly surprised. One of the things I love about Bob is his proclivity for bullshit. I’m sure it’s what I came here seeking.
In any case, when I asked about being in Greenwich Village during the 60s, his answer was less than convincing. And the way he asked if I’d heard of “Jim Morrison and The Doors” gave me the sense he didn’t really know much about the Doors.
I don’t know if he’s ever met Paul Newman or Bill Murray or some hotshot Bacardi chick. And I don’t really care. I have serious doubts about his story of transporting millions worth of paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art – in a sawed-off station wagon. Or, for that matter, the fling he had with film actress Karen Allen.

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He showed me a wire-mesh ring with horse hair tied to the mesh and says it’s an Indian bird trap. Then come his 1947 Whizzer motorized bicycle, and his 1945 U.S. Army Jeep Willys.
He asks if I wanted to go for a ride. And we did. He suggests I wear a hat. I opt for the McArthur cap instead of the Patton helmet. There are no seat belts, no doors, no safety features of any sort. We tour the recreation area created by the damming of the Colebrook River.
While we’re cruising the Colebrook area, I ask about his old man.
“He was the worst of the worst,” he says. “He was an executive chauffeur. He got along with everybody. Everybody except his family.”
Yes, it’s hard to tell about Bob Ziegler. It’s hard to tell where reality ends and fantasy takes over.
He has three daughters. He has no use for any of his sons-in-law (“they can all go fuck themselves”) or any kid who goes to college. He told me to tell Max to get into plumbing which was, by the way, his primary trade.
We’ve already shaken hands and said our goodbyes, but he’s still talking. Now he’s talking about the octogenarian gangster who visits him, a real-life Uncle Jun, who offered to have his most problematic son-in-law whacked. For a price.
He blinks his eyes frequently, a little tic and nothing more. He is a nice guy. He suggests I spend the night on his property over in Massachusetts. It’s about 10 miles from here, up at the top of a big hill or a small mountain. Nobody will bother you there, he says. Just in case, he writes out a permission slip and signs it.
I’m sitting in the driver’s seat, ready to go find my campground. He doesn’t want to let me go. He finishes up the anecdote about the old Mafioso, then references the old “If you mess with the bull, you the horns” threat.
“Another one I like is,” he says, ” is ‘You can drink Cokes and crack jokes, but don’t fuck with me.'”
Then he leaves me with one last piece of advice. It’s kind of disturbing, and it seems to sum up his outlook on life.
“Never trust anyone,” he says. “Not even your wife. You have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. You have none. You have to protect yourself.”

 

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Stuck in Connecticut with the Massachusetts Blues Again

A fair representation of my mental state, perhaps.

A fair representation of my mental state, perhaps.

Sept. 26, Putnam, Conn. – This journey of the absurd has been spiraling down, down, down all week. An hour ago, at a travel center off Exit 71 on Interstate 84, somewhere in Connecticut, it nearly crashed.
For 48 hours, I’ve been chasing my tail like a mad dog.
I am tired and spent and bereft of inspiration.
I’ve crossed between Massachusetts and Connecticut so many times in the past two days I’m not sure where the hell I am. I’ve crossed from one state to the other when I intended to, and I’ve done it by accident more than once.
I’ve driven from New Boston to New Hartford and New Hartford back to New Boston. I’ve driven from Sandisfield, Mass., to Norfolk, Conn., and from Colebrook, Conn., to New Boston, Mass.
I’ve left I-84 in Connecticut for Holland, Mass., and I’ve done the same in reverse.
I just looked at the dog-eared map and see that Route 8 between New Boston, Mass., and Winsted, Conn., bears the green-dotted line denoting a scenic route. It is that. The road is shrouded on either side by high cliffs dotted with leaves of many colors.
Tonight, If found myself trying to sleep at 6 p.m., at a truck stop/Shell station/Burger King/Dunkin’ Donuts/Rodeway Inn/Country Pride restaurant.
Gravity pulled me homeward, a week ahead of schedule. I want to go home. I miss my family. I’m tired of being alone.
And so I nearly broke and fled for home.
I held the line. Barely.
Suddenly, reliable wifi had become hard to find. I hit bottom in the Dunkin’ Donuts/Burger King cafeteria. I couldn’t get online. A few minutes earlier, confused by fatigue, I’d somehow gone right past the FedEx sign without seeing it and made it up the driveway until I approached a sign that said all visitors must sign in. It isn’t like I hadn’t been in the same place earlier in the same day.
I clapped the laptop shut and returned to the Behemoth. I climbed onto the bunk, pulled the shades and closed my eyes. Nothing doing. My mind raced.
I wavered and thought of home.
Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t quit, not with one week left. I had traveled too many miles, squandered too much money and spent too much time away from my first-grader to quit now. I had to finish this out, for better or, more likely, worse.
I left the Exit 71 Travel Center and veered onto the east-bound ramp of I-84, just as I had done this morning, when I started the day 86 miles from Boston.
I feel like the event’s of the week have galloped away from me. My mind reels with images of Wil Robertson’s barn in Meredith, N.H., to Bob Ziegler’s antique emporium in Colebrook, Conn., to Dick Hodgdon’s salvage yard in Ascutney, Vermont, to a legless man named Roger in the Rite Aid in Claremont, N.H.
Last night I went back to visit Bob Ziegler at his antique compound. We had a nice conversation, and he took me for a ride in his 1945 U.S. Army jeep. No seat belts, no doors, no safety features whatsoever. But more about that at another time.
He invited me to stay at another of his properties, this one way way up on a mountain across the border in Sandisfield, Mass. His directions were impeccable. I had intended to return to the library in New Hartford and look for Larry the skirt-wearing musical prodigy, but I was tired and figured I might just pass out when I got there.
I made it fine. I heated some pita bread and ate some hummus, without much enthusiasm. I was in bed by 8. But I couldn’t sleep.
I got kind of freaked out by the lonesomeness of it all. Maybe it was the thought of Bob’s asshole son-in-law, who happens to be a Sandisfield cop. And got to thinking Bob said “nobody will bother you” one too many times, and I started to worry about someone bothering me.
Bob hates his cop son-in-law. Says he can go fuck himself. Bob says he has a gangster customer, a “real-life gangster” in his 80s. I guess he bitched about his son-in-law to his octogenarian gangster buddy one day.
“He says, ‘You want me to have him whacked?'” Bob told me. “I said, ‘What do you mean by that? You mean whack him upside the head, or, you know, have him whacked?’
“He says, ‘it might cost you $300, but I can have him whacked.'”
Well, Bob didn’t go for that deal. But my mind reeled with pictures of mob hitmen and violent cops.
I couldn’t sleep anyway, so I put on my shoes and got the hell out of there. I drove down the mountain toward Colebrook, Conn. When I reached bottom, I turned right and drove into Massachusetts.
Once again, I did an about-face. I was almost to Hartford when I turned off and followed a sign to 84. I guessed there must be a rest area off the interstate somewhere not to far away. In 45 minutes I was there. In another 15 I was asleep.
I slept fine. A light rain tapped on the metal above my head and soothed my nerves. When I awoke, I felt good enough to be fooled into thinking I was refreshed and ready for action.
I stopped at the Exit 71 complex to get some gas, then got on 84 east toward Boston. I bailed off 84 just shy of the state line. Soon I was in the rural Massachusetts hamlet of Holland. The road, I think it’s just called the Holland Road, twists and turns and curves around the shoreline of Lake Siog.
I saw a man standing in a boat, casting his line. I wondered if he’d taken Friday off to do a little fishing. I wondered what it must be like, to have a job, and then take time away from it to do things that make you happy.
I had no idea where I’m going, which was supposed to be the central conceit of this journey. Now I found my uncomfortable with the whole scenario.
I kept on the road until it dumped me out onto U.S. 20. I drove west until I realized I was driving west, then turned around and drove east. Eventually I hit Sturbridge. I remember visiting the Old Sturbridge Village with my family as a kid.
No disrespect to my father, may he rest in peace, or my long-suffering mother, but I don’t know why any parent would take a kid to Old Sturbridge Village.
After walking about the gift shop and book store for a half hour, I didn’t understand its appeal any better than I did as a kid.
Of course, I declined the $24 museum admission. Had I paid the fare and done the tourist thing, maybe it would’ve softened my jaundiced perspective and made a dent in my fortress of ignorance. I’m guessing it only would’ve provided me more evidence to support my feeling on the subject of Old Sturbridge Village.
If I could dismiss it so roundly after 30 minutes, imagine what I could’ve done are 90. I needed postcards, but at 69 cents, they were the most expensive and least aesthetically pleasing I’d seen.
The gift shoppe is full of Colonial kitsch. Matronly dresses made of thin cotton sell for $99. Tri-corner hats for kids, only $10. Cheap plastic rifles go for $25. Jesus Christ with a maxed-out credit card, I don’t get it.
The kids ran wild around the gift shop, bored out of their poor, developing brains. Parents got testy, as parents will when kids get bored.
My favorite item was the Old Sturbridge Village cookbook. Fork over $2o, and you can try your hand at such mouth-watering recipes as “Turkey” and “Broiled Fish” and “Poached Fish” and “Mince Meat to be Served on Toast.”
I probably have missed the whole point, and I like to think I’m not a total ignoramus when it comes to history. This just seems like history dressed up in cartoonish colonial regalia just to wheedle a few more bucks out of the masses.
I walked out, wondering if I had it all wrong. A middle-aged couple shuffled slowly along the walk in my direction. As we crossed paths, the woman looked toward her man, smiled hopefully and said, “I think this was a good idea.”
Boy, the mental gymnastics people perform to convince themselves that red is blue. It sounded like they were in the middle of the worst vacation ever, that they’d been at each other’s throats for days, and they came to Old Sturbridge Village to find peace.
And so I wandered on down the road, which in this case was U.S. 20 east. When it looked like construction was about to tie traffic in a knot, I turned onto Massachusetts 56 north for Leicester, which made me think of my old, beloved cat. Leicester is in Worcester County, which might lead the country in pronunciation problems.
As the day heated up, the roads began to clog. Eventually I turned onto 9 east and landed in Worcester proper. I think I hit every red light between Sturbridge and Worcester. I stopped at the McDonald’s on Main Street, but found no place to plug in.
I was at a dead end. I didn’t know which way to turn. Then I did the most amazing thing.
Desperate to escape the stop-and-go madness of the Leicester-Worcester corridor, and knowing it would only get worse as I drew nearer Boston, I turned around and retraced my path. I drove past Danker Square in Worcester, where a determined man worked the sidewalk along the westbound lane. His cardboard placard advertised him as homeless and included an obligatory “God Bless You.” I suppose this a good marketing ploy, but it always turns me off.
I considered parking at the adjacent Price Chopper, visiting with him and asking a few routine questions. Just what had brought him to this situation? How much did he made an hour? Was he truly homeless, or just industrious?
I’ll never know, because I turned left and drove past him for the second time in one afternoon. I passed by Zorba’s Greek Taverna again, and then Our Lady of Angels. Classes were letting out for the week at the Gates Lane School. Nearby intersections flooded with buses and exuberant kids, snarling traffic and ratcheting up my frustration.
I made it back to Leicester, turning left onto 56 south just ahead of Uncle Sam’s Pizza. Had I not been in the death grip of hopelessness, I should’ve stopped in and discussed the brotherhood of Uncle Sam.
I recrossed the French River at Oxford. In Charlton, I again passed by O’Malley’s Truck and Auto Body. I had considered visiting O’Malley’s on the first pass. The Behemoth is already overdue for an oil change, and the name O’Malley just sounds like it should belong to a cop on the take in South Boston.
Again, I kept going. There was an orchard somewhere up the road, and I’d had apples on my mind since I bought a pair at Trask Orchard’s stand in Farmington, Maine, two weeks ago.

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Nathan Benjamin takes a break from his work at Charlton Orchard to stand before a camera and get blinded by the late-afternoon sun.

I made the short detour off 20 to Charlton Orchards Farm & Winery. Soon I was climbing the driveway, which is lined on both sides by towering oaks. The canopy of shade in the hall of oaks was a balm for my wicked soul.
I drove by roosters and chickens and turkeys until the road leveled off and ended in the parking area. I parked and got out, and saw that my ass-end protruded well out onto the dirt drive. I pulled in a bit further, knocking free a couple ripe apples, which fell onto the hood with a thunk and bounced away.
The big attraction now is the U-pick hike through Charlton’s apple orchards. For $20, you get a half-bushel bag and a hand-drawn map. A white-haired man in suspenders stood behind the counter and worked the crowd with an understated joie-de-vivre.
When I got a chance, I told him the U-pick thing seemed kind of unfair. After all, I said, how was a rube like me to tell a good apple from a bad apple?
Nathan Benjamin touched his suspenders and gave me a wry grin.
“I guess you should’ve figured that out before you came in here,” he said. “A good apple is a round with no marks or bruises.”
I liked him immediately. He explained they got hit by a wicked hailstorm a while back, and it did a number on their harvest.
“Just because it has a hail mark, that don’t mean it ain’t a good apple,” he said. “It’s just a second-tier apple. If it don’t go too deep and you can cut it out, then it ain’t a bad apple. If it gets too deep in there, then it goes into the cider mill.”
I bought a half-peck bag for $7.50, then stepped back to allow him to do his thing.
When the crowd thinned again, I asked if he owned the joint.
“Yeah,” he said. “Me and my wife and my son and daughter-in law and grandchildren and the bank and the telephone company and the electrical company. Everybody has a chunk of it.”
The farm’s up for sale. His son Nate, who also makes wine under the Obadiah McIntyre label, injured his leg in a freak accident and is now on disability. Most of the work has fallen to Nathan Sr. and his wife, Patty. They’re finding it hard to keep up.
He doesn’t seem sure he wants to sell, though.
“I don’t know if we’re going to put it back on the market or not, or just kind of downsize a little bit more and stroll along with it,” he said. “It’s our life. If you quit doing what you’re doing and you end up watching television all the time, you’ll probably get fat and die.”
Nathan says he and Patty work 10 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week from March until Thanksgiving. On this day, he is deluged with a steady stream of apple-picking customers.
A woman comes in and asks how it all works.
“You gave me all your money,” he said, “and I’ll give you a bag to put your apples in.”
Another woman buys two sodas and a 350-milliliter bottle of strawberry rhubarb wine, then balks at the 750-ml bottle of blackberry wine when she learns it’s $28. I mean, I wouldn’t pay $28 for a bottle of blackberry wine, either. But she did it with a brusqueness that made me feel a little bad for old Nathan.
“He (Nate Jr.) makes all the wine out of the fruit on the farm,” he said after she left. “It’s strictly fruit that makes the wine. It ain’t water and some flavor that makes the wine.”
He said the wine in question, named “Black Gold,” has garnered many medals on the contest circuit.
The Black Gold incident nudged me off the fence and into buying a $15 bottle of plum wine. I noted the message on the back label, which says this place was born to fulfill Nathan Sr.’s dream, and asked about that.
“I worked on a farm in Connecticut for over 30 years,” he said. “And then I left there when the old gentleman was getting older and it wasn’t going anywhere and he didn’t want nobody to take it over. We did landscaping and firewood for quite a while. Then we found this place, so here we are.”
Nathan Benjamin is a tough man not to like. Somehow he got talking about how him and his wife are huge fans of bluegrass musician Rhonda Vincent, aka the “Mandolin Mama.” For years they got in the habit of dropping off Obadiah McIntyre wines at the Indiana State Fair and then driving to Queen City, Mo., for the Sally Mountain Bluegrass Festival over the Fourth of July weekend.
Patty came in bearing a pie concealed by a paper bag. He said they are scheduled for a farmers market in Wakefield tomorrow morning. He still had a lot of apple-packing to do tonight.
Farming is something that came upon him naturally.
“My folks used to work on the farm and as a kid I was always there,” he said. “I went to trade school to be a carpenter. I graduated and worked at a furniture factory in Webster. After a year of driving my mother’s car back and forth, she said you can’t have the car no more. I went to the farm and got a job while I was looking for another job. I worked there for a couple of months and then a job came up and I was going to leave, and he offered me more money and a place to stay.
“So we spent our life there. We got married 1959 and we raised the kids there and it was nice. I worked a lot of hours when I had to, and we didn’t make a lot of money, but it was nice.”
The phone rang again. Someone wanted to know if they have bacon. No, he said. They have steaks and hamburger meat and stew meat, but no pork. I asked if the raise their own beef. I’d heard him warn more than one apple-picker to steer clear of the electric fence that keeps the cow from straying.
“We did,” he said. “We had a heard of about 40 head of Herefords. Then my son, with his leg on disability, he can’t even drive a tractor. Me and Patty’s been doing a lot of it. We hire some help, but it took time to do the cows. It took us away from other things. We have 40 acres of hay up on the hill we had to cut. It was too much, and that was one of the ways we downsized. We got rid of all the cows and the calves we had last year. The kids kept one cow, it had a bullmcalf, and we just sold the bull calf.”
Patty gave him a look, and I know he’s got to start packing apples. I asked a parting question, about the unpredictability of the weather that makes the farmer’s life a perpetual roll of the dice.
Hail, tornadoes, hurricanes. Too little rain or too much rain. So much can go wrong.
“You never know when it’s gonna be,” he said. “You never know. Cold weather that comes down from Canada when it’s 90 here, when they meet, that’s when you end up with a hailstorm. Some of the orchards further east of us got nailed a couple times. Fortunately, we only got it the one time. It did a lot of damage. We had a real light crop this year.
“That’s part of life. That’s part of farming.”
I wished Nathan Benjamin the best of luck and thanked him for his time, and continued on my wayward route.

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Somewhere in Connecticut

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Sept. 24, Winsted, Conn. – McDonald’s.
Again. The coffee is cheap, the Internet free.
(On the down, way, way deep-down, side, this particular Cafe of the Golden Arches has a plasma TV, which presently stares at me from its perch on the wall. It is tuned to CNN, America’s most trusted news source. Apparently there is no other news in the world today but ISIS and why the Great, Benevolent, Long-suffering Us must, lamentable though it may be, must bomb the shit out of another Arab country. Lots of sober-faced white men in thousand-dollar suits shake their heads, ask probing questions and never forget to remind us just why the world’s most heavily armed nation (We are No. 1!) is always facing doomsday threats from some nefarious terrorist group, nation or bad man.
And damn, there he is, Wolf Blitzer himself. He’s the kind of guy who makes me want to, you know, blow up the TV.
Take it, John:

I’ve been dragging ass lately. Perhaps I’m coming down with something. I’m getting behind on the stories, which scares me. I don’t want to return to Pennsylvania with a satchel full of unwritten stories. Done that too many times, and it’s always a disaster.
I was here earlier, after accidentally driving out of Massachusetts this morning.
I slept in the parking lot behind the Planet Fitness in Hadley, Mass., last night after puttering about the Connecticut River region of New Hampshire and Vermont all day.
Planet Fitness is tucked behind the Hadley Walmart, which I visited this morning just to use the state-of-the-art blood pressure/weight/vision diagnostic machine.
Overheard at the Hadley Walmart:
Obviously Ill Female Associate: I don’t know if you can tell from my voice, but I’m sick as a dog.
Male manager: Who in this building isn’t sick?
OIFA: I don’t have my doctor’s note, but I was planning to use my lunch hour to go to urgent care.
MM: (Nods head in silence.)
OIFA: It’s just that, well, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it back by the end of my lunch. It depends how busy they are.
MM: (See above.)
OIFA: I’ll try my hardest.
MM: Try your hardest.
OIFA: I will. Thanks.
Cut, and fade to black.
Hadley is in the orbit of Amherst, home of the University of Massachusetts. Driving through town made me feel as if I had fallen into a geographical wormhole and landed back on the Main Line. In addition to all the other staples of suburban stripmania, there were upscale alternatives such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
I wanted to the get the hell out of Hadley.
I got my wish. I drove through Northampton, home of Smith College. Northampton oozes a carefully calibrated funkiness. The hippiesque emporium Shop Therapy seemed to be everywhere. The crosswalk hashmarks on Main Street are painted in dazzling, Haight-Ashbury colors.
Wanting to get the hell out of Northampton, I found Massachusetts 66 west and wound my way to the fringes of the Berkshires. And didn’t they seem dreamlike, on account of the autumn? Tasteful ranch homes were crowded out by the bucolic splendor of fall.
Having left mainstream commerce behind, I was now faced with a bit of a problem. The Behemoth’s gas gauge was touching E, and suddenly I longed for Hadley.
I drove nearly 20 miles without seeing so much as one rusting, analog pump listing with forlorn glory beneath a sagging, ancient gas station. I did pass a couple country markets, and considered stopping and asking for directions.
I just couldn’t will myself to engage with other humans. I passed up Outlook Farm in Westhampton, then swung 180 degrees into a gravel pull-out across from another country market. Begins with M, and damn, I thought you could find anything on the Internet.
Perhaps I would recall the name had I gone in. Instead, I scrutinized the map a little more. I saw where 66 would run into U.S. 20 at Huntington in a few miles, and figured there had to be gas there. Sure enough, when I came down the hill into Huntington, a Citgo stared at me from the left side of the road. It was full serve, and regular unleaded was selling for $3.95.
I know, I know. You need gas, you have to pay the price.
I’m not built that way. Some people never learn, and I’m one of them. I’m the kind of moron who’d run out of gas before paying $3.95 for a gallon of fuel. I scrutinized the map one more time. If I went east, toward Springfield, I’d run into Russell soon. Had to be gas there, too.
And voila, a few miles east, a Cumberland Farms Gulf station rose up out of the petroleum desert and beckoned me forth. Unleaded regular selling at $3.29. With equal measures glee and relief, I pumped in nearly 14 gallons.
I pocketed the receipt, screwed in the cap and walked around behind the Behemoth on my way to the door. An affable guy driving an official Town of Russell pickup truck slowed down and smiled.
“Kind of mileage you get with that?” he said.
I started to say, “anywhere from 11 to 14,” which always gives me pain, but he was satisfied at 11.
“Hey, that’s not bad!” he said, before allowing himself a dramatic pause. “For a house.”
I thanked him for the emotional lift, though he probably never heard me. It was the most productive interaction I had all morning.
I got onto Massachusetts 23 west, figuring I’d do a circle through the southern fringe of the Berkshires before dropping into Connecticut. Then at some point I’d slide back into Massachusetts and head in the general direction of Boston.
The Behemoth struggled mightily making the grade into Blandford, which really is some kind of name. Not much happening here. Keep moving.
I pulled into the post office parking lot. I bought a few postcards yesterday at Harlow’s Sugar House in Putney, Vermont. Problem was, I had just one stamp left. I have deluged my poor son with a veritable flood of postcards. Now I was going to send him one more, only I put the last stamp on the card I wrote out to my mom and sister. I went inside and discovered the post office window didn’t open till noon.
Less than 10 minutes. I’d wait.
(Wolf Gravitas in the house with Breaking News! The Benevolent, Long-suffering Us has hooked up with our democracy-loving partner Saudi Arabia to bomb Syria, all in the name of freedom! I feel safer already. And I’m sure glad CNN is there to bring me all the news story that affects my life.)
When the window opened, right on schedule, I bought 12 stamps. The postmistress in Blandford, Mass., was exceedingly friendly and helpful. I should have chatted her up, or at least made an attempt, but I was deeply feeble. I drove on.
Ten miles later, I stopped at Pappa’s Healthy Food and Fuel in Otis. I bought what looked like an apple of local provenance and a plastic container of dark chocolate espresso beans. Again I stayed silent except for boilerplate pleases and thank yous.
The apple was dear, at $1.59, but damn, it was good. Pleasantly tart and unfailingly crisp. I saved the espresso beans for later, tossing them in the cooler to make sure they don’t melt into a dark-chocolate espresso blob. I steered the Behemoth onto the road again, and in a couple miles turned south on Massachusetts 8.
I hoped to stop and talk to somebody before crossing into Connecticut. Perhaps at New Boston, I thought. Well, I failed. Miserably. I drove right through Colebrook and on into Winsted. I drove through town, once again marveling at the always-present pizzerias and antique shops. Then I went back the other way and found the always-present McDonald’s.
I came in, plugged in the laptop and died. Figuratively. I am losing steam, and it’s a worrisome thing. I thought about holing up in a cheap motel for a couple nights to catch up on the writing. I searched the Hartford area. Yet I was too lacking in inspiration to do so much as close the deal on an online purchase.
I packed up my stuff and shuffled to the Behemoth. My head was troubled by thoughts of the sprawling antiques compound I’d driven past just a few miles into Connecticut. It was the kind of haphazard collection of random objects that smelled of eccentricity.
Maybe if I went back I’d find the will to make something happen, though I still ran desperately short of gumption. I dragged myself through the six-mile journey north on 8. I didn’t remember it being that far up the road. I pulled in, gathered up the camera and cash and browsed through the motley collection of merchandise. There were saddles and anvils and carriages and wood-burning stoves. Old-style signs were posted everywhere and warned of the wages of theft.
I was alone, but I didn’t feel that way.
My eyes wandered to the back wall, to the photograph of a well-endowed blonde in clad only in panties, her well-endowedness on spectacular display. A handwritten note on the top margin said the picture dated to 1965, when the two-dimensional bombshell was 21. It also noted she died in 2009.
First thing I did went I got back to this place was find out who she was. Her name, her stage name, was Yvonne d’Angers. Her real name was Yvonne Boreta, and she was born in Iran. She was a cause celebre in San Francisco, where the press dubbed her the “Persian Lamb.” In 1965, she was the key witness during a trial to determine the legality of topless waitresses.
Then, in 1966, she chained herself to the Golden Gate Bridge to protest her threatened deportation. A former North Beach bartender named John Burton, now the California Democratic Party Chairman, described d’Angers and another performer, Carol Doda, as striptease version of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
I heard some scuffling out front, and quickly averted my eyes from Yvonne d’Angers boobs.  The proprietor was about, I figured. I kept browsing, until he came in and asked about the Behemoth. Said he’s had a lot of Toyota trucks, and marveled about their capacity to run forever.
He said he used to sell Toyota pickups overseas, but you can’t take them through Mexico anymore. Said he used to cut out the back of school busses, load them with pickups and drive them all the way to Honduras. That’s what he said. He also said he once cut off the back of a station wagon and used it to deliver “millions of dollars worth of paintings” to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
His name is Bob Ziegler, and he grabbed me by the ear and lifted me right up out of the abyss. He’s a loquacious fellow, though everything he says comes out in deadpan fashion. He looked like he might have Native blood. I asked about that.
“My mom was Indian,” he said, “my dad was German. Quite a combination.”
He said he’d seen me drive by on my first pass through town.
“I’m an owl,” he said. “I see everything.”
I’m not sure if this should’ve made me uncomfortable, but it didn’t. He said he’s owned this place for 25 years. He also owns a farm up the road. I asked him what he farms.
“Nothing,” he said flatly. “I grow nothing.”
I asked him about the continued profusion of antique shops throughout New England. He said the antique business is history.
“Used to be eight or 10 shops here,” he said. “I’m the only one left. It used to be a good business. Now all I’ve got is junk. Twenty-five years ago, it was a good business. I used to clean old furniture and sell it, high-end furniture. I’ve been in homes and seen things I’d never have seen just because of the stuff I sold.”
Bob said New York swells come up Route 8 and pass by his door en route to their getaway cottages in the Berkshires. Said he’s seen his share of celebrities paw through his stuff, including “that guy from Butch Cassidy,” aka Paul Newman. Bob said he even dated a daughter of “that guy who played Radar in the movies.”
Yes, Gary Burghoff. He’s a “squirrelly” sort of guy, Ziegler said.
“He’s about as bright as a brick.”
I liked that. Bright as a brick. He briefly detoured into a rant about the general unreliability of Native Americans as laborers. As he is half-Indian, I gave him a pass. He told me about one fellow named Stonestrong, whom he found sleeping in a car on his property on the other side of Route 8.
The memory of Stonestrong brought a smile to Bob’s face.
“He was a Micmac from New York,” he said. “And he was crazy. He’d take off his shirt and you’d see his chest all covered with knife cuts. I guess he liked to fight. He was a tough cookie. And he was clever.”
He said he walked over to tell the interloper to shove off. Stonestrong asked for $20, and eventually bartered his leather vest for money. Ziegler promised to return the vest if Stonestrong ever returned with the $20.
One day he did. He also brought Ziegler a handmade leather vest, festooned with intricate beadwork and the image of a buffalo drawn with a soldering iron.
“He was unbelievably talented,” Ziegler said. “He was the best I’ve ever seen. The stuff he could do with a razor and a piece of leather was amazing.”
I asked if he’d like to see Stonestrong pop by for a visit.
“Sure,” he said. “He’s out there somewhere, if he’s not dead. He was a good guy.”
Bob asked if I had a camping spot somewhere. He said I could sleep across the street, in the same general vicinity where he found Stonestrong.
Then he said he had to accompany a buddy to pick up a boat somewhere an hour’s drive away. He locked up, and said he’d stop over to see me if I turn up.
And you know I will. He could be a stranger-murderer, but I doubt it. And he saved my day, so I owe him the benefit of the doubt.
I’m off to the supermarket, just in case he’s hungry. Guess I’ll see if CNN finds another story to report some other time.

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From Concord to Franklin to Tilton (New Hampshire), oh my

This brick stack no longer belches smoke, it growsrom Franklin, N.H.'s days as a textile mill down

This smokeless brick stack is a relic of Franklin’s days as a mill town.

Sept. 21, Tilton, N.H. – At long last having escaped the clutches of Maine, which I must remind you is open for business, I squandered most of the day in New Hampshire.
Which is where I am now. Once again I sit in a wifi-friendly Golden Arches Cafe.
This one is buzzing tonight. As it does twice each year, the circus came to Tilton, N.H., this weekend.
This particular circus is the sort that features the heavy-metal roar of supercharged engines and the prevailing aroma of petroleum. Tilton, you see, sits just 12 miles away from Ground Zero of Nascar’s North Pole, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
Occasionally I must close my eyes and remember I’m well north of the Mason-Dixon line.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing put on a show in Loudon this afternoon. A 24-year-old son of New England, Joey Logano, won the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In addition to qualifying him for the second round of NASCAR’s season-ending playoff “Chase,” Logano’s victory disappointed the legion of fans who flock to Sprint Cup ovals in droves to root for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One of them, Jim Dejana, drove five hours from Dix Hills, N.Y., on Long Island, with his son. This is a regular trip for Dejana. He sat at a table here, sunburned face and salt-and-pepper beard beneath his No. 88 hat.
The McDonald’s has been overrun with race fans since I got here.
I asked him how the race went.
“It went,” he said. “The wrong guy won, but what are you going to do? At least it wasn’t boring.”
Turns out I share a small kinship with Jim Dejana. He was born in Port Washington, N.Y., as was my dad. Both sets of my paternal great-grandparents lived in the Long Island hamlet. When I was young, we occasionally visited my great-grandmother, Blanche Olive Decker, in her home at 14 Carlton Avenue.
Anyway, this place has been jumping all night as McDonald’s associates frantically try to keep up with a hungry mob, most of the clad in NASCAR regalia. An employee was wiping down a table next to me. I gave her a smile and said it’s a nuthouse, eh?
I looked at the swollen staff behind the counter in their black uniforms and asked her how many extra workers they needed to summon to handle the crush.
“It looks like they brought five people down from Concord to help,” she said, turning her head toward the counter and silently counting faces she didn’t recognize.

****
I drove south out of Saco on Route 1, admiring the enormous American flag flapping in the wind above Frank Galos Chevrolet and Cadillac. After 10 days, it was time to say goodbye to Maine. I decided to head back to New Hampshire because I feel like I gave the Granite State short-shrift on my way from Vermont to Maine. Also, I hoped to get a look at the splendor of fall in honor of the Autumnal Equinox.
And so I steered the Behemoth south and west on Maine 4, which eventually dumped me out in Dover, N.H. Once home to a booming textile mill on the Cocheco River, Dover seems to have weathered the end of its industrial age in style. The downtown area bustles with independent restaurants and small shops.
I guess I liked Dover, because upon arriving, I proceeded to circumnavigate it for a half-hour of absolute cluelessness. Recently I was talking about talking to myself, and sometimes the give-and-take gets a little heated when I’m lost. And make no mistake, getting lost is a hazard of the road. It happens all the time, and when it does, you just have to ride it out with a minimum of Sturm und Drang.
Route 3 up from Concord is a bumpy, nerve-jangling road. It smooths out nicely when you emerge from Tilton proper and ascend toward the I-93 junction. Perched at the apex of the hill there is, of course, a Walmart. Franklin is a bit of a mess. The downtown is Before Tilton, Route 3 passes through another old mill town, Franklin.
Franklin chose a handsome enough spot for itself. It sits at the spot where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee meet up to form the Merrimack River.
I’m sad to report that Franklin hasn’t made the transition from industrial glory as nicely as Dover. Economically speaking, Franklin is gasping for air. I did see something in Franklin I’d never seen anywhere else: a tangled mass of flora growing from the top an old smokestack.
How bad a shape is Franklin in? Well, it is the first town I’ve come across that’s achieved the dollar-store trifecta: Family Dollar, Dollar General and Dollar Tree all operate stores in Franklin. As I made my way north, I had marveled about the ubiquity of the pizza shop across the American landscape. Perhaps it’s the one constant feature from coast to coast. I should’ve gone into the pizza business, not the writing business.
But in gritty, hardscrabble Franklin, even pizza cannot promise you prosperity.  On Route 3, a pizzeria with the Orkian name Nannou Nannoo is no longer open for business.
Speaking of going out of business, I nearly reached the end of the road this afternoon. How sad it would’ve been to die in the Fort Eddy Plaza shopping center. When I contemplate death, which I try not to do often, I don’t imagine it find me when I’m surrounded by old friends such as Staples, Rite Aid, Supercuts, Five Guys, H&R Block and Game Stop.
To perish in a stripmall is a disagreeable thought for sure. It would be so much more dignified to fall off a cliff at Yellowstone or drown in the Atlantic while in a booze-soaked stupor. But, as they say, you never know.
Upon arriving in Concord, N.H., I pulled into the Fort Eddy Plaza, stopped in at Shaw’s and decided to treat myself to a hummus-and-broccoli snack. Because I found the prospect of cleaning a cutting board and knife objectionable, I opted to just rip the florets off the crown and eat them in bites. They were indeed large. In a moment of regrettable haste, I guess I tried to swallow the last one whole.
That was a rotten idea. Next thing I knew, I had a shrub-sized chunk of broccoli lodged in my throat.
I don’t want to engage in hyperbole, but I was a trifle worried. Worry soon gave way to panic. I was standing next to the Behemoth when it dawned on me I might be in a spot of trouble. I looked desperately to the cab for water, but the doors were locked and the keys were in the back of the camper. I didn’t know if I should expend the time and effort to retrieve the keys and water. It seemed like time was becoming critical.
I decided to go looking for a hero, in case it turned out I required one. I lumbered toward Rite Aid/Shaw’s, punching myself in the stomach as I went.
Two-thirds of the way there, desperation rising, I stuck two fingers down my throat. Just like that, out came a monster floret drizzled with roasted red pepper hummus.
Man, I was surprised at how much hummus there was. I had stains on shorts and T-shirt. There is a pithy message on front of the T-shirt: “Life is Good.”
And so it is.
Damn, it feels good to be alive.
As I walked to a neighboring shopping plaza, I called my mom and sister. I figured someone would be glad to hear I’m still alive. My mom keeps telling me I’m not eating enough. Guess I showed her.
I bought a pair of glasses and two pens at the Dollar Tree, then trudged back to the Fort Eddy Plaza. There, in an effort to disgust the few readers I have left, I retrieved the camera from the front seat and found the lonely, hummus-and-saliva saturated broccoli floret lying prostrate in the parking lot.
And I got a nice little photograph of the offending bush with the golden dome of the statehouse in the background.

The broccoli floret that tried to kill me in Concord, N.H.

The broccoli floret that tried to kill me in Concord, N.H.

I’m not sure about New Hampshire. I don’t think I feel safe here. That whole “Live Free or Die” thing is worrisome.
Perhaps someone is concerned I’m not living free enough.
We’ll see.

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