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.