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.
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.
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.
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.”