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.

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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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Road snapshot: Old Orchard Beach, Maine

Sept. 20, Old Orchard Beach, Maine – I wanted to at least glimpse the ocean before abandoning Maine, and I chose Old Orchard Beach due to its reputation as an offseason ghost town.
I thought I might like to see a few ghosts.
I drove Route 1 south through Scarborough, where I once spent eight days in the company of my old pal, the one-of-a-kind Gabe Mazurkiewicz. I turned onto 98 east, and soon was driving down Old Orchard Street. I did a loop around town, past the Family Dollar and the Rite Aid and the Subway, and parked on Staples Street, adjacent to the Libby Memorial Library. I gazed straight ahead at the Ferris wheel in the Playland amusement park. Everything was still as death. The carousel, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Fun House, the Cascade Falls water flume. Silence reigned. No sounds of giggling teenagers and screaming children pierced the chilly night air.
I clambered out of the Behemoth and angled toward the main drag. Old men younger than me emerged from a bar, cigarettes in their hand and scowls on the faces. The wind whistled and moaned. I sensed a faint trace of malevolence in the air.
Lisa and Bill and Rocco were still selling pizza along Old Orchard Street. Slices went for a midsummer price of $3.50. People were about, but there atmosphere lacked the gaiety, the hormonal flirtation of summertime. The arcade lights swirled and the machines pinged, but it wasn’t enough to lift the pall. A  month ago, this place must’ve been a kaleidoscopic whirl of color and sound.
I mounted the stairs to the Pier. The sign on the facade dates it to 1898. Hooligans was open and selling drinks. College football players flickered on plasma screens. Most places, though, were shuttered for the winter. Corrugated metal doors had fallen with a thud of finality. They were festooned with rusted and grease.
A good-time town gone in hibernation makes for a sad sight.
Gina’s not giving psychic readings. Toe Rings and Other Things was closed. Ditto the tattoo parlor. You could not get a hot dog and a soda for 99 cents at The All-American Meal tonight. No nine-ounce taco, fries and soda for $4 at the Potato Factory. No Old Fashioned Fried Dough. No T-shirts, no fruit smoothies, no Mexican food.
Even the bathrooms, the cleanest bathrooms on the beach, mind you, were locked up tight.
I walked to the end of the pier, and stood transfixed as waves crashed onto the beach and curled around pilings. I closed my eyes and tried to absorb the timeless pitch and roll of a great ocean.
Wind gusted down the alley of the pier, rattling the metal awning of a dormant shop. A heavy melancholy had settled in my bones. I looked above a gift shop and was startled to see a group of pigeons. Still as wooden ducks, they roosted in a dormer with a smashed window.
Suddenly I didn’t know what I had come for. Ghosts? I saw no ghosts, but there was a definite spookiness in the air.
The bars all seemed to be open, and people milled about, but it seemed they were going through the motions. All activity bore a conspicuous lack of conviviality. I felt a desire to sit down on a barstool and sip a Shipyard ale, but I had to get going.
I clambered down off the Pier and trudged slowly up Old Orchard Street. The piercing wail of train cut the silence, and in a minute a freight train rumbled through town, bells clanging and drowning out the roar of the ocean.
I reached the top of the hill, and crossed Old Orchard. As I passed by the St. Margaret Church, a lone cricket sang a plaintive song. I looked about, but it was hidden somewhere beneath the cover of fading hydrangeas.
It was time to go.

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Portland, Maine: Everywhere you go, there’s America

Sept. 20, Portland, Maine – I’m at Starbucks in north Portland, and it seems like Saturday is slipping away. I drove down the coast last night in desultory fashion.
I pulled into the RV camping ground at the Falmouth Walmart. It’s a popular spot, with campers of all size strewn across the lot and facing in all direction. There was even a painted school bus, what looked conspicuously like a hippie caravan, parked at the far fringe with a cardboard sign in the window which read, “Help! We’re Stuck!”
It was early, but I was tired and hungry. This morning I got up and went across 1 to the McDonald’s, got my free coffee and consulted the Great God Google for directions to the Portland Planet Fitness on Marginal Way.
When I got there, I turned on the propane and made a quick and easy breakfast: two fried eggs with cheese on top and two pieces of 12-grain toast. Then I took a deep breath and girded for my workout.
As I walked through the parking lot, I absentmindedly looked down at a license plate and suddenly remembered that Maine is “Vacationland.” Which brought me back to last night’s frustrating drive along Maine’s beautiful coast. For one, it was dark, so I didn’t get to see a whole lot of beauty. More significantly, I was troubled.
When I reached comely Camden town, I recognized my problem. Each coastal town was prettier and more than the last. They all boasted of their stately Victorian inns and their quaint and cozy cottages with shiplap siding painted in pretty colors.  I wasn’t supposed to be on vacation. I don’t even have a job, for Christsake.
I began to rebel against the pretty.
I found myself longing for the familiar and tawdry, the ubiquitous eyesores of corporate stripmall culture. Give me the Burger King and the Dairy Queen, the Big Mac and Little Caesars, and get me out the hell of here.
And I had what constitutes a minor epiphany.
America is beautiful, but America is not pretty.
Among other things …
America is a hooker with a black eye and a heroin-dealer boyfriend.
America is Charlie Parker dead at 34 and Dick Cheney alive at 73.
America is a 43-year-old miner dying of old age.
America is a 19-year-old girl passed out at a fraternity party.
America is a bloated corpse washed up on an oilslick beach.
America is a 7-year-old Honduran boy who traveled 1,700 miles all by his lonesome just to steal your minimum-wage job.
America is an ocean of oil and no one to blame.
America is 48-hour meth bender with bath salts for dessert.
America is an evangelical preacher with a 15-year-old paramour.
America is an honest banker and a senator with a broken spine.
America is a $10 million mansion on 9 acres with 8,000 square feet, 7 marble fireplaces, 6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, 4-car garage, 3 living rooms, 2 parents and 1 child.
Well, you get the point. All I’m saying is I didn’t come this far to see pretty.
I came for the Walmart parking lot and the McDonald’s wife (and free small coffee during breakfast, through Sept. 29!). I came to discover the real America, wherever and whatever that is.

***

Well, back to Planet Fitness, Marginal Way, Portland, Maine.
I strolled though the door, signed the guest register and beheld the largest, most spacious, most wonderful Planet Fitness I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few. I’ve been in nine facilities in four states. This one, on Marginal Way near downtown Portland, features two sprawling floors chock-full of machines of every kind. There’s even one room reserved solely for mats, which I’ve never seen.
I panted my way through a bit of stretching and assorted exercises Then I stood up and gazed out the window. Immediately I saw I’d come a long way from Aroostook County. I had ventured into the golden heart of Downeast.
And it’s not just the luxury Planet Fitness. Right out the window, a majestic Trader Joe’s rose from an ordinary large macadam lot. First one I’ve encountered since leaving Pennsylvania.  Eastern Mountain Sports sits one door removed from Trader Jo’es.
Suddenly I realized Maine’s Portland is not all the different from Oregon’s. Bike lanes. Big box stores selling the latest in outdoor adventure gear. Trader Joe’s and its tasteful array of wines and cheeses And of course it’s easy to find a Starbucks is easy.
And now that I’m here, perhaps I should discuss something a bit more useful, like life in the Behemoth. For the seven of the past eight nights, I bedded down in the always capacious parking lot of the Walmart. It’s just too damn convenient, and most of all, it’s free.
This is my 27th day away from Pennsylvania. If you throw out the three nights Max, Becky and I camped at Promised Land State Park, I haven’t spent a penny on lodging.  Nine of them have been courtesy of Sam Walton’s largesse. I’ve spent five in supermarket parking lots and two at Planet Fitness.
If you find yourself beyond the reaching of corporate comfort, options always exist. You just have to be careful. Max and I spent three nights in New York City camped on Occident Avenue, next to an apartment building. That left us a 1.5-mile walk to the ferry each morning. We weren’t troubled until the last night, when I was awaken by the half-siren of NYPD Blue. I rushed to the window in the back, peeled open the blinds and said, Yes Sir? Well, he said they’d gotten some calls about the Behemoth, and I’m sure they had. There were some pretty fancy homes perched on the hill across Occident from that apartment building. When I told him we’d be out in the morning, he said, “Cool.”
And that was that. Becky, Max and I spent three nights camped on the street in the Treme section of New Orleans, and not a soul bothered us.
Despite all those lonely nights in the parking lot of the Walton Family Inn and General Store, I’m pleased to report I haven’t broken the streak. Sixteen months ago, somewhere in western Georgia, Becky and I resolved to spend no more money at Walmart. So far, so good. But, you know, I am grateful for the lodging.
I’d rather stay somewhere else, parked somewhere off in the woods or along the seashore. And you can do this, it’s just not convenient. And it’s not easy.

******

I endured the workout, showered and returned to the camper. On the subject of bathing, we just don’t use any of the Behemoth’s plumbing facilities. We decided early on we’d rather not deal with that shit, so to speak.
And in 19 nights since parting ways with Max and Becky, I’ve showered 11 times. Planet Fitness every time. That $20-a-month membership has turned out to be a steal.
Well, I left the Planet and stopped in at Trader Joe’s.
God what a goldmine. No matter why you find one, Trader Joe’s is always a veritable madhouse. Especially on Saturday. I bought four bottles of 3-buck Chuck and then proceeded to get lost in north Portland.
I found a McDonald’s, where the easy wifi access usually clears up this problem. Not today. My laptop battery died abruptly, and there were no outlets. I left and drove on. I drove blind for about 20 minutes before I stumbled into Shaw’s supermarket, which is essentially Acme with an Osco Pharmacy. I bought a pint of half and half and one of those small containers of cottage cheese with pineapple on the side.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I said to myself, “Where now? Yes, Starbucks.”
When you’re alone for any extended period of time, you start talking to yourself. It occurs naturally. For long stretches of the day, you have no one else to talk with.
I was surprised the first time I noticed I was thinking out loud. I’m no longer surprised.
In fact, I have quite amiable conversations with myself. I rarely disagree with myself, and while I castigate myself quite often, I always forgive myself.
As I turned onto Auburn Avenue, I chanced to see the big sign listing all the fine stores in the Northgate Shopping Mall. Right up there in bold, green letters was S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. I looked back to the right and saw it staring at me. It’s right next-door to the Shaw-Osco. Told you it was easy to find a Starbucks in Portland, Maine.
What an observer I am.
Well, here I sit. I’m going to get moving now, and see if I have anything interesting to say.

 

 

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Road snapshot: Bangor to Belfast

Sept. 19, Belfast, Maine – It was past 9 last night when I finally stopped prattling on about potatoes and left Houlton. I’d had vague notions of driving the length of the Maine coastline, but in deference to the oppressive juggernaut of time, I decided a compromise was necessary.
And so I jumped on I-95 and headed south. After now and then, when I feel the need for a quick change of scenery, I suspend my tacit rule against driving on Dwight David Eisenhower’s monstrous interstate highway system.
It wasn’t long before I began to think of my friend Brett, the gas jockey at the Daigle Oil Company station in Presque Isle. He’s the guy who said the most desolate stretch of highway anywhere is the road between Houlton to Bangor. My faith in him only grew as I drove for a mind-numbing 40-mile stretch without encountering a single car, truck or RV in the southbound lanes. The only living soul I saw was a female deer perched in the grass below the roadside. Her left ear jutted out prominently, as if she were interested in hitching a ride south.
I also thought of my pal Stacey Eulrich Griffin Jr., who promised me I’d see a moose in Allagash. I worried maybe he was only a halfright prophet and, instead of seeing a moose in northern Aroostook County, I’d meet one in the middle of I-95 at 60 miles per hour. It’s an eerie sensation, sharing a big, old interstate highway with unseen ungulates and jumping shadows. I muddled my way along, driving 50 mph in a 75-mph zone, eyes darting about in search of wayward moose. I made sure the camera was at my side. If I somehow missed the 1,000-pound moose standing in the middle of I-95, I didn’t want to miss the photo opportunity.
Well, I still haven’t seen a moose. Not since Glacier National Park, anyway. I made it safely into Bangor at midnight and headed straight for Planet Fitness. I worked out, and more significantly, bathed for the first time since I was here Sunday morning.
It felt good to be clean, but now I was cold. Damn cold.
The overnight low in Bangor was 32. I got some gas after leaving the gym, and my fingers turned numb in the brief time outside. I drove north one exit in the direction of the Walton Family Inn and let the Behemoth run a while, hoping to heat up the joint. Then I reached into the cab from the camper, turned off the engine and jumped into bed, fully clad in blue jeans and sweatshirt with hood pulled over my head. And that’s how I looked when I awoke this morning around 8.
I put on my sneakers and hit the road. I found my way to 1A, and spotted a Goodwill. I swerved left into the parking lot, strode right in and bought two L.L. Bean sweaters, a University of Maine hoodie, a pair of lined pajama pants, a pair of gloves and a hat with ear flaps. Thirty-one dollars later, I figured I was ready for almost anything the New England autumn has up its sleeve.
A half hour after that, I was in Ellsworth, where 1A meets up with Coastal Route 1. I stopped at Hannaford and bought a bag of ice, a bagel and a head of broccoli crowns. I repaired to the Behemoth, turned on the gas, heated the bagel and made a turkey-and-cheese sandwich with grilled onions and homemade horseradish-mayonnaise-mustard sauce.
Ellsworth, I learned, calls itself the Crossroads of Downeast Maine. I found that to be true. I got crossed-up but good after leaving Hannaford. First I flirted with heading toward Acadia National Park, but I remembered this isn’t a vacation and I should save that for a time when Max and Becky are along for the ride. So I swung around and headed west on 3. I didn’t realize it also was 1, so I went south, then north, then south again before pulling myself together.

The First Congregational Church of Christ in Ellsworth, Maine.

The First Congregational Church of Christ in Ellsworth, Maine.

I rode Main Street through downtown Ellsworth, which is also U.S. 1. I was almost out of town when the light at Water Street went red. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel impatiently, then looked at the red brick building which stood kitty-corner to my left. A banner hanging from the facade announced it as the Emmaus Homeless Shelter.
That old nagging voice of my conscience began to whisper in my ear again. A homeless shelter in the middle of this affluent tourist hamlet seemed like a striking incongruity. And so I found a parking spot and trudged toward.
I rang the buzzer and entered, immediately stumbling upon a scene that looked like a battered woman in conference with a staff member. I lowered my head and backed off a few steps. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, after all.
Eventually Mary came out to greet me. She said she’s been working here a year. I told her my story and shrugged my shoulders meekly and said there but for fortune go I.
She said they have 25 beds, and they are always full. There is a long waiting list. With the temperature taking a nosedive, that list will only grow. I said I knew privacy important, but I wondered she might know a resident who might want to share his or her story. Mary said she didn’t know, but I’d have to talk to the director, Nichole. She would be back in about an hour. Mary gave me the phone number, and I walked off to kill time.
I stopped in at the J.B. Atlantic Co. and bought a few postcards, a cup of coffee and a calendar for my moms. Then I went back to the camper, which was in a two-hour free lot beneath the stately brick Ellsworth City Hall building. I added half and half to the coffee and wrote out three postcards, then set out for the post office.
Before leaving, I tried Nichole’s number twice. It was busy. By the time I had finished my business at the Ellsworth Post Office, I my passion for the story was waning. Maybe the idea was pure exploitation. In any case, I already had the basics for your run-of-the-mill, drive-by story.
Ellsworth oozes quaintness. Its streets are bracketed by handsome buildings made of red brick. They are lined with chic gift stores and trendy cafes with names like Maine-ly Meat on Main, The Grasshopper, and the Main Ground.
Ellsworth’s the kind of tourist haven where you can buy apple-chai candles made by the Yankee Candle Co. and balsam-fir pillows with pictures of loons cruising on a lonely lake, then cross Main Street and spend a lovely hour or two sampling fine wines and aged cheeses. It has old art deco theater called the Grand, which closed in 1962 and reopened in 1975 as a performing arts center.
Ellsworth is a place where the air smells of searing fish and baking chocolate; where the majestic spire of the First Congregational United Church of Christ dominates the skyline; and where you cross the Union River on an old arched bridge that has geraniums and lobelia overflowing the baskets affixed to its rails.
Amid all this picturesque affluence, at the bottom of the Main Street hill, hard by the Union River, across the street from a fine, three-story brick house that houses the state Democratic Headquarters (Michaud for Governor 2014!), sits a homeless shelter with 25 beds that might just be the hottest ticket in town.
See there? I had the story all wrapped up. No need to talk to an actual person. Nonetheless, that nagging voice, and a sense of professional guilt, prodded me to give it one more go. I walked through the door, dodged a woman bearing a giant casserole dish stuffed with homemade macaroni and cheese, and waited for Mary.
Ah, there she was.
“Oh, you’re back,” she said. “I’ll just be a minute.”
During that minute, I overheard voices in the adjacent office. Well, one voice. It belonged to Herr Direktor, Nichole. She was giving poor Mary her marching orders.
And Mary soon emerged and dutifully reported that now was not the best of times. However, she said, a house meeting is scheduled for Monday, and if I wanted to come back then I might get a chance to talk to the residents.
I said that was unlikely, but politely thanked Mary for her time and walked out the door. As I crossed Main, I felt the first spark of a slow burn. I didn’t care that Nichole sent me away, but I began to think about how I’d loitered around tourist-town Maine for more than an hour waiting for her, and how she couldn’t be bothered to poke her head out of the office, say hello, shake her head sadly, and say it isn’t a good day for talking to homeless folk.
All the sudden I was happy I’d returned to the Emmaus Homeless Shelter. I hadn’t worked up a boiling sense of indignation in some time, what with all the people I meet being so candid and wonderful and downright engaging.
I was glad to have not met Nichole Gulowson (sometimes I love the Internet. And yes, I am petty and vindictive).  Speaking of the World Wide Web, I read a letter she wrote recently, announcing the departure of longtime director Sister Lucille McDonald. I’ll bet Sister Lucille would’ve looked me in the goddamn eye when she told me today wasn’t a good day to bother the denizens of Emmaus Shelter. I know it.
I crossed Water Street and angled in the direction of the Behemoth. As I stoked my dander into a righteous ire, I looked down and noticed my fly was unzipped.
Well, it was a homeless shelter, after all. And I’m about a natural fit as they come.
I had a good chuckle at my own expense, then drove onto Church Street to have my senses jarred by the ridiculous opulence of the First Congregational Church. I admired those six classical columns topped by those fancy Ionic capitals, and that alabaster spire towering about the Union River valley.
God, I wanted to get the hell out of town.
Important journalistic tip: When you’ve succeeded in working yourself into a seething lather, it is critical to translate it all into words before passion cools and you realize the whole affair was small beer. I can’t emphasize this enough.
And I’m glad I did so, because by the time I’d reached Buckport and noticed a sign for Carrier’s Mainely Lobster, the target of my wrath had already shifted to the American shopkeeper’s infinite weakness for terrible puns. Already I’d seen Mainely Music, and Maine-ly Meats on Main, and I’ll bet the list goes on forever.
And it does, too.
I did a quick search on whitepages.com for Mainely businesses in Maine and found listings for about 75 of them. The roll call includes Mainely Tile and Mainely Trees; Mainely Vinyl and Mainely Grass; Mainely Bingo and Mainely Crafts; Mainely Publishing and Mainely Eyes; Mainely Plumbing and Mainely Hair; Mainely Baby and Mainely Nails; and Mainely Scooters and Mainely Wireless.
My favorites: Mainely Hawaii and yes, Mainely Ticks.
And you know what? Every last one of those entrepreneurs probably wet their pants with glee when they came up with the name. Every one of them thought it was the most clever name in the history of mercantilism. That’s the problem with puns.
Nine out of 10 of them are stupid, and they’re all born of a desire to be unique being a copycat.
The world of business is a wheezing old cliche.
See how that works? I had barely made Searsport, and I’d nearly forgotten all about the invisible Direktor Nichole Gulowson.
I was just beginning to wonder where the hell this fabled Maine coastline was when I was startled by the sparkling blue waters of the Penobscot River as I passed through Verona Island. On the far side the attractive, cable-stayed Penobscot Narrows Bridge, the Behemoth was dwarfed by a stone cliff. Perhaps, I hoped, was only a sneak preview of Maine’s famously rugged coastline.
Sadly, my newfound sense of peace and wonder was quickly sullied by the tractor trailer three vehicles ahead of me, which spewed bluegray clouds of pure, unfiltered cancer from its smokestack. When U.S. 1 swung uphill and a passing lane opened, the trucker dutifully moved into the right lane, and we all raced to get free of his noxious plumes. The first two cars made it easily, but the Behemoth is a born plodder. When the passing lane had ended, I’d only succeeded in moving up to first in line to inhale the toxic fumes. The sight of Mainely Pottery briefly lifted my spirits, and for the next 10 miles was condemned to drive in the death truck’s smokestream.
As we approached Belfast, another passing lane opened, and this time I got around Mr. Alpha Services Group of Algonquin, Ill. In this case, I felt a little bad for my annoyance, because the driver seemed reasonably responsible and courteous. He’s just a pawn in the game being played by the Alpha Services Group of Algonquin, Ill.
I needed gas, and decided to make a pit stop in Belfast. I stumbled right into a station owned by Maritime Energy. Unleaded regular was going for $331.9, the cheapest I’d seen since leaving New Jersey. I filled up, then got involved in a casual conversation with an older gentleman who had taken an interest in the Behemoth.
His name is Phil Black. He’s 83, and he drives a little Ford Ranger pickup with a cap on top and an American flag flying from the passenger window. He said he has a 32-foot RV, and he’s looking to sell it and get something a little more like the Warrior.
He was a rail-thin, diminutive fellow with a distinguished gray beard and a cap that identified him as a former U.S. Navy Corpsman. He asked where in Pennsylvania I came from. When I said the Philadelphia area, he said he grew up in Philadelphia.
I asked where, and he said he couldn’t remember, it had been so long ago. That was my first clue that maybe Phil’s battling a bit of dementia.
Then he told me about the time his mother called him to the window and pointed to the zeppelin Hindenburg, which was engulfed in flames 50 miles east in Lakehurst, N.J.
Phil’s a nice fellow, though, and he gave me his business card and said to call if I wanted a look at his RV.
Turns out Phil’s confused Hindenburg memory is likely based on an actual event. On an beautiful late-Saturday afternoon in August 1936, the ill-fated German airship toured the skies over Philadelphia for an hour, as detailed in this wonderfully evocative, detailed recollection by Jerry Jonas in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Piloted by Capt. Ernst Lehmann, who would go down with the ship at Lakehurst, it had been scheduled to land in Lakehurst at 11 a.m. Turbulent winds had changed its plans, and Lehmann spent the afternoon giving his passengers an unscheduled tour of famous spots along the East Coast.
I was pleased to learn that Phil had indeed probably seen the Hindenburg gliding above Philadelphia when he was a boy. I hope he gets that smaller camper, and I hope he hits the road with his wife the schoolteacher sometime soon.

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