This is the fifth part of a serial travelogue entitled How I Spent My Summer Vacation, starring Artificially Sweetened (AS), Cupcake, and me, The Nittany Turkey.
I told the girls they could sleep as late as they wanted. That meant no later than 10 AM. There was a lot of flexibility in the schedule, as the plan for the day was to hang around the PSU campus for a while and then drive to Tam Manor, the home of Toejam and Judytam, about three hours away, in time for dinner.
We were getting this motel stuff down to a science. By this time, we could gather our stuff and check out with great dispatch and with only a modest amount of grumbling at each other about extraneous issues like my driving, like Cupcake’s penchant for like saying “like”, and like AS’s need for coffee. This morning was a good one. The only grumbling was mine, when AS demanded that we stop by the lobby’s little sundry shop because she needed a toothbrush. I told her to wait until we got to a drug store instead of paying for an overpriced hotel toothbrush. Greased only by that grousing, we piled into the minivan and worked our way downtown.
I found a nice place to park near the corner of East College Avenue and Garner Street, putting a couple of hours worth of change into the meter. AS needed some drugstore items, so we crossed the street to McLanahan’s, which is an all-purpose student store. She began to look at Penn State souvenirs and logo items. I knew what that meant—she was in full shopping mode.
To bide my time, I sauntered over to the pharmaceutical aisles to pick up the toothbrush that she needed. I have pledged to remain silent about how her original toothbrush was rendered unusable and I will keep that promise. After I picked up the toothbrush I couldn’t remember what else AS wanted, so I went to find her but couldn’t. I ran into Cupcake and asked her where AS was. “Way in the back,” she said. I found her back there working her way through Penn State garments and when I managed to wrest her away from the sale racks, she told me that it was Q-tips that she needed. That gave me a two-minute mission that saved me from two minutes of excruciating waiting while AS looked at hundreds of items she would not buy. I returned to see how she was. She was still working her way around the store, looking at each garment. I talked with Cupcake for a while. She was bored, too. I took the stuff to the check-out and paid, just for something to do. Still no AS. I finally had to get rather insistent.
“There are other stores, you know. The Student Book Store has good stuff, ” I said, hopefully.
“Just a few more minutes!” contested AS. I knew that stubborn face. It was going to require some heavy artillery from me to get her the hell out of there.
“We ought to grab some lunch,” I told her. “There’s a great lunch place a couple of blocks from here. They have good coffee, too.”
Her head lifted. “Food? Coffee?” she grunted, and then, sarcastically, “Oh, and beer, of course.”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
Whew! It worked. Of course, I knew that we would have to finish the shopping after lunch, but I would get a break and a beer. For our lunch spot I had chosen The Deli, another of Andy Z’s restaurants that serves a nice lunch.
We grabbed Cupcake and sallied forth.
“I still think ‘State College’ is a dumb name for a city,” said Cupcake.
The lunch was uneventful except for the entertainment provided by a group of about eight women who appeared to be PSU staff types having a lunch out during laid back summer semester. When they finished their lunch and paid their individual bills, they hung around for a while to talk. One of them, a black woman in dreadlocks who looked younger than the rest, was mindlessly playing with a spoon while engaging in this postprandial chat. At first, she was rubbing it on her arm. Then, she started beating her bicep with it. Then, she was polishing it on her shirt. Finally, while still talking, she started to press the concave business end of the spoon against the tip of her nose and held it there while she talked. She wasn’t clowning around. It was probably something that her friends had seen before, because they seemed comfortable with it. However, I was going nuts trying to be inconspicuous about getting a good picture of it. She continued to interact animatedly with the others, laughing and smiling, all the while holding the damn spoon against her nose. I never did get a very good picture, as her back was facing me. However, if I had gone for the right angle, my cover would have been blown.
After lunch, we went to the Student Book Store for some more of the S-word. I decided that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I began to look for some Penn State clothing. That was good entertainment for about 10 or 15 minutes. I wound up with a shirt and a pair of shorts. I went looking for AS and found her in deep-shop mode. She had a handful of stuff, which she gave me to hold onto while she went downstairs to look for books. The Cupcake went down with her. I alleviated my boredom by paying for our combined purchases. I went downstairs, finding Cupcake first. She was contemplating some geometry study aids, so she could refine her “surrounding mountains are, like, taller than Mt. Mitchell” theorem. I found AS a couple aisles over. She was looking at a book about aging. Who the hell wants to contemplate that? She settled for a book about stress in animals. Then, she had to go to the bathroom. I told her where it was after escorting her up the stairs.
Cupcake ascended the stairs bearing her selected geometry aids.
“Where’s Mom?” she asked.
“In the crapper,” I said, pointing up to the store’s public facilities.
Cupcake rolled her eyes.
“She’s got reading material, so who knows how long she’ll be there,” I warned.
Another eye roll and a double-speed hair twirl.
I haven’t told you about the hair twirl. Cupcake does this thing with her hair—seems like almost constantly. It’s pretty much the same idea as the spoon thing the girl at the next table did at lunch, an almost constant habit. She twirls a bundle of hair around her finger for a while, then brushes the end of the strands of hair against her upper lip. She can do it either left or right handed, while talking, eating lunch, or whatever. I don’t know, she might even do it in her sleep. I suppose it’s less annoying than biting her nails or chewing gum would be. It didn’t take me long to get used to it.
Eventually, AS found us and asked me where her other stuff was. I told her I paid for it. She thanked me and went to check out with her book, while Cupcake and I waited outside. There was a really nice, brand new red Ferrari California parked right in front of the store. I wanted Cupcake to pose next to it so I could take a picture, but she demurred.
“You stand next to it and I’ll take a picture of you!”, exhorted the Cupcake.
“No!” I said, knowing that the second I put my hand on the polished metal, some huge guy would appear out of nowhere, wanting to kick my ass up and down College Avenue for touching his shiny red automotive penis augmentation.
“See? You wouldn’t do it, so don’t expect me to.” Hair twirl.
AS emerged and I asked her if she had everything she needed. She said yes. We began walking toward our minivan. We stopped abruptly, as AS did a double take while glancing at the next shop’s window.
“Wait!” she said. “I see a tank top I want to look at.”
At this point, I must have been delirious because I thought it was pretty funny. Cupcake and I looked at each other with an air of resignation, as AS walked into the store. A few minutes later, she walked out. The tank top wasn’t what she thought it was and, besides, she figured that we were parked overtime. In other words, she knew that our next stop would be the creamery for ice cream.
“Park in a legal lot this time!” Cupcake ordered.
I had planned to do just that, as it was early afternoon, classes were in session, and driving on campus was restricted. Circumventing the restricted area, I found the public parking structure, which cost $1 per hour. After taking the standard criticism of my parking skills, I told the ladies where to exit the building, as there were exits at all four corners.
“Why do we have to like go out that way?” asked the Cupcake.
“Because I said so.”
Halfway to the creamery, she complained, “It’s a longer walk from this lot than from Beaver Stadium.”
AS agreed with her, but not in a complaining sort of way. What she did complain about once we got to the creamery was that they wouldn’t allow her to mix scoops of different flavors of ice cream. So this time she had the Peachy Paterno, named after the venerable long time octogenarian head coach of the Penn State football team, and, upon tasting it, she delivered her unqualified and unsolicited assessment of the vaunted flavor.
“It’s not the best peach ice cream I’ve ever had.”
“You’re mean!” I said. Well, what do you want from a bunch of students, anyway? I’m not picky. Any halfway decent ice cream on a hot day is fine with me.
AS was clearly getting bored as she finished the ice cream and was left with the remnant of the cone. That is when she decided to play Pinocchio by mounting the cone on her nose, and I knew that she had once again entered the Twilight Zone. Or perhaps she had been inspired by the broad in The Deli at lunch. All the while, I was just minding my own business, trying to determine the new location of the Calorimeter Museum. In the end, they didn’t even want to go see it. (I think that might be because they thought I had made it up.)
Our intent was to leave town once we were done in ice cream land, so the girls had to make a pit stop before the long drive to Tam Manor. Actually, it is only a three hour drive, but we all do have bladders, you know.
The farmlands and rolling hills of Pennsylvania alway make me feel like I’m at home as I drive through the countryside. I decided to enhance the experience by taking back roads to New Philadelphia, where Tam Manor was located in order to enjoy more of the scenery.
During an earlier leg of the trip, AS and I had an argument with Cupcake over whether New Philadelphia actually exists. Cupcake didn’t think so. It does, even though it is a very small town whose population has been on the decline for many years. It is in the depressed anthracite coal mining area of Pennsylvania; the nearest city of any size is Pottsville. New Philly, as it is called in the area, might have a population of 800 on a Sunday, when people’s grandchildren visit. Ethnically, it is split between descendants of Irish and Lithuanian immigrants. The two ethnic groups have always been like oil and water. The Irish, who got there first, were the bosses in the mines, and the Lithuanians were their underlings. I guess that didn’t help. Each group had their own Roman Catholic church—until recently, when the bishop decided that there weren’t enough people in New Philadelphia to justify two churches. The Lithuanian church has been shuttered and now oil and water must convene on Sundays at the Irish church. There are many other similar towns with their own stories in Schuylkill County (pronounced SKOO-kill), but the decline of coal mining defines them all and provides the common thread.
Toejam and I attended Penn State together. He is a couple of years older than I. He wound up with an MS in Electrical Engineering and worked for AT&T and associated companies such as Western Electric, Bell Labs, Lucent, etc., for a long time, long enough to qualify for retirement. His wife, Judytam, worked there that long or longer, too. Now, they are both retired and have plenty of spare time for putting up with my visits, which sometimes occur in the summer and sometimes in fall football season. Toejam is of Lithuanian extraction and Judytam is Pennsylvania Dutch combined with some Balkanization. Judy’s cooking is superb.
As the scenery flew past us on two-lane Pennsylvania Route 45, AS noticed something weird. Every so often, she saw a bright purple boxlike object (or perhaps a bag) hanging from a tree beside the road. They seemed to exist both on private and public land and this went on for many miles. We never did figure out what they were.
(Update. AS, astute researcher that she is, has obtained information about the purple boxes. They’re U.S. Department of Agriculture monitoring traps for the emerald ash borer. Thus, they’re hung on ash trees. More information here.)
I was feeling a rumbling in my stomach. I would have to find a rest room soon. We were closing in on Lewisburg, which I thought would provide me with a variety of opportunities to relieve myself. Alas, I would choose the wrong one.
As we cruised the main drag for a parking spot, AS noticed something she hadn’t ever seen before: a fallout shelter sign. These were common back in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the nuclear buildup, and “mutually assured destruction.” Civil Defense leaders of the time knew that a Soviet nuclear attack would vaporize a lot of people and buildings, but that the surviving population would be endangered by radioactive “fallout”—irradiated dust blown into the atmosphere by nuclear blasts—which would persist for weeks, months, and years after the initial boom. Accordingly, they planned a series of fallout shelters in each city, where people presumably would be safe from lingering radioactivity. These were generally meeting rooms with no windows, school gymnasiums, and the like. The signs they deployed to denote fallout shelters were comprised of the nuclear hazard symbol and the capacity of the shelter. They were designated, but never used.
Getting out of the car, I ran into a CVS, leaving AS and Cupcake in my dust to photograph the fallout shelter sign. Where I’m from, the CVS drug stores have public rest rooms for their customers, so I thought that a CVS in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania would provide the same convenience. I walked back to the prescription counter, where three middle-aged ladies were talking with each other behind the counter.
“Excuse me,” I said when one noticed me. “Do you have a rest room?”
“No, we don’t have a public rest room here. But if it is an emergency, we can let you use ours.”
“Well, it’s not what I would consider an emergency,” I said.
“It’s OK. We’re not really busy. I’ll let you in back there and show you where it is.”
“Thank you very much. You’re very kind,” I said.
She didn’t know what she was in for. Since the crapper was accessed through their storeroom, she had to stand guard over the store’s merchandise inventory while I was on the pot, lest I sneak out of the toilet and stuff a few boxes of Tampax under my shirt. Now, if I was half my age, that wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be in there for two minutes and I’d leave. However, at my age, I was going to be in there reading tweets on my BlackBerry for 15 minutes or so. Finally, I emerged and my guard lady was still standing by the door.
“Thank you once again,” I said, exiting the back room, almost bumping into AS as I emerged. Whoops!
“Do they have a rest room?” she asked. “I need to use it, too.”
“Um, no.” I said, not wanting to commit the kind guard lady’s facilities and time. For all I knew, Cupcake was waiting in line, too.
I left AS to make her own deal for crapper time, which I assume she did because 10 minutes later when I next saw her, she looked relieved. These store personnel had to be wondering just what the hell we were up to, but all we wanted to do was flush a couple of turds down to the mighty Susquehanna.
Lighter, bouncier, and happier, we resumed our voyage eastward.
After a while, I asked AS if she had seen the horse and buggy sign we had just passed. She hadn’t. The next time the yellow, diamond-shaped warning sign with the silhouette of an Amish horse and buggy appeared, I asked the same thing. This time she saw it. Pennsylvania is Amish country, and motorists do indeed have to be mindful of the black horse and buggy conveyances those old order folks use.
Eventually, we saw a real live horse and buggy driven by a woman carrying an infant on her lap. AS commented that apparently, the laws about baby seats don’t apply to the Amish. Neither do the emission laws, I guess, as the horse’s emissions were all over the road.
(It could be worse. I remember riding around in northern Thailand, where elephants are used as beasts of burden and mingle with cars and trucks on the roads. There is a lot more “pollution” issued by elephants than by horses. But I digress.)
I handed the BlackBerry to AS and told her to call the Tams to let them know we’d be there between 6:00 and 6:30 pm. She did, and then returned to the monotony of riding shotgun with the Jewish Jeff Gordon.
AS was excited that we would be passing through infamous Centralia, where a mine fire has been burning under the city for nearly 50 years. Unfortunately, there is so little left of Centralia that viewing it now is anticlimactic. I had been able to witness its disappearance little by little, passing through there once every year or so on the way to Penn State football games. Where rows of houses once stood, one by one the houses disappeared, purchased and demolished by the Federal government. The state highway that ran through town had cracks that belched smoke from the underground fires, such that eventually a new road had to be built to circumvent the hot spots. The old road is now a place for kids to scrawl graffiti, but it is hidden from view. Thus, there is little to see in Centralia anymore. But that didn’t stop us from doing a Geocache there. It was one that I had found on a previous trip, but AS and Cupcake hadn’t, so I told them where to look in true ISAG fashion, and they were able to nab it and sign the log in short order.
From there, we passed through towns like Ashland, Numidia, Frackville (a name AS found hilarious), Saint Clair, Port Carbon, and Cumbola. Finally, we reached New Philadelphia, where I noted that Robert Shewokis had painted his fuel oil tanks since the last few times I had seen them. Everything else looked the same. Things don’t change much here.
I pulled into the driveway and said, “Welcome to Tam Manor.”
“When you called it a ‘manor’, I thought it would be like a big deal. Like this is a regular house,” said Cupcake from the back seat.
“Like, shaddup!” I responded.
I pointed them toward Toejam’s enclosed patio, telling them to go to that door. They went there and rang the bell.
Seconds later, Toejam appeared. “So formal! You rang the goddamned bell. Come in!”
Toejam was barely recognizable, having shaved off the beard he had worn for 35 years.
“Did you shave that off because I shaved mine?” I asked.
He muttered something unintelligible.
Toejam and I, and for that matter, Judytam, being old farts, have hearing deficits. When you talk with us, you can never be sure you’re being heard and understood. Hell, when we talk with each other, we’re never really sure who the hell said what to whom! And this year, for the first time ever, I noticed those two using the closed caption titles on their always-on TV.
AS went to sit down. I stopped her. That was my chair she had unknowingly started to sit on. I’m so Archie Bunker sometimes, but I’ve been plopping my ass into that chair for years, and it feels like it was made for my ass.
Judy excused herself, saying that she had to put something in the oven. It already smelled good, whatever it was.
Meanwhile, the bullshit began. The weather, Penn State football, Cupcake, our sleeping arrangements, Obama—
At that point, Toejam pointed to AS, asking me, “Is she a [mouthed the word liberal]?”
“Nah. She’s a libertarian and Cupcake is a conservative Republican.” I responded.
“Good.” And the anti-administration bullshit picked up in intensity and fervor.
At some point, Toejam got up and retrieved his camera, which was similar to Cupcake’s. They had a mutual instruction session with their Nikon Coolpix digital cameras. I was pleased to see the camera bonding, inasmuch as it would make Cupcake feel more comfortable with the former strangers.
After a while, we three went to the minivan to retrieve our luggage and take it to our respective sleeping quarters. AS and I had a real room with a real bed. Cupcake would share the den with Toejam’s computer, and would sleep on the floor, in a sleeping bag atop an air mat. I had provided the camping equipment.
Only thing was, at Tam Manor, which has but a single bathroom, one has to traipse through the den to reach it. I warned Cupcake to stay out of the traffic pattern lest she be trampled by someone hot to trot. You just don’t want to come between and old fart and his toilet.
Fortunately, at that point, Judy announced that dinner was ready. The piece d’resistance was crab cakes, and as usual, Judy had piled up enough of them on the platter to feed an army. Their delightful aroma caused us to hurry as we sat down at the dinner table. They certainly lived up to their promise. AS said that they were the best crab cakes she ever had. Cupcake twirled her hair. I finished my beer.
After dinner, Toejam, Cupcake and I were sitting at the cleared table when Toejam noticed Cupcake doing the hair twirl thing.
“How come you’re always playing with your hair like that, Cupcake?” he asked.
“Mom says it’s a nervous habit,” said the Cupcake, “but it’s really just a habit.”
Toejam flashed a sardonic smile. “What’s the difference between a regular habit and a nervous habit? A habit is a habit.”
Double-speed hair twirl.
We repaired to the patio for more bullshit until we all got tired and went to our respective quarters. And that was it for Day Four.
Tomorrow, we do some Geocaching and ice cream eating in Schuylkill County, both in-city and in the countryside. Plus, we get to enjoy Joe’s on-timeness and Judy’s cooking. Read about it in our next installment.