LEXINGTON, KY / TOLEDO, OH / WILLIAMSPORT, PA / BALTIMORE, MD
Lexington grew on me the more I walked around. The streets were abundant with murals and statues of horses (the Kentucky Derby is certainly the state's best-known event), and in fact there's a whole park dedicated to equestrian sculpture. There are a couple of horse-related museums, but they were too far out of town. Erica and I caught the tail end (so to speak) of a farmers' market Thursday morning, and then I had a fairly decent lunch buffet at India Palace 3 (there is no 1 or 2) before our unusual Thursday matinee and more customary evening show. It did not escape my attention that my room key failed twice at the Lexington Hyatt, and at one point I had them make me four new ones - and then I still got into the habit of asking for an extra every time I went to my room. I'm going to mark them all with numbers and use them to play canasta.
Toledo presented an interesting dilemma: Both the theatre and the Holiday Inn were exasperatingly far from the center of things. Was it worth heading into town just for the heck of it? A glance at my hotel room's phone book implied not: There wasn't even a map. I initially thought that might be out of embarrassment, but I realized late in our stay that some acerebral, thoughtless guest before me had torn it out. (I often tear them out as well, but I put them back before I leave.)
At any rate, there wasn't much of a chance to get downtown anyway, as we arrived Friday afternoon and had two shows each on Saturday and Sunday. Friday I joined the crew for the lunch buffet at Rosie's, an Italian place across from the Stranahan Theatre. And at night a kind member of the local crew drove Erica and me to Meijer's, where we picked up hummus and baba ghannouj and pita and all sorts of stuff that ended up lasting most of the weekend, save for a quick brunch at the wonderful diner next door to the hotel (they offered a "We Don't Count the Eggs" omelet).
Our hotel was next to the ugliest shopping mall I'd ever seen, the Southwyck. It was only one drab story, and if they'd built five identical stories on top of it it would look exactly like a Soviet apartment building. Interestingly, the Southwyck's interior was pretty, with an indoor pool and a carousel so perfectly placed as to require one to circumnavigate both in order to get anywhere. Now, why was I investigating the mall at all? Well, there was supposed to be a bus downtown, and I'd hoped to find out just where it left from. But the only directory I could find was an interactive computerized one, and it wasn't much help. With one touch of the screen it told me where I could get CDs or books or clothing, but there was no "How do I get the hell out of here?" panic button. So I gave up.
Across the way, along Glendale Avenue, Cass Road, and even Airport Boulevard, however, things picked up a bit. There were a bunch of grassy lots, with a couple of little forests and streams here and there. On the corner of Glendale and Cass I stumbled upon a produce market called Monnettes' - the apostrophe really was consistently at the end - and it was a surprisingly pleasant place. Aside from a variegated selection of well-priced fruits and vegetables, there were good deals on cheese and deli meats and olives, assortments of flowers, two soups of the day, and candies and baked goods, including pies from the delectable- (or dubious-) sounding company Schmuckers. It was such a wonderful market that I later brought Erica there and we made a picnic from several of the delicacies on offer.
I spent Sunday night at the aptly named Budget Inn, next door to our Holiday Inn. It was definitely a step down in quality, but my room was perfectly fine, and well-priced at only $29.50. The soap bars were tiny, the classy plastic cups said Hampton Inn, and the television didn't have a power button - it had to be turned on by means of the channel buttons, which of course meant there was no way to turn it off except by unplugging it. But the best thing about the Budget Inn was that when I checked in, I was handed a keychain with a metal key on it. It worked perfectly every time.
We drove several hours on Monday to our final one-night stand: Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of Lycoming College and the birthplace of Little League baseball. I spent about an hour wandering among the delightful old buildings of this quirky city. They included the mansion-like, ivy-covered building claiming to be City Hall; the castle-like, ivy-deprived building claiming to be City Hall (I think the latter is the one currently in use); the columned M&T Bank building; the medieval-looking First Baptist Church (it dates from 1854); and several other crenellated church towers. Two establishments called themselves Peg & Bills World Famous Diner (have you ever heard of it?) and Helmrich's World's Finest Seafood (here, in landlocked rural Pennsylvania?). I sampled the latter's haddock croquette and deviled scallop, and while they were certainly praiseworthy, I'm not sure I could quite bestow the honor of the best seafood I've ever had.
The city's storefront signs got better:
Huffman's Office Equipment
Mon thur Fri
8:32 to 5:00
And as you're puzzling over the employees' 28-minute lunch breaks and trying to figure out whether the place is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, why not step in at the Old Corner Hotel restaurant for one of these delicacies? Kiawa Black tip Mako shark atop tropical citrus risotto bitten by a robust Kiwi lime horseradish drizzle
New Zealand lamb chops encasing trapped lobster cakes with a lemon pomeray mustard sauce
Ahi tuna beached on an island of rice medley with a sake wasabi drizzle with Ginger smoked Shitake mushrooms sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds
Other entrees similarly featured items "aligned with garlic mashed potatoes" and "resting on a sea of port wine demiglaze." It was as if a middle-schooler had been told to write all the menu choices as poetry and had arbitrarily picked synonyms out of a thesaurus: The descriptions didn't quite flow enough to be truly ingenious, but they showed evidence of an attempt to be clever.
Before Monday's show, I met Brian and a couple of his friends at the Bullfrog Brewery, where I sampled the steak-and-ale stew (our bus driver heartily recommended it) and the brewery's Trippel, a pear-based beer that I found a bit too sweet. (I should have gone for one of the other beers, such as the one the menu said was "very drinkable." Why must beer descriptions always use that phrase? Would I want something that wasn't
But enough of my semantic peeves, and on to the show, about which there is much to discuss. In Toledo they changed what we hear in our onstage headsets during "Sing Sing Sing" - supposedly to make the click beat easier to hear, but for two shows a loose connection in my headset ensured that I heard virtually no click at all. It was the faintest click imaginable, as if someone in row P of the audience were clipping his toenails in rhythm and that was the click I was supposed to listen for. I made my way through the song both shows with only a vague sensation of the tempo, after which we finally solved the problem.
Then, during Sunday's matinee in Toledo, the tracks went off midway through the first act. I love it when this happens, since we get to play all the tracked stuff live. It gives me a small adrenaline rush to figure out what sounds I'm going to have to find, and then to play passages I haven't looked at in months. On Sunday I got to play the guitar solo in "Cool Hand Luke." Then, sadly, they got the backup tracks working.
Also, at least four people have been sick for most of the past two weeks' performances - to the extent that for a while there weren't enough women to do "Hey, Big Spender" and of the song's opening lines, one or two had to be cut. The cast could use a break.
And in Williamsport, the lighting board conked out - the stage was illuminated in more or less random places for the first ten minutes - so there was a half-hour delay while they got it fixed. These things just happen.
Since I joined the tour in October, my experience in the pit has changed quite a bit. Playing the show is actually therapeutic: It's relaxing, and even if they're not all my favorite songs, at least I'm making music. Even after nearly 200 performances, I still look forward to certain parts of the show: notably "Mein Herr," which has a great piano part, and "Sing Sing Sing," a welcome energy boost as we head onstage at the end of the show. "Mein Herr" is among the few songs that continue to evolve: I only recently settled on how I like to play the introductory material, and because the song has so many pauses and tempo changes, it's a little bit different each night. It keeps me on my toes.
During some of the more mundane passages, however, I tend to drift toward automatic-pilot mode, as part of my mind wanders off toward other topics: where I'm going to have dinner, how I'm going to get from Scranton to New York City for next week's layoff, how to spend my free time in Baltimore. My focus is still on the show; it's just that those parts don't require my full mental attention.
And of course I look forward to the point where we leave the pit and hide stage left before entering for "Sing Sing Sing": It so happens that Erica has a costume cue stage left at that point, so we're pleasantly able to reconnoiter and briefly discuss such matters as where to have dinner, how to get from Scranton to New York City, or what to do in Baltimore.
My music folder is showing evidence of having made it through nearly 200 shows. It's a three-ring binder, and quite a few pages have come loose. I have to do two page turns in "Bye Bye Blackbird" with the utmost preparation: During a rest I move a page over to the right an inch or so, so that I don't accidentally turn two at once; then, when it comes time to turn it, I do so quickly but carefully, as if I'm handling ancient parchment. In "Mein Herr" I had to write myself a note not to turn the last page, after it flew across the orchestra pit a couple of times. (I have the necessary parts memorized.) In "Crunchy Granola Suite" there's one page turn that sometimes lands in the right place and sometimes doesn't, but I have a few short rests in quick succession, so I have four tries to get it right. No doubt some other page will soon assume the role of a paper airplane without warning.
Kimberly - the one who got me through that miserable morning in Las Vegas - is performing in a show midway between Williamsport and our next stop, Baltimore, and was going to see our first Baltimore performance with her friend Rick, so I spent Monday night at her place in Kutztown. She readied up a late-night snack of summer sausage, cheese, and wine (there's a reason we dated for four years and are still such good friends), and on Tuesday morning Rick drove us all to Baltimore, largely along U.S. 222, whose sign proclaimed it the ominous-sounding Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Highway.
Baltimore is a strange and beautiful city. I'd been there a couple of times but never had a chance to get to know the neighborhoods. Kimberly, Rick, and I had lunch at Mo's Crab & Pasta Factory, where I had a splendid "soft-shell crab imperial" - a large soft crab stuffed with shrimp, scallops, and other goodies and topped with a cream sauce. (The one thing I did remember about Baltimore is that you should exploit every opportunity to eat crabs.)
We walked through Little Italy and Fell's Point, two of Baltimore's most attractive historic neighborhoods. In Little Italy you can still see grandmothers bringing flowers to their neighbors down the street, and bakers with only a smattering of English smile sweetly as they try in vain to find a fork to aid you in consuming their oversized pastries. Fell's Point, named for a British shipbuilder, is a trendy area centered on Broadway, the site of appealing eateries, late-night bars, the Broadway Market (one of the city's four main markets, and its least interesting), and a wonderfully named hotel called the Admiral Fell Inn. (Pun intended, I'm sure!)
In both neighborhoods the residential streets are lined with two- and three-story homes, each with a pleasant three-dimensional stone or brick facade that's slightly different in color or texture from the ones on either side. Often the main entrance is reached by a few ascending steps, and there's a secondary entrance - perhaps to a different apartment - through a small door directly below. Above many a door is an artfully decorated stained-glass house number. So attractive was Fell's Point that I brought Erica there that night for a drink or two (or three) at a friendly Irish pub called the Blarney Stone (I didn't really have to tell you that was an Irish pub), we returned the following night to choose from 69 drafts at Max's (I had something called Three Floyds Robert the Bruce and a Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale, basing my decisions solely on nomenclature), and we even contemplated staying at the Admiral Fell Inn for the weekend.
That's why Baltimore's beautiful; here's why it's strange. Based on what our tour managers told us, it seems to be one of the country's most dangerous cities. We were told the story of the actor on the Jolson
tour who was mugged on the mile walk from the Lyric Opera House to his hotel downtown, and when he wouldn't give up his money, the thugs injured him for life. We were told the story of the actor who went to an ATM a block from his hotel and was mugged then and there. Where were we, Nigeria?
Upon further exploration, it did seem the kind of place where you might find yourself the proud owner of a broken rib or two if you caused trouble in the wrong place. Walking north from innocent Fell's Point along Broadway that first day, Kimberly, Rick, and I soon found ourselves in a rougher-looking Hispanic neighborhood. And when we turned left onto Pratt Street, which eventually becomes downtown's most crowded tourist thoroughfare, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a housing project in which we overheard teens talking about their favorite pimps. When Erica and I walked to Fell's Point that night, there was a desolate five-block stretch of unassuming warehouses and factories, and we had the odd sensation that we were being watched. (We took a cab back. They're actually not that expensive here, and you can find them on the street, so there's no risk of being shamrocked, even if you've just come from the Blarney Stone.)
I walked that formidable-sounding mile between the Wyndham Hotel and the Lyric Opera House several times in daylight, and it was hard to believe there could be anything wrong with the neighborhood. Cathedral Street had the city's main public library, a couple of hotels, and the country's first cathedral, begun in 1806. Calvert Street was mostly residential, but it had a couple of restaurants and looked pleasant enough. But the best street to walk along was Charles Street, with a diverse selection of restaurants and shops and the towering Washington Monument up the hill midway through the walk. The monument was amidst pleasant gardens where people read while sitting on benches. How could this idyllic spot possibly be dangerous?
I spent much of Wednesday in amazement as I walked through Lexington Market, only about four blocks from the Wyndham. I was skeptical when I saw the gaudy neon sign at its entrance ("World Famous Lexington Market - Since 1782"), but my suspicions were reversed once I got inside. This was unquestionably Baltimore's finest market, possibly the country's finest. Where else can you find rows and rows of stalls selling fresh produce, fresh meat (one stall advertised "Chitterlings & Hog Maw"), and fresh seafood to take home and cook, as well as ready-to-eat snacks of the same? Where else can I get soft-shell crabs to eat as I wander? (Wednesday's lunch.) Where else can I make a lunch out of oysters on the half shell (the best prices, $2.50 for three large ones, were in the suspicious-smelling annex in the west building), followed by a giant $2 serving of fried chicken gizzards? (Thursday's lunch.) Erica came with me on Thursday; she splurged on a $12.95 crab cake at Faidley. It was worth every penny. Faidley's crab cakes have all been made by the same person for about 40 years, and they are the essence of succulence. Faidley should know: It's been around since the 1800s, and at least one of the store's signs dates from then. Faidley also had signs saying such things as "Forget Viagra - Eat Oysters. No Prescription Required!" "Company and Fish Go Bad in Three Days" (Ben Franklin). "We Serve Shrimp and Crabs - and Tall People and Nice People Too."
Other than the facade, another thing has changed since Lexington Market's inception: Now most of the vendors are Asian, and most of the customers are black. It certainly wasn't like that in the late 1700s. But whatever the case, it's a bustling, non-touristy place, with wonderful ambience and great, cheap food. It doesn't get much better than that.
Several blocks west of Lexington Market was Hollins Market, which I wouldn't have known about except that another oyster-devouring customer at Lexington Market recommended it. I ventured over there while Erica did some shopping; it was pleasant enough, though not nearly as exciting as Lexington Market. Still, some prices were a little cheaper, and I couldn't resist three more oysters for only $1.75. (No cocktail sauce, though.)
Hollins Market was near the B&O Railroad Museum, a visit to which I was most enthusiastic about, until I learned that the museum has been closed indefinitely since the roof collapsed in February. So instead I looked for a place to have my hair cut, which wasn't terribly easy in a mostly black neighborhood. There were dozens of salons, but they all advertised corn rows and braids - nowhere did they offer a simple haircut. I wandered back to the fringes of downtown and eventually stopped in at a place with the promising name of My Barber Shop. It still turned out to be by and for blacks, but the unenthusiastic receptionist offered to cut my hair for the outrageous price of $15. I don't think I've ever paid more than $9 plus tip for a haircut, but I went along for the ride.
I was probably his first white customer ever. He had the interesting habit of having me sit with my back toward the mirror, so I couldn't quite see what was going on - my best view was in the mirrors on the opposite side of the room. Whenever I tried to turn toward the mirror at his station, he resisted, but I eventually realized that the customer next to me was also not facing a mirror, so I figured that must be how things are done around here. My barber never used a pair of scissors and instead relied on that electric sheep shearer, or whatever it is, and he spent about 15 minutes just making sure the hair in back was even.
I'd seen all those credit-card decals on the door, so I took out my Visa card to pay, but he said that since "he" (by which I assume he meant the manager) had already left for the day, he couldn't take a credit card. I had only $13 cash in my wallet, so that's what I gave him. (I later realized I had $18.25 in my front jeans pocket, which I'd forgotten I'd put there after using a $20 bill to pay for the oysters at Hollins Market. Don't tell him!)
Erica's parents came Thursday night and Friday, bringing their adorable little black poodle (rivaled in cuteness, at least as a puppy, by the nine-week-old pit bull owned by one of the theatre staff). We had a light dinner Thursday at Burke's, lunch Friday at Obrycki's (one of the popular crab spots - we all had the crab sampler), and a light dinner Friday at the newly opened Center City Cafe.
Friday morning we visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore. By far the most arresting specimen, and indeed the strangest creature I'd ever seen, was the leafy seadragon, part of a temporary exhibition on seahorses. It looked kind of like a seahorse, except that it had a bunch of protruding limbs that seemed to have small, round leaves growing off of them. It seemed something Jim Henson or Walt Disney would have created. Then there were the stonefish (a fuzzy-looking, bored-looking bottom dweller), a diverse assortment of rays, and a showcase of waddling puffins, and the giant Pacific octopus is always good for a smile. The dolphin show was kind of dull, but there was plenty to keep us amused. I still think $17.50 was a bit high for an admission fee, though.
Saturday we finally had the hard-shell crabs - the kind they dump onto a paper tablecloth and you crack your way into. Brian, Erica, and I sat at a lovely table at Phillips, overlooking the inner harbor. The restaurant had super-jumbo-deluxe blue crabs that night (or whatever they called them), and boy, were they tasty. At night I returned to Fell's Point to check out a Russian-themed bar; it turned out to be another room at Max's, but it specialized in Russian beers, fresh-fruit martinis, and an attempt at Russian food (my blintzes came appropriately filled with cheese, but topped with a bizarre yellow cheese spread of some sort). There was a wide assortment of folks at Max's. I had a pleasant conversation with a Polish author who had lost his wife and son in a car accident; I resisted the opportunity to pay a woman a dollar in exchange for removing a Life Saver from her breast and letting me spank her; I went for the watermelon martini even though a woman who tried to flirt with me in front of her boyfriend said the vanilla variety would make me "get wet just looking at it."
Sunday provided another repast, at an Afghan restaurant called the Helmand, which seemed strikingly similar to the Helmand in Boston. Erica and I shared two appetizers - sugary pan-fried pumpkin and Afghan ravioli - and then she had a minty meat dish and I had mahi marinated in grapes, among other things. Splendid.
On Monday I walked down to the Cross Street Market, which was one long strip of stalls mainly selling deli meats. There was one seafood vendor, but raw oysters seemed expensive (at least compared with Lexington Market) at $7 for six, so I contented myself with a spicy Italian sausage and continued on the long walk to Fort McHenry. This is where Baltimore defended itself against a British bombardment in September 1814, the event that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem "The Star-Spangled Banner." (The "bombs bursting in air" from the British ships illuminated the sky, giving "proof through the night that our flag was still there.") Forty-seven years later to the day, when the fort was used during the Civil War, Key's grandson was imprisoned there, thought to be aiding the South. Most of the artillery on display is from after the Civil War, but it's interesting to walk through the fort and see the old guardhouses, barracks, and magazines.
I walked back into town and stopped at the Baltimore Civil War Museum, which I thought would be more interesting than it turned out to be - its most engaging aspect was that it was housed in the old President Street train station. The Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad terminated here after four railroads merged in about 1850. As there was no bridge over the Susquehanna River at the time, the train cars had to be loaded onto a steam ferry for the crossing, before the tracks resumed on the other side. In 1852 ice prevented the ferry from operating, so they simply laid tracks across the ice and hoped it wouldn't break as the trains crossed over.
The museum was full of dioramas and explanations, but there wasn't much in the way of original artifacts, save for some Civil War weaponry and a set of iron slave shackles. Maryland was a divided state during the war, with as many free blacks as enslaved ones. President Lincoln, fearing that Maryland would join southern states in seceding and thus leave the nation's capital surrounded by enemy territory, sent volunteer troops down from the north to keep order - an act that led to the riots on Baltimore's Pratt Street and the war's first casualty, a 17-year-old Massachusetts soldier named Luther Ladd. Various commanders controlled Baltimore during the war; one especially strict one was Major General John Adams Dix, a staunch Union supporter who decreed that the colors red and white (which together signified the Confederacy) must never appear without blue. An edict of his even mandated that the red-and-white rinds of watermelons be painted blue, or so the story goes. In 1864, Maryland was the first state to abolish slavery, after a controversial vote that effectively excluded anyone involved with the Confederacy - who, of course, would be the main supporters of slavery.
Monday night Erica and I had Ethiopian food with my cousin Julie, her husband, Jeff, and their son, Bennett, who live near Baltimore. We had planned to meet at the Five Seasons, whose sign stated it was open on Mondays, but when we arrived it was closed. (This seems to be endemic in Baltimore. On Wednesday, Erica and I had tried to have crabs at a place called Kelly's, which I'd walked by earlier in the day and whose sign - and answering-machine message - said it was open Wednesday nights, but it was firmly locked when we got there.) So we headed to a more unassuming Ethiopian joint, Ghion, which was mostly a bar, had only one dining table, and offered four main non-vegetarian menu items (numbered 1, 2, 3, and 5) and a few vegetarian ones. We tried them all, and they were all served on the same bed of injera, so all the flavors - hot, cold, sweet, spicy, you name it - ran together. It was wonderful.
I spent the night with Julie, Jeff, and Bennett at their home in Ellicott City, about a 20-minute drive west of Baltimore. Ellicott City appealed to me greatly in that it is the site of the country's first train station (still standing), and Main Street is mostly restaurants and antique shops. The house was up a winding road from Main Street, and it overlooked the Patapsco River, which a few miles down becomes Baltimore's harbor. It felt good to be in a house again.
SYRACUSE, NY / SCRANTON, PA / NEW YORK, NY
We drove through a cold rain for most of the day on Tuesday, arriving in Syracuse in the middle of the afternoon.
My brother, Josh, had graduated from Syracuse two days earlier, in the middle of a cold downpour, a climatic calamity nearly as unfortunate as the snowfall that soured Kimberly's graduation (in May!) several years ago. Syracuse clearly isn't known for its tropical weather, though it does have many attractive buildings and a thriving historic district known as Armory Square. We stayed at the Hotel Syracuse, which is beautiful if a little rough around the edges, and which had the foulest-smelling elevator I'd ever ridden in until it was dealt a judicious sprinkling of cleaning solution on our last day there.
My parents stayed in Syracuse through Tuesday, so that they could see Fosse
for the third time and we could all get together for a family dinner Tuesday night. We lunched in Armory Square at a place called Ambrosia, which appears to be a generic cafe but in fact has an enticing Japanese-inspired menu. The big post-show family gathering took place at the notorious Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a jam-packed, dirt-cheap restaurant with live music and meaty ribs.
On Wednesday Erica and I lunched at the most appealing Irish restaurant in the area, Kitty Hoyne's - it was regally decorated and reminded me ever so slightly of Belfast's Crown Liquor Saloon - and then indulged in local history at the Erie Canal Museum. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal opened up commerce between the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes and, accordingly, resulted in Syracuse's rapid growth from a tiny town to a bustling city. It's interesting to see just how much it took to run boats along the canal: A system of locks allowed boats to be raised as the canal gained elevation; weigh stations and toll houses were set up; footpaths were constructed along the canal so that mules could tow the boats; workers aboard the canal boats were overworked, underpaid, and exploited - often they weren't paid until the end of the year. The canal sparked interest in a network of canals around the country, but they fell into disuse when the railroads offered a better shipping alternative. The museum also had an interesting exhibit on important folks in Syracuse's history: Among other things, Syracusans gave us basketball's 24-second shot clock and the device shoe salespeople use to measure your feet.
We drove out to Seneca Lake on Thursday to visit the Fox Run winery, where my parents had been a few days before. The vines were only just starting their annual growth, so there wasn't much to see outside - but we took great interest in the $100,000 contraption that bottles, corks, and labels wine automatically. We took even more interest, of course, in the tasting - the Riesling was especially superb - and then we enjoyed lunch at the winery's cafe overlooking the lake. We also visited a nearby Mennonite store; the area is home to a large Mennonite population.
We thought the half-hour delay at our Williamsport performance would be the last major problem on tour, but it was surpassed with flying colors on our last night in Syracuse. A power surge, a by-product of some construction work being done across the city, knocked out much of the electricity at our theatre about 20 minutes into the performance. This led to an interminable delay as they called in an electrician to wire power from another theatre into ours. We very nearly had to cancel the show, and the audience, needless to say, grew restless as there seemed to be no promise of resolution - but we were instructed to get the show back up and running if at all possible. Finally, after an 82-minute pause, we resumed - and we cut the intermission to a merciful five minutes, partially because we didn't really need one, and partially because if it had been longer the show would have run past 23:00, requiring overtime to be paid to the local crew.
I met Josh and a few of his friends after the show at a bar called Darwin's. He said I should take a cab from my hotel, as it was unsafe to walk through that part of Syracuse so late at night. I'd had enough of that nonsense in Baltimore, but he said it twice (he knows me well enough that when he admonishes me to cab it and I respond with a half-hearted "Oh, OK" it means I'm not really sold on the idea and he needs to repeat it again if he really means it), so I tried. I really did. I walked out of the hotel and headed toward a street heading in the direction of Darwin's, and I looked for cabs. There were none. I continued along the street a block or two, and still there were none. I got out my map and realized I was only about four blocks from Darwin's. This was silly. There might have been cabs closer to downtown, in the opposite direction, but the idea of walking four blocks in the wrong direction to find a cab and then backtrack when I could simply walk four blocks in the right
direction seemed absolutely ludicrous. I proceeded straight ahead and arrived at Darwin's five minutes later without incident. Darwin's was a convivial place with friendly clientele, and Josh was good friends with the bartender, so we'd - for instance - buy a round of five drinks and be charged five dollars. Perfect.
On Friday we drove for two hours and found ourselves in Scranton. I didn't expect much of the little city, but my spirits soared when I discovered that it had a huge train museum (the Steamtown National Historic Site) and that our hotel, the Radisson, was in the former passenger-train station. Erica and I had some time to explore the city center Friday afternoon, and we had lunch at a kosher deli called Abe's. It observed a strange version of the kashrut laws: It would serve meat and dairy to two people at the same time, but it couldn't serve both to one person, even one right after the other. It would also turn out to be the only restaurant in Scranton with competently timed service.
The theatre in Scranton was in the Masonic Temple, and the building presented numerous opportunities for exploration. There were a meeting hall on the second floor, a sanctuary on the third and fourth floors, and an intricate assortment of dusty stairways and storage rooms whose contents couldn't possibly be known by anyone. Water faucets, toilets, handrails, and chairs all seemed pleasantly antique. The passageways leading to the dressing rooms were festooned with scrawled handwriting, often in the form of cast members' signatures, but also, for instance, in the form of the phrase "Grafiti sucks!" (in front of which I couldn't help adding "Orthographically challenged"). The elevator was one of those manual contraptions where the operator had to line up the car with the door and then open the gate, and on the top floor of the building you could walk right into the machinery room and touch the elevator's pulleys and cables. From there you could - and we did - walk onto the roof, and you could even - and we did - ascend a ladder to an open tower, for sweeping views across Scranton and the surrounding hills.
The theatre's orchestra pit wasn't the most congenial for any collection of instruments numbering more than about two, so we were relocated backstage. Also, there was no way to get the "Sing Sing Sing" bandstand onstage, so Scranton became the first theatre on tour in which the orchestra was never in view of the audience. This meant that we could begin and end the show in street clothes; we never had to change into blacks or tuxedos. I felt a little disconnected from the production, but I didn't mind the lazy dress requirements for a while.
We thought the 82-minute delay in Syracuse would be the last problem on tour, but at the first show in Scranton much of the sound went out at the top of the show, despite its having been tested just two hours before. This was odd. We could hear the click in the headphones, and anything we played could be heard by the audience, but none of the pre-recorded instrumentation came out. Normally, it's not too hard to cover for this sort of thing, but near the beginning of the show there's a long section of pre-recorded percussion, so Ross approximated some of the weirder instruments on the piano as I fumbled for the triangle patch on my keyboard. Within a few minutes the sound was restored.
Erica and I asked the receptionists at the Radisson for late-night dining options. You'd think there would be a few on a Friday, but they could recommend none, save for room service (of course), the hotel's overcrowded Trax (get it?) grill, and a diner called Chick's, which was about a mile away. When we proposed walking to Chick's, they hinted that it might not be such a good idea late at night. Let's see . . . this was the third city in a row in which I'd been told not to walk around late at night. I guess I'll have to relocate to some safer country, like the Sudan.
We ordered takeout from Trax and were eating it 20 minutes later, though two people from our group reported waiting over an hour for a takeout order.
I spent the next day - as much as I could until our matinee - at Steamtown
. Scranton takes its name from the two brothers who instituted an iron foundry and then, drawing on the rich anthracite (hard coal) resources in the area, created the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad to bring their products - and the coal itself - to other cities in the region. Much as Syracuse grew with the installation of the Erie Canal, Scranton grew as railroad networks expanded and steam locomotives were built.
I had no idea that Steamtown would be such an enthralling place. Sure, there were the restored locomotives on display outside the main building. Sure, there was a wonderful technology exhibit detailing the laying of track, the advent of signaling, and steam trains' replacement by diesel (which led to Scranton's decline). I especially enjoyed the description of early mail-carrying trains - in minor cities, trains would pass through without stopping, a mailbag would be thrown off the moving train, and another mailbag would be thrown onto
the train and caught with great skill. There was also an interesting story on the use of Morse code, though it erroneously states - as most people believe - that the first telegraphic message was "What hath God wrought?" As we learn in Bryson's Made in America
, it was "Everything worked well."
But the best part of Steamtown was the shop tour. Steamtown is dedicated to the restoration of steam trains - painstaking work solely for the purpose of posterity - and they guide you into the repair shop, where you can see all the ancient locomotives stripped of their frames and wheels. You can see people pounding rivets into place with huge wooden mallets and train parts being hoisted up by 30-ton cranes. One train on display was having several hundred rivets removed and replaced, each of which requires eight to ten hours of labor. It won't be working again until 2006. But tedious as it is, the work is being done with nostalgic love, so that in 30 or 40 years we'll still know what it's like to ride on a steam train.
On the tour, they also explain how a steam train works. There's a cross-section of a locomotive that shows all the parts, but it's virtually meaningless until they point everything out to you. It is truly astounding to see what goes into making one of these things run. A guy shovels tons and tons of coal into a firebox, which heats the surrounding water, causing it to turn into steam and dissipate into a high-pressure flow through various pipes and valves and pistons, making the wheels turn. That's the simple explanation. The reality is that there are probably tens of thousands of parts, weighing a total of a few dozen tons, that all have to run in tandem with each other, perfectly synchronized. How could anyone come up with that?
They also take you on a train ride through the old train yard, past various kinds of rail cars, the sand storage bin, and the diesel storage vats, but it's not nearly as compelling as the shop tour.
My tour ended at 13:38, eight minutes before I was supposed to be at the theatre, nearly a mile away. I ran through the streets of Scranton and arrived, culturally satisfied and breathlessly gasping, 15 minutes before showtime. But heck, if there was ever a worthwhile reason to be late, this was it. And heck, I didn't have to dress for the show.
Between Saturday's matinee and evening performances a few of us dined at Osaka, a sushi-and-teppanyaki place in the city center, across from the courthouse. The one of us who ordered teppanyaki was served right away; the rest of us got our meals about an hour later. There was only one sushi chef trying to make about 12 meals at once - poor guy - and while the innovative rolls were interesting, I didn't think the quality was quite high enough to justify the wait. Perhaps they agreed - they didn't charge us for the most expensive roll.
Saturday's performances went off with no more glitches, and Saturday night the Seafood Buffet Club (Brian, Erica, and I), which had been on hiatus for several weeks, dined at Cooper's. There was no buffet, but there was a huge menu, offering such things as Alaskan crab legs, seafood fondue, a splendid seafood casserole, and a "soup sampler" featuring their chowders and alligator soup. They also served watermelon martinis in a glass you got to take home with you - no doubt they were left over from some surplus shipment. We had an extremely satisfying meal, and when we got back to the hotel I murdered the two receptionists who had told us there were no late-night dining options.
On Sunday the kind folks at Steamtown let me back in on the previous day's ticket - I hadn't gotten to see the history exhibit, the old roundhouse (I just missed seeing a train being loaded and rotated for entry into its proper track in the repair shop), and the oil house (a separate building where trains were thoroughly lubricated before departure - all those moving parts required constant maintenance). Then I spent an hour or so at the nearby Electric City Trolley Museum
: The country's first electrified trolley system was built in Scranton and made its first run in 1886. The museum had a couple of old trolley cars on display, as well as some conductor's memorabilia (ticket-punching apparatus and the like) and an interesting video on the development of electric trolleys and their decline as buses came into the picture. There was also an explanation of how the generator feeds power to the substation and the current flows through the overhead wires and back through the rails, complete with actual electrical equipment from another city's trolley system - but let's face it, I'll never understand how all that electrical stuff works.
Between Sunday's two shows Erica and I went back to Cooper's, waited 20 minutes for a table (during which we read interesting old newspaper articles displayed on the restaurant's walls and fed a quarter into the ancient player piano), ordered immediately, waited an hour for our food, took most of it back to the theatre, and ate it later. When I said Abe's was the only restaurant in Scranton with competent service, I wasn't kidding.
I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get from Scranton to New York City for our week off. Our tour bus was taking people back sometime Monday afternoon, but it seemed patently absurd to pay for a hotel and wait around all day when we were only two hours away. Greyhound's last bus from Scranton to New York left at 21:50, which would be possible only with split-second timing, as our show ended between 21:40 and 21:45. I'd have to have a ticket in hand, the show would have to start on time, a cab would have to be waiting outside to take me to the Greyhound station, and there would have to be no delays during the performance. It helped that I didn't have to change out of a tux, but still, making that bus seemed unlikely.
At the last moment, it turned out Greg was driving back, so I joined him for the ride, and I was home a little after midnight. During the week off, I discovered six major things:
1. The subway fare in New York City has increased from $1.50 to $2. That's a big increase, but for regular riders who use pay-per-ride fare cards the effective rate rose only 30.3 cents, from $1.364 to $1.667 - still quite reasonable, I think.
2. The two supermarkets I usually patronize - the Victoria and the Big Apple Meat Market, both on Ninth Avenue in the 40s - have conspired to raise the price of lemonade from $1.79 to $2.29 per half gallon: not reasonable at all. I eventually found it for $1.62 at the D'Agostino's on 54th and Tenth, but it may be a special sale and I fear the trend will continue.
3. Liquor stores in the city can now be open on Sunday as long as they pick some other day to be closed. I'd say this rule is even more ludicrous than the one that required them all to be closed on Sunday, but the overall result is a much-welcomed improvement.
4. Some guy in the Bronx was fined for sitting on a milk crate. Need we say more?
5. The Lower East Side and East Village Food Adventure, a culinary walking tour run by HappyChef at iMar.com, is a delightful three-hour experience packed with insight and information.
6. Ukraine has gone back to exempting U.S. passport holders from needing transit visas. This has nothing to do with New York City, but it would have been nice if the exemption had been in effect on the day I happened to try to enter Ukraine without a transit visa and was detained at the border for about 15 hours before being sent back to Moscow. It may well be possible that the transit-visa requirement was in effect only during the month I tried to visit (August 1999).
Thus ends a much-needed week off. In the coming week we hit Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Greensboro, North Carolina - and with that, and a final travelogue installment in early June, the tour shall end.