Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 12: Vintage Entertainment

July 26: New York City

Soundtrack: Hootenanny Hoot

For weeks I had studied maps, large and small, but maps are not reality at all – they can be tyrants. I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though held by flanged wheels to a rail.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

Despite listening to screams and arguments off and on all night from Brokeback Mountain, Sister Laura managed to get up and go to work at BBC America. I moved the car into a garage up the street and got coffees from the Starbucks down on Third Avenue. But even the house blend wasn’t strong enough to get Laura Anne and me out of the air-conditioned apartment before noon.
Luckily there was an entertaining film on tv: the 1963 Hootenanny Hoot, starring Peter Breck and Ruta Lee with vintage performances by Johnny Cash, Sheb Wooley, Judy Henske, and the Brothers Four, pumping up the folk craze for all they were worth. This was a period I remembered as the time I tried to get my father to buy me a guitar so I could be cool, but he got me a bigger accordion instead. I tried to play the requisite Bob Dylan and Highwaymen and Peter Paul and Mary material on my grandmother’s mandolin, but it wasn’t sufficiently cool for high school. (Forget the accordion!) So I learned the folk repertoire well enough I could host a radio show later at Pacifica Houston. Hootenanny Hoot was quite a flashback for me and Laura dug it since she was a big Johnny Cash fan. I think Charlie would have made us change the station; he didn’t have much tolerance for folk or country.
We decided to maintain continuity by checking out some more vintage entertainment at the Museum of Radio, Television, and Film. The trek uptown was a bit grueling in 90-degree heat, but the place was blessedly air conditioned and we spent the rest of the day watching Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, a Dick Cavett show with Bob Dylan, a Frank Lloyd Wright documentary narrated by Anne Baxter, and screenings of I Love Lucy and All in the Family, with guest star Sammy Davis Junior.
After happy hour at the Rodeo, taquitos and quesadillas, virgin and not-so virginal margaritas, I moved the car out of a parking garage in time for the free street parking. Laura and Laura and I looked over the Rand McNally maps to get an idea of New England so we could approximate the first leg of Steinbeck’s trip. We knew Connecticut was on the itinerary and then Massachusetts and as close as we could get to Maine. Making it to Maine would be quite a feat in the three-day weekend we had ahead, since the next day was dedicated to having a picnic at the Cloisters with Laura’s friend Barb and a taking in a free screening in the evening.
Our Daddy would have drawn a red line for the route like Kerouac had tried to at first, and he would have held to it; we’d been there for the first 20 years of family vacations and that was one thing we were sure we DIDN’T want to do.

Day 11: New York State of Mind

July 25 - Utica, New York to the Adirondacks to Saratoga Springs to New York City

Soundtrack: Offspring, Smash; The Beetles, Best of 1964-1969, local radio

I pulled into a rest stop outside Utica on the New York Thruway, a toll road that seemed to charge by the mile. More than just bathrooms and drinking fountains, the place was a great wooden vault with restaurants and souvenir shops, all caged and closed for the night, and a lone custodian sweeping in a corner. The bathroom was the important thing. I took a nap until dawn in the parking lot so it would be handy.
Determined to get off without shelling out more change, I looked up the State 12 exit and went north onto green-dotted road 8 toward the hills and lakes of the New York State of mind. On the Rand McNally map, the blue highways were gray and the next level up was red with green dots for the scenic route. We favored the red-and-green highways because they were usually beautiful AND paved.
Conveniently, the local station cued the Billy Joel song and we were set; when Laura woke up, she resumed her sound track, but I kept switching to local radio which was largely country and faded in and out through the hills.
These were the Adirondacks, rolling countryside with tiny rustic towns built right up to the road, perfect little 2-story cottages surrounded by flower gardens and winding country lanes, like the one I turned off on accidentally, drove ten miles in a scenic circle and ended up at the same turnoff. After a few hours cruising the verges of lakes in and out of shade trees and I was ready to sell out in the Mojave Desert and move to one of these mini-utopias. What a lovely feminist fantasy, to walk away from the domestic scene in California and reinvent myself in a new kind of paradise.
Laura took it as a bad joke. She thought I was trying to get away from her, not just exercising my escapist fantasies, which had, on occasion, come true. The house in Joshua Tree was a fantasy come true, the “place to live...off in the land somewhere” that I wrote about in college, when I was her age. That dream hadn’t been achieved until I graduated from Cal State thirty years later. Because I was teaching in the City and could ony make it out on weekends, I gave this time for solitude and contemplation to Charlie, hoping he would use it to find himself. He was going to college in this best of all possible places, next door to the National Park. I came out the desert to escape from the city over summers and holidays and our lives there were slow-moving, full of books and movies on tv, and long walks on dirt roads in the cool of the evening. He would surf the internet and do his college homework and I would make out lesson plans and correct papers and enter grades. Now the red house in Joshua Tree sat empty, the wind scoured its redwood finish and wore the window screens away, the pipes froze and cracked in winter, and the dream had died with Charlie.
Why wouldn’t I want to escape? These quaint country houses basking in the heat of summer beckoned with the idea of new lives to be lived. These mountains were a new paradise, far from the bare stones and the sad stories in California. Laura’s anger, so unexpected, came out of a feeling that by settling here I would be abandoning her and her aspirations of film school and a fairytale career in the Industry.
O.K., O.K., I was being self-indulgent, reacting to this magical place. North of the road was an enormous wilderness of mountains and lakes that we barely grazed as we headed east on state road 29 into Sara toga Springs. We parked on the main street of the picturesque town, where a Starbuck’s offered caffeine and a restroom accessible to all. Sitting outside at a wire table, we watched the mostly affluent-looking passersby and fortified ourselves for the trek down the Hudson. We had the salmon from the night before in the cooler and needed to get bread, mustard and wine for a picnic on the river.
Here things became a bit tricky, because in the gentrified stores of downtown Sara toga Springs, even the cheapest loaf of bread and jar of mustard would have set us back at least 5 bucks. We finally settled on French bread from the La Brea Bakery in L.A. and found a state liquor store for the jug of wine. After a lengthy discussion on Lake Country vintages with a young salesman, the best buy again turned out to be from California. As for the mustard, we ended up at a general store on the road down the river where a small jar of brown mustard was only $2.49. In this case, it was the principal of the thing. We were saving our cash for NEW YORK CITY!
The picnic was at Castleton-on-Hudson, a swath of green lawn with rest areas in sight of the River. We walked about a little, but the river was edged with boat launching docks and we couldn’t really put our hands in the water. The bridge over the Hudson beckoned and the 9 west ran closer to the river than the 9 on the east side, so we crossed over, thinking there might be a way to scatter Charlie’s ashes so he would drift down to the ocean. But there was no stopping on the bridge, so we headed south for New York, sidetripping into the Catskills to experience Woodstock, a place so perfect even the address signs and mailboxes at the ends of the long forested drives were decorative.
Heading into New York, red highway 9 got itself tangled with toll road 87 and we accidentally got onto the 287 south of Nyack trying to get away from it all. Then we had to catch Interstate 80 to get back in the right direction and spent an hour or so groping through Paterson, New Jersey, Kerouac and Ginsberg territory, a landscape unexpectedly picturesque for New Jersey.
Finally the exit for the George Washington Bridge loomed ahead; we couldn’t avoid paying a toll if we wanted to drive onto Manhattan. The bridge in this case felt more like a tunnel; the narrow roads pumped up my adrenaline with fear of clipping other motorists at 50 mph emerging onto the Franklin Roosevelt Drive. We made it! Turning off onto 20th Street was like coming off a roller coaster ride; we circled Sister Laura’s block a few times looking for a place to park the HHR and we were there.
Sister Laura has lived in a tiny apartment around the corner from the Rodeo Cafe and Bar on East Third for over 20 years. Every inch of wall space in the efficiency is covered with videos and dvds and photos of her media heroes. Her captain’s bed is on one end of the room and the shower, kitchenette, and bathroom are on the other. There is a futon on the wall by the window with the air conditioner and a closet, desk, and rolling tv stand on the other side of the room. Only the essentials.
The three of us walked down to the nearby supermarket, a rarity in Manhattan, and bought crudités and delicacies to round out our supper of champagne and pate on crackers: an impromptu feast. On the way back we passed a band loading in at the backdoor of the Rodeo Bar. A nice young fellow named Sean Kershaw (no relation to the Cajun fiddler) invited us to catch his act later and we said we’d try.
That night we watched Heath Ledger as Casanova and gormandized like Renaissance Italians; we hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain yet and were going to break that out, too, but Laura Anne fell asleep right away, so Sister Laura and I snuck down to the bar.
Wot Larx! After a couple of plastic cups of lukewarm white wine I was ready to PARTY and danced with a 30ish dude in a stingy brim hat and an unseasonable suit until both of us were sweating like the proverbial c & w porkers. I missed the floor collapsed conveniently into my folding chair. The band knew Hank Williams stuff and Johnny Cash and even John Prine. HOO-HAH! That was some fun. All we had to do was take the elevator up to bed, but we still tried to watch Brokeback Mountain, which cycled on noisily through the night from Wyoming to Texas and back again.