Day 41. PA/NY: waterfall, antiques, panto, and just surreal

by Kevin May

I had hoped to see Chip at breakfast the following morning, as that would have meant that he had crashed the night on the floor somewhere rather than into a bridge on the way back to Troy.

He was nowhere in sight, although he might have been upstairs still nursing a hangover. He worked all night, so perhaps he slept all day. Allen was on the table next to me, making up for lost time from the previous evening and talking wood big-time with a couple of other delegates.

My schedule reckoned on 467 miles to Cooperstown NY, via Niagara Falls. At least after today, I would be in the small-scale world of New England and only have a couple of hundred to do each day.

I still had over a week to go, but I now knew that it would take something catastrophic to prevent me from completing my mission on time. The six New England states occupied an area smaller than shitty Oklahoma and I’d been in, through and out that in about seven hours. In a strange way, this realization left me more deflated than elated. The feeling was much closer to anticlimax than triumph.

The fog was thick in the air and, once out of town, it was like driving through a cloud. The radio auto-searched a remarkable breakfast show where the host invited listeners to ring in with their stories or problems.

Most of the stories were to do with sex, usually the over-indulgence of it or the deprivation of it. All of the answers and advice offered by the host also had something to do with sex. It had never dawned on me that the best way to deal with bankruptcy and the imminent repossession of your house was to “do more screwing”.

It was a fast run through to Buffalo, where I picked up signs for Niagara Falls. I missed my turning when I came over the bridge into Niagara City. This at least gave me the chance to see a bit of the town. I drove down one residential street and saw a bizarre looking house. Not only were there about fifty pumpkins outside, but there was a ghoulish effigy placed in all of the ten windows at the front crowned by the grim reaper hanging out of the top window.

It was early October and still almost a full month until Hallowe’en. There were also various placards painted with messages to bin Laden informing him that the spooks were going to get him. Presumably someone actually lived there. I bet the neighbors really loved him.

It was easy to find my way back on to the right road and within five minutes I was paying my five bucks at the car park. I walked across the grass towards the audible rush of the river where the white water was leaping around the rocks at formidable speed. I followed the river to the precipice where it flowed over and down, apparently dropping 65-75,000 gallons a second to feed Lake Ontario.

The spray gave it a natural soft focus appearance. I made the obligatory visit to the gift shop. I had heard that the Falls was a horrible, teeming tourist circus, but it had been genuinely quite awe-inspiring.

Inside the shop though, the commercialism swung into full stride. There was very little on sale that could not be described as pap, and extremely overpriced at that. I thought about getting a sandwich from the café, but I only had thirty dollars on me.

I spent the afternoon exploring the moneyed highways and byways of upstate New York. Seneca Falls was posh and Skaneateles posher still, but neither offered much to the speed tourist unless I wanted to recline on the grass by the edge of the Finger Lakes with a slushy novel. Much the same deal was to be had thirty miles up the road at Cazenovia.

From what I’d seen of it, the upstate had about as much in common with NYC as Hampshire had with Manchester back in England. There was very little edge, but plenty of big houses and self-satisfaction.

Cooperstown was another hour and a half away, along a stretch of US20 that was the road with the most antique shops in the world: for once that wasn’t a claim, it was my observation. I had no idea where all those antiques could come from, but I must have passed over fifty different outlets along the way.

The sun was setting as I pulled into Cooperstown, another pretty retreat but somehow it seemed to have more character. It had a number of claims to fame. It was supposedly where Baseball began, although this was disputed by Hoboken NJ where my trip had started. It definitely was home to both the National Baseball and Soccer Halls of Fame. There was also the Cardiff Giant, a fraudulent fossil that had been sculpted in the late 19th Century, buried and then “discovered”. And to top it all, the town boasted the highest number of museums and B&Bs per capita in all of America.

Most of these B&Bs were located an uncomfortable distance’s walk away from the town centre, and none of the hotels that were centrally located looked vaguely within reach of my budget. I followed some signs down to the shores of Lake Otsego where I found the Lakeview Motel, offering discounted rates for single occupancy of rooms. I signed the agreement that I would pay double if I were discovered to have taken anyone else into my room – “this includes to use bathroom” – and I was sorted.

I wandered up and down the main street and eventually settled for the Hoffman Lane Bistro down a side alley with tables outside. It was quite busy, and I waited for about ten minutes before being shown to a table and given a menu.

The place was run by a bloke called Dave and my waitress was Sherri. It was all very friendly, and they started to refer to me by each other’s names as if we were three long established mates: “Has Sherri been to take you to your table yet?”; “Didn’t Dave give you a menu?”; “Has Dave brought you that beer yet?”; “Hasn’t Sherri taken your order yet?”; etc.

This panto continued for about fifteen minutes before Sherri came back with a beer and took my order. The food was OK eventually, and when I had finished it, I waited again to attract someone’s attention to check whether I could go and sit at the bar for a cigarette.

It seemed like Sherri was the only waitress in the whole joint. I had my tape recorder on me and made a big show of talking into it “surreptitiously”. I hoped that they might notice it and think that I was from Michelin or Egon Ronay or something, and start paying me some attention.

It then dawned on me that no high-powered restaurant critic would have been likely to order meatloaf and a pint of Bass, and so I abandoned the ruse and went down to the bar regardless. I ordered a beer and explained to Dave that I had come down without paying my bill, so that he could get a message to Outer Mongolia or wherever Sherri had disappeared to.

I lit up a cigarette and looked into space. On the barstool next to me was a twenty-something girl who was yabbering away to the barman. She became distracted when she saw me light up and I thought that she was going to ask me not to smoke near her.

Instead, she turned to me and asked for a light. I can’t remember what I said, but it must have been something, because she picked up on the accent, which she thought was “cool”.

We went through the usual rigmarole of where I came from, what I was doing and where I was going. She pulled out her mobile phone and tried to call her friend Rita who was writing a book. She thought that we should meet, but she couldn’t get any answer on the phone.

She introduced herself as Sabrina and, so as to establish exactly where we stood, contrived to mention her husband three or four times in the next couple of sentences. It came as a relief to me also.

She clarified the situation by saying that he wasn’t really her husband, more her fiancé but she hated that word. They lived together and he was away for the evening on business in Brooklyn. She was an artist and Internet entrepreneur, but also worked in the bar here. Tonight was her night off.

We chatted for a bit about America, and what it meant to be free. Sabrina’s view was that you should be able to think anything and to say anything but not to do anything, because that impacted on other people.

I suggested that perhaps bin Laden was to blame less for his actions than for his words. He’d not got aboard the planes himself, but his talk had clearly inspired others to do so. George Washington may have physically led his troops into battle, but the main implement of the modern day leader is his tongue more than his deeds. She still thought that people should be able to say what they liked.

Sabrina felt that September 11th was down to “two things, God and religion”. The way she saw it, the attack was motivated by a desire to impose the Muslim way of doing things on the whole world, starting with America. She then bizarrely changed tack, and concluded that if it wasn’t down to that then it was down to money “because money lies behind all action.”

Apparently, the fact that marijuana wasn’t legal was also “down to money”. She wanted to know if other countries had civil liberties, or whether it was just the USA. She liked going off at tangents.

Sabrina was annoyed about Rita, and tried calling her again. Rita was working as a journalist while she wrote her book, which she was due to finish in the near future. I asked Sabrina what it was about, and she replied that it was based on Cooperstown. I asked whether it was fact or fiction, and she replied that it was unlike any other book that had ever been written. She explained that it was factual, but based on fiction. It sounded worth looking out for.

Suddenly she asked me whether I had been to Walmart yet. I had to confess that I hadn’t. She told me about a 24-hour Walmart that was only twenty miles away, and was ready to lead me to it there and then. It was what American life was all about. You could “go see the optometrist any time, night or day, and while your glasses were being made you could go buy some groceries”.

It was very sweet, but I had no immediate need for any provisions or spectacles, and pointed out that neither of us was fit to drive. The disappointment made her physically slump. She obviously felt that I was missing out on some quintessential American experience.

We drank there until about ten-thirty, during which time Sabrina tried to introduce me to some of the other regulars. None of them were that interested, although one called Bob, who was a builder, did say hello. When he heard that I was going to Vermont the next day, he told me that I should go to the Foxfire in Stowe to eat. I wouldn’t find better food anywhere in the entire state.

I saw Sabrina having a word with the owner at one point and when my bill arrived, I found that I had only been charged for my food. It was explained that Sabrina wanted to pay for all my beer and I watched as she handed over six dollars. She explained that she always got her drinks at “bar staff rates”. She turned and asked me if I was ready for the next place yet.

It was hard to say no, not that I particularly wanted to. She was a boxful of random thought and made very entertaining company. We wandered over to the Pratt, another bar on the ground floor of a hotel, and this time I bought the beer. I came back to the table and Sabrina asked me if I smoked weed. The answer was technically yes, although the last time I had done so I’d ended up telephoning my mum and asking her why the ivy outside my house was fucked.

I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. She asked if I fancied smoking some later, and I said I supposed I would. I assumed that I couldn’t be sent to jail provided that I didn’t inhale.

I went to the restroom and when I came back, Sabrina was looking worried. She told me that it would be a problem going back to her apartment because Andrew, her husband/fiancé, would be cross if he found out that she’d taken me back there. I agreed that that was understandable, but she then came up with a solution. I could stand in the corridor outside the door.

Two lads came sauntering over to chat with Sabrina. One of them, who went by the remarkable name of Jynj, was some sort of parody of a young person at the turn of the millennium. The waistline of his multi-pocketed combats was hanging a couple of inches below his buttocks, and he had six or seven layers thrown over his top half. His shock of red hair was combed over Bobby Charlton style under his baseball cap, so it stuck out in a ponytail perpendicular to the side of his head.

Jynj was wasted but knew that Andrew was out of town. He wanted a shot at getting in Sabrina’s underpants, and was irritated that my presence was hindering his prospects. He said that they were going off for a drive and tried to persuade her to go with them. She wasn’t interested, and the more he begged the more resolute she became. When he eventually gave up and left, Sabrina turned and told me to hurry up so we could go back for that smoke.

Sabrina and Andrew’s apartment was just across the main street. We went up and I stayed behind in the corridor when she let herself in through the door. She came back out and asked me what I was doing.

When I reminded her of the plan, she dismissed it and said that I might as well come in now we were here. She stopped me as I got to the threshold and pointed out that they had a light-colored carpet and so they didn’t allow anyone in with their shoes on. I knelt down to untie my laces, and she changed her mind again. She said that I didn’t have to take my shoes off though, unless I really wanted to. I was fairly neutral on the subject, and so I wandered in still fully shod.

It was a small apartment and full of stuff. I sat on a leather sofa that would have been an imposing piece of furniture in a room twice the size, and Sabrina handed me a china pipe, which she thought was shaped like a penis. Insofar as it was long with a bulbous bit on the end, I guess that she was right.

Any reservations I had had about inhaling were allayed by my inability to make anything come out of the mouthpiece. Sabrina showed me repeatedly the system of holes that had to be covered/uncovered at strategic moments, but I couldn’t the hang of it.

She had a bad case of ants in her knickers, and couldn’t sit still for a moment. She wanted to play music, but changed the track each time I said that I recognized it and most times that I didn’t. She thought I needed to listen to new stuff, but kept no single piece on for more than 30 seconds.

She told me that she didn’t believe in God, but that she did believe in Energy. She believed that when someone died, their energy had to go somewhere. She passed me a couple of books, one on reincarnation the other on hypnotherapy.

I wasn’t sure if she was lending them to me, or whether I was supposed to read them there and then. She jumped up and ran through to the kitchen, imploring me to look round through the adjoining breakfast bar. She turned all the lights off and I could hear her talking as she scrabbled around in the darkness. She said she had something amazing to show me.

What did follow I have difficulty describing. There were electronic whirring sounds, and then some flashing lights. I could make out movement of an outline of something with that glow-in-the-dark paint. In fact I could make out several, and the sound was now building to a cacophony. The show lasted for about a minute before the lights went up and I could see what had been happening.

Ranged in two rows on top of the kitchen cabinets were fourteen boxes, each emblazoned with Star Wars logos. Inside these were a number of different animatronic characters that wiggled and made noises in response to hand movements, and some glowed in the dark. Even without narcotic stimulation, it had been most surreal and left me genuinely speechless.

Sabrina explained that Andrew collected things, any things, and that these were now worth over $200 each. She showed me some of his baseball stuff, that “nobody had ever seen before”, and some photos of herself, her family, and friends.

One of them was of an English ex-boyfriend of hers from Redhill in Surrey. He had the letters B-A-S-H tattooed across his chest in Gothic script. She proudly announced that it stood for “Bay area soccer hooligans”. He had another tattoo on his arm of a heart split in two, which he’d had done following the demise of their relationship, because “his heart would be broken for ever”. He was now back in England, playing American football for one of the London teams. I hoped I never met him.

The phone rang. It was Andrew calling to say goodnight. Sabrina took the phone into the bedroom and emerged a few minutes later, saying that Andrew didn’t believe her when she told him that a writer from England was in the apartment with her. She claimed that it was the first time they’d ever let anyone else into their home, and so Andrew had just assumed that she’d been imagining things.

I was beginning to feel the same way. I was keen to return to the comparative sanity and sanctity of the bar, but Sabrina wanted to show me some of her work as an artist. She led me into the bathroom and swept back the shower curtain. The wall was painted blue, and there were some green stems with red cups at the top that I took to represent tulips. I found myself hoping that her Internet endeavors worked out for her.

We returned to the Pratt for one last drink. It was approaching 1 am, and Sabrina looked like she could keep going all night. I looked at my watch and mumbled something about having to get to Vermont the next day.

Sabrina walked out with me and skipped across the road back to her apartment, waving gaily as if we’d see each other again soon. I tromped back to the motel and had a last cigarette on the edge of the lake.

It was beautifully peaceful, and the stars were out in force. It chilled me enough for the warmth of the room to be like a welcoming embrace.

I checked around for spare people. I was fairly convinced that I’d not brought anyone back, but I thought it best to make absolutely sure.