Friday, September 28

The Big Trip - Finale

What a Long Strange Trip it's Been
     Plans are made for Waterworld /Waldameer, changed, then changed again. Meanwhile, Mike and I check out the Tom Ridge Environmental Center that is across the road from the park. The view from the four story tower is nice but the exhibits are sadly in need of upgrading.  
     We finally make it to Waterworld and there is a security check point as we enter the park. What the fuck? A search by rent a cops at an amusement park? Apparently there had been "trouble" at the park from gangs or some dumb shit so now everyone has their bags rummaged as if they are hardened criminals. I refuse to play this game and when there is a second check at the entrance to Waterworld adjacent to the park, I simply drop my swim suit and towel on the ground for the underpaid sheep to hand it back to me. Why people put up with this bullshit is beyond me. Don't be a sheep. 
     After playing in water, we dry off and meet up with Amanda, hubby Chuck and their four kids. Blaine is recovering from a leg fracture and is still hesitant to walk on the weak leg so he -and the rest of us- get to use the disabled entrance to the rides.

The Hoover kids left to right, Ashton, Emma, Blaine, Alisa, Delaney and Mike.
      Waldameer has three coasters. The Ravine Flyer 2 (the first one was removed in 1938 after a tragic accident), the Steel Dragon and the Comet. At a mere 20 feet rise, The Comet is so tame one can hold a conversation and drink tea. Blaine isn't big enough to go on the big rides yet so we go two round trips with him. Ash and Emma try to cajole me to go with them on a new spin and puke ride but honestly, I get a vicarious thrill just watching them. Being a good sport, I accept another ride on the Ravine Flyer but I'm still a wimp as I hold on while Chuck, Ash and Emma keep their hands in the air the whole time. 
     On the last day of my stay in Erie, Mike and I are up early to get donuts on the way to visit Brianna, his youngest daughter, who is in town briefly.

The center of evil for a dieter.
     Mighty Fine Donuts is an institution in Erie. My dad used to stop in on Sundays for a dozen as a treat after church. I am tempted to get the sugar coated, cream filled one I had as a kid, but like a former addict tempted to try their old dosage I realize it would probably put me in a glucose coma and settle for two small glazed cakes instead. 
     Later, Bonnie takes me on a nostalgic trip to the zoo which outs out to be a bust. The park train isn't running, some of the exhibits are closed, so is the cafe and the animals wisely sleep in the shade on another hot, steamy day. I'm much happier when we head to an air conditioned restaurant for a salad bar and girl talk.
Bonnie listening to a dog's advise. 

     We say goodbye then I finish packing. Mike and I head off to see the kids one last time for an evening bike ride around the cemetery near their house. Overall I am pleased with the trip. No drama or big revelations, just pleasant time together, which is the best outcome when visiting long distance relatives. Mike is remarkably calm and quiet, the kids are fun and energetic and very wise for their age. Bonnie is a effusive as ever, the optimistic Pooh to my glum Eyeore. The last time I saw Amanda, Monica and Brianna, they were kids now they are all grown up with full lives and kids of their own.
      Mike lives close to downtown so there was no straying into the old neighborhood except for the drive past the houses my mom and dad grew up in. My time in Erie as a child was not kind but there is so much distance between then and now so whatever fears or ghosts I had are long gone. Now I have warm memories to replace the cold ones.

With Wyatt Daniels.

And Now a Word From Moose

I loved Martha's Vineyard. I made sure Alisa collected sand and shells to bring Cape Cod home in a jar. 
     I've been to Palau, I've been to San Francisco so many times I lost interest but I've never been to the east coast so I insisted on coming along on Alisa's Big Trip.

Wow, look at the cool globes above Din's living room.

The boss and cousin Buzzy. Damian Jr. is not interested in a photo op. 
     I spent most of my time sleeping in Erie cause Alisa forgot to include me in her activities- ahem- but she was having too much fun, so I can forgive her.

The boss getting raunchy with a clown. 
The Long Train West 
     I leave Erie the way I arrive: in the middle of garbage night. No pithy metaphor there, just weird timing. For a change I actually slept on the train. It's the same staff as before; the intimidating Claude and the nice female car attendant. We exchange smiles and she asks how my vacation went.
     "I can't wait to sleep in my own bed again," I sigh.
     "I hear you girl," she agrees.
     I have a four hour layover in Chicago. Not enough time to sightsee but I have a huge muffaleto for lunch, thanks to a recommendation by a nice cop. Union Station was crawling with them. The classic building is undergoing major renovations so the great hall is draped in plastic and scaffolding. The place has been used in many movies, like the set of stairs over there, where the climatic scene from "Man of Steel" was shot.


      On the Empire Builder, I have two seats in coach to spread out and manage to get some sleep. North Dakota and Montana are flat and boring. The food on Amtrak used to be fairly decent but the quality has suffered. Another cost cutting measure I'm sure. I alternate drinking booze and tea.

Gin and tonic in a can,that's new.
     During a brief stop, two border patrol officers come through the car asking the passengers for their citizenship in a new and ridiculous attempt at intimidation. 
     " I'm American," I glare at the federale idiot. He wisely moved on.
     The incidents of security and armed guards, remind me we are living in a police state. I am annoyed at the paranoia and angry with the loss of real freedom in the country. 
     We stop in East Glacier Park for a glorious sunset, as the train weaves thru the mountains, I see the glow of a forest fire on the other side of a ridge; smoke seeps into the lounge car and I know we're back on the dry west.
     The next day as we travel along the Columbia gorge, I see whole hillsides of charred trees and smoky haze obscures a view of the Cascades.
      That night I slept in my own bed. Home, sweet home indeed.

Saturday, September 15

The Big Trip Part 3

                                   A photo of Mike taking a photo. Provenance.
Beach Blanket Bingo
            I know some of the beach combers as old friends and they all know Mike. The party is ruled over by Brenda- a cross between a den mother and a drill sergeant. She is married to John who lived next door when we were kids. The rest of the party requires a flow chart to figure who is who and how they are related. It doesn't matter, everyone is chummy and gets along.
            John and his son John Jr. have theirs boats offshore along with two jet skis. I looked forward to a ride on one with Mike but it turned out to be too much fun for me. As we turned back to the beach we were dumped off by the choppy waters and I frantically splashed my way back to shore. As I stand in the surf embarrassed and sobbing Brenda comes wading out to comfort me in my acute wimpyness.

                                                It really does look like fun.

            I decide on going to Waldameer Amusement Park with Bonnie is safer- until we get on the Ravine Flyer II roller coaster. I don't like heights, can't scream like a girl and-
            "Look at the view of the lake," Bonnie chirps as we crest the hill above the trees. I'm not interested in the view-oh shit, I shut my eyes as we plunge down the hill and open them just as we hurl across the bridge over Presque Isle Drive. The next minute and a half is fast, loud and intense.
            I  preferred the steel dragon, a smaller coaster where the car spins around along a tightly wound track. Bonnie enjoys every minute, giggling like a little kid. I'm a bit woozy and tired from it all. This will all be repeated on Monday with the fearless family kids, groan.

                                 The coaster is a little too close to the campers below the hill.

            Before going to bed, I go to the camp bathroom and notice the lake is agitated, the waves are loud, exasperated sighs as they crash on the shore. That's not a good sign and I wonder where the storm is coming from. The next morning I am greeted with rain as I go to my morning toilet. Dark clouds and a curtain of rain race across the lake.
            "Hey you missed the lightening and a rainbow." Mike informs me on my return. Oh thanks for telling me I missed a great photo op, asshole.

                                         A morning storm rolls across the lake.
            The storm passes, the skies clears, but lake never calms down. This doesn't deter Mike when he takes his six year old granddaughter Morgan out on the jet ski, who enjoys it immensely. Mike regales me later while Brenda is appalled. I am officially a total wimp.
            The grand finale to the weekend is the fireworks show put on by Waldameer and the camp site is right below it. Mike is given to exaggerate at times but he wasn't kidding about bits of debris raining down on us during the show. I watched in awe as the glow of the finale reflected off the dark water.

                  An edifice is visited by a mysterious lake creature. Also known as Wyatt Daniels.

            Lake Erie is barely great, it's the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest by volume of the Great Lakes, it's deepest spot is only 210 feet and a mere 57 miles wide but it has enough personality to entertain and as the weather proved, can be fearsome. The sunsets are picturesque, and at night, it intrigues me.
            To one side is the clutter of camping, tiki lights and camp fires, to the other side, an ominous blank. The waves scrape at the edge of the solid wall of blackness and I wonder, what if this was a boundary to another dimension? My imagination leaps at the possibilities.
             I get another drink and join the late night group sitting around the camp fire telling joke and thanks to an old friend who told me every joke he knows I kill at the contest.
            A priest, rabbi and an iman are sitting around comparing their work.
            "Say is it true you guys don't eat bacon? " the priest asks. They assure him it's true. "oh come on, you've never had it?" he can't believe that.
"I had a BLT once, it was no big deal," the rabbi admits.
"Yeah, I tried bacon and eggs it was ok," the iman admits. "What about your celibacy, you never been with a woman?" he retorts. The priest shakes his head but they persist.
" Ok before I took my vows I did sow my wild oats" he finally confesses. The rabbi and iman exchange looks.
"Sure beats bacon, doesn't it?"

Next up:  A Waldameer encore and the last lag of the trip.

Wednesday, September 12

The Big Trip Part two

                        The former Union Station has gone thru many changes over the years.

In My Little Town
            Next stop Erie Pa. My brother Mike, his daughters and their kids live in the town we grew up in-why I don't know, I prefer the West Coast. Erie is a bit cleaner but still has a worn down, dilapidated look to it. It used to reign as a steel fabrication and shipping mecca but those days are long gone. It's mostly owned by  Erie Insurance, Hamot Hospital / UPMC  (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) and Gannon University.
             I like the causal aura of traveling by train but really dislike Amtrak- the company that wants to die (see my previosu post) . The Lake Shore Limited, one of my least favorite routes has its limits. Traveling business class makes it bearable. The seats are roomier, the car is quiet with it's own cafe car and has wi-fi.
            I have a moment of anxiety while sitting in the cafe car and cover my face to have a good cry. A train attendant, a large black woman, taps me on the shoulder to make sure I'm alright. 
            "Claude is very intimidating," I quietly deflect the blame to the cafe attendant for my state. He is an imposing man with an authoritative air wrangling with an uncooperative cash register. She hands me a complimentary comfort kit : a fleece blanket, eyeshade, ear plugs and inflatable neck pillow. My mood improves instantly.
            I arrive in Erie in the middle of a warm, muggy night. The train station used to be a glorious entrance, now it's just  a neglected way station. A shabby waiting room down a hall with cracked floors, unfinished painted walls and bad lighting. The canopy over the platform is rusty and the windows of the enclosure to the stairs leading down to street level are broken. Every other station I have seen has been renovated or cleaned up so it's an embarrassing introduction.            
            The centerpiece to this leg of the trip is the Labor day Weekend Beach Party. A traditional end to summer where people pitch tents and campers along the lake shore at Sara's Campground next to the entrance to Presque Isle State Park and just down the hill from Waldameer Amusement Park. We drop off some gear in the morning and are greeted with a torrential downpour, the wind churning the lake into a froth.
            Afterwards, on the way to see Amanda, Mike's daughter, there is a dramatic bolt of lightening  quickly followed by thunder. I am thrilled with the "Welcome to Erie" greeting. Fortunately the threat to ruining the weekend passes quickly.

                                    The RV camper, I hope the brakes don't fail.

            The weekend is one long fest of eating, drinking and playing in the water. Lake Erie used to be dubious for swimming and aquatic life. Fish were known to have a couple extras eyes and the water smelled rank. There was an aggressive clean up campaign years ago and to my surprise the water is cleaner and clearer. Another surprise, Mike presents me with a bike I can use while in town.
            "There are bike trails in Erie?" I am shocked. The existence of any bike trails in a town that is so spread out, one has to travel a considerable distance to the nearest grocery store is positively stunning. In fact Mike lives a few blacks from the Bayfront Parkway that has a lovely path leading to the Marina and downtown is a half mile in the other direction.

                                             Two old broads, Alisa and Bonnie.
            I decide to try it out the bike when my best friend calls. I've known Bonnie since fourth grade and she currently works with her son Roger doing a "pirate cruise". Not today though because "the pirate boat broke down." she tells me. So much for the romance of piracy on the high seas, or in this case chugging around the harbor on a diesel powered boat.
            We have lunch of leftover sausage stew made by Mike- who is actually a great cook- in a tiny grove of bamboo in his back yard. Yes, that's right, bamboo can grow anywhere, even in Erie.
            The next day I get the chance to bike downtown to find a replacement for an earring I lost and I can't help smiling at getting around the way I do back home. I pedal past the former Baldwin Building at 10th and State Street.

          It was recently sold for $174,000. That's not a misprint, that's how bad the real estate market is.

        The Boston Store, once a grand department store has been turned into low income housing that unfortunately, is more dangerous inside than outside because of drugs and crime. Pity, I have fond memories of the place. Thank God the Warner theatre is still there and being used.

                                   When I was a kid it cost fifty cents to see a movie here.

            Mike is busy with work so I bike down to the marina to take the Pirate Cruise back in service. It's all silly fun and Roger, who is a gifted actor, leads the kids on board with gusto.

                                      Roger Dobry-pirate, dig the authentic sandals.

            Later, I have a Cuban sandwich at Woody's by the harbor and watch the restored flagship Niagra dock in front of the Maritime Museum.

        I caught the last boat taxi of the day across the harbor to the penisula and bike 2.5 miles to the beach party in sweltering humidity.
       A note about the Battle of Erie. Historians like to dress it up as all heroic with Commander Perry crying "Don't give up the ship". Well he did flee his ship the Lawrence because the British were bombing it to pieces while The Niagara hung back under the command of Lt. Eliot. I imagine Perry was pretty pissed as he fled the crippled ship in a dingy to the Niagara.
      "Commander Perry, thank God you're alri-" Eliot greets him.
      "Why the fuck aren't you moving in for the kill?" Perry cuts him off.
      "Um, well I was waiting for the wind to-" But Perry will have none of his lame ass excuses.
      " It is in our favor dickhead, now move in and commence firing." What's left of the British fleet is toast. End of battle.
            I'm sure that's how it happened.

Next up: Beach Blanket Bingo

Tuesday, September 11

The Big Trip Part 1

                                                In front of Sara's Diner at Presque Isle, Erie PA.

The Big Trip
            It was time for an adventure-well adventure for me is going somewhere familiar. I decided to see family back east on Cape Cod and Erie PA.
            I hate flying but it was the only way to get there quickly and cheaply. I wanted to get a sleeper on Amtrak but, my God they are expensive. Aside from the plane flight, I had to arrange the whole planes, trains and bus potions myself because travel agents don't do trains anymore (more ranting about Amtrak to come). So after getting all the scheduling, tickets, and packing done I was ready but first a major anxiety attack the day of departure. What if something goes wrong? Do I have everything I need? I hope I'm not late. Will I end up with unpleasant drama like the last time I went to see family? (don't ask). I took the train to Portland and met friends for dinner before my flight to Boston.

Flying the Unfriendly Skies...
             I hate airplane travel, and really hate TSA, the source of  much anxiety. I got advice from friends who are frequent flyers about what to expect. TSA, always picks on people with one way tickets and I was no exception. After practically stripping to underwear I was put thru the body scanner, which picked up "something near my left shoulder and right ankle," which was bullshit. A fat lady told me I had to be searched even after I protested  I don't like being touched by strangers because of my autism ( I guess she didn't see my  T shirt that reads "Autism: not just a neurological condition, it's a way of life") telling me she has a daughter with autism was BS number two. Condition be damned I had to be groped then have my palms swiped for- what?
            "All you're going to see is the fucking burrito I had for dinner." I snarled. I was so done with this security theatre. I got a vodka soda cocktail at a distillery next to the gate.
            The flight was spectacularly uneventful-thank God- but I got little sleep in a cramped uncomfortable seat. I forgot an eyeshade so the light bothered me and the noise reducing ear buds were ineffectual against the roaring engines. The plane comes to a screeching halt the moment we touch down at Logan airport.
            " Did we land at an airport or on aircraft carrier?" I wondered aloud at the abrupt landing,
                                     The house that Damian McLaughlin built.                                                                                         

Lovely Cape Cod
             After some initial miscommunications with the stupid cell phone, I got hold of Uncle Din who drove me to his most perfect house. He built it himself (with help from friends, of course) 45 years ago, nestled in the woods of North Falmouth. I had been there before and it charms me every time.           
            Damian McLaughlin is a master wooden boat builder who can recall in great detail every boat he's built. He has the coolest workshop that had me drooling at the collection of tools.
                                         The boat builder in his natural habitat

             I spend the afternoon helping him construct a plastic tent to cover the boat he is currently building- a Sold Said 12 1/2 foot sail boat to protect it from dust while it's painted and sanded by his assistant. He can't sail due to a mysterious inner ear balance problem that didn't prevent him from climbing on a ladder and stapling some plastic on the overhead rafters of the shop, much to my nervousness.
            "Are you still walking the plank to the bedroom?" I asked. The plank is two wide boards crossing ten feet above the living room leading to their second story bedroom. I had visions of Aunt Linda finding him on the floor with a cracked skull.
            "Oh that's possible," he agreed with a causal air. He is not the only family member who lives dangerously.
            We break for an "executive lunch" with his friends at the Corner Cafe in town. We arrive in his door less jeep which I love (who needs doors?). He regales me with colorful commentary in a loud voice due to the car noise and his deafness as we hurl along narrow winding roads. I look everywhere at the Cape Cod Cottages with gray sun faded shingles and neat lawns.
            The next day I spend the afternoon with my cousin Buzzy (her nickname), her son Damian Jr. and her mother Martha at a private beach. There is a lingering sadness, as I watch Buzzy play in the water with her exuberant son that her father, my uncle Patrick died 2 years ago, just after Damian was born and Damian's father died suddenly last year.
            I waded into the water enjoying the coolness when I felt something on my leg. Looking down I see tiny fish gently nibbling me. Then I noticed what I thought were tiny black stones moving around and realized they are hermit crabs scurrying in the current. I retreat to the beach for fear of stepping on the creatures.
            I meet the rest of the extended McLaughlin family on Sunday for a party. The kids and parents are well behaved and civilized. No scolding or shouting at the kids, no tantrums when they are told no or when it's time to leave. Jesus, who are these people, I wonder.
            The weather has been pleasant, but there is an ominous turn when I step out later to glance at the moon and the air is heavy with humidity.

                                                  You can buy this for about $400,000

            The trip to Martha's Vineyard with Aunt Linda turns into a long hot day. We take the ferry across the harbor and stroll around the quaint Victorian cottages and take in lunch at  Fat Ronnie's in Oak Bluff. Martha joins us as we go in search of a lobster roll I have been wanting but the heat and humidity nearly does me in. The trek to the fish market is worth it and after gobbling down deliciousness drenched in butter, on an a bread roll I buy a second one for the train trip to Erie.
                                           On the ferry back to Wood's Hole I see a familiar face.

            "Excuse me, are you Henry Louis Gates? " I ask politely. He answers yes and offers a hand to shake.
            " Are you still doing your show 'Finding Your Roots?'"
            " Yes, the new season starts in January," he informs me.
            "Oh great, I look forward to seeing it," I gush. He offers his hand again to signal this encounter is over.           
            One important rule about meeting famous people is -don't be a bother. Be polite, be brief and move on. I didn't ask for an autograph or a photo op, that's intrusive. He was probably on his way back from vacationing on the island and seemed a bit tired so he kept it short. Just as well, I had to find the restroom.
                                             Sailing in Vineyard Sound.

            A majestic sailboat passes very close in front of the ferry. I turn to the ferry's wheel house miming the "better stop" cut at the neck. A couple sitting on the deck watch me as the boat sails safely away.
            "What about that boat?" the woman asks, pointing to a smaller boat also close by.
            "Oh we can run them over, they don't have enough insurance." I dead pan. I can't resist a joke when there's an opening.

To be continued . . . .

Sunday, July 15

Amtrak- The Company that Wants to Die

       I love trains, but I have a problem with the cheap ass, inefficient excuse for passenger rail service in this country. The US ranks number one in freight rail and 22nd in passenger service, gee I wonder why.
       First the track is owned by Union Pacific which certainly cares more about moving it's profitable freight than people.
       Amtrak is like the show" Whose Line is it Anyway?" where everything is made up and the points don't matter. Travel points that is. If I rack up thousands of points ( you get 2 points for every dollar spent) I'll be able to buy an overpriced blanket with an Amtrak logo. Worse than frequent flyer miles and who ever travels thousands of miles regularly on a train is a masochist.
      Time schedules are mostly hypothetical, delays are common because freight gets first dibs on the track. while I was on the Lame Shore, er Lake Shore Limited already running 3 hours late, the train stopped and went in reverse onto a side track to allow freight by. I guess we went making up too much time. The food used to be good but has declined because management decided the passengers weren't suffering enough.
      Amtrak has a revolving door of  CEOs, 13 since 1971, and is currently run by a former executive of Delta Airlines which gives you a good idea how much faith the US Government has in rail. That's right our incompetent government runs Amtrak and is slowly running it right into the ground at the taxpayers expense because they don't know how to just pull the plug and lit it die already.
       Passenger service sucks mostly because-reasons, but the truth is, no one is interested in it. Private rail declined in the fifties due to air travel. Fly on an airline subsidized by Uncle Sam, drive your car on the extensive hiway system paid for by federal funding, stay at tacky motels and deal with your bored kids.
       Trains are so European and who wants to be like them? China, Japan and Korea do. They invested heavily in fast, efficient trains, while we puddle along in outdated cars that can barely keep up with auto traffic.
        Amtrak has been promising fast trains for 30 years only to have a new service in the Pacific Northwest promptly derail on its maiden trip because the speed safety system was not operating. A system that was rejected by a penny pinching congressional transportation committee, a day after an earlier derailment.
       US Railroads- and it's barons- used to be the gold standard.  The US expanded with the building of the Transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, a major engineering feat at the time. Today, I think Amtrak might still be using the same equipment.
      What happened? Like I said, nobody cares about trains when we got cars and planes. Let's compare them, shall we.
       If accidents are measured by journey rather than mileage, airplanes are the 2nd most dangerous way to travel after motorcycles. More people die from plane crashes due to their high speed while than trains usually just fall off the track at a considerably lower altitude. Between 1971 and the present, there have been 112 deaths and 1,325 injuries from train derailments.
       Fuel studies have shown that planes and cars discharge roughly the same amount of CO2  but planes are used more frequently and for longer periods. Diesel trains cut CO2 in half per capita emission and are 30-40 % more efficient than planes and cars.
       Airlines enjoy all kinds of  handouts from the government, most notably after 9/11 when Congress gave them huge loans with no strings attached and little pressure to repay them. Kind like the bank bail outs- our tax money disappears forever. I always point this out when people bitch about our government subsiding  rail service. Yeah, the paltry amount it gets every year and has to beg for more.
       An article in Politico noted a key problem with Amtrak funding  "the rail system chronically operates in the red. A pattern has emerged: Congress overrides cutbacks demanded by the White House and appropriates enough funds to keep Amtrak from plunging into insolvency. But, advocates say, that is not enough to fix the system's woes."
       If you enjoy long travel times to and from the airport, check in and security theatre by TSA petty tyrants, by all means fly the not so friendly over crowded skies. Getting on board the train is as easy as getting on a bus.
       The one advantage airlines have is booking. Call a travel agent and they can do it no problem. Call Amtrak and you get the "Julie Experience" an cheerful automated agent with the intelligence of a doorknob. Some of us don't have the patience or time to figure out the byzantine system Amtrak uses.
       Did I mention this was the company that wants to die?