Monday, September 18, 2006

Back to PA

Well, heading back to Pennsylvania tomorrow for one of my 6-8 weeks-ish trips. When I first starting doing this in 1987, I could go round trip for $44. Now, it’s $84. Then again, I’m also taking the bus straight to my town, as opposed to getting off at one of the main stops (Hazleton – about half an hour north on Route 81), which tacks on a few dollars both ways. But the price really has gone up. Burns me that there are round-trip buses out of Reading (about an hour south) for $40, total. Just have to grin and bear it.

I think back then in the late 80s, I envisioned myself having a car to make this trip somewhere down the road – in my 30s somewhere? But I’ve come to realize having a car tends to be a real hassle in New York. I’d never use it during the week, save to change the sides of the street to avoid being ticketed on street-cleaning days. I’d have to watch over to it to make sure it didn’t get stolen, broken into, vandalized, towed or otherwise messed with. It would come in handy on weekends, and surely for trips like this. But when you factor in all that negative stuff, on top of the outrageous New York state auto insurance, gas prices, repair, inspection – and worst of all, simply driving around New York – I can live without it.

So, when I get back there, you better believe I get behind the wheel of my mother’s car every chance I get. Love driving back there, despite the unignorable fact that drivers tend to be just as bad there, save there’s simply far less of them to deal with. Can’t begin to tell you of all the times I get tailgated doing 50 in a 45 zone, and this is only driving once every six weeks – if I had that happen to me all the time, I’d be murderous. I don’t know how people think life works. You ride my ass like that, I’m not going to speed up. I’m going to make it a point to you that you have no control over me. So either back off, or grow a set of balls and pass me out (which never seems to happen … I don’t get it … you’re a speed-demon badass … pass me out already … isn’t your middle name “Danger”?).

Her car only has a radio, which isn’t that much of a drag as there’s a pretty solid 70s station I always find. Invariably, this time of year, I often hear Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” on the radio, and there’s nothing like hearing that song riding home on a September night. Fuckin’ Seger rules! (Then again, I made the mistake of buying his new album … “ruled” might be more grammatically accurate.)

I also can’t help but notice a pox on the land in terms of McMansions springing up all over the place. I hate the sight of these things – the cheesy faux classical architecture and such. Just the most gaudy looking pieces of shit to blot out the American landscape in the past decade. About the only good thing I can say about them is people back there don’t make the houses take up every inch of the property, as they’re doing in the suburbs around here, which is just so mind-blowingly awful to see, you have to wonder if these people are mentally disturbed to wipe out their front and backyards to expand these trashy little fortresses.

In terms of drinks, forget it, I’ve really curtailed my use from visits in my 20s and 30s. There’s a real gestapo mentality in Pennsylvania regarding sobriety check points which I find borderline fascistic – whatever happened to cops doing their job and simply being alert to bad drivers on the highway? Forget about cutting back – the prospect of getting snared in one of these things makes me not want to drink at all – and I often don’t when I go back there.

But back in my 20s, christ, things got strange on a regular basis. We still had Lil’s Valley Tavern at the edge of our town, which had been a sleepy little redneck bar when we were growing up, but somehow caught on a semi-hip bar in the early 90s. It was fun to go out there on a Friday night, about a 30-second drive, and hang out, often getting blotto. (I remember the night I played air guitar on a pool cue to Night Ranger’s Greatest Hits on the jukebox. And damned if I didn’t buy the thing for $0.50 on when I got back to New York.)

If any of us had gotten DUIed driving the few hundred yards home, we would have deserved it. Hell, push came to shove, we could have walked home and been there in five minutes. (There was that infamous night I missed when someone’s headlights came across our neighbor JB taking a shit by the side of the road at two in the morning – apparently, too hammered and ready-to-go to make it home.) Most good drinking stories involve blood, feces and vomit – we’ve all got them, so I’ll spare you mine. Lil’s inexplicably shut down by the late 90s – probably more bad management than anything, as they were making money hand over fist. Used to think it would be cool to own a bar, but think about it, slow nights, spotty employees, serving alcoholic customers and just the constant buzz of people getting strange and often doing bad shit. That stops being cool after awhile.

More than anything, I just go back to relax and keep connected to that way of life. I remember being interviewed in college when I worked for the newspaper, someone asked me if I’d ever consider living in New York. I remember frowning and saying, “I don’t think I could ever live that way. It’s too intimidating.” Or something like that. And I guess it is intimidating at first. But you live here long enough, it gets relatively easy, although I’m looking down the road a piece and seeing myself having a very hard time with rental/property values here (i.e., they keep rising astronomically). All I knew back then was my home area in Pennsylvania, and a college town, State College, PA which, looking back, seems like a strange dream I had one night and have nearly forgotten. Again, I used to think, wouldn’t it be cool to live here the rest of my days. But then that scene in Breaking Away comes back to me, where the Cutters are sitting on a hill overlooking the Indiana stadium, watching the football team practice. And Mike, the failed quarterback, shakes his head and says, “Each year, all of us are going to keep getting older. And those guys down there, all these college kids, are going to stay the same age.” I suspect that’s pretty much how I’d feel about college-town life now.

(One vivid memory. In my junior year, I went home nearly every weekend – a two-hour drive straight through Pennsylvania on Route 80. I just liked going home! Suffered all the lectures of friends, blah, blah, blah, spread your wings and fly, must break that bond, etc., but it always made more sense to me to maintain that connection. Every Friday, I’d get my mostly humor column published in the newspaper, feel like a million bucks, then get in my yellow hornet station wagon, hit a convenience store on the edge of State College, getting one of those humongous Big Gulps of Coke, and driving straight through with, at that point, stuff like the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and The Replacements blasting from my shitty home-made speakers. One Friday, I went to a lawn party, where I knew no one and everyone knew who I was. So I basked in that cheap glory for awhile, then slipped away, and that particular time period, I was totally immersed in 60s soul music and had just dubbed one of those key Atlantic Rhythm & Blues collections (probably the 1965-66 two-album set) to cassette, put that thing on for my trip home, and had one of those revelatory night drives, hearing Sam and Dave, Otis, Aretha, etc. for the first time and really getting it. Man, that was a night.)

And when I’m back in Pennsylvania now, I can recall vestiges of being a teenager, and that was the only world I knew. Driving around at night. Blasting Frank Zappa and T. Rex from the cassette deck. Wondering what the hell to do. I drive those same roads now and still don’t know what the hell to do, but I’ve learned how to make money and support myself, so that sense of urgency no longer exists. What are you gonna’ do with your life? You’re going to live it, and chances are it’ll bear little resemblance to how you thought it was going to be when you were a teenager. I think I was picturing some type of Stephen King existence: mansions in New England, fame, money, begrudging respect, etc. But the only person living a Stephen King existence is Stephen King, and that poor bastard got run over by a van a few years ago and probably rattles when he walks now.

So, in the meantime, I’ve lived almost 20 years in New York, learned how to box, lost my father, had middling success as a writer, got real disillusioned with the writing world in general, made myself useful in many New York offices, walked away from big money a few times, as I had no urge to get an MBA, no matter who was paying for it, lived long enough to see a major revolution in music (MP3 files), embraced it, didn’t get married, fielded many heartfelt questions about being gay, never worried about not being married or gay, learned to stand my ground, developed a real grace under pressure that others notice, shut my fucking mouth and learned, turned into my father, turned into my mother, learned not to fear this, gladly embraced it, moved with time instead of stopping to worry, as time never stops, and the smart thing is to keep moving with it until you stop, just now catching glimpses of what it really means to be old, learned to laugh at 25-year-olds who whine about feeling old, made some dumb mistakes, made some smart ones, learned how to save money, threw a lot away on stupid shit, but apparently nowhere near as much as your average American, lived debt free after sinking the college loan in my mid-20s, never got as far as I thought I would, never self destructed, found a new reality that I can stay sane and healthy in, figured what the fuck, run with it, this is all that really matters, don’t worry about my life, because I don’t.

An epic? Hardly – probably a lot of the same bullshit you’re going through, or will go through. These are the kind of random thoughts that flash through my head when I’m driving down some country lane back there, hopefully without some neurotic shithead riding my ass like I was driving on four flats. There’s some strange sort of comfort in taking stock on those roads, and it always relaxes me, which is purely the effect of being in a place I was born and raised in. When people ask where I’m from, I often answer, the middle of nowhere, as they’ve never heard of any of the small towns between Reading and Scranton. I like being from the middle of nowhere, and I like going back to nowhere. Neil Young has a great song called “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” which is about all the bullshit of living in Los Angeles, and it could just as easily apply to New York. Too many boring-assed, uninspired people hitch a free ride on New York’s image. Nobody does that with nowhere.

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