Part 1 of this essay may be found here.
Part 2 of this essay may be found here.
Part 3 of this essay may be found here.
Part 4 of this essay may be found here.
Part 5 of this essay may be found here.
Part 6 of this essay may be found here.
Part 7 of this essay may be found here.
Part 8 of this essay may be found here.
Part 9 of this essay may be found here.
It was likely on Saturday, December 21, 2002 – I recall following the Philadelphia Eagles (11-3) game that afternoon – that I drove north and west to Phoenixville, PA for one of the first times since returning to Philadelphia nearly two years earlier. A high-school-era friend was visiting from Amsterdam for 10 days, bringing her long-term Dutch boyfriend. It was a cold, sunny day, and I greatly enjoyed seeing them, including over a meal at O’Grady’s Family Restaurant – still open on Route 23.
As I drove through the area, I was reminded how creepy the enormous cooling towers of the Limerick Generating Station are. I had first seen them one day late in the summer of 1984, when I drove west on Route 422, went around a bend near the Route 29 exit – and suddenly saw them in the near distance, reaching to the sky like twin Towers of Babel, white steam belching from their gaping tops.
On the flip side, however, I rejoiced that the 24-hour ValeRio Diner – which I discuss here and in Chapter 10 of my Interrogating Memory book – still stood on the southern side of Nutt Road (Route 23), where it intersects Bridge Street (Route 113 N). Six weeks after catching up with my friends, I moved to an apartment in King of Prussia. One Saturday night after that I drove west to the ValeRio for a late-night meal; it quickly became an irregular habit. It was there, in 2004, I struck up conversations with a quiet and polite young man with dirty blonde hair and beard who worked behind the counter. In a far less partisan age, we discussed gun control, doing our best to see and respect each other’s point of view.
On other Saturdays, I took even longer drives. In fact, the first proper CD mixes I ever made – CD Stuff Vols. III-V in November 2002 – were burned for one such drive, which I began by following Route 29 north to where it ends at I-78 in Allentown. Yes, that Allentown. I had first taken this drive in August 1998 with AC and the buddy whom I drove home on the morning of February 15, 2001 – though we then turned immediately south onto Route 309. Four years later, however, the end of Route 29 was only the beginning.
Thirteen months later, possibly on December 18, 2004, as a long winter break was about to begin, I loaded newly-burned CD Stuff XIII-XVI into my blue 1995 Buick Century and headed north and west on Route 73; CD Stuff XVI soon became a Friday night bath staple. When Route 73 ended at Route 61 in Leesport, I turned north – and I eventually found myself in the town of Orwigsburg. I was so charmed, I returned on February 26 to spend $35 for dinner at the Inn of Orwigsburg (now closed). That night I bought gas at what was then a Texaco just off Route 183 in Strausstown, implying I left Orwigsburg on Route 443 west then followed Route 61/443 until the start of Route 183 in Pottsville. I may even have detoured into Pottsville itself, home of the Yuengling Brewery.
At various times I also followed:
- Route 113 north to where it ends on Route 611; this may be how I discovered the picturesque village of Skippack, just east along Route 73.
- US 422 west, with my Valentine’s Day buddy, until it ended at US 322 in Hershey. This is one segment of a highway that picks up in Ebensurg, in western Pennsylvania.
- Routes 23 west – to the Susquehanna River, just north of Lancaster – and 100 north to US 22, just west of Allentown
- On Saturday, January 15, 2005, I bought gas at a Sunoco at 20 Center Street in Tamaqua, PA; these bills no longer have a time stamp on them, but it was presumably later at night. This gas station is a few hundred feet south from the intersection of Routes 209 and 309, meaning this may be the night I thought taking Route 309 south home was too “boring,” opting instead for Route 209 south – which went more west than south, eventually putting me in Harrisburg, 90+ miles west of my King of Prussia apartment. This could also have happened on the December 18 trip, and I was simply driving home from nearly Jim Thorpe, a picturesque town nestled in the southern fringes of the Pocono Mountains.
Basically, starting in December, I began to drive to the area just northwest of Allentown – but south of the Poconos – a lot. I was also on the lookout for new 24-hour restaurants, stumbling upon not only the Sunrise Diner in Jim Thorpe, the Limerick Diner in Limerick, Michael’s Restaurant in Douglassville, the Pennsburg Diner in Pennsburg and the A&N Diner in Sellersville.
The bottom line was that I felt trapped by my life, especially after my mother died on March 1, 2004. These long meandering drives – never quite knowing where I was going – were a literal escape from the encroaching craziness of my life: grief, romantic misadventures, legal fights with my stepfather over my mother’s estate and an exhausting (albeit rewarding) professional life. Even if all I did was drive west on Route 23 through beautiful Valley Forge National Historical Park to the ValeRio – or, a bit later in 2004, to the Limerick – for a meal or snack accompanied by hot black decaffeinated coffee, that was enough.
I felt trapped, that is, until I made a momentous decision – and began to exhale. On December 1, 2004, my new lawyer, Barbara Harrington, e-mailed me to say my stepfather likely planned to contest the will. She also requested information about the monthly income I now earned from the condominium in the North Building of the Oak Hill Terraces my mother had left to me. On February 2, 2005, she reached out to me for some follow-up. At 2:10 pm (all times Eastern Standard Time), I wrote back to her. This is the key passage:
“Here is my position…I am moving to Boston this year, most likely in August. I would like to sell the condo before that. Even if Eddie pushes as surviving spouse for 1/3 off the top, it is still a “win-win.” I get to start fresh in Boston, and Eddie can feel like he pulled one over on me. Whether he actually did or not, is of no concern to me. :)”
It was likely either on January 7 or January 14 – the first two Friday evenings in 2005 – I sat soaking in hot water, sipping Scotch over ice (and a giant plastic cup filled with water), listening to music and thinking about how to resolve the impasse with Eddie. The Research Department of the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”) was moving in a more qualitative direction – a December 8, 2004 overnight trip to meet with new research colleagues at the University of Connecticut in Storrs had made that clear – and I thus saw little future for me there. The June 2004 notion that Route 2 was “the road home” coupled with the July 2004 work reunion conversation about Boston-area schools of public health still rattled around my brain. That all said, while returning to Boston to pursue a doctorate in biostatistics or epidemiology was ever more appealing – I had a steady job and a nice apartment, and I was earning an additional $1,100 a month from rent on the condominium.
And then it hit me…that condominium was the primary sticking point with Eddie. What if we simply sold it then divvied up the sale price in some equitable way? Removing the condominium from the equation, I thought, would solve everything – with the bonus of giving me more than enough money to pay off my credit card and student loan debts, move to Boston, and earn a degree more quickly because I would not have to work for at least a year. Yes, I felt some guilt about selling the unit my mother had called home for nearly nine years and had worked so hard to acquire. The counterargument, though, was that Eddie’s recalcitrance effectively mooted that guilt, so I might as well make the most of it.
I likely called Barbara the following Monday to tell her to make the offer.
At 1:50 pm on April 18, after more than three months of back-and-forth, Barbara sent me an e-mail me with the subject line Good News (with red exclamation point for emphasis):
“Hi Matt – It appears that Eddie has signed off on the sale agreement papers. What is a good time for you? We will need to go and meet with the agent. Let me know what works best – give me at least 2 times and we can set up our meeting. I really believe that this condo will be sold in a week. B.”
With that e-mail, the sun metaphorically came out for the first time in months. In the meantime, I had been taking the necessary steps to apply to Boston University’s School of Public Health (“BUSPH”), including re-taking the GREs on Friday, March 25. Less than three weeks earlier, on Monday, March 7, 2005, I formally gave notice at FPC, effective June 30. This, I reasoned, would give me two months to find a new apartment in the Boston area and pack, while also having some time simply to breathe. In that letter, I said I was moving to Boston to pursue a doctorate in biostatistics – but only because I had missed the deadline to apply to the epidemiology doctoral program.
In a recent tweet, I coined the term “nomance” to describe my romantic misadventures, which essentially kicked off with the emotional roller coaster of Valentine’s Day 2001. This includes the woman I had met on the same day in August 2004 Ronald Burell broke into my car.
Looking back, it was as though – other than my job at FPC – I never completely settled back into the Philadelphia area. I changed apartments three times in three years. I went back and forth with SP until emotionally splitting with her after my mother’s death, which itself disrupted everything. If one is not settled in one’s own life, there is little room for an intimate partner in that life. I suspect I gave off a kind of “unfocused” vibe to the women I encountered between February 2001 and February 2005.
However, once I made the decision to sell the condominium, apply to BUSPH and return to Boston, all of that changed. I had a plan, and I had a purpose – and I could foresee financial stability. I had remained friendly with the woman I met on Friendster at the end of 2003, and we began to hang out again. On Wednesday, March 2, a group of us had dinner and drinks at Chris’ Jazz Café, to celebrate Friendster-buddy’s birthday; I put the entire tab – $203.90 – on my Discover Card, while folks presumably gave me cash for their share. She and I hung out one other night at a bar in Northern Liberties – and one night a group of us visited Silk City Diner, after which we canoodled in the back seat of someone’s car as we were driven back to her place, where I had left my car. At her place, we stood in the doorway and made out to such an extent, pants were starting to come off. I do no recall why we did not go upstairs to sleep together, though it was under serious discussion. On the afternoon of Sunday, April 25, we saw Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson give an astonishing performance – separately and together, as in this haunting rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Afterward, she invited to go for a drink with her…but I demurred. It was almost like she was falling for me in a way she was not intending to.
On April 22, as were working out a plan to meet for the concert, Friendster-buddy asked if I had spoken woman X; “no,” I responded. On the night of her birthday celebration, I had met an attractive, slender and wicked smart friend of hers. According to a flurry of e-mails between Friendster-buddy and me the following day, this female friend was looking for someone to see a movie with her. I said, through Friendster-buddy, I was interested, which pleased the friend. She decided not to see the movie, though, and our only subsequent engagement was to spend a slightly awkward and chilly night on Friendster-buddy’s boat. I do not know why we did not make the leap to using each other for…warmth. On one other Saturday night after that, I had a long cell phone conversation with boat-woman while sitting in my car – in front of the Inn of Orwigsburg. But that was as far as that went – perhaps because I would not be staying in the Philadelphia area much longer.
Six days earlier, meanwhile, I drove north to Manhattan – because my female German friend from the summer of 2003 had returned to the United States for business. We had dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant – then I drove south through the night on the Garden State Parkway. Getting off at US 30, I checked into the Fairfield Inn and Suites for one night. The next day, I drove east on US 30 about two miles, then north on Route 9 for another two miles, arriving at the Seaview Marriott for my fourth consecutive annual meeting of the Eastern Evaluation Research Society – and first (and only) as a member of the Board of Directors. When the Board met on April 20 – just after the conference ended – I formally announced my resignation; as I wrote in an e-mail to my German friend, possibly on Sunday, March 20, “even if I don’t get accepted to the BU program, I am still returning to Boston. It is time, [and] I will have some financial flexibility to make a new plan” should the need arise.
All of which brings me to…a laundromat.
In that same e-mail with my German friend, I wrote: “Alas, I remain sans partner, but I have a feeling that will change when I ‘go home’ to Boston, and I feel really at peace with myself again.” This both confirms what I wrote earlier about being unsettled and was remarkably prescient.
But that was still more than five months away when I entered the laundromat a short, grassy walk from my King of Prussia apartment on Sunday, March 20. Also doing her laundry that day was a tall, stoutly-built woman with straight, light-brown hair, warm brown eyes and a kind face. I made a random comment on a book she was reading, and she slowly turned around to look at me, smiling as she did so. We struck up a conversation – which she always recalled began with my saying, “Hi, I am moving to Boston in the fall.” Three days later, we met for lunch at Passage to India, then located at 1320 Walnut Street. I enjoyed myself, but I also thought RB was not quite right for me as a romantic partner.
Nonetheless, I e-mailed her at 4:43 that afternoon to ask how her doughnut was. She was about to travel to her native Pittsburgh for Easter (March 27 that year), but promised “I’ll call ya” when she returned. On April 4 and 5, we had a very loose and relaxed e-mail exchange, in part about the first Phillies game of the season, which I had attended at the new Citizens Bank Park, and in part about her curling dinner the previous Saturday night. On the night of the 5th, we met for a drink in King of Prussia, where she also lived. We then returned to my apartment, where we practically tore each other’s clothes off. As she lay on my bed in nothing but her panties, though, she informed me she never slept with someone the first time; we crossed that milestone not many days later. One Saturday later that month, possibly April 30, she shook her head at me in wonder because I drove all the way to the Limerick Diner “for a cup of coffee and a tuna sandwich.” To be fair, it is less than a 30-minute drive from King of Prussia – and it was a very good sandwich.
On May 4, we celebrated her birthday. The e-mail exchange to plan this included her signing off “Later, Babe,” which was mostly tongue in cheek. We ate and drank at the Cedar Hollow Inn the following Saturday night into Sunday morning. On Saturday May 21, we took a long drive north together, essentially following US 202 to New Hope, where we ate at Mother’s Restaurant (now closed). We then followed Route 32 north – stopping briefly at the Golden Pheasant – all the way to where it ends at Route 611, which we then followed home. On other trips, we ate at the Quakertown Diner (or so I remember it) on Route 309, at a restaurant in Tamaqua – possibly the same night we ate at the Sunrise Diner at around 3 am – and at Miller’s Smorgasbord on July 2. On Saturday, July 30, I bought gas at a Sunoco at 4707 Perkiomen Avenue in Reading, making this the night we ate at a Denny’s located in or near that town; I recall listening to the Phillies beat the Rockies as we drove, which they did 8-7.
I could never quite bring myself to call RB my girlfriend, despite the outward appearance she was. Indeed, she was the first woman in four years with whom I was truly at ease, very possibly because there was no chance of anything long-term; if there is such a thing as “bridge” relationship, this was it. I did not think I invited her to my work colleague’s wedding on June 18. On June 25, I took another young woman I had met on the Paoli-Thorndale line in early May – actually, she basically met me – in early May to the Cedar Hollow Inn for her birthday on June 25, after which we played miniature golf at Waltz Golf Farm, just east on Ridge Pike from the Limerick Diner, though that was as a far as that went; like white-sneakers, she was too young for me.
On Tuesday, May 31, meanwhile, I once again drove north to Northampton, MA, home of Smith College, where I spent four nights at the magnificent Hotel Northampton.
Accompanying me on this trip were CD Stuff Vols. XVII-XXII; the first of these also became a bath-night staple. On June 1, I bought gas at a Sunoco on the eastbound side of Route 9 in Hadley, on my way to visit Windsor Dam, at the southern edge of the breathtaking Quabbin Reservoir. That same day, RB mailed me a sweet postcard from King of Prussia, a clever reversal of the tradition.
This sign contains my favorite use of the English language.
Other sites I visited were Half Moon Books, where I bought a birthday gift for my Valentine’s Day buddy – who had become a father a few months earlier (I got the call while standing outside the Pennsburg Diner late that night), and, of course, the Whately Diner. For some reason, when I drove back to Philadelphia on June 4, rather than just take I-91 south, I took some state route south from Route 9 – 21, maybe, or 32.
Less than four weeks later was June 30, my last day at FPC was Thursday. I still have the giant card 27 of my coworkers signed – it was very hard to leave colleagues that had become a second family to me. When I left the Atlantic Building that night, I had not yet heard from BUSPH, nor had my mother’s estate been finally resolved.
The first question was resolved on July 20, when I was accepted…into the Master’s Degree program in biostatistics at BUSPH. My application reviewers decided I had not studied advanced calculus and linear algebra in too many years for entry into the doctoral program. As disappointed as I was in the moment, I ultimately earned both an MA in biostatistics AND a PhD in epidemiology at BUSPH.
I then turned my attention to finding a new apartment in the Boston area – which also required me to burn CD Stuff Vols. XXIII to XXVIII. On Friday, August 5, I bought gas at a Sunoco near my King of Prussia apartment, then drove north to the Red Roof Inn on Route 30 in Framingham, MA, eating at Christopher’s Restaurant in Cambridge that night. After a frustrating day of apartment hunting on Saturday, I followed the advice of a Waltham, MA realtor and visited Windsor Village on Lexington Avenue, just south of the Lexington town line, the next day. I found my new apartment immediately – writing a “reserve” check for $500 – then celebrated with drinks and a delicious shepherd’s pie at The Burren in Somerville. I ate my meal with an attractive, if slightly odd, young woman I met at the bar; she was sitting just to my left, and I asked her to clink my glass in celebration. We then went to Cabot’s for ice cream – after which I dropped her off at a kind of mental health halfway house. A few weeks later, she called my new phone and left a paranoid message asking if I was spying on her – and that was the end of that.
After writing that check, however, I was essentially broke – I still had not received my settlement payment. On the night of August 9, I borrowed $1,500 from a close college friend then living in Cambridge, which effectively covered my first payment to Windsor Village a few days later. That night, after buying gas at a Sunoco on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown, I drove onto I-90 West – and arrived in King of Prussia a record five hours and 15 minutes later, having not stopped once.
That very same day, a PNC bank check was written to me for $200,434.91. Why I did not drive into a Center City office to collect it until Monday, August 22 is beyond me…but I was so excited, I photocopied it before depositing it that same day. I had planned to hold a going away “open house” at the Regatta Bar of the Marriott Hotel in West Conshohocken on Saturday, August 20, but cancelled it on August 16, likely due to lack of funds; I was going to foot the entire bill.
On August 24, I had lunch with the woman I had supervised for the previous three years; we remain close friends. That same day, I purchased gasoline at a Sunoco a few blocks south from the Atlantic Building on Broad Street. The next day, more than 2½ years after moving into the C building, a moving van drove out of Gulph Mills Village containing most of my property; three days earlier, I wrote a check to them for $126.04 to repair damage to the living room carpet caused by a melted green candle. RB and I followed in my car, checking in at a hotel off I-95 in Waltham, supervising the setting up of my new apartment the next day. We stayed at the hotel until August 29, driving north to L.L. Bean on August 28. These were five of the best days of my life, as I felt flush and liberated – and we were having a LOT of quite remarkable sex. If an August 23 e-mail is correct, she caught a train back to Philadelphia at 11:40 am on August 30…and that was that.
Well, other than my Buick ironically dying on September 2 atop the outdoor parking garage at Alewife Station – the last stop of the Red Line of the Massachusetts Transportation Authority, in Cambridge. No matter, after writing a check to Cambridge Honda for $21,500 on September 6, I drove a new black 2005 Honda Accord off the lot; I have yet to put 129,000 miles on what I playfully call “my first child.”
I also paid $17,100 to BUSPH on Thursday, September 1. One week later, at around 7 pm, I walked into an auditorium on the Albany Street medical campus for my first class, Introduction to Epidemiological Methods with Professor Dan Brooks. As I settled into my seat, I truly felt as though I were home for the first time in nearly five years. After class, I drove to the South Street Diner for a meal, kickstarting an entirely new adventure, one I have already started to tell in what is one of my next two books, Meet Me at the Counter: A Life In Diners.
But that is not QUITE the end of this epic tale…
Until next time, please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! Also, if you are not already registered to vote, please do so immediately. And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.
 According to a December 18, 2002 e-mail
 Process of elimination using Discover and Sunoco Card bills suggests it was Saturday, November 8. I bought gas as a Sunoco near my apartment at 11:53 pm that night, perhaps as I returned home.
 AC and I had actually taken US 202 south all the way from Massachusetts to drive to Philadelphia – a 10+-hour drive we wisely never repeated. On May 31, 2006, however, I went in the opposite direction, driving on US 202 north from Massachusetts into New Hampshire then into Maine. When US 202 ended in Bangor, I drove south to US 1, then south to Moody’s Diner then to the Cod Cove Inn, where I spent the night. I burned CD Stuff Vols. XXXVII-XLII just for the occasion.
 She tried to teach me and another friend how to curl one day. It went…fine.
 E-mail sent at 3:02 pm on May 4, 2005.
 It was apparently located at 960 Woodland Road, just off US 422 West.