Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IV

On Monday, March 23, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and asked residents to stay in their home as much as possible: to “shelter in place.” The order went in to effect at noon on Tuesday, March 24, and it will stay in effect until noon at April 7.

In three previous posts (I, II, III), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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After a successful, albeit exhausting, first week of home schooling, we laid low over the weekend.

The highlight of Saturday stemmed from an idea our older daughter had: she desperately wanted a burrito, which she would happily eat at every meal. Choosing not to walk down the street to our preferred takeout joint, we explored delivery options instead…and discovered that our favorite Mexican restaurant—a drive of at least 20 minutes away in Cambridge—would deliver to us. It felt like such a ridiculous treat, and the food was so good, I did not mind they had given soft, not crunchy, tacos. While I ate my food and worked on my “lectures,” Nell and the girl swatched Onward, which emotionally wrecked my wife.

Later that night, I walked our golden retriever up to our local dog park—and I mean “up;” Brookline is renowned for its many streets that slope upward at nearly a 45-degree angle. To be honest, I needed the outing and the exercise more than she did. We stayed about 15 minutes, as she ecstatically chased an increasingly-filthy fuzzy ball hurled by a Chuck-It. Returning home, I put her to bed, bathed and settled down to watch the excellent I Wake Up Screaming via Turner Classic Movies OnDemand.

The choice of film–other than its sudden aviability–was in keeping with my discussion of film noir with the girls the previous day, during which I used “oneiric” to describe the dream-like quality of many films noir. This spurred a conversation about we all are having intense, more-anxiety-than-nightmare dreams during our “lockdown.”

Also in keeping with Friday’s “lecture,” our younger daughter and I watched Stranger on the Third Floor on Sunday evening. She very much enjoyed it, patiently allowing me to pause the movie at times to explain the difference between “high-key” and “low-key” lighting.

As to why we watched this particular film, here is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the book I am writing—and need to finish soon:

Another myth to be exploded was film noir’s origin story. In the traditional telling, first outlined in Schrader’s essay, waves of mostly-German émigré filmmakers arrive in Hollywood throughout the 1930s, bringing with them the cinematic techniques of Expressionism and, later, French poetic realism. Vincent Brook, as we saw in the Introduction to Part 1, argues these filmmakers were often deeply and specifically influenced by their Jewish heritage, a primary reason they abandoned Europe, however temporarily, in the first place. Meanwhile, starting in 1931, Universal Studios—aided by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had arrived in Hollywood two years earlier—makes a series of dark shadowy horror films (about which more in Chapter 8).  That same year, rival studios like Warner-First National, later Warner Brothers, start to produce high-quality gangster films, inspired by the lawlessness of Prohibition, ironically set to be repealed just two years later. Needing work for this influx of cinematic talent, studio heads take a long second look at works of hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately relegating their new talent to the B-movie backlots to turn those works into films. Applying everything they know about filmmaking, and drawing upon the visual style of the popular horror films and the rapid-fire plots of the gangster films, they make films that would later be labeled film noir. The quality of these films is only enhanced throughout the 1940s by a slow loosening of the restrictive Hays Code of “voluntary” censorship, Italian neo-realism and technological advances. And the first of these films is almost certainly a 64-minute-long B-movie directed by an Eastern European émigré named Boris Ingster—and featuring an Eastern European actor named Peter Lorre—called Stranger on the Third Floor. Released on August 16, 1940, it has 33.0 POINTS, tying it for 71st overall—and, if forced to choose, it is what I designate the first film noir as commonly understood today.

For an explanation of POINTS, please see here.

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On Monday, March 23, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 23

The night before, Nell had drawn this homage to author Mo Willems—whom we once met in Maine—on the ever-popular white board.

Happy Monday Gerald and Piggy

Our younger daughter had again had a very rough morning—literally getting no work done even as our older daughter continued to thrive; indeed, on Tuesday, the latter would finish her work by at 11:30 am then ask “Is that it?!?” Still, the former daughter recovered sufficiently to sit attentively through the first hour of “Pop school,” during which we discussed the history and composition of American political parties.

March 23

For…reasons…our daughters have assigned nicknames to some of our early national leaders. Alexander Hamilton is “Hottie” Hamilton, while his rival Thomas Jefferson is “Smoking Hot” Jefferson. Our seventh president is now, unfortunately, “A**hole Jackson.” Our older daughter thought the name “Martin Van Buren” sounded “nice,” but she did not assign him a nickname.

We used two handouts to explore two ways to understand contemporary political parties:

  1. Elected officials and voters who share a common philosophy of government and policy preferences
  2. Coalitions of groups based on such factors as demographics, socioeconomic status, religiosity and cultural outlook.

The first sheet condensed an analysis I performed in August 2017 of issues on which a majority of Democrats—and often Independents—differed from a majority of Republicans. Our older daughter, fully in the throes of puberty and naively exploring her own sexuality, was particularly interested in partisan stances on LGBTQ+ rights.

Issue Differences Democrat v Republican

Whatever makes you happy, kid.

The second sheet, however, provoked the most interest. Less so from our fading younger daughter, but definitely from the older daughter, who delighted in reading aloud for Daddy to note on the white board which groups had voted, on average over the previous four presidential elections, at least 55% for the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee; data taken from CNN exit polls conducted in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

How Groups Voted for President 2004-16.docx

You can see how that ended, complete with the tissues I use in lieu of a proper eraser:

Group voting for president

Following a break of an hour or so, we reconvened to begin to learn about probability. Which meant we each flipped a penny 30 times; by a neat fluke, in total, we had 45 heads and 45 tails—there was an a priori 8.3% chance this would happen. Then we rolled a die 30 times—the totals diverged sharply from 1/6 for each number; the number two noticeably received very little love. Our younger daughter asked to record my rolls on the white board, and, regretfully, I grew testy with her when she did not write numbers evenly on the row. I apologized immediately; clearly sheltering in place takes its toll on everyone at some point.

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Knowing the Commonwealth would be shuttering its doors the following day even more than it already had, I was tasked with making a run to our local Star Market. I chose to drive to one ten minutes away on Commonwealth Avenue, a stone’s throw from the main campus of Boston University; not surprisingly, we call it “the BU Star.” It normally closes at midnight, and with the campus all-but-deserted I thought this would be a relatively sane place to search for the 27 items listed in a text message from Nell on my iPhone, mostly varieties of fresh fruit and vegetable.

I never got the chance to determine it sanity, however. When I drove by its lower rear entrance, I could see the vast parking lot to my left was practically empty. Nonetheless, I parked and walked across the street to the locked sliding glass doors. A series of notices taped to those doors informed me this Star now closes at 8 pm every night.

Rather than turn around and drive home, though, I realized I was enjoying being out of the apartment and decided to drive over the nearby Charles River into Cambridge, through Harvard Square—eerily quiet—and north on Massachusetts Avenue to Porter Square. Like the BU Star, the Star Market used to be open 24 hours a day; it was my primary grocery store when I lived one block away in Somerville between September 1989 and February 2001. Driving to this Star always feels a bit like traveling back in time, with many landmarks remaining from two, three decades ago.

This Star now closes at 8 pm as well, meanwhile, which did not really surprise me. The silver lining is that a CVS sits in the same Porter Square parking lot; it is mandated by law never to close so that it can dispense emergency medications at any time of the day. When Nell nearly “broke her face” falling into a gate latch four years ago this May, this is where I acquired her pain medications after she was released from the hospital at around 1 am.

The older, deeply-freckled, red-haired manager of the CVS wore a blue face mask and darker-blue gloves. There was a strip of duct tape on the carpeting every six feet reminding patrons to observe social distancing. I collected what foodstuffs from the list I could find—including fresh-looking cut strawberries in clear plastic containers—and went to a register to pay. The manager scanned and helped bag my groceries—using the reusable bags I always keep in my car–as we chatted amiably.

As I thanked him for being there, he pointed out a woman I had noticed earlier—heavy-set, a bit unkempt and of indeterminate age—hunched over a wheelchair loaded with items she was pushing slowly around the store.

“I have to worry about thieves,” he said.

“Really? Her?” I responded, or words to that effect.

“Last week she managed to get all the razors…This never happens when George is in charge.”

He may not have been that upset, though, as he cheerfully handed me four dollars bills and some change—“You could have bought one more thing!”—before gently warning me not to forget my iPhone.

My route back to Brookline took me past the 7-Eleven on Market Street in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, which was also still open. They had respectable-looking bananas, limes, lemons and small red and green apples, so I purchased a handful of each along with a few other items. Returning home five or so minutes later, I thoroughly washed my hands before putting away the four total bags of groceries.

A few hours later, as I was preparing a steaming-hot bath, Nell—who had gone to sleep hours earlier but now was restlessly tossing and turning—informed me she had put her wakefulness to good use by placing an Amazon Fresh order on her iPhone. She added that rather than give the recommended $10 tip, she chose to give $25 instead.

“Was that right?” she asked me as I soaked sleepily.

Of course it was,” I assured her.

When Nell placed the order, meanwhile, she thought it would arrive Tuesday night at 6 pm, only to realize later that morning it would not arrive until Thursday.

C’est la vie.

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The next afternoon, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.” Apparently there was no “word of the day.”

March 24

“FATHER COLLEGIO” did not start until 2:52 pm, as I was moving slowly this day. Once we assembled, though, after a BRIEF review of political parties, I began to tell the story of the 2000 presidential election by way of introducing American presidential elections generally and the Electoral College specifically. And our younger daughter was riveted.

March 24

The night before, Nell and I had discussed whether she should start taking her Ritalin on weekday mornings again. The last time she had taken any was two Thursdays earlier, her last day at her elementary school before it temporarily closed due to COVID-19, in part because we thought it was why she had been having a hard time falling asleep at night recently.

But despite refusing to take any of “her medicine” that morning, she was fully attentive and engaged as I described watching CNN continually reverse itself on who had won Florida that November night in 2000. Her attention did not wane as I walked through the history and defenses of the Electoral College, breaking more than 200 years of elections into a handful of epochs. We concluded with a discussion of how few states actually appeared to be in play as the 2016 presidential election approached—mooting the argument repealing the Electoral College would limit campaigning only to the most populous areas. At this point, our older daughter turned to her and said, “You probably don’t even remember that election. You were only [pause for arithmetic] six.”

I reminded them how both had cried the following morning upon learning that Hillary Clinton had not, in fact, been elected the first female president.

Breaking at 3:45 exactly, we reconvened one hour later to do two things as our “applied math” lesson:

Discuss how exactly Clinton lost the Electoral College in 2016 while winning the national popular vote

How Hillary Clinton Lost in 2016.docx

This is where our older daughter perked up again. While both daughters read from the one-page sheet, it was the older daughter who said “Wow!” every time I described how the Republican percentage of the non-urban vote in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had skyrocketed between 2012 and 2016. And when we were finished, this is what the white board looked like.

Discussing 2016 election

Incidentally, you may find the answer to the question posed in the upper right-hand corner of the white board here.

I also used my wall maps of the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections to help to illustrate why the notion of a Democratic “blue wall” was absurd—voting patterns can clearly change dramatically from one election to the next. Those wall maps, by the way, are covering up an original painting by my maternal first cousin once removed; yes, that really is what my great-aunt and uncle named her. 

Color in a blank map to show current state partisanship

A few years ago, I developed 3W-RDM to assess how much more or less Democratic a state is—at least at the presidential level—than the nation as a whole.

States Ordered from Most to Least Democratic

Using the attached list of states and the District of Columbia, we each colored in our blank map as follows:

  • Dark blue = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Democratic
  • Light blue = 3-10 points more Democratic
  • Purple = between 3 points more Republican and 3 points more Democratic
  • Light red/pink = 3-10 points more Republican
  • Dark red = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Republican

Given how much both our daughters love to draw—they doodle and do other art projects as they sit and listen to me talk—this was easily their favorite afternoon activity so far. Even as our younger daughter was trying to keep up with which states were which—she got there soon enough—our older daughter was touting her “perfectionism” in carefully coloring in each state. She even gently chided me for my blunt-instrument approach to filling in “all those islands off of Alaska,” which she delicately colored one by one.

Hand drawn Democratic strength map

This is what my final map looked like. I may not be as good at drawing as my cousin, or even my wife and daughters, but I still think I produced a solid work of art, despite the single sweep of dark red across the Aleutian Islands.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Epilogue)

Following the election of Republican Donald J. Trump as president of the United States in 2016, I immediately began to donate small sums to a wide variety of organizations and political candidates. And as the race to the be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee began to take shape, I began making $10 donations to my favorite candidates. Specifically, I donated to eight different candidates (including one Senate candidate in South Carolina), four of the them twice.

As a consequence, however, my e-mail Inbox is flooded with fundraising pitches; nearly all of them go directly into my Trash folder, unopened (ditto for text messages). I did open e-mails that offered to put me into a raffle of sorts if I made another donation, one to meet and have a drink (alcoholic or otherwise) with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and one to be flown to the first Democratic debates, courtesy of California Senator Kamala Harris. I did not win either prize, though, to be fair, I had already briefly met Senator Warren in Logan International Airport in 2013.

Another e-mail I opened revealed that South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was going to be speaking in Somerville, Massachusetts, a short drive over the Charles River from our Brookline apartment. Intrigued, I soon learned that attendance required a minimum donation of $50. I passed.

But that meant when I received an e-mail from the campaign of former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro alerting me to three town halls the candidate would be holding in July 2019, I was wary. Nowhere in the e-mail could I find a payment requirement, though, so I tried registering to attend the Thursday, July 18, 2019 town hall at Nashua Community College (NCC), scheduled to start at 7 pm.

It was not until I had completed the process that I discovered there was no donation “cover charge”—and I was, in fact, registered. For the day after my wife Nell, the girls and I were scheduled to return from a three-night vacation in Maine…itself the day before I planned to rise at 7:30 am to watch Special Counsel Robert Mueller testify before the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees of the United States House of Representatives (“U.S. House”). I figured the last thing I would want to do was make the hour-long drive (likely twice that at that time of day) to attend a town hall meeting.

But then Mueller’s testimony was postponed until July 24…and I decided, what the heck?

The only question: would I go alone or with one/both daughters?

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In Part 1 of this series, I observed that my zeal for tipping stems from three sources:

  1. My father’s example, especially the year he spent driving a taxicab in Philadelphia
  2. My own experience delivering food
  3. Observing how hard folks in the service industry work for a low base salary

I also presented photographic evidence of the appeal of Bath and described an epic six-hour drive (in which I tipped multiple able servers) one recent Sunday night/Monday morning.

Part 2 details that trip to Maine, mixing family adventure (and ample tipping) with two visits to the Denny’s in Augusta, Maine, where I encountered a female manager and a waitress who exemplified matter-of-factness (and, in the latter case, sunny optimism) in the face of personal setbacks.

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Our social butterfly nine-year-old daughter had a previously-scheduled engagement that Thursday afternoon (requiring Nell’s oversight), leaving our 11-year-old daughter free. Grudgingly, she agreed to make what I anticipated would be a two-hour drive north to Nashua. I mitigated her reluctance somewhat by promising that if she got too bored, she could take her book and read quietly somewhere, just so long as I knew where she was.

Meanwhile, while the Denny’s in Salem, New Hampshire that used to be the endpoint of many a meandering solo nocturnal drive had closed, the one in Nashua is still open…and still open 24 hours a day. I told “11” (hat tip here) that we could stop for a meal there after the town hall.

“What kind of food do they have?” she asked.

I answered something to the effect of “a little bit of everything” before “9” chimed in with, “They have crepes!” Apparently, the latter daughter had seen a commercial for Denny’s highlighting their new crepes. I was dubious but said nothing.

Because the doors would open at 6:30 pm, my plan was to leave no later than 4:30 pm, knowing that our route—Beacon Street west to I-95 north to US 3 north—would put us in rush hour traffic. And, in fact, we pulled into the NCC parking lot shortly at about 6:25 pm, giving me time to make a mad dash for the men’s room.

Having answered that urgent call of nature, we checked in at the table covered in bumper stickers, window placards and informational brochures. I grabbed a handful of bumper stickers and brochures, provided my e-mail address (“You already have my e-mail address.” “Yes, but we like to have an accurate head count.” Fair enough), and found two seats for us. They were about three rows back from the platform on which Secretary Castro would speak, to the right if you were standing on stage.   4130-32

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And we waited. I instantly regretted not bringing my coffee thermos (black, half regular/half decaf) from the car, but I did not want to risk missing anything.

I need not have worried. Seven pm came and went, with no sign of Secretary Castro.

At 7:23 pm, I began tweeting…more out of boredom than annoyance (“11” was engrossed in her book):

Waiting for @JulianCastro to start his Nashua, NH town hall. (Running 22 minutes late)

The two young women in pink Planned Parenthood t-shirts sitting behind us are cracking me up, dissecting the admittedly-eclectic playlist and the relative heights of the various candidates.

Ten minutes later:

32 minutes and counting…

Finally, at 7:40 pm, some news:

“He should be here very soon. His flight was extremely delayed from San Antonio.”

Oy.

40 minutes and counting…

Soon after, a young female aide began to distribute blank pieces of white paper (hastily cut into halves) for attendees to write questions for Secretary Castro. I had hoped that I—or even “11”—could ask a question live, but they were trying to save time. The question I wrote (“11” demurred), having just read Rachel Maddow’s excellent Drift, was “Under what circumstances, if any, would you bypass Congress to deploy American troops?”

At around 7:50 pm, a local student organizer took the stage to explain how Secretary Castro’s position on strengthening public schools was why he was backing him. He then introduced a longtime leader of New Hampshire’s Latinx Democrats (I neglected to record his name).

I noticed that once they started to speak, the previously apathetic “11” started to pay close attention.

Finally, at 8:04 pm, the second speaker gestured to our rear…and I turned to see Secretary Castro standing there, smiling widely, wearing a white dress shirt open at the color and black suit pants.

And the entire room came to life. As I tweeted:

8:04 pm — Secretary Castro takes the stage to standing ovation.

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Cynics may mock the first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa Caucuses and venerable New Hampshire Primary, primarily because they are predominantly white rural states, but I have two counter-arguments:

  1. Recently, both states have become swing states at the presidential level, with Iowa just 4.7 points more Republican than the nation as a whole—and New Hampshire all of 0.1 points more Democratic.
  1. For all that you can follow various presidential candidates on television and other media, nothing better reveals what a candidate is like than to see her or him negotiate a town hall, where anyone and everyone can ask any and every question they choose. And said candidate must answer every question.

There are many versions of the apocryphal story of the New Hampshire voter who, when asked whether she was ready to support Candidate X, responded that, well, she had only met him four times, so it was too soon to say.

Conversations I overheard in the audience confirmed that notion, including the young ladies sitting behind us who were both remarking on the height of former Texas U.S. House member Beto O’Rourke and dissecting the eclectic playlist that, with great foresight, did not repeat a song for nearly 90 minutes. New Hampshire (and Iowa) voters take their roles as the earliest voters very seriously.

And besides, the 2020 Massachusetts Democratic Primary, in which Nell and I cast our ballots, is on March 3, only 24 days after the 2020 New Hampshire Primary.

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Secretary Castro has been a top choice of mine since I watched his announcement video on January 16, 2019. His remarks that Thursday night covered much of the same ground, including the fact his grandmother emigrated from Mexico to Texas when she was seven years old, supporting herself as a maid and house cleaner. Her daughter became a single mother to Secretary Castro and his twin brother Joaquin, now a Democratic member of the U.S. House from Texas, when her husband died while the Castro brothers were young. Those same brothers would ultimately attend Ivy League universities, earn law degrees, and achieve high-level political offices.

I single out these biographical elements because they resonate deeply with me. Both of my grandfathers[1] were born it what was then called the Pale of Settlement, arriving in Philadelphia (where I was born) when they were four and seven years old, speaking only Yiddish. One became a successful business owner and community leader, while the other served on the Philadelphia Police Department for nearly 20 years. Ten years after I was born, meanwhile, my parents would separate, and my mother (who would soon buy the small carpet-cleaning company she first joined as a telephone solicitor in 1976) raised me alone; my father died a few years later, aged 46. I would then attend Yale (BA, political science, 1988) and Harvard (MA [ABD], government. 1995) before earning a doctorate in epidemiology in May 2015. That said, the highest political office I have yet won is Chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council.

Still, while his remarks were familiar, he was even more charismatic in person, speaking completely off the cuff about a wide range of domestic issues, including health care, education, jobs and wages, and immigration. Curiously, it was only during the latter discussion that he mentioned President Trump. The question of impeachment never arose.

What also never arose, including in the four questions he answered (I only remember the first one—”How will you make immigrants feel welcome?”—because it was asked by a local nine-year-old girl) was any discussion of foreign, national security or military policy. That is not, apparently, what interests early-state voters at this point. I made this same observation to two high school girls who interviewed me for their newspaper as I stood in the “selfie line.”

Or, as I tweeted at 9:05 pm:

45 minutes of remarks followed by four questions. Audience rapt. My 10-year-old daughter even interested.

Striking, though, that outside of immigration—not a single word or question about foreign or military policy.

Now waiting in line for photo. 🙂

Yes, that is an egregious typo regarding “11” s age. I make no excuse.

As the selife line snaked slowly forward, Secretary Castro excitely announced that he would appear on night 2 of the July 30-31, 2019 Democratic presidential nomination debates. He also read of the names of the nine other candidates with whom he would be appearing.

Shortly after this news, “11” asked how much longer we would be. I said, in that hopeful parental way, “not too much longer…but you may sit down if you want.” Relieved, she did just that.

And then something remarkable happened.

She quietly put down her book, walked over to the registration table, and picked up one of the placards. As she sat down again, she asked me to make sure she went on stage with me so that she could get Secretary Castro to sign it.

Well, I’ll be. (To be fair, she still prefers Harris or Warren…but if Castro ran with a female vice-presidential running mate, she would be down with that).

Finally, we walked on to the stage; for the record, I am a hair under 5’10” tall.   4135

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As a young male aide kept his finger pressed on the photo app of my iPhone, I introduced myself, thanking Secretary Castro for adding his voice to the most diverse field of candidates ever; I have never been prouder to be a Democrat, I added. He then turned to “11,” who politely (and with great maturity) introduced herself, after which he asked what grade she was in.

Oh, and he signed her placard.

Castro 2020 poster 1.JPG

Castro 2020 poster 2.JPG

And that was that.

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We made our way to Denny’s, and not a moment too soon because I was famished. “11” ordered the banana chocolate hazelnut crepes (“9” was correct) with scrambled eggs, hash browns and bacon (she ate about half of that, which was fine) along with orange juice. I ordered their version of a chicken cheesesteak with peppers and onions, seasoned fries (of course) and decaf.

Our order was taken by an older white-haired waitress best described as “a lifer.” She was cheerful and efficient, and when a rowdy party was seated in our section—with a husband sitting in a booth with four other patrons, while his wife and two men sat a nearby table—she never lost her cool.

I tipped her accordingly.

The drive south to Brookline was much faster, and we arrived home shortly after 11 pm. “11” and I chattered incessantly, both about the town hall and more personal, edge-of-adolescence matters, the entire way.

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I end where I began, pointing out that all servers must be adequately tipped, both because it is primarily how they earn a living and because it simply is the decent human thing to do. Mr. Pink’s cynical aversion to tipping is flat wrong, as the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs makes that clear.

One final note about art.

On June 2, 2019, I drove to Providence, Rhode Island to spend time with a close college friend who lives in Beirut, Lebanon; he was there for a mathematics conference. We ate a superb meal here, then we walked and talked for a bit. Down one street, I came across this passionate call to artistic arms.

Until next time…

[1] By which I mean my “legal” grandfathers. I was adopted in utero.

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 2)

We pulled out of our Brookline driveway in my wife Nell’s Honda Pilot, bound for the Hilton in Bath, Maine, at 10:15 am. Within an hour-and-a-half, we had left our golden retriever safely in the care of Nell’s mother and were driving north on I-95.

Unwittingly, though, we had joined the molasses-slow line of cars taking advantage of the first truly nice Boston-area Saturday of the summer. It thus took us nearly two hours to reach the trusty Maine Diner in Wells, roughly 33% longer than it would “normally” take.

My Discover Card slip (I save them until my bill arrives) tells me we left there soon after 2:34 pm. Our meal cost $76.68, not terrible for four people, especially given that two meals contained lobster “At Market Price.” Our eldest daughter and I both adore Maine’s signature food; our youngest daughter may have a severe allergy to crustaceans (evidence is mixed, though she is convinced after one particularly traumatic experience), while Nell can take it or leave it.

No tip appears on the slip because I left a twenty-dollar bill for our amiable server.

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In Part 1, I observed my zeal for tipping stems from three sources:

  1. My father’s example, especially the year he spent driving a taxicab in Philadelphia
  2. My own experience delivering food
  3. Observing how hard folks in the service industry work for a low base salary

I also presented photographic evidence of the appeal of Bath and described an epic six-hour drive (in which I tipped multiple able servers) one recent Sunday night/Monday morning.

Our family trip to Maine began six days later.

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When we turned right out of the Maine Diner parking, we had no desire to rejoin the snail’s-pace traffic on I-95, so we meandered north on Route 1 instead, allowing a quick stop at Rite Aid.

Not that long ago, I could rattle off every town Route 1 passes through in Maine, from the New Hampshire state line (the euphonious Piscataqua River) to Waldoboro, starting with Kittery, York, Ogunquit and Wells, followed by Kennebunk, Arundel, Biddeford, Saco, Scarborough, South Portland and Portland. There is a Howard Johnson hotel on Route 1 in South Portland where my long-term 1990s girlfriend AC and I often stayed; two minutes north on Route 1 is Rudy’s Diner. As Nell, the girls and I drove past Rudy’s, I recounted how I had once inadvertently caused their toilet to overflow; they were properly aghast and unsurprised I had never returned.

A few minutes later, we merged onto I-295 north, driving through Falmouth, Yarmouth and Freeport. Just past Freeport is Brunswick, where we took “Coastal Route” Exit 28 back onto Route 1; Brunswick, West Bath, Bath.

More than six hours after leaving Brookline, we checked into the Bath Hilton. One reason we love this hotel (and this suburban Philadelphia Marriott) is a cheerful willingness to accommodate our request for adjacent rooms with connecting door: one with two queen beds for the girls, one with one king bed for Nell and me. A quick swim and a prudent call about reservations later, we resumed our northward journey on scenic Route 1 over the Kennebec River into Woowich, Wiscasset…

Welcome to Wiscasset

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…I will someday wax eloquent about Wiscasset (photographs taken July 2015), which does not exaggerate calling itself “The Prettiest Village in Maine,” Instead, we continue north through Edgecomb, where one takes Route 27 south 10 miles to Boothbay Harbor (where I celebrated my 30th birthday with the 2nd best meal I have ever had, at a restaurant I believe was called Scottish House[1]), into Damariscotta, where Nell had made a 6:30 pm reservation at the excellent King Eider’s Pub.

I took these photographs there in July 2015.

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Unfortunately, our youngest daughter’s panicked aversion to lobster kicked in there, requiring Nell needed to take her for a long walk in the fresh evening ai, while our eldest daughter and I enjoyed our meals. The meal, which ended at 7:32 pm, cost $110.15; I left a $20 cash tip (maybe a few dollars more) for our patient and exemplar waitress. Nell and our younger daughter ate their meals later that night in the hotel; despite being cold, Nell’s medium rare burger with bleu cheese and caramelized onions was delicious[2].

While they ate, our eldest daughter and I drove off in search of dessert (Nell particularly requested a whoopie pie, a Maine staple). We drove down the Bath Road (Route 248) through Cooks Corner, a retail and restaurant hub, looking for a drive-in ice cream place I recalled from previous trips. Not finding it, we ended up on Maine Street in downtown Brunswick, just off the lush Bowdoin College campus. And we happened upon, of all things, a nationally-renowned gelato emporium.

We strolled Maine Street eating our gelato (I forget what our eldest daughter ordered; I had Pure Lemon and Blood Orange) on cinnamon-sugar waffle cones; each was too rich to finish. Driving back to the hotel, we found a Shaws open until 11 pm, where we bought a pre-packaged whoopie pie and a cherry danish for the younger daughter, among other items.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, I took a 90-minute walk through the darkened town (by 11:30 pm on a Saturday night, only Riverside Bar and Grille was still open; I passed). It was a lazy, meandering stroll (akin to my exploratory night drives) in a battered old pair of Docksiders (no socks) that mixed close inspection of shop windows (where I serendipitously found this book), examination by iPhone flashlight of historic markers and a driving curiosity to follow every path—but in the quiet of the night, when fewer, less-intense stimuli clamor for your attention. Like a classic film noir photographed by John Alton, only certain things are bright and visible, all else is shrouded in mystery.

Or I am just naturally a night-owl, full stop, he added dryly.

Feeling particularly bold (and/or foolhardy) at the end of this excursion, I walked across Route 1 on the western edge of the bridge spanning the Kennebec River. It was all-but deserted after midnight on a Sunday morning, and moments later I was back on Front Street. For the record, you can literally be at Front and Centre (Streets) in Bath.

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**********

The following day was a whirlwind of…

  • exploration of Route 127 south to Reid State Park, passing signs that simply read FOOD and WRONG;
  • a meal, ending at 4:34 pm, at Moody’s Diner (see more here; Damariscotta, Nobleboro, Waldoboro[3]), where our youngest daughter was blithely unconcerned by the lobster stew I ate sitting across from her, and where I left another $20 cash tip on $103.33 (though that includes three deserts, including their cosmically-delicious four-berry pie, and a new “When I Get Hungry, I Get Moody” t-shirt for yours truly); and
  • a stunning drive south on Route 32 to Route 130 to my favorite place on Earth (so far): Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park.

I could wax even more eloquent about Pemaquid Point (on whose rocks I sat at midnight on my 40th birthday; you may spot a theme), but for now I will simply say our daughters met author Mo Willems there in July 2016 and share this video from our most recent visit:

After clambering over nearly every inch of the extensive outcropping of rock, we tried to visit nearby Fort William Henry, but it was locked. Returning to the Hilton, the girls and I swam then ordered food from nearby Kennebec Tavern; I walked over to pick it up somewhere around 8:30 (I already recycled my debit card slips). Our order cost $36.42, and I left something like $5 despite getting the food myself.

Our youngest daughter had expected to walk with me (I thought she had already gotten into bed for the night); she was heartbroken after I left. So as soon as I returned with the food, she and I took an uproarious walk in the park around Patten Free Library.

By 11 pm, the girls had gone to sleep in their room, and Nell was ready to go to sleep in our room.

And I began the adventure that inspired this series of posts.

*********

In 1996, a close friend (let us call him “FF”) was writing a doctoral thesis in American history. His research involved a man who lived in Harpswell, just south of Brunswick, in the mid-1700s. FF was able to obtain a room at Bowdoin while conducting his research; AC and I drove there one weekend to visit him. We stayed at what was then a Holiday Inn in Bath; one night, the hotel fire alarm went off around 3 am, sending a mass of sleepy guests into the parking lot in varying states of undress.

Knowing my penchant for 24-hour eateries, FF was eager to point something out to me once we arrived: a new Denny’s in Cooks Corner. We ate there late at night that trip, and again multiple times through our final trip to Maine together in September 2000 for my 34th birthday; our relationship ended a few months later. And within a few years that Denny’s had vanished as well.

Had that Denny’s still been there in July 2015, I would not have driven an hour north to the one in Rockport, where I had a bizarre encounter [#82] with state police. Had that Denny’s still been there in July 2016, I would probably have driven 10 minutes there from the Bath Hilton both nights of our stay. And had that Denny’s been there a few weeks ago, I would probably not have taken my long walk the first night of our stay.

A little research prior to our trip, however, informed me that a Denny’s in Augusta, the state capital, was less than an hour’s drive north over what looked like scenic roads[4]. So, at a little after 11 pm on our second night in Bath, I drove north over the Kennebec River Bridge. Moments later, I turned north onto Route 127, which quickly took me to Route 128 north; I followed Route 128 north about 20 minutes, the Kennebec River glistening to my left amid scattered houses and large fields, to Route 27 north. This latter road, faster and better-lit, took me into Gardiner, where it merged with Route 201 for the final two miles into Augusta.

There is something about driving through the night into a town center from its rural outskirts that is both eerie and uplifting. This time was even better as I passed the glimmering state capitol building on my left while I could still see the Kennebec River to my right. Maybe five minutes later (an hour after I had left), once again in rural outskirts, I turned right (and up) into the Denny’s parking lot.

When I entered, the counter—with five low-backed stools—was to my left, as were five or six booths hugging the front wall; two were occupied. To my right was a larger seating area, where two customers sat in a booth. Sitting at one of the stools, setting down my reading glasses, iPhone and book (written by my friend Imogen, no less), I noticed a dark-haired woman (early 40s?) with a name-tag reading “Angela” standing on the other side of the counter; I had seen her through the front windows as I parked. Clearly a manager, she was chatting with a young-ish waitress with dirty blond hair also standing behind the counter.

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Her name, I would learn from my bill, is Beth.

And here I acknowledge not naming the Zaftigs waitresses from Part 1, while I name Kim (Boulevard Diner), Angela and Beth. Here is the difference: the name of a counter server at Zaftigs never appears on a bill, so I know their names through “private” conversation. Kim’s name, by contrast, was said publicly—as was the Zaftigs conversation I overheard, while Angela’s name is on her nametag, and Beth’s name is on every bill she hands to a customer. Yes, some of what I reveal about Beth also came from “private” conversation…but not all of it. 

Perhaps this is merely a distinction without a difference, and I am either being overly sensitive to privacy—or not sensitive enough. I am curious what you think.

As I settled myself at the counter, Angela addressed both of us, discussing her hearing loss (ironic, since I was still trying to get pool water out of my right ear); as she talked, I noticed she was missing all but one tooth in her upper front palate. Do not get me started on how unaffordable, even with dental insurance, dental care is in the United States.

When she was five years old, her eight-year-old brother wanted to shoot a rifle, but had nowhere to rest the gun barrel. So, lacking adult supervision, he used his sister’s shoulder (I forget which)—with the resulting bang permanently damaging her ear.

Most remarkable, though, was that she spoke without bitterness or recrimination: this was simply a fact of her life. And with that, she noted that it was past midnight, her shift had ended, and she left for the night, leaving her interlocutor in charge…

…who then turned to me to take my order. Patiently waiting while I flip through the pages of the various menus, Beth helpfully pointed out the $2/$4/$6/$8 menu. I countered by noting that I was just over two year away from qualifying for the Senior Menu (55 years of age and older); she smiled and said she would only charge me those prices. No thank you, I replied with a return smile, I will pay whatever I order actually costs (or words to that effect).

Ultimately, because I was not especially hungry, I ordered ice water, decaf and a sundae: strawberry ice cream, strawberry topping and nuts (it was scrumptious). After taking my order, Beth said she would make a fresh pot of decaf. When I smiled and said thank you, she seemed slightly taken aback; when I left later that morning, she thanked me—and when I asked why she was thanking me, she said something to the effect of customers on the overnight shift are not always nice. Along those lines, she also said “sorry” a lot; it struck me as more self-defense than self-deprecation.

Sitting at the counter, I could see directly into the kitchen, where a dark-haired, weather-beaten man of indeterminate age prepared various dishes. As with the Boulevard Diner waitresses, I was transfixed watching him navigate overlapping orders with the grace of a ballet dancer.

As I waited, Beth walked out from behind the counter to attend to customers sitting in booths—and I saw she was pregnant. In fact, as she kibitzed with two male customers, I heard her say she was due on Halloween (a girl), putting her about halfway through her pregnancy. She also mentioned having a 2½-year-old son; as she and I chatted later, she told me her best friend spends the night with her son while he sleeps, but just as she returns home in the morning (around 6:30 am), he often wakes and wants Mommy to feed him. She would get so tired at times, she added, she would literally fall asleep while eating.

I do not remember how it came up (either she almost spilled something on a customer, or she was concerned about spilling something on me), but she told me an accident had left her with no fingertips on (I believe) her left hand. You could not actually tell unless you looked closely, or had it pointed it out to you. That served as prelude to a tale of once spilling the same milkshake twice on the same woman because she (Beth) was squeezing the flimsy to-go cup too hard (lack of sensitivity in the hand. I surmise).

But, again, there was no upset in the storytelling—it was simply a funny anecdote to share. In fact, her amiable positivity reminded me of my late mother: life threw tragedy (and joy, to be fair) at her, yet she kept moving forward with determined optimism (and, starting at the age of 32, as she often reminded me, more than a few joints).

Beth told me she had not yet settled upon a name for her Halloween-due daughter because she was wary of saddling any child with a name—a label, essentially—that could mar their lives. I would learn the following night (spoiler alert) when she reiterated her wariness—without explanation—that she did not decide on her now-seven-year-old daughter’s name until she was riding in the ambulance to the hospital. This was her second daughter, her eldest being nine. The lack of paternal input in these stories jumped out at me, as it may have to you. However, despite wearing a ring on her left-hand ring finger I never did ascertain her marital status, or whether her children had multiple fathers (she once vaguely referred to “his father”).

All the while, of course, Beth was attending to customers, processing take-out orders, wiping down counters and table tops and—when time permitted—quietly checking her cell phone at the far end of the counter near the entrance to the kitchen; I do not recall her ever sitting.

As I was finishing my sundae and working on my third cup of decaf, two men—most likely adult father and son—entered the restaurant and sat at a booth near me; they appeared to be regulars. The younger man, maybe in his early 30s, soon asked for a job application, adding he had completed (if memory serves) 18 applications and had 22 interviews in the past two years. The point being, he had been struggling to find work since something involving receiving Supplemental Security Income (I recognized the acronym “SSI” immediately, being legal guardian of an institutionalized older sister). This prompted Beth to relate her own story and complain abstractedly about some court or other; I now wonder if she was referring to her injured hand.

Soon after that, I paid my check (in cash; with substantial tip it was well over $15) and drove back to the Hilton. I took Route 201 south the entire time, though I meandered down the inviting riverside streets (and a funky rear alley/driveway/loading dock) of Augusta first, then again in Gardiner—I regret not photographing how cool it looked at night driving over the Cobbosseecontee Stream, past the A1 Diner, over Water Street (where I turned left to explore the main drag), up and around to the right then left, past the Gardiner Common. This gives you a sense, during the day at least; lit up at night, quiet and empty, it was gorgeous.

Taking Route 201 was the correct choice: it was a faster, more aesthetically-pleasing drive, especially once I reached Brunswick and crossed over the Androscoggin River.

I took these photographs just downriver in July 2015.

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And I would be remiss, amid tales of diners and hard-working waitresses, if I did not mention the delectable BLT on whole wheat toast I ate here in July 2015:

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**********

The next morning, after Nell watched the girls take their morning swim and took full advantage of the free breakfast, we ate a leisurely brunch at Mae’s Café ($54.27 at 12:53 pm; I think the cash tip was $13 for affable young Ethan, who taught us how to pronounce Sagadahoc) then spent the rest of the day in Freeport.

By which I mean we spent most of the day here, the only clothing and accessories store I know open 24 hours a day (photograph taken July 2016):

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My wardrobe, such as it, is a mishmash of L.L. Bean, Brooks Brothers and a wide variety of lettered T-shirts (many from diners or NOIR CITY), so I took full advantage of the opportunity to replenish said wardrobe. I was not the only one, and by the time we had finished (and returned the next day), we had spent more than $1,300 at L.L. Bean and Old Navy (where our eldest daughter, actually, was the one trying on all of the clothes—not the daughter who once pointedly noted “she could not help being fancy”).

We followed this with a terrific meal at The Great Impasta in Brunswick (where our youngest daughter had another alarming reaction to the food—though we now began to suspect the grenadine in her Shirley Temples); kudos to Karen, who billed us $109.33 at 7:43 pm—to which I added $20.67. Then, of course, we strolled the short distance to Gelato Fiasco. I forget what Nell and our eldest daughter had (our youngest daughter was still in some upheaval, so she refrained), as I was fixated upon my Mascarpone Pistachio Caramel. As I had on our prior visit, I threw a few dollar bills into the tip jar.

Tipping. You remember tipping. This is a post about tipping.

Another night swim with our daughters and a shower later, I was back on Route 201 north, headed for Augusta.

There was a different waitress behind the counter when I sat at my stool, but once I ordered ice water and decaf, Beth walked over and again offered to make a fresh pot. Hungrier this night, I ordered a plate of scrambled eggs and what amounted to two orders of dry wheat toast. While I waited, I noticed that rather than leave (it was past nearly midnight), Angela she sat down at the booth nearest the door, clutching a third-full two-liter plastic bottle of Mountain Dew, talking with a man I took to be a regular. I heard little of their conversation beyond that Angela was an “Army brat” who moved a great deal as a child. She also said at one point, “I never did get married. I’m smart.”

No idea what she meant by that.

Meanwhile, my food arrived.

Just bear with me while I relate an earlier experience with wheat toast in Maine.

A few days after Christmas 1996, AC and I spent a few days in Maine, staying at the South Portland Howard Johnson hotel. One morning (fine, early afternoon; we slept way in that day) we breakfasted at a nearby IHOP. As part of my meal, I ordered a plate of dry wheat toast—meaning “unbuttered.” When the toast arrived, however it was dripping with butter. And yet our waitress actually asked me, “Do you need any more butter?”

I love Maine.

Sure enough, when my toast arrived, it was buttered; I suspect it is muscle memory for some chefs. Still, covered in the strawberry “preserves” and grape “jelly” from those little plastic pouches, it was like ambrosia. The eggs were good, too.

It was a quieter night, so Beth and I chatted a bit more, albeit desultorily; her manager was sitting right there, after all. Nonetheless, I learned the names of her children (and deciding her second daughter’s name in the ambulance). I learned her age and birthday; suffice it to say she was in early-to-mid 20s when her first daughter was born.

I learned she packs a full work week into four consecutive overnights to have more time with her son; it was never clear where her two older daughters lived. At one point, I overheard her say she makes only $5.50 an hour in base salary (I think that is what I heard), but so far that night had only earned $23 in tips. If she works a nine-hour shift and leaves at 6 a.m., that would start her shift at 9 pm. It was then a bit past midnight. Thus, for roughly three hours, she had effectively been earning just under $13.50 an hour.

At 36 hours a week for 52 weeks, that works out to just over $25,000 a year.

Meanwhile, at one point she said she was going outside for a bit. Expecting a negative response to what was clearly a smoking break, she said, “I know, I know, it’s bad. I am down to only one a day,” or words to that effect. Both of my parents smoked heavily, and that likely contributed to deaths from a heart attack (father, at 46) and ovarian cancer (mother, 66).  But all I said was, I do not judge you. In fact, you are judging yourself far more than I ever could.

Later, we discussed being bored at our workplaces yet being discouraged from doing more than our job description entailed. I related how when I worked as a pizza/sub delivery boy, I had a lot of down time–so I would pick up a broom and start sweeping. But my—eccentric—boss would get annoyed at me. That was somebody else’s job, he believed (it was not, actually, but never mind). Maybe he was afraid I would ask for more money; I would not have, though, as the tips I received were decent, and I simply wanted to help.

Finally, while standing at the cash register, I heard what had happened to her fingertips. It was a fascinating story mixed with more personal revelations (I just bore with her) that boils down to fireworks unexpectedly exploding in her hand. I am amazed she was not far more severely injured than she was.

It was not until I was mostly out the door that Beth saw what I had left on the counter. My bill could not have been more than $12 or so, but I left a 20-dollar bill. On top of it was one of my business cards, on the back of which I had written, “For she-who-has-yet-to-be-born. Good luck!  -Matt” along with a smiley face.

She had said “Thank you” as I was leaving, then I heard a louder “Thank you!” as the outer door closed behind me. I waved without stopping and got into Nell’s car.

The drive back to Bath was uneventful.

**********

The next morning, I actually breakfasted in the hotel before we checked out. Before that I had left $70 in cash in Nell’s and my room plus a note saying “Thank you!” (with another smiley face, yes). My rule of thumb for hotel rooms is to tip between $10 and $15 per room per night; it is a brutal job.

As I said, we stopped in Freeport for more shopping, after which we ate here. And while our food was fine, the 45-minute wait was absurd given how few patrons there were; they cannot all be winners. That was not our waitress’ fault, however, so I still tipped well; I paid in cash so I cannot tell you the exact amount or time of day.

This time, it was our eldest daughter’s turn to get panicky about food (though she still enjoyed her hot dog). As someone who spent most of the last six months of 2016 convinced I was going to vomit every time I felt “trapped” somewhere (why I finally started seeing a psychotherapist and be treated for depression), I cannot say anything.

Driving home, we exited in Kittery, so I could peruse the outlet stores that line Route 1, looking for a New Balance store. Not finding one, we continued over the Piscataqua River into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where we snaked along Route 1B until we arrived here (photograph taken June 2015).

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Nell and I honeymooned here for three nights in October 2007. And since we are discussing family gastrointestinal upheaval, I will simply note that Nell was already pregnant with our eldest daughter then.

After exploring the hotel, we meandered down gorgeous Route 1A in New Hampshire, the Atlantic Ocean on our left, stunning mansions on our right. This took us into the prosaic resort strips of North Hampton and Hampton Beach, and, finally, into Massachusetts, where we made our way to I-95 south and home—arriving, happy but exhausted, just before 7 pm.

To be continued…

[1] I had no luck interrogating my memory using GoogleMaps, Newspapers.com or any other online tool. As for the best meal I ever had: here in July 1997.

[2] The bottle of red wine Nell bought at a Bath CVS helped as well.

[3] For the record, I refreshed my memory of the Route 1 town progression using GoogleMaps.

[4] An alternate route would have been I-295 north to I-95 north, with Denny’s just off Exit 112A, but where is the fun in that?

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part I)

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Reservoir Dogs.

I am very squeamish about blood (seeing it can literally cause me physical pain[1]), and I knew there was a great deal of bloodletting in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 heist-gone-wrong neo-noir masterpiece. Plus, a friend had once informed me she could never hear the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You” the same way again.

(Here is why the song so disturbed my friend, if you are game).

Despite my squeamishness, however, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film; it was a well-crafted tale of crime, paranoia and, in an odd way, humanity. But what particularly stayed with me after the film was its opening scene, in which the men about to commit the jewelry robbery eat breakfast in a small restaurant. In typical Tarantino style, the overlapping conversations include pop culture references (e.g., the meaning of the Madonna song “Like a Virgin”), inane recitations from a re-discovered “little black book” and a pointed conversation about restaurant tipping. The latter brouhaha is triggered by Mr. Pink’s (Steve Buscemi) refusal to add his allotted dollar bill to the tip. “I don’t tip,” is his response, though he is eventually forced to do so.

My father had his flaws (boyish self-centeredness, destructive gambling addiction), but he was always generous with whatever money he had. It was from him I learned the value and respect of tipping well, especially while he spent the last year or so of his life driving a cab in Philadelphia. My five months working as delivery boy for a pizza/sub shop (I give you food, you give me extra money? Sign me up!) only reinforced this lesson.

Too many people fail to understand (or care) that waitstaff make little in base salary and so depend on tips for their income. I do not remember who said this, but I once heard that waitressing is the one job that any woman, regardless of education or experience, can always get. Just the other night, in fact, I overheard a young server at our favorite local restaurant observe she had earned $30 an hour in tips one recent shift. Show me an entry-level job where I can earn that much money, she added for emphasis.

The woman making this observation will soon be a college graduate, while her interlocutor just became a college graduate.

***********

Our summers have settled into a mildly complex routine.

Once our daughters’ school year ends, my wife Nell takes them, the dog and herself to her family’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. They stay a few weeks then return to Brookline for a week or two, so we can take a family vacation somewhere (key requirement for daughters: hotel with swimming pool; they are indeed their parents’ children). Then they return to the Vineyard until the end of the summer, leaving “Daddy” to entertain himself as best he can, with a trip to his birth city of Philadelphia thrown in for good measure. Perhaps finish his darned book as well.

This summer is no different. Nell literally picked up the girls from school, dog and baggage in tow, and drove to the ferry in Woods Hole. Three weeks later, they returned home; two days later, we dropped the dog with Nell’s mother and drove to the always-charming Bath, Maine.

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Not Mario's of Bath

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Yum Mee Chinese Restaurant

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I actually took these photographs on a trip to Maine in July 2015 (when a very odd thing happened to me [Fact #82]), but the city has not materially changed in the interim. Mae’s Café is still THE place to go for brunch—and to learn how to pronounce the county in which Bath resides (Sagadahoc—suh ga duh hoc, accent on 2nd syllable). I have yet to visit Mario’s, Mateo’s (which is NOT Mario’s) or Yum Mee.

Actually, it was on that trip that I discovered Bath’s brand-new Hilton (which I recommend—as well as Kennebec Tavern, directly across the street), the Hilton in which Nell, the girls and I first stayed in July 2016. Not only does it have an indoor pool, the pool’s lights cycle through the colors as you swim.

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I took these photographs in July 2016 trip in the park adjacent to Patten Free Library, just across the street from the Hilton’s back door. The church building now houses the Winter Street Center.

For the record, this is pretty much an impossible choice:

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*********

Before I describe this year’s family vacation to Maine (and a subsequent day trip to Nashua, New Hampshire), just bear with me while I backtrack a week or so.

I first described my penchant for meandering late-night drives here. Generally, I take such a drive the first Saturday night after Nell and the girls leave in late June. This year, though, I waited two weeks, in no small part because I was making headway on my book. I ultimately decided to take a drive on Saturday, July 6; the following day I would thoroughly clean our refrigerator, a necessary task I had been procrastinating for days.

But when I awoke that Saturday, an ominous-looking sky sent me to the Weather app on my iPhone. What I saw was a near-certainty of thunderstorms that night.

Crud!

Disappointed, I decided to flip-flop my days: I would tackle the fridge Saturday then meander on Sunday, whose weather appeared far more promising. Rewarding as a sparkling-clean, odor-free refrigerator was (and there was, in fact, a torrential downpour that evening), it was hard to shake the disappointment, and I ultimately wandered that evening down a bizarre rabbit hole of memory, eventually taking myself for a late-night snack to the nearby New Yorker Diner, which is open from 10 pm to 4 am on weekends.

However, Sunday was as sunny as promised, as was my disposition. And at 8 pm I pulled out of our Brookline driveway, bound for…somewhere or other.

I quickly decided to wander west through Wellesley to Route 135 west. Natick, Framingham, Ashland.

In Ashland, I briefly toyed with stopping for a meal at the supposedly-haunted Stone’s Public House. Sometime in the 1990s, while I dated “AC,” we watched a “Haunted New England” program which featured what was then called John Stone’s House (or something). AC and I went there for supper one night; we had a fine, if unspectacular, meal but did not experience anything remotely supernatural. On a lark, I took the girls (then six and five) there for supper in March 2015; they were fascinated by the stories and the “investigation” documented in this book. For my part, not only was I extremely skeptical, but the report itself was remarkably poorly written.

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On this July 2019 Sunday night, though, I chose not to stop. Instead I continued to drive west on Route 135 into Hopkinton (where Nell called for the “Good night, Daddy” ritual) and Upton. There, just past the intersection with Route 140, I veered south, eventually landing on Route 16 west in Mendon. This took me right past the terrific Miss Mendon Diner, which unfortunately had closed 10 minutes earlier, at 9 pm (photograph taken July 2010); I was starting to get hungry

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Following Route 16 west, I began to hear loud explosions, which I quickly realized were fireworks (it was only a few days after July 4, after all). At first, I thought they were coming from the West Hill Dam, but as I crossed into Uxbridge, I realized they were coming from near the town center. Just before reaching that center—the intersection with Route 122—I drove by St. Mary Parish, home to Our Lady of the Valley Regional School.

I took this photograph of the larger playground adjacent to the school building in September 2012.

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Our younger daughter, then not-quite-three-years-old, accompanied me that day. After enjoying the playground, we had supper at the Miss Mendon Diner. There, I took this photograph of my left hand to send to Nell, reassuring her I had not lost my wedding ring.

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Again.

In March 2011, the girls and I visited that same playground, and while we were there, my wedding ring somehow slipped off my finger into the wood chips comprising its “floor.” Realizing what had happened that night (and with Nell none too pleased), I drove back to Uxbridge the next day, but I could not find my ring anywhere. Being an optimistic sort, I left my name and phone number with the school office.

A few weeks later, literally as I was having my phone interview for the data analyst/project manager job I was about to land at Joslin Diabetes Center, I received a phone call from a woman at Our Lady of the Valley. One of the girls in the school had found a wedding ring, was it mine?

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Apparently, I did not drive back to Uxbridge—an hour’s drive at the best of times—until April 15, 2011, the date on the card inside this envelope. The envelope which did, in fact, contain my wedding ring. I made a point of thanking the girl who had found it (I think she was in 5th grade) personally.

Meanwhile, back in July 2019, I crossed over Route 122 and continued west on Route 16. Here, only a few miles north of the Rhode Island state line—and only a few miles northeast of the Connecticut state line—the surroundings became much more rural, so I decided it would be prudent to stop for gas at the next open gas station.

I had LITERALLY just formed the thought, when I saw a gas station on my left. As I pulled up to a pump, a young man exited the attached convenience store, heading for my car.

“Is this full serve?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” he replied, and proceeded to “fill it up, with regular.” My Discover card slip ($32.50 for 12.503 gallons) tells me this friendly interaction—and subsequent $7 tip—took place at 9:50 pm. It was the first time I had not pumped my own gasoline (outside of New Jersey, where it remains full-serve) in years.

Shortly after pulling out of the station back onto Route 16 west, I entered Webster.

Webster, Massachusetts is home to the lovely Webster Lake. However, locals often prefer its original name:

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg

This is the longest place name in the United States. I took this photograph, in a shopping center right on Route 16, in November 2014.

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A few miles after this shopping center, Route 16 ends at the intersection with Route 12, which runs south to Groton, along Connecticut’s southern shore. AC and I took this way home one night in May 1998, after visiting Mystic (yes, THAT Mystic), listening on the radio (back when you could up the Phillies radio station hundreds of miles away at night) to Carl Pavano make his major league debut against my Philadelphia Phillies; the Expos won 3-2).

Here, I had a choice (given that the Friendly’s at that intersection had also just closed): I could take Route 12 north about an hour (half that if I took the interstates) to Leominster, where I knew a Denny’s was, or I could try my luck further south and west along Route 12 (which sort of turns right when it hits Route 16).

It was “only” about 10:15 pm, so I decided to try my luck. Lurking in the back of my mind was the possibility of a late-night diner in Worcester, not all that far to the north. Plus, Connecticut has all sorts of excellent 24-hour diners, right?

Webster is a charming town—at least at night—but I found nothing open there. Continuing southwest on Route 197 when Route 12 veered south again, I crossed into Dudley then, finally, into Connecticut.

The section of Thompson, Connecticut known as Quinebaug was rural enough that I quickly rethought my “Connecticut has SO many 24-hour diners” strategy. This was wise; I later learned the nearest such establishment was the Vernon Diner (which I last visited in August 2018)—another 45 minutes southwest. Earlier in the evening, maybe, but not at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night.

A few minutes after entering Connecticut on Route 197 south, it intersected with Route 131 north. There, a helpful sign informed me the latter road would take me to Charlton, Massachusetts.

If you take I-84 north through Connecticut over the state line into Sturbridge, Massachusetts (which I have done innumerable times over the last 30 years, driving between Philadelphia and Boston), it ends at the Massachusetts Turnpike (known here simply as “The Pike”), just north of U. S. Route 20. If you then take The Pike east a mile or so, you hit the Charlton Service Plaza Eastbound; I have lost track of how many nights I pulled into this rest stop, desperately needing to urinate.

Back in Quinebaug, I prudently chose to turn north (OK, northwest) back into Massachusetts, pinning my hopes for satiating my increasing hunger (clearly, I had not eaten enough before embarking on this drive) on that diner in Worcester. Quickly crossing back into Massachusetts (I was in Connecticut for five minutes—10 minutes, tops), I was in Southbridge; in that town’s center, I turned north onto Route 169, which took me past a string of super-sized triple-deckers looming eerily in the night.

Entering Charlton not long after, I turned east onto U.S. Route 20, which I believed would take me directly into downtown Worcester. In fact, I thought, I think my diner is ON Route 20 in Worcester.

Some 10 minutes later, I hit Auburn, just west of Worcester. I also crossed Route 12 again, which I know for a fact passes through downtown Worcester; this, frankly, confused me. And then I entered Worcester itself…but what I drove past was no downtown. The next thing I knew I was entering Grafton…and then I was at the intersection with Route 9, a few miles EAST of Worcester.

Oops.

Route 20, it turns out, does not traverse downtown Worcester, but merely kisses its southern edge.

At the intersection of Route 9, I did something I do not think I have ever done before: I doubled back INTO Worcester. And here I mean absolutely no disrespect to Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts, just edging Springfield, and an area determinedly on the upswing—as evidenced by the gorgeous Route 9 bridge over the Quinsigamond River that takes you west into the city/east out of the city.

Soon after entering Worcester on Route 9, Shrewsbury Street cuts sharply off to the left (southwest), carrying drivers into the heart of the city. The same directional instinct that misled me along U.S. Route 20 told me to turn onto Shrewsbury; OK, I actually could not make it into the left turn lane in time, but rather than make a U-turn, I cut down through the Brasil’s Restaurant parking lot. No harm, no foul.

Maybe three minutes later, I did see a diner off to my left—Mac’s Diner—but it was closed. However, I knew the diner I sought was a classic railroad car diner…and not a minute later, there it was on my left, lit up in a neon welcome.

The Boulevard Diner.

I parked right in front (it was nearly midnight on Sunday after all), walked inside with my copy of Drift (which should be required reading for every American policy maker) and took a seat at the counter.

My recollection of the menu (a giant black board with white plastic letters, surrounded by a forest of multi-colored, star-shaped sticky notes) was correct: mixed in with the usual diner breakfast food, burgers and sandwiches was a wide array of Italian specialties.

The chicken parmigiana over spaghetti (or ziti) caught my eye, but it was not clear if such dishes were time-limited. Nope, the dark-haired 40-something waitress who distractedly took my order assured me, everything on the menu is available 24 hours a day.

It took me a good half hour before I realized that the word “Bully” in a number of the menu items was short for “Boulevard,” as in “Boulevard Diner.” I may be slow at times, but I always get there in the end.

As I waited for, then ate, my meal (it was perfectly good for a vintage railroad car just past midnight on a Monday morning), I noticed that the two waitresses (mine, whose name escapes me, and a younger blondish woman named Kim) rarely walked from behind the counter to the six or seven booths. Instead, they took orders from behind the counter, then called patrons over to the counter to hand them their plates.

Also, while most of the cooking was done in the back kitchen (hidden down a step from the right end of the counter, looking in from the street), the two women worked the grill just behind the counter, efficiently preparing eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers and the like. Oh, and they constantly wiped, restocked and otherwise kept the conga line moving.

I found it all absolutely mesmerizing, frankly, like watching a contemporary minuet, with the background chatter, sizzling grill and clatter of cutlery serving as the music. At one point, the darker-haired waitress stood next to me, kibitzing with a customer, when something she said made me laugh out loud. She laughed quietly herself, playfully jabbing me with her elbow, as if to say, “hush up, you.” Later, when I was leaving, she teased me by asking if they had “entertained” me. Sure, I replied, showing my appreciation with a substantial tip.

After consuming nearly all of my meal (with a full plate of fresh hot Italian bread and butter—my mouth waters thinking about it), well into my third cup of freshly-made black decaf, Kim asked if I wanted desert. I asked what they had besides the few things I saw on the “menu,” specifically what flavors of pie (if any) they had. She went into the kitchen to check, got distracted by a large takeout order, came back to the counter, realized she had forgotten to check on the pie selection, went back into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later.

“We have lemon meringue,” she began.

“Stop there,” I replied. Because, believe it or not, that was exactly what I wanted.

It was delicious.

My drive home, almost entirely along, Route 9, was remarkably uneventful, and I pulled into our driveway at 2 am.

To be continued…

[1] There are exceptions, of course. In June 1991, my mother sliced her thumb open when a jar of cocktail sauce shattered in her hand. My friend and I had just exited our apartment building when she came out onto the porch, dressed only in a dark blue kimono and underwear, to call us back. She was bleeding profusely, but in that emergency situation I did not “see” the blood. At her insistence, however, I did have to dress my mother, including her bra. My mother was a buxom woman. Frankly, that was far more unsettling than the blood.