Upon further interrogation…

In the middle of August 2019, I spent nearly a week in Philadelphia—where I was born 53 years ago Monday—conducting further research into my family and personal history for the book I am writing (new tentative title: Interrogating Memory: A Love of Film Noir Spurs an Investigation into My Family History).

Unlike last year, however, I chose not to chronicle this journey in a multi-part post. To some extent, that was simply to avoid repetition, as once again I explored multiple Jewish cemeteries and wandered through a variety of municipal buildings—including City Hall, where I nearly had my Swiss Army Knife (a long-ago birthday present from my mother-in-law) confiscated by a distinctly-not-amused security officer.

But to an even greater extent, it was because some of the people with whom I interacted, including two relatives (one genetic, one legal) I met in person for the first time, wish to remain quietly in the background.

Finally, I thought I simply had not learned very much on this trip…until I arrived home, looked through my notes and photographs, followed up on a few leads, and realized I had learned a great deal.

For example, here I explore three memories that had, until then, defied attempts to interrogate them. One memory I updated successfully here. The first-listed memory, meanwhile, is as follows:

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

On my recent trip to Philadelphia, I interrogated this memory by examining the 1979 Philadelphia Yellow Pages, stored on microfilm in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, I was not as adept at recording images of the relevant pages onto my flash drive as I thought I had been, and I did not capture every page. Still, I had skimmed every listing under TYPEWRITERS on site. The pages I had successfully copied reinforced my tentative conclusion the store had been at 1507 N. 33rd Street, across the street from the eastern section of Fairmount Park. That is, until I looked at the address on GoogleMaps…and saw that it was more of a warehouse/storage unit than a retail store.

Nonetheless, I plan to visit the site the next time I go to Philadelphia, partly because I have not completely ruled it out as the typewriter repair shop/office supply store of my memory, but mostly because it is literally next to the John Coltrane House.

**********

Locating this store was the first of eight research “questions” I prepared for my trip to Philadelphia. The second one related to what in the 1930s and 1940s was the 40th Philadelphia police district, headquartered at 28th and Oxford Streets in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood (just five blocks east of the John Coltrane House, actually). As frustrating as obtaining concrete information on my maternal grandfather Samuel Joseph Kohn’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has been, I knew he had been based here in February 1937, early in his time on the force[1]. However, this was a low-priority question.

Other questions related to the precise location of the tragic death of my paternal great-grandfather David Louis Berger in October 1919 (Business Route 1 off-ramp over Neshaminy Creek just northeast of Bristol Road in suburban Middletown Township), obtaining a copy of my father’s high school yearbook (no dice, yet), meeting my genetic relative and visiting cemeteries.

At Har Nebo Cemetery, where my maternal grandmother’s father is buried,

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I located the grave of comedian and author David Brenner, a high school classmate of my father, born just 46 days after my father.

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That leaves three primary questions, the latter two described in detail here):

  1. Further details on Samuel Kohn’s time with the PPD
  2. Date and details of the fire at the John Rhoads Company between April 1972 and September 1974
  3. Date and details of the fire in my childhood house, almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

The first two questions led me to the pristine and well-managed Philadelphia City Archives, where the laudable David Baugh patiently responded to my ever-evolving queries. First, he handed me a short stack of PPD “roster cards” alphabetically-adjacent to “Kohn, Samuel” to demonstrate they had lost or misplaced my maternal grandfather’s roster card.

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Second, Mr. Baugh brought out a series of boxes containing records of property transfers for the lot at 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue, home of the John Rhoads Company from its inception in 1886 until 1972 or so. My hope was to find clear evidence of when my father sold the building at that location, thus narrowing the time frame in which the fire could have occurred.

That proved a dead end, as the only records after 1931 for that lot were for the sale of the property—still credited to “John Rhoads Company”—in April 1983 (less than a year after my father died) by Sheriff Joseph A. Sullivan to the City of Philadelphia for $500. Sheriff Sullivan acquired the property sometime before March 1981, perhaps explaining a childhood memory of “the sheriff” coming to my childhood home to talk to my father one evening in the fall of 1976. I had always thought that visit was for non-payment of the mortgage on our house, but now—upon further interrogation—I suspect it stemmed from financial issues related to the Lancaster Avenue property.

But what I did learn from those documents more than compensated for that hopefully-temporary dead end. First, the John Rhoads Company lot was far larger than I had realized, forming a sort of lower-case-r shape with a triangular hat, with one entrance on Lancaster Avenue and another on N. Holly Street, which intersects Lancaster Avenue about half-a-block east. A few days after my visit to the City Archives, when I took some photographs of the empty lot from N. Holly Street, a woman came from across the narrow street to question what I was doing. It turned out she and her genial family themselves wanted to know who currently owned the lot so they could encourage her/him to develop it. I explained my father, who died in June 1982, had owned it, as had his father and uncle before him.

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“So who was John Rhoads?” the woman’s mother (aunt?) asked me.

“He was the original owner, a confectioner from Harrisburg,” clarifying my grandfather had kept the original name when he acquired it.

Meanwhile, not only did they remember the fire (but not the exact date beyond “oh, it must have been in the 1970s”), but the large warehouse doors through which trucks would drive, as well as the giant rolls of carpet cleaned within those doors. These are memories I do not even have, given I was at most seven years old when that fire took place. In exchange for graciously allowing me to interrogate their memories, I mailed them all the information they asked of me as soon as I returned home, with a request they send me any additional information they remembered; I have yet to hear anything new.

Returning to those boxes of property records, meanwhile, I found myself carefully holding papers documenting the original acquisition of three parcels of land by John Rhoads himself in the mid-1880s, as well as various within-family transfers over the next four decades. But what made me almost start to cry were finding the deeds transferring ownership of the John Rhoads Company to my paternal grandfather Morris Berger on July 15, 1926, as well as a subsequent ownership restructuring in April 1931—making “John Rhoads Company” legal owner of the property.

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I had been so fixated on uncovering details of the fire, I had not even considered finding such documents. And while I have no more clarity on the exact date and circumstances of the fire itself, simply holding in my hands those pieces of my personal family history—specifically relating to a grandfather and great-uncle I never knew—more than compensated for that.

After leaving the City Archives—followed by my ignominious (and ultimately fruitless) trip to City Hall—I visited here…

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…which, for obvious reasons, is often called The Roundhouse…

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…to obtain any information they could give me about my maternal grandfather’s time on the force. Due to extremely tight security, I could only speak to the Personnel Department by calling it on my iPhone from the darkened entrance hallway, where a vintage pay telephone was still bolted to the wall. The woman to whom I spoke was very patient and engaging, checking every alternate spelling of “Kohn” we could think of, but she was unable to locate any records of a Patrolman/Detective Samuel Joseph Kohn. She did inform me badges get recycled (explaining why my aunt no longer has it) before making an absolutely brilliant suggestion: that I check with a different city department.

In order to maintain privacy, all I will say about this department is that upon hearing it, I had a smack-my-forehead, “I could’ve had a V8!” moment, realizing I had neglected a key investigative dictum: follow the money.

The Monday morning after I returned to Brookline, I dialed the number I had been given. Nobody answered, so I left a detailed voicemail. Five or ten minutes later, a Philadelphia-area number called my iPhone.

“Hello?”

“Is this Matthew Berger?” a voice asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Explaining (s)he was returning my call, (s)he asked why I wanted the information.

Uh-oh, I thought, answering, “Well, I am simply curious, and I am writing a book.”

“Oh, cool,” came the response. “So I have 67 pages of information here…”

I nearly fell out of my desk chair.

Much of that information could not be released to me, but after we chatted about what I could learn, including:

  1. Samuel Joseph Kohn served on the PPD from August 11, 1931 (a few years earlier than I had thought) to October 9, 1953.
  2. He was still a patrolman as of January 20, 1947, though he had transferred to an adjacent police district.
  3. Following a brief stint as a Detective on the Crime Prevention Squad, he was once again a Patrolman—in the very district where his future son-in-law lived.
  4. He was briefly suspended for “conduct unbecoming an officer” in June 1953, spanning at least two additional police districts (I suspect one other as well).
  5. Patrolman Kohn badly cut his thumb responding to a burglary in an upscale section of the city in July 1953.
  6. He left the force on good terms, as he received his monthly pension until his death in November 1978.

…I received a packet of photocopied documents in the mail a few days later, which I have been poring over ever since.

**********

But what really made the trip were two photographs.

The first came when I visited a cousin on my father’s mother’s side of the family. After eating at the beautifully-renovated Silk City Diner then chatting in her apartment, she suddenly remembered what she most wanted to show me.

It was this enormous framed photograph, probably taken in 1903, perhaps in October when my grandmother Rae—the fierce-looking baby front and center between Morris and Hinda Zinman Caesar—turned one year old.

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As little as I knew my father’s father’s family, I really knew nothing about his mother’s family; it did not help that both Morris and Hinda died before my father was born, and my paternal grandmother died when I was five. Which made seeing my great-grandparents, my infant grandmother and her seven siblings even more exhilarating.

A few days later, on my last day in the Philadelphia area, I visited a handful of buildings in Havertown, the suburban town in which I lived until I was 12 years old, seeking details of the March 1973 fire in my childhood house. After striking out at both the Haverford Township Free Library and the Township Building, a short—if hot and sunny—walk down Darby Road, I drove on a whim to the Manoa Fire Company; this is the unit most likely to have responded to that fire.

It took some time to alert someone I was standing at the locked side door, but finally a man named Rick opened the door for me. When I explained the information I sought, he invited me into the dimly-lit building. There was sufficient light, however, for me to see the many framed photographs of fires strung along the hallway down which Rick led me.

A few minutes later, I was talking to Assistant Chief (he demurred politely when I called him “Chief Emeritus”) Mike Norman. He was a burly, slightly stooped white-haired man in perhaps his late sixties. Standing in a small kitchen area, I explained I was seeking information about a house fire almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

He paused a moment before asking, “Was it snowing that afternoon”

“No,” I answered, reiterating it was a warmish spring night, perhaps midnight or 1am.

Reaching past me, he pulled a framed photograph from the wall just to the right of the sink and countertop.

“Is this your house?”

Stunned, I looked carefully at this photograph:

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The sharp lights made it hard for me to get oriented in the picture, but I could easily have been looking at the side of my house from our driveway—or maybe from the front lawn? We looked at the back of the framed picture, where the words “Sue Ellen Drive” were written.

Paraphrasing Chief Norman, “Those uniforms are definitely from 1973, and the only other fire I remember on Sue Ellen Drive was on a snowy afternoon.” Later, when I told my wife Nell about the photograph, texting her a copy (she and our daughters were still on Martha’s Vineyard), she said it was a “no-brainer” this was a photograph of the aftermath of my childhood house fire.

We talked a little about my suspicion the fire was not an accident, but once I told him my mother’s version of the cause of the fire—she had left on a hair-drying unit, the sort you sat under, intending my father to turn it off when he returned home—he cut me short.

Again paraphrasing: “Would you believe how many high school girls put their hair curlers away still hot, only to lose a bathroom or two?”

As for why the fire was contained solely to the playroom directly beneath my sister Mindy’s room, he (still paraphrasing) recalled, “We must have been on our way back from another fire. I remember we got there and knocked that [fire] out in a few minutes.”

Wait, “we?”

A week or so later, after I had donated $50 to the Manoa Fire Company, I received an e-mail questioning my Havertown, PA donation from a Brookline, MA address. I wrote back, explaining who I was, concluding:

When I realized that Chief Norman himself was in the photograph, I was humbled. He and his colleagues helped to save my life, and that of my mother, sister and dog.

I wanted to do something to show my gratitude, so I made the donation.

The handsome young man staring directly into the camera, wearing a white firefighter’s hat with the red number “5” on it…

…is Mike Norman himself.

Until next time…

[1] “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pp. 1,4.

Interrogating memory: The Beatles, wax museums and a diner mystery solved

To the extent my writing over the last three years has a theme (or perhaps even a brand), it is what I call interrogating memory.

At one level, this is just a fancy term for “fact-checking,” as in looking through my elementary school report cards (I am missing the one for third grade[1]) to confirm my fourth-grade teacher was named Ms. Goldman, only to discover she was my fifth-grade teacher and her name was “R. Goldberg.”

Quick story.

On the first day of fifth grade at Lynnewood Elementary School, my new teacher called me up to her desk. Ms. Goldberg, an attractive woman with an unwavering platinum blonde permanent, was curious about my father, whose name she had seen was David Louis Berger. We quickly established (most likely through his age and being raised in West Philadelphia) they had been in the same confirmation class at Congregation Beth El in 1951. It was also clear from the way she spoke about him (my aunt once wrote me, “He really was lovable you know”) she had a serious crush on him. I do not recall how I reacted, or what my father said when I told him.

Still, knowing it was fifth, not fourth, grade and that her surname was Goldberg, not Goldman, does not materially alter the story: my teacher had known and liked my father when they were teenagers.

The thing is, however, I pulled out those report cards in the process of reassessing an entirely different memory, one that better exemplifies the complexity of interrogating memory.

As a child and young teen, I hated The Beatles (or, at least, refused to succumb to the pressure to love them). And until a few weeks ago, I believed this disdain stemmed from my active resistance to being told what to like and what not to like. My attitude from a very young age was that I will decide for myself what I like and do not like, thank you very much.

My proof, other than my own memory?

I was certain that mixed in with otherwise glowing comments from my elementary school teachers on my report cards was a common phrase along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.”

But when I pulled out my five surviving report cards from Lynnewood, this sentiment was far less ubiquitous than I had remembered. Mrs. Virginia Hoeveler did begin her extensive (and humbly flattering) comments, dated June 13, 1973, by noting I initially had “difficulty conforming to a classroom situation,” though I quickly adjusted. She also added a postscript: “Matt is quite the ‘individual – he likes to do his ‘own thing.’ “

Five months later (November 7, 1973), Ms. C. Edwards—who broke the heart of every boy in my second-grade class when she became Mrs. C. Stevenson at the end of the school year (many of us attended the wedding, sitting in a mezzanine area of the church, overlooking the ceremony, stage left)—wrote, “Matt sometimes gets carried away with his intelligence. He seems to feel that he doesn’t need to follow directions.”

Ouch.

Still, as of June 1, 1974, I had “become much more social with [my] peers.” Good to know I was ceasing to be a curmudgeon at seven years old.

But…that is it. I have no third grade report card, neither Miss Nichols nor R. Goldberg wrote more than a token sentence or two, and Mr. Bianco (a good-looking man who wore platform shoes and was smitten with my mother) merely noted I would have had an “O” (Outstanding) instead of an “S” (Satisfactory) in Social Studies but for too many missed assignments.

Oh.

The point is, my memory was not, strictly speaking, incorrect; there were comments along the lines of “does not like to follow directions.” It was just that they were confined to first and second grades, when I was apparently still adjusting socially and academically to a formal classroom environment.

Here is the kicker, though. Even before I pulled out those report cards, I had already concluded my aversion to structured guidance was not why I had hated The Beatles (which I no longer do; quite the contrary, in fact[2]). Or, at least, it was not the only reason.

Just bear with me while I wax rhapsodic about Atlantic City, New Jersey.

I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living with my mother and our dog—a Keeshond named Luvey—in Penthouse A (really, just one of two slightly larger rooms with two queen beds and a walk-in closet sharing a small semi-circular concrete balcony overlooking the pool) of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City. On weekends, my father would drive the roughly 80 miles from our home in Havertown, Pennsylvania (just west of Philadelphia) to join us.

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The Strand Motel, which sat between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenues, and between Providence and Boston Avenues, was knocked down around 1979 as part of the construction of the Golden Nugget Casino (which, after many name changes, closed in 2014). I am reasonably certain this photograph was taken in the lounge directly below the penthouses one of those two summers; my father is the silver-haired man in the blue jacket sitting at the bar, while the left side of my mother’s face is just visible on the right (her natural red hair was back).

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Those two summers, I spent my days wandering up and down Pacific Avenue (either on foot, or riding a jitney for 35 cents) and the Boardwalk. By myself, at the ages of seven and eight, that is; I cannot imagine that happening today. I especially loved going into the lobby of every motel and hotel along the roughly three miles of roads/Boardwalk in my purview to collect one of each pamphlet available in the large wooden racks there. During the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and rummage through them, wishing I was back in Atlantic City.

One of those pamphlets was actually a red-covered brochure for Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum, then located at 1238 Boardwalk (yes, the Boardwalk is considered a road for mailing purposes), roughly halfway between North Carolina and South Carolina Avenues.

I do not know why I suddenly recalled this wax museum a few weeks ago (which was opened by Madame Tussaud’s somewhat less-talented great-grandson). Perhaps it was researching my book, and thinking about how we stopped summering down the shore (as those of us raised near Philadelphia say) in 1976, just before the casinos started being built, effectively ending “my” Atlantic City. Along those lines, I have reflected a great deal this summer on how much my wife Nell and our daughters love spending much of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and how much, frankly, I do not. And I have concluded no longer spending summers in Atlantic City, even as it was inexorably changing (for the worst, in my opinion)[3], was a deeply painful occurrence I have yet fully to process. But, the result is a silly jealousy of Nell’s childhood (and current) summer home.

Or, Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum came to mind for no other reason than the 1953 Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax was recently on TCM OnDemand (I did not get a chance to watch it).

Regardless, what I specifically recalled about that slightly tacky museum was that one of the first tableaus you saw when you entered from the Boardwalk was of The Beatles circa 1964. Walking by the four wax figures, I would hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing; perhaps songs like “She Loves You” played as well. In fact, now that I interrogate that memory, the point of the tableau may have been to reproduce their historic February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

I could not tell you what other tableaus I saw in Louis Tussaud’s because, frankly, the only other thing I clearly remember is the Chamber of Horrors.

Again, I was seven or eight years old when I viewed those displays, some of which were particularly gory and graphic. This nostalgic video includes two of them: a low-quality rendition of the Lon Chaney version of the Phantom of the Opera and a gruesome Algerian Hook (speaks for itself, despite being misspelled in the video).

As an aside, the photograph in the video of the Boardwalk in front of Steel Pier in the summer of 1974 was like stepping out of a TARDIS: that is the Atlantic City I remember. To be fair, I preferred Million Dollar Pier, whose Tilt-a-Whirl I would foolishly ride every weekday, around 12:30 in the afternoon, after eating a slice of pizza from a little stand just where Arkansas Avenue meets the Boardwalk. Seeing that photograph was both exhilarating and painful; I may have known Atlantic City at the very end of its family-resort glory, but I loved being there.

Returning to the Chamber of Horrors, I was both terrified and fascinated by the scenes it depicted. If memory serves, they also included Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby on November 24, 1963. As deeply unsettling as they were, I could not stop poring over the photographs of those displays in my souvenir booklet back home in Havertown.

But rather than admit they scared the bleepity-frick out of me, I displaced that emotion onto the completely banal and non-threatening (if mildly creepy, in the way all wax figures are mildly creepy) wax renditions of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Simply because they were what I saw before I entered the Chamber of Horror, which truly did scare me. This may not be quite what Sigmund Freud meant by a “screen memory,” but the concept is broadly the same.

In some ways, “interrogating memory” is like the love child of psychoanalytic technique (patiently probing memories to get at any underlying meaning) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything, putting all data points into context—usually chronological), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history.

Or, to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on a minute, did that really happen that way, then, in that place?”

*********

Speaking of persistence, I may have solved a mystery I first identified here:

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

In the post, I concluded I had almost certainly turned north on Route 152 from Business Route 202 that night, eventually wending through the Montgomery County towns of Chalfont, Briarwyck, Silverdale, Perkasie, Sellersville and Telford (where Route 152 ends at Route 309). It was just that none of these towns had the sort of urban-feeling center in which my memory placed the diner.

Frustrated in my efforts to find a diner that fit the necessary criteria, I concluded thus:

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

As I said, though, a key element of interrogating memory is persistence, so the other night I resolved to trace my possible route that night, starting at the intersection of Routes 152 and Business 202, using StreetView on Google Maps.

Patiently clicking the forward arrow, waiting less patiently for the photographs to resolve on my computer screen, I made my virtual way through Chalfont and Briarwyck and Silverdale and Perkasie into Sellersville. I took a few wrong turns along the way (Route 152, like many state routes, has a habit of randomly turning left or right onto a different street), but always righted myself.

After getting lost multiple times at a particularly tricky five-way intersection, I continued along South Main Street, heading away from the center of Sellersville. In that confusing way of state routes, by following “North” Route 152, I actually travelled south. After passing a few scattered two-story brick houses and local businesses, a large (for the area) parking lot appeared on my left.

In the middle of the lot was a light gray single-story building with a double-sloped roof. The front of the building was a two-story structure from which short flights of concrete steps, under red awnings, protruded. Above each awning was a lighted sign, white with red letters, reading “A & N DINER.” A yellow road sign embedded in the asphalt just beyond the sidewalk read “A & N DINER/ FAMILY RESTAURANT / OPEN 24 HOURS”; with “HAPPY LABOR DAY” spelled out in removable black plastic letters just below that.

Say what now? How did I miss this 24-hour diner in my extensive search?

Something about it seemed vaguely familiar, especially adjusting for the fact these September 2018 photographs were taken during the day, while my drive occurred at night, when the A & N Diner would have been brightly lit in the darkness. I clicked on the map’s icon to learn it is no longer open 24 hours. If that change occurred between Labor Day 2018 and early March 2019, that would explain why I could not find it searching for “24 hour restaurants.”

Scrolling through the accompanying photographs, I observed a small counter area to the left as you entered. One photograph showed five dark pink (almost gray) leather-covered stools bolted to the floor. To the left of the counter was a window, which another photograph confirmed overlooked the parking lot. And the wall one faced sitting at the counter might be the one I recalled—the glass shelving could easily have been replaced since I was (possibly) there in 2003 or 2004 (or existed only in my memory).

The only problem was that this was hardly the urban downtown my memory insisted housed the diner. However, I may have an explanation for that.

One of the classes I took in the first semester of my biostatistics Master’s program at Boston University School of Public Health was on probability theory. While I earned an A on the first of three exams (which comprised ~90% of the final grade), I bombed the second exam. Forget getting an A in the class; I was simply hoping to salvage a B with the final exam. Sometime after that disastrous second exam, say in November 2005, I had a powerful dream. In that dream, in which I learned I did in fact earn an A, it was night. The dark second floor room in which I stood extended far behind me as I stared out a large bay window; perhaps I was in bed first, it is all a bit fuzzy 14 years later. Below me was an urban corner with low buildings, lit by a single street lamp; a kind of brick culvert was off to my right.

This dream made such an impression on me, I still remember it relatively clearly nearly 14 years later. It is possible I mixed up looking out the window into the dark parking lot at the A & N Diner with looking out the window at the urban street corner in the dark in my dream. Why, I could not begin to tell you…unless the former somehow got worked into the latter? I would have to drive to the A & N Diner at night to be certain.

Another slight variation is that I recall the diner being on my right, but I would have approached it from the left that night. That could easily be explained, however, if I parked on the opposite side of the building (putting the diner on my right as I entered) and/or if I drove past it at first, decided to stop in for a snack, and turned around, thus placing the building to my right as I drove to it again.

There is one additional small point of confirmation. In my memory, the diner is shiny and new. Well, a little digging on the invaluable Newspapers.com uncovered a February 2000 article in the NEWS-HERALD of Perakasie, PA[4]. The gist of the article is that Nicholas and Vasso Scebes had assumed control of Angelo’s Family Restaurant on January 31, 2000, renaming it A & N Diner and Family Restaurant.

The key passage is this:

“Later this month, the manager said, they hope to be settled in enough to change the environment of the restaurant, starting with the interior wall colors, which are currently a bright two-tone lime green. Vasso said that’s the first thing regulars asked to have changed.”

Later in the article, Vasso avowed her intention to “clean up this place and make it respectable.”

If those renovations were completed sometime in 2000, they could well have seemed “shiny and new” three or four years later, when a young man out for a meandering night drive almost certainly stopped in with his book for a meal and lots of decaffeinated coffee, black.

For the record, dreams sometimes do come true. I studied intensely for the final exam, and earned something like a 92. Great, I thought, that will get me a solid B in the course. When I learned I had actually received an A, I e-mailed the professor to make sure he had not made a mistake. No, he said, he thought well enough of my participation in the class to essentially “throw out” the middle exam as an unfortunate outlier. Oh, I replied, thank you very much.

Until next time…

[1] Itself a curious slip of memory, as I originally wrote (from memory) “fourth grade.” I only pulled out these report cards to review a week or two ago.

[2] I am even listening to Abbey Road as I edit this post.

[3] This shift is beautifully rendered in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City.

[4] Baum, Charles W., “New family takes over operation of former Angelo’s in Sellersville,” NEWS-HERALD (Perkasie, PA), February 16, 2000, pg. 3.

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?

**********

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.

**********

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.

**********

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.

**********

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.

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And that was that.

*********

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.

*********

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.

**********

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.

**********

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.

Bath Maine Route 1 bridge--tighter

**********

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.

My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

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My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

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Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

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The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

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When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

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I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

Berger Storage Company 1915.jpg

And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

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The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

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But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

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The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

Organizing by themes III: Interrogating memory and identity

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

The sequence of events that resulted in the unifying concept of “interrogating memory” went like this:

  • September 2014: Facebook post for my 48th birthday rank-ordering 24 favorites films noir
  • December 2014: Defend epidemiology doctorate at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH); within two months, doctoral committee and I begin to haggle over publication
  • March 2015: Start building comprehensive film noir database (4,825 titles as of January 2019) as result of September 2014 Facebook post
  • May 2015: Skip official BUSPH Commencement in lieu of informal private ceremony; haggling had become personal and nasty
  • June 2015: End four-year senior data analytic position at Joslin Diabetes Center (19 years in health-related data analysis career) when federal grant funding expires
  • July 2015-July 2017: Look for new position in field, more half-heartedly than I care to admit
  • Early 2016: Realize 50th birthday coming in September, begin to think about discovering truth of genetic family as present to self. This goes nowhere fast.
  • August 2016: Commence long-overdue psychotherapy and begin to take low-dose anti-depressant. Early sessions zero on in establishing my “identity.”
  • September 2016: Turn 50. World does not end.
  • December 2016: Debut Just Bear With Me blog, inspired to large degree by the accessible data journalism of FiveThirtyEight.
  • Early 2017: Realize am spending far more time writing about American politics and culture than anything related to epidemiology (which, along with biostatistics, was focus of 10 years of graduate study at BUSPH).
  • May 2017: Publish Film Noir: A Personal Journey
  • June 2017: Begin to express doubts about my career path 
  • Summer 2017:

By August 2017, I was fully engaged in three interlocking processes:

  1. Writing a book with the working title Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family’ s History…and My Own.
  2. Using online tools (and documents I had carefully archived over the years) to build comprehensive, ever-expanding family trees, first for my legal family (the only family I ever knew until the last 18 months) and later for my genetic family
  3. Using 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tool to supplement slow-moving legal process to learn about genetic family.

This is easily the single most entertaining and rewarding process I have ever undertaken—especially when you learn the death of your father’s father’s father—the handsome and dapper David Louis Berger—made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in October 1919!

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

And it is far from complete.

On July 4, 2019, I wrote a series of tweets that tied two sets of genealogical strands into a single, all-American narrative.

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The funny thing is that I had never intended to write that much about these genealogical research process, given that I had originally conceived this site to be a place to disseminate “data-driven” odds and ends.

The innate storyteller in me could not resist, however, and on July 22, 2017, I wrote 23and…Who? This proved to be a relatively popular post, so whatever residual disinclination I felt to continue writing about my familial research evaporated almost immediately.

In fact, in a span of four days in mid-August 2017 I wrote three consecutive posts about what I was learning.

Making personal connection, 60 years later

Querying the impossible, just for fun

Interrogating memories of childhood fires

One month later I returned to the research with a cri de coeur about the perils of genealogical research.

I had little new to report until December 2017, when I wrote the following three consecutive posts; in the second one I finally dropped the tattered pretense that this site is solely devoted to “objective data-driven” analyses:

Querying the impossible once again…

In which the objective is to get more…personal

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

After a two-month hiatus during which I described in glorious detail my recent adventures in San Francisco, I returned to my genealogical investigations with two posts:

Questions of identity

Two worlds collided…

These were followed by a May 2018 post focusing less upon genealogy and more on my ongoing search for identity.

That August, I traveled to my birth city of Philadelphia, PA to conduct on-site research (and to visit friends and family). I shared what I learned from that trip in a three-part series:

Visiting Philadelphia 1

Visiting Philadelphia 2

Visiting Philadelphia 3

With a follow-up visit in August 2019.

From September until mid-December 2018, I was preoccupied with the 2018 midterm elections. It was not until what would have been my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn’s 104th birthday (or so I had always understood) that I returned to both the book and the research. I followed that up with a cri de coeur reprise less than one month later, followed in February 2019 by the tale of my paternal great-great-uncle.

The assimilation of Samuel Joseph Kohn

The many Samuel Schmucklers

Louis Berger, Charles Rugowitz and the Three Stooges

But what happens when memories defy interrogation? Well, persistence is often the answer (plus the real reason I once hated The Beatles, with a postscript).

Finally, here are the posts that are about my life (separate from my taste in music and love for baseball) but do not necessarily fall under the heading of “interrogating memory.”

Welcome…and just bear with me.

July 2017 Odds and Ends

Questions asked…and answered

Moving memories

Moving serendipity

And for my 100th post…

Remembrance of restaurants past (and present)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 1)

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

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Epilogue)

Four stories and 12 years ago…

Two posts related to the Netflix series Stranger Things touched on such deeply personal issues as mental health, my relationship with my parents and my obsessive nature”

Stranger Things…about me?

Ritual and obsessions: a brief personal history

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Wait…did I mention that in June 2018, I formally learned the name of my genetic mother?

Until next time…