Friday, June 11, 1999
On the short drive between Nina’s mother on the Cape, and my own in New York, we saw three of my friends, two of Tom’s, had conversations with several others on the phone, and visited a pair of my cousins in Rhode Island. In contrast, in the first four weeks of the trip, we’d seen almost no one we knew: just Nina, Jeff, Lisa, and Tom’s friend in Toronto—his name was sometimes Terry and sometimes Richard. That’s one pal every hundred-and-sixty-eight hours, unless you count Terry/Richard twice. We’d just done seven in twelve.
And it was gonna get worse, New York being full of my relatives and friends. Tom knew only a few of them, and some even I couldn’t keep sorted. And as we sat, almost permanently trapped in evening traffic outside New Haven, I thought about dodging them all.
Then Tom veered my thinking towards Vermont, by comparing it to the Connecticut Turnpike. He was surprised how different parts of New England were. “More built up than I thought.”
I laughed. “Were you expecting Bob Newhart?”
“No,” he possibly lied.
“Most of the farms are gone.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I don’t know. They were really hardfarms.”
As if I knew from experience—mainly, from reading Desire Under The Elms. Though I used to bike the back roads, summers, through fields now plowed into malls.
Another friend of mine also fantasized about living in New England. This was during college. Then he got a job interview in one of those oft-photographed burgs, and couldn’t wait to get out. “There’s nothing there,” he’d slumped in disappointment. “Crummy buildings, all falling down.”
And it wasn’t even winter.
In Vermont, Tom and I talked to someone else with that dream: a woman who ran a small inn. She, too, found it less than romantic.
“There are always people around, which is great. And the changing seasons are wonderful. But I’m constantly busy, so just when I want to sit down and talk with someone, something comes up.”
As if to confirm this, the phone rang.
“And she’s having trouble booking the place,” our waitress told us at dinner. “It’s a tough area.”
Despite that, it was a pretty good restaurant, maybe our best between San Francisco and the Cape. “How do you keep it going?”
She laughed. “For one thing, we’ve only been here a few years. In local terms that still makes us new, so there’s curiosity. Mostly though, we’re only open four nights—Thursday through Sunday.”
“Is the summer busier?”
“Not like you’d think. Mainly, we get regulars.”
Which turned out to be doctors and lawyers. Who traveled a lot, so expected sophisticated food.
“Retired?” I asked.
“Not most of them.”
“Why would such an isolated area have so many doctors and lawyers?”
She couldn’t say, but I bet on the PR—in Vermont that works overtime. Trumpeting city escapes in summer, and fall trees. And winter skiing; adulterous spring getaways. With slick photo layouts on ever-present brochures. Because of these, Tom and I spent one morning searching for The Quintessential Country Store. That’s how they’re billed in the pamphlets.
After chasing through a half-dozen shops, widely scattered in the narrow state, I wanted to pack their owners off to The Mercantile in Oregon. To see what A Store That Sells Everything really looks like. These dives were stuffed with junk that wouldn’t even grace church bazaars. Or were knockoff 7-11s you’d only run to in desperation.
The towns were also very much working places, nothing picturesque. Some of the architecture was admirable, though always battered by weather and time. And nothing seemed to work. In one town, it took us a half-hour to find an easy address on Main Street.
“Oh, yeah,” the sales clerk told us when we finally arrived—we’d had to call her for directions. “They’re changing all the addresses to meet the 911 Code.”
“A way to get firemen and police around.”
“Is that hard?”
“Well, some of the streets have never been named. And other names are used all over the place, with no connection. So trying to tell someone where to go in an emergency is a disaster.”
“Aren’t there maps?”
“Yeah, but who uses them? Most of us have lived here all our lives. We just know where everything is.”
New construction sure wasn’t the problem—I didn’t see a whole lot. There was a huge hole behind a maybe two-hundred-year-old Town Hall. But that looked more like they were trying to keep the hill from sliding down.
One interesting building was a public library. Typically red brick outside, the interior was a 19th century museum, all dark carved panels. Hundreds of Grand Tour paintings covered the walls, given to the town—along with this so-called athenaeum—by its once-wealthiest family. Though unlike so much else, the building had been restored maybe sixty years earlier, then kept in good shape.
Another town had a pretty, pentagonal center I never got to explore. Tom had gone to the Post Office while I went searching for a phone. Following instructions, I’d turned, and from a block away saw the dog wriggling out the half-open truck window—heading down the driver’s-side door onto a busy street.
“STOP IT!” I bellowed diagonally across the intersection. The dog must’ve heard me, and hesitated, ’cause by the time I’d broken-field run through cars, bikes, and people once calmly shopping, she’d just hit the ground. I quickly grabbed her collar.
“Bad Dog!” I intoned. “B – a – d Dog!”
She whimpered, knowing she’d done me wrong.
“Bad Dog,” I repeated, forbidden even to swat the mutt gently. Though I nimbly sealed her in the truck.
“God! I thought you were being robbed!” a woman standing on the sidewalk soon commented. “And here it’s only a dog!”
Only a dog? Only a dog?
Try that on Tom.