the WASPs of New Hampshire
Saturday, July 12 2003
setting: Brattleboro, Vermont
I didn't know where I was when I woke up this morning. Where I was: on a futon in a living room in Brattleboro, Vermont. The futon belonged to either Julie, my old housemate John's girlfriend, or Julie's housemate Rebecca. With her short spiky hair, Rebecca vaguely resembles John's sister Maria, though she is taller. Interestingly, John's interaction with Rebecca was almost exactly like his interaction with Maria. Like Maria, Rebecca has a tendency to whine and complain, though it's all in steam-rolled Upper-Midwestern vowels. In response, John teases her relentlessly. But there's none of the underlying seriousness of the John and Maria show - ultimately John's relationship with Rebecca doesn't matter.
The four of us drove to a nearby Brattleboro farmer's market to piece together a breakfast from the various stands. There was coffee from the jolly coffee guy, old fashioned donuts from the WASPy donut woman, and Thai delights from a family of what appeared to be genuine Thailanders. Most of the shoppers there looked to be typical lefty Vermonters. I hadn't seen so many unshaved female legs since I was a student in Oberlin.
As usual when strolling out and about in public, John wasn't particularly impressed by the examples of womanhood he saw there. The only ladies who looked sexy to him were obviously still teenagers. "If you don't tap 'em while they're young, by the time they're legal they weigh three hundred pounds!" he sighed.
The plan for the afternoon was for John and me to take the attention deficit disorder medication Adderall and then visit the nearby town of Keene, New Hampshire. I wanted to go there because I'd heard a lot about it from my mother. She was born there and lived there as a child until her family's farm was condemned for the creation of an airport. Back in those days her father Clarence DeMar was a famous marathon runner and used to hitch hike back and forth to Boston on a regular basis for various reasons.
As we approached the Connecticut River, I noticed that there were two nearly identical powder-green steel bridges crossing it to New Hampshire. One is the old bridge and the other is its replacement, which isn't yet completed. John pointed out some ugly dents in the metal cross-members of the old bridge and told me that it had been built just a little too low for some standard-sized semi trucks. If there's a layer of ice or some trucker pumps his tires up too full, a truck can get wedged beneath the cross member. "It happens all the time!" John assured me. He added that the old bridge will be left in place as a pedestrian crossing after the new bridge comes online. The idea infuriated him. "What the hell is on the other side that anyone would ever want to walk to?" he demanded to know. At the time I couldn't think of anything, but later I learned about the New Hampshire package store. There's no sales tax in New Hampshire, since the people living there have mastered the not-so-subtle art of Living Free or, short of that, Dying.
Before venturing into Keene proper, we took a detour to the nearby town of Swanzey, the site of the airport built on former DeMar property. It's a dinky little airport and we cruised back and forth once along its length to look for anything noteworthy. As is the case with any place known only from legend, particularly those buried beneath layers of subsequent history, it was all rather anticlimactic. There's a little reservoir across the street from the airport and I seem to remember my mother saying something about a body of water. These days the reservoir features a tiny public beach near the dam outflow. (I've tracked down an aerial photo for readers in Al Qaeda.)
On the way we'd passed a couple of kids holding signs advertising a "free carwash." While we walked around on the shore of the Swanzey reservoir, I noticed that John's shiny black Saab was covered with tawny-colored dirt. "You could really use a free carwash," I said. So what the hell, John decided to take those kids up on their offer. He gave a thumbs-up to one of the kids holding a sign and then drove to where two young men weilded hoses and sponges. John rolled down his window. "So... free carwash?" "Yup, free car wash." John rolled up his window and the car wash happened. I turned around at one point and noticed a sign out front that indicated we were in some sort of fundamentalist church parking lot, but these kids never got a chance to hit us with any message. When the free car wash was done, John gave the kids the thumbs-up and drove way. Perhaps there was an expectation of a donation, but as John was quick to point out, "Then it wouldn't be free!" I figured they should have at least hung some sort of poster on the wall in the direction that cars faced as they were washed. Then they could have accomplished some sort of prosyletizing effect, if indeed that was their intent. There are other theories: perhaps this was a project to demonstrate the altruistic goodness of Christians. Or maybe these kids had violated their virginity pledges and this was their punishment. In any case, the free carwash hadn't been all that great. There was still a big triangle of dirt on one of the doors.
We went into an Apple Macintosh store and John tried his best to convince the nerdy kid running the store to loan us an OSX install CD so we could "test drive" OSX. (I've been looking to get a copy for free.) The kid was a little too smart for that, but not so smart that he could get a better job than the one he had. He claimed he was "also a Macintosh developer" and when I asked him what he'd developed he wouldn't tell me, only that it was "shareware." Wow, shareware. How 1992!
Downtown Keene consisted of little knot of commercial streets rich in stores and restaurants characteristic of gentrification. To get to Armadillo's Burrito shop, a seedy little Mexican eatery, we had to go down a little side street. Owing to the Adderall we weren't terribly hungry, so we split a quesadilla.
Out on the main drag of Keene, we were curious to see if any of the side streets had been named in honor of my grandpa. So John kept stopping people to ask them if they knew where DeMar street was. Nobody had ever heard of it, though one person had heard of the Clarence DeMar Marathon, which is held in Keene every year. We settled the matter in the Keene police station by asking the dispatcher. It turned out that there was no DeMar street in Keene. But even after we knew, John continued to stop and ask people the location of DeMar Street. He just wanted an excuse to talk to random people, and it was a better question than anything else he could think to ask. He said he intended to ask people about the location of DeMar Street from now on, no matter what town he happened to be in.
After checking out a parapharnalia-selling hemp store, we dranked cups of iced hazelnut coffee in a coffee shop. Meanwhile out in front a couple of guys were juggling bowling pins while a shirtless man served as a roost for enormous Blue and Gold Macaw. Periodically motorcyclists would drive past. Since this is New Hampshire, they're free to ride around without helmets. (Vermont does have a helmet law, but the mandated head protection is far less than that required in most other states; in Vermont it's legal for people to ride with Nazi helmets.)
Julie met up with us again back at John's campus residence. This evening we'd be attending a dinner party up near Windsor on the New Hampshire side of the Connecticut River. One of the hosts of the party would be Julie's stepsister, who is an OB-GYN student at Dartmouth. In fact, Julie had been told to come early to help with the party preparations. She'd also somehow gotten the message that blue jeans would be inappropriate attire, a notion John found ridiculous. As for me, I never wear blue jeans; my casual clothes are often appropriate for semi-formal occasions.
When we got to Windsor we were an hour and a half early, far too early for John's comfort. He insisted on going to the nearest Borders to waste at least forty-five minutes.
Once we got to the farmhouse hosting the party, John and I were put to work setting up lawn furniture and citronella tikki torches. The Adderall had made coffee taste better than usual, and I'd had way too much. The only reason I wasn't trembling was that the stimulants in the Adderall had repressed this symptom as being suspiciously similar to the annoying, repetitive behavior of hyperactive children. A beer, of course, was all I needed.
Beers in hand, John and I explored the grounds. The farmhouse and the buildings around it used to be the downtown of a village called Plainfield. There's still the remains of an old mill there, and the dam for it is intact, although the bridge crossing in front of it appeared to have rotten cross-members. I saw John barge into a clump of poison ivy before I could warn him, so later I insisted both he and Julie take advantage of the medicinal properties of jewelweed.
The party was an unusually WASPy affair, given what I've learned about the WASP-non-WASP continuum from Gretchen. It featured a pitcher of mojitos, a pitcher of Manhattans, a bowl of Maraschino cherries, but nothing particularly substantial to eat. There were spring rolls and fancy little polenta squares, but where were the sandwiches? How about the handy bucket of chicken breasts? (According to Gretchen, stereotypical WASPs are perfectly happy having just booze for dinner.)
It could have been just another blah party rich in WASPy Dartmouth pussy doctors, but two gay guys came from their house across the street and livened things up a little, at least in the outdoor area where John and I were hanging out for a long time. The Adderall was making me exceptionally conversational and - dare I say - witty. I was joking about my enormous loyalty to the Clear Channel brand, and how I wouldn't think of listening to any non-Clear Channel station. This led one of the gay guys to talk about the first time he heard a radio station clearly being run by robots, circa 1981. That's about the time I first heard robot radio. Back then it was cool, because an unstaffed station usually played very few advertisements. The technology was clunky in those days; when a radio station was entirely pre-recorded, it sure sounded that way.
Later we were having a good laugh about the Ali G Show (which John had never heard of). I tried to be inclusive later in the conversation and gave John the highest praise I could think of in this company, "You're the gayest straight man I know!"
I think the company was a little too polite for John to perform his hilarious new skit portraying the antics of a deaf doctor in an emergency room, something he put together after learning about Dartmouth's aggressive new plan to educate deaf doctors. Picture John making fake hand signs and loudly shouting, "Intubate naow! Du hef to intubate naow! De ih blod ah ohfa dis fluh, somebedy needs tah clean dis up naow!"
Dual steel bridges across the Connecticut River from Brattleboro, Vermont to New Hampshire.
Lower Wilson Pond, near the site of my mother's childhood farm.
It's interesting that trash is called "rubbish" here, just as it is in Cape Cod.
Along the side of the Keene airport in Swanzey, New Hampshire.
The chapel hosting the free carwash.
Somebody else gets a free carwash.
Shirtless man and his macaw in downtown Keene.
Peace expressed in various languages in downtown Keene.
Okay, so the party wasn't entirely WASPy.
But that African American has the air of somebody WASPier than me.
Julie and me.
John and me.
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