300 miles to Portland
Saturday, May 1 2004
setting: rural Hurley, Ulster County, New York
Ah, anniversaries are seldom so delicious:
This weekend Gretchen and I would be driving to Portland, Maine, to attend an art opening. The opening would be at the Map Room, a gallery owned and operated by fellow friend-via-Oberlin alumna Anna H. (whose wedding we recently attended). It would feature a seies of "currency art" made by mutual friend-via-Oberlin alumnus, Johnny C. (I didn't know any of these people when I was in Oberlin, but I did know Gretchen and she knew them all.)
Our car still had snow tires on its front wheels, and Gretchen (having heard that driving long distances on snow tires is bad) wanted them replaced with new regular tires before our trip. Since she would be administering a test this morning at the local community college, it fell to me to replace the tires.
So I dropped the car off at Mavis Discount Tires (no relation to our elderly cat) and set off on foot to kill an hour while the job was done. It's rare these days for me to find myself forced into the role of a pedestrian, particularly in Kingston, and the experience immediately took me back to the good old days of hitch hiking and other societally-stigmatized methods of transportation. Mavis Discount Tires is in the center of a generic strip-commercial zone, the kind one finds on the fringe of every American city. This zone has formed like the plaque choking a coronary artery of a long-term Atkins dieter, with the artery in question being route 9W as it begins its trek up to Saugerties from Kingston. I'd never attempted to be a pedestrian here before, and so had no idea how pedestrian-unfriendly it is. Back in my hitch hiking days I used to remark that hitch hiking was the imperfect exploitation by pedestrians of an ecological niche most suited to automobiles. To walk around in a strip commercial zone is to experience something similar. There are no sidewalks, streets are seemingly impossible (or lethal) to cross, and (perhaps most importantly), you feel desperately out of place. This is because you are the only pedestrian in a world full of moving cars, most of whose drivers and passengers look upon you with derision, pity, or a combination of the two. How unlucky and helpless must a person be to walk in such a world?
Oddly, though, businesses are close enough to one another for easy pedestrian access, which might somehow be encouraged with the installation of proper pedestrian-friendly architecture. I was able to buy a serial cable at Office Depot, deposit a check at my credit union, buy a rich salad-bar "salad" at Mother Earth's Storehouse, and eat it in a pleasant (if trash-strewn) grassy lot, all within the space of an hour. As brief asphalt odysseys go, it wasn't bad.
The moment I got home with the new tires, Gretchen and I set off for Maine. The test she had administered had gone faster than expected and she'd been home twiddling her thumbs for an hour waiting for me.
As usual, we drove like maniacs, somehow traveling 300 miles in only four and a half hours. For entertainment, we tried to subsist for a time on radio. We listened to alternative rock station and Gretchen was horrified by the lyrics of a song called "Figured You Out" by the "bully-grunge" band named Nickelback:
I like your pants around your feet
And I like the dirt that's on your knees
And I like the way you say please
While you're looking up at me
You're like my favorite damn disease
I like the white stains on your dress
I love the way you pass the check
And I love the good times that you wreck
And I love your lack of self respect
While you're passed out on the deck
I love my hands around your neck
I'd heard it before and I'd already shelved my thoughts about it, but for Gretchen its shock value was shiny and new, like a virgin. It made her wonder aloud whether feminism had had any effect on our society at all. For me, what I found sadder was the debasement of grunge. Remember back in 1991 when grunge was "new"? The thing that was revolutionary about grunge wasn't the additional dynamics and additional chords added to punk melodies, it was the lyrical introspection and self-effacement that drove the annoying cock-sure attitude out of the decadence of 1980s rock and roll. Now, though, with bands like Nickelback (and even, on some level, Creed) we see that on the ruins of grunge's anti-rockstar ethic a new structure is being assembled. This new structure has all the annoying cockiness of Poison and Cinderella, but outfitted in the straight-faced glumness of grunge, it assumes some of the frightening qualities of fascism.
Traveling up the Maine Turnpike, I noticed that Maine springtime was well behind what I'd seen in the Catskill foothills. The forest on either side were deciduous in some places and pine in others, although pines in many places appeared to be dying. Everywhere the forests were streaked with the white trunks of Paper Birch trees, making them resemble heads of hair that have begun to go grey.
Portland is a city of 60,000 people. It has a beautiful downtown of solid red-brick buildings and a bustling international port. In addition to its diverse fishing fleets, it also serves as the point of importation for a large fraction of Canada's crude oil, which is pumped northward via a pipeline.
The Map Room is at the base of a small tower on Fore Street, which runs along the waterfront in Portland. This tower is at the entrance for a complex of buildings that includes several aircraft-hangar-sized spaces for the maintenance of marine craft. There's also a railroad museum dedicated to Maine's historic narrow-gauge rail system.
Johnny's "currency art" consisted of clever bill-like collages made using bits and pieces of American paper money cut and pasted together to make outlandish new designs, many with overt political messages. There were also a couple pieces made using Iraqi and Ecuadorian currency. (Ecuadorian currency is no longer in circulation since Ecuador adopted the American dollar as its official currency.)
It was a good opening, but it was lacking in one of the most essential opening ingredients: wine. All that was provided was seltzer water and various kinds of mint (get it?).
The opening went on for a couple hours, followed by at least another hour of post-opening, alcohol-free hanging out. Finally, well after the last of the seltzer had been drunk, those of us who remained all drove into downtown and drank beers and ate pizza at
the Flatbread Company, which rapidly cooks pizzas in igloo-shaped brick ovens. Just the mention of the word "brick oven" can make me salivate.
At the end of the night, six of us returned to Anna H.'s house in a neighborhood a couple of miles from the city center. It was a tiny house, completely devoid of decorations (in keeping with Anna's spartan æsthetic). Before I went to sleep, I drank a little scotch with Anna's brother Luke and told Anna and Luke my experiences with distilling cooking sherry and vanilla extract.
Spring in Portland, Maine. This was the most impressive display of new foliage in town, whose season looked to be about two weeks behind ours in Hurley, NY.
Pleasure craft being repaired in a building connected to the Map Room gallery.
Anna says that a set of massive turbines for steering an oil drilling platform had been in this building only a few weeks ago.
A picker bush at the lighthouse park overlooking Casco Bay in Portland, Maine.
Johnny C. discusses currency at the opening with a random homeslice.
Gretchen in front of some Presidents at today's opening.
At dinner tonight she claimed she already had "old person's neck" but I think she exaggerated.
Johnny C's currency art: G. W. with an eye for a mouth.
Johnny C's currency art: G. W. mouthing some decorative foliage.
Dining tonight at the Flatbread Company in downtown Portland, Maine. Anna H. is wearing orange. Johnny C. is holding his young daughter, Ember (the only youth present at my wedding).
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