the sorry state of my childhood home Wednesday, January 6 2021
rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
Yesterday was the day of runoff elections for both of Georgia's seats in the United States Senate. If Democrats managed to get both seats, it would mean that the Senate would be controlled by Democrats. That would be huge; it would mean that Mitch McConnell would be powerless to sabotage Joe Biden's efforts to form an executive branch, appoint judges, or do the expensive work of fixing the coronavirus pandemic and digging out of the considerable economic hole it has placed the country in. Normally Republicans perform better in runoff elections, since Republicans are more likely to vote in general, especially for primaries and other low-profile elections. There's also the matter that runoffs tend to favor the party that just lost the preceding Presidential election, since there is a sizable chunk of the electorate that wants to compensate for the perceived excesses of the victorious President. But that's the normal case, and this year was anything but normal. For starters, President Trump had insisted that he'd won the presidency in a landslide and that his victory had somehow been stolen from him. And his incessant banging of that drum seemed to cause that "swing electorate" that would normally want to compensate against a victorious Biden to instead want to compensate against Trump. This, combined with encouraging voting data coming out of the Democratic strongholds in and near Atlanta, had me feeling fairly upbeat about the race. But I've been disappointed so many times that I didn't want to have my hopes up too high. So I avoided the tick-tock of news about the returns as they came in last night.
By this morning, though, I was ready to see what the results were. By then, the Democrat Raphæl Warnock had already defeated the dreadful Kelly Loeffler, becoming Georgia's first Black senator. And in the other race, Jon Ossoff was ahead of the execrable David Purdue, and the only places left to count were in strongly Democratic areas, making his victory a mathematical certainty (at least as much as these things can be). I was confident enough in all this to tell Gretchen that the Democrats had won both Senate seats and thus taken control of both the House and the Senate. We were both overjoyed, and planned to listen to as much news about these victories as possible during our long roadtrip today down to Staunton, Virginia.
We packed up the Prius with the things we needed and left our house, dogs, and cats in Poweful's capable hands. I'd turned on the boiler last night so he wouldn't have to deal with the woodstove. As we drove, we surfed public radio stations and various podcasts (from the Stitcher app on Gretchen's phone), basking in the good news of Warnock's victory. Our news sources were being cautious about declaring the Ossoff victory, perhaps out of sensitivity to the few MAGA enthusiasts listening, snowflakes that they are.
Then I had to attend a demo by the Ukranians via Google Hangouts. It totally didn't work at all on my phone, but when I used my phone as a tethered WiFi router, I could get to the demo on my laptop. But the bandwidth was so terrible that all I could do was was hear the audio. Still, I felt like I was following along for the 50-75% of it I managed to catch. Meanwhile I had Gretchen mostly turn the radio either down or off, which made her "bored," she confessed. But she had her turn later to bore me when her former student Lyte, the guy who was recently deported to St. Lucia, called her. She proceeded to give him a Veganism 101 lecture, which included the fact that one must breed cows and produce offspring in order to get milk. There was also the "fact" that cow's milk contains a lot of pus, which seems more like something someone made up in order to veganize the squeamish. Actually, during this call I wasn't so much bored as alarmed: what made Gretchen think Lyte was so interested in veganism? And if he wasn't, what was his ulterior motive in allowing her to prosyletize him so relentlessly? After the call, though, Gretchen assured me that Lyte really is extremely interested in veganism.
There are several ways to make it over to I-81, the north-south interstate that takes one down to Staunton. Today we decided to take the southern route, driving down to I-78 and taking that west through Bethlehem, PA. This was all just so we could buy a big haul of dessert items at Vegan Treats. I'm never that excited about dessert items, but for some reason I allowed myself to vicariously enjoy Gretchen's excitement. She spent nearly $100 on food and two travel mugs, even though the cashier was kind of a bitch, curtly telling Gretchen that the store had no restroom. That made sense given the pandemic, but we'd been driving for hours and Gretchen had to pee.
From Bethlehem, I drove us west to Harrisburg, where our destination was a vegan café called The Vegetable Hunter. To get there, we drove southeastward on the east bank of the wide Susquehanna River, where all the houses had been made beautiful because of the value of the land beneath them. The land would've been worth even more had a busy highway not stood between the houses and the river's edge, but cities nobody can expect a city like Harrisburg to be well-designed. We took a left away from the river on a street with a grand view of a domed building that must've been the Capitol of Pennsylvania. As we drove a few blocks in its direction, I saw a group of men walking in our direction. They were dressed in black with yellow accents, and I knew right away that these were the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist organization that has risen to notoriety with the apparent approval of their hero, President Donald Trump. The Proud Boys were chanting "Fuck Antifa!" in reference to a largely-mythical anti-fascist organization (apparently referred to as "Antifa" because most people agree with the concept of "anti-fascism"). Gretchen had presence of mind to start filming with her phone, and then mocked them with "Hueh Hueh Hueh Hueh!" Then she shouted "Motherfuckers!" That was when I busted a left, and The Vegetable Hunter was only a few blocks away (a little too close to a street-brawling gang we'd just mocked). Here's the video Gretchen shot:
The dining room in the back of The Vegetable Hunter was empty, so we decided to eat back there despite the ongoing pandemic. The staff was super nice and helpful, especially the guy with tattooed arms and the heavy central Pennsylvanian accent. It turned out that we didn't have a functional USB-C cable to charge Gretchen's phone, and when we asked where we could find one, he suggested going over to Sixth Street, where the gas would be cheap (though the neighborhood would be a little rough). The food wasn't all that great at the Vegetable Hunter, though my eggplant reuben was better than expected.
Over on Sixth Street, we stopped for gas at a station where you had to know how much money you were going to spend on your gas before you started filling your tank. About half the inside of the station was given over to machines where one could gamble. The mostly African-American customers didn't seem too concerned about the coronavirus given how little attention they were giving to wearing their masks, and I didn't want to be in that space any longer than I had to be. Unfortunately, the man in line in front of me seemed to be doing some transaction that involved dozens of coins. I don't think I'd ever been to a gas station with quite so many signifiers of poverty. Unfortunately, they didn't have any USB cables for sale.
Driving northwestward through this run-down part of Harrisburg, we came upon an amazing sight: a line of former row houses where only a few of the actual houses remained, like a few good teeth in someone who had never visited a dentist. The remaining houses all had fresh new paint jobs, making their isolation all the more stark.
By then we'd lost our public radio station and had found a right-wing talk show to listen to instead. It turned out it was Rush Limbaugh's program, but he'd picked a bad day to not go to work, and some lesser right-wing celebrity had the golden EIB microphone. There'd been some sore of fracas at the United States Capitol that the host was claiming was entirely peaceful, contrasting it with the thuggish behavior of minorities during the summer's Black Lives Matter protests. We could only take so much of that before returning to podcasts, as the local public radio stations were no longer broadcasting news coverage.
As we headed southward down I-81, we kept considering stopping at one of the trucker-friendly exits to get a USB-C cable so Gretchen could charge her phone, which was now down to a 20% battery charge. But then came news that conditions at the Capitol in Washington had turned profoundly violent, with thousands of Trump supporters surrounding the building and battering their way through barricades. Some were even smashing windows and climbing into the building via scaffolding installed for the coming inauguration. The NPR anchors and reporters covering the story sounded increasingly shaken, and one even asked at some point, "Is this a coup?" I'd thought of it as a joke until then, but after that I took it more seriously.
The news was so gripping that we kept postponing going in search of a USB cable. We finally went to a gas station somewhere in northern Virginia (near Winchester). When I went inside, live coverage of the Capitol insurrection was playing on the sound system in there. I was able to find a couple nice flat rubbery USB-C cables (one for my brother's new phone and one for Gretchen's) and a sixpack of Little Sumpin' Sumpin.' The woman ringing me up was twenty years younger than me, but she still referred to me as "hun."
When I got back out to the car, Gretchen had just heard a remarkable short speech by Donald Trump in which he seemed to give encouragement to the insurrectionists. I assumed we'd be hearing it again, but that was the only time it was to be aired. Major news organizations were evidently suppressing it in hopes of containing the insurrection. This was a completely unprecedented situation: the media forced to bottle up the President in hopes of limiting the damage of an ongoing national crisis.
Twilight lasted longer down in these lower latitudes, and there was still quite a bit of light even after 5:00pm. By the time we arrived at my childhood home on Stingy Hollow Road, though, darkness had fallen. We decided to find my brother Don before looking for my mother. I hadn't seen her since the summer of 2013, and I didn't know how deranged she might be. I was also concerned about reports she'd once met a sheriff's deputy at the door with a shotgun in her hands. Fortunately, we saw Don right away within the double-wide Creekside trailer. He was wearing a hat and a big bushy red beard with only a little grey near the tip of his chin. We knocked and he came immediately out to meet us, not particularly surprised to see us even though we'd driven all this way without having managed to contact him first. "I think our mom is losing her mind!" Don said as he invited us in. Gretchen quickly surveyed the scene and determined it to be deplorable. More clutter had accumulated in the 13 years since she'd last been here, and a layer of dust had settled on that. And the bathroom was horrifying, with thick accumulations of grime on every surface. We would soon learn that part of the problem was that the trailer no longer had running water. The same would prove true of the house across the road, the one I'd grown up in. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We had Don take us to the other house to introduce us to my mother Hoagie. We found her sitting in a chair watching teevee. All hell was breaking loose on one of the craziest news days in recent memory, but for some reason Hoagie was watching the Flintstones. She had a clear view of the teevee screen past a mound of paper mixed with various other items that was as big as a small automobile. We quickly found that the house was full of such clutter, and the bathroom here was even more disgusting than the one we'd seen in the double-wide at Creekside.
Despite an estrangement stretching back to my father's death in late 2011, Hoagie was happy to see us. Her dog Maple (now eleven years old) was initially skeptical, doing a fair amount of barking, but before long she was licking our faces. Hoagie seemed like her same old self, and had I not paid close attention (and ignored the pathology on display in the household clutter) I might've might've mistaken her for a functioning adult. The first glitch I detected in her thinking was when she asked me how I knew Gretchen's parents. She apparently knew who Gretchen was, and even told a story of staying in their Silver Spring house, but it seemed possible she either didn't know who I was or she was incapable of the small mental inductions that people routinely make when analyzing the social network of a married couple.
We talked about a range of things, including Hoagie's continued use of vehicles and how she's been holding up during the pandemic. She said she's been taking advantage of the Staunton bus network more, though she still has to drive to the old Staunton Mall to reach it. She said she carries a mask in her pocket but never wears it unless asked to. That was precisely the sort of selfish bone-headed pandemic behavior I'd fully expected her to be engaging in.
Hoagie's memory of the old days seemed relatively sharp, but it was hard to figure out when in history the various stories she was telling had taken place. She'd had an accident involving her car, but had it been in the last year? It was hard to know. It involved a copperhead snake she'd seen on the side of the road, and apparently a snake-loving lawyer had helped clear her driving record completely.
The whole time we talked, it was eerie to be in the presence of a such huge mass of clutter and not aknowledge it. It was almost literally "the elephant in the room." At some point Hoagie admitted that she's "not the best housekeeper." But that was it.
I should mention that it was rather cold in the house, and Hoagie was wearing many layers just as she was sitting there watching the teevee. She insisted the house's heat was working, though I was skeptical. When I pushed some buttons on the thermostat to order more heat, nothing happened. Hoagie launched into a story about standing in line at the fuel company to buy a tank of oil only to find, when she got to the front, that some man, a total stranger had already paid for her. Hoagie thought of this as a great success, oblivious to the fact that when you present yourself in public as indigent enough to get such favors, you are definitely not winning. As with other stories Hoagie had told, it was unclear whether the free oil tank story had happened recently or a decade ago.
By then, I felt the need to take a shit, and there was no way I wanted to use any of the bathrooms available. So I impatiently said that it was time for us to go, and we walked back over to the double-wide with Don. Then Gretchen thought maybe she should do a load of laundry for Don, so I went outside and took a shit on the west bank of Folly Mills Creek behind the trailer, tossing the paper towels I'd used to wipe into the water like a litterbug. For this time of year, it wasn't too cold, and I was able to wash my hands in the creek.
Gretchen and I told Don we'd be coming back tomorrow and then drove into Staunton. Gretchen had rented us a room in Hotel 24 South, which turned out to be the new non-Confederate-General-commemorating name of the old Stonewall Jackson Hotel, the tallest building in Staunton. We parked on the street and took our crap up to our room. The woman at the desk was wearing a mask, but another customer was wearing his mask like an Amish beard, entirely under his chin.
In hopes of finding something to eat, Gretchen and I went for a stroll around downtown, checking out an Indian restaurant near the site of the old downtown Greyhound station and then venturing into a sports bar on Beverly Street. We asked a waiter what the vegan options were, and he said something we'd never heard a waiter say before, that because he wasn't vegan he had no idea. It didn't really matter; their kitchen had just closed anyway. We ended up buying some stale pistachios at a corner store where the cashier (a friendly guy shaped like Humpty Dumpty) was boldly playing punk rock on the store's sound system. It looked like I'd be drinking Little Sumpin' Sumpin' for dinner.
Back in our hotel room, Gretchen started a load of Don's laundry (he'd only given her a few things). She'd quickly determined that the underwear was too nasty to salvage and had thrown it all away. Bear in mind: Don hadn't had access to running water to bathe or wash clothes with for over a year.
Gretchen and I also felt the need to shower after our exposure to the houses out on Stingy Hollow Road. After that, we had to turn on our room's teevee to learn about the fallout from today's insurrection. Here's a strong indication of how crazy the day was: the fact that the Senate had just fallen to the Democrats (as predicted, Ossoff had won) was barely being mentioned, even though it had totally fixed the biggest political obstacle Joe Biden would be facing.
Proud Boys (American fascists) on the march near the capitol in Harrisburg, PA, with Gretchen shooting video on her phone. Click for a wider view.
The southmost bathroom in the double-wide at Creekside.
Hoagie with clutter in the living room of my childhood home.
Hoagie with more clutter in the living room of my childhood home.
Don in the kitchen of my childhood home.
The kitchen of my childhood home. Nobody has used that woodstove in a long time.
The main shelf of the kitchen in my childhood home. Note the accumulation of dust.