Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Charlottesville. Part One

I'm just back from Charlottesville and the Virginia Festival of the Book. I had a super time. Charlottesville is great at any time of year, and the Festival of the Book is pretty darned choice too.

There's a great line in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil where the protagonist is describing Savannah to a friend back in New York City: "It's like Gone With the Wind on mescaline." Charlottesville isn't quite like that, but almost. It's more like The Olde South meets the People's Republic of Berkeley.

I'm pretty darned sure that both Alice Waters and John Waters would feel quite at home there, not to mention any minor Continental royals who are tired of the bad plumbing, lack of cable TV, and the abysmal Thai food delivery options at the family schloss back in the Old Country.

And there are plenty of regular Virginians, too--the kind of folks who, if they didn't have such good manners, would roll their eyes at all the highfalutin' tomfoolery and drawl "there they go again!"

The first program I went to at the Book Festival was a reading by various UVa grads. I didn't really care about any of them except for Chad Harbach. He wrote The Art of Fielding, which I just finished the other day. I loved the the book, so did my best to get there in time to hear him read.

I arrived in the middle of a poetry reading by either some woman named Jazzy or  some other woman named Brittany. Hey if you are going to call yourself a poet, you might as well go by the first name Jazzy. Her poems sounded like a string of random words and occasionally one of the words would refer to a personal body part that is commonly covered by underwear. Unless you're going commando, I mean. Apparently poets named Jazzy do not do iambic pentameter or rhyming couplets. They go in for a trickle of consciousness that focuses on out of body experiences that take place on hospital gurneys. At least that's what I think she was talking about. I wasn't exactly certain. And didn't have the nerve to raise my hand and say, "Excuse me Jazzy. I don't understand. Is this going to be on the test?"

The room was packed and when they were changing poets on stage woman next to me commented that my silver bracelet looked like vintage Georg Jensen. This sort of thing never happens in State College. In State College someone would ask if my grill were vintage George Foreman. My neighbor was a local, an attractive-ish woman of a certain age (plus a few) who wore artsy sportswear and bright blue oxfords (two thumbs up on the shoes!). She was carrying The New Yorker (of course). She said that she reads the movie reviews first and admitted to sending in a caption to the cartoon caption contest once. She was sure that she'd nailed it, and of course, she never heard from the mag. Ever. Her voice was two thirds Virginia and the remainder equal parts Bombay Sapphire and black coffee. She'd read The Art of Fielding, too, but got tired of Henry, the main character. I replied that I wouldn't say I got tired of him but I certainly was ready for him to have a Disney-like redemption since my literary tastes ran to P. G. Wodehouse and romance novels with Fabio on the cover.

After Brittney (or was it Jazzy?), Chad Harbach read a couple of chapters from his book, and then all three writers took questions from the audience. A couple of the questioners seemed to be channeling their inner William F. Buckley since I had no clue that they were talking about. The poets seemed to, though. Or at least they did a passable job of faking it. I was the second person in line for the book signing. Chad signed my book which actually belongs to my friend Susan. He was quite charming and gracious, and if his fame is a drag to him it he didn't act like it. I should have asked him if he could have validated my parking.

After The Jazzy and Chad Show it was time for a personal tour of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.  It was so cool. They showed us everything from a letter signed by John Rolfe (Mr. Pocahontas) to the original manuscript for William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner wrote in longhand, on yellow legal paper, in about 4 point type. He did not cross any of his t's. No joke. Rose Mary Woods would have taken years (plus 18 minutes) to decipher and type the book. 

A little later it was time for a panel on Leo Tolstoy, E.B. White, and Kurt Vonnegut. The presenters weren't dry academics so the discussion was more fun than any panel on Leo Tolstoy, E.B. White, and Kurt Vonnegut had a right to be. The guy who wrote about E.B. White did seem to be channeling his inner drag queen and started to get the vapors when he talked about visiting White's barn in Maine, but thankfully that episode passed before he needed smelling salts. The counterpoint to his vapors was hearing how Kurt Vonnegut tripped over his yappy dog's leash and fell down the stairs of his brownstone, conking his head. He went into a coma and never recovered. What a way to go! I'm sure it was a bad day for the Vonnegut family but it made for an interesting story.

Dinner was an al fresco feast of fish tacos at a restaurant that used to be a gas station. According to its web site, "Mono Loco is Charlottesville’s original nouveau-Latin restaurant." I didn't even know that nouveau-Latin was a genre of restaurant, let alone that there were non-original knockoffs of the real deal in that dining category.

The post-dinner event was a moderated chat between bestselling novelist Steve Berry and another bestselling novelist I'd never heard of, Lisa Gardner. He's a former attorney and likes golf. She writes murder mysteries and enjoys taking kickboxing lessons with  her husband and daughter. I don't know where they come in on Frank Sinatra, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and long walks on the beach. Work wise, she writes murder mysteries and you can enter a contest on her web site to get her to kill or maim one of your friends. He writes books called stuff like The Jefferson Key and The Romanov Prophecy. He's prolific to say the least, and has a zillion books in print, all of which were probably purchased in airports.

After hearing him talk (and overhearing him in the parking lot saying "I was sitting in Chanel in Paris when....") I decided that the titles for his books worked like menu at an old fashioned Chinese restaurant--one from column A and one from column B.

       Column A                                                        Column B
Historical Figure or City                               Another Noun at Random

   Cher                                                                 Toaster Oven
   Buenos Aires                                                     Circumcision
   The Virgin Mary                                                 Indigestion
   Pancho Villa                                                       Divertissment
   Lord Cornwallis                                                  Bidet
   Gibraltar                                                           Jackhammer

There are no incorrect answers, so his  next book may very well be The Cher Jackhammer or The Lord Cornwallis Jackhammer. (Cher and Lord Cornwallis are about the same age, after all!)

Some stuff on the rest of the trip will follow in a later post. My copy of The Gibraltar Circumcision just came from and I can't wait to start reading. I hear that in some quarters it's a religious experience.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Overkill in the Old Dominion

I went to Charlottesville last weekend and happened upon two interesting maintenance projects--one on the UVa grounds and the other at a convenience store I stopped at in Strasburg, Virginia.

The good men (and probably some women) of Buildings and Grounds at The University were doing something to two steps. This this project involves four portable fence posts, three orange traffic cones, two warning signs --in red and black no less, a generous dollop of green plastic fencing and I don't know how many twist ties. The University must have had a papal dispensation to skip the blinking lights, a foghorn, guard towers and a two flag men. I do not have superhuman powers of observation, but I didn't see any actual construction in progress. I know that the sign says there is construction in progress, but it wasn't apparent to me.

On the way home to Pennsylvania, I stopped at a convenience store/Exxon station/McDonald's. I'd never seen all of them combined into one building. It must be the latest thing. One thing about a three-fer interstate exit amenity, it was quite the buffet of smells--the convenience store smell, eau de high test from the gas pumps, and of course that distinctive McDonald's aroma for good measure.

The men's room there contained this urinal, or perhaps a previously undiscovered work by Marcel Duchamp. Not only is there a Wet Floor pylon (non bilingual, McDonalds logo edition) warning you away. but there is also a plastic shroud over the urinal's handle. The Out of Order/Do Not Use sign is cheerfully secured to the plastic shroud with smiley face stickers. When did a broken urinal become something to smile about?  The nearby plunger is at the ready in case you ignore all those warnings and the Bold Look of Kohler turns into Strasburg's version of the Trevi Fountain.

Even with all those warnings, I am sure someone guy's going to use it before it's fixed. Even I thought about it....

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Da Burgh

I went to Pittsburgh last weekend. I hadn't been there in some time. I'm old enough and go infrequently enough to be surprised all over again that there aren't steel mills in the spots where I remember them. The UMPC sign atop the US Steel Building still comes as a surprise too. We used to be a country of large corporations that manufactured stuff. Now we're a country of large corporations that manage our health care. I'm not entirely sure that counts as progress.

State College is fairly bombarded with news of the Stillers and Pens (not so much the Buccos; they stink) and we tend to think of Pittsburgh in terms of sports and still mills and the super geeks at Carnegie-Mellon, the only school in America where you can major in bagpipes. One of the funniest things I ever heard about Pittsburgh was that someone called it the straight San Francisco. That made me smile, since I'm fairly certain that no one has ever called San Francisco the gay Pittsburgh.

I stayed at the Renaissance Hotel, which was designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, more famous as the designer of Forest Hills Gardens in New York City. The lobby space is great, but most of the decor is Kimpton-lite; apparently the Marriott family of hotels does not approve of the generous use of animal prints or the hiring of cute and flirtatious yet sexually ambiguous front desk staff. The hotel bar is called Braddock's. General Braddock blundered his way into a memorable defeat (not to mention his own death) in the French & Indian War. He's definitely a guy who needs to have his name on a bar! Whatever happened to naming stuff after the old Pittsburgh standbys....H.J. Heinz, Andrew Carnegie, and Barbara Feldon?

My friend Chuck and I stopped at the 7-11 near our hotel. Does 7-11 management really think that people in ski masks care about the rules against wearing one in the store?  But hey, customer satisfaction (except if you're wearing a ski mask) is the store's #1 Priority. 

The faux mid-century modern Fort Duquesne and Sixth Street Garage was across the street from the hotel. According to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, the garage has an "award winning central lobby." Apparently this award from from the Parking Garage Central Lobby Design Association of Pittsburgh, because I couldn't imagine who else would give the lobby there a second look. It was strictly "meh", especially if they're trying to make you think that Don Draper parks there. 

I was having a hangover ameliorating coffee at Starbucks when Chuck walked in and asked me if I'd seen the robot repair shop that was right next door. My first thought was "Robot repair? How much did he have to drink last night?" But there it was, Fraley's Robot Repair. However, it wasn't really a repair shop, it was an art installation disguised as a robot repair shop....a robot repair shop from the Robby the Robot era. It's a project designed by Pittsburgh artist Toby Atticus Fraley. Audience members can look through the shop windows and see robots in various stages of dishevelment on the workbench, along with boxes of radioactive parts. Vintage lab instruments are plugged in and ready to be put to use overhauling the Jetsons' robot, Rosie and her friends who suffer from bunions, robotopause, or even iron-poor tired hydraulic fluid.

Once our hangovers went away, we went out to DeLuca's in the Strip District for breakfast. Fantastic place--make it a point to go! I'd never been to the Strip District, but it seemed like Manhattan's Meat Packing District without the fashionistas and hipsters who work at J. Crew naming colors. The folks who are responsible for calling boxer shorts anthracite, midnight, soot, and sable instead of black haven't even heard of Pittsburgh, let alone the Strip District.

My friend Bruce would love Bent and Dent Grocery Liquidators. I love a good deal as much as the next guy, but you can't mark a bulging can of vichyssoise down enough for me. 

Pennsylvania is known for its macaroni. It's in all the guidebooks.

There are lots of architectural gems in the Strip District.

This building reminded me of Altoona's Roaring River Mills Roaring River Mills Roaring River Mills (at least that's what it was called in their radio commercials. Officially it was just Roaring River Mills.) R.R.M. was a fabric store formerly located in what was quite possibly the world's largest orange building. 

A particular highlight of the trip was a tour of  the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. Louis Sullivan said that a skyscraper should be "every inch a proud and soaring thing", and the Cathedral of Learning surely fulfilled that mandate--it's the tallest academic building in the U.S. My uncle, who went to Duke, usually called the Cathedral of Learning the "Tower of Ignorance", much to his sister's dismay. She, of course, was the token Pitt alum in our family. Interestingly enough, our tour guide did not touch on the Tower of Ignorance nickname during our tour. 

The building is more handsome than I remembered it to be. It was designed by Charles Klauder, a Philadelphia architect who also worked at Princeton, Penn State, Cornell and at a couple of well-known prep schools. The interior is quite remarkable, with a Gothic central space surrounded by the Pitt's famous Nationality Rooms. They're cool but crazy all at the same time. It's great to see the pride Pitt takes in them and how well they're maintained. I wouldn't be much of an architectural historian if I didn't mention that the building contains tons (probably literally) of incredible Samuel Yellin ironwork.

It's Spring Break at Pitt, so the T.o.I. was dead except for some Asian students staring intently into their laptops while they pecked away at their keyboards. Perhaps they were doing Facebook or maybe astrophysics, or were on an industrial espionage mission, stealing the recipe for the Clark Bar. Whatever it was, they weren't in Ft. Lauderdale in an crowdsourced community theater production of Where the Boys Are

A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. My RULE class was fortunate to have the charming, erudite, and elfin Dr. Christopher Beard as our guide for a spin through the dinosaur exhibit. In addition to being a great tour guide, he's also a MacArthur Fellow, and won his award in 2000 in the same year as architect Samuel Mockbee, the currently dead founder of Auburn University's Rural Studio.

Dr. Beard explained to us that in the last few years the dinosaur displays and dinosaurs themselves had been refurbished. The museum had more dinosaurs than you could shake a stick at so they were sort of crammed into the dinosaur halls willy-nilly. Things from the Middle Crustacean were rubbing up against stuff from the Semi-Cambrian with a Two and a Half Twist and so on. Not good. So the museum added some space, red-did the exhibits, and even added a glass walled paleo lab, so you can watch museum staff members chipping away at fossils with hammers just as if they're an Ant Farm. It is SO cool. The assembled dinosaurs themselves have had some work, done, too. Hey, before you go all natural beauty righteous and T. Rex on me, after hundreds of million years, you'd want to have a little work done too.

When I was a little kid my parents took my brother and me to the museum to see the dinosaurs and whatnot. They had a good friend whose sister was a curator there, so we got to go behind the scenes with her for a look at the stuff that wasn't on display.  I didn't even know that museums had backstage areas. It was amazing.

One of the things we saw was a stuffed Belgian hare. I knew that hare was another word for rabbit and knew all about rabbits from Beatrix Potter's story Peter Rabbit. Rabbits were all named Peter, after Miss Potter's hero. You know, the guy who wore that fetching blue coat, had siblings named Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail and lived near Mr. MacGregor's garden in a hutch that had been decorated by Sister Parish. (OK, I made that part up. But trust me, as rabbit hutches go, his could have been in Architectural Digest.

So back to the Belgian hare. This thing was BIG. It had to be three or four times the size of any  Peter Rabbit I had ever imagined. My parents' friend told us that someone had imported it from Europe it to someplace near Erie as a pet, and it had escaped and someone else shot it (Welcome to Pennsylvania...blam!) and then called the museum because it was several times the size of Peter Rabbit's American cousins living in the better Erie suburbs. That stuffed hare made quite the impression on me. 

Soon thereafter, our tour was over, and my brother and my parents and I left our friend's office and walked through the great marble hall on our way to our car.  My mother and I were right next to a museum guard when I turned to her and said, sounding like the obviously astonished six year old that I was, "Mommy, did you ever see such a big peter?!" I can only imagine the look on my mother's face as my words echoed through the hall.

In the forty some years since that family visit to the Carnegie Museum, I've been around the block a few times. I've even made several excursions to Pittsburgh's gay cousin, San Francisco. Sure San Francisco has sourdough bread, cable cars, Tony Bennett's heart, and men in assless chaps on every street corner. Pittsburgh, however, remains the home of the really big peter. 

San Francisco, eat your heart out.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Going Out With Style

Altoona’s Jones Funeral Home isn’t the only cool funeral home I’ve run into. The Fred F. Groff Funeral Service is another one of my favorites.

It’s located in Lancaster, in a not all that interesting block of West Orange Street. Its neighbors are typical Lancaster row houses. The nicer ones are red brick with green shutters and white trim. They lead you to think of our Found Fathers hanging out within, thinking deep thoughts. The less nice are Permastone. They cause you to wonder if the scowling fat woman in a house dress sitting on the stoop smoking a cigarette is a permanent fixture.

While the Groff building is red brick with white trim, just like lots of buildings in Lancaster, it’s made from longer, slimmer Roman brick, not the standard American brick, and the white trim isn’t painted wood, it’s white marble.  As Emeril Lagasse would say, the architect definitely kicked it up a notch. And it’s not a Georgian or Federal style knockoff, it’s modern, or rather, Moderne, an asymmetrical composition of mostly windowless rectangular forms with projecting white marble entrance pavilions.

The building is quite handsome, but the aluminum sign, Fred F. Groff Funeral Service, Inc. (no, it’s not a funeral home and it’s definitely not a mortuary) really puts the place in the big leagues. 

I can just see Fred F. Groff himself saying to his architect (Henry Y. Shaub, in case you were wondering), “I like those logo signature signs that they have at Altman’s, and Wannamaker’s. And at Lord & Taylor, too. Do something like that, but more modern. Oh and make it big enough so that my mother can read it. Without her glasses.” Hence the great aluminum letters, with large f’s that look like bows on kids’ shoelaces.

I never thought the building looked like a funeral home.  I always thought it looked like a high end tchotchke shop, like Gump’s in San Francisco. My uber-cool friend Richard thought it looked like the headquarters of an upscale furrier. Once again, he’s right on the money. I can just see Milburn Drysdale in the Groff building wringing his hands complaining about the prices as he paces back and forth while Mrs. Drysdale takes her time trying on a full length blonde mink coat.  Miss Jane Hathaway stands at the ready outside, eager to take The Chief to the Clampett mansion in her shiny red Chrysler convertible.

The stylish front of the building faces the street and the parking area, while the utility wing of the Groff building stretches out toward the back of the lot like the servants' wing of an English country house.

That’s where the business end of the funeral service takes place. Embalming. Casket storage. Washing and waxing the hearses. Rehearsal rooms where funeral director trainees work on their lugubrious expressions. And a laundry where they iron those “Funeral” flags for the cars in a funeral procession.

I had a chance to go to a service at the Groff funeral home once, years ago.  I was rather looking forward to it, too. Not because I had tons of feelings to share about the dearly departed—I hadn’t actually met him. Likewise, it wasn’t because I look swell in a dark suit and love using the term “laid out” in conversation.

It wasn’t even because I would get to Make the Red Rabbit a Habit and eat dinner at the Red Rabbit Drive-in on the way home. It was because I would finally get to see inside the Fred F. Groff Funeral Service, Inc. 

Unfortunately, on the way to the funeral I had car trouble. The gonkulator on my Volkswagen crapped out. My car went from motoring along to sputtering when I was in single lane bumper-to-bumper traffic in a construction zone. In a flash, my car was as dead as the main attraction that day at Fred F. Groff. A construction zone is never an ideal spot for a car to conk out. Naturally, it took more than some swearing and the laying on of hands to make the car functional again. Consequently I missed the day’s funeral and my chance to see if the innards of the building were as nifty as the exterior. 

When it comes to the interior, fantasy is probably better than reality. The most likely case is that the distinctive funeral parlor smell that’s a cross between a florist’s shop and a taxidermist’s studio would smack you in the face as soon as you open the building's thick glass doors. The public rooms of the Fred F. Groff Funeral Service no doubt look like every other funeral home, with some hideously furnished, dimly lit, thickly carpeted rooms, and a large Olan Mills-esque color photo portrait of the founder in an altar-like arrangement in the hallway. There the standard elements would be in place—tasteful enough silk flower arrangements, some pamphlets on ‘pre-need planning’, and a guest book on a stand. If you cock your head and listen closely, you might be able to hear Tennessee Ernie Ford singing hymns in the background.

I hope that no one I know is playing in the big room there any time soon. As much as I want to see the interior of the Groff building, I’m content to wait until someone turns it into the fur salon that it always should have been.