Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Penn State Homecoming Parade: 2015 Edition

"As soon as the photographer leaves, let's do bong hits and discuss Chaucer."
My alma mater didn’t have a Homecoming parade. Actually, we didn’t even have Homecoming, UVa had “Homecomings” as if we needed the plural to express how much fun it was. As far as I could tell, the weekend’s events centered on the appearance on Grounds (i.e. the campus, in non-Virginia speak) of aging Wahoos in various degrees of dissipation wearing brightly colored trousers and blue blazers. The weekend’s football game meant watching the orange and blue lose to schools that 95% of other colleges in America would have considered to be a patsy.

Like students of my day, UVa students of today see football games as an excuse to express themselves sartorially.
There was no parade. That would have been entirely too state-U, something we strove to avoid, even though, the whole point of Mr. Jefferson founding the university was that it was a state U. Most importantly, a parade would have from taken time from drinking and dancing and getting a head start on a life of brightly colored trousers and blue blazers—hold the dissipation, please!

As a Happy Valley local, I’m quite familiar with the Penn State Homecoming Parade. When I was a kid, my parents would occasionally drive us through the fraternity neighborhood to check out the floats in their pre-parade this-is-as-good-as-they’re-ever-going-to-look state. They were almost enough to make you want to join a fraternity. 

When I was in high school, I marched in the parade with the high school band. It was lots of fun, much better than marching in the parade at the Grange Fair.

As a twenty-something, I went to the Homecoming Parade as an audience member and enjoyed the floats, bands, and yes, the occasional appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales. Today there would be a greater chance of the Penn State Homecoming Committee accepting an entry from Glock firearms than something promoting drinking, even with an iconic team of matched Clydesdales, a Dalmatian dog, and a gleaming red wagon filled with barrels of beer so uncool that no student would be caught dead buying it.

My most vivid parade memory from that era has nothing to do with the parade itself. I was at the parade with a friend and had just heard that a local TV personality, Altoona’s “Big" John Riley had suffered a stroke and according to the rumor mill, had as much brain activity as a clump of moss. I shared the news with my friend.

Rick:  Did you hear that Big John Riley had a stroke and has like… zero brainwaves?

Friend: (In a questioning tone) This means he’s off the show, right?

Judging by some of the stuff on local TV, I suppose it’s a reasonable question. But it still makes me laugh.

And then I’ve been a parade judge, which was lots of fun, and came with a seat on the Reviewing Stand. La di dah, right?

In 2009, I was asked to be the parade’s Honorary Grand Marshall in 2009. What’s the Honorary Grand Marshall you ask? “The Honorary Grand Marshal is someone that has gone above and beyond for the community and embodies the spirit of Penn State.” It was (and remains) quite an honor for an unreconstructed Wahoo.  I even bought a Penn State necktie for the occasion and kept the brightly colored trousers on the down-low.

As everyone who’s ever talked to me for more than 30 seconds knows, there was inclement weather that year. Snow and rain mostly. Yes, I’m thankful that there were no plagues of locusts or earthquakes. But still…it rained on my parade. That meant the convertible was top up. AND my friends (mostly) stayed home. Yup, I’m a victim.

So with that backstory in mind, I listened last week as my coworker Carol told me innocently enough that her sister-in-law, who worked for a local radio station, was looking for drivers for the Homecoming Parade and had asked her. Carol typically demurs when something happens that might call attention to her—like driving a car in a parade. Sure enough she initially turned her sister-in-law down.

When she told me this, I said,"You gotta do it. It’ll be a blast. I’ll go along as your navigator. You can drive and I’ll navigate; what’s not to like?!"

As if you’d need a navigator to follow a fire truck, a distant high school band, and the Penn State Croatian Alumni Bowling League down the middle of the street. Some folks might need a navigator, however Carol just needed a push.

I can speak with such confidence about the difficulty in getting lost driving a car in a parade, since I’m a veteran on that score. I drove a car in the State College Christmas Parade once. I don’t remember what the point of the parade was, since I don’t think we were formally escorting Santa into town, and we certainly weren’t leading Mary and Joseph to the manger. But for whatever reason, there was a Christmas parade.

I drove my mother’s convertible, a yellow 1986 Chrysler LeBaron. My passengers were the police chief and his wife, who happened to work in the same building I did. We had fun, but the putting the State College police chief and his wife in the back of a convertible in December does not exactly bring out the adoring crowds.  But even in that pre-GPS era, there was no way you could get lost.

So back to the Penn State Homecoming Parade: on the morning of the parade Carol told me that due to a shortage of drivers I might have to drive in the parade instead of navigate. I was pleased that Carol’s sister-in-law had put aside that accident I had in a rental van when I helped her husband, the retail florist, with a Washington society wedding. I have witnesses, it wasn’t my fault: the Mayflower Hotel’s parking garage jumped right out of front of me. Trust me, a big scrape on the side of a van isn’t the ideal souvenir of Our Nation’s Capital.

I was glad that I had some PSU fan gear that I could wear so I could look official. When I was told that no matter what, I had to bring my driver’s license with me, I suggested that I could wear my sash from my 2009 stint as Honorary Grand Marshall. (Of course I still have it.)  Carol’s sister-in-law said only if I had shoes to match. Seriously…she had to ask?

Carol and I made sure we were at the Audi/Mercedes-Benz dealer on time. There was insurance paperwork to do before hopping into borrowed cars. Who knew? I’d borrowed other vehicles from car dealers and don’t remember that. 

It turned out that we were going to be driving the Homecoming Court, bona fide royalty. If we ran over an orb or sceptre or assorted crown jewels we needed to be covered. Four of us were going to be driving Audis and the other two were going to drive Mercedes-Benzes. Even though I was picked last in gym class, I was chosen to drive a Mercedes.

My ride was a steel gray Mercedes E 350. Its sex appeal was commensurate with its sticker price, which as far as I could tell was the same as that of a three bedroom house in one of Hibbing, Minnesota’s better neighborhoods.

I figured out how to start the car, but after that, it was pretty much beyond me. I was pretty sure that one of the buttons operated an ejector seat while another one laid down an oil slick. I practiced saying “Bond……James Bond....” but with a German accent.

There was a shortage of license plates at the dealership (I didn’t know that was possible) so we caravanned to the staging area in formation so that the cars with no plates would be in the middle of the line, like a funeral procession, only happier. 

After enduring Homecoming weekend traffic, we finally arrived at the staging area, filled with cars, floats, ambulances, marching groups, and a battalion of somewhat official looking young women carrying clipboards.

One of the clipboard toting maidens walked over to my car (by this point I’d figured out how to roll down the window) and asked me who I was there to drive. I said that I didn’t know her name, but if she were wearing a pink Chanel suit and a pillbox hat, I was driving really fast. She looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. Presumably she wasn’t in the new All Things Kennedy major.

At that point there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and let’s just say that if, well, Dwight Eisenhower had the organizational ability of the young women with the clipboards, well, we’d all be speaking German right now. I know that Homecoming only comes around once a year, but still, creating a list of cars and organizing them in a parking lot hardly requires a graduate degree in Supply Chain, whatever that is.

Once we were checked in and parked in our assigned spots, I got a lift back to the dealership to pick up another car—one of our drivers was meeting us at the staging lot rather than at the dealership. As a result, I missed an hour worth of networking and photo ops. So, if this post is devoid of photographic and otherwise content, well, I’m blaming it on the fact that I couldn’t be in two places at once.

When we finally returned in about an hour, the women with the clipboards miraculously hadn’t gotten any more organized. Imagine that.

It turned out that my two passengers from the Homecoming court were Kevin Montminy and Abby Renko. I knew Abby slightly from working on an event last winter, and Kevin is a local kid who I only knew by name. Each of them has a list of accomplishments a mile long. I asked Abby and Kevin what they wanted to be when they grew up. Abby is headed to medical school and Kevin has a job lined up at KPMG. Interestingly enough, neither wanted to be Ferris wheel operator driving a car in the Homecoming parade. In other words, I have some job security. They couldn’t have been nicer or more fun to hang out with.

When they saw that I’d be chauffeuring them in the parade in the slate gray Mercedes Benz E350 they were totally over the moon. Probably 99 and 44/100% of that was about the car, though I can’t say that I didn’t factor into the over-the-moon-edness somewhere. (Even I'm prone to the characteristically Bryant flash of self-esteem!)

So a bit about my ride, which for a least a nanosecond they thought actually belonged to me:

With a drag coefficient as low as 0.29, the E-Class Cabriolets slip through the wind virtually unnoticed. Yet their chiseled, muscular design commands attention, from their sweeping headlamps all the way to their sleek tail. A color-keyed twin-domed cover conceals the lowered soft top with seamless style.

Yowza! I’ve read less breathless porn!

A chiseled muscular design that commands attention. Gosh, they could be talking about me!

I’m not sure about the “drag coefficient” thing though. Most drag queens I know aren’t big on math. 

The car also had “radar sensors” that did everything except filing your tax return and something called—and as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up—COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST PLUS. Apparently plain ordinary COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST no longer cuts the mustard. I expected a digital readout on the dashboard to quote my father and tell me, “You’re as safe as in the arms of Jesus” but apparently that only comes when you purchase the COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST PLUS with the optional PERSONAL SAVIOR option.

It took some doing to figure out how to put the top down. The button I thought lowered the top actually operated the on-board KAFFEEMEISTER espresso system, with optional supercharged convection oven, perfect for heating up an apfelstrudel. Those Germans, they think of everything!

Once the top was down, it was it was time to get my charges all situated on the back deck of the car, ready to wave and smile and acknowledge the adoring multitudes. Let me just say that a short blue dress and a “color-keyed twin-domed cover that conceals the lowered soft top with seamless style” don’t really mix. Unless, of course, you are a lot better at being modest than I am, or trying to lock up the lecher vote in the Homecoming election. In Abby’s case it was the former not the latter, and in the end all turned out fine.

Just before we started to move, as a way of warning them that, well, stuff happens, I said, “Uh…have you seen Animal House?” Referring of course, to the climactic parade scene where the Delts cause mayhem in Faber College’s homecoming parade with a rogue float in the shape of a giant birthday cake with the words “Eat Me” on its side. They assured me that we had and we shared a knowing chuckle.

As soon as it was time to go, we found ourselves in parade gridlock. We sat in the parking lot for over 45 minutes. I’d only put $10 of gas in my chiseled muscled Stuttgart-made royalty transportation and display system and I wondered how long I could sit there waiting for the damned parade to start without running out of gas.

There were units in the parade from every facet of student and alumni life. Sooner or later I expect to see the Penn State Appendectomy Club; the deely-bopper wearing the Penn State Walmartians, Penn Staters employed by—you guessed it----Walmart; and the Nittany Numchuckers, a martial arts group. They'll be marching next to the local EMT unit in case there is an accidental numchucking. Some local retirement communities have units in the parade, but I'm still waiting to see the Penn State Walkers of Shame, a group of unsteady elderly but sex-positive alums who, back in the day, wrote all those letters to Penthouse magazine.

On the alumni side, there are chapters from all over the country—the Marylanders were dressed like a box of Old Bay Seasoning; Vermonters dressed like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cones, and so on. The alumni units reminded me of the Parade of States in the Miss America Pageant where the contestants dressed up in elaborate costumes representing their state. Miss Pennsylvania would be dressed as a sequined Liberty Bell; and Miss Oklahoma, a cowgirl; and Miss Alabama, a cross burning on someone’s front yard. They don't make beauty pageants like they used to!

I would have taken more photos, but I was without a charging cord and couldn’t find how to make the charge by osmosis system work. My phone was hovering at about 11% charge and kept sending me messages that said stuff like….”You're almost out of power. Please switch to paperweight mode. I don’t care if you are driving a car in the Homecoming Parade. As if you didn't know that, it's really uncool to take photos of the crowd while you're driving in a parade.”

How does your phone know this stuff?

When we finally started to move, Kevin and Abby soon showed yet again why they were selected for the Homecoming Court. They knew virtually everyone on the parade route, and in places the crowd had to be six deep. Secondly, they did an excellent job tossing candy to the kids lining the parade route, begging for candy like hungry baby robins begging for worms. AND they had nice things to say to the little girls in cheerleader outfits, the dancing kids, the grouchy kids, the old folks in lawn chairs, and everyone in between. I can’t imagine the most accomplished pol—say Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton—working a parade better than those two.

Our cars were right behind a team of twirlers, so for the length of the parade we heard dance music punctuated by a recording of someone introducing the group. “Ladies and gentleman, the junior novice beginner just starting out so can’t twirl worth a darned mini petite twirler-ettes out of State College, PA”  Argh, “out of State College, PA?”  Why couldn’t they just say “from”? And who says "P-A" instead of Pennsylvania? Each and every time I heard that recording, it bothered me. Call me old fashioned, but I’ll pick grammar over twirling every time.

We made slow but steady progress from Penn State’s East Halls to East College Avenue and through the downtown business district. I saw some of my friends in the crowd—I think they were all shocked that someone would let me drive a car with a drag coefficient of 0.29 let alone with sweeping headlamps and a sleek tail.

At the end of the parade, at Penn State's Rec Hall, Abby and Kevin hopped out, to join the rest of the Homecoming Court at their next scheduled event.  There were hugs and photos and we all declared that it was the most fun we’d ever had.

I hope to drive in the parade next year, but if I do, I’ll be wearing bright colored trousers and a blue blazer.  Penn State is great, but when it comes to fashion, I prefer to heed the immortal words of the Beach Boys: You gotta be true to your school.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Hamptons Weekend

To the run of the mill Vanity Fair reader (i.e. me), “The Hamptons”, that group of towns on the East End of Long Island, conjures up images of grand shingle style houses, social X-rays, and the more substantial Barefoot Contessa and her posse of gay friends. On further reflection, my mind wanders to the thoughts of the occasional Real Housewife behaving badly; Wall Street bigwigs filing frivolous lawsuits against their neighbors; and the best looking surfing cater waiters ever. When my old friends Susan and Sara invited me to visit them in their new house, I said—with alacrity even—“Count me in!”

The weekend started in New York City on the Hamptons Jitney, which, even with the name straight out of Petticoat Junction, is a modern luxury bus. The Hamptons Jitney is the antidote to the problem of sitting behind the wheel for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic the Long Island Expressway while you’re on your way to weekend fun. I can’t imagine Real Housewives taking it—they seem as if they’d go for stretch Hummers (insert sexual innuendo here) helicopters paid for with OPM (other people’s money).

The Hamptons Jitney is not at all like the Stone Harbor/Avalon jitney. That’s just an airport satellite parking area shuttle bus with a different paint job, no rack for luggage, and mood lighting.
The HJ is a full sized bus, and as buses go, it’s closer to a rock star bus than to a Greyhound. Each row is three seats across rather than the standard four. By making the seats larger and arranging them so, the impresario behind the HJ has attempted to solve two vital societal problems….manspreading into your neighbor’s seat and sitting next to someone with cooties.

"I'm glad I took my ennui meds; this wait is killing me."
The Jitney picked me and my fellow more glam than I passengers up on 40th St between Lexington and Third, right in front of the Shake Shack. There were about ten at our stop. No sooner had we stowed our bags in the bowels of the bus than we were on our way. Why hang out in a bus in front of the Shake Shack when there are bold faced names aching for your company in Water Mill and Amagansett?

My seat—reserved, of course—was right behind the driver. My seat mate was some old guy in what looked like off brand Nantucket reds and some sort of downish vest. It was a hot day; he must have circulation problems. In the two hours plus of our trip he never once acknowledged my presence with as much as a grunt. Perhaps I have cooties or was unconsciously manspreading. Note to self, the next time you ride the Hamptons Jitney, tie your knees together and wear more Axe.

His wife, in the seat across the aisle from him, was bookish in that retired art historian sort of way. I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that she reads the now late Jackie Collins after the old ball and chain falls asleep at night. Out of habit that she picked up in graduate school, my guess is that she does a number on the sex scenes with yellow highlighter. She was wearing large paisley scarf/blanket sort of thing that probably turns into a spinnaker if the Jitney runs out of fuel and has to resort to sail power.

As we inched through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, a stewardess (when is the last time you were on a bus that had a stewardess?) with a decidedly mittel European accent very politely informed us that we should refrain from using our cell phones, but if we had to, we were to limit it to three minutes. Shortly afterward she offered us a cornucopia of personal service, starting with a hot Handi-Wipe that had been sanitized for my protection. I wondered if the bus had a K-Tel Handi-Wipe Heater or if the wipes had just been left on a sunny windowsill.

Shortly afterward, she came by offering us the newspaper (NYT only, they were out of WSJ).Then a cold drink. The hot drink was next. That was followed by an energy bar. Then came the ear buds. And then finally, on her last trip by, she offered to come to your house to rearrange your sock drawer.

Though I accepted most of the drinks and snacks, entertainment wise, I stuck to looking out the window since I’d just finished The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s bio of Robert Moses and here we were cruising along on Moses-built highways, passing the site of the 1964 Worlds Fair and other Moses-era landmarks. I was hoping to see people who were still pissed off about an expressway going through their backyard. No such luck on that score.

After a couple of hours we got to Bridgehampton, de-bussed and walked the few blocks to S and S’s house.

With Martha, David, Chris, and Bruce in our misspent early middle age. Back in the day when you took photos with a camera.
I’ve been to the Hamptons once, 18 years ago, to celebrate one of those birthdays that ends in zero. A friend who was out of town lent some chums from our high school lunch table her house. We didn’t do all that much except lounge and loiter by the pool. It was a great time.

On this trip I’m more jaded, and officially older, even though I lie about my age in a dating situation depending on the light level in the room and whether the other guy is legally blind or not.

My hosts, S and S, have a fantastic house, handsomely designed and the polar opposite of one of those Jersey shore houses that incorporates every architectural element known to man. Those places tend to fill the lot like a guy squeezing into clothes he’s outgrown. S and S's house was just the opposite of that; designed thoughtfully and with just a touch of humor. Were Goldilocks an architecture critic, she would pronounce their digs as “just right”.

My new best friend, Leo the Wonder Dog.
After unpacking and meeting Leo the Wonder Dog, we went over to G and R’s house (also fantastic) for tacos and poker with another two of their friends, including the first person I’ve ever met named Doreen. My father would have called her a kick in the ass, which he meant as a high compliment.  I’m not my father, a whiz at poker (and poking her), and as a result, I lost every single hand. Perhaps on my next trip to Vegas I should learn how to play cards instead of hanging out in the gift shop at the Atomic Testing Museum.

S. and I started Saturday early-ish by taking Leo the Wonder Dog slash best golden doodle ever to the beach for some exercise. It was the start of a beautiful day but there was hardly a soul at the beach. L and his two dog pals, William and the dog whose name I’ve forgotten, love the beach. They were so much fun to watch as they ran and dug in the sand and chased a ball. S. and William's owner and I talked about the Pope's visit to America.

I got to demonstrate my central Pennsylvania sang-froid when an otherwise lovely dog mom of a certain age plus some who'd joined us took off her wrap in preparation for a dip in the ocean. While she was of the age and mileage for a black one piece suit, she was wearing a white bikini that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Technically, not anything. At all. Yowza!

But as fashion transgressions go, well, there were just four of us there, counting the distant (physically, dunno about emotionally) professional dog handler for an absent plutocrat whose dogs aren’t allowed to play with others. And none of us at that exact moment was on duty for Fashion Police. Yes, it wasn’t the suit I would have picked for her, but in a way I have to hand it to her for doing her own thing.

After our tip to the beach, we had an unexpected and delightful visit from Connie, my host of 18 years ago—she just lives down the street from S. and S. C. invited us to a surfing demo, but we opted for an outing that would not involve asking people if they had a woodie and did they wax it.

The museum was designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron.
A little later we went to the Parrish Art Museum. It looks rather like a big (and expensive in a minimalist way) dogtrot house. It’s as slickly designed as any prime location big city Apple store but fortunately lacking the crowds of votaries waiting for the next release if the iVibrator. While the museum has a notable collection of work by William Merit Chase, I think there were only two of his works hanging in the gallery.

There was lots of modern stuff not really to my taste. I did, however, like Tara Donovan’s Slinky® creations but was amused that the museum sold off-brand Slinky®s in the gift shop.

I knew that Slinky®s were the pride and joy of Hollidaysburg, PA but I’d forgotten 99% of the story about the owner of the company running away to join a cult in South America. I’m sure the woman in the gift shop would have been fascinated by it before running away to join a cult in South America to get away from annoying patrons like me.

Looking at all those Slinky®s and trying to remember the jingle can make the most indefatigable cultural tourist peckish, so we headed over to Sag Harbor for some accessory browsing and a delish al fresco lunch with a dessert sized helping of eye candy. Oh and an actual bold faced name and permanent A-Lister was tying on the feedbag just a couple of tables away but she didn't come by the table to ask for autographs or anything. We passed a crime scene on the way out of town but S and I were too busy brainstorming about our idea to make a fortune with a Quonset hut restoration business to go into full Hercule Poirot meets CSI: Hamptons mode.

After a power nap (I was vacationing after all) S and I headed out in her vintage Volkswagen Beetle to hit a vegetable stand for corn and the supermarket for the other fixings for dinner. If I were to say that driving that old Beetle was a highlight of the weekend, I might seem like a toddler who gets just as much enjoyment out of the box his Christmas gifts came in as the gifts themselves. So let me just say that it was really, really, really fun to drive, even if you did have to stand on the brake with one foot, open the door and drag the other on the pavement, and release a drag ‘chute all at the same time in order to get the thing to stop.

Not only were the vegetables nice, but the spelling and typography were excellent too.

The produce gave the Garden State's best a run for its money.

Once we had the corn and other foodstuffs for dinner, we picked up G and R to go to a reception at the Madoo Conservancy, a stunning garden down the road in Sagaponack by “artist, gardener, and writer” Robert Dash.

There was no bourbon in sight, it was a red or white wine sort of thing—a real missed opportunity for the brosé marketers. It wasn’t one of those parties where you needed to know a lot about sports to chat up guys, and had I been better at chatting up guys, I am sure I would have met some interesting folks who knew The Barefoot Contessa. My hosts did introduce me to an amusingly over the top ball gown designer and his partner the charming lighting and home accessories designer with a decidedly silent film star air about him. There was a brief speech by the director of the property thanking everyone for their support.

The standout outfit of the evening was worn by the guy in the three sizes too small fleece version of a rowing blazer…blue with contrasting trim topped off with Ray Ban Wayfarers. He looked like a great British sausage. Perhaps he was the Ambassador from Hormel-on-Thames, England? Apparently the person in his household in charge of saying “You’re not going out looking like that, are you?” was out of town that day.

After the reception, we enjoyed a tasty repast of burgers and farms stand corn, just as Leo was enjoying a meal of one of my flip flops. I think he agreed that Rainbow makes the best flip flops on the market.

Early Sunday morning I was on the Long Island Railroad headed for NYC and my Amtrak train home. I listened to a woman in the row ahead of me yammer incessantly on her phone about her weekend trip. If my life were as boring as hers sounded, I’d stick my head in the oven. I watched backyard pools give way to backyard above-ground pools and then to backyards with no pools and finally no yards at all as we neared New York City.

Perhaps I just saw the Potemkin Hamptons, but the closest I saw to wretched excess was four stop signs at one convoluted intersection. It was flip-flops on the ground for 36 hours and didn’t see a single person drink Cristal out of a Manolo, Jimmy Choo, or even last season’s glass slipper. (If someone would like to invite me back for that, I'll clear my calendar pronto!)

OK, kale juice was pretty expensive at the gourmet grocery store around the corner, but as a card carrying member of the Anti-Kale Even-If-Its-High-In-Anti-Oxidants League I wasn’t going to be buying that anyway.

There were some large houses with drop dead gorgeous landscaping, but as far as "OMG would you look at that!" was concerned, my weekend was more than a quart low. Oh I almost forgot, we did go by a crime scene--now just a vacant lot--that was featured in an article in Vanity Fair, but that was it in the tabloid fodder department. I didn’t have a Barefoot Contessa sighting, or even more disappointing, one of the looksome guys she hangs with when Jeffrey’s not around. Oh well...they didn’t have a Wandering Wahoo sighting either.

In the end, it was too brielf trip to a gorgeous part of the country: it’s really easy to see why so many people like the place. My hosts were great, their friends lots of fun, and the flip flop eating dog was one of the best skinny dipping companions I’ve had in a long time. (Did I forget to mention that?)  I hope it’s not another eighteen years before I’m invited back.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Clamshell Pitching and Other Summer Diversions

Even though summer is my busy time at work, I try to leave room for a bit of adventure.

In June, I finally got the chance to go to Hesston Speedway, the dirt track that’s about an hour from State College. Rob, the bf of my old intern Karen, drives a sprint car in his spare time and was racing there. Karen offered me the chance to go. I said not just yes, but hell yes.

Readers, you might want to sit down for this next part.

It wasn’t even hot pants night. 

I’ve been to lots of low end events, but this ranks among the lowest. For starters, it’s really, really, rural. When  you roll down the window of your car on the way into the place you hear the opening bars of the theme from Deliverance. When political pundits talk about the part of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh being Alabama, Hesston Speedway is exactly what they’re talking about. The parking lot, buildings, and track itself look as if they cost about ninety-eight cents to build. If you can build a speedway without a plan, let alone plans, permits, and so on, this would be it.

It’s a short dirt track and by dirt, I mean the kind of dirt that gets into your order of French Fries about a nanosecond after you pick them at the concession stand. They race a few different kinds of cars; sprint cars, some other class that look like stock cars that have been stepped on by a giant, and cars that look like Chevrolet Monte Carlos that belonged to the Hatfields and McCoys.

The drivers race hard; while the place is low end, there’s plenty of excitement.

After it was dark, the announcer--who has an accent you have to hear to believe--asked the folks parked on the far side of the track to turn on their flashers so that the blinking lights would remind us of, I dunno, fireflies, or perhaps of people parked on the opposite side of a much nicer racetrack. That was crazy.

The best part of this selfie is the guy sitting behind us.
Of course, Karen and I had a great time, and might have had more fun than Rob, whose race for glory was cut short by a flat tire in the second big event of the night...the first big event being that woman ahead of me in line at the snack bar.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Especially if it were hot pants night.

And then there was the Arts Festival, where I celebrated the tenth anniversary of being run over by not getting run over.

The following weekend I drove to Ohio to help a friend recycle some furniture by bringing it back to Happy Valley. The worst part of the trip was spending the night in a Hampton Inn that smelled like the inside of a sneaker. The best part, other than quality time with an old friend, was that no furniture fell out of the truck; something that’s actually happened to me before.

When it was time to head to the shore for my post-Festival weekend of R & R my eyes lit up when I saw an ad for the 6th Annual W. Norman Mackey Clamshell Pitch sponsored by the Avalon Historical Society. And frankly it wasn’t so much the idea of clamshell pitching (say what?) or the idea of honoring the presumably late W. Norman Mackey (never heard of him) but the vintage photo that sold me on the idea of clamshell pitching:

Do these guys look as if they’re having fun at the Jersey shore or what? My guess is that at least two of the guys were avid fans of The Jack LaLanne Show.
What did I know about clamshell pitching? Absolutely nothing. I wasn’t even sure it was safe to do in a month with no R.

Soon enough I learned that the premise of the game was simple: you toss a clamshell, from which the actual clam is long gone, into a hole in the sand. You do it on the beach, below the high tide line when the tide is out, so that you have a hard surface of sand on which to play. I suppose you could do it in other locales, but I think it would lose something (and it doesn’t have much to start with) in the translation.

My compadres Bruce, Martha, and Pam and I were game for this historical adventure and so we drove up to the Avalon Community Building to be there at 9:00 a.m. sharp. We parked, crossed the dunes and walked onto the beach. We passed the beach Crossfit class and then a beach yoga class (think downward facing beached whale) and walked towards a gaggle of presumed clamshell pitchers milling around at an E-Z Up, the universal symbol of someone who doesn’t want to buy a decent tent. There weren’t nearly as many people there as I expected. Apparently there’s a limited market for clamshell pitching, a condition exacerbated by the Avalon Historical Society's terrible-slash-non-existant marketing.

We made our way to the registration table, all set to sign up. We were eager to do our part for local history and a sport where having been picked last in gym class might not actually be an impediment to success.

After I’d signed on the dotted line and was ready to pay, I learned that you needed to have actual cash or a check to register, a fact that the organizers failed to mention ahead of time. Apparently processing a credit card with a gizmo on a cell phone, or battery-powered terminal, or an old-fashioned knuckle-buster, or even writing the credit card number down on a piece of paper for processing back at the office was not in the cards.  Did I miss the fine print that said the event was being put on by Amish? Fortunately Bruce had a wad of cash so we were able to sign up and get our free ($15) unattractive even by New Jersey standards tee shirt.

We had to decide if we wanted to play singles or doubles, and we opted for mixed doubles. Bruce and Martha made up one team and Pam and I the other.

The organizers also failed to make clear that registration opened at 9:00 but the actual event didn’t start until 9:30. So we had plenty of time to do more milling around, or if you prefer the technical term, flogging one’s yo-yo.

During the yo-yo flogging, someone pointed out two holes in the sand, seemingly the “regulation” 25 feet apart. There was a plastic milk carton filled with clamshells at the ready. Several of us took the time to practice.

It was then I discovered that there was a good reason that clams don’t fly—in addition to lack of wings, feathers, or even the ability to put their tray table in an upright and locked position for takeoff and landing. It was because they have the aerodynamic qualities of a clamshell. As in…none.

The beach is a breezy place, and as my clamshells went hither, thither, and yon, I thought to myself, “What ho! Now I know how Jordan Spieth must have felt at St. Andrews!” Less the white trousers and kazillion dollar Under Armor endorsement deal, I mean.

I wondered if the AHS people were expecting the crowd to grow, but when 9:30 came and went it was apparent that clamshell pitching isn’t quite as popular as going to a gallery opening to see Jane Seymour, her VPL, and what passes for her painting, or riding around on the island jitney from bar to bar with a bunch of over sunned, over served, and over sexed weekending twentysomethings.

The good news was that there was a diversity of ages there. There were some old geezers and some middle geezers (as in people our age) too. Amazingly there were perhaps ten young and mostly (ok, somewhat) attractive people, all of whom seemed to work at Jack’s Place, a bar in Avalon that caters to the college crowd. I’ve never actually been there, but have driven by a million times and each time I do, I think to myself…”Jack’s Place….I wonder if Jack’s off tonight?” And I chuckle to myself each and every time.

After more yo-yo flogging, someone had the bright idea to add a second court and out came what appeared to be a rusty Chase and Sanborn coffee can for the purpose of digging the hole in the sand. The AHS opened up what golfers would call the back nine.

After an extraordinarily poor showing of teacher voice on the part of the “organizers”—and I use the term loosely—the first guys were called up for their singles matches. They stood about behind their Chase and Sanborn-made holes in the sand, 25 feet apart, rather like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr wearing not knee breeches but Lands End swim trunks and armed with clamshells instead of dueling pistols.

Each player had two clamshells to toss, and the players were to alternate throws, first player A, then player B, and back to player A and then Player B. The guy with the clamshell closest to the hole got one point. If he got the clamshell in the hole that was two points; and if he tossed the clamshell in the hole on top of the other player’s shell, he got four points. At least that’s how I think the scoring worked. I’m not sure all of the historical judges used the same historical scoring system.

After the first two players tossed their shells, a clipboard toting historical judge, who I believe was old enough to be the first European settler in New Jersey, got out a tape measure and proceeded to measure the distance from clamshells to the hole to aerospace industry tolerances. This took until at least Tuesday.

At this point I realized we might be there until after Labor Day and I uttered my first “Kill me now” of the day.

While they were playing, the pitch honchos tried to set up a bracket on whiteboard, presumably to spur office pools and betting action. This was made somewhat difficult since they couldn't actually spell all the contestants' names. I thought about making an emergency call to the NCAA but decided to let the shells fall where they may.

After some time, presumably overhearing my grumbling, and after an Avalon beach tag inspector walked by wondering “WTF?” the folks in charge decided to open a new course so that more people could play simultaneously. It think I heard someone say that there was a shortage of historical judges, though everyone was perfectly capable of keeping score themselves. It couldn’t have been a space issue—the beach is seven miles long after all.

Bruce and Martha were in the first game on the new pitch, and went down in a blaze of clam juice against a couple of the twentysomethings including a shirtless bear from Jack’s Place (“I wonder if Jack’s off tonight?”).

Pam and I were called up to played against Tom and MaryBeth. Tom’s claim to fame was that he was handsome and had a great body. MaryBeth was hungover, not at all chatty, and seemed to be there only because Tom was there; in and of itself, not a bad idea.

Tom had some sort of job in IT, but also worked at Jack’s Place ("I wonder if Jack’s off tonight?”). He wore red board shorts that were much too long. Seriously, the Speedo was invented with this guy’s body in mind. No matter what he made at Jack’s Place (“I wonder if Jack’s off tonight?”) he would have made WAY more at The Blue Moon in Rehoboth being objectified and overtipped by gay men. He might even have realized that he could have done better than hungover MaryBeth and learned something about window treatments in the process.

It may come as a surprise to regular readers, but I do know my way around certain clams, and I kept team Rick and Pam in the contest, if I do say so myself. Even so, we did not make it to the second round.

Although at one point we had a five shell lead, MaryBeth, sensing that Tom was considering the Blue Moon option, brought on her A-game late in the match and we were done for.

We didn’t bring home the suitable-for-hanging-in-the-garage clamshell plaque. And really, that’s probably OK. I got an incredibly unattractive t-shirt that I cherished briefly instead.

I suppose that it’s an occupational hazard that someone who organizes an event for living goes to his share of crappy events.  This was the worst tourist experience since the Las Vegas Mob Tour, something that was so horrible that it’s in a class by itself. The 6th Annual W. Norman Mackey Clamshell Pitch could have been amusing but instead it was like going to a beer party where they ran out of beer five minutes after you got here, and instead of beer, they gave you a calculus exam. When it's time for the 7th Annual W. Norman Mackey Clamshell Pitch, I'm washing my hair.

In order to get the taste of that out of our mouths, Bruce and I drove over to North Wildwood to take in an antique car show on the Boardwalk.

North Wildwood is just over the Hereford Inlet Bridge—toll, $1.50, E-Z Pass not accepted—from Stone Harbor, but it’s quite different from its smart and upscale neighbor.

Although Wildwood (technically The Wildwoods—North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest) is making great strides to rebrand itself as the epitome of 1950s doo-wopness, I still tend to think of it as Altoona-by-the-Sea.

That's my mother, on the far right, with her older sister Doris in the middle, and their cousin Ollie on the Boardwalk in Wildwood, 1936.
My mother told me that even in the 1930s, Wildwood was “pretty rough”.

Young hipsters might prefer it because it’s “more diverse”, but as someone accustomed to Stone Harbor, which actually has a shoppe devoted to Lilly Pulitzer togs, it’s like a Diane Arbus photo come to life.

There were about 35 cars in the show, the oldest being a pair of boring old Ford Model A's.  Interestingly enough, there was a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible, a car my mother had. Gosh, what a land yacht that thing was!  It reminded me that she called my grandfather’s even larger Cadillac sedan, the Queen Mary, after the Cunard liner.

To me, the most interesting car was an Edsel built for the Canadian market. I had no idea that American cars made for the Canadian market cars weren’t the same as American cars made for the American market, but there you have it. And the differences went beyond the two choices for upholstery:  plaid or the Hudson’s Bay Blanket. The owner’s manual was written in more polite English and it had a do-hickey where you could plug your dipstick into a heater during the 11½ months of winter in Canada.

Even with cool cars, Wildwood is still Wildwood, and after an hour of checking out tail lights, radiator ornaments, and carburetors in addition to the tats, bad makeup, and an Easter parade worth of Glamour don’ts, we headed home.

In the evening we took a stroll downtown after a dinner of Back Bay Crabcakes, a local delicacy. A clerk at the hardware store, where we stopped for a 3/16” drill bit, gave me the two thumbs up on my orange Vans and urged me not to pay attention when my wife said “You’re not going out looking like that are you?

I gave Bruce a knowing look and assured the clerk that I wouldn’t.

Bruce went home early, but Pam and I stopped to enjoy Philadelphia’s Ferko String Band which was in concert in the parking lot of the Stone Harbor Water Works. We missed the first half of the show, so when we got there, the light was fading and some in the assembled crowd had obviously enjoyed the offerings of the adult beverage stations and perhaps even a flask of Geritol or two. Apparently drinking on municipal property in the shadow of the town water tower is A-OK in NJ.

Pam and I settled into a prime standing room spot behind Stone Harbor's leading citizen, Sister James, the force of nature who keeps Villa-Maria-by-the-Sea in tip top shape. 

I was totally clueless about the band until the emcee reminded the audience that The Ferko String Band performs in Philadelphia’s Mummer’s Parade each year and will be at the Stone Harbor Christmas Parade this year.

Mummers, I don’t understand.  I suppose they’re like a krewe in New Orleans or those troops of guys who dress up like the Cisco Kid in the Rose Parade. Mummers wear crazy costumes and have bands with accordions and banjos and what not and have a special dance, the Mummers' strut. As a fan of the "more diverse" Wildwood would say, they're totally whack.

Liquored up old folks--twentysomethings were conspicuous in their abscence--were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet to string band standards like Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee and Alabama Jubilee.

Three band members, decked out from head to toe in their New Year's regalia did the famous Mummers' strut as the band played a tune called Hindustan.

It was kitschy, joyous, and hilarious.

The crowd loved it. When the band got to the finale and the Mummers' signature tune, Oh, Dem Golden Slippers, the audience bolted from their aluminum lawn chairs to dance. You have not seen moves until you've seen a retired nun do the Mummers' strut.

I’d expected the clamshell toss to be the highlight of my day. Wrong!

Instead, it was a gaggle of retired nuns doing the Mummers' strut under the Stone Harbor water tower.

I wonder if the kids from Jack’s Place ("I wonder if Jack’s off tonight?")  know what they are missing?