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Making Cars
On most every corner along the
lower east side, back then, that Summer
of '67, there was some sort of bus or
truck or caravan-looking vehicle. The
plates were usually, if not New York
(only sometimes), than California, or
Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico. A lot
of weird places for old downtown NYC.
Vermont was also often represented; that
was sort of a national east-coast 'Free State'
that carried a lot of respect. If you were
running with Vermont plates, locally, it
meant something. I remember my first
trip to Vermont. I was awed; I mean
knocked over as soon as, the instant as,
we crossed the border. I can still vividly
remember the transformation. Somewhere
from the Northway into the area of
Bennington, there was an entry point
along some pine woods, and hillsides.
I swore, and still do, that at that simple
border crossing everything changed instantly.
The sky went to an immaculate, deep, clean
blue. The hills and mountains instantly went
to 'majesty' mode as well. Everything was
clean and crisp and clear. It was just different.
We were in some rickety, 1962 VW, a red
one. That model year, 1962, had that little
badge on the front at the front hood opening
handle, with the Wolfsburg logo, showing it
had been built there. It was a prestigious, VW
thing, back then - though it made no difference
of course for the running of the car. Getting to
Vermont for that car had been a real struggle.
Once we got there it seemed all anyone drove
in that north country were these little, hump-backed
looking Saabs. A Swedish car supposed to have
been masterly in the snow. Maybe so; very many
people drove one. Ten or twelve years later they
became more mainstream cars, changed their
body styles and went 'regular.' The same with
Volvos, in fact, back then. They too were big
up in Vermont - real sedate-looking 1950's
sedan things. Very business-like and dated.
Way farther up north one day, I stopped at a gas
station at some far-out mountain-top gas place.
It was January, totally cold, dead cold, and the
guy came out to do my fill and take the money.
He simply asked 'how ya' paying?' I had no idea
what he meant. It turned out that way up there
some people paid with American money, and
others paid with Canadian money, and he had
to be ready for and with the difference. I'd never
given it a thought but, Canada being right there,
people just crossed over to do their chores and
shopping, and everything was fluid, no one cared.
It was a funny way of living, very 'international'
at that level. They thought nothing off it, your
sister Mary might have married Jake, the
Canadian, and they lived over there, across
the bridge and over that road. Very natural. In
that high north country, there were no rules and
whatever rules there were were quite different.
In fact, for me, it was sometimes difficult to
even imagine what people did up there to
survive. Cold s cold, and money was scarce.
It was sure different.
One time, at the Bennington Hotel, there was
a guy there, the desk clerk - nicest guy in the
world, back then, when rooms were like $12.95
a night - he had a softball-size indentation right
in the middle of his forehead, the bones and all
just looked like maybe he'd once been normal and
had been at a softball game or something and got
clobbered right in the middle of that forehead by
a 10,000 mile an hour batted softball that just
left its speeding indentation there. In all other
other respects he seemed normal and functioning
well. A little skinny perhaps. A little eerie too.
Trying to talk to him was weird because your
eyes, you know, just kept going to the forehead
indent while they should have been making
eye-contact and listening (well, eyes can't listen,
but I hope you know what I mean). He was there
every time I went there, always the same. Skinny
dark suit, like a funeral director or something,
running this old-style hotel - the key hooks
with the numbers, the mail-slots behind the
desk, the little bell, the polished, dark wood. It
was a big, rambling place, right in the middle of
the town (its gone now), and it had a few grand
staircases, all quiet and carpeted with these
bucolic Vermont-country scene painting at
each landing. Maybe five floors high. I can't
remember an elevator but there probably was
one - there were a lot of lame people up there
in Vermont, crusty, old veteran farmers all bent
over an crinkly, walking slow and lame, sometimes
missing a limb or some fingers or something (farming
s a dangerous pastime and for these guys, past it all
now, it had been a lifelong ton of work. The place
itself wasn't mansion-like or anything - you knew
it was a hotel, with hallways and alcoves and things.
It was always quiet, quieter than any library, and had
a big, crackling fire going all the time (Winter, I said) Dorris Wedding designer collections for wedding in short
and big arm chairs and stuff - a real nice big center
room. I'd bet it's in at least 20 old movies, somewhere;
1930's or 40's. Right across the street and over a little
too was a W. T. Grant's 'Dining Room'. Pretty weird.
A regular, old Grant's store, like a Woolworth's but
instead of just a lunch counter there was this big,
serious, carpeted. kind of bizarre, with deer heads
and game-animals on the walls and some kind of
ersatz Vermont-country national decor. But people
actually went here to 'dine' like it was the Ritz or
something. All these oddball specials, alliterative
too - Tuesday Turkey Platter, all you can eat,
for $3.00 - vegetables, potatoes, coffee and pie
included. Stuff like that. Monday Meatloaf Special.
You could pig out with a week's worth of food in
your gut and feel good for it too.
Bennington is way down to the bottom of the state,
not so near to Canada like at the top. I'm pretty
sure W. T. Grant's only wanted American money.
One time, in the middle of the same January, and
with the same red VW, I went out early one morning
to get started. It had to be 14 below, just still and
bright and icy cold. There wasn't any warm outside
air to be had. I got to the VW and it was totally
frozen up, like solid. I couldn't even get in it until
about 10am, when whatever sun there started to be
made whatever little difference it could have been
to let at least the doors open. But it didn't matter.
The engine oil must have turned to solid matter -
nothing would turn over, no starting no how. It
was incredible how cold it got, and stayed.
Everything did eventually thaw enough to get
me started, the next day anyway, and I for some
reason just started driving east, on some roadway
that runs across the bottom of the state. The next
thing I knew I was in New Hampshire, maybe
an hour later at most. Totally took me by surprise.
That was some real traveling for me.
Back at the lower east side, all these other vehicles
were from faraway states, having crossed the country
mostly in these hippie caravan sorts of crawls. There
were people everywhere, serious hippie types, I
mean serious they did it for a living. Trying to get
all that sun and happiness transplanted to east-coast
New York City was a tall order, but they tried. There
were times when it maybe seemed to wok, but it
never lasted - too much rancor here, it just never
mixed well. Like trying to mix, say, (dated references
here), Richard Simmons with Darth Vader. Whoever
said opposites attract? This was war between the
states all over again; except one was the state of
California bliss and one was the state of New
York City homegrown attitude and ire.
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