Sunday, February 1, 2015

Two Days in America, Part 1: America's Pastime, Unspoiled
August, 2014

I travel a great deal, though not always far from home. As much time as I spend in different parts of the country, two recent stops served as reminders of what it means to be an American, at least for many of us. This entry will detail the first...

Traverse City, Michigan, is a great small coastal town to visit, at least in June. I had the good fortune to visit there in that small window of Northern Michigan summer, and had the first of two truly “Neo-Americana moments.”

I arrived and checked in around 3:30 PM, having left home just after 7 AM. Surprised that the 8 1/2 to nine-hour billing was so advantageously incorrect. I decided to drive all the way to the end of Old Mission Peninsula to see the lighthouse, even though I had already spent the whole day driving. Being able to drive up on a warm June Sunday with the top down most of the way made the driving less tedious.

Old Mission Point Lighthouse
The extra 25-minute drive was worth it, if not for the light itself. Its lamp was long gone and it was overrun with visitors, like ants on a once living carcass. It was hard to get any decent photos; thank goodness for photo editing apps!

The drive to and from was quite entertaining, with many beautiful homes lining the shores of the west and east sides and no less than eight vineyards with promises of tasting and local pride to would-be consumers.

I noticed one of about a half-dozen restaurants also boasted an on-site brewery and distillery. I thought that would be my answer to a long overdue meal, but seeing it in person made me question whether my attire was suitable. I was reaching the conclusion that I should try this place out later in the week, perhaps while still dressed in my conference appropriate garb, when the local radio station I had on began doing pregame programming for Traverse City's own baseball frontier league entry the Beach Bums.

Townhouse complex or stadium?
I used my trusty smart phone to see if the stadium was within a reasonable distance. It was another 8 miles and 20 minutes away. Stadium food for dinner and a semi-professional baseball game sounded like it would be worth every bit of the drive, so I plugged in the coordinates to the Garmin and headed to the uniquely designed Wuerfel Park .

From the main road out of town, the stadium looked like a townhouse complex guarded by six giant, luminous sentinels. I have to find out if they are really dwellings overlooking the diamond or just a new design. With cap on head, brat in bun, and beer in hand, I found myself in a most unlikely of settings.

Minor League baseball at its best!
It was an idyllic setting. Late afternoon sun shining, light breeze blowing the flag gently in centerfield. Smaller flags distributed to veterans who were asked to stand and be recognized by the inning filling mascot and his court jesters so common at minor league games. A dad overheard asking his son, "Isn't this better than sitting at home playing video games?" Another sharing a laugh with his preteen daughter. The home team leading one to nothing in the seventh inning.

The crowd of hundreds singing along with "take me out to the ballgame." Although I don't think I'll ever understand why the Village People hit "YMCA" is still a staple at such events, it was one of those moments in time worth slowing down, if not freezing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Greetings from Asbury Park

(Editor's Note: It has been along time since I felt compelled to add an entry, but this rendering of a night on the Jersey Shore was a tale that had to be told. After some consideration, I decided to use pictures taken from my cell phone that are somewhat blurry and unedited, as their condition matches mine on this evening!) 

I spent an extra night on the Jersey Shore after putting in three days’ work at a conference full of educators and sellers of educational fare in Long Branch. The days were long, and I was ready to unwind in what has become a favorite east coast hangout of mine.

A relic, on so many levels
Most people—from my generation, at least—equate Asbury Park with Bruce Springsteen. His first album (yes, they were still albums back then) was named for the town from which he hailed. Back in the day, even before my generation, Asbury Park was a thriving coastal town with a boardwalk framed by two casinos and a popular beach. Time had not been kind to this town, however, and it gained a reputation as a poor man’s Atlantic City, complete with high crime rates and an exodus of “preferable” citizens who made their way north and south to newer, cleaner, and glittering seaside addresses.

The Berkeley
I first spent some time here during those less attractive days. I was mainly drawn by two famous clubs (one being the Stone Pony) and cheap hotel rates at a stately and recently renovated hotel with great ocean views from each room. The Berkeley reportedly had a haunted floor (the fourth, I believe) but also had neatly appointed rooms done in an art deco style. Both the décor and views were impressive, and both the Stone Pony and Wonderbar were “bucket list” material. I promised myself I would return soon.

It took some seven years to get back to Asbury Park, and I was not booked in the Berkeley. Even so, I did have an even better time upon my long-awaited return. It was a night full of new experiences and meeting great people. And, of course, there were the clubs.

View from just off the boardwalk
After parking the mini at the southernmost end of the boardwalk, I began a casual stroll northward, taking in the smells of several restaurants on my left and views of the Atlantic to the right. After inspecting various menus, I settled on the skirt steak dish offered up at Pop’s Garage. The meal was delicious, complemented nicely by a couple of Tecates and friendly locals who reminded one that Asbury Park had become quite a dog-friendly town. One patron dined with her terrier sitting in the adjoining seat. The dog would periodically jump down to visit strangers who were within leash-length, including me. Everyone loved the furry customer, at least until her lead got long enough for her to venture inside.

The sign says it all!
After some friendly conversation, a few of us decided to join the dog owner for “Yappy Hour” at Wonderbar. It was an easy choice, as this landmark was the first stop on my evening’s itinerary. The patio served as a free range for dogs of all kinds (although this Friday was dedicated to small breeds). The October evening was cool but comfortable, and the chaos of the playful hounds and Jim Beam on ice made for a unique and entertaining hour before I headed inside to see the bands playing for the lounge lizards.

Amigos, Amigos!
Hey Anna
Those of us who opted for the bands were treated to several local favorites. Two intrigued me. The mysteriously named Amigos, Amigos! played songs from their CD, It’s Okay, They’re Not Listening. Their look and music were both interesting, but lacking in definition and direction. I referred to them as “rudderless” to one of my new friends, who nodded in agreement over the din. As I usually do to support local artists, I bought a copy of the CD. I must say that when I put it on in the car on the way home the next day, I was much more impressed. Hey Anna performed next. They were tight and distinctive, and they had the look of an indie alternative band. I hope they release a CD in the near future, but I understand their next adventure is a tour of Japan. Both bands are worth a listen.

Polka Floyd
After Anna’s set, a couple of us decided to check out the bonfire on the beach, something I saw signs for earlier in the day. By the time we arrived, they were just about ready to snuff out the last, dying embers. It would have been a wasted walk to the beach if not for happening across a band playing for free in the casino. Polka Floyd played just what you would expect. This night they were performing their version of The Wall, complete with robust accordion playing off the lead guitar. Keep in mind, by the way, the “casino” of which I speak is a large open area for various forms of entertainment.

An admirer of the Asbury Lanes gallery
That thought actually transitioned nicely into the next stop—Asbury Lanes. I had seen it before, a couple blocks off the boardwalk from Wonderbar. I assumed it was a bowling alley. After all, there was a large glowing pin on the marque. Thanks to the insistence of a weekend visitor from the northern part of the state, I was treated to something a bit different. I was assured that it was, in fact, a converted bowling alley that now doubled as a great venue for both local and national acts. The Orwells just happened to be onstage when we arrived. The headliner had just gone on, but the bouncer let us in for free. Artwork on the walls, bacon and grilled cheese sandwiches, the music, bowling balls and more drinks made this stop a memorable one that I’m surprised I could remember at all.

The show ended and the place began to shut down. I was convinced that I was done for the evening and headed toward my car. My new companion who enlightened me about the Lanes thought that we should instead make one more stop, as there was a bar with music still emanating just across the street from where my car was parked. Resigned to making one extra stop, I entered the club adjacent to the Empress Hotel.

The bar seemed unassuming enough. Two large TV screens above the bar held images of sporting events. Only a few people were stationed here, belying the noise coming from a room around the corner. When we turned that corner, we did so on a number of levels. What we walked into was a whole other world of assless leather chaps, glitter, and female impersonators lip-synching a variety of pop tunes with total commitment.  I was immediately reminded of what I had heard from several locals during my latest visit, that a new population had descended upon this decaying town and helped to bring it out of the ashes. Much of those “new pioneers” seemed to be in this one particular spot. And they were having a grand time (yes, I avoided the obvious pun). It may have been the booze, but I was even coerced into getting a kiss on the cheek from a "Cher" impersonator who was a dead ringer. It was an unexpected end to a long night full of twists and turns that made it one of the liveliest experiences I’ve enjoyed in quite a while.

In short, there is a lot to love about Asbury Park. It may still have a bit more than its share of crime, and you have to be flexible enough to accept that it is not the plushy beach towns that surround it. It is a fun, funky, down-to-earth piece of American pie that the “Boss” should be proud to call “home.”

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Town that Time Forgot (11/29/13)

As you probably know, “Black Friday” is now followed directly by “Small Business Saturday.” My wife, also always on the lookout for new and interesting things to do, suggested we take the latter concept a step further. She suggested we spend this special Saturday in the town of Smicksburg, PA. Like most anyone reading this, I had never heard of Smicksburg. My wife had, but she wasn’t even sure of where it was. She only knew it was somewhere in western Pennsylvania, so I was commissioned by her to find out more about it and determine whether it was a viable destination.

I was surprised to find that the town not only had its own web site, but that the site included local business descriptions, maps, and a calendar of events that even many cities’ Chambers of Commerce don’t bother with. After cataloguing the number and variety of local commerce conveyors, I recommend that we take trek off in the Mini, leaving space around a small cooler, in case we found any treasures worth bring home. Off we went, promises of gift stores, pottery shops, quilt makers, wineries, and local foods lying an hour and fifteen minutes or so toward the middle of nowhere.

Marking the way to Smicksburg
Winding our way through various small towns, a partially frozen lake, and one isolated power plant, we came nearer our destination—marked by a curious feature we called the “cow on a stick.” As you enter the Smicksburg from the south, you pass several Amish families in quintessential horse-drawn buggies. They politely greet you, whether coming alongside or passing in the opposite direction. Although they are a subculture that prefers to keep to themselves, all of the people we saw seemed friendly in passing. Perhaps it is the dependence on outsiders for the many handcrafted furniture businesses that dominate the town and its environs. The Amish who live in this area seem comfortable doing without most of the technologies we take for granted, but they seem just as comfortable with exposure to it. I did respect the assumed wish of abstaining from photographing them, however.

After an initial stop in a general gifts and furniture market—candles, preserves, Christmas ornaments, some of that handcrafted furniture, and more—we decided to have lunch in the middle of town. I had a rather odd combination: Reuben with a side of sweet potato fries, complete with syrup. After a warm lunch we ventured back out into the cold to check out the other shops in town.  Standard fare, with one notable exception.

Meet Donn Hedman
A pottery store baring the town’s moniker and owned by a retired clay professor and his wife, really caught our attention. The pieces were both beautiful and unique. The face pots, egg cookers, salt shakers filled the former site of the town’s First National Bank, and the Donn Hedman was a wealth of knowledge about pottery techniques, the building, the town, and even something about road tripping (he turned me on to Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon, an excellent book that I wish I had written).

"Golden Gate" and Fort Point
As for the rest of the shopping, it was everything I expected, but more. Antique shops specialized more in “primitives” from earlier centuries than what I tend to seek out. Even so, I scored a Sinatra 78, stereoscope card of the Panama Canal, and master glass photo of the “Golden Gate” (pre-bridge but with Fort Point and its lighthouse in the foreground). This antique shop was part and parcel to Windgate Winery, a good ways out of town and off the hardly-beaten path. I was glad we had the small car, as we found ourselves sharing narrow, snow-covered dirt roads with more than one buggy. Wingate’s offerings were worth the mud on the Mini, especially their drier whites. The winery was much busier than I would have expected, a probable tribute to the quality of the product.

Delinquent beauty
On the way home we stopped at a few more places—a spice shop, quilt and Christmas store, and small general store. At the last stop of the day, we fed our cooler with a two-pound roll of rich Amish butter and a pound each of butter cheese and garlic ring bologna. I feared I would soon look like the cow that now seemed an omen, but I couldn’t resist the culinary step back in time. An old, rusting gas pump to the side of the store caught my eye. It seemed to epitomize the feel of Smicksburg to me. It was old and worn, but still somehow alive and beautiful as a photographic study.

Wingate Winery
And that really sums up the day. It was a complete escape from life and work, even compared to other road trips I’ve shared. It was fascinating to see the artisans and Amish families coexisting in a truly bucolic setting. It was a nice vacation from the norm, if only for a day, and I look forward to a return visit.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Austin's Institutions on Congress Ave. (11/9/13)

Stevie Ray's vigil over FFF Fest
“Fun Fun Fun Fest” is a stupid name. Sorry. It just is. The event is epic for a metro-specific, Bonnaroo kind of event, but it needs a new brand. I happened to be in Austin the same weekend, for nothing more than a visit with good friends and some local music and Texas grub. I was looking forward to catching a show at either one of two venues that had been recommended to me by local indie music hero. I didn't attend the fest, save for taking a walk around the periphery as part of a Friday afternoon exercise session. It wasn't the name, but my prearranged itinerary and $79 daily ticket price that kept me on the beyond the fences enveloping of the festivities.

State capitol from South Congress
Austin is probably best linked to the PBS show recorded there and consequent Austin City Limits festival. South By Southwest is also a big deal, but it’s not the institution that ACL is. Institutions are interesting entities, and some are less recognized, but no less important to a Music Mecca such as this. Happily I experienced three others worth my time and yours.

The Continental Club's bar
On evening number two of the FFF Fest, my host and I ventured onto South Congress Avenue. The view of the state capital is worth the hike, but we were here for a good Tex Mex dinner at Guerro’s and some blues and the Continental Club. The Continental was one of the two places recommended to me by native musician Lincoln Durham, whom I had the pleasure to hear and meet back home the week before. The club is located in the heart of the thoroughfare’s evening buzz of clubs, bars, and curious shops with names like "Lucy in Disguise" (a costume shop, of course). The Continental Club has been a fixture since 1955—so it says on the t-shirt I bought. The Continental has a small, but well-stocked and visually busy bar on the left wall. There's a poolroom in the back that we didn't feel comfortable loitering in and a gallery upstairs that I didn't even get to.

The Blues Specialists
I was forced in place by the crowd and the music eminating from a stage the size of my office. The loud and seasoned tunes were delivered with all the authenticity of an old mule. The Blues Specialists are a fixture at the Continental, to the tune of standing Friday night set, 20 years running—a long time, yet a little less than half of the Club’s existence. Mel Davis and company (seemingly minus one player) blew through a authentic $200 a night set of Texas blues with all the seasoning you’d expect from such a tenured band. Nothing fancy, just raw and real—like the club. We stayed through the set, but decided to skip the featured act, Junior Brown. In hindsight, that may have been a tactical error (check the link to see what I mean).

Tips are always appreciated & usually deserved
Most cities that nurture independent music, like Seattle, New York, Madison, and others are populated with street musicians. These alfresco entertainers earn amounts commensurate with the “feel good” aura they project as much as their talent. They usually work day jobs to support themselves, and dream of being discovered by a producer who just happens to walk by and connects with them. Lack of A List level chops is almost always overshadowed by the genuine passion these minimum wage maestros have for performing. I admire the guts they have to have the antithesis of a captive audience. I'm always willing to pause and give a listen and fund their efforts, if only for a couple minutes and at least for a couple bucks. I didn’t catch their names. One rarely does.

Maybe years from now, some of these same folks will find the way to the "FunX3" Fest. By then, perhaps the event will have become another Austin institution. I just hope they change the name.

Next week: "The Town that Time Forgot"

Monday, January 13, 2014

Moving in Stereo(scope)  (11/6/13)

3-D TV doesn’t appear to be as popular as investors thought it would be , although movie theaters continue to sell out for this format. It seems like such an advanced science, unless you grew up on Viewmaster collections of famous places and Disney animations. That these visual devices were around as long as 75 years in one thing, to realize that 3-D imagery has its roots as far back as the late 1800’s is astounding.

A few items from my collection
Early advances in this surprisingly simple technology came mostly out of the little town of Meadville, PA, now mostly known as the home of Allegheny College. Here, at the Keystone View Company, 3-D images and devices designed to view them put pre-television consumers in the middle of the Grand Canyon, most any major city in the world, on World War I battlefields, and coutless other places. The cards were produced by the hundreds of thousands and distributed worldwide throughout the first half of the 20th Century.

1939 military training reel
Besides being popular family entertainment, they were used for a wide variety of other activities. Various specialized sets helped bring stories to life and better illustrate scientific concepts in classrooms. They were used as military training devices to identify both friend and enemy craft (as were the earliest Viewmaster reels in the late 1930’s). They were—and still are—aids for vision testing, used by corporations and in over 40 states for drivers’ license testing.

The Keystone Company shut its doors in 1972, as wider commercial interest in the devices and cards waned. This pioneering, low-tech item is all but gone and forgotten, except to collectors like myself.

The re-purposed church
Thanks to a family of former Keystone employees, the public can still appreciate the simple elegance of this viewing system firsthand, at the Johnson and Shaw Stereoscope Museum. Housed in a small Christian Science Church once attended by the Keystone founder, the one-room museum opened in 2002 and is operated by a third generation of former company employees. The collection is well organized and more informative than most. Displays are attended to by mannequins, giving context to the work that was done in manufacturing the product, as well as its applications.

One of several displays
The gentlemen who lovingly tend to the place share their knowledge with photography students who make regular visits from both Allegheny and Edinboro University. They also open the doors by appointment to those interested. If you ever find yourself anywhere near Pittsburgh or Erie, it is worth a call to make an appointment. Your visit will be a unique experience, and your host’s stories will help you experience a fascinating period of American technological development.

To request information call 814-333-4326 or send email to
Next Week: Austin’s Institutions of Congress

Monday, January 6, 2014

Meet Genya Ravan—Finally (2/26/13)

I was in my 26th year teaching in an all-girls environment. I didn’t seek my first job at a single-sex private school because I believed strongly in such an education. I took it because it was one of scant opportunities in an economically challenged city into which I had married. As you could imagine, however, the advantages of such an education were internalized over the quarter century of my first-hand experience.

This is important to understand before telling you about how I came to meet Genyusha Zelkovicz, a woman who not enough who should appreciate women in music have heard of, even when going by her professional names—Goldie or Genya Ravan.

I was attending a national conference in Philadelphia on an unseasonably mild but rainy February weekend. Consistent with my usual MO, I decided to arrive a day early and take in whatever interesting local event might be available. I came upon the World Café schedule. As luck would have it, there was a show that evening on the edge of the Penn campus venue. Although I had never heard of the featured artist, I had already decided to go.

Goldie (top) and the Gingerbreads
As I began to research Genya Ravan, it became clear that this would be a great person to see and talk with. She was, after all, the leader of the first true all-girl rock group (in that they all played their own instruments) to sign on a big label—a fact lost on most. Goldie and the Gingerbreads scored a semi-hit with “Can’t You Feel My Heartbeat?” in 1963 (you may better remember the Herman’s Hermits version). She went on to join a very good fusion rock band called Ten Wheel Drive in the 70’s and later had a string of solo efforts, while being a regular a CBGB’s and producing Dead Boys and Ronnie Spector. After a supposed battle with substance abuse (take a number), she was making the next level of her comeback. Genya was tapped to host a Sirius Radio show by Steven Van Zandt, and she had released a book and companion CD which are brilliantly combined as an eBook available on iTunes, called “Cheesecake Girl.” Both text and music create the autobiographic account of her immigration from Russia as a young girl, through work as a “cheesecake” model, her music career and the rollercoaster ride it all has been.

Genya and the band
Her music is pure rock’n’roll. It’s old school, and it’s genuine. So is she. The show was amazing. I had a great seat at the end of the bar, just feet away from the stage. The band was tight, while the banter was loose and warm. A sense of the band in its current incarnation can be experienced here. For whatever reason, I never wrapped my head around the fact that she no longer outwardly resembled the woman of the 60’s through 80’s era. But at 68, she still possessed an aura that drew one to her. Maybe 70 is the new 40?

Genya and the author
After meeting her and learning about her experiences in her book, I considered the story from its varied aspects. Is she an historical role model for today’s girls? Is her career one of being a Madonna/Miley opportunistic entertainment whore who we should protect our young girls from idolizing? I vote for the former, although I don’t see her being incorporated into anyone’s modern history curriculum. It’s a shame that she probably won’t get her due. Watch for the movie “CBGB” (in which Stana Katic from TV’s “Castle” plays Genya), and cross your fingers that the film stirs up interest in this underappreciated originator.

Postscript: Another female pioneer worth knowing is Gloria Jones. This 60’s R&B artist had a minor hit with her original version of “Tainted Love.” She later sang with, and married, Marc Bolin, of T-Rex fame.

Next Week: "Moving in Stereo(scope)"