TEXT AND PHOTOS BY JOEY DAYTONA | After returning from my two-week sojourn to Bluefield, West Virginia and elsewhere, I settled back into my work-from-home routine by only ever going out to get more supplies to go—a splendid isolation out of an episode of The Twilight Zone. New York City surely has its charms and many were sidelined due to the creeping death of the COVID-19 virus. Besides trips to go to museums and concerts here when I was young, one memory of a visit as a teenager stayed with me: It was a hot summer day and when I got home I smelled of diesel bus fumes, hot dog steam, stale piss, and regret. So it was in the late 1980s NYC. There was also that time I got whistled at across from the Meat Rack bar. I looked around to see where the girls were and realized I was the whistle bait. Wandering around Midtown, I didn’t miss the slow tourists at all and went about going through my many contacts, some going back to those early salad days.
Some old friends from my college years, who were now married to each other after their first serious relationships became brittle until they crumbled away into dust, invited me up to see them at their new place near Saratoga Springs. I always liked their company and although I’d been interested and agreeable to their kind offer, our schedules never worked out. This time was different. We were vaccinated and feeling somewhat safer, so there was an urgency in seeing friends, and a victory to be had when that task or trip that spent years on the To Do list could finally be erased.
Clearly things would never really get back to what passed for normal but, we’d give it a try anyway. I looked online for points of interest, historic sites, and of course, fancy restaurants!
I was actively plotting my “Joyrides for Shut-ins” tour and started by driving up the Hutchinson River Parkway on a cloudy Friday afternoon, making my way to the Taconic State Parkway, where I fell into the lines of traffic headed north. Sinatra was on satellite radio. When I told some co-workers about my trip they all gave me the same advice: Leave early. Gassed up and feeling energized from a busy half-day of work, I knew the speed limit was 55 mph but kept up with the other fast cars in the passing lane until we passed Rt. 44 near Poughkeepsie and the traffic lightened up. I can’t think of that city without thinking of Gene Hackman as New York Police drug squad Detective “Popeye” Doyle in the film The French Connection, where he questions a suspect by asking him if he’d “picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.” Silly, I know, yet memorable. It came up again in the Sex and the City movie when Carrie Bradshaw said the line, “Charlotte Poughkeepsied her pants!” I pulled off the parkway to take a rest and check the online map and set the GPS. There are only a couple designated scenic view parking lots and as you’d suspect, beer cans, Styrofoam coffee cups, cigarette butts, and used condoms were in evidence in the drainage ditch near the overflowing trashcan.
Early May was not quite tourist season for Lake George and the weather had been iffy all week. A passing shower that first night up north and I then spent a pleasant day catching up with my old friends, enjoying local farm fresh produce and getting used to the sound of crickets and no sirens outside the my bedroom window. After a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon, I drove up to Lake George to attempt to re-live some of my childhood memories of the place I knew from a 1980s family vacation now remembered much like an episode of the old network television show, The Wonder Years. I parked the car and walked around to see the tourist cruise boat passing by and had a faint memory of being on one but then realized that was the Circle Line around Manhattan, where my mother and I met Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins!
It was still early in the day and not much was open yet. A few people were around and the cool weather kept those who were about moving quickly. There is an odd trance-like tourist dance of taking things in and being in wonder of seeing things for the first time. I found an ice cream stand and seemed to remember it as the large cone atop the roof looked familiar, yet there had to be many of those places back then and it looked too new to be the actual one from my dim memory. This was where age and the many years had their way with my fragile mind. Were these real memories of actual events or just a composite of similar projections of what was supposed to have been? Maybe I’d been conflating those warm and fuzzy TV sitcom moments with my own? I filled in blanks and they played in my mind like a movie, with a great period correct soundtrack, tracking shots and dissolves to scenic landscapes. Did my father not get an ice cream with the rest of us that day? Did he sulk in the beige Pontiac Sunbird smoking cigarettes and reading the Sunday New York Times? I do remember him not wanting us to eat in his car back then, as my sister and I were careless with crumbs.
I walked down Beach Road and saw a mini-golf course with those cartoonish creations meant to evoke some foreign place, like London Bridge, the Eiffel Tour or the Taj Mahal. Mini-Golf Around the World or something. A geography lesson built into the potentially humiliating experience of not being able to put the ball into the holes while your older sister snickered. Frustration and indignity in public. The family vacation purgatory of forced fun. All those years ago, had I quit playing in disgust, dropped my club and cried? Now there stood a Paul Bunyon character with a large ax in his hands but he also looked very much like all the fiberglass “muffler men” seen across the country at muffler shops, holding a muffler instead of an ax. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/37422
In a fantasy dream sequence, Paul swings his ax at anyone who dared laughed at me. He was my rugged, outdoorsy, hunky hero and defender. Or, as I saw him when I took this photo, he wrecks shop on London Bridge on 4th of July while humming Yankee Doodle.
I hit the main drag and there were various local types milling about smoking cigarettes and seemingly in no hurry to go anywhere that were as it turned out, actually waiting for the liquor stores to open at noon. Maybe they were the local Nod Squad. They were here all the time, folks like me were just passing through. I was on the other side of the coin this time in the locals vs. tourists squabble. The T-shirts and souvenirs for sale rang a bell in my foggy mind. I once had a clear plastic resin paperweight that said Lake George, NY inside it written in some colorful font within the outline of the blue lake. I also was given the chance to get a flag. They had many different kinds and I settled on the Jolly Roger pirate flag of the skull and cross bones. It hung in my room for a few years then what? Disappeared? Thrown away? I wasn’t sure anymore and hadn’t thought about it in what? Thirty or forty years? The passage of time concerned me on many levels. I saw a store called DILIGAF which stands for, Do I Look Like I Give A F*ck? Oh, so very clever and mean spirited. It’s a magnet for deplorable hyper-patriotic types and those who want to “own the Libs.” Boot lickers in love with the disgraced former President. It’s supposed to be funny but is just stupid. It looked like the kind of place someone not wearing a face mask would feel comfortable. Further on were more T-shirts and novelty license plates in store windows that were less offensive.
I kept walking and came upon the local courthouse. The walk around Lake George jogged a few memories including one of me running away from the family towards the lake after drinking a whole can of orange soda. My mother said I became unruly when I had that kind of food dye back then. I’d become hyperactive and lippy when I was usually fairly low-key and reserved in public. At home she would make me an orangeade drink of orange juice, water, and sugar instead of buying orange soda. It was a chemical sensitivity that later on in life I would be able to work around. That day so long ago, had I all-of-a-sudden run into the water with my socks and shoes on? I had. Had I thrown rocks? Maybe. Did I get in trouble while on vacation? Yes. There was that special time when you’re a kid and a lot of your world is influenced by cartoons so the prospect of doing something wrong and going to jail seemed real. The potential hazards of jail and quicksand loomed large. It kept me in line and by the time I was informed that children couldn’t really be arrested or put in jail, I’d grown out of most of my impulsive bad behaviors like hitting everything with sticks. I imagined there were probably a lot of driving while intoxicated cases here in the summer months, a real problem in vacation destinations where people are encouraged to cut loose. I drove past former tree trunks that someone with a chainsaw turned into rampant bears for sale. I smiled at them as if we’d shared some silly inside joke.
I walked back to the car and drove north along the western shore of the lake up along Route 9N through Bolton and on to Ticonderoga of famous fort fame. My own memory of Revolutionary War history was fuzzy so I looked up the particulars. https://www.fortticonderoga.org/ Originally built by the French, the allegedly impregnable fort was captured by the British in 1777 after it was abandoned by Gen. Arthur St. Clair who was later court-martialed but cleared of the charges. I drove further on until I saw the massive stone work of the impressive Ticonderoga National Bank building of 1927. It reminded me of the Depression-era 1930s of Bonnie and Clyde types roaring around in V8 Fords looking to rob some small town bank. Unlike many buildings of the period, this one doesn’t look like it would be robbed easily. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
While walking around, I smelled a wood fire which was at first alarming as in my mind, a building was on fire somewhere close. Then I smelled meat and sure enough there was a legit BBQ joint where I decided to get lunch of chicken and ribs, which were delicious with a frothy birch beer on ice. Having actual BBQ smokers outside gave me that feeling of competency in their culinary pursuit. Very, very competent. Inside they had a bunch of vintage memorabilia including an old Edison style phonograph that played the brittle tube-style recordings. You may remember the RCA Victor dog named Nipper listening to “his master’s voice” on such a device. Some places are ashamed of their simple time folksy past, not this one. I had that feeling of wondering about the place and the people so I sat and watched for half an hour. Finally, I went back in the BBQ place and spoke with the cashier for awhile which was educational and entertaining. They managed during the chat to convince me to get a slice of pecan pie to go and instead, I got a whole pie to share with my hosts back near Saratoga Springs.
On the eastern side of Lake George there isn’t a shore-hugging road similar to 9N so I took Route 22 which gave me a beautiful and scenic tour of the bucolic and sylvan area. Bucolic and sylvan being words I’d learned in high school for the SAT exam and then never used again until recently, along with taciturn and laconic. Many crop and dairy farms dotted the landscape as well as closed farm stands with signs for what would be sold there later in the season. Corn. Beans. Eggs. Squash. Those would make an amazing casserole dish. I’d been noting the many Trump flags around and those odd American flags rendered in black and gray that appeared to be representing some crypto-fascist militia scary nonsense. Jeeps and pick-up trucks with Punisher skulls, “Molon Labe” decals (Greek for the defiant “come and take them” from the Spartans era), Gadsden flags with the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake motif and worse passed me by on the vehicles or were crassly displayed on the front porches of the houses. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable then, so I had my mobile device play over the car stereo the Charlie Daniels Band’s darkly humorous 1973 song “Uneasy Rider,” about the hippie in a car that gets a flat tire near a hayseed hangout where he has to call for a repair truck and his long hair is discovered by the bar’s patrons.
Upon returning to the warmth of my North Country hosts, I was quizzed about my drive around the lake as they kept their distance. Masks on, they explained how rigorously they comply with every last suggestion to stay healthy, while lamenting those who flaunt the recommendations out of some twisted sense that our overly helpful government was imposing arbitrary mandates. My hosts quoted facts and figures about infection rates and spikes lulls from memory until the speed and sheer volume became overwhelming. I shifted the conversation just long enough to regroup and permit that information to come through, but in the split second before that, I understood the temptation to believe I was being fed a steady diet of lies. Some of these deniers must be operating from the same place, I thought, hanging on to a belief they knew damn well didn’t pass scrutiny, although it did a pretty good job of holding certain uncomfortable truths at bay. But no. Being right should matter, and proven facts aren’t open to interpretation or vulnerable to disbelievers.
The physical space between us that day, and the following one until we said our hugless goodbyes, was compounded by the emotional space we’d been carving out. Plenty of old memories to revisit, but so many things—important, relevant, contemporary things—left unsaid. I wish we’d had the chance to really talk through the trauma we experienced, to tell our tearful stories uninterrupted. All the cancelled plans, lost loves, friends in hospital rooms we weren’t allowed to visit, running out of spray bleach, shopping all day sometimes before finding the good masks, and worrying too much or not enough, after accidentally touching your face with the same hand that just touched the door handle. Then promising to be hypervigilant, only to become complacent and sloppy over time. At least I stopped thinking about the worst-case scenario of being alone in an ICU.
I was then passing through Putnam, NY when I came across a large eagle mascot on a motorcycle with flags behind it on the side of the road. I stopped and admired the audacity, the challenged aesthetic sensibility, the garish silliness of it before I got out and read that it was a memorial to one Zachary Granger, a veteran (two years in the Air force and then four in the Marines) who was killed in a motorcycle accident nearby in 2017. My laughter gave way to sadness of a life cut short. That night we enjoyed the heated up pie with some vanilla ice cream and shots of amaretto in decaf coffee. The ride home was uneventful except for a stop at a marijuana dispensary in Sherborn, Massachusetts for some of those nifty THC sour candies I’d read about on a friend’s blog. After a couple of them I walked down to the Detroit pizza place at W. 23rd near Eighth Ave., where I got a slice of pepperoni and… an orange soda.
A week after I returned, there was a night I couldn’t sleep. Unusual for me, but normal for the times we’re living in, at least according to the informal poll I threw myself into over the next week. But on that night, I got up and got dressed, and drove clockwise around this crazy island—alone—with the music cranked all the way up. My inner monologue was still firing on all burners, but now it had the advantage of a killer soundtrack and a truly open, nearly empty, road that found me speeding north up 12th Ave. to the Joe DiMaggio Highway, then to the Henry Hudson Parkway, cutting east across 178th, back south down the Harlem River Drive, to the FDR, and then around Battery Place and up West Street.
As the music blared, my thoughts turned to the events of 9/11 and how that death toll, so difficult to grasp and so disturbing to process, had been eclipsed many times over diminished by our current crisis. I found a spot to park and just sat there in silence, letting the thoughts and emotions wash over me. And I began to cry. Really cry. A few minutes of solid sobbing, and I was ready for bed. Miles away from bed, mind you, but finally ready for it.
Coming in our next installment: A trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan where I explore modern car culture, the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, and bums in the park outside of it as I drift around looking for clues to I know not what.
JOEY DAYTONA | Joey was a DJ, snowboarder and drag racer before retiring early to wait tables in Chelsea during the day and drive for a car service at night. His spirit animal is Travis Bickle. He also writes e-books under a pseudonym and was the manager of the Spaghetti Tacos restaurant upstate and former co-owner of the Go More Fast speed shop. He has a YouTube channel under his real name and was banned from Twitter. His motto is: On the Road, On Tour, Across the Country!
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