Saturday, September 26, 2009

New England

So I thought I'd write a blog about this place I'll be inhabiting for the next two months. I was driving, I had music, I was inspired.

The Scenery
I just returned from a roundtrip shopping quest, taking the back roads through Lenox and Pittsfield. On one of the roads, is Herman Melville’s* house,
Arrowhead, which overlooks the wooded hills of the Berkshires. It just sits there, on the side of the road, as though it was anyone’s house. These small, windy, two-lane roads that curve and twist, taking me through leaved kaleidoscope tunnels of green, yellow, and orange. This is one of the places where I find America – as it was, as it is, and as it will always be; red barns, pumpkin patches, raked piles of leaves, dapples of afternoon sun, and the random dwelling place of a great writer, just sitting by the side of the road. No pretention, no glaring neon signs, no great alarms – simple, understated, hard-working. Look up Bucolic in the Dictionary, and there’s a picture of New England.

The People
As I am not a native New Englander, I find myself under a slight bought of insecurity whenever I come here. I cannot fully describe the reasons why, or how this came to be, except that New Englanders keep themselves to themselves, and to a West Coaster, that’s slightly off-putting. A New Englander will not make a promise and then break it. Nor do they cancel, flake-out, or make excuses for anything. ANYTHING. They live by their word here – not in a naïve, down-home way; on the contrary, New Englanders are incredibly shrewd and discerning (It really sucks when they don’t like you…I’m looking at you, lady who works at the deli!). They live through incredibly harsh winters, talk very quickly, nod curtly, close their coats tighter against the wind chill, grit their teeth, and go about their business. Please don’t mistake me – it’s not in meanness. It’s just the way they are. Loyal to their sports teams beyond any sane proportions – I took my life into my hands today when I wore my Duck’s baseball cap. They have Tag Sales, not Yard Sales. New England is not for the faint of heart.

New England at Play
This weekend in Lenox, is a once-a-year event called the Apple Squeeze. Why? Well, one of New England’s best exports are apples. John Irving writes about this quite often in his novels (see: Cider House Rules). Apple Cider, Apple Cider donuts, Apple turn-overs, Apple Jelly, Apple Sausage, Apple Dumplings, Apple butter … you name it, it’s here. Most of the produce here comes from Florida, sadly. But ahhh … in the Fall, the apple bounty is quite impressive. New England could give Washington State a run for their money. So walking the streets of Lenox are folks from Berkshire County, and over-the-border upstate New Yorkers, trolling from booth to booth. It’s not all about apples though … there are several civic and social organizations. As I drove by, I saw a booth promoting the Public Health Care option.
One of the local high schools is trying to raise money for their participation in an arts program. This festival spans all of down town … which is the equivalent to three small city blocks. This is a town of about 7,000. There are no rides, except that of a hay wagon, no jump houses, nothing frilly or fancy. It’s a bunch of folks who get together, purchase apple products from local farmers, talk with their neighbors, read about current political happenings, support local social/civic organizations, and go home at the end of the day. What so special about this? I hear you ask. This is the highlight of the town. It’s advertised from Williamstown to Connecticut, Albany, NY to Springfield. Everyone knows about The Apple Squeeze. Children look forward to it, as though it were a trip to Disneyland – minus the extravagance, the greed, and the useless collection of crap.

Driving in New England
New England is an amassed collection of highways and country routes. The routes are usually signified with numbers, but also have street names. Sadly, most people know them by one or the other, but not by both – so the propensity to get lost in New England, if you’re not a native, is excruciatingly high. They also tend to use landmarks, but not distinct landmarks. Oh, no no no. Common landmarks that will have multiples within a mile of each other.
An example:

Take the Mass Pike to Lee, take Route 20 north until you reach Plunkett street, go through Lenox, then take the 20 until it turns onto South street by the Dunkin’ Donuts, and take that to Dalton.

What’s wrong with these directions? Well … a better, more concise version would be:

Take the Mass Pike to Lee, turn right onto Route 20 (heading North), until you reach Route 7A, which will take you through Lenox. 7A will meet back up with Route 20 North, taking you into downtown Pittsfield, where you’ll see a sign for Route 8 and 9 to Dalton and Northampton.

Plunkett Street = Route 7A
South Street = Route 8/9

You think it’s just a slight difference, until you’re actually driving, and the signs for Plunkett Street and South Street are either indiscernible or simply don’t exist. Locals will know the street names, and will rattle them off at the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean they will transpose on your actual journey. And if there’s one Dunkin’ Donuts, there will be two others along the way that will confuse the hell out of you. For my West Coast readers: Dunkin’ Donuts is to New England as Starbucks is to the West Coast, only cheaper, and with better coffee. For Canadian readers: Dunkin’ Donuts is to New England as Tim Horton’s is to Canada. No addendum necessary.

Driving Tip: Take a local with you. It’s much easier. Usually.

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, HONK. If you Honk, you will incur the wrath of the New Englander. They will automatically tag you as a New Yorker, and then you might as well go into hiding under the Federal Witness Protection Program. I am serious about this. New England is often abused and mistreated by New Yorkers who consider New England to be their “Weekend Playground.” If New England could go to war against New York State, they totally would. They refrain, however, because New Yorkers make up the largest portion of New England’s Tourism, and the economic repercussions would be too painful. New Englanders, are, in reality, at the mercy of the wealthy New Yorkers who come to camp, bed & breakfast, watch for Autumn colors, ski, etc. This is a fact that New Englanders will deny, but know to be true –and they HATE it. New England greatly prefers economic dollars from the cousin to the North: Eastern Canada. The Torontonians and the Quebecois are ALL welcome. New Yorkers are permitted, but only under the strains of economic burden. New Englanders try very hard to ignore the presence of the New Yorker. Honking is the surest, most tried system of New York detection. The typically private, self-possessed New Englander, upon a honking violation, will turn into an angry, passive aggressive monster, bent upon the offender’s downfall. There is a reason that New Yorkers have endeared Massachusetts natives with the pet name of “Massholes.” Just sayin’.

Important Note: As far as identifiers go, gratuitous speeding is a close second. And there’s a reason the Massachusetts Highway Patrol is well employed. New Englanders are not fools, nor do they suffer them. At all.

Nowhere, besides, perhaps, Israel, is the Jewish Holiday celebrated more than in New England. Most Americans West of Pennsylvania only ever recognize Jewish Holidays by those funny little names on the yearly calendar. I mean, Canada Day is on the calendar, but Americans certainly don’t pay attention to that, so why should Yom Kippur be any different? Oh … but it IS. New York and New England are the Jewish strongholds of the states. Most of us on the West Coast only know this to be true about New York because that’s what we see in the movies, but New England holds its own with the Chosen People. It’s taken so seriously, in fact, that the thought of calling a rehearsal or a sports practice on these holidays is strongly discouraged … even if one is calling the non-Jewish members of a cast or a team. The argument they have, which is completely valid, is that practices are never, ever called for Christmas Day or New Year’s Day, so why should they be called on the High Holy Days? They definitely have a point. Ramadan has very little representation, but should, one would think, deserve the same respect. I can only hope that this is true in Deerborne, MI. Oh well.

Ahhhhh New England! The beer is dark, the politics are Blue, the seasons pronounced, the holidays Jewish, the writer’s dead and their houses lay willy nilly on the side of the road, the people curt and loyal, the sports super-serious, and the New Yorkers abhorred. It’s a pretty awesome place.

*to put the writer’s houses into perspective: To the South of Shakespeare & Co., is Edith Wharton’s House (which was Shakes & Co’s home for awhile), The Mount. To the North is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House. Seriously, dead writer's houses litter the sides of New England roads.

This blog was brought to you buy:

pumpkin spice bread
my awesome itunes playlist


Phoenix said...

I'm so jealous I can barely type this. How are my people, by the way? Tell them I say hi.

It is true that we keep to ourselves, that we REALLY don't like people who honk (We're all in the same mess, buddy, what makes you so special that you get to honk to show your frustration?? Do you see ME doing that??) and that we're somewhat less concerned that people know where they are going on roads.

And we don't break promises.

Wish I could be there to share some cider and donuts with you and then tell of the deli lady for you.

jennifer from pittsburgh said...

Newbie ;)

H said...

Having just returned from travelling, camping and hiking in New England, I must say that the area is a great place to visit in the autumn. The air is crisp, the landscape is beautiful (especially when the leaves are changing color) and the people are friendly and down to earth.

The only thing that seemed a bit different from my last visit to New England was the addition of "marshmallow fields." (Have you seen them? ;-) )