Highway Haiku # 6
It’s garbage undiscarded
Trash we’ve grown to love
Gray skies spewed patchy rain. High winds seemed intent on stripping the last of autumn’s colors from the trees. We exited New Hampshire (it’s the one on the right; the “Live Free or Die” state). Then we passed through Vermont, whose slogan doesn’t demand one choose between what (we’re learning) is impossible, and an alternative we see as overly severe.
We took Highway 2, the same winding road Steinbeck and Charley traveled, skirting the northern edge of the White Mountains and zipping past flea markets, campgrounds and roadside stands offering cheese and syrup. At least every two miles, it seemed, an antique store appeared. I wondered if any of them, or their inventories, remained from Steinbeck’s day, growing – unlike most living, breathing things on earth — more treasured the older they get.
Outside of my car, the gusting winds sent leaves, falling and fallen, swirling across the highway like swarms of angry bees, signaling that nature’s most beautiful and all-too-transitory season was coming to an end. Every once in a while a leaf would break away from the crowd and, like a pre-moistened stamp, adhere to my car, in defiance of both wind and windshield wipers, clinging there as if to say “I don’t want to be mulch, I want to see the world.”
Through the drizzle, one particular antique store on the country highway caught my eye. Among the goods its sign listed for sale was: “Ephemera.”
As the antique barn disappeared in my rear view mirror, I repeated the word aloud, which I tend to do when I confront a little-used word while driving alone, or just with Ace. (One experiences not an iota of self-consciousness when with dog.) Ace responds with head tilts and funny looks, and he did so especially with “ephemera,” probably because it sounded, to him, vaguely, like “dinner.”
Picking up the beat of my windshield wipers, I began voicing the word repeatedly in line with their rhythm: ephem-mera, ephem-mera, ephem-mera.
I had a fair notion what ephemera was — just as I have a fair notion of what curios, trinkets, knick-knacks and bric-a-brac are. I knew ephemera was not a perfume, though it sounds like one; or a sleeping aid, though it sounds like one; or a skin condition, though it sounds like that, too.
What if, I fantasized as I continued down that misty highway, I had stopped at the shop? The door, I’m sure, would have had a bell on it that jingled when I entered, and a friendly proprietor would have appeared from a back room, looking like a character from the Bob Newhart Show (the one where he had an inn), wiping his hands on a red checkered towel.
“Can I help you with anything today?”
“Yes,” I’d say. “I understand you have ephemera.”
“Indeed we do,” the proprietor would say. “What particular genre, or oeuvre, of ephemera are you interested in? What is it you collect?”
“It varies,” I’d answer. “Dust. Unemployment. Dog hair. Lots of dog hair. Money saving coupons. Sometimes my thoughts.”
“I see, but what exactly are you looking for today, ephemera-wise?”
“Well, I want some good, sturdy ephemera,” I’d say, “something that will last.”
At that point, he’d assure me all his ephemera came with a lifetime guarantee, and begin pointing out items on his dusty shelves – defunct board games, old movie posters, cigar boxes, lunch pails, old fashioned Coca-Cola bottles, sleigh bells, seed company advertisements, 8-track tapes, old maps, newspaper front pages about man landing on the moon and, laminated in plastic, a Life magazine with Marilyn Monroe on the cover.
Maybe I don’t understand ephemera. I guess there can be intentional ephemera and accidental ephemera.
If it’s an item that’s intended to be transitory and short term, one that’s destined to fade, doesn’t collecting it, selling it, laminating it and preserving it for eternity make it no longer ephemeral?
At that point in my fantasy, my car dinged, and a light came on warning me that I was, back in reality, down to my last gallon of gas.
Gasoline, now there’s something truly ephemeral. I filled my tank, paid in cash – also highly ephemeral — and hoped it would get me as far as our next stop, Saugerties, N.Y., where my grandparents once lived. I bought some gas station coffee and a spongy, cream and preservative filled pastry snack – the kind that legend has it will survive nuclear war. Ace leaned between the front seats to give the Twinkies a good sniff. I re-holstered the gas pump nozzle, plucked all the clinging leaves off my car, and three more, stuck like leeches, off my boots.
This is what old men do: They bemoan how fast the world is changing. They wax nostalgic about the good old days. They repeatedly tell you how quickly time passes, wasting more of it in the process. They get cranky at complexity. They badmouth technology. They complain about high prices. They start actually enjoying oatmeal. They lose their keys and wonder where their vigor went. They share their ailments, search for meaning and tell you that they don’t make them, whatever they are, like they used to. They fall into strict routines. They speak their minds, seeing less need to self-censor. They find a friendly ear, and wear it out. They get picky, and prefer things to stay in their place.
They feel as if they are fading, lagging behind the rest of the world – in a word, ephemeral. I, at 57, was already experiencing some of those symptoms. John Steinbeck, at the same age on his trip, clearly was, too.
A trip is a good way to counter all that; a dog is even better. In addition to having someone to grow old with, dogs provide us with a daily reminder of how to hang on to one’s playfulness and humor, even when all else is sagging and malfunctioning. They open doors we might have shut and locked and misplaced the key to. And they never seem to lose the pup inside. We, far more taxed and tested by the complexities of life, often let the kid in us slip away.
My grandfather, though I never remember him having a dog, always seemed to have an abundant supply of humor and playfulness, as if there were a little boy, planning his next prank, lurking within his wrinkly old self. He was a master of puns, a fount of gentle sarcasm. He had the ability to ascertain, with a smile, that a load of crap, even in disguise, was a load of crap. He was not gregarious, not a back-slapper, not an attention-seeker — just a quietly funny man.
He has been dead for 30 years, but we were visiting anyway, approaching from a different angle than we did when I was a child, on that 100-mile drive from Huntington, Long Island, that seemed to take forever.
When John Steinbeck and Charley left Long Island for their cross country trip, Nixon and Kennedy were vying for the presidency, Russia was seen as the biggest threat to America, and I was seven years old, learning along with my classmates that the place to be during a nuclear attack was under my desk, with my hands over my head. Between the sturdy Formica desktop and my fat little hands, what harm could possibly come to me?
Despite those repeated drills, I felt safe and snug growing up on Long Island, not too far from the cottage in Sag Harbor where Steinbeck lived. Not even Nixon scared me. In fact, before I knew any better, I was a fan. Possibly I liked the near symmetry of his name. Possibly, though I don’t think I had hit the rebellious years yet, I was for Nixon because my parents were such big Kennedy supporters.
I remember one fall trip, probably just weeks before the election, when bumper stickers seemed to adorn nearly every car. My parents’ Buick station wagon was one of those with an extra, flip-up back seat that faced backwards. That afforded me – it’s occupant, by virtue of calling “dibs” — a fine view not of what hope and promise lay ahead, not of little things growing larger, but one of where we’d already been, of big things becoming smaller. Still, it gave me an excellent opportunity to campaign for my man, Dick. I tore up sheets of paper, wrote “Vote for Nixon” on them in pencil, then licked the side with the writing, hopefully avoiding lead poisoning, and affixed them to the inside of the back window. After a minute or two, saliva being an ephemeral adhesive, they would fall off, requiring a re-licking.
In the 1960′s, I passed the time in the car by reading (until I got car sick), campaigning (until it got boring) or playing road games. Most commonly, we played the cow-counting game. I would choose one side of the highway, my brother or sister would choose the other, and we’d each count the number of cows on our side. In the event of a graveyard on your side of the road, you would lose all your cows and go back to zero. The one with the most cows won.
Fifty years later, in 21st Century upstate New York, there seemed to be far fewer cows to count, and a lot more cemeteries, so I passed the time looking into the windows of cars I was passing, or being passed by, on the New York Thruway. In almost every car containing children, they were talking or texting on cell phones, listening to music through earplugs, watching movies on built-in screens, or playing hand-held video games.
When I was a child, a time when none of those options existed, I seem to recall actually looking at the scenery when on a trip. I know I kept a sharp eye out for the several “Falling Rock Zones” we passed through. I feared the rocks would live up to the warning, and we’d all be crushed. (One advantage of the Buick years was that, facing backwards, I didn’t know we’d entered the falling rock zone until we’d gotten through it unscathed.) By age 10, I began to doubt the signs, and started wishing some rocks would fall. They never did.
Had the technology existed, had I been given a choice as a youngster between counting cows and, say, slaying zombies, I’m sure I would have opted for the bloodier pursuit, and probably become all but addicted to it. But dull as counting cows might be — and let’s face it, it’s pretty dull, right up there with the family sing-a-long — I have only fond memories of the hours invested in the activity, at least in those cases in which I won
Maybe it was a longing for the good old days that drew me back to Saugerties, a desire to ride backwards into simpler times. I had no real plan other than driving by the old farmhouse my father grew up in, seeing how the little village of Saugerties had changed and walking my dog through the always colorful streets of neighboring Woodstock.
Heading south from Albany, I pulled off the thruway and got on Highway 212, which runs between the two towns. Rounding a curve I spotted the Centerville Fire Company — the landmark that, back in the 1960s, served as notice that we were almost there. That was another game, being the first person to see “Grandpa’s fire house.” He was the village tax collector in Saugerties, but also was a member, and served for a while as chief, of the volunteer fire department.
Being the first person to see Grandpa’s fire house was a far more important victory than winning the cow-counting game, and it meant there were only three miles left to go. Old habits being hard to break, I found myself rounding that curve, turning to Ace, and saying, out loud, “I see Grandpa’s fire house.”
Once again, I won.
The big white house with green trim was now cream colored, with burgundy trim, and not as huge as I remembered it. It sits close to the highway — I’m not sure if they built the house too close to the road, or the road too close to the house – and the apple orchard that was across the street is now a housing development.
But on grandpa’s side of the road things looked pretty much the same, and buried memories bubbled up — when I pulled into the gravel driveway, when I climbed the wooden stairs where the “Kingston Dairy” milk box used to sit, and even more when I walked along the vast front porch and was hit with the slight smell of mildew, the same one that was there 50 years ago.
The creek that ran through the back yard, the giant, climbable sheaths of slate behind it, the rented-out cottage up on the hill were all where I’d left them, and all served to remind me of what no longer was — my highly tidy grandmother, my jokester of a grandfather, my great grandmother, Flan, who lived in the backroom.
Ace took a seat on the front porch as I, after figuring out nobody was home, sat on the steps and remembered tastes, sounds, sights and smells of the past: Playing pinochle, eating pot roast, and sipping hot tea in the afternoon with tons of cream and sugar; going to sleep upstairs while waiting for the next car to roar by on the highway; of morning bacon and eggs and toast popped from a toaster that, when not in use, was always neatly blanketed with a cover that said “Hot Toast Makes the Butterfly;” of a certain cookie, a raisin-filled wafer, soft and chewy and the color of sunshine, whose name eludes me, but that we enjoyed before bed, always with ginger ale.
My grandmother, though a meticulous sort, had a sense of humor, too, and on those rare occasions she actually left the kitchen and took off her apron she was probably even more of a practical joker than my grandfather. Family legend has it that it was she who attached sleigh bells beneath my parents’ bed on their wedding night.
My grandmother’s parents came from Ireland, my grandfather’s from Germany, making me, especially when you throw in my mother’s Welsh roots, a mutt, like most Americans. As a child, I never held much interest in my heritage. What few lingering traces I saw of it, other than our hard to spell last name, were during the trips to Saugerties, where we ate things like paprika schnitzel and said “prost” instead of “toast” at evening cocktail hour.
As a mix of bland and pasty white nationalities, best known (or at least stereotyped) for being stern and hard drinking, I never felt inclined, at least during my first 50 years, to delve into my roots. I saw no mysteries worth solving, and assumed that, as a third generation, TV-raised American, I was too homogenized for my heritage to make a difference – that I was more a product of Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball than all those people from towns in Germany whose names I couldn’t pronounce.
Bored as I’d always been with my own roots, Ace’s, for some reason, captivated me.
From the moment I picked him up in 2005, I wondered about the breeds that might be within him, and the environment that shaped him in his first six months of life.
Like most people who adopt a dog from a shelter, I left not knowing for sure what was at the end of the leash. His shelter paperwork listed him as a “hound mix.” Shelter staff referred to him as a “shepherd mix.” A “Labrador mix” was how he was classified on Petfinder.com, a national directory of adoptable dogs, where, I’d learn later, he’d been briefly listed, and had generated an impressive 302 clicks.
I was given little in the way of a back story, other than he was a stray, reported by a citizen and picked up by animal control in the 21229 zip code of Baltimore – one of about 6,000 dogs who ended up in the city shelter that year. I knew he was, more or less, six months old. I knew he’d spent 17 days in the shelter, weighed 50 pounds when he arrived and 60 pounds when he left, indicating he was making up for some missed meals. I knew he went all slinky at the sight of a raised hand or loud noises.
But as for the big question – the one everyone asked – I hadn’t a clue. What breeds were in him? It wasn’t vital information, but my curiosity grew. What was it that had made him so easily trainable? What made him so obliging and eager to please? What made him so sweet, so sensitive, and so darn big? The day didn’t go by that I wasn’t asked, “What kind of dog is that?” And if that weren’t enough, Ace’s own body reminded me daily of his ambiguity, via the fuzzy punctuation formed by his tail. When he’s happy, it’s a perfect question mark.
In 2007, tests came on the market that promised to answer that question, to divulge the contents of your mystery mutt through at-home DNA testing – DNA being another piece of technology we’ve grown to depend on, and now see as the indisputable answer to everything from whodunit to who’s your daddy?
As part of my broader investigation into Ace’s roots, I sent for the kit. I received a sterile swab, packed in an airtight container and, in accordance with the directions provided, removed it, rubbed it across his gums, repackaged it and sent it to the laboratory. The earliest versions of the test cost $65 and promised to identify which, among the 38 breeds they could check for at the time, were in your dog.
About a month later, the results came in the mail, along with a “Certificate of DNA Breed Analysis.” It stated he was Rottweiler and Chow Chow.
I winced. Chows, if you believe the bad press they’ve received, are obstinate, fiercely loyal, and somewhat detached, with a reputation for biting. Some say it’s a remnant of the way they were once treated in China, where they originated, and where, during some periods of history, they were used for fur and meat. Rottweilers originated in Germany, were used for herding and as guard dogs, and some manuals warn they can become dominant and overly aggressive, especially around other dogs.
Ace, while he does fancy himself king when around other dogs, while he can sometimes act aloof, while he does have the blocky head of a Rottweiler and something akin to the fluffy tail of a chow, had none of those negative traits.
A year later, when a new test came out, capable of detecting 150 breeds through sampling the DNA in blood, drawn by a veterinarian, I tried it as well. The second test confirmed Rottweiler and chow and also detected some Akita, a Japanese breed also burdened with a bad reputation.
That was followed by a third test, an upgraded version of the first cheek-swab test. A year later, it was able to check for three times as many breeds. This time, his mix was determined to be 50 percent Rottweiller, meaning one of his parents was of that breed, with the rest of him made up of chow, Akita and pit bull.
By then, I’d vowed to take part in no more breed tests, lest they reveal traces amounts of zombie, or Satan himself. My dog was a mixture of four of the most feared and bad-mouthed breeds – or in the case of pit bulls, types — in the land, including the most bad-mouthed of all.
Makers of the tests say they can be useful in identifying health issues affiliated with certain breeds, and in predicting temperament. But they can also saddle dogs with the stigma of negative, often mythical, stereotypes. In my case, it was information that could only serve to keep me from ever renting again, at least if I were to be honest about it.
If Ace proves anything, it’s that mixing breeds tends to bring out best and quash the worst, and that labels, handy as they might be, are best left for grocery store aisles. They don’t really work on living things. It may fly in the face of kennel club notions about purity, but mutts, in my view, are healthier, smarter and ooze far more personality than purebreds, which exist by virtue of relatives mating with relatives – sometimes distant, sometimes not too distant. That has resulted in long list of genetic health issues in certain breeds, some of them curable by simply bringing some outside blood into the mix, but that’s a concept abhorrent to many purebred purists.
Ace has made me a proponent of, and witness to, the miracle of mixing. But after he became a jumble solved, I missed the mystery he once provided. Being able to recite his lineage allowed me to still play the guessing game, letting others offer their theories before I, like a smug game show host, gave them the correct answer. But it wasn’t quite as fun that way.
Still I always make it a point to disclose the information to interested parties (excluding motel managers, landlords and insurance companies) for it proves that either:
- Those breeds don’t deserve the reputations with which they’ve been saddled.
- Mixing breeds has a way of washing away any hard edges, mean streaks, anti-social behavior and maybe many of the health problems resulting from the quest for “purity.”
Could it be that, at least when it comes to dogs, true “cleansing” is achieved in a manner contrary to kennel club wisdom, contrary to what a heinous regime in my great grandfather’s homeland once thought? Could it be that, when it comes to choosing a canine mate (not that we generally permit them to do that), dogs know something that we – even with all our breeds and standards and science and registries and snobby notions about purity – do not? Could it be that the more that are invited into the gene pool the happier a place it will be?
The first thing I noticed about grandpa’s house was that it was for sale.
The second was that nobody was home. I reasoned that, unlike when I was sniffing about Steinbeck’s place, it was within my rights to snoop around, given my bloodlines. The last time I’d seen the house was in 1999, when a family reunion was held at a Holiday Inn near Saugerties and we descended on its current owner, a New York City lawyer, begging for a peek inside. She kindly obliged back then, so I figured she wouldn’t mind.
I looked through her windows, sat on her front porch steps, and, mindful not to let Ace venture anywhere near the highway, let him otherwise have his run of the place.
I called the real estate agent listed on the sign, and explained to her I wasn’t a potential buyer — much as I would like to be — but was interested in seeing inside because it had been my grandfather’s house. She agreed to meet me there the next day.
Inside, it was a far different place — lots of old furniture still, but it was filled with modern art, much of it with an abstract and chaotic style, painted by the current owner. The arms of the sofas and chairs were no longer neatly draped with the lace doilies that my grandmother was quick to set back in proper position whenever they got sent askew, as they inevitably did anytime anybody sat down.
Even though it has been remodeled, with some new walls put up and some new windows added to let the sun in, with what used to be great grandma’s room turned into the laundry nook, there were still reminders of the past. While the upstairs bathroom was now equipped with a jacuzzi, I’m pretty sure I saw in a storage area under the house the old claw-footed bathtub I used to sit in, along with a floating bar of Ivory soap (“99 and 44/100ths percent pure”).
The property was listed at $268,000, and was down to 5.7 acres, patches of it having been sold off in the years since my grandparents first moved there in the 1920s. They had met at the Newark, N.J., laundry my grandfather’s parents owned. The woman who would become grandma worked there as the bookkeeper. They married and moved to Saugerties when doctors told my grandfather that country living would be better for his health. Apparently, it was. There, they would have three boys, starting with my father.
My father remembered when he was a toddler, sneaking into my grandfather’s car one day, somehow releasing the parking brake and rolling down the driveway, across the highway into the field of apple trees across the street. If traffic then had been what it is now on the road from Saugerties to Woodstock, I probably never would have happened.
When one leaves my grandpa’s former house, they can — and I’d recommend doing it very carefully — turn left or right on Highway 212.
To the left is Saugerties, a tidy little village that’s like stepping into the distant past. Its main claim to fame, nowadays, is antiques. We spent a couple of hours there, exploring its quiet downtown and visiting the Saugerties Lighthouse, accessible only from the river, or by a half mile walk through marshes.
Its bright beam of light guided ships along the Hudson River from 1869 until 1954. Then the lighthouse keeper was replaced by a machine, and later the lighthouse went into disuse. It was scheduled for demolition until residents managed to get it labeled historic in 1979. Now fully restored, it serves as a bed and breakfast (pet-friendly, but it costs $200 a night, and rooms need to be booked at least a year in advance.)
To the right is Woodstock, a town that reflects the less distant past, 1969 to be precise. An art colony that gained more fame when its name was used for the legendary concert that year — even though it was held at a farm 40 miles away – the Woodstock of today makes much of its tie-dyed past. It’s a mix of tourist traps selling hippy souvenirs and well-established art studios, a prime location for people-watching, and it still draws your creative types — independent thinkers who want to live in the midst of other independent thinkers.
Once I was 10 or so, we’d visit Woodstock, in its pre-concert persona, whenever we went to see my grandparents — first at the urging of my older sister, who once persuaded my brother and me to walk there (it was about six miles and we had to call grandpa from a pay phone to come pick us up in his Dodge Dart). Woodstock was bright, bold, loud, artsy and unpredictable — a world far removed from the quiet one my grandparents lived in, whose beat was as muted and steady as the tick-tock of the well-polished grandfather clock in the formal dining room.
I’m sure they looked at Woodstock’s transition – before, during and after concert — as if it were an alien takeover, and an annoying one, too, what with all the added traffic zooming past their house, including lots of beat-up, flower- and peace sign-painted Volkswagen vans. What, I’m sure they wondered, was this world coming to — the long hair, the bell bottomed pants, the loud music, all this talk about peace and love?
Would it please them to know most of it was ephemeral?
Ace, who loves any place that is full of people, seemed to relish his time in Woodstock. We spent a whole day walking around before returning to the KOA campground we were staying at, located just across the street from grandpa’s fire house.
On the way back there, I stopped at the only grocery between Woodstock and Saugerties, a place run by a relocated Englishman and featuring mostly goods imported from the UK. I quickly snagged the first familiar American item I came across, a can of Spam. I was wandering down another aisle when I saw what, to my excitement, appeared to be the raisin cookies I’d been reminded of during my visit to grandpa’s house. I bought them, too, and returned to camp.
We had opted for a Kozy Kabin, rather than setting up the tent, and had settled into unit K-8, which, though not K-9, was perfect for our needs. Upon arriving, Ace immediately chose the lower bunk, I the queen-sized bed. The cabins don’t have plumbing, but they do have electricity, which allowed me to recharge all my devices in need of recharging. The bathroom and showers were just 50 yards down a path. And we were directly across from a small fenced-in dog play area. We had our own grill and a fire pit, a picnic table and a front porch swing that turned out to be sturdy enough to hold us both (combined weight 300 pounds).
Only one cabin was open to dogs when the owners of the campground took it over seven years ago. Now all of them are. Squirrels and humans, they noted, have been responsible for much more damage than dogs. (Not all of KOA’s campgrounds allow dogs in the cabins. Some don’t accept particular breeds that insurance providers have identified as having a “history of aggression.”)
For dinner, I popped open my can of Spam, shook the mystery meat onto a plate and wiped off the afterbirth-like coating that always surrounds it. I cut it into big chunks, sliding a whittled stick through the middle of each piece and laying them on the grill for a few minutes to give the flavor a little more character. I fired up my portable propane burner and mixed a can of green beans with a can of mushroom soup, sprinkling some cracker crumbs on top.
Ace drooled as he watched, and the scent of my crisping-up Spam on a stick brought a visitor from the adjoining campsite, a mutt named Micro. Micro lived with his owner in a restored 1960 Airstream trailer. Its shiny surface was reflecting the fire dancing in my pit. The owner, an artist named Tim, gave me a quick tour of his home on wheels, which he’d rebuilt himself.
After a dinner, shared with dogs, I was stuffed, though Ace and Micro both seemed ready for more Spam. We spent a couple of minutes on the porch swing before bidding Micro goodnight and heading to bed.
Ace, instead of choosing the lower bunk, crawled into the big bed with me, either to show his gratitude for the Spam, or because I was now swathed in its smoky scent. I waited until morning for my special cookies.
Up with the sun so that we could get an early start in the direction of Buffalo, I opened the package as my coffee percolated. When I tried to pull out a wafer, it crumbled into pieces. I checked the expiration date and saw they still had another year left in them. I popped a piece into my mouth, then spit it out. They weren’t the same thing at all. They had a crunchy wafer instead of a golden soft one, and I saw on closer inspection of the label that they were filled with currants, not raisins. I deemed them unfit for even Ace and threw them in the garbage.
One can go home again. One can, at least in one’s mind, relive one’s past. One can try to grab hold of some ephemera before it disintegrates. One can try to solve life’s mysteries – be they meat or mutt-related – even though sometimes it’s best not to know. One can even find something close to the obscure cookies of one’s childhood.
Just don’t expect them to taste exactly the same.
Name: Janis Joplin (in life-sized cardboard cutout form)
Age: She died in 1970 at age 27
Breed: Rebellious blues singer
Encountered: On the patio outside a shop in Woodstock that sells souvenirs and hippy memorabilia
Back story: Ace tends to want to meet everyone he senses might want to meet him. He has a way of avoiding those he senses might not. With cardboard people, he seemed a little more uncertain. Outside a shop, he pulled me toward three that were standing on a patio — Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin.
He gave all three a sniff before, true to form, choosing the girl and, like a queen’s loyal subject, taking a seat at her feet.