Summer, Stockbridge, MA
As I walk in, there are twelve stools, all level, barely counter high, with alternating brown and red leather seats. They fan into a perfect one-point perspective. A frosted blonde, hard-working woman wipes her hands on the white apron tied at her waist, She pays me no mind as she continues to vigorously clean the grill.
4 p.m. at Shanahan’s in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Discarded Berkshire Herald newspapers lie abandoned, disheveled and alone at the other end of the counter. I take a seat and sit up in my stool to order. “Are you open?”
“Depends on what you want.” The waitress turns and wipes her hands. She sizes me up silently and questions; tourist or not. Her decision on who I am will totally depend on our exchange and I wait to reveal myself.
“I think they were here first.”I motion to two pushy women on my right who are taking turns touching each and every cookie on a plate on the counter by lifting the cellophane of each one. “Are these home made? Do we pay now? Who do we pay, you?” I watch and wait until they leave before I speak again.
“I guess a cheeseburger is out of the question.” She laughs as I have stated the obvious. “Yeah, the grill is closed.”
I continue. “Have you ever been so hungry that whatever you serve me will be, I don’t know, will be the best ham and cheese sandwich I’ve ever had?” She laughs again and nods. I notice the ham and cheese sandwiches are $1.90. I order that and a vanilla milkshake. I know from the worn red and brown leather stools that it will be real vanilla ice cream in the shake.
I scan the store. It’s a Mom and Pop main street grocery store; deli, meats, video rental, soda, and newspaper mélange with a tacky rack of postcards by the door displayed for good measure. I make a mental note not to buy or touch the postcards, as it is a dead giveaway for what I really am; tourist.
Two more really annoying, obnoxious travelers wander in to the counter and I hope they won’t sit near me. “Is that coffee fresh? Well, it looks like it’s been sitting there all day. How about these muffins. Are these any good?”
I scrunch down into random sections of the local paper. My class at the Norman Rockwell Museum is listed and in every publication I pick up. I have just been to NRM’s new site; it is large and grand and perched on 28 acres of land overlooking the Housatonic River. Beautiful. They moved Rockwell’s original painting studio, picked it up whole on a flatbed truck and moved it to the old Butler property. One of the original summer Berkshire ‘cottages’ for the wealthy. If you can call it a cottage it’s more like a small mansion.
Wow, these people in here. What demanding jerks. I was hoping to get away from them on this trip. This isn’t Manhattan, this is the Berkshires. I read the rest of the listings quietly to myself. “Ford Falcon, 83,000 original miles, new paint job, runs well, $3,000. or b/o call (413)….” My ham and cheeses sandwich arrives on a paper plate. After three hot, dusty hours driving, four weeks in Europe and 3 days and nights in New York City, it is the best ham and cheese sandwich I’ve ever had.
I watch the waitress scoop vanilla ice cream into the glass, lose sight of her for a second, then look up as I hear her exclaim to herself, “Damn, good!”
The sign above the register reads, ‘this isn’t Burger King; you can’t have it the way you like. You’ll get it the way I serve it or you won’t get it at all.” A sign for all the tourists.
The milkshake is perfect, creamy, not too much ice cream, counter perfect. I slurp on it loudly to get her attention but no dice. I speak up and say, “So, what do you have for me for dessert?”
“Well, you tell me. I’m not so sure what to call it, but I had a piece earlier,” she holds out a platter of what appears to be cake slices wrapped in cellophane from a secret place beneath the counter. “Midge made it, you tell me.” She has offered it up special, to me only. I order that and what is pretty good coffee though it does look days old. Maybe she has let the pot slip down to discourage late day stragglers. That way she can clean the grill in peace and go home.
It is a hot Monday when I turn up Elm Street and into Shanahan’s. I notice the locals have come creeping into town at that hour to run their errands. There is a non-fresh un-starched, unremarkable look to them. They easily blend in and are tough to notice gossiping over cars by the Post Office. Bearded, they scurry by in beat up trucks, not lingering long enough to check out items meant specifically to entice strangers to Stockbridge.
“How is that cake? What would you call it?” the waitress addresses me directly.
“Some sort of apple crumb sort of thing. It’s good,” I assure her, “and the coffee is good too. You know when you’ve had a great meal and then they serve the coffee and it’s watered down or just terrible.”
“Or cold,” she offers.
“Yeah. That just ruins it. I was just at an event where they served 300 people and each cup of coffee was piping hot and delicious.”
“Oh yeah, where was that?”
“France.” A dead give away detail but I’m still okay. For she proceeds to confide in me about the peach yogurt, “it’s delicious. The pineapple sounds better but it really is bland. You should really come back and try that.”
“Great, I’ll be in for breakfast tomorrow for sure, maybe lunch.” I slide off the red leather stool and stand up to pay.
“Well, which will it be?” she teases me.
“Well, I’ll let you guess. I wouldn’t want the day to go without some mystery to it.”
Main Street, Lenox, Massachusetts
I think there is only one pay phone in all of Lenox. It is on Main Street hanging grey and forlorn outside of the Mobil gas station. None of the exterior lights are on so I have to squint to read to see and dial the numbers.
Teenage girls; they are smarter. They sit in the fluorescent glow of O’Brien’s Market. What an updated Norman Rockwell painting this would make; girls sitting on the curb in the glow of this Lenox storefront. Checking their hair, their beaded purses, preening, smoothing out their jeans and applying lipstick. Their too long summer kissed, amber hair falls into their fresh New England hometown faces.
I make my calls and hear them giggle and gossip behind me.”No, she went with Bob!” A car zooms by with a young male voice booming,”Hey, hey, hey!” The girls, three of them, now like cats inching around the curb turn their heads slowly, nonchalantly. Smiles creep into their faces knowing they have achieved the response they pretend they don’t really want. But do really want.
Compared to them, I stand in darkness. I make calls to machines and services where no one is home. I had dinner and used a credit card. A woman, on a business trip. But I am like them too, searching for a connection, for someone’s attention. It’s been lonely out here on the road day after day since July 15th.
Where am I, what day is it, will it be okay at night. New sheets, towels, habits, streets to walk and find on my morning rounds. I’m like them using a pay phone. It feels like I am the only woman in town trying to get a connection or to have someone shout over the line ‘Hey, hey, hey! I hear you, how are you? How did the 1st day go? Where are you calling from?’
I walk back into the fluorescent light of the store after not getting anyone to answer my call. “Are you done with the phone?” the taller girl in blue overalls asks. “Yeah, jeez is this the only pay phone in town?”
“Well, there’s three actually, but this is the closest.”
“Closest to what?”
“Closest to the street.”
I watch the barebacked painter work on the Pastor’s Congregational church’s red house. The worker goes up the ladder, scrapes off dried white paint, then leans and dips to paint red, repeats and then scurries down to the yellow metal paint can. Ninety degrees and everything is hot, wet, and humid. The painter wipes his sweat, hands, neck, and back with a white t-shirt attached to one of two other shorter stepladders positioned around the yard.
A black and white and yellow ochre tiger cat is let out of the green front door to survey the commotion and stands at attention on the front step. Content with the job he lazily rolls around and around on the front lawn of the house and lies undaunted; the true owner of the house.
A tinny radio plays music then the Red Sox game. “They’re winning 5-4!” the barebacked painter yells to the guys who are scraping on the other side of the house.
At noon this painter stops and sits down in the shade. He slowly flips through a magazine and disinterested, gives up and lies down in the shade. Gearing up for the rest of a hot, humid afternoon.
The Pittsfield Mets, dead last, try to pull it out in the 9th inning beating a throw at home plate and closing the score to 6-5. Another loss.
Kids don’t care that they have lost again. They still line up outside the long blue slated bleachers. A young blonde player in pinstripes patiently and proudly explains, “Well…I’m the pitcher,” to a small boy who hands him a ball to sign. The pitcher squeezes his hand on the pen and scratches his name. “What position do you play?”
They turn off all of the lights. “Please do not go on the field,” booms out of the PA system and of course full families stream onto the grass. Doesn’t matter, they are waiting for the fireworks show. At these events there is always some guy named Joe using his lighter in the parking lot to set them off.
Faces flash for a second illuminated by the big, bold almost too close, light from the firework display. Families ooh and aah for the good ones and boo the duds. America in August. Hotdogs, kibitzing in the three-dollar bleacher seats, beer and fireworks to cool off the heat of the day.
At the end, every one easily and orderly dusts up the gravel stadium parking lot and push out quickly in their station wagons into Pittsfield; closed and quiet. Time to go home.