Thursday, September 20, 2007

Purple Prose (for Frank)

This is an odd choice of outfit, I thought as I was getting dressed last Sunday for the long drive home on I-80: orchid velour sweatpants, a ribbed black tank top, and a short-sleeved linen shirt in a saturated shade of lilac. I felt like a big funereal Crayola.

For the return trip from Ohio to New York, instead of relying on the radio and my own inner iPod, I excavated a cache of cassettes from the trunk and arranged them on the passenger seat. I had everything from the Grateful Dead to “I, Claudius.” I refreshed the odometer (it read 580) and was driving over Sandusky Bay when my cell phone rang. I thought it would be one of the people I had just said goodbye to in the house at Quarry Hollow—I had called from the ferry to ask them to keep an eye out for my sunglasses, which I thought I’d left behind (but I hadn’t; false alarm). Instead it was Mary Martin from Provincetown, and I could tell from her voice that she wasn’t calling just to chat. “Frank loved you very much,” she said. And that past tense said it all.

Frank Schaefer ran the White Horse Inn in Provincetown. He was from East Germany. The first time I stayed at his inn, twenty years ago, it was Christmas, and I was in escapist mode: fleeing the conflicts and complications of a family I felt miserably left out of. Since then everything has changed, two or three times. On I-80 I have absorbed the deaths of my father and my mother and had many a poignant moment—and a few desperate ones—at high speeds and low, in snow and with fireflies. Once, travelling this road, I was in the same storm three times: a thunderstorm passed over my parents’ house in Cleveland the night before I left; I caught up with it and drove through it in Pennsylvania; and it caught up with me and passed over for the last time later that night as I lay in bed in Queens.

New York City, 396 miles. Entering Pennsylvania, I put on a Grateful Dead tape: “Just keep truckin’ ho-o-o-o-ome.”

Frank kept the inn as if it were a living, breathing thing. He had built the place with artist-carpenter friends—the big polished beams looked like timber rescued from a ship—and filled the rooms with art. On that first visit, he took me with him to a Boxing Day party, featuring men in kilts. He rode around in my car with me, showing me the sights, and waited years before making fun of me for using my turn signal at a desolate intersection where there was no one around for miles. We went to a freezing, beautiful, deserted beach. I kept saying, of the Atlantic, “It looks so high”—as if the horizon ought to slope down and get flat instead of surging up and out. After a while, he said, “It does look high.”

Barkeyville, Shippenville, Clarion, Brookville, Du Bois. Crossing Pennsylvania is like connecting the dots, except that these dots don’t form much of a pattern. Here’s a truck labelled SEA-NJ (“Dedicated to the U.S. Mail”) and a car carrier with old cars on it—vintage VW Beetles, a Studebaker. I’ve never seen that before.

Frank had blue eyes, wavy white hair, and a white beard. He wore khaki work shirts and plaid flannel shirts. I can hear now how he would say over the phone, “Hi, Mary,” giving the same high pitch to the “hi” and the first syllable of “Mary,” and then, with no pause for breath, launch into his subject. He was full of enthusiasm for his friends and their accomplishments, eager to make connections between people.

Rest Area, 1 Mile. The restroom—surprise—has just been cleaned and smells of chlorine, like a public swimming pool. It’s even a pleasure to dry my hands in the warm blast from the blow dryer. I thank the lady who has this thankless job.

Reynoldsville, Clearfield.

I once spent my vacation in Provincetown—two weeks in September—and Frank showed me Snail Road and told me about the dunes shacks and put me in touch with some people who I got a story out of, which paid for my stay at the inn. (It cost a lot more in high season than it had at Christmas. I remember thinking that for that kind of money I could go to Europe.) Frank liked to come to New York in the off season. I saw him there that fall, but then we fell out of touch. I guess once I discovered Rockaway, I didn’t need to go to Cape Cod anymore, though whenever anyone I knew was going to Provincetown, I recommended the White Horse Inn.

The road climbs, the hawks soar, and I fumble for my camera, sensing beauty ahead. Sure enough: I’m approaching the “Highest Point on I-80 East of the Mississippi.” I am summitting I-80. Pennsylvania lies before me: green trees packed into mounds as tight as broccoli and, in the distance, a high purple-blue ridge. “USE CAUTION / CURVE AHEAD.” I abort the attempt to find the camera. Too many trucks: Swift, Crete, Liberty (with Ozark mudflaps), Transport America, Romans, RAM. Also in the landscape: Days Inn, Econo Lodge, the Golden Arches, and a hilltop sign in the shape of a percolator for Sapp Bros. CafĂ©. Percolatorsburg.

Frank got back in touch a few years ago, when someone from my office stayed at the White Horse, and he asked after me. Soon a big envelope arrived in the mail bearing his round return-address stamp—Frank D. Schaefer, White Horse Inn—and plastered with stickers (ants and dolphins and pears) and posted with stamps of various denominations and designs (clouds, Buckminster Fuller, Bambi) and stuffed with color Xeroxes of his cat, Bucky, and of Mary, his sweetheart from Halifax, and of articles about his neighbors Norman (Mailer) and John (Waters), and brochures for poetry and photography and mosaic workshops (to lure me up there) and postcards for art openings and flyers for peace marches and assorted anti-Bush propaganda . . . It was the first of many such packages. Frank used recycled envelopes and hotel stationery—not White Horse Inn stationery but sheets torn from notepads advertising other hotels: Lambertville House, The Porches Inn. He wrote with a German accent, using a thick nib and a somewhat Gothic-looking script. He once enclosed a snapshot of his many pill bottles, captioned “Better living through pharmaceuticals.”

One rest stop leads to another (diet Coke). A lean elderly lady with white hair in a simple blue denim shirtwaist dress approaches, travelling alone, car keys in hand. “Honey, I think I passed you at the last rest stop”—
“You look familiar to me, too.”
—“because you’ve got on such a pretty outfit.”
At the last rest stop, I thought she was with her son, but the young man walking ahead of her got in a different car, and she walked on. I feel pretty!

“CONGESTED AREA AHEAD / Exit 158 / Trucks Use Low Gear.”
The Grateful Dead tape has carried me halfway across Pennsylvania. I love a good dirge (“See here how everything leads up to this day, and it’s just like any other day that’s ever been”). I get off I-80 at Milesburg, get off into a beautiful Sunday afternoon in small-town America. The tone of the road signs changes: “BEWARE OF AGGRESSIVE DRIVERS.” “DON’T TAILGATE.”

I take 144 South to Route 45—a hundred-mile break from the superhighway. Axemann, Pleasant Gap, Centre Hall, Penns Cave, Lewistown. On the way down from Nittany Summit, a sign says “TRUCK ALERT / Runaway Truck Ramp / Gravel.” Off to the right is a heaping wedge of gravel topped with barrels, which they wouldn’t have put here if a truck or two didn’t go out of control once in a while. I slow down.

Frank drove a hybrid, a Honda Prius. He had the innkeeper thing down cold. He didn’t sit around waiting for guests but put the key and Xeroxed instructions in an envelope taped to the front door, and caught up with you when (and if) he felt like it. I returned to Provincetown with two friends a few years ago, in October, and he gave us a suite for the weekend, just gave it to us. We arrived in a torrential downpour. The water came up over our ankles; cars were leaving wakes on Commercial Street. Frank had put a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator. He took a seat immediately when he came to see us (his knees were giving out). He went with us to Race Point and took us to the Atlantic Spice Company (where he sat in the car reading the newspaper while we shopped for dried cranberries and coarse-ground black pepper) and to his friend Susan Baker’s studio and to Wellfleet for oysters (he ordered a “fake beer”). He took us to see his friend Jackson Lambert, an octogenarian artist who was supposedly moving to Florida, and we looked through his paintings and he sold them to us cheap, because he was liquidating (he never did move to Florida). We went out to dinner with Frank and Mary at Nappy’s, Frank’s favorite restaurant, and sat at his favorite table, in a corner by the window.

On 45 there are lots of horse-and-buggies—this is Amish country. Single horses pull tall polished black boxes like enclosed chariots, offering just a glimpse of black suspenders, a blue dress and white bonnet, a boy in a black hat. A sign says “Nostalgia Hardware—Right at Light.” I pull up in Millheim, home of the Millheim Hotel. The street is quiet, but the hotel bar is full and convivial. The Cincinnati Bengals are playing the Cleveland Browns, but nobody cares—they are all Steelers fans here. I’m sliding off the barstool, which slopes like one of those Victorian horsehair sofas you’re not supposed to sit on. (I ordered a club soda to justify using the restroom.) I stroll down the street at the light, in search of Nostalgia Hardware. A young man sitting on his porch with a girl calls out, as if shouting the headlines: “Steelers kicked butt!” Then he elaborates: “Don’t know if you’re a Steelers fan, but we whupped ’em. Yup, 26–3. They didn’t have a chance.”

You know how sometimes things seem to concentrate around whatever is on your mind? For instance, on the day of the Greek Parade, the blue-and-white police cars and sawhorses set up on Fifth Avenue seem to have been painted in the Greek national colors. So it is on Route 45. Maybe it’s just me and my outfit but suddenly everything is purple: the flowers—hosta, live-forever, daisies, morning glories, impatiens, candy tuft—all different shades of lavender, magenta, and violet. So, too, are toys, house trim, even the bandanna on a chocolate lab named Candy. Back in the car, the air smells of wood smoke and horse manure, and beyond the Holsteins with swollen udders (it’s milking time) there’s an ice-cream stand called the Purple Cow. Then I remember: This is the Purple Heart Highway. I saw the sign, but buzzed past it, bypassing the meaning. I know it refers to being wounded in battle, but is Route 45 color-coordinated? Am I in the purple heart of Pennsylvania? Or in the throes of a pathetic fallacy?

He adored Mary. “I love to hear you practice,” he said when she got out her viola. That winter, she was thinking of reading Proust, and he said, “I’ll never see her.” The joke was that she had come to Provincetown from Montreal for two weeks and stayed five years. When she had immigration problems, he arranged a place for her to stay in New York (they let her through customs to play at a ukulele festival), and when she stopped in Provincetown on the way back to Canada, he wouldn’t let her leave. He married her. She got a new viola.

Hartleton, Mifflinburg, Vicksburg, Montandon, Lewisburg (where the movie theatre is showing “La Vie en Rose”). I stop at May’s Drive-In, the first right after the Susquehanna. Suddenly I’m exhausted.

The car begins to shudder when I get back on I-80 at Danville and start speeding, and I don’t want to shudder to a stop in the Delaware Water Gap after dark, so I limp off 80 at the next exit—Exit 232, Bloomsburg—164 miles from home. Born of the congress between Interstate 80 and State Route 42, the Columbia Mall sprawls over the fields, with hotels and fast-food chains. I can see the Holiday Inn, but I can’t get to it. Turns out it’s on the road to Home Depot: in a parking lot within a parking lot on a cloverleaf of mushrooming superhighway hospitality business. The lobby depresses me unutterably, and a room cost $129 a night—“but tonight I can do 99,” the desk clerk says, magnanimously. I’ve paid less for a room with a view of the Pantheon. “I know you shouldn’t answer this, but is there a place around that costs less?” I ask. He is not in the least offended, and directs me to Econo Lodge, informing me that it’s owned by the same company.

Frank, you wouldn’t believe this place. Econo Lodge is unabashedly on Mall Drive. Make a right at the Burger King, and it’s behind Quaker Steak & Lube, a theme restaurant for racing fans—a pit-stop fantasy. I ask for a second-floor room with a view to the west, where the crescent moon is setting in a (yes) purple dusk. But the double-paned window is all smeared up and befogged, and it slides open only a few inches on one side, and in order to see out I have to turn my head sideways and align my eyes vertically, perpendicular to the horizon. The door has a long list of things to do in case you want to drive yourself crazy worrying about a fire (Fill bathtub with water to use for bailing. Place wet towels over cracks under doors), culminating with “Always look through the peephole before opening door. Have a nice day.”

I went outside to find someplace to eat and ended up in Charlie Brown’s steak house, at a table near the bar, in the smoking section (which always has more atmosphere, even if it is smoky).

The last time I saw Frank, he and Mary and I went out to dinner at Chumley’s, in the Village, Frank walking through his pain to this storied restaurant a few doors down from their borrowed apartment. He needed new knees, and he couldn’t have a knee replacement until his heart was strong enough to survive the surgery. But he had Norman Mailer’s cardiologist, and Norman was still gimping around—he had survived heart surgery—so surely everything would be all right.

In the morning, I showed up bright and early at Steve Shannon Tire and Auto Center, to have my car hoisted and my lug nuts torqued. I needed, they said, tie rod ends (outer) for the front end, but they couldn't get them till the next day, and meanwhile, with two new front tires, I was good to go home. I stopped for gas at a Sunoco in Stroudsburg, where, while I waited for fresh coffee to drip into the pot, the man mopping the floor complained to the cashier that his new cholesterol medicine made his joints ache. I wanted to ask “Is it Crestor?” because my doctor prescribed Crestor, and I don’t want to take it. But I don’t want to have heart disease, either. Or a stroke. I keep meaning to go on a low-cholesterol diet, to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and forgo dairy products and eggs and beef and bagels and beer . . . But I keep forgetting.

The last time I was in Provincetown, Frank told a story about falling at the inn and developing a hematoma, the only relief for which was to have the doctors drill a little hole in his skull. He let me feel it. Anyone who could be so casual about having a hole in his head was never going to die. But in the end it was his heart that gave out. He died in a hospital in Boston, on Friday, September 14th. His wife, his Mary, sang him to his rest.


Kristin Ohlson said...

This is so lovely and sad. I like the way you weave the points along I-80 with the stories of Frank, although I was disappointed that you did not name the tiny town I stayed in--so very many years ago--with my ex-husband, in the motel with the malevolent clerk with the big confederate flag hanging behind him, with the one bathroom for our whole floor. I thought I'd never forget the name of that town, but--I guess you just do.

lucette said...

Everyone should have so wonderful an epitaph. This made me think of my own Frank.

Andrew said...

Well done.

MJN/NYC said...

In case anyone wants more on Frank Schaefer, there's an online obit here:

erieblue said...

This is just beautiful.

MJN/NYC said...

For another appreciation of Frank Schaefer, see the Independent:

EJM/NYC said...

Well, thank you.

I'm reading through the last several months and enjoying myself no end, but this is so lovely I had to pause. In the process of reading it I had totally forgotten the title, which - of course - is perfect.

Hooray, and what a lovely person to have known.

bluenose belle said...

This i always so good to read. I still love it.

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