Internal monologue: “The honest answer will take too long!”
“I’m just working on my budget.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you were a writer or something, trying to find your muse.”
He told me he’s trying to be a writer, and wished he was writing something today, but he’s opted to just enjoy the free beer that he’s permitted at the end of his shift.
Friday morning at Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge, New York. We wandered the forest in the driving rain yesterday, taking a peek into the Crooked Man’s Crooked House, saying hello to Mary Mary Quite Contrary, peering into Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house.
We were treated to a performance by Rocky & The Ramblin’ Rascals. The sign said they were presented by Klondike Kate. Turns out even animatronic, all-animal bands have sycophants trying to attach themselves to the talent.
Rocky & The Ramblin’ Rascals are not bad for a bunch of guys who, presumably, were kicked out of Chuck-E-Cheese’s band for making anti-semitic comments on-mic.
Drinking tequila by the fire and in the rustic living room last night, I should feel worse than I do. Still, at the risk of being branded PARTY POOPER, I am taking advantage of the family cabana and the rain-free solitude it offers.
I join Nicky and seven-year-old Jack for a ride on the Scrambler. “I liked this one.” As soon as it starts to pick up speed, I realize that those memories of enjoying the Scrambler are from twenty years ago. I found some enjoyment in being jolted around in the pouring rain, screaming to avoid having a panic attack, and the fact that I did not vomit. But I also don’t need to ride the Scrambler again.
When the ride ended, I asked Jack if he was OK. Jack was fine.
Back at the house, there’s a portrait of a bear in the kitchen is one of the sultriest looking bear portraits I’ve ever seen. Grrrr-rowl.
I am blessed with a strong antenna and a great battery. During my stay at Fourth Lake, I strive to rely more on my own machine. I am finding that my guitar sounds better, the S’mores taste better, and my imagination is a little easier to tap into. A cable van pulled up this morning and I was half-inclined to tell him to leave. My mental wi-fi is strong and fast up here in the woods.
Womanfriend and fam are, to their credit, unfazed by the rain. As for me, I am, like so many dunk tank clowns before me, high and dry. Listening to music in my concrete hut, in full view of the life-size moose that is periodically doused with chlorinated water from a large, unrealistic-looking log after an alarm sounds. This moose doesn’t even fuckin’ flinch. Here’s a moose that I identify with.
Young Jack was haunted by the wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood house. He said it was terrifying; that’s objectively true. He was also afraid of Prince Charming with his over-the-top feather hat. I don’t blame him.
There’s a 1920’s-era movie theater downtown and I’m hoping to see Kate McKinnon speak in an Australian accent there tonight. There’s a fantastic old dog who seems to be the theater’s mascot. A big, fluffy, seen-it-all dog who probably has trace amounts of skin oils from 7/8th’s of the town’s human population on him.
Downtown yesterday, Grammy treated us to generously-cheesed pizza from Tony Harper’s Pizza/Clam Shack while I read the liner notes to a Ray Charles LP I bought across the street. I wondered if I’d bought a pterodactyl Beanie Baby for my nephew or for myself.
This guy has mini golf in his yard. And it’s fantastic. I was a little too tired to play properly, but in the end, I got a golf ball in a clown’s nose hole and won a free game. Sure, I am bragging.
We traveled through a torrential downpour from Old Forge to Manlius, galfriend’s hometown. Creek in the backyard, a water wall, a septic tank, a roadside drainage ditch instead of a sidewalk. The term Q.A.F. is thrown around a lot these days, but this place really is quaint as fuck. I am dating a legitimate country girl. A well-traveled one, but a country girl nevertheless.
On our way to Sno Top Ice Cream (chocolate/vanilla twist with chocolate dip top), I learned the story of the swan bar fight.
“The bartender was like, ‘you’ve had too much to drink.’ They got in a big fight and the guy left and went to the swan pond and stole a bunch of the swan eggs and roughed up the swan. And then went back to the bar - Buffoon’s - and threw the swan eggs. It caused a huge uproar. After that, the town organized a Swan Patrol to make sure none of the other eggs were disturbed.”
I photographed Nicky’s childhood bedroom and then accompanied her four-year-old niece on some sort of free jazz piano piece.
Spending so much of my life in Philadelphia, cities like Syracuse always look like movie sets to me. There’s the guy playing the beggar! Maybe I’ll see him at craft services later.
Cruising around downtown Syracuse on our way back to our very comfortable hotel room in Armory Square, she says, “this is where we fed the pigeons and the homeless man chased us… OH MY GOD, Shavers’ World is gone!!”
There are several lengthy stories relating to Shavers’ World. My gal is in her element and it is a joy to see.
“There’s Onondaga Lake, one of the most polluted lakes in the country. It’s got, like, a foot of mercury.” For the Onondaga people, this lake is a sacred site.
“Oh, no; I didn’t show you Pompey Mall! It’s a gas station.”
Green Lake, Round Lake, and the old growth forests surrounding them were beautiful. With Nicky’s niece and nephew having gone back home, we can indulge on a long walk. Not long enough to burn off the calories we consumed at Dinosaur BBQ, but fairly long.
“I was swimming in Green Lake and a 12-year-old girl asked me if I was a ghost.”
We visited Nicky’s old hangout, Shoppingtown Mall, now largely abandoned. Sort of a zombie mall. The web site suggests you visit JCPenney (it’s been closed for some time). I imagine the U.S. has lots of these, but I’ve never seen one so creepily vacant. I stopped into the Rite Aid for some socks and a soda and found an old woman sitting in the middle of the store in a lawn chair, reading a book, and drinking out of a reusable bottle. “I’ve got a little somethin’ in here,” she told us.
The remaining stores are a strange mishmash of a few gigantic chains like Sears and Victoria’s Secret, out-of-place stuff like a skate park and an improv comedy theater, and - most amusingly - a record shop full of vintage, medium-to-high-end stereo equipment. Here in this indoor mall, a dying relic of our childhoods, one of the remaining shops was catering to the generations before ours. It was like a mirage. I bought Joan Baez’s Diamond And Rust on my way out as my way of saying, “thanks for existing.”
We walked past a comic book store that had a t-shirt in the window that read “SYRACUSE VS. EVERYBODY.” The degree to which this delighted Nicky taught me something about her and where she is from. We went into the store to check the price and the people in the store seemed to scatter, as if the idea of having a customer was an uncomfortable, threatening experience. It brought to mind the myth about Native Americans not being able to see Columbus’s ships until the shaman could show them how to see them.
There was no comic book shaman on this day.
Syracuse seems to not really give a fuck in a really wonderful way.
We spend a few hours with Nicky’s kind and very relaxed dad. A very dadly dad. The dad that would be item number D001 in The Dad Catalog. Lives in a simple, Civil War-era house right next to Syracuse University. Not fancy, not dirty - just a goddamn house, ya know? Nicky often says, “who am I trying to impress?” and I’d wager that her pops has uttered this phrase before.
He’s got an amazing old Gibson bass from the ‘70s and I improvise bass lines while they catch up. At Alto Cinco in the Westcott neighborhood, I eat a catfish tostada with Nicky and the two Tonys, knock back a well-boozed margarita, and then stumble around SU for a little while with my camera.
GPS advises, “slight right onto Old Seneca Turnpike.” On our way to what my brain keeps calling Skinny Atlas, New York. The Clintons used to have a summer home in Skaneateles, my tour guide shares.
We walk out onto a dock on Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. We mill around some antique shops for a while and then I notice a beautiful sign - St. James Thrift Store. “A rich-people-town thrift store!! This is what we’ve been training for!” Predictably, I leave with a pile of cheap dress shirts and she leaves with a $7 loom.
In the second half of our four-hour drive home, she’s driving and Marc Maron’s talking. I checked my email for the first time in five days at a Flying J gas station. No crises were waiting for me there. Then I dipped my toes back into Facebook and found a roughly 50/50 blend of reasons to leave the party and reasons to stay.
Fatigued, we essentially skip The Fourth Of July. Next day, I get back to work. I go to the café where Marcella and I met with the intention of finishing my rewrites of two songs that were good but not great. Several hours and many aviator shade-masked tears later, I drove home satisfied.
With this project, if I don’t read the lyric and think, “how on Earth could I sing this song in front of people and not break down?” then the lyric isn’t finished yet. I want to tell the truth with this music and the truth is sometimes heartbreaking.
To finish “Hey Marcella,” I had to get into the heart and mind of 25-year-old Marcella as she fell for this emotionally unavailable guy and hoped that he would love and support her even if cancer came back into the picture. Someone who wouldn’t be intimidated by the physical and emotional scars she carried with her from bouts with skin cancer and colon cancer. I’ll never forget the way she talked to me and told me of her complex life, like a gentle warning. It was intimidating, but I think she knew I might be able to handle the ride.
I tapped into the fear that she felt, the love that she felt. In this café that I associate with her, I felt it all so strongly. She might as well have been by my side, helping to craft the perfect lines.
I’m grateful to have gotten to know myself and my journey better through Marcella. I’m grateful to still know her family. I am grateful to be getting to know Nicky’s family, as well. I like being this age and feeling like I’m beginning to have a lot of stories with a lot of great people.
Which, to answer the busboy’s question, is one reason that I always carry a notebook!