As I write this, Valarie and I are in the midst of a ten-day trip to her parents' house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (or, more accurately, the adjacent Lower Saucon Township) and New York City, with Nasty Ned accompanying us for the first half. Here are a few highlights:
Bethlehem Steel is the gargantuan mill that towers over the city here, but eerily so. It's been empty for more than fifteen years after closing in the late 1980s. Because it's surrounded by cyclone fencing, it's always been difficult to get a close view of this massive complex, although its smokestacks are visible from several miles away. But this time we found a new road had been built here, to make way for a casino. (A mixed blessing to say the least.) Ned, Valarie and I spent much of Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend (appropriately enough) standing before the rust and weeds of this ghost-like old vestige of America's industrial past. As I said on my architecture blog, it felt like visiting ancient Pompeii.
A day later, Ned and I took the bus into New York, where Valarie and I went to college. Ned's been all around the world, but actually had never visited NYC before. So it was fun to play tour guide.
As we came into the Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd Street, our first site was of a homeless man splayed face-down on the sidewalk. He looked dead, although no one seemed to be paying any attention. Later, making our way past Times Square, I couldn't help but notice the irony of seeing another homeless man dressed head to toe in an improvised outfit of garbage bags, huddled in a corner -- while a few feet away sat a yellow Ferrari convertible. But don't get me wrong: It's still amazing how much New York has cleaned itself up since the early 1990s when I first arrived.
Ned and I also made the proverbial pilgrimage to the Empire State Building. While I've always appreciated the architecture of the Empire State and its status as perhaps the most well-known and iconic skyscraper in America, the experience of going to the 86th floor observation deck was as disheartening as Bethlehem Steel was moving.
I've been to the Empire State several times before, so I was prepared to stand in line. But this was ridiculous. First we stood in line for a security checkpoint. Next we stood in line for tickets, then for the elevator to the 80th floor. All the while, employees were constantly yelling pitches to the audience to spend $40 going on an IMAX ride before visiting the observation deck. Next we were herded into a mandatory line to have our pictures taken - which they of course wanted to sell to us for $20. (As Ned said on his blog, it's an American architectural icon peddling itself like a cheap whore.) The photo wasn't even with NYC's skyline in the background; it was a fake version of the Empire State Building. Imagine - we're actually there, and they use a fake background! Then there was a line for the elevator from the 80th floor to the observation deck on the 86th. When we finally got to the top, it often took minutes to get a turn at the edge after the other tourists waddled out of the way.
Back here in Bethlehem, it's one great feast after another, mostly courtesy of Valarie's mom, Pat. The first night we had her signature meal of roast chicken, egg noodles, mashed potatoes (they like their starch here) and corn -- washed down with Yeungling lager from her dad's garage fridge, right next to their chicken coop. The next night we had my favorite Pat Smith culinary concoction: meat pie, with chunks of pork, vegetables and potatoes and gravy surrounded by flaky pie crust. As soon as we awaken, Valarie's dad, Hank, fills our tummies with his waffles, made from scratch of course. There's also a cupboard of snacks, particularly the East Cost convenience store delicacy known as Tastycakes. Valarie's also partial to the big bag of cheese puffs always on hand, while I prefer a local brand of kettle-cooked potato chips called Martin's.
This afternoon we're off to see Valarie's nephew/godson Mike, who's high school graduation was the main purpose of our trip, compete in his baseball team's playoff game. Even the sweltering 90-degree sun and high humidity won't keep us away -- although I'll be caked in sunscreen, guzzling ice water, and sweating like Robert Hays in Airplane.
Our other mission this trip has been to help Valarie's parents set up their first computer. It's great fun introducing Pat and Hank to the mouse, keyboard and -- most of all -- the Internet.
But this report will have to do for now: My waffle is almost ready.