Writings

Growing Up Backwards, or, An Apology to My Friends for My Musical Tastes circa 1992

Thanksgiving weekend, 1999: My brother and I are sitting on the couch, my father fully reclined on the La-Z-Boy in a tryptophan-induced coma, snoring wildly. The television is on. Sergio Garcia, the Spanish teenage phenom, is playing in his first Skins Game. It’s a golf tournament, a friendly.

“This kid is just nineteen,” the commentator says. “Just think about that. Think about what you were doing when you were nineteen.”

My father, who we might have presumed dead were it not for the vigorous snorting coming from his side of the room, pops up out of the La-Z-Boy, bolt upright.

“When I was nineteen, I had my head up my ass!” he announces.

My brother and I look at each other, agog. Dad is not given to voluntary autobiographical revelations, and while it’s possible I have heard him use it of me before, I have never heard him use the expression “head up your ass” of himself. We look back at dad. Is he sleep-talking?

He goes on to tell this amazing story to illustrate the point. It’s like something you might hear on Snap Judgment or Moth now. It comes out fully formed, perfect, as if it had been waiting for decades for just the right moment to be made public. And this instant—Sergio Garcia walking the fairway of the 13th hole of the 1999 Skins game—is its moment. When it is over, Dad thrusts himself back into the recliner again, and is soon snoring rhythmically.

* * *

I was 28 when Sergio was making nineteen-year-olds everywhere rethink their priorities, when Dad popped up from the La-Z-Boy. At that stage, I had mostly recovered from a period of musical profligacy for which I feel compelled to apologize.

But when I was nineteen, I had my head up my ass too.

I can’t explain entirely how it happened.

In the mid-1980s, I had been obsessed with Motown, and at one point thought I’d like to write a book about it. A pastel drawing I made then of the Motown logo still hangs in a gold frame somewhere in my parents’ house. The rolling double drums, the snare on every beat, the ever-present tambourine—I ate up everything Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Funk Brothers touched. Little Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, The Four Tops. I don’t know what my peers were thinking about in early April of 1984, but when I heard the news that Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed by his father, I was devastated.

I had been listening to his 60’s Motown stuff constantly then—“Can I Get a Witness”, “I’ll Be Doggone”, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, the duets with Tammi Terrell—it would be a few years before I would come to appreciate the later work. “What’s Going On?” was released the year I was born, but you grow up backwards.

I loved the early David Ruffin-era Temptations stuff, but I liked the Dennis Edwards-centric “Psychedelic Soul” from the 1970s even better, from “Cloud Nine” to “I Can’t Get Next to You” to “Ball of Confusion” to “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” It was in constant rotation circa 1989. My best friend in high school was into the same stuff. We’d listen to it on the hifi at home after school. We are still friends, but there was a time there when he had every reason to give up on me. We both sang second bass in the chorale in high school. Melvin Franklin, the bass for The Temptations, was my hero and model. But there came a point sometime in that era when he was replaced by Richard Sterban from the Oak Ridge Boys.

I guess that sort of sums it up. And the band played on.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I began listening to country music. I know it was post-1986, because I was still listening to Motown then. That summer I became smitten with a girl three years and several hundred SAT points my senior. She was way out of my league, but I can’t hear “Baby I Need Your Loving” without thinking about those sun-warmed summer afternoons when we were on the same coast at the same time, when I was Standing in the Shadows of Love.

I may have turned to country music because it’s what you do when you experience your first break up. Or did then. Except it wasn’t really a break-up at all, since only one of us knew we were dating.

A neo-traditional wave was in vogue then, a reaction to the sappy, string-heavy stuff coming out in the seventies and eighties. It was when Garth Brooks released his first album, which was celebrated a return to the sources, a righting of the ship, putting the keel back under country music. I was suddenly listening to this stuff all the time—Clint Black, Randy Travis, Alabama—right up into college. I subjected my friends to insanely loud renditions of “Shameless” on the stereo of my 1989 Ford Taurus station wagon on trips to Waffle House, with my unsolicited vocals and hand gestures as accompaniment.

I don’t know why those people even still talk to me.

Somewhere near the beginning of this phase, as a senior in high school, I made fun of my friends who liked REM’s “Stand.” It signified for me then everything that was wrong about their musical tastes: adolescent, saccharine, goofy. I grew up in Georgia an hour away from Athens, but REM mostly passed me by, until later.

When I was nineteen, I had my head up my ass.

The low point came around 1992, when I was a sophomore in college. It was an historic event, although there is no bronze plaque to commemorate it. A long argument broke out in Luter Hall on the campus of Wake Forest University. I actually argued with a friend that Alabama was a better band than U2. And this was 1991 U2, Achtung, Baby! U2. The best rock and roll album anyone would make for a while.

You grow up in reverse.

I don’t know where the turning point came, but it wasn’t long before I was wearing out Achtung, Baby! and Zooropa, and then Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, discovering Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan.

But I returned to something before all of that, before my wastrel years in cheesy pop-country, before all my musical wanderings were mostly dead ends. I returned to the music that my dad played for us on 8-tracks on camping trips to Lake Lanier, on father-son fishing trips to Homosassa: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash.

That music was the soundtrack of my early years, when I was too young to know how good I had it with a father with good musical taste, and too slow and stupid to appreciate it.

When I was in Cambridge as a graduate student, my future wife and I became fast friends with another couple from Arkansas. We remain friends, but he never had to endure my musical tastes circa 1992. I knew there was something to our friendship that was buried deep in some primordial history neither of us chose, some accident that was too weird to be just an accident.

Years later, after we had both returned to the United States, we discovered that both of us had been at the same concert years before: Merle Haggard at the Grandfather Days Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1979.

It was the first concert I had ever been to, when Mom and Dad took us on a Western tour. I looked a sight in my fresh-of-the-rack straw cowboy hat, unscuffed Durango boots and blue-trimmed white Izod shirt. According to my mother, we saw The Hag twice on that trip. Not that she’s not a fan, but it’s not what she would have chosen.

* * *

I have to be honest. There are moments of unrepentant self-indulgence when I listen to that country-pop stuff from the late 80s. There is one Alabama album in particular that, whatever its artistic merits, transports me to a time in my life, an amber-lit autumn in Georgia when I was in love, and happy. Begrudge me the musical choice, I won’t blame you. But you don’t choose this sort of thing.

If parenting teaches you anything, it’s that some patterns repeat themselves.

“I look at my children and am terrified by what I have perpetuated,” my dad has told me a few times. He attributes the zinger to a friend of his, but I know what he means now. It’s true of every parent.

I’ve tried to atone for my own musical profligacy by doing what my own parents did for me: expose them to music that will last them a lifetime. Some parents may beam with pride when their kid wins a little league baseball trophy or kicks every other kid’s dad’s ass at the Pinewood Derby. My proudest days as a parent, however, are when my kids ask me to play Paul Simon or James Brown or Antonin Dvorak on the way to the grocery store. Parenting, for me, is an attempt to give your children something to grow back into.

My mother used to play ABBA 8-tracks in the Ford Econoline van on the way to Pop Warner football practice. I had take a chance take a chicka-cha-chance ringing in my ears for the endless hours I stood on the sidelines watching my hopes of an athletic future slip away andante, andante. I would be no Sergio Garcia.

Dad didn’t have especially promiscuous musical tastes, but he exposed me to things I should never have left behind. My mother’s taste have always been more wide-ranging, but in those years of ferrying me hither and yon to and from little league football practices for which I was supremely ungifted, it was occasionally “Hooked on Bach” but mostly ABBA on the in-dash 8-track. I’d climb over the back seat of the big two-tone green Ford Econoline van and hide in the way way back, in ill-fitting padded football pants, singing

Super Trouper lights are gonna find me Shining like the sun Smiling, having fun Feeling like a number one

I returned later in life to the forsaken albums of my youth. But ABBA has never left me.

Mama tried.

What I Did Not See in Selma

When I was in high school, John Lewis came to speak at assembly. It was around the time he was running for a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the 5th Congressional District of Georgia, the same seat a distant cousin of mine, Milton A. Candler, held from 1875-1879. Milton was a Democrat, but not like Lewis. In the late nineteenth century, the party was decidedly different than it is today; it largely represented the white elite, the engine of resistance against the new enfranchisement of freed slaves during Reconstruction. I know nothing of Milton’s personal political views, but I have a decent idea. Nothing of his story has been passed down to me through family lore. If any of my forebears know anything about Milt, they aren’t telling. I didn’t know about Milt at all when Lewis came to speak at our high school. I only knew slightly more about Lewis, but not much. Lewis upset Julian Bond in the Democratic runoff in 1986, and then won easily in the general election. I was fifteen then, and like most privileged fifteen-year-olds at the time, completely oblivious to politics. But what I do remember from the time he was running for Congress is that his opponents criticized Lewis for the way he talked. It was not difficult to see, even then, the thinly veiled racism behind those criticisms.

Though I can recall nothing of what he actually said, I was inspired by Lewis’s appearance and his speech at assembly. I don’t know if any of us realized how fortunate we were to have someone of Lewis’s stature come talk to us. Maybe my African-American friends did, but I did not think to ask them what hearing John Lewis meant to them.

So in 1997, when I stood on the bank of the Alabama River in Selma, I thought of John Lewis. I thought of how lucky we were, and maybe how close we had come to a serious engagement with the issues of race in the South. When Lewis spoke to us, we brushed up against them. In the shadow of the bridge in Selma where Lewis led marchers over thirty years before, I wished that I had had more of a moment with John Lewis, had the guts to go down front and shake his hand, ask him to tell me more, to teach me. But then he was off and we were soon backpack-laden again and shuffling off to geometry class or P.E., resuming school-grade gossip and maybe pretending not to have been too shaken by what we had just heard because that would not have been cool.

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The bridge is strangely artful and leaden: its repeating concrete arches under the deck echoed by the huge latticed steel arch spanning the width of the Alabama River. Its now iconic central arch has been declared "functionally obsolete," and while it still carries traffic in and out of Selma, the heavy load it bears now is largely metaphorical.

Here is what the official version of Selma sounded like when written in 1940 by white writers for the WPA Guide to Alabama:

"Selma is like an old-fashioned gentlewoman, proud and patrician, but never unfriendly…On the broad streets, shiny new automobiles honk impatiently while a cotton-laden cart, drawn by a plodding ox, pulls slowly aside, and the aged Negro driver smilingly tips his battered hat.

"Since Reconstruction days, Selma’s Negro and white citizens have lived in an atmosphere of sympathetic understanding, tinged by a friendly paternalism on the part of the whites. Many of these Negroes are descendants of slaves who, after emancipation, chose to remain and work on the plantations where they had always lived."⁠

This was basically the standard version of race relations as many white Southerners narrated it to themselves. The story would go like this: blacks were happy on plantations, so they stayed there once they were freed. They smile from their plodding, ox-driven carts, so they must be content with their lot, right?

In another entry in the WPA Guide to Alabama, a local resident's house at 722 Alabama Avenue is worth a look (just a look, though--it is private and not open to the public). The house belonged to a man who "entered Confederate service as a private and was mustered out as a brigadier-general. He served United States Senator for 12 years and had been reelected when he died in 1907."⁠

Thirty-three years after his death, a year before the WPA Guide to Alabama was published in 1941, they named a bridge across the Alabama River for him. His name is not on a plaque on the land side like most bridge’s namesakes, but emblazoned in large black capitals on the bridge itself, so that when you cross it, you pass under his name: Edmund Pettus.

The WPA Guide does not tell you that Edmund Wilson Pettus was also Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan from 1877 on. You can do the math yourself: when the bridge in Selma was named for Pettus in 1940—thirty-three years after his death—it was not just for his political accomplishments. It was meant as a message. And it is no accident that when John Lewis led marchers out of Selma over the bridge named for the former head of Klan on March 7th, 1965, they were sending a message too. Their heroic stand on the bridge was a reappropriation, a taking-back of a site named for someone whose name was a monument to Jim Crow.

Crossing the river under Pettus’s name, African-American visitors to Selma in 1940 may not have found the place as gentlewomanly as the WPA Guide promised it would be. If a black family, cruising up US 80 in 1941, the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge invisible behind its whale-back crest in the middle, the rider in the passenger’s seat directing the driver withThe Green Book (a sort of supplement to the WPA Guides for African-American travelers), they would have found no listings for black-friendly hotels in Selma.

Joe Spinner Johnson did not find Selma so friendly in 1935. Johnson was a leader of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union and an outspoken critic of "exploitative and racially discriminatory practices of wealthy white planters and landowners." On July 11th, Johnson was called out of the field into Selma, where a white landlord-mob seized him and beat him to death in the Dallas County Jail, then dumped his body in a field forty-five miles away near Greensboro.

Johnson wasn’t the only one. The Selma jail had been the site of several notorious lynchings in the 1890s—Willy Webb in 1892, and Daniel Edwards in 1893—when Edmund Pettus was Grand Dragon of the state Klan. He would be elected to the United States Senate in 1896.

Monuments are not records of memory so much as records of what we choose to forget. We remember Edmund Pettus because he has a bridge named for him. But the price of that official, riveted-steel recognition is that we have forgotten Joe Spinner Johnson, Willy Webb, Daniel Edwards, and thousands more.

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For more on the history of lynching in America, read the report published by the Equal Justice Initiative: https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

If you are in or near Montgomery, go visit The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opens today: https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/memorial 

Why We Travel

The Landcraft unpacked and cooling in the driveway, Charlie pulls up a metal chair to the table where he has eaten breakfast for four years, sits down and looks out the window towards the trampoline that he has not jumped on in five weeks. "It feels different," he says.

Two Ways to Overdose on Sturgill Simpson

On the same weekend as our unexpected encounter with purple martins on the White River, my close friends from college are gathering for an annual get-together on Lake Murray in South Carolina. While I am off the grid in Vermont, they will be taking a sunset boat ride to an island in the middle of the lake where a huge colony of purple martins will come home to roost. Chris is texting me from his Gamecocks folding chair, while the others are standing around the corn hole pitch, beer in one hand and bean bag in the other, or just watching the action. Chris tells me they're just hanging out, listening to music. I ask him what, but I don't need to. It's the same soundtrack as the last time I was able to attend Lake Weekend, two years ago: Sturgill Simpson. As a gesture of long-distance camaraderie, I call up Sturgill on iTunes in Vermont. In a rare moment of cellular access, I can get one song to download.

For the next week, “Sea Stories” is the only song I can listen to on my phone. I play it hundreds of times, trying to get these lines down:

Well now you hit the ground running in Tokyo From Kawasaki to Ebisu Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

By the end of the week I have almost got it, and have driven my family nuts listening to the same damn song over and over and over again.

“Noooooooooooooo!!” Henry calls from the back seat at the sound of the nautical bell that opens the tune.

We don't make it far enough into the song for me to remind Oliver that "Dam Neck" is just a place and not a dirty word. It wouldn't make any difference to him; he'd bleep it out anyway.

Sturgill is singing about shipping out on a US Navy frigate to Japan, but I feel his pain when he says “my life’s no longer mine.”

Over the Bent World Broods

It’s pouring rain on the day Charlie decides to sit out Suzuki violin camp. He could have picked a better day to play hooky, but there’s no staying put. Mama is not going to allow that. As we drop her and Henry off, she suggests we go for a hike. I bristle, and make that face that makes her want to punch me. It’s not really a great day for hiking, I say, and as the words are coming out of my mouth I already regret them.

It’s no longer raining when we pull off at the Riverbend site off of VT 100, but the weeds—or “native flora”—are laden with rainwater, bowing into the overgrown trail that hasn’t been used in a while. They are over George’s head, and Oliver’s too, in places. By the time we reach the eponymous bend in the White River, we are all soaked to the skin. George, as usual, is begging to get buck naked, but he becomes distracted by a stick, and stays clothed.

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According to the seventh-century theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, human beings possess two forms of will: a natural will (which inclines us to our natural ends, like eating when we are hungry), and a “gnomic” will (which makes us deliberate about means to ends). Natural wills do not hesitate, but gnomic wills do. If you pause to consider before acting in a way that you know is good, then that’s your gnomic will working. This is why, Maximus says, Jesus did not possess a gnomic will: he obeyed the will of the Father without hesitation. I don’t grasp all of this well enough to explain it to anyone, but whatever Maximus is on about, I realize one thing after the Riverbend hike to the White River.

Jesus may not have had a gnomic will, but I sure as hell do.

I'm not worried that I don't completely understand the concept, because I don't completely understand myself. I did not hesitate to concoct a 4000-mile road trip with four small children, but I hesitate to go on a short hike in the rain. I never said to myself, “but it might rain,” when thinking about the close-quarters marathon adventure. But when presented with a minor and not very arduous quarter-mile walk with three kids into the dense, wet brush, I hesitate, and come up with all sorts of dumb reasons why it isn’t a good idea.

It could be that I am just lazy, or irrational, or some perverse resistance to ideas that are not my own.

Like the soggy hike to the river, which is one of the best things I do in Vermont.

When we arrive to the river’s edge, there is a small sandy bank where George promptly begins beating the water with his new-found stick. On a tiny island of sand, Charlie starts construction on earthworks to dam up the flow of the river. Oliver takes to swordplay, finding long branches to poke into the sand straight up, then whacks them down with another stick. This is a perfect spot to wade in with a fly rod, but that did not make the trip. I perch on the edge of the bank a few yards up, and look.

The White River arcs away to the right behind us, beyond which a smoky mist broods over the Green Mountains. Purple martins fly in low from upstream, just above the water’s surface, foraging for flying insects. Their calls echo the sound of the river itself: bubbling, gurgling, joyful. From this particular spot, they rebound strangely from the concave hill behind them and sound as though they are calling through a pipe.

It is magical.

On the walk back to the Landcraft, we get drenched again, and I have only one regret: hesitating.

"Out in Bethlehem they're killing time," or something

It’s over 900 miles from Hull to Asheville. According to the GPS, this will take us approximately fourteen hours. Piled into the Landcraft just shy of lunchtime, we are ready for it. The boys are urging me to drive the whole way. We won’t get in until 2:00 am, I tell them, but this hardly registers with the creatures in the back who have no sense of time. But turning south on to Nantasket Avenue, I tell myself—and Meredith—that we can totally do this. We have been on the road for five weeks, and we are ready to get home.

I set the bar too high for this trip. I planned it as if I were traveling with Meredith alone, and not with four children whose bowel movements sometimes define the itinerary. Early on, I had to temper expectations, align them more with the reality of riding with people whose interest in architectural and historical milestones does not always match my own obsessions.

And on the last day, I am true to form, setting the bar too high. One half of me is completely convinced that if we hunker down and power through, we can make it to Asheville by early morning. The other half is the rational one.

When we pull over in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for dinner, it's clear we're not going to make it to Asheville tonight. Not by a long shot.

It is dusk when we find a curbside parking spot that does not require a two- or more point maneuver or the use of the reverse gear that led to an almost near-miss in Tarrytown, NY. (The tire of my bike grazed his fender. No blood, no foul.)

Thanks to Bruce Springsteen's "Youngstown" and Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” I expect this former epicenter of American steel production to be a hell hole of urban despair and blight, a decaying ghost town haunted by specters of soot-coated, out-of-work men of steel crushed by hardship and oblivion.

My sweet Jenny, I'm sinkin' down Here darlin' in Youngstown 

King Steel is long-deposed from Bethlehem. Gigantic, sprawling brick and steel factories hulk silently by the railway lines, but the broad main avenues of town are lively with foot traffic, men and women gussied up for dinner and/or a drink. Across the Lehigh River, the Bethlehem Star—avatar of Bethlehem’s biblical namesake, its Moravian founding, and the steelworkers who built it—shines atop South Mountain. Apparently Bethlehem is going through a bit of a revival, which I might know if I were the type of person who reads Money Magazine. According to Money, Bethlehem is in the top 100 American cities to live in.

There’s something surreal about it all--a particularly American form of surreality in which life emerges amidst the dead wastes of outsourced industries. Think Detroit or the Mississippi Delta. Cars and cotton. They used to be the engines of the American economy, but when jobs went elsewhere, so did the life of those places. As with the Delta, life (of a sort) has returned to Bethlehem thanks to a strange patron.

The slot machine.

Approaching Bethlehem on East 4th Street north of I-78, it's hard to miss what looks at first like a huge steel truss bridge suspended in mid-air. It appears to go to and from nowhere. Emblazoned on its middle, the over-sized red logo of Sands Casino. Turns out it’s a crane, not a bridge, but still serving a purpose for which it was not made.

Perhaps this is consistent with the state of our politics now, but it’s still worth thinking it odd how much small-town, rural America is increasingly becoming a series of outposts of Las Vegas.

I'm not the only one in Bethlehem setting the bar too high. People used to come to Bethlehem to pluck iron ore from the hills; now they come looking for gold.

WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?

I really wanted to love Salem. We've rolled into town fresh off a children's book about famed local architect, Samuel McIntire, which Meredith found by accident at a used bookshop in Vermont. We are eager to see some McIntires. I come prepared to love the town that produced Nathaniel Hawthorne. 

But at the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, my blossoming imaginary love affair with Salem comes crashing down faster than you can twitch your nose.

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First, let's back up.

Some years ago, during a meeting of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, one of the Chamber members expressed concern that tourist dollars were on the decline. How, he asked the session, are we going to bring money back into this town?

"Hawthorne used to be a big draw, you know," one member said, "but nobody reads him anymore. Hell, nobody reads anybody anymore."

"There's only so much financial mileage," another said, "you can get out of The House of the Seven Gables. It's been good to us, but I think we need a new angle."

[Pensive silence, punctuated by occasional Dunkin' Donut chewing and slurps of Dunkin' Decaf.]

"What about a new angle that's not a new angle?" asks the newest member of the Chamber,  who campaigned on a "fresh air" theme.

"I'm not following you. What are you talking about, new guy?"

"Look. Let's be honest. People come to Salem for one thing. Let me give you an example. I was walking through the Museum Place parking lot not half an hour ago, to this very meeting in fact, and a group of folks from New Hampshire pull up in a big van. Ford Econoline, I think. Anyway they slide the big side door open and spill out all into the parking lot. They're looking all around going, "WHERE THE WITCHES AT!?"

"So what's your point?"

"People want witches. So give 'em witches."

OK, fine: none of that ever happened. But it could have. It would explain why Salem in 2017 does not at all resemble the Salem of the 1937 WPA Guide to Massachusetts.

This is one of the risks you take when you use a WPA Guide as your benchmark: often it can be a reminder of what a city once was, but is no longer.    It can function less as a travel guide than as a catalog of loss. The WPA Guide calls Salem "New England's Treasure House." Its description of the town foregrounds its former most famous son, Nathaniel Hawthorne. "Here are the haunting shades...of every character Hawthorne created, of his old houses impregnated with supernatural influences, and of the eerie atmosphere that still lingers in the narrow streets which the master of delicate implications frequented."

Today, that is not the dominant impression. Salem reminds me of the City of London: a historically important center of culture and commerce bombed-out and later rebuilt during an epidemic of enthusiasm for poured concrete, a few architectural diamonds remaining in the rough.Salem today feels more like what might happen if an 80's concrete car park married a New Urbanist outdoor mall, and held the ceremony inside one of those gigantic temporary tents set up to hawk Halloween costumes. It is not uncommon to see women (and men) dressed in Wizard of Oz-grade witch outfits milling about. It's possible they are members of the Chamber of Commerce. I passed one on Essex Street once, and then twice, and then three times, as he went back and forth along the sidewalk as if he wasn't sure where or who he was supposed to be.

That's Salem today: even the witches don't know where they're going. They're bloody everywhere, though. Every other shop is witch-themed, but for all that there is none of the spooky menace or eerie exoticism of the WPA Guide's description. It's all terrifically tepid, a brilliant example of the quintessentially American capacity to turn historical tragedy into tabloid triviality.

So at the corner of Essex and Washington, tourists are preening and posing for photos next to a bronze statue of Samantha, the adorably benign character from Bewitched. My heart sinks.

But I can imagine how that conversation went down in Chamber.

"So we need a mascot. Somebody everyone loves."

"Are we still talking about witches?"

"Yes, keep up! We need a lovable one. What witches do we know, Herman?"

Herman scrolls through the Rolodex, turns up nothing. "Well there's that one from that TV show. She's just a doll!"

"Is she from Salem?"

"Well, no, I don't think so--"

"Who cares! She's a witch, Herman! We're a witch town, she's a witch, it makes perfect sense!"

An exhibit about ocean liners at the Peabody Essex Museum is a refreshing reprieve from the relentless witch-o-rama outside. It's also an opportunity to tell my kids that I once had bunk beds from the SS United States, which still holds the record for the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. I don't know if my boys are impressed by this or not, but it almost feels like I did something cool once.

After we exit through the automatic doors George is obsessed with, the museum closes down behind us. We load up the Landcraft and leave Salem without seeing a single McIntire.

The World is Always New

It all started with John Smith. America, yeah, but also our hare-brained international road trip with four boys and an expanding load in the cargo hold.

Jamestown was our first stop, over a month ago. We left Asheville in late June for the Outer Banks, to spend a week with Meredith’s family twenty miles or so from where the English first attempted to establish a colony in the new world. With a high-pressure charter from Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh led an expedition to North America, which landed on Roanoke Island in the summer of 1585, the same year William Shakespeare began his acting career. There were 117 of them then.

Five years later, every last one of them had disappeared.

En route to the Outer Banks, we made a slight detour north from Durham on I-85, eventually landing outside of Jamestown in the vast, faux-colonial metroplex of suburban Williamsburg, where everything there is designed to match the über-retro red-brick-and-dentil-moulding vibe of the place, and go with the non-non-conformist spirit of the age. One plus is that you can imagine  yourself as an eighteenth century-surgeon as you swagger into the colonial–themed CVS in search of tweezers to extract a twenty-first century hex-nut from your two-year-old’s nose without the use of anesthetic. Cosplay breeches optional.

Before we left Asheville, Meredith and I watched Terrence Malick’s beautiful, underrated 2005 film about the Jamestown settlement, The New World, because as parents you get to watch movies as "research" and then tell your children that it's much more virtuous to read old books instead and that watching movies is for lazy, soft-brained miscreants who have no future and who will bring down civilization with their slothful indolence.

Meanwhile, the boys had been reading all about Smith and John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Powhatan, and the first English settlement to stick. As I navigated the Landcraft up US 13 along the Delmarva Peninsula, Meredith sat wedged between two children on the third row, reading from Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Pocahontas.

Since then, we have driven almost 3,000 miles, and ended up in Hull, Massachusetts, the last stop on our big journey before we begin the re-entry procedure on Thursday. Hull is the northern terminus of the Nantasket Peninsula, an abortive strip of sand insinuating itself into the southern rim of Boston Harbor. It is reminiscent of the Outer Banks where we began: sound on one side, ocean on the other, and not a mile's breadth of land in between. The culture in both places partakes of the universal flip-flops-and-cut-offs spirit of beach towns, where bad puns about venereal disease feature prominently in the names of seafood restaurants.

Hull, where we have ended up for no reason other than the price of a house big enough to accommodate my large and loud entourage, is named for the great university town in England (or, if you don’t catch that reference, see Blackadder Goes Forth, episode five: “General Hospital”). Having just come off an amazing week with my family in Rockport, Hull does not exactly radiate glamour.

But the couple who live here permanently on the ground floor of the house we're staying in fell in love with it a few years ago and stayed. The beach is not Santa Monica, but it's twenty minutes by ferry from the middle of Boston, and it's a beach.

The next town over, Hingham, is home to the oldest continuously used church in America. The Old Ship Church was built by actual Puritans in 1682 but today is used by actual Unitarians, which, I am confident, would really piss off the Calvinists who built the place. But there we are. You can’t plan these things, and in the spirit of ye olde Massachusetts "transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism," better for a church to be used as a church than a carpet warehouse.

Old Ship was built with the help of Samuel Lincoln, who came here in 1637 and promptly put down some serious roots. At an intersection near the center of town is a monument to his much more famous great-great-great-great grandson, Abraham. He is seated in a characteristically pensive pose, thinking perhaps about the unfathomably fragile contingency of history, about the weird way that without Hingham, Massachusetts, American history would look a lot different.

A few miles southeast of us is a coastal hamlet called Cohasset.  An old friend of mine, a Jesuit priest, tells me it's one of his favorite seaside towns. He tells me that the Jesuits have a retreat house there. And it turns out to be—unsurprisingly—the swankest place in the neighborhood.

But Cohasset also turns out to have another connection. Its colonial history goes back before Plymouth, to 1614, when it was “discovered” by an English explorer with some experience in the new world.

His name: John Smith.

 

 

Shoes? Where we're going we don't need shoes

“Everywhere you see a sign that says ‘Public Footpath,’” our highly engaged neighbor on the east side of the street in Rockport, Massachusetts informs me, “that means it is a…” “Public Footpath?” I say.

She seems surprised by my mental quickness.

“The ocean is that way,” she says, pointing to the gigantic blue mass on the horizon that could not be mistaken for anything else, except maybe a very, very large lake.

I do not know if it is the expression on my face or my mellifluous Georgia accent, but something in my bearing seems to say to New Englanders, “PLEASE HELP ME I AM AN IGNORANT SOUTHERNER.”

I’m not the only one.

“We are just going to walk down to the beach,” Meredith says.

“It’s that way,” our neighbor says, pointing redundantly in the direction of the big blue thing.

She helpfully informs us that there are two alternative approaches to the beach: one via the aforementioned Public Footpath, down a flight of wooden stairs, and over a stretch of slippery boulders. The other, via the road and then down a gentle concrete ramp which will deposit you directly onto the sand.

East Wind, as I am calling her, recommends the latter for its convenience, but she has not met my boys, who are chronically averse to convenience and happen to love boulders.

The boys are in the middle of the street, barefoot.

“They are going to need shoes,” she volunteers. “That pavement is going to be hot.”

“Oh,” Meredith says. “They’re homeschooled. They’re not familiar with ‘shoes.’”

The opening essay in the WPA Guide to Vermont is entitled “Vermonters,” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. "We gather from what we read in books and newspapers and liberal magazines that life in intensively industrialized States is very different from ours," she writes. The essay is a cheerfully defiant self-defense of the apparently bass-ackwards ways of natives of the Green Mountain State. The effect of the essay is basically this: "The way you people do things in your big, fancy-pants states with plumbing and electricity is not the way we do things up here, OK, so don’t judge us, and while you're at it, just leave us alone. Our state bird is the hermit thrush for a reason, you know." It’s charming, even admirable, and not unhelpful as preparation for the response Meredith gets from the waitress at the one café in Rochester.

She is asking about pies.

“We have apple, watermelon something, and maple cream,” the waitress says.

“Well, we are heading to Massachusetts and were thinking of taking a pie down there to our family. Which one do you think would travel best?”

“They have bakeries in Massachusetts,” she says.

East Wind reappears later, on the beach that she knows how to get to. Beneath the fabled New England gruffness, she turns out to be lovely, kind, interested.

The WPA Guide to Massachusetts, like the one for Vermont, also has an opening chapter explaining the locals. It begins:

“To the seeker of a clue to the character of Massachusetts people, the rubric of the east wind may be useful. Time and again a salty breeze has blown through this most conservative of commonwealths.”

It continues:

“Many symbols have been devised to explain the Bay Stater. He has been pictured as a kind of dormant volcano, the red-hot lava from one eruption hardening into a crater which impedes the next; as a river, with two main currents of transcendental metaphysics and catchpenny opportunism running side by side; as an asocial discord consisting mainly of overtones and undertones; as a petrified backbone, ‘that unblossoming stalk.’”

I don't know about all that.

But I am sure that the best way to know a people is not through books.

 

When in Vermont, go green. As in puke green.

When you drive over two thousand miles in a landcraft with six people, it is inevitable: eventually, someone is going to barf. My turn came early on, a near-miss in Stanbridge, when I spent sixteen hours in bed only half-successfully fighting off nausea. All I really did was re-direct it, but there’s no need to go into details.

It’s Oliver’s turn today, but we’ve all been there. He is napping on a blanket outside the door to the bathroom, so that what happened yesterday does not repeat itself.

Our first full day in Vermont, we hit a wall. Henry and Meredith attend the first day of Suzuki camp, while the rest of us stay behind in the log-cabin that could have been a set for The Great Outdoors. George is out in no time, Oliver naps three different times in four different venues, and Charlie crashes hard on the seventies-era La-Z-Boy in the kitchen-lounge. He is out for three hours.

He wakes up asking for water, which he drinks quickly, and already I can see him turning the color of Vermont. As usual, I do not act fast enough. He does not make it to the bathroom.

Now Oliver wakes up and pukes into the toilet—a Pyrrhic victory—and emerges proclaiming, “I feel awesome! I feel so great.” He returns to the couch, and his sickly, unbleached flour color returns.

The cabin is starting to feel besieged.

“No one is blowing anything out of anyone’s ass!” I want to declare, in defiance of the not entirely-vanquished threat of nausea/diarrhea.

There is no copy of The Great Outdoors in the case of DVDs in the living room, but there should be. There is plenty of other material to keep us entertained while we take turns convalescing. Now that I effectively have my children held captive, they have no choice but to give in and finally watch the entire Shrek trilogy in sequence, which they have inexplicably refused to watch until now.

At the coffee shop in Rochester, where I pop in to bogart the wifi signal for a few minutes, a man in a plaid shirt, cargo shorts, and Birkenstocks is complaining about his labrum. He has long dreadlocks down to the middle of his back, and is entirely bald on top. A single dread formed from the few strands above his forehead are woven together and swung around to the side, so that from the front it almost looks like he has a full head of hair. The style is Appalachian Hippie, but the comb-over technique is straight-up Southern Baptist.

He explains to his interlocutor (and his eavesdropper) what a labrum is.

“Welcome to the club,” the interlocutor says.

“Yeah, fifty,” the dreadlocked one replies.

“No, radiation.”

Bewildered looks from dreadlocks and eavesdropper.

“Galactic radiation. I’ve been doing some research. Fukushima. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Studies have shown a marked increase in muscular discomfort levels since these events.”

They don’t tell you this in the WPA Guide to Vermont, but around here, Birkenstock-ed conspiracy theorists in dreadlocks delivering, in between sloppy spoon-fuls of Cherry Garcia, coffee-shop homilies about how your lower back pain is attributable to nuclear testing in the South Pacific, are not entirely fiction.

I don’t know what the culprit is in our traveling vomit festival, but “galactic radiation” sounds kind of awesome, so we’re going with that.

When in Vermont.

 

Bread for wood.

George is in the back seat singing to himself, or to the wooden toy train he’s fiddling with. My crew, they’re a musical bunch. Violinists, the lot of them. Except me. My instrument is the guitar, but these days it doesn’t make the trip very often. I’m thinking I need to find a smaller instrument if I want to have a shot at joining the family band.

George and I are the only ones who didn’t bring instruments with us, so we just sing.

We leave the shape note singers in Way’s Mills for a different form of singing on the outskirts of Magog at l’Abbaye St.-Benoît-du-Lac. The Benedictine monks there are descendants of ones who were exiled from France after the Revolution, fled to Belgium, and returned to life in the 1830s thanks to a Benedictine named Dom Prosper Guéranger, who kickstarted a liturgical and monastic revival at the abbey of Solesmes. Once, in a former life, I wrote about him and his movement for a book I never finished, but that’s all I can remember. There are not many monks now, maybe two dozen, mostly older. But the church is full with congregants at 11:00 on Sunday.

Back in the landcraft, now fully laden with a cooler-full of cheese made by the monks here, a yellow piece of paper is tucked under the driver-side windshield wiper. I get out to remove it, and it’s just what you expect from a piece of paper stuck under your wiper: a religious tract. It’s at least tasteful, like most things in Quebec. The typeface is attractive and stately, so I assume it must communicate a respectable message. Meredith looks at it and reports otherwise.

Black-ops, stealth-mode evangelicals who prey upon unsuspecting cars in papist parking lots are not just an American thing. They are alive and well in Quebec, too. The tract reminds us to read our Bibles, which apparently they assume Benedictines or people who park in their lots do not to. In spite of the handsome typography, I do not fall for the tired old gambit, and slice off a piece of Benedictine cheese with my Leatherman.

George asks for a slice of bread. I pull out what’s left of the loaf the baker in Stanbridge gave to us as a lagniappe a few days ago.

He’s cousin to our host down the road. A big man, grey-bearded, jovial with the kind of joy that apparently comes from doing the same thing really well—making food for people—for twenty-seven years. He seems to have come into this trade by destiny: his family has lived in this area for two hundred years. They are called the Bakers.

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He makes four different loaves a day in a brick oven custom-made locally. It burns hardwood—maple, oak, poplar—at about 400 degrees. Stacks of it, squares rough-cut from long planks, line the wall of the log cabin bakery. He gets the wood from a lumber guy in Vermont, who drives up here regularly. Sometimes in a helicopter, which he lands across the road. They have a gentlemanly agreement: bread for wood. Not a Canadian dime has passed between them, except when the year-end balance is uneven. Last year, they were off slightly. The baker owed the wood guy twenty-five cents.

It’s worked this way for 27 years.

I unfold the serrated blade on the Leatherman and saw into the now-crusty loaf, promptly slicing a bloody gouge into the top of my thumb. It drips onto the oat-flaked top of the loaf.

George is unfazed, still singing.

I hand him an unbloody piece of old bread, crumbs falling to the floor. “Fank you, dad,” he says, and hands me his toy train.

Bread for wood.

Nothing happens in chain hotels.

Nothing happens in chain hotels. I understand the appeal of traveling the hotel circuit. Its great draw is benign predictability: clean sheets and towels, continental breakfast, a thermostat that you can have your way with, and HBO. Brand-name hotels, like McDonald’s hamburgers, thrive on being reliably identical wherever you are. They are generally free from the unadvertised costs of staying in complete strangers’ homes, like a vigorous local ant colony that you might want to maintain yourself with the little bottle of Raid left out for you on the windowsill.

“Oh yeah, Raid,” Henry says. “That’s good stuff.” How he knows this is beyond me, but he definitely did not learn it staying in a Marriott Courtyard.

No one does a cost-benefit analysis before staying in a Marriott, because you know exactly what you’re getting. And no one does one before an Airbnb either, because—like marriage—you really have no idea what you’re getting into. It looks good on paper, but they never tell you that the dryer doesn’t work. So you take the good with the bad: antique charm with ant infestation. Sometimes you end up in a real shithole, and sometimes you land in one with ABBA’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 waiting for you on the turntable.

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This morning we awake in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, Quebec, to a downpour that has scuppered our plans for a bike ride. This is not part of the plan, but then neither is ABBA. We crank it to eleven, our four children pounding the pine-plank floorboards to “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”

Our host, it turns out, has great taste in music. Most of it is in French, but the English stuff is boilerplate awesome: Saturday Night Fever, Grease, The Village People. As the rain comes down hard, we sit on the porch and sketch to Edith Piaf.

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“Oh you’ll like this record,” Charlie says to Oliver, who is obsessed with law enforcement. “It’s called ‘The Police.’”

Way's Mills, Quebec is possibly the smallest community I have ever spent the night in. It has a post office with a strange, thin tower like a smokestack but with windows. The vine-entangled structure is no longer in use, replaced by a small bank of maybe a dozen keyed postboxes on a pole by the roadside. Down the street, two white-clapboard churches face one another across a tiny road. Way's Mills is barely big enough for a single church, let alone two, and both of these are large, and look like they’re having an argument. There must be a story there. No town, it seems, no matter how tiny or charming, it too small for some good old schism.

I assume that the singing I hear is coming from one of those churches. It is Saturday, so a choir rehearsal is plausible. I go to check it out. The sound isn’t coming from either church, but from over the river, from what looks like a house. It turns out to be the community center. On the lawn beside it is a statue of Mr. Way, whose eponymous mills once stood near the site.

The sound is heavenly and familiar, but not because I have been to heaven. My wife runs inside to check it out and report back.

“You have got to come see this,” she says from the middle of the traffic-free street.

A group of fifty or so people from all over Canada have gathered on the second floor of the community hall. The dark room is covered in thin wood paneling running at an angle from floor to ceiling. Men and women, old and young, sit in folding chairs arranged in a square, facing a choir director in the center. From somewhere out of sight, an emcee announces the name and hometown of the person who will lead the next song.

The singing sounds magical, ancient, Appalachian, and hearing it is like stepping into some dense mythological forest running from north Georgia to eastern Canada. Once the pitch is established, each song almost roars into life. It is loud, vivacious. They sing from the Sacred Harp hymnal, in the shape-note style, an intuitive form of musical notation designed two hundred years ago. The tradition of shape note singing is carried on by groups like this who meet now and then, just to sing together.

This group meets in Ways Mills once a year.

It just happens: today is the day.

Some people plan. Some just go.

It turns out that the rooftop cargo container is higher than 2.20 meters after all. There's really no need to explain how I know this. It's not the last boneheaded parking maneuver I will make today. I don't know how many items are included on the Comprehensive Catalog of Possible Unforced Parking Errors, but I'm confident I'm performing well above the Mendoza Line.

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Now, a father who is really on top of things would schedule a trip to Quebec City with his wife and Tintin-loving kids to coincide with the major exhibit on the great Belgian comic artist, Hergé, that happens to be going on at The Museum of Civilization. I know such forward-thinking fathers exist. I once rode with one who drove his kid and me to camp in North Carolina one summer, and surprised us with a side-trip to Wilmington to frolic as much as one can in incredibly cramped quarters on the Battleship USS North Carolina.

But I am no such father.

On the way up to Stanbridge East, my wife asked me, "What is our plan for when we get there?"

"I don't know," I said.

"What do you know about the town?"

"Nothing."

"So you were thinking we'd just show up and see what happens?"

"Basically."

I didn't even bother to find out what the name of the Quebec City newspaper is or if there is a local version of Creative Loafing, and I didn't consult either one, if they even exist, to find out what we could do when we got here. No, I figured we'd just rock up and see what is UP, Quebec CITY?!

I get lucky with the Hergé exhibit, which has me so engrossed that I am constantly being asked by one of my kin where George is. He is as engrossed as I am. It's not often that I have to drag my children out of a museum exhibit, but none of us want to leave this one.

"Did they have Tintin when you were a kid, Dad?" Henry asks me over lunch after the exhibit.

"They had Tintin long before I became a kid," I say. I tell him about how I never read Tintin until he and his brothers came along, and about how one of the best things about having children is all the new things they expose you to. "And they still had Tintin when I became a kid a second time," I think too slowly to say in the moment.

We made the turn today, back south. We are in the new Airbnb in a hamletina in the Eastern Townships, far away from the price-gouging, maple-everything merchants in Vieux-Québec. Charlie is upstairs, reading the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star to Oliver, who is tearfully cradling his already-broken blue single-prop model plane from The Black Island.

I listen to them until Charlie can't read another word.

Some people plan; some just go, and hope to get lucky.

And then pay $53 for a parking foul.

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We Never Made it to Montreal (and not just because of the violent intestinal insurrection that I will not discuss)

A lone gull--a black, swept-back silhouette against a cloudless sunset--soars silently upriver towards the city, the St. Lawrence River beneath us like antique amber glass, and I sit on the DIY deck observing them both, thinking back fondly to a time when I thought this trip was a good idea. Henry has run away from the Airbnb again. It's the fourth or fifth time he's done it so far. Slamming the door behind him for emphasis, he has declared that he's going back to Asheville, but right about now he's in the middle of the gravel driveway up to the not-quite-done Airbnb that looked a whole lot more finished in the professional photographs that I should have been more suspicious about, and realizing that walking from Quebec to North Carolina is not such a good idea either.

He's probably stomping up the unpainted two-by-sixes masquerading as front steps as we speak, and any second now will be slamming the door behind him again, pissed off that he can't actually accomplish the revenge he feels like he wants.

I know how he feels.

Quebec has been wonderful in the true sense of the word--especially the remote hamlet of Stanbridge East where we spent one night more than we planned. Stanbridge was initially appealing because it was only about 45 minutes from Montreal, where we had hoped to spend a day or so.

But we never made it to Montreal.

We spent our last night in Stanbridge cooking dinner with our host and his two small girls, having gone biking with them daily on impossibly beautiful farm roads virtually free of traffic except for the occasional white-tailed deer and ubiquitous red-winged blackbirds flirting with the roadside. On one of those trips, he led us to an even tinier hamlet-let called Mystic, where the chocolatier we were aiming for was--tragically--closed. But all was not lost; we ended up at an outdoor ceramic festival across the street. We had a good lunch together, and I wasn't even slightly annoyed with either George or the old lady who told him off for getting too handsy with the terra-cotta candelabras.

It was hard to leave.

But of course we did, and everyone is mad at me because of it. Including me. It was time to move on to the next place, which is great and all, but there is no friendly host whose adorable little girls just walk up to you one morning and want to introduce you to the family alpacas.

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"It's a lot to ask," my wife said to me in the car on the trip from Philadelphia to Fishkill, New York, during which I firmly consolidated my status as persona non grata. "Taking four kids on a cross-country road trip, I mean. And it's hard on the adults, too." She went back to looking at her phone, which she did for most of that leg of the trip. She said she was just looking at her Facebook, but I'm starting to think she was searching google maps for "nearby divorce lawyers."

It's not the first time I've uprooted my family and dragged them across the country. At least this time we are all going back to where we started from. But the last time, five years ago, we packed up everything and left a place we had been for ten years, a place that never felt like home.

There was a time when I worried that my kids would resent me for transplanting them like that, that they would not come to feel like Asheville was home for them either.

So when Henry angrily tells me that he wants to go "home," and by "home" he means Asheville, I feel for the first time in 1500 miles that at least one of the two big road trips I have led my family on has turned out to be a good idea.

Benjamin Franklin would be so disappointed in me. The Big Ass Car rolls into Philly.

"I am not throwin' away my...shot!" the two-year-old sings from his pack-and-play in the hotel room we weren't supposed to be staying in. It is 1:36 a.m.

It seems we are going to be talking about him a lot, so let's call the two-year-old "George," since that's a more efficient use of syllables and also his actual name.

We don't leave at first light, obviously, and we don't even leave just in time for the George's nap. Departure time from the Outer Banks is more like 4:30 p.m., which is about the time George is usually warming up on re-entry into the waking atmosphere.

So we don't roll into Philadelphia until about 11:00, to find access to the Airbnb bachelor pad that seemed like a good idea at the time blocked off by a tractor-trailer unloading shrink-wrapped cargo in the middle of the street of the "recovering" neighborhood that it turns out I should have been more suspicious about. The approach to the apartment is like one of those circular mazes on kids' menus: there is only one way in, and every other failed route will leave you having to back an overladen Suburban out of a dead-end one-way road with on-street parking on both sides. Eventually it's more fun in either scenario to just give up and eat the crayons. The tractor-trailer is blocking the lone route to bed, and he isn't going anywhere any time soon. After unsuccessfully circling the elusive portal to hidden treasure for a good half hour, we ditch, and mutter something inappropriate in front of the kids whom we wrongly think are asleep.

We pull up alongside the curb in a part of town where there is unoccupied curb space. My wife and I are both on our phones, scrambling to find a hotel room for six in a pinch, when we find one called The Franklin that looks reasonable.

"We should call that one," I say, but not because Ben is the theme of tomorrow's activities.

About that time a bellman waves to me from the curb, a gesture I interpret to mean something like "you can't park that grotesque, overgrown station wagon here, sir. It does not look right," because in addition to a congenital aversion to the obvious, I am an expert at misreading signals, especially when already perturbed.

"This hotel has rooms available," he says.

Meanwhile Smart Boy here is waving away the bellman, googling photos of The Franklin Hotel, grumpily trying to find a phone number for The Franklin Hotel, trying to locate The Franklin Hotel on Google Maps, all while sitting in the driver seat of a grotesque, overgrown station wagon parallel-parked directly in front of the revolving brass door of The Franklin Hotel.

Tomorrow I am sure I am going to read some proverb from Benjamin Franklin which I should have heeded, but for now I look out the window across Chestnut Street at the floodlit Greek Revival façade of The Second Bank of The United States. It's now a portrait gallery, but it began as a national bank, chartered in 1816 on the model created by Alexander Hamilton.

I cannot get away from this guy.

It's almost 2:00. George is still not throwing away his shot.