Friday, July 27, 2007

Motel 666

B&B, Wildwood, New Jersey

It is all the same. One world, where everything is the same. I am certain that sometime before I die, I will be able to step off an airliner in Hong Kong or Rio De Janeiro and walk into a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart or a Walgreen's and buy a Big Mac and some Tylenol. 7-11 and Circle K will be the one stop shop for everything, everywhere. The homogeneous society, where they tell us we have choices, but in reality we don't. Choosing between Motel 6 and Best Western really isn't a choice. Circle K and 7-11 both sell the same thing, the only difference being Coke or Pepsi. (Does anyone else actually recall a time when 7-11 was actually open from 7am to 11pm? That is where their name comes from.)

My wife and I have been bucking this trend. We go out looking for those remnants of Americana that haven't been swallowed up by corporate America. Sadly, they are getting harder and harder to find where we live. We have to travel quite a ways from our home to get back to our roots.

When we are on vacation we have some rules. We can't stay at chain motels and we can't eat fast food. If we did, it would be no different than staying home and walking down the street. So we hunt for the out-of-the-way places in hopes of finding the people and culture that are never reported on the nightly news. One of the ways we do this is to stay at Bed & Breakfast Inn's. There is a whole sub-culture of these across America.

We have stayed at several in the past few years. They are all interesting in their own way. Some are grand and grandiose and some are small and un-assuming. They usually have rather eclectic owners. Most of the people that run these places are feed up with the rat-race. They were once professionals (lawyers, engineers, business owners, CEOs) that finally came to the realization that their lives were going no where. They wanted to re-focus on something else in their latter years. They sold everything they had, liquidated half their stock portfolios and bought an old mansion in a remote unspoiled corner of the world. They fixed it up and started to take in overnight boarders. They all seemed to be a pretty happy lot. None of them appeared to be very stressed out in life. But they told stories of being depressed before making the jump.

On our vacation to the Jersey shore in July, 2007, we stayed at one such place. It was in the town of Wildwood in South New Jersey. A small town by the beach, whose only source of income seemed to be the beach and an elaborate Boardwalk that ran up and down it. We stayed at a Bed and Breakfast run by a petite 40 year old woman named Pam. She stood all of 5 foot high, was very bubbly and talked with a slight New York / Jersey accent.

We slept in the upstairs bedroom of her large 1940s home that was about 3 blocks from the shore. There were three other bedrooms that were occupied during the weekend with other boarders. It was a full house. Pam had a menagerie of pets living in the home. A cat and two uncaged parakeets that lived in one room, a large African gray parrot named Bob that hung out on the front porch and a small short hair Chihuahua named Margaret that basically ran the house and had to approve of everyone that stayed there.

On our last night at Pam's Bed & Breakfast, I was laying on the bed, sipping some wine from a paper cup and watching the evening news. We wanted to see how hot it was back in Phoenix. It was 70 in Jersey, 110 in Arizona. As I shifted on the bed I spilled some of the wine on the bed spread. Red wine on white cotton doesn't go to well together.

I went downstairs and found Pam to tell her about the accident and she came up, got the bedspread and hauled it to the kitchen to try and get the stain out before is set in. To say we were embarrassed about the whole thing was an understatement. It was a nice bedspread.

About 20 minutes later Pam came knocking on our door to tell us that the stain was history and thanked us for telling her about it. In the past, guests had done the same thing and 'hidden' the accident until they were gone, making it impossible to fix the problem. Margaret the dog had followed her upstairs (she followed Pam pretty much everywhere) and jumped up on the bed where I was sitting. I started to wrestle with Margaret and she became the typical playful dog, chasing my hand as I moved it under the sheets. My wife, Pam, Margaret and I sat on the bed for about 20 minutes swapping stories about other Bed & Breakfasts, New Jersey, Arizona and our pets.

This is the sort of Americana that my wife and I are always amazed to find. I can't imagine a Motel 6 where you could ruin a bedspread, and have the owner sitting on your bed a half hour later chatting away while you played with their dog. I can't be sure, but doubt this happens at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas very often.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cultural Diversification

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My wife and I went on vacation during the first part of July, 2007. We flew from Phoenix, Arizona to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania so my wife could complete one of her life long projects. We both have "lists" of things we want to do in life and this was her chance to complete one of them. If you want to see what it was, the video is here.

Fairmont Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My wife and I do this sort of thing a lot. We go someplace off the beaten path and find things. Sometimes wondrous things, sometimes just odd things. It is always an adventure and we sometimes come back scratching our heads regarding what we have experienced. We usually come back with a different perspective on our lives.

The more we travel, the more we come to realize that Phoenix, Arizona is an odd place. It is a boom-town. It has grown up really fast, and culturally it doesn't have a lot going for it. It is a place where people come (by the thousands each day) to start a life and make money. There are very few 'natives' here. They have all come from somewhere else. You might think that this would give Phoenix a 'melting pot' sort of feel. But it doesn't. The weather here is so hot and the landscape so barren, that most people spend their time in air conditioned buildings or their automobiles. There isn't a lot of social interaction here.

Which is why Philadelphia was such a shock for us. By leaving Arizona and traveling to a place that we had never been before, we once again realized just how far from the 'norm' Phoenix is. In case you haven't seen how diverse our culture is in America, here are a few of our observations.

Fairmont Park Tunnel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Lawyer Ads: There aren't any lawyer ads in Philadelphia or New Jersey. We saw one or two, but they were hardly noticeable. Lawyers compete for advertising space at intersections here in Arizona. At any given time there are over 400 billboards for accident / injury attorneys in Phoenix. They also advertise on the sides of buses and on the back of phone books here. I guess Phoenix is a sue happy place. Philadelphia must be a bit more civil.

Hummers: There weren't any Hummers in Pennsylvania. They are the preferred mode of transportation in Arizona and are a status symbol here. I think I counted 3 in our vacation to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I suppose that looking really intimidating while getting 8 miles per gallon isn't considered cool back East.

Spring House Roof, Morris Arboretum, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania

Parallel Parking: We don't have it in Arizona. All the streets here are as wide as football fields and there isn't any need for it. For the old streets of Philadelphia, that were laid out for buggies in the 1850s, it is another story.

Tall Houses: I mean really tall houses in Philadelphia. I guess this is a matter of zoning and needing more space. Here in Arizona, all the houses are one story. Every dwelling here is done in a ranch style motif that is low and wide. Back east, the minimum seemed to be three stories with a basement. I guess that folks are healthier on the Atlantic Seaboard because they walk up and down so many flights of stairs.

Coffee in Saucers with Sugar: This may seem strange, but you don't get that in the West. If you order coffee here, it either comes in a large Styrofoam cup that you pour yourself or in a mug with a little tray of white / blue and pink packets, corresponding to your preferred type of sweetener. In Philly, you get a 'cup' of coffee on a little saucer and you can have sugar with it. If you ask for 'Equal' or 'Splenda', they look at you funny and think you are speaking a foreign language.

Old City Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Roads: Except for the main streets in the older towns, there aren't any straight roadways in Philadelphia or New Jersey. The streets all conform to the contour of the land and meander through woods and over creeks. There also seem to be stop lights about ever 50 yards in the cities. It is pretty much impossible to get over 35mph before having to round a sharp corner or stop for red light. Conversely, here in Phoenix, the roads are all straight, 50 yards wide and there are stoplights somewhere out there on the horizon. It is a drag race to get to the next major intersection every time a light turns green here. NASCAR is really big out here ya know.

Shopping: There were no Wal-Marts or Costcos back East. I suppose that it has to do with no large plots of land zoned for commercial use being available back there. Everything, and I mean everything was sold through small mom & pop operations. Everything was at the local level with very little corporate involvement. You have to know your grocer, since he is the only one for 10 miles in any direction. Out here in Arizona, we shop at huge mega-malls and buy everything in bulk, from toilet paper to coffee, then stuff it in our Hummers.

Infrastructure: There is massive infrastructure back East. Bridges, rail systems, huge public buildings, docks, seaports and airports. We have infrastructure in Arizona as well, but it is all new and you can tell it won't last more than 20 years before it starts to fall apart and has to be rebuilt. The bridges in Philadelphia were all massive things made of stone that looked like they had been there since the time of the Druids. They had become part of the landscape and melded with it. They are heavy, ornate and indestructible. Everything in Arizona is basically disposable.

Sue, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Murals: As referenced before, there are a lot of tall building back East. Since you can't move out, the only place left to go is up. This means a lot of tall walls with no windows on some buildings. Easterners see these as blank canvas and there are murals everywhere in Philadelphia. I mean everywhere. In places that you would never see them unless you went looking for them. I am not talking crappy graffiti murals either. We are talking public art on a grand scale. Something that is totally absent out here in the Southwest. Public art was the norm back does not exist here in Phoenix. Interestingly enough, almost none of this public art was ever defaced or spray painted either. Most art in Phoenix has to be designed to be 'vandal proof' or surrounded by a fence.

White Puffy Clouds: It may seem weird, but we don't have these in the desert. We have high wispy clouds or massive thunderheads that explode from heat and humidity and then disappear. Back east, there is this cotton candy sky that provides shade 50% of the time and slow rainy days where it drizzles for hours. These are things never experienced in Arizona.

Cell, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Toll Roads: They are talking about putting them here in Arizona, but it is doubtful that will ever happen. We don't have the law enforcement or the courts to go after the folks that wouldn't pay, and there would be a lot of them that wouldn't pay. This brought a whole new meaning to those little coin holders that they build into cars these days. We don't use them in Arizona, but they become and necessity on the East coast. We learned to never go on a trip anywhere without filling up the coin holder. We also realized why there were never any high-speed car chases on the East Coast. To many curves, stop lights and toll booths.

Benches:.....benches everywhere. I stopped counting when I got to around 350 in Philadelphia. These aren't benches at bus stops, they are benches along the sidewalks and in parks. They are more common than traffic lights back there. It seems that people are encouraged to stop and sit and look at their community. It is like the town sofa. Sit down, take your shoes off.....relax awhile. If you did this in Arizona, you would be shot, mugged and die of heat stroke in about 20 minutes.

Gazebo, Morris Arboretum, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania

Flying Billboards at the Beach: I guess this makes sense, but it seemed odd. While on the Jersey shore, a plane flew by pulling some sort of advertising banner about ever 5 minutes. There was a small air force of these planes flying up and down the coastline in a never ending succession, advertising Atlantic City casinos and tire stores. It was all a bit surreal. In Arizona, all the billboards are on the ground.

All in all, the culture back east is one of tight knit inclusion and civic responsibility. Even the ghettos looked more cultural and closely tied together. There were thousands of small churches everywhere and scores of African Americans all dressed in white, headed off to pray on Sunday. There were very few Hispanics but scores of Middle Easterners in Muslim attire.

There were many other things. Too many to mention. These were just the ones that I remembers to jot down on my Palm Pilot.

All the differences were astounding. I suppose this is what you get when you look at a culture that has been growing, in close quarters for 200 years and a culture that has sprang up through commerce in just 50 years. I am sure that each city has it good points and bad points. However, the longer Sue and I live here, the more we look forward to seeing how the other half lives.