There is a line of longitude somewhere west of Manhattan which demarcates two distinct factions of New Yorkers: those who are obsessed with brunch, and those who are obsessed with glaciation.
I spent a few languid days at the end of August kicking around Brooklyn and had my fill of both brunch and its minions (though I submit Walter's in Fort Greene as a pleasant choice during off hours).
Weeks had passed since I'd been near New York City. I hung around New England longer than intended and spurred myself to rush westward with a lurking dread of idling nipping at my heels.
I'd made the 8-hour drive from Maine to Lake George on no sleep, the scenery passing by like a movie. It was equally surreal in length and beauty.
As New Hampshire and Vermont slid by and blurred into one another, I dazedly registered rolling farmlands in geometric harmony, stacks of hills packed with evergreens, and shallow rivers overrun with black rocks peppering ominously obsidian-like water, flecked blinding-white under the unobstructed sun.
Lilting NPR hosts babbled away on the radio. I tried to find them interesting, but they landed closer to innocuously pleasant. I pressed on.
Continuing west to Rochester after my two-day retreat in the Adirondacks, I noticed the human forest of New York change with each county: further away from the city, the willowy birches clad in bangle bracelets and pegged jeans grew outward and upward into stout elms, oaks, and maples sporting flannel jackets and ruddy jowls.
My evening arrival at my friend's childhood home in Penfield, NY, could have been more graceful. I showed up with a bag full of garbage in my backseat ("I'm so sorry, the Lake George dump was closed today.") and a stomach full of garbage in the way of their dinner ("I'm so sorry, central New York has awful food for hungry travelers.")
This also marked the umpteenth erroneous host gift offering I'd made (turns out, they're not wine-drinkers).
Nothing could have deterred Mark and Lynn from being the most generous hosts, though. Quintessentially progressive Jewish parents, they both doted on me and insisted on giving me the space and time to do whatever I liked. I erred on the side of hanging out with them whenever possible and was rewarded tenfold.
While hiking with Lynn, my standing concern for bear attacks was abated, if not altogether replaced, by a fear of Lynn's walking sticks. The trails were hilly, and she favored the lightweight, metal variety to help her with stability. With one pole in each hand, she made impressive time up the steep hills.
Each time she stopped to get her bearings, however, she'd thrust her hands on her hips, and I'd swiftly arch backward just in time to see the tip of an aluminum-alloy shaft hovering inches in front of my eyes like a menacing bee.
Her running narration on glaciation was punctuated with regular near-puncturings. "See that ridge over there? Formed by a glacier cleaving the ground." And she would turn around just in time to see me right myself and smile appreciatively.
Lynn and I spent the overcast morning hiking for a few hours, then lunched at a perfectly divey Chinese restaurant. (For less-urbane Gentiles: Chinese is the customary food of the American Jew. I know you think it's falafel, but you're wrong. And possibly a Zionist.)
After lunch, we went to Turning Point Park to stroll along the surface of the water on its winding boardwalk. Highlights included seeing two potentially violent swans and one potentially violent fisherman who began screaming obscenities after we passed him.
There could not have been two women more cagey or confident in their self-defense skills in all of North America's public parks at that time. He's very lucky he didn't provoke us -- we being steely of will and heart, and all -- when we passed him on our way back.
That kerfuffle cleanly avoided, we drove to the sandy shore of Lake Ontario.
The Great Lakes mystify me. I'm a beach person, born and bred to love the waves and the sand. Entering an ocean means you are in the same realm as giant squids, innumerable human remains, and the Mariana Trench. Oceans are interconnected and, in that way, infinite. Oceans are terrifying. Oceans win.
Lakes I'm less sure about -- the humongous ones, anyway. Lakes should have a visible terminus. A lake without a readily-revealed bank is like an overgrown dog reaching Jurassic proportions. They are alarming and out of bounds.
A small inlet of Lake Ontario at Turning Point Park. The way a lake should be.
I tried to imagine hardy Upstaters frolicking in the mild surf of the Ontario shore. Behind us was an empty park, an empty gazebo, and an empty beach house, now called the Roger Robach Community Center. Lynn pointed up and down the short stretch of beach, outlining the unofficial but unimpeachable zones of racial and religious segregation from her youth.
We'd seen so much, and I'd barely been in Rochester for 24 hours. Lynn and Mark are the kind of retirees who never actually retired. They volunteer with many causes, travel, socialize -- the list goes on. I was impressed with their energy and optimism, and took mental notes of how I, too, could one day become the next Power Couple of Penfield, NY. (It appears much tea drinking and outdoor gear is involved.)
When he's not tending his orchard, rigging his garden fence to keep out peckish deer, or volunteering as an EMT, Mark escorts frazzled young women traveling alone to art venues like the Rochester Fringe Festival.
Okay, maybe it was just me, but we were happy to be one another's date while Lynn was volunteering there for the evening. If I recall correctly, I believe we agreed my name for the evening was "Bambi."
Together, Mark and I enjoyed teetotaling and politely waiting for Hot Tub: The Musical to end before we could enter the Spiegeltent for the main event of our evening: Cabinet of Wonders, a cabaret show run by a husband and wife who were actually funny.
The show was mesmerizing: zippy vignettes featuring contortionists, modish clowns, and a one-legged tap-dancer (scout's honor) were interspersed with sequiny slapstick and fresh innuendo. We sat agog and hooted wildly as aerialists and acrobats nearly missed the floor with each deadweight drop. Every few minutes, Mark and I would turn to one another, eyes alight in disbelief of what we'd just watched.
Despite the flawlessness of each spectacle, the expertly-executed stage banter, and even the mouth-kisses deposited by the burly ringmaster unto unsuspecting, equally burly audience members -- the true showstopper was the Spiegeltent.
A Spiegeltent is a portable tent, but unlike its matronly and unimaginative peers haunting weddings and staid galas, the Spiegeltent is a mirrored, multi-hued pavilion meant for presenting over-the-top entertainment. (I don't find passed hors d'oeuvres particularly spellbinding, do you? Wait, I forgot about salmon puffs. Nevermind.)
I want to live, dance, eat, dream, marry, (divorce?), divine, create, and die in a Spiegeltent. Bury me in my Spiegeltent. You'll have to pry my Spiegeltent out of my cold, dead hand.
Spiegeltent, Spiegeltent, Spiegeltent.
Behold: the Spiegeltent! Spiegeltent Spiegeltent Spiegeltent. Spiegeltent.
So that was my day in Rochester. I gave strangers garbage and they gave me magic and Chinese food and a concise history of North American glaciation.
I left the next morning, all of us wishing we had more time but secretly glad -- on my end, anyhow -- that I didn't overstay my welcome.
Before leaving, Lynn insisted on taking me to Wegman's supermarket, for the sole reason that it was a very fine store. We walked the store's exterior loop as she gave me a full tour. Wegman's, if ever you need a brand ambassador, allow me to give you Lynn's phone number. She would do you proud.
Once finished, we parted warmly. I was eager to move on through Buffalo and Niagara Falls -- and, though I still had a hard time believing it, Detroit.
I waved to Lynn and glanced again at Wegman's in the rearview mirror as I drove off. It was no Spiegeltent, but I'll admit the produce selection was top-notch.