In about a month, I will again find myself making the long haul out to Pennsylvania for my girlfriend's family reunion. It's in the middle of nowhere, but I'd say it definitly caters to my white trash side of drinking in a big field without a shirt on. My girlfriend's family goes out there constantly, it seems, for every major holiday where you can take more than a weekend off; they've got a camper, and they do the who campground thing with their friends. It's not my style.
I hate Pennsylvania most days. When I'm out there for the day, visiting Cabela's massive store out there or bridge jumping on the Delaware, I'm OK with it. Don't make me sleep there though. That whole state is loaded with ghosts for me, the sprits of things long gone that I no longer wish to endure.
When I was young, Pennsylvania was simply called "PA". It was a haven for my grandparents, the place where they would go so my grandfather could escape the train of running the business that he ran, the business that never quite slowed down. He was a Paterson Italian who was born and raised in New Jersey. He was somehow both fast paced and yet laid back, like so many others in this state tend to be. He never talked about being "Italian", though, and if there was one person who would be the last person to put one of those fucking reflecting magnets of the Italian flag on the back of his car, it'd be him; he was what he was, and he was comfortable with it. He looked how most Italians from Jersey looked- short and stocky, with dark olive skin and hair that never grayed or retreated as he got older. He wrote 5'10 on his license in height, even though he was never more than 5'7.
If he was in Spain, they would speak Spanish to him; if in Morocco, Moroccan. He looked Mediterranean, in the same way that I do. Everyone tells me that I look just like him, and that the Italian blood runs far thicjer through my veins than the Irish or Polish that have their own rightful spots. Sometimes when I wonder if I am awake or dreaming, I can still smell his cologne on Saturday nights, when we would go to church, or hear his somehow nasally yet deep voice yelling about something.
They were going to retire out there, my grandparents. They had a nice house out around Reading in all the new developments that were happening out there back in the 90's. When we would go out there, it was like a different world for me. It wasn't backwoods NJ like Haskell was, and it wasn't tough guy industrial towns like Totowa or West Paterson. Going out there was like stepping back in time; for a kid like me who always dug history, PA was heaven. The state hadn't changed too much in the last hundred and fifty years. I remember passing by houses that still flew the Confederate flag, old wooden houses that looked like wounded men had lain there once, looking for some respite during that horrible war. The main shopping center where my grandparents lived was called the "Lincoln Shopping Center", and it still had the old president's picture on the old yellowing sign that stood.
We would start out on a Friday night, sometime after I got out of school. I would mostly fall asleep during the rides there, although I would always wake up once we got past the Deleware. Somewhere out there in one of those shit towns is a Dunkin Donuts with a big lunch table and a "dryer" in the bathroom that had one sheet of cloth that just rotated...when we got there, I would know that we were halfway to our home away from Jersey. Across the street, there was an old brown brick building with lettering on the side that just said, "Kar Parts". I could never understand why they spelt the word with a "K".
We'd get there after dark, settle in quick, and then head off to the Green Dragon. The Green Dragon is a massive flea market in the rolling hills of Lancaster where you could find anything you wanted for less than five bucks; perfect for a cheap Italian from Jersey. We would walk around together, him leading me through the massive crowds, bringing me from stand to stand, finding all of the garbage trinkets that little kids like me liked. He'd buy bags of peanuts from the Amish there, and we'd eat them as we went, cracking the shells and dropping them on the compacted topsoil that made up the floor of the place. There were a few low, long buildings that would be full of vendors selling fruits and vegetables- we stayed out of these places. We liked the booths that were full of keychains, pocketknives, electronics, and anything else that could keep us entertained while we were there. He bought my father a belt from that place, a belt made by the Amish from true leather, one that was cut specifically to size, and had the holes in it driven through with an old wooden awl. That belt, though scarred and tattered, remains on my old man to this day. They don't make shit like that anymore.
On Saturdays we'd do other things, such as go to that Lincoln Shoppng Center that I mentioned before. There was a store in there that was something like a hillbilly version of Sears, full of bullshit and machinery that my grandfather would never need, but would buy anyway. There was an older, balding man with glasses who worked there that he would always talk with about the new innovations in ride-on lawnmowers or lights that came on automatically when you walked outside; my grandmother and I would look on in boredom, wandering around the store waiting for him. He'd go from there to the ACE hardware store to investigate new comings of the "cellular phones", then only available in car phone models. He loved having a phone mounted in the console of the car, even though you always got shitty service and he damn thing rarely worked the right way. No matter, because he loved it anyway, just knowing that just in case he had to, he could interrupt the "Tony Orlando's Greatest Hits" in order to find out some breaking news about something. It never happened, of course...but he got a kick out the phone anyway. He'd kill me if he knew how little I appreciate the phone that fits in my pocket, the one that can take pictures, get voicemails, and store numbers all at the same time.
Saturday nights we would fuck around, barbecuing the hot dogs filled with white cheese that we bought from the farmer's market, eating the macaroni salad from the massive wharehouse of food that supplied the whole area. I would be busy playing with plastic army soldiers bought for $1.99 a bag, or with my Swiss Army knife skinning a stick, making a spear just in case the Russians came. We'd walk the dogs in the park across the street, a nice, pre-formed park that even had the stations where you could do pullups and work out if you wanted to. There was a creek that ran through there, making the place look, to my 8 year old mind, like a Civil War battlefield where the Southerners had to be stopped (yea, I was fucked up, I know). Late on Saturday night, I would lay on the floor of my grandparent's room, watching episodes of MASH, hearing that theme song and Hawkeye's voice send me to sleep. My grandfather's snoring would kill my grandmother, but not me...I slept right through it.
On Sundays I would come back to Jersey, again. We'd go to that same Dunkin Donuts, and I'd get my marble frosted donut and milk. I'd sleep the rest of the way back, only to wake up when we got home. Of course, this was just in time to miss the Giants game because my grandfather would rather watch "Looney Tunes" then football. Talk about irony...I could never pry him away from cartoons, no matter how hard I tried.
On Halloween of 1994, my grandfather died abrubtly and without warning. The Bears and Packers were playing that night, in their old throwback jerseys during a rain soaked Green Bay night.
After the old man died, I started hating Pennsylvania. I'll hide behind the guise that I despise rednecks, and that their motto of, "America starts here" is infamously disparaging of Jersey. Hell, I'll make shit up to give me a reason to hate that state, down to, "The whole fucking state smells like horseshit". What I'm really saying is that I remember too much from too long ago, and that it's too hard for me to even remotely want to be there. Fuck the Green Dragon.
Now, I know it's time for the grand happy ending, where I loop this big story back to the beginning, and say how my girlfriend's family reunion fills in that lingering empty spot that was left when he died. Well, this isn't the fucking movies, and there is no happy ending. My girlfriend's family are nice enough, but they sure as shit aren't my family. I still can't stand Pennsylvania, and it seems that as soon as I approach that Delaware River, ghosts are smiling and beckoning for me to come to their side, with coins in my eyes and a heavy heart. I have no desire to listen to them.
All I have left from my grandfather are my memories and an old barlow knife with a shattered blade that he got from who knows where. One day, maybe I'll replace the blade and use it myself, although I doubt it; somehow, I think it will feel too heavy in my pocket.