Visiting the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

When we visited the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, I was reminded that tourists are ugly from all over. Not long after 9/11, I noticed people coming to take photos of Ground Zero. I can understand that, I like taking photos as well. What bothered me was how they posed in front of it, smiling. It just seems disrespectful. I saw the same oblivious ugliness as tourists posed in front of the list of those who died at Pearl Harbor.

The viewing platform.

The memorial is hallowed ground; the ship is below you. The platform crosses it just behind the front turret, which remains above water. This was a clever way to mark the grave of nearly 1200 men who died during the sneak attack, an enormous cross that’s not there unless you think about it. The bow and stern are marked with white buoys. Around the harbor you see cement markers memorializing the other ships sunk on that day.

The list of those who died at Pearl Harbor, without a smiling idiot.

It’s eerie, looking down through the crystal blue water and seeing the rusted hulk of the ship just below, occasionally seeping oil. Small colorful fish dart around the structure. A sign asks you to not throw coins, which contribute to the decay.

The remains of the front turret, gun removed.

The immensity of the battleship is not readily apparent below the surface. Even when you see the buoys, it’s hard to imagine. I’ve seen larger boats, like the ore boats of the Great Lakes, but not from above. The sailors who shuttle you to the platform remind you that this is a cemetery at sea, and to be respectful, but it’s quickly forgotten.

The ship stretches into the distance.

The small white dot below the other ship marks the stern. That and the slightly rust-colored tinge to the water gives you an idea of the Arizona’s size. A torpedo pierced the bow, but it sank with the superstructure otherwise intact. It’s a solemn place, or should be. Maybe they need more soldiers there to give a presence of authority; at Arlington National Cemetery, people were well behaved, especially during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I think people posed in front of the Eternal Flame, which is still pretty lame.

I didn’t see any people doing this at Bergen-Belsen, or in front of Anne Frank’s grave. Soldiers vs. civilians, I guess. Ground Zero is certainly hallowed ground to the families of the dead, yet tourists feel compelled to smile and pose in front of the empty hole. The stereotype of the Ugly tourist isn’t just for Americans anymore.

The anchor of the U.S.S. Arizona

We visited the U.S.S. Bowfin while we waited 2 hours for our shuttle to the platform. It’s parked right nearby and a good way to kill time while you’re waiting, without sweating with the mobs in the museum and souvenir shops.

The U.S.S. Bowfin, aka “Pearl Harbor Avenger”

It’s about the same as the U.S.S. Growler near the Intrepid museum in NYC. If you’ve never been on a sub before, it’s a good look into the life of a submariner. The cramped beds, the hatchways, the claustrophobic spaces; it makes Das Boot seem roomy.

On the old subs everything is make of brass and looks like antique steampunk machinery. It seems out of place next to the large mechanical switches and analog gauges. It’s sort of in-between the brass equipment of old sailing ships and the voting-booth look of switches and knobs on war machinery of the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m not sure if they allow you on the deck of the Growler, but we got to crawl all over the cannons and guns on this one. And take clever photos. And while I would not pose smiling before 1,177 watery graves, or a list of men who died in combat, I believe the stern of the Pearl Harbor Avenger and Old Glory are perfectly fine.

 

The Peepland Tour with Christa Faust

A while back the unsinkable Christa Faust was in New York for Comicon, and we went on a tour of Times Square, looking for unDisneyfied corners and found quite a few. The peep shop she worked in is an empty storefront but we visited the last remaining one in the area and even sneaked into the long-gone area where the peep girls once worked. It’s all video now.

So drop by Criminal Element for a tour of old sleazy New York and make sure you pick up Peepland, a great gritty and sentimental visit to ’80s Times Square, by Christa and Gary Phillips, for Hard Case Crime’s new comic imprint. It’s great so far. Issue #1 is out, and #2 streets Nov.30th

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and a peek at the villain to come… look familiar?

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A Visit to the Fun-Ghoul

I’m not huge on Hallowe’en but I do dig the spirit of dressing up however you please, celebrating the joyful acceptance of the morbidity of human existence, and pillow cases full of terrible candies. It’s the closest some of us get to cultural anthropology, wondering where the heck your neighbor found Zagnut bars and who actually enjoys Necco wafers. (Harlan Ellison, for one. I think he likes the chocolate ones. I remember him writing about the first time he found entire rolls of just chocolate flavor, as if he’d discovered alien life). My favorite candy? I like fake peanut butter. So, Whatchamacallits and Goldenberg’s Peanut Butter Chews (not Mary Janes, those are abominations). Not that I’d turn my nose up at a Twix or a mini Chunky with raisins (good luck finding those anymore).

But enough about candy. The Fun-Ghoul Costume Store has been a New Jersey landmark for decades. In a county where real estate kills off most interesting stores, they’ve expanded. Because they have a great selection and enthusiastic employees. I chatted for half an hour with them about The Thing after buying a t-shirt and a top hat. And they are open year-round, renting professional quality costumes and selling everything from Videodrome t-shirts to skulls and platform ruby slippers.

The name is a joke on an Italian-American pronunciation of a very profane exclamation… Va fa’nculo. Google if you like… Fongool also works.

The Fun-Ghoul Costume Shop, 155 Park Avenue, Rutherford NJ.

Cruising with Elvis in Bigfoot’s UFO

While Portland Maine is soon following its othercoastly sister into hipster hell, it still has cool people and weirdness to enjoy. This Memorial Day weekend, the Firecracker and I hopped in the Honda and drove to Bernieland to hit Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the beer mecca of Waterbury, where we sampled Heady Topper and Sip o’ Sunshine and many great beers by 14th Star, Hillstead Farms, and many others. Then we shot over to the FunSpot arcade in the wilds of New Hampshire (our adventure is regaled here)  before entering America’s frostbitten toe of weirdness and meth, aka Maine.

We stopped at Sebago Brewing and Maine Beer Co., the latter an old fave and the former a new one. The WhistlePunk from Sebago is a great IPA, and MBC always brews interesting things. We skipped Allagash this time around because our local pub (the Cloverleaf Tavern of Caldwell NJ) just had a tap takeover. But we’ve been there before. It was raining and cold when we arrived, and all the clothing stores were tourist traps or yuppie scumpits ($200 for a vinyl raincoat?) so I my only choice was to stop in the Belgian beer bar Novares Res, where I knew they sold hoodies emblazoned with hooded monks and beer barrels. I nabbed a snazzy sweatshirt and was thus well clothed for the chill.

There’s much to do in Portland but we got food out of the way first, with a lobster roll for Firecracker and a roll stuffed with whole belly fried clams for me. That evening we met a lovely couple from … where we’d just left, Laconia NH, who gave us a bug-eyed stare, like we were following them. (“You went to the FunSpot?” It has a reputation…) A lovely evening was had, I had a great smoke beer from Germany, we regaled each other with tales. Antonio told us of growing up in the Philippines, and they laughed at our rutted road adventure when the GPS tried to kill us.

But hey, you’re saying, what about Bigfoot?

What about him?

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I like Bigfoot.

I know he doesn’t exist, but I like him anyway. Part of me wants them to exist, and another part wants us to never know definitively if they exist or not. This is because I was around seven years old when I first heard the word sasquatch, and I want that mystery to always remain. (Probably saw Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot)

So I’m glad my visit to the International Museum of Cryptozoology in Portland Maine left me utterly sure in my belief that bigfoot will never be discovered, no matter how many okapis, coelocanths and giant squids we find.

A lot of tourists are disappointed by this museum, but it’s not a sideshow. Go to Ripley’s Believe it or Not if you want that stuff. This museum is about cryptozoology, the study of undiscovered critters, and ones that may be extinct, or not, like the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. It’s a marsupial predator:

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Much of the museum is pop culture memorabilia, and our love of these creatures. And that’s just fine. There’s a bunch about the Mothman and UFO sightings. (Though if you’re into the Mothman, you really should visit the Mothman Museum, which I did).

They have a few Fiji Mermaids, the product of creative taxidermy. It was interesting to see them up close. One of my favorites was my friend Kim Parkhurst‘s sculpture of a tatzelwurm, a two-legged lizard whose gaze caused death, if you believe the medieval hype.

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When I was in sixth grade, the homeroom bookshelf had plenty of awful paperbacks full of ghost stories and what-ifs and old legends, which I absorbed like a sponge. A favorite was this story of cowboys gunning down a pterodactyl in the American desert:

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And they give plenty of time to my home state’s favorite cryptid, the Jersey Devil (which if you dig deep enough, was a political prank by a young Ben Franklin about the Leeds family, and we’ve been “seeing” this horse-faced bat-winged cloven hoofed critter ever since).

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I’m a skeptic at heart, but I have a lively imagination, and I like to hope we haven’t ravaged the Earth so terribly that there aren’t undiscovered charismatic megafauna like the hairy hominid we call sasquatch hiding from us in the depths of the forest and jungle. I’d love for a small population of thylacine to have survived. My friend Gerry’s daughter Alibeth would be delighted, she’s a thylacine fan. We took her to see the titanosaur at the Natural History Museum in NYC a while back, and we were both saddened to learn that their thylacine exhibit had moved on.

There are still wonders out there, even if there’s no sasquatch. We can preserve them and ourselves if we stop acting like science is a matter of opinion. But expecting people to believe scientists over political hucksters? I’d sooner believe in Bigfoot.

(P.S.: I totally stole the title from this Adrenaline O.D. album)

 

Button mashing at the FunSpot

That’s not as dirty as it sounds.

The FunSpot bills itself as the world’s largest arcade, and was featured in the arcade game documentary The King of Kong. I’ve wanted to visit for years, but it’s just far enough into New Hampshire that a day trip makes for an unpleasant eleven hour round trip. To put it less diplomatically, it’s in the ass end of nowhere. BFE. East Ja-bip.

Hell, even the lovely couple we met at Novares Res beer bar in Portland a day later, who live nearby in Meredith, looked at us like we’d just said we liked to eat live snakes when we said that we’d spent the day there. They were trying to escape.

While were there, our GPS tried to kill us by sending us up a one-lane gravel road (no problem, all wheel drive, and I’ve driven all over Scotland) and then up a rutted mountain death hole with a cheeky sign warning that the road “is not maintained by the state or the town.” It looked like someone had attacked it with a steam shovel. I gingerly made a K turn in the pitch black with three foot drop-offs on either side–thankfully there was a bulge in the road a few yards back that I turned into–and we drove all the way back into town before asking a local how to get there without taking “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.” (that’s a wonderful Stephen King story that I mentioned last week. You haven’t read it yet?)

We also watched one of the adolescent menfolk try to woo a woman working at a drive-thru grill by smoking out his F-150’s tires until her parking lot resembled a haunted house production at your local high school (overzealous use of dry ice machine).

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We were in the boonies, and mind you, we’d just driven through Louisiana bayou country a few months back and saw nothing like this. Must be something in the mountain air…

The FunSpot is next to a mini-golf course and a water park and has a bowling alley and skee-ball lanes, so it is a lot like Lucky Leo’s and other Jersey Shore arcades where you need something to do when it rains. We bought a bucket of tokens and Firecracker went off to ply her skills at Skee while I hunted every arcade game cabinet I’d played as a child in the ’80s and had never been able to find again.

Oddly, there was no Donkey Kong. There was a sign mentioning the high scoreage, but they don’t play up their fame in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, probably because the film pokes fun at arcade game junkies, especially Billy Mitchell, the mulleted, black jeaned maestro of the joystick:

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My friend Milky wanted me to look for Mitchell’s toadie Brian Kuhn, but he was nowhere to be found. He had better things to do. And so did I, like playing RADICAL RADIAL!!! This terrible game was one of the few they had at Chestnut Grove lodge and resort, where we went for summer vacation a few times as a kid. My mom had to get away, and here she could sit by the pool or the lake while we cavorted with counselors and fished for monster bass stocked in the lake and flirted with the other hormone-crazed teens. And when it rained, we played Radical Radial, Night Driver, Joust, and Gyruss (3 warps to Uranus! bwahahaha).

No one had ever heard of Radical Radial, and I’ve only seen it again here. It could even be the same cabinet:

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You play this tire who jumps around avoiding road obstacles and shooting lasers, as only the raddest of radials can do.

They also had the most disturbing arcade game of all time, Chiller, where you shoot at victims in a torture chamber to unlock treasures. No, I’m not kidding:

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They also had a sit-down version of the vector Star Wars game which I played until I destroyed the Death Star, a bunch of weird ripoffs of other popular games, and some fun ones I remembered, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Elevator Action, Tutankhamen, Congo Bongo, Dragon’s Lair, the awful Cliff Hanger which took Hayao Miayazaki’s delightful Castle of Cagliostro animated film and cut it into a terrible game, Joust 2, and a game I’m actually pretty good at, Road Blasters:

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They didn’t have Tempest, my favorite of the oldies, as it was in for repair. No Donkey Kong, either. I’m not sure I’d recommend a long pilgrimage here but if you’re ever in the area, lost on Dana Hill road by Squam Lake (where On Golden Pond was filmed) and it’s too rainy to go trout fishing, go get a fistful of tokens and recall your misspent youth at the FunSpot.

 

The Cherry Blossoms of Branch Brook Park

branch brook cherry blossomsI drove through Branch Brook Park today on my morning commute to see the cherry blossoms. I’ve written about them before, in “The Forest for the Trees” (collected in STEEL HEART) and in the Denny the Dent stories. They only bloom a few weeks a year. They were a gift from the Bamberger family, and Newark/Belleville’s park has the largest stand of them in America; over 4300. Washington, D.C. has 3020, a gift from Japan in 1912.

Branch Brook was designed by Frederick Olmstead, who designed Central Park, and hundreds more. It’s nice for a walk or drive, and Nanina’s restaurant is one of the best Italian eateries in the state. If you can get in; it’s often booked years in advance for weddings. More my speed is Luis’s Red Hots, a hot dog truck at the Belleville end, on Union Ave. They make a great potato dog- thin sliced white potatoes with paprika and spices on a snappy frankfurter. At the other end by Heller Parkway is another famous hot dog truck, John’s, who make fine chili cheese dogs.

You’ve got a week before the petals drop. Best bet is to visit on a weekday, the weekends are packed, but it’s a beautiful place to visit this time of year.

The Dirty, Criminal Past of Grand Central Terminal

I went on a guided, behind the scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal with some crime writers during BookExpo America. Danny Brucker was our guide, a boisterous and funny character out of a Westlake novel. Plenty of photos, trivia, and lesser-known history  at my Criminal Element article, ‘The Dirty, Criminal Past of Grand Central Terminal.’

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