Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pa's Woodshed = Papa Woody's?

I am a little slow sometimes. Case in point: Late one Saturday night, John and I were exploring an old industrial neighborhood in Binghamton, sort of underneath the highway and adjacent to the train tracks (I know, we are soooo wild on the weekends). In the middle of a dark, abandoned-looking stretch of bad road, we came upon a dozen cars parked in the well-lighted lot of an establishment with a great sign, depicting a guy in an old "woody" car full of surfboards, bikini-clad girl in tow. "Papa Woody's" was the name of this funky new place, we learned.

"Imagine our luck!" I thought, convinced that we'd found a cool new restaurant or bar, undiscovered by our less-adventurous friends. John rolled up and I popped out of the car, to stick my head in: "I just want to check their menu and see if the food looks decent," I told John. No sooner had I closed the car door, than John figured it out, he told me later. Here's how I had to discover the secret:

I opened the door of Papa Woody's and was greeted by a blinding light. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted enough to make out the figure of a woman below me to the right . . . a naked woman, that is . . . spinning on a pole. OOPS!

I did some digging (of COURSE!) and found out that this strip joint is located in what used to be a very popular and beloved furniture store called "Pa's Woodshed." Get it? "Pa's Woodshed" became "Papa Woody's"!! Bonus points for having a clever nexus between your legit-biz name and your hooker-joint name. (p.s. here are some reviews for the strip joint (Zagat's for nudie bars? who knew!), which has gone through several incarnations, none of them good, apparently.)

Turns out that Pa's Woodshed used to be a real landmark. On its rooftop (about where that janky old billboard now sits, decaying for travelers on both Interstates 81 and 88 to see) there use to be The World's Largest Chair! Yup, Pa's Woodshed had the World's Largest Chair- a nearly 25-foot-tall Ladderback one- according to the 1979 Guinness Book of World's Records. And there it sat for many years, becoming a local landmark. Not only was there a huge chair outside, but there was a huge overstuffed chair inside, too.

A little more online digging was worth the effort. Somebody actually made a video about the rotted leftovers of Pa's Woodshed, apparently before it became a strip joint. (Yes, it is a bummer how this area has decayed.)

Youtube coughed up the greatest gift EVER, though, when I came across some vintage (early 1980s) Pa's Woodshed commercials -Hobo Agamemnon J. Bonaparte, hobo housekeeping, one that shows the giant chair at the end, one called Hobo Teaser, and the ever-popular Hobo's Return(1990). Their marketing mascot was a HOBO? are you joking me???

"Prefab" housing: not all of it so "fab"

Ever heard of a "Lustron" house? I hadn't either, until I moved to Binghamton. That's probalby because nearly all of them are located east of the Mississippi. Here's the short version:

After WWII, there was a severe national housing shortage. Building on the principles of mass production, an enterprising guy got a huge federal government subsidy (which later exploded into a major Senate corruption scandal), took over the old Tucker car manufacturing plant in Ohio, and started turning out prefabricated ranch-style homes made out of . . . steel coated with porcelain. If that sounds like the same material that bathtubs are made out of, it is.

Between 1948 and 1950, about 2,500 of these modest, one-story homes were produced. Marketed as requiring very little maintenance, someone forgot that they posed their own unique maintenance problems. Oh, and the fact they are freaking weird- that, too. At least they came in 5 flavors, uh, I mean, colors: pink Maize Yellow, Dove gray, Surf Blue and Desert Tan. Nice try from the marketing department, with the exotic imagery, but you can't fool me: these are all various shades of chalky-pepto-50s drab.

I first learned about these things because there are 5 of them in the Binghamton area. The super strange part is that I met two of those five homeowners within a few weeks! The jokes do not end with these houses: "How do you hang pictures? with MAGNETS?" "Do you use shower-scrubber to wash the thing?" I'm hilarious, I know.

In doing my research on these oddities of architecture and American kitsch and marketing, my fascination with prefabricated housing only deepened. So I was pretty excited when I read that the Museum of Modern Art in NYC was doing a special exhibit on prefab housing, including commissioning 5 prefab houses and erecting them on an open lot adjacent to MoMA. Opening weekend was this weekend and we were there!

The museum exhibit was pretty cool- for example, who knew that Thomas Edison made a bunch of "single pour concrete" houses in New Jersey? They even had a partially-reconstructed Lustron house that you could walk through (extra-special for me, since I haven't been able to convince either of our friends to give me a tour of their bathtub houses yet- perhaps it's my jokes).

Guess what? There is a great reason these things didn't take off: they are really ugly. Even worse, close up, than I would have thought. That low-maintenance finish? Well, it chips, just like a bathtub would, and how do you repair that? I think you can refinish a bathtub, but who do you call to do this to your house? There are a zillion other odd things about these houses- like they were heated by radiant heat from the ceiling or something, and had almost everything built-in so you needed an acetylene torch to reconfigure stuff. Lord help you if you wanted to add-on to these little things, either!

My disappointment is not reserved solely for the ill-fated Lustron; while the museum's exhibit was good (covering the past 200 years and including everything from residential Quonset huts to capsule-apartments for bachelors in Japan to Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House), the 5 pre-fab houses in the adjacent lot were really lame. These were the winners of an international competition, involving 600 entrants? Come on: one of them was made from plywood and looked like a sort-of-cool lifeguard station (inexplicably, with a granite kitchen counter and yet no other nice finishes). One of them- the tiny metal cube in the foreground of the photo- was smaller than a sleepover car on a train, yet, also inexplicably, included a big espresso maker that took up about 1/3 of the "kitchen" (with a sink, but no heating elements, of course) space.

There is so much cool stuff going on with manufactured housing lately- my favorite, of course, being the "Seatrain House," made from train boxcars on an industrial site near downtown Los Angeles. Dunno, maybe I missed something. Regardless, there's no such thing as a "bad" visit to MoMA- I mean, really, who can argue with the view?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Lumberjack Festival

There is a town called Deposit (population: about 2,000) about 30 miles east of Binghamton, that has a long relationship with the lumber industry. In fact, the town was named because it was the place where the logs were "deposited" into the river and floated downstream. So, for the past 32 years, the town puts on an annual Lumberjack Festival. I missed it last year and BOY was I bummed. It has literally been on my calendar for the better part of a year.

Which might explain why I was a little disappointed when I trekked out there today. Although it's technically a four-day event, I think a lot of the good stuff went down on Saturday. By Sunday, I was greeted by a "pony pull," which is apparently where they take a sled, pile it up with 2,000 pounds of weights, then have teams of ponies compete to see who can drag it farthest. Pretty boring to watch, actually, but seems to serve as yet another outlet for gambling (judging by the fact that the people sitting in front of me were quite excited to win first prize: $37).

I had hoped to see some good hard lumber, saws and sweaty men, but was primarily greeted by carnie rides, fried foods, and . . . sweaty men (YUK, on all three counts).

In 2008, I still do not see how those scary carnie rides seem to crop up all over the country at festivals just like this one. Who is letting their loved one ride on those things? They were rusty/crusty/rickety when I a kid, and they are only getting older by the year (ever see a new one? yeah, thought not), and the people running them? I will just quote my friend Steve, who wisely told me that carnie's "have small hands and smell like cabbage." He is Irish, so he should know.

The most action was probably going on at the horseshoe ring (field? lawn? pitch?) There were teams of people, with a player on each side, throwing horseshoes toward the other player (off to the right of this photo). This did not seem particularly safe to me, since the horseshoes were landing inches from the teammate and since the Rotary Club beer was flowing, but I guess the risk might be part of the thrill of it all.

I will never understand line dancing. These people looked positively bored as they stomped their way through songs like "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" (admittedly, a classic)

We went to the New York State Fair a couple summers ago, and I thought I had seen every fried food known to man. But this one slipped past me and I had to pause: anyone ever heard of a Zeppole? It is trying to be rooted in some Italian pastry, but at the Deposit Lumberjack Festival, "Zeppole" is I-talian for "greasy fried dough with sugary crap on top that makes you fat just walking past the booth."

I suppose I could have tried my luck at the raffle, but the prizes: a saw, some logger boots, and logger helmet- were not for me. Perhaps some free zeppole and a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl could have enticed me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hobology 101

Prologue: For a ridiculous amount of photos, check out this guy's website. He's apparently been hoboing since the 1970s and has documented much of it!

Anyone on Facebook who has noticed my "status updates" this week already know that I've been obsessed with a rather unusual topic all week: hobos. Not totally sure why, something I came across in the news on Tuesday that led me to think about the word and it just struck me- What IS a "hobo," anyway? It's not a word anyone seems to use anymore, so why did it fall out of fashion? And is it really derogatory? Something told me there was more to this story. I decided to dig in . . .

Let me define some things, at the outset. This is sort of a famous quote from a guy named Ben Reitman, the self styled King of the Hobos, in the early 20th century:

"There are three types of the genus vagrant, the hobo, the tramp and the bum.
The hobo works and wanders,
the tramp dreams and wanders
and the bum drinks and wanders."

So basically, a hobo is a migratory worker. This is not a shameful thing, and hobos even have a code of ethics. It is also why ladies in old movies called their miscreant husbands "lousy bums" and not "lousy hobos." So I don't want to hear anyone griping about how I'm not being politically-correct in this posting: I will go head-to-head with anyone on hobology this week!

The etymology of the word "hobo" is in dispute, and there are explanations as lame as "it's an acronym for 'helping our brothers out'" to the creative "it originally referred to people from Hoboken." It seems, however, that the most agreed-upon origin is that it originally referred to "hoe boys," in reference to the fact that early hobos often traveled with their own gardening tool, for ready use in agricultural labor. See, aren't we already getting a new appreciation for the much-maligned hobo?

There was a time, more than a hundred years ago, when there were lots of unemployed young men in the Northeastern U.S., and a vast frontier to the west that needed unskilled labor on a seasonal basis. Transcontinental trains reached all the way to LA by 1885, so the party was ON, and all sorts of people hopped on the trains, which were much slower-moving back then and, being steam powered (as opposed to today's diesel locomotives) stopped often to take on more water. Double bonus: those water-stopping points were convenient hopping off/on points, complete with water, and became hobo camps known as "jungles." These were the traveler's internet cafes of the day, a place where people shared information and planned the next leg of trip.
The heydey of the hobo was from just after the Civil War until the Great Depression (i.e., the turn of the century, plus or minus 30 years). That's a darn long time and it's no wonder hobo-lore has been so pervasive in popular culture, although not at all in recent decades. Several famous people "hoboed" for a time (these are not to be confused with "notable hobos"): Jack London, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, even future Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, singer Woody Guthrie, to name just a few.

Lots of factors conspired to drive back the hobo army, starting around the 1920s. First, train companies consolidated: what were once locally-owned regional train companies became national corporate giants with a bottom-line focus and money to spend on extra security and anti-hobo measures (hobos were often blamed for derailments, and things such as spoiled produce on refrigerator cars that had been opened to let in air). Second, agricultural mechanization reduced the need for large numbers of seasonal workers. Third, increasing unionization pulled many hobos into the mainstream. Fourth, the Great Depression, which swelled the hobo army into the millions, led to the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and other work-programs that addressed some of the root causes of hoboism. There are lots more factors but I'll stop there, because this is Hobology 101, remember?

After all this reading, I learned that there is a whole set of words and symbols (hoboglyphs?) utilized by hobos to warn each other of danger and guide others in a safe path. Once I saw those symbols, I was reminded of some writing I'd seen a couple years ago on a train trestle here in Binghamton. Proof of hobos right here in Binghamton?? That was IT- I needed to go on a hobo safari.

Again, please do not fault this amateur hobologist. I am honestly curious about this whole sub-culture that seems uniquely American and has been the subject of lots of scholarly books and studies, believe it or not. Since many things in Binghamton seem frozen in the 1950s, or earlier, I figured there was a decent chance we might find some remnants of hobo life at our local train tracks (commercial trains still run through here regularly, but passenger service stopped in about 1961). Mostly, I was looking for markings, like the "LAPD broke my nose" warning I'd found two summers ago.

Unfortunately, we didn't seem to find much in the way of hobo markings, but we are certainly not trained to know where to look. Mostly we found graffiti, which seemed very vulgar and not at all clever like the code I'd read about. That said, some of the graffiti seemed to take on new meaning, when considered from the perspective of possible hobo communication. For example, this stick-figure drawing of a fight- does that mean "this is a city where you will get beaten up?" Because that seems to describe Binghamton. It is very blue-collar/immigrant/working class, and I would bet not-at-all hobo-friendly. Ever.

We did find a bit of hobobilia, I think- a couple pairs of discarded work boots under one of the trestles.

By now, you are asking where I got all this information. Obviously, I started on the internet (with wikipedia, as usual) but the internet seemed to just scratch the surface. Not surprisingly, hoboism is one of those subjects that doesn't get fully translated to the internet, since there is not much crossover between people who are tech-savvy and also knowledgeable about the subject.

I tried our local Barnes & Noble. Yup, marched right up to the kid at the customer service desk and said, "The key word is 'hobo.'" Not surprisingly, our "hobo" section is non-existent.

So I was forced to mine the NY Times database from the past 125 years. This was much more interesting, and I learned there was a Hobo College founded in Chicago and also New York in the early 20th century, there is a National Hobo Convention each year in Britt, Iowa, since 1900, the last of the great hobos seem to have died out in very recent years, as evidenced by the fact that some earned a legit obituary in the NY Times!

So, class, if you have learned one thing from reading this, it is that "hobo" is not necessarily a derogatory term, and is not a synonym for "homeless." Rather, a "hobo" is a person who wanders the country in search of temporary work, and typically uses trains as the preferred mode of transportation. A "gentleman of the rails," if you will.

P.S. I asked my husband what he thought of when I said the word. His first recollection was his 6th birthday party, for which the theme was apparently . . . hobos! (See, I married the right guy for me.) All the little kids apparently came dressed up in tattered clothes, with smudged faces to look like facial hair, and his mom gave each kid a "bindle stick" with a bandana full of treats on the end. Cute, huh?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Neon Cruise" through L.A.'s Chinatown

Given that the approximately 80% of my blog readers were also present on the Museum of Neon Art's "Neon Cruise" tour we did when we visited LA over 4th of July weekend, I won't go into excruciating detail on this one.

I just wanted to post a few of John's fun photos from the Chinatown stop. For the three of you readers (hi Gerard! hi Carrie!) who were not in attendance, the "cruise" consists of a double-decker open-air bus that starts at the Museum (4th Street, between Spring and Main) in Downtown LA and goes to Chinatown, then the looooong way to Hollywood, then to West Hollywood/Fairfax, and the home stretch back downtown via the Miracle Mile/Wilshire Boulevard.

The entire cruise was incredible- highly recommended for all ages (just remember to bring a sweater and maybe a baseball hat- it gets windy!) The highlight, for me, was Chinatown, because many of the neon lights in these photos had been dark since probably World War II and had just been restored and lit a couple weeks ago. The result is . . . well, you can see for yourself. Cool, huh?