Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Whelmed Over

I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task.  You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none.  Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count.  One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair.  Now I live in a region with many bookstores.  I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability.  It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish.  I’m not complaining, you understand.  I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed.  That, and Banned Books Week.

I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem.  Twice already.  But there are many more within an easy drive from here.  “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge.  Home owning is expensive.  There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all.  And time for reading is scarce.  Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows.  You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult.  They are few and far between.  It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.

My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey.  They were looking for new owners.  We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing.  Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard.  The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing.  (You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books.  Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.)  To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance.  As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying.  After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.

A Kind of Happening

The roofers were here.  One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information.  Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks.  And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head.  Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office.  I figured it was an opportunity to learn.  As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another.  Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.

It’s a matter of framing, I suppose.  I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device.  This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film.  (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.)  Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact.  If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin.  And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it.  This is Bucks County territory, after all.  Another frame of reference, mediated by media.

As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame.  Like a camera lens, it limits my view.  At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business.   Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever.  I was completely cut off from the outside.  (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.)  Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing.  At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial.  You couldn’t see individuals down on the street.  The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame.  Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well.  I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much.  There’s work to do because there are bills to pay.  And horror films prepared me for that as well.  It’s the ultimate framing device.

Away and a Stranger

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.”  Strangely enough, the great physician (although we know nothing of his medical practice) Luke was writing about a place an ocean and a sea away from here.  The place names of eastern Pennsylvania demonstrate the religious awareness of the early colonial Europeans who brought their Bibles and diseases to this nation.  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was known more for being a house of steel than being a house of bread.  It’s just down the road from the little town of Nazareth, made famous by The Band’s classic hit, “The Weight.”  The road to Emmaus is nearby.  And the major medical facility is, you guessed it, St. Luke’s.

The Band had an influence somewhat surprising for those who may have trouble recalling their nondescript name.  “The Weight” is a story of a traveler coming to, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  So taken by the song was a Scottish band that they adopted the name Nazareth before informing us that “Love Hurts.”  This is something the evangelist and purported doctor Luke presumably knew.  If you go down from Nazareth even unto Bethlehem, you’ll find the steel city recast as the Christmas city.  For those of us who grew up in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh was the real steel city anyway.  When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was the 16th largest city in the country.  It now sits at 65th, because, like Bethlehem it had trouble drawing people without the natural hardness that is Pennsylvania.  There’s a parable in a city transforming from a heavy metal to a holiday.  There’s no Pittsburgh in the Bible.

When Luke begins his Christmas narrative (think of this as one of those “Christmas in July,” or August things), quoted above, he ironically leaves Mary until the next verse.  Joseph, whom later tradition will say had nothing to do with the conception anyway, still gets first billing.  One wonders what might’ve been different had Mary led the way.  It was much later, after the gruesome crucifixion account, that Emmaus came into the picture.  Two unnamed disciples were walking along that road and didn’t recognize who Jesus was.  Had they kept walking, I wonder if they might’ve ended up in Pittsburgh, for the biblical names soon give way to places like Kutztown and Fleetwood, the latter of which, I have to admit, I never got into.  Had Mary taken a load off in Nazareth, this story would’ve been completely different.  Thus saith The Band.

Temporary Id

Who am I, really?  I can’t help but ponder this whenever I apply for a new form of identification.  While at the Department of Motor Vehicles I observed a room full of strangers—if there’s a melting pot in the United States, it’s the DMV.  Outside those cloistered in the major cities, you must drive to survive in this country (or at least to thrive) and the ritual of waiting your turn by number at the DMV is part of it.  I glanced at my application while waiting.  I’ve held drivers’ licenses in at least four states, but I’ve lived in at least six—how do you count where you live, really?  I think I must’ve had an Illinois license at some point, but I could find no record of it.  Who am I?  Are the Illinois years lost?  Big brother will find out, no doubt.

To apply for a license in Pennsylvania, as in most states, you have to prove you are who you say you are.  Swapping in your old license just doesn’t work any more.  While the actual “who” depends on government-issue documents (social security, birth certificates, or passports) the where question is more financial.  To prove your residence you must present bills with your name and current address.  You’re defined by your money.  Bills demonstrate that you’re integrated into the system, the matrix.  I spent one day, as a temp with Manpower, working for Detroit Electric (no, I didn’t have a Michigan license; I kept the Massachusetts one), processing requests for new service.  Despite not being asked back because they had expected a woman (really!), I learned that to get service you had to prove you were part of this matrix, with a history of paying your bills.

None of these agencies ask the deeper, more philosophical questions of identity.  None seem to care that each day is a struggle to define our spiritual selves in a world hopelessly secular and financial.  Yes, my birth certificate “proves” I was born in Pennsylvania.  The DMV records “prove” I learned to drive here and had my first license in this state.  They show nothing of the real question of who I am.  A reasonable facsimile of my visage appears on the plastic card that certifies my citizenship within these artificial borders.  But now my home state stamps “Temporary” on the card so that a security check can be run.  They want to discover if I am who my records say I am.  What the powers that be don’t seem to recognize is that although where we are born influences us every day for the rest of our lives, no little plastic card, despite the amount of information it conveys, can say who it is I really am.  “Temporary” may be the truest word on it.

Special Delivery

Apotropaic is a word that can be translated as “turning away evil.”  For all that, it’s a perfectly good English word, although seldom used outside realms such as religious studies and anthropology.  Although the word itself may be unfamiliar, the concept is one that everyone recognizes—the charm that wards off evil is the most common example.  The rabbit’s foot means good luck (except for the rabbit) because it’s an apotropaic device.  In perhaps one of the oddest twists in Christianity’s somewhat lengthy history is the fact that the Bible itself has become an apotropaic device.  You’ll see this quite a lot in horror films, and if you read Holy Horror when it comes out you’ll see it quite a bit, although I don’t use the technical term for it.  Apotropaic outlooks also pervade society as a whole.  A recent article on Mysterious Universe proves the point.

Pennsylvania is a weird state.  Having grown up here, I know that to be the case.  In Wilkes-Barre (which itself is a strange name) a ghost-hunter was arrested for breaking into a haunted house bearing a sword, shotgun, and Bible.  That should cover your bases.  Of course, I couldn’t help but notice the odd equivalence of these three weapons.  One is intended for close combat (the sword), one for a reasonable distance (the shotgun), and one for an enemy so close that they might get inside (the Bible).  Make no mistake about it; the Bible is indeed a weapon.  Probably intended as an apotropaic device in this context, it was nevertheless an object to defend the ghost hunter from evil.  The sword and shotgun, however, seem to betray a lack of trust in Holy Writ.

The Bible has been used for offensive purposes ever since people figured out that it can be used to control others.  Coercion, in whatever form, is a kind of violence.  Interestingly, reading the Good Book would seem to indicate that such usage of holy things is inappropriate.  Then again, the Bible doesn’t refer to the Bible.  The idea of Scripture as a powerful object developed only after the Good Book had become an iconic object.  The final authority.  Who can argue with what is claimed to be the word of God?  That idea has become more important than what the Bible actually says, as any “Bible-believing” Trump follower will prove.  Against ghosts, however, it might serve as an apotropaic device, but it won’t prevent you from being arrested, it seems.  A lesson worth pondering.

Spiritual Walls

I often ponder what a difference walls make. Perhaps our ancient, cave-dwelling DNA just runs away with imaginations, but walls make us feel safe. Most of the time. As I was reading the ensemble-written The Haunted, by Robert Curran, Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Jack and Janet Smurl, the concept of walls showed its other face. In the mid-to late-1980s, the Smurls lived in a haunted house. The West Pittston duplex in Pennsylvania was also home to their four daughter’s and Jack’s parents. And the entity that harassed them there was deemed a demon. It’s easy to be skeptical about such accounts—no physical proof exists, after all, and proving anything is pretty near impossible anyway. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, apparently this become quite a media event. It’s easy to question the whole thing. Then I think about walls.

Although there are public haunted buildings, I often wonder about specific residences that foster claims of haunting. If spirits are, well, spiritual beings that can pass through walls, why would they stay in a house? In the case of the demon that everyone in the family saw, what does it mean to see physically a being that has no physical reality? And when the priest exorcised their house, why did they look to see where the incorporeal being might be hiding? It seems that the demon needed walls too.

Human beings are natural actors. We behave differently at home than we do in public. We act differently with friends than with strangers. Even closer to home, we act more natural with our families than we do even with friends. Beneath all these layers of pretending, most of us still act differently when we’re alone. That’s where walls come in. Although knowing someone’s in the next room might temper our behavior, the family unit within its walls is one intimate collective. What was happening within the walls of the Smurl household three decades ago? Any recounting will involve retelling. Interpretation. And we all know what a difference walls can make. The neighbors, according too this book, could hear demonic screams. Some even experienced invasions of their own during the height of the haunting. Books like this have a way of drawing you in, opening windows and doors through the walls into someone else’s life. What actually happens to them, however, is something we’ll only learn when walls begin to talk.

Parks and Wreck

It was a bit of a shock to see Bethel Park on the list. I make no bones about being a Democrat. I’ve supported progressive causes on an evolving journey since high school. When I saw the news that Conor Lamb is a worthy contender for the 39th district seat in my native western Pennsylvania, and that this area is “deep red,” I had to look it up. A special election’s coming up and the district is leaning a little blue. Historically, until 2010, it had been Democrat territory. But Bethel Park has other associations for me. My wife will pardon me, I hope, for saying it was the home of my first girlfriend.

As a naive and thoroughly Pauline Fundamentalist, I always believed marriage was against God’s will. The Bible says as much. Still, Paul magnanimously allows for marriage to those who “burn.” I’d felt the heat once or twice as a boy becoming a man, but I’d adequately stifled it with Scripture and the comparative fires of Hell. I was strong. I would never marry, I told myself. College up to that point had involved a cenobitic separation of the sexes in an all-male dorm on a campus where the rule was to sit with a Bible’s width between a guy and his girl. I met her at church summer camp where we were counselors together. She was from the city—Bethel Park is a suburb of Pittsburgh—and I was a kid from what she called “Roosterville” (the town of 900 souls was actually technically “Rouseville”). The ways of love, I was learning, were liberal.

To a point. That relationship limped along for a couple of years. I got on with my life, attended seminary and met my wife there. Bethel Park, I knew, had been named from the Bible. Bethel was the place of Jacob’s dream, the original stairway to Heaven. My first lady friend was impressed with my biblical knowledge—it was really about all I had to offer. Things improved after meeting the woman I would marry. Boston would remain a blue city while Bethel Park would degenerate from purple to red. When did this happen? The working class boy from Roosterville believes in equal rights for all. And now District 39 has a decision to make. Will the stairway to Heaven be limited to those who can afford those swank suburban houses? Or will the district remember its heritage that was blue from 1969 until we had our first African American president? “This,” Jacob muttered “is none other than the gate of Heaven.” Or, it could be, just another brick in the wall.