Pete's Blog

Erie

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Caleb and I drove into Erie, PA, my home town, the morning of Tuesday, August 4. I had not been there in 27 years. He had never been. Erie boasts the finest natural harbour on the five Great Lakes, but in my day the lakefront was home to a few grain elevators, some railroad sidings, and little else. Today the city fathers seem to have finally realized the area's potential, with a museum of Lake Erie sailing and several other fine buildings. The north/south Interstate comes all the way into town now, instead of stopping arbitrarily at the innermost suburbs. It was this road we took into town, and before we knew it we were through downtown entirely and over on the East Side, which remains the same down-at-heel neighborhood it was when I lived there with my first wife in 1978, with only a few more vacant lots than before. We found that house (on 11th and Wayne, if you're scoring at home) and then worked our way back into the city proper. The area around Perry Square, a few blocks up the hill from the Lakefront and at the center of downtown, was spruced up but essentially unchanged. The three most impressive buildings are all still there: the Public Library (now part of the Federal Courthouse complex), the Erie Club, and the old Customs House. This last has become home to the Erie Art Museum, and we parked and ducked in so I could see what had become of my old friend John Vanco, who had been the Museum's director when I last lived in town. As it happens, 30 years later John remains director of the Erie Art Museum and the architect of much of its current success. When I knew him he was, among other things, a serious record collector whose blues, jazz, and hillbilly 78s I often recorded for my own use. Some of those songs I still perform today. We talked for a few minutes, during which he gave me the sad news that my old friend Warner Bacon, Jr. had recently died of brain cancer. The rest of the afternoon Caleb and I zigzagged around town looking for landmarks - some there, some gone: my great-uncle's house at 519 West 6th Street, now a B&B called The Spencer House with gaily-painted trim; the empty lot where Lakewood School used to stand; the house at 4018 Oxer Road, looking smaller than I remembered, also with painted trim; Asbury School and MacDowell High School; the hamburger stand my brother Charles worked at, then called Red Barn, now a Burger King; Dick Bulling's World of Music, much expanded (we saw no trace of Markham's Music or Oseicki Brothers) but still in the old neighborhood. Dick Bulling, a slightly sinister figure who once tried to persuade me that an Ovation roundback was a better investment than a D-28 because David Cassidy was on the cover of Life playing one that week, is no longer with us. But I bought a T-shirt with a picture of him playing the saxophone. My grandparents' graves are easy to find on the hill at the southwest corner of the Erie Cemetary. Herbert (Sr.) and J.C. Spencer and their wives are the only ones of their generation buried with their father. Of the next generation neither of my two deceased uncles is there. Of my own there has been as yet no call. But there seems to be plenty of room. We made it back to the lakefront in time to see the restored brig "Niagara," Perry's flagship at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, sail in to Erie harbour with flags flying. It was a stirring site, especially considering that my grandfather, who worked hard to get her raised from Misery Bay and restored, never got the chance to see her actually in the water. A lot of the pleasure of being in Erie again came from just cruising around the streets on a sunny day, getting the feel of the place. It doesn't seem so much of a backwater as it did when I was young. The guys in the music store were reasonably hip, the office workers in Starbucks not at all dowdy or dull. The Army/Navy store where I bought my first peacoat has moved across State Street to a smaller location, but it's the same store. The neighborhood around 5450 Streamwood Drive is much glossier than when we lived there in the '60s, but the house looks good. As we idled in the driveway I told Caleb the story about Mom and the snake. Then we took the old bridge over an unchanged Walnut Creek and drove west out of town.

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