If you travel west across the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, you enter the city of York.It is an average, mid-sized city among the green hills of the Susquehanna Valley, but only an hour’s drive north of the Baltimore-Washington churn.It is a place rich in history that lays claim to the title of the “first capital of the United States,” as it held this status during the American Revolution allowing the Continental Congress to adopt the Articles of Confederation and then move the capital elsewhere.
York is a city that’s seen a development explosion in its suburbs, but still maintains a downtown with a weekend market, a symphony orchestra, the offices of not one, but two, daily newspapers and a spiking crime rate.
Speaking broadly, its citizens tend to be of German descent, hold conservative, hard-working Protestant values and avoid showiness where a simple nod will do.
York is getting by okay.It is named for the town in England.It is the subject of the song Shit Towne by the popular 90s band Live, whose members were themselves native Yorkers.
Nationally, York is also renowned for peppermint patties, barbells and the Harley-Davidson factory.A recent branding strategy by the Chamber of Commerce bills York County as “The Factory Tour Capital of the World,” though it’s really only the Harley plant that’s worth coming for.Other selected tours include that of a local credit union and, listed in brochures without a hint of a joke, a landfill.
Internationally, I get questions about my hometown.When I say I’m from York, I’m asked about the city’s possible relation to the Big Apple.
“No, no,” I clarify, “it’s just York.”
“This is the old York then?The original city, before the New one?” they’ll ask, interest piqued.
“Almost,” I nod.
1) GIL’S CAR
The ceramic cigarette would have fooled only me.But the light of the day has dimmed enough for the fireflies to start rising from the grass like silent helium fireworks.
Gil gestures a thumbs-up from behind the wheel at no one in particular, which means he’s communed with his driving; limbs, Plymouth Horizon 5-door and road blessed as one.From rattling speakers, the new release Beck album (available almost nowhere else in town but Iko’s Music Trade, at Market Street and Haines Road) mixes hee-haw harmonica with bossa nova and turntable scratching.The music is self-referential and dilapidated by design and indicates that the world is changing somewhere just beyond our county line.
Construction has just been completed on a new bypass road, but we take the potholed way by the cornfield (Dew Drop Road, between Powder Mill Road and Queen Street), where the stalks are already too tall for us to see the top ears without poking our head out the car window.I trust their height and, instead, sink into the upholstery.
We stop at a red arrow traffic light. A Chevy Lumina with a Dole/Kemp sticker slapped off-center to its front bumper rolls up beside us.A woman in the passenger seat motions for me.I see its Mrs. Stambauch, going to the Friday potluck of our Presbyterian church where my brother has been forced to help out with the kitchen crew.
“How long ya’ in town for?” she hollers over her inert husband.
Beck brays “mouthwash jukebox gasoline!” at everyone.Gil clinks the cigarette on the pullout ashtray.A breeze swings the red arrow gently on its cable, reminding drivers not to proceed in any of the following directions: here and there and up into the clouds.The glow from the Rutter’s store (serving dairy since 1921, soon to be replaced in this location by a PNC Bank) is brighter than the setting sun and reflects off the corner sign that reads “Watch Children” which I see as a caption on an elaborate diorama teeming with stock truths of this locale I’d adore forever and arranged for the moment when we’d be waiting for the light to change and Mrs. Stambauch for her flat, chatty reply.
The light clicks to radiant green.Gil careens left.The words “until the end of August” occur to me along with the realization that both Stambauchs totally noticed that I’d never grow up.
2) SUBMARINES UNLIMITED
“Then there’s these two,” Harry laughs. Earl sits in front of him as we enter the greasy dark red establishment (Queensgate Shopping Plaza, armpit bend of the strip).
“Missildine nearly got us hexed on the way over by deacons.”
“Well, I’m sure that means a thing.How did you two even find the end of the driveway?”
“Hey, why not the booth?” Gil asks, forlorn toward the corner.
“I’ll be in town for the rest of my life,” I utter.
“The booth is for guys with cloth belts who look like Steffi Graf,” Harry announces too loudly.“Oh, and by the way I don’t have any money.”On that word, an unspoken thought worms through the rest of us that he’s weakly joking.The mood descends out of the sky.
“We should order.” Only Earl seems to know what time it is.
At Subs Unlimited, it’s really mostly pizza.An extra-large with three toppings and a pitcher of Yuengling Lager runs about twelve dollars (no need to call ahead for reservations or specify the beer as anything but “Lager”).We eat and debate where to go next.We’re over twenty-one, some of us by only months, so the adjacent bar is the place to be.
Gil stands and pays for everyone.He feeds a five into the jukebox, presses the selection on “Macarena” twenty times and leaves.
3) STOPPING BY HONEYSUCKLE ON A MUGGY EVENING
The bar is a bust from the first sight of the beaming alcoholics and cackling smokers in tank tops.The scene turns us off booze, though that doesn’t stop us from ordering more lager.
Afterward, we run into an old classmate and her fellow camp counselor friends, arm in arm already bonded after last summer, on their way to see Mission: Impossible at Queensgate Cinemas.One girl with them, who they say is from a high school one district over, introduces herself to me as Cocoa.
We’re then informed that we all should come over tomorrow because some parents are out of town.We conclude, “See you.Then.”
It proves enough for this night.
We pile back into the car, saluting goodnight to Earl and taking Harry back with us.We take a longer way home and feel safer with the windows down.From the overgrown vegetation on either side of the road, drifts in a warm smell that could be mistaken for tropical if it wasn’t so obvious to me it was the farthest thing from it.
It’s the honeysuckle.
The scent sends a plumb line through the compiled memory of every dripping summer I’ve ever spent in this town.I can’t tell if anyone else is catching it, but Gil slows at a dip in the road.
When I’m dropped off at home, I walk to the backyard before going inside.I follow the intermittent ratchet sounds of katydids over the high shallow chirp of the crickets in the darkness.I face the dense woods behind our property (the space between Kirch Road and Powder Mill, destined to be half clear cut for the parking lot of a private outpatient medical center).
The woods are alive beyond the wildlife calls and scare me so much I can’t get ten feet into the lawn without imagining I’m surrounded by small silent hobgoblins, standing in the lined shadows the moon doesn’t touch or hiding under my abandoned, mossy tree fort.Far-sighted black eyes blink back at me.
Still, I remind myself turning in, the woods can’t be that deep. Harry’s house is just on the other side.
4) A LUNCHTIME ODYSSEY
My brother shows me a poem he wrote before we sit down as a family to eat grilled cheese sandwiches (amply buttered on both sides, with side of Utz potato chips, cottage cheese optional.).I’m supposed to be the guy who learned something from my “Fiction, Identity and Experience” class the previous semester and four years older, but his one column of words spanning the length of one page transforms me into a decrepit wasteoid.Maybe his writing is better because he’s still in high school.
He says this is the best place to dream of being somewhere else.So I’ll stick with my surreal summer job taking tee times over the phone at a golf reservation service (Capitol Region Golf, at the corner of Market and Duke Streets, serving six of York County’s finest 18-hole golf destinations).
At the table, my mother asks me what I did last night, vaguely aware that she doesn’t want the truth.She and my father proceed to gossiping about church members.The contingent of fundamentalists is growing.The interpretation of scripture is too literal.The music director has been asked to step down by the church’s governing body, citing conflict of interest, but my parents say his sexual orientation was no longer just an open secret.They want to take a stand in solidarity with him.They hope the associate pastor will appeal to the Session sub-committee.
My brother mentions his reading of Lao-Tse.The conversation steers back to me for some reason.I say I wasn’t the last one home.
“Well, that can’t be.Your brother got back from the potluck at nine.”
I avoid looking then at my sister, the glowing blind spot on my left, and decide not to mention her sneaking back through my room’s downstairs sliding door at dawn.
I mention instead that I happened upon the Stambauchs, who would freak a person out even on a normal day.
5) AN OPEN HOUSE
At first, it’s only four guys and four girls, our fine square root of seven brides for seven brothers.The girls tell inside summer camp jokes of yore.Harry and I speak in Simpsons-quote code.
“Cypress Hill, I’m looking in your direction.”
“Ralph,” I admonish, “Jesus didn’t have wheels.”
The girl who calls herself Cocoa is here again, laughing less.She sits half off the chair with tan legs stretched out from the threads of her cut-off jeans.
We take seats around the family dinner table still set with embroidered blue and white Nittany Lion placemats (available for purchase at the Penn State – York branch campus store or wherever red meaty knickknacks are sold).Solo cups are laid out and filled with something called “prairie fire.”The vodka and Tabasco spreads wildly through our Appalachian wilderness discovery group all the same.Harry rustles up another.
Quasi-invited guests stream into the house.I see people I don’t want to know.But encountering old faces outside of the bygone homeroom and cafeteria setting is reassuring and a reason for trust.School spirit hasn’t seen the last of us.So, the overplayed new Live album cranks up from the den stereo, skipped ahead to the track “Pillar of Davidson”, a ballad about the working stiffs of the local Caterpillar and Harley Davidson plants.
Cocoa exits for the outside back deck and I take a cue.
“This reminds me of a high school party,” she comments there in the night, moving carefully so as not to set off the motion-detector flood light.
“We’re late bloomers,” I explain.
She, in turn, says her name isn’t actually Cocoa, of course, it’s only a camp nickname.She didn’t think she’d be back this year because she’s hoping to be an actress.Sort of.She wants to audition for a part in the production of A Little Night Music at York Little Theater (Lincoln Highway at a long shadow of the Highway 83 off ramp).
I told her I would probably be doing a semester internship in New York City, for producers of films.I asked her if she’s familiar with the term “script coverage.”People in the industry use it.I make it implied that I don’t belong in York, of all places, and that neither does she.
We stumble onto the mercilessly-mown back lawn, edges likely trimmed with scissors.The close air will break into rain soon.I pull first on the sleeve of her T-shirt.She sways back toward me and whispers a sweet “What?”
I feel the smooth skin of her knees brushing against my leg hair.I get a swell in an old knot in my stomach.I push her hair behind her ears and kiss her open mouth.Despite the temperature around us, hers is a heat that makes me realize that I was chilly all along.Even her teeth are soft.
I save for Harry the quote that wheels outs along with my common sense: “Death to Shelbyville.”
6) MASTER BEDROOM
We longed for the night when we’d catch aliens drawing crop circles in the corn, hear trees singing folk songs that made the grass weep dew or quartz rocks murmuring that the universe is contracting.If we could last long enough into the nocturnal gladness, after the most rabid insomniacs had drugged themselves to sleep, we might witness a respite of the natural order of things.Gravity eases up.Matter pulls apart to rest its aching molecules.Light and sound shake loose of their waves like actors between scenes breaking for a cigarette.Let in on the secret, we could feel secure in knowing that even science had its blunders and reality itself was plagued with pangs of self-doubt.
We will get more.We have this summer, the final one before we returned to higher learning for the last time, after which home holds only a visitation.
“Where did you get this necklace?” she asks, now that we’ve escaped to the master bedroom.
“This one?” I slow down, “Oh, Greenwich Village.”
She gives a minor, but still exaggerated gasp and hangs her arms on my shoulders.I realize then that neither one of us really wants to leave at all.
As more clothing comes off, the wind and rain wails, trying to enter through the skylight above our heads.Water sprays on the double glazing like an ocean squall.The lights flicker in the hallway and the music of the party below cuts out.The blue digital clock numbers floating in the dark vanish.Order dismantles for our time, out together, long enough to believe we were the ones who tripped the circuit breaker, but momentary enough to spell out that we’d never see each other again.
Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
8) DONUT DELITE AND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
I have a plate of dried-beef gravy over toast.It’s a standard Pennsylvania Dutch dish that you like to think was prepared by an Amish or Mennonite woman in between cannings of apple butter.Only here it comes served by a Greek family.It is the best the city, the state, the country has to offer.And the coffee at Donut Delite (Queen Street at I-83, later called the South York Diner) has no bottom.
“So you never bothered with the real name?” Gil needles me.My chances at a saccharine summer of movie dates and putting the “Cougar” back in Mellencamp have gone.
I notice Harry also has grass stains up and down his jeans.I don’t ask how.I don’t inquire as to when the power came back on.Only Earl seems to have gotten a good night’s sleep, though he continues to ask for more ice water.
Early service churchgoers funnel into the restaurant.They look at us through cataract sunglasses like our dining here means they’ve come to the wrong place.Only years ago, I came to Donut Delite with my church youth group on Wednesdays before school, where we had buns and hot chocolate and opened our Good News Bibles.Since then I found optimism elsewhere and, by this Sunday, my parents sit at worship by themselves, on a pew made to snugly fit five.
“I gotta leave on a boat somewhere,” Harry claims, “the kind where I can sing sea shanties and come back with a beard.”
“This is, like, the best job market they’ve ever seen,” Earl counters.
“Yeah, I’m not buying it,” Harry replies.
As we begin to chew on toothpicks, I think that I don’t really even know these guys.But if that is true then I don’t know anyone at all.
There would be a pile of years ahead where I wouldn’t remember the taste of this coffee or the feel of this booth.I would come back once the next June alone, prepared to leave for a job way out of the state that didn’t adhere to summer breaks.I would forget where it was we sat on this Sunday and that leaving this place wasn’t going to be the swelling, montage moment I expected it to be when viewed from the unwashed corner of my rearview mirror.
York PA has a general way of leaving itself nondescript.
It also has a way of being left out of most travel guides.It remains nearby, but always just off the radar.And for those who passed lives here desperate to leave, it remains somehow the destination.