Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

A Chatty Charlie

Posted By on September 20, 2009

This is my first foray to a Great Lake. It is eerily large.

This is my first foray to a Great Lake. It is eerily large.

I imagine that Erie, Pennsylvania is not considered the Jewel in the Crown of the Great Lakes region, because to do so would imply something too terrible to contemplate. I’ve elected to spend my first night here purely because it is 400 miles from home. In searching—last minute, so unlike me—for a dining option, I chanced upon Smuggler’s Wharf (obviously a wannabe Fisherman’s Wharf, right?). Driving down toward the waterfront, I tour the epitome of a depressed Northeast urbanscape. It is grey, empty, dirty, post-boom, post-industrial, and post-happy. And it’s not even winter yet.

Down at the waterfront, however, I see water. A great deal of water. And seagulls (are they lost?), plus a patio festooned with some of the best-looking late-summer potted plants I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s my chosen dining destination; clearly I’ve hit the jackpot simply by employing my usual googling gambit: “fine dining, erie, pa” (and then reading—with, regrettably, copious cynicism—between the lines).

Inside, at the long, boat-shaped bar, I take a pew and am instantly bathed in the kind of setting-sunlight that evokes Chianti, or Bali, or my favorite movie of all time: Stealing Beauty. I just love it when golden rays pervade a place where wine is about to be poured for me. This is the mystical majesty of a Magic Hour. How could I have uttered a disparaging word about Erie?! (Note to self: Drive home with eyes closed. Or, not.)

At Lake Erie, the waterfront is a world apart from the nearby inner city.

In Erie, the waterfront is a world apart from the nearby inner city.

Whenever I’m alone (or with somebody), I dine at the bar. This makes for great conversation, if not quiet contemplation. The latter is slated to be in short supply tonight, because just across the prow of the bar from me sits an exceedingly Chatty Charlie. This guy has waved seventy buh-bye, and sports a cap proclaiming “American Navy: Retired.” He starts talking even before I’ve unfolded my paper napkin and begun to peruse the laminated menu. (Oh goody, something new: “Steaks-Pasta-Salad-Seafood” – ok, and a “She-Crab Soup”.)

My new buddy, Robert James Altzstead, is a smart, opinionated guy, but unfortunately his memory has begun to recede. So our rat-a-tat chat consists mostly of him evoking a thought: “What’s that really big magazine with the great big pictures?? It’s really famous—come ON, Mark!” (the bartender), while Mark, the hostess, and I fire off possible answers: Travel and Leisure? Conde Nast Traveller? According to this big, mysterious magazine, the sunset in Erie PA is considered one of the Ten Best in the World, says CC. “They have pictures of tribal women without their tops on,” he cajoles.
Ahhhhh. “National Geographic!” “Right!!”

I apologize: the golden sun screwed with my only shot of the Chatty Charlie.

I apologize: the golden sun screwed with my only shot of the Chatty Charlie.

“Who’s that black sidekick of Bing Crosby’s?” he now yells, having moved on at light-speed to some other topic. I’m stumped, being that Bing is hardly rat-pack material. “With the gravelly voice?” calls out Charlie. The blond hostess, picking up a tray of drinks destined for a party of blue-haired ladies by the wrap-around windows, prompts “Louis Armstrong!” Charlie is thrilled: “Yep!!” Wow, that one passed me right by. The staff seem to have been playing this game with Charlie for, possibly, decades.

“Where do you think this lady is going, Mark?!” CC challenges the bartender, after he persuades me to part with my travel plans, “I’ll bet you can never guess in a million years!”

“Away from you?” mutters Mark, darkly. But I’m taking notes as fast as I can, because Chatty Charlie is a font of information about this historic lakeside manufacturing town, now fallen upon hard times just like Detroit, and the whole state of Michigan. The ship that (arguably) won the war of 1812, “Niagara,” was made in Erie. Now, the local industry focusses on locomotives, but this year there was not one domestic order. Just yesterday, 1480 people were laid off from GE. No wonder the town feels so sad.

In this conversation I don’t get much of a chance to talk, so I’m unable to ask CC my Big Question. But he does share with me one of his deeper concerns: “You know that Mark Darcy? What’s the actor’s name?!” (“Colin Firth,” I supply.) “Well I would never wear those tight pants like he did, ’cause you know they don’t leave much to the imagination. Like a ballet dancer, you know what I mean?!”

I’m terribly afraid that I do.


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