Peach Pie and Poisonous Snakes

They should really make a national landmark out of this place. The venerable Five-Points Highway Diner has seen its fair share of drama. It was one summer day in the shadows of the veranda that Vick Banzler pointed to the fulminating sky with the head of a venomous snake and proclaimed that the next installment of the Great Sunspot Dilemma was hurtling toward Earth. These days, the local hangout is home for Morris’ legendary preproduction meetings in advance of the launch of his hour-long national TV talk show Anthracite Tonite. This evening’s discussion veers off-topic to Las Vegas, and Morris hopes his father doesn’t catch wind. The estimable Morris Crimpanfortis IV makes no bones about his disdain for all things Vegas, which is fine – that’s his prerogative. But the rest of the production crew can’t ignore the importance of the market. Morris grows antsy as he contemplates how anyone could question Daddy’s disdain for anything . . .

The Five-Points Highway Diner

You Can’t Miss It – Trust Us

Up ahead, the Five-Points Highway Diner is bathed in light.

The restaurant sits inside a massive traffic circle at the confluence of State Routes 510, 628, 415, 408 and 560. With eight lanes of traffic going five different directions, it’s understandable why the diner has bullet-proof glass. To make the chaotic intersection even more challenging, there are fountains and traffic islands. At various times of the year the water is dyed different colors to suit the occasion. Don’t ask me how they keep the water running in the middle of winter. I wonder why tonight’s designated water color is sea-foam green.

The spokes of the hub of the coalescing highways are brilliantly illuminated to make the diner appear a spaceship ready for takeoff.  When the wind blows from the east, incoming commuter flights, corporate jets, medevac and state police choppers use this building as a landmark on their approach to the municipal airport.

The diner is atypical in design. The stucco building encompasses the sleek deco lines not unlike those found on the abandoned skyscrapers downtown; the overall motif suggests a scaled-down version of the Pentagon. There are blinding columns of light shooting into the sky at each of the five corners of the diner. The lights are reminiscent of the iconic Sky Beam emanating from the top of the Luxor in Las Vegas.

Mindless Las Vegas Diversion

I am quite familiar with Las Vegas, having been in and out of the city on a number of occasions for the NAB and NATPE before the latter confab moved to Miami. I’ve seen the Strip over the years become an international brand. I prefer the old school Vegas when things were a lot more easy-going and friendly. The colorful fountains in front of the Five-Points Highway Diner remind me of the fountains Evel Knievel once challenged on his motorcycle in front of Caesars.

Daddy, I’m afraid, was never a big fan of the desert paradise. If there was ever a town where his sprawling billboards would be a big hit, it’s undoubtedly Vegas. And maybe that’s the real reason Daddy holds ill-will toward the region – to the extent of refusing to do business in the entire state!  He might be afraid that his displays would get lost in the shuffle, and that they’d become one more garish display on the way to perdition.

A couple things wrong with this flimsy line of reasoning: Daddy isn’t afraid of anything. He takes a backseat to no one. And his billboards do not, and let us repeat, do not lead to perdition. They are fresh and genuine in their wholesomeness as the day is long. Is it too much of a stretch to realize he just doesn’t find the atmosphere agreeable to the furtherance of his values?

Making the Most of Your Merge

I look in all directions before entering the circle. Thankfully, traffic is fairly light. You have to get over however many lanes in order to reach the entrance to the parking lot. Sometimes you have to circle the drain a number of times, merging one lane at a time. There was no such need tonight; I made it after only two times around. I park in back where the rest of the employees are parked. I consider myself an employee of sorts. I have a trade deal with the diner in the Silt Ridge Valley Midnight News. I also will provide free airtime locally in the Anthracite Tonite telecasts, whenever the show gets off the ground.

The snow keeps falling. I exit the car, remembering to lock the doors. I debate putting the top up. No, I’ll just keep it down. Besides, the snow blends in with the white bucket seats.

Little Leaf Crunchers Make Lingerie Happen

It’s no secret that Silt Ridge has a rich and storied history. The “silt” could easily be converted to “silk” because the town has a heritage of harnessing the power of silk worms to create a world-renowned industry. Morris drives by one of the buildings that housed the billions of worms; it stands like a hulking sentinel in the coalescing grey clouds. Morris wonders what it must have been like back then in that cultured era. There must have been buyers coming in from all over the world to purchase the silk garments that were fashioned in nearby factories. Morris is certain that his landlady’s family – the formidable LoZelle Empire – made its mark in top-end shirts sewn from the highest quality homegrown materials. Morris realizes that those glory days are a far cry from today, when the mayor and board of supervisors spend much of the day trying to attract fast-food joints to locate in downtown. Morris wonders if there’s maybe another way . . .

Silk Worms on Parade

Growing the Bottom Line One Thread at a Time

I leave the mayor and his get-rich-quick-scheme in my rearview mirror.

Like so many politicians, when Perry Quinnion sought office he primped and preened, strutting around with his thumbs in his suspenders, puffing out his flaccid chest, squawking about how he was going to turn the economic fortunes of the town around. He was going to bring industry back to the valley, attracting high-tech jobs with clean energy. You know – the same ol’ same ol’ you’ve heard a thousand times before.

So far, he’s been a bust, unable to lure any of the fast-food standbys. The same goes for hotels, including on-again/off-again talks with a brand name on the 907 business loop. But that appears to have fallen flatter than a pancake. Don’t worry, he hasn’t been able to land a pancake or waffle joint either.

His legacy is still intact though; his promise to entice a drone factory is still viable. Those talks are apparently ongoing and will remain that way right through the next election. But if I were a betting man, I’d say that one would be dead in the water too, sooner than later.

Remnant from the Past: One Hulking Pavilion

On the outskirts of town, I roll past the hulking pavilion from a bygone era, the steel-and-glass conservancy consisting of over a million square feet of multi-tiered climate-controlled extravagance. Rising eight stories, the steel peak of the massive ornate structure pierces the low-hanging clouds. With such an imposing size and girth, the sprawling architectural wonder provides a lot of potential.  But that’s all it amounts to: potential. This city has seemingly an endless supply of potential but obviously no means to harness it.

At one point in Silt Ridge’s illustrious history, that potential was me – and then some. During the height of the region’s silk production, the conservancy served as home to hundreds if not thousands of mulberry trees whose meaty leaves provided food for the swarming teems of silk worms. I wondered what it all must have looked like in this thriving city at the turn of the last century. Not more than a few blocks from the heart of the financial district was a sprawling greenhouse filled with millions upon millions of industrious worms eating their way to haute-couture stardom.

Little Workers that Never Complained

The little workers fueled the silk industry on the eastern shore of the U.S. and started a tradition of quality garments made right in the center of town. The raw material was transferred to nearby factories where it was exotically colored and swirled into alluring patterns, providing some of the most sought-after garments in the world.

Rags-to-Riches: Never Doubt the Power of Silk

A thought suddenly strikes me: what about a documentary about the silk trade in Silt Ridge? Better yet, what about a movie, a literal rags-to-riches number? Or how about a horror flick: a mad scientist genetically alters the little critters so they make their silk cocoons out of some otherworldly material that looks good leaving the loading dock but ultimately invades the pores of anyone who wears it and makes them act like zombies. We could undertake a whole franchise based on that premise.

I pick up my flip phone but resist the urge to dial Noreen’s number. I’m having too much fun driving around in my convertible, watching snow swirling all around me.

My Life is a Cheesy “Bootstrap” Poster

Perry Quinnion, like most everyone else in Silt Ridge, is a part-time employee. In order to supplement his income, Mayor Quinnion creates and hawks pseudo-inspirational posters at the main intersection of town. Morris looks down his nose at this self-serving venture, viewing the posters as kitschy, gauche and overly simplistic. But the people of Silt Ridge seem to like them just fine. Morris doesn’t know where they get the shekels to buy the pricey items, but he’s not here to ask questions or cast aspersions. To each his own. On this particular dark, snowy and windswept afternoon, Morris pulls to a stop at City Hall, where the Mayor’s striped sales tent glows with the intensity of halogen lights. Morris thinks Mayor Quinnion is going to put the squeeze on him, but Hizzhoner totally turns the tables, and engages in a game of one-upmanship that really rankles Morris . . .

The Mayor of Silt Ridge

A Proud Tradition of Corrupt Incompetence

There’s a bit of a traffic jam at City Hall on the corner of Fifth and Main. The building is an imposing deco-inspired granite-faced edifice rising twenty-four stories into the slate sky. The building was rumored to have been used in the title sequence of the black and white version of the infamous “Crater-eating Cockroach” series . . . you know, “crunching crime beneath the weight of a two-ton pest . . .” but I was never able to figure out that meant. Was the enormous water bug on a pogo stick hopping around from one skyscraper to the next? The visuals made absolutely no sense. Well, there’s no mistaking one aspect: our current Mayor, Perry Quinnion, is definitely not a swashbuckling crime fighter; the part about the pogo stick might apply though.

Always Hawking His Wares

At the foot of the sweeping brass-inlaid entryway with a curved marble stairway is a red-and-white-striped tent. It is tall and narrow, much like a portable cabana one would find on the beach. From within the tent emanates the soft glow of an LED spotlight.

I have a little problem with traction at the stoplight and am glad I’m able to brake without incident. The remnant of rush hour on this snowy evening seems to have coalesced at this precise intersection.

No wonder there’s a tie-up. I gaze at the tall hunched over figure in the bedraggled topcoat. The mayor is hawking his wares again.

Much like everything else in Silt Ridge, the mayoral position is a part-time gig. Perry Quinnion supplements his income by printing and selling inspirational office posters that trade on animals behaving badly.

Making Every Sale Count

I chide myself for driving through this part of town. The Mayor may be inept, but he is a master of sales. He never settles for my line about not having the cash on me. He doesn’t deal in credit, which for a mayor is, probably commendable.

As General Manager of the sole TV station in town, I have an obligation to keep good relationship with local politicians. But does that mean becoming a patron for the mayor’s side venture?  Forget the fact that his posters are downright stupid.

The mayor smiles disjointedly as he holds up his latest creation to passing motorists: a ram slams headfirst into the side panel of a bronze-colored Mercedes-Benz. The caption reads: “If you don’t see it coming you’ll be better prepared for failure.” Mayor Quinnion reads the caption out loud just to be sure people get the gist of the message. Hizzhoner is one to talk about failure. He promised to bring an IMAX to center city but so far hasn’t even been able to land so much as a dollar store.

Feeling Helpless in the Land of Failure

I’m stuck. The light turns red and I’m forced to stop in front of the tent. Looking straight ahead, I tap my fingers on the steering wheel.

The tent light goes out. Exiting the striped confines, the angular mayor dusts the sleeves of his topcoat, adjusts his ratty stovepipe hat, and whisks past the hood of my car like I’m not even there. He hustles up the stairs toward his office with unsold posters neatly rolled up under his arm. I feel cheated when he doesn’t stop to sell me a poster.

The last time he hit me up, we had a conversation about him auditioning for co-host on my nightly talk show, Anthracite Tonite.

But like everything else, it always comes down to the central question: “Are you any good at handling venomous snakes?”

More Frieze Than a Fresco Can Handle

Morris drives through the lonely, snowy streets of Silt Ridge on his way to a boisterous preproduction meeting at the Five-Points Highway Diner. Down Second Avenue, he sees the Gypsum Palace Cinema, which is another prodigious local landmark, much like the Graphite County Opera House, where he and Verona Kendermants office and which is owned by Daddy. Morris remembers the first time he saw a movie at the storied Palace Cinema. He was seated alone in the ornate balcony, eagerly anticipating another installment of his favorite movie franchise, the comedy about cowboys on the moon. He loves it when the horses talk like they’re full of helium, in addition to the way they float over the lunar landscape. But something happens to really rattle Morris’ popcorn. His timid eyes are in no shape to partake of the shocking overhead mural . . .

Kudos for the Gypsum Palace Cinema

What Oyster Coal Meant to the Platinum Age

Down Venus Street, at the intersection of Second Avenue, is the neon-bathed testimony to an Art Deco-inspired masterpiece, the Gypsum Palace Cinema. The five-story, ornate structure features a sculpted frieze around the top of its ornamental exterior and a series of magnificent frescoes inside the monumental edifice across the interior dome of an imposing vaulted ceiling.

The architectural gem is arguably most noted for the subject matter of its friezes and frescoes. Or, quite possibly the presentation of said subject matter. The history of coalmining in the region from centuries ago is vividly portrayed, from the discovery of beloved Oyster coal to the advent of the Platinum-Age “Interplanetary Era,” which the refinement of the rare hemicellulose polymers made possible. Stalwart coalminers across bygone eras are portrayed in many aspects of their vocation in great bouts of sweat and discomfort. Indeed, their valiant labors don’t go unrewarded or unnoticed in this great effort to fuel spaceships and power lunar coffee shops.

Omitting Something Vital from Historical Perspective

The most visually arresting part of this artwork comes with the apparel–or lack thereof. All of the local coalminers depicted in these sprawling murals and masterpieces don’t have a stitch of clothing on, save for their scarred and dirty miners’ helmets. For decades, this has created a schism in this town wider than the Orcas Vein beneath the Windsor District. I personally side with the folks who profess indifference to the lurid artwork, basically a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude. Myself, I don’t care to look at all the muscular body parts, the straining limbs and appendages, but that’s just me.

I remember the first time I saw the cinema palace; well, I must tell you, I was quite taken aback. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I glanced a second time, and sure enough, this was like a locker room for the working class. Some things just don’t need to be seen. I knew right then that the sight of all those naked men was going to burn a hole into the core of my better sensibilities that I would never be able to get back.

Thankfully the Tile Guy Kept his Pants on

I have since learned my lesson: whenever I go to that movie house, I always look down at the floor. Thankfully, the guy who did the tiles wasn’t as obsessed with the coalminers’ anatomy. I am thankful that once I’m seated in the balcony, the lights are completely off and I’m spared from seeing the artful rendering above. Still, during a lull in the movie, my mind sometimes wanders, and I start thinking about how many naked coalminers are staring down at me from the graceful echelons of the sprawling vaulted ceiling. But I am not a proponent of plastering over the historical artwork, as some are. I refuse to let my own tastes and biases color the enjoyment and edification of others.

Cowboys on the Moon: Lunar Lassoes

I see on the big snow-encrusted marquee down the block that they are bringing back one of the all-time classics: a comedy about the first cowboys on the moon. I suddenly get a twinge of excitement, as the genesis for a new TV show comes to me. I want to call Noreen right away to pitch her.

Then I start thinking about the movie, I had seen it as a kid, and it was pretty hilarious when you thought about the horses trying to overcompensate for the lack of gravity. The protagonist was a sheriff who always had to deal with invaders from other dimensions. The movie ended with the camera zooming in on the earth until you’re able to see actual towns. Then, the cowboy drawls, “I sure do miss that ol’ rock.” And we fade out.

I could have sworn the camera zeroed in on Daddy’s compound on Lake Washington, but later found out it was in Hialeah, Florida. I should have known better: there were no mountains around.

Fishing for Snowflakes in Tropical Turquoise

Morris grows more excited by the minute as he guns the engine of his classic Monza Spyder while freewheeling through the snowy streets of downtown Silt Ridge. Morris has good reason to be excited: number-one on his list of priorities is this evening’s preproduction meeting for Anthracite Tonite, a one-hour nightly talk show scheduled to launch within the year. If everything goes according to plan – and why wouldn’t it – the gabfest will air on Daddy’s TV stations all across the country, while making Morris a household name. The car purrs as he whips around the corners of deserted side streets. The ancient vehicle had belonged to his current landlady, Francesca LoZelle, whose family owned and operated a world-renowned shirt factory in Silt Ridge generations ago . . . 

My Corvair Monza Spyder

Freewheeling Through Vintage Snowflakes

As snowflakes gently fall across the decrepit skyline of the faded coalmining town, I pull from the warmth of the opera house garage in my company-owned car, a vintage 1962 convertible Chevy Corvair Monza Spyder. Rolling down Main Street, gas lamps reflect across the car’s polished OEM Tropical Turquoise finish.

 Cranking the heat on high, I thrill to the responsiveness of the four-speed manual floor shift transmission. The meticulously maintained Fisher body features a rear-mounted 140 cubic inch air cooled engine. The six-cylinder turbocharged power plant delivers 110 horsepower. At just under 4,000 miles, the pristine vehicle had only one owner: Francesca LoZelle, the lithesome shirt heiress, whose fourth-story garden apartment I currently rent out.

Leave It to the Lawyers

Daddy’s lawyers received market value for the vintage car, and considering the limited edition it was a real steal. Francesca LoZelle never drove the car herself, mainly because she prefers Corvettes. So she thought she got a pretty good deal for something she barely knew she even had. The car was discovered when the staff of lawyers was making arrangements for me to rent living space from the enigmatic heiress. Daddy wants to make sure I stay within my budget and never overspend for anything, including room and board. I like living there just fine, but as I said before, I would prefer if they paid me on time so I wouldn’t have to always go hat-in-hand to Miss LoZelle and explain why I’m late on rent. Again.

Dooley Brinstrom, the TV station’s chief lighting tech, is a mechanic on the side. He makes sure the car operates at all times at peak performance. Like so many part-time and freelance employees at WBVV, he must have a “day job” to support his creative endeavors and his undying passion for TV production. I’m thankful he’s very good at what he does over at the repair shop. I don’t care if he’s less than top-notch as a lighting guy.

Please Don’t Tell Daddy!

I drive past various buildings and former factories, including the country’s supposed first brothel (but please don’t tell Daddy I know what a brothel is). I heard that in subsequent years the ornate stucco building became a gas station. In other words, they replaced the nail beds, torture cells and customized dentist chairs with service bays – again, Daddy doesn’t need to know that I know anything about this. Please don’t tell him! Pretty please! I don’t even know what I’m talking about half the time. Trust me. At any rate, the property has since been converted into a corner convenience store called Carbon King.

As I motor about town I conform to the contours of the vinyl, pure white bucket seats. The ancient cobblestone streets are easily conquered by the vehicle’s heavy-duty, all-independent suspension. As the turbocharger kicks in I feel the effects of a shorter final drive resulting in faster acceleration, reflected in the urgency of the tachometer located on the multi-gauge instrument panel with the smart, brushed-metal trim.

I set my sights on the Five-Point Highway Diner, at the county’s busiest intersection just outside the city limits. It’s going to be a great night of preproduction planning for the “Anthracite Tonite!” talk show. In joyous anticipation, I power down the convertible top and enjoy the fanciful sensation of snow swirling about my face.

Snowballs at the Speed of Sapphires

Morris takes a break from his pitching to get caught in the crossfire of a death-defying snowball fight. The perpetrators are a group of merchants known as the “Downtown Contingent.” This mysterious group of retailers occupies the rundown shops and boutiques in Town Square, and is constrained to some rather bizarre sales practices – not the least of which is being allowed to sell only one item at a time. Morris has never built a sufficient level of trust with any of these people since arriving in Silt Ridge, and he considers himself at risk in the raging firestorm of whizzing snowballs. He wonders if the men and women flamethrowers are missing him on purpose. Then he wonders if they are employing technology that was supposed to have been banned a long, long time ago . . .

Introducing . . . the Downtown Contingent

Snowballs Heat Up the Night

Whoosh! A snowball sizzles past my left ear at supersonic speeds. Whap! It explodes across a granite wall hard enough to cause pockmarks and dislodge mortar. Whoosh! Then another. Whap! Whap! Whap! And more and more and more after that.

After whiffing on my first two pitches with Noreen, I’m trying to blow off steam. I shovel the wide, sweeping marble stairs leading from the will call office of the Graphite County Opera House down to the Silt Ridge Town Square.


A Real Fancy Place – at One Point . . .

Town Square is a spellbinding plaza featuring an enormous, ornate fountain. It represents the convergence of cobblestone streets from all parts of town. “Where the Miners Meet the Merchants” used to be the rallying cry of this sumptuous retail district. A lot has changed over the last couple centuries: there was a time, when it was a real fancy place inhabited by stunning and magnificent horse-drawn carriages.

Who knows? Unless things get back up to speed, we may be returning to that way of life sooner than we think.

And I pose this to you: would that be such a bad thing?

And You Thought BOGO was a Hardscrabble Deal . . .

Arcane laws allow the merchants of the Downtown Contingent to sell only one item at a time. I know, I know . . . this can be very disconcerting, especially around Christmas, but hear me out: each business carries a single item that is one-of-a-kind in the world. One shop, for instance, may sell a single pair of shoes. A lone sequined dress from France might be showcased in the next establishment. The neighboring shop may have only one overcoat for sale.

The whopping price tags reflect their limited edition status. It’s the same for all the shops. There is never a “half-off” sale or Heaven forbid, “Buy-One-Get-One-Free” (the dreaded “Curse of the BOGO”).

Don’t Think You Can Get Away with This

In the past, problems arose when a merchant tried to sell more than one item at a time. This was considered underhanded dealing and poor business practice. It made everyone look bad. Offending parties were severely punished. No one wanted this to get out into the community, because then there would be a boycott. There was a great amount of shame if someone thought they were buying something that was one-of-a-kind in the world, and then found out later it was a false claim.

The snowball fight may have been an offshoot of the Downtown Contingent policing its own ranks. Someone might have gotten out of line, and punishment was merely being meted out in due course.

Soon though, snowballs start shattering windows, never a good sign. A couple of merchants are sprawled on the ground; a few stagger around dazed and confused.

Getting an Earful of Snow is never a Good Thing at 208 MPH

 I hit the deck just as a solo rocket whizzes past. This is getting way too close for comfort. Breathing heavily from my prone position, I looked up with a great deal of trepidation to check if the coast was clear.

And then I realize something . . .

The way they are throwing, they may have unearthed a stockpile of bionic arms.