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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Berkshire Beat

The Berkshire Beat
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

A weekend in the Western Massachusetts wilds. A cheap hotel rate. Some freebies thrown in. The offer hit all my hot buttons. It was on.

I picked up my 10-year-old, Phillip, from his elementary school, we collected a few things from our Fairfield, CT beachside home and we pointed ourselves in the direction of the Pittsfield, MA Crowne Plaza.

Unfortunately, it being a Friday afternoon, we soon found ourselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic and so bailed to an American Steakhouse in West Haven to wait things out and have a quick, value-laden, buffet style meal.

Once we got in the groove, crossed the state line and connected with 90 West, the landscape really started to transform. Rest stops and strip malls gave way to lush woods, mountain scapes and a low setting sun blazing in front of us.

Exit 2 was our Pittsfield portal and opened up yet another new door to us, of quaint church steeples, neatly tapered properties and classic New England style scenes. An ice cream stand popped up on our radar and we steered in. Lucky’s Ice Cream & Grille connected us with some tasty soft serve that sweetened our arrival at the hotel. 

A new, mostly brick structure on West Street with 12 floors, the Crowne Plaza was inviting and front desk clerk Amy congenial. Our room was standard with two double beds and a sliver of a view of city and rolling hills beyond. It would definitely do. We watched the boob tube a while together and, though sleepy, I got the itch to see what P-town was all about.

The Underground Pub, which was featuring karaoke tonight, was a first visit. Flashing i.d. to a security person set up by the entrance, I ambled into the cozy quarters. Sure enough, there was a mic stand at the head of the room and DJ at the ready to spin tunes and operate the prompter.

I like to try the local suds when I can and ordered a BBC Porter (from South Deerfield, MA-based Berkshire Brewing Co.) from the bartenderette. It was brown and quickly went down, initiating my night in town. Coincidentally, I met at that moment a bubbly, denim-clad lass who was to become my tour guide for the evening.

Debbie, who later acquired the nickname “Debbie Doe”, tried some of the libation, noting its finish: “It tastes like honey, honey.” This sense of humor accented further conversation as I nestled into a table with her and her fellow compatriots Connie (“Den Mom”), smiley tolerant Christa, Connie’s adorable 26-year-old daughter Callie and Callie’s pal Robin. None of the group was performing but was more of a judging panel of The Free, The Brave, The Tipsy and The Off-Key who warbled and wiggled and maybe wished they hadn’t mounted the mic. It was American Idol Underground-style playing out in up-close Technicolor.

We watched “contestants” come and go with the most impressive of the batch being the bartender that had slid me my Porter. She had some pipes -- heads around us nodded in agreement. Even the blonde (with the concrete orbs for boobs) shooting pool with the fellahs at the back of the room couldn’t help but agree.

It was Moving Along Time and I became a recruit in the DD caravan, headed to Friends on Seymour in East Pittsfield. Connie’s silver minivan, with an orthopedic cushion (long story) and snowbrush (“the snow just melted last week!”) in the back, became our steed. 

The bar was aptly named given our fledgling union. Unfortunately, it was past midnight, “the bahs close early” and the place was already at capacity with more folks waiting to get in. We navigated out of the crater-pocked parking lot and motored to a nearby sports bar.

This cheery nightspot had lots of wall bric-a-brac at which to look, even though much of it was Boston team oriented (said this Yankees fan!”) – jerseys, photos, clippings, etc.

An elder man, apparently a former teacher, wandered over and introduced himself as “Jinks”. He was a real character, with a joke, line, reference or story on just about any topic. There was still ample spring in his step, he liked the nightlife and was an observer of the human condition like me. “My Lentian vow was to make it to Last Call forty nights in a row!” he exclaimed.

I found the men’s room amusing, with cartoon clippings pinned up in a glass case. There were two big posters of provocatively posed blondes as well which I felt compelled to show to our table group, almost like I was leading a tour. The only thing the ladies had to look at in their restroom was George Castanza from “Seinfeld”. 

Jinks let us know he was heading to another joint. Christa was out at this point but Connie and D were still up to push on.  I have to say the place looked sketchy, with some old exterior shingling, and even dodgier inside. Sales were cash only and we managed to get one round of domestic beer before a big galoot began calling out, “Last call! Time to go!” He continued to hammer that one at us while the subtle-looking owner took a more amicable approach and made personal, individual pleas.

I was getting a diner food urge, and Connie and D thought they could help with that. We pulled up at a place on Wahconah Street called Adrien’s Diner, “Famous for breakfast” since 1957, in front of which were parked three police cars. In fact, a couple of foot patrolmen were positioned right outside as well, one of who was D’s cousin. I wondered what we were getting into but, as ever, went along for the ride, figuratively and literally.

We joined five people lined up in a narrow entryway, which afforded partial views inside. The rough-hewn eatery was mobbed, so we thought we would harass diners a little to motivate them to vacate. As such, we pressed our faces (and other body parts) against the window, which drove uproarious laughter from within. 

When we finally got our opening, we picked up a tablemate, Pam. Though a deep-voiced, big-boned blonde, she had a tender soul and sensitive side, sporting a tattoo of a butterfly on her chest dedicated to her recently deceased dad.

At a counter seat near us, a woman with multi-colored hair was noshing an omelet and a broccoli floret went AWOL, falling to the floor. Her meal was about a $20 value – a deluxe – and I joked to her boyfriend beside her, “She’s high maintenance. That lost broccoli was about $5!” He nodded in agreement.

That was the punctuation mark on this first night’s outing and I was duly deposited back at the hotel.

Phil wanted to hit the hotel breakfast joint, One West, so we dressed and dropped downstairs to the main level. A coupon that desk clerk Amy had provided covered Phil’s buffet fare – I made do with coffee and water. Then we stepped into the adjacent glass-domed pool area and dropped right into the water.

As we frolicked, other arisers trickled in – first Bill and Brooke, from eastern Long Island. I had seen Brooke singing karaoke and goofily shimmying in a long flowery dress at the Underground last night. Bill’s sister was marrying today, with the dinner and reception to be held here at the hotel. Behind them followed Bill’s Huntington Beach, CA-stationed brother Zach and Zach’s very pleasant girlfriend Emma.  Like shumai steaming in a pot, we all sat in the hot tub on the sun deck and spoke of the resilience, endurance and unity of Americans during times of national crisis. Such profundity at such an early hour!

We had a noon appointment to keep with the Oak ‘N Spruce Resort in S. Lee. Really, a scheduled tour and discussion about timeshare options was our true reason for being up in the region. Without further ado, we cleaned up and motored the 13 or so miles to the facility. We were not alone – literally about 100 people from points all over the tri-state region were gathered here and consulting with resort reps. The “bennie” for us was some gifts and, who knows, maybe we’d find we like these digs and would want to buy in.

Due to the abundance of people visiting, the tour schedule was jammed. We were pushed into hyper tour mode, expressed through the system and were soon receiving our very generous gift set -- $40 gas card, $25 Arizona Pizza certificate, $40 AMEX card, two round trip plane tix to Vegas plus two nights accommodations in the casino capital.

We decided to use the Arizona giftie tout suite and b-lined back into Lee. Our server, Nick, brought us a Sun City Classic White pizza that hit the spot and, for me at least, was chased with a BBC Steel Rail, golden as today’s sun which poured through slatted windows facing 20 East. 

With a to-go box in tow, we grabbed cash and moved along to stroll the lower half of Lee’s Main Street. The thoroughfare was anchored by a red brick municipal building and tall, white-steepled church and dotted with antique shops, a barbershop and a few eateries.

One very notable stop was Cakewalk Bakery where Phil and I turned in for coffee. Owned by husband/wife team Brian and Verena Smith, the place had an international flavor to it. This was in part due to Verena’s southwest Germany roots, light-eyed Ecuadorian counter help Maite (pron. My-Tay) and a Gypsy Kings CD playing on the PA system. The Smiths met 11 years ago after Verena emigrated to the U.S. and while they were both working at the Mayflower Inn in Washington, CT. They relocated to Santa Barbara, CA, and then u-turned back to Lee, opening Cakewalk five years ago. As a parting gesture, Verena handed me a brown paper bag saying, “I want to send you off with our most famous pastry.” The bag contained what looked like a muffin, but with a sugary exterior. It was light, flaky and heavenly.

From Lee, we started heading back north, seeing a line-up of cars and fishermen along the lip of shimmering Lake Laurel. We pulled up beside George, a jovial, beer-bellied soul held together with suspenders, and his shorthaired blonde wife. Both had dropped lines into this body of water and were monitoring them.

“What are you trying to catch?” I asked.

“Fish,” George joked.

I asked about the types of fish that called this water home. “Trout. Brown trout, some the length of my arm. Lake salmon, going on 15 pounds.”  He added, “We like it here. We can pull right up.” His wife chimed in, “Last time I was here, it was so cold I sat in the car the whole time, but we were still fishing.”

“Isn’t that cheating?” I asked, jokingly. 

George replied, “Well, I ice fish, too, so there’s a balance.”

As to the finer points of the fishing here, George uses Berkley PowerBait Trout Bait – like clay or putty and pink, which is molded to the hook and floats. While fishing licenses in the state are expensive, kids up to the age of 12 can fish free.

Looking for a landscape company on the far side of Pittsfield from which to purchase a trailer for hauling stuff, we stumbled across a few interesting sites: Dunking Doggies dog-washing service on 20E advertised “Dirty Dogs Done Dirt Cheap”, a point to rock band AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds…” song. V’s promoted another type of soap and wash, for autos, for the right price of $2.50. We conceded.

Creeping back into Pittsfield, I recognized some of last night’s “Crime” scenes but also noted others that hadn’t been as apparent: Historic Waconah Park “featuring organized baseball since 1892, Tahiti Take-Out, Pepe’s advertising “Mexican Tacos and Latin Dancing” and Paul’s Restaurant which I recall referring to as Raul’s during Friday night’s outing. There was a Polish tinge here, too, as the Polish Community Club and Oboyski’s (for real?) illustrated. 

The neon sign for Lantern Bar & Grill on North Street was alluring. Inside, proprietor Mark was getting ready to serve up tasty burgers. Up the road, the West Side Clock Shop had to contain the greatest number of clocks I’ve ever seen in one place – none digital, all unique, many cuckoos, and even one that plays a Beatles tune. Phil was eyeing a Birdhouse Alarm Clock, which tweets like a bird in lieu of a buzzing or ringing alarm, and we decided to give it a good home.

Said shop owner Aldo Battaini, “There are people that have been living here for years that don’t know we’re here.” The TODAY Show helped correct that recently, doing a televised piece on the place.

At Phil’s pleading, we returned to the hotel and reported to the pool. The pool area was certainly toasty, and crowded with families. I decided to sit out on a patio and see the sun drop in the sky. There, I met a couple sitters of kids attending the aforementioned wedding, wedding guest themselves (including Bill, Zach, Emma and Brooke) and a lovely dark-haired Francophile named Louise.

The latter, I discovered, when she came to sit beside me wrapped in a towel, is an exchange student attending a high school in Boston. She pulled on a cigarette as I stumbled through some of my French vocabulary. In the process, I further learned her forte is “musique”, specifically piano and guitar.

Phil and I grew hungry again and the easiest thing to do seemed to be to hit the lounge adjacent to the pool. While enjoying very tasty dinner fare pegged at just $5, I got to gabbing with two ladies at the next table who had similar taste as me in beer and food. The topline was Nancy and Cheryl (Tripp-Cleveland) have been friends for 30+ years and were planning to attend a “Beatlemania Again” performance at the Colonial Theatre this very night on nearby South Street. The nitty gritty is that Nancy’s from Stockbridge and Cheryl’s from Pittsfield, and Cheryl conducts a show called “The Berkshire Connection” on WBRK Star 101.7 FM radio. She’s also the VP and Promotions Director of the station – and a huge Beatles fan. She related to us how on August 18, 1966, traveling from Lee in a new VW micro mini bus with family and friends, she attended a Beatles concert at what was then Suffolk Downs racetrack in Boston. Since then, she celebrates lead singer Paul McCartney’s birthday every year.

Coincidentally, a member of another musical group with storied roots, Quarry, strolled in and settled into a corner table with about eight other folks, a mix of older bikers and their children. Notably, on the back of one of their jackets was stitched the phrase, “LIVE TO RIDE, RIDE TO LIVE”. Mick Valenti was the band member, about who Cheryl said he had played as a side band at Woodstock. The story intrigued me, so, after the ladies departed for the show, I strolled over and introduced myself.

Mick, dressed in a black leather hat, black MC jacket, black pants, slip-on boots and black sunglasses, said it was their manager, Barry Hollister, that heard about Woodstock in the trades. At the time, Mick, born and bred in Pittsfield, was living in New Jersey and doing gigs in New York City. The band loaded up its equipment in their van and arrived three days before the actual concert start. Just the roadies were there setting up stages and what not, though concert attendees had started to arrive as well and wanted to hear some music. A makeshift “free side stage” with gas-operated generator was erected and Quarry “played the first notes at Woodstock.” As they played every day and every night, they also performed “the most music at Woodstock.” Following that appearance, the band was invited down to a concert series in Texas, then by Grateful Dead founder Jerry Garcia out to the “Deadquarters” in San Diego. Another band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, was also there and debuted locally. Mick attended the initial show and actually took over as drummer when the Sage’s own Mickey Hart passed out! 

It was a great tale and I thanked Mick as his friends started to file out. To one, he said, “Don’t do anything illegal.” The reply: “It’s only illegal if you get caught!”

Post-Mick, I deposited Phil in the room and beat it to the pavement, to pad east on North Street to see what I could see. 

Brew Works beckoned from a side street and in the Bier Hall deep in its bowels, a jangling band set a lively group toe-tapping, two-stepping, dart-lobbing and, of course, brew sampling. Coffee porters, seductive stouts, lovely lagers. They had them all, but sadly, according to a press release, good times would stop rolling here soon. The proprietors, the Heatons, had decided not to renew their lease and would be dealing direct to retail from here on in. Defiantly, a sign chalked behind the band informed: “Wine is wisdom. Beer is knowledge. Water contains bacteria. – Ben Franklin.”

On the beat again, I found the fancy Jae’s Spice holding rapt a small gaggle of goggle-eyed socialites reviewing issues over scotch. Oddly, the tastefully decorated place with its oversized, auction house-caliber posters flowed directly into The Press Box. There, DJ-directed house music beats thump thumped while empty heads wrestled with tangerine-colored cocktails and were courted by hoods with hats. I paused for a moment to survey the scene and remarked to the guy next to me that things seemed pretty sedate for a Saturday.

“People don’t go out until 11:30,” he said, to which I replied, “But don’t the bars close at 1?” He nodded yes. I guessed that you better hit the right place first or you’re done. “Usually I just stay home,” my seatmate confessed. The place was fouling my hopeful mood.

Flickering candles drew me into M: Mission, a tapas bar where none other than Jinks was roosting. I veered to a high wooden table occupied by a local group and mentioned that I had been touring Pittsfield. “Welcome to Hell,” said Stacy (spelled this way, she said, “NOT with an ‘ey’ or an ‘ie’ with a heart in place of the dot over the ‘y’), an attractive, quirky blonde. I also said I’d been to The Press Box, about which she said, “Playboy Bunny meets thug life.” As to Pittsfield’s overall composition, Ben, the guy beside her said, “Church. Church. Church. Bar. Bar. Bank.” I also remarked about sighting the blue-haired woman at Adrien’s Diner: “Die hair blue, leave a food trail down the front of your shirt – it’s how you find a husband around here.”

I said a quick hello to Jinks then hotfooted it back along North toward the hotel and Patrick’s Pub. Mostly an eatery at this point in the night versus a bar scene, Patrick’s was chock full of good folks with hearty appetites and Beatlemania attendees fresh from the show. I needed the timeout so stayed for a turkey club and visited with the green-shirted waitresses busy closing down and ringing out for the night.

“You were snoring loud as a cow last night,” my son informed me upon waking. “Sorry, bud,” I said, getting up to look out the hotel window and assess the day. Overcast… and it had rained.

One West restaurant in our hotel was calling us to its breakfast trough and we heeded the bugling. In the hallway entry, a series of photos caught our eye. These were snapped by Great Barrington freelance photographer Stephen Donaldson. They were beautiful shots of the region, depicting farms, mountains, churches. Some were so perfect, they looked surreal. Very bright and vibrant.

Providing as warm a greeting was bubbly Polish-bred Jola. “Are you our waitress?” I inquired. “I’m your waitress, your hostess, your busser… everything,” she quipped. 

We collected our breakfast – eggs, spicy sausage, sautéed potatoes, etc. – and, in the process, noticed televised news about tornadoes that had whipped through Alabama and Mississippi, taking 10 lives. We saw ripped-open roofs and twisted wreckage, in sharp contrast to Donaldson’s serene photos.

Usual suspects started to roll in, led by Bill and Brooke. They looked surprisingly well rested despite yesterday’s wedding activities, but only because they began celebrating earlier and knocked off earlier.

A middle-aged foursome of other wedding-ites showed. They were from Long Island and Jersey and Manhattan. I learned that Bill’s mom lives in South Dakota, an often God-forsaken place I thought judging from its history of misfortune. But there was a connection to the state in that the family is descended from the Fords of automaking legend and also from General Custer.

One of the foursome piped up with his own reference to SD saying that he’d been to “Hot Springs or Big Springs” to a “pit in which all these wooly mammoths had fallen and died… I was a volunteer on an archaeological dig. It was really cool.”

More crew members rolled in, one wearing a STAY THIRSTY t-shirt. The Sedona, AZ resident explained it’s the slogan of a friend’s org set up to raise funds for children with bipolar disorders and refers to keeping after and chasing your dreams… always a good message and my new mantra for the day!

I asked B & B if I would see them at the pool but they said they were checking out. More so, they were flying to Mexico for a mini-honeymoon in the Playa del Carmen area. On their agenda was a scuba excursion to see underground caves and stalagmites.

I asked Jola for more sugar and she brought seven packets. “Seven’s a lucky number,” I remarked. “Yes,” she agreed, “there are sevens in my birthday – 7/17/72.” Pegging her at 37, I said, “Oh, you’re a youngster.” “I wish!” came the reply.

Phil and I moved to the pool area, now part of our a.m. routine, and dropped right in the hot tub. I noticed the water level rise as our bodies displaced it and remembered what Zach had said about same yesterday a.m. when I was in the hot tub with his group: “The water’s ‘Above Nips.’” We decided there should be other level settings then, including “At Nips”, “Under Nips”, “Nips Full Out” and “Headlights.” It was amusing banter, in contrast to more profound topics that followed. 

When I went to grab a copy of the Sunday Berkshire Eagle, I saw a waitress setting out vases of tulips on the tables in the lounge. “Pretty,” I commented. “Thanks,” she said smiling. I wasn’t sure she thought I was referring to her or the flowers, but imagined either was ok.

It was Going Time, we pulled out of our room, settled up and set out on North Street one last time. It was nearing midday at this point and Angelina’s Subs featured a deal too hard to pass up: Meatball Sub $3.99. Through louver blinds, we could see Harry’s Super Market (since 1914), with its spray-painted murals on its side of notable “North End” moments. 

Pink-haired, pony tailed fry cook Peggy tended to us. She’s been working the spatula here for 11 years and figures she should have been an owner by now.  As I stood at the high counter and she flipped some potatoes for a drive-thru order, I noticed a tattoo of the Pokemon anime character Pikachu on her left ankle. “I love Pikachu. When Pokemon came out, I went to get the tattoo. My kids were like, “Ma, what are you doin’? I took a pair of my nephew’s underwear [with Pikachu on them] to the tattoo parlor. The tattooist must’ve thought I was crazy.”

We took Phil’s BLT sub to go and I think we passed Peggy’s car on the way to ours. Hers was a Dodge Dakota pickup, the body of which had been sprayed flat black and the rims bright blue. As an added accent, there was a SUNOCO Official Fuel of NASCAR bumper sticker on the rear end. 

It was going time for good now and we skedaddled out of the area on 20W/7S, leaving fun, kooky times behind us. Still, though, adjacent areas had a bit more for us to see. That became apparent at Stockbridge. We moored briefly to poke around in the Arts Gift Store full of nostalgic bric-a-brac, then scored a big cookie at Stockbridge General Store. The cookie was personally provided by Chef Crane, who had a tattoo on the underside of her left wrist: “NO REGRETS”, framed with mad flames.

We went looking for a Norman Rockwell Museum, wrong turned and ended up in a hilly area that had some amazing homes fastened to the mountainside – big estates, including one like a French chateau.

We pushed south past mist-shrouded Agawam Lake, woodsy Monument Mountain and on into Great Barrington, pulling hard into the parking lot at Barrington Brewery and Restaurant. Entering the establishment past a “Beer Crossing” sign, I asked about a tour and got a snicker. “That’d be about a dime.” I realized what they meant when I was shown their brewing set-up. It was all – the grain loft, mash tun (where malt is mixed with hot water), brew kettle, fermentation cellar and serving tanks – contained to one tight area. So, really, all that was left to do was taste it.

We climbed up on stools and put ourselves in the capable hands of Bethany the Bartender, “named after my grandmother without being named Bertha, an 800-pound elephant.” We figured the best way to sample would be to try a 3-ounce “shot” of each of nine currently available sensations, placed in “wells” on a wooden serving paddle. Quite coincidentally, the woman we perched beside is the assistant editor of lifestyle-oriented Berkshire Living magazine and maintainer of a beer blog 

The tasting began anon supplemented by a Ploughman’s Lunch of bread, Brie, chutney, salami slices and apple slivers. While enjoying the fare, I prowled around a bit, spying a great quote: “In my opinion, most of the great men of the past were only there for the beer.” – AJP Taylor, British Historian. This was among displays of beer trays, old antique bottles, b&w photos of folks enjoying brews, and coasters of all make and variety. There were also mugs hanging above us that were part of a Mug Club wherein a patron pays $45 to purchase and custom label a mug. This becomes their own personal mug going forward. 

Mementos were necessary and these included my own Beer Crossing sign, stickers, a growler of “Hopland” Pale Ale and four 22-ounce bottles of other tasty libations: a Raspberry Pale Ale, an E.S.B. English Style Ale, “Barrington” Brown Ale and “Black Bear” Stout. 

We made our final escape on 23 East, past Butternut Ski Area, a llama farm, Beartown State Forest, the wee town of Monterey, the Farmington River and assorted cows, horses and farms to Route 8, our mainline back home. We had reached the bottom of the bottle of grog that had been our 3-day visit to the Berkshires.