Along for the ride at Fat Lenny’s punk rock candy shop

ERIE, Pa. — We knew something cool was going to happen before we even stepped into Fat Lenny’s. We knew it because it was called Fat Lenny’s, but also because of the life-sized human-cat mannequin.

Our party had split up at the top of Federal Hill after lunch at the smokehouse and window-shopping at the tattoo shop. Just across from Dapper Dan’s barber shop — “A major key in swagger complimentation” — we snuck into a junk shop — “I’m closed, but you can look around” — and left with a box full of dusty treasures. We had divided when I ran the box back to the car, our good friend and Erie expert Zon in tow.

It had been raining quite purposefully, and was still hazy and drizzling. We were wrapped in jackets even though it was mid-August, and there was one umbrella for the five of us. It wasn’t the day for ice cream, but of course it was the ice cream that drew Melani, Trevor, and little Jilly away down Federal Hill past the high-end vintage store and the taxidermist.

Or maybe it was the cat.

In any case, the cat, the candy, and the ice cream are the lure, and being served by Fat Lenny’s owner Scottie Freeman is the catch of the day. 

He’s a big presence in his bright, little store, with a sharp tie-dyed shirt and a smile like the cat post-canary. He stocks more than sweets; there are tchotkes like superhero bobbleheads, fidget spinners, and Trump toilet paper. There’s a rack of tie-dyed shirts for sale, plus plastic severed hands, and tin signs with messages like, “I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”

San Diego transplant Freeman calls this a punk-rock candy shop, and his eclectic tastes are reflected in the menu: Raspberry Beret sherbet, Dark Side of the Moon ice cream, Help Me Scrape the Mocha Off My Brain.

The rest is pure theatre. Freeman freeze-dries ice cream or soda on a cold plate, adding fruit, Oreos, chocolate sauce — moderation is not a virtue here. That’s right, guys: frozen soda with stuff in it.

The secret ingredient is personality, which Freeman serves on the side.

Freeman put together a Harvey Milk for Zon. “People here don’t even know who he is,” he said with a chuckle. “I’d say, ‘Well, there’s Froot Loops in it …’ but they just look at me blankly.”

Midway through the recipe, two tattooed men from Black Eagle Goods come in, share a few friendly words, leave through the back door. We’d see them again, in the vintage shop up the street, and note the easy way the business-owners on this small funky strip interact with each other.

“I think what is happening is very organic,” Freeman says of the community, later in an email interview. “I have always said ‘like things breed like things’ and as a few of us alternative-type shops moved into the area, it gave rise to the others. I hope I am at least somewhat responsible for that but certainly not solely.”

He also owns the Hippie and the Hound vape shop on the street.

He grants that his upbringing as the youngest of six children with a single mom helped nurture his entrepreneurial spirit.

“Mom was often working and so if I wanted something to eat other than cereal when I got home from school, I was on my own, so I watched and learned and did what was needed.

“I did many things to make money, from mowing lawns to collecting pop bottles to even catching tarantulas for a guy making paperweights. And while I have not always been my own boss I seem to have always been trying.

“I do things I want to do and what brings me joy, and hope others come along for the ride.”


Randyland: A peaceful excursion in Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets

PITTSBURGH — The unique art space The Mattress Factory was already there, and so was the Andy Warhol Museum, so Randy Gilson didn’t exactly step into a void when he bought a dilapidated old home in the Mexican War Streets and transformed it into Randyland.

The neighbourhood, designed by a war-monger-turned-land-speculator in the 1840s and annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907, was run down when Gilson arrived around 30 years ago and started putting wine barrels planters in front of abandoned homes in the area.

The waiter didn’t have the money to fully renovate his new house, but was a seasoned recycler and reuser and had a giant imagination. He used recycled paint to spruce up the outside of the home, which soon became a neighbourhood project as people started pitching in, he says on his website.

The courtyard of Gilson’s home is open year-round to visitors who can admire the murals and wonder at the found items planted here and there while their children build and make discoveries of their own in a giant sand pile.

In explaining on his website why he shares his yard so freely, he cites his mother, who raised six children on her own, sometimes without a home of their own: “While struggling, she taught us that no matter how many people are ahead of you, there are tenfold behind you and that we have to embrace that.”

Randyland is at 1501 Arch St. in Pittsburgh.

Ray’s Hill Tunnel and its abandoned Pennsylvania turnpike

BREEZEWOOD, Pa. — I had driven through the night, fueled by coffee and restored by an hour-long nap at a “unique area” in New York.

I had detoured us to a long, beautiful concrete rail bridge — “but not if it’s, like, 20 minutes out of the way,” I promised before leading us astray us for more than half an hour. My god it was lovely, though.

Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.
Built by the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the Tunkhannock Viaduct was in 1915 the longest concrete structure in the world. It has 11 piers and pale, smooth arches.

And so it wasn’t dawn when we finally parked at the mouth of the abandoned turnpike, as I had hoped. It was after four in the afternoon.

Also, it had just started to rain.

There are so many tunnels in Pennsylvania. They pierce coal-filled mountains and have romantic names like Friendship and Hickory, Allegheny and Big Savage, Shoofly, and this — Ray’s Hill. The rail tunnel was completed in 1885, and converted to highway by 1940. But it’s narrow and long and dark, and with two-way traffic, cars had to slow so much some of the first of America’s bottlenecks happened here.

We started along the pockmarked, overgrown roadway with the hoods of our raincoats pulled up and our hands in our pockets. It was unseasonably chilly and the landscape was shades of brown and gray with green pressing its nose against the door trying to be noticed.

This is no graffiti highway like in Centralia, though a few bored souls have made an attempt along the road. It was vacant but for a couple of give-no-shits brown rabbits.

The rumble strips were full of clear rainwater and the paint that edged the highway was slick with damp. We pressed on through the tunnel was a vague promise — we trusted it was there, but the road kept curving and we weren’t sure how far we’d gone, nor how far we had to go.

Pennsylvania traffic jams became such an issue the state commissioned $100 million to study and fix the problem. Other tunnels in the area were twinned, including the several we would drive through on our journey to Pittsburgh: Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora. But Ray’s Tunnel and its mate Sideling several miles down the road didn’t make the cut.

A new turnpike went around them and they were abandoned at the end of the 1960s, then used for a time to train snowplow drivers and test road paint and safety reflectors.

We walked about three kilometres in the rain before we were finally rewarded with the hazy outline of Ray’s Hill Tunnel.

It is deep and dark and echoes more truly than the mountains at Roger’s Pass. The doors to the control rooms are nailed shut, but have been pried apart. One can look inside, or climb the side of the tunnel to gain entry from above; while we were there, tiptoeing through the darkness using our phones as flashlights, there were a couple of souls above us, shining their lights down to try to frighten us.

The rain stopped and the far end of the tunnel was a tempting bright spot the size of a fingernail. It’s an optical illusion, my research had suggested. It’s a long, dark walk to the other side. We went about halfway, sometimes whispering, sometimes yelling, before turning back, sidestepping open manholes with rusty ladders leading the gods only know where.

Nothing left but echoes.

Walking the abandoned rail bridge of North Anson

Sometimes you have to put off spontaneity.

Like the time I rounded a corner and there was the most amazing rocky river and around the next bend was an overgrown, abandoned rail bridge.

The timing was off and there was no way we could stop, but that damn bridge wouldn’t leave my head. The next morning at our Airbnb, which we’d made a disaster of dishes and laundry, Melani did one of those things that keeps us together after so many years: She gave me a pass and told Trevor and I to go find that damn bridge.

We knew it was about 20 minutes back up the road, but we couldn’t remember exactly where. Our perspective was off, nothing looked right, and we knew for sure we’d gone too far when we came to the community hall in Anson.

We turned the car around and tried to jump-start our brains: “Remember there were those antique cars for sale? Did we pass those?”

“Oh, there’s the ‘Blind Person Ahead’ sign. I remember seeing that last night and thinking, ‘Damn, I hope he hears us coming’.”

carrabassett river north anson

Then there it was. The Carrabassett River was smooth and glassy on one side of the highway bridge, but showed a completely different face when approached from the south. Fast-running water rushed over hundreds of small boulders, sounding like static and looking like oblivion, pooling in basins that were deceptively calm. And there — crossing this menacing, narrow river — were symmetrical rusty lines against the bluest sky.

We pulled off the road directly across from the mouth of the bridge. There used to be rail where I parked the truck, but it was paved over sometime in the late ’70s, when the bridge was abandoned.

Beyond the static of the river below, the town was Sunday-morning silent. We stepped onto rail, and bounced lightly on a couple of the crossties. They were dark and veined and gave slightly under our weight. There were places farther ahead where plywood was nailed over ties to cover spots where it was rotted through.

north anson rail bridge2

Before this iron span was built, there was a covered rail bridge here, erected in 1888. There are marvelous pictures of it, and more modern ones, in a book by the Anson Bicentennial Committee. That bridge, not as impressive as this beast, was tough enough to withstand a tornado, if a letter to the editor in an 1890 edition of Engineering News is to be believed. Mr. Thompson referred to peculiarities in the bridge’s architecture and noted that iron plates on the structure had slipped.

“After the storm,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “the ends of each span were in place but their centers had been sprung about 18ins out of line so that the track formed a series of reverse curves while the top of the bridge roof and all was tipped so that the trusses were at least 4 ft out of plumb.” However, damage was quickly repaired and trains were running the next day.

On our clear day, we started a slow unsteady walk across. Trevor kept to the centre, close to the rail, while I walked on the outside edge because I could see thick reinforcement beams under the ties. The wood was spongy and invited caution.

rail spike

This bridge was built 109 years ago. The Somerset, Maine Central, and Pan Am railroads carried lumber, agricultural goods and people over the Carrabassett to the end of the line here at North Anson.

Locomotives that had roared across the track upon which we walked so gingerly were named things like Black Dinah, Moxie, and Bombazeen.

Just past the halfway point was a strange metal beast we have since learned is a buffer stop, meant to prevent locomotives from rolling farther down the end of the track. It wouldn’t stop more than ghost trains now, but it stood at attention, cool metal under a hot sun, unshaded at the centre of the bridge where even the most hardy of weeds haven’t ventured yet. Past that was the high bank of the Carrabassett and more rail, so overgrown we lost our footing more than once as we peered through the brush back over the bridge and ran our fingers over the rusted dates on a switch to the side of the track.

north anson rail switch

We were steadier on our trip back, and bold enough to venture under the bridge, where we found the water wasn’t as scary as it sounded or looked from above, and where Trevor discovered a rope attached to the ties above.

“Mom. Mom mom mom. Mom.” Back when he was little, this used to drive me nuts. “Mom has one syllable. Don’t waste all that breath.” I don’t mind so much any more. “Mom mom mom. Let’s swing on it.”

I gave him that look and he, eventually, let it go, and hardly laughed at me at all when I halfway fell into the river anyway.

somerset railway north anson

Tantramar FM hosts a community over radio waves

The word eclectic is in their mission statement, so it’s no wonder I got a kick out of Tantramar FM.

The sign on the side of their building caught my eye as we drove through Amherst on our first day in the area. I like to know what’s up with local news and weather, so I flipped the truck radio to 107.9 FM, and it stayed there — and on the cottage radio — for a week.

The characters on the radio became my new friends, surprising me with classic rock on the way to the beach, hillbilly tunes while preparing dinner, then a little light jazz over cocktails (by “cocktails,” you understand, I mean a local beer while I barbecued). I was by turns bemused, taken aback, and reduced to delighted giggles.

CFTA 107.9 FM became such a fun part of our trip that Trevor and I stopped to take pictures of the building on our way out of town.

Trev urged me to go inside to talk to them, but I was, as always, overcome with shyness. The best I could do was tell a guy standing outside the station that I was just a fan of the station and not being creepy wandering around taking pictures. I felt kind of creepy, though, so I took some shoddy, badly framed pictures and dodged back to the car. I had just started pulling away when he came up to the driver’s side window.

“You want to come in?” he asked with a giant Nova Scotia smile. “I could give you a little tour if you wanted. Yeah, just park that car again and come on in.”

His name was Mike. He had eyes the colour of the sky just after the clouds clear, and he was wearing a tweed newsboy cap and white button-down shirt. He had the barest of Maritime accents and was clearly passionate about music. Though he’d sounded almost dismissive when I’d asked if he worked here, it became clear within seconds that the station is a big part of his life. He turned on tour-guide mode, waving broadly at the vinyl-sided building.

“This was originally a Dairy Queen,” he began. “Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then for a long time it was a restaurant — you can see part of a sign right there — and back then it was just one storey. We built on the extra floor just really recently. We have all the windows and doors open right now to get some air through, so we might have to be real quiet when we go in.”

He led us confidently inside and introduced us to the ladies at the front desk before ushering us toward the sound booth. He never stopped giving us information and anecdotes, though in hushed tones, and pointed to screens in the sound booth to explain how the announcer knew he had two minutes and eight seconds before he was back on air.

amherst cfta tantramar fm stage

“There’s an antique bingo machine,” he said, pointing into another small sound booth. “That’s for radio bingo.” Then through to a recording studio and two other little rooms, one for archiving, and the tour of the lower floor was almost done. As he led us back down the hallway, he tapped the red light outside the main sound booth.

“That thing goes on when he’s on air,” he said. “We’ve been wanting one of those outside the washroom, too.”

Mike got more excited as he took us upstairs. He’d helped build this extension and he was clearly proud. It was clean and open and bright up there, with a large rectangular table under a wall painted with “Music is life. That’s why our hearts have beats.” The small green stage on the street end of the extension came from their old building, and it looked like it was dusted with the sounds of a thousand stories.

I think Mike would have told us half those stories if he’d known where to start.

One of the first nights we listened, I was enchanted by an announcer who had a personal connection with every song he introduced: “And this one is by a close personal friend who played often throughout …” and “This was recorded by so-and-so, who also played with my friend such-and-such …”

CFTA’s head of sales, Beverlee Estabrooks, told me over the phone that it was probably Wilson Moore (“He breathes bluegrass”) or Randy Geddes, who just bought a church where local bands can play. His son’s part of the music scene, too, Bev told me.

We listened to a wonderful and strange travel show recorded while the hosts were on the road. Knowing dead air is death for radio, the hosts did their best to narrate during a slow drive through Minudie: “Oh, look over there. A Saint-Bernard is pooping on the grass.” We weren’t able to squeeze in a trip to Minudie despite the sights.

I grinned every time I heard my favourite signoff, which came at the end of the weather and tide reports: “It’s 2:36 in Amherst. If you’re listening on the Internet, I don’t know what time it is, because I don’t know where you are.”

Tantramar FM is just five years old, but was the result of five years of planning. During a major ice storm, Bev said, a former announcer from another local station tuned in to find out what was going on and what sort of services he could get. But that station was fully automated, leaving him quite literally cold. He and two colleagues set out soon after to start a truly community radio station that would broadcast important information during power outages, storms and other emergencies.

The rest of the time “we just have a lot of fun,” Bev said.

There are only four employees, so volunteers fill 60 hours of on-air time. “You think about the couple of hours they put in at home before they even get in here,” she said proudly. “They’re the inside heart of it.”

The station is non-profit and teams up as often as it can with church groups, the cadets, Lions, local artisans, and other groups. It extends its to hand to community members who want to try out radio to see how it fits. Some record at home, others come in to test-drive the recording studio. A group of students is working hard on a series of ghost stories, Bev said, that will include the mystery of Esther Cox — a story I was going to tell you. But I’ll wait and leave it to the kids.

It’s 12:44 p.m. where I’m at. If you’re reading this on the Internet, I don’t know what time it is, because I don’t know where you are.

If you have a photo from when the building was a Dairy Queen, I’d love to see it. You can shoot me an email at

Intercolonial: The railroad that was almost a jewel in the Crown

I’m keen on the railroad, I tell people who ask, because of its role in building Canada, especially here, where Confederation could not have happened without this track being laid.

But it’s more than national pride. It’s a matter of personal history and more than 40 years of stories that touch rail to one degree or another.

I think of riding the train cross-country as an eight-year-old, with a new doll with a plastic head and plush pink body. She had a cord on the back — pull it and her head moved and body wriggled like a real baby.

As older teenagers, Melani and I boxed up our bicycles and took the overnight train to Moncton — the Hub City that is the end of the line and as far as you can go by rail if your destination is Prince Edward Island.

As a 24-year-old, this time with a real baby, four-month-old Trevor, and a deep desire to show him to spread-out family, and introduce him to the most beautiful land I know. Half a year later, he would learn to walk on a train, headed home from the Maritimes again on the Ocean, which was named here as a line on the Intercolonial Railway.

amherst nova scotia rail

Amherst, long a shipbuilding centre and home to four fathers of Confederation, was not built by the railroad, as many Canadian towns were. Yet it owes much of its growth to that technology.

Source: Public Domain,
Source: Public Domain,

The Intercolonial Railway was dreamed up around 1840. It would be a road linking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — isolated by land, sea, and  a sliver of Maine — with the Province of Canada, then just Quebec and Ontario. Such a road would take a northern route, smoothing the transport of military supplies in case relations heated with the Americans again, as they had in 1812, and respecting the United States Act during the U.S. Civil War.

In theory it was a genius plan. But it was also a rich plan, and who on earth could pay for it? The four regions started laying track separately and hopefully, waiting for a solution to materialize.

That solution was Confederation itself, with the building of the Intercolonial Railway being inscribed as condition of the union of this eastern half of what is now Canada. It thus became the first major Crown corporation and the biggest infrastructure and transport project of its time.

amherst rail switch

There is debate over the reasons the Intercolonial wiggled and wound its way through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: Was it to bring the railroad to logging communities and more effectively avoid the United States and their just-ended Civil War, or was it a sign of corruption, and the towns’ foresight in wanting track through their blooming towns?

Whether politically motivated or through the intelligent design of chief engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, a wooden train station was built in Amherst to accommodate the opening of the grand project, which boasted the best quality construction with raised rail beds and iron bridges. It was 1,100 kilometres long when it was deemed ready to roll in the mid-1870s.

The Canadian Guide Book in 1891 gushed, “It is a government road, admirably built and equipped, and most moderate in its charges. It runs through some of the best fishing and shooting districts of the continent and some very beautiful landscapes.”

Amherst was a boom town with the world at its feet. It replaced its little wooden train station with the lovely red sandstone building that stands today, a glory of local supplies and craftsmanship.

All good things come with a price, and for Amherst that marker was called in 1910, when its beautiful station was still fresh stone. The nation experienced a downturn, and of course those are always felt more heavily in the Maritimes. Nine years later, workers called a general strike over worsening conditions and in solidarity with the great strike in Winnipeg at that time.

amherst nova scotia mural

The Intercolonial, which in its prime had swallowed the Grand Trunk Railway, was in turn swallowed by the Canadian National Railway. The tracks were eventually turned over to passenger service Via Rail, which uses them to this day.

But the station is shuttered. Its whitewashed beams show signs of dirt as they must have when steam trains were the most heavily seen traffic. It’s a stop on the route inland, but there is no glory here except in the whisper of ghosts and the imaginings of a train whistle heralding prosperity, so very very long ago.

amherst train station inside
Further reading:
North America Railways Hall of Fame
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Historical map of the Intercolonial Railway