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.”

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Skin and bones: How Mad Anthony was twice buried

ERIE, Pa.
Pennsylvania loves its war heroes. Oliver Hazard Perry, Alexander Kelly, Nicolas Biddle, dozens of others.

But only one of them had his bones boiled for transport: Mad Anthony Wayne.

mad-anthony-wayne-blockhouse

He wasn’t mad, though, at least not in the Ophelia sense of the word. He just liked things a certain way and had fits of temper when he was defied.

Mad Anthony, who started out as a tanner and land surveyor, was only moderately successful as a commander during the American Revolution. He even called for his own court martial, to clear his name after an especially poor showing at the battle of Brandywine in 1777. Once the war was over, he was set to killing Indians and then signing peace treaties with them. He excelled at this, proving that the word “hero” can be gravely misused. Yet he’ll be remembered for his nickname and for his death more than for his exploits in the theatre of war.

mad-anthony-wayne-rocking-chair

Gout killed him, eventually and painfully, and he was interred in a brass-tacked box in the shadow of the blockhouse at Fort Presque Isle, near what is now Erie.

His family plot was 650 kilometres away in Radnor, Pa. The family wanted him home, but not, you know, right away. It took them 12 years to come get him.

When the box was opened, much to everyone’s surprise it was discovered Mad Anthony hadn’t had the good sense to decompose, and his son couldn’t fit a whole body and coffin on his little sulkie. So they cut Mad Anthony up and put the pieces in a big old kettle to boil his flesh off. The bones were packed for transport. The flesh was put back in the box in the ground.

It is said that the son dropped bones (accidentally, one assumes) along the route and that Mad Anthony haunts the road to Radnor, looking for the lost parts of himself.

anthony-wayne-memorial-plaque

As though the story weren’t creepy enough, the good folks of Erie have rebuilt the blockhouse (it burned to the ground several years after Mad Anthony’s death) and, as part of their educational display, have posed at the top of the winding, narrow staircase a sickly looking mannequin in a white wig with a jaunty hat nearly falling off the narrow cot. Visitors are welcome to read several informative posters if they can take their eyes off the mannequin.

Although our preschooler was comfortable enough to dance at his bedside, our 20-year-old opted to take the stairs back down and wait for us on the ground floor.

anthony-wayne-blockhouse-erie

A walk in the park: Asbury Woods Nature Center

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

This is our first stop on Road Trip 2015: Destination Tennessee.

asbury woods pa (14)ERIE, Pa. — Our little girl said she wanted to go to the spooky woods.

She’d been watching Into the Woods during the drive, so the request wasn’t completely out of the blue. I mean, I did expect her to be creeped out at first. But I guess I should know her better.

It was hot and the air was thick with storms circling Erie, so we left the choice to the 3-year-old: the children’s museum or the spooky woods. We’ll go to the museum next time.

It was midafternoon when we arrived and the sun was attempting to shine on the little 1980s-style playground. But a couple hundred feet away, the mouth of the trail was dark and gloomy, shades of deep green barely discernible in the dark shadows. Our little girl ran into those woods like she was going home.

asbury woods pa

To my delight, there were other shadows: those of a paper dynasty among the trees, there on the land donated by the Behrend family.

“In an early issue, Mr. (Ernst) Behrend wrote a letter to his employees, and they published it in Polish, Russian, German, English, and other languages just to make sure that he accounted for the different nationalities of his workers,” Penn State reference librarian Jane Ingold is quoted on the Behrend College blog.

Immigrant brothers Ernst, Otto and Bernard were engineers, as were their four sisters. They settled in Erie and promptly opened a paper mill named after their father’s back in Germany: Hammermill.

The Behrends transformed the industry in the early 1900s, becoming the first mill to make writing paper from wood pulp rather than cotton.

Even more revolutionary was the way in which they treated their workers, awarding bonuses and ensuring those who had to leave for health or family reasons would not end up on the street.

Ernst Behrend’s philosophy was “Teach. Don’t boss,” and indeed the entire family was preoccupied with education — their name is associated with many Erie-area learning institutions.

Asbury Farm was Otto’s retreat, a former bog iron mine that he reforested in the 1930s. He bequeathed 100 acres to the school district for educational purposes and his memory was honoured, as the district spent the next 80 years developing learning programs, building a nature centre and expanding into the adjacent Bridge Farm.

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three wheels

Asbury Woods gets three stroller wheels from us (out a completely arbitrary five).

Despite the thunder and rain we walked all 4.5 miles of trails. Though parts of the trail are accessible, there were plenty of bits that required picking our way over roots and fallen trees and skirting around giant puddles.

We saw dozens of snails, a beautiful translucent salamander and various birds on our two-hour walk. The best part was Walnut Creek and the wide pedestrian bridge that spans it. While the water rushes far too fast for swimming, we found a good place for wading and cleaning off our clay-packed feet.

The ghost of the Plaza Theater

ERIE, Pa. — “He’s going in!” I said, scrambling down the snowbank. It was filthy, nearly one storey high, and I’d been up there taking pictures of the old Plaza Theatre. I jumped back into the car and said to Zon in a loud whisper, “I want to go in, too.”

I probably wouldn’t have had the balls if she hadn’t been with me, but I’m very courageous when a friend is leading the way.

Two summers ago I’d stopped in this same place to photograph the Plaza Theatre. This time, I stopped to photograph its ghost. The signage had been stripped, the box office boarded up, the poster board disappeared.

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It was dim inside the 1950s cinema and smelled musty. The contractor I’d watched go inside was leaning against the concession stand, looking perplexed. He didn’t exactly give us the okay to take pictures, but he didn’t run us off. We must have looked a heckuva lot like a lawsuit about to happen, so we didn’t go farther than the front door.

So you’re rebuilding?” Zon asked him.

Oh, no. It’s all coming down.”

Plaza Theater Erie Pa5

A mirrored wall made the lobby seem larger. A Dolby sign on the back wall looked new, though this place shut down just after Christmas in 2008. Big round lights gave it a disco flair.

One of the last movies shown here was Twilight, the contractor told us. Maybe that’s what did it in.

We slipped out as smoothly as we’d slipped in and the door clanged closed behind us. Next time we’re in Erie, even its ghost will have been exorcised.

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Lunch with the dolls at Avalon Restaurant

ERIE, Pa. — The plan was to see the Erie Art Museum exhibit that honoured one of Erie’s favourite sons, Wilbur Adams, an architect, industrial designer and drunk known for dreaming up some pretty slick tractors and some pretty sexy skyscrapers.

But in the end (and thanks to a preschooler who doesn’t really appreciate the whole museum experience yet) I didn’t get to spend a lot of time checking out Adams’s work.

Instead I stumbled after Jilly, stammering when she, while standing in front of some post-apocalyptic dream in oil on canvas, said: “Tell me the story of that picture.” And I ducked in and out of a bizarre tunnel made of squares of pulsating light with an undertone of white noise combined with a whistling that wasn’t quite high enough for only dogs to hear. And I frequently said, “Don’t touch that! Look with your eyes!”

erie art museum

And then, thankfully, I laid my eyes on the Avalon Restaurant.

Now, I love a good diner at the best of times, so imagine my relief when, at one of my worst times (this whole parenting thing is really hard, you know), I stumbled upon this snapshot of diner life lovingly sculpted by dollmaker Lisa Lichtenfels.

Each figure, at one-third of life-size, takes about one month to create. Lichtenfels starts with a wire skeleton and builds on it till she makes it to the nylon body and handpainted eyes, fingernails that are real enough you can imagine them scraping along a chalkboard. In this permanent exhibition, the Erie native has re-created a scene from her time as a (not very good, she admits) waitress.

Lisa Lichtenfels Avalon 1

 

There is a woman in too-small shorts leading her beau to a table in the back. There is an exhausted mom, too tired to stop her son from bothering a customer while her baby sleeps on the table. There is an eager watch salesman who doesn’t look too honest, and a guy farther down the counter who might be a labourer or might have just gotten out of prison. There is a Mennonite man with his daughter and a lady in her housedress overwhelming the entire diner with her big mouth.

Lisa Lichtenfels Avalon 4

And there is the artist herself, having just spilled coffee grounds behind the counter. Dolls in the likeness of her former bosses—a husband-and-wife team that ran the now-closed Avalon beside the Erie bus station—are exasperated, but that’s what they get for hiring an artist anyway.

Lisa Lichtenfels Avalon 2

It’s worth the admission ($5-$7) just to see the Avalon Restaurant tucked away on the second floor. Go without kids and see the rest of the museum, too, including the Adams exhibition (but hurry, because that ends in a couple of weeks). The ExpERIEnce Children’s Museum is just around the corner.

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A relaxing afternoon of guns’n’beer in Erie

floor gun raffleERIE, Pa. — To get to the gun raffle, one drives past the cemetery, through the trailer park and into the abandoned amusement park.

It’s hard to find parking—is every pickup in Pennsylvania here?—but though the air is thick with fog, it’s not too cold or wet for the quick walk to the Rainbow Gardens.

This whole idea, when my good friend Zon invited me to tag along, seemed just crazy enough to be the highlight of my spring. For the rocking low price of $10, one gains entry to this giant community event held in a building large enough to host a 4H competition. You also get all the sausages, ox roast, chips and beer you can consume and the chance to win one of 20 shiny new guns, from a Remington 700 SPS Stainless 270 cal. to a Mossberg 835 ulti-mag 3 1/2” camo.

Those chances not good enough for you? There were ladies weaving among the long tables with tickets for floor guns, three for $5. Fill one of the holiday-themed pitchers with frothy beer from one of the dozens of kegs and you didn’t have to leave your seat for hours at a time.

The main prize winners had names out of comic books: Mike Fails, Tom McFate, Danny Kay.

Most of the men had beards, and not in that ironic, hipster way. Half of them were wearing plaid, most were sporting ball caps with the bill perfectly rounded and worn right way forward. The women at first glance fell into two categories: those who were trying really hard and those who were not. I only saw one mullet—but the guy who committed it also had frosted tips.

“You ever shoot trap?” asked Gene, the guy sitting across from us at the long, wobbly table. He was wearing a blue t-shirt under red plaid that was soft and slightly fuzzed from years of use. He had short grey hair and large square glasses and rough wrinkled skin that was used to the outdoors. He didn’t need another gun for home defence, he told us, but was on the lookout for something he could hunt with.

Zon said no, she didn’t shoot trap, and he asked what she needed a gun for. We were tourists at this gun raffle—that much was pretty obvious (and therefore probably a blessing that we didn’t win anything). She admitted to him that she couldn’t ever hurt an animal.

“You don’t need to shoot ’em,” he laughed, miming shooting into the air with his three-fingered right hand. “You just need to scare ’em.”

waldameer park rainbow gardens