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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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.

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

For one day, Knoebels was the happiest place on earth

ELYSBURG, Pa. — Here is a park that has survived a Great Depression, a World War and a half-dozen floods. And rather than looking old and tired, Knoebels—85 and counting—is as spry as amusement parks half her age, but with ten times the class.

I decided years ago that I’d had my fill of amusement parks. I’ve done La Ronde to death, and I’ve spent countless hours of my life standing in lines at other Six Flags, the CNE, and county fairs all over North America. I get plenty of thrills driving back country roads and the freeways around New York City, so I don’t need to pay for the feeling of my stomach falling out every time I turn a corner.

But our friend Ginger suggested we go to Knoebels, and Ginger understands the kind of travellers we are.

This gorgeous chunk of Pennsylvania mountain was purchased by the Knoebel family for $931 back in 1828 and while the third generation to live here did farm it, Henry “Old Hen” Knoebel was forward-thinking enough to see the property’s recreational potential. More importantly, the Knoebels built their park while respecting the land. There are trees everywhere here, spaced just far enough apart to safely plant rides that are shaded and cool. The terrible brightness of the July sun is filtered through lush leaves and chill breezes come off the creek each time one strolls over a pedestrian bridge.

The Grand Carousel is one of the world’s largest, but what makes this 1913 merry-go-round fun and unique is that it has a working brass-ring dispenser. Riders on the outer ring stretch with their arms out, collecting metal rings with each pass—the rider who’s lucky enough to catch the brass ring gets bragging rights and the cost of the ride back.

Oh, and the prices! Admission is free, so people like me who are long finished with roller coasters and bumper cars don’t feel like we’re wasting our money, yet tickets are inexpensive enough that it doesn’t take long to get your money’s worth if rides are your thing, or if you’re escorting a child or two to the many, many activities for them. The food stands are plentiful, the food delicious and remarkably well-priced.

I am finished with amusement parks with the exception of Knoebels. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back again and again to this magical little place.

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We visited two other amusement parks during the week we went to Knoebels.

Waldameer Water World is more than a hundred years old, a beloved picnic-spot-turned-tourist-attraction beside Lake Erie. I loved its 1960s feel and Jilly loved its lax height limits—she enjoyed her first roller coaster ride and spent far too much time (if you ask me, which I guess you didn’t) on grownup rides. The water park seemed lovely, but the water was frigid, making even the lazy river uncomfortable. We were visiting Erie during a cool week, though, so it’s not like it’s their fault.

 

Adventureland in Long Island was twelve kinds of terrible. We were there for a birthday party that was so disorganized the host took things into her own hands and fired our animator. I suspect the poor girl was suffering from a serious lack of training, and the faces of nearly all staff we encountered suggest the park isn’t the happiest place to work. Communication with ride operators was next to nil, and it was hot and expensive. I tweeted a complaint, which the company favourited, so I guess making children miserable is just a job well done.

adventureland tweet

Ghost town: Return to Centralia

CENTRALIA, Pa. — On a tour at Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland, our guide retold the story of Centralia, a ghost town done in by a mine fire that started in the 1960s.

After our tour, we took another shot at finding the town itself (we had tried in March, and found the Grafitti Highway). For an hour or so, we walked its abandoned streets, overgrown lots and broken sidewalks.