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A Dictator Gets Married

My Trip to Philly in 1999


Part One
The Terribly Indirect Way to Get from Boston to Philadelphia

It's Thursday morning, and I wander into Boston's South Station at around 7:00 AM. My train doesn't depart for another hour or so, but I feel pleased that I'm there early. Maybe I'll have a snack and read a bit of Mr. X, the new Peter Straub book I brought along with me for the trip. I can't really contain a low-grade excitement. I love to travel, and I've only gone on a long train ride once. That time was over five years ago, between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and someone else had control over all the proceedings. Since gaining some independence, I've prided myself on doing things myself. To some, making train arrangements between Boston and Philadelphia may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it's gigantic. One more step toward being an adult person.

Interesting then, that the person I travelled with on my other train trip chose today to show up. My ex George walks through South Station every morning to get from work to home, and today, he's spotted me sitting at one of the tables.

"What are you doing here?" he asks.

"I'm going to a wedding in Philly."

"No, you're not."

I'm a bit taken aback. "Why not?"

"Hurricane Floyd. Philly's flooded." I don't really know how to respond. A year ago, I would have gotten panicked or angry. Now, I just file it away as the top priority to deal with after I finish talking with my ex.

We talk for awhile. I mention I wrote a novel.

After the ex departs, I begin to inquire about the train route from Boston to Philly. The person at the information desk, the station manager, and a teller at the ticket counter have three different stories. One says the train will stop in New York City and terminate. One tells me that after stopping in New York, there will be bussing to Philly. One is confident that the train will go direct. Swimming in this sea of confusion, I hear the announcement for my train, which is berthed at gate nine. Gathering my belongings, I step out onto the platform, where I spot the conductor.

"Excuse me, sir," I begin, "Can you tell me what's happening to the route from here to Philly?"

"It's only going into New York," he tells me, and my heart sinks a little. "But then," he continues, "we're providing bussing to Philadelphia."

That's two for that explanation, so I decide to go with it. I thank the conductor and find myself a seat.

This part of the trip is nice. I get down to the nitty-gritty with my novel and begin to edit the hell out of it. It needs less than I thought, and the majority of the editing is completed before we roll into New Haven, Connecticut. I also read a little Straub and the William Goldman biography I borrowed from a friend of mine for the trip. (Note: I love William Goldman's books. Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, and especially Color of Light are among my favorite books. However, based solely on my reaction to this biography, I really don't like Goldman himself. I have to understand that the book was written in the late 70's, so Goldman's views may have changed since then. In 1978, however, Goldman was an arrogant, pretentious, whiny writer. Sad, but true.)

At the engine-change stop in New Haven, I ask the new conductor if there has been any change on the Philly front. She tells me, yes, the train will be going direct now from here to Philadelphia. Terrific, I tell her, very pleased at how my luck has gone. I go back to my seat and turn on the headphones. Bruce Springsteen carries me through Connecticut while I partake in a tasty turkey and cheese Lunchables. Life is good.

Until this: "Ladies and gentlemen, this train will be stopping at Penn Station New Jersey. Further than that, the train tracks are under water. When you get to the station, go upstairs to the customer service counter. They'll tell you what to do."

Changes of plans used to give me what's called nervous stomach, which is slightly less painful than an ulcer. Now, I have to think of this as an adventure. Hey, I don't travel a lot. If I don't make it fun, I'll just be miserable.

At the end of the customer service line, I am told to go stand in another line to get a refund. Then, I'm supposed to stand in another line to get a ticket to Trenton, New Jersey. From there, I have no idea. The adventure begins to dribble out of the day. I place a calling-card call to Jen Diana, one of the bridesmaids in Michelle and Jim's wedding, and let her know what's going on. I'm a little annoyed, but I'm still trying to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Purchasing a chicken salad sandwich and a Yoo-Hoo (in a can!) at a Penn Station deli renews my faith in the world.

The refund line is simply too long, so I decide to get my refund after I get back and try to get a ticket for the next train to Trenton. The line is long there, too, but they have auto-ticket machines that are a lot faster. After showing an elderly Irish man who was following me around how to use the machines, I get myself a ticket and make my way to the Trenton line track. Once aboard, I am able to partake in the splendor of the sandwich and the Yoo-Hoo, as well as thumb through the new Entertainment Weekly. It's about forty-five minutes to Trenton, so I just sit back and enjoy.

When we arrive and file out, we are instructed to go upstairs and wait for the shuttle to Levittstown (where Billy Joel was born, by the way.) I stop at the SEPTA (what does this stand for?) counter to ask the surly men behind it how much the tickets were to Philadelphia from Levittstown. The first surly man tells me to buy the ticket when I get there. The second, slightly nicer surly man tells me I can buy the ticket right here. I hand over my credit card and receive my SEPTA ticket. The first surly man stares at me until I leave. When I'm out of eyeshot, I feel a lot better.

Eventually, the shuttle arrives, and we weary travelers pile on. One of us is a scary-looking hippie man. It's not scary that he's a hippie, really. It might have to do with him lighting incense on the shuttle and propping it up on his flammable backpack. Also, he seemed a bit drunk. The guy that sat next to him wasn't having the best day. I continued reading EW, my Yoo-Hoo long gone. Damn.

After about a half-hour of waiting in the cramped, hot shuttle, we take off for Levittstown. Once there, we were herded onto the Philly train, much like cattle. I wonder briefly why these Philly tracks were okay while the others are submerged, but I leave it alone for now. I don't really want to know the answer.

Finally, I arrive in Philadelphia, predictably humming the Springsteen song "Streets of Philadelphia" under my breath. I call Michelle, whose Dad offers to pick me up. After picking up a half-tasty yet fully expensive lunch at the All American Buffet, I go outside to wait for Michelle's Dad.

At this time, something terrible has gone wrong with the matron-of-honor's (Luanne Hersom's) dress, but at this point, I am still catching my own breath. We arrive at Michelle and Jim's house and I am quicly introduced to a large array of family members. Gifts are distributed (I got a cool travel journal, which I probably could have used for my tip down), and we all share a few pizzas. I get reacquainted with Chris Storck, a SKEMER I met at the first Con, and his super-cool girlfriend Laura. When the rest of the SKEMERs arrive, I am beat. Still, the allure of watching my favorite show Friends with my friends is too great, and we all gather in Michelle's room to watch. After that, DiAnne, Jen, and I retire to the guest room, where we stay up far too late.

Before I realize I have stopped moving, I am asleep.

Part Two
Going to the Chapel

I was forced to crawl out of my sleeping bag at 8 AM, which wouldn't have been so bad but for the very late night before. Actually, I got off lucky - the girls had to be awake two hours earlier because it takes a lot longer for women to do stuff in the morning than men. You know, what with women having to deal with birth, menstruation, menopause, and the forever getting ready thing, you'd think they'd have more power in Western society. Things to ponder.

I didn't shower at all that morning, just threw on some clothes and went. I was supposed to videotape the hair salon getting-ready part of the day. This would have been terrific, if the battery hadn't failed on us. Jen informed me that it was an old battery and that she'd have her husband Dave pick one up to bring to the actual wedding. Meanwhile, I had to make do with plugging the external port into the wall at various outlets around the salon. Needless to say, I used the zoom feature a lot. Sometime around the three-hour mark, I found a copy of Us magazine with an article on Pee-Wee Herman I found fascinating, so I left the girls to fend for themselves. Remind me never to be a war correspondent.

After the salon, we retired back to Michelle's house to get all beautiful. It took me less than a half hour to shower, shave, and throw on my suit (which got completely wrinkled on the trip and which, thankfully, Jen ironed.) I was a little upset because I had left my good shoes at work, but everyone convinced me that the Army boots I bought for $12.98 at an Army/Navy store in Boston matched the suit quite well. I questioned their judgment.

The women looked wonderful: all the bridesmaids and the Maid (DiAnne) and Matron (Luanne) of honor in matching bottle-green dresses. Michelle herself, with her hair up and her flowing white wedding dress decorating her, was absolutely radiant. It was as if her entire life had been lived to culminate on this day: she belonged in this dress. Looking at her made us all feel a little better about the world in general.

Michelle then made tuna sandwiches for everyone to tide us over until the meal at the reception. Soon, the limousine showed up, which everyone but me got to ride in. I was supposed to ride with Dave, Jen's husband and battery-errand-boy. Dave was a little late, so my hopes of riding in the limo jumped up a little, only to be thwarted when he came down the sidewalk, brandishing the battery. Damn him and his just-in-time sitcom timing.

Actually, except for the perpetual being lost, Dave and I hit it off pretty well. Hey Dave: classic rock all the way! We moved through some kashmir on our way to the wedding - it was pretty cool.

By the time we arrived at the wedding, everyone was sweating effusively. I was actually pretty nervous myself, and I feared infecting the bride or groom. Michelle had requested I write a poem for the event, which I did. She printed it on the bookmarks given out at the reception, which was very sweet of her. What didn't sit all that great with me was the request to read it out loud. I had not read any of my work in front of an audience since 1991, when I had to give an oral report on Stephen King for my high school Freshman English class. I have never stuttered so badly. Now, though extremely nervous, I stood up proudly when the minister called my name. I read "Two" with confidence, only flubbing the very last line. Michelle whispered to me as I came down from the lectern that I had done a great job. I thought the same of her. When she and Jim exchanged vows, I nearly cried. They looked so good together, so right. They walked into that chapel as a man and woman; when they kissed in front of their family and friends, they were husband and wife. God, they were so beautiful.

After several days of photographs outside, we took a brief hiatus back at Michelle's house and snacked a little. When it came time for the reception, everyone had wound down a little from the tense enormity of the wedding and was ready for a party. Jen and DiAnne, who carpooled with us, got seats at the high table, along with Chris Storck and Luanne Hersom. The dregs of SKEMERland (Chris's girlfriend Laura, me, Dave, and Michelle and Andrew Ballard) were put in a dark corner at the back of the room. Not that we minded. And when the other tables threw us scraps of food, we were in heaven.

No, really: the buffet was delicious (stuffed chicken to die for), and I loved the sparkling cider (not being a drinker, I was prepared to have a few polite sips of champagne; as it was, I downed nearly four glasses of the cider.) When the dance floor opened up, everyone was prepared to cut a rug (although, strangely, the dance floor was hardwood.) The young kids got freaky with The Backstreet Boys and N'Sync, dancing in choreographed moves so precise it put the grown-ups attempting the Electric Slide to shame. Jen taught me to tango, sort of. Everyone did the still fun "YMCA," although half of the people got the "C" backward. Michelle and Jim slow-danced to Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," and everyone had to reach for Kleenex. Still beautiful, still magical.

By the time the reception wrapped up, everyone was exhausted. Luanne had departed earlier (I miss you already, Luanne!), and DiAnne and I were traveling with Dave and Jen back to their house in beautiful downtown Schwenksville. I'd love to give a detailed report about the trip back, but as soon as I hit the back seat, I passed out and didn't wake until we hit the house, an hour away. The next day was going to be a big one for all of us, so I really needed my sleep.

About this time, Michelle and Jim were preparing for their honeymoon at Disneyworld. I'll let them tell you about that part: they were the ones who went. As for my part: Michelle, Jim - keep loving each other, keep growing with each other, and never stop giving your heart up to each other. Bless you, both.

Part Three
The Burkittsville Project

The night I arrived in Philly, Jen took me aside and explained that there had been a big surprise in store for me. She, DiAnne, Brad, and Brad's wife Kay were all going to take me up to Burkittsville, Maryland, where my favorite film of the year, The Blair Witch Project had been filmed. Along the way, they were going to videotape, and stage a huge fight, causing tension and adding to the Blair Witch realism.

Unfortunately, because of Floyd (God, I hate that hurricane), Brad and Kay's trip was thwarted, so Jen proposed that she, DiAnne, Dave and I just go up to Burkittsville without the staging.

I, of course, leapt at this chance, and it was agreed. Flash forward to the present tense, already in progress:

* * *

I wake up on Sunday morning, prepared for a three hour ride to Burkittsville. We'd all agreed to wake up early so we could travel lazily and not have to rush. DiAnne has to travel back tonight, so we have to kind of watch time. When I stumble out of the room, I realize: oops. It's, like, ten-thirty.

Well, we can still make it, right? Jen assures me that we can. After some hasty phone calls to DiAnne's Mom (who was wonderfully watching DiAnne's girls until Mommy came home), we agree that we can all still go. There's only one stipulation: Dave and DiAnne have yet to see the film, so before we actually travel up to Maryland, we make plans to catch an early showing.

Two things here:

One: Jen and Dave live in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, which is several thousand kilometers away from everything. In order to actually go to a movie, they have to plan about an hour and a half travel time to the closest theater and back. Sometimes I feel really lucky to be living in Boston. I mean, I really love the quiet charm of Jen's small town (as I have always loved small towns), but at heart I'm a city boy, and would feel alien in a world that doesn't include lots of car noises and neon. But I digress.

Two: I have seen The Blair Witch Project five times by this point. Five. Some may call me obsessive, I just think of it as being thorough. By the fourth or fifth time, it got so I could actually recite entire clumps of dialogue along with the film, which is more difficult with this movie since there was no script. I love this movie very very very much. Again, digression.

Around the time we decide to see the film before travelling cross-state, we decide to go ahead with the video camera idea. In fact, we think, why not make our own little movie about travelling to Burkittsville because of the film, and having bad things happen to us once we're there. The kids all enjoy this immensely, which is great, because none of my friends back home would ever agree to do something like this. It's the SKEMERs common bond - nothing like it in the world.

DiAnne immediately gets into character, acting as the girl who is scared of nothing. I take over as director-person: ego-centric, drunk with power, and far too excited about this thing to let anyone bring me down, being aggressively happy at any cost. (Wait, that is me.) Jen decides to play the straight man, which is difficult because we have very little makeup and Jen is a woman. Dave is the Great Unseen. We mention him on and off during the beginning of our film, saying after we pull away from the theater that he "wimped out" and won't be joining us.

We're late for the film, actually (see example number one above), and after some careful consideration, decide to see a later showing and skip Burkittsville. We can still film in woods around Schwenksville, and act as if it's Burkittsville, right? Well, it worked for us, anyway. Until the later showing, we went to Ikea, which Jen informs me is quite liberal (i.e., they have commercial with gay guys.) Liberal or not, Ikea's cashiers are impossible to find, so I eventually drop the teddy-bear ice cube trays I found and leave. That's right, teddy-bear ice cube trays. I allow one full moment of snickering.

(a moment passes...) Okay, stop.

After the film, on our way back to Jen and Dave's, we begin to have some fun with the Project. I film DiAnne driving, and now she's acting as if TBWP terrified her. I'm talking about how fun the woods of Burkittsville are going to be, and she's freaking. Then, I make fun of her, and she begins to call me an a**hole. After I hit the pause button, we burst into laughter. Ah, how ribald we SKEMERs can be.

The rest of the day is spent filming and creating our own mythology. We visit a graveyard where DiAnne finds an upside-down gravestone bearing the name Flora. We pick that up and run with it, having DiAnne start to make fun of Flora and the whole Burkittsville thing as a way to cope with her fear. I start spouting the F-word at ever chance possible, which is funny because I never say "f." Jen, I discover, is really good at quiet, lad-back intensity. It's kind of hard to explain. Her expression never really changes between joy, fear, and anger, but you somehow feel the smolder. Jen's a very good actress.

I won't go into further details of the filming. Hopefully, we'll show our movie at the Fouth Annual SKEMERs con - it might be fun. We spend a bit of the night in a Pennsylvania state park, then went back to Jen and Dave's to watch what we'd filmed so far, plus the entirety of Michelle and Jim's wedding. Early the next morning, DiAnne left to drive back to Ohio, leaving Jen and I with the videocamera to film the climactic end of The Burkittsville Project.

After the editing, we hopped in the car and sped furiously to the train station, getting me there in the nick of time. One thing to be said about a train trip without problems: there are far fewer stories to tell. I got a lot of rest and read a bit on the way back, but nothing much of importance happened. When I saw the Prudential Building reflecting the stars in the sky from the window of my train, I knew I was home. My heart leapt up a little. I'd had a womderful time at the wedding and seeing all my friends, but it was good to be back home.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, my tale is done.

Fornit some fornus, over and out.