I took a route west with which I was not familiar. It was to the west and I usually went east when in this part of Pennsylvania. I was wandering a two-lane road through small towns and I wanted to be sure I was headed back to where I was spending the night. On the outskirts of one there was one of those small “beauty salons." We have all seen them and I suspect a some have been in one. They are always a very small building standing alone by the side of the road. They are often painted pink. Many have a “tanning center” in the Upper Midwest now. I am not sure why. Sunlight Affected Disorder (SAD) perhaps. It is so in Alaska so why not near Lake Bemidji? Often there is a house nearby . All that attracted me to it however was the size of the parking area. The shoulders here were narrow and I needed to get La Coachasita far enough off the road to check the map. The spaces were long and empty, so I took advantage of it.
As I looked for the road, a woman came from the small porch of the building. I had not seen her when I parked. She reminded me of a waitress in a long ago sit-com from television who I believe was named “Flo.” She had Beehive hair, blonde for now, a pleasant woman with maybe too much make up or just the wrong color. This was not Flo. She introduced herself as Dorothy smiling brightly and asked if I was all right, "being from California and all," she said. I told her what I was doing and apologized for the parking job. She waved that off and she set me straight on the route back to the main highway. She asked if I would like some ice tea. That seemed like a good idea on a warm day. The town had looked interesting when I came through and there was plenty of time left in the day, so I thought I would learn some more about it. I had just passed the Possum Hollow Inn, an odd and foreboding looking place not open at this time of day. I was sure I had questions about it even if nothing else had been remarkable about the place. Dorothy was looking forward to a quiet afternoon, she explained, "unless someone came in on the way home from the packing plant," she said, so talking to me while smoking a pack of cigarettes seemed something to do for her at least. She brought some tea, her cigarettes, and silenced the ubiquitous quiz show on the television which could easily be heard from the small porch where we sat.
The town was near Mount Holly Springs where Sid Bream, a first baseman who played much of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates came from. It says so right on the sign on the way into town. Sid is unfortunately most famous for a play in the National League Play-offs with the Atlanta Braves. He slid home as the tying run in the ninth inning. It was a remarkable, exciting, and heartbreaking moment. He was out and so were the Pirates. Sid was on a World Series winner once. A very good ballplayer who shattered his knees early but still could hit even after all the surgery. Dorothy knew all about him. After all, a major league ballplayer didn't grow up near here every day.
The town is a suburb of nowhere and supports itself with a little farming, a large fruit packing plant, and some farm implement repair business. The highway strip mall is where the heavy shopping gets done and the State Route I was on was Main Street. Dorothy is the only beautician in town and has been, mostly, for the last 30 years. She certainly seemed to know the town. She has worked here, lived here, and owned her shop since around 1977. She grew up in Cashtown not far from here and went into the profession of cosmetology after high school. She was married three times, has kids from all the marriages and grandchildren nearly everywhere in a 200-mile radius. She seems happy with her life as it is now. She spoke wistfully of earlier urges to travel or move on. She and husband one or two, I lost track somewhere, lived in Pittsburgh for a time, but she came back "after that was over" in her phrase, and believed she had no reason move now that would make her life more interesting or more complete. She is happy here by the side of the road caring for the tresses of the ladies of all ages, and on occasion apparently, being a friend to a lost stranger. Those she did not have as customers went over to one of the" big" towns like Mount Holly Springs. She genuinely did not seem to care if she cut all the hair of the female population of the town. It was their choice, and she made “a fair living” she thought, although that was hard to tell on this mid-week afternoon. She was enjoying her role of unofficial goodwill ambassador. She told me all I wanted to know about the town and more.
When on trips with my father, he would drive through a town like this one and say that he never could figure out what all the people did for a living. Pennsylvania is famous for small towns with substantial homes right in the in the downtown area. They all crowd the sidewalk with narrow front porches that empty immediately on to them. I have not yet found the style elsewhere. They were built in a time when the towns were less populated, the traffic on the main street less congested, and people took the evening breeze and conversations there. It is quite different from the Midwest or the East where a lawn is interposed between the porch and the street. Many of the older towns—and there are many of those in Pennsylvania--are still this way. The porches, some of them, still are used. They have a pair of rocking chairs or a swing and some, even hanging plants. The truly “posh” have that green carpet referred to as "indoor/outdoor" for reasons that have never been clear to me since I never saw it used indoors. It was clear when you drove through this places that the people had jobs, it was just tough to figure out what and where they were.
Well, Dorothy knows all about that. When I related that this was a prosperous looking town with no visible means of support, she knew told me about it. Most people work at the packing plant. It once was shift work at reasonable wages in the good seasons, and they saved for the winter. Trucks come all year now both to take the produce away, but also to bring the raw product from many places. The packing plant was a local concern once, but Dorothy says it is big business now, year round at fair wages but few benefits except vacation.
I asked her about the Possum Hollow Inn. Silence hung until Dorothy shook her head and said that it was usually full of the field hands of little substance and the lower order of packing plant employees on the weeknights. I took this to mean the locals who went to work before they finished high school that had not yet, and likely never would, make a decision to leave. She said I could go there if I liked but the food wasn't much and the whiskey wasn't either. The weekends were interesting times, she supposed, when the sheriff comes regularly and the pool cues get broken over people's heads. Of course, she said, it had been years since she had been there but her customers tell her about such things and she supposes there is no good reason to go if some fool is just going to crack a pool cue over someone else's head. Especially since the owner can't even buy a decent brand of whiskey. I never did find out what a "decent brand" was to Dorothy or how she knew he didn’t have one, but it seemed important to her.
There are three churches in town. Lutherans and Episcopalians were the majority, but a fair number of Baptists as well. The ministers were all eccentric, or odd in some way to hear Dorothy tell it. Not in a bad way, they all just seemed to be odd or strange in one of their habits or dress or speech. Apparently Dorothy had been a member of all these ministries over the years so she knew first hand and didn't necessarily have to rely on the chatter of her customers. Once or twice, she referred to the ministers as "busybodies.” I took that to mean, in the way she said it, that there was a reason why she had changed religions periodically. Dorothy, I don't believe, didn’t much care for people who knew too much about her or how she lived. She seemed to believe that was her business.
In the end, politics came up in a sly sort of way. There was no real doubt that she came down on the “Right” side or that "Rush" was a staple of her morning radio listening. I feigned but a passing interest in the subject, opined, as Tip O’Neill often had, that all politics are local but didn't attribute the quote. She thought it a fine expression and, I suspect some heard it while having a wash and set sometime later in the week.
Having drunk enough tea to last several weeks and smelled enough smoke to remember why I quit a long time ago, I left as the afternoon began to fade. Dorothy said she hoped I’d stop back when I came through again. I said I would if I ever did that and thanked her for all the tea and the insight she had given to a town like hers. She laughed and said that she had barely scratched the surface, but that it was a good place with mostly good people, if you didn't count the foolish and the stupid. She thanked me for sharing the afternoon and my trip that she declared "amazing.” I had heard a lot of that word from her. The fruit packers were amazing. Church services were sometimes amazing. She favored the word. Some might say Dorothy and the others here live out lives of quiet desperation. They have cigarette in one hand and a TV remote in the other. They listen to the opinions of the talk show hosts and adopt them as their own, and move from paycheck to paycheck, working mindless jobs for little money, no health insurance while ruining their health with every puff of smoke, side of beef and bottle of "good whiskey" they consume. Yet they never lock their doors. They know each other and share their lives. It seems, except for the folks at the Possum, no one much bothers each other unless asked. Yet they take care of each other in times when they need to cry and seem to enjoy each other's company most of the time. Small town life is hard to understand for someone like me. It isn't bad or good. It is something a honestly don’t know enough about except that it fascinates me. Maybe, and more likely, it is just not for me to judge.