Friday, October 26, 2012

"Ain't No Party Like A Scranton Party!"

It happened again tonight,
“Are you… English?” He asked with incredulity, eye brows raised.
“Yes.”  I replied, glad to be reminded of the Motherland, and that my answer had received a return stare of wonder and delight.  It is merely an accident of birth; my accent an unconscious product of native geography, parenting and schooling.  I can take no credit here.  And yet, in my new homeland, my origins inspire unicorn-like awe.  Scrantonites are quite in love with GB.  For some, it is their dream vacation destination. 

“You lived near London?  Why would you ever leave?”  
I retell the fairy tale about the wonderful Pennsylvanian who swept me off my feet… and then the reality of the relationship that landed me firmly on my arse.
Uncomfortable silence.
Then the inevitable question: “Why would you ever stay?”

It’s a question I am quite used to, yet am always as surprised by it as the stranger who asked it.
I am always rather to tempted to reply, "Clearly, I never found the railway station," but instead I opt for the truth: because it’s home; because everyone has been so welcoming; because there ain’t no party like a Scranton Party.

Let me go back a bit… eons ago, when I was but a 90lb whippet, all ribs, no boobs and a strange velvet jacket fetish, I followed the educational path to Southampton University.  At the time, it was in the top ten for marine biology and since Wadham, Oxford didn’t want me, it seemed a good place to go and sulk for three years.  I invested no time in actually going to visit the halls of residence and picked one solely based on the fact that in the blurb it said Stoneham Hall was "a Georgian Manor, with sprawling green lawns, tennis courts etc.."  I had romantic visions that my accident of birth into a hard working, middle class Gwyn-Jones family, and not the Fortescue-Asquith-Smythe-Smythe-St.John aristocratic clan would finally be set right! 

As my parents drove me and my 18-year-old cardboard-boxed-life into the gates of South Stoneham Halls of Residence, my smug smile shrank, puckered, and then souffled into gasps of horror.  There had to be a huge, gaping, thigh-in-mouth mistake!  Where was the beautiful masonry, the columns, the balconies, the variegated ivy and wisteria spidering up the façade?  Why was I facing a 1960’s great grey stone tower block with about as much architectural charm as a German armpit?

Ah, Stoneham!  But look beyond... behind the tree.... ARMPIT!

I clambered out of the car for a better look, drawn towards the characterless edifice like the girl in the horror flick who opens the door to the masked serial killer.  I eyed my parents, exchanged glances and slowly walked in, accepting my fate.  I unpacked and made by cupboard-sized cell cheery with posters of the England Rugby Team, and secretly, I planned my escape.

I thought I was better than Stoneham.

Then I met people.  Fourteen floors of tower (four of girls, ten of boys—I liked those odds) and a dilapidated old Georgian Manorful of smiling, excited, accepting faces.  And I realized I was not alone in this frightening world.  I was a Stonehamite.  We would go out en masse: Tuesday Karaoke at the Student Union, Wednesday, Ikon nightclub, Thursday Rhino’s for 70’s night, Friday Clowns and Jesters for pints of acid green “Juicy Lucy’s”.  We had the most ugly halls, others mocked us, yet this united us, we belonged!  WE WERE STONEHAM PROUD.

I see this now with Penn State, with my Mary Kay Team and with Scranton, my home.  Mock us, and you only make us stronger, more solid, all for one and one for all.  THAT, is why I love it here!  But it has taken a while for me to work it out.  I think I was in denial, because, I left, dear Reader.  I moved on from this small city that was the first to have electricity, that prospered in the time of coal mining, that has crumbled slightly since.  Like a serial dater, I wanted an open relationship with PA, I wanted to see what else was out there, because I thought there might be a more suitable city.  So, again, I packed my life in cardboard and  moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn.

There I was for ten months, in the city that never sleeps, and I never felt so incredibly lonely.  The only people who befriended and wanted to talk to me were married men.  Sigh.  Not working in an office, but typing away at coffee shops, surrounded by other writers, their heads ostriched-deep in their keyboards, thoughts snuggled firmly in their own self-importance, meant I was surrounded by people who just didn’t give a shit.  I took myself out, adventuring here and there, going through the motions and pretending I was enjoying myself--trying to not think of what night it was, and which venue my friends in PA would be frequenting and laughing, without me--I randomly spoke to strangers in stores, but it is really hard to meet normal people just walking the streets, shopping, and eating bagels.  Lots and lots of bagels.  "Hello! I'm Eleanor.  I'm British.  I'm a writer.  Would you like to be my friend?"  It might work at age 5.  At 33, it rather means I am a serial killer, lunatic, or hooker.

There was a small clutch of fabulous people I saw in Brooklyn.  Very small.  An actress, an agent, a Broadway Producer and a stand-up comedian.  Can four be a clutch?  They were fabulous company and I thoroughly enjoyed our limited time together, but their hours were long and unpredictable, and the call to NEPA: the invites, the demand for work, the positive feedback, was strong. I returned to PA almost weekly for this party or that. I knew this was time I could have been cultivating friendships beyond the initial serial killer/lunatic/hooker introductions, but I missed my existing circle.

The annual Oscar Party that Michaela and I have held for the last four years, gave the final twist in the guts.  There we were, in ball gowns, tap dancing and singing about George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and I looked out beyond my microphone to the beaming faces.  There were over one hundred friends and acquaintances cheering us on.  It was our little event, but it was an open invitation, it has been promoted in the local newspaper, and yet I could name every single person there.  The warmth that freezing February night was palpable.  My heart was so full I thought it would burst, and that is when I knew I was home.  A feeling that brought me back to my senses and resuscitated my lonely Brooklyn-boxed heart.

Two months after I moved to the neighbourhood, my friend texted to ask what I was planning to do with my Sunday.  I responded the same as I always respond, that I would be working. 
“No, it is Greenridge tradition, you are coming with me!” 

An hour later, one bitter October morning, she led me through the streets to the corner of Sunset and Electric.  As we rounded the downhill corner, I saw the mass of people in scarves and gloves—dressed far more appropriately than me, though thankfully I had grown out of my velvet jacket phase—who stood a beer in one hand, a cigar or pastry in the other, swaying to the three piece band jamming on the lawn, cheering on the Steam Town marathon runners.  Whoops of encouragement puffed clouds of happy human exhaust into the air and filled the Scranton morning with merriment. 

Scranton Support!  Like Spanx for one's morale!  Thanks Ridge Resident Rob Lettieri: 
Two of my friends, Chavdar and Eric ran by, exhausted but still raising a celebratory fist in the air and stretching a smile to me, as they battled through the 24 mile mark.  I shouted weirdly excited, yet incomprehensible, noises to see them.  Scrantonites, members of my home team, doing fantastic things!  GO TEAM!

The party didn’t disperse until the last runners had made it through, and this posse of passionate cheerleaders, weren’t the only people celebrating; other house parties gathered with DJ’s, dancing in the streets, mimosas, iceboxes of beers and endless supportive cheers.  
Last week, I was invited to Halloween 14, for this I must set the scene: imagine an ordinary house, on the end of an ordinary copper-leafed cul-de-sac.  In October, as the leaves swirl to the tarmac, a host of decorating friends descend and transform this ordinary home into the Hammer Horror House of All Hallows’ Fiends!  Devils, Ghouls, Ghosts, Zombies, Vampires, Axe-murderers, Chinti and Flava-Bean-loving-Psychos, Monsters and generally scary types with loose-eyeballs and bloody stumps, hang from the rafters, between the sprayed cobwebs, or lurk in the corners, animatronically waiting to pounce, or chop, or frighten the b’Jesus out of you.

Lauren does this for fun.  It could be a professional local attraction, and for the lucky invitees, it is.  And I was one of the lucky few, invited and game to dress up and partake in this Clarks Green tradition.  The level of dress up here, is more than your average costume party.  There are prizes on the line!  More than that, there is pride and honour at stake.  

Now I have been to those half-hearted parties before, where the standard uniform is naughty nurse, naughty cop, naughty schoolgirl, all plastic-packed costumes, highly flammable and 100% acrylic.  You know, the kind of party with Lady Gaga on repeat and slightly brown and crusty guacamole oxidizing in the fetid air.   This party is not like that.  Everyone makes an effort.  Without rivalry or taking themselves too seriously, but because Lauren makes an effort, and so her guests want to repay the compliment. 

That is another thing I like: effort.  At this party, it is a surreal mix of celebrities, cartoons, fictional characters, animals, decades, inanimate objects… all celebrating this sorority of silliness and harmless fun.

I am sure every 'hood has it's good.  But when I heard Saturday Night Live comedians had joked that Hell is, in fact, “14 miles outside of Scranton,” I chuckled, then I frowned, because the masses might actually believe that, and they'd miss that this place has a heart: Tuesdays on the Ridge, Steam Town Marathon Parties, Lauren's Halloween, The Oscar Party, these are just peaks in the social ECG (Electric City ‘GENda), the scene has a pulse, a strong one, you just have to know where to look for it, because it is there, beating and spiking every week.

I returned to NYC last night to celebrate the birthday of my bubbly actress friend.  She gave a toast and quoted from the Into the Wild, a non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, adapted in 2007 for the big screen.  "Happiness isn't real unless it is shared."  I found myself nodding like an Office bobble head.

So you can keep your pretty castles, manors, rural idylls, cosmopolitan metropolis’, chic palatial estates; it is the people who make a place; and opportunities will come and go, and I hope my travel-lust will never be sated, but it is the people who bring you back.  It’s their shared bonhomie, camaraderie, spirit, it’s the feeling that people support and admire you from wherever you are and for whatever you do. 

So, if you have just moved to the Ridge, welcome, my friend.  I think you are going to like it here.  (And I have an extensive collection of paint brushes, rollers and chardonnay, should you ever need my help.)

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