Sometimes you use Sweet Potato Pie for evil.

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Thanksgiving has come and gone here in the States.  With it, a myriad of foods, beverages, and desserts have passed in front of my face in the past 48 hours.  I spied a sweet potato pie yesterday.  Now, I don’t know many people who indulge in the baked good made from sweet potatoes, so it is seldom that I come across one.  The last time I remember having an interaction with a sweet potato pie was in high school.  

The year: 1999.  The place: Waynesboro Area Senior High School, Mrs. Kaiser’s 9th grade English class.

Remember those old English class textbooks that had short stories, plays, and excerpts from other forms of literature in them?  
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Well, in ninth grade that year, we were assigned to read the short story, SWEET POTATO PIE by Eugenia W. Collier.  I don’t recall the plot of the story, so I’m of no help to you there.  I know it had something to do with a family in a big city.  Besides that, I’m useless.  I’m sure if I looked it up I could easily write a short synopsis here, but I’m not going to do that.  You are welcome to research it on your own.

Anyway, the day came where we were to discuss the reading assignment in class.  Cody, a young man on the outside of our friend group (who, in sixth grade, introduced me to Weird Al Yankovic, by the way), confided in me and a couple of other guys that he had not completed the assignment.  He had not read SWEET POTATO PIE.

Tsk-tsk-tsk.  For shame, Cody.

He asked us to summarize the events of the story quickly for him before class started, lest he be called upon to answer any questions.  He didn’t want to look like an idiot by not knowing what he was talking about.

Now, I had one of those high school experiences that everyone hates me for.  In essence, I was happy.  I had good friends, I got good grades without trying hard, I was popular with all my teachers, and I was in practically every arts extra-curricular group so nobody paid any mind if I was absent.  It was because of these traits that my friends and I were able to skip classes regularly and generally malign the good name of our school by being dirtbags while everyone thought we were awesome.  I’m not saying we were bad kids, mind you.  We did nothing unsavory.  We just took advantage of our niceness and respect that was given to us.  

We were also stupid boys who liked to play tricks on other people.

So when Cody asked us what the story was about, my friend Scott took the lead and spun a tale of Southern hospitality, wherein the main character of Sadie enters her dead mother’s recipe for sweet potato pie into the county fair so she can win a bunch of money to buy back her father’s farm.  She wins, and the farm is saved, and the story has a very happy ending.

(This, coincidentally, is nothing at all related to the actual sequence of events that take place in aforementioned story.)

Cody smiled and thanked us, and we resumed our business in preparation for the class.

When class started, Mrs. Kaiser began by asking who had read the story.  Of course every hand went up in the air.  She asked if someone could please summarize the events of the story for the class.

Now, I’m not sure if he wanted to make a good impression on the teacher, or if he wanted to forego further question-answering, or if he just wanted to show off in front of everyone else, but Cody waved his hand above his head like a flag.  He wanted to answer the question.

There was a moment when Scott and I looked at each other with disbelief.  This was amazing.  We never thought that it would actually happen, that he would actually make a fool of himself in front of everyone.  We thought the chances were fairly slim that she would call on him and he would give some insane answer relating to a baking contest.  But here we were, watching it unfold perfectly.

Cody, when called upon, relayed the story of young Sadie and the county fair, the tragedy of her father’s farm, and the love that went into the baking of the pie itself.  Mrs. Kaiser stood with a straight face, obviously unsure of what to do.  The kids around us were giggling up a storm.  

Proud of himself, Cody finished the synopsis and settled back down into his chair comfortably.

The class erupted in laughter and Mrs. Kaiser shook her head.  Cody’s freckled face grew beat-red and Scott and I almost died of giddiness.

I don’t remember if he was punished for not completing the assignment.  Probably not, since it provided such a wealth of entertainment.  Scott and I each received an embarrassed punch to the arm from the kid, though, which was more than worth it.  

Cody now works as a government contractor working with the US military in Afghanistan.  He’s big and burly and bearded.  Ain’t no way I would pull a stunt like that on him now.

But I always think of that ninth grade English class anytime I think of sweet potato pie.

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Sometimes Connecticut is the best place. PART TWO

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We awoke with a wandering song singing in our hearts (Or something like that).  Vacation Day number two was our traveling day, and travel we certainly did.

Setting out early in the morning, we drove northward to Gillette Castle State Park, which is somewhere in between East Haddam and Old Lyme.  Here we purchased admission to the park’s main attraction, Gillette Castle.

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In 1914, William Gillette, the actor most famous for being the first Sherlock Holmes, built a huge frickin’ castle.  Out of stone.  He custom-made all the doors in the thing.  He created a secret passageway where he could spy on guests to decide if he wanted to come down to greet them.  He created a trick bar that only he knew how to open.  And he built a train.  And a railroad station.  And a track.  Just for fun.  He was a really cool, funny, fun dude.

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After eating lunch on the edge of a swamp (much prettier than you’re envisioning right now in your heads), we set off in search of more fun.  It wasn’t more than a half-hour before we stumbled upon The Goodspeed Opera House.  Of course, I said.  This is where it is!  I’ve never been.  Nor have I, said Becca.

On a whim, we thought we’d see if there were any seats left for that evening’s performance of “Hello, Dolly!”  Lo and behold, there were!  With a quick swipe of the Visa, we were the proud occupants of balcony seats.  Serendipity.  Sometimes you drive past a regional theater and just pop in for a show.  It happens.

With the afternoon still free, we drove into Hartford to the Mark Twain House.  Right next door?  The Harriet Beecher Stowe House!  Why tour one when you can tour both?  On that beautiful afternoon, we saw where two of the century’s pre-eminent authors wrote some of their best work.  We saw the actual desk where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn sprang to life.  Pretty neat, if I do say so myself.

But we musn’t tarry too long, we said.  We found – again, thanks to Siri – a nice little Mexican restaurant on the way back to East Haddam where we satiated our appetites.  Then, with a quick trip to an ice cream parlor, we were set to see some theatre!

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The Goodspeed Opera House, for those of you who haven’t been, is lovely.  Gorgeous architecture and a really neat history.  The production featured the Australian Tony Sheldon as Horace Vandergelder, whom you may recall from his Tony-nominated performance in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”  After living in NYC and watching productions with such a jaded eye, it was glorious to be in a theater with hundreds of people who came in that night specifically to enjoy themselves and who succeeded marvelously.  A riotous good time.

Pooped from another long day, we made our way back to the house in Fairfield.

The next day was BEACH DAY (Take Two).  There’s not much to say about Beach Day except that it was perfect.  The weather was perfect – sunny and warm, but with a nice little breeze every now and then.  The beach was perfect – not too crowded, but not awkwardly vacant, either.  The water was perfect – the ocean was cool and refreshing and not as dirty as the more populated commercial beaches.  We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.  After a lobster roll for Becca and a chicken sandwich for me, we even squeezed in another movie.

Sunburnt and happy, we prepared ourselves for our next and last day of vacation, which was better than either of us could have dreamed.

Stay tuned for PART THREE, the final exciting chapter in the amazing Connecticut vacation!

Sometimes Connecticut is the best place. PART ONE

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After a crazy busy summer filled with a massive overhaul of my novel for my agent, house managing a sold-out run of an Off-Broadway show, and spending three weeks playing war for Army, a vacation was in order. 

An acquaintance of my gal Becca just bought a house in Fairfield, CT right by the beach and was going to be out of town for the month of August.  Take it, she said.  Use my beach pass, she said.  Have a good time, she said.  

Thank you, we said. 

So one Wednesday evening we rented a car, packed it up with our belongings, and drove north.  We knew that her son, a twenty-something who is normally off in school somewhere, was going to be present for the duration.  Oof, I said.  Human interaction.  Easy, Becca said.  It’ll be ok. 

When we arrived late that night, the son was not at home.  He had left the key under the mat for us, however.  So we grabbed our bags and went up to the door. 

We were a few feet from the front door when we heard a meow.  Suddenly, out from the bushes, springs a mangy cat.  Oh dear, I said.  Must be a stray.  Its fur was matted and scraggly and its meow was deep and scratchy.  

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This cat is more well-groomed than our Connecticut cat.

As we tried to open the door, the cat tried to go inside.  Hey there, I said.  Don’t go in there.  We shooed it away.  It didn’t move.  I walked away and called it so that Becca could at least get inside.  It didn’t move.  We set down the leftovers from our fast food dinner on the other side of the driveway.  It certainly appreciated our offering but came right back as soon as we went to open the door. 

Is it their cat, I asked.  It can’t be, Becca said.  She said nothing about a cat.  It must be a stray.  It has no collar and no tag. 

Finally we managed to get inside and slam the door in the cat’s face.  Thank goodness, we said.  Then we set about exploring the house, which was lovely.  We were offered the master bedroom on the third floor, which we gladly took.  We settled in for a good night’s sleep. 

In the middle of the night an incident occurred to which I was not privy, as I was sound asleep.  There was a knock on the door and a shadowy figure opened it up.  Hello, it said.  Becca, sleepily, responded in kind.  Did you feed the cat, it asked.  No, Becca replied.  OK, it said.  Have a good night. 

SO IT WAS THEIR CAT!  The epiphany may not be as profound as it was in person, but you get the idea.  We basically just told a cat to go screw itself because we weren’t going to let it in its own house or feed it either.  C’est la vie. 

The next day was a bit overcast, but we had already decided to do the beach.  It’s our vacation, darnit, so let’s start it off right.  After quietly taking the beach chairs from the garage (since the son’s bedroom was right across the hall from the garage), we loaded up our rental car and set off to find breakfast. 

Find it we did.  Siri, ever helpful, suggested Home On The Range, a small café in a quaint downtown area.  It had, without a doubt, the absolute best French Toast I’ve ever eaten.  The sweet little old lady that runs the place works there all by herself, taking the order, cooking up the grub, and clearing away your plates and serving as cashier when you’re through.  We would spend two more mornings savoring her wares. 

After we were stuffed, we went to the beach.  And there was nobody there.  Oh sure, there was a lap-swimmer.  And a couple strolling.  And an old man sitting on a beach chair.  But that’s it.  It was deserted.  The ominous-looking storm clouds may have had something to do with that. 

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Still, we were determined to have a good time.  Let’s not take the chairs, we said, as we may not be here long.  It’s a good thing we didn’t.  After frolicking a bit in the waves, Becca set out to carve words in the sand while I took pictures. 

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Artie plus Becca plus Rising-Tide Cat.

Then, after about ten minutes of watching the tide come in ridiculously fast, we skedaddled.  It was no more than a few seconds after we got back into our car that the clouds burst open and a monsoon began. 

What does one do on vacation in Connecticut at ten in the morning when it’s raining?  Why, go to the movies of course!  Eating popcorn and drinking soda for brunch, we sat with one other couple in a giant movie theater and watched The Butler (which I highly recommend, by the way). 

Back outside, the sky was no longer angry, but it wasn’t too happy yet, either.  What to do?  Go to the Barnum Museum, of course!  It’s so close, after all, in Bridgeport, CT.  Let us away, I said. 

Unfortunately, the Barnum Museum was hit pretty hard by a tornado a few years ago and is still not open to the public.  Sigh.  Back to the house to regroup. 

Upon arriving, we were met with a shirtless, skinny, tattoo-covered young man sitting on the front stoop smoking a cigarette.  The son, we guessed.  We guessed correctly.  After exchanging pleasantries and learning that the cat did, in fact, belong to the family, we scooted upstairs to plan our evening.

 We decided to venture north to New Haven, to The Original Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana.  It’s this amazing little pizza place for which people line up down the street to get a table.  It’s been around since 1925 in the same location and owned by the same family.  Check is out at pepespizzeria.com.  It was scrumptious.  Certainly different than our usual New York City pie, but amazing nonetheless. 

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Only slightly tipsy from the entire bottle of wine we drank, we decided then to stroll the campus of the Ivy League member Yale University.  We imagined ourselves in more scholarly pursuits than our art schools offered us.  We dreamed of singing in the Whiffenpoofs and eating in the Spoonery.  And we watched all the kids move into their dorms for the start of the semester.  None of them looked smarter than us, we decided, so we totally should have gone to Yale. 

Because Becca had never been, and because there was one right by the entrance to the highway, and because we had nothing better to do and because we were on vacation, gosh darnit, we went to IKEA.  This activity needs no greater explanation.  It was pure, unadulterated, built-it-yourself furniture bliss.  We didn’t buy anything, but boy howdy did we make some I-want lists.

Full of pizza, popcorn, French Toast, and tired from a fun-filled day, we made our way back to the house to sleep.

It was a good first day of vacation. 

Stay tuned for PART TWO in my next post!