Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Over the Peace Bridge and Into the Woods
Yesterday, following in the footsteps of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Gustav and Alma Mahler, I made my way to Niagara Falls. My mission: to interview Leonard Pennario's decorator, Phil, who is participating in a bridge tournament there.
It was an adventure from the start -- I mean, right from when I crossed over the Peace Bridge after work. I have a little game I play at Customs, I have to confess this. I like to be able to mention Leonard Pennario. It is cheating to volunteer his name outright. The idea is to goad the inspector into asking: "Who are you writing your book about?"
Then I get to say "Leonard Pennario." And I have won! You know that sound you hear when you are walking through the Niagara Casino and hear quarters pouring in a torrent into someone's cup? That is how I feel when an inspector at customs asks me who I am writing my book about.
So. There I am, 4:30 p.m., at the Peace Bridge's spanking new toll plaza which, by the way, I have never seen before. I pull up to the booth and there's a woman in it. Good! Women are more fussy and they quiz you to death which means there is a greater chance I will get to mention Pennario.
And this woman did quiz me to death. She looked at my driver's license. Then back to me. At my license. At me. She asked what I was doing in Canada. I said I was working on a book and had to interview someone who was visiting the Falls for a bridge tournament.
I could have just said I was visiting a friend. But I was afraid if I did that she would just wave me on through and my chances of mentioning Pennario would be nil.
As it was, I chose wisely, because we ended up in this convoluted conversation with her asking me if I was paying Phil for the interview, or if he was paying me, and me saying no one was paying anyone, and she asked where I work, and I told her. She frowned. Things were looking good! And then she asked: "What is your book about?"
I could have said Pennario's name then. But I wanted to up the bar, make things more challenging for myself. "A great concert pianist," I said.
She did not ask who it was. No one ever does. But she kept on quizzing me, about whether I knew anyone in Canada, who this guy was I was meeting, why he was here, etc. Until finally I said: "The pianist I am writing about is Leonard Pennario. He died, this is one of his friends, and I am talking to him about Leonard Pennario."
I said it twice!! I wanted to reward myself after all my fine strategizing.
I smiled about that all the way down the QEW.
Meeting Phil was fun although our conversation turned out to be not in the august surroundings I pictured yesterday. We just talked in Phil's room. He had everything ready -- all his notes and, to my delight, cute 8-oz ice-cold bottles of Coke. God, I love real Coke. Actual Coke, with sugar. I don't know when the last time was I had one. It was more fun than drinking wine and coming from me that is saying quite a bit.
Phil's room was not only not Marilyn Monroe's room, it was not even at the Brock. The bridge tournament was at the Brock. He was staying at the Skyline Inn. Which was really weird! It took me a million years to find his room. There are these indoor courtyards you have to walk through and this opaque number system. I was not the only one lost. There was this guy who was lost too. Here is a picture I took while I was lost.
And here is a picture of Phil. He was terrific and very erudite and we did a lot of talking about Pennario's life and career. Also the lives and careers of a few other pianists. Phil was also a good friend of Liberace's. Leonard did not like Liberace. That is my coat and hat on the bed. Observe the two bottles of Coke visible to the right.
I looked forward to my customs adventure on the way home. And I was not disappointed.
Actually I was pretty lucky, I see that now. Howard tells me you need this new document to cross the Peace Bridge. I did not have that. Also, my passport had just expired. All I had was my driver's license. I do have a passport that has not expired, but it was Pennario's. I should have handed them that! That would have gotten the conversation around to Pennario pretty quickly.
The guy at the Peace Bridge on the way home did what the previous inspector had done. He looked at my license. Looked at me.
Then he asked for another photo ID. I gave him my work I.D.
He stared some more. Asked some questions. Finally he said, "The reason I'm asking is, you have braces. And the person in this picture" -- he showed the license -- "has perfect, straight teeth."
"You're kidding," I said. I didn't know what to say. The thing is, that picture was taken by Jocko's friend Electra, who used to take the pictures at the Northtown Auto Bureau. Electra is like the Annie Leibowitz of driver's license picture takers. She makes you look great. This is the best picture I have ever had taken of myself and it is on my driver's license. Unfortunately Electra retired. When I get my picture taken next year it will be back to the real world.
The customs inspector went back and forth about my teeth and my braces. I told him I got the braces in March, etc. I said people used to mock out my teeth when they wanted to be mean to me. I can't believe I told him that but I wanted to tell the truth.
He said he was going to have to pull me over.
"That's fine," I said brightly. Being pulled over meant that surely I would be able to mention Leonard Pennario. Perhaps if they detained me a while I could discuss him in depth! "I like the increased security," I said.
Which was a tactical error. Because I wound up not being pulled over after all. The inspector said he was just gauging my reaction. By the time I left that booth we were joking together about how Barack Obama is going to raise our taxes. And there had been no opportunity for me to mention Leonard Pennario. I lost that round.
You win some, you lose some.
Next time I will know better. When they say they are pulling me over, I will gripe!