Neon Art

I’ve always liked neon signs.  There’s something kitschy about them, of course, but also something classically American — bold, consciously attempting to be memorable and attract passersby, naked in their capitalistic purpose, and often dosed with fantasy or humor.  Plus, neon really looks cool at night.

Downtown Boston has come up with a great way to celebrate — and preserve — some of these neon relics of a.past America.  On one of the small strips of land between the downtown area and the waterfront, called the Greenway, neon signs have been positioned around the perimeter.  The signs draw visitors like moths to light.  Two of my favorites were the Siesta Motel, with its cactus and sombrero theme, and the Flying Yankee Restaurant, with its rocket ship and flaming trail.  The Siesta Motel, which dates from 1950, was located in Saugus, Massachusetts — where its southwestern-themed sign must have stood out like a sore thumb — and the Flying Yankee Restaurant, which dates from 1953, long before rocket ships were commonplace, was located in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Don’t you wish you’d had a chance to see these signs on the great American road during the ’50s, and perhaps stop at the Flying Yankee for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie?

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The Long Wharf

I’m in Boston for work, staying down in the old financial district near waterfront. Last night I took a walk out onto the Long Wharf, which juts out into the Charles River. The area has been a focus of redevelopment efforts, and last night it was crowded with people getting on and off harbor boat tours, enjoying an after-work beverage and the music at an outdoor gathering spot on the wharf, and trying to decide which of the many nearby restaurants to select for the night’s dinner.

It’s a great area if you’re a Midwestern landlubber who always enjoys checking out real harbors. There were sailboats on the water, enormous chains and tie-off pilings, and a sense of bustling activity that you always get at a busy harbor. It’s a fun thing to watch and experience, and gives you a good sense of what making the waterfront easily accessible to walkers and joggers can mean for a town.

The Only Guy In The Restaurant

When you’re on the road a lot, you get used to skipped meals and eating at usual times. Today my travel to Boston meant that I didn’t eat anything until dinner time. By the time it got close to 6 p.m. I was famished, headed to a restaurant down the street from my hotel with book in hand, and once again found myself once again . . . . the only guy in the restaurant.

This happens from time to time. Still, it’s a little weird being the only guy in the restaurant. When you’re seated, they tend to put you in the rear, back in the shadows. Nobody wants to put a single, potentially creepy old loner reading a book up front, because it doesn’t send a fun-filled message designed to entice people passing by to stop in, unless the restaurant is eager to attract potential serial killers. A table of four or six laughing twenty-somethings will always get put in the front window; the bookish old nerd gets shunted to the back, where he hopefully won’t be seen by anyone until he finishes his food and slinks out of there.

This isn’t actually a bad thing, if you’re truly interested in reading your book. It’s quiet in the rear, and you aren’t disturbed by the hormonal antics or vapid conversation of young professionals out after work. You read your book, eat your food, and move on. And you try not to notice when the maitre d breathes a sigh of relief to see you head out the front door.

Calling For Seasonal Workers

Go to any seaside town — or for that matter, any resort, tourist destination, or other business that does seasonal work — and you’re likely to hear the same refrain:  the local shops and restaurants just can’t find enough employees to fill their needs.

summerhelp_crop380wOn one of our first nights in Stonington, we went to an event where we rubbed elbows with some of the locals, and one of the big topics of conversation was the labor shortage.  One restaurant that the residents particularly like didn’t open this summer because it just couldn’t find enough workers, and another had to cut back its meal service.  And as you walk around town, you see the same young people working at multiple places.  The young woman taking your order behind the lunch counter today is likely to be working at the local hardware store tomorrow.

There are two primary causes for this situation.  The first is the unemployment rate, which is at its lowest level in years.  In June, the unemployment rate was 4.0 percent.  Some economists think, practically speaking, that’s as close to “full employment” as America is likely to get.  That’s good news for workers, who have lots of bargaining power and who can command higher wages.  But it also means that some of the Americans who might otherwise gladly fill seasonal jobs waiting tables on the seashore or working at gift shops are already working full-time in other positions, leaving seasonal employers without the pool of labor they had drawn on in the past.

And the second cause is the H2-B program, which allows employers to obtain visas to bring in “guest workers” from overseas.  The problem, though, is that the program is capped at 66,000 visas each year — a number that hasn’t changed since 1992.  This year, more than 5,600 businesses applied for more than 142,000 such visas, and the Department of Labor had to allocate the visas by lottery.  If you weren’t one of the lucky winners — as was the case with some of the businesses here — you’re out of luck.

And it’s particularly tough for labor-intensive businesses like restaurants.  Owners can man the cash registers and restock the shelves at gift shops, but they can’t really serve as cook, waiter, busboy, and dishwasher all at the same time.  As one of the restaurants here realized, the only alternative is to not open for business.

A lot has changed in the American economy since 1992.  Maybe Congress should take a break from its constant fundraising and look at updating a program that provides a useful safety valve for small businesses who are dependent upon recruiting seasonal workers.

Not Exactly Cutthroat Capitalism

There’s a deliberate pace to life on Deer Isle that’s just different from what you see in cities. This disclosure of hours of operation on the door of a shop in the Village of Deer Isle — a shop that happened to be closed, by the way — captured the prevailing spirit perfectly.

Not open today? No problem! Just drop by tomorrow. We’ll probably be here.

At one store we visited, the proprietor was perched behind the cash register working on some acoustic guitar riffs. Chords took priority over capitalism.

Screen Repair

Yesterday I fixed the screen door.

For the capable do-it-yourselfers out there, a screen door repair would not even be worth mentioning. On the home improvement spectrum, it’s barely above changing a light bulb. But I’m no handyman, and any time I can do anything in that category it is a red-letter day.

It wasn’t hard to fix the screen door, really. The screen had pulled loose from the frame — no doubt because people had been pushing against the screen, rather than the metal bar, to open the door — and it just needed to be reattached. That meant removing a rubberized strip from the frame, pulling the screen taut, and reinserting the strip over the screen and into the frame to hold the screen tight. Once I figured out how the door was designed, it wasn’t hard to fix it, but I still felt a certain welling sense of pride at my small step on the path to handyman status.

The Rubicon has been crossed! Time to go buy a tool belt.

The Ole Swimmin’ Hole

The ocean alone the Maine coastline is scenic and rugged, but it’s pretty brisk for a leisurely swim. So when the Deer Isle residents want to take a dip, they head to the “Lily Pond,” don their swimming caps, and make like Mark Spitz. When we visited today, some of the swimmers were impressively doing freestyle laps from one end of the pond to the other — which is a distance of at least several hundred yards.

The Lily Pond has been the swimming hole for so long that generations of Deer Islers used the same rope swing, on the same tree, to launch themselves out into the pond. Alas! Some years ago the tree broke and the rope swing was a tradition and rite of passage no longer. The locals say the Pond just hasn’t been the same since.