I've hung out with poet Hai-Dang Phan in quite a few places. Since our first meeting in Certaldo, Italy in 2003, we've downed a few pints together in New York, Washington, Milwaukee, Iowa, Illinois, Philadelphia, Hanoi, Saigon and Vung Tau. This week, Hai-Dang flew down from Boston, and with his rented car, we spent two days visiting a handful of Pennsylvania and New Jersey towns.
I had wanted to show Hai-Dang Bethlehem and Allentown, but Steven Byler in Friendly Lounge suggested Intercourse, Lititz and other hamlets around Lancaster, so off we went, but the joke was on us, for Intercourse, at least, was nothing but a tourist trap, with stores peddling schlock paintings, garish animal sculptures, doofus T-shirts and Amish quilts, which are quite magnificent, undoubtedly, but mostly made by Hmong refugees.
Allentown's The Morning Call explained in 2006:
Most quilt shop owners do not mention their Southeast Asian workers. That would spoil the image of a Lancaster quilt as the product of strictly Amish or Mennonite hands. Quilt tags in pricey shops credit the work of Lancaster's Plain People, but rarely the Hmong, who are referred to as "local Lancaster quilters" if at all.
To keep the identities of these women from the eyes of tourists, some shop owners won't allow Hmong in their stores during business hours and make them use the back door when delivering piecework. One Amish shop owner once made a Hmong seamstress hide in the coal cellar. It is the dark side of the alliance that has existed for more than two decades.
The day was saved, however, for we found a very honest and hospitable bar in nearby New Holland, next to the railroad tracks. Its sign showed a flying dart, martini glass and an 8 ball, with "12 WINGS and 6 SHRIMP" advertised beneath it, but with no price. The Bud Light neon in its one window was turned on, and there were half a dozen cars and trucks in the parking lot.
Opening the door to a dark and surprisingly large space, we were greeted by Hank Williams' Lost Highway. "This is perfect!" I exclaimed. As opposed to Leon Payne's jaunty and oddly cheerful delivery, Williams imbued his slowed down rendition with just the right, genius dosage of grief, regret and world weariness, but that's why he's the man. A decade later, Johnny Horton would smear on us his cheeseball version.
There were 12 beers on tap, with some excellent microbrews, which beat, by a mile, all the Philly dives I haunt.
The Hank Williams medicine didn't last long, for soon after our first chug of Dogwood, the Village People's gay anthem came blasting on, "I've got to be a macho! (dig the hair on my chest) Macho, macho man (see my big thick moustache)." Raps and oldies alternated the rest of the evening.
We talked to a retired gentleman who made money, under the table, driving Amish people around. "It's the easiest job," Frank chuckled. "Some of these people have money, man. I know an Amish guy with 140 acres in Virginia, that he uses just for hunting deer and pheasants." Frank seemed very relaxed. He has a son studying at Drexel.
Frank, "The Amish do some weird things, but they're very good with their hands, and they know how to work. If you hire an Amish roofer, he won't quit even ten minutes early. They work hard, man. Same with the Mexicans. They'll get a lot more done than your average American."
Amish don't drink. That evening, I did talk to a young man who had left the Mennonite Church eight years earlier. After freaking out, his parents had calmed down. With his muscle T, bottle of Bud and pack of Marlboro, the cheerful dude appeared no different from the others, except he wasn't all tatted up. A woman put her arms around him. They laughed.
A prim couple ordered wings, french fries and onions rings, found everything disgusting, so threw paper napkins on their nearly full plate and left. We weren't the only strangers, obviously. Sensibly, the barkeep took the goodies to the other end of the bar, where a regular happily gobbled them up.
"I almost asked them for the food myself," I said to Kristen, laughing. "I'm glad you didn't throw it away."
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