Arts, Entertainment, Living

Hitting the Steinbeck Highway

Thursday, 23 September 2010 08:34 AM Written by

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Steinbeck's Driveway -- Miles Zero

Goodbye, Sag Harbor.

It's 7 a.m. My RAV4 is in Steinbeck's driveway, ready for launching.

I'm sure he wouldn't mind my trespassing.  The ferry to New London, Conn. -- back to the continent -- embarks at 10.



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'Big Bang Theory' vs. 'Community' vs. 'My Generation'

Thursday, 23 September 2010 04:00 AM Written by

It's not unusual for viewers to face tough decisions when it comes to viewing choices. It happens all the time that networks schedule popular shows against one another. That's competition.

Big_Bang_TheoryBut tonight's matchup of CBS hit "The Big Bang Theory" (8 p.m., KDKA) against struggling NBC sitcom "Community" (8 p.m., WPXI) is particularly wrenching as TV choices go for fans of quality comedy.

And then there's ABC's "My Generation" (8 p.m., WTAE), a dreadful series that should pose no threat to the competing comedies.

Read more after the jump. ...

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Me and Steinbeck's Ghost

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 11:20 PM Written by

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Steinbeck's House

Before the sun set on the last day of summer, and before the harvest moon rose, I drove out to Steinbeck's seashore house on Bluff Point Lane. The GPS Girl had no trouble finding it, but the house hides at the end of a narrow private gravel road.

I didn't pull in the driveway because John Stefanik's car was there. He's been taking care of the house for 28 years -- when widow Elaine hired him to do the job.

The wood-sided house and its outer buildings and thick shaggy grass were looking pretty good beneath the heavy shade of the lot's tall and muscular oak trees.

The oaks are much bigger than they were when Steinbeck lived there, of course, and the house and other structures -- dark green 50 years ago -- have been painted slate-gray. But Steinbeck would have recognized it in its preserved state. DSC_1536_copy

Stefanik said on Monday a New York Times reporter and photographer went with him to the house to do a story about the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's "Charley" trip.

Though he usually asks for appointments from pushy media-types like me, as soon as I explained why I was there he let me wander around and take pictures as the sun set over the waters of Morris Cove. DSC_1556_copy

Stefanik couldn't have been nicer. While he and his son ran noisy garden gadgets and did yard work, I did my best impression of a real photojournalist and tried to document the scene in the failing orange-red light.

When the Stefaniks drove off they left me in the driveway with my cameras and, I guess, Steinbeck's ghost.


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Sidewalks of Sag Harbor

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 09:59 PM Written by

 SAG HARBOR, N.Y.  -- MILE 506

Before I came here I joked that Sag Harbor probably hasn't changed as much in the last 50 years as Cuba has.

Not so.

Today the Main Street of this village of about 2,500 is busy and thriving with commerce and  well-preserved character and charm.

Lots of flapping American flags, handsome old brick buildings, time-warped storefronts, a five-and-dime variety store, a hardware emporium, book store, art galleries, coffee shops, pizza joints, nice restaurants.

They are mixed in with real-estate offices whose windows look like they're advertising presidential palaces of Third World despots; the old barber shop where Steinbeck got his hair cut; the neony Sag Harbor Theater and the impossibly expensive American Hotel and restaurant/bar.

The American Hotel smells old and rich and has one of the scariest menus I've ever seen. I didn't know what the day's featured entree was, but before I averted my eyes I noticed it cost $110. Maybe it was for 14 people.waalkers_copy_copy_copy


maartys_barberDSC_latinos1520_copyAt 4 p.m., the sidewalks were jumping with little old ladies, moms and tots, a kid patrolling on a skateboard, dog-walkers, Latino men with cell phones waiting on benches for the bus and locals like Donnie.

Donnie -- maybe he was 50 -- was leaning against the wall of  Illusions, an artsy jewlery store.  He and his brother ran an auto repair shop whose customers once included Elaine Steinbeck, Steinbeck's third and last wife.

 When Donnie and his mother moved to Sag Harbor in the 1970s, he said there were plenty of boarded up storefronts on Main Street. In the '60s, there were "30 bars" on Main Street like the Black Buoy, John Steinbeck's regular haunt.

Sag Harbor was never on the Long Island RR line and apparently it was the last Hamptons town to be colonized by the rich and famous. 

Steinbeck was a pioneer, moving here in the 1950s. But Donnie said it was Peter Jennings of ABC who moved to Sag Harbor and made it acceptable for Hamptonians to live north of the highway, whatever that meant.

 When I mentioned the z-word -- "zoning" -- as a possible explanation for the town's frozen-in-time character, I thought Donnie was going to explode. He once tried to open a car wash and was quashed by the zoning police.

When he told me about the historic/architectural review nazis who made getting a simple business sign a six-month ordeal, he reminded me of me. We quickly bonded like brothers, even though he was born in Australia.

 muniWhen Donnie's friend Mike walked by, he called him over and told him I was asking about Steinbeck. Mike, of course, happened to be from Pittsburgh's North Side.

He first came here in 2000 to renovate a vacation house for a Pittsburgh couple. He liked it so much, he stayed and now lives in an apartment above a store on Main Street. I suspect he won't be the last ex-patriated Pittsburgher I'll meet. 

 Mike, who told me his last name but asked me not to use it, was full of local history/knowledge.

Sag Harbor is the "unHampton." Unlike South-, North- and Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor is not ruined by chain stores and box stores.

By chain stores, Mike didn't mean Walmarts and CVSes, he meant Gucci and Coach and Saks. He actually liked the architectural review board's work and wished it had been started long before 1972 because it would have preserved more of the town's authenticity.

 Like Donnie, Mike explained that Sag Harbor has a core population of less than 3,000 that jumps to about 15,000 in summer.

A thousand boats swarm to the great harbor that once drew whaling ships. Ten will be mega-yachts -- 200-footers -- and dozens are 100-footers.

Mike, 54,  makes his living building and designing homes in the Hamptons. Except for summer, he said it's a nice quiet town. It's also bitter cold and wet and pretty uncomfortable in the winter, when the sidewalks are as empty during the day as they are in September  at 9:30 at night.

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Driving in Squares

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 01:53 PM Written by


I never even got close to Staten Island.

Somehow, in part because I was talking on my cell to a Sag Harbor newspaper guy, on the southerly way to Long Island I ended up getting sucked into the Holland Tunnel.

Guess my cargo pod didn’t cause any suspicion from Homeland Security.

I popped out in the human and commercial madness that is Manhattan.



Hundreds – literally – of cops standing in teams of four at intersections and in the street, waving and pointing at cars.

It didn’t matter where the GPS Girl wanted me to turn or what color the traffic lights were.  It was the traffic cops’ call.


For 40 minutes I was driving in squares trying to escape from New York. There’s a movie title there somewhere.

I survived and am now headed east down the Long Island Expressway at interstate speed, though this is being written from a Wendy’s on the way.

I guess there’s no way to get to Sag Harbor w/o first being tortured by NYC.

No wonder Steinbeck lived at the far end of Long Island.


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Smooth Driving

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 08:20 AM Written by


The drive to Somerset, N.J., last night was the way it was drawn up in the playbook -- smooth and uneventful.

All the way on the PA Turnpike to I-81 and into north Jersey the traffic was light to nonexistent -- are we in a recession or something?

The road was generally smooth, the weather perfect, the trucks well-behaved. No tailgaters. Few cops.

Little to do, driving-wise, but put it on cruise control and relax. Lots of great music on the Sirius blues channel -- Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim and even John Mellencamp did a good cover of a classic. Blues, jazz, rock, country, whatever -- it sounds even better when it's blasting at high volume on a dark empty road.

Miles per gallon not too good for a RAV4 because of the cargo carrier on the roof -- almost 19 mpg at a cruising speed of 72. It'll get higher when I hit the slower two-lane highways Steinbeck took. 

Steinbeck covered some of the same road I did last night in 1960.

At the end of his trip, when he was tired and dispirited and desperate to just get home to his Manhattan brownstone, he came up US 11 from the South and hopped on the PA Turnpike at Carlisle. He flew up the Jersey Turnpike but had a last-minute glitch.  

As he wrote in "Charley," he was turned away from the Holland Tunnel because of his potentially explosive propane tanks -- were the tanks really that dangerous in the bad old days or did they think he was a terrorist?

He ended up having to take the ferry across the Hudson from Hoboken, something you can't do with a car today. I'm headed to Steinbeck's other pad, the summer one in Sag Harbor, via Staten Island and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

It's 139 miles and almost three hours away  -- on paper. 

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Newcomer Jake Lacy: 'Better With You'

Wednesday, 22 September 2010 04:00 AM Written by

jake_lacy_useBEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- It's a truism that TV makes stars. Every fall TV season, fresh faces arrived on our TVs and some of those folks, who we've never heard of before, go on to have huge careers.

Of course, we can't predict who those standouts will be. I'm still wondering why Nan Woods, who played donut dolly Cherry on the first couple of season of "China Beach," quit acting and disappeared from TV.

So who knows what will become of Jake Lacy, the newcomer who stars in ABC's "Better with You" (8:30 tonight, WTAE), but he makes a positive first impression.

Read more after the jump. ...

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Getting to the launch site

Tuesday, 21 September 2010 07:16 PM Written by

SOMERSET, PA.  --  PA Turnpike -- MILE 72.6 

The hardest part of starting this trip -- besides saying goodbye to my wife Trudi and besides packing and besides dealing with a dead DroidX and besides learning how to work a Samsung Galaxy S less than 24 hours after getting it -- may be getting to the launch pad, Sag Harbor, N.Y. 

Sag Harbor is at the most expensive end of Long Island in the Hamptons and New Yorkers can't go much farther east or they’ll become European.  Steinbeck had a second home there on the sea with his backyard on little Morris Cove.

From my house-on-a-hilltop 20 miles south of Pittsburgh it’s going to be a straight-east distance of 489 miles – and right through the core of the Big Apple. I’ve never been there, but I know you have to fight your way for hours through the urban jungle of New York and its 10 billion cars.

I know nothing about Sag Harbor except that it's upscale and it’s a historic old whaling port. Herman Melville and John Fennimore Cooper used to hang there before Col. Drake’s oil wells in northwestern Pennsylvania brought us the oil industry that we’re all supposed to hate.

Of course the oil industry killed off the whaling business, saved the sperm whale from extinction and allowed Sag Harbor to evolve into a quaint fishing village of 2,500 where rich & famous guys like Steinbeck could hide and live in peace. 

Tonight I'll sleep for about $66 bucks in a Crowne Plaza in Somerset, N.J., courtesy of I’ll get to Sag Harbor sometime tomorrow morning, meet with a writer for a local paper who contacted me and then I'll scout out the scene.

Of course I'll genuflect at Steinbeck's house and take some photos.

I know I’m not the only nut setting out to follow Steinbeck’s long trail Thursday morning, but I hope I don't find 100 people with black standard French poodles camped out on his lawn.

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