L and I have spent the last two Saturday mornings taking a bus from Port Authority to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in order to go visit James. Bethlehem is the kind of snug little town where one might move in order to participate in the Witness Protection Program; James is there, however, for grad school classes at Lehigh, so the only logical thing to do was head over to Bethlehem to check it out.
It seems like the history of that town is symbolized by the great steel mills hunched over the river. They used to be the engine of the town's economy and culture, yet they now rest empty and disintegrating. Walking through the south side of town last week, we were struck by the vacant parking lots and the eerily quiet sidewalks; it seemed like the town had been built for people who were no longer there. All of the mills shared the same rusty color, the same uniform degree of decay. A few broken windows, a few tall weeds.
But if that's the past of this once-proud city, what, pray tell, it its future? The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, baby! That bus we took from Port Authority brought us to the door of the casino. To reward us for riding the bus, casino personnel clambered aboard as soon as we pulled up and distributed plastic cards pre-loaded with $30 for use at the machines, a little gift card to encourage your gambling and ever so gently nudge you towards the slots. The casino itself appears to have been built in the husk of an old steel facility. The great central room is bright and vibrant and orange; there is an audible hum coming from the scores of computerized slot machines speckled across the floor, a single golden high note ringing constantly. It sounds like angels, it sounds like money, it sounds like action. To me this strange constant note was the most memorable part of all of it.
If only the patrons of this golden orange palace could match their surroundings. Most people we saw were at least two of the following: old, overweight, pushing walkers, and/or smoking constantly. It was somewhat grim.
When we arrived today we fled the casino immediately to experience the Blueberry Festival in town. This was delightful. We went to a petting zoo, but didn't touch any animals (including goats, sheep, pigs, and a calf, and a number of mangy birds). We ate barbecue. We walked through grassy lawns looking at crafts booths, like hand-woven baskets and homemade baby clothes and ipod cozies. We ate blueberry funnel cake. We saw a horse-powered carousel. We watched a pie-eating contest. We went on a tour of the plantation where the festival was held, and learned all about the Moravians, who, to my disappointment, were not an alien race who colonized parts of Pennsylvania and then interbred with the locals, but rather a group of Protestants who seem perfectly nice and reasonable.
We returned to the casino for a few rounds of gambling with our free $30, as well as dinner at Emeril's Chop House, the fancy Emeril Lagasse restaurant that is his only establishment in the entire northeast. We had a lovely time, although the restaurant seemed surprisingly sophisticated for being nestled in the desperate, smoky heart of a casino. We felt awkward in casual clothes and flip flops, and I was clenching my feet as we walked to minimize that thwacking sound, and holding my head high with the knowledge that I was indeed wearing my finest cargo shorts.
On the way back tonight I just listened to music and watched the darkened countryside slowly assemble itself into the city skyline. It was good to leave the city, even better to spend a few hours with James. Not bad for a Saturday.
P.S. This last picture was from last Saturday, thus the different clothes and the longer hair on me. Do you know how much that beautiful pitcher of beer cost? Maybe four bucks. I'm telling you, it's a great town.