The Pok-a-Dot and other attractions of Batavia, NY

We’ve fallen into the habit of spending the night in Batavia on our drives East.  It mostly just happens to fall at a good spot for us to break for the night, but we also kind of like it.

We have a big soft spot for a popular Greek diner-type 24-hour restaurant called Sport of Kings (named for the nearby seedy-looking racetrack) where you can get a really good chicken Souvlaki plenty big enough for two to share for $10.99.  Tip: get it with the sweet potatoes.  Sport of Kings is a great place to settle into for some comfort food (fantastic rice pudding, too) after driving for 9 1/2 hours (no beer, though, unfortunately).

This visit, though, we discovered what is now my favorite establishment in Batavia, the Pok-a-Dot diner, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

photoAmazing place, no?  [What is a Beef on Weck, you ask?  Well, I still have never eaten one, but it is a central element of the distinctive Western New York state regional cuisine, a kind of sliced roast beef sandwich on a kosher-salt-topped roll, dipped in “au jus.”  Here’s a fuller explanation.]

Here’s the inside.

photo copy 2As someone commented in a posting, it feels a bit like a slightly amplified food truck.  One pregnant woman complained/ commented that she had trouble fitting into the bathroom, and it’s true that it’s quite a squeeze– feels like you’re on a boat, with a wooden sliding door!

The Pok-a-Dot was apparently a favorite of Batavia’s most famous native son author, John Gardner– best known for his Beowulf retelling Grendel, and nowhere near as prominent now, I don’t think, as he was in his heyday in the 60s and 70s… but perhaps ripe for a revival, I don’t know.  The John Gardner society holds their annual readings at the Pok-a-Dot because it’s mentioned in his 1972 novel set in a fantastical Batavia, the Sunlight Dialogues, which (wiki) “follows Batavia police chief Fred Clumly in his pursuit of a magician known as the Sunlight Man, a champion of existential freedom and pre-biblical Babylonian philosophy. As Clumly believes in absolute law, order, justice and a Judeo-Christian world view, the two butt their ideological heads in a number of dialogues, all recorded on audiocassette by Clumly.”

Here’s a little plaque the John Gardner society had erected outside the Pok-a-Dot:

photo copy

Breakfast was pretty great. We ordered as much as we thought we could possibly eat, for four, with coffees, etc, and the total was something like $19.60.  Sarah and I each had the eggs-with-peppers– you can choose Hot or Sweet or Mixed, and I got the latter.  Delicious, filled with tomatoes too, and accompanied by a buttery hard roll toasted on the grill.  I was kind of hoping I’d get a “weck” (see above) but it did not have the salt so was I guess simply a hard roll.

Before concluding my guide to Batavia, I will mention the place we’ve stayed for our last couple visits, the Sunset Motel.  I kind of like this place though can’t really give it an all-out recommendation.  It is a bit shabby and really could use some fixing up.  It is clean, however, and the place has some charms.  It has a large field in back which is great for taking the dog and kids on a little run, and features some spooky cow and deer figurines:

photo copy 4And, remarkably, the interior back wall of the motel features a worn/fading mural featuring an accurate rendering of the motel’s proprietor holding a glass of wine (very debonair!) and accompanied by a Shih-Tzu (he currently has two of these) and two Dobermans.

photo copy 3As I said, this place could definitely use a renovation– for example, it was rather difficult to get our motel room door shut — you had to put a shoulder to it.  But I give it a lot of credit for the wacky mural and the uncanny deer.

Rat’s/ Fresh Clams/ Mussels/ Cherry Stones

I have been amused/ disturbed by this sign, on route 102 on Mt Desert Island (Maine) as you approach Town Hill, for years.  The sign used to be weirder before they added the quotation marks, and maybe the apostrophe too– I swear that it used to just be straight-up Rats/ Fresh Clams, but then they finally added the quotation marks to clarify.

Anyway — the punch line is that Rat’s is fantastic!!!  Great lobsters and steamers and the people are lovely.  “Rat” is the guy’s first name, I do not know what it is short for.  They have a nice chicken coop too (thus the eggs).

Highly recommended…

Music Videos @ Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Another visit in Cincinnati was to the Contemporary Arts Center, which for a while was the only building in the U.S. designed by Pritzker-prize-winning, Rem Koolhaus-protege, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.

From wiki: “A winner of many international competitions, theoretically influential and groundbreaking, a number of Hadid’s winning designs were initially never built: notably, The Peak Club in Hong Kong (1983) and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales (1994).”  It’s funny to look at a (seemingly abandoned/ not up to date — only up to 1990) accounting of her early works: over and over, “Not Realized.”  Here is a good, albeit somewhat skeptical, analysis of the Cincinnati museum.  I like the building, although it is showy and I agree with the critique that “we are often forced to acknowledge the building at times when perhaps we should be admiring the work presented inside the building instead.” Although maybe that is not such a problem really.

(I just remembered an amusing bit in Bruce Wagner’s good novel Memorial — the protagonist is a semi-successful bitter architect who is always mentally fulminating about various international art and architecture stars including, obsessively, “fucking Zaha Hadid.”)

Right now the whole experience is very 21st-century and postmodern (or late 20th-century anyway) since the building is full of a show about the history of music videos.  I actually thought it held up pretty well — although most of the videos are things you could easily pull up on Youtube, they did make sense as a curated collection, and the experience of watching them on large screens with headphones in this context was often pretty engaging.  No question of course that music videos have been a major occasion for groundbreaking aesthetic experiment over the past 30 years.  A lot of Bjork… there was one whole little room based around her amazing video for “Wanderlust” featuring these somewhat Snuffleupagus-like felt yak creatures.  Also several Kanye West videos (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” lip-synched by Zack Galifianakis and Bonnie Prince Billy in the sidekick/Flava Flav role = great; the “Runaway” video featuring an apparent Victoria’s Secret model in painted-on feathers in the Man Who Fell to Earth angel role = crap), early David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, several Michel Gondry videos, Missy Elliot and Hype Williams’s fantastic “The Rain,” all kinds of other stuff.

There was a huge, noisy school group there (once they left, we were almost the only ones in the whole place) and the guards kept shutting off certain screens in order to protect the sensibilities of the little brats.  There was one little room specifically dedicated to “Controversial” videos which featured little peepholes you had to peer through — quite irritating actually as, ironically, you had to kneel to see them if you were over 5′ 5″ tall.  These mostly weren’t too exciting — the one I’d never seen that made an impression was the rather creepily erotic and fascinating video for a song called “Twin Flames” by the Klaxons.

Nick Cave Soundsuits @ Cincinnati Museum of Art

We made a little Spring Break visit to Cincinnati this week, and one highlight was the show of Nick Cave “soundsuits” at the Cincinnati Museum of Art.  This is not the Australian musician Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds but the African-American, Missouri-born artist.  (At first I thought, geez, if you have the same name as an iconic/famous musician, wouldn’t you use Nicholas or something professionally? But it turns out the poor guy is only two years younger than the Australian Nick Cave.)

The soundsuits are body suits made of fur and (sometimes human) hair and decorated with buttons and various other appendages, tassels, sequins, feathers, and patterns.  They’re really beautiful, often funny & joyful, sometimes a bit scary, sometimes in the form of bears or other totemic animals.  In some ways they’re very simple — as much textile art, fashion and costuming as high-concept art; obviously influenced by drag outfits and probably New Orleans Indian Mardi Gras costumes, not to mention actual Native American or other indigenous shaman or ritual clothing.  One room was screening a video of the artist (and others?) dressed in the suits, dancing and generating the sounds and noise that they are designed to make when moving.  But in fact they worked very well as more static sculptural displays.

Part of what was neat about seeing them was the clever way they’d been integrated into the museum.  The Cincinnati Art Museum is a big, old-school, traditional 19th-century art museum with a pretty impressive collection of Old Master-type work from the last few centuries.   They scattered the soundsuits throughout the entire collection such that you follow blue arrows on the ground from room to room to come upon them integrated with the permanent collection.  They often seemed to be playing off the Japanese ceramics or 18th-century French painting or whatever it was in that room; although I never felt sure how intentionally or expressly the juxtapositions had been been planned, it often felt as if there were subtle parallels or echoes at play.

The girls really loved them too, and would gasp and exclaim when we came upon a new one.  It was definitely art an 8-year-old girl could relate to, all about the transformative power of costumes and dressing up.

Here’s a video interview of the artist with some of the suits:

Brilliance/ Craziness of the St Louis City Museum

We had a great visit with friends to St Louis this weekend.  The zoo was fantastic… the Botanical Gardens amazing: we especially enjoyed a temporary exhibit up at the moment on “Extreeme Tree-houses” — at least a dozen “tree houses” made by artists, these not up in trees but around the bases.  All enchanting/engaging in different ways.

But here I want to discuss the great, amazing and very strange City Museum.  We forgot a camera so I am going to rely on the museum’s promo photos.

It’s difficult to convey how different this place is from any other “children’s museum” I’ve seen.   It has some of the qualities of Willy Wonka’s castle or a haunted house, I thought.  I commented to Sarah at one point that it feels like something set up by psychoanalysis-influenced surrealists in Argentina in the 1930s.  Here are a few tidbits from Wikipedia:

City Museum is a museum, consisting largely of repurposed architectural and industrial objects, housed in the former International Shoe building.  …The museum bills itself as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” Visitors are encouraged to feel, touch, climb on, and play in the various exhibits…City Museum was founded by artist Bob Cassilly, who remains the museum’s artistic director, and his then-wife Gail Cassilly. The museum’s building was once a shoe factory and warehouse but was mostly vacant when the Cassillys bought it in 1993. Construction began in January 1995 and the building opened to the public on October 25, 1997. The museum has since expanded, adding new exhibits such as MonstroCity in 2002, Enchanted Caves and Shoe Shaft in 2003, and World Aquarium in 2004. A circus ring on the third floor offers daily live acts. The City Museum also houses The Shoelace Factory, whose antique braiding machines makes colorful shoelaces for sale.

A minute or so into our visit, Celie and Iris and their buddy Thea climbed up into the curling metal slinky-like tunnel you can see in the center of this photo.  They disappeared from view.  Where did they go?  We had no idea.  There is no way to find out.  They popped out somewhere.  At one point we heard their voices in the din.  For a while we thought we would have to climb in too to find them, but were worried we were too fat.  Eventually we went up some nearby ramp and eventually spotted them across several shafts and small bodies of water, stone dinosaur heads, and numerous other chutes and passages leading into the ceiling, walls, or floor.  Some tight passages and tunnels end abruptly such that you have to back your way back out.  At one point I found myself walking through an enormous 19th-century bank vault door that felt as if it might clang behind me.  There are a lot of opportunities to walk into the mouth of some creature or another.  Some very digestive shapes in the tubes and cylinders.  You kind of feel you might get dumped down into the garbage compactor of the Death Star.

The whole museum is kind of like this.  In one spot there’s a small closet-like door or rather hole in the wall.  If you go in there you enter a somewhat creepy little labyrinth with several layers of wall space, lit by a few dim Christmas bulbs.  You feel a bit like a mouse in the wall.  At other points you can look up and see people walking above, or look down and see some kid waving under your feet.

Somewhere in the central enclosed system of spaces on the first floor we encountered a heavily tattooed dude who was one of the first museum employees we’d encountered.  He pointed out to us a spiral staircase we could climb up that would eventually allow us to chute down a 10-story slide to the bottom.  When I asked him if it was scary for kids he said, “well, I put my 17 month-old in it, and he survived!”  We decided to give that one a miss.  Celie I did go down a shorter slide that created a beautiful kaleidoscopic effect as painted metal tubes spin from your hands.

It’s kind of like a Dangerous Museum for Girls and Boys.  I seriously am bewildered about the liability question.  I have to assume that they know what they’re doing, but kids must get hurt now and then (or at least scared and stuck).  Thea skinned her knee and there was a whole first-aid center at the front administering band-aids cheerfully.  But the kids were in ecstasy.  They were really exploring and it was not all administered and explained to death by adults.  There’s potential for some actually scary moments, but the overall feeling is joyfully creative and surprise-filled.  You can see all the seams of the museum, it’s kind of a giant Rube Goldberg device.

Outside we entered a teetering, winding metal structure hanging off the side of the building that led at one point to a de-purposed fighter jet.  Unnervingly, the inside was not really stripped clean but was bristling with cut off wires.  Iris sat in the cockpit and steered a bit.

Down below were some people selling beers and margaritas (!).  Sarah is convinced that anyone could apply to set up shop and sell something.

On weekend nights it is open until 1:00 a.m. and occasionally they have “sleepover nights” when you can camp out on the roof — which we did not even make it to; it apparently contains a Ferris wheel, and there is an aquarium somewhere.  There seemed to be a wedding going on, as various well-dressed older people started streaming in towards closing time.

?!!!  What a cool place, a wildly imaginative version of urban renewal via the arts.

One other tidbit from our trip — we happened basically by accident on this amazing restaurant, the Firefly Cafe, in Effingham Illinois.  Where the Eff is Effingham?  On 70 between Terre Haute and St Louis.  It’s in a giant former barn with a big organic garden attached and a lake in back filled with huge koi.  Saveur magazine or somewhere named it the #2 Most Sustainable restaurant in the U.S. a couple years ago.  We had a pretty light lunch but the food was fantastic– amazing beets and greens salads from the garden.  Want to figure out some way to arrange for dinner there.

100 Acres, Goose the Market

Indianapolis has always seemed like a surprisingly unexciting city for its size (pushing a million), even if I’m glad we live an hour away from the airport and a big-city mall, Trader Joe’s, etc.  (We’re sort of sick of the Children’s Museum, but it is very good.)  But lately the city has seemed to be looking up in various ways… We had a great little jaunt on Friday to our two new favorite places in town:

(1)  Goose the Market.  This place is sooo good.  We are dangerously obsessed with their Batali sandwich (named not for Mario but his father Armandino Batali, if you please), described by Bon Appetit, which named Goose the “top sandwich shop” in the U.S. a couple years ago, as “a standout Italian sandwich with coppa, soppressata, capocollo, provolone cheese, and tomato preserves.”  It’s a butcher/deli bar plus basement wine/beer bar plus small grocery with some nice vegetables, dried grains, and so on.  Really charming.  We did somehow manage to spend $48 on two sandwiches and what I imagined as “a few other things,” but really it’s not at all over-priced.

[photo from Helloindianapolis.com]

(2) We brought our Batalis and assorted snacks to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s “100 Acres” Art & Nature park for a picnic.  A New York Times article describes it:

Twenty bone-shaped benches by the Dutch artist and designer Joep van Lieshout sprawl across a meadow, forming a huge human skeleton; the piece, “Funky Bones,” is meant both to evoke the remains and artifacts of the American Indians who once lived in the region and to offer a place to picnic and lounge. A terraced pier overlooking the park’s 35-acre lake and resembling a topographical map was designed by the sculptor Kendall Buster of Richmond, Va., as a perch for fishing or reading, except when the lake floods every year. All eight of the artists’ installations, which dot the park’s unruly woodlands, wetlands, meadows and lake, were conceived to handle wear and tear from people as well as nature.

“We didn’t want it to be a precious thing,” said Lisa Freiman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art and director of the park. “There are no restrictions. Whether you create them or not, people will touch and climb on the sculpture anyway.”

The girls loved the place and tore from installation/sculpture to sculpture.  By chance we visited on the weekend when a very short-term project was in place, sound artist Craig Colorusso’s Sun Boxes:

Marvel at a field of 20 solar-powered speakers, each programmed with a different loop of guitar notes, for an effect of an overlapping field of sound. The sounds of Sun Boxes have been described as both soothing and energizing, as they react to the natural fluctuations of cloudiness and sun to create an ephemeral composition. All are welcome to enter the sound environment at will during the three-day installation.

These were lovely… you could hear at least traces of the sound throughout the park, rising and falling at intervals.  It was overcast (started to rain lightly just when we were leaving) and there were a bunch of people hanging around the boxes who I assume were ready to cover them with tarps (or remove them? probably the former) if needed.

The girls had not been particularly excited about this outing, and once we were there, they kept stressing that it was “so different from what I thought.”  When I pressed them about what they thought it would be, Iris said, “like an art museum, and next to it, just some normal sculptures.”

Our plan was to go afterward to Havana Cafe which we read about in this article about Indianapolis’s ethnic food scene, but we got too tired and went home.

Uncreative Destruction of Harvard Square

Creative destruction = Joseph Schumpeter’s account of capitalism’s dynamism based on innovation and the destruction and abandonment of the old.

I’m just the 10,001st person to complain about it in print, but Harvard Square has become an outdoor mall.  What’s distressing is not just the loss of all the old book stores, record stores, cafes and diners, but that they’ve mostly become outposts of multinationals — showcase locations for Adidas, Verizon, Bank of America, etc etc.

la flamme

I got my hair cut at La Flamme barbershop which is where it’s always been on Dunster Street.  I sometimes got haircuts here as a teenager.  Amusingly, I have a vague recollection that it was slightly pricey, and so I tended to prefer Central Barber on Mass. Ave. (where the Lemonheads got their trademark buzz cuts), but their current price is $14, so how much could it really have been in 1985?  I did not remember that it opened in this spot in 1898.  It’s very old-school with neat moldings, fixtures, and old-fashioned sinks.  I felt a little Rip Van Winklish, melancholy about all the transformation and loss of what used to make Harvard Square a distinct place rather than an abstract space for late capitalist consumption.  (Specifically, I was upset about the disappearance of the Harvard University Press display store, where I used to get Harvard UP paperbacks for $1, $5 or $10.  You could always find certain books on the dollar shelf: Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for example.)

What other Harvard Square institutions survive?  I just checked online and apparently Cafe Pamplona is still there, staffed (according to a Citysearch review) by “‘lanky, slightly despairing graduate students.”  (Sounds about right.)  Whew.  Any votes for most egregious transformation at a single address?

When and if the Harvard Book Store goes, I wash my hands of the place entirely.