I Share a Birthday with Lizzie Borden: An American Hauntings Zoom Recap

Today is an anniversary: on August 4, 1892, Andrew Jackson Borden and his second wife, Abby, were murdered in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew Borden’s daughter from his first marriage, Lizzie Andrew Borden (NOT Elizabeth), was eventually charged, tried, and acquitted for the murders. Nobody was ever convicted of the murders.

(Fun fact: Andrew Jackson Borden was born in 1822. Andrew Jackson the POTUS won the Battle of New Orleans in 1812 and he was elected as POTUS in 1828.)

I learned just within the past year or so that Lizzie Borden and I share a birthday: July 19. So that’s special. I read Troy Taylor’s book on the subject, One August Morning. I now believe that Lizzie Borden did NOT commit the murders.

I discovered Troy Taylor in 2017. At the time, I was unhappy and stressed out about my job. I had an hour long commute each way, mostly by bus. Podcasts made my commute – and my work life – bearable. In 2017, I went on a search for new podcasts about the paranormal, specifically related to American history. I discovered Season #1 of American Hauntings, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck.

American Hauntings the podcast didn’t include advertisements for anything except for other American Hauntings products and services. Troy plugged the tickets for his in-person experiences, books that he wrote, and podcast merch.

The “Evening with” dinners that Troy promoted intrigued me. The approximately $50 per person ticket price for these included a catered meal at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton, Illinois, followed by a live lecture given by Troy on that night’s topic. However, I live outside of Pittsburgh, so I don’t think that I will ever make it to Alton for an in-person “Evening with” dinner.

Then, in March 2020, most of the governors of blue states shut down everything fun. This included the in-person American Hauntings tours, ghost hunts, and in-person “Evening with” dinners. Troy posted Facebook Q&A livestreams on his Troy Taylor Facebook page. He added a virtual tip jar.

Then Troy scheduled several of his most popular “Evening with” dinner talks as Zoom lectures. I could pay $13 to receive a log-on link to a livestream talk over Zoom.

As of today, August, 4, 2020, I have attended four of Troy’s special Zoom livestreams. Here are the topics of these lectures: Bell Witch, American Spiritualism, St. Louis Exorcism, and – Lizzie Borden!

Troy held the Lizzie Borden Zoom lecture last weekend to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the Borden murders. At this lecture, I drank a Happy Birthday toast to Lizzie.

For each Zoom experience, Troy gave the full length talk that he gave at each in-person “Evening with” dinner in Alton. Troy sat in his spooky-looking American Hauntings office. I saw in the background lighted candles, the books that Troy wrote, and fake (I hope!) skulls. He shared his computer screen, onto which he pulled up photos of the people and places mentioned in his presentation. His partner, Lisa Taylor Horton, handled the requests for technical assistance. Lisa also moderated the Q&A sessions at the end of each Zoom presentation.

The Zoom participants all had the option of shutting off their own computer’s camera or leaving it on. So, when I participated in these talks, I saw some of the other participants. In last weekend’s “Lizzie Borden” presentation, the audience consisted of roughly 60 women and one man.

My husband, Jonathan, did not view the lecture with me. (Jonathan DID listen to the Bell Witch livestream with me!) He teased me when I told him that the attendees included only one man. He said, “Well, are you surprised?”

I’m sorry that Covid-19 happened. I’m happy that I finally get to experience Troy Taylor’s live lectures. I’m glad that he laid out the case for why he believes that Lizzie Borden didn’t kill her family members. I can’t wait for Troy Taylor’s next livestreams this summer and fall.

(By the way, I learned from the American Hauntings podcast that Troy moved his in-person dinners from the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel to another venue in Alton due to social distancing requirements. So, I am not missing out on a dinner at this spooky landmark.)

Thoughts on Selling Crappy Jewelry to Fight Pre-Marital Sex

So, before I moved to Pittsburgh so that I could take a job with my current employer in downtown Pittsburgh, I worked for an insurance-related firm in downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

The Johnstown employer had its main office on the second floor of an office building that was connected to a crumbling parking garage on this same floor. A year after I left the job, the parking garage was condemned. However, when I still worked for the company, “anybody” could access our floor from that same level of the parking garage.

My employer’s office was in a U-shape. So, you could enter the lobby and talk to the receptionist. You could walk around our entire office in a U shape, and then exit the office through a back door that was very close to the front door.

For most of my three years at this employer, I sat at a cubicle with my back to this back door. This is important to the story.

I did not choose this cubicle. The cubicle was assigned to me.

This back door had a lock on it. Theoretically, one could exit the office through this back door, but the lock was supposed to prevent people from entering the office through this back door.

Theoretically.

My co-workers, when they felt like being jerks, propped this back door open so that they did not have to participate in unnecessary walking in order to enter the office through the main door and the main lobby where the receptionist sat.

Whenever I or the other woman who sat back there un-propped the door (for our own safety), other people in our office complained. Then, they propped the door open again.

Now, keep in mind, I sat with my back to this door.

Late one afternoon when I was the only person sitting in this back section of our office, a random guy in his twenties entered our office through this propped-open back door.

This random guy identified himself as a man who took a gap year from college or something so that he could travel the country in order to educate the public on the “dangers of premarital sex.” I think that he told me that he was doing this for Christ or something.

He told me that he was selling jewelry in order to fund his travels. Would I like to buy some crappy jewelry?

Fortunately, at that moment, my employer’s comptroller showed up. She escorted him off of my employer’s premises. I didn’t have to see him again.

I’m all for Christ. I think that Christ is awesome. (Pardon the pun.) I spent four years at a Roman Catholic Liberal Arts college.

However, anybody who has the cojones to just invite themselves into other people’s back offices like this in order to sell crappy jewelry is NOT a good public relations person for Christ.

Happy Friday, y’all.

If You’re Going to Sing for Your Supper on Facebook, then Train Your Cat to Perform as Well

Here is a photo of my own cat walking on a porch roof.

. . . or, if you don’t have a cat around, get a dog or a small child to ham it up on camera for you.

I mean it. I have watched virtual Facebook ghost tours by tour guides from two different businesses in two different cities, presented inside the tour guides’ houses, in which their cats crashed the presentations.

During a third tour guide’s virtual ghost tour, his adult daughter and young grandchild showed up in the middle of the tour to say hello.

Guess what? I virtually tipped all three of these guides.

One of these guides, Chris Staudinger from Pretty Gritty Tours in Tacoma, begged his cat to “earn her keep.” So of course I tipped. How could I deprive his furry friend of her catnip?

I blogged here about a bunch of the virtual spooky tours that I watched lately. I just remembered the cat thing this evening.

I think that the cat appearances started innocently for each of these guides. The cats showed up and realized that their humans paid more attention to the cameras than to them. The cats had to fix this by jumping on their humans. Then, then Facebook comments for each livestream veered from the topic of ghosts to multiple questions about the cats. So, these cats appeared in future home-based virtual tours.

Can’t say that I blame them. My cat is one of the few living, breathing things that I don’t social distance with these days.

In addition to showing off his cat, Staudinger does jump scares in his virtual ghost tours. He warns his audience at the beginning of each tour. Then, about ten or twenty minutes later, he shows a photo of a dark room. He tells his audience to focus on one of the corners so that they can “see the ghost.”

Then . . . well, you were warned.

“Indentured Slaves” in Pittsburgh?

So, I’ve been trying to blog about this for about a year now. I couldn’t figure out how to handle the topic. I still don’t know how to handle the topic. However, we might all be dead before 2020 ends, so I will give it a shot now.

When I was a teenager, I was super “into” the American Civil War. That is, I was “into” upper class white women’s experiences in the Civil War. (Such as the the fiction of Gone with the Wind.) I didn’t care about the military strategy. Then, I went to college and formed interests in OTHER things. About a year or so ago, I joined a Civil War message board and I started to read about the Civil War again.

I still don’t care about military strategy. I still read about upper class white women’s experiences.

Last year I read most of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant was the widow of American POTUS and General Ulysses S. Grant. (Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War in 1865.) President Grant wrote his memoirs to great fanfare shortly before he died of cancer in 1885. After this, Mrs. Grant wrote her own memoirs. Mrs. Grant was actually the very first First Lady of the United States to write her own memoirs. Unfortunately, she did not find a publisher for her own memoirs during her lifetime. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs were published in the later half of the 20th century.

In Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, she wrote that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, grew up in Pittsburgh, attended school in Philadelphia, and then lived briefly in Pittsburgh as an adult. Mrs. Grant wrote that her mother and her father moved from Pittsburgh to St. Louis two years after their marriage. Mrs. Grant wrote, “Nearly all Pittsburgh assembled on the river bank to wish pretty Ellen Wrenshall and her brave young husband Godspeed.”

Here’s one part that caught my attention: Mrs. Grant wrote of this journey “The party consisted of papa, mamma, baby John, Mr. Edward Tracy, a friend of father’s, also two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob, with men for handling the rafts, etc.”

Now, the Dent family’s ownership of enslaved workers when they lived in St. Louis is well written about. The reason that I hesitated to blog about this is because on the Civil War message board that I joined last year, some of the posters use Ulysses S. Grant’s connection by marriage to a slave-owning family as support for their arguments that the American Civil War was fought over “States’ Rights” and not Slavery. I didn’t want to give any of the fools such as these more ammunition for their arguments. (Pardon the ammunition pun.)

But, I would like to know more about the “two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob” with whom the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis.

I learned through a Google search that the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis in 1819. How many of their friends who wished them well on the riverbank in Pittsburgh also had “indentured slaves?”

I didn’t even know until I was an adult that people who lived in Western Pennsylvania exploited indentured and enslaved workers in the 1800’s.

Now, in this same section of the memoir, Mrs. Grant mentioned that when she was growing up in St. Louis, several family friends visited them from Pittsburgh: “the Nevilles, O’Hara’s, Wilkinses, Robinsons, Dennys, Ogdens, etc.” I recognize several of these family names from Pittsburgh history. For instance, I blogged before about James O’Hara, who was Mary Schenley’s maternal grandfather. Ebenezer Denny was Pittsburgh’s first mayor. How many of these families had their own “indentured slaves” in Pittsburgh?

Whenever I had trouble verbalizing a thought to my late mom Shirley, Mom used to say, “Spit it out, Jen.” I don’t know if this is a saying that she learned from her own working class, German-descended Pittsburgh upbringing. But, I think of my mom whenever I am having a hard time expressing my thoughts. So, tonight I “spit it out.” Mom’s advice has actually served me very well!

By the way, I took a “break” from the Civil War message board. I can’t deal with the posters who are more upset about Robert E. Lee’s legacy being tarnished (he actually tarnished it himself!) than about the living Americans that our society failed to protect.

Midnight Train to Chicago: Redux

Chicago, Illinois. June 2017. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

In June 2017, my husband Jonathan and I took the Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Chicago for a week. Jonathan had a business trip and I tagged along to do the tourist thing. Jonathan hates to fly, thus the train.

Our trip began in a large crowd of Cubs fans. We walked into an Amtrak station reeling from an engine fire, a passenger train stranded in the mountains, a rescue from Norfolk Southern, and another train stranded by a severe storm.

And this was all before we left Pittsburgh.

Two different Amtrak routes stop in Pittsburgh. Just to simplify things, I am only going to describe the East – West Routes for each of these.

The Pennsylvanian runs between New York City and Pittsburgh, with a crew change in Philadelphia.  The Capitol Limited runs between Washington, D.C. and Chicago, with a crew change in Pittsburgh.

When things happen the way that they are supposed to, the westbound train for the Pennsylvanian stops in Pittsburgh earlier in the evening. Then, the westbound train for the Capitol Limited stops in Pittsburgh shortly before midnight. Therefore, a passenger can board the Pennsylvanian in New York, disembark in Pittsburgh, wait around the Pittsburgh station for a little bit, and then board the Capital Limited to continue into Ohio.

(In the past, Jonathan and I rode on the Pennsylvanian for weekend trips to NYC. We rode the on the Capitol Limited for trips to Washington. And we also previously rode on the Capitol Limited to Chicago as the first leg of longer trips out west.)

We planned to leave Pittsburgh for Chicago on a Friday night. We had booked a sleeping car for our trip. We intended to sleep through most of the trip across Ohio and Indiana, then wake up shortly before we reached Chicago the next morning.

We both went in to our jobs in Pittsburgh that Friday. We had respectable thunderstorms throughout the day. After our work days ended, we ate dinner at a restaurant a block away from Pittsburgh’s Amtrak station.

The Chicago Cubs were actually playing the Pirates IN Pittsburgh that same evening, and also for the next several nights after this. So, when we walked from the restaurant to the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh, we stepped into a crowd of people wearing Cub’s jerseys.

The Capitol Limited to Chicago was scheduled to leave shortly before midnight that evening. We arrived at the station about 2 hours early. (Jonathan loves to watch trains, and we showed up extra early to do just this. Many freight trains pass the Pittsburgh Amtrak station.)

We barely found a place to sit down in the Amtrak station.

The station was full of people waiting to pick up loved ones from The Pennsylvanian’s return trip from New York City.  

The Pennsylvanian was late.

Why?

Well, that’s because the Pennsylvanian’s engine caught fire near Altoona, Pennsylvania. The train lost its air conditioning and the toilets no longer worked.

Now, Altoona is near a summit of the Allegheny Mountains. So, the train had broken down near the top of a mountain.

Later that evening, I spoke with a fellow passenger of the westbound Capitol Limited who had been on the Pennsylvanian for this adventure. He travelled on the Pennsylvanian from his former home in Lancaster to Pittsburgh, with the intention to travel from Pittsburgh to his new home in Ohio. He told me that when the Pennsylvanian’s engine burned out, someone ran down the aisle yelling “Fire!” The train cars all carried the burning smell. The crew passed out the remaining food and drink from the snack car. This all happened during a thunderstorm.

An hour after we arrived at the Pittsburgh station, two Norfolk Southern freight engines towed the Pennsylvanian into the station.

All of the Pennsylvanian passengers rushed into the station. (I wonder how many of them went looking for the indoor plumbing.) They and their family left, except the ones who were connecting in Pittsburgh to the Capitol Limited.

All of us learned that the Capitol Limited would be a half hour late. Then an hour late.

We sat by the tracks, and we saw a train heading towards us.

It was a freight train. Not the Capitol Limited.

Another half hour passed. Another freight train passed us.

The station made an announcement. One of the storms had blown tree debris onto the tracks just outside of Pittsburgh. The Capitol Limited would not arrive in Pittsburgh until the tracks were cleared.

The Amtrak employees passed out bottled water to the crowd. A few people bitched.

The Capitol Limited finally showed up in Pittsburgh.

Jonathan and I boarded at about 2:45. Our train porter had our sleeping car set up with our beds. I fell asleep.

When I awoke, the sun was up and we were halfway through Ohio.

I went to eat breakfast in the dining car. Breakfast is included in the cost of a ticket for the sleeping car. Back in pre-pandemic days, if you had less than four people in your party, they sat you at a table with strangers. I sat with a mother and daughter who had travelled into Pitttsburgh from Latrobe on the Pennsylvanian. (Remember that photo that I posted of the oil-covered engine? Well, that photo happened – several years earlier – directly in front of the Latrobe Amtrak station.)

The train pulled into Union Station in Chicago a bit later than scheduled, but at least we were in Chicago.

That evening, we ate dinner at a Chicago restaurant full of televisions showing the Cubs playing in Pittsburgh.

At the end of our trip, Jonathan and I got back into Pittsburgh two hours late. Another storm had blown debris onto the track in front of the Capitol Limited, this time outside of Toledo.

We had no trouble with wind during our time in the Windy City, though!

Fat People Are Not Expendable

It bothers me that the news media constantly posts stories about people who died young of Covid-19 in order to scare people into behaving.

However, it also bothers me that almost all of these stories include social media comments to the effect of, “Well, OF COURSE s/he died! S/he was fat!”

I’m touchy about my weight, and I’ve been fat shamed ever since I developed breasts when I was twelve years old. I know that I need to exercise more and drink less alcohol and eat less sugar. I am working on this.

I’ve understood since March that if I die of Covid-19 and my photo gets published in the paper, at least one person will say or think, “Well, of course she died! She was fat.”

Let’s look beyond the fact that I fail morally, and that I “deserve” to be unhealthy. Let’s look beyond the fact that my mom died less than two years ago, so I like to flatter myself that my skinny siblings will be sad if I die as well.

The thing is, I have been at my employer for a while now. I know how to do things at work that other people on my team don’t know how to do. Or, the people who also know how to do these things just don’t have the time to do them. So, if I died, we are going to have a lot of frustrated customers who don’t understand why it takes longer for them to receive replies on things (if they receive the replies at all).

I bet that a lot of companies depend on the skills and institutional knowledge of people like me. I bet that a lot of you out there depend – for your comfort and your standard of living – on “fat” people who step up and provide services for you.

If you take every single person for which it could be said, “Of COURSE s/he died! S/he had (insert) condition!” and then you give them all Covid-19 and then they all die, our society is going to be screwed. We “unhealthy” people are not expendable if you want the American economy to continue to function the way that it does.

You don’t even have to like us as people.

I’m probably going to delete this post in a few hours, so enjoy it now!

What I’ve Learned About Spooky Tours

I’ve posted on Facebook and on this blog about the virtual tours and livestream lectures about ghosts, true crime, and cemeteries that I enjoyed since March. However, I wanted to put my main thoughts together in one place. I picked up some ideas that I think can be useful to very local history and tourism groups.

I’m going to start off with American Hauntings. American Hauntings is the blanket name for a business owned by Troy Taylor and Lisa Taylor Horton. When I first discovered American Hauntings, the operation included ghost tours, true crime tours, ghost hunts, in-person “Evening with” catered dinner experiences, and books.

In 20017, I went on a search for new podcasts about the paranormal, specifically related to American history. I listen to several hours of podcasts each week. I am very picky about allowing new podcasts into my listening schedule. If a podcast host sounds as if he or she didn’t bother to research anything beyond a one minute Google search, or if the host shoots the breeze for several minutes at the beginning of each episode, then I almost always shut off the podcast.

So one morning in 2017, I waited for the bus and discovered Season #1 of American Hauntings, hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. I was hooked.

American Hauntings the podcast didn’t include advertisements for anything except for other American Hauntings products and services. Part way through each episode, Troy plugged the tickets for his in-person experiences.

The “Evening with” dinners that Troy promoted intrigued me. The approximately $50 per person ticket price for these included a catered meal at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel in Alton Illinois, followed by a live lecture given by Troy on that night’s topic. However, I live outside of Pittsburgh, so I don’t think that I will ever make it to Alton for an in-person “Evening with” dinner.

Then, in March 2020, most of the governors of most of the states shut down everything fun. This included the in-person American Hauntings tours, ghost hunts, and in-person “Evening with” dinners. Troy began to post livestreams every Friday night on his Troy Taylor Facebook page. Sometimes he gave lectures about topics that are not included in his “Evening with” dinner talks. (For instance, one night he spoke on Facebook about the time that grave robbers attempted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body.) Sometimes he held Q&A sessions about the many topics that American Hauntings covers. In each livestream, he promoted the sale of his books (he offered a Shelter in Place discount) and advanced bookings on his in-person experiences when they resumed. He added a virtual tip jar for viewers who chose to tip him for the livestream entertainment. When he had to cancel the June 2020 Haunted America Conference, he sold tee shirts to offset the costs that he had already incurred for it.

Then Troy made an announcement that made me very happy. He scheduled several of his most popular “Evening with” dinner talks as Zoom lectures. I could pay $13 to receive a log-on link to a live “Evening with” dinner talk over Zoom.

I listened to three of Troy’s Zoom “Evening with” talks so far. I made sure to have in my house food and drink that I enjoyed so that I could pretend that I was eating a catered dinner at the Mysterious Mineral Springs Hotel during the lectures. The Zoom participants all have the option of shutting off their own computer’s camera or leaving it on. So, when I participated in these talks, I could see who some of the other participants were. We could chat with each other during the talk using Zoom’s chat function. At the end of the talk, Troy answered questions from the Zoom audience.

So, these are my observations of how American Hauntings handled the Shelter in Place order and the Covid-19 “quarantine.”

However, even the American Hauntings company didn’t produce enough podcast and video content to keep me entertained from March 15 until now. So, I searched the internet for other virtual tourist experiences that I would enjoy.

I purchased the Virtual 360 degree tour from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA. If I ever make it to see the house in person, I know which rooms I want to focus my attention.

I typed something like “Chicago” and “virtual tours” into the Facebook search function because I visited Chicago once for a week as a tourist and I enjoyed the trip. I discovered the Facebook page for Mysterious Chicago, owned by Adam Selzer. This guide gave in-person tours up until mid-March. He also wrote several books, including such topics as ghosts, H.H. Holmes, Roaring Twenties true crime, and Abraham Lincoln.

As of now (July 12), several other Chicago tour companies have restarted their in-person tours. However, Mysterious Chicago has not done this. Instead, Mysterious Chicago posts virtual tours multiple times each week on Facebook. It’s free to watch these on Facebook, but each tour includes information about how to donate to a virtual tip jar. There’s also a Patreon page for Mysterious Chicago, but I have not subscribed to it. I watched every Mysterious Chicago video posted to Facebook.

Here’s where I compare American Hauntings to Mysterious Chicago.

All of the American Hauntings livestreams and “Evening With” Zoom presentations that I watched consisted of Troy sitting in his spooky-looking American Hauntings office. In these presentations, I saw in the background lighted candles, the books that Troy wrote, and fake (I hope!) skulls. He shared his computer screen, onto which he pulled up photos of the people and places mentioned in his presentation. His partner, Lisa Taylor Horton, joined all of the Zoom presentations. Lisa handed all of the requests for technical assistance. Lisa also moderated the Q&A sessions at the end of each Zoom presentation. It was clear from watching the presentations that Troy and Lisa were either in separate rooms or separate buildings.

Everything that I watched from Mysterious Chicago came from Facebook. No Zoom. These tours happened several different ways:

1.) Some of the tours were real-time cemetery tours, taking all social distancing precautions including the use of a face mask. These tours happened at times when there were no or else very few other people around.

2.) Some of the tours were real-time tours on the streets of Chicago, taking all social distancing precautions including the use of a face mask. These tours happened at times when there were very few other people around.

3.) Most of the tours took place completely in Adam Selzer’s living room. He didn’t wear a face mask during these tours. He shared pre-recorded video footage during these tours. He also shared photos – something that he wasn’t able to share during his live tours.

(To be clear, Adam Selzer made a point of taping footage of himself wearing the face mask while he was outside traversing the Chicago cemeteries and streets.)

Finally, I watched three virtual tours of New Orleans narrated by long time New Orleans tour guide Alexander Addams. (He said, “I have been doing this for many, many – God knows – many years.”) I found two of these videos under the Facebook page for Crawl New Orleans, and I found the third video under the Facebook page for Crawl USA. These were three completely different video tours by the same guide. I’m not sure why they were on different Facebook pages. Oh, well. I very much enjoyed all of these tours.

Just like the companies mentioned above, Crawl New Orleans used photos and pre-recorded video footage. However, unlike the other two, Crawl New Orleans also had video footage recorded from the air. That was very cool. There was a link to a tip jar. The tour guide encouraged viewers to book in-person tours with Crawl New Orleans once the Covid-19 restrictions had ended. He even provided a code for 20% off all tours: CORONA.

Here’s why I took such an interest in this: in the past, I purchased tickets for tours of local cemeteries and historic neighborhoods. Almost all of these tours were put on by local civic groups and staffed by volunteers. These tours raised funds in order to maintain and preserve said cemeteries and neighborhoods. For instance, one of these cemeteries held tours every October in order to raise enough money to pay somebody to mow the grass. This was the very cemetery which included the graves of that community’s founder and his entire family. I wonder how many of these tours will be able to continue in this era of Covid-19.

I’m not personally involved with any of these civic groups. However, I think that maybe some of these groups will be able to continue their tour fundraising efforts by taking them online. For instance, a member of said group could go out alone and take the video footage needed for the tour. Then, they could put the footage up on a free Facebook livestream. Viewers would be asked to donate to a virtual tip jar for the benefit of this organization.

Well, that’s just my suggestion. Off to watch more ghost and true crime tours.

Growing Out of “Gone with the Wind”

This is a magnolia tree. Margaret Mitchell included the presence of magnolia trees in her novel “Gone with the Wind.”

I posted here that my cousin doesn’t like the term “New Normal” and she and her co-workers prefer the term “Temporary Weirdness.”

Yesterday, I listened to the most recent episode of the podcast “American Hauntings” hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Taylor and Beck constantly referred to the days before Covid-19 as the “Before Times.”

So, IRREGARDLESS of whether I use the term “Before Times” or “Tempoary Weirdness” the thing is that I think about the days before Covid-19 A LOT.

So, here’s a story about my life before Covid-19.

My favorite book when I was 12 or 13 years old was Gone with the Wind.

Up until that time and even after that time, I still read the Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew books. (And also Little House on the Prairie.) However, when I was 12 years old, I watched the North and South miniseries on television, based on the book trilogy of the same name by John Jakes. I loved it. Someone suggested that I would like Gone with the Wind. I checked Gone with the Wind out of my school library. I was only in the seventh grade, but at my school grades 7 – 12 all shared one building and we shared one library.

So, I read Gone with the Wind cover to cover when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t even skip to the end and read that first, as I used to do (and still do sometimes). This was the very first “grown up” book that I read the entire way through. It was over 1000 pages long.

I loved Gone with the Wind so much that I asked my mom to buy me my very own copy of the book for Christmas. She did!

Then, I re-read my favorite sections.

Gone with the Wind was one of MY Harry Potters. (My other Harry Potter was The Babysitters Club.)

I outgrew Gone with the Wind a very long time ago.

Now, just to be clear, I’m talking about Gone with the Wind the novel by Margaret Mitchell. I’m NOT talking about the novel’s famous movie adaptation.

Here’s something that happened in the second half of Gone with the Wind the novel:

During the year 1866 or 1867 or something, Scarlett O’Hara married her second husband (Rhett Butler is husband #3). She took over the accounting / bookkeeping of her husband’s Atlanta sawmill because she was really good at numbers. All of the respectable white people in town disapproved. She did it anyway. One day, she travelled from her husband’s sawmill back to her house. Two big black men (newly freed enslaved men who live in the town slum) attacked her and tried to rip off her dress. Her husband rounded up all of the other respectable white men in town and they went and had a Klu Klux Klan raid on the black people who lived in the town slum. Husband #2 got killed in the process.

Yes, this is something that happened in the novel Gone with the Wind. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937.

I guess that I ignored this part of the book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember.

What I do remember was that I completely fell for the “Lost Cause” narrative as Gone with the Wind (the novel) represented it. I disagreed with my high school history teacher about the actual evils of slavery. I actually did this. My history teacher had a PhD.

I read at least one biography about the author, Margaret Mitchell. I also watched the made-for-television movie about her life. Shannon Dougherty of Beverly Hills 90210 starred in this movie. Based entire on this one biography and this one movie, I personally think that Margaret Mitchell suffered from trauma over losing her fiance in World War I, losing her mother in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and then suffering domestic violence in a very brief first marriage. This is my personal opinion. I personally believe that Gone with the Wind reflected Mitchell’s trauma over these events.

By the time that I was out of college and married, I was completely over Gone with the Wind. Then one day, my husband Jonathan got sent to Atlanta on a business trip. I tagged along with him.

By complete coincidence, our hotel was on the opposite site of the exact same block as the house where Mitchell lived when she wrote Gone with the Wind. The Federal Reserve was on this same block. Neither my husband nor I chose this hotel ahead of time. Somebody else at my husband’s place of employment chose the hotel. I never met this person, and this person had no idea that I used to like the novel Gone with the Wind.

The house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind was actually a downtown Atlanta apartment building. Mitchell lived in one of the apartments with her second husband (John Marsh) when she wrote the book. I read something once that suggested that Gone with the Wind was actually a team effort. Mitchell once wrote for an Atlanta newspaper, and Marsh was her former editor. Anyway, years later a group purchased the apartment building with the intention of turning it into a museum about Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Shortly after the museum was set to open, most of it burned down in an arson. The group rebuilt the thing. They opened this building as “The Margaret Mitchell House.”

So, yeah, I visited the Margaret Mitchell House that one time when I went to Atlanta. I got to spend an entire week sleeping on the same block as the Margaret Mitchell House. It felt really weird, though. I had loved that book for so long. Then, by the time that I got to see where it was written, I didn’t actually think much of the book.

In fact, the docent who led me around the Margaret Mitchell House opened the tour by telling me about how much she personally loved Gone with the Wind. (I guess that you have to love Gone with the Wind in order to give tours around the apartment where either Mitchell or Marsh wrote it. I was under the impression that the docents were all volunteers.)

Then she said to me, “What do you think of the book?”

I said, “This used to be my favorite book. Now it isn’t.”

The tour was kinda awkward after this. Oh, well.

During this same trip, I rode the MARTA (the commuter train) and walked a bunch in order to visit the Joel Chandler Harris House (also called “The Wren’s Nest”). I did this because Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories that my Grandma Gaffron read to me.

So, on my one trip to Atlanta, I toured the homes of problematic authors.

Also, my husband and I ate in a downtown Atlanta restaurant where we eavesdropped on the business meeting happening at the table next to ours. It was clearly a business meeting. All of the participants were wearing business attire. Also, I’ve sat in enough business meetings myself that I enjoy watching the pain of other people who are trapped in business meetings. The one man in this meeting told the other participants that when he was a kid, he raised a goat on his dad’s farm. Then his dad had the goat served as dinner one night. I think that someone at that table had ordered goat meat for lunch.

I miss sitting close enough to strangers to hear their entire conversations. I miss eating in restaurants. I miss visiting the museum homes of problematic authors. I can’t wait until the “Temporary Weirdness” ends.

Restaurant Confessions Part I: The Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower

I have a confession. Before the Covid-19 crisis changed my world in March, I ate out at restaurants A LOT. Everyone has a different definition of “A LOT.” I’m not going to provide my definition of “A LOT.” Let’s just say that I’m embarrassed to let my dad and sisters know how often I ate out.

I didn’t always eat out A LOT. I didn’t go out much during college or right after college because I couldn’t afford it. In fact, when I worked at my first job after college in Johnstown, my friends and I made fun of a co-worker who did go out to eat “A LOT.”

Then, I got a job in downtown Pittsburgh. I married a man who worked in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. I moved into his house in New Kensington. New Kensington isn’t that close to Pittsburgh during rush hour. My after-work commute changed from 5 minutes in Johnstown to much longer. I also made more dough because I no longer worked in Johnstown. Also also, my living costs were still really low because- well, because I lived in New Kensington. So, I paid other people to make my dinner.

That all changed in March 2020. People on Facebook told me that I could die or kill my grandmother if I went outside. My employer told me to work from home. (Woot! Woot! No painful commute!) The governor shut down all of the restaurants. So, I learned how much money I actually save by making my poor husband cook for me.

The very last time that I ate in a restaurant was Sunday, March 15. My husband Jonathan and I ate at the brunch buffet at DiSalvo’s Station Restaurant in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. According to Facebook, we should both be dead right now! Good thing that the restaurant only had about five other patrons during our meal.

DiSalvo’s is a renovated former train station that sits under active railroad tracks. The current Amtrak station sits above the restaurant. When you dine at DiSalvo’s, you can hear freight trains or perhaps even the Amtrak over your head.

I visited DiSalvo’s for the very first time when I was a senior at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. I ended up at DiSalvo’s as part of a double date. It turned out that my “date” part of the double date actually wanted to be with the other girl in our foursome, and a few months later he did just that. However, that’s the way that things go sometimes. I got a free meal out of the whole thing.

So, the place has a model railroad that travels along the dining room wall. This little train passes replicas of Latrobe landmarks, including the Saint Vincent Basilica. When I went there on my “double date,” the other girl and I cooed “Oh, train!” every time that the train passed our table. Someone finally turned the train off just to shut us up.

A few years later, I went to a wedding reception held at DiSalvo’s for a college classmate who got married at Saint Vincent Basilica.

A few more years went by and I got married myself. (I married a guy who never went on a double date with me while he actually wanted the other girl. Also, my own wedding wasn’t as fancy and it didn’t take place in Latrobe.)

A few years after this, my sister K. gave me a gift card to the place. Then, I went cabin camping with my husband and in-laws at nearby Keystone State Park over Veterans Day weekend. My father-in-law is a veteran. My father-in-law loves trains. We used the gift card to treat him to Sunday brunch at DiSalvo’s.

So, after brunch, we walked up to the railroad tracks to watch trains. A few freight trains passed us. We even saw a male and female stowaway riding on one of the cars. (I’m too politically correct to use the word “hobo.”)

And then . . . it happened. A train stopped on the tracks directly above DiSalvo’s Station. Oil covered the locomotive and several of the front cars.

It turned out that the thing’s turbo had exploded. Thus the mess. Oil everywhere.

We watched railroad employees disconnect the oil-covered locomotive from the front car and replace it with a fresh, oil-free locomotive. We watched this for over an hour. We didn’t need no stinking model train that could be turned off by the whim of annoyed restaurant employees. We had our own, real train entertainment outside!

I swiped this photo of the oil-covered locomotive from my sister-in-law’s Facebook page. Good thing that I don’t actually make any money from this blog!

My husband and I saw all of this with his mom Fran, his dad, his sister M., and her future husband J. After this, my husband and I drove to Latrobe sometimes to grab brunch at DiSalvo’s. Every time we ate there, we talked about the Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower.

After Fran died, I couldn’t think about the Great Veterans Day Weekend Oil Shower without thinking about how much fun Fran seemed to have had that day at the train tracks above DiSalvo’s Station.

Now, as I said, my routine completely changed in March 2020. A lot of people’s lives did. My employer had planned a major client social function at a downtown Pittsburgh restaurant for mid-March. Two weeks before everything shut down, my big manager announced that the client function was still on her schedule. She told my co-workers that she herself planned to keep eating out.

By that time, Twitter was filled with memes about how our entire family would die if we left the house. I ignored the memes because my mother-in-law and my own mom had both lived their lives “correctly” and they had both died anyway. So, if I croaked from eating at a brunch buffet, at least I got to eat that final piece of chocolate cheesecake.

So – about that brunch at DiSalvo’s Station on March 15. The restaurant was pretty empty. We were at least six feet away from the other patrons the entire time. The only other patrons sat on the other side of the dining room. The staff seemed really nervous and stressed. Maybe I just projected my own feelings onto them.

The next day, Monday March 16, was my last day inside my employer’s downtown Pittsburgh office. During that day, we received an email to start working from home effective immediately. The governor shut down all of the restaurants less than a week later.

I’m blessed because I didn’t lose my job. I got to stop making my commute. I saved a lot of money. However, I’m sad that I haven’t eaten inside of a restaurant since March. I’m sad for all of the restaurants that I loved to visit. So, from time to time, I will blog about my restaurant memories.

By the way, I’m aware that Pennsylvania restaurants eventually opened again to inside diners. However, my husband and I decided to cherry-pick our activities. We are involved in some other stuff (including my husband’s participation in our community’s volunteer fire department) so we balanced this out by not eating inside of restaurants. Now restaurants in my area are being shut down again. It looks as if I won’t be eating inside of a restaurant for a long, long time.

Happy Birthday, Stephen Foster!

Here is songwriter Stephen Foster’s grave and also those of his parents at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

From this photo, you can see that:

1.) Stephen Foster’s birthday is July 4.

2.) Stephen’s father, William Barclay Foster, served as a veteran in the War of 1812.