"Crappy Valley"

Published: March 23rd 2011
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No, not the child-catcherNo, not the child-catcherNo, not the child-catcher

Photograph by Michael Cooke.
February 2008 –

Three years and some. This was meant to be a transient experience, purely for the purpose of gathering funds. But, things just kinda slipped.. Saying that, living and working somewhere just isn’t like travelling, it really is - for better or worse - a deeper, more visceral, immersion.

This entry could get me lynched. State Collegians, residents, alumni, and current patrons of the University alike all simply adore the place. State College, home of Penn State University, is situated in central rural Pennsylvania some four hours from the nearest city, equidistant from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York. Here it squats between two folds in the upper reaches of the Appalachians in an area popularly known as “Happy Valley”. The heathen have been known to bastardise this to “Crappy Valley”. The valley itself, patched with farms and criss-crossed with streams and creeks, is beautiful. And indeed the whole of Pennsylvania is dotted with pristine State Parks and Forests that provide magnificent camping / fishing / hunting (if you’re so inclined) in the summer and good skiing in the winter. Nevertheless, the town of State College itself is quiet, dull and tame. It is also, to be fair, ultra safe: indeed one of the safest large towns in the whole of the States and one of the few places where we’ve lived that I would be little worried about Ali walking home alone through an unlit park at 3 in the morning. I say it’s dull, what do I know? State College is regularly voted in the top three party Universities in the whole of the United States. I feel British students would rate it somewhere alongside Newcastle, that being Newcastle-Under-Lyme. This year there were action groups petitioning to ban “State Patty’s Day” – yeah, a cheeky variation on St Paddy’s day where students drink too much (this is timed, like Mother’s Day, for a weekend so as not to miss lectures): naughty students. Here when people fall over drunk they get rushed to hospital – and fined; we used to sleep it off, or die: we called it natural selection (admittedly a contentious phrase to certain individuals in this still rather blessed place).

State College is a totally University-centric town with some 100,000 students and 50,000 real people. On a football (American football) weekend the population almost doubles with people camped out around the stadium “tailgating”.
Autumn (errr, Fall) in NY StateAutumn (errr, Fall) in NY StateAutumn (errr, Fall) in NY State

Photograph by Michael Cooke.
This phenomenon entails parking up your SUV, firing up some monstrous grill (read gas Barbie), hitting the beers / bourbon from early morning to pre-game (if you have a ticket) or throughout if you don’t, and then some more after for good measure, whether you were at the game or not. However, actually drinking during the game is illegal. Really, you are meant to stop for the duration of the game. There again, as the tailgating takes place on University land (they own a lot), all tailgating drinking is technically illegal (no drinking on campus as, of course, the legal drinking age is 21 and most students are younger than this). This minor point is overlooked for the greater glory of the football team and, it has to be said that, there doesn’t seem to be too many additional deaths on the roads during the season (a dizzy total of eight home games… in an entire season… for a stadium that is only ever used for football and sits 120,000….). The authorities here love to crack on about the evils of drink driving (Drinking Under the Influence, D.U.I), but there are definitely blind eyes turned when it suits them. That said, D.U.I is rife and is simply understood to be unavoidable. People here don’t walk (ever). Admittedly, distances to restaurants or nightlife are large and the roads are wide and quiet (although unlit), whilst the public transport is limited. But...., driving after "a few" is just accepted, or at least ignored. Don’t get me wrong we’re not above it. We’ve been to a party that we walked to and were subsequently given a lift back from where, as we wound down from the hills overlooking town, our driver (who was unmistakably the worse for wear) missed the bend and simply crashed through a hedge and cut through the adjacent field before bursting out once again: what are 4x4s for?. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was fortunately too wasted to think much about the potential consequences...

Central Pennsylvania also has some interesting, if sometimes downright inconvenient, laws. For example, you may be holding a party and need to stock up; in most countries you would trundle down to the local supermarket and gather everything needed. Here, there are state run shops selling liquor/wine (no beer), state run shops selling beer (no liquor/wine) and supermarkets that can sell neither (unless they have an attached restaurant in which case you can buy beer, but no liquor or wine). If you buy a case of beer (24 bottles) from a distributor then you can buy as many cases as you like, but if you want to buy a variety of six packs (obviously from a specialist six pack distributor as case distributors can’t split them) then you may only buy 12 bottles at once, although you can put them in your car and then return immediately for another purchase.

Twenty years ago we came to the States and it was semi-impossible to buy a decent beer: one that tasted like a fermented beverage containing hops and possessed more alcohol than a cheap mouthwash. Today that is certainly not the case as micro breweries, producing fantastic brews, are everywhere countrywide. However, from the sublime to the ridiculous, now an average beer (discounting generic rubbish) is 6% plus (9%+ beers are not uncommon) and, crazily, most bottles and almost all bar pumps are totally unmarked as to their strengths. Ask a bar person (or a distributor for that matter) about a beer’s strength and they’ll inevitably say it’s about… probably…. “So, I’ll be fine driving after a couple of these then?”

I could rant further about alcohol: the American definition of a pint is a mere 16 fluid ounces (1/5th short) and yet is still sold at London prices; the fact that, of course, you need to tip the bartender (an absolute minimum of $1 per round), but there again you have the plight of the bar worker…. Bar staff, and I’m presuming this is country wide, are paid from their tips, i.e. there is no wage as such... but, if the tips earned don’t cover minimum wage then they are made up to minimum wage. Nevertheless, you’d probably then be sacked as you’re obviously a crap waiter/bar tender. Tips in America are not tips, they are salaries. Not only that, a person serving you drinks at your table has to, themselves (from his/her tips given by you), subsequently tip the bar person actually pulling the drink as well as the bus person who guided you to your table. So, your tip gets split and then split again… Service in general isn’t great in the States, but “waiting” is certainly a tough job.

I did mention that alcohol laws were strongly enforced here, didn’t I? There is nothing wrong with that at all. Saying that, carding – showing ID – is a total joke. We regularly have visiting scientists coming to the University from elsewhere in the world (don’t get me started on Pennsylvania’s absent coverage of world affairs on the radio / television). This person will often be a 30-something who hasn’t thought to bring her (far more likely to get collared if you’re a woman, unless particularly hirsute) passport with them who will then be refused entry to some den of iniquity (timid mediocrity). My wife Ali, being 46, feels quite differently about this and is delighted every time her adulthood is doubted...

The state driving test: can you negotiate the car park? Yes? Congratulations, a pass as long as you can also parallel park (fortunately many fail here); there is no such thing as driving schools, everyone is taught by their parents and/or "Grand Theft Auto".

The tax system: you pay way over the odds throughout the year, the government kindly holds onto your money and then at the end of the tax year everyone, absolutely everyone, fills in a tax return form and are then so grateful to receive a rebate, the magnitude of which depends largely on how competent you are (how good your accountant is) at claiming back your rightful dues. Nevertheless, it is true that there are more tax breaks here, such as relief on mortgage interest paid: something Brits can only dream of.

Pennsylvania is just discovering the combination boiler, with stuttering 120 gallon immersion efforts still being the norm; top loading washing machines and biological powders that remarkably require additional bleach – and still produce shabby whites - are typical; grills on your cooker may be positioned underneath the oven – at floor level (possibly because why would you broil when you can fry); posh heating is via forced-air that emerges from floor/wall vents and is so antisocial that you can spot the wealthy during the winter by their constant scratching at dried, irritable, skin (you are supposed to run humidifiers in the winter to counteract this; oh, and de-humidifiers during the summer when the air-con is running…); ice-damning (look it up) may be corrected by placing heating coils on the outside, yes the outside, of your roof; there are total monopolies for utilities and phone companies; the power and reach of the insurance firms is scary; and service from public companies is a joke – really, you would be overjoyed to ring a service line and get to speak to an out-sourced amiable Indian chap… “Thanksgiving” is probably the biggest holiday of the year and certainly the most likely to reunite the family. Obviously this mega turkey feast should make the mouth water, but it typically arrives with some bizarre accompaniments: sweet potatoes covered in a layer of marshmallows; and green beans cooked in tinned mushroom soup with a crispy topping of pre-packaged fried onions; plus, few people have ever made a pumpkin pie from a fresh pumpkin (these are almost exclusively used for carving: Halloween): they do come in cans you know.

So, it sounds like I despise it here and I’ve not even touched on the chain-based restaurant drudgery, the precious cosseted rich, the neglected poor underbelly, or the general overbearing bureaucracy. Well, I don’t actually hate the place; it isn’t my idea of utopia which surprises many, but I do adore the long weekends of paired (or indeed group) tranquillity spent in the State forests hiking trails, swimming or kayaking lakes, catching mighty carp (ignored by the locals), admiring the self-sufficient Amish, cooking succulent racks of ribs on open fires and generally losing yourself in the huge open spaces. And, as much as I despise the overall smugness of State College it does do some beautiful things. The students themselves host an amazing annual event called THON that typically raises around 10 million dollars for paediatric cancer and then, on a day to day level, it has the most fantastic soup kitchen that provides great food to eat in and take away (free) for the needy. There is also the open kindness of the rural locals, the fact that postmen (mailmen) collect your mail for posting direct from your letter box, the fire flies, hummingbirds, the deer and the bears, the great local produce (that in season can be bought roadside from farms and is reliant on honesty boxes), the clearest of night skies (minimal light pollution), long balmy summer nights, pool parties and pool tables in your homes for us privileged, not to mention the excellent - if paranoid - medical care for those who are fortunate enough to have private coverage (this is a murky area as the poor have always received some level of care, but even post-Obama this doesn’t compare to the wasteful pampering given to the wealthy), and then there’s our Chevy Blazer who is ancient, cantankerous and has cost us a fortune, but we love her. Plus, it is only a few hours from the truly spectacular cities of New York and Philadelphia or a leisurely road trip to magnificent Chicago, the Great Lakes and Canada or the variant beauties of Virginia, Maine, or Connecticut…

Hell, in three years we’ve visited a third of these United States and, I think (grudgingly), we may actually miss the place, although we certainly wouldn’t want to live here...

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Armish trapArmish trap
Armish trap

Photograph by Bullio Baggios.

6th August 2011

Having lived a couple of years in Pennsylvania
....appreciated your blog. Grew up in Ohio and don't plan to live there again.
14th April 2015

Belated copyright notice
After reading your wonderful blog posts I would like to note that whilst Brian has had a footnote to acknowledge his (admittedly much better) photography, I'm still waiting for mine... Looking forward to seeing you both and state college again. Your Nephew

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