Demitasse #18

 

Demitasse:  a sip of the Compendium

Winter 2002 edition

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Demitasse is a free sip of the sardonic social commentary and reports of real

life weird that fill the Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban

Anthropology (the Compendium).

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(c) copyright Kathy Biehl 2002

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GROUNDHOG DAY


Punxsutawney was one of the first words my parents tried to teach me to say.

It's the name of a tiny (and, until recent years, low-profile) Pennsylvania

town that's made an annual ritual of forecasting the length of winter by

consulting a groundhog named Phil. Whether this early exposure and or

the suggestive force of the name played a role or not, I have had a life-long

affinity for groundhogs and, perhaps not coincidentally, for divination

devices as well, though only the latter, for reasons of both practicality

and inclination, has found expression in a compulsion to collect.


So when I moved back to the Northeast a few years ago, it was only a matter

of time until I made the pilgrimage to Groundhog Zero. That happened last

year, and the experience was enough for a lifetime.


Because the festivities start in the middle of the night, we drove in the day

before, to a clean but soulless chain motel about 20 miles away, the

closest lodgings I could find six weeks in advance, apart from rolling out

a sleeping bag on the floor of a community center. A reconnaissance

mission that afternoon to Center City (as Pennsylvanians call downtown)

explained away the room scarcity -- the town's two hotels are what you

might call charmingly petite, and that's stretching it for one of them, at

least as far as concepts of charm go. (There's a motel somewhere, too,

but it's either of a Brigadoon-like character or lies off roads that exist in

an alternate universe to published maps.)


The town bore about as much resemblance to the movie "Groundhog

Day" as the event would.  The outer ring is strip center sprawl; within

that, modest residences; within them, a business district heavy on turn-

of-the-last-century brick buildings, and, at their center, a small, grassy

park the size of a block. Gobbler's Knob is not in the thick of things, or

even within strolling distance, but outside of town more than a mile away.

The evening before, none of it showed any sign that it would be invaded

within hours by thousands of people.


We set out the next morning before 4. Enough people had preceded us to

drain the coffee pot. Although hours remained before the advertised

Continental breakfast buffet, someone had laid out a loaf of white bread

and stuck knives into opened jars of peanut butter and jelly.


Headlights trailed behind us as we bounded along a hilly two-lane

road towards Punxy. The parking lot at the first shuttle bus stop was

already filling with cars, and a human snake had already formed down

the middle of a lane. A small trailer that might otherwise be used for

fireworks was selling shuttle tickets for a buck apiece emblazoned

with Phil's happy image. A parade of yellow school buses, helmed by

middle aged women, pulled in and, one by one, offered a good

portion of shivering humanity refuge in seats sized for grade-schoolers.

To avoid being jostled, we headed for the last row -- next to a man

that we would have been able to hear at the front of the bus. He

conversed with the man next to him, with friends and relations halfway

up the bus, with his sister (who was celebrating her birthday, he advised

all, repeatedly), with the stream of people who walked back and paid

a level of attention to his thermos that suggested the nature of its

contents and a factor in his obnoxiousness.


Blazing artificial lights greeted us as we stepped off the bus. A photo

op awaited a few steps away, in front of a meteorological billboard with

yet another happy depiction of Phil. Just beyond was an enormous, straw-

covered, womb-shaped clearing surrounded by thick, tall clusters of

trees. A row of remote radio booths lined the back. As we walked by,

one announcer after the other gave a live weather report. It was 6 AM, still

90 minutes till Phil time, but several thousand people had beaten us there,

so we stayed near the back. Beyond them, on a stage at the other end,

men in frock coats and top hats were jitterbugging to big band music. Off in

the trees, an enormous bonfire was blazing, silhouetted by bodies running

and dancing.


Top-hatted men yelled greetings at the crowd, college students took the

stage to dance, people continued to pour and crowd into the clearing, a

petite reporter stood on an equipment case to put her face in line with the

stage and narrated the event into a camera, but none of the hokum mattered

to me. Something primal was occurring. By the time fireworks shot through

the trees and exploded on blackness, I was crying, without understanding

or caring to know why. The snowfall that quickly followed was just icing

on the cake, as far as the little girl within was concerned.


"What do you think about reports that they drug the groundhog?" demanded

a college student who was taping interviews for a class project, he claimed.

"With this many people, it's probably a good thing," I said. (The estimate

from the stage was 9000; the next day's paper put it at 12,000. Or maybe

it was 20,000. The numbers were enormous. ) Not long after I brushed

him off, a procession of men in top hats filed down the middle of the

gathering and assembled around a tree stump. One man knocked on

the stump with his cane. A door was opened and the woodchuck

wrangler removed the guest of honor and conferred with him. Word

came in the form of a long poem: He'd seen his shadow! Six more

weeks of winter!


My companion immediately took issue with the pronouncement. It's

impossible! The sky is gray! If he saw his shadow it was because of all

the lights! This is -- this is rigged! The outrage sounded genuine.


By 8, while crowds were lining up to have their photo taken with Phil, we

boarded a bus back into town. This time we chose the middle, and ended

up one row away from the loudest, yakkingest person on the bus, a

college student who was immune to the torpor that was causing heads to

nod around her and who worked the announcement that it was her birthday

into a monologue on the virtues of the malls of New Jersey. We jumped

off at the first stop in town, where women and children stood so long in

the line for the restroom at McDonald's that strangers started trading

travel stories and itineraries, until the conversation shifted to the news-

break that the restroom had only one stall.


When I emerged, more news awaited: I'd missed the chance to have

my photo taken with Punxsutawney Phil *and* Ronald McDonald. Two

costumed Phils, with differently shaped heads, were working opposite

sides of the street.


Months later, after we'd made a move that wasn't even in the realm of

possibility that day, I looked up from a sink of dishes to the sight of

something lumbering around the back yard. It was big and fat and

furry and strangely familiar. A groundhog. I've seen it several times

since, helping itself to apples, scurrying into one burrow entrance or

another under the 30-year-old, weatherworn playhouse in the yard,

even standing upright and breakfasting on the playhouse's porch.

It hasn't shown its face for months, but the neighborhood cats'

continued interest in the playhouse makes me think it's still there.

After the last heavy snowfall a week or two ago, the only tracks in

the yard formed a straight shot to the main burrow entrance,

where cats in transit like to stick their snouts.


I'll let you know if he comes out.

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