We took a quick trip across the border recently, for business, and drove through some of the small towns at the very top of New York State. In comparison to the well-kept Quebec farms, these areas look hard-hit by the economic downturn, just as it does in central New York where I grew up. The original downtown of Champlain, New York, is pretty much abandoned, the fine old brick and stone structures empty, boarded-up, windowless. Rouse's Point, on Lake Champlain itself, has a large marina and some restaurants on the main street, but all the shopping has moved to new little malls with a grocery store, post office, drugstore, liquor store and laundry on the outskirts. For bigger shopping trips, the residents probably drive down to Plattsburgh, 20 miles south.
We stopped for lunch at a diner, The Squirrel's Nest, in Rouse's Point. The diner was one half of two connected storefronts; the other was a bar with a few tables and a heavily-varnished massive wooden bar with curved ends made of glass blocks; it looked like it had been there a long time. We sat at a booth in the diner and ordered the soup and half-sandwich special. The soup was hamburg-macaroni -- what my mom used to call hamburg chowder - and it was just as delicious as hers. The turkey salad sandwich came as a piece of roast turkey in bread with mayonnaise - not exactly turkey salad, and without a tomato slice or lettuce leaf in sight -- but good anyway. The placemats and the walls were decorated with black and white historical photographs of the town: fine old homes and hotels, sleighs and snowstorms, factory workers, women in white shirtwaists, carriages, old signs. A few old artifacts and antiques also hung on the walls. As in central New York, a lot of people look to the past for their identity; why wouldn't they?
A stuffed squirrel presided over the restaurant's old soda fountain, with its stainless steel fixtures. "Wow," J. said, "I wonder if they can make a milk shake."
I shrugged. "Why don't you ask?"
But the waitress - a teenage girl -- looked confused at the term "milkshake" and said she'd "have to ask the kitchen."
"Don't worry," J. said. "I was just looking at the old soda fountain and wondered if everything was still working."
"Oh, no," she said, "that stuff is just there for show -- it's, like, from the fifties."
"Yep," I said to J. after she walked away. "And so are we!"