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STRANGEVILLE, USA

by Rose Madeline Mula

Last weekend my friend Joan and I visited The Twilight Zone. We hadn't planned to. We thought we were going to Bronxville, New York, posh habitat of the privileged, to attend a book signing party for a writer friend, Joseph Papaleo, at Bronxville's prestigious Sarah Lawrence College.

We first felt something was amiss when no one in town could give us directions to the bed & breakfast we had reserved. Our queries were met with puzzlement, disbelief, even horror. "You must be mistaken," we were told. "There's no such thing as a B&B here." Fortunately, we had an address and we eventually located the street-a long, steep, curvy lane lined with mansions. Near the top of the hill, we found the number we wanted. It was attached to a domicile that at one time must have been grand, but was now somewhat seedy and a bit less imposing than its neighbors, its grounds less manicured. The sculptures scattered throughout the neglected front garden seemed uncomfortable, misplaced—as though they were accustomed to classier surroundings and wondered what had brought them here. There was no sign on the lawn or over the front door identifying the home as an inn of any kind.

We rang the bell. It was answered promptly by a friendly maid, who introduced herself as Marilyn and told us that the lady of the manor was busy but would greet us later. She led us into the great hall, which lived up to its name—a beautiful, huge, high-ceilinged room with a wall of large windows at one end. At the other end, a graceful double stairway, thickly carpeted in crimson, curved upward to a four-sided balcony overlooking the great hall. Very impressive. Things were looking up. While Joan and I were gazing at the grandeur, Marilyn effortlessly scooped up our bags and asked us to follow her up the stairs, refusing our efforts to relieve her of the luggage. She led us to a corner suite—a large main room with a four-poster bed, a fireplace, two lovely upholstered chairs, a desk, and bedside tables. A door led to a smaller twin-bedded room, less grandly furnished but comfortable. So far, so good.

When Marilyn left, we brought our suitcases into the walk-in closet to unpack. At one side of the closet an empty rod stood ready. On the other side hung dozens of garments—musty, outdated dresses; once-glittery evening gowns, now tarnished and frayed; a matted fur jacketcastoffs from another age. On the shelves, various battered boxes vied for space with an old portable typewriter, scruffy hats, a rusty lamp and other assorted decrepit bric-a-brac. A large hole decorated the end wall of the closet.

The bathroom held more surprises. Since it had only a pedestal sink, with no vanity or counter space, I opened the medicine cabinet looking for space to store my toiletries, but the shelves were already filled with various outdated medications; a bottle of Helena Rubenstein lotion for blackheads, probably forty years old and thickly coated with dust; a squished box of bandages; two splayed shaving brushes, circa 1930; and—an even bigger surprise—a grimy, half-empty split of champagne, probably long since fermented to vinegar. Who keeps champagne in a medicine cabinet? Creepy. I was beginning to wonder if Blanche DuBois might be languishing in a corner bedroom, or if Mrs. Rochester was chained in the attic.

We needed fresh air. We had a couple of hours to kill before the book signing we had come to attend so we decided to check out the town—or, rather, the village—the much less plebian designation that New York uses to identify its municipalities. Before our trip, I had learned through the Internet that Bronxville boasts enviable train service to Manhattan's Grand Central Station. Trains leave every half hour and whisk passengers to the Big Apple in less than thirty minutes, from early morn to the wee hours. Great! We could stay in Bronxville an extra night and spend a day in New York City, without the hassle of driving into the city.

Good plan, right?

Wrong.

On our exploratory, pre-book-signing trip downtown, we discovered that all-day parking is available only to residents with special stickers. I asked a woman who was waiting for a train how visitors can take advantage of the train service if they can't park their cars. She said we could take a taxi to the train station from wherever we were staying, and she pointed out a tiny structure abutting the depot. It was the taxi office, she said. We would not have known this otherwise. It bore no sign or identification of any kind. Nor was anything so crass as the word "Taxi" painted on any of the sedate black sedans parked at its door. Come to think of it, we did not see a policeman anywhere in the village, nor a police car. Are plain clothes and unmarked vehicles the rule? We wondered how they disguise their fire engines and ambulances.

A visit to the Village Hall proved fruitless. No, they had no brochures and no information about area attractions or interesting village sites. Inquiries as to the location of the Chamber of Commerce were equally unsuccessful. Personnel in three real estate offices, a hair salon, and a dress shop on Bronxville's lovely main shopping street had no knowledge about the Chamber of Commerce. Hard to believe. Then finally, success! A clerk in a stationery shop helpfully pulled out a telephone book and looked it up. What do you know? Though he, too, was completely unaware of the Chamber, it turned out to be just across the street, above a gift shop. We thanked the clerk, crossed the street and went upstairs where we found several law offices and a door marked "Chamber of Commerce." It was locked. There was no sign indicating office hours. No one in any of the law offices could tell us when or if anyone would ever show up. Strange.

We drove out of the village and into neighboring Tuckahoe where we got lost before we realized it was time to get to Joe's book signing. Another problem. We asked three people for directions to Sarah Lawrence College and were rewarded with blank stares and shrugged shoulders. We couldn't have been more than three miles from the well-known school, but we might as well have asked for directions to the moon. Stranger still. Fortunately, through trial and error, we finally found our way back without help and arrived at the book signing in time to enjoy the party.

We returned to the B&B rather reluctantly. Despite our misgivings, we had a comfortable night. The next morning, as we nibbled the meager breakfast that had been set out for us in the gloomy dining room crammed with massive, ornately-carved mahogany furniture, Marilyn appeared to ask if we had everything we wanted. She was now dressed in an ankle-length, full-skirted cotton dress, covered with a long, bibbed, starched white apron and a bandana around her head.

We gulped our coffee, grabbed our bags and fled, fearful that Scarlett O'Hara, or a demented Carol Burnett wannabe, might materialize on the staircase in the great hall enveloped in a ball gown improvised from the velvet drapes, complete with curtain rod. It was definitely time to get out of town.

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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