JOHNSTOWN, PA – It is the morning-after at the Coney Island luncheonette, an institution here since 1916.
Just 11 a.m., and the reg’lars are already piling their paper plates with all-beef hot dogs doused with chili.
Me? Well, after last night, I’m sipping on a cup of joe. The late hours in this town’s odd mix of bars, talking about the governor’s race in the hinterlands, have my head spinning.
Downtown, in an old-man’s tap room where they have to dig deep in the cooler to find a Yuengling, there was the old guy who liked Conway Twitty and swore Ed Rendell is a communist.
And, just like Mr. Michael Fisher alleges in his ads, Billy G. pronounces, “Rendell’s just another tax-and-spend Dem-oh-crat. ”
“Not,” his wife, who’s playing a video game, says over her shoulder, “that Fisher is all that much to talk ’bout. ”
“Hell, just as long as they don’t try to take my huntin’ rifle,” Billy G. sighs.
On the other side of the Conemaugh River, along a strip of bars that would have been at home in Villanova, the music was from the FM side of the dial, and the locals are just as suspicious.
“Rendell, Fisher, don’t matter who,” says a 40-something guy named Clarence, raising his voice to be heard over a whiny duet’s version of “Moondance. ”
“I personally think Rendell will win, but you know how it is: Once he’s in office, he’ll screw us all. ”
And so it is the morning-after at Coney Island, and I’m wrestling with the troublesome conclusion that here, in the wooded Laurel Highlands, I’ve stumbled onto a cell of Pennsylvania anarchists.
It’s confirmed when I listen in on the conversation two booths over, where Bob Stramanak, and his pals, A.J. and Mitch, are griping about their pensions.
The three are retired from area school districts.
They’re all going to vote for Rendell, but not because of any of his more notable promises about property tax reform, education or jobs.
They’re backing him because the former Philly mayor once said the cuts in their pensions were “wrong. ”
“Fisher, he couldn’t say what he would do,” says Mitch.
“At least Rendell said he’d look into it. ”
“The problem,” says A.J., “is they send up their smoke-screens. Then, when they get into office, it’s ‘Fung-gool. ‘ ”
Stramanak nods. He’s wearing a baseball cap with a pin that says, “Vote for Mark Parker, State Representative. ”
“Is he the Democrat? ” I ask.
“No, Republican,” Stramanak says. “The incumbent is a Democrat. I don’t know how he got elected. Six years in office, and the only thing he’s done is rename four bridges and proposed the polka as the official state song. ”
“Yeah, and he increased his own pension by 50 percent,” adds Mitch.
“So, you’re not worried about voting for a Democrat from Philly? ” I wonder.
“Yeah, we’re suspicious,” says Mitch.
If not anarchy, the notion that powerful outsiders are not to be trusted is as firmly embedded as the coal in the nearby hills.
This town still blames Andrew Carnegie and his fat-cat fishing buddies for the great Johnstown Flood of 1889. The Pittsburgh industrialist was a member of the infamous South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, whose failure to maintain an earthen dam at Lake Conemaugh led to a disaster that cost more than 2,000 lives.
The irony is they rebuilt the town and went right back to work for Carnegie and the rest of those robber barons.
But now those jobs are gone. The steel mills are closed, and there are few jobs at the remaining mines. The biggest employer, one local wag told me, is Manpower, the temp agency.
When you walk down Main Street, the depth of unemployment is unmistakable. Half the storefronts are empty, the rest are a mix of social agencies and cheesy franchises. My personal favorite is the one opening across the street from the Holiday Inn, that promises, “For All Your Nascar Needs. ”
The words of Larry Morris, a businessman I met the night before in the Boulevard Grill, underscore the emptiness.
“All the young people are leaving town,” said Morris. “The ones who are still here think the steel mills are coming back. It’s not going to happen. ”
Few jobs, no hope, and a suspicious eye toward Harrisburg.
I drain my cup. The sign above Coney Island’s spartan Formica counter had promised me “delicious coffee. ”
Damned if it ain’t.