Salem, MA: In Which it is Easier to Be a Geek than a Goth

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Last weekend, I did what any self-respecting nerd would do and went to see The Avengers, a movie I had been patiently waiting to see for a while, but impatiently waiting to see since that delightful Superbowl spot.  So overcome with fangirling was I at such an Event that I couldn’t quite hear most of the 7pm showing over the clear fanboying delight of a super-loud kindergartner behind me, who felt it necessary to narrate every scene – not only during important bits of quietly-delivered expository dialogue, but also during those silent pre-dialogue beats.

My companion and I exited the cinema and returned for the 10pm showing, and our minds were pretty much blown – an eloquent tour guide and (almost) a Master of Letters reduced to “OMG WTF that was awesome”; “Shakespeare in the park LOL” and “HAHA MEWLING QUIM PUNY GOD”, and (highlight for spoiler) “WUT THAT WAZ THANOS OMG DEATH SHAWARMA!!!” (end spoiler).

To me, it was a brilliant movie. Well-made and well-played, crafted by a director whose TV shows I had grown up watching (and BtVS was my first 12-rated movie, even though I was not old enough to get in). The characters and the plotlines of the comics were faithfully-rendered. The hype had been easy to generate because this had been a long time coming; threaded through the Iron Man movies, Hulk, Thor and Captain America was a tease of this movie, built up via each film’s post-credit scenes, as if one were watching a TV show with a weekly cliffhanger.

The local cinema got in on the midnight showings and themed movie drinks (Cinema Salem’s “Thor” – white chocolate mocha with hazelnut was my popcorn companion of choice) and it was funny to notice who stayed once the credits started rolling (about half the audience), and who stayed to the very end of the credits after the mid-credit scene (about seven people).

Last weekend was also Free Comic Book Day, a day in which comic book companies issue special “free” versions of their comics (usually more ads per book than usual), and our local, Harrison’s, allowed just two books per customer. Not two of each book, just two. Two of the free books. Better than last year, I suppose. Although I was in South-East England, in which not only is there just one comic book store, but he didn’t even participate.

Not free, but still awesome anyway.

For a town peddling all manner of ghost tours, psychic parlors, magic shows, illegal/unauthorized Harry Potter merch stores and witch museums, it seems to be harder to get goth supplies than it does to furnish a geek’s closet. Salem has a comic book store (plus The Red Lion’s sizable action figure/trading card/comic section), a video game store and, thanks to the recent spate of comic book movies, related merch is ubiquitous.

I could stroll into CVS and pick up a Spider-Man beach towel but not find anything with Emily The Strange. The aforementioned store that is entirely stocked with 100% illegal/unauthorized Harry Potter merchandise could rival the stock and imagination of actual, legitimate sellers, but there’s nary a Nightmare Before Christmas or horror-themed merch to be found. The Fool’s Mansion has an excellent selection for both the aspiring and seasoned goth, but their prices are not really for the faint of heart.

My bank has s0me awesome Batman cheques available. Where are the graveyard-themed ones? Of all places, The Trolley Depot has some great Doctor Who merchandise (and they’re usually cheaper than Harrison’s). I honestly can’t even think of any commercial goth characters beyond those being misappropriated by Hot Topic (The Crow blankets, anyone?), but for a city teeming with people who clearly keep Manic Panic in business, there isn’t anyone with a creative mind who wants to put their designs out there? Or are all local goths just poseurs who are selling the idea of being a goth but not capitalizing on how mainstream it’s become?

I’ve been to a couple of tiny local goth shows, and a couple of tiny mini-parties in which the same two of three songs get repeated by a goth DJ, and I have to admit I was thrown by some of the choices. The Pet Shop Boys ? Really? American goths really…listen to that? And the dancing…my god, the dancing…I really wasn’t sure how it worked.

There are regular Magic: The Gathering tournaments at Harrison’s, and a few times they’ve even hosted small gigs by Voltaire. The closest thing to a goth club night in Salem was a local Thai food place hiring the same DJ, turning the lights down once a month and enforcing an all-black dress code. When the Thai food place shut down to transfer ownership, the night moved to a local dive bar more famous for its pukey fights than as a place to be seen. Then when that in turn closed down, the club night’s website announced that they are on hiatus. Maybe it’s cursed. T’would be fitting.

On the other hand, it’s extremely easy to be a hipster in Salem. You can’t swing a dead witch’s familiar without running into one, stumbling into one of its open mic nights (and then back out again), purchasing an ironically droll accent cushion or living around the corner from a new place that serves spelt quinoa beet ginger soy tofu sprouted wheat bean kimchi raw flax applesauce granola. Oh, American subcultures, how much you amuse me.

 

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375th Anniversary of The First Muster

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The funny thing about history is that once someone tells you the facts, you’re inclined to believe them, especially if there are events associated with those specific dates and facts.

That being said, this past Saturday marked the 375th Anniversary of The First Muster of the National Guard in 1637, according to the ceremony (and the much-appreciated updates from the Haunted Happenings Magazine). But when I went on the National Guard’s website, it states that they celebrated their 370th birthday in 2006…so…wouldn’t that mean that it began in 1635?

Governor Deval Patrick proposed a bill to officially recognize Salem as the birthplace of the National Guard. Up until the beginning of this month, it was waiting to be passed by the Senate, and since it’s not a bill that proves the existence of Republican time travel, everyone was sure it was going to be passed. Now that it has, it’s a nice boost to Salem’s economy, although it appears to have pissed off four people.

Regardless, that doesn’t detract from the fact the Guard is an organization steeped in history, cares about its Guardmembers and even has a mobile app, unlike its younger brother, the self-congratulatory and Call of Duty-excelling army.

Great period costumes, cute horses, good weather and tons of people out with their families on the Common to commemorate whatever this was supposed to be.

39 Photos of the Most Insidiously Terrifying Easter Bunnies in Salem, Massachusetts

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I rarely post while I am on holiday (especially when I’m visiting family),  but in honour of Easter this week (and the disappointing reality that “Easter Monday” does not exist in America), here’s a collection of bizarre, surreal and insidiously “cute” bunnies who will eat your soul if they stared at you long enough.

And I think that this one was supposed to have eyes. When I finally do eat him, it’ll be head-first with some holy water and communion wafers to wash it down. Or some Tia Maria and Jaffa Cakes.

Living in Downtown Salem

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A couple of Hallowe’ens ago here in Salem, I and my lovely roommate at the time were taking one of the husband’s ghost-hunting tours (yes…I know…but most people knew it was just a laugh). There was one portion that takes us down an alleyway off of Essex Street, past the side of the Essex apartments and around the back of the Lyceum restaurant (now called 62). The husband would sit perched on the edge of a stair railing that led into the back of City Hall and tell us a tale of a suspected famous Rhode Island vampire.

It was October, and the crowd was surprisingly plenty. I and our roommate had seen his tour a few times, so our nascent attention deficit could be explained by the fact that we were just girly, unsupportive, bored housemates with not much else to do that night. But when half of his tour group (who were closer to us) were also giggling and not paying attention, the husband couldn’t figure out why a normally hanging-on-his-every-word tour group was now showing the faltering attention span of a kitten with a ball of yarn.

I later explained to him that we saw Batman crouching on a nearby rooftop.

One of the many occasions in Salem when I wished I’d had a camera (especially on a ghost-hunting tour that specifically requests that you snap away with your flash). To this day, I wish I could capture the hilarious awkwardness of this intently-crouching, costumed figure, lit from behind by one of the street-lights, his stoic vigilant pose somewhat orphaned from the moment by some snickering tourists who could only stifle their giggles at the surrealism of it all. But I guess only words will have to do.

Our superhero said nothing, did nothing, and by the time we had turned to walk down another alleyway to come out the other side of City Hall on Washington Street, he was gone like a flimsy CVS carrier bag pirouetting with the night breeze, and we felt oddly safe from the strange man with the beard and long hair and top hat taking us down a dodgy-looking alleyway talking about vampires.

From my new flat, I can see those alleyways from here. I can see City Hall, I can see Essex Street, I can see all the way in the distance to the yucky power plant in the distance. So there is virtually no excuse for what I’m about to tell the husband today: “I just can’t be bothered to go out and do anything”.

It’s not terribly warm today, but I’ve had to keep the windows open all night. The sun blasts in through here and wakes me up on weekends at around 8.30am, which, considering I work at stupid hours throughout the week, is lovely, because it discourages me from staying up too late and screwing up my workweek sleep schedule (wow – I’m getting old). During the week in the morning I get to see the sunrise as I get ready. It’s a humbling sight (take that, double rainbow guy).

I can’t even begin to imagine the convenience this will bring during October. Downtown Salem is a relatively small area anyway, and I have always lived within a decent proximity of it. But I am truly loving the fact that if I have 3 pints and refuse to use the questionable ladies’ facilities at The Old Spot (particularly when they’re out of both soap and loo roll), I can make a crotch-grabbing dash back to my flat and perpetuate this obsessive-compulsive germ shelter. The husband joked that we should charge tourists to use the loo in the same way that greedy homeowners list their own parking spaces on Craigslist in October.

Living downtown also brings new meaning to the phrase “popping out”. I really can “pop out” to get some quarters for the washing machine (ugh) and then pop right back out again when I realise I’ve forgotten to buy some laundry detergent for the washing machine. And then pop back out again to pick up some mini quiches from the little organic greengrocer around the corner, and resist the urge to walk a little bit further and buy some Chipsticks and Cadbury’s from Pamplemousse. Saying, “I’m too tired” just doesn’t fly anymore. It’s all just so close!

Actually, having said that, there is a new excuse I could use:

“I can’t afford to go out today, because I pay for an apartment with this view.”

Salem, MA: In Which A Cafe Named “Coven” Can Be Replaced By A Cafe Called “Life Alive”

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Perhaps I am just getting old.

Several clusters of lentil and patchouli-scented gas clouds sprang up all over Salem when vegans and vegetarians (myself included) sighed in despair, but not surprise, at the news of Coven’s “temporary” closing in January. Followers of our beloved eatery’s Facebook feed were told that the owners were shipping off to New York for a “much-needed rest”, something which, they did in fact need, owing to the long hours I would see them working and how empty Salem was in January. Assuming that they would follow suit of Ben & Jerry’s and The Lobster Shanty and re-open when people have shaken off their post-Christmas financial hangovers, we waited with bated barley-spelt-quinoa breath.

The other day, we got an update, but sadly, it wasn’t what anyone wanted to read. No, they hadn’t switched to the new Facebook Timeline; Coven was closing for good, and the owners had permanently relocated back to their native NY.  The clusters of hippie whinging dust had now become full-blown, granola-spitting, organic cyclones, and there was now a Coven-shaped hole in our lives.

My first panicked thought was, “who is going to feed me now?” I am a perfectly capable cook, have never made anything inedible (save for some basmati rice which I was forced to cook without proper measuring utensils) and have an inspired imagination when it comes to sourcing/creating new dishes – even snacks (seriously, try Edamame houmous with some Branston pickle).

But when I get home from an 11-hour workday with most of it in Boston (and no lunch break), I am just too tired to whip up my garam-cashew-raisin masala from scratch, and too much in possession of working tastebuds to sully them with an EasyMac (unless I am drunk). My mother is all the way back in England, and could post me some pakoras, but something tells me the taste and heat would become diminished with transit.

Enter Life Alive, a cafe mini-chain who have taken over Coven’s old spot. I have never been to their Cambridge or Lowell locations, so I could only judge them based on their website. If anyone has an aversion to colour, look away now and don’t click on this website link.

It really is quite a pretty, positive and promising site, and gives the impression that, once the nerdy vintage cereal mascot toys and board games and the TV and alternative art sculptures are cleared out, I’ll be walking into a serene, leafy grotto decorated with Hawaiian-lei-shaped peace medallions, tie-dye wall tapestries and an assortment of re-homed Buddha statues. Gone will be the Depeche Mode or Alice Cooper Pandora station of yesteryear, and instead gently piping in will be the sounds of local sitar artists and experimental poetry activist readings.

A peek at their menu brings more promise. It’s mostly vegan, but fully vegetarian. Ignoring the somewhat patronizing whiff of the portion descriptions (“Filling Bowl”; “Hearty Wrap” etc), I can see they’ve got the usuals – tofu, brown rice, quinoa, sprouts and ginger, but with what appears to be a focus on fresh ingredients and care in preparation.

Could it be? An actual vegetarian restaurant in Salem? One that doesn’t offer items made with vegetables that were actually stewing/frying/baking with the remains of meat and fish? A vegetarian restaurant that actually has a varied menu, doesn’t rely too much on meat substitutes, and that actually seems to have some imagination in its presentation and ingredient selections? I am still staggering at the thought of somewhere I can go eat as a vegetarian that doesn’t laugh at me and tell me I’m too thin (I get enough of that when I go home to see my parents).

An extensive smoothie bar and a lack of alcohol means they are probably going to draw in the crowds who still go to Front Street Coffeehouse because they have the best coffee, but go far less often because they remember when the baristas played Edwin Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes instead of Chris Brown and Jennifer Lopez.

They’ve not set an opening date, and, quite frankly, I don’t know if many people even know about this.  Prices seem more along the lines for what you would pay in a sit-down restaurant ($9 for a meal bowl), so let’s hope they live up to that. I feel a little sad and a little old when stores I like close; it seems to be happening frequently in Salem. I remember feeling this intrigued when hearing of Coven’s construction period, and how soon their “soft open” and “official opening” were.

All that remains is to wait and see. I would rather not put all my free-range eggs in one ethically-woven flax basket.

Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate and Ice Sculpture Festival

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This past weekend, the city celebrated  “Salem So Sweet!” Chocolate and Ice Sculpture Festival. I never know which part of that title is actually capitalized, and which part are in inverted commas, and whether or not it’s Salem’s or Salem. It seems to change – even on the same page. And the title of the festival makes no sense grammatically, sounding like Stephen King’s Boogeyman and Gollum’s bastard lovechild trying to write its first Valentine’s Day card. Salem needs  a proofreader…badly.

As they were every year, the ice sculptures were the focus of the festival, and they were different every year. There didn’t seem to be a theme (I thought there had been in previous years). Not attractively presented, they were still nice sights to encounter while strolling around town.

Outside MudPuddle Toys - The Adventures of TinTin in Salem

Outside Tavern in the Square

Outside Adriatic Restaurant & Bar

Chocolate Fountain at Maria's Sweet Somethings

Outside the Peabody Essex Museum

 

The kick-off was the chocolate and wine tasting at Hamilton Hall, but at $30 a ticket, it’s not for everyone, but it sold out fast. I do get the feeling that it’s the same group of people going to these things (the historic house/garden tours; the Dickensian Christmas ball etc) and were I to buy a ticket, I’d look very much out of place.

The festival’s brochure stated there was a window-dressing contest, but save for a few balloons and pink stuffed animals here and there, I didn’t see much in the way of competing. Rumour has it there was a raffle, and Milk and Honey ran a chocolate-themed baking contest on Saturday.

Outside Maria's Sweet Somethings

Downtown wasn’t terribly crowded due to the weather (bitterly cold and very, very blustery), even for February’s standards. I’d been told by a shop owner that the ice sculptures cost upwards of $500, so it’s a shame there’s never been much of a turnout, or much in the way of promotion, given the effort that was put into the sculptures.

As an amateur party-wrangler since the age of 9, I saw so many missed opportunities. Ideal additions could have been chocolate-making workshops (free or paid); chocolate liqueur-tastings; chocolate-themed menus; markets (like the Biz Baz) – indoor or out with hot chocolate sellers; or maybe inviting local dairies or chocolatiers to actually visit and do demonstrations. Maria’s Sweet Somethings did go all out with a small chocolate demonstration, some sipping chocolate samplings and a huge chocolate fountain, but the enthusiasm for the festival elsewhere was sadly…lacklustre.

Outside Rockafellas

The romantic aspect could have been celebrated by a special movie offering at the cinema and/or reviving the Movie on the Common series; an event at the PEM; a floral/gifts market; jewellery-making workshops/demonstrations; art displays – everything the city and local businesses put their imagination to when it comes to Hallowe’en, but to get that festival atmosphere back for the singles and families who actually live in Salem or visit during the off-season. People will get out of their homes, tourists and residents alike, if you give them something to do.

Isn’t that what the festival was supposed to be about?

Ice Dragon on Essex St. Decapitated by arsehole drunks on Saturday evening; was said to be the best sculpture of the lot 😦

66 Things to Do in Salem, MA

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Halloween - derby st house

The famous Derby St House of fantastic decorations. They make an incredible effort every year that it’s a tourist attraction in and of itself – even on Christmas. Next to Dave Eng’s Flowers, 136 1/2 Derby St.

Because I like lists, and sympathise with the tourist dilemma of “Bollocks! We only have 5 hours to spend here – what do we do first??”, I’ve decided to compile a big fat list of 66* awesome things to do in Salem.

*Yes, this list could have been shorter, but the number 66 is evilly cool, and Salem is a spooky, kooky version of that surreal little hamlet in Gilmore Girls, so ner. (Click “Continue reading” to read more!)

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