Monday, December 21, 2009

Two Men In Bethlehem

We weren't bearing gifts, we were just trying to reach a destination. Neither one of us knew we would end up here - this little town of Bethlehem, but a Nor'easter had rolled in and mucked up everyone's flight plans, including Phil's.

Phil was visiting us from the West Coast and had come in for a weekend reunion with friends and family. And, of course, a traditional holiday visit to The Great Notch Inn, a New Jersey roadside bar that looks like it was plucked from the wilds of the Colorado frontier.

The weather outside was in the teens that weekend night and in the air one could feel that something big was moving its way in. Anywhere from 6-12 inches was predicted. But inside, The Notch offered a warm respite. The people, the drinks, the live band crammed into the 14 x 20 foot room provided the same warmth that a potbelly stove could've offered, a fixture that would be quite at home in this rustic interior (but they don't have one due to insurance issues).

Phil was already a little tense. The flight was expensive and his time was brief. He had already called in sick to the office so he could take the Thursday night red eye out of SFO. So by the time Sunday rolled around and he found his return flight cancelled, his temperament went from anxious to fearful to pissed.

Although he was getting a fare refund from the airlines, it wasn't fair that the next available flight back was not until Wednesday -- and cost double.

Phil was in a pickle that snowy eve. He would have to extend the lie to his boss that his Friday sickness had turned into the flu. And he would have to fork over a thousand bucks to fly home late.

Greyhound and the train were options but all that traveling would still cost him a few days. It was not until late in the evening on Sunday when Phil finally got through to the busy online travel site and booked a reservation. It seemed half the Eastern seaboard was trying to book a flight out of there. The airlines had everyone by the balls, even Phil's. It would be a cool $1200 to fly home, but at least he would be there.

While he rationalized the cost and the fact that he had a refundable ticket, another idea popped into his head - what about alternative airports.

It's common knowledge that the NYC metro area has some of the worst flight delays in the country. But with a little creativity, a few extra stops and a lot less money, sometimes you can get lucky with some of the lesser known areas.

Philly is only about an hour and a half from us. There's even Westchester, Stewart and Atlantic City airports. But not many folks think about KABE - that's Lehigh Valley International, nestled in between Allentown and Bethlehem, PA.

When the message, "Only 2 seats left", appeared on his screen, Phil knew he had to take this flight and refund the other ticket. Who cared if the airport was in another state and another city he never heard of, or that the flight left at 6:30am and connected in Cleveland back to SFO?It only cost $430!!!

When I got the call asking if I could drive Phil to Bethlehem and drop him in the airport late at night so he could wait for his morning flight, I shuddered. I pictured the poor guy having to sit wedged into an uncomfortable seat, under a fluorescent lit environment, and all alone in a podunk, backwater terminal. Phil deserves a little better than that.

And when he told me the Sands Corporation had just opened a brand, spanking new casino downtown, I immediately thought - road trip.

If Charles Dickens was American, Bethlehem may have just been one of the locations for his stories. There is that turn of the century feel you get from the row houses, the ornate stone buildings downtown and the industrial revolution steel mills that still loom over the city.

Bethlehem Steel was founded in 1857 and became one of the largest providers of steel for shipyards and armaments around the world. Its steel design enabled the construction of the first skyscrapers. Bethlehem invented the I-beam, as seen in its logo. At one point, Bethlehem's CEO was the highest paid executive in the country.

But by 2003, the company had gone bankrupt. Foreign competition, resistance to
modernization and the lucrative benefits paid to its workers, finally brought the behemoth down.

What's left now are hulking, abandoned steel mills, empty office buildings and monuments to a bygone era. You can't help but see history when looking at these structures.

And now, sitting amongst these ruins is America's next new revitalization effort - the casino.

Some call it a devil's playground set up to tempt the last few dollars out of your wallet. Others call it a plague that will be the final scourge on the land. For Phil and I, we called it a place to hang out until his flight left.

We two men entered Bethlehem just after midnight. The quaint downtown was empty. We had the area to ourselves on that cold night. Our only welcoming came from the bright and festive Christmas lights. We drove down Main Street, pulled to the only thing that seemed to be alive - the casino.

It beckoned to us at the end of town. A giant red (a devil's red) Sands sign
hung across a massive black (a devil's black) steel span that looked like an invisibly suspended bridge. The brand new complex appeared clean, modern and sparsely attended.

Inside were 140,000 square feet of gaming space, 7 restaurants and bars, and 3,000 slot machines.

We hate slots.

We like table games and this place was virtually devoid of them. I say "virtually" because you can play roulette, black jack and three-card poker on some new fangled electronic table game. A computer-run video of an attractive dealer pretends to talk to you and engage you in a game, while you feed your money into a bill slot, sit back and watch electronically delivered cards determine your fate. The roulette game doesn't even have a dealer. So much for re-training ex-factory workers. There's no need for them, just a couple of overweight security guards standing around the floor along with marginal looking cocktail waitresses (hopefully they will all be replaced with machines one day soon, too).

As Phil said, the only advantage to these electronic images is that you can tell the dealer to fuck off. Try doing that in Vegas.

We begrudgingly sat down to play because we had about 4 hours to kill. But when we started winning at our roulette and black jack games, we didn't mind the imitation game style because the money was real! Phil, in a short amount of time, amassed a handsome take, and I didn't do so shabby, either.

At 5am we took our gifts from Bethlehem and I dropped Phil at the airport while I went to look for an inn that would provide me a little sanctuary for the rest of the evening, or at least until the sun came up.

It was interesting driving up to a local motel without a reservation, baggage (or a cheap date) and asking if they had a vacancy. I felt like I was on the lam. Who show's up at 5am for a room?

It was not a problem. There was room a the inn. I managed a few hours of sleep, got up, showered, put on the same clothes, went back to explore Bethlehem in the day and grab some local breakfast. A great place to visit, but probably wouldn't want to live there.

I drove back home in less than an hour arriving in the early afternoon. I gave Phil a call to leave him a message thanking him for the fun weekend. He answered his phone to my surprise. As it turned out, he had just landed safely in California and was standing on the curb of the arrivals deck waiting for his ride - a ride to his next destination.


  1. Sounds like a good road trip. Great pics too !Yeah, Bethlehem is some town... I spent a good number of Christmas holidays there when I was married.

  2. Great story! Good thing you didn't have to get up for work...

  3. Well done getting Phil on his way!

    That casino sounds like a dystopian science fiction story - is this the future?