For quite a while I lived in West Chester, Pa. Pa. (with the period) is the Associated Press abbreviation for Pennsylvania. I don’t like it as much as the old abbreviation, Penna., but it’s better than PA, one of the sterile two-capital-letter, standardized abbreviations dictated by the U.S. Postal Service sometime in the ’70s, I think.
West Chester, Pa., is sometimes confused with the lofty Westchester, N.Y. Westchester, N.Y., is probably a wonderful place to live; I’ve been through it once or twice, and my wife’s ex-husband’s mother and her family live there. My wife and stepdaughter (a word I hate) still go there every Thanksgiving, and now I’m invited, too. I like them all very much. But I think that the public’s general attitude about Westchester, N.Y., is probably accurate, so I don’t think I’d enjoy living there as much as I did in West Chester, Pa., which hereafter I’ll just call West Chester.
West Chester is the county seat of Chester County, which is one county away from Philadelphia. It’s a reasonable commute to the city, and the city exerts a lot of influence on Chester County, particularly when it comes to local sports preferences. You had the Phillies, the Eagles, the Flyers, and the 76ers, whether you wanted them or not. They all had some good years while I was there, but they also broke my heart many times.
I raised my son in West Chester, Pa. I was a young editor of a regional monthly magazine, so maybe that gave me a special perch on which to view the goings on. Our office was on a main street, and now and then people would walk in with such wonderful stories. They were people who just wanted to be close to a magazine, or the people who put out a magazine, or maybe they just wanted to talk, and the door was open, so why not just walk in? I’m not sure the previous sentence needs a question mark, as it isn’t really a question, is it. Is it?
My magazine was distributed through our advertisers, and we had a few stands here and there around the county. You could buy a subscription to have a copy mailed to you, but it was handed out free. The editorial content tended to follow cultural and other events around the county. For instance, May was always the Devon Horse Show issue. The Devon Horse show was a nice place to go, but it was maybe too much like Westchester, N.Y., for my taste. Sometime in the spring was an issue devoted to Chester County Day. Chester County Day was founded by a formidable but lovely lady named Berenice Ball (of the Ball Brass Company, which at one time could buy and sell you, if you know what I mean). I guess you have to be formidable if your name is Ball. Of Ball Brass.
Many houses in Chester County, Pa., open their doors for visitors on the annual Chester County Day, an event founded by Berenice Ball.
Berenice is likely passed away, as she was getting on during the 1980s, although I think she probably lived to be a hundred. She was just one of those types. I Googled her name, but couldn’t find one picture of her—just the covers of the many books she wrote about Chester County. Chester County Day was about houses in Chester County, and Berenice had a grand house. There were always fresh-cut flowers in there. And Berenice was always in there, often dressed in practical, clean-the-house-and-tend-the-garden clothes. Even jeans. But on Chester County Day, she was a fine figure, with beautiful dresses of great taste and elegant jewelry that managed not to be too gaudy. I loved Berenice Ball, and she loved me (or whoever happened to be the editor of my magazine).
Every now and then a guy named Joe Dopp would stop in at our office to say hello. Joe was a tall man, at least 6’4″, and he wore a black trench coat every day all year round. I think he was probably suffering from schizophrenia, which for the most part Joe seemed to have under control. He had some crazy stories, though. He was one of those guys who believed the CIA was beaming something into his head, so he’d wear tin foil in his hat. Why is that particular delusion so common in schizophrenia? Why don’t some people with schizophrenia believe that the PTA is beaming at them, or the DAR? Actually, there might be something to it. I always gave Joe the benefit of the doubt. One time he was telling me about a friend named Fred who frequented Maine. That’s what he said: “…frequented Maine.” I was busy, so I told Joe to give me 1500 words on it. He promptly sat down at an empty desk and, using a red ink pen, wrote a story that consisted of exactly 1500 words. It was delusional, but it was also very internally consistent, as it was about something real in Joe’s head. I wish I would have saved that story. I didn’t publish it, of course.
There was also a local art teacher, Dennis Haggerty. He was a single guy who went to Taos, N.M., every summer to paint actual art paintings. As you might expect, he was a regular at the Country Lawyer restaurant, which had a bar in the basement where all the judges and attorneys went (the Chester County courthouse is nearby). Teachers and writers also went to the Country Lawyer, so I met quite a few Chester County characters there. Dennis was a huge Phillies fan, and I can remember his frosty mug of beer raised in the air, and his happy shout at some good play or other. Dennis died young. Dennis Edward Haggerty, 65, of West Chester, died on Tuesday, July 24, 2012, at the Chester County Hospital in West Chester. He will be sorely missed. It’s insensitive to say it, but his art has probably gone up in price significantly since his death.
Dennis Haggerty painted many landscapes during his summers in New Mexico. He died at age 65 in 2012.
Anyway, there were all types of people in West Chester, memorable characters who were locally known figures in all types of professions. I knew a judge who would stand up at the Country Lawyer’s bar and belt out a version of “Oklahoma” that made you feel the wind come sweepin’ down the plain. He actually performed in local musical theater, and was eventually appointed a federal judge. Which probably had nothing to do with his baritone.
I’ve lived in Williamsburg only for a couple of years, and have enjoyed many of the historical and artistic offerings. But I don’t know where “the city” really is, and maybe never will. There may not be one—not like the ones that used to be. Or maybe there will never be a time in my life like the time I spent in West Chester. Maybe there is a Williamsburg, with characters walking around, some of them even wearing a little tin foil. I hope so. And I hope someone is enjoying it as much as I enjoyed West Chester.
Meanwhile, my wife and I really do like it here in Williamsburg. But I think we need to seek out at least one local artist and get to know him or her. That’s where Williamsburg really is. And it’s really fun looking for it.