Mar 02, 2009, 03:48AM

Adams and Its Apples

The beauty of Adams County, PA is best enjoyed by sampling the native delicacies: apples, and a little homegrown racism.

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Photo by DeusXFlorida

Biglerville, where I've spent a few months of every year since I was a child, is eerie. Biglerville is at the heart of Adams County-just north of the Mason-Dixon line and only a few hours by bike from Baltimore. Biglerville was eerie from the first day I set foot in it and counted a dozen businesses along the main drag whose names started with the letter Z, but that was before I learned that half the surnames in central Pennsylvania start with the letter Z.

The genuine eeriness of Biglerville struck me when I was a little older and first read Primo Levi. The architectural structure that dominates it is a huge brick smokestack, and on that smokestack, in foot-high white letters, is painted the word "Musselman." A musselman, of course, was the term used in concentration camps to describe the walking dead: inmates who were so far gone that everyone knew it was only a matter of days before they starved or were selected for extermination. In another town, the word musselman would merely be grotesque, but in Biglerville it was creepy, because Biglerville is also at the heart of neo-Nazi country. I realized this at the age of nine when my uncle took my cousins and me for a quick trip to the county next door, York. We parked behind a Nissan pickup whose owner had painted out letters on his tailgate. At the time there was a vogue of painting out the first and last two letters of the name TOYOTA so that you had a truck that proclaimed YO. The Nissan owner had painted out the same pairs of letters, yielding a tailgate that displayed the abbreviation of the elite Nazi military unit whose members were required to provide genealogical proof that any blood-tainting ancestral contact with non-Aryans had taken place at least two centuries in the past.

Biglerville is also the only place I've heard the n-word used against me in anger-last week when I went to Biglerville to pay it a friendly farewell. I don't want to make too big a deal of this, because when it comes to being a victim of the n-bomb in Adams County, I'm just a raindrop in a river. And in my case I escaped with nothing more than a furrowed brow: why the n-bomb and not the s-bomb? Lots of victims of the n-bomb have fared far worse than me. In my case, too, the n-bomb was a kind of dual slur targeted at my minority status in two regards: ethnic and vehicular. I was on my bicycle at the time, heading out of Biglerville. I had inconvenienced a motorist by riding too far into his lane. What I was doing, to be precise, was riding along Biglerville's main drag a few feet from the cars parked to my right, in approved urban fashion to avoid the second leading cause of death while cycling: slamming against a door that swings open at the exact moment that you approach it at 20 mph. Evidently I had inconvenienced the Adams County beater behind me. Once we got clear of Biglerville, the front-seat passenger of the beater, a grimy-faced white man in his 50s, leaned out and shouted back at me, What the hell are you doing, you damn nigger! His anger clearly fell mainly into the category of routine motorist-cyclist animosity; it just happened to include an ethnic insult, one in which the ethnicity was a little...confused.

That was the part that made me furrow my brow, but only for a few moments. The residents of Adams and York counties don't always make fine distinctions between ethnicities when hurling an insult. In Adams and York, if you're enraged and want to add an ethnic dimension to your anger, getting the ethnicity right likely isn't your top priority. And this man was incensed. He'd been held up for the entirety of two minutes. I would rank the pitch of his anger right up there in the top five percent of all the insults I've grown to cherish as essential features of my place in the vehicular minority of bike riders.

In Adams and York, the vehicular minority-majority dynamic is of a special kind because there are probably more motorcycles per square foot of road than anywhere outside of Sturgis on that annual weekend when every biker in America gathers to drink and whoop it up. Motorcycles figure so prominently in the vehicular dynamic of Adams and York because York is at the heart of hog America. The largest Harley-Davidson manufacturing facility in America is just north of the city of York. Treason in York and Adams is to be riding a motorcycle that is not a hog.

That dynamic, of hog majority versus cyclist minority, is full of all kinds of mischief. My personal favorite is the one in which a biker happens upon a cyclist on a lonely stretch of one of the famous motorcycle roads of central Pennsylvania, which also happen to be famous cycling roads. The biker plays a game with the cyclist called can-you-keep-your-balance-as-I force-you-to-the-very-edge-of-the-road-or-shoulder. If the cyclist loses, the cyclist ends up, if lucky, sprawled on the fringes of some orchard, bruised and mourning the fractured frame of her $7000 custom Serotta. Many cyclists lose. If the cyclist wins, he has bested a hog. On one occasion I not only bested a hog but also then had the joy of watching the rider's backseat companion chide him with a playful little jab to his leather-clad shoulder as he sped off.

I was in Biglerville last week to say goodbye after spending the last few months with my cousins in the house they rent a few miles to the east. I didn't think I'd be back again next year or anytime soon. And so to say goodbye to Biglerville, I rode my bike to the National Apple Museum. The National Apple Museum is there because chances are one in five that the last apple you ate that had a worm in it was grown in Pennsylvania, and very likely in Adams County. So many apples = so many s-words. Each growing and harvesting season, the already rapidly increasing permanent Hispanic population of Adams rises by another 20 percent due to the influx of a migrant workforce. (An interesting demographic contrast is between Adams County and Carroll County, Maryland just to its south: Adams has a permanent Hispanic population that is more than three times as large as that of Carroll.) It's a shorter ride from Biglerville to any number of restaurants that serve up authentic arroz con gandules than to a Yellow Smirches (as they were called in the Glendale neighborhood where I grew up) bagging Big Macs.

I went to the Apple Museum because it seemed a fitting place to say goodbye. Among all the eeriness of Biglerville, the Apple Museum was an island of slightly creepy quaintness, with its collection of apple-related sheet music, widow-maker ladders, vinegar generators, and especially the life-size fiberglass horse and farmer that had appeared in a Levi's commercial. The quality control display especially had been endlessly intriguing when I was eleven and going through a phase of fascination with the concept of quality control. I knew the museum would be closed (it's a summer tourist draw), but all I wanted was a last nostalgic look, if only from the outside. All I could see through the windows (they needed cleaning) was a fly swatter on the sill and an apple-decorated quilt draped over a chair. So instead I took a last look at the geese around the duck pond. There were four geese, and half of them were hobbling on injured legs. That seemed fitting for Biglerville: a fragment of some grotesque enigma that I would leave without solving. I said goodbye to the geese and then mounted my bike and rode out onto the main drag for one last delicious taste of Adams County hospitality.


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