Log Cabin Chronicles

Pie À La Mode
Abiding at the Hotel Cambridge

John Mahoney


[EDITOR'S NOTE: It's amazing what a million bucks can do. Especially when you focus on how it is expended.

On Saturday, November 4, 2000, Jane and I had -- once again -- occasion to be in Cambridge, New York, where we had once spent a restless night in the Cambridge Hotel, the home of pie à la mode. The column below explains all.

Let me report that the old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same" doesn't always hold true.

We were looking for lunch before going to a memorial service for a dear friend who'd had a very short retirement, and we were pressed for time. The sandwich board in front of the hotel, which obviously had been renovated in the past couple of years, advertised lunch. Alas, we were half an hour too early.

I asked the the people behind the lobby desk if they had ever read the column about their hotel written by that internet guy from Canada. They said they hadn't.

What the hell, I thought, so I told them it was moi. The man pulled it up and he and the waitress began reading and quickly started laughing. Meanwhile, the woman who was running things offered a tour.

Here is our observation after an inspection of three bedrooms, the lobby, and the dining room.

Absolutely splendid. Elegantly victorian. Faboulous is not hyperbole.

The large bedroom designed by the artist Will Moses, grandson of Grandma Moses, is the most stunning bed-sitter I have ever seen in my life.

In high season this suite will set you back $150 greenback dollars a night; in the quiet months $105. Other rooms are somewhat less.

I cannot speak to the quality of the chow, but I have heard it is first class, to match the quality of the restoration.

An added bonus: some folks, including Jane and I, believe the hotel has more than one benign ghost. Take that as you will.]

I want to tell you about pie à la mode.

It's a rainy afternoon. Six of us from Lake Memphremagog have driven five hours to Cambridge, New York, and we're hot, stiff, and tired.

We're here to celebrate the thirtieth wedding anniversary of friends who've been in exile for years. We've time for a drink and a shower, just as soon as we locate our hotel.

It's race week at nearby Saratoga and everything is booked solid. Luckily, we've reserved three adjoining rooms at the Hotel Cambridge.

Fran and Jerry's town, down here in Grandma Moses country, has about 5000 people, a motel with a local reputation for a rapid turnover of patrons, and this hotel across from the train station. No trains stop here anymore -- there haven't been any tracks for fifty years. And the station is for sale.

"There it is," says Vernon.

"Are you sure?" says Merrilyn, his wife.

"Oh, no!" says Jane, my wife.

"Maybe it's nice inside," I say.

The Hotel Cambridge is a boxy, three-storey building that was once white. A narrow verandah hints at the hotel's glory days graces the front. There is also a small two-storey porch. Please pay particular attention to this detail. The premier guestroom has access to this porch, which is held up by ornate wrought iron pillars of uncertain vintage and structural integrity.

Vernon parks in the dirt lot, now a vast mud puddle. As we step up on the verandah we spy through cracked and dingy glass various dusty objects -- a table, chairs, a broken lamp. The verandah floor is buckled and heaved and we haven't got our sea legs yet.

The tin ceilinged lobby is furnished in faux Bowery Flophouse. The ornate grandfather clock stopped long ago -- probably when they brought in the green plastic lounge chairs. There is no desk clerk but there is a room service bell. A sign says do not use the bell but instead find the bartender. Also, patrons without luggage must pay up front.

"Dark, eh? " says Vernon.

"Dank," says Merrilyn.

"You forgot dreary," says Jane.

Eventually a nice lady gives us keys to rooms 21, 22, and 50.

"We wanted them together," Vernon says.

"They're side by side," she says. "That's just the way the numbers go."

"What floor are we on?" says Jane, who is afraid of fire. "I can't sleep on the top floor."

The nice lady says not to worry, we're all on the second floor.

I peek in the Fireside Lounge. No fireplace here, just several battered tables and metal chairs. The rug smells, well, funny. The stairway is broad and steep, the carpet treads worn. The second floor stairway goes nowhere -- the ceiling has been sealed off.

Vernon says, "She told you not to worry."

I say, "Maybe the rooms are nice. "

Our room has a double bed and a single bed, which is next to the wall with the jagged inch-wide crack racing diagonally through the dark blue wallpaper, from ceiling to floor.

The windows haven't been washed in the 104 years since the hotel was built, but the sheets appear clean. I turn on the air conditioner. The room starts to heat up. I try the television set. It hisses and crackles. Thirty-seven channels of black and white snow.

Merrilyn is frowning next to a four-legged dresser, only three of which are attached. Vernon is testing the porch floor boards. The railings wobble. I calculate how far I will have to jump when this hovel burns.

"Television! " exclaims George. "Air conditioning!" He turns a knob. The front panel falls off.

His wife, Marge, says, "I can't open our window." Then she notices the two bare 60-watt bulbs hanging from ceiling. "Oh, two lights!" She flicks the switch. The shade on the bathroom window drops to the floor.

Vernon says, "The bathtub has a foot of water in it."

I say, "Ours has a wet washcloth."

Jane says, "I'm not getting in that tub." She adds that she's not getting in the bed either.

As we try to enjoy a drink on the porch, an older man and a young boy walk by on the sidewalk. The man sees us, points, and whispers something to the boy. They laugh and walk on.

We go to the party at the old Opera House which, we learn, was recently saved from the wrecking ball. It is a dry party -- iced tea or Diet Pepsi -- but the home-cooking and the country music are excellent. After, we drink good Scotch whisky at Fran and Jerry's. At 2 a.m. we call it quits and return to our lodgings.

"it's locked," says Vernon.

"Try your room key," urges George.

"You try it," says Vernon.

"It's locked," says George.

Yes, the Hotel Cambridge is locked. We peer in the window, call loudly, pound sharply.

I fantasize: I will take three deep breaths, whirl, and kick the door down.

"Marge! What are you doing?"

Jane is looking up into the rain at Marge who is climbing up the rickety rackety pillars. She is wearing sandals and saying loudly that her feet hurt. Then, to gain freedom of movement, she hikes her skirt to her hips.

I say, "Nice legs, Marge!" Then I say, "George, come see what your wife is doing."

George appears as she climbs over the railing and flashes a triumphant grin. The bedroom door is also locked. She kicks it, then tries the window. It doesn't budge. She shoves mightily. It opens. She crawls into the room. We are soon in bed, but find it difficult to sleep because of the trucks downshifting below our windows.

When we attempt to check out, we cannot find anyone to take our $42.80 per room, including tax. We leave a note that says, among other things, "Charge it to George," who is still sleeping.

Now, here's the part about pie à la mode.

Over the dining room entrance is a sign claiming that pie à la mode was first served in that very room in 1896 to a Professor Charles Watson "Pinky" Townsend, a regular patron.

Friends, I cannot say I like Cambridge, New York; I cannot honestly recommend the Hotel Cambridge for any purpose whatsoever; and I sure as hell have lost my appetite for pie à la mode.

I wrote this in November, 1988, for my column, A Country View, in Montreal Magazine when it was published by Bob Harris and Ann Hamilton. To visit their website, click here Cambridge Hotel.

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Copyright © 1999 John Mahoney
Log Cabin Chronicles/7.99 | Updated 11.00