17 years in the making: The complete Ontario passenger plate run that I've assembled.
History in the making: This year’s party in Rochester will go down in my personal history as the pinnacle of all conventions. There will be no topping this one… not a chance.
I guess I’d better get on with it, then?
The stars and planets had aligned for me to attend the 2014 ALPCA Convention in #Rochester, New York. Not only is Rochester close enough for me to drive, and not only was the show held in July (I can’t get away from my job as a school teacher when it’s in June), but my parents graciously came to stay in town for the week to babysit my young kids, thereby releasing me from all domestic and parental responsibilities. A family vacation to an ALPCA Convention would never work in my household. My wife has limited time off and absolutely does not want to squander it on a trip to a medium-sized US city while I run off and add things to my collection in a convention hall. I can hardly blame her for that.
With this being my big chance to fully “do” a convention for the first time in what seems like forever, I decided to leave on Monday, be there for the parking lot meet on Tuesday, and then attend the entire show. I knew I’d be bringing my Ontario passenger run again—the third time I’ve brought one—but this was different because I now have all the plate bases going back to the beginning, and I have natural stickered plates for the modern end of the spectrum. To my knowledge, a full run going back to a leather plate has never been displayed before at a convention, and for a completist like me, this run basically “clinches” what I’ve always wanted to do. If I ever go to another convention and bring a display, I’ll be doing a different theme with different plates.
My display was built and folded in the back of my station wagon, along with a few odd tools I would need to set it up. I packed my suitcase with six days’ worth of clothes, kissed everyone goodbye, and hit the road a little before 9 am on the Monday.
I drove south and crossed into the US at Ogdensburg. The traffic lineup there was short, but slow-moving. As I passed through customs, I was asked where I was going, and what all my pegboards were for. I explained, and let the guard open the back door for a closer glance. I had brought my convention registration form, as well as a letter from the club explaining my intent to bring the display and return it to Canada after the convention. My passport was scanned, and a couple of routine questions later, I was on my way. I stopped inside the Welcome Center, which was an older whitewashed brick building, and picked up a couple of tourist booklets.
I wanted to go and visit the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, and while I was in the area, I wanted to visit Canajoharie to see their dummy traffic light, which I’ll explain later. It was 10:30 and I had time to spare, so I stuck to state route 37, a two-lane highway that would take me along the St. Lawrence River toward I-81. I passed through the village of Hammond and noticed a yellow vehicle of interest parked in a yard on the other side of the highway—A Volkswagen Thing. I pulled a U-turn and doubled back to check it out. It was a sun-faded shade of yellow, and although the tires were inflated, there were wildflowers growing around it, and it given the body rust, it was clearly just rotting there. Looked like somebody didn’t want to keep a good Thing going. They’re ugly, for sure, but being an air-cooled VW fan, I appreciated seeing it.
After some leisurely country driving, I ended up in Watertown, where I began following state route 12 south through Lowville and Boonville toward Utica. I needed to get onto the New York State Thruway (I-90), and my GPS sent me through a really complicated interchange where I entered I-790 and travelled a mile before getting off the Interstate and up a city street to enter I-90 to get my toll ticket. I wasn’t expecting to use a city street in order to switch from one Interstate to another, but sometimes blind trust in an aging GPS unit is the way to go.
My first geek destination of the day was the town of Canojaharie, where I arrived at about 2:30. It is the home of one of a few remaining “dummy” traffic lights in the US (three, apparently, are in New York state). It’s a single, small, four-way signal head that is mounted on a pillar in the middle of an intersection where Church, Montgomery, Mohawk and Canalway all meet in a five-direction crossroad. It was first installed in 1948 and was operating until a collision with a construction truck during a paving project a couple of years ago. The damaged signal head was beyond repair, but they’ve since refurbished a different, slightly smaller Crouse-Hinds four-way signal head, and fitted it with LED signals. The pillar and supporting rods are pretty much the same, and the signal itself is also quite similar, with the differences only being apparent to geeks like me. What’s remarkable is that the powers that be have allowed this single traffic light to control a weird intersection in modern times, and the town of Canajoharie went to some trouble to rebuild the same kind of signal after it was smashed. This wouldn’t fly in Ontario—Every interesting old signal back home is or will be replaced with bright plastic LED signals that all conform to present day standards. It was so cool to see this one in use. It wasn’t a terribly busy intersection, so I popped out into the street to photograph the light from close up. No one seemed to mind.
I drove uphill along Shaper Avenue out of downtown and admired the old homes, which were well-maintained. It’s a pretty little place. I took Ridge Road, which switches names to Clinton Road after crossing the village limit. A few miles later, my GPS told me to make a right on Marshville Road, and when I looked to my right, I could see that I was on the crest of a hill and I could see the lower farm country in the distance from where I’d driven. It was one of those scenes that just made me go, “Wow!” so I stopped the car and got out to just listen to the breeze and take in the view. There were no houses here, no village name to memorize—it was just a random crossroad somewhere upstate. The roads here are impeccably paved, with mowed grass right up to the edge of the blacktop, twisting and undulating with the contours of the land. It felt as though I were driving across a living thing.
The farm country gave way to forest and cliff sides as I wound my way along the eastern side of Otsego Lake and into Cooperstown. The road turns sharply to the right and the village just appears around the corner. Many tourists strolled down the sidewalks and crossed the street. I found a parking spot on the street and walked up to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
For a small village, it sure buzzes with activity because of the museum. The museum itself has three floors, plus the Hall of Fame, a theatre, a research library, a big gift shop, and other things I didn’t have time to see. Being an Ontario guy, my team is the Blue Jays, but there isn’t a lot to see for a Jays fan, since they’ve only been around since 1977. The museum’s main focus is on the history of the game, so there are many artifacts that pre-date the Jays. You’ll see lots of Yankees, Reds, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers (both), and other older uniforms. I did see a jersey worn by Roberto Alomar during the 1992 season when the Jays won their first Word Series, and the fielding helmet worn by John Olerud (a precaution stemming from the fact that he had previously recovered from a brain aneurysm). What drew the most attention was probably the number 3 uniform worn by Babe Ruth the day his number was retired by the Yankees—the same uniform seen in the famous Pulitzer-winning photograph.
I enjoyed the museum and visited the Hall of Fame to see Alomar’s plaque. I took the chance to buy a bag of souvenirs for my kids, and then looked at the clock… it was nearly 5 pm, and things were about to close up. It was time to get myself to Rochester.
I found the quickest way back north to the Thruway, via the village of Mohawk, which sits at the very bottom of a large hill, with the narrow two-lane state route 28 dropping down for two miles beforehand. This highway had something I’d never seen before: a brake check area. At the top of the hill, before the slope, trucks and cars with trailers are required to pull in so the driver can follow some instructions on a large sign and check the brakes. It’s not staffed, so it works on the honour system. I’ve been down a few steep-ish hills before, but with nothing as ominous as a brake-checking turn-out. I proceeded with due caution.
At the top of the hill, signs appeared for a runaway truck ramp ahead. I get a kick out of those… I don’t see them very often, but I find them interesting in the way they’re built… an off-ramp of soft gravel and water barrels designed to grind a careening truck to a halt before “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” is re-enacted. As I passed the ramp, the highway curved slightly and steepened even more before there was a sharp right bend that led directly onto flat and quiet Columbia Street in Mohawk proper. Any vehicle going too quickly would never make the turn. I wondered to myself how frequent the crashes might have been on this stretch of road—and how many houses might have been levelled—before the emphatic signs were posted atop the hill.
My two-lane adventures were at an end. I took an entry ticket on the Thruway and stayed on it for the 150-odd mile distance to Rochester. The toll for that distance came to only $6.20. For a toll highway, to me, that’s a bargain. See, I’m used to the 407 in Ontario where a 100 kilometre trip (60 miles) can cost $30 with video charges and the stupid “account fee” that they charge. $6.20 is what I’d pay if I got on the 407 and went only a short distance. The rest stops along the New York Interstates have been re-badged as “text stops” with signs reading “IT CAN WAIT – TEXT STOP 5 MILES.” Seems like a pretty good public awareness campaign.
I got to downtown Rochester at sunset and managed to score a luggage trolley to wheel my display boards up to my room. I wouldn’t be able to take them to the convention hall until Wednesday, and I didn’t want to simply leave them in the car in the meantime. As I was unloading my boards, I noticed an Ohio plate with a Superman logo on it, number 222222. When I see things like that, I know I’ve come to the right place.
My room was way up on the 14th floor—second from the top—and although the room was a bit small, I had gotten the fridge and microwave I requested (for dinner leftovers) and I found that I was right on the southeast corner of the building, and I had window views in two different directions. To the south was the Genesee River, with three interesting looking bridges in the distance (two older stone bridges with multiple arches, and one newer span arch bridge. They would all prove to make for memorable sightseeing in the coming days. To the east was the parking garage. On the top level, I could see a familiar trailer with a tarpaulin over it—undoubtedly Jeff Francis’ trailer, loaded tightly with bulk plates.
I went to return the trolley and found my room smelling like pine lumber from my display when I returned. I was exhausted—I hadn’t the energy to wander downstairs and see if I knew anyone at the bar—so I retired early. The parking lot meet would be starting at sunrise.
I didn’t sleep all that well on Monday night—I could hear some angry voice 14 floors below at street level cursing up a storm through my windows, so I grabbed my ear plugs and salvaged what sleep I could. When I awoke, it was a little after nine. I walked over to my window and looked down at the parking lot. The pavement was drying off from rain the previous night. The sky was overcast. I figured that there might be more rain a-coming, so I quickly got myself ready and went down to the parking garage.
As soon as I opened the stinky stairwell door into the parking garage, I saw buckets and boxes and crates and piles of license plates on the ground—So naturally, I started to take pictures. One of the most unusual plates I’ve ever seen was the first one I noticed. It was a Florida sign permit (presumably for a billboard of some kind) that was embossed on a state-shape plate, with the characters stamped vertically. I resisted the temptation to buy on impulse—the best things (sometimes) come to those who wait. But with this being the unofficial parking lot meet in advance of the convention proper, I was really in an early-bird situation. Still, I kept my wallet in my pocket for the time being.
The hotel had told the club that we were allowed to use the top level of the garage only for our pre-convention madness, but with the rain that had fallen earlier, about half of the participants were using the second-to-top level (covered). There was no enforcement on the part of the hotel, so trading proceeded uninterrupted on the top two levels.
I’m always on the hunt for Ontario plates, but I wasn’t really finding any. There were far more Northwest Territories bear plates to be found, old and new. The new reflective ones, in nice shape, are going for $100 a pop. I peered into a vehicle with a trunk load of them. They were interesting, but it’s just not a “gotta have” for me. I finally found a really interesting Ontario plate that I really liked, but it was attached to the rear of a red Ford. The number, with the interestingly-placed crown, plus the expiry stickers 20 years removed from each other, told me that fellow Ontarian and retired teacher Dave Wilson was in the house. Indeed he was. He strolled over and we discussed the usual stuff that we Ontario guys discuss— including the omnipresent “How was the border crossing for you” discussion whenever we venture into the US for a license plate convention. Dave, back in the day, would re-order his own-choice vanity plate each year with variations in the crown placement. It only used to cost $35 or something similar to do it. The cost went up and up, and now it’s more than $90 after tax, and of course, of you want your graphic re-done, that’s an additional $50. Dave stopped ordering to his heart’s content when the prices went up, so now, he’s pulling his old plates out of the vault each year and using them again—hence the interesting juxtaposition of the June 1995 and June 2015 expiry stickers on the same plate.
Paul Frater, Ontario expatriate now living in Berlin, walked over to say hello. As it turns out, he had never met Dave before. Paul had brought a Berlin frontier sign to swap at the meet. I'd seen it earlier and didn’t realize it was his, because the trunk of the car was open and I couldn’t see the skyward-facing plate on the lid. Paul’s father is a dentist, and the car has “230” on its Ontario plate (Tooth-hurty). Paul lamented the fact that the coveted all-numeric vanity plate was suffering the symptoms of poor manufacturing quality, with peeling and bubbling of the reflective background.
Joe Sallmen was running around the parking lot, wheeling and dealing. I intercepted him just as he was acquiring a rare 1916 Saskatchewan garage plate – made of thin tin wrapped around a wire frame, probably from the MacDonald Company of Toronto—the same outfit that produced tin plates a hundred years ago for Ontario and other provinces such as Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Alberta, and BC. Joe showed me a three-digit Ontario 1905 rubber plate that he had brought for the Favourite Plate voting on Friday.
The white numbers were in remarkably good condition. He also had on hand a four-digit rubber plate where the numbers were in considerably lesser condition—it was wrapped in plastic or paper (I forget which) and the rubber had somehow melted to the wrapping. It seems that the numbers are the first to deteriorate. I have engrained dirt on one of mine, and I’ve seen a sort of crystallized bubbling emerging from the numbers of the rubber plate from the Hartung auction a couple of years ago.
I had a job to do, so I left the parking lot for the time being, but not before seeing a really cool lime green Camaro with a single-digit “Go Green With Chiropractic” Kentucky plate of the exact same colour. Talk about coordination!
What job could be so important that I was leaving a swap meet? Well, I had a deal in the making that I wanted to complete. I previously got wind of the fact that a major collection in New England was being sold off by ALPCAn Corb Moister. The collection was that of his long-time friend Conrad Hughson. Given that I had traded some high-quality Ontario plates to Conrad a number of years before, I figured there would be other Ontario plates available, so I had gotten in touch with Corb the week before to express interest in any older Ontario plates that he might be in a position to bring to Rochester. Corb gave me his room number as a preferred customer and had invited me to come on up at my convenience once I was in town. I had previously acquired a 1915 Ontario from Corb at the Niagara convention in 2002, and it remains in my run, as I have never yet seen a nicer one.
I made my way up to suite 1400— the same floor as my room, but on the diagonally opposite corner with a great view of the Kodak building. Corb’s suite was expansive, and there were boxes of early plates from all over North America spread out against the walls and windows of the room. He had mentioned that there was a stellar 1912 available, plus an above-average 1913, a 1915 with a great number, and various high-quality plates up to about 1940. I sat down and flipped through them.
The 1912 was a no-brainer. It was the nicest I’d ever seen, and a four-digit number to boot (the one currently in my run was in lesser condition with five digits). The 1913 had its issues, but the pros outweighed the cons and I decided to take it as well. Corb had a really nice 1914, but the condition was substantially the same as mine, so I passed. The 1915 was really cool—I’m a sucker for round numbers like “2000”—but the condition wasn’t close to the one already in my run and there was no way I wanted to just hang onto two of them. I admired it thoroughly, but let it stay with Corb. There was a better 1917 than the one I had—priced a little steeply, but the condition was superb. I browsed through the rest of the plates, and really hoped to find the 1926 that I had traded to Conrad years before, but it apparently had been chosen to upgrade someone else’s run. No matter… my consolation was that there was a great 1936 shorty that would easily go into my display.
Corb was dealing with another customer, so to bide my time, I flipped through the boxes of Yukon and Northwest Territories plates. The Yukons went all the way down to the 1920s, the best of which was an absolutely mint 1927. It was bright, shiny, still in wax paper, and even had the manufacturer’s stamp on the rear. As a plate collector, you become accustomed to seeing dull colours with little gloss and crackling finish on plates of this era, but this one looked exactly like it had just come off the line. But this was no restoration… it was the real deal. As a plate restorer, I’ve trained my eye to identify the subtleties between original and restored finish, and this was all real. Ditto with the 1948 NWT plate that was also available—shiny, bright and real. Some of you might be wondering the values of plates like these, but I will say only that they were each four figures (and if purchased together, the sum would still be four figures).
I came to terms with Corb for the Ontario upgraders, went back to my room, and swapped out the downgraders in favour of my upgraders—that was, except for the 1917. The write-up on my display actually made reference to the uncut corners of the 1917 that I had just upgraded (a variation of the earlier plates from that year), but my upgrader from Corb had the more typical rounded corners. I elected to maintain the continuity of the display write-up and keep the lesser 1917 plate on the display board. It wasn’t a big deal… the upgrade in condition wasn’t huge, and the lesser 1917 was by no means a weaker sister in the grand scheme of things.
It was about 1:30, and I hadn’t yet eaten, and my stomach was letting me know. I wandered down to street level to find something to eat, but a rain had started. A club member in a van that was too tall to fit into the parking garage had set up a table outside the hotel entrance, and there were few people browsing through his plates. Nothing for my collection, as it happened, so I turned to walk away, but then a heavy downpour started quite suddenly. The wind gusted violently, and it caught the folding canopy that was installed over the plate tables. The canopy lifted up and knocked a bunch of plates over, including an Eisenhower-Nixon inaugural—the kind with the delicate portrait decals of the two men. The plates clattered to the pavement and began to get wet. The seller was busy trying to keep his canopy from taking off and warping beyond use, but he wasn’t fully successful. I bent down and picked up the inaugural plate, plus any other rarity that had no business being on the ground in the blowing rain. The only place I could put them to keep them safe was in the opened rear of the van. There was still some rain blowing in, so I grabbed a newspaper to cover them. I went over to tell the seller what I’d done, but he was really pissed off at the situation and was cursing up and down. I held a leg of the canopy steady and helped someone shift one of the tables out of the rain, but the guy was too angry and wouldn’t stop yelling at the unfairness of it all. The wind and rain died down after a minute and I made a discreet exit.
My lunch turned out to be a double feature. I stumbled upon Thai Quick Noodle, a lunch-only joint that was only open from 11-2. I like Thai food, so I went for a plate of noodles. The price was right, and the noodles were good, but not spectacular, and I wasn’t quite full when I left. I crossed Main Street and found a street side food vendor at the corner of Main and Exchange. I was about to pass him by when I noticed the magic handwritten words on the menu: "BEEF STEAK SANDWICH W/ PEPPERS/ ONIONS/ CHEESE $4.50." How could I say no to that? He used fresh ingredients and made the sandwich from scratch. It was amazing! Food vendors back home only offer sausages and hot dogs that have been simmering away for an hour for $4.50. To have a sandwich like this made to order (which wouldn’t happen back home anyway) would probably cost $9. There’s a Philly cheesesteak vendor in the Barrie Auto Market fields that charges that much, but he uses Cheez Whiz. In Rochester, my sandwich came with Provolone. My trip here was reaping its rewards.
The sun had come out again, and with a full stomach, I went back to the parking lot meet. There were fewer people remaining, but still lots of action to take in. I bumped into Pierre Rondeau from Montreal, who sometimes buys common Ontario plates for resale back home. We agreed that the Canadian pickings were a little slim, but he showed me the small stack of plates he had just acquired for peanuts. Among them was a plate I recognized instantly—a natural 1983 Ontario, VKN-411. I myself had removed that plate on a sunny day from an auto scrapyard in Sault Ste. Marie, where I grew up. I even remember where in the yard the junked car was. This plate was on my display at the 2002 Niagara convention. I’ve long since upgraded it, and I have no idea to whom I may have traded it. It sure was strange to see that plate again in downtown Rochester, of all places.
I was photographing the carnage surrounding Jeff Francis’ trailer – plates were strewn all around it as if something had exploded – when my phone chimed. It was a text from my hotel roommate, Eric Vettoretti, who had arrived in town and was heading into the hotel parking lot. I told him to make his way to the top level. I waited for a while, but no Eric. Then he texted again to say that he was heading to the front desk. I told him I’d meet him in the lobby, so I headed there and sat in a comfortable lounge chair. Still no Eric. Then he texted me again to ask where I was.
“In the lobby,” I texted.
“Aren’t we at the Hyatt?” Eric texted back.
I LOLed. “We’re at the Radisson, across the street,” I texted.
Five minutes later, an exasperated Eric appeared in the Radisson lobby, and was a good sport to my ribbing. I helped him bring his stuff to the 14th floor and then took him to the waning parking lot meet, where we saw some early Alaska sample plates and a few other odds and sods.
Our first proper dinner in Rochester was in the hotel pub. A decent meal, but not that memorable. I received fries with my burger instead of the rings I’d asked for, but my meal came five minutes after everyone else’s, and I didn’t feel like delaying things further by making a stink. We were at a big round table with Dave Steckley, Norm Ratcliffe and Will Loftus, who we bumped into in the lobby, as well as retired state trooper Mike Crosby from Massachusetts, retired state trooper Tom Lindenberg from Michigan, and 2014 ALPCA Hall of Fame Inductee Chuck Sakryd. Chuck’s wife, Cyndi McCabe, has been elected as a club director, and she missed dinner because of a board meeting. Chuck recounted a “move” he put on Cyndi during their second date. In order to make sure she was the right girl, who would put up with him being a professional picker and collecting a lot of stuff, he used a line on her that he might have only ever used before as a 12-year-old: “Do want to come to my place to see my license plate collection?” Well, Cyndi agreed, and thought it was awesome. “Look at that! That’s so neat! Oh, and look at that! Wow!” Chuck knew then and there that she was a keeper.
Eric was pretty tired after the day’s drive, so he preferred to relax in the hotel after dinner. Having had two lunches and a big burger for dinner, I put on some sweats and went down to the fitness centre to burn some calories on the elliptical. The TVs there were all out of whack and stuck on some weird channel selection mode. I had to call the front desk for help because I needed to know which channel carried the MLB All-Star game. They sent a person down who couldn’t figure it out, but he searched for hotel management for the answer and came back 20 minutes later with the answer: Channel 62-dash-1. He apologized for the delay, but I was happy that he’d gone digging for the answer. I extended my workout just to watch more of the game.
Our hotel room was cramped, what with seven folded display boards stuffed against various walls, and already a bunch of new-to-us plates crowding the tabletops. The convention was officially opening the next day at 11 am, and we couldn’t wait. I wouldn’t have to wait for long, because sleep came easily to me.
I allowed myself to sleep in on Wednesday morning, since the convention hall wasn’t opening until eleven o’clock. For me, “sleep in” means anything after 8 am. I’m normally awoken much earlier by young children at home. Eric and I decided to start our morning in the same way any respectable Canadian would—with a Tim’s run. Eric had noticed a Tim Horton’s nearby, so we walked over for a coffee. There were numerous well-dressed family-type people in the area, some in our hotel, and some of whom were lined up for coffee. As it turns out, there was a Jehovah’s Witness convention starting that week in Rochester.
We killed some time walking along Main Street and remarking at the fine façade design of many of Rochester’s buildings. Rochester has seen better days. It was a boom town in the days of dominant American automobile manufacture, and the Kodak Eastman film company had its offices and factories here. Later on, Xerox was based out of Rochester, but no longer. Many of the buildings are vacant, although they appear well-maintained and some of them are adorned at street level with large blow-ups of vintage Rochester photographs back in its glory days. There were police officers stationed at major intersections to direct traffic, answer questions, and just maintain a visible sense of law and order. One officer outside Tim Horton’s was zipping along on a Segway and directing traffic.
We met Paul Frater on the Main Street Bridge on the way back to the hotel and he was admiring the multiple arch structure of an unusual bridge in the distance. It had a road deck on the top side, and then a strange chamber underneath. Eric had already done his homework, and said the bridge was originally part of the Erie Canal, and it was a raised waterway that passed over the Genesee River. Apparently, the sous-chamber was where the canal was located, and it was re-purposed into serving as part of the former Rochester Subway system, which had discontinued service around 50 years ago. This was very interesting to Paul, as he works in urban heritage redevelopment. Paul had his camera on-hand and had spent time yesterday photographing some of Rochester's older buildings that have yet to be re-purposed. The bridge was just calling to us to explore it—but of course, we were foreigners who wished neither to be mugged nor run afoul of the law. Besides, we were in town for our club’s license plate convention, and that’s where our priorities lay. And with that, Eric and I went back to the hotel to get our display boards.
We needed a luggage trolley to wheel our boards from our room and into the convention centre, but there were none available at the moment. I asked the front desk to give us a call when one became available. We headed up to our room, and no more than a couple of minutes later, a trolley was delivered to our room. The hotel staff certainly knew how to please.
We loaded up the trolley, rode the elevator down to the second level, and wheeled the boards from the hotel into the skyway above Main Street, and then into the convention centre, but our load was too wide to fit through the fire doors. We unloaded the boards, pushed the empty trolley ahead through the doors, and then carried each board separately through the narrow opening, and loaded them back up on the trolley. Problem solved… or so we thought. There was a second set of fire doors at the end of the hall, so we unloaded and reloaded a second time. Just as we got to the convention hall, my line number range (250) was being called. We wheeled into the hall and saw that wall space was running out. I found a large area near the loading bay for my 120 square feet feet of boards, and managed to share it with Chuck Gibson, who was also using it for his passenger display of older Florida plates. Between the two of us, we pretty much filled that wall. My display unfolded nicely, but I needed about 45 minutes to reinforce the hinged halves with join plates, align the boards so they were even, and remove some packing material from the face of my leather plate. It was framed, and behind plexiglass, and I’d stuffed some cloth in front of the plate to keep it from rattling around while in transit. I stood back and admired my display in its entirety for the first time. Jim Becksted and Matt Embro stopped by to say hello and check out my handiwork. They had travelled together and were only able to attend today before heading back to Ontario—thus starting the revolving door of single-day attendees from my home province. Others would come just for Thursday, or just for Friday. But I’ll get to that in due time.
I didn’t want to bring any traders to the convention because I was already bringing the display, and I felt it best to minimize my profile for easy travel across the border. Besides, as a Canadian, US Customs doesn’t like when price-tagged items enter the country. Last time around, I spent three hours re-pricing my stuff after the convention opened, and I missed out on some fun elsewhere. And in any case, I dumped all my traders back in April at Acton. I didn’t have anything to trade in the first place.
I shopped around the first day looking for more Ontario plates to upgrade my run, or for YOM prospects, but there wasn’t a lot to find within my narrow interests. At this stage, my run can only be upgraded with either early stuff (done through Corb yesterday), or with naturals (recent plates bearing only one sticker, sitting in the correct alphabetical range for that year). I did find an ’09 natural to upgrade the one in my run, which is a casualty of poor 3M quality control and had turned a medium gray from its former white. But I couldn’t add it to my display right then, because I made special mention of the decaying ‘09 in the display write-up. I bought the upgrader for a few bucks more than I would have liked.
I don’t really collect plates outside my home province, but I did get a Quebec veteran sample from Tom Lindenberg. I live aright across the river from Quebec and I see lots of Quebec plates on my city streets, but rarely do I see a veteran plate. It’s also uncommon to find Quebec sample plates on the current base—they’re generally not made—so I picked it up from Tom, who twisted my arm by reminding me that I wouldn’t find another!
I was somewhat dismayed to see the proliferation of Northwest Territories bear plates throughout the hall. I mean, they were all over many, many tables... just littering the hall. Hundreds of them. There were easily enough for sale in Rochester for each of the 371 club attendees to take one, with extras left over for their kids. During my scouting of the hall for Ontario plates, my estimate was that NWT bears outnumbered Ontario of any year by a ratio of at least five to one. There’s a very small population in the NWT, but their plates have a very high survival rate, and many have found themselves in the collecting pool, thanks to entrepreneurial “bear expeditions” by collectors. Indeed, two of the more prominent collectors within the club, Steve Benson and Mike Glauboch, had gone up there on the ultimate bear expedition earlier in the year and actually bought out the motor vehicle office in Yellowknife of all the recently-discontinued non-reflective plates. The result—excellent and mint bear plates all over the hall in Rochester. The new reflective ones go for $100 a pop in nice shape, because they’re new, and everybody wants to be the first on the block with the newest design. I guess I can understand that—there aren’t a ton of the reflective plates out there for now, since they’re so new. But the older 1980s-90s-2000s non-reflective issues that went unchanged in design for so many years are still priced at the usual $30 to $40 each, with some being more. That’s an artificial number, to me. These bear plates are anything but rare now. I’d pay $15 for one—about as much as I’d pay for a natural Ontario plate to upgrade my run, if I could only find one. I never thought I’d see the day that it would be easier to find NWT bears than to find Ontario plates at an ALPCA Convention—especially one that’s right across the lake from Ontario.
My hunt for Ontario plates was fruitless, so I turned my attention to finding some neat plates for my kids as souvenirs. I had three days to shop, so made notes of prices and locations of kid-friendly plates. Eric and I were getting hungry, so we decided to duck out for lunch. On the way out, we passed by a couple of very bored wives who were asleep at tables (this is exactly why my wife will never use her vacation days to accompany me to an ALPCA Convention). I brought Eric down the street to the same vendor who made the cheese steak sandwich yesterday. He repeated the fresh ingredient ritual for us, and we lunched in a park next to the river.
When I got back to the hall, I took some time away from shopping to check out a few displays, starting with Dave Steckley’s impressive Ontario truck run. It’s complete all the way back to 1916—the very first year of truck plate issue. Dave confided that he’d assembled the display before acquiring the 1916, which was the last plate he needed to make the run complete. He traded with Terry Ellsworth for the plate, and it arrived the day before Dave left for Rochester! That’s cutting it close. Truck plates, by their nature, are going to be banged up, and I was worried that Dave might encounter some unforgiving judges who expected the condition to be better, as you’d normally see with a passenger plate display. I stood there and took the display in. Dave bypassed his complete set of coloured quarterly truck plates from 1963-1980, and just stuck to the accepted annual plates. I know Dave has a full set of quarterlies of all types—he blew a Convention away previously with a separate display of exclusively quarterly plates.
I also looked at Eric’s Ontario diplomat display closely for the first time. His display was superior in scope and information than the one I did ten years earlier in Providence. I was missing the first red issue, and I didn’t provide a lot of info on the plates themselves. Eric’s display went back to that first 1959 issue and comprehensively described high-profile diplomatic events in Ottawa, and he included a whack of archival images. He described the specific issuance of serial blocs to various embassies. He even included his Open Skies conference plate from 1989, which was a special issue from that important diplomatic event. My diplomat display in Providence scored second place, and I figured Eric was a shoe-in for a first place award.
All that walking in the hall took its toll, and by the time the closing hour of 5 pm rolled around, my back hurt, my feet ached, and I was hungry. Eric, Norm, Will and I were up for some good eats, and we knew we could do better than the pub in the hotel. We went up to Norm’s room for some pops as we decided on where we should eat.
Norm, an officer of the law himself, had bought a whole stack of older police plates from someone in the US, and had them shipped to the hotel in Rochester to save on shipping—anything that crosses into Canada will cost double or triple the domestic cost. I helped Norm open the parcel. As I did so, Norm and I were ribbed by retired Massachusetts state trooper Mike Crosby, who was up there with us. “Parcel?” he said, mocking our Canadian vernacular. “It’s a package! ‘Here, let me get the parrrsilll out of the carrrr…’ ” Of course, being a Bostonian, Mike would naturally just take the package outta the “cah.” And more pops opened. Norm was thrilled with his plates, especially a set of older Iowa Auxiliary Highway Patrol plates, with blue stars for the front plate and red ones for the rear. I took a shot of him with his loot strewn out all over the room. He looked like a kid at Christmas.
We sat there for an hour listening to Mike and Norm and Bob Ward swap some awesome cop stories, including pulling over the weaving “cah” belonging to a highly-decorated war veteran, and how to handle the delicate situation without destroying the man’s career—or Norm’s “how to” in identifying human trafficking during traffic stops on the 400 back in Ontario. Then Nick Fulmer (non-member, but Bob’s guest and soon-to-be-son-in-law) chimed in with some firefighting stories—like the guy he works with who has a tendency to find a toilet and take a crap while on calls in burning buildings. If you ever want a good night of laughs, have dinner with cops and firefighters.
We walked over to a place we’d heard about in the reviews of the downtown area: The Dinosaur BBQ. We’d heard it was worth the wait for a table. There were eight of us, and sure enough, the wait was 40 minutes, so we downed another pop and took in more cop stories. Never mind the fact that were we were collectors of plates and had arrived in the promised land of the ALPCA Convention—I’m not sure that anyone even talked about plates after we got there. The place was packed, noisy, jumping, with a crowd in the bar and lots of motorcycles parked outside. Lots of crazy crap hung from the walls, including some plates, which caught our attention briefly before we realized how truly awesome this joint was.
The Dinosaur BBQ was originally started in Syracuse, New York in 1988, and they started opening other locations through New York State beginning ten years later. There are now eight locations, including this one in Rochester, which is situated precariously on a bridge over rushing water in the 109-year-old former Lehigh Valley Railroad station. I can only speak from my experience in Rochester, but it’s the best restaurant I’ve ever tried. I had an appetizer on a whim (smoked sausage, cheese and onions on fresh-baked crackers), a big plate of ribs, two sides, and a couple of beers, and my bill was in the $40s. I was stuffed fuller than Fat Albert at a Nabisco factory.
Then the music started.
I love live music—and I wasn’t expecting any, but a slow, bluesy guitar riff echoed through the already-noisy bar. I suppose if I wasn’t a music fan, I might not have appreciated the added volume, but I have young kids and I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to watch a good live act up close. I ventured up to the stage to see who it was—Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers. Each song was 10 minutes long. The music, meal, dinner companions, sassy waitress, and the atmosphere in general—all perfect. I know the noise got to a couple of the guys, but I’ve never had a better meal experience. Not ever.
Hours later, after dark, we piled out of the restaurant and slowly walked back to the hotel. I was full, probably drunk, but I was also really tired. What a great night! We’d have to go back there.
Here's a video of Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers doing one of the marathon songs that we heard over dinner. This was recorded a year earlier, but the music sounds the same... minus the loud chatter in the bar, clattering of dishes, and loud waves of laughter from our table.
It was hard to get up on Thursday, after the all the food and beer the evening before. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was hung over, but I remember remarking to Eric that I didn’t feel that great-- But if last night’s feast was responsible, it was totally worth it. I shook it off and we were downstairs and through the doors of the convention hall promptly at 9 o’clock.
I was on a mission today. I wanted to get plates for my kids. Not simply token plates to push on them, but something special that would appeal to their personalities.
My daughter likes the colour pink, so I started looking for pink plates. I’d seen a few the previous day, but they were all breast cancer optionals, and I didn’t want to get a breast cancer plate—if someone in our family were to develop it, my souvenir might one day remind her of something sad. So with that elevated level of difficulty in mind, I started looking. It didn’t take me too long, actually—I was at Xavier Hadjadj’s table, and he travels extensively for work and had a large assortment of international plates. Australia has produced a plethora of optional types over the years, and Xavier’s daughter dug up a pink slimline vanity plate from South Australia—it even had a screened logo on it that said “South Australia” as opposed to the more cryptic “SA” initials that are more often seen. That would both tickle my daughter pink and fascinate her, so I bought it then and there.
Dale Bernecker had an interesting display of Illinois special event plates featuring the annual Metropolis Superman Celebration. My son likes superheroes of all kinds, and I didn’t realize that Illinois had produced special event plate with Supe on them (I guess it figures, though—that state produces pretty much any special event plate at the drop of a hat). The trouble was, these Superman plates were fifty bucks—and as much as I love my little boy, I ain’t spending fifty dollars on a souvenir for a four-year-old. But I reasoned that Illinois might have other interesting special event plates with cars on them, so I started doing something I hadn’t done since I was in Peoria in 1996: Specifically looking for tables of Illinois plates. Eventually, I found one with an interesting colour scheme with a bunch of Corvairs on it, for $15. Done!
I had a problem, though—my son’s plate was bigger than my daughter’s, and it had more stuff on it. We have some pretty serious sibling rivalry going on at my house, so I picked up a Kentucky butterfly plate for my daughter. But in doing so, my four-year-old son would be miffed at not getting a second plate. I looked around and stumbled on Gary Walker’s table. Being from Australia, he had a few optional graphics, including a really cool one with a race car in the background. How could I not get that for my boy? But now, my son had two plates with very busy graphics on them. I sighed and evened out the score somewhat by finding a pretty Mississippi motorcycle vanity plate with a variation of her name.
Fellow Ontarian Paul Cafarella made the trip to Rochester on Thursday, and I bumped into him in the hall. He collects porcelain plates, and was shopping around for that perfect combination of great condition and reasonable price. He eventually got it, but had to weigh a few options. Paul Frater found a couple of older flat Massachusetts plates for a great deal. Dave Steckley made a find that I wished I had made—he scored a new Ontario sample plate in seven-character format (PSAM-000), with the unusual feature of an embossed crown divider, with a screened crown appearing in the lower left corner, just as it normally would on a vanity plate. Why wouldn’t the MTO have done this plate on a regular passenger base, with a screened crown just to the right of centre? Maybe it was a test plate. We weren’t sure. In any case, I decided I’d try to buy a new sample plate from the MTO after getting home just to see what they send.
Now that I’ve been running my own business of selling Ontario YOM plates through Ontplates.com, I find I’m more interested in seeing restoration work done by others. Not so much that I want to mine others’ work for ideas, but merely to see what they do, how well it’s done, and what they charge. I’m limited in that I’m not a welder and cannot fabricate missing metal, so the most I can do is fill a hole here and there. I’ve tried epoxy and Bondo, and it works for me. I ran into a club member that I hadn’t previously met by the name of Lee Lawson, and his work is very well done. He had some great samples of his work, including a before-and-after plate with one half restored and the other half untouched. He also had an old plate restored in stages to show his 8-step process. Sometimes I can refinish a plate in two steps, sometimes I restore one in 8 steps, and sometimes it takes 14 steps. It would be neat to try and do one of those myself, but I have restored pairs all over my website, so my work is fairly easy to see. I have to be careful, though—I restore only plates that I own. I’ve stopped restoring other people’s plates. I just don’t have the time to do it, and the last thing I want is to hear “are they done yet?” when the plates belong to someone else. At least when I restore my own stock, I can keep it private while it’s in progress, so I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck.
I spent time admiring displays on this day. I remained thoroughly impressed with Rich Dragon’s ALPCA vanity plate display. It was built as a mini-hallway that you could enter and do a walk-through. All of the plates were very well documented, and there were stories for a few of them My favourite story was the 1975 cross-country journey of then-31-year-old Conrad Hughson, who drove an end-of-life jalopy with a Vermont “ALPCA” vanity plate all the way to Calgary, and then later to Alaska. Rather than retell the story, I’ll let Rich do the talking by way of the photos below. (Slide show: click the > on the right to advance.)
Now that I’m lucky enough to own a real Ontario leather plate, I visited the fake plate table in the hall to see if the fake leather plate I donated was still there—which it was. Years ago, I bought a “leather plate kit” including photos of number 702, an traced outline of the leather shield of 702, measurements, pencil rubbings, and the like. It also included a leather pad that had been custom-made to the same specifications as that of the 702 plate, plus a bunch of aluminum power pole numbers. I studied the kit to learn more about leather plates, and the next chance I had, at the Erie, PA convention in 2009, I put the fake plate together and donated it to the club. It looked essentially the same, but the pencil-rubbing of the “Licensed in the Province of Ontario” oval at the bottom was a little discoloured from the tape I used. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any fooling anyone with it as long as they’ve seen a real one, but therein lies the rub—with about a dozen real leather shields in existence, not many collectors have. Perhaps I remedied that by displaying mine in my run during the convention.
I wandered around and checked out the other displays. There was an interesting board of Pennsylvania porcelains, including some manufacturing variations that we could only dream of here in Ontario—such as a green 1913 plate that was made by refiring new enamel over an old red 1912 plate.
I was determined to wander the hall as much as possible and make the most of my time in Rochester. I’d been waiting for a convention for five years, and it could be just as long until I can go to one again. I resisted the temptation to go out for a bite to eat, or to head upstairs to my room for a rest, but by mid-afternoon, I was hungry as hell and my back was just killing me from all the standing and walking on concrete. I brought my gym shoes with the cushy supports, but even they would only be effective until noon hour. After that, I’d be sore.
I ran into Royce Williams, the club’s current webmaster, and we talked about the development of the online Archives and what sorts of construction issues he’s been dealing with. As a former ALPCA webmaster (I held the post during two separate stints), I know how simplistic the old archives were, and I also understand the complexities behind creating a live database from scratch during one’s spare time. So many technical things from different directions must dovetail perfectly in order for a database to give you a search result—if the dovetails aren’t perfect, the search will find nothing, or too many things, or just squawk at you with an error.
In the “olden” analog days, the club’s Archives consisted of a big bundle of binders where we’d flip through the pages to see the different types of plates for each state or province or country. They were brought to every convention, and page-flipping was pretty much the only way we could ever check them out (unless you happened to visit the Archivist, Dr. Roy Klotz, at home when he wasn’t travelling). The old online Archives were created painstakingly in the late 1990s when club member William Caswell began to use HTML tags with the club’s archive information. Basically, he took the info that Roy had been putting into the archive binders, and just added the web browser language to that info, so they’d appear legibly on a web page. William did this as a hobby-within-a-hobby until the whole archive was in a form that it could be seen online. In 1998, when ALPCA decided to start a web site and officially endorsed William’s work, the Archives were not searchable. To see the Vermont archive, for instance, you’d have to click on the Vermont link and then download a huge page with everything included. It was nice to have the access, but hard to navigate, especially if you were looking for a specific type of plate. And, to update the Archive, William would have to take web submissions from people, edit the pages, add the images, and then re-publish on the web. With hundreds of people trying to send stuff in, William was swamped and updates took a long time, much to the chagrin of our more impatient members. ALPCA limped along like this for a while until a few years ago, when it was decided to turn the archives from a static series of web pages into a live database. A database is totally different from the web pages we’d been using. It’s basically a bank of information where, if you enter search terms, whatever exists in the database is given to you as a search result (while things you didn't ask for are omitted). I used to work with SQL (a database query language) a long time ago. A search request, typed in, might look like this:
GET DESCRIPTION AND IMAGES AND SERIALPATTERN WHERE JURISICTION = ”DISTRICT_OF_COLUMBIA” AND TYPE = “VIP” AND 1957 < DATE < 1961
This would search the database and return information for DC VIP plates from 1957 to 1961, such as the one shown at right (spotted on Don Merrill's table in Rochester). What’s happening now is the information from the old Archives is being picked out and used to populate a database that we can search. The info has to be entered correctly for searches to identify it, and there has to be an interface where people can easily select search terms from drop-down boxes, rather than typing the commands of query language. This is a lot of work that must be done perfectly using the spare time of talented people with families and day jobs. People whine that the archives are still not updatable after 3-4 years, but they can’t understand how hard it is to build. If ALPCA was a big, rich entity, they could have contracted the job out for zillions of dollars years ago. But we’re a small, piddly club, and it’s either this or nothing. I’ve tried the new Archive, and it’s going to be really slick, and totally worth the wait. Members will even be able to update it, wiki-style, without waiting for a person behind the scenes to enter the changes. Just wait until you see it.
OK, off the soapbox now. It was close to 5 pm, and my back was still sore from all the time on my feet. I had a couple of cross-border shopping errands to run for my wife, who had asked me to buy a couple of kitchen appliances because they’re ⅔ the cost in the US as they are in Canada. Eric was in the same boat, having received similar instructions from his wife. So we drove into the suburbs to find some big box stores.
Since we both restore plates, we decided to stop at Lowe’s hardware store to see if they had any different brands or shades of paint from what we get normally in Canada. It was all the same stuff—just at ⅔ the price, so I stocked up on primer, of which I’m perpetually short. Then we went looking for CLR—really handy stuff if you’re a guy who cleans up plates. Not only did we find CLR, but we found it in gallon-sized jugs. We can only buy it by the litre back home. I noted the price, did the math, and was shocked to discover that CLR by the gallon from Lowe’s in Rochester was roughly 60% of the price in Canada! So, I took four jugs. Most people go to the US to buy electronics or gas—or if they stay a while, booze and smokes. I buy CLR for myself and blenders for my wife.
We had a fairly quiet dinner at Pizzeria Uno. I used to go there when I lived in Maryland, but hadn’t been to one in nearly 15 years. I’d forgotten how good it was, although the calorie count from their pizza is just staggering. We drove back to the hotel and retired somewhat early, having had a fairly low-key evening. The next 24 hours would be far more eventful.
Friday started out much like Thursday, only without the spectre of a previous night's excess hanging over me. Eric and I made another beeline to a nearby Tim Horton's, this time at the corner of Main and Exchange. A scene unfolded before us, much like those I see on a daily basis in Canada, with a queue of coffee drinkers stretching out the door (although in Canada, you're just as likely to see a lineup of cars spilling onto the road from the drive through). Here in New York State, the ubiquity of the Tim Horton's brand has not been established, so the chain goes by the extended moniker, "Tim Horton's Cafe and Bake Shop." To a Canadian, that's as redundant as having to insert the words "cream" and "sugar" into a double-double order.
After arriving in the hall, I found myself looking at Dave Steckley's traders, and to my surprise, I found three pairs of YOMable Ontario plates. Eric was already well stocked for those years, so I bought them independently, as opposed to starting a pool, which is our SOP when we're on a plate-finding mission.
I stopped to look at a New Jersey pre-state plate, because I noticed that it bore the exact same size and type of cast-aluminum numbers that Ontario plates have. There must have been one company that manufactured these numbers and supplied them to various entities on both sides of the border. All four digits of the NJ plate are exact matches to their Ontario counterparts. I'm still trying to find an example of what the numeral "3" looks like, though. I have not yet seen a picture of a real leather Ontario plate with that digit included in the serial.
I allowed myself some back breaks back at the hotel on the Friday, since I had already browsed out the entire hall and basically found most everything I was going to find. On one of my trips across the street to the hotel, there was a police officer on horseback, so I stopped to chat and ask for a picture. I learned the horse's name was Dusty, and the idea behind using horses is to increase police visibility in a positive way. In lower income neighbourhoods, kids might avoid a local cop because perhaps an older family member has been arrested, or they might have been told that cops are "bad guys." But put a patrolling officer on a horse, and the kids become curious and will come out to see, and the interaction with a police officer can be positive.
Later on, back in the convention hall, I was taking pictures of low-numbered plates when a group of Canadian club members happened to spontaneously congregate, and we decided to pose for an impromptu group photo. We all smiled, said "Eh" for the camera, and then apologized to each other after the shot was taken. Bob Cornelius had made the trip to Rochester from the wine region of Ontario to check the convention on this day, but unfortunately, we couldn't find him for the photo shoot.
Martine Stonehouse brought an unusual, unmarked plate to show us. The dimensions were the same as a 1940s era Ontario plate, as were the bolt hole placements. The number was 0000 and the dies used to make the zeroes were exactly the same as those seen on Ontario plates. The province name, crown and date were missing, as was part of the beveled upper border, and it looked as though they all may have been joined together as a single embossing die. Very interesting, indeed. I'll have to look closely at Ontario passenger plates of that era to see if there's maybe a hairline joint visible between the top date/border die and the rest of the plate.
Dinner time was on the horizon, and word had gotten around about the excellent Dinosaur BBQ. A group consisting of myself, Eric, Norm, Bob Ward and Nick Fulmer, decided that it would make more sense to have an early dinner to beat the rush, so we headed over to the Dino at about four o'clock. On our way there, we spotted the remains of what looked like an old open-air subway station, excavated below. Eric reminded us that Rochester used to have a subway system, decades before. We strained to get our necks above the chain-link fence to get a better view. We all like this sort of abandoned urban remnant, so this was a neat find on what was already a great convention trip.
We arrived at the Dino, and there was no lineup to see the buxom hostess, and there were plenty of free tables, and the beer was quick to arrive. Awesome! How could it get better?
Well, we could start with the food. The ribs were fantastic two nights before, and they didn't disappoint when we ordered more. The platters came to us, by way of our smart-ass, sharp-tongued waitress, loaded with ribs and sides. Norm reminisced about the many prior conventions he'd been to, and after weighing the combination of great convention finds, local neighbourhood, quality of lodging, quality of food, and just plain old enjoyment with friends, Rochester 2014 came out on top. I agreed... I had a good time in Providence ten years ago, but I'd been having an absolute blast in Rochester. "How could this get any better?" Norm asked rhetorically. There was no answer... Yet.
We took our time during our feast, and finally left the restaurant at about six, when it was packed to the rafters, with a 45-minute table wait. The ALPCA donation auction would be starting shortly, and that was our next target. But the sun was shining, and we strolled onto the Court Street Bridge to take in the view. The Dino, having been built on the bridge a century before as a train station, was resting on horizontal beams that stretched out from the bridge. There was no basement, because there was nothing below the building except fresh air and the flowing river! The Interstate crossed the Genesee River over an interesting arch span bridge in the distance, and below the bridge were some flow control gates, with water flowing rapidly through them. A large dead tree was caught in one of the gates, which got Nick wondering how often the gates might be shut for maintenance. A police officer walked by us at that moment, so Nick asked him. The officer said it was sort of an annual thing. Talk about the bridge turned to a few different things over the next 20 minutes as we just shot the breeze. Soon enough, we got to talking about the older Broad Street Bridge just north of us that once carried the Erie Canal - and later on, the subway.
Our officer friend told us that the inside of the bridge was open to the public, and the access point was the abandoned Court Street station. He told us that there was an entrance to the south of the station, and that we could freely explore. Well, the eyes of Nick, Norm, Eric and I just lit up with interest. We thanked the officer as he resumed his rounds.
We started toward South Street -- the way back to the hotel -- with comments like:
"That's so cool!"
"I had no idea!"
"I'm amazed that it's not against the law!"
"That was one fantastic cop!"
We reached the corner of South and Court. Bob crossed early via a carefully timed jaywalk, leaving we four to remark wistfully at how cool this all was. I thought for a minute. It was just past six o'clock, the sun was still shining high, and there was plenty of daylight left. It was up to me to break the ice. There would never be a better time-- there would never be another time, for that matter:
"Guys, let's go down and take a look," I said.
We debated it for a moment, but the damage was done; the floodgates were opened. The four of us threw our auction plans to the dumpster, and our caution to the wind, and we descended into the dark ruins of the old Court Street subway station.
The concrete pillars, where not crumbling, were cloaked in impressive graffiti. Shrubs had sprouted across the area where the tracks once lay. A few rail ties remained in place. There had once been a ceiling, built using cut-and-cover technique, although it was possible that part of the station had once been open air. We expected to see a boundary fence of some sort, preventing further exploration, but the station turned into an expansive underground tunnel that was wide open for us to explore. The only chain-link fence that we did see had a deliberate gap in it, as well as a welded steel ladder for us to climb. Nowhere were there warning signs of any kind to ward us away.
The fence was there to separate a flooded area from the dry area where the track line was. Water from the river flowed into this area, and back out again. A raised concrete walkway, complete with railings, allowed us to walk right over the water, such that we could peek out onto the river, only a few feet above the water level.
We went back to the tracks and continued through the tunnel. The tracks made a gradual curve from their path parallel to the river, until they straightened out, with arched gaps in the walls. We couldn't believe it... We were inside the lower section of the strange old Broad Street Bridge we'd noticed days earlier, and we were crossing the Genesee River. What used to be a bridge for the waterway of the Erie Canal had been repurposed into a subway train bridge, and used in this capacity for decades before the lower level was abandoned with the closure of the subway. And the whole thing was ours to explore. I wondered if Paul Frater ever made it down here. This was really something! "How could this get any better?" Norm had asked earlier, rhetorically. Well, here was the answer.
"You'd never be allowed to do something like this in Toronto," I said.
"Tell me about it! This is awesome!" Norm said, giddy with excitement. He was like a kid visiting Disney World for the first time. "I can't believe I've stumbled on something this old, abandoned and wickedly cool, with other people who are exactly like me! I mean, if my wife were with me in Rochester, there'd be a snowball's chance in hell that I'd get to go down here."
Nick replied bluntly, "Anybody who doesn't think this is awesome is fucked up!" No offence to anyone's wife, to be sure. We all agreed with him.
The tracks entered a perfectly dark tunnel on the downtown side of the bridge. We could faintly see in the distance that the tracks, which had been buried but never removed in this section, began to diverge and the narrow walls seemed to widen, indicating another abandoned station beyond.
We tried to cut through the darkness with the feeble lights on our phones, but it was no use. Eric mentioned that the tracks were said to continue right under the downtown core, and even pass through more stations, before emerging from the tunnel somewhere on the west side of downtown. As curious as we were, it was late in the day, and we were ill-equipped. Such a trek would have been unwise, to put it mildly, so we ventured no further.
While we were free to explore, we were definitely off the beaten path, and the subway was clearly not an official tourist attraction. Some of the graffiti was quite beautiful. There were large portraits of animals, people, and of course, teenage-level tagging like you'd see in a mall washroom stall. On our way back to the east side of the river, we realized that the huge Roman-columned library was right over this huge tunnel. There was no basement to the library that we could see... The entire area underneath appeared to have been excavated, and the rail bed layout suggested that subway cars may have been stored here when not in use. Huge steel beams were supporting the full weight of the library, which, having been completed in 1934, was erected there well after the subway. It was designed to stand on steel beams in the first place. Astounding.
The sun was nearly setting when we emerged from the subway, back at Court Street, about 90 minutes after we'd entered. Normy was over the moon. He had concluded over dinner that this was the best overall convention trip. And now, to top it all off, this happens-- an abandoned subway pops up that we're allowed to explore. Granted, it was not an official "offering" on the part of the city, but it was miles ahead of any other potential tourist attraction-- at least, to geeks like us, anyway.
Our little group broke up once we reached the hotel, for various relaxation and bathroom breaks. It was nearly 8 o'clock. The donation auction would be in full swing downstairs. I wasn't in a bidding mood, but I went down nonetheless to check it out. A wedding reception was just getting underway in a ballroom across the lounge from our donation auction. The new couple were being introduced to the guests, to the tune of "Jump Around." The bride strutted from the lounge, into the ballroom, and onto the dance floor with her new husband in hand. I made a left turn into our comparatively reserved ballroom, where the ALPCA donation auction was underway.
As I took a seat towards the back, Chuck Sakryd was working the podium, trying to entice further bidding on a handful of plates. The two leading bidders turned to look at each other, as though they were apologetic for the fact that they were bidding on the same lot. Chuck egged them on: "There are no friends in an auction... Trust me!" The room roared with laughter.
I sat next to Bob Ward, who had already been filled in by Nick on where the other four of us had gone after dinner. Bob was fairly tired, and was heading upstairs. He kindly offered me his bidding paddle, but I declined because I knew I wasn't going to be raising it. I stayed for a few more minutes, so I could more or less say later on that I had actually "done" the auction.
The gymnasium was still open, so I put on some sweats, and went down to use the elliptical for a while. A rowdy group of teenagers, from the Jehovah's Witness group with whom we were sharing the hotel, were loitering in the gym, and not using any of the equipment properly. A couple of boys tried to impress the group by sprinting as fast as possible on a treadmill, to the point where they could have been thrown into the wall behind them. Rather than raise a stink, I pretended I was finished and then discreetly called security from the hallway. I went up to my room for some water, and the elevator took forever to come back up to my floor because someone had pushed every single button-- they were all still lit when the door opened. I suspect it was the mischievous work of the noisy teens, because when I returned to the gymnasium, it was empty and silent. I finished my exercise in peace.
It was getting late, but I was still wound up from the evening’s adventures. I’d brought my large SLR camera, but as our trip through the subway was a snap decision, I was only equipped with my phone. It takes good pictures, but I wanted to use my SLR somehow. Night had fallen, and there was a great view of Main Street from the skyway over the street that bridged the convention centre to the hotel, so I went there and snapped some time-exposed shots of traffic. I also ventured outside to take pictures of the Main Bridge next to the hotel, as well as the Broad Street Bridge, which I had thoroughly explored earlier with Eric, Norm and Nick. I felt quite safe, and wasn’t bothered by any of the local passers-by. I blew nearly an hour playing with settings and finding locations to rest the camera where I didn’t need a tripod—I hadn’t brought one. After snapping 70 or so shots, I figured it was finally time to hit the hay.
Big day tomorrow... Display awards! That's why I'd come. I slept with fingers crossed.
(Slide show: click the > on the right to advance.)
Saturday had come. The last glorious day of my 6-day vacation, away from the wife and kids and anything to do with timetables or deadlines. Six days where I could simply walk where I wanted, eat when I wanted, and browse what I wanted. It had been a fantastic trip. I was looking forward to being home, but still enjoying the temporary sovereignty that a vacation can bring.
Eric and I checked out of the hotel early to make a quick getaway easier... it would be one fewer thing to do later on. After settling our room account at the front desk, we started our day off right with a run to Tim Horton’s. We used a different set of streets to get there, as it would probably be our last chance to explore the downtown core of Rochester on foot, and we wanted to see as much as we could... that's how the subway adventure began last night. Our route took us past an unusual office tower. Its walls curved outward as they approached ground level, giving it the look of some strange obelisk. Eric, having researched the former Rochester subway already, had discovered that this building was apparently Xerox headquarters for a time before the company left town. Despite the vacancy of many buildings in the downtown Rochester area, they were all well-maintained and the streets were very tidy, with no garbage lying around, and pretty much no graffiti. It’s a city that’s down on its luck, but it’s a proud city that presents well.
On our way back to the hotel, for the upcoming club business meeting, I walked past a bus shelter and found a softcover novel sitting on the bench, torn in half, with a few of the pages hanging out. It was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. My best friend in childhood has turned into a disciple of Rand’s writing, and has long been recommending that I read one of her books. No pages were missing, so I took this as a sign that I should take the book with me, repair it, and read it. (The repaired novel now awaits me on my office bookshelf).
We arrived in the same ballroom as the auction from last night, and took seats just as the meeting was coming to order. The most interesting news was that ALPCA’s non-profit status had been re-confirmed by the IRS, which gave rise to a round of applause. This was no small feat, since the former treasurer of the club failed to file the necessary tax paperwork for an extended period of time—to say nothing about embezzling the club’s funds for personal use—and thus, the club’s continued non-profit status had been in serious jeopardy.
The Hall of Fame inductions were nice to watch—Of the three members who were inducted, the only one I know well is Chuck Sakryd. His lovely wife Cyndi had been making a push to have him nominated for the HoF, and deservedly so. I was pleased to sign my name on the support list. A humbled Chuck was deeply moved and described his early days, and how other collectors had helped him out. He lost his job over twenty years ago, and wondered if he could make a living just being a professional “picker” and dealing in the hobby he loves so much. He gave it a shot, and it worked out—he’s living his dream. “The tide comes in, and the tide goes out,” he mused. “I went upstairs to see Corb, and the tide went out.” The room roared. Of course, Corb Moister had been busy selling thousands of museum-quality plates all week— I spent a wad of cash there—and apparently, so did Chuck. Congrats to him, and thanks to Cyndi, really, for making it all possible.
Up next were the display awards. I was pleased to accept a first place award for my Ontario display, and Eric was also thrilled to take a first place award for his diplomat display. I was a little disappointed that Dave Steckley’s name wasn’t mentioned in the first place category. His Ontario truck run was a tough one to assemble. Dave did win a second place plaque, and they’re really nice award to take home as well. The three of us posed for a picture after the meeting and congratulated each other on a job well done.
With that, the meeting was adjourned, and the club opened the hall for the morning. Saturday is move-out day, especially for those who either have a long drive, or have limited time. Dave Grant, who lives a mile from me in Ottawa, had luckily been able to make the convention at the last minute... he engineered a way, as it were. He arrived Friday afternoon, but didn’t have a ton of time in the hall, so Saturday was basically his day to soak it all in. I did my best to show him the displays that I figured would catch his interest, and he did manage to find an armful of plates to bring home. Saturday brings us a new wave of half-price sales, so I’m hoping that the more he bought, the more he saved.
I brought my SLR camera so I could photograph my display properly. My phone’s camera doesn’t give the resolution to make enlarged prints. I had the perfect angle, but Rich Dragon’s fantastic ALPCA vanity display (which did take the Best of Show award) was slightly in the way. I couldn’t zoom out because I was using a fixed 50mm lens to maximize the capture of indoor light, so the only way to fit the display in the frame was to walk away from it. Rich tried to help me by moving part of his display over, but it was big and bulky, and I was still not going to get the shot I needed. Rich helped me walk my display boards 40 feet away to the south end of the hall, and then, I was able to get the high-resolution pictures I wanted.
With that, my only remaining task was to dismantle my display. It took some work. I needed more zip ties to keep my delicate older plates from vibrating during the ride home, and I put padding around the leather plate to keep it more or less immobile inside its security frame. I also had to unscrew some joining plates before I could unlatch the panels and begin folding them up. Andrew Turnbull stopped by to chat about plates and VW Beetles, and he held things steady during the tear-down. I’d managed to park my car in the loading area and the staff loaned me a big cart to wheel my five panels around. I managed to get my five folded panels on the cart, and rolled them down to the car. The pile of stacked panels was nearly three feet high, but I built them to fit neatly in the back of my station wagon, so there was never any doubt that I'd have enough space. Of course, there wasn’t much room left over, and I was reminded as to why I hadn’t brought any trade boxes.
And so ended my time in Rochester. I drove away through the southern suburbs and back toward the New York Thruway. I stopped for gas once, and stopped for a leg-stretch at a "text stop" but aside from that, my car kept rolling until I was just past the De Wolf Point exit on the northbound I-81. Dave Grant had warned me that the traffic was heavy here this weekend, and he was right-- the line was a quarter-mile long. I wondered if I would have been better off to cross at Ogdensburg, but it was too late to get off the highway to take a detour, as I'd already passed the last American exit. I waited patiently as the traffic inched along. By the time I had penetrated Canadian territory and was in sight of the customs booth, I was in a truck lane, with each truck taking five minutes. But there were some tourists on motorcycles who were grilled at the next booth over for much longer. Finally, the truck ahead of me pulled away. I was bored, tired, and just wanted to get home. I was unshaven, sweaty, I left the radio on, and I forgot to remove my sunglasses.
The twentysomething CBSA agent asked me the value of the plates in my display. I couldn’t tell him—some were worth chump change, whereas others were worth much more, and there were over a hundred in the display. “If you brought them over to bring them back, why didn’t you go to export control, or add up the value?” he asked.
I was too tired and irritated to feel threatened by this guy. “It’s never come up before,” I said. “I haven’t crossed in five years. But maybe the requirements have changed? I don’t know.” I had ample proof with me that I’d brought my display from Canada, and I even had the letter from my old friend Scott Mitchell, the ALPCA Secretary, on official letterhead, stating the facts about my display. But this guy was firing too many questions for me to interrupt his “zone”. I did hold up the first place award plaque I’d won, but he didn’t really care, and was busy writing notes.
He went fishing. “You said you’ve been in the US since Wednesday?” Nice try. I flatly and immediately reminded him that I entered on Monday. I’d never been pulled over for secondary inspection before, travelling in either direction, but he handed me the slip and directed me to the inspection area.
I pulled up in front of four unoccupied officers, shut off the engine, and put the keys on the dash without being asked. I put my phone in my pocket and was invited to sit on a bench during the inspection. There was an issue of People magazine there. I opted to flip idly through it rather than play on my phone, or send texts to people. There was no doubt that there were several surveillance cameras watching me closely, so I acted how I was feeling—bored and uninterested. The officers opened the car and unzipped a couple of bags. A sniffer dog was taking a look as well. They even popped the hood. They paid no attention to the contents of my display boards—they didn’t move them or even try to pry one of them open. I guess they were looking for drugs—I wished I could convey to them how they were wasting their time. In spite of my shady-looking appearance and argumentative responses that day, I took the “don’t do drugs” message to heart as a kid and, well… I’ve never done any.
After five minutes of sitting there, I was cleared to leave. I shut my hood, trunk and all the doors before heading up Highway 137 through Hill Island. The speed limit signs were metric again. I could finally allow my phone to roam without racking up charges. Tim Horton’s was identified neither as a “Café” nor a “Bake Shop”. I tried to enjoy the final 90 minutes of my freedom, but I was tired from my duet with the CBSA booth agent and it sort sucked the fun out of the drive. No matter—I’d been taking copious amounts of pictures and notes, specifically so I could document the trip, and always remember the fantastic time I had in upstate New York in the summer of ’14.