SCRANTON - Kelly Kapoor, Dunder Mifflin's chipper, vapid customer service representative, calls Scranton home.
It's where she goes to the Steamtown Mall (which she loves, loves, loves), where she pines for her ex-boyfriend Ryan ("Is that [memo] from Ryan? Does it mention if he's seeing anyone?"), and where she watches her
But there's one problem.
The actress who plays Kelly, Cambridge native Mindy Kaling had never actually been to Scranton. She visited for the first time last month as part of a convention for fans of "The Office," where she signed autographs and traipsed around with fellow actors who play Phyllis, Bob Vance (of Vance Refrigeration), Oscar, Angela, Andy, Kevin, Stanley, and Creed.
For Kaling, 28, the trip served a few purposes. Not only does she play the self-absorbed, love-struck Valley girl on the Thursday night NBC comedy series but she's also one of the show's Emmy-winning writers. So she spent some time as a tourist in the Electric City ("They call it that 'cause of the elec-tri-city.") to find out whether Scranton has been portrayed accurately and to get ideas for shows.
Lucky for us, we got to tag along. On our day trip we learned:
1. "Office" boss Michael Scott (played by Acton native Steve Carell) may have been ex aggerating when he said, "Ain't no party like a Scranton party 'cause a Scranton party don't stop."
2. This industrial city off Interstate 81 does have some spots worth visiting, especially if you're an "Office" fan.
Our tour, led by volunteer Drew Hailstone, started in the Radisson Lackawanna Station, which was once Scranton's railway station but is now a luxury hotel. "Office" fans may know the Radisson as where then-boss-now-girlfriend Jan hoped to have a business meeting with Michael in the episode "The Client." Michael moved it to a local Chili's, telling Jan the Radisson has a "snooty" vibe.
Actually, there is no Chili's in Scranton, and the hotel is revered by residents. It was built in 1908, and, after being vacant for 10 years, was turned into a hotel in 1983. Kaling believes it's haunted.
"I expect to see the ghosts of dead train workers," she said in her own voice, which is almost as fast-paced and high-pitched as her character's.
With that, we were on our way to the most important stop on our tour, the Mall at Steamtown, where Michael took Dunder Mifflin's female staff members, including Kelly, in the episode "Women's Appreciation."
We started with the anchor store, Boscov's, which Kaling described as Macy's meets Sears. It's no Natick Collection, but Kaling said there's something homey about the no-frills decor and the candy counter in the center of the store. It reminded her of Boston department stores in the 1980s.
"I remember spending hours in Jordan Marsh," she said.
The rest of the mall also appeared dated, but friendly.
"[This] seems to be the kind of place Kelly would go to religiously on a Saturday morning," Kaling said at Nail Trix, a bare-bones manicure place on the second floor.
Kaling requested a pit stop at Victoria's Secret, which she said is Kelly's favorite store, then spied a Hot Topic, a clothing store for teens gone goth.
"Oh my god. I'm so happy I know there's a Hot Topic in the mall," she said, pointing to the bright red letters over the store. "Hot Topic is, like, where the bad kids worked."
On the second floor, near the food court, was the pièce de résistance, the Scranton Welcomes You sign that you see in the show's opening credits. It used to be at the gateway to the city, but was moved to the mall by the Department of Public Works once "The Office" put Scranton on the map. Now, tourists pose for pictures next to it.
Kaling said the footage of the sign in the opening credits was shot by Newton native John Krasinski, who plays Jim Halpert.
"He just went to Scranton for research when he first got the part, before he was famous, or like, knew George Clooney - when he was an entrepreneurial kid," she said.
Kaling posed in front of the sign and asked the mall staff for her own keepsake photo.
Once we left the mall, we were off to what Hailstone claimed is the place where you can find the real "Office": the corner of Mulberry Street and Adams Avenue. The stout, drab, gray building across from the Scranton Housing Authority is home to Paper Magic, which may (said Hailstone) or may not (said Kaling) be the inspiration for Dunder Mifflin.
"Paper Magic is a local company, which is one of the reasons they set [the show] here," Hailstone said. "They have their offices in that building."
"I don't think the writers know that," Kaling responded, confused.
Urban legend or not, the corner has become popular with tourists. The building isn't pretty, but neither is Dunder Mifflin. Still, Kaling was happy to see that the rumored real-life office building was "comparably bleak" to the one on the show.
Next we were off to Cooper's Seafood House, at Kaling's request. She had heard mixed things about the popular seafood spot, mainly that it's more for tourists than natives.
"I think the locals aren't that crazy about it, but I love that type of thing," she said.
Kaling explained that after "The Office" got big, the eatery mailed one of its signature lobster hats to the writers. Now, during meetings, Kaling and the other scribes fight for the crustacean crown. Head writer Greg Daniels, also known for his work with "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," gives the Cooper's lobster top to the one who makes the best episode pitch.
Not far from the seafood shack were two big stops for Kaling, Alfredo's Pizza Cafe and Poor Richard's Pub. Alfredo's is a pizza place used in a recent episode in which Michael accidentally orders pies from Pizza by Alfredo as opposed to the superior Alfredo's Pizza, much to the consternation of his staff ("It's like eating a hot circle of garbage.").
Pizza by Alfredo doesn't exist, but Alfredo's Pizza Cafe does. It's in a strip mall, and Hailstone gives it his seal of approval to Kaling's delight.
Nearby is Poor Richard's, which is the "Office" hangout, thanks to Kaling, who found the bar on Google and wrote it into the show.
IT'S, LIKE, ELECTRIC Visit the Scranton haunts of "The Office" in an audio slideshow at boston.com/travel.
As we drove up, Kaling looked panicky because it wasn't until after the first Poor Richard's episode aired that she found out the real-life bar is in a bowling alley.
"I happened to pick the one bar that makes little to no sense," she said, as we pulled into the parking lot. "Now we're stuck there. That's the mistake you make when you're a 25-year-old staff writer."
But when she walked in, Kaling looked relieved to see that Poor Richard's looks a lot like it does on the show. There's plenty of room, plenty of regulars - it's just that there happens to be a bowling alley on the other side of the bar.
"I can't believe this is Poor Richard's. That's so awesome," she said, wandering from the bowling area into the dark saloon. "I've never seen so many, like, small children and adolescents near, like, a bar. A bitchin' bar. I think that's lots of fun. I think Michael Scott would think this is heaven."
After the bar, Kaling got a hair and make-up touch-up before she began her afternoon of interviews and meet-and-greets with fans at the University of Scranton . The school is a special place for her character because, as Kaling said, in her most lovelorn, Kelly-ish of voices, "Ryan went there."
Newton native B.J. Novak plays Ryan Howard, a cocky former Dunder Mifflin temp who left Kelly after being promoted to corporate. Ryan got his MBA at the school, but Kaling imagines he would not have allowed Kelly to come with him to campus.
"Oh God no, I think he'd be too embarrassed," she said.
While her character's relationships have been rocky, Kaling said, there is love in Scranton. When she writes for "The Office," specifically episodes where main love interests Jim and Pam are falling for each other, Kaling said she has a habit of picturing her real-life friends Krasinski and Jenna Fischer in Los Angeles because that's all she knows. But after surveying the rolling hills of Scranton, its brick skyline, and its quaint bistros in strip malls, Kaling said she'll be able to imagine Pam and Jim together in their rightful place.
"That they'd actually be in love in a city like this," Kaling said, "it makes it more romantic and real. True love can happen in a small town."
Our guide, Hailstone, laughed and said, "It happens every day."
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.