Monday, December 14, 2009

Going Beyond


When you go to an art museum, the standard pose, of course, is the one that has you pondering in front of a particular work, perhaps stepping back, putting one hand under chin, tilting head, moving forward, all in a studious attempt to “get” the painting, photograph, sculpture, woodcut, print, collage, whatever. Some of us do this studiously, some in affectation, some because we are simply joining the crowd. Others don’t have any pose and are just tagging along, with a spouse or friend, even under mild protest.


The point, whether there is a workable pose or not, is that what is in the eye of the beholder is central to the art experience. The person who just tags along but who might take a glance up at, say, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” the well-known film-noir painting of a night diner scene in 1940 lower Manhattan, might in that instant understand more about the work than the fellow who has stood before this wide horizontal piece 20 times with hand under chin.

There is a dialogue going on between artist and viewer, and the language and its comprehension come from that simple but deep-in-subtlety well of “going beyond” understanding that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about. In “Nighthawks,” the viewer “transcends” any actual experience in a diner to understand beyond.

Hopper, the famed American realist painter, uses the bright inside light of the corner diner to contrast with night darkness. The light reveals the faces of the four figures - the counterman, the couple (perhaps Edward and his wife, artist Jo Nivison) and a man opposite. This light is transcendental – beyond ordinary perception – a realism that we normally do not notice. Hopper’s paintings are infused with that light. Even the shadows are functions of it, as are the people.

That’s my take on “Nighthawks” and on Hopper, a painter well received in his time but much more so in his revival, which began a decade or so ago. This is the artist most often characterized as the “lonely painter,” whose urban oils are painted with figures who do not look at one another, who instead seem in isolated thought or which have no people in them at all. His Cape Cod summer works – oils and watercolors – are brighter than the city ones, yet are as transcendental in the use of light, a metaphor for revelation and understanding. But you, the viewer, the self-reliant as Hopper would have you be, has to do the work. He will not instruct you.

I do see not loneliness in “Nighthawks” but urban alienation, which is the cityite's cautious way of bonding. Three people sit on diner stools, two may be strangers to the third; they each need some degree of company (because they are human) but cannot speak to one another readily, as is the urbanite's apprehensive, even suspicious way, so they sit in silence, not looking at one another but surely knowing another human being is next to them. That is not loneliness but the gothamite’s survival, his self-reliance.

So, “Nighthawks” becomes Emerson-like, taking the viewer, whether he has the standard pose or not, to the inner, spiritual and/or mental essence of us living creatures. There is also, like Emerson, utter simplicity, so reduced, but yet saying so much. The individual exists even in the big city and the broad summer experience. There is the dignity of each of us, going beyond ordinary description.

There is art everywhere – in old architecture, in sunlight rooms, in a pre-war diner – and to me that is what Hopper is all about. The art museum pose, certainly useful, isn’t necessary to understand that.



Sunday, December 6, 2009

Faith renewed in San Antone







SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- So this is Texas, this American city of great Mexican/Spanish/native Texan heritage, surrounded by hill country and covered by a deeply blue sky. This is not the light of an Edward Hopper urban mood piece or New England landscape but a shower of little, exploding stars that make you squint. Not so much, though, that you can't see the Texan character.

And that is utter honesty, and directness and the most sincere politeness I have ever been gifted with in my life. "Howdy, Podnuh" is inimitable here, whether those actual words are used or not. Good manners is inbred. After this, I will have a difficult time back in my native Northeast.

Texas star figures – metal, wood, in print – are everywhere, just like you see in the old Hollywood movies, and there actually are people here like the film characters at “Reata,” the fictional Texas ranch in the fictional movie "Giant." Rock Hudson and James Dean captured the look, strength, independence and sense of right and wrong as well as other deeply set principles of the Texans I've met and watched in my few days' visit here.

San Antonio proper has its beautiful River Walk, with its sensible and useful links to stores, a museum, the botanical gardens. It makes you realize what's lost in the huge American building of the suburbs and one shopping strip after another that must be reached by car.

There are suburbs here, too, and many shopping strips. Pity the poor traveling salesman, in from Iowa, awakening in Motel 75 on Austin Highway, thinking he was in Secaucus, N.J., or outside Pittsburgh. The Great American Lookalike Anonymity, with its chain stores, is present.

When Ernie Pyle, the great American traveling columnist and later war correspondent, trekked across the nation before World War II, he could not complain of such suburban lookalikeness and instead was able to celebrate more of the local character he found everywhere. And which still exists.

But you must go to the haunts in San Antonio – and elsewhere in the nation – to find them. Well worth the search. In just hours I spotted tall drinks of water in cowboy hats that would not fit heads in New York; drivers who yell "Howdy" to one another instead of cutting each other off; simply no litter at all; conservative politics, such as the sign on the lawn next door to my son Andrew's house in Alamo Heights: "No Socialism," set on a pure black (Mussolini's Black Shirts?) background.

Each of the people I met or watched was a truly interesting character, underscoring and renewing my faith in people in general. Each place I visit and the place where I live my life most of my days have individual characters who make emotions rise and fall, who give you hope and sometimes send you off in despair, who remind you that this America of ours, always of diversity, is one thing most of all: fiercely independent, still the pioneer sort.

Would that those who fashion policy in that non-state called Washington, D.C., understood this. Then the health care snafu – and everything else – would be so much easier to work out.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The sock test



The rapt attention of a child watching “The Aristocats” can be like the fixed stare of the later day-dreamer, in each case the individual giving concentration to sights, sounds, thoughts that will somehow play a role in the evolving life. So, both moments can be a worthwhile investment.

The other day, a babysitting one for grandson Sam, who is 2.5-years-old on this date, offered a look into youthful concentration. In fact, I studied the moment and did a test.

Sam had just come back from a half-walk, half carry-by-gramps jaunt to a downtown (Nyack, N.Y.) diner, The Skylark, where one pancake with strawberries competed for his attention with curiosity about the eatery and its patrons. Thirty minutes later, his grandparents long finished with their own breakfasts, Sam ordered, “Take home!,” nodding to the still mostly uneaten pancake. The waitress nicely wrapped up the food, and we got moving, Sam all the way home (about 1.2 miles) fixing in on this and that, as toddlers do. Yours and mine.

Back in the house, he played a short while with puzzles and building blocks and then took off shoes and socks, his sign for watching a DVD movie, which he retrieved from a shelf, looked at the cover and decided that it was “The Aristocats.” “Put on!” came another order, and after his grandmother bargained with him for a diaper change first – one most resisted – Sam settled in on a large couch ready for a favorite movie, a film that has also been a buddy to millions of children over the decades.

Since his grandfather was seated next to him, Sam did not have a chance. The older fellow set his own day-dreaming on pause, and noticing Sam’s rapt intent as the butler sets out to cheat the kitty cats of their inheritance, decided to test the young fellow’s concentration by putting a sock on Sam’s head.

Well, the sock, sort of a “Cat-in-the-Hat” striped design, remained in place for several minutes as the TV viewer spoke to himself, sang a song or two, swayed his body slightly but, most of all, kept the gears and wheels spinning in that young, developing mind.

Now this was an odd metaphor but nonetheless promising. In this world, this fast-paced time of quick news bites, abbreviated language by cell phone text and just seconds of concentration where once there were minutes at least, there was hope that if a 2.5-year-old could keep his mind and his senses fixed on words, pictures and  thoughts, he would also stay with the many books his parents surround him with each day. The sock on the head might prove to be the covering for the eventual well-placed feet on the ground as it were. An odd but apt metaphor.

Children are not supposed to watch much TV, the dictum goes, and Sam does not. But a movie that offers well-spoken words, lovable characters, a sense of right and wrong and so a moral, can be part of the mix of play activities that get the wonderful gift that is the mind going and growing in life.

I do not know where Sam went, where his thoughts traveled, as he watched “The Aristocats” after a spirited morning with his grandparents, but my sock test, the proof of concentration, gives expectation that he’s building castles and moats and fields and streams and woods and mountains and grand adventure, all set for a life that is, well, an ever bigger, total grand adventure. May it be so.

Monday, November 23, 2009

‘Once upon a time …’

Once upon a time in the nascence of suburbia, there was a street in a community called Hillcrest that had a model home at 25 Karnell. Being such, it was wallpapered with huge floral print in 1953 style. But that was the extent of added attractions. It was still a $12,500 Cape Cod-style house with two bedrooms, dining room, eat-in kitchen, full, unfinished basement and expandable attic, then also in vogue for, well, expanding families.

Time came when that attic was built-out, usually with scrap wood found here and there (a friend located beautiful hardwood in a bowling alley that was to be torn down for strip shopping). “Repurposing,” you see, was not invented in today's “going green” age, although originally the term was synonymous with “saving money.” The annual income tax refund also helped construct expandable attics into two big bedrooms, with, if the shekels were there, a modest bath.

The finishing of the attic, in Hillcrest and elsewhere in this nation, was a suburban ritual, a mark that the family had grown, and so its needs, and that there was a bit more money to move forward in overall progress. Only well-heeled professionals lived in the McMansions of the day, still-modest brick ranches that cost a whopping $40,000. For most, the ready-to-be-enlarged capes were a godsend, especially for families who had come through the Great Depression and survived a world war.

Everything was new on those suburban streets, including the water, sewer and electric/gas infrastructure. And in Hillcrest, there weren’t yet enough homes to overwhelm. The woods were still there, if no longer everywhere.

But suburbia is to expansion as a weeping willow is to rapid growth. Water the latter, and it multiplies. People the former, and suburbia explodes. So, in time, the expandable capes were built no more, replaced by fully finished and bigger spilt levels, then larger high ranches, then even bigger colonials, then McMansions of various super sizes. These never-ending developments would take over the woods, stress the old infrastructure and crowd the land with density.

The 1953 Hillcrest cape my parents bought in 1953 and sold in 1964 for $19,000 would sell for about $380,000 today, but it now includes apartments in the basement and attic. It was concern about  neighborhood overgrowth – illegal and illegal – that caused my mother and father to leave for a less-dense community in the same New York county.

Now we have the graying of suburbia in troubled times for lack of foresight and planning; for too many homes built; for infrastructure neglected; for anonymous strip shopping that must be accessed by car; for illegal housing and other zoning violations that are officially ignored.

Suburban planning could have arrived more responsibly,  providing for new residents  by expanding walkable village centers, just as we built expandable cape cods; by limiting growth; by protecting flood plains and the air-filtering and mind-easing woods. Instead, developers were allowed to follow a timed-release policy of “scorch and burn,” in this case bulldozing the woods and fields, building too much density, making a quick profit and walking away from the seeds of conditions that would inevitably result in greater traffic, a stressed infrastructure, higher schooling and government costs and reduced quality of life through both density and what it often spawns – illegal apartments.

It all could have been different, this suburban story, in Hillcrest and elsewhere. But, as the first paragraph of this piece introduces, “Once upon a time. …”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Man of conviction



It was a time of national unity against the obvious enemies – Hitler’s Germany and an imperialist Japan that had staged its Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack, but in the democracy that was at home, the one U.S. citizens and military were soon to protect, there was supposed to be room for dissent; otherwise, why the republic?


Yet the price for being a conscientious objector was high – public ostracism and the harshness of federal prison, including the injustices within those jail walls that were counter to the democratic rights of humankind, those very entitlements that are at the foundation of this nation.


There can be – must be – argument in a democracy about war, about relative “good war” (say World War II) and “bad war” (say the Vietnam War); about any government’s historically complicit failure to prevent the death of so many young people; about war’s devastation, war’s aftermath, war’s cost; about the vested interest of the military/industrial complex of which the good soldier Eisenhower warned us; about the polarization of one citizen against another, creating dislike, even hatred, just as brother was pitted against brother in our worst war, the Civil War.


There are no “nice,” safe, easy answers in such debate, yet this much is certain: If the patriot is to lay his or her life down in battle for the democracy, which at times is surely required, then it must also be understood that the sacrifice comes, too, on behalf of the living who choose to protest. Dissent can be sure patriotism as well, and it must be guaranteed.


I know of a distinguished fellow, quite accomplished in his professional career, as a husband, too, a father, a local New York historian, now 90, son of a pacifist, who was the valedictorian of his high school class in 1936, and went on to graduate from Columbia University in 1941. He was called up for the draft during World War II but failed to register because of his conscientious objection to war, and was sentenced to three years in prison, at Danbury, Conn., and Lewisburg, P.A., in March 1943.
The man willingly paid the price, as also befitting a democracy, for expressing his conscience in a time of war and national sacrifice. He knew that and took his punishment without complaint. What this man of principle could not abide was the hypocrisy of injustice against his fellow man, as seen in jail.
He took part in several prison strikes with other conscientious objectors – a work strike at Danbury in 1943 to protest racial segregation in the prison, and two hunger strikes at Lewisburg to protest mail censorship as well as a ruling that lengthened the terms of prisoners who staged work strikes.
Segregation was part of our nation before, during and after World War II, in the military too until 1948, even as a war was being waged against Hitler, who said in no uncertain term that some people (Jews, the mentally ill, social outcasts) were not people at all.
The man I know, who to this day speaks his mind and backs his conscience in peaceful civil protest, was, with others, locked in solitary during their strike to end jim crow seating in the Danbury mess hall. There was also protest against blacks being given menial work tasks.
It took more courage than most of us could muster to do what the man did, along with his fellow conscientious objectors, in defense of others in this democracy. I am not sure I would have had conviction in such a situation.
World War II was not my generation’s war, though I had relatives who served, one of whom was severely wounded. You can argue that this conflict could have been prevented by numerous governments worldwide, including our own, in the 1920s and early 1930s, but there was no other choice but a fight given the German invasions and Pearl Harbor. I believe I would have served if drafted after Pearl Harbor, but whether I would have had the red badge of courage under fire, I cannot tell. I do hope that I would have tolerated in this “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” style of democracy that is my belief, those conscientious objectors like my acquaintance, who is also my friend.
He edited my collection of essays for the Historical Society of Rockland, knowing well that one of my favorites was “1944: A fellow doing his job,” about the wounding of my Uncle Winfield Gunther in December, in the battle of the Huertgen Forest. I wrote that my uncle, an Army private, was  “Unannounced by name, almost anonymous on purpose. He went where he was told and did what he was supposed to do.  He never expected anyone to say thanks because he was just one of many called to the task then at hand. …”
Winfield, in 1944 a father, was drafted along with so many for the retaking of Europe and the expected invasion of Japan. It was his conviction that he could and would serve, and at peril. I am immensely proud of my late uncle, not only for his service but for the way he also continued a democracy as a civilian in responsible fatherhood, in the work place.


My friend, the man of conscientious objection, served his nation, too, for without dissent and without toleration of other views, there is no democracy. Patriotism that is blind to injustice or will not allow railing against it in hope of honest and truthful debate and betterment is infatuation for your country, not love.


As a patriot, I am proud of my friend’s courage then and now.




Monday, November 9, 2009

Stepping into the season




I realized something was missing the other afternoon on a sharply brisk fall day with enough breeze to part golden and bright red leaves from their summer home and chase them in wisps and twists down the street. Incomplete in this set piece for autumn? My slippers.

I had gone through the whole of the last season without such need, for the weather was too hot for wool-lined footwear, even for socks. The cold wood floor of the house was great relief.

But now we step into fall, and one of the joys of coming in after walking around in the grownup shoes of adulthood, doing this errand and that, is to anticipate coming home, closing the door behind you, knocking off the brown footgear and dropping ten toes into comfy slippers. That and maybe hot cocoa or a hearty soup plus reading material or interesting e-mail or a blanket and the recliner would bring me to the place where I wanted to be.

Yet I could not get there since the slippers from last-winter-into spring were not there. My footsies were getting cold and they had no friends to play with. I looked under beds, in closets, in storage, in the garage, in the car (out of desperation) and on shelves. No slippers, no where.

 I then did what every husband does, and called out in the ether: “Where are my slippers?” The “answer” from my spouse was automatic – silence, for that is most usual when I offer a certain tone of voice.

It was only after  I showed up in person in front of the other half and calmly repeated my question that I was directed to a drawer in furniture unit b, sub-compartment 626 that I found my old friends.

 “Well, you left them in the middle of the hall last spring, so I put them away,” was the rationalization, as if my annual habit of parting winter-spring and cautiously approaching the hot humid time of summer was as usual as an animal awakening from hibernation.

The slippers located, my feet said hello. And there was purring to be heard.

Ah, another good step into fall.


Friday, November 6, 2009

AUTUMN IN NEW YORK


November 2, 2009



ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. – With the second day of November arriving here in this part of the Northeast – lower New York State but north enough of its great southernmost city that the vestiges of long-ago country autumn can still be recalled, the air this morning was about 1948 vintage, I’d say. It was as if that fall had been bottled as rural wine and kept to mature, though that seems impossible, and why would anyone want to mature what already smells wonderful?

I claim this morning’s air as 1948 because in that season I was just turning six, and we then were living in the hamlet of Nanuet, having just moved from Sloatsburg village. (In those days, we tended to relocate when the rental lease was up in October, a bit jarring since my brother and I had to change schools after classes had begun, but often the move was economically driven.)

Nanuet was then rural as was most of pre-Tappan Zee Bridge Rockland. I was in the first grade and yet walked along Highway 59 to school, about 1.5 miles away. No real danger as I stuck to the marsh side, making my way through the beautiful cattails and skirting behind the large billboard signs.

It was in that marsh that I deeply took in the cool air, not yet with the icy breath of winter but surely without summer’s humid overlay. It was refreshing, that bit of air in 1948, my birthday two days away, Thanksgiving coming, too, then Christmas. Nice time of year,  as I already liked my new school on Highview Avenue.

Later that day, the still-strong sun would warm the air and the scent of morning would be lost forever. Or so it seemed.

This morning, in 2009, also on Nov. 2, I got out of my car, my legs considerably longer than in the first grade, and took in a deep breath of fall air that had come from the nearby direction of my old Nanuet homestead.

Could it be? Could that scent be autumn 1948? Well, yes, it  seemed so. I guess someone  bottled what this once-first grader whiffed 61 years ago and saved it until 2009. And now uncorked it.

What a birthday present.

Monday, October 19, 2009

‘Number, please’

Ah, how the modern world has morphed into blitzland, with everything so fast that a sentence isn’t even finished before the “listener” focuses on something else. Consider cell phones, those gadgets that deliver and receive often barely audible calls at four times the cost of Alex Bell’s nearly perfected instrument, the one tethered to a solid wall.

Once, we need not suffer the angst of wondering whether anyone wanted to talk to us. We simply waited until we got home, and the person rung us up when we were in. Later, we bought answering machines because (1) they were invented and (2) life had speeded up enough to add anxiousness to curiosity. Then we bought cordless phones that we could carry with us into the bathroom, the garage, even on a very short walk up the street. Couldn’t miss that call, you see, as if we were going to be told we won $65 million in an East Anglia lottery.

Today, cell phones are almost sewn under our skin as are heart pacemakers, and we constantly check to see if they are still there. We flip open the gadgets for messages as regularly as heartbeats, perhaps hoping that though we goofed up on the job and lost the company much money last fall, this autumn all is forgiven and we can expect a call giving us the amount of a bonus payment from the national stimulus.

Or perhaps we just have to know someone wants to speak to us, or sell us something or e-phone us a photo of their dog doing cartwheels or text us a message in e-phone/mail shorthand. We just have to know.

Well, to each his/her own, but as for me, don’t include my ears in the calling circle. I don’t want to overhear a loud conversation in aisle three of a store, nor do I want to be held up on a checkout line as someone talks and fumbles with a credit card while ignoring, quite rudely, the cashier, who is there to communicate as well as to check one out.

I don’t want to know about love gone wrong, weird ailments, lost pets, unruly children, money and job woes and really personal stuff, all of which I have picked up in public phone conversations.

Years ago, when Ma Bell offered wonderful, clean, odor-free mahogany booths inside lobbies from which to make a telephone call for a dime, we all closed the folding door for privacy. Then on the cheap, she took the booths away and gave us shelves and a small wall panel to hide behind. But our calls could be overheard. Maybe it was then that the woman who had raised us on good manners in making and receiving telephone calls became a modern parent and indulged our self-centeredness. She gave us cell phones, and now we can be publicly discourteous to the max, if we should so choose.

Yet it’s too modern, too, to blame mother alone. She cut the umbilical cord. We still have ours plugged in, to the cell phone on our belts, in our hands, on our ears, in our purses.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fall, as you like it


October 12, 2009


Fall, as you like it

It is a crisp fall day in this part of the Northeast, up the Hudson River just miles from the Great Gotham – New York City – but in my mindset I do not see nor feel nor taste nor smell any connection. I am wrong, of course, since this county, Rockland, is now the home mostly of ex-urbanites. My own family, too, came from that direction, although enough decades ago that the cityscape was far different.

I grew up in a pre-Tappan Zee Bridge semi-rural, farming and light manufacturing community, not yet the site of hundreds of cookie-cutter housing developments that were supposed to continue the old neighborhood connection as families sought grass and air and good schools for their post-war families. Such realization occurred, but in early, small developments only. Today’s Heather Lane and Michael Court and Sparrow Run are streets of anonymity, and it is possible to live on them for 30 years and not know a neighbor by sight, let alone name. The lack of front porches, the utter necessity of cars to get anywhere don’t make for social discourse, meeting one another.

If your children are in elementary school, you might see the neighbors at events there, or at sports activities, but soon enough high school graduation comes, and the fellow or woman you talked to once or twice 12 years ago is now in row 3 watching his daughter move on as you see your son get his diploma. You and your neighbor probably will not meet again.

In my own lucky time in Rockland, before suburbia, I was fortunate to know some neighbors, to sit on then-available front porches, to walk to stores in a downtown, to kick my feet in fall leaves, to take in the crisp air without flavoring by exhaust as yet another SUV goes off to yet another strip shopping center. Fall here and then had a particular smell, too, the wonderful musk dampness of overturned wet leaves; the sharp pungency of bursting colors; the woodsy hint of winter straw, soon to be gathered for insulation in children’s winter huts.

I make no apologies for my dreaminess about and nostalgia for the county of my youth; I appreciate the added diversity a bridge and time have brought; I rail at “progress” but applaud opportunity for others, though the net result of poor planning – deteriorated downtowns, crowded roads, stressed resources, high taxes, anonymity – must forever be assailed if right is to make its  point.

But it is fall, and the great joy in that has its interpretation for the individual. I have stressed mine, and now I say may all enjoy it as they wish, as the season reveals its ties to one and another, maybe all.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

MAKING LIFE GROW


October 5, 2009


Making life grow

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — Unabashedly, this week’s column is written for the Class of 1961 from the high school in this village, then still a country town and its place of secondary instruction almost the way it was for the students’ parents, too, many of whom had the same teachers. You not of this ilk nevertheless may find symmetry and relevance and association, for all education in all communities in all ages share similar bent, no matter the age, the language, the ethnicity.

I write now of football season, part of our education, which for SVHS, especially the 1950s, was like a warm communal blanket that drew everyone back from the summer and got us going as classes. The spirit was infectious even if you didn’t give a hoot for football. The crisp air; shuffling the fallen leaves on the sidewalk jaunt to the game; getting in with a “G.O.” (General Organization, student governing body) discount pass; Sabrette hot dogs; hoping to see that girl or guy you had a crush on; meeting the girl or guy on the sly (often); the band and halftime; the first run of the bulls (players) onto the field and the great pride you felt being part of a community of like and emerging age.

This was school spirit that was not forced, that was not jingoistic, that was felt in the heart and on the goose-pimpled skin of growing teens who were just forming their lives, together and separately.

Time would come soon enough when the high school seniors would toss their caps, take off the gowns and leave the building door for the last time on many  separate paths, never again to be part of those high school football games, that time of coming closer without a word spoken.

No matter what high school you went to, no matter where or when or with whom, the ties that were forged still bind despite the inability, even in some cases the disinterest, to be part of that cohesion once more.

No, youth is not wasted on the young; it is part of the fertilizer that makes the rest of life grow.

Happy football season!




Monday, September 28, 2009

Life as a continuum

September 28, 2009


‘Life as a continuum’

If time is seen as a “continuum,” a succession of moments in your life that are, by chance or direction, relative to everyone else’s existence, even if you never meet them, then what I have to report is understandable. If not, it’s interesting, I think. And, again, probably relative to your own experiences.

Once upon a time, though this is not a made-up tale but it was so long, long ago, the sixth grade at North Main Street School in Spring Valley, N.Y., was on Christmas leave, and the day itself was in progress. Presents already unwrapped in happiness, my family was looking forward to a two-mile trip to Nana’s house for holiday dinner. This would be the most satisfying part of the day – physically filling our stomachs and emotionally massaging the heart.

But that trip was a few hours away, and my parents had another present to offer – their bedroom telephone extension. They received few calls, my father did not like being awakened when he was sleeping days after a night shift, and he and my mother knew that two growing boys might have use of a simple phone to talk to their pals.

But how to get it upstairs? My brother Craig and I wanted the phone that very day, of course, but an installation order to the New York Telephone Co. could not be placed until after Christmas, and then there would be a short wait before the installer could come, given the ever-busier Ma Bell, whose Nyack, N.Y.- based installers could barely keep up with new phone orders from suburban tract homeowners in 1954.

My brother and I had a solution. This writer, whose reading material then included “Popular Mechanics,” with its detailed but simple electrical, etc., drawings, thought he had absorbed enough information to move the phone. My father did, too, to his credit. In a flash, the few tools at hand (my dad is not handy) were located, and I eagerly unscrewed the phone terminal from the bedroom baseboard. In those days, the wonderfully heavy and reliable “desk sets” were tethered to these terminals, and you did not normally plug in the phone. Such devices were reserved for the rich, who might bring them outside to their large patios.

I had to measure carefully since I did not have new telephone wire, a product that was nearly impossible to obtain because you were not supposed to touch New York Telephone installations (oops!). The wire measured for usable length, I pulled it off its basement staples, routed it out the sidewall, ran it up to the newly finished attic and then mounted the old terminal on the wall baseboard, just between our twin beds. The final connection made, my brother and I heard the dial tone and, boy, did we feel grown up. The bonus was that the move was completed in enough time to skedaddle to my grandma’s house.

In the years that followed, as a 12- and 11-year-old grew through our teens, that shared phone would be dialed to many a friend, including that new species in our lives – girls.

Now, the “time as a continuum” part. Fifty-five years later, I find myself a trustee of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack. One of my happy duties is to help fellow Trustee and Master Handyman Lynn Saaby take care of the 1858 home of the famed American realist painter. The main office is being relocated upstairs to a small sewing room (or perhaps it was a bedroom), and a phone line is required.

In much the same manner as that long-ago 1955 Christmas Day phone relocation, I recently strung a line at Hopper House from the original phone terminal upstairs. These days, you can fiddle with inside phone wiring since you own it, but other than that difference, the procedure was the same for me as it was in the sixth grade (though a bit more difficult to get off my knees in 2009).

So, time has continued for me in a succession of events, many connected, all related. What I was doing 55 years ago affects me today and also connects to others, as the new phone at Hopper House will surely bring in calls from around the world.



Monday, September 21, 2009

When the shouting stops on health care


September 21, 2009


When the shouting stops … 


     Some Americans have always shouted down others, a rudeness that becomes a distraction clouding over the possibility of thoughtful debate. We must do better.


     The shouting, as well as its opposite – reasoned point and counterpoint – can be traced to our independent, pioneering spirit, the deliberate severing of any head-bowing connection to Old Europe and the wars, the economic and social suffering and the religious persecution that sent so many of our forebears to America. In the new land, we were going to speak our mind, even if we were sometimes rude. Centuries later, too many of us are still shouting, especially at government, avoiding clear thinking just to make sure we are heard. The health care debate is the latest – one of the worst – examples of that.


     Those of us in the media have not helped, emphasizing the mayhem at some town hall meetings over the facts of any health care plan.


     Our shouting, our irrationality over things official, is enabled by our fear of big government, something this nation and its immigrants have tried to avoid because there must be no allusion to any king or dictator. Besides, the track record of official handling of anything – the recent “cash for clunkers” red tape nightmare is a case in point – confirms our worry about government incompetence. 


    The shouting is assisted, too, by prejudice against those who we perceive as not meeting the pioneer requirement of carrying the load. We showed that discrimination in opposition to immigrants in the 1800s, the ancestors of families now well established economically and socially. Then, in the last century, we gave racism a push. And now we are against undocumented aliens. Just as we have the ability to reason rather than shout, our prejudice is set against our oft-stated sense of compassion and charity.


      Knowing our history, then, we must stage the necessary debate over health care by restating our thirst for independence, by recognizing our continued call for individual responsibility, by overcoming prejudice to help those in need.


End the shouting and polarization at town hall meetings and in the media. Look at where we are faltering and where we must climb if the ever-soaring cost of health care is not to quickly assume so much of the gross national product that our economy soon falters. And then we will all suffer.


     Debate must happen rationally. I’ll offer my own two cents, no better perhaps, no worse I hope, than anyone else’s, but at least it is offered in the quiet, thank you:   


     • Accept that health care costs have risen way beyond the inflation rate, boosted by key factors, including over-testing to protect against lawsuits, use of emergency rooms as doctors’ offices, obscene profit-taking by too many medical care and supply providers, lack of a preventive care and malpractice.


     • Recognize that the number of uninsured and under-insured is a black mark on a nation that has yet to realize that affordable health care for all is essential to its well-being, as necessary as military defense. A sick nation cannot be productive, and it cannot seek new frontiers.     
        
     • Acknowledge that health care might be better run by private companies, not a potentially fumbling government bureaucracy.


     • Understand that individuals should be allowed to remain with present insurance companies and plans, the cost of which must be modified by government-encouraged competition. Perhaps, instead of any government-run plan, a quasi-official setup can be used, in the style of the Postal Service.


     • Accept that any health care plan must be regulated as to prices and profit margin, just as the utilities once were, quite successfully.


  • Know that prevention must be the focus, as this will increase longevity and productivity, save on medical bills and improve quality of life.


  • Accept that no-limit catastrophic care must be provided, no questions asked and all compassion given.


  • Agree that free walk-in fitness centers, rehab instructors, nutrition counselors and longevity experts must be provided to assist in preventing disease and the devastation that throws people into nursing homes at great cost.


  • Acknowledge that low-cost and no-cost care to indigents, to anyone in need, should be given in centers run by a consortium of health-care providers. A national health corps could be established to help fund medical schooling, with the graduates serving as lower-paid physicians and nurse practitioners.


  • Understand that computerization and paperless administration would be required so no one is overwhelmed by forms. All payment would be handled instantly in the health care provider’s office.


    Obviously, these suggestions are just one person’s participation in the necessary debate. They can be improved upon by many minds in the national persuasion – they are but a starting point for necessary debate that will begin only when the shouting stops. Our future depends on sound reasoning. We must at long last listen to each other, or we will shout ourselves into the fall of America.










Monday, September 14, 2009

Transcending the light

Sept. 14, 2009

Transcending the light

NYACK, N.Y. – For most of this year I have been a trustee of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in this Hudson River village of the American painter’s 1892 birth. That position, and the activities it affords, continue to be a trip into the famed realist’s mind.

In the past 20 years or so, especially, Hopper’s work – “Nighthawks” as among his most recognizable – and his method of “painting sunlight on a building” have become almost a religion to some. His oil paintings of urban (New York City) and Nyack scenes and the watercolors from Cape Cod and Maine bring fantastic prices, if any ever make it to the market since most works are held by the Whitney Museum in New York and at other venues. In Hopper’s lifetime (1892-1967), very little money, relatively, was realized though his fame was certain from the 1940s at least.

I’ve had “Nighthawks” on a wall of my home office for years, originally because the artist is a native Rockland Countyite, and that drew this hometown boy to him. I have looked at it many times, but only in past months have I stared INTO this painting of a late-night diner scene in Greenwich Village. Now I see that it is all about the light that paints itself on the buildings, on the diner, on the three patrons and the counterman. The light is transcendental – beyond ordinary perception – a realism that we normally do not notice. Even the shadows are functions of the light. So are the diner patrons and the counterman. You can see what you wish, and for some that is urban loneliness, others the film noir of a city in the 1940s. Hopper did not analyze his works, though he said, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.” My own take is that he let the light in any scene – day or night – speak for him. I never see loneliness.

In this past year as a Hopper trustee, I have studied many of the artist’s works and have been privileged, as a professional photographer, to interpret some of the Rockland locations that inspired the artist, such as the old shop, still standing at School Street and Broadway in Upper Nyack, which is portrayed in spareness and transcendental light in “Seven A.M.’ (1948).

The Hopper House Art Center, at 82 North Broadway, will soon include eight interpretative photographs in its hallway, on a “living wall” meant to demonstrate how Hopper’s birthplace village influenced his art. It is hoped that photographs, paintings, collages, etc., from others will follow my limited run in a continuing exhibit for years to come.

Entitled “Hopper’s Rockland Inspiration … Interpretations in Photographs,” this hall of Edward’s “reach” could prove unique in art centers/museums because it will attempt to have living artists continually re-examine and reinterpret a master. It will also bring Edward Hopper home to a house long recognized for its art shows and events but not necessarily tied to the artist who ran down this hallway as a youngster, who saw the light play out when the front door was opened and rays of early-morning brilliance shot up Second Avenue from the Hudson River. In that, a life was changed forever. As was American art realism.

I write this piece not because I am a plausible interpreter of Edward Hopper’s work, his being, his absorption in light – I am merely a neophyte study, perhaps with great limits. I pen this essay because I am a Hopper House Art Center trustee who wants to promote one of its exhibition ideas, yes, but much more than that. I want as many people as I can reach to feel as I do about this giant of a man, who was quite tall and whose long fingers pushed a very long brush that took the light God made and magically stretched it onto canvasses that transcend, that are outside consciousness.

May many see that light and take a journey with it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The house on the corner

September 7, 2009

The house on the corner

Spring Valley, N.Y. – For just about 90 years, nine decades that brought this village through post-World War I prosperity, the Great Depression, an awful Second World War, new post-conflict boom and the growth and the beginning decline of suburbia, a beautiful Craftsman-style home has stood on the corner of South Madison and Castle avenues. It has been a polished jewel in a once well-kept neighborhood now suffering from dense multi-family and boarding house zoning that has encouraged landlord neglect and official indifference, balanced in favor of added tax revenue.


Two brothers were raised in that home, sons of the owner of a large commercial bakery. One became the General Organization president and all-around popular man on campus at the high school across the street. Both brothers were successful businessmen, even after the bakery closed because much larger corporations undercut the price as they also cheapened the bakery goods.

Well into their 80s, the brothers followed the wishes of their parents, who were meticulous in keeping the corner home beyond neat. The lawn was always mowed, the trim painted in its usual yellowish cream, the art-style glass polished. The boarding house up the street gave up its lawn so multiple cars could park there. The high school was sold to a private group that has allowed it to deteriorate almost to ruins. There is litter. There are neglected homes. There is a general shabbiness in what used to be one of the best sections of a once-prosperous village.

Now the jewel at South Madison and Castle avenues has joined the community’s decline. The last of the brothers has passed away, and the family home, an example of how to keep your property neat, has passed, too, into the hands of those who see such houses merely as a place to live, a place to make profit. The lawn is cut when it’s cut. The trim gets no paint. The glass goes untouched. “Why are these things important?” the new owners seem to suggest.

Soon, what stood for so many years at this corner will morph into look-alike modern suburbia, at least that part of suburbia recognized as decline.

Village leaders seem uninterested in the decay, for they have let it happen for almost four decades now, as housing developments sucked away old village families and strip shopping promised a better trip than the downtown Main Street stores. Now, many of those strips have themselves fallen victim to mega malls, and the housing developments are graying, many in need of repair and many owned by seniors who have no use for the numerous rooms. (Didn’t anyone think of that when these large homes were built?)

Even as suburbia has declined, though, even as the village of the two brothers’ birth withered, the corner at South Madison and Castle was a shining example of what can be done, what must be done, in such decay. Pity that their neighbors never

Thursday, September 3, 2009

COLLECTED ESSAYS APPEAR BELOW:

Hardware workings

Why is it that many towns, sometimes even small ones, still have hardware stores – the old-fashioned variety that carries everything, from a brass screw maybe made in 1940 to a modern digital clock?

Our main streets, the nation’s downtowns, have largely disappeared, decades-long victims of shopping malls and suburban strips and large chains that have the money to invest in bigger but not necessarily better.

So many main street stores are gone – the shoe repair fellow, the dress shop, the men’s store, the pharmacy and, good grief, the bakery. We’ve traded hands-on service for self-service shopping, usually without a guide. We will wander with aim but not direction up and down chain pharmacy or super-supermarket aisles looking for a box of aspirin that Joe the druggist would have quickly handed over, usually with some cheerful banter. Even if he were irascible, it would be an experience to remember.

Yet while so much of American commerce is now at the mall (which is probably owned by foreign investors, not your neighbors), somehow at least quite a few hardware stores have survived.

They have aisles like the chain stores but the place is never so big that you wander with your aim not met. Besides, the proprietor is always there to help you. And the store seems to have everything.

For example, I recently did plumbing work on my younger son Andrew’s home in Maryland. Of course, in the middle of that project parts were needed, since it is the Given Law of Plumbing that it shall be so. Obtaining the parts actually amounted to three trips.

But Hometown Hardware had everything I needed, and the store was just a mile and a half away, not the 12 miles’ distance that a national home improvement center is.
And there I would be wandering up and down the aisles. Perhaps I would find packages of toilet repair bolts without some necessary pieces or stocked in the wrong place or out of stock, so prone to petty theft, so replete with many customers handling goods, so remote these huge stores can be.

The village of my youth had four hardware stores along a short Main Street – K&A, Scharf’s, DeBaun’s and Call Me Dave. They all did business. They all seemed to have everything, including human help.

Those stores are gone now, for Spring Valley, N.Y.’s Main Street has really disappeared, but there are still the hardware stores of old like Hadeler’s in nearby Pearl River. I can park right in front, hop in and ask for help, get the right part quickly and leave having had contact with live people, not the chain-store speaker bellowing, “Assistance needed at the front registers.”

Old hardware stores still have that human touch.



The corner pirouette

The half pirouette that the young woman made as she stood on a street corner mimicked a movement many of us have performed, waiting for a school bus, another ride, a friend. It is akin to looking at our watch, staring at our shoes, whistling in the wind.

It is life itself, one of those awfully small but reaffirming heartbeats that keep the current moving through the routine of a day. A pirouette, like looking at your shoes, happens only in the ordinary, not when you are climbing one day’s mountain or descending another’s steep hill. Your pulse is normal, your expectations routine, you know you are breathing, and you expect to continue.

A pirouette – spinning a bit on one foot – is perhaps a subconscious test that you are still here, not that you are worried you are not, but simply a check of the status quo, like a watchman putting checking the stations on his tour. The key goes in, it is turned, and life for the watchman is as ordinary as it is supposed to be. No surprise.

I was driving in a small town when I saw the woman do her half-pirouette, spinning on one leg, not in a staged ballet style or serious affectation, but in passing time. I saw her only for an instant, but you could read a life in that time.

She seemed happy, content, life humming along, and whatever, whoever was next in her day was more than acceptable. It – he or she – would be the next watch station, and she had the key. So, it was no leap of faith that she could lift one foot off the ground and spin, for there was more than enough trust for that.

We all have our scary days – going to the dentist or the doctor, taking a school exam, facing the boss, getting older – and there are no half-pirouettes on those days. For most of us, thankfully, life does not consist of scary moments, and the motor runs without misfiring. It is in such security that we can lift one foot off this mortal coil and know we will not come crashing down.

I know that the lady I saw in this small town – and she could have been in a big city or in a rural cornfield – was having a good day.


An overlooked America

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – This true story, this essay, has to take place in a small village, old to the point of some 300 years, with small sidewalks that dip and turn and rise and sink just as do the lanes and streets of this community that holds the Hudson River close to its anatomy.

The sidewalks, cobbled together over centuries from slate, rock, hand-poured and machine-given cement, have felt the footprints of generations of shipyard workers, village tradesmen, artists like Edward Hopper as a boy and actresses such as Helen Hayes and Ellen Burstyn as grown women. Children daily have slammed the whitewashed gates in front of their smallish homes on Lower Castle Heights Avenue and Van Houten Street, walking and running off to play and to school and to life, leaving behind the ever-bigger footsteps of inevitable growing up.

If small town America were to have veins, these sidewalks would be some of them.

It was on a walk along a sidewalk on a recent afternoon that I saw a fellow looking a bit more industrious than a retired man might. Instead of sitting on the generous front porch of his home, certainly a treat that was his just reward, the man was sweeping the walk in front of that porch.

Grass clippings, small branches, weeds and the odd cigarette butt were flying left and right as he took a large corn broom and swung it like a pendulum, moving forward as if he were a motorized street sweeper, which he was. It was a learned practice, this efficient brooming, just like a seasoned sailor swabbing a deck.

But it was also an odd sight since the man was not carrying a leaf blower descended from a Mack truck engine. He was not surrounded by six similar men with equipment on their backs or in their hands that combusted internally and made noise infernally. The rich neighbors up the street have such attendants, as does much of suburban America. But this man chooses a simpler way.

At this house, in this time, in the Village of Upper Nyack, there is a gent who without fanfare and noise and expense wants to keep his small home and old, old sidewalk neat. He does that in a Charlie Chaplin-like walk with a straw broom. His great-grandfather surely did the same thing.

Nowhere in this important, perhaps defining presidential election of 2008 will this man appear, but his old-fashioned, responsible self-labor speaks volumes of where we once were in America.

Harry and his truck

Two generations ago, long before driving a pickup truck was designer cool, Harry Jackson used one for work, usually a Ford or a Chevy, durable machines that were as necessary to his landscaping job as a hammer then was to a carpenter.

You would recognize Harry by his red or green or blue truck, bright and shiny and he as proud as a peacock on yes, "pickup day" at the dealer and then, as the months and years went by, the truck with a dent here and lawnmowers in the back and the honest dust and grime of a working man’s craft covering his vehicle.

In the relatively small town where we lived in the 1950s – Spring Valley, N.Y., for the record but it could have been in Maine or Colorado or California – men with craft like Harry were respected notables. Joe, a carpenter; Sam the iceman; radio and TV repair guys, they all were as necessary to a community’s smooth operation as were the doctor, the dentist, the teacher, the librarian, the pharmacist, the baker and the clergyman.

So the sight of Harry whizzing by in the red or blue or green truck over the many years he was a landscaper made the viewer silently nod in appreciation that he was on the job and in hope that others would follow him.

We see his truck no more. Instead there are what seem like a gazillion huge, diesel-powered vehicles pulling vans full of super-sized lawnmowers, weed-whackers, leaf-blowers and the other weapons assault troops use as they descend on seemingly every lawn and manicure it, gone 20 minutes later for the next home trimming. Entire days in a neighborhood can be spent hearing these troops at one home and then the next.

Harry, in his day, was an exception – just a few properties required lawn mowing, since most homeowners did their own work.

And trucks like Harry’s are now hard to find, too, replaced by designer Cadillacs, Hummers and Lincolns, huge behemoths that shout: Wash me! Pamper me!

Harry’s worth came in his honesty and good work, the respect shown to him by his fellow villagers obvious as he passed by in a dusty truck. He would have found the assault troops too much, over the top, and as for designer trucks, well that would have been like mowing a lawn in a tuxedo and white gloves. A little too frilly.



Imagination

This is the time of the pumpkin, you know, and so the tale of a flickering candle.

Once upon a time not long ago but also not in the institutional memory of any but today’s American elders, there was a suitor named Imagination who was courted on boring, rainy summer days, weekends when school was out and when the kissing and hugging relatives came to pay semi-annual visits.

Children with eager little minds, possibly big eyes and jaws that could open and drop would seek sitting-on-the-lap time with Imagination, a presence who was not gender specific and therefore, even today, untouchable by Political Correctness.

The lap seemed, in those not-so-long-ago-but-now-almost-forgotten days to be wide and available enough for all the children of all the neighborhoods, all at once.

Imagination only asked that the children come eagerly, with open minds and open ears, that they be polite and that they tell their mother where they were going, for there is no wrath, Halloween or not, second to a worried mom who catches up with wandering offspring.

One day, two or three youngsters – it was difficult to tell since Hiram was so quiet that he was not always counted in the crowd – found themselves antsy two days before Halloween. They sought out Imagination because video games, I-Pods, plasma TV, cell phones, SUVs and parents’ chock-filled appointment books had not yet come to the earth.

The children – there were actually three after Hiram spoke up – called out “Imagination!” and, poof, the non-gender specific presence appeared. “You rang, kids, so what’s the adventure? Imagination asked. “We are bored, so take us on a Halloween journey,” said two of the three.


“Ah,” intoned Imagination. “That would mean a pumpkin and a candle. You must supply those.” Off the children tumbled, racing to find a pumpkin, which Esmerelda took from her front steps, and a candle, which was Jules’ sabbath light (but his grandfather did not need it until Friday, five nights hence).

In a flash worthy of lightning on witches’ eve, the three were back on Imagination’s lap. “What do we do now?” asked Esmerelda, clearly the most articulate of the bunch.

“Carve the pumpkin and take the fixings to one of your homes and bake a pie with a mother’s help. Put the candle in the hollowed-out pumpkin, light it and place it on the kitchen table as the pie bakes.

“Then stare at the candle, all three of you together but each alone, too. You will have one hour before the pie comes out of the oven, and a few more minutes after that to let it cool a bit. Use that time to stare at the flickering light and let your minds wander. Take a trip anywhere you want, with anyone you want and do anything you want. Just tell your mother first.”

And then the three children climbed off Imagination’s lap. They scampered down to Hiram’s house, carved the pumpkin, helped his mom bake a pie, placed the candle in the pumpkin and lit it. As the wonderfully delicious smells of homemade pastry filled the kitchen, Esmerelda, Hiram and Jules, separately but in concert, stared at the flickering candle and met up with imagination (small “i”) all on their own.

And there was pumpkin pie for dessert.

A take on the Red Maple

Charlie DiMaria’s morning wake-up call in Closter, N.J., is the sound of home fries gathering flavor on an old luncheonette grill heated to the touch only experience can give it. He does his daily dance in front of that hot iron, adding eggs, pancakes, bacon, ham and whatever – all on order, shouted back by his waitresses Mercedes, Linda and Deidre in a symphony of fire engine-like delivery.

It’s the place, this Red Maple Luncheonette, where you feel at home on any given morning, the wonderful combined smells of a mixed grill and coffee plus the mixed company of blue collar and professional tucked into an old diner-style, shotgun-shaped room, long counter with stools and several tables against the opposite wall for the elites.

The regular customers and Charlie set the Red Maple scene. A modest and so trusted fellow, Charlie offers the right sense of humor necessary in running an eatery where you work long hours in full view of the clientele, many like family, and talk to them every day.

One recent morning, the ordinary scene did not unfold. Instead, the place was the set for filming an episode of the TV show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Seems that not long ago, a scout from the show came by and asked if the Red Maple could be used for the set of an Oregon diner, where actress Mariska Hargitay (aka “Det. Olivia Benson”) was on special assignment with the FBI rather than in her usual New York City balliwick.


The shoot took place to the fascination of everyone watching, and now Charlie has a picture of him on the wall with Mickey, daughter of Jayne Mansfield. He’s in his workaday whites, and both look as comfortable with each other as if Mariska had been coming for a Red Maple breakfast and morning banter for years.

There is also a poster signed by the crew and a letter of thanks. The poster and photo are joined on the wall by a New York Times restaurant review and a column I once about Charlie’s old-style cash register.

Celebrity status has again come to Closter’s Red Maple, to Charlie and his crew, but the day after the filming, as on the day before, and many days before that and for many days in the future, we hope, Charlie Di Maria, Mercedes, Linda and Deidre were and will be there so early that the roosters have not yet crowed.

The sounds and smells of comfort food will be the true alarm clock for Red Maple’s customers, and later in the day, at lunch time, middle school students will add to their charge accounts, twisting on the same stools some of their parents dreamed on, too.

The Red Maple, Charlie and the gals are not unique to New Jersey, to the Northeast, to any state in the Union. But they are as special as any such crew anywhere else.


A penny for some thoughts

In a handful of pennies, my eye usually scans for the old-style “wheat” coins, those Lincoln Wheat Ears Cent pieces produced from 1909 to 1958. My father collects them, and though most are worth only 10 cents or so, it makes him happy to add one to his special books.

Most of the wheat pennies I come across are from the early 1950s, with perhaps an occasional 1930s coin. But the other day I spotted a 1919 model, well-worn and crusted with so many decades of history.

Can you imagine where that penny has been? My grandfather was just 20 when it was made, and it could have been in his pocket. Heck, it might have been in President Woodrow Wilson’s change or with a suffragette or in a farm boy’s pocket as he headed down a long country lane to the general store and penny candy to satisfy his salivary glands and pounding heart. Perhaps a returning Doughboy had it with him.

It certainly wasn't in my dad's pocket, since he wasn't born until three years later, nor in mine, a fellow who the records show came to earth in 1942.

Was this wheat penny, once so shiny, one of five given to a former successful businessman now selling apples on a city street corner during the awful Great Depression? Did it, no matter how small a coin of the realm, help him survive? Did a mother hand this penny off to her daughter for school milk money?

Did the son of the Great War Doughboy have the Lincoln Wheat Ears Cent in his military-issue pocket as he landed at Anzio?

Was the penny in a jar used to collect coins for a new dress or a Sunday shirt? Did it end up in the bank so grandfather could buy one of the first cars built after World War II, when civilian production resumed?

Was this coin in Thurgood Marshall’s pocket in 1954 as he appeared before the Supreme Court he eventually would join, in the fight for U.S. school integration? Was it again at the White House as President John F. Kennedy gave his famous inaugural speech in 1961?

Did it return to war in Vietnam, in the pocket of one of so many draftees who went off to an unpopular, undeclared, apparently unnecessary fight, only to come home to boos and spitting as protesters confused the warrior with the war?

Did the wheat cent drop in the mud of a rainy Woodstock, buried in unfocused but vital dreams and scattered promise? Did someone pick it up and use it in the inflation of the energy crises of 1973 and 1978, in the recession and reinvestment of the 1980s, in the speculation and greed of the 1990s?

Was it in some Gothamite’s pocket in September 2001? Did it go off to yet another war in the third tour of the Doughboy’s great-granddaughter?

Or has this 1919 penny, minted to honor Abe Lincoln, really been in a dusty cellar for almost 88 years, swept about, collecting dirt and dust but escaping all the many and horrible woes of the decades as well as their drama and greatness?

A penny for the thoughts.


The end of the pew

ANNAPOLIS, M.D. – The United States Naval Academy is, at 162 years, steeped in enough tradition to humble the visitor. That it exists as a school of instruction for future officers adds security to that.

No matter what your views are on war, it happens way too much, and our nation must be ready with trained military even if its leaders may not be up to the task at any particular moment. That is the mission of this academy.

Walking well-kept grounds of the USNA gives certainty that it is a tight ship run on land and that among the young men and women there are a few future stars, as has been the history at all of America’s service schools.

But it is the chapel where you sense the true tradition of it all, Navy-wise. John Paul Jones, the “Father of the American Navy,” the man who told the British, “I have not yet begun to fight,” lies in a crypt here. Looking about at Navy blue-covered pews, you can envision officers and midshipmen over the decades, united in the prayers that, sadly, some would repeat aboard ship, in war and in burial at sea.

There are the ghosts of the commodores, including Matthew Perry, and other naval heroes. There seems none of the saltiness of the regular Navy, talk like my late Great-Uncle Herbert Gunther, a retired chief petty officer, could utter so freely, gesturing with his tattooed arms.

There’s a bit more elegance here, in the training of these midshipmen, who will later have the equally necessary hands-on learning from such CPOs as Herbert. Then a few will return as rear and fleet and other admirals, highly decorated and highly polished, to rest again on the Navy blue of this beautiful chapel.

More than one will sit at the end of the pew, just as they would lie at the edge of a bunk, one eye open, as battle neared or nature’s storms surged. No midshipman can do that, for they have not yet earned the right through experience and the enduring of gut-wrenching sea sickness that can hit a naval person even in calm waters.

For some the end of the pew comes in eight bells, the signal that the final watch is over.

At the Naval Academy, instruction takes place in the classrooms, aboard a training ship, in drills, but it is the reflection in chapel, first begun there as a middie and then resumed as an old officer, with more than enough sea legging and chief petty officers in between, that puts you at the end of the pew. Well-deserved.

Downsizing doughnuts, too

Bought a doughnut the other day; not supposed to be eating doughnuts, but I wanted one badly, so I got a powdered jelly. It wasn’t a hole-in-one, and the doughnut shop played me for a ringer.

The doughnut, fresh enough, with tasty strawberry jelly, was 80 cents plus tax, a reasonable enough amount these costly days, some would say. Trouble is, when I bought the same type of doughnut a few years back from the same outlet, it cost less and was, it seemed, 30-50 percent bigger.

Now, I do mind paying 80 cents for what amounts to two quick gulps, though the cost would not bother me if the doughnut were the same size as in yore. Raise the price if you must, but don’t shrink the commodity. Soon they will be so small that the leftover doughnut “hole” material, once thrown away and now sold as bite-sized morsels, will be offered as ‘‘marble-ettes. ’’ This is logical, since if you shrink a doughnut, you also shrink the hole.

Some years back, the candy companies did the same disappearing act. Instead of raising prices – or in some cases, in addition to raising prices – they shrunk the candy bars. Bad move, since people buy candy bars not only to eat them but to anticipate eating them. That means letting your mouth water as you walk to the candy machine, waiting with childhood-like impatience as the coins drop, and then taking what should be a meaty-sized chocolate or other candy back to your desk to eat.

Eating, like other pleasures in life, is never just the act of doing it; it’s half, maybe more, in the pleasure of leading up to it, of anticipation, the foreplay. Cut the anticipation and you reduce the pleasure. You also may sell fewer candy bars or doughnuts or whatever is the anticipated offering.

That’s why I was let down after my recent trip to the doughnut store. I expected more, not less. Sure, I could have bought two doughnuts, at an astronomical price of $1.60, and gotten something closer to what I used to buy. But that would have doubled my guilt as I sat somewhere eating two powdered jellies instead of one.

Or, I could have gone to my local bakery, where the doughnuts are the same size they always have been, and, for my money, better tasting. But such bakeries are increasingly difficult to find today, put out of business by fast-food places where the offering is not half as good. Ah, the American drive-through culture.

This is the era of downsizing, so I guess we should not be surprised that even our doughnuts are shrinking. We now get less coffee in what used to a one-pound can, with the advertising gimmick that “super concentration” of the coffee beans means you can use less of the grind to make the java. Yeah, if you also use less water.

Or, what about dish detergent? You now can buy bottles of ‘‘concentrate ’’ that supposedly allow you to use less. OK, but once you put that bottle of detergent on the sink top, you and all to follow will forget to just drop a bit and instead will squeeze out the amount we are used to squeezing. Consequently, our wallets get squeezed.

And be sure the gurus at product development headquarters know this. They are psychologists extraordinaire. They understand that we creatures have habits and that a sucker is born every minute.

Such depressing thought. Now I really do need a doughnut. And forget the anticipation this time.





The well-worn stairs

There is little substance in this life save the durable. We all come and go in the sea of humanity, and our short presence on the stage is marked according to luck, destiny and sometimes free will.

But even then our footsteps are but marks in sand, and the tide is ever changing. What lasts longer is the accumulating total of footsteps. On a beach, in high summer season, the water cannot easily push aside the mark of the masses. In a house, on well-worn stairs that have served 77 years, there is even more of a record.

Working recently as a volunteer carpenter in an Upper Nyack, N.Y., home, I had to make many trips up and down the oak–treaded, split staircase with a landing as I went to the basement and then to the second floor, carrying tools and materials.

In that journey of some haste, for there is always something else to do in a day, the moment was not so quick as to hide from observation, even out of the corner of an eye, the concave-carved middles of all the steps.

The house was built about 1929, and from the looks of the stair treads, there has never been a covering on them. The several generations of the family that owned the home until a few years back wore the steps down.

You can imagine, as in any family, the first steps of the workmen who handcrafted this house, then the people who carried in the original furniture and other belongings.

And the initial, backward-moving steps of children learning to use stairs on all fours.

Then the scramble up and down as they grew. The father getting up early, quite early, every day to run down to the basement and stoke the coal furnace for heat. And the mother who took her daily washings to a soap stone sink in the basement.

The friends over for visits and the trips to the only bathroom – upstairs.

The kids off to school, jumping two steps at a time and swinging from the newel post to land feet first at the front door for the final leap outside to the porch.

And the young daughter, descending in her bridal gown, the soldier off to war, the house then emptier and quiet, with few footsteps heard except those in memory.

With time moving on and a relative’s passing, the quiet descending of the stairs of a loved one’s remains.

Finally, in the long history of one family who lived so long in their loved home, the gathered belongings of decades, brought down the stairs to another home, maybe one without stairs.

Now, at this home in Upper Nyack, new sounds of a married couple, friends, some relatives and a fixit-volunteer are heard on the well-worn stairs.

Enduring sounds. Meant for both daily living and scrapbook collecting.

We all come and go in life, even in this wonderful home, but the passing of time and events leaves an accumulated mark, here in polished oak.


Summer, in one place

FALMOUTH, Mass. – Anyone’s summer vacation, the subject of so many required middle school essays, is relative, and perhaps that is why English teachers long used the bromide topic for compositions. What student could not find something to write about based on his favorite season (no school)?

Well, what I did on my summer vacation one recent year, this time in Falmouth Heights, a lovely Atlantic Ocean beachfront area and a particular section of the Town of Falmouth, was observe – people, mostly.

This is a super-quiet beach section, with no music allowed from radios, boom boxes, TVs and boosted-bass car sound systems. While kids romp as children do on a beach, the no-music rule seems to calm them down, and their decibel level is tolerable. (Maybe it’s like not giving kids a sugar snack.)

Thirty years ago, you might call Falmouth Heights a bit timeworn, like parts of the New Jersey shore but not honky tonk as a boardwalk town can become. Now, given the 400-1,000 percent increase in water area real estate values in just a few years, big money has restored Victorian facades and new, even gifted, architecture has risen. You can call parts of the Heights classy but with unmistakable New England charm still in place, a mix of down-to-earth good manners and observant, well-placed comment and criticism.

The hope is that money will not drive these good people out, replaced by Hamptons-like yahoos.

The regulars here, who include all-year residents as well as those returning vacationers who have earned their dues and place over decades of summer renewal, tolerate the odd visitor who may be loud and boorish, but the civility is so infectious that better habits are quickly learned. There is virtually no horn blowing, even if you do that all the time in, say, a city.

Walking the beach each morning in search of the magical light that can paint a photograph, I would see people and their dogs, filling their lungs with peace and air fresher than that in the Northeast inversion we began to run into at New Haven on the way back home to New York State.

Just past the Seaside Inn, where we stayed so calmly amid gardens rivaling a botanical offering, was a marble bench near the beach, with the inscription, “Vera & Bill.” Neither was in sight, and this may be a memorial, but it is not difficult to imagine a couple recharging there, recalling more of the positives than the negatives in a long relationship.

On a rock jetty, a man was in a chair with his fishing pole, seemingly one with the calm ocean at low tide. It was as if it did not matter whether he caught a fish or not.

Other sights and sounds included kids with hot dogs and ice cream, bought from a very old stand on the Heights road, and the inevitable footprints in the sand, with some pressed in more firmly and others set apart with long strides.

Our stay was short – just four days, coming at the end of a weekend and before another, so it did not feel like a traditional vacation. It was as if we just popped in for a lingering moment. Less formality, too.

How refreshing that was, given the spell that Cape Cod, even in its heavy population growth, even in its costly real estate, can weave.

The magic is found in the sand itself, in the mini roses that adorn long-unpainted fences, in the many ghosts of Mrs. Muir found along the ocean, in the very nature of a resident Cape Codder, unique to this unique land.


The quick repair

It was one of those John Romaine days as I call them, a call for repair that ended up not as such, except to the slightly wounded psych, a reminder that we are all so very human.

Of course, the moment, in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth geographically but in the present time-wise, was not earth shattering. This was not anything serious – no one suffering, no illnesses, no war, no gang fights, no dire circumstances. So, it hardly seems worth mentioning except that maybe we have all too much news of the other sorts, and a little slice of earthly foibles might be the right voyeur ticket to get away from relentless doom.

Many years ago now, in my own young years, there was a man called John, last name Romaine, a self-taught, rather bright, utterly engaging and friendly fellow who co-owned Ro-Field Appliances on Main Street in Spring Valley, in the 1940s and ’50s a summer resort village 20 miles from New York City.

John ran the radio, then TV repair shop as the fix-it man while his partner did sales. Some of their customers included folks, the gentry too, who would phone Ro-Field and report that, say, their Philco radio console had died, that “a big tube must have burned out” and would John Romaine come with his case of radio tubes, with such exotic labels as 5Y3GT, and get the console working again in time for “The Jack Benny Show”?

John would load up his green Ford station wagon and head for the customer’s house, arrive there and quickly look where he thought was the most obvious place to start: the wall outlet. More often than not, the radio console plug (or TV set’s) would have been pulled from its mooring, probably in vacuuming.

For some reason, the customer never checked, and though John could have told the customer via phone to do so, he liked his clients and enjoyed the calls, so he just came when called.

The customer would get some banter, gossip would be exchanged and the bonds that exist in small communities strengthened. John never charged for the pulled plug “repair.”

I had occasion one recent week to do a John Romaine, in the Valley that we both enjoyed, when a local church, its building in place since the middle of the 19th century, needed a “keyed receptable” repair. In other words, the pull-chain, bare light bulb fixture in the janitor’s closet was reported as not working.

I gathered up my at-ready tools in my Blauvelt home, just as John did his in the Valley and in Hillcrest, where he later lived, and went off to the church, fittingly on Church Street, just up from what was Ro-Field Appliances.

Found the closet and light, and as soon as I pulled the chain, I knew that this might be a John Romaine repair, for it pulled easily, usually a sign that nothing was amiss. Had it stuck, that would have been a different story.

I took the bulb out, put a new one in, and it worked. Since no one was in the church at the time, I could not have the banter, the gossip, the human connection that John had on his pulled plug calls, but I did get to reconnect in memory to a fellow I admired, a style of repair not often seen today and to join in fraternity.


The George I knew

I didn’t know George D’Loughy well yet I knew him very well, so much so that just a few sessions of friendship in 60 or so years kept us in contact with the essence of each other.

My friend George, who passed away recently, was someone you would call a kinsman after you had just met him. We first talked to each other in the dawn of our youth at a park in Spring Valley, N.Y., George the smiling, friendly kid who helped my brother Craig and me swing a self-propelled merry-go-round.

From time to time, we would run into George at Memorial Park, always greeted with a smile, George’s outgoing nature and the great, carefree fun of the moment. That would happen in life too, in the occasional meetings.

We did not always go to the same schools. Craig and I left the Valley for Sloatsburg, Nanuet and Airmont before coming back, but eventually we met up with George, and we all graduated from the same high school. We might also run into him when we were on Main Street in the Valley since his father worked at Bauer’s Market.

Each time, it was essential George all over again, accepting others without judgment, offering a big smile, his winning affability constantly there. We were not always in the same circles – sports, friends, classrooms – yet George was one of our best friends. He was best friend to many.

George won our trust so many years ago on the merry-go-round. Kids can be acutely tuned into other youngsters’ ways, as if they have special antenna, and George D’Loughy was giving out the most trusting and enduring of human signals: decency. Craig and I sure felt comfortable with this friend.

And so did everyone who knew George – as a bartender/confidante, a man who sang Doo-Wop, an engaging sort who called me just weeks before he died and told me that he had long enjoyed our friendship.

George was dying but he did not let on, for this man of courage, even in great pain, would not call you to his side to hold his hand. He did not want you to suffer.

Instead. George D’Loughy took his strength from innately knowing that his earthly gift was that he was a good guy, that he made friends instantly, friends for life. And so many took sustenance from that gift.

You did not have to know George well – spending every other month in contact with him over 60 or so years, for example – to know him well. Craig and I understood and appreciated George in his essence the minute we met him at the merry-go-round.

As I age myself, I feel the old playing fields of our youth once again, and I can see one of our school gym coaches lining us up, then calling our names one by one to take a jog around the oval. George is waving at us – he’s run off to that merry-go-round.

Keep it spinning, friend.

It’s beyond understanding (good)

Most men I know are, like me, married – long married, which may defy the national norm today. Whether this is by design or accident or luck or the mindset of our generations (mixed age groups here), I cannot begin to fathom. I don’t understand marriage or women at all.

It isn’t just the Mars/Venus thing. Most of my friends in life have been female, and there have been moments with some of them, not romantic or sexual by direct act, but which have put us on the same stream current, feeding each other questions and giving and taking answers as if we were one being yet quite apart, still as necessary to each another as the writing hand. It’s been a blessing.

Yet of the gifts the deity bestows on each of us, I come up empty in the overall desirability department. Looks? Shyness? Je ne sais quoi? The mix isn’t there; never has been; and in the sunset I don’t expect the right nose job or overall body and personality lift to turn the tide. And that’s cool. You are what you are and can become. Live with it, live around it.

Still, the real tide – the ebb and flow of each day and together the days that become weeks and months and years – has been regular, as predictive as the charts for any tidal river. Someone has looked over me. Wonder who.

My wife Lillian’s recent birthday came in a year that noted a marriage of 40 seasons. The proverbial medal has been struck, of course, but displayed high enough above the mantle that she can’t – on one of the lesser days – beam me on the noggin.

How the woman came to travel so long and so far and give so much of her life to an oddity can only be explained in a language I do not know. But I do know the word “grateful”; I do know the words “good mother,” “fine wife,” “thick-and-thin companion.”

Lillian would be the last to admit she was often the first in her children’s once young world of growing up or now in their adult-apart existence. Her common sense, steadfastness, reliability and intelligence are her gifts, as they were to her many students in her teaching years.

She has set the tide charts for my life, and I am grateful. Don’t understand that – don’t properly decode women or marriage – but I am happy about the results.

Happy Birthday, Lillian.


A notion about notions

One of the least used words in the English language today is “notions.” Some of us lucky enough to be in our 60s recall it, not so much because we used the element of speech but because our grandmothers or even mothers did.

Like most of old America, the Rockland County, N.Y., landscape in which I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s included villages with five and tens, sometimes two on the same street, as in Nyack and Spring Valley. Each one of these blessed events had a “notions counter,” where items used in sewing, such as buttons, pins, and hooks, were sold.

Usually, the notions counter wasn’t really a counter, though some larger five and tens, the ones big enough to also make and sell wonderful donuts, did have a section where there was a sales lady replete with all manner of sewing knowledge. She had more than a notion about the equipment, materials and craft.

More than likely, though, notions were contained, laid out neatly in rows, on a large sheet of wood, maybe six feet by six feet, with a glass fence around it about five inches high. There were rows and rows of carded buttons, spools of thread, pins, hooks, etc.

The notions counter wasn’t a respectable place for a young boy, of course, but if your grandmother or mom had you in tow, you followed the leader.

I recall being amazed by the large notions display and wondered how the store could ever make enough money to carry all that thread and whatnot. The answer, of course, was that all across America, there were grandmothers and mothers drawn to notions counters as if they were life magnets. And they were.

There was a certain reassurance in going to a five and ten in the first place, for they always seemed full of ordinary life – your neighbors, friends, fellow students, trades people. You were put at ease in knowing that many people needed something from the notions counter or the hardware area, or that a child like you was being rewarded with weighed and packed loose candy like nonpareils. It has always been the usual, the shared commonplace moves, that glue humanity together.

The prices were low at the five and ten, not always five cents and ten cents, but for a quarter you get something useful in a young boy’s life, like a bottle of turpentine for a sixth grader making wood projects at home. Carrying that glass bottle home, with its distinctive pine scent, was like holding a graduation present – you were moving ahead in life.

The word “notions” is no longer much used. Maybe you can find it on a sign at a big box retailer, in a long aisle, but there won’t be any six by six foot display shelf with glass wall. Maybe not even grandma carefully choosing a spool of blue thread that would then sit in a sewing box for decades.

Five and tens are long gone, just like Frank W. Woolworth. And the word “notions,” well, most of us have no notion what that is.

Tricks of the trade

My mother, a working woman who prized an awfully clean kitchen, had precious little time for that but made sure her mission was accomplished. She used determination and experience-acquired technique, shortcuts that today seem so simple.

For example, to get the last bit of small waste out of a large sink, she moved the faucet spout quickly to the left and right, using her fingers to direct the water in an efficient, spray-like way. Presto, and the sink was as clean as if one had used an aerater attached to one of those $987 faucets people routinely buy today.

Or, she would leave a bit of Clorox stopped up in the sink overnight to bleach the white thing, old as it was. Old but never dirty, never messy.

My mother accepted no excuses in her quest for cleanliness, not in the kitchen, the single bath, the house in general or the bedrooms occupied by two young men. While she cut Craig and I some slack, knowing that we were average and ordinary in the housekeeping department, we had to toe the line enough to do a decent job of upkeep.

In those days of other and varied concern, though, we never understood why.

Back in the kitchen and in the bath, too, my mom would use her Babo sparingly – a container seemed to last many months – to make the chrome shine. Newspapers and vinegar kept the kitchen window streak-free. The oven never saw grease build up because another sort of “grease” – from the elbow – attacked the cooking place each and every time she used it. Same for the stovetop and the splash behind it.

The floor would get a washing just about every day, on hands and knees, with more Clorox. If my mom ever had sinus trouble, I don’t recall that since she seemed to keep the passages clear via the floor work.

Saturdays, when my mother launched her most thorough house attack, chairs were taken from the kitchen, refrigerator moved, cabinets rearranged, bread drawer emptied.

I cannot recall any motorized gadgets used in the kitchen cleaning process. Just well-worn brooms, mops, scrub brushes pushed on hands and knees, recycled dish towels for sink and faucet polishing and a radiator brush to get behind the oven. All kept neatly, too, in a hall closet. Its smell still tugs my memory.

Mom, who worked because the family wasn’t rich, never used her job as an excuse not to keep the house neat, though that would have been reasonable. Yes, she received help from her attentive husband, who cleaned bathrooms, and even some from her sons, but she was queen and king of the kitchen, and it had to shine like a palace.

In the slow and relentless tragedy that is Alzheimer’s, one of the very first signs was a kitchen my mother never would have accepted. Neat enough for the ordinary but not for Patricia Gunther’s standards. The change almost made the illness easier for us to accept.



‘Higher thinking,’ perhaps

We should have realized that Hazel Margulies, a longtime elementary school teacher in Spring Valley, N.Y., was right in the 1950s when she gave us an education on state law regarding classrooms. She never got the lessons wrong.

Most of the 28 kids in the class were willing to listen to her explanation, principally because it had nothing to do with the arithmetic this task master and excellent teacher usually drilled into us.

It was a hot day, one of those knocks on the door in June that summer can bring, and the double-hung windows, so tall that Miss Margulies needed a special pole to open the top half, were letting in what air was still moving.

We had no fans, no air conditioning at the North Main Street School in 1955, but we didn’t have AC at home, either, and maybe just one table fan. Sweating was a part of life, not helped by a unstated but enforceable dress code that allowed no shorts or tank tops, just pants for boys and skirts for girls.

(Though the girls had more clothing on, they always seemed to sweat less, just as they did not freeze at the bus stop in February though their bare legs were exposed above crew socks. It’s a puzzle I have never been able to solve.)

On this particularly hot day, when outside temperatures were in the lower 90s, our second-floor classroom on the north side was not yet sweltering. In between the glazed stares from Mark Broat over fractions and Gene Jackson’s attempts to shoot wads of paper at Sondra Berg, George Kapral asked Miss Margulies why the classroom ceiling was so high. Somehow the rest of us had not noticed that it was about 12 feet, though we all stared at it often enough.

The teacher, who was thoroughly versed in all sections of state education law, such as “No hair combing in class since that may be unhealthy to others,” enthusiastically told us the statues required so many cubic feet of air space for each student. It didn’t matter how skinny or fat or tall or short or how full of hot air the particular kid was, each student got his allocated box of air.

The formula was “mathematically determined,” and Miss Margulies offered a rare smile in saying that. Thus the high ceilings. And the double-hung windows for air movement.

On hot days, heat would rise and keep the classroom cooler. On cold days, the heavy, puffing steam radiators were more than enough to warm even big rooms.
Finally, a transom window was above the classroom door to complete the air circulation pattern without much noise coming from the room (though no noise ever came from Hazel Margulies Land).

In the great post-war push to build more schools for baby boomers, coupled with higher construction costs, new designs and quick building, people rewrote the laws on air space per child and ceiling height, and eight- or nine-foot ceilings became the norm. Double-hung windows left town, too, as did transoms.

Has all this made a difference in student learning and behavior?

A recent study by the University of Minnesota, as reported on the Internet, says perhaps. It makes a case for classroom ceiling height and how the brain works. The study suggests, according to researcher Joan Meyers-Levy, that “When people are in a room with a high ceiling, they activate the idea of freedom. In a low-ceilinged room, they activate more constrained, confined concepts.”

Meyers-Levy and co-researcher Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the University of British Columbia joined in forming the hypothesis. “Managers should want noticeably higher ceilings for thinking of bold initiatives. The technicians and accountants might want low ceilings,” says Meyers-Levy.

Well, maybe all that is true. The “feng shui” people tell us that architecture and mood affect brain activity and learning, as do colors and building materials.

So, I would agree, though I suspect that whatever the classroom ceiling height, Gene Jackson would still be shooting paper wads at Sondra Berg and Mark Broat would have glazed eyes over fractions.

And good, old Hazel Margulies would be citing another portion of the state ed law.


Paved over by ‘progress’

Spring Valley, N.Y. -- Over on Alturas Road, between Cole and Summit avenues, on the hill once called Red Brick, many deep inches of asphalt are the burial cover of a long-gone era.

An era that saw much less traffic on the Old Nyack Turnpike, on the Alturas Road section in this once summer resort village in the country north of New York City. The Turnpike is now part of Route 59, a state highway that runs from the old Nyack port on the Hudson River to Suffern and the foot of the Ramapo Mountains.

Once it was the main route for overland goods and people on their way upstate, until the Erie Railroad came through in the late 1840s. The Midwest and the West fueled their building via the Erie and its railroad and canal, helping forge an ever-expanding American frontier with people and goods that put in foundations and roots everywhere.

For a long time, in the later 1800s and the 1900s until about 1968, Route 59 was a busy but local road, which it still is in 2007. But now it is a ribbon of the suburbs, flashing with neon and locked in step with one shopping strip after another. Though the state, in a bit of welcome wisdom, provided a median of beautiful trees in its widening of Route 59 in nearby Nanuet, most of Route 59 today is what you would expect of a highway anywhere.

Check into a motel off this road, and you could wake up in many parts of the United States, so similar the look and the growth.

But once, until the later 1960s, Route 59 had its quiet passages, especially the Red Brick Hill between Cole and Summit. It was classic Rockland County, once the nation’s brick-making capital, with its many Hudson yards providing the building block for 90 percent of New York City’s tenements.

Some of that brick, a longer-fired variety, found its way to the steep hill at Alturas and was hand laid against wide cement gutters on either side, a very efficient drainage system that worked for decades.

Decades, too, the red brick sat in its clay sister earth, offering the sleepy toddler on his way to Gramps' house a reassuring bump-bump sound off the tires, a welcome to a bed soon warm.

The hill, too, covered with packed snow and light in traffic, was a popular sledding route when adjacent Dunlop’s Hill was crowded with youth who could take delight in activity that cost nothing and which brought laughter and memories.

In the march of progress and the ever-thickening book of rules for standardized highway surfacing, the red brick hill would be paved over by Albany. And then paved again. And again.

It took numerous revisits by officialdom to completely cover the red bricks, and they are hardly recalled today.

Most “natives” of the Alturas Road area of Spring Valley are but 10 years there, certainly the elders of the ever-newer people, but without a whit of a clue that the hill they now speed along was once made of red brick.

Once, you had to slow down for the ascent and the descent, maybe not enough to smell the flowers – the black-eyed Susans – on Dunlop’s Hill, but with sufficiently slowed pace to feel the history of a road once trod by horses and wagons.



Babo, Ipana, Rinso, Oxydol …


The freeze-frame images of anyone’s past
probably include a slide show of consumer products popular at the time. I can, for example, see the Rinso detergent box on the sink counter, ready for my mother’s by-hand laundering.

She used that brand as well as Red or Blue Super Suds, but then she gave up “Rinso White, Rinso Bright” for Oxydol, which was detergent with bleach.
(Odd that today’s TV hawkers push cleaning goods with the letters “oxy” in them, as if rediscovering that a bit of ordinary bleach can clean as well today as it did 100 years ago.)

But household product marketing is all about the new and better thing, even if it simply has a new name or container but the very same ingredients. And most of us, suckers that we are for the snake-oil salesman, will even pay more for the privilege of buying the same old, same old but in a new look.

In our various homes of the 1940s and 1950s in Rockland County, N.Y., my family also used Ipana toothpaste, which promised spectacular brightening, though that didn’t mean much to a kid who was going to lose his baby teeth anyway and who had to be reminded every night, like millions of others, to brush his choppers.

That toothpaste was the subject of a great radio commercial (“Brusha, Brusha …”) and replaced the brand Craig Martin in our household. My brother Craig William was named after the dentifrice when my mother and father could not come up with a moniker and one of them walked into the bathroom.

On the sink near Rinso or Oxydol was Babo (“The Foaming Cleanser…”) which my mother swore by – again – for its bleaching properties. No matter how old and worn the sinks were in our various homes, she got them awfully spotless, including the chrome. For years I thought it was the Babo, until I realized it was my mother’s hard work.

In the early 1950s, after we bought our first TV, the radio jingles became past history, as did most of the products we had been using. The great optimism of that decade brought new household goods, colorfully packaged in a modern look mean to mimic flight and the next frontier – space. TV would carry commercials that underscored an exciting and trusting leap into the future.

It is a comfortable feeling, of course, this recall of detergent boxes, etc., in my mom’s kitchen. And in looking at the history of these products via the wonderful Internet of our present time, learning such tidbits as the key ingredient in Rinso (“Solium, from sunlight”) takes you back on a nice road trip.

Sure, those Rinso commercials on radio’s “Big Town” were 90 percent baloney, but hearing them again or reading their copy gives a warm connection anyway. One of the greatest things about the America I grew up in was its optimism despite a terrible world war and the lifelong effects of a crippling depression.

If a product was hawked with a radio or TV jingle like “They’ll know you’ve arrived when you drive up in the 1958 Edsel,” you didn’t have to believe it. The marketplace would later decide the worth and desirabilty of the goods being sold (the Edsel, of course, bombed). But in the hawking, there was hope that something better was coming your way, even if it was “new and improved.”


The Isabella Moment

Any grandparent wants to coo about the children of their children, for familial pride is akin to you personally being responsible for continuing the human race. You tend to see the very best in the grandson or daughter and rarely the warts. You are not critical of them as you were with your own children, nor as judgmental as you can be with your kin’s spouses.

Yet we don’t all carry the grandchildren’s photos in our wallets and show them to everyone who feels obligated to add to the cooing. Some of us grandparents even have a hard time making a real fuss over our grandchild infant or one- or two-year-old, perhaps preferring, by innate nature, to watch the young one grow out of the corner of our eye, to be amazed that halting steps can be taken after race track crawling; that food can be eaten in funny, adaptive ways, the spoon turned about like a musical baton; that a scrunching of your own face is returned; that what they call you can actually be uttered by such tiny voices, learned by tiny, constantly developing brains.

All this and so much more happens in nature’s course, God willing, seemingly in the blink of an eyelid, between visits.

Children are both egalitarian and selective, hopping from one person, even one grandparent, to another, fickle in their short attention span. You are never their king or queen for long, it seems, nor should you be. The child must relate to so many people and will become the sum total of his or her own personality, upbringing and interaction with relatives, friends, teachers and others.

But sure as you know this child is alive and growing, sure as you know that so much learning is taking place as the brain grows its synapses and bridges of understanding and roads to the future flash electrically across, with memory and experience stored; sure as his or her very being is unique to the world and there will be so many others within, you sense there is a door to this young one, that you, on a personal visit, can visit within for the first time and forever. A door for you alone.

I found such a door recently when my first grandchild Isabella Frances was in town from her Maryland home. With time split between us and her other grandparents, Isabella made the required rounds. She had her toys and so her castle, in each house; each person who lifted her had things to say, questions to ask, words to coax out of Isabella.

And she obliged everyone, for an instant, happily chattering away in her own native language, one which so many adults once had a version of, too, but the words of which – those unique pronunciations, those meanings – are now forgotten in long disuse.

The “Isabella moment” came for me when she and I were on a front porch, Isabella in a large rocking chair, enjoying the rhythm not so much in the comfort way a child finds rocking but as contentment.

We did not have long, she and I, for it was return time to Maryland and her father’s arms awaited. Besides, she would not have remained in the rocking chair, her arms and legs and voice and eyes already looking for the next thing to do.

Just before I scooped her up and handed her off to her dad – my son Andrew Edward – Isabella looked at me. Our eyes were wide-open doors, and we both went through. I said in the only greeting and affirmation possible: “I love you Isabella Frances,” and I know she understood.

She will not recall this moment, this nearly two-year-old. But it is in her subconscious memory, which has a link, I believe, to her soul.

It was our own understanding, and though she will have so many others with kin and friends, in that moment, on that porch, this child and I were bonded beyond blood. The little girl, yesterday an infant, a grandchild with bragging rights, as all such young offer, was irrevocably tied to my being, and I to hers.

No wallet photo could duplicate that.


Overdue on good planning

Almost anywhere in these United States you will find terrible overgrowth – too many homes and too much strip shopping and the consequences of both, including heavy traffic, long commutes and stressing of the water supply and other natural resources. People endure a hell-bent life that seems to turn too many into automatons racing to pay the mortgage.

It all began, of course, with the Pilgrims and other early settlers, because the vastness and virginity of America encouraged not only the Mayflower but subsequent migrations chasing an ever-expanding frontier.

We still think we will never run out of land, and while some of the great reserves of the West and other regions remain, even there you find such a concentration of people and their trappings that you know there has not been good land-use planning.

The American frontier was effectively expanded by President Eisenhower when he authorized the interstate highway system in the 1950s, which continues to be built and rebuilt. That has opened up so many areas to growth.

Now, it is not growth that is improper. People have a right to relocate, to seek the “American Dream,” but the cost of doing so has to be balanced against the need for orderly development, renewed resources, energy conservation, good architecture, reasonably sized homes and not McMansions, etc.

We have endured the sometimes ignorant avoidance of our history – our roots, our diverse peoples, our place in the building of this America and our capacity for goodness. That history could have been built upon with reasonable growth tied to fully revitalized downtowns and more protected space.

Now we must learn from our mistakes and plan wisely for the land that is left, so that in 100 years’ time our children’s children’s children will be grateful.



Of necessity

Years ago, decades actually, this once young man watched as an older fellow carefully straightened bent nails taken from discarded wood. “Why,” I asked?
The man said he would reuse them, but I wondered why he bothered, since an ample-size box of 10-penny nails (three-inch pieces) then cost about 89 cents and could meet home use for a very long time.

I missed the point, literally. It was “Waste Not, Want Not,” and it was the attitude that counted. And what came with the exercise.

Now, older myself but not always wiser, for I still don’t straighten bent nails though the cost for a box of 10ds is now about $4, I did find myself in the attitude lesson recently. Of necessity.

I was into a home improvement project, the sort that seems to come in retirement like bills long overdue, when I needed a caulking gun. Did not want to run to Beckerle Lumber yet another time (my average home repair/renovation seems to be two trips a day, at least), so I grabbed the caulking gun I had in the garage.

It was caked with white and gray and clear caulk though only about a year old, and the advancing mechanism was frozen. I had once again failed to clean the gun, something my grandfather or the fellow who straightened bent nails way back would not have done.

After the last use, I figured I would just buy another gun, for about $4. But here it was eight hours into a project, and I was too bone-tired to go to the store. So, I played old-fashioned. Sitting down, half for rest, half for concentration, I carefully and slowly peeled the old caulk off the gun and then cleaned the metal with a solvent and oiled the advancing mechanism.

Not only did the gun work, but it performed better than when I bought it. There was real satisfaction, too, in not only saving a few dollars and avoiding another stress-filled trip on ever-busier roads, but in silently meeting the approval of the oldsters who “wasted not, wanted not.”

I may never buy another caulking gun. I like this one too much now.

The slower time clock

CAMDEN, Maine – The afternoon was already mellow, we two travelers having forsaken the interstate highways with their incessant treadmill traffic, look-a-like roads that were meant to zoom you somewhere in life’s ever-quicker pace but which now are more often than not linear parking lots. We left all that on I-9, and took the original Atlantic Coast runs our great-grandparents did, Routes 1 and I-A. That brought us through many lights and 35 mph speed zones and added time to a New England trip, but the quaintness, the essential spirit of American small towns, was our reward. It quieted us down.

And when we motored, not zoomed, up to the Whitehall Inn off High Street, which began life more than 100 years ago, we were reluctant to give up the mood. In fact, it was enhanced.

It is a grand, old home, which has hosted a king, a U.S. president, movie stars and other notables and is also where famed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was “discovered.”
Even if you took the interstates and were more frazzled than we, parking in front of the elegant Whitehall, walking up the steps to its wonderful, old porch and then, in the old manner of proper foyer architecture, stepping into the quiet greeting area would calm you down.
There was 1930s music playing softly from the ceiling speakers, though you thought it was coming from the old Clarion radio console near the piano that Millay played for summer guests when her sister worked at the inn in the 1920s.
The old wooded, quaint stairways, upstairs rooms without TV and clawfoot tubs in the bathroom instructed the inner clock to slow down. Soon, you were in the rooms downstairs reading a newspaper, or sitting on the front porch, and the clock’s hands did not seem to spin as quickly.
You felt the spirit of the poet, whose first public readings of an undiscovered writer took place here before World War I, arranged for the then summer-long, well-connected guests by her sister. Millay, the Pulizer Prize winner whose life was sometimes tortured by death and alcohol, was the gifted voice of female affirmation, with themes such as change that cannot be avoided, love that is bittersweet, sadness and the forces and rebirth of nature’s cycles.
As a fellow writer who can stand hidden in the corner of Millay’s room, I gave a bow to the fellow pensmith who gave her life’s blood, drip by drip, in her brilliance, for all to share.

A short walk from the Whitehall to the downtown historic district brings you to Main Street, USA, this one called the “Jewel of the Maine Coast.” Old buildings that once were part of the commerce center of most parts of the United States before strip malls and indoor shopping centers, those that housed haberdasheries, groceries, hardware stores, etc., are now mostly set as restaurants and curio shops for the tourist. Seasonal hawkers are necessary to revive and keep going what was once essential Americana.

The harbor is delightful, especially with the northern light that Maine enjoys.

It was on to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park from the Whitehall Inn and Camden, and having left one chain hotel and soon to arrive at another, it was refreshing, reassuring and pulse lowering to step into another, slower time in between.


No stamp of approval

When you wrote your first letter, no matter how old you were, or sent away a quarter with three box tops to a cereal company to get a baking soda-powered plastic toy submarine that you could throw in the bath water, you took what became a familiar journey: the walk to the street corner mailbox.

My first trip to what seemed a place of magic was in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth, in the 1940s. The mailboxes in those days were small and olive colored, decorative cast-iron affairs attached to sculpted concrete stanchions or to lampposts. They offered a bit of elegance to government.

My grandfather took me to the mailbox at the corner of Ternure and Summit avenues and had to lift me up so that I could open the mailbox lid, which swung on heavy bolts, and then drop the letter in. He told me to reopen it to make sure the letter had fallen in and for good luck, too. The lid came down with a clank, a solid sound, twice.

As we walked back home, I could not help wondering how my mail would arrive where I sent it, in this case, Battle Creek, Mich. Was there a huge underground pipe with air in it that sucked the mail all the way to the post office?

When the battleship arrived five or six weeks later at Box 74 in the Spring Valley Post Office, where my father got his home mail, I was amazed and assured that government worked.

This mailing of the letter, the curiosity about how it got where it supposed to go and the return mail with the treasured item I requested as a 10-year-old was a wonderful moment of freedom, of opportunity, of growing up, of success, and it encouraged me to use the mailbox – any mailbox – on the corner again and again.

It also instilled trust in government.

Over the decades since, those small mailboxes that introduced youngsters to the mail service’s possibilities, those cast-iron portals of mystery on street corner America where moms and sweethearts posted letters to men and women at war, those durable metal boxes which seemed as strong and dependable as our nation, have disappeared, replaced with larger and fewer mailboxes with rounded tops, a now patented design.

Fewer boxes made pickup easier and cheaper for the renamed and redefined U.S. Postal Service, but you could still walk to a corner, though maybe another street or two was added to the hike. Still a satisfying stroll.

In the later 1950s, the olive look gave way to red, white and blue, a design encouraged by a citizen’s suggestion. Around 1971, that appropriate, even patriotic, look was changed, unfortunately, to the all-blue, cheaper-to-paint design that we now see. And soon enough, we may not see that many blue street-corner boxes either.

Citing reduced letter writing, an overall decline in first-class mail, use of the Internet to write messages and pay bills and, I assume, the ever higher cost of running the Postal Service, the guys in charge will further reduce the number of street mailboxes

The Postal Service, it is reported, has already removed more than 42,000 collection boxes in the past six or seven years, with about 295,000 remaining in use. That number will continue to decline.

In my own community of Blauvelt, N.Y., in Rockland County in lower New York State, there are no street-corner mailboxes where once there were four or five. You can drop mail in the one box that exists, and not on a street corner but in front of the post office. You can also leave it with the “rural free delivery” mailman, who actually serves built-up suburbia on a motor route that once would have been converted to door-to-door walking delivery given the number of people who now live here. But ever-higher costs prevented that changeover.

I applaud the mailman who still comes no matter the sleet, the snow, the rain, the hail, on his or her appointed rounds, and it is a no-brainer that the Internet will likely change all that we now recognize as traditional mail delivery, still a tremendous, efficient service for a 39-cent stamp.

But gone, too, will be the walk with your grandfather to mail three cereal box tops for a toy submarine.

Guess Gramps can now sit next to his grandchild at the computer, but both could use the walk and the priceless opportunity to go off together on an important life journey.



In the observation room

Novelists, short story writers, even columnists are people observers, and it is the nuances of ordinary life that they see and then explain to the reader which make us say, “Aha, I know that feeling.” Or, “I’ve done that.” But writers don’t own the franchise alone.

Sales people are keen people watchers as well, sort of pre-med psychiatry students.

For example, I watched the other day as a couple bought an area rug in a local department store. The salesman, a young fellow, was ensconced in the corner at the usual elegant cast-off desk that never sold. He was surrounded by piles of colorful rugs and some hanging on the wall, with prices from $300 to thousands. The salesman seemed bored, or maybe it was that his job was idling at the moment, sort of in neutral, a survival must for work that requires stretches of time where not much happens.

He glanced up to note that the couple was moseying by and let them go into the lair without a pounce. It was only after they were in the rug chamber that the friendly fellow, quite polite and easy-mannered, appeared and offered the menu starter: “Anything I can help you with folks?”

The fellow with the lady looked like he’d like a beer, but the woman wanted a rug, and this was serious business. In age-old, time-tested body psychology, the man moved ever so quickly and surely away from the lady, whistling to himself almost, as the salesman took his place.

Now the woman and the clerk were the team, and the talk turned to rugs, colors, sizes, prices. It was a common language, this man the rug sales fellow and this woman the buyer.

It was only after the rather nice lady had decided what she wanted that she looked up, almost without really focusing, laser beamed on the man who turned out to be her husband and asked, “What do you think about this color?”

The guy knew nothing from rugs, still wanted a beer but did know his colors. So he answered, “It’s red. You wanted red, right?”

The salesman laughed, knowing a man when he saw one, being one himself.

The deal was sealed, with no help from the lady’s mate, thank you. He better never criticize the rug.

Like I said, a sales person knows how it works, this people observation business.

The traveling suitcase

A very long time ago, an already old valise – that's what my family called a suitcase – took a journey from Franklyn Square, Long Island, to Spring Valley, in what was then lower-upstate New York. In 1932, the scene was still rural and country in Rockland County.

A new family just arriving in Rockland, where three more generations so far would thrive, had arrived to live with my grandfather, Arthur Sr., who became a foreman at the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe factory in the Valley. He was lucky to have a job during the Great Depression, and his family was equally lucky to move to a place they came to love.

For decades the valise was put to use – on the few trips the Gunther family took to relatives in Pennsylvania or Brooklyn; by a young Marine (my father) just before World War II; and on the post-war trains of the later 1940s.

Eventually, it made its way to Hillcrest where I stored this and that in it as a youngster. When we moved to Pearl River, it went along, not because it was really usable any longer – it had become tattered, old-fashioned, heavy – but because no one in the family was yet ready to part with it.

Now, some 42 years after the move to Pearl River and 74 seasons since its arrival in Spring Valley, the house cleaning of retirement days has emptied its contents.

The suitcase was last used in the early 1970s, in the company Volkswagen owned by The Journal News, and I kept it in the front trunk to hold photographic equipment and other accumulated paraphernalia. When I left JN photo work to move to the city desk and then the Editorial Page, I put the suitcase in the basement of a home in Westwood, N.J., and then my present one in Blauvelt, N.Y., occasionally opening it and seeing old film boxes, assignment slips, etc.

Now, in housecleaning, I have thrown away most of the old contents, placing the valise into my car for a trip to a dumpster.

But a strange thing has happened. En route to the dumpster, I found myself on the very same road the suitcase took in December 1932, on the snow storm night when the moving van carried my grandmother Maud and her two sons Arthur Jr. and Winfield north.

The dumpster where I planned to give the suitcase a heave ho had been taken away, and the valise remained in the car. Later that day, I had to go Spring Valley, and wouldn't you know it, by chance passed the 14 Ternure Ave. home where my grandparents lived with their sons in the 1930s, the house where the valise sat for years in the attic awaiting its next trip.

There's a sign here, I guess. I will not discard the old suitcase. It is now in my attic.


Lila’s encounter (short story)

By Arthur H. Gunther III

She saw two cups in his hand as he left the coffee shop where Lila spent a few hours a day, every day, hoping she would turn from the pages in the lively novel always on her Starbuck’s bistro table and join real life with a particular someone in it. Voyeurism was getting old.

But two cups – that meant involvement, right? Isn’t attachment always measured in twos? His second cup of whatever wasn’t for a male friend, right? Not gay, yes? Was this man intriguing enough to be Lila’s homme de jour, better than the usual imaginary fellow after the second cup of doubled-brewed robusto?

Lila was careful about her coffee, specific as to how fresh it was, its strength, even how long she let it sit between sips. It was part of the exact management of her life, a clock-watching existence that unfolded best if things happened when they were supposed to.

She was at Starbuck’s every day as part of that routine, not always in hope of companionship but because this was where the coffee she liked was brewed. Give or take the men on some days – fancied and real – but the coffee, just like the facial cleansing in the morning, or the exact making of her bed or the complete washing of dishes before she left were clicks in the wheel of her waking hours. The coffee was one of the first clicks, and it had to pop.

Starbucks, the book on the table, the java, the tasks at home, the walk or short bike ride downtown, they all came on the clock, her clock, and she was in charge. But once Lila was master of so much more.

It seemed decades ago though it was just a year since Lila left an impressive job as a bond trader in Manhattan, having advanced from company apprentice. Her days then did not include the coffee shop, the novels, all the neatly unfolding smaller tasks of her daily life. Then it was tailored suits and makeup that gave the face its aggressive, take-charge look for the male world. She did very well, made quite a bit of money for the traders and herself and was poised for a vice presidency. And then, who knows?

But the downturn brought by the sub-prime mortgage debacle hit quickly, and though women executives were listed on the mission plan of Fortune 500 companies, many were pushed aside in the mad dash to keep the profits coming. In the male mindset, the barricades had to be, well, manned, and it meant the boys couldn’t play any more with appearances. This was real man’s work, or so they told themselves and the boards of directors. Some women like Lila were cast off, given mini-golden parachutes and left to climb other ladders of success, if they could find a bottom rung again.

Lila knew this was nonsense, the same warped logic she had encountered as she proved her worth in a male minefield. Wonder then why she even looked for anyone of that gender in Starbuck’s.
Yet it was time for more, and Lila wasn’t talking marriage here or commitment. Nor simple, uncomplicated sex either. Something in between, a lustful enough, romantically sufficient start on a path that would offer a gate which continued to open if she wished.

She could afford time at Starbuck’s for such thinking, since the settlement Lila took when her vice presidency disappeared and the investments made in her 401-K plus her simple lifestyle gave her enough income for a small home by the river, in an old village where downtown “renewal” brought the usual weekend tourist trappings, such as a trendy coffee shop complete with bistro tables for the inevitable waiting.

Her table at Starbuck’s was meant for Lila’s existence, of course, and anyone else for that matter – those with a book or laptop and gazing thoughts. Purposely small, designed for one, or one and a companion, such a table becomes a pod at which to ponder, a pedestal that tells the world and the passersby that you are here, that you are available for noticing.

But the table sitter can also be in isolation, cocooned against the harm of an iffy relationship, one where the limbs of the tree with seemingly deep roots prove too far a stretch, and someone is hurt in the inevitable fall. So, take the book, the secret world within or fire up the laptop and its Internet vicariousness, get a coffee and sit in your place at the bistro table. Wear a protective overcoat in a world that moves about you.

Lila was at her regular spot, coffee in right hand, still warm as Starbuck’s brew was meant for her lasting moment. That was reassuring, a teaser of permanence and comfort in a life once dominated by the quest for success. She was now in calmer waters but with so much time to think that the ripples of unfaced emotions were lapping with the intensity of a first full moon’s tide.

Her books – the ones she brought to her table daily – were more than a bistro setting, not cute, stylishly covered printings that matched her outfits. She was a serious reader, and in her discerning, quick to reject the off-rhythm of a bad writer approach, the triteness of those books written for imagined “take me” romantic encounters would not pass muster. It wasn’t that Lila sought everyday epiphanies in the books she chose. She just wanted the read to be worthwhile, not a tome set for the mass market. She was an accomplished, intelligent, significant woman whose emotions could be tapped and shared. Yet if the appetite was to be satisfied, the meal had better be worth it.

Lila’s book on this encounter day was “Slug Line,” a short novel about a newspaper crime reporter who turns in copy on a difficult to solve murder that he has actually committed but who is undone by the computer heading (“slug line” in newspaper lingo) which he puts on his story before he does the deed.

The reporter wants to score with his biggest story yet and garner the fame that has escaped him, but the night city editor solves the almost perfect crime because he is computer savvy, and after some suspicion sees that the slug on the hard drive shows the story was written but not filed a day before a wealthy woman is killed.

Lila found this plot plausible and the details about crime reporting, a newsroom and particularly the attractive characterization of the editor believable and complex enough to be compelling. She was drawn to the editor as she was to most of the stronger male figures in her books because of the fellow’s intelligence, wit and the je ne sais quoi that made him different.

The editor, Bob Larsen, was the office love enthusiast, twice divorced but whose evident magnetism often proved true north for female reporters and editors. One day he shared a full breakfast with Louise, the family page editor, and later a lingering lunch with feature writer Sally. He never paid.

Bob offered an in-charge style of newspapering, barking orders across the city room, which were followed even if there was some under-the-breath swearing, for his instincts were Pulitzer-winning right-on. He wasn’t into long conversations – he expected his declarations to end with a period and not a question mark – and he treated men and women with equal disdain and applause. Gender played no favorites in the working part of his life.

The women he saw these days in post-divorce and non-commitment were not there for expansive talk or to have the soulful chat. They had girlfriends for that or a few of the new age fellows who emoted on cue. Those women attracted to Bob wanted the earthy sex he offered plus the kindness this gruffy bear hid under the exterior. Actually, Larsen could make your average woman feel so connected to him that a few uttered, ordinary words were fascinating, certainly a prelude to the erotic.

This was not a man Lila thought she would be interested in herself, since he seemed just another tool in the male-female relationship. Yet, perhaps because of his take-charge style and his treating of women as equals in the newsroom, she found him intriguing enough to read more of Bob Larsen in “Slug Line.”

As the novel unfolded, Lila sat with him on the horseshoe-shaped rim where news editors gather to dummy pages, read copy and write headlines. She was at the part in the story where Bob leaves the Hudson Avenue Art Deco newspaper office for a dinner break before he tackles the early night editing shift. The Hi-Ho Bar was just down Broadway, and the Marsilios would have his dark beer ready at 6 p.m. and the sliced steak sandwich with freshly cut fries shortly after that.

Lila could see the Hi-Ho as she peered out of Starbuck’s, and though this was morning for her, she painted in her mood the dark of night that “Slug Line” had scripted. She also put herself next to Bob at the Hi-Ho and had a Black & Tan brought to the table, ordering a second Guinness for the night editor.

Some casual conversation passed between the two about how old the Hi-Ho bar looked, but that pedantic introduction was quickly lost when Bob looked without hesitation at Lila’s eyes and stayed there as her pupils got larger. She leaned toward Bob, uncharacteristically interested in the infancy of a chance meeting, catching his words as if they were flakes from a first snow after years in a hot climate. Lila drew even closer and never looked at her watch or the floor, never drummed her fingers on the table, simply twisted her reddish brown hair in a slight but constant turn. A feeling was moving inside her as the beer, Bob’s food, the smell of a bar, the stories from a newsman who had accumulated the usual mixture of odd tales became like the condiments on the table –there, ready for intense flavoring.
Lila reached toward Bob’s hand, stopping short of touch, glancing at his fingers. She imagined deeper involvement. Bob casually touched her shoulder as he and Lila returned to discussion about present newspaper feature stories and what each saw as not enough depth. This was a favorite subject for Bob and hearing an echo from Lila made him reach out to her in growing interest.

Lila had a delightful shiver, moved to Bob’s side and took his hand. There was a kiss then, a first intimate physical contact, public – yes – but unobtrustive enough. This slow and soft kiss caused them to linger in the quiet then follow with a second, deeper one as Lila touched Bob’s face.

He paid attention to Lila’s face, her pupils still enlarged, a deep gaze set, their breathing and kissing synchronized. A deeply personal moment of shared energy. Sex’s prospectus.

Each felt safe with the other, and the trust so quickly and easily secured led them to talk of banal things, like work, family, politics, as two young friends might of ordinary matters at age 10 after discovering mutual ease.

The talk was like a fast-moving brook, the downstream dam cleared of debris. For Lila, it was a treasured, long-overdue moment to finally speak with a man about nothing but about everything. For Bob, this was not the lunch or dinner quickie, the sexual release which women gave him as currency for a bit of intense, no-strings-attached attention. After his two divorces and so many short affairs, this was sanguine.

Lila turned the page on “Slug Line,” then closed the book for her coffee shop morning. This would be a full day of gathering resumes in a return to the male-dominated job world, where, she hoped – no insisted – her skills and abilities would be noticed for the long run. She had a good post-work income, yes, but still needed the career. In her hiatus, in her coffee mornings, she had already gathered her strengths and regained the courage to push on, move on. And that now included the future men in her life, with a reshaped, reinforced attitude. There was now the promise of merging in all ways, becoming one with someone, even ascending to the sort of full lovemaking that followed when Bob and Lila went to her home on Tallman Place.

There was cuddling then, in tenderness, and excited movement, too, in complete passion. They had closed their eyes, listened to each other’s breath, then stared deeply with no inhibition. All this sexual charge had followed real conversation, true appreciation of one other, smiling, good feeling, no hesitation, eye contact that reached deeper than that, and a noticing of the other’s needs.

There was much hope, Lila thought as she slipped out of Starbuck’s and walked home, past Marsilio’s Hi-Ho.

I hope you saved some turkey for me















Hardware workings

Why is it that many towns, sometimes even small ones, still have hardware stores – the old-fashioned variety that carries everything, from a brass screw maybe made in 1940 to a modern digital clock?

Our main streets, the nation’s downtowns, have largely disappeared, decades-long victims of shopping malls and suburban strips and large chains that have the money to invest in bigger but not necessarily better.

So many main street stores are gone – the shoe repair fellow, the dress shop, the men’s store, the pharmacy and, good grief, the bakery. We’ve traded hands-on service for self-service shopping, usually without a guide. We will wander with aim but not direction up and down chain pharmacy or super-supermarket aisles looking for a box of aspirin that Joe the druggist would have quickly handed over, usually with some cheerful banter. Even if he were irascible, it would be an experience to remember.

Yet while so much of American commerce is now at the mall (which is probably owned by foreign investors, not your neighbors), somehow at least quite a few hardware stores have survived.

They have aisles like the chain stores but the place is never so big that you wander with your aim not met. Besides, the proprietor is always there to help you. And the store seems to have everything.

For example, I recently did plumbing work on my younger son Andrew’s home in Maryland. Of course, in the middle of that project parts were needed, since it is the Given Law of Plumbing that it shall be so. Obtaining the parts actually amounted to three trips.

But Hometown Hardware had everything I needed, and the store was just a mile and a half away, not the 12 miles’ distance that a national home improvement center is.
And there I would be wandering up and down the aisles. Perhaps I would find packages of toilet repair bolts without some necessary pieces or stocked in the wrong place or out of stock, so prone to petty theft, so replete with many customers handling goods, so remote these huge stores can be.

The village of my youth had four hardware stores along a short Main Street – K&A, Scharf’s, DeBaun’s and Call Me Dave. They all did business. They all seemed to have everything, including human help.

Those stores are gone now, for Spring Valley, N.Y.’s Main Street has really disappeared, but there are still the hardware stores of old like Hadeler’s in nearby Pearl River. I can park right in front, hop in and ask for help, get the right part quickly and leave having had contact with live people, not the chain-store speaker bellowing, “Assistance needed at the front registers.”

Old hardware stores still have that human touch.



The corner pirouette

The half pirouette that the young woman made as she stood on a street corner mimicked a movement many of us have performed, waiting for a school bus, another ride, a friend. It is akin to looking at our watch, staring at our shoes, whistling in the wind.

It is life itself, one of those awfully small but reaffirming heartbeats that keep the current moving through the routine of a day. A pirouette, like looking at your shoes, happens only in the ordinary, not when you are climbing one day’s mountain or descending another’s steep hill. Your pulse is normal, your expectations routine, you know you are breathing, and you expect to continue.

A pirouette – spinning a bit on one foot – is perhaps a subconscious test that you are still here, not that you are worried you are not, but simply a check of the status quo, like a watchman putting checking the stations on his tour. The key goes in, it is turned, and life for the watchman is as ordinary as it is supposed to be. No surprise.

I was driving in a small town when I saw the woman do her half-pirouette, spinning on one leg, not in a staged ballet style or serious affectation, but in passing time. I saw her only for an instant, but you could read a life in that time.

She seemed happy, content, life humming along, and whatever, whoever was next in her day was more than acceptable. It – he or she – would be the next watch station, and she had the key. So, it was no leap of faith that she could lift one foot off the ground and spin, for there was more than enough trust for that.

We all have our scary days – going to the dentist or the doctor, taking a school exam, facing the boss, getting older – and there are no half-pirouettes on those days. For most of us, thankfully, life does not consist of scary moments, and the motor runs without misfiring. It is in such security that we can lift one foot off this mortal coil and know we will not come crashing down.

I know that the lady I saw in this small town – and she could have been in a big city or in a rural cornfield – was having a good day.


An overlooked America

UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – This true story, this essay, has to take place in a small village, old to the point of some 300 years, with small sidewalks that dip and turn and rise and sink just as do the lanes and streets of this community that holds the Hudson River close to its anatomy.

The sidewalks, cobbled together over centuries from slate, rock, hand-poured and machine-given cement, have felt the footprints of generations of shipyard workers, village tradesmen, artists like Edward Hopper as a boy and actresses such as Helen Hayes and Ellen Burstyn as grown women. Children daily have slammed the whitewashed gates in front of their smallish homes on Lower Castle Heights Avenue and Van Houten Street, walking and running off to play and to school and to life, leaving behind the ever-bigger footsteps of inevitable growing up.

If small town America were to have veins, these sidewalks would be some of them.

It was on a walk along a sidewalk on a recent afternoon that I saw a fellow looking a bit more industrious than a retired man might. Instead of sitting on the generous front porch of his home, certainly a treat that was his just reward, the man was sweeping the walk in front of that porch.

Grass clippings, small branches, weeds and the odd cigarette butt were flying left and right as he took a large corn broom and swung it like a pendulum, moving forward as if he were a motorized street sweeper, which he was. It was a learned practice, this efficient brooming, just like a seasoned sailor swabbing a deck.

But it was also an odd sight since the man was not carrying a leaf blower descended from a Mack truck engine. He was not surrounded by six similar men with equipment on their backs or in their hands that combusted internally and made noise infernally. The rich neighbors up the street have such attendants, as does much of suburban America. But this man chooses a simpler way.

At this house, in this time, in the Village of Upper Nyack, there is a gent who without fanfare and noise and expense wants to keep his small home and old, old sidewalk neat. He does that in a Charlie Chaplin-like walk with a straw broom. His great-grandfather surely did the same thing.

Nowhere in this important, perhaps defining presidential election of 2008 will this man appear, but his old-fashioned, responsible self-labor speaks volumes of where we once were in America.

Harry and his truck

Two generations ago, long before driving a pickup truck was designer cool, Harry Jackson used one for work, usually a Ford or a Chevy, durable machines that were as necessary to his landscaping job as a hammer then was to a carpenter.

You would recognize Harry by his red or green or blue truck, bright and shiny and he as proud as a peacock on yes, "pickup day" at the dealer and then, as the months and years went by, the truck with a dent here and lawnmowers in the back and the honest dust and grime of a working man’s craft covering his vehicle.

In the relatively small town where we lived in the 1950s – Spring Valley, N.Y., for the record but it could have been in Maine or Colorado or California – men with craft like Harry were respected notables. Joe, a carpenter; Sam the iceman; radio and TV repair guys, they all were as necessary to a community’s smooth operation as were the doctor, the dentist, the teacher, the librarian, the pharmacist, the baker and the clergyman.

So the sight of Harry whizzing by in the red or blue or green truck over the many years he was a landscaper made the viewer silently nod in appreciation that he was on the job and in hope that others would follow him.

We see his truck no more. Instead there are what seem like a gazillion huge, diesel-powered vehicles pulling vans full of super-sized lawnmowers, weed-whackers, leaf-blowers and the other weapons assault troops use as they descend on seemingly every lawn and manicure it, gone 20 minutes later for the next home trimming. Entire days in a neighborhood can be spent hearing these troops at one home and then the next.

Harry, in his day, was an exception – just a few properties required lawn mowing, since most homeowners did their own work.

And trucks like Harry’s are now hard to find, too, replaced by designer Cadillacs, Hummers and Lincolns, huge behemoths that shout: Wash me! Pamper me!

Harry’s worth came in his honesty and good work, the respect shown to him by his fellow villagers obvious as he passed by in a dusty truck. He would have found the assault troops too much, over the top, and as for designer trucks, well that would have been like mowing a lawn in a tuxedo and white gloves. A little too frilly.



Imagination

This is the time of the pumpkin, you know, and so the tale of a flickering candle.

Once upon a time not long ago but also not in the institutional memory of any but today’s American elders, there was a suitor named Imagination who was courted on boring, rainy summer days, weekends when school was out and when the kissing and hugging relatives came to pay semi-annual visits.

Children with eager little minds, possibly big eyes and jaws that could open and drop would seek sitting-on-the-lap time with Imagination, a presence who was not gender specific and therefore, even today, untouchable by Political Correctness.

The lap seemed, in those not-so-long-ago-but-now-almost-forgotten days to be wide and available enough for all the children of all the neighborhoods, all at once.

Imagination only asked that the children come eagerly, with open minds and open ears, that they be polite and that they tell their mother where they were going, for there is no wrath, Halloween or not, second to a worried mom who catches up with wandering offspring.

One day, two or three youngsters – it was difficult to tell since Hiram was so quiet that he was not always counted in the crowd – found themselves antsy two days before Halloween. They sought out Imagination because video games, I-Pods, plasma TV, cell phones, SUVs and parents’ chock-filled appointment books had not yet come to the earth.

The children – there were actually three after Hiram spoke up – called out “Imagination!” and, poof, the non-gender specific presence appeared. “You rang, kids, so what’s the adventure? Imagination asked. “We are bored, so take us on a Halloween journey,” said two of the three.


“Ah,” intoned Imagination. “That would mean a pumpkin and a candle. You must supply those.” Off the children tumbled, racing to find a pumpkin, which Esmerelda took from her front steps, and a candle, which was Jules’ sabbath light (but his grandfather did not need it until Friday, five nights hence).

In a flash worthy of lightning on witches’ eve, the three were back on Imagination’s lap. “What do we do now?” asked Esmerelda, clearly the most articulate of the bunch.

“Carve the pumpkin and take the fixings to one of your homes and bake a pie with a mother’s help. Put the candle in the hollowed-out pumpkin, light it and place it on the kitchen table as the pie bakes.

“Then stare at the candle, all three of you together but each alone, too. You will have one hour before the pie comes out of the oven, and a few more minutes after that to let it cool a bit. Use that time to stare at the flickering light and let your minds wander. Take a trip anywhere you want, with anyone you want and do anything you want. Just tell your mother first.”

And then the three children climbed off Imagination’s lap. They scampered down to Hiram’s house, carved the pumpkin, helped his mom bake a pie, placed the candle in the pumpkin and lit it. As the wonderfully delicious smells of homemade pastry filled the kitchen, Esmerelda, Hiram and Jules, separately but in concert, stared at the flickering candle and met up with imagination (small “i”) all on their own.

And there was pumpkin pie for dessert.

A take on the Red Maple

Charlie DiMaria’s morning wake-up call in Closter, N.J., is the sound of home fries gathering flavor on an old luncheonette grill heated to the touch only experience can give it. He does his daily dance in front of that hot iron, adding eggs, pancakes, bacon, ham and whatever – all on order, shouted back by his waitresses Mercedes, Linda and Deidre in a symphony of fire engine-like delivery.

It’s the place, this Red Maple Luncheonette, where you feel at home on any given morning, the wonderful combined smells of a mixed grill and coffee plus the mixed company of blue collar and professional tucked into an old diner-style, shotgun-shaped room, long counter with stools and several tables against the opposite wall for the elites.

The regular customers and Charlie set the Red Maple scene. A modest and so trusted fellow, Charlie offers the right sense of humor necessary in running an eatery where you work long hours in full view of the clientele, many like family, and talk to them every day.

One recent morning, the ordinary scene did not unfold. Instead, the place was the set for filming an episode of the TV show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Seems that not long ago, a scout from the show came by and asked if the Red Maple could be used for the set of an Oregon diner, where actress Mariska Hargitay (aka “Det. Olivia Benson”) was on special assignment with the FBI rather than in her usual New York City balliwick.


The shoot took place to the fascination of everyone watching, and now Charlie has a picture of him on the wall with Mickey, daughter of Jayne Mansfield. He’s in his workaday whites, and both look as comfortable with each other as if Mariska had been coming for a Red Maple breakfast and morning banter for years.

There is also a poster signed by the crew and a letter of thanks. The poster and photo are joined on the wall by a New York Times restaurant review and a column I once about Charlie’s old-style cash register.

Celebrity status has again come to Closter’s Red Maple, to Charlie and his crew, but the day after the filming, as on the day before, and many days before that and for many days in the future, we hope, Charlie Di Maria, Mercedes, Linda and Deidre were and will be there so early that the roosters have not yet crowed.

The sounds and smells of comfort food will be the true alarm clock for Red Maple’s customers, and later in the day, at lunch time, middle school students will add to their charge accounts, twisting on the same stools some of their parents dreamed on, too.

The Red Maple, Charlie and the gals are not unique to New Jersey, to the Northeast, to any state in the Union. But they are as special as any such crew anywhere else.


A penny for some thoughts

In a handful of pennies, my eye usually scans for the old-style “wheat” coins, those Lincoln Wheat Ears Cent pieces produced from 1909 to 1958. My father collects them, and though most are worth only 10 cents or so, it makes him happy to add one to his special books.

Most of the wheat pennies I come across are from the early 1950s, with perhaps an occasional 1930s coin. But the other day I spotted a 1919 model, well-worn and crusted with so many decades of history.

Can you imagine where that penny has been? My grandfather was just 20 when it was made, and it could have been in his pocket. Heck, it might have been in President Woodrow Wilson’s change or with a suffragette or in a farm boy’s pocket as he headed down a long country lane to the general store and penny candy to satisfy his salivary glands and pounding heart. Perhaps a returning Doughboy had it with him.

It certainly wasn't in my dad's pocket, since he wasn't born until three years later, nor in mine, a fellow who the records show came to earth in 1942.

Was this wheat penny, once so shiny, one of five given to a former successful businessman now selling apples on a city street corner during the awful Great Depression? Did it, no matter how small a coin of the realm, help him survive? Did a mother hand this penny off to her daughter for school milk money?

Did the son of the Great War Doughboy have the Lincoln Wheat Ears Cent in his military-issue pocket as he landed at Anzio?

Was the penny in a jar used to collect coins for a new dress or a Sunday shirt? Did it end up in the bank so grandfather could buy one of the first cars built after World War II, when civilian production resumed?

Was this coin in Thurgood Marshall’s pocket in 1954 as he appeared before the Supreme Court he eventually would join, in the fight for U.S. school integration? Was it again at the White House as President John F. Kennedy gave his famous inaugural speech in 1961?

Did it return to war in Vietnam, in the pocket of one of so many draftees who went off to an unpopular, undeclared, apparently unnecessary fight, only to come home to boos and spitting as protesters confused the warrior with the war?

Did the wheat cent drop in the mud of a rainy Woodstock, buried in unfocused but vital dreams and scattered promise? Did someone pick it up and use it in the inflation of the energy crises of 1973 and 1978, in the recession and reinvestment of the 1980s, in the speculation and greed of the 1990s?

Was it in some Gothamite’s pocket in September 2001? Did it go off to yet another war in the third tour of the Doughboy’s great-granddaughter?

Or has this 1919 penny, minted to honor Abe Lincoln, really been in a dusty cellar for almost 88 years, swept about, collecting dirt and dust but escaping all the many and horrible woes of the decades as well as their drama and greatness?

A penny for the thoughts.


The end of the pew

ANNAPOLIS, M.D. – The United States Naval Academy is, at 162 years, steeped in enough tradition to humble the visitor. That it exists as a school of instruction for future officers adds security to that.

No matter what your views are on war, it happens way too much, and our nation must be ready with trained military even if its leaders may not be up to the task at any particular moment. That is the mission of this academy.

Walking well-kept grounds of the USNA gives certainty that it is a tight ship run on land and that among the young men and women there are a few future stars, as has been the history at all of America’s service schools.

But it is the chapel where you sense the true tradition of it all, Navy-wise. John Paul Jones, the “Father of the American Navy,” the man who told the British, “I have not yet begun to fight,” lies in a crypt here. Looking about at Navy blue-covered pews, you can envision officers and midshipmen over the decades, united in the prayers that, sadly, some would repeat aboard ship, in war and in burial at sea.

There are the ghosts of the commodores, including Matthew Perry, and other naval heroes. There seems none of the saltiness of the regular Navy, talk like my late Great-Uncle Herbert Gunther, a retired chief petty officer, could utter so freely, gesturing with his tattooed arms.

There’s a bit more elegance here, in the training of these midshipmen, who will later have the equally necessary hands-on learning from such CPOs as Herbert. Then a few will return as rear and fleet and other admirals, highly decorated and highly polished, to rest again on the Navy blue of this beautiful chapel.

More than one will sit at the end of the pew, just as they would lie at the edge of a bunk, one eye open, as battle neared or nature’s storms surged. No midshipman can do that, for they have not yet earned the right through experience and the enduring of gut-wrenching sea sickness that can hit a naval person even in calm waters.

For some the end of the pew comes in eight bells, the signal that the final watch is over.

At the Naval Academy, instruction takes place in the classrooms, aboard a training ship, in drills, but it is the reflection in chapel, first begun there as a middie and then resumed as an old officer, with more than enough sea legging and chief petty officers in between, that puts you at the end of the pew. Well-deserved.

Downsizing doughnuts, too

Bought a doughnut the other day; not supposed to be eating doughnuts, but I wanted one badly, so I got a powdered jelly. It wasn’t a hole-in-one, and the doughnut shop played me for a ringer.

The doughnut, fresh enough, with tasty strawberry jelly, was 80 cents plus tax, a reasonable enough amount these costly days, some would say. Trouble is, when I bought the same type of doughnut a few years back from the same outlet, it cost less and was, it seemed, 30-50 percent bigger.

Now, I do mind paying 80 cents for what amounts to two quick gulps, though the cost would not bother me if the doughnut were the same size as in yore. Raise the price if you must, but don’t shrink the commodity. Soon they will be so small that the leftover doughnut “hole” material, once thrown away and now sold as bite-sized morsels, will be offered as ‘‘marble-ettes. ’’ This is logical, since if you shrink a doughnut, you also shrink the hole.

Some years back, the candy companies did the same disappearing act. Instead of raising prices – or in some cases, in addition to raising prices – they shrunk the candy bars. Bad move, since people buy candy bars not only to eat them but to anticipate eating them. That means letting your mouth water as you walk to the candy machine, waiting with childhood-like impatience as the coins drop, and then taking what should be a meaty-sized chocolate or other candy back to your desk to eat.

Eating, like other pleasures in life, is never just the act of doing it; it’s half, maybe more, in the pleasure of leading up to it, of anticipation, the foreplay. Cut the anticipation and you reduce the pleasure. You also may sell fewer candy bars or doughnuts or whatever is the anticipated offering.

That’s why I was let down after my recent trip to the doughnut store. I expected more, not less. Sure, I could have bought two doughnuts, at an astronomical price of $1.60, and gotten something closer to what I used to buy. But that would have doubled my guilt as I sat somewhere eating two powdered jellies instead of one.

Or, I could have gone to my local bakery, where the doughnuts are the same size they always have been, and, for my money, better tasting. But such bakeries are increasingly difficult to find today, put out of business by fast-food places where the offering is not half as good. Ah, the American drive-through culture.

This is the era of downsizing, so I guess we should not be surprised that even our doughnuts are shrinking. We now get less coffee in what used to a one-pound can, with the advertising gimmick that “super concentration” of the coffee beans means you can use less of the grind to make the java. Yeah, if you also use less water.

Or, what about dish detergent? You now can buy bottles of ‘‘concentrate ’’ that supposedly allow you to use less. OK, but once you put that bottle of detergent on the sink top, you and all to follow will forget to just drop a bit and instead will squeeze out the amount we are used to squeezing. Consequently, our wallets get squeezed.

And be sure the gurus at product development headquarters know this. They are psychologists extraordinaire. They understand that we creatures have habits and that a sucker is born every minute.

Such depressing thought. Now I really do need a doughnut. And forget the anticipation this time.





The well-worn stairs

There is little substance in this life save the durable. We all come and go in the sea of humanity, and our short presence on the stage is marked according to luck, destiny and sometimes free will.

But even then our footsteps are but marks in sand, and the tide is ever changing. What lasts longer is the accumulating total of footsteps. On a beach, in high summer season, the water cannot easily push aside the mark of the masses. In a house, on well-worn stairs that have served 77 years, there is even more of a record.

Working recently as a volunteer carpenter in an Upper Nyack, N.Y., home, I had to make many trips up and down the oak–treaded, split staircase with a landing as I went to the basement and then to the second floor, carrying tools and materials.

In that journey of some haste, for there is always something else to do in a day, the moment was not so quick as to hide from observation, even out of the corner of an eye, the concave-carved middles of all the steps.

The house was built about 1929, and from the looks of the stair treads, there has never been a covering on them. The several generations of the family that owned the home until a few years back wore the steps down.

You can imagine, as in any family, the first steps of the workmen who handcrafted this house, then the people who carried in the original furniture and other belongings.

And the initial, backward-moving steps of children learning to use stairs on all fours.

Then the scramble up and down as they grew. The father getting up early, quite early, every day to run down to the basement and stoke the coal furnace for heat. And the mother who took her daily washings to a soap stone sink in the basement.

The friends over for visits and the trips to the only bathroom – upstairs.

The kids off to school, jumping two steps at a time and swinging from the newel post to land feet first at the front door for the final leap outside to the porch.

And the young daughter, descending in her bridal gown, the soldier off to war, the house then emptier and quiet, with few footsteps heard except those in memory.

With time moving on and a relative’s passing, the quiet descending of the stairs of a loved one’s remains.

Finally, in the long history of one family who lived so long in their loved home, the gathered belongings of decades, brought down the stairs to another home, maybe one without stairs.

Now, at this home in Upper Nyack, new sounds of a married couple, friends, some relatives and a fixit-volunteer are heard on the well-worn stairs.

Enduring sounds. Meant for both daily living and scrapbook collecting.

We all come and go in life, even in this wonderful home, but the passing of time and events leaves an accumulated mark, here in polished oak.


Summer, in one place

FALMOUTH, Mass. – Anyone’s summer vacation, the subject of so many required middle school essays, is relative, and perhaps that is why English teachers long used the bromide topic for compositions. What student could not find something to write about based on his favorite season (no school)?

Well, what I did on my summer vacation one recent year, this time in Falmouth Heights, a lovely Atlantic Ocean beachfront area and a particular section of the Town of Falmouth, was observe – people, mostly.

This is a super-quiet beach section, with no music allowed from radios, boom boxes, TVs and boosted-bass car sound systems. While kids romp as children do on a beach, the no-music rule seems to calm them down, and their decibel level is tolerable. (Maybe it’s like not giving kids a sugar snack.)

Thirty years ago, you might call Falmouth Heights a bit timeworn, like parts of the New Jersey shore but not honky tonk as a boardwalk town can become. Now, given the 400-1,000 percent increase in water area real estate values in just a few years, big money has restored Victorian facades and new, even gifted, architecture has risen. You can call parts of the Heights classy but with unmistakable New England charm still in place, a mix of down-to-earth good manners and observant, well-placed comment and criticism.

The hope is that money will not drive these good people out, replaced by Hamptons-like yahoos.

The regulars here, who include all-year residents as well as those returning vacationers who have earned their dues and place over decades of summer renewal, tolerate the odd visitor who may be loud and boorish, but the civility is so infectious that better habits are quickly learned. There is virtually no horn blowing, even if you do that all the time in, say, a city.

Walking the beach each morning in search of the magical light that can paint a photograph, I would see people and their dogs, filling their lungs with peace and air fresher than that in the Northeast inversion we began to run into at New Haven on the way back home to New York State.

Just past the Seaside Inn, where we stayed so calmly amid gardens rivaling a botanical offering, was a marble bench near the beach, with the inscription, “Vera & Bill.” Neither was in sight, and this may be a memorial, but it is not difficult to imagine a couple recharging there, recalling more of the positives than the negatives in a long relationship.

On a rock jetty, a man was in a chair with his fishing pole, seemingly one with the calm ocean at low tide. It was as if it did not matter whether he caught a fish or not.

Other sights and sounds included kids with hot dogs and ice cream, bought from a very old stand on the Heights road, and the inevitable footprints in the sand, with some pressed in more firmly and others set apart with long strides.

Our stay was short – just four days, coming at the end of a weekend and before another, so it did not feel like a traditional vacation. It was as if we just popped in for a lingering moment. Less formality, too.

How refreshing that was, given the spell that Cape Cod, even in its heavy population growth, even in its costly real estate, can weave.

The magic is found in the sand itself, in the mini roses that adorn long-unpainted fences, in the many ghosts of Mrs. Muir found along the ocean, in the very nature of a resident Cape Codder, unique to this unique land.


The quick repair

It was one of those John Romaine days as I call them, a call for repair that ended up not as such, except to the slightly wounded psych, a reminder that we are all so very human.

Of course, the moment, in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth geographically but in the present time-wise, was not earth shattering. This was not anything serious – no one suffering, no illnesses, no war, no gang fights, no dire circumstances. So, it hardly seems worth mentioning except that maybe we have all too much news of the other sorts, and a little slice of earthly foibles might be the right voyeur ticket to get away from relentless doom.

Many years ago now, in my own young years, there was a man called John, last name Romaine, a self-taught, rather bright, utterly engaging and friendly fellow who co-owned Ro-Field Appliances on Main Street in Spring Valley, in the 1940s and ’50s a summer resort village 20 miles from New York City.

John ran the radio, then TV repair shop as the fix-it man while his partner did sales. Some of their customers included folks, the gentry too, who would phone Ro-Field and report that, say, their Philco radio console had died, that “a big tube must have burned out” and would John Romaine come with his case of radio tubes, with such exotic labels as 5Y3GT, and get the console working again in time for “The Jack Benny Show”?

John would load up his green Ford station wagon and head for the customer’s house, arrive there and quickly look where he thought was the most obvious place to start: the wall outlet. More often than not, the radio console plug (or TV set’s) would have been pulled from its mooring, probably in vacuuming.

For some reason, the customer never checked, and though John could have told the customer via phone to do so, he liked his clients and enjoyed the calls, so he just came when called.

The customer would get some banter, gossip would be exchanged and the bonds that exist in small communities strengthened. John never charged for the pulled plug “repair.”

I had occasion one recent week to do a John Romaine, in the Valley that we both enjoyed, when a local church, its building in place since the middle of the 19th century, needed a “keyed receptable” repair. In other words, the pull-chain, bare light bulb fixture in the janitor’s closet was reported as not working.

I gathered up my at-ready tools in my Blauvelt home, just as John did his in the Valley and in Hillcrest, where he later lived, and went off to the church, fittingly on Church Street, just up from what was Ro-Field Appliances.

Found the closet and light, and as soon as I pulled the chain, I knew that this might be a John Romaine repair, for it pulled easily, usually a sign that nothing was amiss. Had it stuck, that would have been a different story.

I took the bulb out, put a new one in, and it worked. Since no one was in the church at the time, I could not have the banter, the gossip, the human connection that John had on his pulled plug calls, but I did get to reconnect in memory to a fellow I admired, a style of repair not often seen today and to join in fraternity.


The George I knew

I didn’t know George D’Loughy well yet I knew him very well, so much so that just a few sessions of friendship in 60 or so years kept us in contact with the essence of each other.

My friend George, who passed away recently, was someone you would call a kinsman after you had just met him. We first talked to each other in the dawn of our youth at a park in Spring Valley, N.Y., George the smiling, friendly kid who helped my brother Craig and me swing a self-propelled merry-go-round.

From time to time, we would run into George at Memorial Park, always greeted with a smile, George’s outgoing nature and the great, carefree fun of the moment. That would happen in life too, in the occasional meetings.

We did not always go to the same schools. Craig and I left the Valley for Sloatsburg, Nanuet and Airmont before coming back, but eventually we met up with George, and we all graduated from the same high school. We might also run into him when we were on Main Street in the Valley since his father worked at Bauer’s Market.

Each time, it was essential George all over again, accepting others without judgment, offering a big smile, his winning affability constantly there. We were not always in the same circles – sports, friends, classrooms – yet George was one of our best friends. He was best friend to many.

George won our trust so many years ago on the merry-go-round. Kids can be acutely tuned into other youngsters’ ways, as if they have special antenna, and George D’Loughy was giving out the most trusting and enduring of human signals: decency. Craig and I sure felt comfortable with this friend.

And so did everyone who knew George – as a bartender/confidante, a man who sang Doo-Wop, an engaging sort who called me just weeks before he died and told me that he had long enjoyed our friendship.

George was dying but he did not let on, for this man of courage, even in great pain, would not call you to his side to hold his hand. He did not want you to suffer.

Instead. George D’Loughy took his strength from innately knowing that his earthly gift was that he was a good guy, that he made friends instantly, friends for life. And so many took sustenance from that gift.

You did not have to know George well – spending every other month in contact with him over 60 or so years, for example – to know him well. Craig and I understood and appreciated George in his essence the minute we met him at the merry-go-round.

As I age myself, I feel the old playing fields of our youth once again, and I can see one of our school gym coaches lining us up, then calling our names one by one to take a jog around the oval. George is waving at us – he’s run off to that merry-go-round.

Keep it spinning, friend.

It’s beyond understanding (good)

Most men I know are, like me, married – long married, which may defy the national norm today. Whether this is by design or accident or luck or the mindset of our generations (mixed age groups here), I cannot begin to fathom. I don’t understand marriage or women at all.

It isn’t just the Mars/Venus thing. Most of my friends in life have been female, and there have been moments with some of them, not romantic or sexual by direct act, but which have put us on the same stream current, feeding each other questions and giving and taking answers as if we were one being yet quite apart, still as necessary to each another as the writing hand. It’s been a blessing.

Yet of the gifts the deity bestows on each of us, I come up empty in the overall desirability department. Looks? Shyness? Je ne sais quoi? The mix isn’t there; never has been; and in the sunset I don’t expect the right nose job or overall body and personality lift to turn the tide. And that’s cool. You are what you are and can become. Live with it, live around it.

Still, the real tide – the ebb and flow of each day and together the days that become weeks and months and years – has been regular, as predictive as the charts for any tidal river. Someone has looked over me. Wonder who.

My wife Lillian’s recent birthday came in a year that noted a marriage of 40 seasons. The proverbial medal has been struck, of course, but displayed high enough above the mantle that she can’t – on one of the lesser days – beam me on the noggin.

How the woman came to travel so long and so far and give so much of her life to an oddity can only be explained in a language I do not know. But I do know the word “grateful”; I do know the words “good mother,” “fine wife,” “thick-and-thin companion.”

Lillian would be the last to admit she was often the first in her children’s once young world of growing up or now in their adult-apart existence. Her common sense, steadfastness, reliability and intelligence are her gifts, as they were to her many students in her teaching years.

She has set the tide charts for my life, and I am grateful. Don’t understand that – don’t properly decode women or marriage – but I am happy about the results.

Happy Birthday, Lillian.


A notion about notions

One of the least used words in the English language today is “notions.” Some of us lucky enough to be in our 60s recall it, not so much because we used the element of speech but because our grandmothers or even mothers did.

Like most of old America, the Rockland County, N.Y., landscape in which I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s included villages with five and tens, sometimes two on the same street, as in Nyack and Spring Valley. Each one of these blessed events had a “notions counter,” where items used in sewing, such as buttons, pins, and hooks, were sold.

Usually, the notions counter wasn’t really a counter, though some larger five and tens, the ones big enough to also make and sell wonderful donuts, did have a section where there was a sales lady replete with all manner of sewing knowledge. She had more than a notion about the equipment, materials and craft.

More than likely, though, notions were contained, laid out neatly in rows, on a large sheet of wood, maybe six feet by six feet, with a glass fence around it about five inches high. There were rows and rows of carded buttons, spools of thread, pins, hooks, etc.

The notions counter wasn’t a respectable place for a young boy, of course, but if your grandmother or mom had you in tow, you followed the leader.

I recall being amazed by the large notions display and wondered how the store could ever make enough money to carry all that thread and whatnot. The answer, of course, was that all across America, there were grandmothers and mothers drawn to notions counters as if they were life magnets. And they were.

There was a certain reassurance in going to a five and ten in the first place, for they always seemed full of ordinary life – your neighbors, friends, fellow students, trades people. You were put at ease in knowing that many people needed something from the notions counter or the hardware area, or that a child like you was being rewarded with weighed and packed loose candy like nonpareils. It has always been the usual, the shared commonplace moves, that glue humanity together.

The prices were low at the five and ten, not always five cents and ten cents, but for a quarter you get something useful in a young boy’s life, like a bottle of turpentine for a sixth grader making wood projects at home. Carrying that glass bottle home, with its distinctive pine scent, was like holding a graduation present – you were moving ahead in life.

The word “notions” is no longer much used. Maybe you can find it on a sign at a big box retailer, in a long aisle, but there won’t be any six by six foot display shelf with glass wall. Maybe not even grandma carefully choosing a spool of blue thread that would then sit in a sewing box for decades.

Five and tens are long gone, just like Frank W. Woolworth. And the word “notions,” well, most of us have no notion what that is.

Tricks of the trade

My mother, a working woman who prized an awfully clean kitchen, had precious little time for that but made sure her mission was accomplished. She used determination and experience-acquired technique, shortcuts that today seem so simple.

For example, to get the last bit of small waste out of a large sink, she moved the faucet spout quickly to the left and right, using her fingers to direct the water in an efficient, spray-like way. Presto, and the sink was as clean as if one had used an aerater attached to one of those $987 faucets people routinely buy today.

Or, she would leave a bit of Clorox stopped up in the sink overnight to bleach the white thing, old as it was. Old but never dirty, never messy.

My mother accepted no excuses in her quest for cleanliness, not in the kitchen, the single bath, the house in general or the bedrooms occupied by two young men. While she cut Craig and I some slack, knowing that we were average and ordinary in the housekeeping department, we had to toe the line enough to do a decent job of upkeep.

In those days of other and varied concern, though, we never understood why.

Back in the kitchen and in the bath, too, my mom would use her Babo sparingly – a container seemed to last many months – to make the chrome shine. Newspapers and vinegar kept the kitchen window streak-free. The oven never saw grease build up because another sort of “grease” – from the elbow – attacked the cooking place each and every time she used it. Same for the stovetop and the splash behind it.

The floor would get a washing just about every day, on hands and knees, with more Clorox. If my mom ever had sinus trouble, I don’t recall that since she seemed to keep the passages clear via the floor work.

Saturdays, when my mother launched her most thorough house attack, chairs were taken from the kitchen, refrigerator moved, cabinets rearranged, bread drawer emptied.

I cannot recall any motorized gadgets used in the kitchen cleaning process. Just well-worn brooms, mops, scrub brushes pushed on hands and knees, recycled dish towels for sink and faucet polishing and a radiator brush to get behind the oven. All kept neatly, too, in a hall closet. Its smell still tugs my memory.

Mom, who worked because the family wasn’t rich, never used her job as an excuse not to keep the house neat, though that would have been reasonable. Yes, she received help from her attentive husband, who cleaned bathrooms, and even some from her sons, but she was queen and king of the kitchen, and it had to shine like a palace.

In the slow and relentless tragedy that is Alzheimer’s, one of the very first signs was a kitchen my mother never would have accepted. Neat enough for the ordinary but not for Patricia Gunther’s standards. The change almost made the illness easier for us to accept.



‘Higher thinking,’ perhaps

We should have realized that Hazel Margulies, a longtime elementary school teacher in Spring Valley, N.Y., was right in the 1950s when she gave us an education on state law regarding classrooms. She never got the lessons wrong.

Most of the 28 kids in the class were willing to listen to her explanation, principally because it had nothing to do with the arithmetic this task master and excellent teacher usually drilled into us.

It was a hot day, one of those knocks on the door in June that summer can bring, and the double-hung windows, so tall that Miss Margulies needed a special pole to open the top half, were letting in what air was still moving.

We had no fans, no air conditioning at the North Main Street School in 1955, but we didn’t have AC at home, either, and maybe just one table fan. Sweating was a part of life, not helped by a unstated but enforceable dress code that allowed no shorts or tank tops, just pants for boys and skirts for girls.

(Though the girls had more clothing on, they always seemed to sweat less, just as they did not freeze at the bus stop in February though their bare legs were exposed above crew socks. It’s a puzzle I have never been able to solve.)

On this particularly hot day, when outside temperatures were in the lower 90s, our second-floor classroom on the north side was not yet sweltering. In between the glazed stares from Mark Broat over fractions and Gene Jackson’s attempts to shoot wads of paper at Sondra Berg, George Kapral asked Miss Margulies why the classroom ceiling was so high. Somehow the rest of us had not noticed that it was about 12 feet, though we all stared at it often enough.

The teacher, who was thoroughly versed in all sections of state education law, such as “No hair combing in class since that may be unhealthy to others,” enthusiastically told us the statues required so many cubic feet of air space for each student. It didn’t matter how skinny or fat or tall or short or how full of hot air the particular kid was, each student got his allocated box of air.

The formula was “mathematically determined,” and Miss Margulies offered a rare smile in saying that. Thus the high ceilings. And the double-hung windows for air movement.

On hot days, heat would rise and keep the classroom cooler. On cold days, the heavy, puffing steam radiators were more than enough to warm even big rooms.
Finally, a transom window was above the classroom door to complete the air circulation pattern without much noise coming from the room (though no noise ever came from Hazel Margulies Land).

In the great post-war push to build more schools for baby boomers, coupled with higher construction costs, new designs and quick building, people rewrote the laws on air space per child and ceiling height, and eight- or nine-foot ceilings became the norm. Double-hung windows left town, too, as did transoms.

Has all this made a difference in student learning and behavior?

A recent study by the University of Minnesota, as reported on the Internet, says perhaps. It makes a case for classroom ceiling height and how the brain works. The study suggests, according to researcher Joan Meyers-Levy, that “When people are in a room with a high ceiling, they activate the idea of freedom. In a low-ceilinged room, they activate more constrained, confined concepts.”

Meyers-Levy and co-researcher Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the University of British Columbia joined in forming the hypothesis. “Managers should want noticeably higher ceilings for thinking of bold initiatives. The technicians and accountants might want low ceilings,” says Meyers-Levy.

Well, maybe all that is true. The “feng shui” people tell us that architecture and mood affect brain activity and learning, as do colors and building materials.

So, I would agree, though I suspect that whatever the classroom ceiling height, Gene Jackson would still be shooting paper wads at Sondra Berg and Mark Broat would have glazed eyes over fractions.

And good, old Hazel Margulies would be citing another portion of the state ed law.


Paved over by ‘progress’

Spring Valley, N.Y. -- Over on Alturas Road, between Cole and Summit avenues, on the hill once called Red Brick, many deep inches of asphalt are the burial cover of a long-gone era.

An era that saw much less traffic on the Old Nyack Turnpike, on the Alturas Road section in this once summer resort village in the country north of New York City. The Turnpike is now part of Route 59, a state highway that runs from the old Nyack port on the Hudson River to Suffern and the foot of the Ramapo Mountains.

Once it was the main route for overland goods and people on their way upstate, until the Erie Railroad came through in the late 1840s. The Midwest and the West fueled their building via the Erie and its railroad and canal, helping forge an ever-expanding American frontier with people and goods that put in foundations and roots everywhere.

For a long time, in the later 1800s and the 1900s until about 1968, Route 59 was a busy but local road, which it still is in 2007. But now it is a ribbon of the suburbs, flashing with neon and locked in step with one shopping strip after another. Though the state, in a bit of welcome wisdom, provided a median of beautiful trees in its widening of Route 59 in nearby Nanuet, most of Route 59 today is what you would expect of a highway anywhere.

Check into a motel off this road, and you could wake up in many parts of the United States, so similar the look and the growth.

But once, until the later 1960s, Route 59 had its quiet passages, especially the Red Brick Hill between Cole and Summit. It was classic Rockland County, once the nation’s brick-making capital, with its many Hudson yards providing the building block for 90 percent of New York City’s tenements.

Some of that brick, a longer-fired variety, found its way to the steep hill at Alturas and was hand laid against wide cement gutters on either side, a very efficient drainage system that worked for decades.

Decades, too, the red brick sat in its clay sister earth, offering the sleepy toddler on his way to Gramps' house a reassuring bump-bump sound off the tires, a welcome to a bed soon warm.

The hill, too, covered with packed snow and light in traffic, was a popular sledding route when adjacent Dunlop’s Hill was crowded with youth who could take delight in activity that cost nothing and which brought laughter and memories.

In the march of progress and the ever-thickening book of rules for standardized highway surfacing, the red brick hill would be paved over by Albany. And then paved again. And again.

It took numerous revisits by officialdom to completely cover the red bricks, and they are hardly recalled today.

Most “natives” of the Alturas Road area of Spring Valley are but 10 years there, certainly the elders of the ever-newer people, but without a whit of a clue that the hill they now speed along was once made of red brick.

Once, you had to slow down for the ascent and the descent, maybe not enough to smell the flowers – the black-eyed Susans – on Dunlop’s Hill, but with sufficiently slowed pace to feel the history of a road once trod by horses and wagons.



Babo, Ipana, Rinso, Oxydol …


The freeze-frame images of anyone’s past
probably include a slide show of consumer products popular at the time. I can, for example, see the Rinso detergent box on the sink counter, ready for my mother’s by-hand laundering.

She used that brand as well as Red or Blue Super Suds, but then she gave up “Rinso White, Rinso Bright” for Oxydol, which was detergent with bleach.
(Odd that today’s TV hawkers push cleaning goods with the letters “oxy” in them, as if rediscovering that a bit of ordinary bleach can clean as well today as it did 100 years ago.)

But household product marketing is all about the new and better thing, even if it simply has a new name or container but the very same ingredients. And most of us, suckers that we are for the snake-oil salesman, will even pay more for the privilege of buying the same old, same old but in a new look.

In our various homes of the 1940s and 1950s in Rockland County, N.Y., my family also used Ipana toothpaste, which promised spectacular brightening, though that didn’t mean much to a kid who was going to lose his baby teeth anyway and who had to be reminded every night, like millions of others, to brush his choppers.

That toothpaste was the subject of a great radio commercial (“Brusha, Brusha …”) and replaced the brand Craig Martin in our household. My brother Craig William was named after the dentifrice when my mother and father could not come up with a moniker and one of them walked into the bathroom.

On the sink near Rinso or Oxydol was Babo (“The Foaming Cleanser…”) which my mother swore by – again – for its bleaching properties. No matter how old and worn the sinks were in our various homes, she got them awfully spotless, including the chrome. For years I thought it was the Babo, until I realized it was my mother’s hard work.

In the early 1950s, after we bought our first TV, the radio jingles became past history, as did most of the products we had been using. The great optimism of that decade brought new household goods, colorfully packaged in a modern look mean to mimic flight and the next frontier – space. TV would carry commercials that underscored an exciting and trusting leap into the future.

It is a comfortable feeling, of course, this recall of detergent boxes, etc., in my mom’s kitchen. And in looking at the history of these products via the wonderful Internet of our present time, learning such tidbits as the key ingredient in Rinso (“Solium, from sunlight”) takes you back on a nice road trip.

Sure, those Rinso commercials on radio’s “Big Town” were 90 percent baloney, but hearing them again or reading their copy gives a warm connection anyway. One of the greatest things about the America I grew up in was its optimism despite a terrible world war and the lifelong effects of a crippling depression.

If a product was hawked with a radio or TV jingle like “They’ll know you’ve arrived when you drive up in the 1958 Edsel,” you didn’t have to believe it. The marketplace would later decide the worth and desirabilty of the goods being sold (the Edsel, of course, bombed). But in the hawking, there was hope that something better was coming your way, even if it was “new and improved.”


The Isabella Moment

Any grandparent wants to coo about the children of their children, for familial pride is akin to you personally being responsible for continuing the human race. You tend to see the very best in the grandson or daughter and rarely the warts. You are not critical of them as you were with your own children, nor as judgmental as you can be with your kin’s spouses.

Yet we don’t all carry the grandchildren’s photos in our wallets and show them to everyone who feels obligated to add to the cooing. Some of us grandparents even have a hard time making a real fuss over our grandchild infant or one- or two-year-old, perhaps preferring, by innate nature, to watch the young one grow out of the corner of our eye, to be amazed that halting steps can be taken after race track crawling; that food can be eaten in funny, adaptive ways, the spoon turned about like a musical baton; that a scrunching of your own face is returned; that what they call you can actually be uttered by such tiny voices, learned by tiny, constantly developing brains.

All this and so much more happens in nature’s course, God willing, seemingly in the blink of an eyelid, between visits.

Children are both egalitarian and selective, hopping from one person, even one grandparent, to another, fickle in their short attention span. You are never their king or queen for long, it seems, nor should you be. The child must relate to so many people and will become the sum total of his or her own personality, upbringing and interaction with relatives, friends, teachers and others.

But sure as you know this child is alive and growing, sure as you know that so much learning is taking place as the brain grows its synapses and bridges of understanding and roads to the future flash electrically across, with memory and experience stored; sure as his or her very being is unique to the world and there will be so many others within, you sense there is a door to this young one, that you, on a personal visit, can visit within for the first time and forever. A door for you alone.

I found such a door recently when my first grandchild Isabella Frances was in town from her Maryland home. With time split between us and her other grandparents, Isabella made the required rounds. She had her toys and so her castle, in each house; each person who lifted her had things to say, questions to ask, words to coax out of Isabella.

And she obliged everyone, for an instant, happily chattering away in her own native language, one which so many adults once had a version of, too, but the words of which – those unique pronunciations, those meanings – are now forgotten in long disuse.

The “Isabella moment” came for me when she and I were on a front porch, Isabella in a large rocking chair, enjoying the rhythm not so much in the comfort way a child finds rocking but as contentment.

We did not have long, she and I, for it was return time to Maryland and her father’s arms awaited. Besides, she would not have remained in the rocking chair, her arms and legs and voice and eyes already looking for the next thing to do.

Just before I scooped her up and handed her off to her dad – my son Andrew Edward – Isabella looked at me. Our eyes were wide-open doors, and we both went through. I said in the only greeting and affirmation possible: “I love you Isabella Frances,” and I know she understood.

She will not recall this moment, this nearly two-year-old. But it is in her subconscious memory, which has a link, I believe, to her soul.

It was our own understanding, and though she will have so many others with kin and friends, in that moment, on that porch, this child and I were bonded beyond blood. The little girl, yesterday an infant, a grandchild with bragging rights, as all such young offer, was irrevocably tied to my being, and I to hers.

No wallet photo could duplicate that.


Overdue on good planning

Almost anywhere in these United States you will find terrible overgrowth – too many homes and too much strip shopping and the consequences of both, including heavy traffic, long commutes and stressing of the water supply and other natural resources. People endure a hell-bent life that seems to turn too many into automatons racing to pay the mortgage.

It all began, of course, with the Pilgrims and other early settlers, because the vastness and virginity of America encouraged not only the Mayflower but subsequent migrations chasing an ever-expanding frontier.

We still think we will never run out of land, and while some of the great reserves of the West and other regions remain, even there you find such a concentration of people and their trappings that you know there has not been good land-use planning.

The American frontier was effectively expanded by President Eisenhower when he authorized the interstate highway system in the 1950s, which continues to be built and rebuilt. That has opened up so many areas to growth.

Now, it is not growth that is improper. People have a right to relocate, to seek the “American Dream,” but the cost of doing so has to be balanced against the need for orderly development, renewed resources, energy conservation, good architecture, reasonably sized homes and not McMansions, etc.

We have endured the sometimes ignorant avoidance of our history – our roots, our diverse peoples, our place in the building of this America and our capacity for goodness. That history could have been built upon with reasonable growth tied to fully revitalized downtowns and more protected space.

Now we must learn from our mistakes and plan wisely for the land that is left, so that in 100 years’ time our children’s children’s children will be grateful.



Of necessity

Years ago, decades actually, this once young man watched as an older fellow carefully straightened bent nails taken from discarded wood. “Why,” I asked?
The man said he would reuse them, but I wondered why he bothered, since an ample-size box of 10-penny nails (three-inch pieces) then cost about 89 cents and could meet home use for a very long time.

I missed the point, literally. It was “Waste Not, Want Not,” and it was the attitude that counted. And what came with the exercise.

Now, older myself but not always wiser, for I still don’t straighten bent nails though the cost for a box of 10ds is now about $4, I did find myself in the attitude lesson recently. Of necessity.

I was into a home improvement project, the sort that seems to come in retirement like bills long overdue, when I needed a caulking gun. Did not want to run to Beckerle Lumber yet another time (my average home repair/renovation seems to be two trips a day, at least), so I grabbed the caulking gun I had in the garage.

It was caked with white and gray and clear caulk though only about a year old, and the advancing mechanism was frozen. I had once again failed to clean the gun, something my grandfather or the fellow who straightened bent nails way back would not have done.

After the last use, I figured I would just buy another gun, for about $4. But here it was eight hours into a project, and I was too bone-tired to go to the store. So, I played old-fashioned. Sitting down, half for rest, half for concentration, I carefully and slowly peeled the old caulk off the gun and then cleaned the metal with a solvent and oiled the advancing mechanism.

Not only did the gun work, but it performed better than when I bought it. There was real satisfaction, too, in not only saving a few dollars and avoiding another stress-filled trip on ever-busier roads, but in silently meeting the approval of the oldsters who “wasted not, wanted not.”

I may never buy another caulking gun. I like this one too much now.

The slower time clock

CAMDEN, Maine – The afternoon was already mellow, we two travelers having forsaken the interstate highways with their incessant treadmill traffic, look-a-like roads that were meant to zoom you somewhere in life’s ever-quicker pace but which now are more often than not linear parking lots. We left all that on I-9, and took the original Atlantic Coast runs our great-grandparents did, Routes 1 and I-A. That brought us through many lights and 35 mph speed zones and added time to a New England trip, but the quaintness, the essential spirit of American small towns, was our reward. It quieted us down.

And when we motored, not zoomed, up to the Whitehall Inn off High Street, which began life more than 100 years ago, we were reluctant to give up the mood. In fact, it was enhanced.

It is a grand, old home, which has hosted a king, a U.S. president, movie stars and other notables and is also where famed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was “discovered.”
Even if you took the interstates and were more frazzled than we, parking in front of the elegant Whitehall, walking up the steps to its wonderful, old porch and then, in the old manner of proper foyer architecture, stepping into the quiet greeting area would calm you down.
There was 1930s music playing softly from the ceiling speakers, though you thought it was coming from the old Clarion radio console near the piano that Millay played for summer guests when her sister worked at the inn in the 1920s.
The old wooded, quaint stairways, upstairs rooms without TV and clawfoot tubs in the bathroom instructed the inner clock to slow down. Soon, you were in the rooms downstairs reading a newspaper, or sitting on the front porch, and the clock’s hands did not seem to spin as quickly.
You felt the spirit of the poet, whose first public readings of an undiscovered writer took place here before World War I, arranged for the then summer-long, well-connected guests by her sister. Millay, the Pulizer Prize winner whose life was sometimes tortured by death and alcohol, was the gifted voice of female affirmation, with themes such as change that cannot be avoided, love that is bittersweet, sadness and the forces and rebirth of nature’s cycles.
As a fellow writer who can stand hidden in the corner of Millay’s room, I gave a bow to the fellow pensmith who gave her life’s blood, drip by drip, in her brilliance, for all to share.

A short walk from the Whitehall to the downtown historic district brings you to Main Street, USA, this one called the “Jewel of the Maine Coast.” Old buildings that once were part of the commerce center of most parts of the United States before strip malls and indoor shopping centers, those that housed haberdasheries, groceries, hardware stores, etc., are now mostly set as restaurants and curio shops for the tourist. Seasonal hawkers are necessary to revive and keep going what was once essential Americana.

The harbor is delightful, especially with the northern light that Maine enjoys.

It was on to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park from the Whitehall Inn and Camden, and having left one chain hotel and soon to arrive at another, it was refreshing, reassuring and pulse lowering to step into another, slower time in between.


No stamp of approval

When you wrote your first letter, no matter how old you were, or sent away a quarter with three box tops to a cereal company to get a baking soda-powered plastic toy submarine that you could throw in the bath water, you took what became a familiar journey: the walk to the street corner mailbox.

My first trip to what seemed a place of magic was in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth, in the 1940s. The mailboxes in those days were small and olive colored, decorative cast-iron affairs attached to sculpted concrete stanchions or to lampposts. They offered a bit of elegance to government.

My grandfather took me to the mailbox at the corner of Ternure and Summit avenues and had to lift me up so that I could open the mailbox lid, which swung on heavy bolts, and then drop the letter in. He told me to reopen it to make sure the letter had fallen in and for good luck, too. The lid came down with a clank, a solid sound, twice.

As we walked back home, I could not help wondering how my mail would arrive where I sent it, in this case, Battle Creek, Mich. Was there a huge underground pipe with air in it that sucked the mail all the way to the post office?

When the battleship arrived five or six weeks later at Box 74 in the Spring Valley Post Office, where my father got his home mail, I was amazed and assured that government worked.

This mailing of the letter, the curiosity about how it got where it supposed to go and the return mail with the treasured item I requested as a 10-year-old was a wonderful moment of freedom, of opportunity, of growing up, of success, and it encouraged me to use the mailbox – any mailbox – on the corner again and again.

It also instilled trust in government.

Over the decades since, those small mailboxes that introduced youngsters to the mail service’s possibilities, those cast-iron portals of mystery on street corner America where moms and sweethearts posted letters to men and women at war, those durable metal boxes which seemed as strong and dependable as our nation, have disappeared, replaced with larger and fewer mailboxes with rounded tops, a now patented design.

Fewer boxes made pickup easier and cheaper for the renamed and redefined U.S. Postal Service, but you could still walk to a corner, though maybe another street or two was added to the hike. Still a satisfying stroll.

In the later 1950s, the olive look gave way to red, white and blue, a design encouraged by a citizen’s suggestion. Around 1971, that appropriate, even patriotic, look was changed, unfortunately, to the all-blue, cheaper-to-paint design that we now see. And soon enough, we may not see that many blue street-corner boxes either.

Citing reduced letter writing, an overall decline in first-class mail, use of the Internet to write messages and pay bills and, I assume, the ever higher cost of running the Postal Service, the guys in charge will further reduce the number of street mailboxes

The Postal Service, it is reported, has already removed more than 42,000 collection boxes in the past six or seven years, with about 295,000 remaining in use. That number will continue to decline.

In my own community of Blauvelt, N.Y., in Rockland County in lower New York State, there are no street-corner mailboxes where once there were four or five. You can drop mail in the one box that exists, and not on a street corner but in front of the post office. You can also leave it with the “rural free delivery” mailman, who actually serves built-up suburbia on a motor route that once would have been converted to door-to-door walking delivery given the number of people who now live here. But ever-higher costs prevented that changeover.

I applaud the mailman who still comes no matter the sleet, the snow, the rain, the hail, on his or her appointed rounds, and it is a no-brainer that the Internet will likely change all that we now recognize as traditional mail delivery, still a tremendous, efficient service for a 39-cent stamp.

But gone, too, will be the walk with your grandfather to mail three cereal box tops for a toy submarine.

Guess Gramps can now sit next to his grandchild at the computer, but both could use the walk and the priceless opportunity to go off together on an important life journey.



In the observation room

Novelists, short story writers, even columnists are people observers, and it is the nuances of ordinary life that they see and then explain to the reader which make us say, “Aha, I know that feeling.” Or, “I’ve done that.” But writers don’t own the franchise alone.

Sales people are keen people watchers as well, sort of pre-med psychiatry students.

For example, I watched the other day as a couple bought an area rug in a local department store. The salesman, a young fellow, was ensconced in the corner at the usual elegant cast-off desk that never sold. He was surrounded by piles of colorful rugs and some hanging on the wall, with prices from $300 to thousands. The salesman seemed bored, or maybe it was that his job was idling at the moment, sort of in neutral, a survival must for work that requires stretches of time where not much happens.

He glanced up to note that the couple was moseying by and let them go into the lair without a pounce. It was only after they were in the rug chamber that the friendly fellow, quite polite and easy-mannered, appeared and offered the menu starter: “Anything I can help you with folks?”

The fellow with the lady looked like he’d like a beer, but the woman wanted a rug, and this was serious business. In age-old, time-tested body psychology, the man moved ever so quickly and surely away from the lady, whistling to himself almost, as the salesman took his place.

Now the woman and the clerk were the team, and the talk turned to rugs, colors, sizes, prices. It was a common language, this man the rug sales fellow and this woman the buyer.

It was only after the rather nice lady had decided what she wanted that she looked up, almost without really focusing, laser beamed on the man who turned out to be her husband and asked, “What do you think about this color?”

The guy knew nothing from rugs, still wanted a beer but did know his colors. So he answered, “It’s red. You wanted red, right?”

The salesman laughed, knowing a man when he saw one, being one himself.

The deal was sealed, with no help from the lady’s mate, thank you. He better never criticize the rug.

Like I said, a sales person knows how it works, this people observation business.

The traveling suitcase

A very long time ago, an already old valise – that's what my family called a suitcase – took a journey from Franklyn Square, Long Island, to Spring Valley, in what was then lower-upstate New York. In 1932, the scene was still rural and country in Rockland County.

A new family just arriving in Rockland, where three more generations so far would thrive, had arrived to live with my grandfather, Arthur Sr., who became a foreman at the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe factory in the Valley. He was lucky to have a job during the Great Depression, and his family was equally lucky to move to a place they came to love.

For decades the valise was put to use – on the few trips the Gunther family took to relatives in Pennsylvania or Brooklyn; by a young Marine (my father) just before World War II; and on the post-war trains of the later 1940s.

Eventually, it made its way to Hillcrest where I stored this and that in it as a youngster. When we moved to Pearl River, it went along, not because it was really usable any longer – it had become tattered, old-fashioned, heavy – but because no one in the family was yet ready to part with it.

Now, some 42 years after the move to Pearl River and 74 seasons since its arrival in Spring Valley, the house cleaning of retirement days has emptied its contents.

The suitcase was last used in the early 1970s, in the company Volkswagen owned by The Journal News, and I kept it in the front trunk to hold photographic equipment and other accumulated paraphernalia. When I left JN photo work to move to the city desk and then the Editorial Page, I put the suitcase in the basement of a home in Westwood, N.J., and then my present one in Blauvelt, N.Y., occasionally opening it and seeing old film boxes, assignment slips, etc.

Now, in housecleaning, I have thrown away most of the old contents, placing the valise into my car for a trip to a dumpster.

But a strange thing has happened. En route to the dumpster, I found myself on the very same road the suitcase took in December 1932, on the snow storm night when the moving van carried my grandmother Maud and her two sons Arthur Jr. and Winfield north.

The dumpster where I planned to give the suitcase a heave ho had been taken away, and the valise remained in the car. Later that day, I had to go Spring Valley, and wouldn't you know it, by chance passed the 14 Ternure Ave. home where my grandparents lived with their sons in the 1930s, the house where the valise sat for years in the attic awaiting its next trip.

There's a sign here, I guess. I will not discard the old suitcase. It is now in my attic.


Lila’s encounter (short story)

By Arthur H. Gunther III

She saw two cups in his hand as he left the coffee shop where Lila spent a few hours a day, every day, hoping she would turn from the pages in the lively novel always on her Starbuck’s bistro table and join real life with a particular someone in it. Voyeurism was getting old.

But two cups – that meant involvement, right? Isn’t attachment always measured in twos? His second cup of whatever wasn’t for a male friend, right? Not gay, yes? Was this man intriguing enough to be Lila’s homme de jour, better than the usual imaginary fellow after the second cup of doubled-brewed robusto?

Lila was careful about her coffee, specific as to how fresh it was, its strength, even how long she let it sit between sips. It was part of the exact management of her life, a clock-watching existence that unfolded best if things happened when they were supposed to.

She was at Starbuck’s every day as part of that routine, not always in hope of companionship but because this was where the coffee she liked was brewed. Give or take the men on some days – fancied and real – but the coffee, just like the facial cleansing in the morning, or the exact making of her bed or the complete washing of dishes before she left were clicks in the wheel of her waking hours. The coffee was one of the first clicks, and it had to pop.

Starbucks, the book on the table, the java, the tasks at home, the walk or short bike ride downtown, they all came on the clock, her clock, and she was in charge. But once Lila was master of so much more.

It seemed decades ago though it was just a year since Lila left an impressive job as a bond trader in Manhattan, having advanced from company apprentice. Her days then did not include the coffee shop, the novels, all the neatly unfolding smaller tasks of her daily life. Then it was tailored suits and makeup that gave the face its aggressive, take-charge look for the male world. She did very well, made quite a bit of money for the traders and herself and was poised for a vice presidency. And then, who knows?

But the downturn brought by the sub-prime mortgage debacle hit quickly, and though women executives were listed on the mission plan of Fortune 500 companies, many were pushed aside in the mad dash to keep the profits coming. In the male mindset, the barricades had to be, well, manned, and it meant the boys couldn’t play any more with appearances. This was real man’s work, or so they told themselves and the boards of directors. Some women like Lila were cast off, given mini-golden parachutes and left to climb other ladders of success, if they could find a bottom rung again.

Lila knew this was nonsense, the same warped logic she had encountered as she proved her worth in a male minefield. Wonder then why she even looked for anyone of that gender in Starbuck’s.
Yet it was time for more, and Lila wasn’t talking marriage here or commitment. Nor simple, uncomplicated sex either. Something in between, a lustful enough, romantically sufficient start on a path that would offer a gate which continued to open if she wished.

She could afford time at Starbuck’s for such thinking, since the settlement Lila took when her vice presidency disappeared and the investments made in her 401-K plus her simple lifestyle gave her enough income for a small home by the river, in an old village where downtown “renewal” brought the usual weekend tourist trappings, such as a trendy coffee shop complete with bistro tables for the inevitable waiting.

Her table at Starbuck’s was meant for Lila’s existence, of course, and anyone else for that matter – those with a book or laptop and gazing thoughts. Purposely small, designed for one, or one and a companion, such a table becomes a pod at which to ponder, a pedestal that tells the world and the passersby that you are here, that you are available for noticing.

But the table sitter can also be in isolation, cocooned against the harm of an iffy relationship, one where the limbs of the tree with seemingly deep roots prove too far a stretch, and someone is hurt in the inevitable fall. So, take the book, the secret world within or fire up the laptop and its Internet vicariousness, get a coffee and sit in your place at the bistro table. Wear a protective overcoat in a world that moves about you.

Lila was at her regular spot, coffee in right hand, still warm as Starbuck’s brew was meant for her lasting moment. That was reassuring, a teaser of permanence and comfort in a life once dominated by the quest for success. She was now in calmer waters but with so much time to think that the ripples of unfaced emotions were lapping with the intensity of a first full moon’s tide.

Her books – the ones she brought to her table daily – were more than a bistro setting, not cute, stylishly covered printings that matched her outfits. She was a serious reader, and in her discerning, quick to reject the off-rhythm of a bad writer approach, the triteness of those books written for imagined “take me” romantic encounters would not pass muster. It wasn’t that Lila sought everyday epiphanies in the books she chose. She just wanted the read to be worthwhile, not a tome set for the mass market. She was an accomplished, intelligent, significant woman whose emotions could be tapped and shared. Yet if the appetite was to be satisfied, the meal had better be worth it.

Lila’s book on this encounter day was “Slug Line,” a short novel about a newspaper crime reporter who turns in copy on a difficult to solve murder that he has actually committed but who is undone by the computer heading (“slug line” in newspaper lingo) which he puts on his story before he does the deed.

The reporter wants to score with his biggest story yet and garner the fame that has escaped him, but the night city editor solves the almost perfect crime because he is computer savvy, and after some suspicion sees that the slug on the hard drive shows the story was written but not filed a day before a wealthy woman is killed.

Lila found this plot plausible and the details about crime reporting, a newsroom and particularly the attractive characterization of the editor believable and complex enough to be compelling. She was drawn to the editor as she was to most of the stronger male figures in her books because of the fellow’s intelligence, wit and the je ne sais quoi that made him different.

The editor, Bob Larsen, was the office love enthusiast, twice divorced but whose evident magnetism often proved true north for female reporters and editors. One day he shared a full breakfast with Louise, the family page editor, and later a lingering lunch with feature writer Sally. He never paid.

Bob offered an in-charge style of newspapering, barking orders across the city room, which were followed even if there was some under-the-breath swearing, for his instincts were Pulitzer-winning right-on. He wasn’t into long conversations – he expected his declarations to end with a period and not a question mark – and he treated men and women with equal disdain and applause. Gender played no favorites in the working part of his life.

The women he saw these days in post-divorce and non-commitment were not there for expansive talk or to have the soulful chat. They had girlfriends for that or a few of the new age fellows who emoted on cue. Those women attracted to Bob wanted the earthy sex he offered plus the kindness this gruffy bear hid under the exterior. Actually, Larsen could make your average woman feel so connected to him that a few uttered, ordinary words were fascinating, certainly a prelude to the erotic.

This was not a man Lila thought she would be interested in herself, since he seemed just another tool in the male-female relationship. Yet, perhaps because of his take-charge style and his treating of women as equals in the newsroom, she found him intriguing enough to read more of Bob Larsen in “Slug Line.”

As the novel unfolded, Lila sat with him on the horseshoe-shaped rim where news editors gather to dummy pages, read copy and write headlines. She was at the part in the story where Bob leaves the Hudson Avenue Art Deco newspaper office for a dinner break before he tackles the early night editing shift. The Hi-Ho Bar was just down Broadway, and the Marsilios would have his dark beer ready at 6 p.m. and the sliced steak sandwich with freshly cut fries shortly after that.

Lila could see the Hi-Ho as she peered out of Starbuck’s, and though this was morning for her, she painted in her mood the dark of night that “Slug Line” had scripted. She also put herself next to Bob at the Hi-Ho and had a Black & Tan brought to the table, ordering a second Guinness for the night editor.

Some casual conversation passed between the two about how old the Hi-Ho bar looked, but that pedantic introduction was quickly lost when Bob looked without hesitation at Lila’s eyes and stayed there as her pupils got larger. She leaned toward Bob, uncharacteristically interested in the infancy of a chance meeting, catching his words as if they were flakes from a first snow after years in a hot climate. Lila drew even closer and never looked at her watch or the floor, never drummed her fingers on the table, simply twisted her reddish brown hair in a slight but constant turn. A feeling was moving inside her as the beer, Bob’s food, the smell of a bar, the stories from a newsman who had accumulated the usual mixture of odd tales became like the condiments on the table –there, ready for intense flavoring.
Lila reached toward Bob’s hand, stopping short of touch, glancing at his fingers. She imagined deeper involvement. Bob casually touched her shoulder as he and Lila returned to discussion about present newspaper feature stories and what each saw as not enough depth. This was a favorite subject for Bob and hearing an echo from Lila made him reach out to her in growing interest.

Lila had a delightful shiver, moved to Bob’s side and took his hand. There was a kiss then, a first intimate physical contact, public – yes – but unobtrustive enough. This slow and soft kiss caused them to linger in the quiet then follow with a second, deeper one as Lila touched Bob’s face.

He paid attention to Lila’s face, her pupils still enlarged, a deep gaze set, their breathing and kissing synchronized. A deeply personal moment of shared energy. Sex’s prospectus.

Each felt safe with the other, and the trust so quickly and easily secured led them to talk of banal things, like work, family, politics, as two young friends might of ordinary matters at age 10 after discovering mutual ease.

The talk was like a fast-moving brook, the downstream dam cleared of debris. For Lila, it was a treasured, long-overdue moment to finally speak with a man about nothing but about everything. For Bob, this was not the lunch or dinner quickie, the sexual release which women gave him as currency for a bit of intense, no-strings-attached attention. After his two divorces and so many short affairs, this was sanguine.

Lila turned the page on “Slug Line,” then closed the book for her coffee shop morning. This would be a full day of gathering resumes in a return to the male-dominated job world, where, she hoped – no insisted – her skills and abilities would be noticed for the long run. She had a good post-work income, yes, but still needed the career. In her hiatus, in her coffee mornings, she had already gathered her strengths and regained the courage to push on, move on. And that now included the future men in her life, with a reshaped, reinforced attitude. There was now the promise of merging in all ways, becoming one with someone, even ascending to the sort of full lovemaking that followed when Bob and Lila went to her home on Tallman Place.

There was cuddling then, in tenderness, and excited movement, too, in complete passion. They had closed their eyes, listened to each other’s breath, then stared deeply with no inhibition. All this sexual charge had followed real conversation, true appreciation of one other, smiling, good feeling, no hesitation, eye contact that reached deeper than that, and a noticing of the other’s needs.

There was much hope, Lila thought as she slipped out of Starbuck’s and walked home, past Marsilio’s Hi-Ho.

I hope you saved some turkey for me
















The Isabella Moment

Any grandparent wants to coo about the children of their children, for familial pride is akin to you personally being responsible for continuing the human race. You tend to see the very best in the grandson or daughter and rarely the warts. You are not critical of them as you were with your own children, nor as judgmental as you can be with your kin’s spouses.

Yet we don’t all carry the grandchildren’s photos in our wallets and show them to everyone who feels obligated to add to the cooing. Some of us grandparents even have a hard time making a real fuss over our grandchild infant or one- or two-year-old, perhaps preferring, by innate nature, to watch the young one grow out of the corner of our eye, to be amazed that halting steps can be taken after race track crawling; that food can be eaten in funny, adaptive ways, the spoon turned about like a musical baton; that a scrunching of your own face is returned; that what they call you can actually be uttered by such tiny voices, learned by tiny, constantly developing brains.

All this and so much more happens in nature’s course, God willing, seemingly in the blink of an eyelid, between visits.

Children are both egalitarian and selective, hopping from one person, even one grandparent, to another, fickle in their short attention span. You are never their king or queen for long, it seems, nor should you be. The child must relate to so many people and will become the sum total of his or her own personality, upbringing and interaction with relatives, friends, teachers and others.

But sure as you know this child is alive and growing, sure as you know that so much learning is taking place as the brain grows its synapses and bridges of understanding and roads to the future flash electrically across, with memory and experience stored; sure as his or her very being is unique to the world and there will be so many others within, you sense there is a door to this young one, that you, on a personal visit, can visit within for the first time and forever. A door for you alone.

I found such a door recently when my first grandchild Isabella Frances was in town from her Maryland home. With time split between us and her other grandparents, Isabella made the required rounds. She had her toys and so her castle, in each house; each person who lifted her had things to say, questions to ask, words to coax out of Isabella.

And she obliged everyone, for an instant, happily chattering away in her own native language, one which so many adults once had a version of, too, but the words of which – those unique pronunciations, those meanings – are now forgotten in long disuse.

The “Isabella moment” came for me when she and I were on a front porch, Isabella in a large rocking chair, enjoying the rhythm not so much in the comfort way a child finds rocking but as contentment.

We did not have long, she and I, for it was return time to Maryland and her father’s arms awaited. Besides, she would not have remained in the rocking chair, her arms and legs and voice and eyes already looking for the next thing to do.

Just before I scooped her up and handed her off to her dad – my son Andrew Edward – Isabella looked at me. Our eyes were wide-open doors, and we both went through. I said in the only greeting and affirmation possible: “I love you Isabella Frances,” and I know she understood.

She will not recall this moment, this nearly two-year-old. But it is in her subconscious memory, which has a link, I believe, to her soul.

It was our own understanding, and though she will have so many others with kin and friends, in that moment, on that porch, this child and I were bonded beyond blood. The little girl, yesterday an infant, a grandchild with bragging rights, as all such young offer, was irrevocably tied to my being, and I to hers.

No wallet photo could duplicate that.


Overdue on good planning

Almost anywhere in these United States you will find terrible overgrowth – too many homes and too much strip shopping and the consequences of both, including heavy traffic, long commutes and stressing of the water supply and other natural resources. People endure a hell-bent life that seems to turn too many into automatons racing to pay the mortgage.

It all began, of course, with the Pilgrims and other early settlers, because the vastness and virginity of America encouraged not only the Mayflower but subsequent migrations chasing an ever-expanding frontier.

We still think we will never run out of land, and while some of the great reserves of the West and other regions remain, even there you find such a concentration of people and their trappings that you know there has not been good land-use planning.

The American frontier was effectively expanded by President Eisenhower when he authorized the interstate highway system in the 1950s, which continues to be built and rebuilt. That has opened up so many areas to growth.

Now, it is not growth that is improper. People have a right to relocate, to seek the “American Dream,” but the cost of doing so has to be balanced against the need for orderly development, renewed resources, energy conservation, good architecture, reasonably sized homes and not McMansions, etc.

We have endured the sometimes ignorant avoidance of our history – our roots, our diverse peoples, our place in the building of this America and our capacity for goodness. That history could have been built upon with reasonable growth tied to fully revitalized downtowns and more protected space.

Now we must learn from our mistakes and plan wisely for the land that is left, so that in 100 years’ time our children’s children’s children will be grateful.



Of necessity

Years ago, decades actually, this once young man watched as an older fellow carefully straightened bent nails taken from discarded wood. “Why,” I asked?
The man said he would reuse them, but I wondered why he bothered, since an ample-size box of 10-penny nails (three-inch pieces) then cost about 89 cents and could meet home use for a very long time.

I missed the point, literally. It was “Waste Not, Want Not,” and it was the attitude that counted. And what came with the exercise.

Now, older myself but not always wiser, for I still don’t straighten bent nails though the cost for a box of 10ds is now about $4, I did find myself in the attitude lesson recently. Of necessity.

I was into a home improvement project, the sort that seems to come in retirement like bills long overdue, when I needed a caulking gun. Did not want to run to Beckerle Lumber yet another time (my average home repair/renovation seems to be two trips a day, at least), so I grabbed the caulking gun I had in the garage.

It was caked with white and gray and clear caulk though only about a year old, and the advancing mechanism was frozen. I had once again failed to clean the gun, something my grandfather or the fellow who straightened bent nails way back would not have done.

After the last use, I figured I would just buy another gun, for about $4. But here it was eight hours into a project, and I was too bone-tired to go to the store. So, I played old-fashioned. Sitting down, half for rest, half for concentration, I carefully and slowly peeled the old caulk off the gun and then cleaned the metal with a solvent and oiled the advancing mechanism.

Not only did the gun work, but it performed better than when I bought it. There was real satisfaction, too, in not only saving a few dollars and avoiding another stress-filled trip on ever-busier roads, but in silently meeting the approval of the oldsters who “wasted not, wanted not.”

I may never buy another caulking gun. I like this one too much now.

The slower time clock

CAMDEN, Maine – The afternoon was already mellow, we two travelers having forsaken the interstate highways with their incessant treadmill traffic, look-a-like roads that were meant to zoom you somewhere in life’s ever-quicker pace but which now are more often than not linear parking lots. We left all that on I-9, and took the original Atlantic Coast runs our great-grandparents did, Routes 1 and I-A. That brought us through many lights and 35 mph speed zones and added time to a New England trip, but the quaintness, the essential spirit of American small towns, was our reward. It quieted us down.

And when we motored, not zoomed, up to the Whitehall Inn off High Street, which began life more than 100 years ago, we were reluctant to give up the mood. In fact, it was enhanced.

It is a grand, old home, which has hosted a king, a U.S. president, movie stars and other notables and is also where famed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was “discovered.”
Even if you took the interstates and were more frazzled than we, parking in front of the elegant Whitehall, walking up the steps to its wonderful, old porch and then, in the old manner of proper foyer architecture, stepping into the quiet greeting area would calm you down.
There was 1930s music playing softly from the ceiling speakers, though you thought it was coming from the old Clarion radio console near the piano that Millay played for summer guests when her sister worked at the inn in the 1920s.
The old wooded, quaint stairways, upstairs rooms without TV and clawfoot tubs in the bathroom instructed the inner clock to slow down. Soon, you were in the rooms downstairs reading a newspaper, or sitting on the front porch, and the clock’s hands did not seem to spin as quickly.
You felt the spirit of the poet, whose first public readings of an undiscovered writer took place here before World War I, arranged for the then summer-long, well-connected guests by her sister. Millay, the Pulizer Prize winner whose life was sometimes tortured by death and alcohol, was the gifted voice of female affirmation, with themes such as change that cannot be avoided, love that is bittersweet, sadness and the forces and rebirth of nature’s cycles.
As a fellow writer who can stand hidden in the corner of Millay’s room, I gave a bow to the fellow pensmith who gave her life’s blood, drip by drip, in her brilliance, for all to share.

A short walk from the Whitehall to the downtown historic district brings you to Main Street, USA, this one called the “Jewel of the Maine Coast.” Old buildings that once were part of the commerce center of most parts of the United States before strip malls and indoor shopping centers, those that housed haberdasheries, groceries, hardware stores, etc., are now mostly set as restaurants and curio shops for the tourist. Seasonal hawkers are necessary to revive and keep going what was once essential Americana.

The harbor is delightful, especially with the northern light that Maine enjoys.

It was on to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park from the Whitehall Inn and Camden, and having left one chain hotel and soon to arrive at another, it was refreshing, reassuring and pulse lowering to step into another, slower time in between.


No stamp of approval

When you wrote your first letter, no matter how old you were, or sent away a quarter with three box tops to a cereal company to get a baking soda-powered plastic toy submarine that you could throw in the bath water, you took what became a familiar journey: the walk to the street corner mailbox.

My first trip to what seemed a place of magic was in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of my youth, in the 1940s. The mailboxes in those days were small and olive colored, decorative cast-iron affairs attached to sculpted concrete stanchions or to lampposts. They offered a bit of elegance to government.

My grandfather took me to the mailbox at the corner of Ternure and Summit avenues and had to lift me up so that I could open the mailbox lid, which swung on heavy bolts, and then drop the letter in. He told me to reopen it to make sure the letter had fallen in and for good luck, too. The lid came down with a clank, a solid sound, twice.

As we walked back home, I could not help wondering how my mail would arrive where I sent it, in this case, Battle Creek, Mich. Was there a huge underground pipe with air in it that sucked the mail all the way to the post office?

When the battleship arrived five or six weeks later at Box 74 in the Spring Valley Post Office, where my father got his home mail, I was amazed and assured that government worked.

This mailing of the letter, the curiosity about how it got where it supposed to go and the return mail with the treasured item I requested as a 10-year-old was a wonderful moment of freedom, of opportunity, of growing up, of success, and it encouraged me to use the mailbox – any mailbox – on the corner again and again.

It also instilled trust in government.

Over the decades since, those small mailboxes that introduced youngsters to the mail service’s possibilities, those cast-iron portals of mystery on street corner America where moms and sweethearts posted letters to men and women at war, those durable metal boxes which seemed as strong and dependable as our nation, have disappeared, replaced with larger and fewer mailboxes with rounded tops, a now patented design.

Fewer boxes made pickup easier and cheaper for the renamed and redefined U.S. Postal Service, but you could still walk to a corner, though maybe another street or two was added to the hike. Still a satisfying stroll.

In the later 1950s, the olive look gave way to red, white and blue, a design encouraged by a citizen’s suggestion. Around 1971, that appropriate, even patriotic, look was changed, unfortunately, to the all-blue, cheaper-to-paint design that we now see. And soon enough, we may not see that many blue street-corner boxes either.

Citing reduced letter writing, an overall decline in first-class mail, use of the Internet to write messages and pay bills and, I assume, the ever higher cost of running the Postal Service, the guys in charge will further reduce the number of street mailboxes

The Postal Service, it is reported, has already removed more than 42,000 collection boxes in the past six or seven years, with about 295,000 remaining in use. That number will continue to decline.

In my own community of Blauvelt, N.Y., in Rockland County in lower New York State, there are no street-corner mailboxes where once there were four or five. You can drop mail in the one box that exists, and not on a street corner but in front of the post office. You can also leave it with the “rural free delivery” mailman, who actually serves built-up suburbia on a motor route that once would have been converted to door-to-door walking delivery given the number of people who now live here. But ever-higher costs prevented that changeover.

I applaud the mailman who still comes no matter the sleet, the snow, the rain, the hail, on his or her appointed rounds, and it is a no-brainer that the Internet will likely change all that we now recognize as traditional mail delivery, still a tremendous, efficient service for a 39-cent stamp.

But gone, too, will be the walk with your grandfather to mail three cereal box tops for a toy submarine.

Guess Gramps can now sit next to his grandchild at the computer, but both could use the walk and the priceless opportunity to go off together on an important life journey.



In the observation room

Novelists, short story writers, even columnists are people observers, and it is the nuances of ordinary life that they see and then explain to the reader which make us say, “Aha, I know that feeling.” Or, “I’ve done that.” But writers don’t own the franchise alone.

Sales people are keen people watchers as well, sort of pre-med psychiatry students.

For example, I watched the other day as a couple bought an area rug in a local department store. The salesman, a young fellow, was ensconced in the corner at the usual elegant cast-off desk that never sold. He was surrounded by piles of colorful rugs and some hanging on the wall, with prices from $300 to thousands. The salesman seemed bored, or maybe it was that his job was idling at the moment, sort of in neutral, a survival must for work that requires stretches of time where not much happens.

He glanced up to note that the couple was moseying by and let them go into the lair without a pounce. It was only after they were in the rug chamber that the friendly fellow, quite polite and easy-mannered, appeared and offered the menu starter: “Anything I can help you with folks?”

The fellow with the lady looked like he’d like a beer, but the woman wanted a rug, and this was serious business. In age-old, time-tested body psychology, the man moved ever so quickly and surely away from the lady, whistling to himself almost, as the salesman took his place.

Now the woman and the clerk were the team, and the talk turned to rugs, colors, sizes, prices. It was a common language, this man the rug sales fellow and this woman the buyer.

It was only after the rather nice lady had decided what she wanted that she looked up, almost without really focusing, laser beamed on the man who turned out to be her husband and asked, “What do you think about this color?”

The guy knew nothing from rugs, still wanted a beer but did know his colors. So he answered, “It’s red. You wanted red, right?”

The salesman laughed, knowing a man when he saw one, being one himself.

The deal was sealed, with no help from the lady’s mate, thank you. He better never criticize the rug.

Like I said, a sales person knows how it works, this people observation business.

The traveling suitcase

A very long time ago, an already old valise – that's what my family called a suitcase – took a journey from Franklyn Square, Long Island, to Spring Valley, in what was then lower-upstate New York. In 1932, the scene was still rural and country in Rockland County.

A new family just arriving in Rockland, where three more generations so far would thrive, had arrived to live with my grandfather, Arthur Sr., who became a foreman at the Briarcraft Smoking Pipe factory in the Valley. He was lucky to have a job during the Great Depression, and his family was equally lucky to move to a place they came to love.

For decades the valise was put to use – on the few trips the Gunther family took to relatives in Pennsylvania or Brooklyn; by a young Marine (my father) just before World War II; and on the post-war trains of the later 1940s.

Eventually, it made its way to Hillcrest where I stored this and that in it as a youngster. When we moved to Pearl River, it went along, not because it was really usable any longer – it had become tattered, old-fashioned, heavy – but because no one in the family was yet ready to part with it.

Now, some 42 years after the move to Pearl River and 74 seasons since its arrival in Spring Valley, the house cleaning of retirement days has emptied its contents.

The suitcase was last used in the early 1970s, in the company Volkswagen owned by The Journal News, and I kept it in the front trunk to hold photographic equipment and other accumulated paraphernalia. When I left JN photo work to move to the city desk and then the Editorial Page, I put the suitcase in the basement of a home in Westwood, N.J., and then my present one in Blauvelt, N.Y., occasionally opening it and seeing old film boxes, assignment slips, etc.

Now, in housecleaning, I have thrown away most of the old contents, placing the valise into my car for a trip to a dumpster.

But a strange thing has happened. En route to the dumpster, I found myself on the very same road the suitcase took in December 1932, on the snow storm night when the moving van carried my grandmother Maud and her two sons Arthur Jr. and Winfield north.

The dumpster where I planned to give the suitcase a heave ho had been taken away, and the valise remained in the car. Later that day, I had to go Spring Valley, and wouldn't you know it, by chance passed the 14 Ternure Ave. home where my grandparents lived with their sons in the 1930s, the house where the valise sat for years in the attic awaiting its next trip.

There's a sign here, I guess. I will not discard the old suitcase. It is now in my attic.


Lila’s encounter (short story)

By Arthur H. Gunther III

She saw two cups in his hand as he left the coffee shop where Lila spent a few hours a day, every day, hoping she would turn from the pages in the lively novel always on her Starbuck’s bistro table and join real life with a particular someone in it. Voyeurism was getting old.

But two cups – that meant involvement, right? Isn’t attachment always measured in twos? His second cup of whatever wasn’t for a male friend, right? Not gay, yes? Was this man intriguing enough to be Lila’s homme de jour, better than the usual imaginary fellow after the second cup of doubled-brewed robusto?

Lila was careful about her coffee, specific as to how fresh it was, its strength, even how long she let it sit between sips. It was part of the exact management of her life, a clock-watching existence that unfolded best if things happened when they were supposed to.

She was at Starbuck’s every day as part of that routine, not always in hope of companionship but because this was where the coffee she liked was brewed. Give or take the men on some days – fancied and real – but the coffee, just like the facial cleansing in the morning, or the exact making of her bed or the complete washing of dishes before she left were clicks in the wheel of her waking hours. The coffee was one of the first clicks, and it had to pop.

Starbucks, the book on the table, the java, the tasks at home, the walk or short bike ride downtown, they all came on the clock, her clock, and she was in charge. But once Lila was master of so much more.

It seemed decades ago though it was just a year since Lila left an impressive job as a bond trader in Manhattan, having advanced from company apprentice. Her days then did not include the coffee shop, the novels, all the neatly unfolding smaller tasks of her daily life. Then it was tailored suits and makeup that gave the face its aggressive, take-charge look for the male world. She did very well, made quite a bit of money for the traders and herself and was poised for a vice presidency. And then, who knows?

But the downturn brought by the sub-prime mortgage debacle hit quickly, and though women executives were listed on the mission plan of Fortune 500 companies, many were pushed aside in the mad dash to keep the profits coming. In the male mindset, the barricades had to be, well, manned, and it meant the boys couldn’t play any more with appearances. This was real man’s work, or so they told themselves and the boards of directors. Some women like Lila were cast off, given mini-golden parachutes and left to climb other ladders of success, if they could find a bottom rung again.

Lila knew this was nonsense, the same warped logic she had encountered as she proved her worth in a male minefield. Wonder then why she even looked for anyone of that gender in Starbuck’s.
Yet it was time for more, and Lila wasn’t talking marriage here or commitment. Nor simple, uncomplicated sex either. Something in between, a lustful enough, romantically sufficient start on a path that would offer a gate which continued to open if she wished.

She could afford time at Starbuck’s for such thinking, since the settlement Lila took when her vice presidency disappeared and the investments made in her 401-K plus her simple lifestyle gave her enough income for a small home by the river, in an old village where downtown “renewal” brought the usual weekend tourist trappings, such as a trendy coffee shop complete with bistro tables for the inevitable waiting.

Her table at Starbuck’s was meant for Lila’s existence, of course, and anyone else for that matter – those with a book or laptop and gazing thoughts. Purposely small, designed for one, or one and a companion, such a table becomes a pod at which to ponder, a pedestal that tells the world and the passersby that you are here, that you are available for noticing.

But the table sitter can also be in isolation, cocooned against the harm of an iffy relationship, one where the limbs of the tree with seemingly deep roots prove too far a stretch, and someone is hurt in the inevitable fall. So, take the book, the secret world within or fire up the laptop and its Internet vicariousness, get a coffee and sit in your place at the bistro table. Wear a protective overcoat in a world that moves about you.

Lila was at her regular spot, coffee in right hand, still warm as Starbuck’s brew was meant for her lasting moment. That was reassuring, a teaser of permanence and comfort in a life once dominated by the quest for success. She was now in calmer waters but with so much time to think that the ripples of unfaced emotions were lapping with the intensity of a first full moon’s tide.

Her books – the ones she brought to her table daily – were more than a bistro setting, not cute, stylishly covered printings that matched her outfits. She was a serious reader, and in her discerning, quick to reject the off-rhythm of a bad writer approach, the triteness of those books written for imagined “take me” romantic encounters would not pass muster. It wasn’t that Lila sought everyday epiphanies in the books she chose. She just wanted the read to be worthwhile, not a tome set for the mass market. She was an accomplished, intelligent, significant woman whose emotions could be tapped and shared. Yet if the appetite was to be satisfied, the meal had better be worth it.

Lila’s book on this encounter day was “Slug Line,” a short novel about a newspaper crime reporter who turns in copy on a difficult to solve murder that he has actually committed but who is undone by the computer heading (“slug line” in newspaper lingo) which he puts on his story before he does the deed.

The reporter wants to score with his biggest story yet and garner the fame that has escaped him, but the night city editor solves the almost perfect crime because he is computer savvy, and after some suspicion sees that the slug on the hard drive shows the story was written but not filed a day before a wealthy woman is killed.

Lila found this plot plausible and the details about crime reporting, a newsroom and particularly the attractive characterization of the editor believable and complex enough to be compelling. She was drawn to the editor as she was to most of the stronger male figures in her books because of the fellow’s intelligence, wit and the je ne sais quoi that made him different.

The editor, Bob Larsen, was the office love enthusiast, twice divorced but whose evident magnetism often proved true north for female reporters and editors. One day he shared a full breakfast with Louise, the family page editor, and later a lingering lunch with feature writer Sally. He never paid.

Bob offered an in-charge style of newspapering, barking orders across the city room, which were followed even if there was some under-the-breath swearing, for his instincts were Pulitzer-winning right-on. He wasn’t into long conversations – he expected his declarations to end with a period and not a question mark – and he treated men and women with equal disdain and applause. Gender played no favorites in the working part of his life.

The women he saw these days in post-divorce and non-commitment were not there for expansive talk or to have the soulful chat. They had girlfriends for that or a few of the new age fellows who emoted on cue. Those women attracted to Bob wanted the earthy sex he offered plus the kindness this gruffy bear hid under the exterior. Actually, Larsen could make your average woman feel so connected to him that a few uttered, ordinary words were fascinating, certainly a prelude to the erotic.

This was not a man Lila thought she would be interested in herself, since he seemed just another tool in the male-female relationship. Yet, perhaps because of his take-charge style and his treating of women as equals in the newsroom, she found him intriguing enough to read more of Bob Larsen in “Slug Line.”

As the novel unfolded, Lila sat with him on the horseshoe-shaped rim where news editors gather to dummy pages, read copy and write headlines. She was at the part in the story where Bob leaves the Hudson Avenue Art Deco newspaper office for a dinner break before he tackles the early night editing shift. The Hi-Ho Bar was just down Broadway, and the Marsilios would have his dark beer ready at 6 p.m. and the sliced steak sandwich with freshly cut fries shortly after that.

Lila could see the Hi-Ho as she peered out of Starbuck’s, and though this was morning for her, she painted in her mood the dark of night that “Slug Line” had scripted. She also put herself next to Bob at the Hi-Ho and had a Black & Tan brought to the table, ordering a second Guinness for the night editor.

Some casual conversation passed between the two about how old the Hi-Ho bar looked, but that pedantic introduction was quickly lost when Bob looked without hesitation at Lila’s eyes and stayed there as her pupils got larger. She leaned toward Bob, uncharacteristically interested in the infancy of a chance meeting, catching his words as if they were flakes from a first snow after years in a hot climate. Lila drew even closer and never looked at her watch or the floor, never drummed her fingers on the table, simply twisted her reddish brown hair in a slight but constant turn. A feeling was moving inside her as the beer, Bob’s food, the smell of a bar, the stories from a newsman who had accumulated the usual mixture of odd tales became like the condiments on the table –there, ready for intense flavoring.
Lila reached toward Bob’s hand, stopping short of touch, glancing at his fingers. She imagined deeper involvement. Bob casually touched her shoulder as he and Lila returned to discussion about present newspaper feature stories and what each saw as not enough depth. This was a favorite subject for Bob and hearing an echo from Lila made him reach out to her in growing interest.

Lila had a delightful shiver, moved to Bob’s side and took his hand. There was a kiss then, a first intimate physical contact, public – yes – but unobtrustive enough. This slow and soft kiss caused them to linger in the quiet then follow with a second, deeper one as Lila touched Bob’s face.

He paid attention to Lila’s face, her pupils still enlarged, a deep gaze set, their breathing and kissing synchronized. A deeply personal moment of shared energy. Sex’s prospectus.

Each felt safe with the other, and the trust so quickly and easily secured led them to talk of banal things, like work, family, politics, as two young friends might of ordinary matters at age 10 after discovering mutual ease.

The talk was like a fast-moving brook, the downstream dam cleared of debris. For Lila, it was a treasured, long-overdue moment to finally speak with a man about nothing but about everything. For Bob, this was not the lunch or dinner quickie, the sexual release which women gave him as currency for a bit of intense, no-strings-attached attention. After his two divorces and so many short affairs, this was sanguine.

Lila turned the page on “Slug Line,” then closed the book for her coffee shop morning. This would be a full day of gathering resumes in a return to the male-dominated job world, where, she hoped – no insisted – her skills and abilities would be noticed for the long run. She had a good post-work income, yes, but still needed the career. In her hiatus, in her coffee mornings, she had already gathered her strengths and regained the courage to push on, move on. And that now included the future men in her life, with a reshaped, reinforced attitude. There was now the promise of merging in all ways, becoming one with someone, even ascending to the sort of full lovemaking that followed when Bob and Lila went to her home on Tallman Place.

There was cuddling then, in tenderness, and excited movement, too, in complete passion. They had closed their eyes, listened to each other’s breath, then stared deeply with no inhibition. All this sexual charge had followed real conversation, true appreciation of one other, smiling, good feeling, no hesitation, eye contact that reached deeper than that, and a noticing of the other’s needs.

There was much hope, Lila thought as she slipped out of Starbuck’s and walked home, past Marsilio’s Hi-Ho.

I hope you saved some turkey for me