Monday, August 30, 2010

COINCIDENCE?


     
     UPPER NYACK, N.Y. – There are too many coincidences in life – for any of us – to continue believing there is no connection, casual or otherwise. I learned that (again) the other day.

My son lives in this Hudson riverfront village, in a 1928 house built by the Lewis Family. One of the Lewises had three daughters and wanted to give them homes. He tore down his own house on Van Houten Street, constructed two small look-alikes and another on nearby Castle Heights Avenue. For generations, Lewises and Buckouts lived on Van Houten, until my son won out over others to buy one of the homes from LeRoy Buckout. Arthur IV had no grandiose ideas to tear the place apart and remake it according to modern “elegance.” Instead, “George Bailey,” whom I can truly call my son, has simply fixed up a simple but truly comfortable home. That intent made LeRoy quite happy.

Yet the time arrived when Arthur needed space for wife and two children, and that meant converting what was once a dirt floor basement into a romper room/living area. Yours truly has been the volunteer “contractor” on the job, along with experts in drainage, heating, electricity and dry-walling.

After months of building stairs, putting in a floor, adding to the pro electrical work, wall finishing and trim, I came to the drop ceiling portion, where old-fashioned tin was used. This required sturdy gloves, big tin snips and some muscle.

It was while working on a small table, set up by chance under the southeast window, when I realized, as I cut a circle for a light, that I was handling tin in the very same spot where Mr. Lewis had his commercial tinsmith’s workshop in the late 1920s.

If a photograph could have been taken of me at 11:30 a.m., August 27, 2010, in a brightly lit, almost finished room in what was once the unfinished basement of the house at 25 Van Houten, and if a shot had been snapped of Mr. Lewis at 11:30 a.m., August 27, 1929, and if the two had been compared, the latter would have been of a professional craftsmen making a living and the former of a man helping his son build his family’s space.

Similarities, yes. Coincidence? No, no more than my son Arthur 4th resembling good George Bailey. He even has the same white picket fence in front of his home.




Monday, August 23, 2010

TOOLS OF THE TRADE


     Craftsmen/women are inventive people. Take electricians, for example. With all the fancy lithium-powered drills and saws and other modern tools to hang from your belt, most of the sparkys I’ve known and/or observed use lineman’s pliers as combination hammer, cutter, measuring device and coffee stirrer.

It’s probably easier to stick with one tool, be it 1929 or 2010. Your hands are married to the pliers in their symbiosis. You can save time by not putting one tool in your pouch and then taking out another. Most important, this tool is basically an electrician’s only, not a plumber’s or a carpenter’s. It is therefore the mark of the trade. And anyone in a trade or a profession likes to be noted as such. It is pride.

In the old newspaper composing rooms, printers had line gauges in their apron vest pockets. Also called “pica poles,” these rules measured type, 6 picas to the column inch, 14 agate lines to the inch.

Doctors carry stethoscopes. Carpenters hammers, or more recently, pneumatic tools. Mechanics have wrenches in their pockets.

Two generations ago, grocery clerks had a pencil resting on an ear so as to quickly pull it out and tally up the bill on a fresh brown paper bag, the speed of their arithmetic amazing. Some of my teachers stuck pencils in their hair, usually red ones, for difficult marking (or was it a warning?).

Fishermen return from the sea with their nets, and, it is hoped, their catch, but when they are set aside, their trade is marked by sun-etched faces and a distant look that says “I go to the beyond every day, and so far I have returned.” 

Children have a mark of the youth “trade” as well. Imagination, curiosity, wonderment – gifts to the early ones so quickly obscured by the details and distraction of puberty and adulthood, only to return in aging years.

The observant can tell often tell who is in what job, or where the life has been, sometimes where it is going. For we all carry the tools of our trade.


Monday, August 16, 2010

THE 5&10 EXPERIENCE



    You can be as old as I am – 67 – and still be age 12 when you step into the 2010 version of a 5&10-cent store. You can have $200 in your pocket but again feel the wonder of what a quarter might buy in this magical palace.

Once, every downtown had a 5&10, sometimes two. Usually there was the omnipresent Woolworth’s where in my grandparents’ time, many items did, indeed, sell for a nickel or a dime. In the 1950s, in Spring Valley, N.Y., at the Consolidated 5&10, 25 cents and up was more likely.

Nyack, a nearby village, had two dime stores, and each was set up in honorable, cherished fashion. Double entry doors to the right, double exit to the left. Railroad flat floor plan, a shotgun drive in a long room. Wooden floors once varnished but never again. Islands of counters with 5-inch glass walls, goods spread neatly.

(An odd thing about those counters. They never seemed messy, even on a sale day when dish towels, for example, might be on special at 10 cents per. Maybe consumers were neater then. Today, in major department stores, counters without glass walls but with originally well-stacked piles of say, shirts, soon become jungles of goods in disarray.)

In the old 5&10, hardware items were usually toward the back of the store, and that’s where I headed. Once, with 25 cents in hand, probably a quarter from my grandmother, I could not wait until Boy Scout Troop 13 had finished its Friday night meeting at the Dutch Reformed Church so that I could get over to Consolidated, zoom down the long aisle to the right, back to the last glass-walled counter and then to the small bottles of turpentine. I got one for 19 cents, no tax, and once out of the store and on my walk home to Hillcrest, I opened it up to get the pine smell. The next day it was used on a wood-working project in my parents’ unfinished basement.

In larger downtowns, the dime stores had candy counters where you bought by the pound or fraction thereof. Loose candy – nonpareils were a favorite – were scooped up by the counter person, weighed in a hopper and then slid into a white paper bag, which you clutched tightly all the way home. Other 5&10s had wonderful donut counters, and as soon as you entered the store you could smell the sweetness. Every mom’s hand was soon tugged by a child with watering mouth. Even bigger stores had lunch counters with fountain service and quick, simple sandwiches, such as grilled cheese and chicken salad.

Just as Automats were once urban fixtures, complete with characters and good, dependable food, so 5&10s were small and big downtown meccas, one of the required stores that made main street Main Street, a place for every income level, almost always affordable, even for a fellow with an rare quarter burning a hole in his pocket. What an adventure they were.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Local identity

    It’s Rockland County, this place from which I write, this land north of New York City. It is not the Carolinas. Not Boston. Not San Francisco. Not Europe or Asia or South America. Or the Bronx or Brooklyn or Manhattan. Not even New Jersey, our closest relative.  It’s this special, unique place, defined by and for the individuals who live here. Whatever each of us finds pulling about this county is in that mix of emotion, personal attachment, gathered history and the sinew of having so far survived suburbia.
    
 Rockland helped define suburbia. As with Long Island’s famous Levittown, this county quickly built suburbia’s framework – in hundreds of housing developments since 1950; in civic associations that gave voice (sometimes loud) to former, once-living-in-anonymity Gothamites; in greater diversity in a region known for its varied mix since the 1600s; in added national infrastructure like the Thruway, Palisades Interstate Parkway, and, of course, the Tappan Zee Bridge; and in the growth -- the constant growth -- of everything, from government to schools to the tax load.
     
Has the trip been worth it so far? Yes … and … no. There are few Rocklanders who do not pine for some of the so-called “good, old days,” who would not take less traffic; a generally friendlier attitude from people; no air, visual or noise pollution from the Palisades lnterstate; more green space; fewer-filled in floodplains; our farms returned; downtowns restored; unlocked doors; less government; simplicity.
    
 It’s the nature of things to look back
wistfully, and even a Rocklander of a few
years’ residency can and does that. Take a
countyite of 75 years' duration or one
whose family dates back to the I600s, and
you really intensify the feeling. But we all
know that “progress” stops for no one,
and no change is entirely welcome.
     
That said, I would not trade my existence here in Rockland for any other spot that I have visited. This is a county of great variety in its people, groups and geography, and you have only to reach out
to touch some of it. Walk South Mountain
Road on a foggy morning; climb High Tor in
the fall; take the Hook Mountain path in the
summer; sail the Hudson; traipse through
downtown Suffern with the Ramapos in the
distance; look at the beauty of some of the
old custom-built homes on South Madison
Avenue in Spring Valley; hike the Dunderberg; bike through Tomkins Cove; spend an early morning on
Camp Hill Road in Pomona.
    
 Attend some function sponsored by our many caring agencies; go to an art show; hear and see
local performers; recognize the work of our many volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps people and others; realize how, in a pinch, even complaining Rocklanders help each other.
     
Yes, we are a busy place, sometimes too
fast-paced, too impersonal, too abrupt, even arrogant and cold. But this Rockland is also a mix of many interesting people with varied outlook and diverse background.
     
That is how it is in Rockland today; that is it was in
1798, and is one of the reasons more sedate, more countrified, Iess slower-paced Orange County was willing to let us go that year as we formed this county of Rockland.
    
 Our die was cast the moment the first
settler realized we were close to the great
port of New York. We are not the city by far, but
we are influenced by it, then, now and forever. We also exert influence, and even the most brusque former urbanite gets his edges polished and becomes this different breed called Rocklander.
     
Here’s an example of a Rocklander couple, Betsy and Jim Miller. They wrote me at The Journal-News to tell us of the old days in this county. “Many years ago,” they said, “when we had goats, chickens, etc., the schools used to make the property their yearly trip. 
We taught children to feel a warm egg, freshly laid, and they learned to get a squirt of milk from a goat and about nature.”
    
 Such description of an earlier time in Rockland speaks to the “quiet” of those days. Once, the close, personal family touch was more evident. 
    
 In my own youth, the Rockland neighborhood of the 1940s and 1950s, there was Spring Valley's John Romaine, a radio and TV expert, running projectors at the Hillcrest Firehouse during holidays so the area
youths could see cartoons and other films. He also had a small theater in his Locust Street home. There have been and are individuals in Rockland who care enough about their neighbors to do something for them. They should continue to be heard, for they speak eloquently.
    
 You define someone who lives in Rockland as either a countyite -- a “Rocklander” actually --  or someone who is just passing through, who may pick up some of our mannerisms but who simply wants to move on, who never really invests faith and emotion in this county. Make your choice. And be proud of the town, village or hamlet where you reside if you stay.
   
  No “community” can be called such unless it has residential interest. I’m old enough to have lived in pre-Tappan Zee Bridge, Thruway and Palisades lnterstate Parkway Rockland, and in those semi-rural days you were damn happy to call yourself a Valleyite or a Nyacker, Stony Pointer, Haverstrawite, Piermonter, Suffernite or whatever. Even in really countrified areas like Stony Point, there were geographical subsets, and termed yourself a Tomkins Cover or a Grassy Pointer.
     
The late James Farley, the famous organizer of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two presidential campaigns and the former postmaster general, never forgot that he came from Grassy Point. Rockland, yes. Stony Point, yes. But Grassy Point in particular. The air is a bit different there, you see, by the high tide and the lowlands on the Hudson River. A little different, you see, than living up in the hills off Franck Road.
     
Now, in this busy land we call Rockland, in a new century, so many residents just pass through. They are transferred here. They move from urban areas to seek a quieter lifestyle. They plan to reside here for a time and then retire to the Carolinas, along a golf course. That’s OK, and may they have a beautiful life, but while these people are here they ought to get to know their host. Rockland is the host. Specifically, a town, village or hamlet is the host. Live on Germonds Road? Then don't say you reside in New City. You exist, for a time anyway, in the hamlet of Germonds. Go to school at  Rockland Community College? That's not in Suffern; it’s in the hamlet of Viola. Call the Clarkstown police for information? Well, you are calling the police department, not the “local police precinct,” as one
Journal News reader put it to me. Likewise, it’s village hall, town hall or the county seat at New City, but not “city hall.”
    
 And, speaking of New City, though that's where the courthouse, Legislature and many executive county offices are located, it is merely a hamlet, not 
even a village and certainly not a city.
     
lf you run a business, put the name of your community on the truck. Tradesmen were once quite proud to include the community location. Now we see merely a cell phone number or an e-mail address.
     
 Why harp on this loss of identity? Because if we do not make an effort to know the area in which we live, we become disconnected automatons. We might as well be living anywhere. We work, come home to sleep in a development, go to malls (which are about the same everywhere) and never realize that each of Rockland's areas has uniqueness.
     
This Rockland is different, just as any area has its characteristics; revel in them. Our county is chock-full of history, far example. It is where the plan to end the Revolutionary War at Yorktown was hatched by Gen. George Washington (at Tappan); it is where this nation received its first gun salute from the British (at Piermont); it is the site of the first national railroad, the old Erie out of Piermont; it has figured in every major war; and its karma is such that no matter what happens in a big way nationally or internationally, there is usually a Rockland connection.
    
 People ought to live where they want and for as long as they like. And you do not have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Rocklander, shouting “rah, rah” every time the name is mentioned, but if you live here, even for just a few months, get to know where you are, who you are.
     
You are a Rocklander; you are a Dutchtowner or Montebelloite or Garnerviller or Snedens Landingite or Pearl Riverite or (fill in the blank). You are not just someone who lives “upstate” or “near New York City.” 
     
Cherish this Rockland.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

FALL FOLLOWS SUMMER (THANK GOD)


      The unexpected bonus of a very hot summer is anticipation of a boffo fall. This year, in the Northeast anyway, it better have moxie. The heat so far in these parts has been too much already.

 We have been averaging temps in the 90s, even very high 90s, when we usually have high 80s. Add extra-sticky humidity, and this is Georgia North. Fine for the Georgians but not for we climatically inbred northerners.

The summers many of us had as children in this part of New York State – seasons without house air conditioning –  were hot, too,  it seemed as if we had enough respite in the swimming areas then so easily accessible at low or no cost. Now, state budget cuts have closed some pools, and the free areas once available are long gone, bulldozed over for “progress.” (Trouble is, some people have houses sitting in old lake areas, and their basements become swimming pools, unwanted ones.)

In old summers, too, before the developments arose in the suburbs, boys built huts and tree houses out of scrap lumber and small felled wood, which we cobbled into overnight sleeping quarters. Many a present-day do-it-yourselfer learned how to saw wood and swing a hammer on these construction jobs.

Such night adventures took us away from attic heat and set us on an independent road. We all felt like pioneers or Davy Crockett. We all believed that Americans, by their nature, set out with little and chased a frontier. While, as 10-14 years olds,  we didn’t sit down and philosophize this belief, it was there nonetheless, felt deeply and instinctively, passed along by the culture and the economic times we lived in. Waking up with the animals in the woods was a free rite of passage then, and no boy came back home just a boy. The future usually looked brighter.

In 2010, it is summer heat, once again, that is promoting hope of a different sort. It can’t last forever, and I look forward to the morning and evening chill of autumn, its beautiful colors, the crunch of walking in leaves, the shift into cruising gear after chugging uphill. Like the young fellow toughing it out overnight in the woods, emerging more prepared for what’s ahead, this summer’s unforgivable high temps has cast a whetted appetite for fall.

May it come sooner than later.