Monday, September 26, 2011

DEODORIZING PROGRESS

     An apple may not fall far from its tree, but if one drops in 1932 and another fruit in 2011, that’s a story. Or a column.
I live in Blauvelt, New York State, now part of the New York City suburbs but in my youth and in my father’s, this hamlet was about as far away from Gotham as a suit is from a tractor. Yet, the intersection of Western Highway and Erie Street was the busiest in Rockland County in 1932, my dad’s time.
The state had recently opened a psychiatric hospital, and the many jobs afforded during the Great Depression brought heavy traffic along Native American/colonial roads, so much so that the intersection, with no traffic light, was labeled by The Journal-News as the most traveled daily. An amazing fact since the crossing was smack dab in the country, not far from a newly built state highway, yes, but really in a bucolic setting. Tomato farms, orchards, a few summer bungalows and historic homes comprised the area.
Near the corner of Western Highway and Erie was a small apple tree left over from a strand of them. It was next to a recently constructed semi-Craftsman home sitting at the intersection. This tree, like all of Blauvelt and all of Rockland, was not used to the smell of automobile and bus exhaust nor the vibrations heavy daily traffic brought. Maybe that’s why it dropped apples more quickly than, say, the trees at Concklin’s, Davies’ or Brown’s orchards where acre upon acre afforded the fruit kinsmanship. The apples would quickly turn soft in the near-autumn sun and fill the air with a sweet fragrance, a fine counterpoint to the exhaust of progress. Children walking by would smash the fruit under their feet or kick them back and forth to one another.
In the decades since 1932, which include post-World War II super growth, the apple tree has gotten old but, amazingly, still produces fruit. The home at Western and Erie is also there, front porch and all, and the American scene at the intersection is even more hectic than it was 79 years ago. No longer Rockland’s busiest corner -- about 100 intersections vie for that dubious distinction -- the crossing probably handles more than 1,500 vehicles a day, including huge tractor trailers hauling trash to a compacting plant over roads that can hardly carry the load. 
The psychiatric center long ago downsized, and by then its workers came from all directions, across many intersections. Western and Erie lost its busiest corner marking a long time ago.
But the apple tree still drops fruit from vehicle vibration and the air still smells of exhaust, the fallen apples trying their best, as always, to deodorize progress. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A CHILD'S SMILE


     America doesn’t smile much these days. Jobs gone, debt, deficit, taxes, disappointing “leaders,” the greedy, less spirit, confused purpose -- not much to be happy about. Until you see a child’s face.
Not talking about my own grandchildren, for I am prejudiced. Nor the smiles of any particular kids I know. As with so much of life, it is the anonymous who are seen most acutely, most honestly. We have no direct stake in who they are, where they have been, where they are going. There are no ties, no responsibilities in the seconds it takes to glance at their openness, the smile from non-cluttered thinking in childhood expression.
Where are they, the young who smile? In innocence, surely. In curiosity, yes. In mile-a-minute thinking as their fertile, inquisitive minds begin to collect and catalog sights, sounds, smells, emotions. Most of all, in imagination, in that magical world where there are few limits, where super heroes are made and trusted, where Cinderella can meet her fella, where right can win out, where the frontier is the jump over the moon into the cosmos, and of course any child can do that. He/she has not been taught otherwise.
Adults have forgotten so much of a child’s world and come to tolerate it as a growing phase worthy of a nice pat on the head as they plan for college way too soon, not remembering that the best education in their own lives was when they were young and few boundaries had been set. Who is the wisest in the set? The youth in imagination or the “accomplished” adult who has made a mess of things in today’s America?
The nation no longer smiles, but the young still do, in almost any circumstance. All things seem possible in such early time, anything. 
Pity that we grow up. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

OF SATURDAYS AND MOMS


     A Colorado correspondent and I had a recent e-mail exchange on moms and Saturdays, 1950s style, and the conclusion was that we each pretty much were on our own, though with a different “push” from mothers. My friend reported, “I don't recall ever being chased from the house ... Saturday mornings were always trips to Nyack (New York) for laundry and shopping, and they were enjoyable. Much more to me, I'm sure, than to my mom. I was responsible for cleaning my room and doing the household dusting -- probably why I recall the lamps and knickknacks from my youth fairly well -- and then was free. Kept out from underfoot well because I didn't want additional jobs. ...”
I didn’t do any chores, at least on Saturday, and I was definitely chased out of the house by my working mom, who with my father, would tackle the week’s laundry and dust. They, particularly my mother, did not want my brother and I to be in the way, and so we were sent packing for six or so hours.
Not a bad deal as it turned out, since my parents had some peace, and though Craig and I generally went separate ways to individual friends or haunts, the key companion for both of us was imagination. No cell phones or pocket video games, no “booked” activities. We had long periods when imagination kept boredom away. We let our minds wander, in day-dreaming, sometimes in the imagination offered by books and their plots and characters,  and in hands-on effort like building huts and tree houses.
I had a regular Saturday walking route as well. I’d sleep in Saturdays, get up about 9:30, quickly wolf down raisin bran cereal and, knowing my mom would soon be looking my way, leave the Hillcrest, N.Y.,  house, turn left on Karnell, then right on State and right on Hickory where there was a wooded path that ran through the back of one of the numerous summer hotels in the area. In off-season, it was abandoned, and we kids used to take it as a shortcut to North Main Street, but not before we stopped at the open barn and sat at an old grinding wheel and gave it a spin. On North Main, I would head through downtown Spring Valley, past the same shops that greeted my father and grandfather in their day. It was a brief walk in town, six-streets-long, but coming from the countrified area of Hillcrest,  the hick in me had come city-courtin’, and I was less of a hermit for a moment. It was like getting warm sun on your face on a chilly day, a welcome necessity though you wouldn’t want to stay in the sun forever. 
Soon I was across the 1840s Erie track,  headed for the South Main Street School where I played in a yard enjoyed by my dad 20 years before. It had not changed a bit.
I might run into a friend, but more often I was alone, day-dreaming my way across town, looking at the stores, the street characters. I passed the time, enough so that I could come back home just when my mom finished her cleaning.
It was a routine, a 1950s moment in which kids like myself and my Colorado correspondent kept busy, out of trouble and with enough visiting in imagination, in day-dreaming, that I can say I was hardly ever lonely.

Monday, September 5, 2011

NO 'LABOR' FROM LEADERS


     EVERYWHERE, USA -- How is labor supposed to rest on this noted day when there are so few jobs? The many unemployed already have nothing but downtime. How did a rich, progressive, innovative, democratic, promising nation, always one with a frontier to conquer, become stuck in high joblessness and its growing disease, low expectation? Where will our children’s children be on Labor Day 2051? Where are many Americans today?
This nation, conceived in liberty, should not have won its war against the well-trained and equipped British; came close to returning to the king in 1812; could have been destroyed by our worst conflict -- brother against brother in the Civil War; could have collapsed economically in the later-1800s depressions; could have lost its identity in the great immigrations, if Old World prejudices had lingered; could have withered and collapsed in the Great Depression; and could have been permanently misdirected in the civil rights crisis, the Vietnam War, Watergate and Sept. 11. But our citizens' bearings remained set. We continued our optimism, inventiveness, innovation, charity and move toward equality. 
Not so government, which has lost its way. Today, the presidency and the Congress are isolated, reacting largely to the monied interests required for re-election, encumbered by procedure and lobbies that keep the executive and legislative branches apart from the American mainstream -- its pain and suffering, its hopes and desires.
On this Labor Day 2011, the sweat of many millions of our men and women, our forebears, are now the tears in the eyes of the jobless, in the eyes of parents who fear for their children’s future. Yet we retain our great energy and patriotism and native can-do American spirit ready to tackle the next frontier, if only, if only, that would be set by our leaders. 
Where are they?