Dale and Drew’s world

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The summer’s over? The view of the LI Sound from the shore of Saugatuck Island where Dale and Drew live.  Their house is a block from here, but you’re always aware of the close proximity of the Sound.

It was such a beautiful day.  “Crystal clear” is an overused expression, but it fits.  I drove 265 miles on Monday Sept. 10 to visit New London followed by Dale and Drew in Westport, CT. The sky such a deep clear blue with billowing white clouds. Playing CDs in the car stereo that I’ve never listened to (Luna, tribute to Bob Dylan) or rarely (Matthew Sweet rareties, Little Feat, Sonic Youth’s Murray Street).  On such a day, 95 from New York through Connecticut, usually a dreary road, looked… good! Traffic was moving, the sun was shining and the music was transporting.  It was a day with the first hints of autumn in the air.  It truly felt like back-to-school (a fitting day to revisit Connecticut College). And one of many highlights was when Dale and I drove to their previous home in Wilton from their house in Westport – it was a top-down kind of afternoon in Dale’s convertible!

The view from the backyard of Dale and Drew’s old house in Wilton.  We parked in Nick’s driveway, who still lives behind this backyard

Driving from D&D’s house on Saugatuck Isl. to Wilton takes only about 20 minutes, but the locations are world’s apart (something Dale commented on).  On the drive, Dale remarked how she seldom had driven these roads in the 11+ years it’s been since they’ve moved, and as we drive further north on Rte. 7, closer to her old house on Sugarloaf Drive, the changes became apparent to her.  One big change: traffic lights where no traffic lights had been before.  We passed a carnival set up on the side of the road near the high school, and it was hard to miss the ferris wheel lodged perilously close to the road.  It brought Dale back: when the family live in Wilton, the carnival came every fall and she always hated that ferris wheel.  I can’t blame her – I, too, never trusted those temporary rides that were set up for a week or so, then dismantled and set up again elsewhere.  What if the installers missed an important bolt or tamp-down device??  Dale and I looking and commenting about the ferris wheel: a bunch of old worry-worts from the Crab family.

On Saugatuck Island you are always aware of the sky and the water, and on Sugarloaf Drive in Wilton you are simply aware of the woods.  Though the neighborhood is as they say in New England, “thickly settled,” you’re aware of the deep respect the homeowners have for all their trees.  There is thick cover over everything; huge canopies of leaves from all the trees cast a strong shade throughout the looping ride on Sugarloaf.  Traveling on Sugarloaf you quickly become one with the forest, and it is an awesome feeling.  And this isn’t a traditional first-ring type of suburb built to house the initial wave of city dwellers who left the city to commute from the “country.” Those original suburbs, like Teaneck, like Lower Merion, were planned with walkers in mind.  There are sidewalks, there is street parking, the houses are close together.  Wilton is over 50 miles from New York City.  Though now I imagine many residents commute to the city, it doesn’t have that first-ring suburban feel.  The houses on Sugarloaf are newer, most I imagine built in the last 50 years, though many (all?) of the original homes have either been extensively remodeled or torn down in favor of newer, bigger construction.  Driving on Sugarloaf, looking up at the all trees covering us (remember, we’re in a convertible), we realized there’s no place to park or to pull over.  We slowly drove past house after house which brought Dale back.  A few houses featured brand new construction since she’s been there last.  As we approached her old home, we knew what to do: go by their former neighbor Nick who lived right behind them.  We could park in his driveway and use that as an anchor for looking at their old house.

Nick happened to be home.  Nick and his wife Anne had moved behind Dale and Drew when Geoff and Alli were small, and they became good friends, sharing their backyard without any fencial interruptions (great word – don’t bother looking it up).  I think that friendship was one of the hardest factors in their move to Westport; you are very lucky if you have a neighbor who becomes a good friend.  Dale hadn’t been to Nick’s house since the move; when Nick’s son Teddy answered the door Dale was floored.  He’s a high school senior and Dale hadn’t seen him in a looonnnngggg time.  In comparison, her old house is pretty much the same, but kids, man, they change.  It is a flooring feeling to not see kids in years.

Walking into Dale and Drew’s old backyard. Nick is our guide. And here’s the hill where Geoff and Alli used to sled down.

When Dale and Drew moved into this house, it was a modest ranch on a huge property.  There was a ride-on mower somehow attached to the deal with the landscaped acre.  The part of the house that stayed the same in its transformation from ranch to two-story colonial was the wonderful stone fireplace in the living room.  Dale explains how she always loved that fireplace.  At five o’clock, in for the evening, she would light a fire and the living room  would then be the centerpiece, the gathering place, of the evening.  I’ve always romanticized fireplaces: we had one on Upland Road that was never used (mom had long claimed it was something with the chimney).  Her and Jack put in a ceramic fireplace in their newly-constructed den on Grassmere Rd.  One of the reasons Beatrice St. became a “yes” for me was the fireplace; maybe we’re carrying on the tradition that Dale used to embrace.

Looking at the house from the outside, there have been a few changes in the 11+ years: the paint,s a different color (Dale liked her yellow better), additional decking added to the rear, tastefully done mason work accenting the landscaping in the front, but overall the sense of the house remains the same. I wonder if Geoff and Alli were here would they would sense things differently?  Geoff was going into tenth grade when they moved; Alli was going into eighth.  Maybe the yard, which is big, had seemed massive to them, as if each end were in separate time zones.  I always got such a sense of space in their old house in Wilton, but that’s maybe I kept visiting from much smaller spaces, whether East 10th Street in the city, Delano Place in Fairview, Tilden Ave or Beatrice St (even though each subsequent space for us has gotten bigger an bigger).  It’s all about personal perspective – you can’t escape it.

The front of the house on Sugarloaf.

We never spent much time in the front (which looks so much smaller than the back view).  You’d spy the house on the road, then pull into the driveway (which, steeply banked, was very difficult in wintry weather, which Dale reminded me).  You’d rarely enter through the front door.  You’d enter through the kitchen door by the garage, or by the garage itself.  I have so many memories of the driveway, but most paramount was the dumpster that was in place when they were cleaning out the ranch house in preparation for the big construction (they lived in a condo for about six months until the work was completed).  I came up for a few days to help them out.  At one point Drew asked me to throw out his record collection.  Now this was the early, mid-90s, when the shift to CDs was complete, and many folks were foregoing their record collection in favor of CDs.  I’ve always loved my records, but these weren’t mine, they were Drew’s, so I brought armful after armful out to the dumpster.  Job completed, but then it hit me: what if years from now Drew began to miss one of his old records.  What if he were – in a wave of nostalgia – to set up a turntable and want to listen to his old vinyl.  He wouldn’t be able to, and why? Because brother-in-law Bob had thrown them all out.  No!!!  I went outside late that night, climbed into the dumpster, and dedumpstered Drew’s vinyl, telling him if he wants to get rid of the records, he would have to do the dirty work himself… I would not be blamed.

back to the back and the many-layered deck

Walking to the back again – our car is parked at Nick’s – I again look at the house.  We had a lot of good times in the backyard.  I remember all of us sitting on the deck at many gatherings.  If we were staying overnight, I could drink without thinking about driving back.  If we came for a day trip I would drink but then stop, giving me ample time to let the alcohol leave my system for the ride back.  And if it was hard to stop drinking in Wilton, it was twice as hard after Dale and Drew moved to Saugatuck Island, and Drew installed a kegorator first in his garage, eventually in his bar in the backyard.  Which brings us back to the present.

A view out the driver’s side window as you drive up Harbor Rd. toward Saugutuck Island.

There is nothing like the water.  It attracts so many of us.  We yearn to live by the water, to spend time by the water.  Even if you don’t take advantage of it, it is easy to romanticize a life by the sea (see my City Island post).  Though both Wilton and Westport are top-tiered suburbs, there is a great contrast between Saugatuck Island and Sugarloaf Drive (if you’re visiting them back to back, it’s very apparent).  Goodbye wood-chipper.  Hello clam bake.

A bridge to crawl over

How’s this for an entry way.  You come down Harbor and you have to drive real slow to take in the beautiful vista on your left.  As the road winds, up ahead is a… bridge? You slow down even further.  There are speed bumps and a “5 mph” sign.  You take it… barely.  You stay in first gear.  There is only room for one car at a time (no trucks), and you feel the earth…move…under your feet as you crawl up and down the bridge.  Sure, the powers-that-be could replace this quaint crossing in a heartbeat with something more efficient and sensible, but then the old worldliness of this crossing experience would be no more.  Yea to the old world! (and… there is a way onto the island without bridging it. In actuality, this really isn’t an island, but a peninsula.   If we have RINOs this election season, is this an IINO (Island In Name Only)?  Maybe at one point it used to be truly an island, but landfill changed it?

The back of Dale and Drew’s house on Saugatuck. The bar area is underneath the overhand.

Throughout these blog postings, you will probably see a scarcity of back yards, yet with Dale and Drew the back yards are featured.  Yea for access.  The area around Dale and Drew’s is spectacular for what you can’t see: the water.  However, you know it’s there, a block-and-a-half away.  But the Sound, and the spirit of the island, dominate their lives.  Most of the hanging is upstairs – it’s where the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedrooms are.  There’s a fireplace, but it’s gas, and a simple flick of the wrist turns it on and off (the massive chimney you see pictured is for the fireplace on the first floor, which isn’t used much).  The downstairs main room empties right onto the side yard and

If you look carefully, you can see the “Landshark” beer tap on the keg on the very left side of the bar

back yard patio. And the highlight of the patio is the bar.  Dale and Drew love to entertain, and Drew is in his element when he’s behind the stick.  Maybe in a former life he was a bartender (or a fisherman).  When Drew has his people around him, good music streaming from the speakers (you can see a white speaker above the bar), he is having a good time and is making sure that everyone is feeling the same.  I look at this shot, and think of other photographs taken over the past ten years and times simply hanging there.  There’s something I find very real about feeling nostalgic for the present – realizing that a place is special and will always be special.  Appreciating it in the now knowing that it won’t be there forever (well, it will, but other people will be living there).  If/when Dale and Drew move, how can this be anything but Drew’s bar????  If I come back to visit, I would sincerely hope the new owners would welcome me with a draft.  I’ll have to ask for that to be a rider in the sales contract.

Walking down Island Way to the beach, this is the house right on the water.

Out of all the houses I’ve seen in the places that Dale and Drew have lived, this is by far my favorite.  Of course it’s the location: right on the water.  But I love the simplicity of the structure and the dramatic opening that lets the view shine through for anyone walking down the street.  It’s almost as if the home were sharing: of course this is my view, but please look as well.  Enjoy.  It’s for all of us.  The home does not have to wow us with girth or decorative geegaws.  If you could live here, you wouldn’t need a television, you would only need to look out your living room window.  You would always be enlightened and you would never be bored.

City Island: The Grit and the Gulls

Wouldn’t you want to live here? Looking at Long Island Sound at the end of Carroll Street on City Island.  You can even see the twin towers of the  Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance, which reminds me of commuting.

Gail and I started the summer wanting to visit six New York Islands.  We started with Roosevelt Island, then ventured to Ellis Island (see previous post).  A few weeks back we spent the late afternoon/evening in City Island in the Bronx.  It is a world unto itself, a sea shore village with a unique urban edge.  It is also a place where Gail’s dad Harry lived for a year at some point when Gail was in high school.  Where did he live?  That was part of our detective work this afternoon.  One place that she always remembered from the few times she visited her as a youngster: The Black Whale where she used to eat dessert, and where we did the same at the end of our day.

The above shot I like for a number of reasons. The houses at the end of the blocks on the west side of the island are stunning and have incredible views (one can even see the city skyline about nine or so miles away).  They all have their own private “beach;” they’re waterfront properties that have the water all to themselves.  But the biggest reason: look past the manicured lawn, the Adirondack chair facing westward, and you can see the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance.  My Throgs Neck Bridge (It’s all about me, right?)  The bridge I drive over four days a week when I’m teaching to get to Nassau Community College.  It’s always a highlight of my commute when I’m on the bridge (wait – can a horrible commute have a “highlight?”).   But bridges can be so iconic, and the TNB certainly is.  I fantasize: wouldn’t it be great to live on CI and commute to work from there?  I could avoid the GWB and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Living in CI, in a matter of moments I would be approaching the TNB.  My commute could be 20 minutes – if I lived in a dreamland (truth be told, it would probably take me a lot longer to get off island and then get to 95, but this is a fantasy.  Also, part of this fantasy is Gail having retires – this is years from now.  She could sub and one of the island’s two public schools).  And – hey – here I am on a beautiful August afternoon on this beautiful City Island and I’m strategizing commuting if we ever move here.  What is wrong with me????

Looking down Carroll Street looking west. The house from the first shot would have been by the water on the left side of the street. Notice the double-red stop light at the end of the block warning drivers that there ain’t no road left.

One of the unique characteristics of the island is how narrow it is.  There is one main drag that goes up and down the island.  It is the spine of the island.  The east-west roads only intersect City Island Avenue.  There are no other intersecting roads.  While City Island Avenue has shops, playgrounds, boat supply shops, schools, restaurants, churches (and abandoned store fronts), while it is a three lane road (with the middle lane reserved for emergency vehicles – after all most structures are pretty old and most are of wood construction) the traffic and noise can remind you that you are still in the Bronx.  However, step off the avenue and you feel as if you have stepped out of time into a different world.  It’s quiet.  You can smell good things like the sea, like the vegetation.  Late August sunlight is intense filtered off the water and through the trees.

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Gail walking eastward down Carroll Street, away from the house in the first shot.

Another house on Carroll Street. It is hard to believe we are in New York City

A beautiful clapboard church along City Island Ave. I love all the electric wires going north, south, east, and west. And look carefully, you can see a bit of the Long Island Sound to the left way behind the pole.

So we parked on Carroll and explored that street, we then walked down City Island Avenue a half-mile or so until the island’s end.  It ends in honky tonk, two seafood restaurants that remind me of a City Island version of Cape May Point’s Sunset Beach (multiply their six tables by 25??).  Pigeons peck and seagulls swoop.  Young guys in motorboats and jetskis are hot dogging and racing right by the sea wall – kinda like dudes on motorcycles screaming by you on the west side highway.  It is an intense scene.  Crowded for an early Thursday night.  We’ve eaten here before on a previous visit, but we wander, retracing our steps up City Island Avenue to find a place for dinner.

How can you resist?

We sit outside at Sammy’s a beautiful late August night.  The menu is extensive, and expensive.  It’s hot out – but we feel the air conditioning coming in from the open doors of the restaurant.  We order two beers and they come in frozen mugs… just the ticket.  We decide on raw clams and oysters.  It’s a hot night on City Island.  We leisurely eat our food, drink our beers, enjoy this deeply pleasurable moment of our lives.

Sitting outside at Sammy’s

Gail had remembered “Pilot Street” as her dad’s old address.  He lived there for a year, she visited him two, maybe three times.  How does she remember?  How does memory work?  How can we remember an old address from 35 years ago but not the name of the main character of a tv drama we watch week after week???  Pilot is just around the corner from Sammy’s.  We walk up the street of older homes.  Some houses in City Island look as if the caretaker stopped really caring sometime during the Bush administration.  Lots of sagging parts, yards overgrown and littered with rusty old shit.  And some homes are beautiful and impeccably maintained.  But walking down Pilot nothing seemed familiar to Gail.  Harry wouldn’t have lived in a house – it wouldn’t have been his style.   Maybe he kept his boat out by the island somewhere?  At the end of Pilot there is an apartment building.  It didn’t look familiar, but the longer we lingered, the clearer the realization came.

This must be the place.  Later the mystery is solved: 11 Pilot Street.

The building itself didn’t register any bang.  but where else would Harry have lived on Pilot?  And we’re talking 1975.  The building faces the water.  Harry could have been watching sunsets.  There was no “aha” moment, just the strong probability that this must be the place.  And later in the evening when we were having dessert in the Black Whale, the actual address came to Gail.  30 Pilot Street.  She Googled it on her phone and the building came up.

Okay, we’re not going to move there anytime soon (days later the realization came to me that unless you’re living right on the water, you really have very little access to the water.  It’s not like the Jersey shore where every block offers access.  Here there is only access for elite homeowner (though the 99%  can gaze from behind the concrete barriers at street’s end).  But it’s fantastic place.  A true mix of urban and sea shore.  The grit and the gulls.  The old buildings still seem to stand – there doesn’t seem to have been a rush of newer construction that ruined old places.  Sure some storefronts are new (or newly empty), and some new buildings have sprung up, but I would venture to guess that the essence of City Island hasn’t changed as much as other places have changed, say in the past 30 years.  It was already developed, it probably isn’t any more densely settled than it was.  Somehow, I feel at home here.  Through the mixture of urban and seashore, I’m reminded of the Atlantic City of my youth, but in a good way.  And you can see the Manhattan skyline from here.  One is never far away from the cultural hub of the universe.

Outside the Black Whale, which remains Gail’s strongest memory of her teenage visits to City Island. 

The sunsets are spectacular for those facing west on City Island. Notice the Manhattan skyline behind the gazebo.

Spending Time in Ron’s Room

In the back seat of Rojana’s VW camper van, on the way from Boulder to Red Rocks to see NY&CH!

Reader Beware: In the post ahead I risk sounding like a gushing teenager rather than 53 year old man.  Now, Gail and I have been to hundreds of concerts, and have hundreds of concert experiences, quite a few experiences punctuated with a capital “E.”  Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Red Rocks on August 5 deserves all the capital letters.

Ron had purchased four tickets – for Gail, me, himself, and, as it turned out, for his friend Rojana.  Ron made Rojana an offer she couldn’t refuse: In exchange for a ticket, all she had to do was drive us all in her VW camping van, in which we could pre-game and post-game in the comforts of the van in the parking lot of Red Rocks.   The ride from Boulder to Red Rocks is about 45 minutes, and in a van packed with beer, wine, and all sorts of delectables, off we went, Gail and I passengerizing about 12 feet behind the driver and her navigator.

we’re not in East Rutherford, NJ: Entrance to Red Rocks

Pulling into Red Rocks is an extraordinary experience.  You’re driving from Boulder with the face of the Rockies to your right and flat lands – more like gentle bumpy lands – to your left.  You pass signs for roads taking you up into the mountains.  You pass signs for Golden, Colorado, and, yes, you can see the Coors Brewery.  But the overall impression is space.  There are a few weathered eating/drinking establishments on the road, and a couple of recently-built condo developments, and as you’re taking it all in the driver makes a right up into the mountains, and you’re climbing, climbing.  Rock formations crop up and explode out of the red ground.  Before you know it, you are going into a tunnel carved through the rock.  Up ahead there’s a sign.  Further there’s a parking area.  There’s not a hint of commercialism, and except for the two land blacktop, no asphalt.  Welcome to Red Rocks.

The parking lot at Red Rocks doesn’t feel like a parking lot, more like a camp site.  What was so funny?

From car stereos parked nearby, you hear Neil.  Old Neil.  You unpack the camping chairs and the coolers.  It’s over two hours before show time and you take some photographs and take it all in.  The open space, the mountains, the rocks, the distances (yes, you can see Denver, which appears as some distant mirage).  You are having lots of laughs, Rojana talking about her years of following the Dead.  You’re all reminiscing of where you were and what you were doing the day Jerry Garcia died, the day Elvis Presley died, the day John Lennon died (how did we get here?)  All sorts of people walking by .  You are relishing in the moment, surrounded by a new friend and two of your best friends.

Another glimpse of the parking lot. Hey, who takes a cab to Red Rocks?

Walking from the parking lot into the amphitheater

the stage at Red Rocks

The stage at Red Rocks. Can you see Neil’s Indian statue?

Walking into the Red Rocks amphitheater is just as otherworldly as entering the parking lot.  Our lot was on top of the amphitheater, so we walked along a trail that afforded us the view that you see pictured.  You enter from below and we walked right in front of the stage.  Since the rows of benches are built onto the cliffside, the stage is not much more than a foot off the ground (front row seaters must feel like the artist is in their living room, or that they’re busking on the street – it’s that immediate.  You’re literally staring eyeball to eyeball with the artist).  And you can see from the image above that the stage is surrounded by rocks.  As Bonnie Raitt quipped to Ron backstage before a show at Red Rocks, “I feel like I’m in the Flintstones.”

The cheap seats offer the best view

After passing the stage, we climbed.  And climbed.  Huffed and puffed (the air is thinner up in the mountains).  When Ron bought the tickets he purposely bought the cheapest seats which would give us the greatest view of the space and place that is Red Rocks.  You’re not up close and personal with the artist, but you are up close and personal with the experience of being there: the artist and the environment.  This shot was taken during the opening set by the Alabama Shakes, who were great.  Transcended being so far away.  Soulful, hip-hugging, rocking.  They received a standing ovation from the crowd.  After returning home I immediately bought their record.  They were that good.

And Neil Young.  To put this show in perspective, like many of his best shows, over half the show was brand new material.  As I’m writing this post, I’m listening to Neil’s live acoustic album “Live in Massey Hall 1971.”  At one point, he explains to the audience (this is ’71 Neil I’m writing about) , “I’m going to sing mainly new songs rather than old ones.”  Of course these “new” songs played live in 1971 were eventually recorded and released as “Harvest,” arguable his most commercially successful record.  And now they’re classics.  But at that time the audience didn’t know them.  One of my all-time favorite Neil albums, “Time Fades Away” – criminally never released on CD – was a live album of brand new songs, songs that only exist on that live LP.  When I saw Neil in 1978, in what would be known as the Live Rust tour, “Rust Never Sleeps” had yet to be released, so they were all new songs.  And of course, one of my favorite tours was in 2003 when Neil previewed “Greendale”, playing the album in its entirety to a bewildered crowd at Madison Square Garden.  Me: I was enthralled and grooving on every new song.  The last time we saw Neil he played songs that were to become his mediocre “Fork in the Road” release.  But he keeps challenging his audience.

And, yes, he did the same thing at Red Rocks.  Half the set – half the set! was brand new material.  I was prepared to hear a lot of “Americana,” the first full NY&CH release in nearly 15 years (by “prepared” I mean I really like the record, but the novelty does flatten things out by the end of the listen, though the band sounds brutally fresh).  They played nothing from Americana, opening up with an explosive “Love and Only Love” and then “Powderfinger.”  And from that it got weirder.  And better.  One new song was especially mind-blowing, “Walk Like a Giant.”  On the ride up to Red Rocks, Ron was explaining how dinosaurs used to roam this area of Colorado, a large amount of dinosaur bones and skeletons have been discovered on the hills around Red Rocks.  And in this stomping, tremendous song, I felt I were living in the time of dinosaurs.  Neil and Crazy Horse were KILLING it.  The song went on for about 15 minutes toward what seemed like a natural conclusion.  But no.  The ending became brutal In its descending power chord thrust and chomp, (wait), chomp, (wait), chomp.  The three guitar players huddled together davening.  Yes, davening, like religious Jews at a temple.  And as it chomped on and on, the big red moon slowly rose over the landscape to add an even richer perspective to an already epic experience.  Again, at the risk of sounding like an over-excited teenager (and I’m writing about this over three weeks after the fact): OMG!!!

Red Rocks Parking lot at the end the day

Ron’s shot of us and the van hours after the show.

The last ending crunch of “Over and Over” fades.  No further encores.  The show is over.  Since we’re already at the top of the amphitheater, it’s not a long walk to the van where, once again, we take out the camping chairs and coolers and have another great time hanging while all the traffic tries to snake down from the mountain.  We wait.  And wait.  And Ron takes this great shot of the emptied parking lot at show’s end.

“I won’t retire… but I might retread.” Neil Young, “Falling from Above”

On reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Opening page of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

In a Mark Twain state of mind.  Having finished Ron Power’s biography, I moved into rereading the classic Twain text (which I last fully read – maybe…maybe… – twenty years ago).  In the years since I’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn maybe half-a-dozen times (because of teaching it).  HF looms large, and in many ways I’ve always been dismissive of TS , though that is largely from reading so much criticism of Twain that largely reduces TS to being a good story, but not in the same league as HF.  However, it is one thing to not be in the same league as, another to not bother with it because of its inferiority.  Does one forsake other Beatles albums because they are not in the same realm as Sgt. Pepper or Revolver?  Other Pink Floyd albums because they are not Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here (aside: which we listened to a few nights ago, sitting in the living room and just listening.  Gail, Jake, Jake’s friend Kim and me.  Kim had just seen The Wall performed by Roger Waters at Yankee stadium.  I digress).  Anyway, I wanted to reconnect with the book, having remembered some key scenes (the obvious fence painting, the cave scene (which I remembered incorrectly I realized.   Thanks memory).

One pleasure of the text: the ease of boyhood life that Twain depicts in his fictional town on the banks of the Mississippi – largely based on his boyhood in Hannibal, MO, in the early 1850s.  Twain – writing TS, Life on the Mississippi, and HF – brings the reader back to the world of his lived and imagined boyhood.  The 1870s and 1880s were a time rife with change (the failed Reformation, the industrial revolution).  Writing from his study in his newly built home in Nook Farm in Hartford (see previous post) as well as his sister-in-law’s home in Elmira, NY, Twain closed his eyes and visited the threshold of memory and imagination.  Twain writes to Will Bowen, a close boyhood friend, on Feb. 6, 1870: “I have rained reminiscences for four & twenty hours.  The old life has swept before me like a panorama; the old days have trooped by in their old glory again.”  Twain digs in deep and goes back to the Hannibal of his boyhood: the imagined, romanticized Hannibal of his early days.  In doing so he waxes nostalgic for a time that has passed, and as a man in his late 30s of a boyhood that has long passed.  It’s amazing – this is what literature does – to realize that nostalgia knows no particular era.  We as humans are always nostalgic for what once was.  The past is always present.  The present is always the past.

One of the pleasures of the text for me this go round: Tom Sawyer and the boys appreciating the act of being idle.  Idleness is a lost art: the art of doing nothing.  But nothing is never ever really nothing.  I can’t seem to be doing nothing, though someone looking at my life (especially in the summer when I’m not teaching) could say I’m “doing nothing.”  But our 2012 lives are crammed.  Jake and Kevin’s lives are crammed.  Their idleness seems to be in sleeping (though Jake has had a good loafing weekend this weekend (I’m writing this post on a temperate but cloudy Sunday afternoon while sitting out back on the porch.  And I ain’t loafing, I’m writing.  Though to some people this might be loafing.  Who am I fooling?).  Yesterday – my…ahem…53rd birthday – Jake took Kim to the airport at nine a.m., came home with bagels and lox for all (yeah Jake!), and after Gail left to go to a brunch, we sat around, played Twixt, then I played some old vinyl.  Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising.  Jake was asleep on the sofa, his read nearly resting on his open computer, by side 2.  How could anyone fall asleep to Hüsker Dü?

But I digress.  Loafing.  On of the pleasures of the text.  Romanticizing of a rural time gone by.  Certainly a time of innocence and imagination.  A time in which kids could run free with their imaginations, pre television, pre air conditioning, pre computer games, pre internet and social media, pre parental involvement (but also pre medical advances and racial equality).  Shit, if kids didn’t come home after awhile, the adults simply dragged the river hoping their bodies would float to the surface! But the boys – Tom especially (it is his story) – had a rich inner life that showed a sensitivity and awareness of their awesome place in the scheme of life.  Followed is one of my favorite passages from Chapter 13 in which Tom, Huck and Joe run away to Jackson Island:

  • They found plenty of things to be delighted with but nothing to be astonished at.  They    discovered that the island was about three miles long and a quarter of a mile wide, and that the shore, it last closest to was only separated from it by a narrow channel hardly two hundred yards wide.  They took a swim about every hour, so it was close upon the middle of the afternoon when they got back to camp.  They were too hungry to stop to fish, but they fared sumptuously upon cold ham, and then threw themselves down in the shade to talk.  But the talk soon began to drag, and then died.  The stillness, the solemnity that brooded in the woods, that the sense of loneliness, began to tell upon the spirits of the boys.  The fell to thinking.  A sort of undefined longing crept upon them.  This took dim shape, presently – it was budding home-sickness.  Even Finn the Red-Handed was dreaming of his door-steps and empty hogsheads.  But they were all ashamed of their weakness, and none was bave enough to speak his thought.

I love how Twain allows all these young boys to be aware of the “sense of loneliness” of being away on the island for a few days.  This feeling will be heightened in HF; in the later book Huck seems to continually remark – in that powerful first-person pov – how lonely he is.

Another pleasure of the text is the illustrations.  I felt reading this facsimile of the first edition of TS, much as I felt reading the facsimile of the first edition of HF, that the success of the book owes a tremendous amount to True Williams’ illustrations.  Nearly every other page has some type of illustration.  It brings the reader into the world of the book in a way that Brian Selznick’s beautiful illustrations of The Adventures of Hugo Cabret did.  As a reader, it is so pleasurable to linger over the illustrations and let the images help inform and  color the world of Twain’s text.  Twain himself was very happy with Williams’ work, and though he composed without pictures – they were added with Twain’s enthusiastic consent in publishing – they are indispensable to me.  I can’t imagine feeling the same way in reading the book without the pictures (ditto for HF).  And most readers who approach the text have read it in budget versions that do not include illustrations as all!  A great injustice!  I found a 99 cent version online which replicates the original text (but on my Kindle in some kind of bastardized form – maybe better on an IPad?)  There is hope that future readers can all see replications of the original publication.  I am so happy to have these facsimile versions (and sad to see this series – published by Oxford UP – is now out-of-print).  I am proud to have four of their 20+ volumes on my bookshelf.  It was tremendous to read TS in this way in which it was originally published.  What follows are three of my favorite illustrations that truly capture the sense of place and space, something in which this blog is devoted to:

The above three images are some of my favorites of True Williams’ illustrations to Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer taken from a facsimile of the first edition of the text.

On a New York island (part one – visiting Ellis Island)

Looking northward from the dock at Liberty State Park

Friday was a cool, rainy, wind-swept day.  Perfect weather for a ferry trip from Liberty State Park to Ellis Island.  Gail had been there four, five, or six times previously with 70 eight and nine year olds in tow.  This trip was to prove to different in many ways.  Driving up to Liberty State Park is an experience.  You drive on a congested two-lane offshoot of the turnpike toward Bayonne and Jersey City.  You’ve got Death Cab for Cuties Plans CD playing loud because you just saw them then night before at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, and that is your favorite of their albums.  You get off the slow-moving highway into what looks like nowheresville, NJ.  Sure Manhattan is looming right in the background, but you’re in this quasi industrial/rural-like forgotten part of New Jersey.  But there are signs that lead you.  Make a left.  Then another left.  The road surface goes from okay to neglected to – what’s this – cobblestones?  You don’t dare take the Honda out of second gear.  But you’re on a long straight road (could have been built by our forefathers, but realistically it was built in the past 25 years when this whole area was completely cleaned up and.  You drive the road and you see what looks like a grand ghost to an industrial age long past.  A huge railroad terminal at the river’s edge.  Maybe a dozen tracks feeding into it leading… nowhere now.  We parked the car and walked to the rusting steel fence.  The tracks are all covered but the weeds – many of them as big as basketball poles – have taken over.  We walk alongside the tracks maybe 500 feet until we get to the main terminal that feeds/once fed  the tracks.  This main terminal has been completely renovated/rebuilt and now houses the ticket purchasing and security to take visitors to Ellis and Liberty Islands.

Beware of ghosts: inside the main terminal remnant signs from an earlier era

Gail remarked what a difference a rainy day in July makes.  She had never seen the terminal so empty.  She bought our tickets, we walked outside to the grey to wait for our ferry.

Ghost slips waiting for the ferries from days gone by

Visiting Ellis Island is truly visiting a another world – doors are opened to a past 100 years before.  The main building has been completely restored, and walking through the hall and all the rooms you are reminded of visiting Alcatraz: it’s been fixed up to accomodate the throngs, but the past is always looking down upon us.  It’s all about learning and appreciation: Learning that it was just the steerage passengers who  were sent to Ellis Island; the first and second-class passengers were processed toward the end of the Atlantic crossing.  When their vessels docked in Manhattan, they were free to leave.  The masses in steerage had to then board ferries to take them from the docks of Manhattan to Ellis Island.

upstairs looking down upon The Great Hall, where thousands milled around waiting for their name to be called to start the processing.

Probably the most powerful display was on the third floor of the images taken before the restoration.  Looking at Ellis Island in all its dilapidated glory was truly a visual experience.  Rooms covered with torn sheets of peeling paint. Broken windows.  Grime. Dirt.  Decay.  It helps you realize what was once there years after what is being celebrated and before all the restoration began. The ruins are fabulous, but it can’t stay that way.  To make it a destination, revitalization has to come in.  And it makes sense.  The island was revitalized throughout its history: the main building was a wooden structure that burned to the ground five years after it was built.  The new “fire proof” building was built in the late 1880s (maybe?  fact checker?)

Okay. I didn’t take this shot. However, it gives you a good visual representation of the island and the huge circular wall of names.

The circular wall of names outside the Great Hall

Here are the Lazaroffs. None of these are my direct relatives. My great grandfather Michael Lazaroff came over previous to Ellis Island. He came into New York via Clinton Gardens (now referred to as Castle Clinton). There will be more about this in a future post.

Gail’s grandfather Sam is listed here – thanks to her Aunt Sandy and Aunt Alice for (probably) making the listing happen.  Shael is her great grandfather (she thinks).

on reading Sam Clemens, on visiting his home

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Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT

Welcome tp the 21st Century Mark Twain. Visitor’s to the Welcome Center outside the Mark Twain house are greeted by a life-size statue of the infamous author constructed out of Legos!

There are so many places and sights to celebrate.  You can travel far, far, far, or you can drive a few hours.  The next few posts will celebrate a trip I took with my nephew Geoff to Hartford, CT to visit and walk in the footsteps of two truly American writers.

Please look at the image above – Mark Twain’s house where he, his wife, and ultimately his three daughters lived for about 15 years during the “happiest” days of Mark Twain’s life (roughly 1875- 1890)   I learned a lot from the tour of the house, which was reinforced by reading Ron Power’s excellent and deep biography of Twain.  On the tour, Geoff and I learned that MT’s wife came from money, that she bankrolled the designing/building of the house, that they both loved to entertain in the lavish downstairs (though the upstairs was much more spartan and to the Clemens’s liking.  This was the house where Twain worked on his greatest books: Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (though much of the writing was done in a gazebo in his sister-in-law’s house in Elmira, NY where Twain and family loved to visit in the summer).  Sam Clemens loved technology.  The house was one of the county’s first to have a telephone (who would the person with the first telephone call?).  It also had an intercom between rooms/kitchen.  It had a burglar alarm (?)

It was tremendous to visit the house, to gaze upon rooms, to gaze out of windows, to gaze, gaze, gaze upon vistas the Twain himself had gazed upon nearly 150 years previously.  It is glorious that the house still stands.  The neighborhood used to be known as Nook Farms, and it was a very well-to-do intellectually curious community (Harriet Beecher Stowe was the Clemens’s next-door-neighbor).  We visited the library, Sam and Livy’s bedroom (with the infamous Venetian bed in place – Sam and Livy liked to sleep with their heads at the foot of the bed so they could gaze at the beautifully carved headboard), and Sam’s study where he did his writing.  Huge billiard table occupying much of the floorspace (and on the third floor no less… how did they get it up there?  How hot must it have been in the third floor in the summer – but they spent a lot of the summer in Elmira).

here’s an image of Mark Twain in his third floor study playing billiards at the huge table that took up much of the room (and must have been a bitch to move it there)

Finished Power’s book last night, and it had to end how it ended… Mark Twain had to die. It’s a huge problem with biographies of dead people; the book’s end when the subject under study dies.  It happened with Truman Capote (bio read during the winter) and it happened with Gram Parsons (the biography I finished about five weeks ago and Did Not Want It To End – loved the book and was deeply troubled about Gram  and his willingness throughout his life to throw it all away). Midway through each of these books the subject, whether he realizes it or not, is going to making the greatest art – contributing the most he is ever going to contribute in his life.   The biographer is the puppeteer – he’s the one guiding the reader, telling him it’s just going to keep getting better or it’s just going to keep getting worse (yes, kinda like those VH1 Behind the Music documentaries from years back. (Voiceover) “and if things weren’t bad enough, they were soon to become drastically worse (cut to commercial).”

There are many brilliant passages in Power’s book that I hope to revisit/relate to in future posts.  Clemens was deep inside himself, even though he spent so much time in social situations (and investing in truly madcap ideas.  The amount of time, money, and energy he     put into other people’s losing ventures was extraordinary).  But he was often revisiting the charms and the troubles of his youth.  In the midst of writing Life on the Mississippi and Huck Finn he returned to the river and to Hannibal and both his words – and Powers – are noteworthy concerning the returning visit many years later.

Back to the house: As mentioned earlier in its day the area was for the rich – those rich in the pocket and rich in ideas.  Now the neighborhood looks more like Hackensack (which is not to say there aren’t people “rich” in the same way.  Just lots of garden apartment complexes, chuches, restaurants, laundromats.  Twain’s house is literally the house on the hill.  The grandeur of it in an otherwise hardscrabble neighborhood is pretty stunning in the juxtaposition.

110 years ago. Today.

ImageIt’s mid-July – s scorcher of a day.  No, scorcher’s not the right word.  It’s thick and sticky, but inside with an air conditioner in the window whirring away and the shades pulled down to block the sun it’s pretty comfortable.  All hail Willis Carrier.  It was this day in 1902 that air conditioning, kinda, sorta, as we think of it today, kinda sorta came into being.  In a printing plant in Brooklyn.  This wasn’t the day a unit got turned on, but was the date inscribed on Carrier’s blueprints.

We drove last night into the city in our air conditioned Honda Civic.  It felt so good on such a hot night to be cruising down the West Side Highway with the AC pumping.  Two years ago we would have been in our Subaru Outback that didn’t have AC.  Check that.  It had AC, it just broke about four years previously, and being that a new compressor was ridiculously expensive, we never fixed it.  Just fixed to drive that car mainly when the sun wasn’t shining.  But even then it was too damned hot in the car.  Now, driving the Civic, the rush of cool air feels soooo good in comparison.  Ah relief.  Ah pleasure.

Many of us have a tortured relationship with our air conditioning.  We wish we didn’t have to use it, but we are so happy we have it.  I would much rather have the windows open and the air be manageable throughout the house.  But this is not to be.  There’s a book I want to read: Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air Conditioning by Marsha E. Ackermann.  Mentioned today in an article in the New York Times which informed me about Willis Carrier.

Which doesn’t explain the picture on top.  Tangential relationship.  First post on this blog and I need an image, and this one was at the ready.  It was taken in late May, early June, in Cape May Point, NJ.  Rained all day; once it cleared biked out about five to the state park and it was foggy, misty and awesome looking.  Had to go back for my camera and walk on the one of the hiking trails.  Didn’t need AC back then, six weeks ago.  Nature provided all she needed.