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.

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.