SIX DEGREES AND SEVEN BACONS

January 26th, 2013 — 12:49pm

The scene: a dim, warm, red-toned little shop, usually redolent of exotic forms of chocolate, expanded for the evening into a booze-and-bacon bar. The salty, smoky aroma hits you right in the salivary glands as you walk in, pulling the door tight behind you to keep the cold at bay. Three salt-and-pepper-haired guys in cowboy hats are rocking the joint with Texas swing tunes. Welcome to Bacon Thursday at Nutty Steph’s Granola and Chocolate Shop, in Montpelier’s suburban sprawl of Middlesex, population 1,729, refuge-of-choice from a sub-freezing night in Central Vermont. Oh, and make that minus six degrees, and dropping fast.

Jaquelyn, a.k.a. Nutty Steph

Nutty Steph is the nom d’affaires of Jaquelyn Rieke, a thirty-something Midwestern transplant who started a homemade granola business in Montpelier about ten years ago now. (You can mail-order it, and you should; I’ve bought no other since discovering it).

Tall, bright-eyed, cleft-chinned, she’s presiding over the proceedings like a true cowgirl, in a Western shirt and bolo tie secured with a heart-shaped chunk of turquoise.

In honor of the band, Big Hat, No Cattle, we’ve been encouraged to come in Western wear. It gets you a dollar off your drink, so the place is full of people in Stetsons and tooled cowboy boots. Behind the counter is doe-eyed, smiling co-owner Josie Green, her hair in pigtails beneath a battered straw Stetson. She’s sporting a gingham shirt knotted at the midriff and, below the gap of bare skin, what look like a pair of  leather undies peeking out from a set of—chaps. Suede chaps. The crowd around the chocolate case seems disproportionately male.

I’m here with my fiddler friend Susan, who’s often in another band with Mike Ricciarelli, Big Hat’s guitarist/fiddler. She’s brought her fiddle since they’ve asked her to sit in. I plop the red felt Stetson I bought two decades ago in Park City, Utah on her head so she can qualify for cheap drinks. When she goes up to fiddle with the band, she fits right in along with leader Kevin Brown, standing bassist David Blythe, and her bandmate Mike, string player extraordinaire and expert repairer of musical instruments.

Kevin, David and Mike in mid-swing

Susan and Kevin are my two favorite examples of the “Renaissance Woodchuck,” a term coined by Susan herself. Besides being a songwriter, composer, landscape painter, trail runner, photographer, singer, teacher, and player of every string instrument known to man including the dobro and slide guitar, Kevin’s working on his fourth Vermont-based “mystorical” novel featuring sleuth Liam Dutra. You have to be a generalist in a small place like Vermont, but Kevin’s taken it to a high art form. And he’s good at all of it.

Susan’s a fiddler across all the genres (Celtic, Cajun, Western, and…Swedish?), a chef and caterer who used to run an international gourmet takeout place, a knitter of uncommonly beautiful lacy shawls, and organizer of a local concert series that brings in folkie and indie talent from as far away as the Scottish Highlands.

Besides hanging out for an evening listening to the alternately joyful and melancholy, mellowing music, we’re getting to pig out on Nutty Steph’s bacon sampler of the evening. Stripped from the usual breakfast eggs-and-toast context, bacon becomes a gourmet experience, though truth to tell I couldn’t tell the wood-smoked variety from the maple-cured kind in a blind tasting.

They’re all good, especially dipped in a little dollop of Fat Toad Farm caramel. This being Vermont, that sweet richness comes from the goat farm of Susan’s brother Stephen about twenty miles down the road. The wine is a blended red in the French style from Shelburne Vineyards, over by Lake Champlain. Vermont reds are nearly ready for prime time. If we could only grow coffee and cacao beans, we could be self-sufficient.

There are salt cravers and there are sweet tooths. Some of us are both. The counter case beckons with chocolate-robed shortbread, truffles, sea-salted caramel, orange peel, and dried pineapple as well as an array of fruit and nut barks encased in white, milk, and dark chocolate.

Truffles in mind

There are even pink chocolate elephants, which you might worry about finding on your kitchen counter after a night on the tiles. I play against type and go for the white-chocolate-dipped pineapple with toasted coconut.

Susan and I outlast the band. After they’ve gone, Jaquelyn steps out with her banjo-playing bacon chef and the two go into a couple of seriously bawdy numbers they’ve written themselves. Sort of a salted-caramel-habanero finish on the evening. We spill out with the warm gold light into the night, where the snow crunches like styrofoam under our feet and the thermometer’s heading for 20 below.

3 comments » | Uncategorized, Vermont, Vermont and Brooklyn

And they wonder what we do for fun up here…

December 6th, 2012 — 7:30pm

Resplendent in a plum velvet coat, oversized bow tie and silk top hat, Montpelier’s book guru George Spaulding presides as the Mad Hatter over his eponymous Tea Party in the Children’s Wing. Under the Grecian friezes in the Fiction section, handmade truffles and heaps of chocolate-and-raisin-studded cookies lie in wait for the unwary. Down in Nonfiction, a pair of handsome men dispense red and white wine to a snaking line of women in beaded jackets and men in unaccustomed blazers, while other guests prowl the Periodicals room for treasures among the festively laid out silent auction items.

Mad Hatter and friends at the library gala

Welcome to An Evening at the Library, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library’s annual gala, the one time all year you see Montpelierites dressed up. Which is to say, the women pull out their silks, velvets, laces, sequins and palazzo pants while the men don ties and tweed jackets smelling ever so faintly—or is it mere imagination?—of mothballs. This year’s Gala honoree is the author and woodcut-maker Mary Azarian, copies of whose latest collaboration, a Christmas book with former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, are snapped up as soon as they’re laid out.

People who’ve missed one another through summer’s busyness and fall’s chores and early winter’s indoor retreat create a hum that rises to a buzz and then a roar, bringing library staffers into their section with diplomatic smiles and whispered requests to “keep it down a little” while the speeches are going on by the great white marble fireplace in the Library’s main room.

The Guest of Honor's artwork for Donald Hall's tale

I’ve trotted out an Eighties designer number picked up for a song at a vintage boutique in eye-popping swirls of black and white silk, something Alexis Carrington would have trampled Sue Ellen Ewing for back in the day, with the linebacker shoulder pads of that era. I ricochet from one old friend to another, trading sartorial compliments with the women, fetching up at the feet of ninety-something John Wires, who’s holding court by the hors d’oeuvres table between American History and Collectible Crafts. John, a tall, slim man with bright blue eyes, hasn’t made it to vigorous magehood by settling for small talk; he’s always got interesting observations on life and society.

When they close the silent auction, I’m only half-dismayed to find I’ve been too busy yakking with half the people I know in town to get around to making bids. Happily for the Library’s coffers, others haven’t. Many of the items are bid up past their market value, among them a tour of Brooklyn hosted by yours truly and beloved spouse, who’s had to settle for dinner at the New-York Historical Society’s Caffé Storico on Central Park West this evening since he’s not due back home to Vermont again until next weekend. The high bidder, I’m delighted to learn, is a friend and community benefactor who in January 2009 was the prime mover behind Montpelier’s own People’s Inaugural celebration at City Hall, when President Obama was sworn in—another even rarer dress-up occasion.

The Library gala was the central event of an early winter weekend which began for me with a slightly scary drive on still-snow-covered dirt roads to the southern reaches of nearby Northfield, where the ladies who run the Green Mountain Girls farm are hosting a “simple soup supper,” actually chili con and sin carne, all made by my friend Anna, who works here, from on-farm ingredients, which probably goes without saying since this is Vermont. It’s followed by what’s billed as “Community-Suppported Chamber Music” upstairs in their barn. Sixty-odd people crowd into a warm, nicely restored space to hear local talents—and they are prodigiously so—Mary Bonhag and Evan Premo join with Chicago’s Spektral Quartet for a program of modern vocal and string classical music. I confess I had to talk myself into this; I didn’t think I liked modern classical. But when Mary’s gorgeous soprano soars over mid-20th century composer Earl Kim’s settings of three French poems, I’m enchanted. Ditto for the string quartet’s rendition of “Arcadiana,” written by someone who was born when I was a college sophomore. And, by the way, is that New Yorkercartoonist Ed Koren sitting rapt in the row ahead of me, he of the “fuzzy creatures with fangs and bedroom eyes” whose work I adore, and who provided a Fat Toad variant of his signature beast for the labels and leaflets of my friend Susan’s brother Stephen’s goat-milk caramel business? It is.

Ed Koren's Fat Toad

The young friend I’ve talked into joining me enjoys herself too, but has to head home right after the concert in her brother’s borrowed car, hers having died with a big loan still outstanding. She’s got to be up and out by 5 a.m. to drive to her weekend job at Killington—a sobering reminder of how many people, particularly the young ones, must “moonlight in Vermont, or starve”. I go back to the barn and load up on Technicolor jars of the Girls’ heirloom tomato salsa and sun-gold tomatoes to take home.

Starvation’s far away at the season’s first indoor session of the Capital City Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning, where colorful heaps of carrots, beets, and squashes compete for attention with locally made meads and wines, pickles and jams, fancy maple syrups, silver jewelry, soups, breads, and pastries. I load up a small root-cellar’s worth of soup ingredients and pick up a broccoli samosa to go with the carrot-ginger soup I learned to make courtesy of vendor Claire Fitts of Butterfly Bakery, my secret weapon in this year’s successful weight-loss campaign.

Sweetening winter at the Farmers' Market

I’ve resisted all the latticed pies, plump sweet breads and chocolate brownies on offer at the Unitarian Church’s annual holiday bazaar, where ladies in red gingham pinafores serve tea and proffer houseplants, bric-a-brac, and gorgeously decorated wreaths, one of which follows me home every year. I have not resisted a couple of bargain-bin fleece jackets, in cranberry and maroon, (size small, I might add) at Black Diamond Skiwear’s annual Warehouse Sale. I haven’t skied in years, but the clothing is Vermont standard and I’ll wear these all winter. From bazaar to Farmers’ Market to picking up a trio of poinsettias whose proceeds will help send a group of Montpelier High School Humanities students on a trip to Ireland, to the Library gala, Saturday’s been localvore from start to finish (overlooking the fact that the fleece jackets are actually made in China, but what isn’t these days?).

Sunday broadens my horizons a bit. I head over to Plainfield, aging-hippie capital of the world, for an art opening at the Blinking Light Gallery, which proudly displays my husband’s photographs and my first novel on its shelves. His membership has lapsed, so I sign him up again and proceed to enjoy the work of talented world traveler and photojournalist Teo Kaye, who seems far too young to have been to all the places he’s been.

One of photojournalist Teo Kaye's amazing shots

His roamings through Central Asia have produced a breathtaking portfolio of award-winning action shots that have graced, among other settings, the pages of Taiwan’s Chinese-language equivalent of National Geographic. Married to a Plainfield native, he’s returned to Vermont with her for the birth of their first child.

That evening, aforementioned friend Susan and I head to nearby Barre to set up at the Good Shepherd Church for a concert she’s brought together as part of the Attic Series she founded. The series took place in her actual attic until somebody ratted her out to the City building inspector. Now this floating entertainment series roosts where it can. Tonight it’s singer, songwriter and guitarist Frank Burkitt from Edinburgh, joined by guitarist Calum Wood, a proud Aberdonian, and local Vermont bagpipe hero Hazen Metro, who tonight confines himself to the flute and Border pipes because Highland pipes overwhelm small indoor spaces. Small world: Hazen learned to play the pipes from Iain MacHarg, who played at our wedding. Hazen’s just back from a long spell in my native Glasgow, and I’m picking up cadences of Lowland Scots that have crept into his Vermont speech.

After the all-acoustic, unmiked concert, a mix of lively Scots and Irish jigs, reels, sea-chanteys and romantic folk ballads, the band is hungry. They’ve been traveling or performing all day; there was no time for food. And now we come to the dirty little secret, the one respect in which my little corner of Vermont is manifestly inferior to my Brooklyn haunts: there’s nowhere in Central Vermont to eat late. Even Julio’s, which can usually be relied upon after theater performances and rehearsals for nachos and other snacks-that-will-do-as-a-meal-in-a-pinch, is closed on this rainy Sunday night.

Then Hazen has a happy inspiration: McGillicuddy’s Pub on Langdon Street will still be open, possibly serving food as well as drink, and so it proves. Susan and I order fries to be sociable while the band reviews its U.S. tour to date and gets talking about loyalties back home. When Burkitt and Wood square off over the relative merits of their favorite football teams (Liverpool vs. Aberdeen) and fall into what Hazen ruefully describes as a continuing argument that sometimes verges on fisticuffs, Susan and I bid farewell and leave them to it.

The acute attack of French-fry-and-beer-induced indigestion that hits me at 5 a.m. is a small price to pay for as full and rich of a weekend as I could wish for anywhere.

Comment » | Vermont, Vermont and Brooklyn

ONLY THE DEAD…

November 27th, 2012 — 2:26pm

I enjoy the blessing, or curse, of residing in two of the most self-conscious places on the planet, though of the two Brooklyn has the edge, solipsism-wise, in part because it’s so much more populous than Vermont and in part because so many people have at one time or another made it their home, if only on the way to somewhere else, like a tract suburb on Long Island or a medium-sized city in the Midwest where you could start over clean and cheap.

What does it mean, exactly, that only the dead know Brooklyn?

Perhaps it’s because there are so many Brooklyns. East New York, New Lots and Canarsie don’t have much in common with Park Slope, DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights. And then there are all the microclimates no one thinks about unless they’ve fetched up there, like Boerum Hill or Gowanus or Sunset Park. Windsor Terrace, for that matter.

Still, what gives the dead special knowledge of the Borough—the notion that their souls may roam freely across it after their passage, and that they’re drawn back to the light and warmth of all those people going about the daily business of being alive? That might explain why the dead wouldn’t drift away to any number of more hospitable climes, like Hawaii or Paris or Portofino, even if, as the author of Dracula asserts, the dead travel fast. (They can skip the TSA lines, for one thing.) Maybe, by some arcane law of the afterlife, the dead aren’t allowed to roam far beyond their boundaries in life and, given the prodigious number of people who have died and are buried in Brooklyn, there’s a large contingent of them there with a lot of time on their hands in which to become more intimately acquainted with the place in which they spent their lives.

There’s something that just feels true about this assertion. Maybe it’s just the poetic cadence of the phrase, or the incomprehensible vastness of the human endeavor going on across the East River from the Center of the Universe, which of course would be Manhattan. Nobody says “Only the dead know Manhattan.” Perhaps that hypercaffeinated borough just seems that much more knowable; it’s not a city that knows how to keep its secrets in the way we might think of Chicago or San Francisco or, of course, L.A. It’s better lit, for one thing. Manhattan is all glittering, humming surface. And to say that only the dead know the Bronx or Queens or Staten Island doesn’t pass the straight-face test. Also, in the first and third instances, it doesn’t scan nicely.

One could say, I suppose, that the expression is true because Brooklyn is where the bodies are buried, if you’re thinking of activity among the shadier elements, but that could just as easily apply to Hoboken or Bayonne or other spots in the swamps of Jersey which nobody has ever claimed that only the dead know.

The phrase is the title of a story by Thomas Wolfe, who was a Southerner and came to Brooklyn relatively late in life. The crazy big guy in the narrative, with the map and the determination to visit all of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, is probably the author himself as seen through the eyes of a native Brooklynite. Wolfe was a man who asserted without fear of contradiction that “You Can’t Go Home Again,” although surely that isn’t always true either. And if it isn’t, then who’s to say that in fact only the dead know Brooklyn? Brooklyn natives, especially those whose families have lived there for generations, may surely be allowed to claim knowledge of the place. Someone like my friend Bob, for instance, whose grandparents lived in Brighton Beach and who himself grew up in Flatbush. I’d take that non-ghost’s word for a thousand pound.

Maybe it’s that Brooklyn is ever-changing, ever evolving, so that no one now alive can claim full knowledge of the full sweep of what it once was and what it is now and what it will become. That’s true of anywhere, you could argue, but you can also argue that Brooklyn changes in more interesting ways than other places, attracting a particularly artsy and literary breed of cat, disposed to tell the truth but tell it slant with an edge that will only later become fashionable in the tonier climes across the East River (and, come to think of Whitman’s famous “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which may well have inspired Wolfe’s story, what was the name of the Ferryman?).

The Brooklyn intelligentsia are the makers of manners, the innovators, who toil in conducive obscurity until they’re eventually discovered and installed in SoHo galleries or sent on national book tours and thereafter sought out by the fawning and fashionable doyens of Uptown salons. So there are always interesting future phenoms for Brooklyn’s dead to be keeping an eye on.

This all gets me wondering if there are places only the living know. Las Vegas comes to mind. There seems absolutely no romance in the notion of being one of the dead of Las Vegas. It may be the fastest growing city in America, but surely that’s about sprawling, featureless, artificially hydrated and ultimately temporary suburbs, where no ghost would ever find a comfortable roost, much less learn anything worth knowing. The same would be true for anywhere that’s been a wasteland hitherto and is only recently something with any kind of identity, like Dubai or Disney World or—I was about to say the Yucatan Peninsula, but in fact that’s an odd hybrid of places only the dead could truly know, like Chichen Itza and Tulum, and nouveau, artificial places only the living could relate to, like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Same for Singapore.

Come to think of it, though, there are an infinity of contenders for the designation of Place that Only the Dead Know, among them Rome, Venice, Paris, Istanbul, Oxford, Edinburgh, Jerusalem, Boston, maybe even Québec. Most of these are places that I, as a living person, would far rather spend time in than those that only the living know, like Brasilia and Bonn and East Kilbride and Tel Aviv and Welwyn Garden City.

Our Brooklyn place is two blocks north of the vast memory-park that is Green-Wood Cemetery, which for me was even more of a selling point than its being four blocks south of Prospect Park. Find me a town with an old, old cemetery or two and you’ve found me a place I’ll happily haunt myself. Brooklyn definitely qualifies.

 

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THE ELECTION YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

November 8th, 2012 — 5:34pm

Around the middle of October, I began waking up in the small hours, heart pounding, gripped by panic at the thought of America sliding into the abyss if Mitt Romney got the car keys. I’d lie awake for hours with my gut churning, feeling as if my head were in a vise, sick with guilt for doing nothing to prevent this from happening.

I thought I’d sworn off politics when my first husband and I parted ways. He held public office at the state level for many years and, as a good supportive wife, I dutifully allowed myself to be dragged into weeks of knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and the other grunt work of getting somebody elected in a rural state where such “retail politics,” rather than mass-media advertising, wins elections. Repressing my inherent introversion for at least one Presidential campaign in the 1970s, I developed a phobia about calling up strangers, even though most of them were polite and friendly about the intrusion. Which is more than I can say for my own behavior with telemarketers, whom I usually hang up on.

My second husband is also a former public officeholder; the repetition compulsion, as Freud taught us, is a powerful force. In his case, though, I made it clear before we married that I Wasn’t Gonna Do That Stuff Any More. His current status, though there isn’t a Facebook category for it, is “recovering politician.” He is, however, subject to intermittent lapses, especially in Presidential years. Though he hasn’t yet followed through on his threat to run for the State Legislature, his political reflexes are more easily triggered than mine, and he just can’t bring himself to sit idle when there’s a big fight going on.

We both came close to it this year. But by Halloween, we could stand it no longer. The polls had Obama and Romney neck and neck. I was haunted by memories of the 2000 electoral debacle and the eight grim and ruinous years of the Bush hegemony that followed, during which I almost lost faith in my fellow Americans forever. I kept remembering that, if Al Gore had only won our neighboring New Hampshire, history would have been rewritten. Those four electoral votes, and three thousand votes the other way, would have rendered Florida irrelevant and made all the difference.

With that perennial swing state and Ohio again hanging in the balance, and with dark rumblings of voter suppression and tampering with voting machines threatening to turn narrow wins for Obama into fraudulent wins for Romney, the potential for New Hampshire, another “battleground,” to decide the election (its paltry four electoral votes notwithstanding) began to loom large in my consciousness.

As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, I would rather eat live snakes than call total strangers on the phone, no matter how lofty the cause. I feel only slightly less averse to knocking on strangers’ doors, even if they’ve been identified as on Our Side. But I was becoming convinced that if I, Personally, Did Not Get Over There and Do Something, Obama would lose New Hampshire, and hence the election, and the ruin of the country under Romney would be All My Fault. In the small hours of the night, when the rational faculties are dormant and things creak and go bump, I was utterly convinced of this.

Ludicrous it might be, but it was far from the most egregious example of magical thinking to haunt this campaign cycle. As I understand that term, it refers to an irrational belief in a non-existent causal connection between one event and another. The childhood classic, “Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” is often our first exposure to the phenomenon. In the realm of electoral punditry, such cause-and-effect items of received wisdom as “No one can win the Presidency without winning Ohio” are probably not much more valid than a prediction in 1804 would have been that “No one south of Maryland can be elected President without owning slaves.”

Some forms of magical thinking cling stubbornly to life despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the entire Romney plan to “revive the economy” was premised on the long since discredited (and fortuitously named) Laffer Curve, a curiously convenient economic theory cooked up in the Reagan era, which predicted—incorrectly—that the more you cut tax rates, the more economic growth would result, and—presto!—the more tax revenues you’d collect. Cut taxes and you’ll end the Federal deficit.  Well, that didn’t work real well under George W. Bush who, by cutting taxes for the wealthiest and putting two wars on the credit card, managed to take the Federal deficit to unprecedented heights.

The remarkable thing isn’t so much that politicians continue to preach this rubbish as that a large proportion of the American electorate continues to believe in it. And there’s a corollary: if you give rich people tax cuts, the money they keep will “trickle down” into the larger economy and benefit everyone. With the widest income gap in modern history for countering evidence, you’d think this one would have gone away with the flat-earth hypothesis. Then again, over 40% of Americans believe that God created the earth about 6,000 years ago. Somebody planted all those “fossils.”

It’s not as if the Obama camp is exempt from magical thinking. It’s all too evident in the promises of any Presidential candidate to “create jobs.” Presidents don’t create jobs, nor do their policies. They can create climates in which productive economic activity is more rather than less likely to occur, but a complex combination of factors, probably chief among which is consumer demand along with an assessment of whether a capital investment can “perform” a job more cost-effectively than a live human being, determines how many “jobs” there will be. At least, that’s my Economics for Dummies understanding of it.

And neither of the candidates seriously addressed the implications of the huge structural change in our economy brought about by digital technology over the last thirty-five years ago and only accelerating. The notion of a “job” as we’ve known it may some day be as meaningless as it would have been in Europe before the Industrial Revolution. The big question for the future is how to ensure that we all have means of livelihood we can count on. I don’t think anyone in the political realm has a clue about that. I sure don’t.

The other infamous example of magical thinking in this campaign cycle was Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s astonishing assertion that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape,” because a woman’s body has ways of shutting down that sort of thing. This was no doubt news to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; thankfully, it was also a wake-up call to millions of Missouri voters who unceremoniously Threw the Bum Out on Election Day. (As for Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s opinion that a pregnancy resulting from rape is “something that God intended,” it may be dubious theology—I’m sure not interested in worshipping a deity who aids and abets violent criminals—but it’s not magical thinking).

Anyway, by Halloween, with spectres of this sort looming, we decided we had to do something. A fortuitous e-mail from a friend in Nashua, New Hampshire started an exchange that let to our crashing on her living room floor and showing up at Obama HQ to be put to work, self all the while stubborn in refusal to go near a telephone. I managed to spend a good part of our first morning there cleaning up the campaign office, replacing soured, tarry pots with fresh coffee and hot water for tea, sanitizing the telephones for those who were willing to dial for votes, and changing spilled-over trash bags, thereby earning the gratitude of a harried office manager trying to cope with an influx of volunteers.

Eventually, I’d cleaned and tidied everything I could. It came down to phones or door-to-door canvassing. So, joined by Mary, our gracious and generous-hearted hostess, who professed actually to be grateful for being dragged into the madness, spouse and I spent much of the next two days going door to door in the working-class sections of Nashua, trying to make sure Obama supporters would actually get their collective butt out to the polls. Mary and I teamed up for moral support and left my beloved, who as an extrovert turns into a canvassin’ fool in these circumstances, to knock on doors by himself. He says he’s doing people a favor by reminding them to act in their own best interests.

Most people weren’t home, which was fine with Mary and me. And with the exception of one Willie-Nelson-gone-to-seed lookalike who closed the door on us with something between a mumble and a snarl, those who did answer were polite and in many cases friendly. Several mentioned that we were the third or fourth set of Obama people who’d come by in the last couple of days. This was by design, said the campaign higher-ups to whom we reported making a nuisance of ourselves. Don’t worry about annoying people so much they’ll stay home or vote Republican; they understand we’re just telling them how much their vote matters to us. Sure…!

Back at HQ, the senior citizens making the phone calls were running into what I’d feared: people on the other end who were sick and tired of the non-stop harassment. “Well, I’m so sorry to have disturbed you,” I heard more than once. “Since you’ve already voted, we’ll try to make sure you don’t get called again.” Still…could it make a difference at the margins? Maybe, but I wasn’t going there.

Once our canvassing shifts were done, my still-energized spouse had the bright idea of doing “visibility”—standing at a busy intersection with Obama-Biden signs and waving to people. This is a bit like being put in the pillory except that you aren’t actually confined, but thankfully we did get more friendly honks and thumbs-up than jeers and middle-finger salutes. (Someone should do a study of car brand ownership and voting preferences. Priuses, of course, were Dem; Lexuses, GOP).

Visibility!

This magical thinking stuff gets hold of you like a mental illness. Though I argued that we’d Done Our Bit, as the Brits said of serving in the trenches of Verdun, my spouse insisted on Election Day activity, so we drove to nearby Littleton for more canvassing and for sign-waving in the freezing cold at the elementary school, where people went to vote. And came back home to stand at our local polling place with signs for our friend who ran for Auditor of Accounts (and, happily, got elected).

So when New Hampshire came in solidly blue, and our newly re-elected President looked into the TV camera at his victory rally and said, “This is all about you. It wouldn’t have happened without you,” I smiled and said, “You know what, Mr. President? You’re absolutely right.”

 

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Primary Crimes

January 11th, 2012 — 9:27pm

The scene: 5:30 a.m., Tuesday, February 24, 1976, pitch dark and blood-freezing, in a nameless maze of tract-house streets on the outskirts of Nashua, New Hampshire. I’m a twenty-two year old med school dropout, left off in the small hours of Primary Day to make the rounds of this moonscape with a big handful of Udall for President door hangers, trying not to stir the local dog population into alarums and excursions. I’ve had no coffee, nor anything else remotely warming, and I’ve forgotten my gloves. Someone’s supposed to pick me up sometime after noon.

How did I get here?  I could’ve stayed in the nice warm national campaign headquarters in Washington, DC, two blocks from my apartment. Since the campaign powers-that-be discovered that I can type (an Ivy League degree being otherwise worthless in the later 1970s), I’ve been promoted to administrative assistant on the second floor, away from all the envelope-stuffing and Xeroxing assigned to a typical walk-in volunteer.

But the action and excitement—and Mo himself, for the most part—are in the all-important New Hampshire primary. Our man, a one-eyed, six-foot-five Jack Mormon liberal environmentalist, is facing off against the upstart Jimmy Carter, and a few of us decide we want to experience it first-hand. So, needing all the hands they can get to counteract the disciplined busloads of Georgians blanketing the streets of New Hampshire, the campaign director decides he can dispense with my typing skills for a few days.

Which is how I find myself crammed into a faded blue Volkswagen Beetle of uncertain vintage and roadworthiness with four other front-lines wannabes, crawling up Route 95 towards Nashua like a bug towards the light, buoyed by the promise of a warm bed and a good dinner from one of the hospitable families who are turning over their spare bedrooms to campaign workers. We’re aiming for an address on Nashua’s Main Street, which sounds nice and convenient to downtown, where there will surely be good diners for candidate-spotting and blue-plate specials of hash and poached eggs, tomato soup and grilled cheese.

It starts going bad when our driver, a stringy stoner named Jim, finally admits about nine hours into an eight-hour trip that he’s gotten us lost,  not an easy thing to do on Route 95. Hannah, the other female passenger, and I have been trading turns on somebody’s lap, an arrangement that has rapidly grown tiresome for everyone. Stoner Jim has overshot the northern turnoff and is heading us straight for Providence. Once corrected, it takes us another four hours and around 1 a.m., tired and grungy and not quite satisfied by the junk-food stop we made at a rest area two hundred miles back, we end up at 100 Main Street in Nashua.

Instead of the motherly welcome, hot soup and soft beds we’ve been looking forward to, we find ourselves trudging up a wide, worn wooden staircase to the second floor and what turns out to be the local campaign headquarters. A lugubrious-looking beanpole with pale, freckled skin and rusty-red hair pulled back in a ponytail accosts us with a clipboard, an item from which, we soon learn, he never allows himself to be separated. A large, hairy dog rouses itself from sleep and toenails over to join him. A small white terrier trots after it.

“You the people from Washington?” he says it as if it were a disease or a federal prison.

“Yep. We got lost. Where’s the house we’re supposed to be sleeping at?”

He frowns, looks surprised and waves a hand around. “Here. Pick up a sleeping bag,” he says, jerking his thumb towards a pile in the corner, “unless you brought your own.” He writes something on his clipboard. “I’m Jeremiah,” he adds. “The Nashua volunteer director.” Of course he is.

We stare in dawning horror. On the floor of the large, darkened room behind us, about forty bodies are lined up on the floor, some in sleeping bags, some just covered with a blanket. Most are asleep, some snoring, but a few blink at us in sleep-disturbed annoyance. We lower our voices and look at each other.

“Um, where are the bathrooms?” I venture. First things first; it’s been a long ride.

“Bathroom,” he corrects. “Top of the stairs, where you came in.” Of course: the fluorescent interrogation-grade light, the door up a step from the landing. The bathroom does not, in fact, contain a bath, or even a shower. It has one leaky toilet and one sink on which the cold tap works and the hot one doesn’t, the sole facility for the forty-five-odd souls camped out on the floor of this former dance studio—the mirrors and barre are still in place—and two dogs who, as it turns out, are not altogether housebroken.

Hungry and grimed, I lie down between my travel companions, plump Dan, a merry prankster just out of law school, and Russ, an earnest bloke from blue-collar Milford, Connecticut. We each carve out a little space for ourselves, bundle up our coats for pillows and try to sleep, indignation at the deception practiced upon us vying with the exhaustion of too many hours on the road, the latter eventually winning.

In the morning there are doughnuts, and a species of coffee. Well, it could be worse. Campaigns, I’ve since come to learn, are fueled on Dunkin’ Donuts and Boxes o’ Joe. Dunkin’ in 1976 is a more regionally limited chain than it has since become, and the brand is new to me. They’re not as good as the Krispy Kremes at home, but they’re bigger, which compensates.

Clipboard, or Ponytail as our little gang alternates in calling him, is rounding people up and giving them orders. In the daylight it’s clear he can’t be older than eighteen. Our Washington crew averages twenty-three or so, ancient and jaded compared with the slew of college kids and recent high-school grads gathering around wide-eyed and eager for assignments.

Clipboard is assisted by a sloe-eyed, petite girl even younger than he who, we learn from earlier arrivals, is the girlfriend and ideological slave of the statewide volunteer coordinator, whose words she quotes as if he were Chairman Mao. Indeed, the core management group of this Nashua operation, average age eighteen and a half, all seems in thrall to this charismatic person: “Mark says we have to get two thousand of these out by tomorrow,” they intone with utter seriousness. “Mark says it’s vital to hit the suburban areas before the Carter people do.”

I wonder whether the as yet unseen Mark, based at the state headquarters in Manchester, derives his authority from being over twenty-one, or perhaps it’s just that these refugees from a communal soybean farm are used to being led around by some guru with burning, fervid eyes. Something about these people is bringing out the latent anarchist in me and my traveling companions. Or maybe we’re just immature.

The first day we’re assigned to phone canvassing. Sloe-eyes hands us a script and solemnly warns us not to deviate from a word of it. “It’s real important,” she says, as if talking to a class of third-graders, “to use the same words with everybody you call,” which instantly awakes the imp of the perverse. We personalize our pitches as much as possible; who wants to listen to a robot talking at them?

That’s when we start finding out that the people we’re calling to persuade to get out and vote for Mo have been barraged by campaign phone calls—live phone calls, this being the pre-robocall age. There are ten serious candidates running for the Democratic nomination, never mind an assortment of unfunded hardy-perennial wing-nuts and, in the days before Caller ID, you don’t know who’s on the other end of the ringing phone. When they find out, they often hang up instantly, or favor us with a few choice editorial comments before slamming down the phone. My worst encounter is with a woman who, with fury and grief barely contained, says, “I am here by myself trying to care for a dying woman, and you people keep calling and calling!” Come to think of it, my phone phobia may date from this point.

On our second evening on the dance-studio floor, a new group arrives just as we’ve all bedded down for the night. Reacting with better humor than we did, one curly-haired fellow about our age, with a roguish Dennis Quaid smile and a Southern accent, prances around in his underpants before diving into a sleeping-bag. Chided by Clipboard, he spreads his arms and explains, “Muh ex-wife got everythin’ else!”

Michael is his name, with something of the fallen seraph about him at that. We befriend him at first light, along with a cadaverous-looking, bespectacled geek he’s brought along whom Dan instantly dubs Ichabod, another Marylander whose accent reminds us that the state’s south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

We rapidly form an alliance against Clipboard and his humorless soybean refugees, dubbing ourselves the Rabble and popping their sanctimonious balloons with irreverent, annoying questions. All it takes is a mention of Mo’s primary opponent Fred Harris, the genial, down-home Senator from Oklahoma, for Dan to flop a lock of hair in his eyes and do a perfect Fred imitation: “Th’ isshah is privilege!” Clipboard glares and, after a couple of these, stops mentioning the importance of outpolling Fred in his morning exhortations.

A day or two later, we’re out in the streets doing “lit drops,” which in the days before recycling typically means adding to what the average New Hampshirite puts out for the trash man. Typically we’re on streets where the Carter people have gotten there first—not only are the crisp green-and-white brochures perfectly wedged in the cracks of storm doors, but each one bears a handwritten “Sorry I missed you—hoping for your support on Tuesday,” purportedly signed by Jimmy himself. As if, but people tend to take things at face value.

In a diner where we pause for lunch, an affable fat man in a winter version of a cowboy hat is sitting on a stool regaling the waitresses with stories. This, it turns out, is Billy Joe Clegg (“he won’t pull your leg,” is his slogan), one of the more out-there candidates, who seems to be running for President because it’s fun. He’s to be found in this diner at any given time, and seems content to hold court and to quote the Bible by way of a platform. Not even he is clear which party’s primary he’s running in.

“You think he’s weird,” Ichabod tells us as we move on. “Did you hear about Arthur Blessitt? He dragged a cross through the streets of Manchester the other day.”

“You’re making that up.”

“No, really, it was in the Union-Leader.” He’s right; the appropriately named born-again Christian candidate for President (before they all got that way and moved from lunatic fringe to mainstream) distinguishes himself by going nowhere without the true believer’s ultimate fashion accessory.

Stopping in an old Woolworth’s with dusty displays and plank floors gone gray and furry, we hit pay dirt in the can-you-spot-‘em sweepstakes: Jimmy Carter himself. With his dazzling array of teeth and his “Ah’ll never lie to you” message, I’ve pegged him for a flash-in-the-pan fraud from the beginning, but this little guy who approaches us, looking dog-tired and a bit lonely, seems like a genuine, kindly human being, actually interested in who we are and not at all put off when we tell him we’re Udall workers. We all shake hands and part on friendly terms, and when in the end he wins the nomination I reflect that we could have done a lot worse.

Five blurred days of phone-dialing and tramping the streets of Nashua trying to move fast enough not to turn into a Popsicle culminate on the eve of the primary. The mythical Mark, guru of all youthful New Hampshire Udall volunteers, makes a cameo appearance. He is a dazzlingly good-looking guy, with deep brown eyes you could get lost in and long glossy hair, but with an air of solemn self-importance that the Rabble does not find contagious. However, we’re all jazzed up by now, ready to do whatever it takes to help Mo edge out the rest of the Dems. Anything can happen in a ten-way race. So when they tell us we’re all going out at four o’clock the following morning to hang a Udall leaflet on the door of every house in Nashua, I shrug and nod assent.

In the dark and silent morning, in which even molecular movement seems to have stopped dead in the cold, four of us pile into an old sedan with boxes of door hangers and individualized walking route maps.

About ten minutes later, the first cop turns on his lights and pulls us over. We’ve been driving slowly, looking for drop-off points, not violating any highway laws. He shines his flashlight in, scans for evidence of drinking or the red eyes of pot-smoking, and curtly waves us on.

Another five minutes or so and another member of Nashua’s Finest stops us, this one wanting to see the driver’s license and registration. We still haven’t broken any laws as far as we know, though evidently being out and about at four in the morning and being under thirty is presumptive evidence of criminal intent. We tell him what we’re doing out there, and we can almost see him make a mental note to vote Republican.

Incredibly, we’re stopped again in another five minutes, though this one backs off pretty fast when we chorus, “We’re Udall volunteers! The primary’s today! We’re just dropping literature! And all the others will be out soon doing the same thing!”

“Jeez,” the driver mutters after the cop withdraws, “I’d heard New Hampshire was a bit of a police state.”

I lurch out of the warm car and onto the sidewalk at my designated intersection. The car pulls away and I feel like an astronaut stranded on the moon. Under a dim streetlight I scan the map and set out down my first street, trying to cover the streets as efficiently as possible. When you do this kind of scut-work, you develop efficiencies after a while that would make W. Edwards Deming proud: tuck box under arm, hold sheaf of hangers in left hand, hook right index finger through hanger loop as you walk towards the next door, open and close gate (most of these yards are chain-link fenced), find the door the family uses most (inevitably not the front door in New England), drop hanger loop over door-handle, repeat. Gloves wouldn’t have worked, actually; not enough fine motor control. However, when your fingers freeze you’re going to lose that anyway.

There’s nothing but fenced cracker-boxes around for miles, it seems. No small commercial strip with a welcoming, aromatic little bakery, no back-ends of shopping malls, nothing. Not even a sewage treatment plant. An hour and a half to go before it gets light.

I open the gate to a square little Cape on a fenced corner lot with a big lawn. The short driveway is empty. The house is dark except for a light in an upstairs back room, so I tread quietly so as not to alert a wakeful occupant and hope there’s not a dog inside.

I reach the side door, clearly the one they’d use, and stop. My cold-fuzzed, sleep-and-caffeine-deprived brain registers that there’s something wrong with the storm door. The bottom panel is smashed, little pellets and shards of glass all over the top step, so I step carefully to avoid them. What a shame; their door’s broken and they haven’t had time to get it fixed. Next I notice the inside door is ajar. I loop a “Udall for President—please remember to vote today” hanger over the inside doorknob. Then, finally, the nickel drops.

Burglary in progress.

The empty driveway. The family, I realize, isn’t there. What do I do? Have to find a cop. Lord knows there were enough of them around on my way here. This is the pre-cellphone age, or I’d be able to hit 911 immediately and they’d catch the perp red-handed. Noiselessly I back down the driveway, taking great care when I lift the latch on the chain-link gate. I tiptoe down the street, scanning for cruisers. It didn’t occur to me to remove the Udall door hanger; I wonder what the burglar will think when he comes out and finds it. Maybe he’s a registered voter.

Between then and twelve-thirty in the afternoon, when someone from the campaign finally comes back to pick me up, I walk my assigned neighborhoods, dutifully dropping off door hangers. In seven hours I have seen not one single policeman or cop car.

Much later on that same day, we ride to Manchester and watch Mo—tall, handsome, funny, smart, decent Mo—give the first of many concession speeches, congratulating Jimmy Carter. “I’m not too worried about coming in second,” he says. “After all, George Washington, the Father of our Country, married a widow.”

Mo is long gone now, felled by disappointments, personal tragedies, and Parkinson’s disease. I worked in his Congressional office for a while after the campaign folded, wrote him a few speeches and one or two bills. On my bookshelf, its spine faded by the years, is his collected wit and wisdom in a volume entitled Too Funny to be President, which came out ten years after I left his staff and moved to Vermont. On the flyleaf he’s inscribed it “To Roberta Harold, a first-rate friend and staffer.” I’d forgotten that until today.

 

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Vermont Celebrates Independence

July 7th, 2011 — 7:23pm

It’s hard to beat Vermont for an authentic small-town July 4 experience. I’m not talking about the great metropolitan celebrations on offer in Burlington and Montpelier on the 3rd, in which relative fortunes are spent on fireworks in hope of convincing us (successfully, I admit) that we’re getting something back for our property taxes.

4th of July, East Corinth, Vermont

I’m talking about parades with kids oohing and aahing over the town fire truck, sacred smoke rising from chickens being barbecued in the Volunteer Fire Department’s big meshed-over pits on the green, homemade rhubarb and blueberry pies, and the chance for a trip back into history.
You find these in places like East Corinth and Peacham, little settlements tucked away north of I-89 and west of I-93, on roads you’d normally never travel unless you knew somebody there or, as Robert Frost says, “let a guide direct you/Who only has at heart your getting lost.”
East Corinth (pronounced KrINTH, in case you go there and don’t want to sound like a flatlander) is the largest village in the Town of Corinth, chartered in 1764, population 1,367, which also includes the settlements of Corinth Corner, West Corinth, Corinth Center, South Corinth, Cookeville, and Goose Green, “so named,” says the Town’s website, “for the color painted on the feet of the geese being driven—as in, walked or herded—to markets in Boston.”
If you’re a Tim Burton fan you’ve probably seen East Corinth, the setting for his 1988 movie Beetlejuice. Vermont may be lily-white, demographically speaking, but Corinth was home to Alexander Twilight, the first African-American elected to a state legislature anywhere. And for all its small population, Corinth has two historical museums, entirely run by volunteers: the Academy Museum and the Agricultural and Trades Museum, which host musical “cafés” where you can attend the likes of a seminar on the Delta blues from a local resident who played with the old bluesmen on MacDougal Street.
On this sticky, sunny Fourth, we joined our good friend Lois Jackson, President of the Corinth Historical Society, for a chicken dinner from which we emerged replete if even stickier, and for an over-enthusiastic tour of the Society’s silent auction offerings. This netted us a foot-bath (a sort of portable, fully accessorized mini-Jacuzzi), two dishtowels depicting fuzzy Venetian palazzos and gondoliers, a pint of local Dark Amber maple syrup for half the store-bought price, and a CD of the day’s entertainers, the Wall-Stiles, four local rockabillies who write all their own stuff and make you want to dance and sing along. The youth softball team was selling sodas, kids were bouncing on an inflatable gym, and former farmers like my spouse were drooling over the vintage John Deeres.
North and west from Corinth to Peacham, we stopped in our tire-tracks at the edge of the town cemetery at the sight of a woman in nineteenth century costume, being followed by a crowd. She was leading the Peacham Historical Association’s twice-yearly Ghost Walk, which this year featured Civil War soldiers and their families. Locals in period costume read from the soldiers’ letters and memoirs.

Permanent Peachamites

We sat enthralled and horrified as the late Mark Wheeler of the First Vermont Cavalry, sitting in a cane-bottomed chair by his tombstone in a straw hat, collarless shirt and gold-rimmed glasses, told us of his time at the infamous Andersonville Prison. The original Mr. Wheeler survived the ordeal and wrote his memoirs in the 1880s, when he could at last bear to think about those days and the horrors he witnessed.
The tree-shaded Peacham cemetery, in the heart of the village, slopes gently northeast with stunning views of the surrounding hills. With all the rain we’ve been having and the season still early, the green almost hurt your eyes. It was nice to imagine that the ancestors of the present-day Peachamites were enjoying the Fourth too.
To cap the day off, we stopped at the Green Top Market on the Cady’s Falls Road in Morristown and picked up a quart of strawberries.
“Where are they from?” we asked the sales clerk.
“Not sure. An older gentleman from Eden. His name is Stub, or something like that.”
Could it be Ernest “Stub” Earle? By golly, it was.
Stub Earle, former State representative from the town of Eden, known to his colleagues as the Earl of Eden back in the late 1970s, had an Elvis pompadour, a Vermont accent you could cut with a knife, and sometimes carried his personal spittoon onto the House floor. He also had a knack for cutting through the fog of legislative rhetoric and saying, in words of one syllable, what everyone else was thinking but didn’t dare give voice to. He was probably a Republican, but back then such things didn’t matter much. In his old age, he’s taken to raising strawberries and vegetables and bottling his own brand of pickles.
It was heartening to know that Stub, like his pickles, has been remarkably well preserved. As have Vermont’s small-town July Fourth traditions.

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The Winter That Wouldn’t Die

March 28th, 2011 — 1:17pm

Lately, newspaper mentioned cheap air fare

I gotta to fly to Saint Somewhere

Im close to bodily harm…

This mornin’

I shot six holes in my freezer

I think I got cabin fever

Somebody sound the alarm…

–Jimmy Buffett, “Boat Drinks”

 

I can relate. We’re at the tail-end of March and there are still a couple of feet of snow in my front yard. The good news, I suppose, is that the Flamingometer is mostly pink—the male’s body, though not his legs, is visible above the crusty white, and you can see the female’s neck and back feathers (if plastic versions can be called feathers). Our pet herd of deer is having an easier time getting to the bird feeder, which they systematically empty as soon as it’s refilled.

 

A couple of weeks ago

 

 

But, really, at this point we’re supposed to be solidly into Mud Season, that last purgatorial stage before true spring, which in these parts generally arrives in late April. Picture a kid trying to roll his tiny Matchbox car through a pan of uncooked brownie mix, and you have an idea of car travel on Vermont’s dirt roads this time of year. On the paved ones, it’s more like the Cyclone at Coney Island, bouncing you between yawning potholes and towering frost heaves that make you wonder if maybe we’re in an earthquake zone after all.

Mud Season reliably begins most years on or around the Ides of March. We slog and bounce and suffer through about a month of it before seeing the slightest fuzzy hint of green on the trees and shrubs. It’s the price we pay for maple syrup: cold nights, sunny days, the thermometer up and down like a yo-yo, getting a nice pumping action going in the tree trunks that gets the sap dripping with a pleasant “ping!” into the metal buckets still used by traditionalists. Daytime temperatures flirt with forty, and there’s enough sunshine to begin recharging the body’s Vitamin D supplies.

But this year the thermometer is just down, there are daily snow flurries, and Mud Season, demoralizing as it is, hasn’t even started. Everyone I know is grumpy, but there’s no point in complaining, because it’s happening to all of us. And, besides, compared to the poor folks in Japan whose world was literally swept out from under them, or the brave citizens of the Middle East rising up against their ruthless oppressors at last, we haven’t much to complain about, really.

That said, I could only shake my head when I stopped in at the local florist’s to buy some daffodils to add a little bright color to the surrounding monochrome. “My distributor hasn’t had them for a couple of weeks,” she said. We’re a month away from daffodils of our own, and you can’t even buy them in a store any more!

“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot famously began “The Waste Land,” his ode to the dissolution of Civilization as we Knew It. He’s commonly thought to have been writing about the trenches of the Somme. Northern New Englanders know better: he was holed up on some back road in Vermont, before the invention of Netflix or even the VCR. This year, it looks as if the cruelty is going to stretch into May.

 

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You Gotta Love This Town

February 16th, 2011 — 11:45am

The Valentine Phantom has struck again!

If you woke up grumpy in Montpelier on February 14, there’s no way the foul mood would have survived a trip downtown. Just about every storefront along State and Main, and even the City Hall clock in its tower, was plastered with red paper hearts.

Valentine Phantom loves the toy store

The Phantom, or Phantoms, since from the sheer square footage of hearts, there must either be a crew of helpers or the Phantom is on speed—has been practicing his or her brand of benign, joyous vandalism in Montpelier since 2002. One suspects the Phantom’s identity must be known to the local authorities, but they aren’t talking, and neither is anyone else.

We like it that way, and so, apparently, does the Phantom, who seems to live by the Biblical injunction about doing one’s good works in secret, as well as that bumper sticker which tells you to “practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.”

There’s something magical in the notion of a ghostly, anonymous figure, perhaps wearing an old-fashioned burglar’s mask, flitting from one store window to another in the freezing dead of night for the sole purpose of bringing smiles to people’s faces. The Phantom does not seek fame or credit or thanks. She, or he, is Santa Claus without the commercial PR machine—the embodiment of love, as Santa is the spirit of giving.

A big part of the fun, of course, is the clandestine and mischievous nature of the enterprise. The sense of transgression, the thrill of not getting caught must have been part of the attraction for the incurably romantic perpetrator(s?) in the first year or so. This has long since become a cheerful fiction in which the Montpelier Police Department is happy to play its part, for surely any number of night patrols could have caught the Phantom, uh, red-handed if they had any inclination to do so.

As it is, the Phantom now has his/her/their/its own Facebook Phantom Phan page—put up with the prominent disclaimer that the creator is not the Phantom but a non-anonymous Montpelier resident who just wants to celebrate the Phantom’s work and give people a place to express gratitude—or wistful envy, which was prominently on display in the comments from people who don’t live here.

National as well as local media have been running the story: AP, Bloomberg News, USA Today, Fox News, even ABC7 in Chicago. There’s even a Wikipedia page labeled “Valentine Phantom,” which notes that the Phantom is sometimes referred to as the Valentine Bandit, though the only things stolen seem to be the hearts of those who enjoy the results of the Phantom’s work.

Phantom strikes the craft shop

Montpelier doesn’t always feel like the ideal place to live, especially when you’re navigating icy sidewalks and paying property tax bills during its long, often dark winters. But on Valentine’s Day morning, we who know and love the place are reminded of our town’s prodigious store of social capital. More than one resident waiting to cross the State and Main intersection has been observed looking around at the sea of red hearts with a big goofy smile, saying, “God, I love this town!”

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Real-life roots of HERON ISLAND

December 9th, 2010 — 12:26pm

The first Dade Wyatt historical mystery, Heron Island, germinated in the spring of 2001, when my husband and I made a farewell visit to an island in Lake Champlain’s Inland Sea owned by a friend. She was about to sell the birch-shaded, thyme-turfed Eden, whose ten acres featured a bird sanctuary and a miniature Adirondack Great Camp built in 1902 by the heir to the International Paper fortune.

A largely unaltered slice of the past, the Vermont lodge boasted a gallery ringed with trophy heads, huge screened verandahs with white wicker furniture, and acres of Oriental rugs. In a curio cabinet sat an 1895 Mauser rifle—the service weapon, we learned, of Spanish troops in the Spanish-American War.

“They say a daughter of one of the early owners married a Rough Rider,” our friend said. Local folklore also had it that Teddy Roosevelt had visited the island for their wedding.

A few weeks later, the image of a handsome, mustachioed man with a brimmed hat came into my head, and my detective Dade Wyatt rowed an Adirondack boat into the story. A melancholy widower, former Shakespearean actor, Pinkerton agent, and Rough Rider,  he’s providing security for the island’s politically ambitious owner, who’s trying to lure Roosevelt for a summer visit in 1903. On a dry run for the event, somebody ends up dead. Suspicion falls on an Italian anarchist musician—perhaps from the granite works of nearby Barre, a hotbed of labor radicalism, or from the teeming immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side.  Wyatt sets off to track down a killer and gets mixed up in more than he bargained for.

I discovered some intriguing historical nuggets in the course of writing and revising Heron Island: Vice-President Roosevelt learned about the shooting of President McKinley in 1901 while attending a reception at the Isle La Motte, Vermont home of Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk; Roosevelt and his Cabinet members were frequent Vermont visitors (in some cases summer residents), and the leading Italian anarchist of his day, Luigi Galleani, who inspired the devotion of the more famous Sacco and Vanzetti as well as the “Red Scare” of 1919, hid out in Barre, Vermont from 1903 to 1912, publishing a radical underground newspaper called Cronaca Sovversiva.

There are two terribly sad things about the real-life roots of this story. The Adirondack lodge on the island burned to the ground in the fall of 2007. Our friend who’d owned the island died last year, much too young. Perhaps she’d be pleased that the place lives on in fictional form.

Cross-posted from Kingdom Books’ blog, http://kingdombks.blogspot.com/, with thanks to owners Beth and Dave Kannell.

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Readings from Heron Island

November 5th, 2010 — 9:21am

The Barre Historical Society is hosting a reading by local author Robbie Harold from her first novel, Heron Island, at the Old Labor Hall on Granite Street in Barre, Vermont on Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 3 p.m. Book signing and refreshments will follow; all are invited.

Robbie Harold will read from her historical mystery Heron Island at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vermont on Tuesday, January 18 at 7 p.m. Book signing and refreshments will follow; all are invited.

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