Archive for November 2010


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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“Courage!”

November 3rd, 2010 — 9:31am

Those two syllables can mean anything from braving the freezing wastes of Antarctica, the airless heights of Everest or the massed rifles of an invading army to telling a friend he has halitosis. In my case, it recently manifested as driving all the way from Montpelier to our urban home in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. In my own car. Into the corporate limits of New York City. By myself.

It could have been a lot worse. I chose a slack time of day, by New York standards, and didn’t cross the line into the borough of Manhattan, which in my fantasy would have resulted in being instantly crushed like a bug.  It wasn’t much different, and perhaps not even worse, than driving in Boston, where the highways are largely populated by escapees from the Danvers Asylum for the Criminally Insane. And I’ve been doing that without incident for a couple of decades now.

The only thing we country bumpkins really need to know about driving in the Big Apple is that New Yorkers are used to cramming themselves into really small spaces due to ridiculous real estate prices. This compacting skill and inclination extends to the interstices between other people’s cars on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Also, being laconic by nature and fanatical about privacy, they see no reason to signal that they’re about to merge into the 18-inch space between your Prius, whose frontal dimensions you have never completely grasped, and the back of the Urban Assault Vehicle ahead of you (humongous SUV’s being the one exception to the cramming-self-into-small-spaces pattern of Gotham living. Where in God’s name do they park these things?).

I’ve always had something of a dodgy relationship to driving, if you’ll pardon the expression. Being raised in Scotland in a Council housing scheme where nobody could afford a car, I’d taken a series of buses to school every day and rarely had the privilege of riding in an actual automobile. When we emigrated to America, where cars were as much of a necessity as a roof over one’s head, the era of the four-wheeled dinosaur was still in full flower, and our family’s early autos were land yachts that would require two parking spaces by today’s standards.

I was in no hurry to learn to drive; we could only afford one car and my father needed it to get to work, so I wasn’t likely to get much time with it, and there just wasn’t the tradition in Scotland of equating a driver’s license with all the freedoms of adulthood.

I finally got my license when I was nineteen and, while trying to pick my way down a narrow street over sophomore-year Christmas vacation, plowed my dad’s giant beige Dodge Polara, Moby Dick, into a line of cars belonging to a group of partygoers at a nearby mansion. Thankfully, they were too liquored up to mind a great deal, and this being Virginia, were downright gracious about making sure I wasn’t too traumatized by the event. They even offered me some spiked eggnog to help me calm down , which I was wise enough to refuse in case the cops were eventually called in.

Moving to Vermont and living on a steep, windy hill produced a new kind of driving panic: dealing with winter. My first car, given to my spouse as a graduation present, was a rear-wheel-drive sedan with no traction to speak of. On one hideously memorable occasion I did a one-eighty on Route 2 coming into Waterbury; on another, only a miracle saved me from wiping out the Volkswagen bug ahead of me when I lost control on an icy hill.

I joined a vanpool and resolutely refused ever to take a turn driving the van (which was frequently piloted by a pool member we named “Mad Dog,” who enjoyed reading the morning paper as he drove).

Eventually, after one or two more black-ice incidents that caused my insurance carrier to cancel on me, I learned to deal with Vermont winters and moved on to cars that could handle them. Urban traffic is something else altogether, a Darwinian game of chicken in which polite deference can be fatal.

Add to the congestion the complications of New York City’s so-called “alternate-side parking” rules. On the streets that surround our Brooklyn aerie, there are red-and-white signs that tell you when you have to move your car from its hard-fought-for parking space for street sweeping. On our stretch, it’s 8:30 to 11:30 on Tuesdays. On the next block, it’s Thursdays.

The good news is that they suspend these rules, as duly reported on all the local radio stations, for practically any occasion you can think of. In the week of November 1, for instance, there are suspensions for All Saints’ Day, Election Day, and Diwali, which I learned is the Hindu festival of lights. So if you work it right, as I did recently by moving the car from the Thursday street to our Tuesday street, you can leave your car in a given spot indefinitely.

People in New York actually drive their cars to work and to stores and other things we use them for in Vermont. My hat is off to them. Maybe some day I’ll even venture out in between journeys to and from our two residences; the Brooklyn Bridge seems like the ultimate test to me. But then I’d have to find a parking space in Manhattan, and that would take a level of courage I’ve yet to attain.

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