BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL CITY

Or, why I didn’t leave Montpelier, Vermont for the Big Apple

When my husband landed his dream job as a foundation program officer in New York, we could have sold our Montpelier house and gone off to enjoy the culture, glitter and cuisine of  the world’s greatest city. Instead, we rented a small Brooklyn apartment and kept our home in the nation’s smallest state capital.

There were the three cats, for one thing; they don’t deal well with change. And the foundation appointment, though likely renewable, was initially only for three years.

Beyond that, Montpelier. Since emigrating in 1965 from a Council housing scheme on the fringes of Glasgow, Scotland, I’d sought in vain a sense of home in the howling suburban wastes of greater Washington, DC, the yuppie enclaves of Capitol Hill, and a jerry-built raised ranch on a scary-steep hill in Richmond, Vermont, a starter home where I stopped for seventeen years.

After a post-breakup stint in the Heartbreak Hotel (Winooski’s Woolen Mill), followed by a spell in a serviceable condo in Shelburne, the new man in my life pointed out that spending an hour and a half in the car to go to our Montpelier jobs—I was working for USDA at the time—was a bit of a waste.

“Montpelier!” I said. “It’s full of politicians and bureaucrats! If we move there, I might turn into one.”

“I got news for you, sweetie,” said my brewmaster friend Alan Newman when I aired this concern. “It’s too late.”

He had a point. Besides, Montpelier houses were a lot cheaper than Burlington’s. But I worried about the small scale of the place: wouldn’t there be a lot of nosiness and gossip?

An old State government colleague set me straight. “This town is full of people who came of age in the Sixties. We all did lots of things then we don’t want our kids finding out about.” Ah—mutual assured destruction and credible deterrence.

We found our house on a dead-end street, perched on a hillside and surrounded by carefully planted rows of old evergreens, a snug gray Cape with six-over-six paned windows and a glassed-in porch, perfect for a writing study.

Moving day in mid-January 1998 produced the worst blizzard of that winter. The van refused to make it up the steep little twist at the entrance to our street. Expecting rebuff or voicemail, we called City Hall around 4:45. Any chance a plow might be coming by?

“Let me see if Frenchie’s still out,” the kindly voice said. “If he is, I’ll send him up.” He was, and she did; we got a custom plowing to clear the way to our new driveway. It was a good start, and it’s only gotten better. In no particular order, ten reasons I never want to leave Montpelier:

  • The Kellogg-Hubbard Library, the community living room and learning center. Poets and master gardeners, historians and humanitarians share their bounty with all for free.
  • The New England Culinary Institute, or NECI. When I first worked here in the late 1970s, the dining-out options were greasy spoon or granola. NECI has inspired an explosion of friendly competition and culinary diversity for all tastes and pocketbooks.
  • The churches. A heathen myself, I’m struck by the generosity of spirit and living-out of values displayed by their soup kitchens, charitable fairs and other forms of social activism. As in medieval times, they’re also vital cultural sites. I’m still trying to decide who has the best flea market; the Methodists have a narrow lead thus far.
  • The festive, flavorful and friendly Capital City Farmers’ Market, especially now that we get to enjoy it twice a month in the winter as well.
  • Communitarian exemplars like the Excited Citizens’ Committee, led by Susan Ritz and Cheryl Fischer, who brought us the 2009 Montpelier Inaugural celebration, and Michael Arnowitt, whose semi-impromptu jazz concert raised money for a besieged hospital in Gaza.
  • The Valentine Phantom. This annual midwinter piece of benign banditry, in which every display window in downtown is plastered with red paper hearts in the middle of the night, wakes up the whole town with a smile on its face. Blessings on him, her, or them; may they flourish forever, and may we never find out who it is.
  • The Coffee Corner’s Front Table, Montpelier’s version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table. A daily gathering of gray eminences, urbane wits and irregular humorists, this assembly offers news analysis, trenchant commentary on current events, legal and home maintenance advice, and an occasional participant who shows up in a gorilla suit.
  • George Spaulding, the book maven’s book maven, found behind the desk at either Kellogg-Hubbard Library or Bear Pond Books. Only once did I ask George a literary question to which he couldn’t recall the answer. Five minutes later my phone rang; he’d remembered. He now hosts a monthly discussion for lovers of classic murder mysteries; if this were Japan, he’d be designated a Living National Treasure.
  • The Langdon Street Café, by day a haven for writers huddled over laptops with a cup of joe and  by night a raucous, family-friendly showcase for the area’s talented musicians. Killer grilled cheese sandwiches, smiling waitpeople and a pleasantly scruffy vibe make anyone feel at home.
  • And what other city has a City Manager who moonlights as the lead singer of a rockabilly band?
  • Oh, I almost forgot. No McDonald’s.

Having the house to myself for long spells while my spouse toils in New York deprives me of excuses for not writing, a writer’s second-favorite occupation. I’m lucky to have New York in my life too, and we enjoy it together for a chunk of each month. I miss my husband when he leaves Montpelier and when I leave him in New York. But time goes fast these days. And there’s always a moment when I get back, shut the door behind me, greet the cats, and listen to the quiet. And give thanks for being home.

Category: Vermont and Brooklyn | Tags: , One comment »

One Response to “BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL CITY”

  1. Dale Eisler

    A lovely tribute to an absolutely wonderful community. I live in Ottawa, ON. and took an MA in political science a number of years back at Vermont College (Union Institute) and fell in love with Montpelier. Met George Spaulding at Bear Pond Books the other day. A wonderful fellow who was kind enough to take on my novel “Anton, a young boy, his friend and the Russian Revolution.” My wife and I try to visit Montpelier as often as we can.

    Dale


Leave a Reply



This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.

Back to top