Category: Vermont and Brooklyn


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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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.

1 comment » | Vermont, Vermont and Brooklyn

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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“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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Joys of the ‘Hood

September 16th, 2010 — 12:23pm

Finding our home away from home in Brooklyn

The narrow, dim stairway, smelling faintly of roach spray, loomed straight up for three floors like a Hitchcock movie. Following Wayne and the landlord’s mother up the stairs, I caught my husband’s eye and gave him a thumbs-down. The prospect of humping groceries and laundry up that endless staircase was too daunting to contemplate.

One more flight led to the apartment we’d come to see, a one-bedroom on the top floor that Wayne had spotted on Craigslist. I’d given up on that site myself after a couple of phone calls with guys who sounded like Ukrainian pornographers, but even working with the ubiquitous local realtors, who also handled rentals, hadn’t got us far.

The first surprise was all the light flooding in from big southeast-facing windows. The appliances were new—not fancy models, but gleaming like the fresh paint on the walls. The rent was half again as much as our Montpelier mortgage, i.e., reasonable by New York standards.

Then there was the bedroom—unlike most of the glorified closets we’d seen, big enough to hold both our bed and a dresser and still leave room to walk around. From the roof you could see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Lady Liberty, and the Coney Island parachute jump—a 360-degree view.

We told the landlord’s mom we’d get back to her. Back on the street, the sky, which had been darkening steadily, let loose in torrents. Caught without raingear, we ducked into the nearest storefront along with half of the neighborhood and were wafted off our feet on fumes of garlic, sesame, and lox. We’d stumbled upon Terrace Bagels, rated by the New York Times as one of the six best bagel bakeries in all of metro New York. That did it.

Windsor Terrace, unknown to us until two years ago, is a wedge of streets in northwest Brooklyn between Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery, which is almost as big as the Park and arguably more decorative. (Green-Wood is the final home of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Boss Tweed.)

With brick and frame rowhouses, modest by New York standards, and lines of four-story buildings with apartments above and shops below fronting its three-block-long commercial hub on Prospect Park West, the Terrace is one of the highest points in Brooklyn. That’s a bit like saying it’s one of the highest points in Amsterdam. Like neighboring Manhattan, Brooklyn was first settled by the Dutch; known as Brueckelen in those days, its low-lying swampiness must have seemed comfortably familiar.

We’d spent our first New York year sharing a huge co-op apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden with its owner. It was a bit like living with your mom, except that Mom in this case was a lively African-American woman in her mid-70s who’d known everyone from Alvin Ailey to W.E.B. Du Bois and had been married to a Namibian freedom fighter. With a subway entrance close enough to swan-dive into, it was very convenient, but the trains rumbled beneath us 24/7, orange sodium lights burned on the Museum, and the yobs on their crotch rockets, zooming down the parkway at 2 a.m. like a bunch of angry hornets, got in the way of sleep. The rent was too high, especially for a place that never really felt like our own. Virginia Woolf is onto something.

We focused our search at first on Park Slope,  a neighborhood of large, genteel brownstones on tree-lined streets sloping gently down west of Prospect Park. However, we were daunted by stratospheric rents and the hordes of narcissists-by-proxy bowling pedestrians aside as they pushed their Harvard-bound progeny down the sidewalks in strollers which gave new meaning to the term Urban Assault Vehicle. Park Slope, we learned, is where Manhattan bond traders go to breed.

Nearby Windsor Terrace has a looser, slightly scruffier working-class vibe, with people of all shapes, ages and colors living over the Korean groceries and ethnic restaurants. Hispanic kids on trikes chase each other around the sidewalks on warm nights, watched over by groups of chatting parents. There’s a huge Catholic church painted pink inside, an Irish pub that only has Bud and Bud Light on draft, a New Zealand meat pie shop where the artsier young folks like to hang. Farrell’s, the pub, didn’t allow women until sometime in the 70s when Shirley MacLaine stopped by and nobody had the nerve to throw her out.

You can eat cheap in Windsor Terrace. Joe’s Pizza (whose else?) has huge pizza slices for three bucks, and you can get five killer garlic knots for a dollar. Or for a recovering Brit like myself, indulge in a steak-and-kidney pie from Dub Pies for five bucks and change.

Our own favorite watering-hole is tucked away down a side street. Rhythm ‘n’ Booze (I am not making that up) is the last refuge of the genial Italian and Irish geezers who used to own the neighborhood. “What can I get yese?” asks the slender, dark-haired waitress from Antrim. It’ll often be a perfectly done pair of pork chops or a generous slab of grilled salmon, for half of what you’d pay in Manhattan. Accompanied, of course, by a fresh pint of Brooklyn Lager, brewed in nearby Williamsburg by people who know what they’re doing.

On weekends when I’m in town, we go for walks in the Park, threading our way between softball games on the Great Lawn, watching the dogs chase ducks in their very own swimming pond. Sometimes we do takeout for dinner and go up on the roof to watch the green lights twinkle on the Verrazano Bridge.

Windsor Terrace isn’t a perfect neighborhood. Graffiti disfigure many of the rolling steel shutters that hide store and restaurant windows at night. On weekends before the Monday pickup, trash spills over the sidewalk bins and flies around in the street. Many of the stores and restaurants only take cash; the ATM charges mount up. And I do use the word “schlep” more often lately, especially when that three-story staircase looms and I have a full suitcase or a bulging laundry bag. But it’s friendly and quiet and real, and less than forty-five minutes from Broadway, and when I’m there, it feels like home.

1 comment » | Brooklyn

A MODEST PROPOSAL

September 16th, 2010 — 11:19am

People who think manufacturing or high technology drives Vermont’s economy are way off base. As anyone knows who has driven down Route 12 on Labor Day weekend, it’s yard sales. One runs a veritable gauntlet of them on every major roadway from the first nice weekend in April to the last one in early November—not just yards, but garages and barns and fire halls and churches too.

In addition to being a basic industry, the sale of unwanted junk is a major component of Vermont’s tourist economy: witness the annual Chelsea Flea Market, when the entire population of that shire town, along with associated out-of-town and flatland hustlers, lines Route 110 and both Town Greens with aluminum folding tables with wonky legs, and sets out to extract maximum revenue from whatever they are eager to be rid of: one-armed dolls, canning jars without lids, polyester doubleknit pants in lime green and burnt orange, those thick cheap vases in which you get arrangements from the florist when you’re in the hospital, crockpots, espresso makers missing a key valve, salad spinners in various stages of grunge, dolls in garish crochet dresses that fit over rolls of toilet-paper, Brady Bunch lunchboxes, and dot-matrix computer printers.

They’re getting more and more prevalent, and more desperate. Witness the pathetic and ubiquitous little piles at the corners of lawns all over the state, topped with a piece of corrugated cardboard sporting a big “Free” in Magic Marker capitals, without which they would be mistaken for items left out for the Casella pickup, which is where most of it will end up eventually.

A number of key demographic trends are driving this phenomenon and, by inference, the rise of eBay and the decline in America’s traditional retail economy over the last decade or so. Simply put: the majority of the population has reached an age at which we have too much stuff. Baby boomers have peaked in their “wealth-building” years (also known as their stuff-accumulating years). Many are looking to de-clutter and simplify their lives in a quest for spiritual purity. In this they are hampered by the determination and cunning of their aged relatives who are downsizing into assisted-living facilities and senior housing.

My mother, for example, routinely presents me when I visit with cardboard boxes, tied up with string and package-taped to withstand earthquakes, whose contents she refuses to divulge. “They’re just a few wee things I thought you’d like to have,” she says, all Scottish-American innocence. “I could always throw them away, but they belonged to your grandmother…” These I will open at home to find such heirlooms as a holey pair of my grandfather’s socks and a few of my grandmother’s Kleenexes, mostly unused. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.

I’d better confess right here that I have a hard time passing a yard sale by. Every now and then, there’s something amazing that you feel sick just to think of having missed—the ultimate score. A sleek black leather jacket that I wear on my forays to Brooklyn comes to mind. A barely-worn full-length mink which I presented to my mother on her 80th birthday, thereby fulfilling one of her life-long fantasies. A Balans chair knockoff that’s kept me from repeat back surgery. Worth every nickel, all of them.

Multiply my situation by a few score of millions, and you have the great American stuff surplus. It doesn’t help that dollar stores are now blighting the landscape with an unending supply of cheap Chinese-produced tchotchkes and enough plasticware to have solved the energy crisis had the oil from which they were made been used for fuel instead of feedstocks. The seductiveness of “look what you can get for only a buck!” has done its part to clutter the basements and garages of Vermont.

Apropos of which, I think I’ve got an answer to the problem of rising energy costs, diminishing fossil fuel supplies, and the imminent demise of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. I need to preface this by noting that I yield to no man in my bibliomania—my house is at structural risk from the groaning contents of its bookcases— and I was far more creeped out by the Nazi book-burning scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” than even the infamous “Why did it have to be snakes?” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

That said, I think the solution to Vermont’s energy shortages lies in the combustion of possessions which people have tried in vain to offload at yard sales. Chief among them: Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Honestly, have you ever seen even the most fanatical yard-sale vulture buy one of these? Yet there they are, on the lawns of every participant in Montpelier’s annual Liberty Street Yard Sale—piles of them in cardboard boxes with the flaps torn off, or stacked on the shelf of a scratched and dangerously tipsy wooden bookcase with “$5.00” scrawled in Flair pen on a piece of masking tape. “I’ll throw in the books for free,” the owner says half-heartedly, knowing the attempt to delegate his trash-disposal dilemma will be in vain.

Could even the most devoted literacy crusader mourn the fiery demise of the condensed works of Frances Parkinson Keyes and Louis Bromfield, or even the archetypally Victorian poetical works of Felicia Hemans (she of “The boy stood on the burning deck”),  particularly if the binding is mildewed to blackness from years in a damp corner of the cow-barn? Come on—I’m waiting. I’m not hearing any shrieks of protest. There—I thought not.

Near-infinite as the supply of these blights on the literary landscape seems, they’d need supplementation to constitute a reliable energy supply, which brings me to National Geographics. As eerily well-preserved as the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the Picture of Dorian Gray, or George Hamilton, they blind you with their taxicab-yellow glossiness in piles on a dusty old school-desk, glow in the web-thickened dark of barn shelves, and sit solid as brick walls in the aforementioned flapless cardboard boxes. No one wants them, but no one can bear to throw them out. There’s no question they have cool pictures, especially those that date from more innocent times when the only acceptable way to depict the naked human breast photographically was jiggling amid the beads and cowrie shells of African tribal dancers. This is also how most of us learned about the aesthetic and medical peril of Cooper’s Droop.

But if you really want them, you can get all the back issues of National Geographic on DVD—my husband has them, so I know this is true—so why not put all that slick biomass to some socially useful purpose? Burn ‘em, I say, along with the Reader’s Digest Condenseds and the cat-clawed cottage-square afghans in colors no one can stand to be around (purple, brown and mustard yellow—what was she thinking?) and the one, battered brown lace-up shoe, and whatever other combustibles are left over from yard sales and failed attempts at edge-of-the-lawn giveaways.

The economic development folks and the utilities should go for this too. There are jobs to be had, for roving fuel-gatherers with trucks and scales who’d pay the hapless yard-salers by the pound for such leftovers from their retailing efforts as can be made to yield up heat and motive power. Their trucks could carry a logo like “Shoes for Industry,” as the old Firesign Theater routine once proclaimed. And the state’s inventors could get busy developing chippers, shredders and pelletizers that can handle multiple materials, from mildewed book stock to polyester doubleknit.

Well, shoes might take a little gasoline for starter, but there’s heat and the promise of energy independence for our brave little state in them thar items, along with the afghans and the National Geographics and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and the back issues of U.S. News and World Report and AgriView and the stained polyester napkin-and-tablecloth set that’s seen one too many Thanksgivings and the bottomless cane-seated chairs so rickety and dried out there isn’t a hope they’ll ever again support a human tush.

And with all due respect to Central Vermont Public Service, they all smell a lot better than cow-poop.

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BRIGHT LIGHTS, SMALL CITY

August 18th, 2010 — 4:34pm

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.

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