Monday, October 24, 2011

December 8, 2010

Thirty years ago tonight I left my rented room in Binghamton, New York’s First Ward, crossed the Chenango River and walked to Bobby Dee's, a locally renowned bikers' bar famous for its life-size replica of a wild stallion rearing up on hind hooves from an illuminated pedestal atop the building's roof. 

I remember ordering a Molson Red and taking a seat at one of the empty tables on the edge of the darkened dance floor. There were a few people hunched over drinks at the far end of the bar.  A too bright ceiling lamp cast a lasso of light around them.  It reminded me of the famous Edward Hooper painting, the cafe scene turned poster art featuring Marilyn, Elvis and James Dean as silent patrons.

Dulled by the refer I'd smoked earlier in the evening, I was caught off guard by the slamming steel door as a couple barged in off the street.  She swung free of her man’s leather-clad arm and dropped like a rock into the seat beside me.  "You look just like him!  I mean it, you really do!"  Before I could respond, her fingers were in my hair and I tasted Marlboros and Juicy Fruit as she pressed her cold lips hard against mine. 

She jumped up then, sort of tripped back against her boyfriend and gurgled,  "Don't you love his glasses, he looks just like him!"  

“Yeah sure” he said, giving her a hard shove toward the bar and looking at me with blood in his eyes.   "But you’re not John Lennon are you amigo.  Somebody just blew his fuckin’ brains out.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Releasing the West Wall

The farmers who constructed the original stone walls on my property had a wonderful sense of space and contour. Their work seems so perfectly tied to the hills that it is hard to accept that these rock fences could simply have been a utilitarian solution to controlling livestock or protecting crops.

The lay of the land here is so varied and its shape so naturally pleasing that it is little wonder that this farmstead was the first to be settled in the township of Gibson.  The added good fortune of the Old Newburgh Turnpike passing through its frontier quilt work of oat and corn patches, rocky cow pastures and woodlots made it a sensible place for the first white owner to construct an inn. 

Captain Joseph Potter, granted this property by the State of Connecticut for his service in the Revolutionary War, came west around 1810. Timber stands had yet to feel the pain of an axe and the chilling cry of mountain lions still terrorized the seasoned woodsman.   Potter’s door-less log cabin, which he covered with a bear skin during his first Susquehanna County winter, no longer remains, but the inn that he and his sons later built serves today as my next door neighbor’s summer home.  It has been many years since the stone hitching post in the front yard has tethered a team, but it seems to contain a magical energy that draws children to it, enticing them to encircle it with out stretched arms as if hugging a giant fluffy dog.

My project this past week has been to release the west wall of the upper hayfield.   Its original duty as sentry between cultivation and wilderness has been ruefully undermined by years of neglect and ever more modern farming practices.  In the old days when hay or oats were cut with a scythe, every stalk was harvested.   Shoots too close to the wall that may have escaped the swing blade later became fodder for the indiscriminant appetite of sheep who functioned as the 19th century "weed-eaters".  

For the past fifty years our fields have been used only for hay.  In the sixties, the harvest was still a labor intensive, time consuming process employing four cylinder gas powered tractors and sickle bar mowers.  The sickle bar, like a long flat arm extending out from the right side of the tractor, had a series of small triangular blades riveted to a sliding bar.  As the “power take-off “ from the tractor spun in tiny circles, a conversion gear pushed the bar back and forth over and over again, slicing through the dry stalks of hay an inch or two above the ground.  Mowing hay was slow business.  The sickle bar would become clogged if the grass was moist or thick and rocks reeked havoc on the razor edges of the "teeth."  The up side of the sickle bar mower was that it could get close to the walls, and with good driving, clean up the corners where trees love to take root.  

As the mowers improved and the tractors increased their horse power, farming began to speed up.  The hay bind, a three in one cutting implement that sheared, crushed and wind-rowed the hay, made close cutting and corners a thing of the past.  The machinery had become too big and too quick to risk damage by getting in close.  Sheep had all but been replaced by dairy operations, so the trees began to jump the walls, dropping their seeds in the clumps of elderberries, blueberries, and raspberries that sprouted along the fence rows.  Soon service berry, hawthorns, popular and birch were spreading shadows over the field and the farmers were making ever wider turns to avoid the slap of a branch or a broken limb in the mowers path. 

Today, a hayfield that took three to four weeks to harvest now takes three days.  The stacked square bail, pulled onto the wagon with a longshoreman's hook and muscled onto a many coursed pile, is now a specialty item limited to horse barns and gentleman farmers.  Bailage, the large cylindrical spools of grass, vacuum sealed in white plastic, have become the norm for dairy operations.   The hay requires no drying, so it can be cut and bailed in two days.  Loaders lift the thousand pound “marshmallows" onto special wagons for transport.  Feeding operations are automated; the human hand no longer needs to touch the hay and a farmer is seldom required to set foot on the field.  Instead, in an air cushion seat, the dairyman hovers some three or four feet above the ground in an enclosed tractor cab, shaded and protected from the elements.  The walls, once the farm's boundary markers and proud defenders are now all but forgotten beneath a tangle of vegetation.  
And those are the lucky walls.  Many that have fallen into disrepair are sold to stone pickers, who stack the shale onto pallets and haul it away to be sold to landscapers around the country.   If these were the stones of the great pyramids, the world would be outraged.  But these are just old farmers’ walls in hills of Pennsylvania.  Their value is now graded by the ton on the wholesale distributor’s scale. There original function is obsolete.  Their aesthetic and historic significance lost in the culture’s rush toward the future.

So I spent the week releasing the hayfield’s west wall.  Soon I will begin the process of patching the wall's breaks.  It is a slow process from a forgotten era, performed alone but for the landscape and it's history as companions. It is good work.  It makes the muscles strong and heart happy.   

Sunday, October 16, 2011

147 Main

I’m working as a field interviewer for a social science research company.  I am in the sea-side village of Rockland, Maine on a project for the National Science Foundation.  It’s a Thursday afternoon in April and I’m searching for 147 Main.  
The  south end of town is a quaint mix of commercial and residential buildings.  I pass a mini-mart with a couple gas pumps, then a string of clapboard houses from the last century.  The trees lining the street are just beginning to green and the budding maples sprinkle the street with fluffy red blossoms. 

This is my second pass in my rented Chevy Cobra. I'm heading north now and the numbers are rising.  The white salt-box on the right is 137, but an iron address plaque on the building beside it reads 41. Then comes an ancient two-story perched within inches of the intersection of Main and Fulton.  The number 1 is painted on the weathered brick.  I tap the brakes, cut the wheel hard to the right and pull up in front of a tall thin door.  A young man in overalls is standing in the entrance.  I ask if it is 147 Main.  He shakes his head and waves me off in the direction of the next block.

A UPS truck is parked across the street, so I pull a U-ie and park on the north side of Fulton.  The sky is pale blue and a patch of white daffodils bloom in a slip of lawn beside the curb.  I leave my clipboard on the dash and the car window open.  I step lightly across Main Street and hail the brown uniformed driver as he enters the rear of the truck.  When I ask for 147 he suggests I try the shabby duplex on the corner where my car is parked. I've already noticed 149 hand lettered on the wooden door frame above the letter A, but I skip back across the street and bang on the door anyway. Someone struggles with the knob from within and when the door finally swings open I introduce myself, drawing attention to the ID badge that hangs from my neck. I ask if I have found 147 Main.  
"One fah-dee seven? The man's eyes are heavy lidded and unfocused. “Naah...this is  one fah-dee nine."  

He stifles a belch and pushes out the door past me and onto the side walk. He squints as if he hasn’t seen sunlight in days.  He takes in the view of the street as if it is utterly new to him.

“Ah-craws dah street” comes a raspy woman's voice from inside the flat, “thah new place!” He swings a slow pained gaze back to the side door when her hollow face appears behind the screen.  “Thah new place I tell yah, that’s whad he’s lookin’ farh!”

He winces and drags a hand across his burnished cheeks. Then he looks away. "Ahhhhhhh nahhhh thats one-fahr-dee-eight, what's wrong wid yah?  That's the even side!"  

“That’s it I tell yah” she yells again, thin fingers and cigarette pointing toward the opposite side of the street.  A growl rises from his throat and they begin to argue. “One farh-dee seven he wants… its one farh-dee seven.”

“And whats that then” she calls back, jabbing the air in the direction of the building like it was an eye she wanted to poke out.

I thank him for his help, wait for a car to pass and then dash for the curb at the far side of the street.  The house the woman has pointed to has a captain's wheel and some fish netting hanging on the outside wall.  The door is propped open with a sack of potatoes.  There are boxes of fresh tomatoes piled in the portico, a crate of lettuce.  There is a pass through window to a brightly-lit kitchen and a stainless steel table stacked with more restaurant supplies.  Music is playing, a swing tune, something my Mom use to sing around the house years ago; “I didn’t want to do it… I didn’t want to do it…You made me love you…“

“Here to eat or ar’ yah selling something?”  she says, swirling past me and through a swinging door with a tray of empty plates in hand.  Seconds later she reemerges from the kitchen and with a big smile asks “What kind a glasses are those?” nodding at my Clics. 

She has her eye on the “split at the bridge” magnetic reading glasses that hang around my neck.  When not in use, the hinged lenses dangle from either end of a single piece wrap-around frame and at first glance appear broken.  I pull the glasses out from under the collar of my polo shirt and let the lenses snap back together. I hand them to her in one piece so she can have a better look.

“Now ern’t these a treat!  Thought they were busted down the middle!"  She clicks the magnetic and steel together a time or two and then tries to fit the single looped arm around the back of her head.  Her auburn hair is thick and wavy and it is a stuggle to pull the frame together above her freckled nose.  I reach out and help her extend the arms with the expandable temple pieces. “Click” the lenses snap together perfectly in place.  She blinks and grins and evaluates the lettering on the easel menu.  She then looks at me over the top of the glasses and says,  “Hey, these ar’ perfect… I’ll take a pair!”

“ twenty-five bucks... you'll love 'em... but I can't read a thing without those and I'm already lost!  I'm trying to find 147 Main Street.”

“This is what?" she says to herself handing me back the Clics, then turning toward the kitchen calls "Cherle…..what’s the number here?”

Cherle steps through the swinging door.  She is big and round and obviously happy.   She points at the split Clics now around my neck and laughs… “Who'd you insult?" and then turns her grin to the waitress.  "We are 148.  What does he need?”

“147” I repeat.

Cherle shakes her head and steps to the outside door…. “I don’t know, maybe the other side of the street.”

“I’ve been there,” I explain, “There’s no 147.”

“Can’t help you then… I just know we’re 148.”  Says Cherle reaching for a huge plate of steaming pasta from the pick up window.  “Do you like fish?”

“Of course he likes fish!” says the waitress and then grabbing a pair of Pepsi’s from the wall cooler adds “and he’s going to come back and eat with us after he finds this one-far-dee seven he’s looking for.”

“Good fish?”  I ask.

She steps close to me.  “The best in town!” as if sharing a well-kept secret.

“Then I’d better get going and find this 147. “

“I’d say so because we close at eight oclock sharp!”

“Good enough!” And I'm out the door, into the car and heading uptown to an entirely different street, 147 North Main. The correct address belongs to a stark white house set back on a large treeless lot with an authentic railroad crossing signal as lawn ornament.  

A dog starts barking ferociously as I make my way up the front walk.  I rap on the porch door and the beast goes ballistic. I see pointed ears and snarling teeth, hear clawed paws against the wood and glass of the inside entry. The windows are curtained, but by the size of the animals silhouette I figure it must be a German Shepard or a Doberman.  The ruckus it is creating is incredible, so just to frustrate this Nazi canine, I decide to knock at the back door as well.  

Enraged, the dog follows me window by window as I circle the building.  It tears at the drapes and smears the windows with long streaks of saliva.  It is completely berserk by the time I reach the rear of the house. With its cabled run and tooth dented feed dish, this is obviously the hound's personal turf. I pound on the steel door and listen to the adrenaline soaked body crash against it.  With all it's snarling, scratching, yelping and leaping, if a shotgun muzzle hasn't been shoved out of an upstairs window by now, its not going to be.  

I stand silently at the door for a few minutes.  There are three vehicles in the driveway, but in the land of plenty that doesn't mean anyone is home.  As I wait, the dog gradually grows quiet.  I smile to myself and then in my best wolf imitation, let out a long deep growl.  The animal inside explodes, tooth and nail slash against the door, the barking goes nuclear. Satisfied that we have both done our jobs, I turn and stroll back to the car.  

I knock off another three calls and then swing by the hotel. I answer some e-mails, map some cases and then head out for dinner.  I follow Highway 1 back through Rockland and then south to 148 Main.  I check the dashboard clock.  7:52.  I kill the motor and grab my volume of  "Mornings On Horseback” by David McCullough.

The spunky waitress with the auburn hair and freckled nose is unblocking the doorstop just as I walk up. 

"Still open?"  I ask.

"Still like fish?"  She smiles big and in one motion tugs the door and pulls me along with it into the closing restaurant.

"So what’s yer favorite dish?" she probes.

"Well, something white and light I guess, like haddock maybe.   I'm a land-lobber, from the mountains of Pennsylvania. I don't know much about sea food.  Is there something you'd suggest?"

"Well how much you want to spend?" and swinging a dish rag she draws my attention to the handwritten menu on the easel board.

There are at least a dozen entries. Long names.  Fishy names.  Names I know nothing about.  Scrawled to the far right are prices.  Not cheap.  I’m without a clue.

"Well I'm not exactly rich." I say.

She points out a meal toward the bottom of the big board.  $16.00.  About half the price of the other items listed so I say "sounds alright." I have no idea what I've just ordered but feel I'm in good hands.  Seconds later I'm being seated in a tall wooden backed booth with newspapers as table cloth.  There is a huge green salad waiting.  A platter of fruits; a basket of homemade breads; a candle burning; salad dressing in a screw lid ball jar.  

"What are you drinking?"


"Pepsi ok?"


A tall glass of ice and a sixteen ounce bottle appear on the table.  I dive into the freshest lettuce and tomatoes I've had since last summer.  I'm thinking "where do you get a tomato like this in April?"  I let my eyes take in the room.  It’s cluttered with books, commercial size cans of fruits and vegetables.  There are paintings, posters, a coiled sea rope, wine bottles. There is seating for perhaps forty people.  Two tables are occupied.  I fork up another mouthful of lettuce and break off a huge chunk of fresh sourdough bread from the table basket. I have definitely found a real "fish joint".  

The entree arrives in a large ceramic bowl.  It is a mound of filleted white fish, so tenderly cooked and lightly seasoned that I've no doubt it could sprout wings and fly.  It takes some serious bites before I discover a bed of faintly oiled linguine feathering the culinary nest.

Somewhere I heard it said that good fish never smells or tastes like fish.  So it is with my dinner.  

Three waitresses swoop and dive around me like barn swallows, but the ginger is the only one to sit down and visit.  

"So how'd you make out with that place you were looking for."

"147 Main?  Good." I say, reaching down to take the napkin from my lap.  "Turned out it was 147 North Main; a different street all together."

I explain how North Main Street branches off from Main Street a couple miles north at the Dunkin Donuts. She has lived in town all her life but looks completely puzzled by my description.  The familiar is often the most difficult to imagine.

"You know we've only been open four days."  she chimes in,  changing subjects completely. 

"This season?"  

"Nope.  Four days in this building.  We used to be down on the docks but the place is being sold.  They plan to turn it into a laundromat for the summer boats."

"Well that's a shame!"  I picture the soaring gulls and the wave lapped hulls of the harbor.

"Not really, that old building sucked.  It was rotten to the core.  Really bad shape.  Two coal stoves for heat.  When He would empty the ashes, it would fill the place with this sticky black dust.  A lot of guests really didn't like that.  He's a pack rat, you know, a hoarder; He loves lots of things all around.  That's His style.”  

She motions with her hand to the cluttered dinning room. "It makes some people think He’s dirty, but He's not.  With the food, everything is perfect.  Everything is very clean."

I'm listening to the "He" she keeps referring to and the mental gears are grinding. Snippets of memory, fragments of conversation are coming together. Then it hits me.  

"What's the name of this restaurant?"

"Caaaahnnntee's" she says in her homie Maine coast accent.

"Give me that again."  I request, trying to untwist her New England pronunciation.

"Cahnte's" she repeats a little more distinctly.

 "Conte's?"  I say.  "The Conte's that Anthony Bourdain just did a show on?"

"The very same!"

"Oh man!" I laugh  "The gal I work for recommended this place!  She saw Bourdain's piece the other night and said I should check you out!   I would have but the local field rep I was working with said it was really filthy and that I wouldn't like it."

"The coal dust and the clutter.  We were fifteen years there.  Don't miss it a bit!  This is place is much nicer!  Light and airy!"

"What a coincidence!" I muse. "Here I am stumbling around trying to find 147 Main and I end up in the famous fish house my field manager recommended!  She'll love this story!"

"Well tell your manager to come eat with us sometime!"

"I will indeed!" I assure her.

The older couple across the room is leaving, so my waitress rises, pats her apron and goes to clear their table.  A short time later she returns with a basket of freshly sliced grapefruit.  

"Want to take these home with you?"

My linguine stuffed smile and vigorously nodding head are signal enough for her to reach behind me and pull down a styrofoam take- out container from the lip of the tall bench back.  

"I'll get you some bread too."  

By the time I am ready for the bill, a half loaf of sourdough is zip-locked and stacked neatly atop my box of grapefruit wedges.

She offers dessert, but I decline.  The main course has been enough for two.  She winks at that and adds,  “Next time you’ll leave a little room.”

"You're going to send me home a fat man!"  I tease as I hand her the check and cash.

"Just more of you for your honey to love!" she sings back.

"Give my compliments to HIM, would you?  Tell HIM I'm happy to see that fame hasn't ruined the place."

"Well, famous or not, we did 21 tonight.  I call that Black Jack.  That's enough for me!"

"And I guess I was your lucky Ace!"

"That you were!  And we'll be happy to have you again Ace!"

"I'll be happy to come back; Contes,148 Main Street, Rockland, Maine."

"That's us!” 

"You know,"  I say while donning my best perplexed expression, "I'm still wondering what happened to 147 Main?"

"147 Main.  Good question!"  she answers, raising a single eyebrow.

I lean forward, squeeze her arm lightly and whisper, "Maybe we have the beginning of a new Stephen King thriller!"

"May-be!"  She laughs. "Or maybe we should just name one of the fish dishes "147 Main" and put it back on the map!"