Sunday, July 24, 2011

Looking at America: Intimations of Disaster: Haying the Field

Looking at America: Intimations of Disaster: Haying the Field: "The field is half-hayed. Harm's tractors are parked in the field; the little one pulls the tedder , while the big one does the cutting fir..."

Intimations of Disaster: Haying the Field

The field is half-hayed. Harm's tractors are parked where he quit at dusk; the little one pulls the tedder, while the big one does the cutting first, and then, after the tedding's done, pulls the bales and the haywagon behind that. Both of them are Farmalls, and both of them date to the late '40s or early '50s. The other equipment is that old or even older; the tedder looks to be a '30s or early '40s model.

Tedders aren't that common any more; they're the machines that flail the hay with their circular arms, spreading it across the field so it will dry more easily and the mold and mildew won't get into the bales. Small-time farmers still do it, and it's being pushed pretty hard by the state ag bureaus, too. Harm's dad has been at it for 70 years or so, and he's not about to change a routine that has served him well.

Yesterday it was 98 when I came out from the barn. Maureen was just back from Emanuel's and when she saw the old man running the tedder, in a flannel shirt and no hat, she ran to the spare fridge in the garage and brought him out a bottle of cold water. While we were waiting, he told me about the tractor. Good and small, he said, meaning both that it was pretty small, and that its smallness was good. About 15 horsepower; just right for the tedder-- couldn't pull the baler-- and you can pour a five-gallon can in her and she'll run a week, sometimes two. He was proud of that machine-- it wasn't as old as he, but it wasn't far off from that, either. Not as hot as I thought it was gonna be, he told Mo, thanking her for the water. I came out early 'cause it looked like it was gonna rain up by us.

Up by us. That's a phrase we didn't have along the coastline in Connecticut, where I grew up around boats and hurricanes and salt grass and the intense smell of the marshes at low tide, a smell that drove the summer people away, sometimes, they not having much experience with things that grow and decay and in their decaying, feed new growth. If you liked mussels, and clams, you were pretty much used to that smell, and the sting when you washed the mud off your feet after digging for them, and found you'd cut your heel pretty bad on something. Then you put some of that mud in the cut, and the bleeding would stop again.

Back there, our language was more about time than space, and when we talked space it was more about reach than rise. We talked about getting back before the tide shifts, or waiting for the flood before you pull the boat out.

Here, up by us and down by you means something. Unlike tidewater Connecticut, this land is up-and-down, and we are definitely down. We drain the ridge; Harm doesn't hay the bottom half of the field because it's too wet much of the time and even when it's not it's a rich collation of thistle, milkweed, Canada Lily, day lily, with some sawgrass mixed in just to guarantee that no livestock manager or horsefarm foreman will ever buy the bales off Harm, no matter how desperate the shortage or how low the price. Up at the top of the field, where the road is pocked with dead flattened chipmunks and squirrels, and we found the lone foreleg of a fawn, gnawed by coyotes, a couple of weeks ago, the hay is pretty good. But leaving the farm means you've got to go up, steeply, on any of the roads that boundary our property from Paul and Sara's, and from Harry and Sarah's. Harm hays up there first, holding us off till the last days of a long hot dry spell, when the grasses have the wet wrung out of them by the hot days and everyone wonders why the storms don't come, but they don't.

Harm doesn't keep the old Farmalls because he's some sort of collector of antique American farm machinery. You might think so from the cars that stop along Rest Plaus Road or King's Highway, often right in the middle of the road, while some weekender frames a cell phone picture of the old barn and the house set low, and the long expanse of hayfield with the tractors and the balers and the wagon parked up toward the top, where they make such a nice foreground for the shot that's going to go up on Facebook or flick'r in a little while, if the guy with the pale legs and the Izod shirt doesn't get clipped when Kurt Cross goes by in the truck, bringing the mini-Backhoe home from some building site.

Harm keeps the stuff because he got it cheap and, because it's so old, it's extremely simple to fix, and then to keep in good repair. In the '40s and '50s, this was prime dairy country, and every available field was dominated by pasture and hayfield. Now the milk comes from giant factory farms in the Midwest or the Central Valley or down in Mexico, where no one has to worry too much about regulators and pretty much anything can be labeled Organic and sold at the Safeway at a price so far from breakeven for a genuine organic dairy farm as to guarantee the death of an agricultural sector already reeling by the '60s. Most of the old barns up here have a tractor or two in them, unused for decades, and so you can pick one or two up for parts without too much trouble. Belts and hoses, the sort of things that die from age and not use-- those you can replace with aftermarket car parts, cut to adapt them to the tractor.

Harm isn't a full-time farmer. This is what he does when he gets off work, takes vacation time or switches shifts to get a block when the weather's hot and dry and the grasses are high and golden. He grew up in this; his father made a go of it, but just barely, all the way into the '70s. Most of the hay goes to the horse farms, and the boarding facilities for weekenders with pretensions to polo or English riding or steeplechase-- Virginia-bred women and men who went to the right schools and are now deep in the finance markets in New York City, for whom this area is as close as they can come to the places down there where their wealthy and privileged parents raised them on dance lessons and cotillion and the debutante coming-out rituals.

Harm hays with his shirt off-- I tell him he's crazy, hasn't he read about ozone layers and skin cancer? and he shrugs me off; I like it this way, he says. The tractors are slow and the rattle of the machinery behind them startles the flocks of smaller birds that seem to commute to whatever field Harm is haying that week, along with the turkey vultures who will appear a week later, snapping up the carcasses of the snakes and the few redwing blackbirds not quick enough to leave the nests as the mower bears down on them.

This year, though, the hawks aren't here-- or at least I haven't seen them yet. They used to ride the updraft where the hayfield meets the woodlot or the treeline along the road, diving down to take the voles and the field mice scampering in ill-directed panic from the machines.

Each year seems to carry its losses, if you're inclined to dwell on loss. Three years ago, sitting out in back of the house as the darkness loomed and the sky completed its slow melding with the ridge and the fields, just before the stars emerged to puncture the bowl of air, the bats would come out from the barn, scores of them, the whispering rustle of their wings just audible as they dipped and soared, clearing away the gnats and mosquitos. Now they are gone, casualties of an epidemic that decimated the bat population around here, and then spread across America. For the smaller organic farmers, this wasn't simply a matter for eco-nostalgia; those bats were essential to keeping pests at bay. That epidemic pushed out a lot of the smaller farmers, the ones who'd bought the dream while they were in college or afterward, when they walked the Appalachian Trail and talked the long talk with others like them, about what to do, and how to live. I don't know where they've gone since.

Last summer, it was the small fish in the creek. For years, we'd watched them darting in and out of the shadows, and then, suddenly, they weren't there any more. Once they left, so did the blue heron who had taken up residence in the wide spot where the creek cut back and forth before heading down to Harry's gristmill. Mornings, he was my first wakeup call, as he rose, his cry a groan of complaint, the sort you might make when you had to arise at 5am on a muggy summer morning. Now he's gone, as well.

This year, it's the albino hawk who is missing, and the two redtails who used to nest in the tall trees that ran the line between our place and Harry and Sarah's, their roots pushing the collapsed stone wall into ever-more complete disintegration. I could watch them as I read in the hot afternoons, or worked on a guitar part, sitting on the little rope-seat chair that had come down in Mo's family from the generation that left Germany and Poland at the turn of the last century to end up here, a little short for me, but good for my hand position when I was working on complex finger patterns and long reaches across the neck.

Everything's going. That's what it felt like. But the litany of losses is really just a matter of temperament. If you're gloomy, this is the hottest summer ever, and last winter the coldest and wettest and hardest, and the bats are gone and the small fish, and for all you know some blight has stricken the hawks. If you're dark enough, the chewed-up foreleg of the fawn is an intimation, an omen.

Last year, while we were looking for those small trout that weren't darting up and down the creek, we noticed instead the sudden explosions of mud in the stiller parts. One burst would sometimes stimulate an expanding row or even a field of underwater dust storms. The dog would stand right at the edge, quivering with excitement at this strange but endlessly entertaining sideshow.

The crayfish ranged in size from an inch to as much as four inches in length; mini-lobsters to my saltwater eyes; gigantic roaches to Maureen's grittier urban past. Where had they come from? They seemed some sort of invasive species, indications of a larger ecological shift that was killing off our treasured fellow-tenants on this land and air and water. These were Louisiana crayfish; bellwethers of the ominous trends of global warming and environmental depredation that would upend the country, leaving flood and drought, pestilence and famine.

Then, late last August, late in the afternoon, Georgie began her frenzied bark, the one that indicated someone was in the road. Usually it was Molly and the girls out from the brick house they rented from Harry, walking their little dog and pushing their doll-strollers. This time, though, it was a man, standing at the bridge, staring intently into the water below, his old Hyundai pulled all the way off the road in the ditch where the county mowers clear the weeds but leave the day lily patches. After a while, he came around the back of the house. He was a little strange, I thought, but I had been living alone here for a while, and knew most everyone around, and probably anyone not familiar but also not wearing a recognizable stereotype-- weekender, real-estate scout, Eurotourist -- would have looked a little suspicious.

I used to know the Pratt's, he said, without any introduction, as if that single statement made perfect sense. And it did. The Pratts owned this farm from the '40s to the '70s, when Mrs. Pratt died or went into the nursing home, and it began its cycle of owners till it came, finally, to rest with us. I was a kid; my father used to take me back here to the creek, he said. The Pratt's-- they didn't like crayfish. They let us net them. Oh, were they good, too. I offered him a seat but he didn't feel comfortable; he had something to request of me, but he wasn't sure it was right to do so. I asked him how old he was back then; ten, eleven, twelve; you know, just when that sort of thing really mattered, before it all changed. I knew what he meant. I remembered those years, before the fights began, and the dangerous wild adventures and the running-away, and the voice of my father raised in rage and impotence against me.

Tell me. He said. Do you think some time I could go back there for crayfish again? Would you mind it? If you want them, I'll give them to you. I just want to....

Of course, I said. Of course. I knew what he meant, what he was fishing for, what he was hoping he would net. And I wished it for him, too, just as I had wished it for myself, wished it till it brought me here, to the place where their ashes were now scattered, in the hayfield, and down by the creek, close to the places where the crayfish were, in a landscape they would have found familiar to them, even if there was no salt tang to the air.

I think he did come back, once or twice, maybe more. I'd pull into the driveway with the bag of groceries or the package from the post office, and I'd see a hint of his shirt down where the clearing of the hayfield just began to give way to the tall bramble. Once I thought I saw him wave, and once, though I'm not sure, I think I saw someone with him, a girl, maybe ten, maybe nine.

He's not come back this year; like the hawks and the heron, he has moved. But he gave us something in return. Now we know that the crayfish come and go; that the hawks will come and go; that, perhaps, even the bats will someday return to race across the deep blueblack of the last sky light.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking at America: Modified Mobile Homes

Looking at America: Modified Mobile Homes: "I was about halfway up the hill when I realized I was about halfway up the hill. That wasn’t good. It was very hot, and I’d not planne..."

Modified Mobile Homes

I was about halfway up the hill when I realized I was about halfway up the hill. That wasn’t good. It was very hot, and I’d not planned on more than a quick flat ride. But the county had just closed 213, the Atwood Road, and sent the detour up the Vly-Atwood, always a killer. You turn off Atwood to Vly-Atwood and immediately there’s what looks like a quick steep climb. At the top, you realize there’s a slight curve disguising another quick steep climb. This happens five times before you can sit back down in the saddle and upshift from the granny gear.

This time, the orange detour sign took you to the right, and a second set of deceptive climbs followed one upon the next. Once you got to the Vly-Atwood Volunteer Fire Department you had another bout. Then you turned right onto Scarawan Road. Immediately there was a warning sign: No Shoulder. Road Narrows to One Lane. That wasn’t exactly accurate. What had happened was this: the road had simply crumbled at both edges until there was just over a lane left standing. And there was a reason for that. Vly-Atwood is tough: Scarawan is tougher, steep enough that springtime water and summer storms sluice down the road.

When it comes to really looking at America, a bike is about the best tool you can find, better than a camera, better than a laptop, better, even, than the complete works of J.B. Jackson, John McPhee, and Yi-Fu Tuan. Yes, there are places where a car is better. Out on the Res, the Navajo Nation, the heat is unrelenting, there is little or no shade, and the distances are daunting. Going through the Rockies, particularly along the older national roads like the Million Dollar Highway, US550 in Colorado, between Silverton and Ouray, a car is definitely the safer means. There, vacationers in recreational vehicles rented from RV-by-the-week places like CruiseAmerica, unused to the width and instability of the machine they’re steering, will veer from lane to lane, tipping alarmingly on curves, scraping the guard rails. You don’t want to be on a bike on the Million Dollar Highway between June and September.

There are also places where it’s better to walk: big, dense cities like New York and Chicago. There, unless you're walking, the chances of noticing anything beyond the cabs and the limos and the messenger bikers and the jaywalking pedestrians texting away is slim to none. The same applies to most of the national parks, where the whole point is to slow down, focus in, develop an eye for almost hallucinatory attention to detail.

But between the extremes of density—between too crowded and way too big, there’s a balance to be achieved, and the 12-to-40-mph speed of a good road bike strikes a balance between getting there and seeing clearly.

That particular set of detours was a test of the hypothesis: it would be sheer vanity to claim that I was making 12 mph up those hills. A 10 year old boy in a pair of worn-out keds would have probably beat me to the top while bouncing a basketball on the rims of the potholes. Plus, I was concentrating on animal survival: leaving myself just one more downshift just in case and then, that case having come, trying to convince myself that I was really going to make it to the next level-off.

But there I was, halfway up the hill, thinking about the other half, already in the granniest of granny gears, when I saw what I hadn’t known I was looking for: a housing typology I’d been looking at for years but never recognized—the modified mobile home.

Mobile homes have a tough time of it. Back in the ‘30s, when architects didn’t have any work to do or any clients to pay them, they became, for a brief while, moralistic communists, worker-housing advocates, proponents of new forms of building that might make use of new manufacturing technologies and economies of scale to provide cheap, humane housing for the millions of Americans forced by the Depression into substandard or overcrowded housing. The '30s was a heyday for architect-designed utopian housing, and just about none of it got built. The housing crisis of World War II further pushed the rhetoric of what were now being labeled manufactured houses, though with widespread shortages and rationing, few were built outside the military.

But the military did push the process, and the results ranged from the hot, horrid Quonset huts on island sites in the Pacific Theater, to TDU’s (temporary dwelling units) built on sites as diverse as Fort Hood, Texas, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, serving functions that ranged from 8-man work crew bunkhouses to married officer’s quarters meant to house with dignity, a Lt. Col., his wife, and their four children. In the Manhattan Project’s three principal townsites—Los Alamos, New Mexico, Richland, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee—the wide range of houses, including mock-log cabins and modernist machines for living, all of them meant to last just four to ten years, have survived more than half a century and are still fetching good prices.

After the war, though, manufactured housing languished, to the surprise of all. In part it was a failure of will, in part a matter of conservative town and county planning and zoning commissions, and in part a concerted campaign by traditional home builders to eliminate what was seen as a major threat to the industry. The famous Lustron houses—all-steel manufactured dwellings of considerable scale and ambition—came to symbolize both the hope and the collapse of the manufactured housing market. When Lustron went belly-up in 1950, that was seen as the death-knell of the manufactured housing industry.

The lineage split around that time. On one side were mass-production houses built on an unmoving assembly line, with workers migrating from house to house in an orderly assembly of uniform parts. This was the story of Bill Levitt and his Levittowns, and it meant that a good, permanent, 950-square-foot house could be bought not far from New York City for about $6,995, roughly twice an owner’s annual income-- about $62,000 in today’s dollars.

On the other were those odd hybrids known first as travel trailers, and then as mobile homes. Early travel trailers were relatively tiny, meant to be hooked to an everyday car and moved from trailer court to trailer court. The fabled Airstream is an example of the genre. These trailers were anywhere from 12 to 25 feet long, but they were always no more than six feet wide, because they had to fit within the lanes of everyday American roads. The introduction of 8-foot and then 10-foot models changed the dynamic dramatically. Now it was necessary to hire a trucker to move the home from site to site, and mobile homes became increasingly immobile. But once the single-lane, car-towed barrier broke, mobile homes could grow significantly wider—what American has not sighed in exasperation behind a flatbed with its Oversize Load sign-bearing pickups behind and ahead of it? And with that, the line between the old “manufactured housing” and the mobile home largely disappeared, with double-wides and triple-wides assembled onsite, and lobbying by the manufacturing industry resulting in a 1980 law changing the name in all government documents from mobile home to manufactured home.

Back here in the areas where weekenders and tourists don’t go, places where the Catskills begin to resemble the hills and mountains of West Virginia, where, as my friend Ralph Perri puts it, your status in the neighborhood depends on the presence of a motor vehicle composting area, the woods are full of mobile homes dating back to the ‘50s in some cases, but mainly to the ‘70s. These aren’t really temporary structures and it’s doubtful they’ve ever moved or ever will move. Up here, you have to dig a well, and that’s not cheap. You have to put in a propane tank, and you’ve got to have a driveway that the propane company will agree to drive up in the winter to refill that tank. You’ve got to run electrical in from the road, and telephone, and you’ve got to put a satellite dish on the roof—two, these days, if you want HD.

Some people like their mobile homes—like them enough to rebuild them into real houses. This is what I was noticing: the houses on the other side of the line between disguising your mobile home and full-on rebuilding. There was one up there that had a second story added on; the outer metal and vinyl cladding had been covered by cedar-shake shingling. Another was clad in stucco; a third had been made into a log cabin.

At the pace I was going, I could see just how complicated a process this conversion was. For one thing, windows and doors couldn’t really be moved—though in a couple of cases someone had simply removed the original windows and doors from their frames, and put new, traditional doors on the outer cladding. The front door was open, and you could clearly see the hollow between the two sets of outside walls. In the ones less ingeniously adapted, the window and door punchouts were recessed into the darkness, hollowed-out eyes and a black mouth, dream-faces in the darkness of the woods.

Almost every type of manufactured home can be found, hidden in these woods. Up here, it’s hardscrabble all the time, not just when the robber barons have sucked the country dry and the politicians are passing laws to change the meaning of whole classes of words—billionaires must now be called job creators, factory farms are family farms, and megacorporations are family businesses. And even though an earlier corrupted political class required the change of name from manufactured housing (too socialistic!) and mobile home (too trailer-trashy!) to manufactured home, up here everybody calls them by their real names. The small ones, perched up on the ridges, mostly used these days for hunting, trapping, fishing, maple-syrup harvests or firewood forarys: they’re trailers. And so are a lot of the larger ones—if the wheels are visible, the flattened tires long collapsed and disintegrated from rubber rot, they’re trailers. If they’re bigger, harder-edged, with a picture-window punchout on one side and the fake-stonework panels hiding the wheel wells, and the once-vibrant greens and blues and reds have faded to pastels and rust stains creep down at the corners, they’re mobile homes. If they’re newer, they’re double wides, even if they’re actually two-roof single-wides or right-angle triple-wides.

The mobile homes: mostly these days, they’re occupied by the old, people surviving on Social Security and, if they’re really lucky, a small pension from the Post Office or the county. Coming up the hill on the bike, you can see the old man mowing the lawn with an old Toro, or working on the faded red riding mower, tipped on its side, the oil leaking out of the air filter and staining the weed-strewn gravel of the driveway. There’s usually a birdbath, and a clothesline. Out in front, there’s an ornamental shingle with the family name burned into it, the apostrophe placed wrong: The William’s or The Johnson’s. The mailbox is attached to a wooden 4x4 buried in concrete in an old milk pail.

The double-wides are different. Often there’s a prefab shed behind them, and when the doors are open you can see a Harley in there, or a ’47 Merc or a ‘55 Chevy in some state of restoration. These are people who aren’t house-proud. They’re mobility-proud. Their status is found in their cars and bikes, and it’s found among others who share their love of cars and bikes. Summer vacation may take them out to Sturges, South Dakota, on the Harley, or it may take them to Tucumcari for the annual Tucumcari to Gallup Motor Tour on Route 66. It’s not just nostalgia for an earlier time of motoring on two wheels or four. It’s a willed holding-on to an older myth of upward mobility, when you could be pretty sure that you’d be better off soon, things were looking up, it was blue skies from here on out.

Down below, where the road’s not as steep, and there’s probably a view of farmland or the mountains, and space for a good quarter-acre of lawn grass: that’s where the double-wides are. The people who own them have pretty good jobs: they’re electricians, plumbers, building inspectors for the county, road-crew foremen. Their wives are the ones not working, laid off, or about to be: ex-secretaries, ex-clerks, ex-assistants to the tax assessor, ex-teachers, ex-assistant-principals of the middle school. I see them in the Shop-Rite on Senior Day, with their zipperpurses full of coupons.

I see them there because I’m there, too. They aren’t distant from me. They’re like me. They know their place, and they know it well: they sledded down that hill as kids and their kids did, too, and now they take their grandkids down it when they have them for the day or the week while their kids are driving to Tennessee to see if there’s work at the Nissan plant or are stuck staying with friends in between the foreclosure and the rental. The trees are theirs, the mountains are theirs. They know who’s the cheapest, the fastest, and the best deer dresser when it’s hunting season, and they are using layaway again to get a lead on the Christmas presents for the grandchildren. A couple of times a week, they drive up into the dark green light up Scarawan Road to see their own parents, to help them with the shopping and to bring the newly sharpened blade back from the hardware store and reassemble the riding mower, old as it is, cleaning the spilled oil off the air filter so it won’t smoke and leave its acrid taste in the mouth.

Trailers, mobile homes and double-wides have another virtue that keeps them occupied these days. They’re financed differently than regular houses. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, severely limits the amount that can be loaned, and the maximum loan length is 25 years; if you’re talking about a mobile and not a double-wide, it’s 20 years. It wasn’t worth it for the job creators to develop sub-prime, specialty loan arrangements for the people who bought, or buy, a mobile home or a double-wide. Refinances are simpler and more straightforward. You can’t really get a home equity loan on a mobile home.

As it turns out, mobile home Americans are turning out to be less mobile than the rest of us, at least the ones up here, on the ridges in the woods. When you lose your mobile home, they don’t evict you. They come and take your house away. In the flatlands, where the subdivisions of mobile homes and trailer parks set them in neat rectilinear rows serviced by a nice wide road, the specialty semi- can show up, change the rotted tires and rusted wheels out for new ones in about an hour, and have you left by the side of the road by ten in the morning.

Those are the mobile homes that the job creators look down on. They’re marginal housing for marginal people in the marginal economy. They’re not worth wasting your time over. They probably won’t vote. You can fire them anytime. They’ll work for you for just about nothing, and be grateful. With the right push-pollsters and enough shrill repetitions of virulent lies by virulent commentators, you can keep them down when you don’t need them, round them up when you do. If the flood washes away their mobile home park, it’s a good thing real taxpayers (of course, you’re not one of them—you’re a job creator, so you don’t pay taxes) and government social programs aren’t subsidizing their lifestyles by providing them with flood insurance or disaster relief. Save that money for the horse farms; save it for the Houston megamansion hurricane relief. If the flood washed away their mobile home park it just improved the view.

Up here, though, it’s not so simple. For the mobile homes are older, and the growing season here is pretty long, and trees spring up to twenty feet and more in just a few years. Getting in there, and getting back out with a mobile home hitched to the back of the big rig, isn’t something most trucking companies are ready to do. Besides, there’s the problem of those modifications: the log cabin, the gabled roof, the garage added on, the ell made from Home Depot plans, accessed by an opening cut into the short wall of the mobile home using a blowtorch. It’s hard to get back down to what you plan to steal.

These are homes that have hunkered down on their sites. Their owners won’t be evicted, and they won’t leave—except in the ambulance that will take them to the nursing home or the hospital for a few weeks before the funeral. Once they’re gone, maybe the younger generation, down the hill, will abandon the double-wide and the shed to their own kids, and move up into the dark, green, loamy overgrowth with the small grass lawn carved out of it, where it doesn’t cost anything to stay in your home, where you aren’t connected by ties of financing and fear to the job creators and their instruments of greed and duplicity and their bought-election mouthpieces with the deep tans and the hand-made suits.

If that doesn’t happen, it’s unlikely anyone will move back into that mobile home. It will sit up there, the propane tank rusting, the lawn turned to weeds and then to scrub and then to saplings and finally to full-on new woodland. The deer will see it as they pass from grassland to grassland, ghosts in the woods. Maybe after a time, a hunter will bring a crowbar along and pop the door, and it will have a new life in the fall and winter, past the legal seasons' end, when it’s better to poach out where nobody reports hearing a gunshot in the woods, and you’d best dress your venison yourself, as the commercial cutters will report you to the DEC. Come summer, the bend-open door will slap and slam in the wind and, coming up the worst of the climbs on that Atwood detour, I will wonder who it is that’s going in and out, in and out of that ghostly face: black-eyed windows, black-mouth door.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Rachel Weisz, Supermarket Romance, and the Privacy Fence

Film actress Rachel Weisz—I think that’s her name and spelling—has been shopping at Emanuel’s. I know this because I heard it from Tim, the wine guy five doors down in the little shopping center that Emanuel’s has anchored, down past the Dunkin’ Donuts and the takeout Chinese restaurant. Tim was pretty excited, not least because she also spent some good cash at his place; he was disappointed that I had no idea who she was, even after he’d told me all the movies she was in. I’d seen a few of them, but I tend not to notice actors or actresses if the movie’s any good; I remember the characters.

Emanuel is one of us. That is to say, he’s a middle-aged fanatical road cyclist. When I’m in with my list on Local’s Day—midweek, when the crowds with the Brooklyn-hip attitudes, the Audi A5s and Mercedes SUVs, and the look of studied superiority, are back to pillaging American capitalism, and it’s quiet, and every bill over $100 gets 10% off—he stops stocking to see how I’m handling the Double Mountain or to gripe about the destroyed roads out by Ashokan Reservoir.

But I’m not one of them. That is to say, I’m not a local, exactly. I’m not dependent on the weekenders for my living. And I come and go a good deal, often for long stretches, while I teach or wander off to look at the redevelopment in Spokane, Washington, or the first limited-access entrance ramp in New Jersey. When I’m here, though, I’m present enough that the woman at the ice cream place knows my perpetual order and I schedule my shopping for Local’s Day.

This town is a small town when the weekenders aren’t around. The tax assessor knows how many bathrooms are in our house, and rolls her eyes at the memory of The Ladies, two dour, machine-loving women who hoped to convert the farm into 5-acre homettes and, when rebuffed, stomped out of meetings and put the place up for sale. There are certain conversations that take place when the town is small, conversations studiedly avoided between Friday and Monday, or on long holiday weekends and weeks, conversations that are obliquely about the difference between owning a place, and living there.

Usually they’re wrapped up in physical details of space and place. Everyone I know who lives here is acutely aware of the intimacies of the landscape. The Catskills rise above us to our west, and the stony faces of the Shawungunks define our eastern ridge. In between, hayfields rattle with the sound of machinery that’s 50 or a hundred years old—still working, though, and the nature of farming around here is such that nobody’s got the cash for a new tractor or haywagon. Nobody, that is, except the weekenders with Wall Street bonuses and the fantasy that they’re gentlemen farmers toughened by their weekday finance battles and ready to take on the rigors of a collapsed rural economy.

If you live around here, you sell those people the tractors and the mowers and the wine for their little parties and the bird seed and the Zip Strip for their refinishing projects, the ones that never quite get finished, so perhaps you become the handyman—such a good handyman! Honest, too. Stays within the estimate every time!-- who finishes the project, picking up that yardsale rocker in your pickup truck, keeping a straight face as you’re told that an Ethan Allen replica is really an 18th-century antique, and knowing part of your responsibility will be to age that piece of mass-production Cold-War tract house Colonial so it looks like it really did come out of a barn where it sat for 200 years.

I’m one of those who will always be a bit of an outsider, because I will never have to do the dance-around. People know how I make my money and they probably can tell you within a couple of thousand dollars just how much that is, from looking at how I shop and where I get the car fixed and the host of other small everyday transactions that show you’re careful with your money, or you’re not. It’s a small town. Like them, I wake up at night and I worry.

And so I hover at the edges of the conversations about space and place. When Wayne and Wayne, Jr. talk laconically with the hardware store guy about the size of the excavation they’re doing for the swimming pool out on Upper Whitfield, I wait, eating the free popcorn, my box of lag-bolts balanced in the crook of my elbow. And I listen.

One of the standard topics is the new privacy fence. The specific one that’s gone up this week, not the one from last week, and not the one that’s falling down on that weekender place that’s been empty for a while, even though Kurt Cross or Donny DeGraw is still getting paid to mow it and keep the shrubbery in line and clear out the flower beds.

Around here, there’s always a new privacy fence. Even if it’s been around for a month, six months, a year, it remains a topic of discussion and comment until it’s pushed aside by the next one going up. For you see, privacy fences are the physical barriers between the arrogance and incomprehension of the visiting class, and the rooted attentiveness to the placeness of this place, that’s carried around by the locals.

Around here, privacy fences aren’t made of vinyl; they’re not chain-link fences criss-crossed by green plastic stripping; they’re not elaborate in their material or their details—they don’t have newel-posts to interrupt or close their plain stretch of vertical wooden planking. They’re usually painted a muted colonial color, or stained as if to imitate the paneling in the living room of the stone house they shield from public view and public engagement. They’re essentially utilitarian, and their utility lies in keeping out the noise, the motion, and the sight, of the everyday lives that surround the house and grounds so carefully sequestered. Their decoration is an apology to the owner and the owner’s weekender guests at the unfortunate necessity of interrupting their view of the house and grounds as they arrive after a long, tough week.

I’m not talking about similar fences put up by the locals. You can recognize the difference in a second. A local’s fence is utterly functional and minimal: it’s designed to solve exactly one problem, usually the glare of headlights that result from the up-and-down, curvy topography; as often, the splash of the salt-and-sand combination put down by the county plows in the winter, a mix that’s toxic to your forsythia, lilac, or day lily beds.

You can tell a local’s fence because it’s not too long, it’s located irregularly, at precisely the spot where the problem is, and not an inch further, and it’s well-constructed, but it’s never painted or stained. It’s made of pretreated wood, and maybe once a decade you’ll go out and reapply a coat of linseed oil and check it for powderpost beetle infestation or dry rot, replacing a board or two, and shoring up the supports where the snowplow nicked it or some high schooler in a Kia or a rusting-out Ford Ranger slid into it on a slippery winter’s morning, going too fast, late for school.

The conversation about privacy fences down at Williams Lumber or Marbletown Hardware or the Nibble Nook Diner follows a repeated pattern. It’s brief. It refers only to the physical state of the fence, not its meaning. It may include mention of the fact that, from the cab of the dump truck or the excavation truck, you can still see right into the bathroom from a certain angle. It will often end with the question: who’s building it, anyway? For it seems an axiom that none of the local guys build these fences. They’re bid out to some company in Kingston or New Paltz or even Newburgh, some place that specializes. You can tell, because there isn’t ever a rusty contractor’s sign stuck into the ground next to the pile of stakes and boards as it’s going up. Maybe at one end, when it's all done and the scraps have been cleaned up and the turf laid right to its edge, there’s a small metal or vinyl sign tacked up, just above eye level, the privacy-fence equivalent of the license plate holders advertising the car dealer that’s on the back of your car right now, fading into incomprehensibility or broken off by that failed attempt at parallel parking in front of the Egg’s Nest in High Falls.

Locals don’t build these fences, but it’s not a matter of scruples on their part. Everyone knows how tough it is around here, especially now, when the country reels from blow after blow administered by financiers and politicians in an alliance not seen since the 1890s and the days of the Robber Barons and the Teapot Dome Scandal. If you got a contract to put up a long, high, view-wrecking fence along Lucas or the Krumville Road, nobody’d fault you—they’d be glad you got the business, and secretly envious that it wasn’t them that did.

No, these fences get built by the specialty fence companies because the weekender has just discovered, a day or a week or two after settling in, that there’s traffic on the road, traffic that interrupts their idyll, drowns out their favorite show on WNYC or requires that they pause in the middle of an anecdote out on the patio. The Kimlin Propane truck is laboring up the hill, and Bob downshifts, and the big diesel blats. Or the bedroom turns out to be curiously exposed to all the kids riding their bikes down to the swimming hole on the Rondout, the one past the old abandoned house where the swindler cut that deal to take down the barn for the old wood in return for fixing up the house for the old man, and then left with the wood, never to be seen again. With the almost-frantic sense that their world has been punctured, they go to the Yellow Pages or Google, looking for the listings under Privacy Fencing. They don’t put it out to bid or ask for multiple estimates. This has got to be done now. When the supervisor comes out and asks, how long do you want it? They answer: All the way. The full length. Sometimes the matter’s so urgent that they end up doing the job twice—once with a standard, quickie version, then a month or a year later, with the full-on, last-forever, painted-stained edition.

That’s what happened with that stone house on Lucas, the one with all new copper pipes and three-zone energy-efficient furnace, and powder-post beetle infestation in the basement so bad that when I leaned on the main beam to look at the electrical box, my hand went right through it and I fell, sprawling, on the stone floor. Whoever bought that house has been doing a lot of work on it.

The house on Lucas has the current record as that new fence. Not just because it was double-built; not just because its slate-grey-green paint came direct from Benjamin Moore’s Historical Colors palette, meaning some decorator worked up a proposal and made the presentation and then sent the swatch specs down to the contractor; not just because it is exceedingly long even by weekender standards; not just because it comes at a point on Lucas where, even at 55, you can see it for quite a while, first from a distance, then close up, then in your rear view mirror.

That new fence, though, exemplifies the double-meanings held in the conversation at Marbletown True Value or the Nibble Nook. On one side, a noble old stone house that once sat on Lucas, surveying the hayfields and the dairy pastures on both sides of the Rondout, has now been rudely, insultingly, excised from its historical and environmental context, removed from sight. Every time you drive by it, there’s a slap in the face to your own sense of place and heritage. A piece of your life here has been forcibly excised.

But there’s another part: a sense of regret that the new owners will never see that vista of river and pasture, woodlot and hayfield. Instead, they will forever stare at a blank, featureless expanse of wood and wall, albeit painted to a tasteful Historical Colors slate. They have walled themselves off from the fundamental chord that keeps us here, waiting till Wednesday for the local discount at Emanuel’s, shopping at Tim’s when we can, going into Kingston to the discount liquor house when we have to, smiling at the weekenders in a friendly, but carefully distant way, as they stand in line at the deli counter at Emanuel’s, keeping everyone waiting while they try to get reception on their mobile phones to ask their weekend guests which type of potato salad they’d prefer. Sometimes that chord of place and heritage, of land, trees, water, weather, mountains, births and deaths, seems a triumphant major triad, the last in a Beethoven piano concerto or a Brad Paisley song on the country station you play while you're working.

Sometimes it’s in a minor key; it’s not entirely pleasant to defer to your inferiors.

I know that Rachel Weisz lives around here because Tim told me. And after he told me, my 86-year-old father-in-law, Ed, showed me a squib in the New York Post gossip column that gushed and gushed. Ed had picked up the Post in the diner, and he was laughing with delight as I read the piece:

Rachel Weisz's wedding to Daniel Craig may have taken the showbiz world by surprise -- but not her Catskills neighbors, who say the couple have been looking "so in love" during public outings.

Witnesses tell us in the weeks leading up to the wedding, the smitten pair were acting like newlyweds, canoodling in a local supermarket and gym in upstate Stone Ridge.

One source said that on June 10, "I saw them in the local grocery store, Emmanuel's Market Place. They looked like the world's hottest couple.

"They were casually dressed, then Daniel suddenly pulled Rachel to him in the middle of produce and gave her a passionate kiss, right next to the bananas. They looked more in love and sexier than Brad and Angelina."

The Post doesn’t know it, but we aren’t in the Catskills. And the bananas are always too green for the weekenders; they’re for us—we buy them and let them ripen for three days, days when the weekenders are working in town. They're ready by Tuesday, eaten by Friday. By the time they get back here, the bananas are flecked with brown spots, imperfect, unattractive, ready to be tossed.

If the Post is right, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig met on the movie set for a thriller called Dream House. And if the Post is right, they were still on set, there in Emanuel’s, acting some part for each other, and maybe for the breathless informant, but not for the deli people, and not for Emanuel, and not for us. I hope the Post was wrong, and that informer was actually looking at two ordinary people checking to see if the asparagus from Gill's Farm was still dirty, and fresh.

I don’t know where Rachel Weisz’s Stone Ridge dream house is, but if the Post is right, I’ll bet it has a privacy fence along the length of the roadside. Maybe it’s that house on Lucas, the one that’s been stolen from itself, and us, and now awaits the inevitable dissolution of the celebrity marriage, the contest over property, the boredom with this place, once so picturesque! so perfect! as the set for a Hollywood romance, and now just another piece of real estate.

People do come in here and buy back the houses when that happens—not often, but sometimes, and then most of the privacy fence comes down: all except the part the keeps the lights from Kurt’s truck and Wayne’s truck and the Kimlin truck out of the bedroom window.

Or maybe all of it will come down. Early, about six or seven in the morning, when Wayne comes out of his driveway and heads past our place, he hits the lip of the bridge, and the back lid of the truck clunks, and the headlights sweep across the wall of the loft, if it's winter-dark. Then I know: time to get up. The ones who buy that house on Lucas when its folly is revealed and there’s no point in pouring good money after bad and the divorce awaits a final sale: maybe they will welcome those lights, for they will know the Kimlin guy from winter mornings when he dragged the hose through the slush to the tank behind the wellhouse. They’ll know Wayne as the guy who put in their septic, and Donny as the guy who says hello when he goes past them at the Nibble Nook on Saturday, and they, too, will want to see the lights, so they’ll know: time to get up. Time to go to work.