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.


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