Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gobble gobble, indeed

Thanksgiving in my family has never been a huge event -- just the parents, my sister and me, with the rare guest (I think I might have invited the college boyfriend once or twice). In fact, it's one of the things I'm thankful for most of the time. Very little stress is involved, unless my mom gets caught up in something she absolutely has to try for the first time, and it doesn't work out. The rest of us don't really care. For the most part, we're all just happy enough to get the standard meal and relax with each other.

Growing up, I felt that we were kind of abnormal in that we didn't have a million people over, or that we didn't all go to my grandmother's house for a big gathering. Somehow, it didn't seem quite American for it just to be us four, in our own house, no guests, but as I got older, I started seeing the wisdom of it. I could never figure out why it is that so many people (women, mostly, I've observed) have to make everything perfect and declare the whole day ruined if the cranberry sauce comes out runny or someone forgets to bring something. Isn't the whole point supposed to be around gratitude and togetherness?

That's not to say we didn't have our unusual aspects -- things that really would have made us weird. When I was 10 or 11 years old, my father took the wall oven out of the kitchen. I think he said there was a gas leak or something, but the bottom line was that he deemed it unsafe. That left a big, gaping hole in the wall, and true to my mom's chronic procrastination, the hole never got filled with a new oven. She had grand ideas about redoing the kitchen, and to this day, there's no oven and a decor that could be the tableau of a Smithsonian exhibit about Eisenhower-era suburban life.

After a bit, the parents bought a combination microwave/convection oven which did a nice job of cooking a turkey, albeit spinning on a carousel in an oven on a microwave cart. It was the period between the gas oven's departure and the advent of residential nukers that created the issue.

My parents were big fans of the Weber grill, the kettle-like structure that was noted for being a true revolution in traditional backyard cooking. The neighborhood kids thought it looked weird, compared with their parents' traditional grills, but my dad, ever the scientific thinker, knew better. The shape and lid of the Weber would more evenly distribute heat from the charcoal, as air circulation could be more ably controlled by vents in the lid and kettle. He was truly a man ahead of his time, or at least ahead of the Luddites down the street.

So the question at Thanksgiving became: do we splurge and go out to a restaurant for dinner, or do we use the Weber grill? Being both cost-conscious and resourceful, the parents opted to go for the grill. I don't know what's more embarrassing to a pre-teen and teen girl: that there's a big, built-in-oven-sized hole in the kitchen cabinetry, or that Mom and Dad are wrestling with a 15 pound turkey in front of a charcoal grill in the backyard on an overcast, 45-degree day in November. Never mind that they'd be doing the traditional stressed-out Thanksgiving bickering about the right way to do things. To their credit, though, the bird always came out okay, even in the years when it rained or hailed Dad had to set up the Weber in the garage and leave the door open. You can imagine how novel that looked on Christmas day.

Now, of course, you hear a litany of stories about outdoor Thanksgiving cooking. There's the famous turkey deep-fryer that demands a backyard for use. And any number of celebrity TV cooks talk about the wonderful flavor imparted by roasting a bird over an open flame. Mom and Dad truly were ahead of their time.

Yeah, it was embarrassing to be different when being like everyone else was so important. But then I wouldn't have the story to tell. That said, I really wish they would get that kitchen redone, or at least get a new oven. The trusty convection oven broke, and my mom brought the turkey over yesterday to cook. I'm not sure how she's warming it up today, but no doubt there will be another good story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If history exists in a vacuum, does it really exist?

Capitalizing on the good weather while it lasts, I made a trip up to Paterson last week to check out the Great Falls and environs. While I've visited a ton of historic spots in New Jersey, Paterson had yet to make the list, for reasons I couldn't fathom.

For those not familiar with the city, it was America's first planned industrial community, conceived by Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the Treasury, among other things. Counter to Thomas Jefferson, who saw America's future as largely agrarian, Hamilton believed that the country's best chance for economic independence was through industry. If we could manufacture our own products, from our own resources, we'd have little need for imports from our former European rulers. With others who felt likewise, he was instrumental in the creation of the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, or SUM, which then built Paterson's industry.

Through a clever system of raceways, the Great Falls of the nearby Passaic River provided hydropower to run mills and factory turbines. Eventually, the city became home to the Colt gunworks, the Rogers Locomotive works, and a variety of textile mills. In fact, Paterson was known for a long time as Silk City due to the strength of that industry within the city. Thomas Edison located one of his Illuminating factories there, as did the Wright-Curtiss operation that built the engine for the Spirit of St. Louis.

Over time, the series of water raceways was replaced by a more efficient hydroelectric plant near the falls that continues to serve the local power grid. And as suburbanization populated the area upstream of Paterson, a good portion of the Passaic's water was shunted off for other purposes. Now on most days, the Falls, while still impressive, are but a trickle of what they were over 100 years ago.

Paterson itself continues as a gritty, working-class city, though much of the industry has left the same as it has in many US cities. A productive artists' colony now makes its home in some of the mill buildings, and there's been some effort to preserve the history that's all around. In fact, Congress recently voted to fund a management plan for the area, which earlier was designated a National Historical Park. With any luck, that will bring much-needed attention -- and tourist dollars -- to the city. There are a lot of National Park geeks who would visit a phone booth in a remote corner of Nebraska if it were on the Parks list (I should know. I'm one of them.)

It's really pretty astounding that Paterson hasn't gotten more attention, given its location, Hamilton's involvement, and the impact of its founding on Americas economic history. Perhaps the industrial aspect was what held it back as a tourist attraction: how many people make it a point to visit gritty, working-class cities? In an upwardly-mobile, striving culture like ours, how many people want to be reminded that there are people still pushing their way up the ladder? Paterson has long been home to recent immigrants -- people who don't necessarily speak the language, and have different traditions. We all know how that makes some people nervous. Most of all, though, I think people just don't know it's there.

There's a great little welcome center near the Falls, and when I visited, I was welcomed by a city resident who was a wealth of information. He spent about an hour with me, outlining history of Paterson's founding, interesting facts about Alexander Hamilton (i.e. had things gone differently, he might have been our first African American president. Yes, you read that right. His mom was Creole.), the best local restaurants, and American traditions that have their roots in the city. As we talked, I couldn't help but wonder why in hell nobody knows any of this.

New Jersey's Department of Tourism is missing the boat on Paterson and a host of other locations around the state. Barely funded, the department doesn't seem to have its marketing act together, and historic sites are suffering for it. For a while I've been entertaining the thought of starting a tour company that would bring the state's hidden history to life, but I find myself in a bit of a quandary. I see the potential of New Jersey history as as great product, but I don't know if there's enough of a market for a tour business to be profitable. In this state, we spend a lot of time bemoaning that we're in the shadow of New York or Philadelphia, much like the younger brother of the high school quarterback who keeps trying to tell the football coach that he's a pretty great running back, himself. Beyond marketing the shore and Atlantic City, the state doesn't seem to see the point of standing on its own. Sure, we'll always be dependent to an extent on those cities, but there's got to be a way to use some of that to tell the uniquely New Jersey story. What does it mean to be the middle ground? This state's residents suffered greatly during the Revolution distinctly because we were that midpoint between the two colonial cities. There's a story to be told there, but the powers that be don't seem to recognize that.

It's all pretty depressing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Things fall apart... the center cannot hold

Last year I wrote about the gradual decay of the buildings at Sandy Hook's Fort Hancock. In particular, I lamented the condition of Officers' Row, the sturdy yellow brick homes that stand along the bay side of the fort and were once home to army captains and first lieutenants.

After not having visited for about six months, I dropped by at the end of September. While I honestly didn't expect any rehabilitation to have taken place, I was shocked to see the degree to which the Park Service was pointing out its own failure to maintain the structures. Now, in addition to the decaying porches and missing windowpanes, visitors are greeted with warning signs staked between the houses. It's one thing to post no trespassing stickers on the doors. It's quite another to admit that the condition of the place constitutes a public danger. That day, two park personnel were using a hydraulic platform to repair some fallen brickwork that looked truly dire -- the yellow brick facade had come off one of the front corners of a house, exposing the deteriorating brownish red brick beneath. Repointing one damaged area on one decomposing building was akin to sticking some used chewing gum in a crack at the Hoover Dam: nice try, but it won't stop the disaster from happening.

Buildings all over the Park Service system are meeting a similar fate, but things are supposed to be different at Fort Hancock. A developer named Sandy Hook Partners had plans to restore many of the buildings for various uses, including a cafeteria for visiting groups, as well as some offices and common use areas. While a percentage of the restored structures would be closed to the general public in favor of tenants, at least the buildings would be stabilized and occupied to prevent further decay. My question: what's going on, and why no visible progress?

This past weekend I made another visit, this time for the park's annual Fort Hancock Day. As luck would have it, I got there just in time for the first ranger tour of the day. The park's historian was bringing visitors to a couple of the remaining gun/mortar batteries, even allowing access to areas that are normally closed. Of course, we all know that I'm a big fan of closed areas, so I couldn't wait to see what's behind door #1. At the mortar battery, he brought us through a tunnel between the mortar pits, showing us the area that had been enclosed for an anticipated poison gas attack. We walked farther on to one of the two front pits of the battery, which is slowly being reclaimed by nature, a veritable sandy jungle of indigenous plants and trees. There are plans to clear it out, just as there are plans for everything else at the fort.

Next, we walked to Battery Granger, slowly crumbling behind a chain link fence and warning signs. After explaining the significance of the battery, the historian did exactly what I hoped he would: welcomed us past the gate and up a set of stairs to the gun platform. He didn't bring us to any of the interior areas, but still, this was a treat I hadn't expected.

The tour ended there, and while the others walked on to tour Battery Potter, I strolled back to base with the historian to chat about the restoration efforts that were supposed to be well underway by now. He told me that the developer had insufficient financial backing to move forward with its plans to restore and use the structures, so the Park Service recently nullified the arrangement. "If I won the lottery..." I started, and he replied, "me, too." In particular, he wants to restore the Officers' Club, one of the oldest structures on the Hook and absolutely beautiful inside, according to him. Check out the link above for a photo.

It's hard for me not to get on my soap box when I've got the ear of someone at the Park Service. In fact, purely by happenstance at the recent reopening of the Edison National Historic Park, I met a ranger who just recently got a promotion to oversee the maintenance on all of the NPS properties from Maine to Maryland. Like every NPS employee I've chatted with, he was very sympathetic to the plight of the non-restored park structures. Not yet familiar with the Sandy Hook situation, he noted that there's a tremendous backlog of repair work that needs to be done throughout the park system, just to keep things as they are today. Never mind restoration -- that would take billions the agency doesn't have.

The Edison site just may hold the answer. After a six year closure for restoration, it's simply a sight to behold. Two additional floors of the inventor's labs are now open for visitation, along with other side-buildings. There's now a comprehensive audio tour and informative signage, and visitors can wander relatively freely where they once had to take a guided tour. General Electric and Sony, whose technologies benefitted from Edison's insights, made major contributions to the total $12 million spent on the restoration.

The cost estimate for Fort Hancock is six to seven times what was spent at Edison NHP, but perhaps corporate funding can make a dent for just a few structures. The fort was an ammunition proving ground for quite some time, and also the site of a few firsts in artillery. Might there be a defense contractor who'd be willing to kick in some money to preserve the history of a critical part of New York's historic defense system?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Driving into a tableau

The older I get, the more it's proven to me: happiness comes in surprising ways, but only if you're open to it.

Sunny days seem to be the exception this year, and Indian summer wasn't looking very promising. Then the fates smiled on us last Wednesday and we were afforded a warm, blue-sky day, the perfect occasion for a road trip. Not sure of my destination, I gassed up the car and headed south. Sandy Hook, maybe? Asbury Park? I'd figure it out on my way down.

Several weeks ago I'd found my way down to the Pinelands and the mysterious non-town of Ong's Hat, and something drew me that way again. Maybe it was the daydreaming I was doing about starting a tour company of the state's lesser known historic spots. Anyway, I headed down the Parkway to Route 70 and points west.

Now that I know where Ong's Hat is, it was an easy jaunt to get there. I wanted to get a photo of the shut-down tavern that stands at the former site of the famous treed hat . That done, I drove aimlessly about the side roads, many of them not charted on my GPS. There were bunches of farms and fields of cornstalks gone brown, along with a few stands selling cranberries and surprising amounts of seafood. Even this rural, lightly developed area held relatively densely-populated enclaves of tract homes from place to place, apparently the residences of employees from the nearby military installations.

The cranberry stands got me thinking about the bogs I'd passed on my first recon of the area. No doubt they were flooded now, and deep into the harvest. That brought me down Route 72, and then one of the county roads, through Chatsworth and past the old General Store. Along the way, I stopped briefly to take photos of damp bogs through my car window.

Then I saw them. A trio of cab trucks with big bins on the back, parked on an earthen berm right next to the side of the road. As I got closer, I saw the conveyor belt and the glistening of wet cranberries floating within the confines of a big yellow floating boom. Workers in hip waders were shaking the submerged berry bushes with the tools of the trade, then pushing the crop with wooden boards to the end of the conveyor, where they were scooped up and ultimately dropped into big crates on top of the trucks, where another worker used another board to distribute the load evenly. Water streamed from the bottoms of the crates, having been transported up along with the berries.

This was all happening within feet of the edge of the road, as if it were some sort of demonstration arranged by the tourism bureau. It was like one of those Sesame Street segments on how food gets from the farm to the supermarket. Who could resist stopping to take pictures? In fact, someone else already had. I pulled to the side of the road and rolled down the window to grab a few shots.

I felt a little weird about stopping just to watch other people work, but the crew seemed okay with it and even waved over when they noticed I'd stopped on the opposite shoulder. Stepping out of the car, I crossed the two-lane road to get a better view. As one truck would be filled with berries, the worker atop would jump down and wave the next truck into position as the laden truck drove off and hook around to the county road to drop its load at the main barn. Meanwhile, the workers standing waist deep in the bog would keep the crop coming through the conveyor as long as a truck was beneath to catch it. It was a well oiled process, and it struck me that in essence, it probably hadn't changed in years. Maybe the conveyor was faster than an old one, or the booms were sturdier rubber, but there were no computers, no outsourcing to cheaper labor thousands of miles away.

Other people stopped and got out of their cars from time to time as I watched the crew, and to a person, they all had broad smiles on their faces. We exchanged greetings and brief statements about craving cranberry muffins or expecting to see the two farmers from the Ocean Spray commercial, but mostly, we were all taken in by the beauty of the tableau before us. The blue sky reflected in the flooded bogs, contrasted by the yellow boom and ripe red cranberries. The warmth of the sun, and the anticipation of Thanksgiving turkey and cranberry sauce. I just stood there with a dumb grin on my face. Yeah, I could have been mulling over how nice it is to see agriculture still operating successfully in New Jersey, not paved over or replaced by McMansions. Yes, it's great to see that the Ocean Spray cooperative run by member farmers, is doing a heck of a job in creating new products and broadening the appeal for cranberries so the bogs will keep operating profitably for years.

But none of that was going through my mind at the time. If I was thinking at all, it was about how much fun it was to watch, and how I couldn't wait to share it. This is New Jersey.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Mining and connecting

Wednesday was my birthday, and I decided to celebrate by taking one of my traditional wanders through another part of the state. Since I've been on an Edison kick lately, I chose to look for the site of one of his lesser-known enterprises, the iron ore mining venture in Ogdensburg, NJ.

A web search unearthed the location for me: Edison Road, just off Sussex County Road 620. With maps and GPS in hand, I got in the car and took the ride west via interstate 280, to Route 15. While 620 wasn't on the GPS, I was able to locate it without too much fuss, and then kept my eyes peeled for Edison Road, on Sparta Mountain. I arrived to find the stone and brass marker erected by Sussex County not too long ago, and a sign with topographic mapping of several trails that ramble through the woods. No other vehicles were there, not surprising for a Wednesday morning.

I parked and found my way in, quickly coming upon some narrow stone-walled drainage canals with rebar briefly protruding the tops. To the right was a sinkhole with a sign helpfully noting that sonar measurements found it was 86 feet deep at points. Wow. I walked in a bit farther to find a transmission tower right of way (ironically) and a few more crumbled walls. There wasn't as much to see as I'd hoped, but the reason for Edison's mining was clear. Many of the rocks and boulders showed the clear signs of oxidized iron.

I figured that there had to be more ruins in the woods, or at least some really good trails, but I didn't think it wise to explore them solo. The cellular coverage up there can be spotty, and if I got into a jam I'd be literally shouting into the wilderness. Resolving to return with my exploring buddy, I headed back to the car.

Just as I reached the trailhead, a Jeep Wagoneer pulled up, and a man, little girl and two rambunctious dogs came out. Naturally the dogs came running at full tilt to check me out, until the man called them back. Introducing himself as Rob, and shaking my hand, he asked if I'd been out to the ruins, and when I recounted my exploration, he told me there was a LOT more I'd missed, and if I wanted, he could show me where. He's explored a lot of the woods, some with an older man who actually wrote a book on Edison's mining operations.

Something about him and the little girl made me trust them. That, plus my new resolve to let people help me and do nice things for me more often, got me to agree to tag along with them for a little bit. As we hiked along, he explained that he was originally from South Carolina and had moved up here with his wife for her job. He really enjoys geting out to the woods in Sussex, had been surprised at how much there was to see, and how nice it is. Yeah, New Jersey tends to be that way.

In any case, he was right -- there is a LOT more to look at from Edison's operations, much of it reclaimed by nature since the mine closed (coincidentally, 109 years ago to the day of my visit). If you didn't know better -- and there wasn't so much rebar jutting out from the stone walls and the ground -- you'd think you'd stumbled on an ancient village. Along the way, too, I started remembering why it is that I've enjoyed hiking in the woods so much. It might have been that the little girl reminded me of myself when I was just a little older than she, when I'd play for hours in the woods across the street from my house. Back then, I'd have gone nuts over finding the ruins of a real building among the trees and scrub.

We parted company after about 45 minutes, and I ambled back to my car. Along the way, I got to thinking about another time when someone just happened to show up at the right time: my trip to Bandelier National Park in New Mexico. There, as in Sussex, I was traveling alone, looking for ruins with no-one seemingly in shouting range. At Bandelier, however, it was ancient Native American cliff dwellings, and you needed to use a series of ladders to get to them. As I'd approach a ladder, I'd question if it was prudent for me to climb it without a spotter. Every time, someone would appear, seemingly out of nowhere, offering a word of encouragement or a firm hand to hold the ladder secure as I climbed up. The uppermost cave was said to be used for sacred ceremonies, and reaching it was a transcendent experience in more ways than one. In fact, I still draw on my memories of being there whenever I need to center and calm myself.

That experience reminded me about a lot of things. Sometimes you just have to have faith that what you need will be there when you need it. You have to be willing to let other people help you, even when there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to help. Sometimes people don't NEED a reason to help. Sometimes things are just meant to happen at a certain time and certain place, and you just need to accept it. Perhaps Rob and young Willow came by the other day to remind me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chowing down

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a thing for road food. That term, in my mind, refers to chow you order at a counter (preferably outdoor, at a drive-in and not a drive-through) at an old food stand that has no relation to any kind of fast food chain. No waitress service, or if there is, it's in an area adjoining said walk-up counter. Mostly, it's hot dogs and hamburgers, though other regional specialties (Italian hot dogs, Texas weiners, etc.) do qualify. Most of them hark back to the '20s or '30s, before suburbanization, when most of the highways in New Jersey were routes to the countryside and it made sense to put up a hot dog stand at the side of the road for hungry travelers.

It wasn't until my college years that I got a serious taste for these joints. Oddly enough, my parents never took my sister and me to any of the local places. As a kid, I successfully petitioned my dad to stop at the White Castle in our town, out of sheer curiosity. It was a classic tiny box of a Castle (that's all there was in the pre-Harold and Kumar days), and on a Saturday night the parking lot was filled with undesirables, yet Dad agreed to go in for a bag of rats. Somehow I knew there was a road food junkie lurking within that middle-management exterior. (The Castle, incidentally, is the one exception to the rule that road food doesn't come from chains.)

College brought me a road food cuisine guide in the form of Marty, college student/computer programmer by day, road trip leader by night. He's the one who introduced me to the White Rose System, a landmark just a few miles from Rutgers-New Brunswick. Open 24 hours with the exception of Sunday, the System is acclaimed for three things: incredibly good California cheeseburgers, the fact that they have your order bagged and rung up within three seconds or less of when you've finished ordering, and the persistent rumor that all of the guys behind the counter are ex-convicts who live in a small building behind the joint. There's diner-style seating available at the front counter, or against the front window, but if you're there at prime-time (after the bars close) it's also worth eating on the hood of your car so you can watch the sea of humanity entering and leaving the place. I hesitate to post their website; it looks like the menu has gotten a lot more diverse over time, and I don't know how I feel about that.

While Marty and I never dated (neither of us had the desire), the fun we had in checking out the System and other greasy spoons prompted me to add 'preference for road food' to the criteria by which I judge potential boyfriends. Don't get me wrong: I like getting dressed up and going to nice restaurants, but I'd turn my nose up at any man who'd turn his nose up at the aroma of fried onions and hamburgers nestled in a gently steamed bun. (I'd like to say that I was the inspiration for Shake Shack, but alas, I was not.)

Anyway, I digress. Back to local joints, the classic in my hometown is the Galloping Hill Inn, founded in the '20's at a confluence of roads aptly called Five Points. It's the quintessential hot dog and beer kind of place, and when I was a kid, it looked like something you'd find on some rural road -- whitewashed exterior with ordering windows on both the street- and parking lot sides of the building, and a porch with picnic benches. The ordering process is not for the hesitant: customers crowd the broad (8-10 foot wide) window to shout out their orders as the counter guys randomly call "next." Often chaotic, but efficient. There's also a small dining room with waitress service.

Like most road joints, atmosphere is half the experience at Galloping Hill. In more recent years, they've closed the street-side windows and put an awning over the back of the building to create a vestibule and dining area. Sadly, they appear to be going for a diner look now, with enamel walls, chrome accents and faux-pressed tin ceilings above the porches. Fortunately, my standard order is none the worse for wear: a 'complete' hot dog (kraut and mustard) and cheese fries with a generous amount of the tasty yellow stuff. Yum.

Five Points is a very busy intersection, so you can't really blame the Galloping Hill guys for moving the transactional part of the business to the back of the building for safety. When my sister and I first started going there in the mid-eighties, we'd eat our meals on the street-side porch and count the near-miss accidents. While we never actually saw a collision, we heard one once, first the screech of tires and crash of car against car, then the very loud string of obscenities expelled by one of the drivers. Jersey road food ambiance -- can't beat it.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Rethinking derring do

I've done my share of stunts that scared the crap out of me -- skydiving (three times), hang gliding (one ill-advised venture), cycling down the side of a volcano (once). Having done those and more, I've come to think that the real satisfaction comes not in doing them, but in being able to say that I've done them, if that makes any sense. I'm reminded of something that software entrepreneur and former skydiver Tom Siebel said about his experience: after you've done it a bunch of times, it's no big deal. You leave the plane, you pull a cord and you float to the ground.

Usually, I bring a certain level of bravado into the experience, believing and telling friends that it's not such a big deal. Then I end up white-knuckling the entire thing, though most would say they were exhilarated by it. Think about it -- how many people go skydiving and just say 'feh' afterward? Not many. So what's the deal?

Recently I took a mule ride down a narrow path carved into a 1600 foot cliff face. I'd never ridden a mule before, the trail was anything but smooth, and the mule, well, what they say about mules being stubborn is true. In hindsight, my biggest issue wasn't about the trail or the cliff. It was that I didn't have control over the mule. Intellectually, I knew that she'd walked the route countless times and wasn't any more interested in taking a header off the cliff than I was. I just had issues with not being in charge. As soon as I mounted her, she'd started meandering over to the other mules, with me helplessly riding atop her, and the trail wasn't any better. After several of her attempts to prance the outside edge of the path to pass a slower mule ahead of us, I was thinking twice about taking the same route back to our origin. Yeah, I was considering hiking a steep and rocky three-mile path, rather than riding the mule back up. Ultimately, I decided to take the chance with her, and I'm glad I did. When I tried my best to just go with the flow, she took charge and expertly got us back to the trailhead.

After that trek, I came to a realization. Maybe it wasn't the experience I thought it would be, and maybe I'm a bit more of a wimp than I'd like to admit. Maybe I was really uncomfortable, even a bit scared, but it did teach me something. Sometimes when you take a risk, even when it doesn't feel good and you had no control, you can at least get some satisfaction from having given it a shot. You just keep moving along, and you survive. And maybe once in a while, you realize that giving up control isn't so bad.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Since I moved to the town where I now live, I've enjoyed walking among the older houses, many of which are Victorians well over 100 years old. Many, if not most, have been lovingly cared for by house-proud owners who truly appreciate the details of their homes and seem to take joy in painting them in beautiful color schemes, the trim contrasting from the rest of the house.

I've always loved old houses and have fantasized about owning one, taking care of it like a living, breathing family member. Not surprisingly, I have a few favorites, and even one or two I'd love to own if the circumstances were right (winning the lottery, marrying wealthy, you get the picture). I keep an eye on them just to see if their owners are treating them well, because when you own a house like that, you're just a caretaker for the time being, making sure that the home continues to contribute to the character of the neighborhood. So far nobody's screwed up by tearing any of my favorites down or putting on hideous additions. As I said, this is a town that values its history.

There's one, however, that I'd been totally mystified by -- the haunted house of Orchard Street. The architecture itself isn't quite my style; I've been drawn in for another reason. It's looked totally abandoned. Tall shrubs at the property line hid a veritable jungle of a yard, with overgrown trees and ivy and all kinds of whatnot. I never saw any activity there, and the few times I passed by at night, there was no light peeking out from within. Either no-one lived there, or it was occupied by a hermit. Maybe the Collyer brothers? Was this my town's version of Grey Gardens?

One day a few months ago, I passed by to find the house standing in a bare yard -- the trees and shrubs and ivy had all been bulldozed away. And there was a large construction dumpster stationed on the side street of the corner property. On one hand, it was fascinating to see the house standing in the sunlight, while it had been obscured for so long. On the other hand, I was afraid it was going to be torn down any moment. It stood on a double lot, big enough to accommodate a huge McMansion, or maybe even two of them. Then again, wouldn't they have just taken it down with the trees if they were going to clear the lot? And nobody's building on spec in this market.

Needing answers, I started searching the web and found a real estate sale listing, which said the property had been sold last fall for just under $500k. That's cheap for this part of the country. The house, if in good condition, would have gone for twice that. My curiosity whetted, I found some old newspaper articles mentioning society events that had taken place in the house. Its previous owners had gone on a three-week European tour in the early '60's, and the owners well before that had hosted a sumptuous party with a string orchestra, with guests including the co-founder of Sperry and Hutchinson Green Stamps. Obviously, this house and its people had been something at one time.

Even more curious, I went to my source, a friend who grew up in town and knows people. He was the one who brought the happy news. The house was bought by a couple who are spending $1 million, more or less, to renovate it. In fact, a few days after I found this out, I saw a sign in the yard, advertising the company that's apparently doing the kitchen and bathroom work. And now many of the windows have been taken out, the openings reframed. With the windows removed, you can see ladders and whatnot inside, and that many of the walls seem to have been stripped down to the lathe.

When you've watched countless older houses get plowed under for the sake of McMansion 'progress,' it's a bit of a relief to watch some old bones get refurbished. I wonder what it was that convinced this couple to renovate rather than build, especially given the cost. Do they have some sort of tie to the house? Is there a reason they've fallen in love with it? I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out, and I do wonder: would they mind if I one day knocked on the door and asked to come in?

Monday, January 12, 2009

You're being watched.

Yammering, twittering, whatver it is: for a society so concerned about being watched, we’re certainly making it easy. The explosion of social networking websites offers you the chance of using virtually any communications technology to update your 'status' line anywhere you are.

"Dave is at the laundromat."

"Shalini is eating a panini."

"Michele is updating her Facebook status."

I know it's supposed to give your friends a view into how your day is going, but really, it's annoying. Is anyone really that interesting? And how are you supposed to have a life if your whole life is punctuated by pauses to update people on what you're doing?

Since I got more liberal in who I've been 'friending' on Facebook, I've gotten a new perspective on this. Where it might be moderately interesting to know that an especially brave or reckless friend is getting a manicure before going bowling, I don't really need to know that someone I barely know is going to the DMV.

And when you actually kinda dislike one of your 'friends,' it actually becomes kind of fun to mock them. (Can you call them 'Facebook frenemies'?) One is especially pretentious and enjoys dropping famous names into his status lines. He's always saying that he's hanging out with celebrities, when the truth is that he goes to a lot of fundraisers that well-known people happen to frequent. How insecure do you have to be to say that you commiserated about the Giants with Kathie Lee Gifford at a cocktail party? Like any b-list celebrity is actually going to remember or care about your theories on what the team should have done during the playoffs.

It does raise the question, though: if I mock someone who's pretentious and insecure, does it make me pretentious and insecure by association? I'll have to ask Oprah what she thinks. She should be here any minute.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Say yes more often this year.