Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Another Nutty Development


Nearly every time I go to dig up a patch of dirt to plant something—whether it’s in the ground or a container—I come up with an unshelled peanut.

For a long time I thought nothing of this. Squirrels, I thought. They hide nuts.

But eventually, I wondered. Peanuts? Where are they getting them? We have no peanut plants that I know of. When was the last time you saw someone walking around with a bag of peanuts?

Is someone feeding them, is that it? And do they come over here to bury their loot with me?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Afterthoughts: Documentaries: Odd Couples

One of the things I most enjoy when I'm going to documentaries is that sometimes I’ll see a couple in a row that unexpectedly have themes in common.

Rock—And Roll Film


Take Anvil! The Story of Anvil, about a Canadian metal band that has stayed together for 30 years without making it big, and The Windmill Movie, about Richard P. Rogers, who spent about 30 years hoping to make a documentary about himself and his own sense of inadequacy—and never could.

The core members of Anvil turn out to be two Jewish men from Toronto, at least one of whom seems to be a high-school dropout, while the Harvard-educated Rogers comes from a WASP background and inherits a house in East Hampton.

This is a fascinating pairing, because they’re both about failure. Anvil really is a flop, at least on the commercial level, but they keep on plugging anyway, with surprisingly open hearts. Rogers isn’t really a mediocrity, except in the context of his own hypermonied and artistically overachieving milieu, but he thinks he is.

In some ways, I found it hard to get a real handle on the personalities in either movie. What I came away with, however, was a sense of the importance of family and friends—the love and support for the quixotic endeavors in both cases. (If the aims in question weren’t positive, would I call this enabling?)

Trance 10, Looks 3

Last week’s combo: Unmistaken Child and Every Little Step. Both were lovely films, and admittedly about wildly different subjects. In retrospect, however, I see a thread!

The first is about a monk who treks from remote village to remote village in a particular region of Nepal, interviewing baby after baby until he finds the one infant with that special something—the characteristics that will tell the monk that this is the child in whom his revered Tibetan lama has been reincarnated.

Every Little Step weaves the story of the development of the original A Chorus Line with a step-by-step report on the casting of the legendary show’s first Broadway revival.

In a sense, they’re both about auditions—one from the point of view of the casting director (that monk conducting tryouts until he finds the one actor who’s truly right for the role) and the other primarily from the perspective of the prospective performers—all those dancers praying, “god, I hope I get it.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The High Line (4): Honor Peter Obletz!


Sure, Peter Obletz, the railroad aficionado, who died in 1996, had tried to preserve the High Line, but since his vision involved restoring it to its original — meaning noisy, smelly and mercantile — incarnation as a throughway for freight trains, his efforts fell short.

—"Two Friends, and the Dream of a Lofty Park Realized," New York Times, July 11, 2008

Peter’s idea was that the High Line could be used to haul construction debris out of Manhattan,” [said Jan Levy, Jan Levy, an Upper West Side resident and former member of Community Board 7]. “If it weren’t for Peter, we wouldn’t be standing here now. I want to get Friends of the High Line to name at least part of the High Line for him,” she said.

—"Saving Flora Where Freight Cars Once Rumbled," The Villager, October 18-24, 2006

* * *

I would like to do two things:

1. endorse the notion that at least part of the High Line (perhaps the part once overlooked by his apartment) should be named in honor of Peter Obletz.

2. dispute the notion that his personal vision for the High Line was focused on freight—or, probably worse from his point of view, “noisy, smelly" freight.

* * *

I’m not an expert on Peter Obletz. I interviewed him once, I think in 1987, for an article in a long defunct business magazine called Manhattan,inc. that I can no longer find. I do have my notes on the interview, however, and I do have an undated 30-page transcript of the tape—typed on an electric typewriter.

Looking at my questions, I can see that like everyone else I was obsessed with Obletz’s plan to restore freight service to the High Line. Was it viable? There’s no question that the plan he had put forward hinged on commercial hauling, and it’s easy to see freight would be associated with his memory.

I’m sure my long and now lost article was obsessed with freight as well.

Reading between the interview’s lines, as I came home and did after taking my first walk on the glorious new High Line park, I became convinced that freight wasn’t really at the center of Obletz’s hopes—it was simply a necessary means to attain them. His vision, I believe, was very much in keeping with what the High Line has become.

* * *

Let’s rewind. (Remember, nothing here is fact-checked. I’m doing the best I can, but I’m on my own.)

In 1984, for $10, Conrail had allowed Obletz and his foundation to take control of the High Line—what he called “a mile and a half long cocktail sausage on toothpicks.”

Obletz, who among other things was the chair of Community Board 4, which covered Chelsea and Clinton, could clearly foresee the changes that would lead to huge increase in development and the population density of the West Side.

As far back as 1978—two years before the last load of frozen turkeys made its way down High Line tracks—Obletz had recognized the old rail bed as a valuable piece of infrastructure that could be recycled in ways that would serve the city well.

It might be an ideal location for light-rail trolleys—something “environmentally sound”—and ameliorate the problems of public access to new construction by the river.

Obletz created a nonprofit membership organization, the West Side Rail Line Development Foundation, and spent five years doing what he called “public education”—trying to interest the city in taking over the line after Conrail stopped running freight and formally abandoned it.

In those years, Obletz told me, Conrail was relinquishing its interest in short, unprofitable branch lines all over the country. This was sometimes a touchy issue. If there were still factories along the lines, the loss of train service might cost hundreds of jobs.

The federal government wanted to give Conrail an opportunity to bow out of money-draining operations, but it nevertheless felt an obligation to help localities preserve valuable real estate for train service if they felt they needed it.

As Obletz explained it to me, under the Northeast Rail Service Act, the procedure for abandoning a line went something like this:

1. Conrail declares a line unprofitable and announces its intention to abandon it.

2. The local municipality is given the option of subsidizing the rail service in a way that will allow Conrail to break even as it continues to operate the line.

3. If the local government isn’t interested, there is a 90-day period in which private entities are allowed to step forward with viable plans to continue to operate the line for railroad purposes. If the plan seems valid, the line must be sold to the private entity for “net liquidation value”—in other words, as Obletz explained it, “at distress-sale prices.”

At the end of 1983, Conrail announced its intention to abandon the High Line. The city made no effort to intervene. Obletz decided he had to act. His foundation would buy the line. If the Interstate Commerce Commission said okay, Conrail could make the deal.

For Obletz, that rail purposes clause was both a blessing and a curse. From Conrail’s point of view, the line was worthless—or rather, it had negative value, since by some estimates it would cost $5 million to demolish. If Obletz promised rail services, he could get control of the infrastructure essentially for free.

On the other hand, what rail purposes could he possibly propose? He had to come up with something, and he had to prove to the ICC that it would at least break even.

Obletz dreamed of trolleys and other amenities in the future, but for the moment he had to come up with something that involved freight. The Northeast Rail Service Act was designed to protect freight service.

Moreover, he’d seen the provisions of the original 1929 agreement in which the city used eminent domain to seize property and install its new freight line. (The line opened to some fanfare in 1934, but much of the business it was intended to support collapsed during the Depression, Obletz said.)

The original documents condemned the land for railroad purposes—but if the railroad activities were every officially declared to have ceased, the easements would revert to the landholders.

Obletz raced to put together a business plan for the line. He was scrambling, as he admitted, “because we spent five years dicking around with the city and state with no response. We should have given up earlier and started to do strategic planning at that point.”

Obletz came up with proposal involving a scrap-metal yard. It would dump its junk on train cars and get it off to market that way. Obletz figured that would generate maybe 300 or 400 carloads of freight a year, and lose a mere $80,000 a year.

How to make up the shortfall? Obletz imagined that something of a “tourist or commercial nature might be doable up there, within our 18 by 40 feet. We never specified what it was, but we said, these are the ideas that we think will generate non-rail dollars to subsidize our primary purposes, which is the rail line.”

As part of that plan, he said, “we proposed that during the time when the trains weren’t running, that perhaps the railroad line could be devoted to some recreational uses for the community—a linear park or jogging paths, something like that."

* * *

It all seemed okay to the ICC, which cleared Obletz as a buyer.

In October 1984, Conrail gave Obletz the rights to the line for $10.

And then, as Obletz said, “all hell broke loose.”

Powerful forces arrayed themselves against him. First and foremost were the landowners and the developers, who were working to get the West Side rezoned for residential projects, but who wouldn’t be able to build them with a hulking metal structure in the way.

The battle over Westway was still underway, and Obletz said his mission to save the railroad became the recipient of some of the bureaucratic wrath aimed at activists who were trying to block the massive highway along the river. (Westway would have eliminated a portion of the High Line, too.)

The “significant public recreation component” that the Obletz foundation had identified in its initial business plan became the basis of legal claims that “we were nothing more than a bunch of community crackpots who were trying to set up a playground up there, that your purposes were not true, and the ICC should reject us.”

In its legal filings, the city denounced Obletz's freight ideas as a "pipe dream" and the High Line an "anachronistic blot on the landscape."

Since Obletz himself had been living in [note: or at least entertaining in, per comments below-ed.] two old railroad dining cars he parked in rail yards at 30th Street and 11th Avenue, he was dismissed as a “train buff” and his plans for the High Line an aficionado’s folly.

“No, no,” said Obletz. “It’s not as if I’m approaching this from the standpoint of some kind of timetable-collecting freak.”

The attacks were draining. Obletz said many of his financial backers disappeared. He said he spent 40 hours a week on the High Line, 25 to 30 hours a week on his real estate and advertising consultancies for the MTA, and another 10 to 20 hours a week at the community board.

“No personal life whatsoever,” he said. “Meetings, meetings, meetings.”

“It was a heartbreak for all his friends to watch him go through all his personal funds for this,” a friend told the New York Times, a decade after Obletz’s death.

By the time I met him, the scrap yard that had initially expressed an interest in freight services backed out, and Obletz was scrambling again, this time touting a plan that responded in part to the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill and involved the use of freight cars to transport construction debris.

Probably not long after my article appeared, the ICC ruled that his plan wasn’t viable and revoked his right to the tracks. His share of the High Line battle was over.

* * *

That should have meant a wrecking ball for the High Line, except that those 1929 condemnation documents never specified who would pay the demolition costs if the line were ever abandoned. The court battles went on, with the railroad eventually withdrawing its request for abandonment rather than pay the millions in fees.

In 1996, Peter Obletz died, at age 50, of cancer.

Three years later, a new group of High Line advocates, led by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, took up the cause. The circumstances had shifted, and they were liberated from the requirement to use line for rail purposes. From the beginning, they dreamed of a public promenade.

Chelsea and the West Village were richer than when Obletz had fought his battles. There were celebrities to support the cause, and powerful politicians willing to jump on the bandwagon.
Nevertheless, David and Hammond encountered some of the same resistance that Obletz had faced.

“Developers balked—and some who wanted it torn down threatened to sue—when Friends of the High Line was formed in 1999 and proposed the idea of turning the railroad bed into an elevated park,” the Times reported.

“Six years later, the corridor is like catnip to the same developers, with more than a dozen projects planned and countless others being considered.”

By 2007, with the first stage of the High Line already under construction, the Times published a delightful tribute to “the charming gadfly who saved the High Line,” in which the High Line’s new saviors graciously gave credit to the man who had come before.

“ ‘There was a lot of affection for him,’ Mr. David said. ‘And there were people who liked us simply because we had found and picked up the thread that he’d dropped when he died.’ “

* * *

By the time I encountered Obletz, he was no longer living in the train cars. I met him at his building, which I remember as being in the 20s, and overlooking the High Line. There was a large fireplace and it was burning wooden planks.

Obletz seemed to have a taste for things that had been neglected, because it turned out his building had also been abandoned and he’d imagined he could fix it up. “It always seems like a good idea until winter,” he said.

Obletz himself seemed slightly incongruous in this unfinished setting. He was wearing a stylish double-breasted suit and chain-smoking More cigarettes. He lit each new one after flicking open a silver lighter, and tossed the butts in the fireplace.

I noted “gray socks and tasseled loafers, black hair with a slightly reddish tinge that suggests dye, moussed up so it stands up. He runs his hands through it a lot and uses words like 'copacetic.' Somewhere between New Wave and Hipster.” Once we got outside, I added, “black Ray Ban sunglasses with thick arms.”

The place had also been overrun with mice. He’d adopted a cat who had kittens, and now the clan was prowling all over his documents, and they’d jump acrobatically as he waved them away.

“Good one,” he’d say, as some cat thumped to the floor.

There were a few vintage New York Central railroad calendars around, but Obletz swore they didn’t mean he was a railroad fanatic. “My mother keeps finding them in antique stores and sending them,” he insisted.

Obletz rooted around in several black filing cabinets, and on one wall a set of floor-to-ceiling doors that opened to reveal shelves packed full with newspaper clippings and letters. When he opened a closet door, more papers fell out.

“I’m drowning in paperwork,” he said.

The whole interview was like that, too. It was filled with talk of dates and agencies and politicians and law firms and all the minutia of legal maneuvers.

There was almost nothing rhapsodic in my transcript--nothing that evoked the passion that Obletz must have felt, no hint of the poetry that for many is now part of the experience of traversing the High Line.

At the end of the formal interview, Obletz drove us over to northern terminus of his beloved freight spur in a roaring old maroon jeep that he rightly called the “Rustmobile.”

We came in near what I think were the Amtrak yards and walked up a nice ramp to the old rail bed, where I marveled at the wonderful sense of spaciousness that persists even after two decades of building, and gawked at the thistles and lamb’s quarters that have been so carefully preserved today.

I’d grown up in the neighborhood, but I’d never stopped to imagine what that railroad bridge up my street might hold. “Wow,” I said. “All these years and years and I never….”

“You have the same appreciation that I do?” Obletz asked. “It just—it just grabbed me. I’ve been walking up and down this line so many times. It burns me that we really can’t do something with this.

“I don’t like the messiness and the graffiti. It just spoils my sense of order. It’s just such an unbelievable eyesore, and it doesn’t need to be that way.”

I don’t think he’d have cared much for noisy, smelly freight. But I do think he’d have liked the park that would never have come into being without him.

“It’s an incredible environment for pedestrians, but it takes a lot of preparation if, you know, we’re committed to things like full access—there’s one ramp and a couple of stairways,” he said. (The initial stage of the High Line park has five entrances over its nine-block length.)

Under the law, Obletz would have been required to continue rail service for only two years. It would be five years before any further sale of the easement would be permitted.

The property owners undoubtedly feared he would hold them up for ransom, but Obletz imagined himself as conducting a kind of civic holding action, trying to find a way to keep the line intact “until the city makes up its mind what it wants to do with it.”

“While we’re talking about rail freight,” he told me, “we haven’t lost sight of the long-term goal, which was public recreation, future mass transit, that sort of thing. And I think we corporately know—and don’t ask me how we know, the crystal ball’s out for repairs—that sooner or later, that 99 percent of this railroad line is going to be spoken for for public purposes, which is why we’ve stayed in it for so long.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Goose Steps (2): Down Low

I’ve said too much already about the city’s war on geese, but I’m still shaking my head that the New York Post could be so gleeful in evoking the imagery of mass killings and the gas chamber. I usually enjoy the tabloid’s irreverence, but I got the creeps when I read this stuff, and it wasn’t just about the geese.

Here’s a selection:

BYE-BYE, BIRDIES
CITY ROUNDS UP GEESE FOR THE 'GAS' CHAMBER


http://www.nypost.com/seven/06172009/news/regionalnews/bye_bye__birdies_174607.htm

**

Plane-threatening geese that are rounded up by government hunters are being carted off to a makeshift killing field at Kennedy Airport for mass gassings, officials said yesterday….

The death squads were on Wards Island yesterday morning, where they rounded up a gaggle of 40 Canada geese in just 10 minutes….


Like lambs being led to slaughter, the geese went quietly. Once they were trapped in a portable pen, they were loaded into boxes that were put onto trailers for the ride to the Kennedy Airport death chamber.

http://www.nypost.com/seven/06182009/news/regionalnews/wing__no_prayer_174850.htm

**

The captured geese then got a one-way ride to a carbon dioxide gas chamber, agriculture officials said….

Like lambs being led to slaughter, the geese went quietly—though they were flapping and a bit jumpy, they made only a little noise.

http://www.nypost.com/seven/06172009/news/regionalnews/manhattan/40_geese_caught_in_latest_roundup_174744.htm

**

"There are people who care very much about the geese. But in the end, safety of the public is No. 1," the mayor said on his weekly radio show.

On the plus side, "there is not a lot of cost involved in rounding up a couple thousand geese and letting them go to sleep with nice dreams."

http://www.nypost.com/seven/06132009/news/regionalnews/birdies_bedtime_174047.htm

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Artish at Storm King

Storm King Art Center! Lovely, wooded paths—a rushing river, a great assortment of trees, glorious fields, deer, birds....and oh, yes, some art.

I was eager to see Maya Lin's Storm King Wavefield, as well as to revisit two site-specific favorites, Richard Serra's Schunnemunk Fork (which reminds me a bit of Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial) and Andy Goldsworthy's Storm King Wall (even more electrifyingly serpentine when slick with rain).

Alas, "any copying, distribution, or public display of images from the permanent sculpture collection or temporary exhibitions is prohibited (including without limitation any photography, film, or videography, and by Internet or otherwise)."

So, some approximations.

After Armajani (elevators)

After Bourgeois

After di Suvero

After Lin

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

High Line Park (3): The Rapture

Hey, I finally got up there! On the High Line. I climbed the steps at Gansevoort, I walked the length, I turned around and walked back. My friend L. says the world is divided between people who can't wait to get to the High Line and those who have no idea what it is. The folks up on the old elevated roadbed seem euphoric, and for good reason.

I won't waste a lot of words on the thing—go see it yourself. It's a wonderful structure that cuts right through an amazing city—hundreds of years of history, nature, people, everything still bustling above and below and out to the sides.

The following pictures won't tell you what it looks like—check out the High Line site for that—but they may give you a hint of how many ways there might be to look.







Tuesday, June 16, 2009

High Line Park (2): Grounded

Here is a sampling of the praise that some of my friends have heaped upon the new High Line park: stunning, a healing chamber, the best thing to happen to New York City in recent memory, elating, a Zen garden, a genuine work of art.

I liked my inaugural visit to the High Line, too, but first I got cranky about not being able to enter the park where I wanted to.

As a result, once again, I felt sadly out of sync in an exuberant moment of collective joy.

Eager for a corrective experience, I was thrilled when my pal L.—who “loves, loves, loves” the High Line—suggested that we meet for a stroll along its full length.

We waited out the rains and obediently headed for Gansevoort Street entrance, only to find it blocked off.

On this night, we were informed, the park was open to the public only from 18th to 20th streets. The rest of it was being used for a private party—“a fundraiser for the park,” a staffer reassured us. If we went up to 16th Street, she said, we could watch the celebrities arriving.

I had another flashing, curmudgeonly thought, this time about the ongoing privatization of all varieties of civic life, but money is money and I let it go. It was a pretty evening, and as it turned out it was also lovely to walk at ground level, on the public streets.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

High Line Park (1): A Curmudgeon in Wonderland

It's now a park: the High Line, circa 1934.

My first thought about the High Line was a curmudgeonly one.

As many New Yorkers will know, the High Line is a long and narrow park that has been constructed along the bed of an old elevated rail line that was built to deliver freight to the industrial buildings of lower Manhattan’s far West Side back in the 1930s.

The park’s first section, which runs from Gansevoort to 20th streets, had opened on June 9, and like a lot of people I was eager to see it.

I’d read that there were only three entrances and that visitors were supposed to walk north. I picked up a sandwich at Chelsea Market and figured I could enter right there, at 16th Street, and then head up to 20th Street.

The 16th Street entrance was blocked off, however. A worker was explaining that the city wanted visitors to enter at Gansevoort Street, where they could be counted.

I was annoyed. New York has become a city obsessed with traffic management, and from time to time I feel I’ve had quite enough of all the freshly painted stripes and arrows and interjecting curbs and police announcing that you can’t cross here.

I briefly considered stalking across the street to a different park and eating my sandwich in a huff about being barred from the High Line.

Instead I changed my plans, walked four or five blocks south, and entered as instructed. I climbed a staircase and emerged into the pristine park, with its railroad allusions and native plantings and second-story view of Manhattan.

The sense of floating through and over buildings at that height creates an immediate sense of freedom. A sense of lightness and pleasure bubbled up along with my lingering crankiness about social control.

It occurred to me that the High Line (in this inaugural period of heightened supervision, anyway) fit very much into the modern model of a public institution.

You were welcome to come up and delight in a leisurely stroll—but everything that framed the experience was controlled. The direction of your walk was dictated to you, your points of access and egress predetermined, everything you did monitored and counted.

This ethos was summed up in the signs along the way. These read something like “Keep It Wild: Stay on the Path.” The “wild” areas in question were the garden beds, impeccably planned and planted, lined with gravel. In the age of surveillance, this is what “wild” looks like.

I sat down on one of stylish, backless benches and felt a deepening sense of relaxation as I took in the view.

There was construction going on a roof across the way, and I could see a worker in a hard hat stretched out on the tar, finishing his lunch. Was he amused to look up and watch the crowds thrilling to the perspective from the new park when it was something he saw every day?

Within a few moments, another hardhat joined me on my bench. He unwrapped his lunch, swiveled around to look at the trees, and then gazed out toward the river.

“This is really nice,” he said.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Goose Steps

If you see something, say something.

Humankind, I’m sorry to say, has its limits.

We can assassinate suspected terrorists in Afghanistan from the safety of trailers in Arizona, and we can repair sophisticated telescopes from the ships we’ve launched into space, but we simply cannot design anything to prevent a jet airplane from crashing if it flies into a Canada goose.

Or it least we don’t want to.

Apparently it makes far more sense to us to devise a $100,000 plan to shoot, gas, and deploy falcons to annihilate some 2000 geese who have made the mistake of coming within five miles of JFK and La Guardia airports.

(As for all the other airplanes and all the other airports…well, never mind.)

This is not a time for reason. We are embroiled in a conflict that had no beginning and will have no end.

As previously noted, I find it revealing—and ludicrous—that it is the dead birds, rabbits, deer, and turtles that are categorized as having conducted the “strikes” when planes fly into or run over them.

Suicide missions were something I’d never before taken seriously as a major aspect of animal behavior.

This morning I awoke to hear someone on the radio confidently outlining the plan to “capture and interdict” the geese.

Here’s the definition of interdict, per Merriam-Webster Online: “to destroy, damage, or cut off (as an enemy line of supply) by firepower to stop or hamper an enemy.”

I’ve heard that word before: it’s a favorite bit of lingo in the war on terror and the war on drugs.

The strategies that reflect this kind of thinking haven’t won those battles yet—and I’m not too optimistic about the war on geese, either.

I Got the Horse Book Right Here


Sound the horn! My sister and her husband, who are always off to the races, have written a book. It’s fun, short, and reasonably priced, and it’s called Off to a Flying Start: Horsing Around the Language.

The text offers a sample of 61 popular expressions—nothing encyclopedic, just some of C. and B.'s favorites—and explains their origins in horse racing.

If you read this book, you will learn what nefarious doings the term get your goat refers to and what it means to start from scratch.

The book made me realize that language tells a story. I was moved to realize how many traces of horse racing and the rural culture it once belonged to still linger in our speech.

If I were a horse, I might say that Off to a Flying Start’s definitions are as sweet and nutritious as carrots—and the delightful comic illustrations by Ana Mirela Tache make me feel as if I’ve just been slipped a few sugar cubes on the side.

You can buy it here. Or here.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Yoga Chronicles: Spring Training

“How can you think and hit at the same time?” —Yogi Berra

* * *
“Do you want to know a secret?”

So asked C., the yoga instructor, staring down at a student. The student agreeably said yes. C.’s secret, delivered to the room, was that the basic techniques we practiced over and over were going to make the advanced stuff easier: they were the foundation.

I’m nowhere near command of even the fundamentals, but I had a flashing sensation of what a baseball player may feel in spring training—the pleasure of doing drills, fielding hundreds of ground balls, making the throw, over and over, until he knows in every cell of his being that he can make that play.

I’ve never played an organized sport, or even tried to master a disorganized one, but I was reminded of what my friend L. had said, long ago, about being a catcher.

There came a moment in the game when her body simply did all that she had trained it to do—automatically, without thinking—and it felt like joy. This was the first time I’d had any inkling of how you might get to that.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

More ER: Visiting Val-Kill


Yesterday I went to Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York, which was Eleanor Roosevelt’s primary home. A few notes:

1. When Eleanor died in 1962, the people at the FDR mansion a few miles away came over to take pictures of everything in the house. Then the kids took what they wanted. They sold the rest.

The son who lived in the adjacent house rented out his mother’s house as four small rental units. When he was ready to leave the houses and property (which is extensive and gorgeous) entirely, he asked if the federal government (under the Nixon administration) if it was interested in the place. It was not.

Later, the whole place was to be sold to a developer and subdivided—but a bunch of people got together and began to protest. Jean Stapleton, who played Eleanor on stage and in film, is among the people we have to thank for making Val-Kill a historic site (Jimmy Carter signed the legislation in 1977). Thank you, Jean.

2. The Val-Kill cottage is intimate and cozy. The furniture reclaimed or reacquired or approximated from the posthumous photos. The shelves restocked with books named on the auction lists.

There’s a small dining room—a table probably big enough for eight or ten with lots of Roosevelt family silver out on it. The silver’s incongruous because everything else is so homey. My vague memory of people who ate at that table or sat in the couches in that house include Winston Churchill, JFK, Haile Selassie, Krushchev, the Queen Mother.

Upstairs, Eleanor slept in beds that seem so modest—each is bigger than a twin, smaller than a full. There’s one in the bedroom, another on the windowed sleeping porch. In my new life as a hapless fan, I was thrilled to open the door between the two rooms. If that door hasn’t replaced, perhaps ER and I touched the same knob!

I am moved by something about this—she brought the personal into the political. The house conveys such a strong sense of an individual woman moving through her day, and yet what incredible, world-changing days.

3. There are eight people in my tour group—three heterosexual couples, a man with a big camera he’s forbidden to use, and me. The couples are old enough to laugh together about being riveted by the test patterns on old black-and-white TVs. They’re all quite knowledgeable about ER.

Partly because of its size, which discourages large groups, Val-Kill isn’t that heavily visited. The guide says, however, that most of the people who come are Eleanor “partisans.” There are only a few exceptions, he said, and he can always tell who they were—they bring up Lorena Hickok and the “seamy” side of things.

I’d brought up Lorena Hickok myself, wondering if her picture was among the many photographs of Eleanor's friends that line the walls of the house. Yes—she's in a fairly prominent position on a mantel in the living room.

The guide allowed awkwardly that there were some people who thought that Hick and ER had had a “physical relationship,” and he also praised the Blanche Wiesen Cook biography that suggests this is true.

I didn’t think the guide, who was both knowledgeable and generous with his time, meant any harm, and neither did the woman who said that ER was great no matter her personal life. I didn’t feel like disrupting the collective harmony by mentioning how wounded that “seamy” comment made me feel.

Seconds after the tour ended, I was kicking myself for letting the moment pass. Would they refer to FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer as “seamy”?

4. Val-Kill features two lovely trails—one winds through the woods to FDR’s cottage on the hill, and the other is a nearly mile-long loop where Eleanor walked her dogs (Scotties, I believe).

I wandered both, still brooding on my silence about the seamy side. I was thinking that if ER were here today she would have set him straight, as it were.

A comment didn’t have to be hostile—surely there was some graceful and courageous way to register an objection. But I hadn’t done that. I was walking on her path, it seemed, but not in her footsteps.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Blackbird Singing

I've been walking down the road this week. There are blackbirds all along the way, but none like this one, which flies out of the bushes and onto the lines over my head. It hops along above me as I move, singing and shrieking all the way. This goes on for 40 or 50 feet. I assume he's upset; perhaps I'm near a nest. On the other hand, I'm safely out on the asphalt, so sometimes I think he's just having fun.