American Sabbatical 65: 3/7/97
I woke up exhausted on Thursday morning. All the turmoil of getting on the road, the long days drive, and all the rich fare hit like a ton of bricks. Even a hike through the Connecticut woods couldnt blow away the wearies. But the wind sure tried. The cold front behind all that downpour was slamming the trees around, sending showers of small limbs crashing through the woods.
There were still patches of snow in the northern niches, but the frost was letting go of the surface litter, and sidestepping through the roaring trees was a muddy business. I circled round, following old stone fences through the 40-year-old thirdgrowth.. big oaks and maples mostly.. which had reclaimed the hard won farmsteads. The cycles of hardscrabble settlement, westering abandonment, then commercial timber harvesting had ended in the 1950s when Herb bought these acres, for a song (or a painting). Now there was no sign of those histories besides the carefully constructed walls and the traces of logging roads.
I huffed along one until I struck Herbs studio. He put it up when I was a kid, and later built the house, which he and Lois are still adding onto. I spent part of one lonely summer camped out here while the lady I was chasing was off having romantic experiences in Greece. Now she joined me to see Herbs latest work, in various stages of completion.
A double portrait of a couple which was striking for its balance. Here was a clear depiction of two strong personalities in a marriage of true minds. Her pursed mouth deliciously evocative in a net of midlife wrinkles; his glasses a tour de force framing an absolutely clear-sighted gaze. The stunning portrait of a surgeon whose clever hands and kind eyes jumped out at you from a figure you could reach your arms around. I had thought Herb had reached the peak of his technical mastery decades ago, but every time I see his work it gets stronger. No matter what you think about traditional portraiture, you have to admire the pure skill of this contemporary master.
Herb has done a recent painting of Jimmy Carter, in profile, staring over his folded hands, which captures the man entirely, and his big painting of Arthur Miller just wows me. We had seen this one in the under-painted stage.. a monochromatic portrait in umbers.. and been blindsided by its impact. Now, with the colors washed on, the depth produced by this technique made Miller step out of the canvas. Inspiring stuff for a novice dauber, and a high standard to match for a portrait carver.
We went downhill to Herbs son Bills home/workshop, where he makes reproduction furniture and dandles a grandchild, and talked shop in the sawdust. How lucky for three generations to share a creative life in the windy woods. Pretty good for a poor farm boy, son of a Lithuanian immigrant in the Connecticut Valley, who never stopped realizing his vision.
But we had a vision to pursue, too, and we poured our weary selves into the Owl and pointed him south by east for Higganum. We had one last stop to make in New England before galloping toward the sun: my Uncle Bryces. We took the slow road across central Connecticut, jogging right or left every half-dozen miles, avoiding the big towns and the red highways. Even in late-winter sienna and gray the Nutmeg State has a postcard quality. The high steepled churches and tidy commons, the foursquare colonial houses and maple-lined roads, all redolent of fine antiques. Which is why the antique business does so well in this state.
Uncle Bryce has been an antique dealer since my infancy, and his world has colonial furnishings with a high patina. He lives in a small saltbox cape circa 1730 (the Richard Skinner House) at the site of a now vanished grist mill, with a waterfall making white noise in the back garden. The stooping garret bedroom we use has portraits of George and Martha over the bed, and the whole house has the compressed comfort of a smaller age (watch your head). It also is full of nooks where you can curl up with a book, or in the company of period artifacts. Unlike the houses of so many collectors, this is a totally comfortable place where the antiques arent on display, they are part of a life.
Of course the place is falling down. Ivy has devoured the clapboards, the foundation is crumbling, you couldnt paint for all the ingrown plantings, and Bryce has let the flowerbeds go wild in his solitary old age. But his hospitality is always stylish and graceful, and his stories are outrageous. He inherited my grandfathers gift of the tall tale, and polished it with years as a salesman. He tells of great antiquing coups and thieves he has known, and you come away wondering if anything in the shops was ever authentic.
Bryce insisted we dine out at the local German restaurant, the Glockenspiel, and there he told us a story about a local gun collector. Apparently this man had amassed a superb collection of boobytrap Luger pistols, designed to shoot backwards or sideways. Bryce had assumed they were more novelties than valuables, but when the collector died one of Bryces friends quietly approached him. Did he know the widow? Yes, quite well. Did he think she might sell the Lugers? Bryce asked her. She didnt know, wasnt sure what to do, was too distraught to think about it yet. Bryces dealer friend said he would pay a million dollars cash, but to sound her out discretely when it was possible.. and at a lesser price, perhaps. Six weeks later Bryce happened to ask the widow if she might be interested in selling. Oh, she said, shed sold them to the nicest young man for $10,000. And that young man is 100% CROOK, Bryce concluded.. wistfully, I thought.
The Bryces, older and younger, sat up late examining old scotch and trading lies, which is one reason this report is falling farther and farther behind. But were on an historical quest, arent we? And this was a chance to get the inside line in a state whose early reputation was for selling wooden nutmegs to colonial housewives. Seems like theyre still at it, at least in the antique trade. The owner of the shop where Bryce now works specializes in renovating family portraits. He buys terrible old ancestor paintings and repaints the faces as pigs.. or chickens.. or.. which he sells at a handsome profit. Would you like something for over the mantle?
Friday morning it was time to leave the scene of the crime, and get South. The air was hovering around freezing when we finished our morning stroll along the river and belted into the Festiva. Only the very tip ends of Bryces crocuses were poking through the lawn. Spring was just a faint promise in Connecticut, so we would have to go find it.
By 9 AM we were scuttling along the Conn. Turnpike when suddenly the traffic accordioned to a crawl. But there was NO traffic coming the other way. Then some flashing lights. Then a pile-up of slammed, crumpled, jack-knived, spun out and otherwise jumbled automotion in the opposite lanes. (The radio reported a 30 car accident later in the day.) Total chaos. There must have been a glaze of ice on that stretch of shaded pavement, and we were sure glad the sun was on our side. How little it takes to turn the braided car dance into a snarled tangle of pedestrians and metal junk. Gawkers were taking memento snaps from the overpasses as rescue crews unpried victims with the jaws of life, and traffic was stopped dead all the way back to New Haven, folks standing between the cars sharing smokes and making like neighbors. We didnt stop to chat.
We were still on familiar turf along this industrial coast. New Haven, Stamford, Bridgeport. But this time driving the old pike was different. For the first time in Peggys life this wasnt a pilgrimage into family anxieties. I could hear her sighing in the passenger seat. New York will never be the same for us again. Isnt it amazing how places take on the colors of our emotional attitudes? Manhattan has been a dark and depressing place for me for 30 years, and the drive down from Maine like a descent into Dantes Inferno. Now I can open my eyes and see past the inner anguish, look at the actual colors. Scanning the FM we struck on a program of Gregorian chants, and in that elevated antiphony we climbed over the Whitestone Bridge and made the wide sweep across outer Queens and Brooklyn, heading for the Verazzano.
We made a wide circuit around Manhattan mid-day Friday, and got
to view that astonishing skyline from all the eastern vantages.
Dodging broken pavement on the citys deteriorating roadways,
we did our owlneck thing, catching glimpses of some of the worlds
great bridges on the way.
Our last two times in New York wed gotten a close-up eyeful of the Queensboro Bridge, riding the gondola up to the height of its towers from my brothers apartment on Roosevelt Island.. ducked under the George Washington and the parade of spans up the Harlem River, on our way to and from guest accommodations in Riverdale.. and seen all the sights from the Tri-Borough Bridge. I had just finished reading Engineers of Dreams by Henry Petroski, which is an account of Americas great bridge builders, and now saw these incredible feats of engineering with a more informed eye.
Once you start looking at the symbolic esthetics of bridges you
cant take them for granted again, and I'm likely to weave a bit
when a steel span catches my eye. This time through the Apple
I was determined to revisit the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which
I hadnt seen since the mid-sixties. When I hung out with the
crazies at Pratt Institute, we would take architectural tours
of the city: Saarinens TWA terminal, the CBS building (where
I worked for a while, feeling very esthetically superior), and
the Verrazano. I remembered swinging in a neighborhood park below
the Brooklyn tower of the BIG V one night, and coming away all
dizzy. But Id pretty much ignored bridges since. Now Petoski
had me arching the flood again.
On the way to the Varrazano we crossed the Bronx-Whitestone, an earlier (1939) suspension tour de force by Othmar Ammann, who also designed the George Washington. Although Petroski makes it clear that no single designer can really take the credit for a bridge. They are engineered by teams, double-checked by peer committees, located and financed through endless political wrangling, built by squads of contractors, and are more truly collaborative installations than anything a cadre of sculptors could imagine. And they ARE sculpture, compromised by economic utility, and torqued by decades of peer critique and the evolution of engineering design, but still among our greatest works of art.
Petroskis chronicle comes as close to telling industrial history
without invoking heroism as we are presently able to stand for.
His chapters ARE titled with the names of great bridge builders..
Eads, Cooper, Lindenthal, Ammann, Steinman.. but hes hard-pressed
to inflate them into giants.. I mean Lindenthal? Ammann? Do you
remember who designed Galloping Gertie (the Tacoma Narrows Bridge
that self-destructed), or the Golden Gate (Joseph Strauss)? These
are stories about a profession which practices in teams. But it
often takes a single visionary with organizational genius to pull
it off, and Ammann fills that bill for the latter day bridges
of New York.
Both the Whitestone and the GW were retrofitted after Galloping
Gertie oscillated herself to death, incidentally. The slender
arching decks, which look like feather-light spans hanging suspended
in the early photographs, were beefed up with plate girders in
a running truss on the Whitestone, and by rushing to install the
lower deck on the GW (a process I remember going on during my
Jersey childhood). And the Big V was a beefier proposition from
Skirting Flushing Meadows, where you can see the parade of airliners setting down into La Guardia, and look down onto the parklands filled and planted for the Worlds Fair, you get a wide-angle view of a much earlier bridge, and maybe the most evocative of them all, Gustav Lindenthals Hell Gate Bridge. Its that blood red arch which carries westbound rail traffic into the city (a spandrel braced arch design, the book says), and it somehow satisfies all my cravings for a symbolic crossing over. Sigh.
After intersecting the industrial wastelands and pre-war suburbs of the eastern boroughs, we scooted along the Belt Parkway, with a sea of fragmitie waving in the Atlantic breeze between us and the Rockaway beaches. Then around a bend the big bridge towers up, and swings over. I pulled onto the shoulder and just dug it.
View from Staten Island
But not for long. The edge of a New York highway is no place to
linger, so we opted to spiral up, cross over to Staten Island,
then go hunting for a place to sketch and chow down. We found
both in a low rent neighborhood, and I shivered in the ocean wind
trying to capture the scene. Big container-ships pushing through
the narrows, freighters anchored in the stream, sea-going tugs
hotdogging past, the hedgehog city bristling on horizon. A trio
of bundled-up Middle-easterners admired my efforts in partial
English.. ver gud. ver gud.. while Peggy curled up in the Owl
with a pot-boiler. Another hostile encounter with the dangerous
Then we struck out for Jersey and the thundering corridor of the megalopolis. But the hard-charging commerce and the highway whine couldnt suppress the fact that spring was smiling on the Garden State. Willows had been pussying out along the Connecticut shore, but here the buds were reddening and the grass in the margins was sprouting in pale green. I jacked up the revs, humming tropical airs.
But the cold steel bridges werent about to let us forget them. Coming up on the Delaware Watergap with its twin green arches, the traffic was funneled into a single lane, and we inched along in the left lane. As we crested the peak, we realized it was an emergency response team waving us past, and there was a nondescript guy standing on an outboard girder, looking over his shoulder at the big drop. Below him on the roadway a roly-poly guy with a friendly face was gesturing in the air with his hands and shrugging at fate. Couldnt have been New York: nobody was yelling, Jump, fcrissake.
It was downhill all the way to Baltimore, straight into the setting sun. We were aiming for Peggys cousin Ronis house in Columbia, Maryland, and the way led through crabcity rush-hour, with a sidedressing of eyestrain. The city skyline winked in our peripheral vision as we emerged from the harbor tunnel, and we joined the Friday exodus to a planned paradise.
Columbia was one of those planned communities laid out in the 60s, when everything seemed possible. The concept was for villages of mixed income housing, with a mixed racial population (on the outskirts of racist Baltimore), built in circular clusters with shops and necessary services at the center. Wide streets for slow-moving cars and pedestrians, lots of green space and strict zoning to keep the surrounding farmland bucolic.
As with everywhere else the rural roads are now clogged with Nissans and Hondas, and the mom and pop stores at the commercial hubs are struggling to compete with franchisification. We were early, so we drove into Harpers Choice for a few necessities, and found the shopping center was being eviscerated for an expansive mall installation. As we wended our way through the serpentine roads named after Whitman poems, past the sanitized new condos and the older single family separates with immaculate plantings, it was hard to see how Columbia differed from other burbs. I began to feel a little claustrophobic.
Luckily Roni and Stan are too much fun to be stereotyped, and we werent in their house five minutes before a comedy of errors erupted, and the family laughter made this home a welcome refuge in the middle of America.