Recently Rob and I traveled to a small Catskills hamlet called Livingston Manor to celebrate our friend Tom’s birthday. It was Memorial Day weekend and I was skeptical. My home bodied self wanted to stay in Connecticut, relaxing in familiar surroundings. I am of the religion that feels there is no relaxation anywhere but my own backyard. “Why,” you may ask? It’s beyond me. Perhaps Dorothy is to blame, brainwashing generations with her mantra, “There’s no place like home”.
Home. Inspecting our property creates anxiety. The worn garden mulch is in need of refreshing. A stray weed (or ten) pops through causing disruption. The pool is always in need of a touch up. Relaxation becomes hijacked at the hand of homeowner terrorism. Chores, tedious chores, subvert any routine so mine will never be the home “let go”, heaven forbid.
With a self-imposed imperious Connecticut attitude we were off to the Catskills. Surprisingly, this may have been the most mind altering trip I’ve taken. Livingston Manor, as it turns out, has it’s share of contemporary issues. In the spring of 2015 two teens overdosed on heroin. That single incident led law enforcement to the Bronx where they apprehended a major drug ring. The small, sleepy towns of yesterday have targets on their heads–such a pity. However they hold much, much more. And so, I present, my personal relationship with Livingston Manor.
“Tom is renting a house for his birthday weekend and we’re invited.” I’m always caught off guard when Rob blurts out an invitation.
“I’ll see. When is it?” I stared at my IPad surfing Facebook.
“Memorial Day weekend…I’d really like to go.”
It isn’t every day he asks things of me so this must be important. But Memorial Day weekend? My hope was to plant the flower pots around the deck and pool, establish my small but productive vegetable garden and keep myself on track at the gym. “Let me see if we can get someone to watch the dogs.
“Where did he rent?” The logical assumption was Provincetown, no easy journey for a two-day stint but readily done.
“The Catskills–a place called ‘Livingston Manor’–it’s where he grew up.” My stomach churned.
The nausea, was it acid reflux or that Tom had not painted an enviable picture of his hometown? “They’ll know you’re not from there because you still have teeth in your mouth.” Though most likely an exaggeration, would we find a nest of craggy, homegrown folks on withered front porches drinking home-brewed moonshine armed with handmade shot-guns? And the “Gay” thing, exactly how does that play out in such a scene?
“His whole family will be there and there’s a party at his rental house.”
“Okay, I’ll try to take care of it.” How about a miracle? Not the type that saves lives nor turns water to wine, but a simple decline from our pet sitter. I hadn’t such luck.
What to wear? Their was little indication this would be a black tie event. Tom’s toothless comment led me to surmise the weekend would be casual–very, very casual. I pulled out one dress shirt, not designer, but with enough style to pass. “Hmm, no.” Loafers? “No.” Khakis? “No.” Okay, a pair of summer shorts, flip-flops, tees, jeans and a preppy little sneaker would be more than enough. I wasn’t sure if more than one pair of underwear was even necessary, after all, who’d ever notice? All that was needed for a weekend away, including a celebration, in Livingston Manor, fit into one gym bag. Who says it can’t be done and who knew it could be? Every day is a new lesson. “Go over everyone who will be there.” Putting together names and faces of people I’ve only met once is a task.
“Well,” Rob said, “There’s his sister-in-law Patty, his sister Leenie (Eileen), her husband, Ted, no…wait, Fred, the nieces, Emily, Maureen and Colleen, his nephews, Brian and Josh and oh yes, Joshs’ girlfriend, Jamie and Maureen’s husband…um…Herbie.” I would need another run down on the whole lot.
As we passed through Derby, one town from ours, both Rob and I noted the demolition of all but a select few buildings along the Housatonic River. The landscape of the downtown area has changed. The small, defunct manufacturing town, once a garden of decayed brick buildings like Dickens’ London, has been weeded. At best Derby, like so many small communities, has been left behind. Years ago a local business, ‘The River Restaurant’, tragically exploded when a gas main leak and the lighting of an oven collided. Several well-loved townspeople tragically died and for a few moments the blast put Derby on the map. Shortly thereafter the small town returned to normalcy and it’s sleepy, unremarkable self.
“I think we turn here,” Rob said as we kept to the left of the traffic circle. “Yes, this is it…Liberty.” We were in New York and had entered what was once known as “The Borscht Belt”.
Liberty is a small town, once filled with throngs of tourists, primarily Jewish families, who frequented the ‘all-inclusive’ vacation venues such as Grossinger’s, The Nevele, and The Concord. Robs’ family, like all good Jews of their day, visited the “Borscht Belt” and all of the above . When asked about it he’ll say, “It wasn’t my thing,” and leave it at that. Over time, the families going to “adult” camp went by the wayside with the expanse and ease of air travel and the growth of a new, more adventuresome generation. Approaching the second traffic circle in Liberty we made the subtle right turn onto the main road that bisects the small town. “I think I know where the other part of Derby went” and Rob concurred, saying he’d had the exact same thought. The buildings are worn, some vacant, and the occupied stores offer little intrigue. My suspicions were rising. We were conspicuous, not because of our Connecticut plates but because of Rob’s car. Jaguar. XJL. The biggest vehicle Jaguar produces. In black it wreaks of importance though in truth we have little, actually none. Stopped at traffic lights, the car was afforded “thumbs ups” and nods from passersby. I felt dirty. For a moment I was ashamed and wished we’d taken a pickup; unwashed and pimped out. The looks might have been flooded with approval rather than the judgement I was feeling. Perhaps it was all in my mind, perhaps.
The British voice on the navigation system directed, “In 500 feet turn right. Turn right.” We turned right. Right onto what seemed to be the path to “Where-The-Hell-Are -We”. My convoluted imagination pictured white men nestled in these houses, slamming back ‘Buds’ while extolling the misunderstood virtues of Donald Trump. Rob passed a glance my way knowing exactly what I was thinking. “Isn’t this interesting?” He was referring to the homes, some of which had long since passed any remnant of glory or civilization for that matter. “Yes…interesting…do you think there’s a Four Seasons close by?” He looked at me disapprovingly. “Stop it.” At the top of the hill, just after the bend dividing lower from upper Menges Road, the panoramic view exploded as the properties became lovelier and better maintained. What lay beyond the houses was a masterpiece. Rolling hills, awash in the richest shades of green, are the backdrop of this spectacular image. To go through them was to swim through waves in the ocean. They seemed to ebb and flow, take you under then push you to the top, all the while causing you to catch your breath and say, “My God, I’ve gotten this place all wrong.” Just beyond Tom stood in the driveway of the rental. I thought, “My God, I haven’t gotten this wrong at all.”
I always felt sympathy for Lisa Douglas, Eva Gabor’s character on “Green Acres”. I now know why. Lisa had been swept from her lavish penthouse apartment by her husband, Oliver, on a whim. He longed to escape the rat race of Manhattan to seek the joy and accomplishment of farming. He whisked her off to the small town of Hooterville, populated by corn-fed citizens and comedic rules of society. They end up in a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. If that square peg wasn’t me and this wasn’t Hooterville I didn’t know what was.
Tom, with his mop of dark hair, tinged with grey at the temples, shouted, “I’m so glad you’re here boys!” Though cliché, he has Irish eyes. They smile even when he may not, causing a happy reaction. There’s a certain pride he holds in his Irish heritage and a certain amount of alcohol his heritage holds in him–it’s a match made in heaven. I was silent as Rob took over. “This is great…the scenery is unbelievable!” I studied the property wondering where the concierge and bellman were. The house, a typical ranch style, had a low roof, picture window to the right and two separate windows to the left. The exterior was vinyl and stone, certainly not trendy as you might find on Martha’s Vineyard but it served an aesthetic purpose nonetheless. There was nothing wrong with it but nothing inspired either. Inside, the floor plan was open concept–kitchen flowing to dining, flowing to living, flowing to bedrooms. What was not flowing, on one of the most humid weekends of the year, was air conditioning. The damp, musty smell of moisture permeated my senses. Tom sensed a note of judgement in my expression. ”Patty has an air conditioner. We can put it in the bedroom window.” I breathed a sigh of relief as my asthma kicked in. “Don’t go to any bother, we’ll be fine.” I caught what little breath was in my body and stared at Rob. He was trying, as always, to be the easy one. Had he lost his mind? I could’ve killed him. Better yet I’d give it a few minutes– with a little luck the humidity would kill him. “We can rough it,” he said. I choked, literally.
Our bedroom door was curious. All of the doors were curious. Each had a vent, an air entry of sorts, so if you were trapped you could receive oxygen. Or perhaps they were simply re-purposed from an insane asylum. It was anyone’s guess. When opened, the door creaked loudly and what lay behind was no surprise. Our room was a scene from the play “Annie”. I felt the urge to break into “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow.” The problem? I was unconvinced it would. The furnishings were sparse– a bed, dresser and mirror that didn’t match, though not in an eclectic, “I shop for antiques” kind of way, but in an “I shop at the Salvation Army” kind of way. The room also had a window and a half, yes, a half. The main bathroom, thankfully, had been somewhat updated and was large. Behind the multicolored cloth shower curtain was a pink enamel bathtub and the walls were lined with gray 1950’s tile. The cabinets, most likely replaced in the 1970’s, had been painted a vibrant red, perhaps “American Beauty Rose”, as was the window trim. Eclectic should come with parameters and a tutorial. From the window was a clear view of the pond which was home to two Canadian geese and their three goslings. Suddenly the aesthetic seemed more appealing.
“I found the perfect restaurant for lunch, are you guys hungry?” We were but I didn’t trust the flatware, dishes or glasses in the house yet. It was unclear exactly when the last time they were washed. “It’s a great place in downtown Livingston Manor, ‘Main Street Farm Market and Café’…I know you’ll love it.” And so, three Connecticut boys headed to town. As we traveled the rolling hills, over winding roads, I couldn’t help noting the wide range of properties and structures. Ahead was a long, white building resembling a camp or lodge of some sort, as if several houses had been sewn together. The driveway, parking area and street were at full capacity with cars while the yard was brimming with men and women, some in flowing robes and exercise apparel and some in much less clothing. The scripted wooden sign read, “Shalom Mountain Retreat”. The name alone caused me to Google. Apparently it is a safe location for “deep personal transformation work in the context of an intentional, loving community”. Upon closer inspection of the seminars and classes, I learned this meant you may experience your sexuality in any number of ways with no restraint or judgement. We’d just come upon what may well have been the first gem tucked away on our Catskill adventure.
Passing several contemporary houses I wondered when they’d been built and by whom. Some were large, others small, most quite charming. A few miles further were trailers, not in a clustered park but on property like any other house would be. These were more shanty-like structures converted to appear as ranches. Without a doubt most were home to hoarders, over packed with scores of worn out clutter and looking like a salvage yard. Rusted gates. Fencing and old lampposts, tables with mismatched seats, torn and tattered furniture from a bygone era. Gas grills, charcoal grills and even plows, the kind used in the days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, had a home here. The scene reminded me of how fortunate I have been in my lifetime though for any number of reasons this could have been my life.
Downtown Livingston Manor is Americana at its best. The main street is lined with small businesses, retail shops, a firehouse, car wash, convenience store and gas station, several restaurants and even a contemporary art gallery. There is Brandenburg Bakery with its’ vast array of pastries, cookies and homemade breads, Peck’s Grocery store and to my astonishment more than a few hair salons. Down the street, behind a nondescript glass entry, is “Willow and Brown” with fine clothing for men and women, jewelry and household items of quality. Tom received an engaging welcome for he was, after all, a home town boy, well, at least partially. I was actually impressed. “Main Street Farm Market and Café” doubles as a miniature version of Whole Foods and a ‘farm to table’ restaurant. One side holds a plethora of organic and locally produced foods, meats, vegetables, confections and honey. Through a large arched opening we passed into the compact restaurant with either take out or dine in meals. The open, refrigerated case housed homemade teas, beers and even soda, many of which I’d never heard of. The restaurant was bustling with curiously “artsy” looking patrons, seated reading their papers and conversing with one another from table to table. Tom had lied–everyone had a full set of teeth. I wasn’t sure but was sensing there was much more to this small hamlet than meets the eye. Could it be I’d been a bit of a snob in my initial assessment?
Ordering at the café counter, we decided the day was tailor-made to eat by the river. Along the rear of the retail buildings on Main Street, a wide, rocky swath of crystal water bisects the town. Taking seats on the deck we reveled in the sight. To the right stood a magnificent brick and columned building with pristine landscape. I thought surely it was the Town Hall but Tom explained it is the school, grades K-12. The building had been constructed through the WPA and seems monumental for such a small community. We lunched while watching young townspeople swing across the rippling water on tires suspended from huge oak trees lining the riverbank. There was bellowing and laughter, wading and swimming. All that was needed was Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. A small waterfall was hypnotic as the rushing water cartwheels over the rocks. People walked the banks in swimwear, skipping rocks, and one young woman even sported a bikini, stepping from stone to stone with her boyfriend. All the while, on the street, in the cafe and on the deck, there was not a cell phone, IPad nor video game in sight. Could it be we’d traveled back in time? This was Sunday as Sunday used to be. But where were Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea and Opie? I expected them to meander down Main Street, fetch a soda pop from Goober’s service station and head over to a pie baking contest at the church. I couldn’t help but smile. Livingston Manor seemed a contemporary 1950’s. My body warmed as my memory was nudged back to my childhood, which of course is one of my favorite places to be.
Within walking distance is Tom’s family home. Pat Casey, his brother, passed away several years ago but his wife Patty still lives in the house– a colonial–brown, cozy and inviting. Patty seemed the matriarch of the family, knowing what’s best for who and why. I instantly liked her. The property has a barn and Patty’s children, adults in their twenties, along with her new grandchild, were gathered, enjoying each other on a Sunday afternoon. Ghastly as it may seem, there were no cell phones in hand and no texting, just conversation– whatever happened to conversation anyway? “You’ll see,” my mother once said while reading about the opening of retail stores on Sundays, “This is the end of the family.” I think she may have been right. But here, in Livingston Manor, or at least in the Patty Casey household, family time is alive in the present. Midway, down the winding dirt road, sits an abandoned house abutting Patty’s property. Once owned by a prosperous Polish family it must have been magnificent in its’ day, but now it’s dismal. If you look hard enough you can see the home crying, bones broken, abandoned, calling for someone to nurture and heal it. In the distance an old barn is crumbling. Alongside it a Cadillac, from the 1970’s, is decaying, lying out as if being paid its’ last respects at the world’s longest wake. The descendants have abandoned the property leaving nothing but memories behind. Beyond the decay sit those lush mountains. You can’t help but feel the need to fill your lungs with as much fresh air as possible.
At the very end of a pristine private road, with pastures on either side, is Leenies’ house . She is a runner, well toned and disciplined. There is a calm about her and if Tom has Irish eyes, Leenie has an Irish smile–it welcomes with open arms. A vast expanse of well maintained property abounds in every direction. Fred, lean and well-worn is a man’s man. Nodding, while drawing his hand across the horizon, he says, “We own it all.” The house, for me, is reminiscent of Vermont, with weathered brown siding and stacks of cut wood to nurse a perpetual winter fire. To the right lies a built-in swimming pool which Fred pridefully takes ownership of. “I got my backhoe, excavated and put that pool in myself.” I was impressed. Truth be told I’d kill for a backhoe but don’t have quite the right outfit for one. To our left was a vegetable garden, freshly planted and well executed. “What’s in the garden?” I was curious to speak to a “real gardener” since my three little raised beds back home were recently planted. Fred was all too happy to walk me through and regale me with the intricacies of planting, weather related diseases and crop rotation. As we spoke Gertie, their little Beagle puppy, bounced like a ball. Leenie leads us to the other side of the road where a small barn houses a magnificent brunette horse. This was the tidiest barn I’d ever seen, with farm equipment lined up neatly and wall to wall hay, laid out perfectly, as if the finest carpet. My eyes stared into the huge black eyes of the horse and held it. If this were a television show now would be the moment the horse, in perfect English, told me all about life in Livingston Manor–the types of things only a horse would be privy to. Was she truly happy in her digs? I actually believed she was.
As the weekend went on my heart, like the Grinch, grew larger. Tom’s birthday celebration went off in our now less unappealing house. Could it be I was growing fond of this little place? Moreover, could it be I grew accustomed to the now subsided mustiness? I have no idea why my heart was softening but it was. I’d begun looking at things differently, especially when Tom’s family arrived and extolled the virtues of the rental property. “It has a dishwasher!” There was a tinge of envy in the ladies. Patty admitted she neither owned a dishwasher nor knew how to load one. I chuckled thinking, “How could anyone not?” There was my mother’s voice speaking in my ear, “Being a snob with wealth is unattractive, but being a snob without reason is unforgivable.” Damn that woman, sadly I was the latter. I recalled the days my family did not have a dishwasher while my friends and family did. Somehow we survived. Watching Patty wash and dry each dish was artistry. Her hands moved like a skilled sculptress adept at her craft with prowess and clearly no need for mechanics. The defense rested, winning it’s case. Quite frankly the dishes were done in a fraction of the time and to her own standard. My entitlement was now exiled in shame– I felt nothing but disdain for my Connecticut haughtiness.
Homemade. Every aspect of Tom’s birthday celebration was homemade. Most importantly the family, warm, fun-loving and above all else close-knit, was homemade. Freshly prepared food, freshly picked flowers and Leenie’s freshly baked, superbly soft white rolls brought the feasting table to life. We even opened a jar of her infamous and wildly delicious pickles as an accoutrement. This was country living at its finest. Beyond all that, she baked the birthday cake–homemade white cake with white frosting. “We like white around here,” someone proudly proclaimed. I kept my initial thoughts of Menges Road to myself. I am a chocoholic and was slightly disappointed to hear we’d be having my least favorite cake. I ate two pieces. How is it possible anyone can bake a white cake that would cause a devout chocolate lover to give up both his addiction and diet for? It made no sense. Nothing seemed to make sense. It made no sense my falling in love with this family in a matter of six hours yet I did. Nor did it make any sense I fell in love with their hometown. Was something in the water? Impossible–I was afraid to drink it–potential rust in the pipes you know.
“Did you put the air conditioners in?” Patty asked, “We never use them because it never gets hot here but you may want them.” Really? It never gets hot? Where does it get hotter, the Mojave? Once again Rob, the little Boy Scout, feigned acceptance of the temperature and humidity. “We don’t need them, really.” She called to her boys who leap at her command like Navy Seals. Within moments the units were installed and the moisture retreated. My lungs breathed a sigh of relief. If they could have left my body they would have hugged Patty Casey. “Thank God,” Rob whispered, “I thought we were going to die in there.” If memory served, wasn’t he the one who claimed we could “rough it”? Apparently his privileged upbringing and doting Jewish mother did not a Boy Scout make.
In the morning all was quiet. I stood before the toilet and began the day. From the open window I could see the geese and their goslings playing follow the leader around the pond, occasionally dipping their bills and enjoying some form of breakfast. It was heartwarming. Can it be the geese have a great life here too? In truth the serenity and scenery was enticing. By the end of the weekend another “Keith” was uncovered. I slept soundly, probably my best sleep in months, hell, maybe years. The bullfrog croaked out a lullaby in B flat as the crickets accompanied. Tom has decided to purchase a second home in the Catskills to be near his family and for investment. I was crossing over but was not fully there yet about the credibility of his idea. We scheduled some houses for inspection and began the search. Each was situated on plentiful land, some settings outweighing the others. A main home, expansive lawn, guest house and garages were standard and to my surprise came with a price tag of what we could pay for a home renovation back in Connecticut. My personal favorite had flowing yards of lawn, a carriage house and traditional main house that for whatever reason reminded me of ‘The Waltons’. I could visualize fields of sunflowers at the entry in the lower ground and Tom could too. I wasn’t sure– could I could take the leap and purchase a place here? It would be a wonderful, tranquil setting for writing but what else would I do? And the “gay” thing? Not so prevalent. In all probability the answer is no. On the other hand, I can’t wait for Tom to buy property and expect a standing invitation every weekend.
It’s still a mystery what happened that weekend. Perhaps the musty, somewhat mildewed smell of the house stirred a memory. As children and young adults my parents would cart us to Cape Cod for summer vacations. The motels lacked impression, as a matter of fact they were unimpressive except for the 25 cent vibrating beds and kitchenette. I loved the kitchenette. My brother Randy detested those motels and I accepted them for what they were. Today you couldn’t pay me to stay in one. I’ve discovered on some level they bothered me too and as a result, upon entering the weekend house, my imperious resignation took over. I suspect the memory of those lackluster lodgings makes me feel less than I hope to be. The house my parents eventually rented in Eastham with my Uncle Andy and Aunt Edna, while head and shoulders above the motels, also carried that “musty smell”. So, the conundrum–I loved our vacations and adored the house in Eastham. Though the mustiness permeated the furniture, mattresses and books it was the scent of many wonderful moments of my life. Those moments played out on the sandy shores of the Cape with some of my favorite family members. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world. Perhaps “that” smell was the key ingredient I’d subconsciously allowed to soften, or rather realign, me.
As we said our goodbyes Tom thanked us time and again for making the trip. My heart and mind was content. As I pulled out of the driveway and down Menges Road, I looked back at the tattered house and smiled. I was missing the mustiness just a bit. Navigating the winding roads I saw things in a different light. And I no longer simply saw white, I saw a multitude of colors. It wasn’t so bad on the way out– as a matter of fact it was damn good. My body was rested and my mind calm. There was no intensity about the perfect garden or the pristine landscape. Everything was a little undone, a little relaxed and ultimately created relaxation. I don’t think weeds will ever look the same again, well, a few weeds. Maybe, just maybe, they add rather than subtract.
It’s been a few weeks since our weekend away and I already miss Sunday in Livingston Manor. As a matter of fact I miss Livingston Manor all together. Like the days of my childhood, when our family would gather for breakfast and my grandparents and aunts and uncles would drop in, that weekend caressed me. I remember walking from our house to Miller’s Market and Cadweell’s drugstore on errands for my mother. Along the way I’d stop and look at the koi in the stream that ran by Orange Center Road. There is little difference in the world I grew up in and Tom’s world. Oh, wait, in Livingston Manor they still live it daily while mine is protected by memory. They still have slow Sundays and family dropping by for lunch, the lucky bastards. They have the river and tire swings and most importantly still have their teeth. I ask myself, “Exactly what was it that caused me serenity, nostalgia, awareness and contentment?” Of course–Livingston Manor, I presume.