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The Side Effects of Country Living

An essay on Roxbury NY

 

I drive downtown braless, the window of our Jeep ajar, kept up by a strip of duct tape. Neil Young’s “A Man Needs A Maid” blasts full-tilt into the rural landscape. I look down at my slippers. They have good rubber soles, I reason. Fine for outside. Inside Cassie’s Café on Main Street, two white haired women are seated across from each other having coffee. The walls are lined with tawny oak. At the sound of the bell on the door, one of the white-haired dames eyes my slippers over her brew. I’ve left the house this morning in Christmas leggings, an oversized cat-haired sweater, and a pair of faux-leather moccasins, hair akimbo from the previous evening. It is mid-May. Cassie, the cook, a town institution, is in the back flipping pancakes. Or hash. “We’ve all had those days, honey,” Tracy, the waitress, calls to me, pouring a deep cup of joe into a paper cup. “This enough milk for you?”

I stop next door at the Sonoco station for two cans of cat food. There is no PetCo in the mountains. The family owned pet store with the parakeets that great you — Hello! — at the door is a half hour’s drive. Close in these parts, but I’m not up for it this morning. The woman manning the register at the Sonoco sits outdoors on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette with a teenage girl. The weather is that kind of early spring morning that makes you roll up the sleeves to your partner’s white T-shirt just to feel the sun on your shoulders. “Let me know when you’re ready,” the attendant says. Her one glass eye stairs straight ahead. The other watches me through the door.

The Sonoco, we’ve discovered, sells propane, cotton wool, ice cream cones and a kind of cat food called 9-Lives. MacDonald’s for felines. Handy in a pinch.

On the previous evening’s drive back to the mountains from the city, the sky had put on a spectacular performance. Deep berries and vermilions hovered in swathes over the horizon, dotted by islands of white. As I squinted my eyes through the windshield as we’d crested the hill out of Olive, I’d said to my partner, “It looks like whales cresting in the Arctic ocean. Do you see it?”
“I see it,” he’d agreed.

We were driving back from Manhattan. Him from a job photographing a children’s party at The Natural History museum. Me from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A friend had invited me to support someone whose book he knew was winning a prestigious award. Sitting in the audience, I watched as the best of America’s architects, artists, writers, composers, playwrights and musicians gathered on the stage in front of us. Garrison Keillor told limericks and talked about John Cheever. Joy Williams wore high brown cowboy boots and dark sunglasses without resignation — including when Meryl Streep presented. Don DeLillo’s face, like some beautiful far off stone, did not move position for the entire three hours. Straight ahead.

I’ve often had the feeling in life of straddling some great fault line – socially, economically, educationally, you name it. I’d grown up on the last unpaved road in a rural town, which mirrored the many hamlets of Delaware County where I now live. Roxbury, NY, once the milk seat of America in the 70’s, is 2.5 hours from New York City, if you’re not cop-shy on a good day. The birth place of naturalist John Burroughs is marked by a wood cabin up the road from us. The population today hovers around 2,500.

I have a novel coming out this August about the road I grew up on and the hundreds of other rural American enclaves just like this one. I’ve always been keen to observe the effect country living has on people. False syllogisms. Cross-generational ties. Local gossip. Spiritual remove. After ten years of breathless city life, my partner and I moved out of our rented Bed Stuy floor-through in May 2014, headed for the hills and never looked back.

When I look out my bedroom window now at thirty-five years of age, the same “Dead End Road” sign marks my corner as did when I was waiting for the bus at age eight. The slide from the projector somehow transposed onto my reality twenty-seven years later. This symbolism is not lost on me.

Our neighbors in Roxbury, who arrive from the city only on weekends to cut down their pest-ridden birch trees stop by. “Weekenders or full-timers?” they ask. “Full timers!” we say. “You lucked out,” the banker in the blue house next door looks incredulously at us and then up at the sky. “The winter will be worse next year. This one was mild.”

90% of the property here is now owned by people like him — surreptitious assailants of the outdoors. People in Barbour coats who traffic in expensive wool sweaters. Publishers, wall street types, and the odd celebrity. “Kelsey Grammer has a house in this town,” the real estate agent had said as we’d crested the hill toward our home for the first time and passed a massive log estate.

There is a sense as an artist, my partner says, of belonging to both every and no class of people. Artists, he once told me, are at once at home amongst the very rich and the very poor. This, I think, has an element of truth to it. Writers and artists share something in common with both extremes. We know what it is to suffer a poverty of money in the face of a wealth of ideas. And we know what it is to feel rich by virtue of the fact that the world has deemed us worthy of compensation just for dreaming — itself a far-fetched idea which, in many circles, belongs only to the wealthy, the iconoclastic, or the insane.

Weekday nights once the part-timers have filed south on 87 — back toward the Seagram building and the great statue of the Wall Street bull, whose balls the tourists rub for luck — when I stand outside on the front lawn at night in pitch blackness except for the star cover and look around at the mountainous landscape, which seems to hold our house in a bowl on all four sides, I think, “I can’t see any lights for a hundred miles. I might be the only one living.”

It snowed again just last week. June hovers around the corner.

There is no cell service in Roxbury. If you stand in the one middle window of the second floor hallway in our house, rest your phone on the sill for a few minutes and wait patiently, it might catch a bar. “The cable ends a half mile down the road,” the neighbors balk. “We write Verizon ever year but they won’t budge.” For the first time since 1999, I give my friends the number to a landline, installed only for emergencies. There is a phone on the wall in the kitchen. They can call in but we can’t call out past the 845 area code. Another feature of rural living: the only people you are expected to dial are the hospital, the fire station, or the police.

As you crest the hill into Arkville, and pass the Delaware County sign, a distinctly different landscape comes into view — acres of farmland and old dairy barns — mostly abandoned — dot the landscape. The slogan beneath the sign reads: “Arkville the location of the first rent wars.” This, I think, is our welcome mat.

Chanego County’s hometown Daily The Evening Sun recently reported: “Delaware County has lost $35.3 million in annual economic impact resulting from a decline of 109 million pounds of milk per year compared to 1999. This loss in dairy production is equal to about one quarter of the daily milk needs of the nearby Chobani yogurt plant, which has had trouble finding sufficient milk to meet its needs. Chobani has stated that it would have increased the production capacity of its yogurt plant (and presumably the number of jobs there) further had more milk been readily available.”

The estimated per capita income of local residents in 2013 was $27,636. 13.9% of households had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. I suspect much hasn’t changed.

Our Saturdays now go something like this: “So,” my partner says, “I found out about the freeze protection of blueberries.”
“Hold on,” I say. “I’m loading a video of an ex-race horse. She’s perfect for rescue.”
“As long as the berries still have flowers on them they can survive at 28 degrees,” he counters. “It’s looks like we’re getting 29 tomorrow. I think we’re going to be OK.”

When the cloud cover is such that the satellite dish in our backyard has clear view of the sky and our internet is, momentarily, fast enough to stream, I put on the wool hat I knitted in high school and watch the horses in Florida jump the Grand Prix. “If you really want to see a horse,” I call out to no one over my popcorn, “the one to watch for in Rio is McLain Ward’s HH Azur.”

Christmas arrived seven days after we’d moved in. In our enthusiasm, we’d vowed to host the family. The day we signed the papers on the house, we drove up from Woodstock in our old Jeep. A bottle of prosecco and bag full of imported olives, cheeses and crackers rattled in the back. We’d driven around for an hour, chasing the fading winter light, looking for an open stand with a Christmas tree. We’d ended up in Stamford far after sundown at a family-run establishment, one tree left resting on the wooden rack. We came home for the first time that evening and erected it in the corner of our ‘new’ living room by the woodstove.

The house was built in 1890 and tested positive for lead paint. We’d trimmed the tree before we’d moved in.

The next week we’d packed all our belongings. Our friend Michael, who’d first help us move north to the rental, came around early. He lifted boxes of kitchenware, miss-matched furniture and light fixtures into the U-Haul. Michael is the kind of good-natured workhorse who is always available and doesn’t bat an eye at carrying your king mattress down two flights of stairs. The fact that most of our boxes are comprised of books — labeled alphabetically by author last name — doesn’t phase him either. Occasionally, while slinging bedding into the back of the U-Haul, I remember that Michael is a supermodel. Scouted at a factory in Belgium as a teenager, he’s been the face of every campaign from Cavalli, to Prada to Hilfiger. Walked runways from here to Paris to Milan. Most of the time now, I forget. We’re all too busy building raised bed gardens or firing up the chainsaw to cut down trees. Only his check bones nod to his secret. Michael too lives full-time in the Catskills. He and his wife, a yoga teacher from Indonesia who grills an incredible salmon fillet, keep two dogs: Max and Obe-Wan Kenobi. They too straddle a social line, though none of us speak about it.

The holidays upstate this year were facilitated by what I can only call a stroke of luck. One week before we’d closed on the house, the owners had left a message with their lawyer. Would we like to take the house fully furnished? The owners were elderly. He: 94 and in failing health. She: 73. We leapt at the chance. She came up the next weekend to collect those personal belongings she wanted to take with her.

 

 

During our final walk-through before the closing, I’d opened the door to the farmhouse and expected much to be missing. If you’d owned a house for sixty years, how could you bare to part with it? This was not their primary residency. But still, she’d want to take some part of it with her.

I looked through the front window fearing that perhaps she would have dismantled the chandelier. A bowl of crêpe paper tangerines sat atop the dinner room table in a pewter bowl. The candlesticks that dotted the house had been freshly stocked. She’d readied them. Everything was intact down to the notecard by the phone in the kitchen with the hand-pressed dried flowers, presumably from a friend, which read in scribbled pencil Jolie Noel. She’d set out the silver and the linens. Freshly pressed tablecloths with her family monogram — “R” for Rossi — hung from the cardstock in the laundry room next to a pile of cloth napkins. On the door handle hung their two sunhats.

The only items she’d taken: two magazines that had rested on the 1970’s wicker divan in the upstairs bathroom: Playboy and Architectural Digest, both from 1983. And the gun rack above the staircase with the two shotguns: a single shot and a pump action Remington 870.

Items which she bequeathed us (a partial list): a pack of unopened Gauloises still perfect in their periwinkle box; her liquor cabinet comprised of bottles still drinkable and non: Mengazzoli’s Aceto di Vino, a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi Burgundy, Taylor New York State Dry Sherry, Gonzalez Byass Jerez Imported Pale Cream, Beefeater London Distilled Dry Gin, a clear bottle which reads: Kirsch of Eger Export Monimpex, Budapest Hungary, 2 years old, Extra Dry Turbine Vermouth, a bottle of David and Marbara Munsell 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon: If Food Is The Body of Good Living … Wine Is Soul, Gordon’s Distilled London Gin, Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, Light Dry Bacardi Superior, Gianni Dry Vermouth, Dubonet Aperatif, Smirnoff Vodka, and a bottle of imported cognac which we consumed before I could write down the title.

Her bedroom library seems of note: The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Catch the Gold Ring John Stephen Strange, A Savage Place Frank G. Slaughter, The Keepers of The House Shirley Ann Grau, Doctor’s Wives Frank G. Slaughter, The Summer of The Spanish Woman Catherine Gaeskin, Loving Promises Rice, Summoned To Darkness Anne-Marie Sheridan, Folk Medicine Jarvitz, A Case of Need Jeffrey Hudson, The New Testament, The Seven Minutes Irving Wallace, The Honey Badger Robert Rork, The Animal Catchers Collin Willock.

Two sets of silver marked: Wallace, Hard Solder; gold rimmed stemware; a set of blue bird dishes marked China Garden Fine Porcelain from Japan; Remy Martin whiskey sniffers engraved with a centaur and X.O. Excellence; two sets of vintage Le Creuset cookware, canary yellow and neon green; 3 Corning Ware casserole dishes; a Panasonic Pana Blend Recipe Blender from 1950 which lists the following as possible settings: Baby Food, Cold Soup, Raw Vegetable Drinks, Frosted Cocktails, Potatoes (for pancakes), Banana, Canned Fruit, Grated Coconut, Nut Butter, Fish, Poultry, Meat.

The Sheraton World Cookbook, Victoria At the Table, The Best Food & Wine 1986 Collection; Martha Stewart’s What To Have for Dinner, Southern Living: Annual Recipes 1995.

While I’d been away in January at a writing residency in New Hampshire, my partner has texted me: “Look What I Found in the cabinet in the laundry next to some tools!” A hand-bound black book entitled Eighth Annual Dinner and Meeting of The Brooklyn League, Monday, April 2nd, 1906. Inside, the book’s faded pages list the evening’s menu in perfect cursive: Oysters, Blue Points, Radishes, Olives, Sweet Pickles (paired with White Rock), Soup: Cream of Chicken A La Reine (Claret pairing), Fish Broiled North River Shad Maître D’hôtel, Cucumber Salad, New Bermuda Potatoes, Entrees: Sweetbread Glacé on Toast, French peas, Fillet of Beef a la Financiere, Spinach a La Crème, Parisienne Potatoes, Punch Maraschino, Roast Young Turkey with Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce, Salad in Season, Dessert: Neapolitan Ice Cream, Fancy Cakes, Cigars, Coffee.

It is beguiling living in a house owned by people whom you’ve never met. It is as though they cooked their last meal, wiped the dishes, closed the door and left everything just as they’d lived it. Untouched. We’ve come to know them now only through the things they left behind. We imagine their life together. What cocktails they drank. What shows they watched. Their travels. The other day I took out my medium format camera — itself a relic of another time, another industry — and started photographing each room. I still leave the fake plants in their vases because I know she would have wanted them that way. But who is she? I might never know.

I know her through her cookbooks. And the types of cleaners she kept under the sink. The Old English wood polish. The patterns of the old eyelet linens. The way she’d arranged a vase of dried cat-o-nine-tails next to the fireplace. A bouquet of dusty flowers over the chest of drawers in the sitting room. The labels on their ashtrays: The Gotham, New York City.

Christmas eve day, as our family was just settling in, we’d been visited by a neighbor. Maggie burst through the kitchen door, bottles of home-made jam in hand, her grey hair thrown up enthusiastically in a colorful polar-tex headband. Thick wool socks rounded her ankles. Her rainbow apron still dotted with flour. She was married, she said, to the Town Justice. They used to own the farm across from ours. They’d sold the house in 2000 to someone to whom they no longer spoke. New York City bought their 200 acres. Now they lived in a smaller cape nearby and spent winters in North Carolina.

“Well,” Maggie said. “You never met the Rossis?” She could hardly believe it. In five minutes, she sought to fill us in on all we’d missed. An alcoholic had predated them. A WW2 pilot. His wife was a pilot as well. Or, was he an actor in a WW2 movie? The people before that were farmers, breeding Spanish bulls. Nick Rossi, the previous owner, she claimed had been the founder of The Copacabana Club. “Quite a character,” she said. “Everyone whose lived here has been quite a character.”

Several months later, our neighbors, a young couple from the city, stop by. Maggie had told us the wife was a photographer. It turns out she is a food stylist. Her husband, a computer programmer. The couple walked around the house seemingly knowing more about it than we did. All via legend. “Here,” they said pointing to a patch of dead grass and old leaves in the garden, “are the Rossi’s chocolate Irises.” Afterward, we walked the property and they showed us where they thought the Rossis had kept a patch of asparagus.

It turns out the patch is ferns. The inedible kind that cause stomach cancer.

Another neighbor stops by and says, “The basis for my house was the old men’s quarters back when your house was still a working farm.” I look over at his house and can’t picture it.

Who were all these people who predated us? I look through the old hand-bound book with the Brooklyn League Dinner Menu to discover some clue. Sometimes I try on the two old caps that hang in the laundry – Dish Network says one. The other blue one, Virginia.

As I drive into the city one afternoon for a friend’s poetry reading, there is a young guy filling in for a friend on WIOX, the local radio. He’s just back to Roxbury from college. “I used to lament that there was nothing here,” he says. “Now that I’m back from studying linguistics, I’ve decided to lean into nowhere. I’ve taken up whittling.” He pronounces whittling in the “old timey way.” Whitt-Lynn. Though, the “h” he says does not sound good on the radio. His radio hour features “Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band and Neil Young’s “Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere.” “Not a dig at the Catskills,” he pronounces. “Silence and darkness should be protected.”

During moments of this new life, I sometimes feel the way writer and country veterinarian James Herriot did all those years ago as he traversed the cold, rural moors of Yorkshire in 1937, a newcomer to small town life. I came across this passage from All Creatures Great And Small one night recently as my partner played a section for me over Audible. We laughed at how appropriate it felt. Herriot arrives at a large dairy barn seven months into his job as a young vet fresh out of medical school, called out to attend to a particularly difficult calving:

 

 

There were thick texts books devoted to the countless ways you could cut up a calf. But none of it was any good here. Because this calf was alive. At my furthest stretch, I had gotten my finger around the commissure of the mouth and had been startled by a twitch of the little creature’s tongue. It was unexpected because calves in this position are usually dead. Asphyxiated by the acute flexion of the neck and the pressure of the dam’s powerful contractions. But this one had a spark of life in it and, if it came out, it would have to be in one piece.

 I went over to my bucket of water. Cold now and bloody. I silently soaked my arms then I lay down again feeling the cobbles harder than ever against my chest. I worked my toes between the stones, shook the sweat from my eyes and, for the hundredth time, thrust an arm which felt like spaghetti into the cow. Alongside the little dry legs of the calf like sandpaper tearing against my flesh. Then the bend in the neck and so to the neck and then agonizingly around to the face and toward the jaw, which had become my major goal in life It was incredible that I had been doing this for nearly two hours. Fighting as my strength ebbed to push a little noose around the jaw. I had tried everything else. Rappelling a leg. Gentle traction with a blunt hook in the eye socket. But I was back to the noose.

It had been a miserable session, all through. The farmer, Mr. Dinsdale was a long, sad, silent man of few words who always seemed to be expecting the worst to happen. He had a long sad silent son with him. And the two of them had watched my efforts with deepening gloom. But worst of had been Uncle.

When I had entered the hillside barn, I had been surprise to see a little bright eyed old man in a porkpie hat settling down comfortably on a bale of straw. He was filling his pipe and clearly looking forward to the entertainment.

“Now then young man,” he cried in nasal twang of the west riding. “I’m Mr. Dinsdale’s brother. I farm over in Lisdondale.”

I put down my equipment and nodded.

“How do you do? My name is Herriot.”

The old man looked me over piercingly. “My vet is Mr. Bloomfield. Expect you’ll have heard of him. Everyone knows him. Wonderful man, Mr. Bloomsfield, especially at calving. Do you know? I’ve never seen him beat yet.”

I managed a wan smile. Any other time I would have been delighted to hear how good my colleague was but somehow not now. Not now.

 In fact the words set a mournful little bell tolling inside me.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t know Mr. Bloomsfield,” I said, taking off my jacket and, more reluctantly, peeling my shirt over my head. “But I haven’t been around these parts very long.”

Uncle was aghast.

“You don’t know him? Well, you’re the only one who doesn’t. They think the world of him in Lisdendale. I can tell yah.” He lapsed into shocked silence and applied a match to his pipe. Then he shot a glance at my goose pimpled torso. “Strips like a boxer does Mr. Bloomsfield. Never seen such muscles on man.”

A wave of weakness coursed sluggishly over me. I felt suddenly leaden-footed and inadequate. As I began to lay out my instruments on a clean towel, the old man spoke again.

 “How long have you been qualified? May I ask.”

“Oh. About seven months.”

“Seven months,” Uncle smiled indulgently. Tapped down his tobacco and blew out a cloud of rank blue smoke. “Well, there’s nothing like a bit of experience I always say.
Mr. Bloomsfield’s been doing my work for over ten years now and he really knows what he’s about. No, you can have all your book learning. Give me experience every time.”

I often run down Hardscrabble road, the single stretch of wide macadam which begins where our dirt road empties toward Route 30. Past the John Burroughs memorial and the director’s house and the house I’ll call Frasier’s. Across the little bridge with the dead porcupine and eventually, miles later, alongside the egg shack and into town. This afternoon I have a revelation. It is one thing to feel as though you are living a dream. This is the space of a hard-won vacation — some distant beach like those I’ve experienced in rare moments spent on the coast of Vieques or Mallorca, where you know you’ve turned the corner on some sort of Eden.

This kind of psychic space is at once exhilarating and unnerving — there is the momentary sense that you have transcended time, that the world as you knew it has halted. You experience the surge of adrenaline from reaching the physical locale of some previously unattainable goal. The heightened awareness of your body in the atmosphere, each breath somehow privileged as it is not occurring within the continuum of reality.

However, in those moments the knowledge is present that you are a visitor, merely trespassing within the realm of some other perspective, someone else’s “everyday.” This evening as I was running down Hardscrabble past the old farm with the elderly couple with the sign about the nonexistent dog out front that reads: “Beware of Dog,” their minivan floundering in the yard as precariously as the milk barn next to it, their once youthful RV cutting up a rust in the glen beyond the house, bags of garbage no longer hidden in the doorway but propped expectantly at the end of the drive for some service that will never come, I realize for the first time I am not living a dream, but rather inhabiting the space of my own wildest imaginings.

Here is the remove I thought I would never have. The artistic life that would always eclipse me, just out of reach. The twenty-seven acres of pristine wilderness too sprawling and majestic to belong to any one sentient being, least of all me. And in that moment I brush up against the closest thing I can think of to what others call “a calling.” The sense that you live in a place where only your imagination had once taken you. And in that sense it is not an “other” space you have entered, a backdrop which at any moment might witness a tear in its Truman-esq façade and crumble. This is a space that others might drive by and — beyond the momentary rapture of a fleeting view — leave behind. And yet each day as I drive out of town at dawn to teach, through the familiar mountains rendered invisible in patches as the mist settles into the valleys, I think most unbelievably of all, I now call this place home.