Meredith, New Hampshire: In Mary’s Barn with Wil Robertson


Sept. 22, Meredith, N.H. –  I drove north from Laconia on New Hampshire 106, wondering what the hell had become of U.S. Route 3.  An older couple did laps on the rubberized track at the local high school, inclining together to shield themselves from the increasingly chilly winds of autumn.
Leaves pulled free of their moorings on maples and birches and floated to earth. The flamboyance of the New England fall is about ready to strut upon its annual stage.
Finally I reached a traffic circle and a reunion with Route 3. As I swung around to head north, I looked over my shoulder and saw a sign for a barn sale featuring half-priced books. Mary Robertson’s Good Old Books.
I continued around the circle and went south. I negotiated the driveway, shut off the engine and strolled through the barn’s open door. I found a piece of paper tacked on a cross beam with a handwritten note that read: “The laws of karma apply here – That means if you don’t pay for what you get now, you will pay later … maybe 2 or 3 hundred years later. And the price will be brutal.”
A strapping man swept up an array of detritus, including a collection of shattered glass, into a pile. He looked like George Kennedy.
“You’ve got a mess there,” I said, not knowing how else to break the ice.
“Actually, we’re not really open,” he said.
Then he invited me to stick around. He turned on all the lights and gave me a brief primer to the collection. A circular saw whined, followed soon after by the staccato pounding of a hammer.
Where the hell is Mary Robertson? I wondered.
The man with the broom was Wilfred “Wil” Robertson, son of Mary and unwitting inheritor of her world of good old books. She died in 2007, and this summer he finally got the gumption to unbox all those books and attempt to unload them.
Wil shared a few stories about Meredith, his hometown, before going back to work. He betrayed a pleasantly sardonic manner, and I recognized him as a character I’d love to talk with. But first there was the ritual dance to perform. I browsed, and browsed slowly, through Mary’s leftovers while Wil and his partner, Andre, slowly went about renovating the 19th century barn.
Only when I’d frittered away a good half-hour and selected $10 worth of books did I feel up to asking Wil if he’d like to answer a few questions.
This old place is weighed down with history. The floor is an undulating canvas knitted from 12-inch-wide planks of rough-hewn timber. His mother ran a bookstore here for nearly 50 years. Before that, his grandfather, James W. Kennon, who bought this place in about 1924, built cabins and ran a profitable tourist trade.
Wil pulled up a chair and began to hold court.
“I’m running a bookstore and a junk emporium, I guess,” he said. “It’s comprised of all my childhood toys which my mother did not manage to sell while she was alive, and some of the books. She started out with a service in the early ’50s finding out-of-print books for collectors. In the process she accumulated quite a few books. She would go to an estate sale, for instance, and she knew which ones the plums were. She would offer a bulk price for all of them, and she’d take the ones that were not the cherry ones and she’d sell them to keep the business going, or she’d store them in the barn.”
Mary was 93 when she died. Wil had high hopes some deep-pocketed corporate interest would come knocking, buy the place and leave him set for life. And then the economy crashed.
And so the saw whines, and again is followed by the pounding of a hammer. Wil is a wonderful character. Selfishly, I’m glad he didn’t sell out and go to Bora Boar.
He’s busy writing his memoirs, which he calls “The Testicular Testimonies.”
He’s written about 400 pages so far, which gets him to age 27 or 28. I asked about The Testimonies. What are the high points? Would he mind telling me a little about it. He paused for a moment, then said, “What the hell?
“The family was alcoholic but highly functional. I was probably alcoholic before birth. My mother drank. It was always there. There was some odd sexual stuff going on. Probably the one drive I’ve had all my life is trying to find some kind of a spiritual path, I guess is the most prosaic way to put. I had no formal religious background at all. … Before we had any kind of martial arts classes in New Hampshire, I got books from my mother’s publishers in Vermont, books on karate and judo and aikido. These were grass-bound, beautiful volumes which were lavishly illustrated. … I’ve bounced around in different religious meditations, even evangelical Christian groups. Everything I’ve done in my life has revolved around that. I’ve never had the slightest ambition to make money or achieve any kind of recognition, except on the stage.”
Somewhere along the line I had to break the flow and inject my boilerplate question regarding the divergent characters of Vermont and New Hampshire. He delivered an answer to end the question for all time.
“My background is in theater,’ he said. “And in the process of listening to the differences in the various New England accents, I see in a difference in character. It’s a little esoteric, really, but if you take the Vermont accent, which I hear as “Vehrrmawnt is maaww awwh less a rahwwwnded koiwwnd of an accent, wheah New Hampsha is kind of shawp. And Maine is a kawmbination of the two. In a sense you could characterize the people that way. I find that if you look at even at the political and cultural philosophies of the states, Vermont tends to be much more open-minded, much more well-rounded in a sense. New Hampshire is pretty cut-and-dried, for the most part. Even the people who have moved from out of state into New Hampshire seem to be, at least to me, seem to be very commercially oriented.”
I particularly enjoyed the story he told about gentrified Meredith, which is just a mile north on 3 from Mary’s barn. It was invented out of whole cloth by developers.
“It was very boring when I lived here,” he said. “There was one movie theater and that went out of business. I bought an old 8-millimeter camera and made up my own movies just to keep my interest up. Now there’s not only a movie theater, but the whole town is geared toward tourism. They have essentially made a town and a history of a town that never really existed. But it’s fine with me, because it’s much prettier than reality ever was. And I’ve always had my problems with reality.
“I much prefer fantasy. My major problems in life have been confusing the two.”
When he was a boy, the major employer in town was a firm called Keasbey & Mattison. The Keasbey & Mattison mill produced asbestos. Which is really the heart of the story.
“There’s a conglomerate of very aesthetically pleasing buildings in Meredith, which is called Mill Falls,” he said. “It includes restaurants, jewelry stores and kind of chi-chi shops. In one of the restaurants is a big plaque which commemorates the place as the site of a piano factory in the early days. Which may indeed be true, but whenever it was a piano factory must have been way before I grew up there in the ’50s. Because when I grew up in the fifties, it was the site of the Keasbey & Mattison asbestos mill.
“And I can remember seeing the parents of my school friends sitting on the lawn at lunchtime with their bologna sandwiches and puffs of asbestos cotton in their hair and clothes and sort of tumbling into their sandwiches. And they’d consume them. There’s been a definite spin put on the town. Of course the asbestos factory is never mentioned.”
His theater training had become obvious by now. He was enjoy this tiny little stage, and I was enjoying his performance. He spent a year in Maine training with a professional mime. And he has an extensive background in the theater.
“Occasionally I’ll do a community show,” he said. “I did ‘Of Mice and Men.’ I got to be the guy that kills the dog, which pretty much goes along with my existential point of view. My theater background was pretty expensive in terms of training. I have really quite a bit of experience working with people who are really top-notch. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to work in community theater. It may sound arrogant or egotistical or whatever, but there’s an awful lot of ego involved in theater anyway, and people are very reluctant to take any kind of advice. So you really have to hold your tongue a lot, and I am not very good at that. I have some problems there.”
The Steinbeck production swung him back to New Hampshire for a moment.
“The other thing about New Hampshire that is never spoken is, if you travel through New Hampshire, you will see fewer black people than anywhere in the country,” he said. “And it’s always been like that. One of the characters in “Of Mice and Men” is black. They weren’t able to find a black guy to play the part until the last week before we performed. And the whole cast never performed together in rehearsal. The first time we ever performed with Crooks was the premiere.That gives you an idea of the New Hampshire behind the image, the real New Hampshire.”
What about Mary Robertson? Iasked. What kind of person was she?
“Ohhh boy,” he said. He jumped up, walked a few feet to his right and quickly returned with a drawing of a sour-faced woman who looks like she just lost a lemon-eating contest. It was drawn by his brother, when he was about 11 years. |
“She was very intelligent, acerbic, and she had no business having a family,” he said. “She should have been a professional. But at that time, other than being a nurse or a schoolteacher, there wasn’t much open for women. She was the first selectwoman in the town of Meredith and the first woman on the Belknap area county commission. She was a very staunch Democrat. She was very political in her milieu.”
So, um, she wasn’t the warmest mother?
“The warmest?” he said, his face filling with a broad smile. “I would have to say she was about the coldest mother that would be possible. She was, let’s just say, intellectual.”
Mary Kennon married John F. “Jack” Robertson. They lived together for a time in the town of Meredith, which abuts the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. Eventually she drifted back up the road to her dad’s place. Jack Robertson was a skilled carpenter who built many of the houses on the lake at that time.
“He went to school at night to learn the trade,” he said. “He was very intelligent and he was very warm. I would say I got most of my human feelings from him, not from Mary. Mary however read to me from a very early age and she read the classics. The original versions, not the Disney versions. She read the real stuff and inculcated in me more than a love, a need for literature. I’ve always read, I’ve always written and I’ve always been interesting in performing. She was pretty much responsible for that.”
When Mary and her sister Ruth were girls, Wil’s grandfather ran the cabin business. His wife cooked meals and the girls waited tables.
“They called my grandfather Pappy,” Wil said. “People would come back every year to see him because he sat up in the office and played poker and drank whiskey and smoked cigars and kind schmoozed with them. And he was very good at it. He was very, very good with people. Not so great at doing actual work, but very good with people. I picked up some of those tendencies. He brought people back.
“They came back year after year. They came up from Boston. They came from Providence and from New York.”
The saw whines, and the hammer pounds. Andre is hard at work. He’s residing the old barn, Wil said, with wood that fell during the 1938 hurricane. Andre’s an extraordinary musician going through some life trials, and he’s living on the property in a trailer Wil bought for the purpose.
As for Wil, he said he’s enjoyed spending a summer in Mary’s barn and selling off some of her stockpile of good, old books. Like the writing, it has been therapeutic for him.
“I’ve just come out of a period being very, very isolated,” he said. “I’ve met some interesting people. I’ve met some nasty people too. But I found this is a very safe position in which to meet people.”
And, occasionally, break out the old dramatic chops.
“I had a woman come in and ask if I had a Ouija board,” he said. “I said, ‘Lady, the last ouija board I had was in 1985 and I threw it underneath the cabin and I haven’t touched one since, and I suggest you don’t, either.’ She said, ‘I thought it would be a good game.’ I said, ‘it’s not a game. It could be a doorway to something you don’t want to deal with, unless you have a good guide. And lady, you don’t.’
“She said, ‘I’m scared,’ and I said, ‘you should be scared. And stay away from Ouija boards.'”
I wish I had been there to see that performance. As it was, I had thoroughly enjoyed my time in Mary’s barn. I thanked Wil for being such an entertaining host, and I hope he knew I meant it. We exchanged email addresses and pledged to stay in touch.
And so I returned to U.S. 3 and drove north, a big smile on my face.


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The Oracle of the Allagash: Darrell McBreiarty

Darrell McBreiarty at home, with a copy of his "Alcatraz Eel: The John Stadig Files."

Darrell McBreiarty at home, with a copy of his “Alcatraz Eel: The John Stadig Files.”

Sept. 17, Allagash, Maine – As darkness fell across the Allagash on Wednesday, I was perched at the threshold of Maine’s North Woods. I had reached the end of the road, the public road, and had backtracked to the Little Black Checkpoint.
Inside the gatehouse, I chatted with gatekeeper Mary McBreiarty, of Clan McBreiarty. I had been there a while, and suppose I had become a nuisance, because she got a thoughtful look in her Irishblue eyes. There’s someone else, another McBreiarty, I might want to talk to, she said.
I nodded my head, but my heart wasn’t feeling it. I’d driven to this remote village, the Behemoth wheezing and squeaking and moaning the whole way, then chickened out and backed away from entrance to the Irving Group’s Deep, Dark Forest. I was ready to call it a day.
I had done a brief interview with the gatekeeper to the fabled Allagash, and I was ready to go. Nonetheless, she rang Darrell McBreiarty, and he told her to tell me to come right over.
Mary carefully explained the directions, as if she knew I was going to screw them up no matter what. And before I found Mr. McBreiarty at home staining a shelf, I knocked on someone else’s door. People, I’ll tell you. They waved me in. Something sizzled on the stovetop. The air was redolent of shrimp scampi.
They were very nice strangers. They did everything but insist I stay for supper. I backtracked one driveway, and parked at Darrell McBreiarty’s door.
Darrell McBreiarty welcomed me in, sat me down and proceeded to unload the capsule history of Allagash from its file cabinet in his hippocampus. Not wanting to miss any of it, I turned on my recorder.
“You recording me?” he asked, pleasantly enough. I had, you see, neglected to ask permission.
He granted me retroactive permission, and we proceeded.  He is 65 years old, and has lived alone in this cottage since his mother died four years ago. All the folks in the Allagash, he explained, are related.
He is one of them, yet he is apart from them. At once insider and outsider.
He attended photography school in New York City, graduating with certificates in commercial and portrait photography. He is a cosmopolitan artist living in a backwoods society. And he is the keeper of the society’s record.
When you enter Allagash, you are greeted by a sign announcing it as a Scotch-Irish community. Then come the roadside ranks of U.S. flags, which I interpreted as a defiant response to the legion of Acadian flags flying with impunity down in the valley.
What’s up with the flags?
He rolled his eyes.
“I’m an American, but I don’t need my damn flag flying in the dooryard every day,” he said. “The people here are hunters; they all have cabinets full of guns. They’re rednecks. They’re very clannish.”
As for the war of flags, I asked if indeed a lingering animosity still divided English speakers and French speakers.
“They seem to continue on this damn French-English feud, which is ludicrous in my opinion,” he said. “But there are still older people, mostly in Fort Kent, that have an aversion to hiring anyone who’s English Protestant. And there is an underlying, I don’t know if you’d call it prejudice, but there is an underlying disrespect in this community for the French.
“They have the term, ‘Oh, dumb Frenchman.’ Well, they’re dumb like fox. They’ve survived all the damn stuff that’s gone on, and they own all the business down through the valley. Who in the hell’s dumb?”
And don’t get him started on the Acadians. He insists the notion they came to the St. John valley as a result of British oppression is nothing more than myth. They came, he said, for economic reasons.
Here, 30 miles up the river from Fort Kent, it’s a whole different universe. The politicians and money men from Downeast have a derisive term for Allagash folk. They call them “Moosetowners.”
“They would say in Augusta, ‘it’s Moosetown law up there,'” McBreiarty said. “Game wardens and police officers were frightened to come here, because these people were quite brutal. They killed a game warden back in the 1800s. Another time they lined up along the bank and waited for a game warden who was coming down one evening in his canoe. They opened fire above his head. The message was, ‘this is our territory, not yours.'”
McBreiarty is a writer as well, published as historian, novelist and poet. How many times? Too many to count.
My heart sank. My head hung in shame. I couldn’t write about him or photograph him with any sort of authority. Christ, he once photographed James Baldwin.
Yet just as he was impressed by Baldwin’s humility, I was impressed by his.
I noted his trademark Irish features. The ruddy complexion, the impish blue eyes, the wavy mop of auburn hair.
“I have the map of Ireland on my face,” he said. “Yeah, I understand that.”
He said this with a reassuring friendliness. But the Irish thing, that’s the key.
The first thing you need to understand about the Allagash, he said, is its thoroughgoing Irishness. And it is just as Irish today as if ever was.
“Because of the isolation of the community, they retained Irish cultural things,” he said. “They knew they were Irish, but they didn’t realize the things they had retained and carried over because of their isolation.”
He can recite the genealogical history of this place chapter and verse. Everyone here descends from the Diamond family. They came from Killybegs in County Donegal. One of the Diamond girls married a man named William Mullens, and they had eight daughters, and those girls married into every family in town.
He tells it as if he has told it a thousand times before. Yet it is the history underlying those stories that animates him. And critical to understanding the pugnacious character of the Allagash, he said, are the Penal Laws enacted by England in the 17th century. They were intended to cripple Irish political and cultural expression.
“The Irish couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own land, they couldn’t speak their own language, they couldn’t go to a Gaelic school,” he said. “Anyone who broke the law in that period was a hero. Anywhere the Irish have settled across the world, in the Irish community, anyone who can break the law and get away with it is still considered a hero. It’s a cultural identity. That is very, very, very much part of this community.”
It is purely a lineage of instinct.
“Now these people are not even aware of the fact why they’re so rebellious,” he said. They know they’re Irish, but culturally they don’t know their history in Ireland, but they carry on their traditions. You can have your traditions and not know why they’re there. It’s osmosis.”
Once upon a time, in the days before the Irving Group of Companies seized hold of these woods, this place was a raucous, ribald den of hard-living lumberjacks. The population peaked sometime in the 1920s.
“In the fall, there would be hundred and hundreds of men moving up this river, going to the head of the river,”he said. “In the spring there would be hundreds of them coming down on the log drive. Even though the population the year-round population probably stayed around 800, during those periods of time it was probably double or more.”
Nowadays the population continues to decrease. How many jobs, I asked, are up in those woods?
“That’s the tragedy that’s going on right now in this community,” he said. “People don’t want to accept that age is over. They’ve listened to the legends and the myths and the stories and the anecdotes for so long. They grew up with them, and they don’t want to accept that that phase is over. And they’re hanging on with every fiber.”
Their undying passion is easy fodder corporate and political chicanery.
“They still get angry and they fight about it,” he said. “There are politicians that run on that myth. They say ‘Oh my God, we have to keep the Canadians out of the woods’ and stop this taking American jobs.’ Well, there’s no Americans lined up trying to get jobs. It’s a myth, and it gets people elected.”
Before white men came across the St. John River from New Brunswick and carved out a hardscrabble life in these woods, the natives, likely Micmacs and Maliseet, passed through here on a seasonal basis. They went up the river in the summer, and came back down in the fall. One unfortunate wayfarer ran afoul of one of McBreiarty’s forebears.
“In the fall, when the natives were going down the river, one of the natives crawled on top of the barn, thinking there was no one at the homestead,” he said. “He was going to steal a chicken or some type of livestock to feed on. My great-great-grandfather killed him. You have to realize the people that came here, or anywhere in Colonial America, were quite brutal.”
Strange things have happened in these woods. People have disappeared, as if they walked off stage in the middle of a play and never reappeared.
“There was a young man they call a Cookie, a cook’s assistant,” he said.  “The cook didn’t particularly like him. and the men all went into the woods one morning and when they come back, Cookie was gone. And the cook said he got mad and packed his gear and was gone. Well many, many years later, when the cook was dying, the priest came to take his confession. He admitted he’d killed the young man, and they found his body in the floorboards of a stable. My grandmother told me that story.”
For the past three years, McBreiarty’s been laboring on a book about the Kelly family that fought in the American Revolution. Right now he has a 400-page manuscript.
He’s not done with the research yet, and has an expedition planned to meet cousins in Fredericton, N.B. And he plans to reissue five or six books of fiction and poetry in the near future.
I asked if, before he pursued a life of the mind, if he ever flirted with a life in the woods.
“The closest I came to working in the woods was when I was a teenager,” he said. “My father and his brother owned a sawmill, and I would work in the sawmill during in the summers during high school. I knew at an early age that was not for me.
“They age quite rapidly. When men reached 45 years old, they looked like old, old men. It’s a very dangerous occupation. A lot of people have been killed in the woods here or drowned on the rivers over the years.”
He escaped the stifling clannishness as a young man and made his mark in the big city. He returned almost 17 years ago to be with his family. He plans to move out of Allagash in springtime, though he’s not sure where he’s headed.
“You know they talk about well, if they could create jobs here, the people that moved away and their children are going to want to move back here,” he said. “For what? Culturally there’s nothing here, really. There’s not enough here to stimulate you if you’re at all curious about the world. This is way too isolated. And if you’re trained in technology and you have a college education and you’re in a wider world, what is going to bring you back here?”
And, he said, there is a fierce and self-immolating clannishness that still defines life up here.
“This independence, this we against the world, and the clannishness is unbelievable even here now,” he said. “I’ve seen young people that are physically beautiful and bright from this community that absolutely can’t acclimate to the outside world. And you feel bad for them, you think ‘God, you can do anything.’ The clans that are here, they will fight against you if you’re different, because they don’t want you to go outside that clan, and when you express that you’re different and you can acclimate to the outside world, they are offended by that. Who in the hell you think you are? It’s as if you you need your comeuppance.”
I assumed he was thinking about himself in that last paragraph.
“It took me along while to be able to look at it objectively and figure it out,” he said. “A switch turned on and I was no longer angry at them. I started to feel sympathetic to their plight. You can’t get angry at them. It’s all they know. And you can’t take them out of it, because they can’t function outside it.”
If he was different, if he was a freak in the eyes of the clan, his family never gave him anything but love. And he underscored one point: if the people here are clannish and provincial, he does not mean to say they’re not intelligent. To the contrary, he said.
“My father had a fourth-grade education and he ran a sawmill,” he said. “He could look at a log that came up to the rotary to be sawed, and he could tell you how many board feet, how many running feet, within inches, that would come out of that log. He was always accurate. That’s an unusual mind.”
Biologically, Theron McBreiarty was his stepfather. In every other sense, he was his father.
“He was a wonderful man,” he said. “He was 43 years old when my mother married him, and she was 20. He never was mean to me. He never was abusive, verbally or any way. He loved me. The old cliche about the bad stepfather, didn’t fit him, not at all. He was a nice man. He was a very nice man.”
Speaking of nice men, it was damn good to meet you, Darrell McBreiarty. When it was all over and we’d said goodbye, I sure was glad Mary McBreiarty insisted on getting me together with Darrell McBreiarty.
Thanks, Mary. And thank you, Darrell.

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That Old Road Magic: South Burlington, Vermont


Sept. 10, South Burlington, Vt. – Out in the back streets and cul de sacs of America, the wayward traveler occasionally is overcome by a mysterious shaping of events and characters which I like to call road magic.
It doesn’t happen often. You can’t bid it to come. If you anticipate its arrival, you’ll be disappointed.
It always startles you when it materializes, and it always leaves you higher than a double shot of Cuervo Gold. It swells your faith in humanity and, for a time at least, repels the encroaching forces of darkness.
I’ve come to interpret these unexpected and delightful interludes of bonhomie as a byproduct of plugging away and, contrary to my nature, pushing myself on people.
It is, in short, a reward. It’s come upon me in Vienna, Ala., and Tallapoosa, Ga., and Cody, Neb., among other places.
Today, it found me wandering U.S. Highway 2 in South Burlington, Vermont.
Last night I was in the McDonald’s on Shelburne Road till 3 a.m. swatting away flies and recording stories in workmanlike prose. I intended to tackle my laundry first thing. After getting a cup of coffee and a bagel at the Shelburne Road Price Chopper, I checked my directions and set out for the Wash Spot.
The road magic often strikes after one has succeeded in getting profoundly lost. For the most part I am an empiricist, but I sometimes I think I’ve been guided by an unseen hand. Having missed the Wash Spot altogether, I found myself in the middle of the University of Vermont. When I stopped at a red light, I looked up to see professorial-looking gentleman in wire-frame glasses and silver goatee came from the other direction on a bicycle. It would be cool, I thought, to get into a conversation with a professor.
But I kept looking for the Wash Spot. I had dirty laundry, after all. I drove off campus, thinking I would emerge somewhere close to where I’d gone in. Somewhere recognizable. I didn’t.
I ended up on Highway 2, which here is called Williston Road. It was awash in the consumer attractions peculiar to our stripmall culture.
That’s when I saw him. A middle-aged man clad in the traditional regalia of personal outrageousness sauntered along the sidewalk to my left. He held a guitar and appeared to sing a song.
He looked like a reggae Rasputin in his frayed jeans, wild beard and knotty dreadlocks. Whoever this madman was, he waltzed along Suburban Street in Everyday, U.S.A., wielding a banged-up six string and following his bliss with insouciant gusto.
Yes, I had laundry to do, but, Jesus, I should try to meet this character. I made a U-turn, circled past him and parked up the street at the Price Chopper. I went inside and used the restroom, figuring I’d be able to find him when I came out the other side.
When I came out, I focused my eyes and gazed about. At first I thought I’d lost him. When I finally spotted him, he had augmented his look. He now held the guitar in his right hand and balanced a 15-pack of 25-ounce cans of Bud Ice on his left shoulder.
I stalked him as he swayed from side to side. His steps were slow and painstaking but unrelenting. I was filled with a sense of respect, if not admiration. It requires considerable effort and discipline to carry 375 ounces of beer over any distance. I had no idea how far he was going, but I knew he’d gone farther than I’d ever want to go with such an unwieldy load.

Natasha Koval Paden in her study.

Natasha Koval Paden in her study.

I broke into my usual routine of hemming and hawing and hoping, but there wasn’t time to waste. His burden was heavy, and by necessity his progress was slow. I’d be climbing up his back in a second. Either I had to make a move or give up and go the other way. I took a deep breath, then moved alongside him and said hello.
A big, goofy grin spread across his face. He greeted me with warmth and ease, like he’d been wondering when I was going to show.
He said his name was Tom, and he’d lived around here most of his life. If it weren’t already, it became apparent he is dealing with a serious mental illness.
We made small talk. He handed me his guitar, urging me to give it a go. The B string was missing, and it was hopelessly out of tune. It hardly mattered, as nobody’s ever confused me for Django Reinhardt.
As we walked, the conversation grew more personal. Then he said his wife had died. I said damn, of course I was sorry. He said he’d buried her in the backyard. It wasn’t too long afterward that he explained that his “wife,” Jenny, was a German Shepherd.
He slowed to a stop near the intersection with Elsom Parkway. Our chat stalled. I sensed we were about to part ways.
I fumbled for something to say that might forestall our parting. Tom told me about Mia and Laska, two alive-and-well German Shepherds. I was happy to hear about them. He said I could meet them, if I was up for the long walk down his street. I said any distance you can cover with 25 pounds of beer on your back, I’ll handle without complaint.
As we neared his house, Tom said all sorts of confusing things about his parents and/or housemates. He said he’d disowned his parents. When I asked if this were a legal or spiritual act of disowning, he responded tersely: “I disowned them.”
I had no idea if the people he talked about were surrogate parents, loving friends or nefarious caretakers. As my front foot hit the cement walkway leading to the front door, he said something awful about them.
I wondered if meeting Laska and Mia was such a great idea after all.
No, Tom insisted, everything was cool. I wasn’t so sure. I crossed the threshold in anxiety’s grip and braced for confrontation. A petite woman emerged from a study, where she had been playing music.
She leveled me with a smile of surpassing sweetness. It stopped me in my tracks. As I tried to regain my equilibrium, she invited me to a seat on the couch. She asked if I would like coffee or tea, then asked Tom to make us all sandwiches.
It didn’t take long to realize that old road magic had me in its spell.
My hosts, in addition to Tom, were Natasha Koval-Paden and William Paden. They are in all ways Tom’s parents. And they are two of the humblest, sweetest and most likable people I’ve encountered during this interminable odyssey.
She’s a Soviet-born concert pianist. He’s a retired professor of religions. I asked about his studies. He’s written several important monographs and is now working on a new book. He hopes to synthesize his academic work into a lively book for a popular audience.
He mentioned the nettlesome problem of the other, how humans still tend to divide into us-vs.-them paradigms, and I asked why this tribal instinct remains so pervasive. Instead of chuckling and saying “tut, tut, the answer to that question is too complex to explain to an obvious lout like yourself,” he answered thoughtfully.
“I think it’s a survival program in the social part of the brain,” he said. “Anything that seems to – and I emphasize seems to – anything that is perceived as a threat can trigger very violent reactions.”
These reactions, emotional and spontaneous and potentially ugly, are “just crocodile-brain stuff,” he said.
“I’m finding that every kind of grass, every species of plant, every species of tree, not to mention the animal world, is defending itself in certain characteristic ways. I think humans are part of that spectrum of behavior. We’re part of nature, after all.
“Even radical killing and genocide, where it doesn’t seem to be in self-defense, seems to be related. You’re stamping out the genes of your neighbors, killing off things that are going to try to kill you some day. When you’re jockeying for common resources, that aspect of defense is so blind, such an ancient instinct, and it has the power to horrify our modern minds. We humans are somehow subject to these behaviors.”
That even discussion and debate over the nature of being tend to devolve into tribal acrimony leaves him distressed. People either believe in science or they believe in God. Where’s the nuance?
“There’s still that awe about the creation,” he said. “It’s all very awesome, existence. Even a scientist can be awed by all the miraculousness. Who can get their head around all that? Intellectually, I can be stunned that there is a world at all. Mystically, it’s a wondrous thing. I guess that’s why I went into religion.”


Well, I was so taken by his parents I worried Tom’s feelings might be hurt. I didn’t want that, but this was too much fun. I mean, these people treated me as if I were an equal.T
Their worldly accomplishments must be pulled out of them forcefully, as they are modest to a fault. She received training from a sister of Vladimir Horowitz. He was colleagues and pals with Joseph Campbell, the American giant of mythology and religion. She played piano for the dancer Jean Erdman, also Campbell’s wife.
She has played a series of benefit concerts in Honduras and sits on the faculty at Middlebury College.
Before long the visit took on the air of a family reunion. Natasha insisted upon seeing photos of Max and Becky, then showed me pictures of her five children. She said I must bring the family north to visit their new friends in Vermont.
And I promised I will. We had become, in an instant, friends for life.
Tom invited me into the basement to see more of his paintings. He also invited me to chug a shot of vodka. For the first time in memory, I declined. He was persistent, even insistent, but somehow I managed to return upstairs without rotgut liquor burning in my throat.
Natasha sent me away with two apples, a banana and several morsels of chocolate. She thanked me profusely for being human enough to talk with her son. It was embarrassing.
I try to explain it was not the Padens, but I who should be grateful. And I was.
We returned upstairs, and William drove Tom and me back to Price Chopper. He also gave me directions to the laundromat around the corner, concise and simple without a hint of academic jargon. I found got there without trouble, and went to bed at night between clean sheets.
To the Padens and their like, I offer a humble note of thanks for making this journey worthwhile and rewarding, no matter what becomes of all these words.

Tom Paden poses with the painting he gave to me.

Tom Paden poses with the painting he gave to me. Thanks, Tom.

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Aboard the 8th Sea, Part II: Russ VanDervoort of Waterford, N.Y.

Russ Vandervoort, historian and raconteur, hangs on the 8th Sea. Erie Canal Lock No. 2 looms over his right shoulder.

Russ Vandervoort, historian and raconteur, hangs on the 8th Sea. Erie Canal Lock No. 2 looms over his right shoulder.

Sept. 6, Waterford, N.Y. – Having successfully sloughed me off onto an unsuspecting Russ VanDervoort, Captain Bill Curry could now return his attention to his guests and the general revelry aboard the 8th Sea.
I’d seen VanDervoort here and there about Tugboat Roundup. I’d seen him hanging around the periphery, puffing on a fat cigar, observing the passing parade and looking like an old-time waterfront character himself.
Turns out he comes by it all quite honestly. His family came to Waterford in 1903, though they didn’t live on land until the end of World War I. They never left.
A chronicler of canal life and caretaker of its bygone characters, VanDervoort is author of “Canal Canaries and Other Tough Old Birds.” He has an abiding affection for old-time characters, the sorts Joseph Mitchell used to dig up on the Bowery or in Fulton Fish Market. Colorful and salty and liberal with words, they have become an endangered species in our carefully marketed corporate culture.
All this is to say I was extremely fortunate to get dumped into VanDervoort’s lap. If you want to hear atmospheric tales of old Waterford, and of course I did, he’s your go-to guy. He’s got a thousand stories, featuring old-time characters with colorful names such as Socks and Chetty.
Socks Smith was a merchant, bookmaker and all-around operator about town. Short and fat and endlessly resourceful, William Socrates Smith ran a speakeasy in Waterford during Prohibition. He operated a small grocery store in a building at Seventh and Washington streets. The speakeasy was in the back room.
“I found out recently that Socks was the last lock tender on Lock 5 on the Old Champlain Canal,” VanDervoort said. “Socks died when I was a teenager. If only had I known when he was alive. To him, it was probably just a job. To me, it’s romantic.”
I know what VanDervoort’s talking about.
“My grandfather he used to be in the backroom,” he said. “Because he was in the backroom, I was from time to time allowed access. The unfortunate thing is I was 9, 10, 11 years old. I do know from letters that my grandfather wrote that Socks used to make the rounds up at drydock at Lock 3. He would book any policy, numbers, whatever. He used to hang around with a guy who was skinny and about 6-foot-9.”
Socks also had an affinity for kids. He’d take gangs of them up to his camp at Lake Desolation, in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
“In today’s world, Socks probably would’ve been looked at as a degenerate,” VanDervoort said. “He took all the 6th Street guys up there, my father included.  Of course they all had quarts of Stanton Ale and whatever, but there was nothing untoward about it.”
Later in life, Socks Smith secured a part-time job as a “canal watcher.” This responsibility paid him a modest stipend and required him to file a monthly report. VanDervoort’s mother, Marian, was an essential cog in Socks’ monthly report.
“We lived right on the (Champlain) canal, so Socks would call up my mother and ask her to go out in the backyard and tell him what she saw,” he said. “Socks would write his report based on the telephone call he had with my mother.”
He told me there have been two different tugboats named Waterford, and five generations of VanDervoorts worked on a tug called Waterford.
“My great-grandfather worked on it,” he said. “My father worked on it; I worked on it; and my son worked on it for one day.”
That was nice, but I wanted to hear more about Chetty Price and George Rasmussen, a pair of genial stumblebums who hung out in front of the town hall, deep in their cups, and pass out candy to children.
When beer salesmen came to town, Chetty and George would follow them from bar to bar, collecting free drinks. At the time, there were at least 12 bars in Waterford.
“The beer salesmen would make the rounds and go to each bar, and they would buy free drinks for whoever was at the bar,” he said. “If there was one salesman, they’d get 12 free drinks. If there were two, they’d get 24. Then they’d sit out front of town hall. Chetty would have candy for kids in one pocket and milkbones for dogs in the other.”
VanDervoort’s great-grandfather, Louis, was a tugboat captain who came to Waterford and launched the family business.
“He owned a tugboat, and if you owned your own tugboat in those days, you were self-proclaimed captain,” he said. “He towed barges. He was the first operator on the original Champlain Canal to use a tugboat. It was all mules prior to that.”
Plenty of women worked on the canal, too. The presence of female workers gave rise to the title of VanDervoort’s first book.
“My great-grandmother could actually operate our tugboat,” he said. “One of my aunts used to work as a deckhand on the Tugboat Waterford. In my grandfather’s parlance, any woman who worked on the canal was a canal canary. If you were good, you were a tough, old bird.”
His grandfather, William, was an engineer who worked mostly on steam-powered tugs. His father, also named William, worked as a deckhand for a while before his run in the family business was cut short by World War II.
“By the time he got back, we had sold our tugboats,” VanDervoort said. “Many kids don’t go into the family business, and in any case, we no longer had a family business.”
With no tugboat to captain, VanDervoort turned his attention to the rich history of canal life. His fascination with the characters of bygone Waterford and the canal system is just second-nature. It is in his blood.
“I can see the Old Champlain Canal from my house,” he said. “I live on it. It’s just part of the culture in Waterford, and I always had a wonderful connection to it. My grandfather and two of his brothers were all retired people who worked in the tugboats. All they ever talked about was the canals and the boats. It was just embedded. It was there.”
VanDervoort does not simply ooze a love and curiosity for the lore and mystique of the canals and the characters who worked along them. He’s a character himself.
He used to be a familiar sight at Saratoga Race Course, 25 miles north of Waterford. He’d roll in in his big, black hearse and set up his office in the back. He’d leave a door ajar so passersby could gape at him as he chomped on a cigar and studied racing forms.
When Saratoga banned smoking, he fired up his hearse and drove away for good. The ban deeply offended him, not so much because he couldn’t smoke cigars, but because it is an affront to the colorful tradition of racetrack characters.
“People go to the racetrack because they want to see characters,” he said. “They don’t go to the track to see themselves. A lot of things today, I like to say they want everybody to like vanilla ice cream. It takes away from a thing when you can’t have good characters.”
As for that, all I can say is amen.

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Tugboat Roundup: Aboard the 8th Sea, Waterford, N.Y.

Capt. Bill Curry in the cabin of his tugboat, the 8th Sea.

Capt. Bill Curry in the cabin of his tugboat, the 8th Sea.

Waterford, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 6 – I had been stalking Bill Curry for two days.
Peter Kuebel put the bug in my ear during the tail-end of our Erie Canal tour. Capt. Dick Powell, our guide, engaged in a spontaneous toot-off with Curry as he steered the Richard William II back to port.
That guy’s a character, Kuebel said. Bring him a bottle of wine, and he’ll talk all night long. Here along the Waterford docks, Curry is something of a legend. He is captain of the 8th Sea, a onetime U.S. Army harbor tug. Now it is the epicenter of the party.
Curry is the only private owner the tug has had. He holds court on its modest rear deck, his coffee mug fortified with a dram of merlot.
Perhaps Waterford denizens don’t really lock their doors and hide their women and children when the 8th Sea motors into town,but they know where to find the party.
My problem was the party was nonstop, the joint too crowded for me to comfortably insinuate myself into.  I finally cornered him on an old barge called the Pennsy 399, where the ownership collective was selling craft beer to defray the costs of renovation and operation.
One of the Pennsy owners poured me an IPA called Hurricane Kitty and told me how a guy named Steve Truman had rescued the barge from a watery grave. An inveterate tinkerer and preserver of historic boats, Truman found the Pennsy 399 beached near Kingston, N.Y. When the tide went out, he’d patch holes with metal plates and bail water. Eventually he raised it and bought it for a dollar. Then he ran into financial trouble, which is how the Pennsy Barge Collective came to buy it out of drydock at Erie Canal Lock No. 3 in Waterford.
“We’re just living the dream,” the bartender said. “LTD is what we call it.”
I turned around and saw Curry getting up to leave. It was now or never. I blocked his path and introduced myself. Curry has a well-earned reputation as a nice fellow. He invited me onto the 8th Sea, then worked assiduously to foist me off on a parade of others.
Talk to this guy, he said. Talk to that guy. Several times he offered to hook me up with John Callaghan, Deputy Director of New York State Canal Corporation.
Aboard the 8th Sea, I offered up a middling bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon as tribute. Curry accepted graciously, then held it against his cheek. Nope, he said, it needed chilling to reach the requisite serving temperature of 65-degrees Fahrenheit. He deposited into an industrial-sized cooler. I started to protest the oenological calamity of cold red wine, but thought better. I was a guest on his boat, after all.
It didn’t take long for Curry to find a suitable victim. At least this one, Tim Ivory, came with a remarkable symmetry. Ivory, a 48-year-old boat engineer, happens to be one of the Gang of 8 owners of Pennsy Barge 399. Built in 1942, the 399 is an 80-foot-long, steel-hulled mastodon which once hauled dry goods up and down the Hudson for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
For Ivory, it seemed that the dream had turned sour and become a floating albatross. It had become one of those frustrating, low-grade nightmares you just can’t seem to walk away from or lift yourself out of.
“It’s kind of running out of steam,” Ivory said with a sigh. “The organization itself is a little split between those that want to go nonprofit with it and those, like me, who want to keep it semi-commercial. One of the things that set us back is the cost of transportation. Anytime we have a gig for it, getting it there costs more money than the event earns.”
Getting it there requires a push, in this case from the Tug Cornell. Depending upon on the tide, the tug and ancillary factors, Ivory said towing the Pennsy 399 from Yonkers to Waterford takes about 14-18 hours and requires 35 to 75 gallons of fuel each hour. And then they have to pay the tugboat fee.

Pennsy Barge 399 docked next to the tugboat Cornell, which pushed it to the Tugboat Roundup.

Pennsy Barge 399 docked next to the tugboat Cornell, right, which pushed it to the Tugboat Roundup.

Ivory looks to be the elder statesman of the barge collective. Strong of build and sturdy of mind, you can tell right off he’s done his share of manual work. He grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., where his father, Cornelius Ivory, was a doctor. He’s one of eight kids, and most of his siblings work professional, white-collar type jobs.
He was different. He started turning a wrench at age 9, and showed an early proclivity for mechanical wizardry. He is intimately connected to the resurrection of Pennsy 399. Years ago he moved to Kingston to help Truman restore PT boats, and he was intimately affected by Truman’s fiscal collapse.
“He kind of ran out of money and tried to shut down operations owing me a chunk of money, so I decided I’d just hang out in Kingston and squat on his property,” Ivory said. “So it’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s going well for me.”
If the one-step-forward, two-steps-back saga of the 399 has left him disillusioned, Ivory can’t quite let go of the dream and the potential she possesses.
“It has mystique,” Ivory said. “It’s a great space. Essentially what I’d like to do is put in a kitchen, some bathrooms and showers and stuff and make a road-trip barge out of it. That’s where my head is at. It’s got a nice character to it. It’s a great space for music. It’s a great space for parties. It’s waiting for something interesting to happen.”
She is is the last of her kind afloat. At one time, the Hudson was jammed with railroad barges strung bow to stern, moved by the power of a single tugboat. They’d haul sacks of coffee and cocoa and crates of produce to ports without viable railroad connections.
“The wood aspect of it is what gives the barge character,” he said. “The fact that it’s metal pretty much makes the barge indestructible.”
I asked how he got into the boating scene. When a guy engaged him to do engine work on an old farm tractor, Ivory became intrigued by a boat loitering in the yard. Eventually he bartered the tractor job for the boat, a 1930 Chris Craft runabout.
He hasn’t been quite the same since.
“It was like coming home with magic beans,” he said. “Suddenly I’m on the river fixing everybody else’s boat.”
There’s something enchanting, he said, even liberating, about owning your own boat.
“Having a boat is like having your own private island,” he said. “You get to be the guy in charge. You get to decide who gets to stay and who gets to go. You can venture off and essentially go in any direction at whatever speed you’re capable of going. If you’re on a boat and you want to go in circles at 100 miles per hour, go ahead. The only thing they ask you to do is not kill somebody.”
I suggested his problem was the Pennsy 399 had turned into something like Gilligan’s Island.
He managed a laugh, but I think he had wearied of the conversation. I think it was bringing him down.
He drained his beer, stood up, excused himself and walked off down the dock.


Once again I turned toward Curry. Our conversation was at least a partial disaster, but I don’t blame him at all. I recorded a bit of it, but had real trouble deciphering any of it. Wind gusts buffeted the 8th Sea. A big, baritone voice wandered in from another onboard conversation. Live music wafted down from the Tugboat Festival stage upon the MV Grand Erie.
He did share an anecdote about a boatload of watermelons bobbing in Chesapeake Bay. All I remember is a sudden gust came up and whacked the ship hard across the bow, “knocking her flatter than piss on a platter.”
That’s what he said. That’s why they say Curry is a good guy to talk with. He seem like good-time Bill, but he’s a serious fellow. A mechanical engineer by trade, he went to work for Remington after getting out of the Navy. Now 72, he’s living the good life which he worked to secure, and enjoying it to the hilt. He spends six months a year in the Grand Cayman, and six months in Waterford.
He said the boating life got into his blood early, when he sailed on an oyster dredge as a kid.
“I worked on them old skipjacks,” he said. “My old man had a friend on Sherwin Island who had a buy-boat; a buy-boat is a power boat, about 75-feet long. You’d go out and buy oysters from the ship deck, because in Maryland you could only dredge oysters under sail. He had two skipjacks, and he’d get his own and everybody else’s oysters. We’d sail until the dredge was full, and then we’d cull oysters. So as a little kid I got to cull oysters.”
He might have gone down into a watery grave with the Chesapeake Bay oyster industry, but his parents had other ideas.
“If my parents hadn’t told me I better do something and get out of town, I’d probably be a dumbass waterman on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Curry shifted anxiously and looked around for someone else I might bother. He found his man in Russ VanDervoort, canal historian and caretaker of the endangered waterfront character.

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Road snapshot: Laconia, N.H.

Note: It’s Thursday, Sept. 25, and I’m hanging in the cozy confines of the Licia and Mason Beekley Community Library in New Hartford, Ct. I met a nice woman named Donna yesterday, and she suggested I come here and look for Larry. By all accounts, Larry is a wonderfully talented musician who wears dresses, miniskirts and furs. Kind of like a real-life Klinger who’s not bucking for a Section 8.
This is a great library. All public libraries are good. Here, if you’ve got a buck, you can Keurig yourself a cup of coffee. I went out to the Behemoth and found exactly 10 dimes loitering about the disgusting floor of the cab. I felt a little slovenly dropping those dirty dimes into the slot, but, well, a nickel is a nickel, a dime is a dime and a dollar is a dollar.
The helpful librarian, and helpful is the de facto adjective to describe librarians, told me Larry usually comes in to check his email just before closing, which is 8 today. He’s got a job somewhere, which keeps him busy during the day.

Linda Van Valkenburgh holds down the fort at New England Porch Rockers in Laconia, N.H., where she's taken up caning.

Linda Van Valkenburgh holds down the fort at New England Porch Rockers in Laconia, N.H., where she got inspired to take up caning.

Sept. 22, Laconia, N.H. – It’s Monday morning, but it’s not your average Monday morning in Tilton, N.H., still basking in the dizzy afterglow of the NASCAR weekend. I stopped into the Golden Arches Cafe to pick up my free coffee. The NASCAR infestation hadn’t abated yet. A long line of luxury RVs wound its way west along New Hampshire 140, bound for Tilton and the I-93 junction.
They all had to pass McDonald’s to get there, and Americans just can’t seem to pass McDonald’s without stopping. I mentioned all this to the nice young woman who took my order and poured my coffee. She rolled her eyes.
“They were here for breakfast,” she said. “And they’ll be back for lunch.”
I thanked her for the coffee, wished her a nice day and found my way back onto 3 north. Ten miles later, I was in Laconia, yet another former New England mill town. I was out of postcards, and suddenly they had become rare objects.
That’s how I met Linda Van Valkenburgh at New England Porch Rockers. She sure was friendly, and she did her best to help. She even made a couple phone calls to see if anyone of her counterparts knew where the postcards were hidden.
I hate to feel indebted, so I purchased a $4 handmade card with a lovely New England autumn scene.
Linda grew up in St. Louis and left after graduating high school to attend American University in Washington D.C.. She’s move around a bit, but she has lived in New Hampshire for nearly 30 years.
“My 50th high school reunion was this weekend,” she said. “I didn’t go. I don’t know anybody there anymore.”
I asked the difference in collective character on opposite sides of the Connecticut River.
Are Vermonters really so different from New Hampshire folk?
“Oh yes,” she said. “They used to say there are more cows in Vermont than people. Vermonters are kind of backwards. New Hampshire is in the 21st century.”
I figured maybe that’s why I couldn’t find any postcards around here. The postcard is nothing if not an anachronism. Just like me.
Linda is so sweet. After I paid for the card, she rummaged through her purse to find me a stamp, as if she owed me one. She couldn’t find one, and actually felt bad about this. I was relieved. But she is firmly in the corner of New Hampshire.
“We have four beautiful seasons here,” she said. “Wherever you go, anytime of the year, it’s beautiful. I am getting a little tired of winter, but where else can you go and have four feet of snow on the ground for three months of the year?”
I thanked Linda for being so nice and moved on to the Laconia Antiques Center, where I found a wonderful collection of vintage postcards, classified alphabetically by state. I bought two from Vermont and a few from Washington.
Outside, the sun poked through an opening in the clouds and warmed my spirits. I walked to Mill Plaza, home of the Belknap (hosiery) Mill, which the historical marker touts as the oldest (1823) unaltered textile mill in the country. An emaciated woman who looked 70 but might’ve been 40, stood by her car smoking a cigarette. I asked if she could direct me to the post office.
She thought about it for a few seconds, then smiled and pointed north along Beacon Street. “It’s right over hee-yah,” she said. I thanked her, mailed my postcards and returned to my Laconia tour.  I strolled up and down Main Street.
I don’t mean to be impertinent, but for a town in a 21st century state, Laconia looks like it got stuck in 1964.
The Second Feature store sits right next to Laconia Antiques Center, the former Bloom’s Variety Store. Antique shops and vintage clothing stores are strung out along the street.
The Colonial Theatre dominates the block, and oozes decay in all directions. A note on the marquee wishes it a happy 101st birthday, though it debuted in 1914. The forlorn relic has been closed for more than a decade. In 1915, the local newspaper touted it as “one of the handsomest play-houses in New England.”
Maybe so, but today it is more ravaged than Blanche DuBois. The trim surrounding the bay windows upstairs looks like it hasn’t been painted since 1964.
New England Porch Rockers sits on what they call Vintage Row. Other establishments on Vintage Row include Dan and Pete’s Thrift Store, aka Thrifty’s. The Goodwill is next to Thrifty’s. The Salvation Army store is across town.
The only signs Laconia is flirting with the 21st century were the U.S. Armed Forces recruiting center at 526 Main Street, the Family Dollar and a sign inside Laconia Village Bakery urging patrons to “Like us on Facebook.”
I felt bad for poking fun at Laconia, so I stopped in to pay my respects to Linda on my way back to the Behemoth. The phone was ringing off the hook at New England Porch Rockers. Everyone was looking for Jeannie, the owner.
I asked her one more time about New Hampshire, if she’d ever leave it. She lives with her husband, James, in Sanbornton, which sits about five miles north of Tilton.
She said she’s learned, after several moves and marriages, to be circumspect.
“Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve said,’this is it. They’re going to have to carry me out in a body bag,'” she said. “So, who knows? I like New Hampshire. I’m happy here. You never can tell what tomorrow will bring.”

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Woonsocket, Rhode Island: You Can’t Scare Me I’m Sticking to the Union


Sept. 27, Woonsocket, R.I. – Yesterday, all I knew of Woonsocket was that baseball Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie was born here. That was a while ago (1874).
Ninety-seven years after Larry Lajoie made his debut on this mortal coil, I learned that little nugget about Woonsocket. Which means I hadn’t learned anything new about this northern Rhode Island mill town in more than 40 years.
You might say I took the long way around to get to Woonsocket, which sits in the cradle of America’s industrial revolution. Woonsocket lies just 27 miles down the Blackstone River Valley from Worcester, Ma. I drove 118 miles to get from Worcester to Woonsocket. Well, I’ve never been known for efficiency.
Today, in an effort to chip away at my Woonsocket ignorance, I visited the Museum ofWork and Culture on Main Street. At $8, it is a stone-cold bargain. There are two 15-rominute films, the first offering a concise and thoughtful overview of Woonsocket’s industrial history, the second covering the rise of the Independent Textile Union.
Lajoie’s parents came here as part of the flood tide of Quebecois migration that turned this town into a French-Canadian stronghold. Their farmland increasingly failing to produce satisfactory yields, Quebecois came here by the thousands and thousands, lured south by pie-in-the-sky promises that capitalists have always fed the people they hoped to exploit. To seal the deal, mill owners handed out free train tickets. Later they would deduct the cost of those tickets from employees’ paychecks.
Those French-Canadians are a plucky bunch, though. They survived unfavorable conditions, and even thrived. They adopted the motto “La Survivance!” in a drive to sustain Francophone folkways, language and culture. Soon they became the dominant ethnic group in Woonsocket, comprising as much as 75 percent of the population.
Woonsocket, I learned, had a pivotal role in the development of the American labor movement. In the late 1920s and early 30s, as the New England cotton industry buckled and then collapsed in the face of competition with southern mills, workers, including children, faced increasingly onerous conditions. It was dangerous, uncomfortable work. The ceaseless clangor of machines rattled eardrums. The mills were cauldrons of insufferable heat and humidity. There were frequent speed-ups on the line. Foremen exacted favors from workers in exchange for decent work. And if you didn’t like your job, there were a hundred people who’d grab it yesterday.
Fear was always on the side of the owners.

Into this milieu came a man named Joe Schmetz, a skilled mule spinner and socialist radical from Belgium. Schmetz emerged as the driving force in the founding of the Independent Textile Union. All workers, skilled and unskilled, were included under the ITU banner.
Then, in 1934, a great textile strike swept across the nation like a prairie fire. With 400,000 workers walking off the job, it was the largest strike in U.S. labor history. Following the lead of his southern counterparts, Rhode Island Governor Theodore Green summoned the national guard. On Sept. 12, during a protest outside the Woonsocket Rayon Plant, the only mill to remain open during the strike, all hell broke loose. A 19-year-old boy named Jude Courtmanche, who was just walking by the demonstration, was struck by a bullet and killed.
Bloodshed in Woonsocket and elsewhere helped sway public opinion in favor or the workers, giving the ITU a critical momentum boost. By 1941, the union had 1,200 members.
My favorite part of the museum tour was upstairs, and it wasn’t the baseball exhibit with Nap Lajoie at center stage (for the record, I didn’t realize Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett, aka “Old Tomato Face, also was a Woonsocket native). It was an exhibit showcasing the triple-decker tenements. You ring a door bell and got to hear recollections from three different tenants in one building. One of them is a fellow named Harvey LaRiviere. After noting that 90 percent of the people in his neighborhood were of French-Canadian descent, he said:
“It didn’t matter, because everybody seemed to be happy to me, more than they are today. Today it don’t seem like they’re satisfied. In them days, we were satisfied. It didn’t take much to satisfy us, but we were satisfied.
“How we lived through it, I don’t know. But we made it. I’m happy it’s all gone. I wouldn’t want to go back to them days. Never.”
Yeah boy, Harvey sounded as if he was damn satisfied, I mean really satisfied, to be alive in those days he’d never want to go near again.
I left the museum and took a walk around Woonsocket. The architecture is outstanding. The town has more than its share of handsome buildings. Many cry for renovation, but beauty shines through the decay. The mill owners might have been parsimonious bastards, but they knew how to put together a nice-looking little city.
Nowadays Woonsocket is reeling and scuffling to figure out some vision of the future. Which is the trouble facing most former mill towns. A lot of squirrelly looking young men walk the streets smoking cigarettes and trying to appear dangerous. Maybe they’re looking to make a score or a sale, or just trying to look cool. There are plenty of social services offices, and plenty of vacant storefronts.
But there’s life here. You can eat Chinese, Thai or Tandoori. New York Lunch on Main is the real home of weiners, or wieners, depending upon which part of the signage you’re reading.


The Hanora Mills, a lovely stone building, has been converted into low-income housing. The Providence and Worcester Railroad depot, dating to 1882, is a real jewel. It was lucky. The brick and terra cotta structure got a makeover for the 2009 Richard Gere vehicle, “Haichi: A Dog’s Tale.” The sculpted likeness of Haichi sits out front of the depot building, next to a marker which says it was “gifted to the citizens of Woonsocket by the students of  the Beacon Charter High School for Arts …”
I mean, really. Why must we always turn nouns into verbs when perfectly acceptable verbs already exist? But the best part of the refashioned depot, which now houses the offices of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, is it is a “shellfish-free” building.
Farther downtown, the Stadium Theatre has been renovated and turned into a Performing Arts Center. The lineup is retro-comatose, with Don McLean’s November date topping the bill. If you buy tickets, which range from $36-$96, you are guaranteed McLean will perform all his ancient hits, most notably “American Pie.”
My mind reeled back to Bellows Falls, Vermont, which was touting Mavis Staples’ upcoming performance. Bellows Falls also had a handful of really cool, vital acts on the way, stuff right in my wheelhouse, including Billy Bragg, Michael Tarbox and the criminally obscure Jon Dee Graham.
Not so the Stadium, which has Jo Dee Messina and the Blues Brothers to look forward to in addition to Mr. American Pie. I guess we all have our preferences.


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