January 1, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III

In these days of online buying, in these days of the disappeared downtown bakery, we don’t stand on long lines anymore except maybe at Motor Vehicles … and the tax office at my local town hall.
Hundreds of property owners were there in the mad dash to prepay town and county taxes before the last weekend in 2017 so they could claim the charge on their income tax returns. For most of us, it was a sayonara moment in deductions thanks to the Great Income Transfer delivered by a rightist horde that promises we will all be wearing gold after big corporations sprinkle us with trickle-down, a largesse that will keep on giving. (We shall see about that. I am keeping my plain cloth coat just in case.)
As you would expect, since most people are decent, behaved and mannerly, there was little complaint on the long tax line about waiting, even about the inefficiency of the setup after a second line was opened up but those long standing were not taken first. As in all lines where we wait, there was a commonality, a fraternity, and suddenly we all had neighbors. There was comfort in that, that you were not alone in the troubles. Queuing up, a real pain, but with benefits.
For me, an observer by newspaperman requirement, and a bit nosy, too, I found it interesting to listen in on this conversation and that.
The man in front of me, obviously of Irish descent, was spotted by a lass of such heritage, and wouldn’t you know,  not only were these strangers to each other from the same county in Ireland but they could each name the village stores.
For a long while during the 1.5-hour wait to the counter where cheerful and helpful tax collection clerks were doing their best to speed things along in an unusual situation, the line barely moved. But soon enough, a rhythm set in, as it always does in life, and gears began meshing.
We moved into a big room, the main lobby of my town hall where, befitting the area history of having hosted the largest World War II Army East Coast embarkation port, one wall carries a large collage mural of some of the 1.3 million soldiers who passed through Camp Shanks, so many never to return.
And what did we on our waiting line see in so many of those Signal Corps photos? Lines. Mess hall lines. Medical hut lines. And lines to board trains and buses to ships to England, to France, to Germany.
How humbling to notice how so many of our brave forebears waited so that in 2017, we could in peace also wait, to pay for the privilege of owning a home.
Argue we could, and can, about the unfairness and special interest of the new tax changes, but we are still in a democratic society where we can challenge and change all that.
In large measure because others waited for us first.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.


Some years ago, when I was a newspaperman at the original Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y., I gave my usual weekly column slot to my son at winter holiday time. He always pens a fictional piece. Here is his writing for 2017.

By Arthur H. Gunther IV

She had outlived him by four years. At least so far. The time it took to get a college degree. Complete high school. The time between Olympic games. One presidential term. A time that could be short and long. She wasn’t the one who measured time. That was always him. She was sure he would have had something to say about four years. It might have annoyed her at one point, but now she missed it more than she could say.
He had had traditions. Things he liked doing again and again. The way he would return to the same books or albums, the same places, as a measure of who he was and where he was going. Who he had been. It gave him perspective. It was his way of slowing down time.  He would have been lost without it.
She had been witness to these things.  These traditions and revisits.  She accepted them and understood as much as she could, but she was different.  She didn’t need it like he did.
There were things she knew about him.  Things that she had witnessed the origin of, that she could trace to their root, but there were others that had been there from the start.  Others that she couldn’t lay claim to.  Most things she became a part of.  Others she witnessed at arm’s length.  Then there were those that were just his.  She had hers too.  She guessed that all couples did in their own way.  She never gave it that much thought.
But now, for whatever reason, she was starting to wonder.  Maybe she had spent so much time ruminating over all their shared memories that she became greedy for more of him.  Greedy for more stories.
It was December once more and she found her mind wandering back to one of her late husband’s odd traditions.  Once every year, always the week before Christmas, he would disappear for a day.  He never really explained where he went or why and, for whatever reason, she never really asked him.  He explained most everything else, almost to a fault.  There must have been a reason for his silence.  She figured this one was just his.  All she could recall was the old flannel shirt he always wore when he left.
As December continued, she found herself becoming consumed by the thought of this odd tradition.  Where before she hadn’t cared, now she found herself wondering.  Where had he gone all those years?
One day, a week before Christmas, she was rummaging through the one drawer that remained of her husband’s clothes.  The rest she had given away, but there were still a few she held on to.  On the bottom of the drawer was a shirt.  She pulled it out and considered it.  Staring at its pattern, it quickly occurred to her that this was the one he had worn on those mysterious December days.  There was nothing special about it.  It was worn thin in spots, maybe a bit of an unusual shade of blue if anything.  The kind that was never really in or out of style.  She put it on and smoothed it down over her.  It was a bit big.  Her hand found her way to the front pocket.  Reaching inside, she found a weathered piece of lined paper with an address written on it:  151 W. 34th St., 8th floor.
The next morning, she found herself boarding the train to Manhattan, suddenly intent on finding what was her husband’s connection to the address.  It must have had something to do with his yearly ritual.  She could have just looked it up, but something told her to just go and see.  That’s probably what he would have done himself if the situation were the same. She took the 45 minute train ride to the subway and then got out and walked.  She didn’t have far to go from the station before there it was, towering in front of her:  151 W 34th St:  Macy’s department store.  There was no shortage of people entering and exiting the store, along with all those who were just there looking at the holiday windows.  Entering the crowded, warm store, she took her jacket off, revealing her husband’s old shirt that she had purposely worn.  She had, of course, been here before, but it had been years, not since their children were young. She made her way over to the escalators and began to make the climb up to the 8th floor.  The modernity that stood out on the first levels slowly faded.  By the 7th floor, surprisingly, the escalator became one of the old wooden ones.  She was surprised to see that they still existed.  She got off on the 8th floor and found that the floors, like the escalator, remained all wood.  The old long wooden planks were unevenly worn.  She began walking around and found that this floor was the location of the bed department.  None of it made any sense.  She followed the wooden floor around the corner to the far side of the building and found that, nestled between beds and bedding was the Macy’s Christmas ornament shop.  She slowly remembered that the last time they had been there, this was where they went.  It was an oasis of silver and gold, tinsel and light, standing in stark contrast to the plain white mattresses that occupied the bulk of the floor.  What a magical place!  She saw a bench against one wall and sat down to take it all in.
It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes when she looked up to see a man staring at her.  He walked over and began to speak.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but is there any way you know Pete?”  Pete was her husband’s name.
“Yes…I’m his wife.”  The man looked relieved.
“Oh, that’s good news.  We were all wondering where he’s been.  We haven’t seen him in four years.”
She couldn’t imagine how confused she must’ve looked.  She managed to get out, “How do you know my husband?  How did you know to ask me about him?”
“Oh, sorry.  It’s the shirt.  Pete always wore that shirt when he came.  So how is he?  Where’s he been?”
The familiarity this stranger had with her husband threw her for a loop, but she answered anyway.  “I’m sorry to tell you, but he passed away four years ago.  He was 88.”
The man couldn’t hide the shock on his face.  He immediately sat down on the bench.  “That is terrible news.  I knew he was getting old, but he seemed so strong.  I would have never guessed his age.  He never told us.”
She let a minute or so pass with this strange man who somehow knew her husband sitting beside her.  Eventually she managed to ask, “How did you know my husband?”
The man looked surprised, “You don’t know?”  She shook her head.  “Pete had been coming here once a year the week before Christmas for 40 years.  Well before I started here.  He was a bit of a legend.  The employees from the Christmas shop would pass down his story to each other.”
Her silent gaze urged the man to say more.  “As I understood it, Pete had some arrangement with the managers of the Christmas department.  They let him come every year and work for a day selling ornaments and decorations.  He was so excited to be here.  I know he didn’t get paid.  He said it was his own tradition.  He would talk about his children.  How they had come up here once together when they were young. He would tell us about his wife.”  He stopped for a minute, “You.  He said he loved it up here where things still looked old and handmade and slow.  I actually remember exactly how he put it.  Pete said being up here, if only once a year, helped him slow down time.  Something about letting the year all catch up to him.”  He stopped for a moment.  “He seemed like a good man.”
Pete’s wife, who had been speechless for the last minute, only could nod and think, yes, yes he was.

The writer is a teacher at the William O. Schaefer School in Tappan, N.Y. He lives in Upper Nyack, N.Y.


December 11, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

NYACK, N.Y. — It has been a long time since I haunted Main Street as a shopper in this forever charming village north of New York City, a place never to be confused with Gotham. It has its own vibe — it’s not the city nor suburbia, which have their own great haunts.
Once, my parents shopped here, back when there was no suburbia nearby and downtowns were meccas with a bunch of shoe stores, several pharmacies, two five and dimes, hat shops, dress shops, a bakery, meat stores, small supermarkets and a soda fountain to relax in after hours of shopping.
But “progress” came, with strip shopping and malls and loads of cars on the roads. Downtowns could not compete.
Now, as online shopping threatens to similarly retire what progress wrought, a gentle walk through a village like Nyack takes you deja vu all over again. Some stores are back, some never left, like Koblin’s, a famed pharmacy.
I was in search of holiday cards and a watch battery. Found all four at Koblin’s and then went up Main to Herb Lack Paints, a hardware store, to buy an electrical switch that the big-box outlets have, too, but which was so much easier to pick up by just walking a few steps from one village store to another.
Herb Lack was once owned under another name, and as I gave the present people my money, I noticed I was standing above the same counter where so many years ago I had a key made to the front door of the original Journal-News at 53 Hudson where I would work for 42 years.
There was a warm feeling doing this Nyack walk, recalling when my parents shopped here with my brother and me in tow. I also remember others flooding the streets of Nyack, including a special friend who always did her Christmas shopping there with a stop at the old catacorner card store at Main and Midland. Then there is the present long-distance  correspondent who would leave rural Congers to weekend shop in the big village of Nyack.
I am guilty of not shopping enough in the Nyacks of my life, instead rushing off to the big mall or now online. I assisted in their decline and/or downsizing.
But the Nyacks are there, and is it ever so peaceful and fulfilling to mosey about.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.


December 4, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III

I have a friend in Colorado, a former Rocklander, one whose family roots go back to before the Revolution, who would walk into a room with sun trying to pop its buttons through a brilliantly lit window shade and focus just on that, even if the sky were otherwise falling. She is an optimist, and our emails, a daily feature since 2005, add the yin to my often pessimistic yang. Thank you, friend.
It is good and necessary to have such balance if life isn’t to take you into dark tunnels with no light in sight. Such a journey seems before the Republic now in too many ways. Arising again is more national meanness, prejudice, ignorance and deliberate falsehood meant to divert our attention away from the path upon which the founders set us.
We have often stumbled and fallen for long periods on that journey — slavery, civil war, the Great Depression, inequality, greed — but the innate goodness of the general populace and the mojo set forth in our Constitution have given us the courage to get up over and over and keep walking.
But now we are in a long, deep tunnel, with the pied piper leading us God knows where, playing a tune meant to rouse our fears, to suspect each other, to distrust humanity itself.
The piper’s notes are simple, deceptive, and we harken our ears to the tune because in all of us there is ability to hate. Most of us awake from such stupor, of course, but by then the damage may be done. (Witness the Hitler years.)
Somewhere in that dark tunnel is a stage to which we are all brought, and a dim spot light focuses on the juggler, but behind the curtain unfolds the real event, the dismantling of the republic, its heralded institutions, its natural progressivism, its enlightening goodness, our better self.

Now, my Colorado friend, a former teacher who obviously still instructs, would surely see beyond the curtain, beyond the false Wizard of Oz, to a brilliantly lit window and the sun behind it popping its buttons. Others would see the dark.

I pray optimism wins this one.

The writer is a retired newspaperman.