IN FLU, SOME ZEN

February 5, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

Enduring the flu is a cleansing experience, literally and beyond. It is also lucky triumph over what has been a killer this most unusual season as the preventive vaccine has often not worked. It did not for me.
But maybe it was not the flu, though the aches, chills, fever, sore throat, lethargy said “yes.” Maybe it was a cold/flu-like virus, of the adenovirus type. You can get a vaccine for that, but you have to join Uncle Sam’s military machine.
Whatever hit me Wednesday last as I was in usual mode, running here and there, burning one candle at three ends, had me by evening with chills, fever and onstant cough covered with enough blankets to make a polar bear leave the igloo.
The usual concerns, and the stress I bring to appointments, writings, paintings, volunteering, this and that disappeared quickly. Didn’t look at the cell phone, the iPad.
Didn’t eat, either, as appetite left faster than a Yankee fan in Beantown. Even the friend that shakes my hands all the time — arthritis — didn’t call, and for once the finger that needs to relax first thing in the day before it folds again behaved.
In an odd way, perhaps nature’s protection, I slipped into neutral. Yes, lots of aches, feeling 150 years old, disgusted, but it was a blessing not to be concerned about anything.
All I did was drink fluids, especially electrolytes, and watch the fever, which never got to the level and duration requiring a trip to the med people. The complications were few enough, too, so I could stay home.
Meanwhile, back on the treadmill, the volunteering I was supposed to handle was so superbly done by others that I now know how utterly replaceable I am. A rebalancing of the ego, another of nature’s re-tuning.
As the appetite slowly began to return after three days, I found the taste buds rejected salt and sugar as aliens. So why have I courted both so long?
I didn’t touch the cell phone for days, and when I finally looked for it, the phone was in the trash with a gazillion tissues.
Now on the full mend, slowly, I realize flu or adenovirus can be a teacher, however difficult and dangerous the lesson may be. As long as you have a mild case, and that admittedly was my good fortune, you can find peace in simple living, resting, eating minimally and wise, forgoing the constant email checks and appointment worries.
I was blessed to get better quickly, and I do not wish illness of any sort on anyone just so they can have a zen moment, but I found that peace can come in the oddest ways.
Now to maintain the equilibrium.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

KEY TO A SUCCESSFUL JOB

January 29, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

I don’t suppose people use keys to lock bathroom doors anymore, but in downtown Nyack, N.Y., one very old mortise set was stirred to life for perhaps the first time in more than 100 years.
As a volunteer at the Edward Hopper House, the birthplace in 1882 of the famed American realist artist, I was tasked by two concerned staffers with securing a door on the original bathroom, no longer used. They need it temporarily for archival space, and the room must be locked.
I was going to add a small, really non-invasive bolt latch that could be removed but was stopped — literally blocked at the bath door — by Carole Perry, the artistic director, and Jill De Vonyer, Hopper House archivist. Since I rarely seek to encounter the wrath of women (that comes anyway, without trying), I stared ahead, awaiting instruction, a long-ago-learned defensive move.
“You are NOT going to make holes in this old door, are you?” were the unspoken words as the eyes of Carole and Jill darted. I think I mumbled something about there already being a thousand pecks and blemishes in the still-unfinished though stained fir door, a standard 1880s building item.
That was when Jill, diminutive though she may be in height, focused on me as a laser would, or perhaps as a cat annoyed because it has not been fed on time. Carole, meanwhile, stood ground in the hallway with no retreat in mind.
“Ah,” I said, again in tactical defense. “I see this door has a mortised key lock.” (A mechanism set inside a hollowed-out section.) “Maybe I can take it out and make it work.” I could already hear the purring from the archivist and the director, so wonderfully protective are they of Hopper House, along with Jennifer Patton, the executive director, Joyce Byrnes and Ursula D’Auria in the office,  the trustees and the many volunteers over more than four decades.
The lock, common on inside doors back in the day, operates with a simple, “skeleton” key, turning a chunk of metal (mortise) that goes into a strike plate and tenon space on the door jamb.

The old mechanism came out easily, and as was also common back in America’s industrial age, the lock was made so that it could be quickly disassembled. I was able to clean the ancient dust from inside and lubricate the lock with the small tube of Vaseline I carry for dry hands, etc.
Back the thing went, a skeleton key was procured, and we had a working lock. All that was needed was Dave Sirois, also on the House & Grounds Committee, to add a strike plate from his collection as a contractor and old-homes restoration expert.
I hear Carole and Jill are pleased. I can relax because I did not incur wrath. Hopper House has been protected. And we can all say cheers for old-style American hardware that endures into its third century.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

‘REASSURANCE’ IN AN OLD-STYLE DINER

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

Small diners in my part of the world in lower New York State a few decades back were known for tasty, homemade food served by owners and their staff who seemed like family, especially for the regular customers. They were homes away from home. And they could be small theater for the characters within.
Each diner — Hogan’s, Tiny’s, Sparky’s, etc., often several in every village and town — was small enough — like an old railway dining car — that you were intimate with the other patrons but also, if you buried yourself in your newspaper, you could be by yourself. Not unlike the table at home where your siblings might be jabbering away but quiet you wanted to be, lost in your thoughts.
Our diners, like small-town eateries anywhere and even the intimate ones in cities back when they were simple, too, knew their customers. Regulars would be greeted accordingly, usually with voices loud enough so that the rest of us took notice and either said hello or mentally checked off our list that another member of the “family” was in the “house.” Reassurance, again.
Diners offered further intimacy with staff, including the waitress who knew all about you, who had your order placed even before you sat down, who kept a pencil in her hair and a check pad in her apron pocket, even if she took your order by memory.
And there was the grill cook, the fellow at the “flat top,” who had home fries simmering on low heat in the back left and who used the full surface to griddle pancakes, eggs over easy, burgers, onions, without burning anything, his hands quick to open up the left-side refrigerator where he took out American cheese or reached overhead to pull bread from the Pullman loaves left by the local commercial bakery, Ramapo or Widman’s.
The cook was truly intimate with the customers, some of whom would purposely sit in front of him to watch him work. One advantage was that you could fine-tune the time on your eggs.
Some of these grill cooks, like others in the old diner industry, were itinerant, and they came for a few months in summer and went south in the winter. But they were as regular as a clock in showing up at the right time.
The customers were regular, too, in their often quirky ways, as in any family. One fellow I recall stirred his coffee about 15 times, after loading it up with five spoons of sugar. Then he banged the spoon on the rim of the green java cup as if to wring out the last drop. Finally, with an “ah,” he began to literally slurp the coffee. Did this each and every time. Did that routine for years. And, funny as it was, it was reassuring to the other regulars in the old diner. Reassuring to him, too.
In those days, the police chief came in, the mayor, the auto mechanic, the principal. Everyone knew each other or of one another, often going back generations. So there would be nods and small questions, like “How’s the vegetable patch this year, chief?” Overall, it made for trust, especially with the police. They were your neighbors.
Maybe the world, at least parts of the American world, especially our cities and anonymous suburbs, could use a few of the old diners, their staff, their food, their patrons. They could use reassurance from “family.”

The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay was adapted from an earlier version.

TEA TIME IN AMERICA

January 15, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

It is tea time in America, whether that is your favored beverage or not. The Irish, the English know that troubled moments are best navigated with a spot of the brew, and now is our need.
So, metaphorically, let us sit a spell. It need not be 3 p.m. Indeed, it is already high noon in our nation.
In his last State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said on Jan. 11, 1944, just months before the great invasion of Europe would extinguish the long horror of tyranny, that “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Ah, yes, and also the mojo for the 2016 presidential election in which too many long-lost Democrats never saw the poverty in West Virginia or how the closing of the local Walmart forced even more into depression when their only place to socialize was gone. Bernie knew that, Clinton did not. The liberal talk of a party of the people had never gone to the walk. People were still jobless, poor, without hope, largely white and so very ripe for the false promises of the Republicans.
Perhaps the GOP’s old moderates could have led the “people who are hungry and out of a job …” to freshly fertilized pasture and its hope, but they are as neutered as liberal Democrats.
In his address, FDR said, “This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty. As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. …”
The president, in a time when that title was revered, was advocating a Second Bill of Rights to ensure jobs, food, clothing and leisure “with enough income to support them”; farmer’s rights; freedom from monopolies; good housing; medical care; and education.
What FDR did not anticipate was the growth of special-interest money, now legalized to sway elections, nor the inherently anti-democratic military/industrial complex whose profits are fed by war not peace.
So, it is tea time in America, and while the poor, good American from West Virginia or the out-of-work, college-educated businessperson or the 56-year-old laid-off factory worker or the children of promise in urban poverty, or children anywhere in America (for they are all of promise) have a tough day most days while government fiddles and even grossly insults, there is a place at the kitchen table for them.
FDR sought to protect them — all of us — from another Great Depression. He tried to prevent more war and the dictatorships that build on the down and out, but his Second Bill of Rights proposal died with him. No one since has successfully picked up the standard without being knocked down by special interest.
Tea may not prove enough to get through this darkness, but it will make the good people — and they are most of us — feel better as we hope for a national reset.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

ON THE NORTHEAST COLD

Great-grandfather’s old stove

January 8, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

It is one degree in Blauvelt, N.Y., as I write this piece, unusual cold these days in this part of the Northeast not far from New York City but reminiscent of old winters.
In that time, though, cars did not start easily, coal furnaces had to be hand-stoked, hoping that the fire did not dissapear from the embers banked the night before, and my female schoolmates waited for buses wearing required dresses, their poor legs red from the biting cold and wind.
And that was just 50 or so years ago. Imagine back another half century with horses to saddle, wood cooking stoves to refill and a long walk to school.
So, the moment is relative, as it always is, and even without a frame of reference, say the 20 year old who knew not the world in 1968, you can appreciate some of modern technology, at least if you can afford it. Or if you are not homeless, as too many remain in this rich nation.
On this one-degree day, a Sunday in Blauvelt, there was not many errands, so no multiple trips about. Just a cozy day inside, and thanks for that. Thanks that I was not my grandfather putting coal ash on the driveway for a gritty surface. Thankful that I wasn’t my great-grandmother milking her cow at 6 a.m. And grateful that I wasn’t my triple-great-uncle responding to a fire call with a steam-fired pumper.
Yet I was thankful for a bit of nostalgia thrown my way in the cold. When I was five, living in nearby Sloatsburg, the rented house on Seven Lakes Drive had no central heating, just a large grate in the hall off the living room that sat above a hand-fed gravity coal furnace. On very frigid mornings my brother Craig and I would get dressed standing on that grate, hopping from one foot to another since the metal got hot.
Now, in 2018, that memory was reawakened on the one-degree morning when, after rising at 5:30, I brought down clothes, threw them in front of the gas fireplace, started the fire, and when it was putting out heat, got dressed in front of the fireplace. No foot-hopping this time, though.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. ahgunther@yahoo.com

THEY WAITED FIRST

 

January 1, 2018

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

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. ahgunther@yahoo.com

WOODEN ESCALATORS

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. clausland@yahoo.com

A VILLAGE BECKONS

December 11, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III
BLOG: thecolumnrule.com

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. ahgunther@yahoo.com

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

December 4, 2017

By Arthur H. Gunther III
thecolumnrule.com

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. ahgunther@yahoo.com