Copyright ©1997 A.D. Sullivan
By the Time I Got to Woodstock
I'll make this deal with you, old poet,
after mistrusting you for so long,
your nazi propaganda
spoiling your nearly perfect art,
I come to you,
a convicted thief,
whose father quoted
both sides of your equations,
stealing lines and philosophy
as he beat me with his belt,
carving into my hide and heart
an unblemished memory of you--
and now after twenty years,
I make this deal,
asking him to forgive me
for hating you,
stealing your poetry
as he did,
while beating my own son.
By the Time I Got to Woodstock...
Woodstock Nation faces challenges of the 1990s
The first time I ever heard the name "Woodstock" was when my top sergeant yanked me from my bunk saying I'd volunteered for duty there. I was too busy overcoming my fear of helicopters to ask many questions, or point out the 1969 rock festival was actually held 50 miles southwest of the town.
I was part of one of the medical evacuation teams sent to the area to transport the ill and injured to area hospitals. But I kept my eyes closed for the greater part of the time in the air, much to the chagrin of the Vietnam-hardened pilot. On the ground I dragged people on or off under the swipe of the helicopter blades. My best friend was flown out with pneumonia by a crew from the New York National Guard. Reportedly he screamed the whole time he wanted to wait and see Jimi Hendrix. It was only when my unit left that I opened my eyes, and briefly glimpsed the magnitude of what has been called "Woodstock Nation."
For years the town of Woodstock has been the Mecca for people seeking to recapture a bit of the old magic, and celebrated as a place where some of the 1960s ideals had been put into practice. I studiously avoided the place, having once been turned away from Alice's Restaurant of the Arlo Guthrie song for not having a reservation. The experience made me a cynic on 1960s myths. But as the 25th anniversary of the concert neared I gave in to the urge to see just how much better the people of Woodstock were handling the crisis of the 1990s.
Strangely enough, I found the people of Woodstock struggling with many of same problems people in Hudson County faced: questions on development, how to attract tourism and how small communities deal with nationally advertised events.
Hanging over Woodstock were not rumors of traffic woes caused by World Cup soccer, but much more acute concerns about the impact of this weekend's anniversary concert on what was normally a sleepy community. While Hudson County had the benefit of mass transportation and a variety of highways to help siphon off the invasion of cars, many of the roadways around Woodstock are narrow two-lane 1950s roads, never designed for high volumes of traffic. Like Hoboken with its recent bar-closing hysteria, Woodstock fears a major social impact, and yet refuses to shut out the traffic entirely the way Secaucus has during the World Cup. For the businesses of Woodstock look forward with mixed feelings towards the concert, hoping it will revitalize their economy.
One essential difference you notice when turning off Route 375 into Woodstock is the lack of development. No condominiums. No chain stores. No office buildings of any kind. But along both sides of Tinker Street, there is store after store straight out of 1967 Greenwich Village, selling everything from beads to wind-chimes. Indoor and outdoor art galleries give the village an oddly urban feel, contrasting against the clearly rural mountain community around it.
It is like stepping back in time with many of the local residents dressed in period costumes, beads and headbands, as conventional as suits and ties are in most places. White-haired hippies walk side by side with high school-aged kids. Few but the tourists stare. At the local outdoor fruit cafe, a Janis Joplin look-a-like lectures kids half her age about 1969 and that era's philosophy.
The name "Woodstock" is an obvious selling point with nearly half the stores in town incorporating it into their own names. But plenty of other places opted for the usual 1960s flair, with names like the White Buffalo, the Warm Store or Sunflower Natural Foods. The smell of honeycomb and incense inside the Candlestock brought it all back. The 7-foot-high collection of wax drippings might well have been started in the Summer of Love.
Although many people came here after the 1969 concert, Woodstock has a long history as a Mecca of the arts, contrasting with Hoboken; where the gallery scene started after development began to transform the town. Ralph Whitehead, a utopian English philosopher, founded the Brydcliff Art and Crafts colony here in 1902. Woodstock became the summer home of the Art Students League and in 1910 Woodstock Artists Association was started. In 1940, the Woodstock Guild was formed to promote the development of arts and crafts and form the basis for the current "Colony of Craft the Arts." A variety of chamber music concerts began in 1916, and in 1937, the Woodstock playhouse began theater and dance performances; for which Woodstock was initially famous. Famous writers, musicians, artists and crafts people are among those who live in the wooded crags around the village. Indeed, Woodstock is now known for some of the finest recording studios in the world.
While development in Hoboken and other parts of Hudson County has spurred the economy, here in Woodstock, there is a not-so-silent dread of developers. Development is strictly limited.
"The owner of one piece of property tried to put in a small strip mall, but it was voted down," said Roz, an owner and operator of a small bookstore in the center of town.
Most of the local economy here runs on tourism, something Secaucus is now investigating as an antidote for shrinking ratables and its own rebellion against development. Yet Woodstock has taken much from the 1960s. Competition is not welcome here. While the 6,700 full-time residents endure the tourists, it does not open itself up to increasing business.
"This is not the kind of place where new faces are welcomed," Roz said. "We started our business here and they didn't want us. They said they already had a bookstore in town, they didn't want two. That's the way it is with everything here."
The vision is also typical of the 1960s in which there is only so much to go around, and with too many people dipping into the tourist trade, someone's bound to suffer.
But this dependence on tourism has its price. When Roz first got here in 1985, business was booming.
"The streets were so packed on a weekend in the summer you couldn't walk down them," Roz said. "Business is down. The recession has hurt us. People are staying away."
Coinciding with the recession was the fire that burned down the Woodstock Playhouse, one of the other chief attractions of the town. Although IBM and other corporations located their national headquarters within a stone's throw of Woodstock, layoffs have sent a further chill into the local economy. Barnes & Noble had planned a store in a neighboring community, but backed out of the lease after the layoffs.
One answer to the slumping economy is nostalgia. Woodstock is world famous for the 1969 concert which bears its name. A 25th Anniversary concert planned next month for eight miles out of town has many people hopeful of a tourist revival. Indeed, the town is dripping nostalgia, taking its cue from the national event to recreate 1960s magic here and now.
This weekend, Woodstock was holding a festival of its own in a nearby field, featuring 20 bands and 40 crafts concessions. The names of the bands were hardly the household variety of the original 1969 event. Many of these bands have copycat names typical of generic perfumes and video pornography. The Clearwater Singers, Pepe Santana, Ellis and Friend, Chiapas Indian Peace Caravan were among those scheduled to play.
Even the local movie house has gotten in on the act, featuring a Cinema `69 series that includes Yellow Submarine, Woodstock, Easy Rider, Alice's Restaurant, In the Year of the Pig, Gimme Shelter and other films, as well as guest speakers like Arlo Guthrie. The admittance to each performance is $5, half price if you come in period costume.
Yet the impact on the area may be many times greater than World Cup soccer had been on Hudson County. Unlike many of the dire predictions made in Hoboken and other Hudson County communities, changes in Woodstock have already begun. Town Hall estimates that 25,000 will descend upon the small community during the weeks before and after the concert. The volunteer rescue squad, already short-handed, is out seeking more volunteers. The local soup kitchen, set up in 1993 to help feed people suffering as a result of the recession, closed its doors for the summer.
"We do not have the resources," said Victoria Langling, of Woodstock soup kitchen. "We did not have enough food and we did not have enough volunteers."
The soup kitchen had been feeding 40 people a day until last month when the numbers began to increase. Last count it was at 75 per day. The church out of which they feed people has a maximum capacity of 80.
There have been burglaries, too. Over a three-day period at the beginning of July, police reported several break-ins to local restaurants. Over the July 4th weekend, Police made 40 arrests up from 18 the year before. Many of the people arrested gave addresses from Texas, California, Idaho and Florida.
"Several said they were in the spirit of Woodstock," Woodstock police chief Paul Ragonese said. "But these people can't just do their own thing."
The police have also found people camped out on private property around the area. This weekend, store owners say, the local green has seen a significant increase in new faces. Many of those coming are in their early to mid-20s. Chief Ragonese said there are plans to bring in the auxiliary police and ask for volunteers. But this is largely to handle the expected traffic woes. He said for the most part, people are well behaved.
"They made very little noise and didn't leave much litter behind," he said.
One of the clerks at a town jewelry store said many residents are worried about what kind of people the concert will bring in. "The organizers initially wanted to bring in rap and other new bands," she said. "We don't need that kind of trouble around here. We pressed them to cut out most of that music. But there's still the heavy metal bands to worry about and the kind of kids that music attracts."
Members of the Family of Woodstock, a local social organization, said they noticed an influx of people, too. There have been reports of panhandling and other activities. On my brief tour of town, I saw several girls hitch-hiking. Although they were dressed like hippies, down to the almost obligatory backpack, they were barely 20 years old.
An umbrella organization called Woodstock Ambassadors met in order to deal with the incoming crowds associated with the festival. Their agenda included festival hours, drugs, noise, trespassing, pay phones, directions for local roads, lost and found, free food, transportation, festival information, parking, trash-recycling, baby-sitting and auto repair.
In the typical Woodstock tone, a spokesperson for one of the participating organizations said the idea was to show care and concern.
"We want to show them the real Woodstock in all its variety," said Eric Glass of Woodstock Youth Center. "We want to offer reassurance and a deep sense of community good will."
Although ticket sales for Woodstock `94 are not moving as quickly as first expected, organizers from Polygram Records say they will pick up. As of July 5, 128,000 tickets were sold. It is estimated that the event will draw 250,000.
Will the festival bring back the post-recession business of the 1980s? Some business people like Roz from the bookstore think not. Roz said her business is solid, based less on tourists than local residents. But many are not so lucky. At the Sunflower Natural Food store, women walk around in full regalia, straight out of photographs from Haight-Ashbury. Yet inside, an elder hippie and his son are paying for their natural food drinks with food stamps.
The gears ground as Larry Bourne tried to shift, the hill to the farm house too much for the antique VW bus, though he banged on the stick until the gears meshed.
"I might have to find something more appropriate to the terrain," he thought. "Maybe a jeep or a pickup truck. I've seen lots of locals with both, looking like the salt of the earth, living off the fat of the land, just like bears in the woods."
Woods, of course, was the wrong word.
Farm land stretched out on either side of the road, striped like a blank music sheet waiting for Larry to fill in the notes. The land surprised him with every ridge, as he admired the treasures he found hidden in every fold from the coal-black color of the soil to the silver and red silo that poked its head over the hill as he climbed. Even the barn pleased him, its missing shingles and worn wood providing a texture he d found missing in New York City.
"Home," he thought, though he d never associated that word with any place other than Greenwich Village before. He liked the way the farm house, when it appeared, snuggled into the bend of land, one ridge shielding it on other side. "Those old-timers really knew how to build houses, fitting them into the landscape to keep out the bitter winter wind and the brutal summer sun. I can enjoy living like this."
In the rear view mirror, the other cars wobbled as they followed the ribbon road from the Thruway, like little tug boats struggling over a rough brown sea, sunlight catching on their windshields as they mounted each ridge. The wooden-sided mini-van struggled nearly as hard as Larry's van, its automatic transmission whining like a spoiled child with every rise, the third car, a silver BMW, pressing at the mini-van s bumper for it to hurry, as anxious and agitated as a Manhattan commuter, leaning on the horn again and again.
"Slow down, George," Larry said. "You re not late for an appointment with your stock broker." The farm's remote location and easy sense of life had attracted Larry from the beginning, a lazy part of the planet where people like George could work out their ambitious frustrations behind the wheel of a plow.
"A man can find peace here," Larry thought, as the VW crested the hill and he twisted the wheel steering the van over the hump of the driveway, wheels kicking gravel against the metal frame. The packed VW came to a halt reluctantly, the weight his former apartment s furnishings shifting forward as he applied the brake, bed and dresser pressing against the back of his seat, easing him into the steering wheel. But once stopped, everything eased back, and he sat amid the rising dust, staring at the house, his fingers twisting off the ignition. Behind him, the wooden-sided mini-van made the exit from the road with far less grace, bouncing as it came into the driveway, swaying to one side like a boat with a drunken driver. The brakes squealed as it finally halted beside Larry s VW, inches from the sagging rail to the house, steam rising up from under its hood.
Harold squinted across Sally, his thick black-framed glasses steamed with sweat. He wiggled his fat fingers in a gesture of friendliness, though he looked agitated, and relieved to have stopped, his tie uncustomarily loosened at his neck as if he d had troubled breathing with all the dust. Almost immediately, the BMW crashed over the lip of the road, swerving to one side to avoid hitting both vans, spraying gravel and dust in its wake before coming to a stop on an angle a dozen yards to the left. The driver, a man with rigid features and military-style hair, glared out at the farm house. He did not wave at Larry. He did not look happy either. Larry sighed and pushed open his door, stepping out of the VW into what he hoped would be a brand new life. For years, Larry had struggled against the change, refusing to give up Manhattan for New York State, or his cold water flat for the communes, the way most of his friends had during the 1970s. As a result, he watched his city change, Greenwich Village becoming haven for Wall Street brokers with a taste for the avant-garde, car and house alarms outselling T-shirts in the West Village, haberdasheries replacing used clothing stores in the East. After a while, Larry became a local joke, a hold-out hippie from the 1960s, selling fading memories along with posters, incense and pot.
Finally, when they tore down the Filmore building, and built offices in its place, Larry knew it was time to leave, and sough refuge in the north, two decades after everyone else had. He went to Woodstock and found the streets resembled Greenwich Village, many of the shop owners had moved here. But he also found the streets full of tourists and other friends hauled off for panhandling by supposedly enlightened police. He checked out other places and found the same disparity, the haves and have nots, with the era of welcoming communes a thing of the past. At one commune, organizers actually called out the dogs on him, convincing him of the need to start his own, gathering a few friends to buy this farm house.
Sure, the building needed work and the barn would not likely last the winter, requiring them to put up a new one in the spring, but the location was perfect, with fields backed up against the Canadian boarder and the house fronting a one lane dirt road that took hours to get to the nearest city. Larry saw promise in every aspect, from the pealing paint to the crumbling porch steps, and felt lucky to have found it, and proud that he had talked the previous owner -- an aging farmer sick of farming -- into selling it so cheap.
"It's a real fixer-upper," Larry had told the others, who had come in on the deal with him because they were fed up with Manhattan, too. Harold had two kids and was scared of crime, and would have moved to the suburbs except for reading accounts of youth gangs terrorizing whole neighborhoods.
"What I need is a rural setting," he'd told Larry. "Something old fashioned with old fashioned values, somewhere where people are honest and wholesome."
"That's this place," Larry assured him.
George signed on because he hated banks and the government and said both were stealing him blind.
"You can't buy a house within easy commute of Manhattan any more," he told Larry. "The banks rob you with their mortgage rates and then the government starts eating at your equity with their rising taxes. I want somewhere with a phone line for my modem and low taxes, and I'll do fine. Manhattan? Wall Street? I can make just as much sitting in my living room."
But neither Harold nor George looked overly enthusiastic as they stared at the farm house now, and ever so slowly, Harold rolled down the window and asked,
"Are you sure this is it?"
"Of course I m sure," Larry laughed. "You think I d mistake a farm I worked so hard to get? "
Harold nodded, then eased out of the mini-van, motioning his wife, Ruth, to do the same. She was a knot of a woman, like bundled wire, and she stared skeptically at the house.
"It looked better in the last time" she said. She had accompanied Larry here one night before closing, just to check on the details. Not that anybody distrusted Larry, but he did tend to exaggerate.
"Now it looks a wreck."
"It is a wreck," George said, marching across the gravel drive from his car, his face growing very red. "We relied on you, Ruth. Look at this, we might as well go home and start all over."
"It's must have been the dark," Ruth said.
"I told you it needed work," Larry said defensively.
"You said a little work," George snapped. "This place needs a major overhaul."
"Maybe it s not as bad on the inside?" Harold suggested, as Mary, George's wife, made her way over from the car.
"Is it warm inside?" she asked, and shivered.
"Can t be," Ruth said. "Nobody's been here to turn on the heat."
"We can remedy that," Larry said. "We have a fire place in most of the rooms. We'll just rough it over night and turn on the heat in the morning."
George let out a hacking cough, and fumbled in his pockets for his cigarettes.
"If the fire places are in the same shape as the rest, we d better not try lighting any fires," he said. "We might burn the place down."
"Larry wouldn't have bought a place that bad," Mary said, her eyes so full of compassion, Larry could have kissed her.
But even she didn't move towards the house and the five stood there in the cool wind staring at the place as the sun began to sink and the stars began to shine.
"It s like something out of a fairy tale," Larry thought, then shivered, but the pleasant kind of shiver he used to get when sitting some place snug during a heavy rain. He had walked every inch of the property s hundred acres, from the crumbling stone wall that marked its western edge to the stream that ran along its eastern side. Someone had cut down trees along the northend, with the possible idea of expansion, but had built nothing. Larry intended to keep things that way. He loved the place the way it was, even with its pealing paint and sagging porch and the hundred other minor infractions George and Ruth would find in the morning. He had seen enough expansion in the city and seen the people on the street as a result. Perhaps he would clear some of the weeds for his vegetable garden, and plow under one or two of the fields in the spring, set up a road side stand next fall.
"It s going to be a lot of work," Ruth said coldly.
"Not so much work as you d think," Larry said. "If we stick to the plan."
George coughed, as some kind of signal to Harold.
"Tell him," George said.
Harold shifted his feet uncomfortably, staring at his puffy hands.
"Tell me what?" Larry said, turning towards Harold, forcing the man to look up at him, though even then Harold s eyes seemed to mist over.
"Look, Larry," Harold mumbled. "We just weren't comfortable with all that hippie stuff you wanted, especially with the land values rising. If we tried to keep all this property, we d go broke paying the taxes, even with them as low as they are around here."
"And besides, we've already received offers on the vacant land," George said, "People looking to develop condos. With what they re willing to pay, we can pay off our mortgage."
Larry could not speak. He just stared at the others, but only George looked back.
"Look, Larry," Ruth said, her face flushed. "Nobody s trying to hurt you, but what you had in mind, just isn't realistic. We can t all live together in one big happy commune and we can spend our lives heating ourselves by fire place."
"But I like the fire places," Larry said.
"Inefficient," George snapped. "Good decoration. We'll have to convert to gas or oil."
"Speaking of heat," Mary said, shivering. "It's getting nippy out here. Can we please go inside."
"Yes, let s go inside," Harold agreed.
Larry sighed and pulled the bundle of keys form his pocket, the accumulation jangling like a jailers. He climbed the porch, each step swaying under his weight, but not so dilapidated, he thought, as the others seemed to think.
"This place has history," he thought. "A sense of style they don t build into houses any more." Larry loved the smell, too, the mingling of outdoors and old paint even before he opened the door.
"We'll have to replace the steps right away," Harold said, stomping his feet to test the wood, his weight creating a cracking sound underneath.
"And the porch," George said, striding across it, his heals digging into its soft surface. "The thing s just about rotted out. Did you bother to check for termites?"
"Termites?" Ruth said.
"We had a home inspection," Larry said.
"Yeah, but who did you hire to do it, one of your hippie friends?" George asked.
"No," Larry said, but felt guilty. He had let the seller talk him into using a local carpenter, a friend, unwilling to give the seller a bad report.
"But it s not as bad as they say," Larry thought. "So a few boards have rotted. The house is the thing that counts, not a few small details. Why do they have to pick everything apart?"
"Well, let s see the worst of it," George commanded, and Larry responded by turning the key and letting the door ease open. A more unique smell struck Larry, one as rich in history as the house, of dust, yes, but also of living, of apples and cinnamon, of bed spreads and linen, of ground flour and wood fires, all fading slowly into time, hints of a life Larry always envied. He flicked on the light, and that history revealed itself in scuffed wood floors and a twisting banister, and a rail that ran an open second floor. But it was the fire place that struck him, a huge center piece of stone that filled the entire east wall, so grand and wise and wonderful, Larry gasped -- though he had pondered it before. Like everything else, this exuded memories of other people s lives, memories lost on the building s new owners, despite Larry s wish to know more. His first day after the closing, he had routed through the basement seeking clues to that other life among the cobwebs and moist wood. Mary coughed, then lifted her hand to wipe away a very large web that blocked her path.
"It s so -- dirty," she said.
"That s the least of our problems," George said, stomping into the center of room then slowly pivoting around on his heals. "This place is going to need a major overall."
"What do you mean?" Larry demanded. "What s wrong with it?"
"Everything," George said. "From that atrocious fire place to the idiotic arrangement of the second floor. It s all open up there. Why couldn't they have finished building the second floor, for God s sake."
"They did built it so people could stay warm," Larry said, growing angry. "Everything in this place is built around the fire place. So in winter, people could leave their doors open and get heat."
"Well, that'll all change," George said. "I m sure we can arrange for a contractor to hall away the stones when we tear it out."
"We re not tearing anything out," Larry said.
"We'll see," George said with a twist of his upper lip. "It s not just up to you. We all have to vote on it, remember? Meanwhile, I m sure Ruth won t mind scrubbing up to make it livable."
"Maybe you should have hired a maid," Ruth said, coldly.
"But where's this sense of cooperation Larry's been harping on all this time?" George asked, his voice as sharp as hers.
"Cooperation is one thing, slavery quite another."
"That's not what I meant, George," Larry said, his head swirling with the harsh exchange of words, as if he had opened a crypt and released some unexpected curse.
"We know what you meant, Larry," George said. "Ruth has no sense of humor when it comes to some things."
"It's hard for me to have a sense of humor when you think I'm an idiot."
"I didn't say that."
"But you implied it when you looked at this house."
"I only stated the obvious," George said. "It's run down, and needs work. That's all I said. In truth, I like the place. It has a sense of -- well, quality. Once we have it up to par, we can bring people here, and impress them with our true country gentility. But maybe we should look at the rest of the place before I overwhelm you with complements. Is there a kitchen?"
"Of course, there's a kitchen," Ruth snapped, and marched across the room to the right rear door, Larry, George, Harry and Mary trailing behind. This led into a small dinning room with a screened-in exterior patio to the right, and a door to the kitchen to the right. Each stepped into the kitchen and halted, as Larry found the switch and turned on the lights.
The huge room exuded the farm's rich history, of the countless meals taken here before and after work, of the babies born here and the elders dying here, of huddling children frightened of storms, of work men pounding the snow from their boots, of women scrubbing laundry in the sink, of slaughtered chickens, of fixed injuries, the echo of their laughter and tears reaching Larry and making him feel humble under its sound.
"Another fire place?" George said. "In the kitchen?"
"What do you think people used to cook on?" Ruth asked.
"It's hardly an attractive," Harold said. "It's so -- black."
"As it should be," Larry said. "People lived and died by this fire, coming here to get warm or get fed."
"This does pose a problem," George said. "We can remove the other fire place if we want, but this one runs right up the center of the house."
"Remove it?" Larry said. "Why would you want to change anything."
"Property value and insurance, Larry," Harold explained. "While the other fire place would actually enhance our resale value, this one would detract from it for certain, and either one will have us paying extra on our insurance."
"Fuck the insurance," Larry said. "The fire places are a good thing, something wholesome. We can keep warm by them. We can cook our meals by them..."
"We can set fire to the house," George said, moving across the room and bending down to examine the interior. "Who knows when the last time the shaft has been cleaned or repaired?"
"We could sure use a fire about now," Mary said, shuddering. "I never imagined it would get so cold this time of year."
"It's still early in the season," George said. "The country warms up later than the city."
"So do we have heat or not?" Harold asked. "I wouldn't want to spend the night without some measure of warmth."
"I'm sure the main fire place is clear enough for a fire," Larry said. "The previous owner used it frequently. He was using it when we first came to look at the house."
The fire had sold him, its framed warmth so attractive he could have stuck his hand in it to test its reality. He had played with fire as a kid, of course, but always guilty aware of how dangerous an element it was in the city, where buildings went up frequently and people died. Yet here, the stone contained it, and though this was such a small detail in all of the plans made, he ached to make a fire.
"I'll go see if there is any fire wood," he told the others and headed towards the door from the kitchen to the back yard, where the slanting sunlight painted the land into a rich golden hue, field after field of open land stretching out before him as he staggered down the back porch steps. Clumps of ivy hung from the stone wall to the east, the boundary between his property and his neighbors. Broken strands of trees dotted small hillocks defying the criss-cross pattern of farm land, though this whole side seemed to slant upwards slightly towards a ridge, behind which Larry could make up another, and then, lost in the mists of the dying day, yet another ridge after that.
A few yards from the back of the house, a rusted plow stood out from the high grass like a forgotten monument, blade fixed into the solid earth as if it had taken root. He walked to it, gripped its handles, rust flaking off into the palms of his hands. He stood for a moment like that, then noticed someone on the far side of the stone wall staring at him, a man in a red hunter's hat wearing a scowl. Larry lifted a hand from the plow to wave.
"Hello there," Larry said.
The man, however, just turned and marched away towards another house mostly hidden in a stand of pine a hundred yards east.
"Nice knowing you," Larry muttered, then searched around the yard until he came upon a pile of split logs, something left by the former owner, enough perhaps to keep a fire going over night. Larry would have to find and chop more in the morning. He gathered up an armful and retreated back towards the house.
The windows glowed with the illumination of lights as twilight settled over it, and he could hear the voices of the others echoing through the various rooms, as their shadows passed from window to window.
"My God," George growled. "I never imagined there would be so much to fix."
"Well, don't look at me," Ruth snapped. "You're the one who thought the price was right."
"Well, it was," George said. "But if I had done the home inspection, I would have asked for a lot more repairs as a condition to the sale."
"And the farmer who owned this place would have hiked the price up by several thousand," Ruth said. "These people might be hicks, but they're not stupid. They know city people are paying top dollar for these so-called country estates."
Larry sighed and climbed to the porch, dumping all the wood except for three small pieces near the door, then he eased into the kitchen, where he found Mary still standing and still staring at the room and its fire place.
"I met one of our neighbors," Larry said.
Mary shuddered, looking up at Larry as if she just come out of a day dream, "Oh, that's nice," she said.
"I don't know about that," Larry said and moved towards the dinning room. "He didn't seem that friendly."
Mary followed him from the kitchen, and then again as he carried the wood into the main room and put it down before the fire place. He found newspaper stacked near by, dated from several months earlier, and clearly used as kindling. He rolled a few sheets up into balls, then put them in the hearth, stacking the split logs on top, then, added more paper before striking the match. The flame glowed in Larry's eyes as the paper caught, the fire spreading from one edge of the newsprint to the next, and then to the wood. He was still staring when George's heavy trod sounded on the stairs.
"So there you are, Larry," he said, drawing Larry's attention away from the fire. George stopped half way down, and shouted up towards the open upstairs where Harold leaned against the rail scribbling into his note pad.
"Paint," George said. "We'll need it by the ton to chase the ghosts out."
"I sort of like the ghosts," Larry said. "And some of the woodwork is too crafted to paint over recklessly."
"Don't start, Larry," George said. "Harold and I both agree it is much too dark in this place and a little paint will do a lot to brighten it up."
"We could refinish the wood," Larry suggested. "A little sanding and a little varnish and this wood will sparkle."
"We don't have time. We want to be moved in by the first of the month," George said. "And besides, Mary couldn't stand the fumes in her condition."
"Someone's in the driveway!" Ruth yelled from upstairs, her head popped out over the rail. "It's the police."
Harold dropped his pencil and stared towards the front, his expressions clicking through degrees of fright until he looked ready to bolt.
"They must think we're burglars," he said.
"Buglers? Around here?" George said, striding towards the door. "Be serious, Harold. They probably just want to know who we are. I hear people out in the country tend to stick their noses into everybody's business. It comes with the neighborhood."
Larry, however, remembered the look on the neighbor's face, immediately connecting the police to it, stumbling to join Harold at the window, where both brushed away the dust to see the uniformed figures standing on the porch.
George yanked open the door. "Can I help you, officer?"
The cop's double chins rippled as he nodded.
"As a matter of fact, you can," the cop said, moseying towards the open door, his large belly flopping over his belt ahead of him like a half-filled balloon. "I'm Sheriff Clark. I got a call that a bunch of hippies are camping out in here."
George turned slightly, his eyes blazing with sudden furious understanding as his gaze caught Larry in the shadow.
"Hippies, Sheriff?" George said. "We maybe be foreigners to these parts, but we're certainly not hippies. In fact, we just bought the farm and came up from New York to look it over."
The sheriff's broad face looked unmoved, his tiny black eyes studying George for a moment, then squinting, studied Harold, and finally, Larry. The old nehru jacket gave Harry away, even though the bright purple had faded with the years. He looked like an aging hippie or a perverted priest, even without the sandals or the beads.
Ruth's sudden appearance at the top of the stairs, distracted the law officer, his small eyes following her descent, unable to detach his stair from her tight blouse.
"Hello, officer," she said. "Is there a problem?"
"I got a re-port that you people are starting up a com-mune here," the sheriff said slowly as if reading the scrip off Ruth's chest. "We don't reckon with no com-munes in these parts. In fact, the town council passed an ordinance against them. No com-munes. No farming."
"No farming?" Larry barked, taking a sudden step towards the door. "This is a farm."
"Used to be," the sheriff said. "The town changed the zoning. We don't have any more farms. Only lots for development."
"You mean to tell me we can't grow anything here."
"You can grow it, but don't try to sell it. Otherwise the health department will be down here and you'll be in the town jail."
"That's insane!" Larry protested and looked around at the others, Mary floating into the main room from the kitchen, drawing the sheriff's attention.
"That's another thing," the law officer said. "We've also got laws against unmarried folks living under the same roof together."
"That's no problem," Ruth said, crossing the room to take Harold's arm. "We're married."
"You two the only two moving in?"
"No, of course not!" George snapped, his forehead crinkled into a series of deep lines. "We purchased the house together."
"Then you folks is got a problem," the sheriff said.
"Actually," Harold said with an uncomfortable cough. "We'll be dividing the place up into several apartments. George and I already have permission from your board of adjustment. I'm sure town hall will verify that information."
"Apartments?" the sheriff said, frowning slightly.
"The lumber truck is due here in the morning," George said, "As if it was anybody's business but our own."
"Listen, Mister," the sheriff said, pointing a fat finger at George's nose. "Don't you go taking that high faluting tone with me. I'm just doing my job here, and if you don't like it, you can talk to the mayor. But if you say you've got permission to build these apartments of yours, I guess I have to take you at your word -- until I can find out different. I don't mean to cause nobody no trouble, more than I have to it."
"I'm sure you'll do what you have to do, Sheriff," George said, coldly. "Meanwhile, if you don't mind..."
George motioned for the officer to leave. The sheriff shrugged then lumbered down the stairs to his car, turning once to study Larry who had come out of the house with the others. The officer shook his head, mumbled "apartments" then climbed into his car and drove off.
"Nosy bastard," Larry said, then glanced at George. "But aren't we going to get in trouble for lying to him about the permit?"
"Who was lying?"
"But you didn't have time to go get any permits."
"We did it by mail and fax," Harold said. "We had an attorney represent us at their meeting."
"But we can't break up this house," Larry protested. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"We didn't want to alarm you," Harold said.
"Or have you act like you are now," George said.
"But I am alarmed," Larry growled. "And I have a right to be. When did you people plan on telling me about this, when everything was finished?"
"We going to have a meeting in the morning, Larry," Harold said, casting a guilty glance at George. "We planned to tell you all about it then."
"But after I gave up my rent controlled apartment and moved here with you," Larry said. "That's real kind of you."
"Damn it, Larry," George said. "You can't have everything your own way all the time."
"I don't seemed to be getting anything I wanted out of this."
"We're doing what's best," Harold said.
"Best for who?"
"For you, and us," George snapped.
"We couldn't live like hippies, Larry, even if it was legal," Ruth said. "That's all stuff from our childhood."
"But I should live the way you do, boxed up in an apartment -- as if I never left the city."
"You'll get used to it," Harold assured him. "Just wait and see how things turn out, when we have the place fixed up."
"When you ruin it, you mean," Larry growled.
"You can't bring back Woodstock," George said. "No matter how you try."
"Woodstock?" Larry said sourly. "It was over by then."
"What was over?" Harold asked, looking suddenly confused.
"Living free," Larry said. "By the time Woodstock came around, everybody was making money, but the poor hippies."
"For Christ's sake!" George exploded. "You act as if you really believe all that stuff!"
"I do," Larry said defiantly.
"Look, Larry," Harold said, wrapping his arm around Larry's shoulder. "You look tired. Why don't you sleep on it and we can talk about it in the morning."
"I won't change my mind."
"Just sleep on it, please?"
Larry stared for a moment, then nodded. "I suppose I am tired," he said. "I just don't want to think I worked my whole life to end up back in another apartment."
Larry had selected his room for the view, its third floor window looking out of the fields behind the house -- just high enough to see the ripple of ridges between his farm and the Canadian boarder. He could almost see the lights of Montreal, its glow like an aurora against the backdrop of rising stars. He dropped his bag on the bed, and slowly took out a small hammer and a folded piece of cloth. He tacked the cloth over the doorless doorway, carving this small measure of privacy. He took out the rest of his things with the same slow care, lastly lighting a piece of jasmine incense had brought specially from New York. He put his Buddha on the dresser and tacked up a poster of Hendrix to one side of this, and one of Janis Joplin to the other. These made him feel less alone. He was home. He slipped a tape into the cassette player Big Brother's discordant playing whispering through the room making everything complete.
"No farming? No living together?" he thought. "What kind of place is this? And my friends? How could they betray me like this?"
Larry wondered if he still had room to negotiate. Or had they made up their minds to drive him out after all he had done to procure the place for them? Didn't they understand he couldn't live caged in like that? Hadn't they learned that much about him over all the years of their friendship together?
He rolled himself a joint and smoked it slowing, sucking each toke all the way so as to maximize the affect, needing to untie each cord inside of him, feeling them loosen a little, but not a lot. Finally, he laid himself out with his clothing still on and went to sleep.
A thump woke him. Then another forced eyes open. Sweat dripped down his brows into his eyes and stung. The third thump shook the whole room, followed by a repeated hammering. He had dreamt of being closed in by walls.
"Hey!" he shouted. "What's going on here?"
The hammering went on like a bad rock & roll back beat, now fast, now slow.
Larry pushed his legs over the side of the bed, stood, then staggered towards the cloth that covered his door. He found Harold on a ladder, just outside.
"What are you doing?" Larry asked.
Harold looked down from his perch, his thick lensed glasses tilted slightly, giving him a rather comical appearance, like a weekend handyman taking instructions from a book.
"Oh, hello there, lazy bones. We thought you'd sleep all day."
"I asked what you're doing?"
"What does it look like? I'm putting up a door."
"I thought we were going to discuss this before anyone started work."
"Oh, come off it, Larry, this is only a door. None of the rooms have any."
"That's because they're warmed by the fire place downstairs. It's a very effective use of central heating."
"And one without very much privacy," Harold said. "I'm sure we'll find some more conventional means to heat the house."
"Over my dead body," Larry said and snatched the hammer out of Harold's hand. "We're not doing any work until we've talked."
"We already have," Harold said.
"A couple of hours ago."
"But I wasn't there."
"We didn't need you. We took a vote."
Harold glanced over the rail into the room below, then back at Larry.
"Maybe you should talk to George."
More hammering sounded from beneath them, followed by George's cursing, and the ripping of wood. Larry leaned over the rail and gasped. The lace work of two-by-fours had already been laid dividing the bottom floor into segments.
"Stop that!" he yelled.
George's bullish face looked up. "Good morning, Larry," he said with a grin.
"We have to talk," Larry barked, then rushed around the rail to the stairs, then down them, only to find yet one more door frame waiting for him at the bottom. George waited where the door should have been.
"So? Talk," George said.
"I want to know about you and others taking a vote."
"Ah, so Harold to you."
"No, Harold didn't tell me a thing. He said you would."
George laughed. "He always was a coward when it came to these things."
"We've decided to buy you out, Larry. You don't fit in with us here."
"But me out? But this was my idea, my dream."
"You couldn't have done it without us," George said. "And we're not treating you unfairly. We're even going to give you a little extra, call it a profit. To make up for all the trouble you went through."
"No, no, no," Larry said. "I won't do it."
"You have no choice, Larry," George said. "And besides, this will give you an opportunity to find others of your ilk, people who believe in the same things you do."
"And if I decide not to leave?"
"Then you'll have to live with our rules."
"Damn it, George! You're being unfair."
"We're being practical. This isn't the Sixties any more, Larry. Didn't you hear what the Sheriff said? It's like that everywhere now, towns choosing what kind of people they'll accept."
"It's reality. And you either live with it, or crawl back to the city where no one much cares whether you live or die. Personally, I'll live with it and be happy."
Larry stared at the man's face. No sympathy showed in George's eyes.
"Well, Larry?" George asked after a time. "What's it going to be?"
Larry didn't answer, but stepped around the man, surveying the disaster of wood and plaster. In a week, this room would look exactly like the rooms he'd left in New York, cold, meaningless, without history. Even the fire place would lose character, becoming little more than an ornament. He sighed and headed towards the front door.
"Where are you going?" George called.
"For a walk," he said. "I have to think."
A stark light greeted him on the porch, highlighting the waving weeds and dry grass that had seemed so lush the day before. Each clung to his legs as he circled the house and fell into the track he had taken the previous evening. He could still hear hammering from the house, and caught the movement of neighbors in the fields on either side. Then, half way down to the first ridge, he found a boulder and sat on it, staring back at the house, thinking, but not thinking, cursing himself for being such a fool.
"So what do I do now? Go back to my old neighborhood and try and find another apartment?" Larry thought. "Like I'll ever find something so cheap again, not with the yuppies clamoring for space in the East Village."
Hours passed. The sun moved to noon, then slowly sank. The hammering eventually ceased, and though Larry heard no sound of starting cars, he presumed the others had gone back to the city and their weekday jobs, leaving Larry here to sulk. No light showed from the house when dark finally fully fell. Still he waited, listening to the night sounds and the dark things stirring in the brush around him-- cold things of the night for which city children had no name.
Finally, he sighed and slipped from the rock and slowly made his way back up the hill, circling around the house to make sure the cars were gone before he mounted the porch. George or Ruth had installed a new lock for which he had no key, but he found one of the windows open on the side of the house and crawled in.
They had accomplished much, framing a whole new house inside the shell of the old one, and Larry felt as if he was standing in the belly of a whale. He climbed the stairs slowly to his room, and found nothing disturbed. He packed his things again, folding them back into his bags as carefully as he had in Manhattan, and when finished, brought them out to the van. He saw the sheriff's car pass, the fat man slowing down to study Larry.
Larry flipped him a peace sign, then circled the house again, carrying a bag of woodshavings he had gathered from the work areas inside the house. He spread them out in three separate locations, then located a can of kerosene from the barn. The fire smelled sour when he stepped back from the first of these, then grew purer when the flames spread from the liquid fuel to the wood. Larry watched for a moment as the flames climbed, spreading from the wood chips to the wood wall of the house, and when satisfied that the fire would not go out, he strolled back to the van, and drove off, watching the glow in the rear view mirror as he headed west.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307