A Child’s Autumn in Wurtsboro

JMJ

Two essays from September of 2000. They are nearly as old now as I was removed from my childhood when I wrote them. The “45” in the first graph has been changed to reflect today rather than the original Y2K date. I was already living in SF at that time, before 9/11 changed the world. I was not yet in school at CIIS, though, nor Orthodox. Nostalgia can be so old that it has neither referent nor referent-er.

AUTUMN HAS COME – not in a weather way, but in a calendar way. It always makes me rather maudlin about a place that no longer exists: Wurtsboro, NY, the town in the Catskills where I did some of my growing up (the rest was in the red clay of Georgia). Don’t get me wrong, the town is there, but not the same.

In Autumn, right about now (45) years ago, the leaves would start to change. My Great Grandma Kate would go out to the row of maple trees that lined her block and tap them, hanging little buckets off the sides of the trees to catch the sap as it dripped slowly down. Later, slow-boiling the sap in a huge pot on her stove she would make the most amazing syrup ever. As the trees changed, the stream that ran through town, called The Brook, would become visible again, along the road up the mountainside. From my school bus, every morning and evening, I could see the Brook in its bed, now carrying brown, red, and yellow leaves along its way.

The schools would open. And I’d get to see friends again who had been absent from my life all summer – perhaps only running in to them in the Mall or at some social event – like the Penny Socials which we had all summer long at the Fire House, or the Ambulance Squad House.

Autumn meant that it would get colder again, and dark. I would wake in the morning at 6 – as I have most of my life – fixing breakfast as I stumbled through the morning routine, listening to Dr. Robert A. Cooke, President of the Kings College, doing his morning radio show on WFME, the local Christian Station. He began each broadcast asking, “How in the World Are you?” And he would laugh in a deep, throaty way. He would finish each show with, “Walk with the King today, and be a blessing.”

On the weekends, now that Labor Day has come and gone, the flood of tourists and weekend campers that had filled our town all summer would dwindle to nil. Eventually,all the festal realities would stop, in preparation for Winter in the Catskills. The Ice Cream stand would close, but the pumpkin farm would open. The Canal Towne Emporium would start to put out seasonal stuff.

My Grandmother (Grandma Kate’s daughter) would soon be preparing buckwheat batter. You sit the batter in a big crock in the cold on the back porch. In the morning, to make pancakes, you take what you need, and replace it with the same amount of water and stone-ground buckwheat, stirred in. Eventually it all becomes a sourdough. It goes rather well with Grandma Kate’s syrup.

I’m being maudlin because this is not only gone from my life: it’s gone. There is no small town there any more. There are hundreds (literally) of new people. My town even hosts a tattoo parlor.

I was born in Georgia. When I try to think of my first house – not with my maternal Grandparents – I’m left thinking of a house out in the middle of nowhere, with cows on one side and cotton on another, reached by a dirt road cut in Georgia clay. They have paved the dirt road, and built 20 more houses along the way to the home my Mother’s family of four shared with another family of five. The house is also gone, torn down to make room for more modern buildings with indoor water.

My hometown is rather another matter: It is Wurtsboro, NY. I walked to the elementary school there in 1975. I watched MASH, mourned my brother, and passed my childhood there. But my home town, too, is gone; torn down for modernity.

The post above was followed by a reverie on Autumn in New York

Autumn in NYC was always the beginning of the school year: I moved to NYC to go to NYU and so, even after my school years ended, September always implied “time to buy notebooks” for me. There is an odd smell that develops in Washington Square Park (or used to, as Herr Guilliani may have made it illegal). It took me nearly three years to figure out what the smell was: decaying leaves on the sidewalk mixed with pet leavings from the dog walkers plus additional fertilizer deposited by drunk students (including my own fraternity brothers) and various Personae Vagrantes. The smell was strongest at the two southern corners of the park.

Autumn also meant that the smells from the food carts on the street no longer seemed a threat. In the heat of too many NYC Summers I developed a distinct fear of the clouds of grill smoke that might waft from the Mystery Meat Carts. But in the Chill of October or November, there is something wonderfully homey about roasting chestnuts or pretzels.

The winds in the Village, at the corners of Broadway and 8th Street, 7th Ave and Christopher, or Christopher and Hudson Streets began to develop a chill that would not go away, and slowly, more layers are brought out of the closet and applied. My last winter there, after the slow build-up through Autumn, I was wearing t-shirt, flannel shirt, hooded sweatshirt, gloves, scarf, knit cap and insulated denim vest as my daily “regular” wear to keep out the cold. In the fall, all one needed was flannel and a coat – this is normal daily, nearly year-round wear in SF.

Autumn means that the bars and eateries of NYC will suffer from two things; increased crowding as people won’t hang out outdoors anymore so in they come (with their coats) and the heat. In NYC, the heat will turn on in about 5 days. Landlords are required to turn on the heat – and so they do. Autumn in NYC means that the radiators clang to life, but since it is still a little too warm, the windows are opened up. The chill does keep down the mosquitos (invading from the swamps in NJ). So while Autumn is ok for this automated heating, once winter sets in, everyone catches pneumonia because of jumping in and out of heated buildings all day.

As a Smoker (now an Ex Smoker), I used to like Autumn a lot because I could hang out outside without sweating. In the middle of the day, I could also still manage to leave my desk without wearing a jacket, without folks knowing I was leaving the building.

The leaves changing in NYC was not an issue: they would blow off the trees almost as soon as they had faded from green. There were no wood fires (or precious few) to scent the air, and there was no one tapping trees in order to make syrup. But once Autumn set in, soon that parade would be going past Macy’s, and soon enough there would be snow. In my memories, NYC suffers through oppressive heat and humidity in the summer, not really getting much done, nor looking for much to do, for that matter. But about now, from October or so, until May, NYC lives – this is the NYC that I miss.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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