Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Living here in this Catskills town, Woodstock, that in so many ways really is what its enthusiasts claim it to be, a colony of the arts, from way, way back when a major art colony was founded here, right up through almost every good thing connected with the sixties being found here – the music, the politics, some of the spiritual movements, the painting, matters hallucinogenic and matters in that new world of sex.

Living here I found that not everyone was enthusiastic about all this. When I got into local politics, I saw the other side come out – the people whose families have always been here, and who work in excavation or building or services such as the maintenance of septic systems, men who do exactly what their fathers do – and could be considered the enemy. I didn’t want this divide, but it was there, as I found when involved in caucus fights and was part of a committee aimed at saving land that the old guard badly wanted paved over. This other side, local people who had never left for bigger worlds, acting as if there were some point to making this place as bad and profitable as Florida. But still, that part, that old guard part, could be seen as little more than a subculture in the more than a century since the artists settled here in force, almost half a century since the name Woodstock became synonymous with art and freedom. Maybe.

Recently I went to pay a bill at Paul’s Auto of Beaverkill, the best automobile service place for many miles around, just outside Woodstock in the Catskills, run by a frequently jolly fat guy named Paul, who does the important work himself but supervises other mechanics too, and his homey wife Sally, who runs the office and handles the accounts, sometimes with the help of a very pleasant grown daughter who sometimes stays with them in their apartment above the garage.

I had rarely seen Paul and Sally outside the garage. I did see them appear once in our town’s library, where so many of the local writers get assistance, for a vote on the library budget. They were clearly among the local righted-wingers who never enter the library except to vote against budgets. They walked in steely eyed and uncommunicative, but that was not how they usually seemed. Generally their eyes showed good humor and usually they were garrulous.

I hadn’t seen Paul and Sally for some time because money was a problem and we were overextended with them. But I expected a fine reunion now since I was carrying cash to pay with interest what we owed them. Yet they were not at all friendly. Worse than that day in the library. They looked at me with hatred. Not looking me in the eye, but rather with their eyes fixed on my Obama button. And I realized that there were Obama and Obama-Biden bumper stickers on the back of our little Toyota, and another that said "POLAR BEARS VOTE DEMOCRATIC", and the front bumper had a bright “YES WE CAN” sticker.

It began to seem like the harsh divide in the New Hampshire of my youth between the people from bigger worlds and the people who had always lived up there in the beautiful if stark White Mountains. I had thought that here it was different from New Hampshire, for in Woodstock the newcomers tended to be free-wheeling artist sorts, often living in houses they had made themselves by hand, while in northern New Hampshire the people from the city lived in huge formal houses, and tended to out-Republican the locals. Both sides agreed on such crucial matters as the dangers of Roosevelt and the need to keep Jews away – but otherwise the sides never came together except when the local people were providing services to the well-do-do summer home owners.

But maybe that was not the whole picture up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On a recent trip there Marta and I went to the old maple sugar store that I used to delight in when a child. It had for some time now been a bustling, mostly outdoor, pancake restaurant catering to tourists who passed through. But it was still run by the same families, the Aldrishes and the Dexters, who were the area’s main retail merchants. Sitting by the cash register was a very old man I recognized as Mr. Aldrich, who, when I was a child and he was running a small grocery store, had seemed to me already very old.

There was something new here, however. In front of the counter was a display of small self-published books Mr. Aldrich had written. I, feeling, I fear, condescending, purchased one of them. It was about life and lore here in the White Mountains.

When I finally opened it some week later what I came upon was a history that pinpointed another place the two groups I had found so separate, the summer people and the local people, came together. Kindly rich men from the city often bedded their maids, old Mr. Aldrich says in the book. He says that if you look around, you will notice how so many of the local people and the summer city people look so much like each other.

I now, in the rare times I am up there, search for my own face.

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