Monday, July 16, 2018

Going Home Again

A glimpse of Rome from Villa Borghese gardens. 5:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, July 16, 2018. Mainly sunny and very warm weekend in the high 80s, with some cloudiness and some humidity. At the midnight hour on Saturday we had a deluge that lasted more than an hour, dropping the temperature to the mid-70s, washing the pavements and the streets. Quiet city; a Summertime weekend in New York. JH touched down in Rome yesterday. Hot there too, he says — 33°C (when in Rome ...)

This past Thursday, I went up to Westfield, Massachusetts where I grew up. It as the first time in more than 40 years that I’ve been to the place where my childhood and adolescence resided. I was going with JH and filmmaker Matthew Miele and his cameraman Mack Egerton who are putting together a documentary on DPC and the world of Society then and now. The point was to shoot some of recollections about that childhood in that small New England town.

Back in the days of my youth Westfield was a small city of 19,000. Today it registers a population of twice that. The ride in from Springfield runs by land that was once fields of farmland. It is now populated by a chock-a-block cacophony of structures including a WalMart and other nationally famous retail outlets as well as banks and supermarkets surrounded by acres of parking lots. You don’t see people, you see cars.
View of Springfield, Massachusetts, on the Connecticut River circa 1840-45, by Thomas Chambers, as seen at the Springfield Metropolitan Museum of Art
Growing up there, it was a “typical” New England town with a village green, the town square, dominated by the First Congregational Church (which incidentally now has a woman minister – Elva Merry Pawle – something inconceivable back in the day when I was asked if I’d be interested in going to seminary; (No);  On the other side of the “square” is the public library, the Westfield Atheneum, on the north corner, the Post Office building which is now a restaurant.

The Rev. Elva Merry Pawle.
Across the way where the path veers to the north into Court Street, there’s a Civil War statue which remains as it was when I was growing up, the main shopping street extending north-- called Elm Street -- has basically succumbed to the shopping malls just outside of town.

I needed to change clothes for the shoot and since there was no place to do that, I went over to the Church and knocked on the backdoor where the administrative offices were. A very nice woman named Ms. Lazard answered. I told her how this used to be my church when I was a kid and that I’d even been the head of the Pilgrim Fellowship (high school age) which met every Sunday night. She very kindly let me in, and we briefly discussed the two ministers who officiated way back before her time.

When I sat down to write this Diary, I planned to recount the re-visit where from age 5 when we moved into the house, to 18 when I went away to college. After that, except for school vacations, I never lived there or in Westfield again. The house we lived in was very old – built in 1839. When we moved in it had no electricity, plumbing or heat – but was a very cheap rent -- $12 a month --  in what was a nice middle class New England neighborhood.
The First Congregational Church and the old Town Hall in Westfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892)
The buildings today.
Those years marked the formation (and fears) of my future. They have remained prominent in my consciousness all my life. It was a difficult time for the boy for a variety of personal reasons including my mother and father’s stormy relationship. Not untypical in so many lives, I nevertheless felt weighed down by it all. At a very young age, 7 or 8, I would assure myself that when I grew up I would not live like that, that I would live in New York and Hollywood.

It makes me laugh just to read that last line now, although it’s true, and it came to pass, thankfully. Nevertheless returning to the place of origin was fascinating, like seeing something familiar yet transformed, just like the spectator. It reminded that it was a wonderful place for a kid to grow up. It was a time and a world where dangers as simple as locking your front door, were remote. Nobody locked their front door, or the back. And nobody trespassed. It was a community, full of opportunities for activity and kids to play with, and teachers who commanded, demanded, and helped us along.
The house at 17 High Street, taken in 1958. Built in 1839 as a farmhouse, it hadn't been lived in for many decades when my mother and father found it in 1945. Located on a lovely neighborhood tree lined street of houses mainly built early in the 20th century, the house when we moved in was not wired for electricity, had no indoor plumbing (an outhouse in the backyard out behind a small aging and dilapidated two story barn) and no heat except a wood burning stove in the kitchen. $12 a month was the reason the couple took it. They "fixed it up" and lived there for the next 35 years. My father and brother-law-wired the house and put in facilities, painted and spiffed it up, and in retrospect it was a wonderful place, and a wonderful house to grow up in. The current owners have restored the property and enlarged it a bit now. The door on the side of the building let into the dining room. It was never used in my lifetime and was always sealed. However, it was a commonly built door in houses of those times, and used only for family funerals: the coffin could be brought in through that door for the viewing of the departed.
My initial fears of that re-visit were that the hard times and “struggles” of that childhood and youth would return and haunt. Nope. Didn’t happen. The town looked the same in some ways. Architecturally its growth could have used some help looking toward future generations. The neighborhoods, however, refer to the same way of life that I experienced. All of the original 22 houses on the street where I lived remain intact.

Some houses, like the one in which I grew up, have been expanded, but not extravagantly. The street has fewer street side trees, unfortunately, and a couple of houses looked like they were neglected (peeling exteriors). But otherwise it was all there. I have no idea who dwells within now, although I remember the residents of every house, and the interiors of many. Our house was wisely restored and its New England farmhouse simplicity retains its classic dignity. My thirteen years there, which still seem like a lifetime, were my foundation, and it was an excellent environment in which to learn, and “grow up.”

Thomas Wolfe’s novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” passed through my thoughts many times when anticipating this visit. It worried me. Thomas Wolfe was right, but only now do I know what he meant: It’s not there anymore.
The house as it looks today.
In Memoriam. NYSD lost a great friend last week with the passing of Gail Karr who died peacefully in her sleep after a 10-year long valiant struggle with ocular cancer.

Gail joined JH and me in the early years of the NYSD. We’d met circuitously. I’d gone one night to a Yankee game, invited to watch from a private box. The owners had invited about 20 guests including Caroline Kennedy and her children, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was something I could use for the Diary and so I took a few photos of the group in their seats. One photo included a young man, the boyfriend of our hosts’ daughter. His name was Justin Karr. When we first ran the photo the next day, I had misspelled the name with a C. Carr. 

Gail with her loving husband Dennis and son Justin.
That afternoon I got an email from a Gail Karr, the mother of the young man, correcting my spelling.  Thanking her for the information, she responded that she and I had someone else in common. Who? Judy Price, the founder and publisher of Avenue magazine where I was editor in the last three years of the 1990s. Gail told me she worked for Judy Price. And what did you do? I inquired. She sold advertising space. For how long? Seven years. Seven years!

Here I should add that Judy Price herself was a famously successful and imaginative saleswoman of advertising space and demanded her sales people equal her successes. And if they didn’t, they didn’t last ten minutes let alone seven years. All of this was very interesting to this new web publisher. 

And what was Mrs. Carr, I mean Karr, doing these days, I asked. Nothing. Wasn’t working. I forget why. She’d had another position that didn’t appeal and she took a sabbatical. I called JH and told him about her. Should we hire her? Yes. I then asked her if she’d be interested in doing ad sales for us. Yes, was her answer.

She was a crackjack saleswoman, and very organized about her work. Gail had a very friendly, even curious charm. She genuinely liked people, was easy to laugh, and also could use that in making potential clients. She was very successful.

She contracted the ocular disease in those years with us. For awhile it seemed that she’d beat it. But that was not to be. A few years ago, she retired from her work to take care of herself. Her husband Dennis Karr, a successful New York commercial real estate broker, looked after her with care and devotion, creating comfort for her. Her last full day she spent with Dennis and visited by their only child, her son Justin. Her life was at peace.  She will be missed by many and remembered with laughter and love.

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