Thursday, January 28, 2010

J. D. Salinger: Our New Hampshire Neighbor (c)

J.D. Salinger the famous and reclusive author whose 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," became a symbol for young and old alike has died at the age of 91.

The author died Wednesday of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire, according to a family statement that his literary agent, Phyllis Westberg, provided Thursday, according to CNN.

And so a page turns in my life too, because for many years we lived next door to Mr. Salinger in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was friendly with my stepfather and mother and a good neighbor, polite, but quiet and not very social.

As young children we used to catch glimpses of him as he rode past our house in his truck, or when we walked past his. We were even friends with his daughter, Margaret, though we never saw the infamous Joyce Maynard who reputedly had an affair with him when she was a college student. 

There were four of us kids until my little brother was born, then there were five. We spent hours talking about Salinger's little house in the woods where he used to go write for hours, but we were too scared to go look for it: the woods were deep there, and our chickens had been killed off one by one when they wandered away.

We even convinced my stepfather Stefan to build us a similar house, though of course it was much closer to our house, and very little writing was done there--more like messing up.

This is the place on earth where we had to suffer the indignity of going to school for the first time, and we hated it. It was about 1 mile away, past the Salinger House, past the Day farm, and down the hill to the right. We were dragged in crying mightily, and that's where we learned how to sing our A, B, C's.

Stefan was a filmmaker and visiting professor of film at Dartmouth College then (as well as professor of film at Columbia University), and he used to talk about Salinger's books and how they were burned in a "famous movie." When I was finally old enough, "The Catcher in the Rye" was assigned to me at school. 

I had a hard time connecting the book to the man. He seemed tall and quiet, polite even. We lived a gorgeous existence in New Hampshire, surrounded by our occasional chickens and goats and goat yogurt, many winters spent skiing till our fingers froze at Mt. Ascutney, and endless days swimming in our pond which was halfway between our house and Salinger's.

Birds trilled endlessly, and later, when we were grown, Stefan's horses C'est Si Bon and her daughter grazed gracefully in the abundant alfafa meadows he had planted.  

There were no neighbors on either side of Salinger or of us, except perhaps more than a quarter mile on his side.

That was the farm of Mr. Day whose land was long ago sold off to a man who turned the property into a site for his home overlooking the tremendous views west over the mountains and towards the Connecticut River and Vermont. Turns out that man was Salinger himself.

The old barn sat across the road empty and unused as a testimony to the days of farming when land and human beings had a strong relationship. 

Now the barn is little more than a marker to the bend in the road, a backstage to the grazing deer in the twilight that we saw the day after Stefan died.

A few miles down the road in the other direction, towards the Connecticut River and the old covered bridge leading to Windsor, Vt., were and still are the famous grounds of Saint Gaudens where we would go listen to beautiful classical music concerts on the grass. Well, we didn't really listen, we just monkeyed around the sweeping grounds while our parents tried to.

We visited the old family house this past summer, where my stepsister now still lives. The old barn was still up, the house had changed dramatically, with additions added almost like rabbit warrens.

I was with my real father and stepmother---Stefan died a few years ago, and was buried on his own land. When we returned to the car, I had a huge flat tire: a massive stone had punctured it. We walked over to the old red Salinger house to seek help. No one was home, but we had a short conversation with two men who were working on the house.  

We were so far up in the hills reception was really poor, and my phone kept going in and out. The workers at least had some phone reception and we called AA to come change the tire, since I did not have the proper equipment to change it. The Salinger house was as I remembered it--nestled into the curve of the road, at an angle to the view of the mountains, like a little house on the edge of a rainbow.

Our pond had changed a lot--it was overgrown all around, and I remembered the big cook outs we used to have with all our friends, and how I used to get thrown into the water by the handsome Hier boys who lived not too far away. 

I remembered how when my uncle Andrei used to come visit.  He was a pole vaulter as a young lad, and used to get the biggest, longest stick he could find--Olympic length-- and vault into the pond.

One day Andrei, forever adventurous, took his two very young boys down the Connecticut River in our canoe. Next we know, he had gone down the waterfalls--I still don't know where those are--near the covered bridge, and all came close to losing their lives. They lost the canoe, but we found it parked in someone's back yard adjacent to the river a few days later.

Behind the house, we used to go to the border of the fields below, spreading out in all directions, and dig into the soil, finding turn-of-the-19th-century-old bottles and other prizes.

On the way back to the house we ate blackberries until our tongues, lips and fingers were stained purple.  My mother Jagna made jam out of the berries, and cooked home made whole wheat bread. She taught us how to dance and we put on entire productions in the living room to the tune of Tchaikovsky's Peter and the Wolf.  I chased the young chickens with a grill--it was all in jest--until one day when they were grown up they cornered me when I was alone and flew up to peck at my face.

Stefan made an old English hand stock and used to threaten us with 17th century torture if did anything wrong. Of course we weren't naughty because no one wanted to be stuck in the stock. But that too, was one of Stefan's big jokes. 

And so with the death of Salinger, passes another great person, and with him, a wondrous way of life. This was the beauty of New Hampshire, but the way it was, is gone forever.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where Have all the Sidewalks Gone?

Having lived in New York City most of my life, I never gave much thought to sidewalks.

They were almost always there--at least in Manhattan--and one could always find a relatively safe place to walk, with the minor exception of pigeon waste droppings, occasional suicide landings, and the infrequent though often devastating car-curb-hopping, pedestrian-pinning and killing.

All of those events happen at such low rates, one begins to feel that sidewalks are a God Given Right to the Safety of Pedestrians.

And so they are: except for everywhere else.

Once you leave the city, you learn that many communities only expect people to walk--well, if not on the street, then maybe on peoples' lawns in order to get where they are going. Mostly they only expect people without cars--read--"poor people"--to walk. This is true even in Fort Lee, right over the George Washington Bridge, not even a mile from New York City.

It's a prejudice successfully engrained in every little car owner's brain by the years of automobile industry marketing that a person is not whole without 3 tons of steel, to the point where a walker is not only lower class, but a loser. And indeed, because of the danger of car drivers and the lack of sidewalks, they actually are.

Last week I was visiting Bethesda, MD, a small semi-suburb of Washington, DC. You might expect with $650K plus homes, this would be the place where pedestrian safety, especially for children walking to school, would be king. But sidewalks in the community called Westgate suddenly begin and end as if there was no logic to the universe. And there definitely is no logic there.

Children walk to school in the streets, with motorists, however driving slowly on the back streets, barely come by the children's little feet, or their dogs who are in tow.

Hit hard by the recession, the town of Upper Freehold, NJ, a community in southern New Jersey is now considering alternatives to busing their students to school in order to save money.

Upper Freehold children who live less than 2 miles from their local school but do not have a safe way to get to school--read--no sidewalks--are bused to school every day at the cost of $100,000 a year, reported the Examiner on January 7.

Only 412 students are bused those less than 2 miles, which means it costs the municipality about $242.72 per student to send them to school by bus. Some students actually cost more than others, either because of the type of bus, the number of students being serviced per bus, or the actual school they are going to and its total trip distance.

Upper Freehold's Mayor Steve Alexander said the town would consider building sidewalks, but would not do so if they thought the "children might not use them."  

At least one school, the high school which was recently rebuilt, will not be accessible by sidewalk because none are available to it, and none will be built. 

Board of Education member Patricia Hogan who is quoted in the Examiner said, “Chances are elementary school parents will not let their children walk to school.”

The question is, how can anyone build a town without sidewalks?  It's like building a house without a roof, a second floor without a staircase, a nest without a tree, or a school without children. In the photo left, a house owner has spent thousands of dollars to build a sidewalk to their house. But you can bet they wouldn't want to spend a penny for their local town to build sidewalks for children to walk to school. 

And like a throwback to the days when we rode in covered wagons and carried guns, parents expressed concerns that their children might have to walk to school and "be subjected to places for bullying, sexual harassment, and criminal activities."

Superintendent of schools Dick Fitzpatrick said that sidewalks from the adjacent developments to the campus "could be lit and attended by a paraprofessional with a walkie-talkie." If there had been children--and parents--walking in the first place, they wouldn't need para-professionals or walkie-talkies, because the sidewalk would be in constant use and therefore safe as a community-based walk-through.

Outside of big, old cities like New York, the world is composed of steel wagons traversing one another's paths at great speed, never having the opportunity to say "Good day," never reading the expression on the other's face, never for once having a chance to glance down at what color one another is wearing, nor for a moment the chance to smell their perfume. 

Thanks to the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian News Digest sent by email from the Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center, of the Voorhees Transportation Center at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, for alerting me to this subject matter. To receive a once daily digest of listserv messages or to unsubscribe, go to:

Monday, January 11, 2010

More Bikes Appear in High Fashion

Well, we've been watching for a few years now, with select fashion models and so-called image icons riding around town casually on their bikes.

It's been a more or less three-year phenomenon, with bikes now coming into fashion so much so that the riders don't wear lycra, special shoes or even helmets when they dash around town.

Almost as if to add an exclamation point to the trend, February's issue of Harper's Bazaar has a whole spread with a model cycling with (or without) her pretend boyfriend.

It's actually an extremely tasteful spread with great looking, colorful clothing. The model is wearing high heels in all the pictures, as well as colorful skirts that would look really bad and in fact be ruined by a spot of grease.

To see this spread however, you'll have to buy the magazine on the newstands, because this particular fashion piece is not online.

One clear indicator that fashion still has no idea what cycling is, the bikes they used are not a well known brand, and all of them appear to be steel three speeds. Possibly this is because it was the only bike brand they could get for free for the shoot.

A little investigation revealed that the bike brand Linus currently makes four  models of bikes, and the one used by the Harper's Bazaar model in one picture is a three speed with back pedals for brakes!  She's wearing high heels and one foot planted on the ground! Now that makes for a good back story.

However, you have to give Harper's Bazaar credit for the choice of the bike. On the Linus Bike website, they write that this model, the Roadster Classic, is a "stripped down, elegant ride is the bicycle in its purest form...a simple, clean profile inspired by French and Italian cinema from the 50’s and 60’s."

That it is: with its steel, cream colored, narrow frame, and rounded handlebars with leather look brown handles, they have a look of real elegance. And their price at $389 is definitely democratic, with the most expensive bike on their site about $550. Still I wonder how many chicas in high heels will be able to pedal backwards to stop.

The use of a low cost bike is also a warm welcome from previous attempts by the fashion industry to throw fashion at the art of bike manufacture by creating expensive bikes that have more fashion incorporated in their frames than function.

Chanel's $17,000 bike was resold on some sites for up to $28,000 reported the Purse Blog. Most of the extras on the bike were made to ensnare fashionistas, like fancy bags and handlebars.

But little could be said about the clunky-looking frame. Okay, it has nice fenders, and a great looking pump and a classic 1940's style lamp on the front, but hardly worth the chunk of change being asked.

There was also the Hermes bicycle for about $3,500, admittedly with gorgeous WWII lines, a sweepingly rounded top tube, and retro dark steel colors with luggage brown accessories and details. That bike had great looks, but was heavy and not the kind of bike you could book away from a speeding vehicle with.

Gucci also came out with a $6,300 bike, much less attractive than the Hermes, though it has the Gucci name on the side--a big seller for Gucci slaves. But it's hard to imagine real Gucci fashionistas getting on a bike, let alone walking down the street in their towering spike heels. Hailing a cab or stepping into a limo is more like it. And what with all the sweat, and the cars! Oh my! I have yet to see a Gucci horse sporting a Gucci bike.

That difficult relationship is also reflected in the inherent contradiction of the bikes themselves. With prices all over the place and no clear relationship between price and the function or design of the bicycle and its components, it's no wonder that making fashion bikes went out of fashion as quickly as it came in.

That's not to say that Louis Vuitton wasn't a trend setter in integrating bicycles with fashion. Much of the emphasis on bike and fashion at Vuitton comes from LVMH chairman Renaud Dutreil who rides a black Dutch Gazelle bicycle to work every day in his pinstripes.

Dutreil has been amazingly supportive of cycling in the city, acting as a judge in Transportation Alternative's New Amsterdam Bike Slam last year that was so successful.

This past spring they sponsored a contest  at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to create stylish, practical and affordable bike gear. The results of the contest were pretty disappointing: the students didn't seem to get it. 

We think the marriage of bikes and fashion has a long way to go.