Hudson Valley

Hudson Valley

April-June 1989

Roy Lisker
May 30,2005

Returning from France in April, 1989 I moved back to Boughton Place in Highland, NY., across the river from Poughkeepsie and a few miles from the village of New Paltz. The name "Boughton" refers to Dr. Robert Boughton, organizer of the Tin Horn Rebellion in the Hudson Valley in the 1840's. This was a peasant revolt, an uprising of serfs against their absentee landlords. The rebellion was quashed , and Robert Boughton was incarcerated in SingSing for a few decades. In the aftermath of the Civil War, serfdom was abolished in New York State by the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, and he and all others involved were exonerated and freed.

Boughton Place holds an attractive 2-story rooming house , a conference center with meeting rooms and guest rooms ,a theater building holding a psychodrama stage. These facilities provide the setting for various services, activities and organizations , primarily in the areas of Conflict Resolution and Psychodrama..... also nature hikes, book discussion groups, solstice celebrations....whatever the market will bear. The center is under the direction of Clare Danielsson, M.A. in Social Psychiatry and Executive Director of Mediation Services for the State of New York, in Ulster and Sullivan Counties. It is surrounded by several acres of grounds partly cultivated and partially wild, a choreography of which Goethe would have very much approved, but which seems to be due more to the limitations on time, money and labor for subduing the entire landscape to civilization, than to any manifestation of aesthetic theory. She and her 95-year old father, August, have marvelously landscaped and cultivated the grounds. For the gardens alone it is well worth a visit.

I fulfilled numerous functions in this socializing experiment: secretary, editor, translator, ghost writer, mediator, library researcher , major domo, minor domo, handyman, errand boy, whipping boy, mascot, friend, shoulder to lean on , critic , resident intellectual. In exchange I had a place to stay, at least between quarrels, and the use of the office equipment for preparing and publishing Ferment.

A truckload of grievances had accumulated between the directorship and myself which, in a tempestuous broil on September 24th, 1990, (the date of my 52nd birthday) ,spilled over and, like a swollen blister, burst open, spilling its contents into the maelstroms of legend.

The editor of an independent newsletter has the advantage in any quarrel , of having at his command a large and ( hopefully) sympathetic audience to whom he can relate his point of view. Journalism frequently burdens its practitioners with irresistible opportunities for gratifying the bullying side of their character. We are daily witnesses to the extent to which reporters, publishers and editors abuse this capability.

Consequently, although an account of this quarrel would certainly be provocative, interesting , scandalous, shocking and the stuff of which great literature is made, there are many reasons why I can't write about it here, ( and everyone knows how I hate to throw away a good story ! )

The strongest of these reasons is that the people with whom I quarreled and I are once again good friends. It is not so much a matter of letting sleeping dogs lie , it is rather a case of not obliging them to tell the truth. My tendency would be to tell my side of the story; however I do not think they would want it published even if I were to tell it from their point of view. There's as much good material in what happened after my escape/eviction from Boughton Place .

The ensuing account will summarize everything that's happened in the two years from the morning in mid-October, 1990, when I found myself on Rt. 299 ( between New Paltz and Highland in New York's Hudson valley) with a pocketful money but no idea of where to go , to my arrival in Colorado in June of 1992.

I had and still have, several friends in the region. Some months before these events , Christine - young, all salt and sugar , crazy and wild - had stormed into my life . For the short time that we were together she spurred me into a welter of reckless and courageous acts before spinning off into her own unhappy, tragic orbit. I owe much to her in this period, also to Donald Silberger, a politically obsessed mathematician who teaches at the SUNY in nearby New Paltz. Together they helped me to move to Motel 87. Located only a few hundred feet from the NY Thruway exit and less than a block away from the New Paltz shopping malls this motel , although the best of the lot , was a dismal, dirty and expensive dive. $40 a night gave me the freedom of the ubiquitous color TV in a single brutish room without cooking . Apart from the tragi-comic aspects of the situation, it was hardly a fit reward for a life of unremitting toil.

Christine cooked up a gallon bucket of pasta at her place and brought this over , together with sandwiches and some canned fruit .On the third morning of my residence there Christine came with some good news. She had taken the initiative to telephone Beth, a mutual friend. Graphic artist, potter and jewelry designer, Beth was then living in a tiny (honest-to-goodness real) log cabin heated by a wood burning stove and without running water in a tiny settlement named Alligerville about 20 miles away on the western slopes of Mount Mohunk. If I were willing to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water, and part-time baby-sitter for her boisterous 3-year old kid, Zander, she would be happy to put me up for several weeks .

Don Silberger came by for me at 3 that afternoon and we caroomed down route 299. The car pulled into Beth's driveway just as the sun was flexing its last febrile points of fire over the mysterious cliffs and caverns of the shaggy, mystic and unfathomable peaks of the Schwangunk Mountains .

Alligerville must at one time have been known for something, although the derelict husk of its former fame now consists of little more than a small general store, a blacksmithery operated by a New Yorker gone back to the land, a string of log cabins along a road rising up from the lake, and an abandoned hotel by the lake shore.

It is the kind of region that inspires one to long walks. Although winter had come early in that year and the hills and roads were already blanketed with snow, (a very beautiful sight indeed) , it was chilly rather than cold. It could be bitter all the same when, in the middle of the night, the fire went out in the stove and one had to go outdoors to bring in some more wood.

The town of High Falls is the nearest way station to the north. Reputed as a haven for unrepentant hippies it, like so many other places, is now the site of expensive restaurants for wandering tourists. The nearest even remotely sizable township is Rosendale, about 12 miles to the farther east and on the highway between New Paltz and Kingston. At the time of these events Zander's father, John Schoenfeld , a potter, and piano tuner , lived there. John and Beth oscillated from estrangement to reconciliation to estrangement. In the meantime they took turns looking after Zander.

Fetching the water for Beth's cabin I loaded a dozen empty plastic milk bottles onto a toy wagon , exited out the back and wheeled the wagon around to the front of the property and across the road to a place alongside the banks of the frozen creek. Implanted there was a narrow pipe disgorging clear water even in the coldest weather. This chore had to be done twice a day, usually before the dish-washing. There was no plumbing; the cabin's waste-water was collected in a plastic tub and tossed out into the snow. The latrine was in a shack down the hill.

That first night , with Zander sleeping, the dishes washed and put away, and a strong fire crackling in the stove, Beth and I found places on the couch, curled up under blankets and watched a videotape of Hitchcock's Gaslight .

Zander began every morning gratifying his addictions to the Ninja Mutant Turtles, Nintendo and other conspiracies for lowering the intelligence of Western Civilization. Figuring out ways of weaning him away from the TV exercised much of our ingenuity. After breakfast , Beth dropped him off at the kindergarten, then drove to her job as a jewelry maker for a nearby company. Most of the day I had to myself. What did I do? As the cook reminds us in Isak Denisen's "Babette's Feast" : an artist is never poor .

For much of the evening Beth would be on the phone with Alfie, a rediscovered former flame living in Madison, Wisconsin . She spent so much time talking to him over the telephone that she became convinced that life with Alfie was the way to go. She left Zander with John and went down to New York to wind up some business before flying off to Madison. I had the cabin to myself for 3 days. On the second of these nights John drove up and brought me down to Rosendale for dinner. John is an amazing cook. We talked pianos and music, politics, pottery, and books for 6 hours before John took me back to Alligerville. When Republicans accuse homeless people of having the nerve to enjoy life they're onto something.

I left Alligerville in a few weeks to go Albany where I had some business to attend to , then made my customary tour of the familiar haunts: New York City Cambridge , Middletown and Philadelphia, before returning to the Hudson Valley and its homeless shelters.

Ulster County's homeless shelter is in Kingston, and a certain amount of animal cunning ( that miraculous trait found in peasants which intellectuals invoke, to explain how such backward stupid people can come up with interesting strategies for survival ) is needed to get into it. The trick is to show up at the Social Services offices in Willow Park, an administrative district in Kingston, at exactly 4:30 PM on a Friday night. You must walk in unannounced and tell the intake clerk that you have no money and no place to stay. The laws oblige the state to put you in the shelter over the weekend.

The Darmstadt Shelter is located in the basement of a Methodist church at the extreme southern edge of Kingston, over two miles away , in an area known as the Roundout owing to the extensive spiralalalalalingily roaaaaaaadwayyyyyyyyyy that ferries people and vehicles down into the river valley. We are more or less yet not quite on the other side of the tracks. About a block away from the Shelter one finds a stretch of street accommodating genteel souvenir shops, bookstores and health food restaurants .

This may bode the resurrection of this moribund neighborhood, however it is more than likely that it's just another false start. One of the endearing charms of the Hudson Valley is that developments never develop. The tiny enterprises hang around for awhile, just enough for one to enjoy their health foods or quilts or small press books. Their lifespan is never long enough to displace the poor sturdy folk who consider these areas their neighborhoods. In a sense everybody is happy ; everyone that is, except ( perhaps) the lurid-eyed petty businessman who somehow imagines he can cheat the timeless traditions of Sleepy Hollow and survive.

Darmstadt Shelter was clean, warm, with a population of about a dozen, no more demoralizing nor dangerous than its clientele. I enjoy staying in shelters from time to time, because they tend to be staffed by the same kinds of people I went on peace marches with in the 60's. When I am in a strange or unfamiliar town, staying in the shelter gives me a means of finding the very people I came there to meet. This assessment proved once again to be true of Kingston: the staff were all volunteers with Family , a conglomerate of hippies, trolls, leprechauns, flower children, peaceniks and rebels of all shapes and sizes that operates walk-in crisis centers in Kingston, Woodstock, New Paltz and Ellenville. Between myself and the two young activists who recorded the data they needed from me for Social Services, we turned the intake ritual into an informal discussion group about Hudson Valley politics.

On my first night there I shared a room with two other persons, one of them a hefty alcoholic whom I'll name Fred . Fred came in around 1 in the morning , reeking like a brewery that gets its water from a creek infested with the corpses of plague - riddled beavers. He stank up our bedroom so badly that we couldn't enter it for the rest of the day. On the next night he showed up for the dinner hour. He commented to me that I was a dingbat because I read books when I didn't have to, otherwise he left me alone. He went out again after dinner. When he returned, to throw himself onto his cot at 9 PM his stench was , if possible, even more potent than it had been the night before.

I informed the night staff . We tried to eject him from the Shelter but were unable to move him out of his bed. I volunteered to walk the 4 blocks to the neighborhood police station. I arrived and my information was taken down by a desk sergeant. At one point I apologized for the trouble I might be causing poor drunk Fred. The sergeant chuckled: Fred, he explained, spent more days out of the year in their boarding house than he did in ours. Two cops were dispatched . The desk sergeant suggested that I not return to the Shelter right away , lest Fred make an automatic connection of myself with the law. For the next hour I sat sipping expresso at a yuppie coffeehouse. When I returned I returned Fred was gone.

I called up John the next day and related the incident to him. He groaned: "Oh, Roy! Really, that's too much. If you had gone on to get your Ph.D. and been tenured at some decent college , none of this would ever have happened!" What can I say? A few weeks later, Beth returned from Madison. The romance with Alfie had fizzled from the moment he met her on the steps of his apartment. She now lives in John's house in Rosendale. John has moved his piano factory to Tilson, a mile away.

( On a visit to them in 1996 the four of us, John. Beth, Zander and myself , after dinner sat in the living-room and watched the marvelous videocassette "Beethoven Lives Upstairs". Zander in particular was thrilled by scenes of the great maestro throwing flower pots across his room and swearing like a fishmongress. )

After Fred's expulsion from the Darmstadt Shelter the other residents teased me all weekend long with gruesome fantasies of what Fred would do to me if I happened to run into him on the streets of Kingston. Clearly it was time to decamp.

There were other reasons as well. If I couldn't find a place to stay by Monday, the county was going to place me in a halfway house filled with alcoholics, drug-addicts and released prisoners. I've got nothing against these people, I've often enough lived with them. I don't much like getting robbed or beaten up or, even worse, have the valuable time I invest in music, study, research and writing violated by ignorant drunk slobs who are unable to form any mental image of privacy. There has always been something burnt-out about Kingston ( read your American history) . It certainly isn't congenial to persons of my peculiar cast. New Paltz with its university, or Woodstock with its 20 geological layers of remnants of aborted arts colonies are my obvious habitats.

Through my contacts I was able move into a building in a municipality with the signifier of Shady, a handful of houses on Woodstock's northern slopes . My room was on the second floor of a dilapidated rooming house that I'd lived in briefly a few years back and which is known to its alumni as "Laurie Sherman's shithouse." Laurie Sherman is Ulster County's most celebrated miser. Her 3 story rat- and-firetrap warehouse in Shady is stocked with welfare recipients, primarily acidheads whose neural wiring had been melted down in ancient drug trips.

No repairs are ever made in the building. The money that ought to be put aside for such purposes probably goes to the building inspectors so that it won't be condemned as a general public menace. It may get some paint on it once a decade. No locks; you buy your own. No mail delivery; you either get a post office box in Shady or arrange to have your mail sent to the Family office on Rock City Road in downtown Woodstock. The toilet is always broken. One wouldn't want to go into the bathroom anyway because of the permanent slick of water on the floor and the mold in the bathtub.

I washed up in the kitchen, a surrealist's dream of filth. This was not so much the fault of Laurie Sherman, as it was of the tenants who sat around smoking Top tobacco from dawn to dusk, rarely emptied the garbage, and never washed any of their pots or plates they used in their heroic cooking. During my tenure there the microwave oven had become a kind of rooming-house within the rooming house: I don't know if the roaches gave their welfare checks to the occupants of the kitchen. I used my food stamps to buy picnic lunches from the supermarkets, or I ate out in restaurants, which seems to defeat the whole purpose of the welfare system; but there was enough money coming in from selling Ferment Press books and other items to make this possible. Coming home at night I would stride through the front door, wave to the wretches around the dining table, pet the mangy house dog , mount to my room, and lock the door.

I never came out before dawn the next day. After throwing some water in my face from the kitchen sink I dashed across the road to hitch-hike into Woodstock. Sometimes I would walk the four miles downhill through beautiful countryside. On many of these trips I would chant to the trees and the birds: " I don't deserve to live in a shithouse! I don't deserve to live in a shithouse!"

Oh well: only moral uncleanliness is defiling. Read any of the ancient books of wisdom.

Laurie Sherman financed this palace by confiscating every single penny of the residents' welfare money ( apart from the food-stamps, which she couldn't touch) . What more is there to say? Her aged mother, all but senile, a Russian-Jewish refugee. lived in a 3-room apartment on the first floor behind the door to the kitchen. I was told by someone that her late husband had been a concert violinist. People say things like that to give a place class.

I was fortunate to be a resident of Laurie Sherman's shithouse at a time when it was bathed in the glow of Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. Laurie used to tell us that her 20-year old son was a gifted painter waiting for his dazzling career. The implication was clear: he was not like one of those lazy rotting invalids from whom she harvested her bread and butter. One afternoon when everyone was out, the Narcotics Bureau launched a raid on the attic. In it they discovered a chemistry laboratory holding sacks and bottles of all the ingredients that go into the making of Ecstasy and other designer psychedelic drugs. The son was picked up in Albany and, as far as I know, is now serving a long prison sentence. The other residents of the building were naturally very frightened because they could all have been busted for possession. I doubt however that the narcs were interested in the small fry .

In June of 1992, utterly homesickened, I made a phone call to Dr. Michael Lightner of Niwot, Colorado, administrator and tenured professor in Electrical Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a friend and steady patron of Ferment. Mike told me that if I came to Boulder he would make me a visiting scholar in Electrical Engineering. Nobody ever said that universities were totally evil, and they are sometimes useful for escaping drug infested firetraps.

I rode into the sunset around the 1st of June, covering all the expenses of the journey besides the bus ticket by playing the violin on the street corners of New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Denver. It was one of the last times I've used street violin as a steady source of income. I'd grown to detest the instrument, ( hardly the fault of the violin ,one of the supreme inventions of mankind) . Eventually it was pawned in Denver for about $200. I was never able to work up the resolution to redeem it. Now my instrument is the piano, with which I've fallen in love.

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