This post is both a sequel and not a sequel. It’s about Saranac Lake but it’s not about Camp Lavigerie, although in a way it can’t not be. It’s not about bowling either, for that matter. Well, maybe it’s a little bit about bowling. My son might someday read this post and be pissed at me for writing it. He’ll say I was trying to embarrass him. But I’m writing it anyway, and someday he’ll understand that it was to show the world how proud I am of him.
Let me explain. No, there is no time, let me sum up.
Last August, I was completely humbled by the feedback I received after posting A Saranac Lake Guy: The Story of Camp Lavigerie. I tried to tell two stories at the same time (which is fun to do): First and foremost, I told the story of my family’s mystical connection to a place which is long, long gone, a place called Camp Lavigerie in Onchiota, NY, which was located 14.3 miles from the funky and wonderful village of Saranac Lake, NY, the “Capital of the Adirondacks”, which is doing just fine thank you and remains a close, personal friend of mine. And while “flashbacking” on the magic of spending summers at Camp Lavigerie and growing to love Saranac Lake as I grew older, I also told the story of the successes and failures my wife and experienced in trying to weather our son’s psychic and emotional storms on last year’s trip to the Adirondacks; an attempt to once again reconnect with my past and pass some of that North Country Magic on to him, and an attempt to understand why he’d be so grumpy in a place I consider paradise, where I can think of nothing else to do but smile.
I’m telling you all this because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. Over 550 people have clicked on that post from last August, and it still gets “hits” every day, and mostly not from robots. It turns out that a lot of people who experienced Camp Lavigerie themselves formed a visceral, raw emotional connection to it that never let go of them, that was just below the surface waiting for some goofball with a blog to prick it with a pin. But if the people who enjoyed that story click on this one, they will find very little about Camp Lavigerie. And I hate to disappoint people. I really do. But if it’s any consolation, since you’re here, you might learn a little about the fascinating history and local color of Saranac Lake and a whole lot about The Dude, who’s fascinating in his own right, and who might very well do something extraordinary someday if he continues learning to fight against the parts of his brain that will trick him into exploding over gutter balls.
I believe in the power of positive visualization, despite believing at the same time that it’s all a goddamn crapshoot. One may as well imagine oneself surviving the hurricane intact, not smashing the car up, not getting caught in the thunder and lightning in the middle of the lake, and ultimately, nodding off in a chair with a smile one day, not hooked up to beeping machines with a death stare on one’s face. If nature or fate want to take any of us out at any time, they will. If, along the way, some things work out badly, that’s the way it goes. But to my way of thinking, I can’t blame fate or nature, or God forbid, even God, if I didn’t plan or positively visualize that which is I do believe is in my control. I try live experience to experience, create the “keepers” when I can, and learn from the fuck ups.
Positive visualization, as I’ve explained it to The Dude, means I try to picture the best possible outcome of any given situation or experience before I live it; a day at work, a walk with the dog, a lasagna, a 330-mile trip to stay in a house I’ve researched but never stayed in, a paddle on a lake or a rainy day afternoon at the bowling alley. I try to have a realistic but totally positive expectation of how things will work out, and I try to stay content and evenly keeled as possible while things unfold as they will. Sometimes, the outcome of the situation exceeds the positive visualization I had in my head. Those are always nice surprises to me, and some of the best moments of my life.
But the Devil is in the adjustments. And this is the part The Dude has the most trouble with. When things start going bad, and those things are NOT in your control (or you THINK they’re not in your control, because your senses have overloaded) you have to revise your positive visualization, avoid feelings of disappointment, remember to breathe, and try to guide the situation towards working out as well as it possibly can, instead of sabotaging yourself into a tailspin once things go a little bit wrong.
7th Grade starts next week, in a school where The Dude will hopefully spend the next six years. I think he’s in denial about how difficult it will be for him, but I don’t want to tell him that. (“Uh, Dude? It’s going to overwhelm you. No, really. You’re fucked. You’re going to be as frustrated as hell and you’ll probably blow your shit and get suspended within six weeks”). That would not be a positive visualization, now would it. I know it might happen that way, but as the love of my life likes to say, “why borrow trouble?” Instead, I have to sneak in little analogies to try to teach him ways to cope. One analogy that he totally understands is what I like to call the Paddling Principle.
This summer I did something smart. Sometimes I do. Living on a creek and all, not to mention on a big island, and taking annual vacations in places with big lakes and rivers, I’d been kicking around the idea of buying something to float on and paddle around with for a couple of years. At first I had my eye on an Old Town Canoe (The “Saranac” model, naturally). I looked at it so many times online that Dick’s Sporting Goods actually moved a canoe to a store closer to my house, then built a new store less than a mile away, then brought Mookie Wilson to the store for the Grand Opening to get me to come in. But by that time I’d already bought a inflatable Sea Eagle Kayak from Amazon. Nice try, though, Dick. Really. And it was great to meet Mookie. He was a real gentleman. Thank you.
I would’ve bought a respectable hard shell kayak, so people in the Adirondacks wouldn’t snicker at me, but I couldn’t fit all the stuff we take upstate on top of the car and have room left over for the kayak. So I bought the Sea Eagle 370, and named it Levon, after Levon Helm. ‘Cause up on Duffy’s Creek, it sends me, and if it springs a leak, I’ll mend it.
Buying Levon the Boat was a good idea because it made hanging out with Dad cool for possibly a couple of more years. The Dude has natural musical talent but no desire to sit down and pick off songs on the piano, despite three years of lessons, so it’s looking less likely that we’ll spend time jamming together, although he does know all my Pandora songs and he had a great time seeing Colin Hay live in Poughkeepsie earlier this summer. So maybe he’ll be up for going out to catch a band someday. But he’s not at all into sports, and the most successful experience we’ve had with projectiles is tennis, but even that gets frustrating for him. He’ll watch the Mets with me and sort of get it, but he doesn’t have the passion for the game or a desire to learn its history. And you can only get so psyched about going to the dog park with Mookie once you’ve done it a hundred times or so. We spend a lot of time in the summer hanging around pools and beaches. He can swim like hell, but I can’t see him having the drive to to it competitively. He’s just not wired that way. We get in our share of bike rides on the Long Beach Boardwalk, which we both love. But that doesn’t necessarily involve working as a team. Paddling on Levon the Boat has become our go-to Father and Son thing to do. As long as I let him be the Captain. And I don’t annoy him by singing.
And we’ve gotten pretty good at navigating Levon. And for a guy who can sit on the couch for hours staring at a screen, the effort that The Dude puts into paddling is nice to see. And not only is it a great memory-maker, it’s a great analogy for learning how to make adjustments, stay positive and do what’s in your control when things go wrong. I’m trying to make him see how you can apply the Paddling Principle to guiding himself through his own currents, tides and winds. You work towards a fixed object ahead of you. You only move the parts of your body that will propel the boat forward (what I like to call “having a quiet ass”). If the current or the wind takes you left, you paddle right. If you’re fighting the tide, give it a couple of good “oomphs”. You may be working up a sweat, it may be difficult, but then just turn around and look how far you’ve traveled. And when the wind dies down and the current and the tide are carrying you, let them. Stop every once in awhile and look around. You’re exactly where you want to be.
Of course, if you’re paddling in tandem, you’ve also got to work with your partner, and since our paddling sojourns are relatively low-risk, I let The Dude be in charge for the most part when we’re out on the boat. Generally speaking, he likes being in charge and he has no idea how much trouble that gets him into. When he gets frustrated because things aren’t working out, he shuts everyone around him off, and refuses help. An he’ll get really, really nasty if you press him, or if you explain that you, in fact, can’t back off and leave him alone right now.
And of course, the biggest problem with his particular life strategy can be summed up in one word: Teachers. The Dude knows the drill: They have to try to teach you something whether you want to learn it or not, and they have to keep trying to get through to you even when you’ve shut down. You’re not the boss. They are. And when you rage, they look bad, but it’s your fault. To apply the Paddling Principle, all the course correction in the world won’t help you if you’re fixed on a different landmark than the other person on the boat, who is paddling on the opposite side because they feel just as strongly about their goal as you do about yours. You just go around in circles. Or you might throw a violent meltdown in a happy little bowling alley on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Saranac Lake.
Last year, I wrote something very poignant and probably overly dramatic at the end of my long, long blog post. I was in the zone. It would’ve made my mom cry, but then again, so did John Denver. This is what I wrote:
The next morning, as we left to go home, The Dude was quiet, but apologetic. As we drove out through Saranac one last time, I told him that this place has a lot to do with the person that I am, and that I studied the ways of North Country people when I was “growing up” here in the summers. I told him that people who lived here, and the people who knew it well, were people who rolled with the punches, who didn’t let little things get to them, who treated friends and strangers alike with kindness and respect no matter what their circumstances; who kept their sense of humor and their connection to nature intact as much as possible and who knew what was important and what was not. I told him that I didn’t know when we’d be coming back, because he didn’t seem to really appreciate it. And that was just a plain old mean thing to say, but I said it anyway.
As we made our way down 73 to The Northway, The Dude told me he was sorry again. And I apologized for overreacting. And then he said something that will stay with me forever. This is what he said: “I’d like to come back here again and learn how to be a Saranac Lake Guy.”
And so we will. And we’ll find a nice cabin on a lake so we don’t have to live in a motel, and Mookie can go swimming whenever he feels like it, and Trisha will be able to walk, and we’ll leave the damn computer and all the electronic junk at home and keep working on teaching our son to love the North Country for the beautiful, magical place that it is.
And at some point, I’ll take a ride by myself and go down to Children’s Beach and sit and stare at White Cross Mountain and remember for awhile. I’m sure Mom wouldn’t mind the company.
So that was the positive visualization from a year ago. And here are the adjustments:
First of all, learn from your mistakes. Correct your course. I was totally not being a “Saranac Lake Guy” myself for denying The Dude a Donnelly’s Ice Cream Cone on our last night in town in August of 2015, even if he did curse at me and kick the driver’s chair in a violent rage while I was driving because he didn’t like dinner. I made him wait in the car as punishment. Only a monster would do that. The big, friendly (mostly bearded) guys who stopped to rub Mookie’s face on our walks up and down Broadway in Saranac Lake, they’re not monsters. They would never deny their own son a Donnelly’s ice cream come, and they survive -30 degree winters. So I’ve got my own battles. If I could spend more time actually in Saranac Lake, I think it would do me wonders. I know seven days went a long way.
We drove up on a day when a flash flood warning was issued for the area, and we drove the last stretch of the trip through the single most ferocious downpour I have ever experienced. (Are you out there Subaru? “A Creek Runs Through It” is available for sponsorship). It was raining so hard that I passed my usual gas station in Keene Valley because I had a little less than a quarter of a tank and I figured It’d stop raining by Placid and we could get gas there. But I made the left for the shortcut by John Brown’s Grave and thought I didn’t, because it was raining so hard I couldn’t real see a thing. And Placid never showed up, and the rain got harder and harder. I had about an eighth of a tank when the rain eased up just a bit and I pulled into the Ray Brook Sunoco, thanking God for his strength and that coffee over there.
And this was all after we got stuck cold still on the Northway outside of Saratoga for a solid hour behind an accident.
But you know what? The most positive visualization I had for the drive upstate was that it would really, really suck and we’d get there in one piece. Expectations met. Handled it like a Saranac Lake Guy would. Stayed on course and said “fuck that was scary” to my wife at least ten times when things settled down later on.
Then there was the house. Expectations exceeded, and then some.
I searched high and low all winter for the right place; Trip Advisor, ADK by Owner, Home Away, local real estate agents. Let me tell you, for such an unpretentious place, you pay dearly to rent a house in the summer in Saranac Lake. The original visualization last year was a place on the water, where theoretically Mookie could go swimming any time he wanted, really not considering what wet dogs can do to other people’s furniture. It didn’t really matter because I just couldn’t find anything on the water that wasn’t a king’s ransom or slightly horror movie. Then we found what I will only identify as the House on The Hill, because I don’t want you to steal it from me next summer.
The house is actually built into a hill overlooking the village, but you couldn’t really see the village because of all the big shady trees, though you knew it was down there. It was sort of like the most luxurious tree house you could imagine, complete with all the Adirondack furniture and knick-knacks you could ever be afraid of hoping nobody breaks. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad was right at the bottom of the hill, so you could hear old-time train whistles several times a day. How cool is that? (Of course, New York State is planning on shutting the Scenic Railroad down and ripping up the tracks for a rail trail because somebody gave Andrew Cuomo a lot of money. Sickening. But I digress). We even had our own cat, George. George actually lived next door but someone had obviously fed him while renting the house, and he was very friendly, so he came by to check on us regularly, which helped The Dude feel a little more at home, since he had his dog but not his cats.
We very happily settled into the House on the Hill and shook off the harrowing drive. The next day The Dude began a pattern of sleeping until at least 9 o’clock, which is intolerably late by my standards, and sometimes 10, which is disgusting by my standards. He also had his own room in the basement far away from us, and yes, we did take along his phone and his computer (more about that later). Though my biggest regret of the week was not getting his ass out of bed at least one day to go climb one of the “Saranac 6’er” mountains and show him the view of the whole village, it’s hard to deny a long, lazy sleep in mountain air to a 12 year-old whose mind works like a supercollider from the second he wakes up. So climbing a mountain will be something to do next year that we haven’t done yet.
I think it’s obvious at this point that Saranac Lake is my favorite place in the world. And within that favorite place is actually a favorite street, and that street is Church Street from the top of the hill at Bloomingdale Ave, down past the Topps Supermarket near the bridge over the Saranac River, right before Woodruff Ave. On the 4th of July in 1980, when I was 17, I took a Trailways Bus by myself to Glens Falls, walked out to The Northway and stuck my thumb out, just to say I did. I have a brother who hitchhiked across the country when he was 17 or 18, and I wanted to experience a little of that thrill. Of course you can’t do that anymore, which is sad and probably for the best.
After a very long time on a very hot day, and very close to giving up, I got a ride from a very 70’s guy with a big white-guy afro driving a White Corvette convertible who was on his way to his wedding in Plattsburgh. My friends back in Valley Stream thought they were all so much cooler than me and they had no idea. I took the rest of the Northway, 73 and 86 in style. He drove me right to the corner of 86 and 3, Church Street and Bloomingdale Ave. I was supposed to meet some of the older guys from Camp Lavigerie who were going to camp out on Lake Kushaqua. As it turned out, I got there (after hitching a ride from a guy who was going to Onchiota and knew a lot of Duffy’s) and they weren’t there. And as it turned out they were at Buck Pond and I never found them. We didn’t have cell phones, and a smart guy would’ve thought to check the Buck Pond Campground. No matter. I camped out by myself on the beach behind the Chapel, woke up on Lake Kushaqua the next morning alone and not at all unhappy, hitched back to Saranac and took a Trailways back to New York City, a completely different person for the experience.
Because on that day, July 4th, 1980, after parting ways with the guy in the White Corvette convertible (who I hope has had a wonderful 36-year marriage) and before hitching the rest of the way to Onchiota, I hung around for a few hours in Saranac Lake and just looked around, and pretended I lived there.
I was 17 and completely alone. And I was not the least bit afraid. I at was home in the world. I leaned on the bridge across the street from what was the Grand Union and watched the river flow. I walked though the parking lots over to the funky and slightly intimidating part of Broadway up by the Rusty Nail, then down past the Dew Drop Inn and the Saranac Hotel. It was all beautiful to me, and this time it was all mine. No parents, no brothers or sisters, no Camp Lavigerie school bus waiting to take me back after the movie. Nobody from Valley Stream South High School defining who I was and where I fit in. In that moment, I was content with myself. I liked where I was, and I liked who I was, which hadn’t really happened often during my teenage years. And through all the drama and manipulation that people put me through in the ensuing 19 years on Long Island – until I met my wife and I stopped giving a rat’s ass about anyone else’s opinion – that little moment of happiness was always something I could reach back for. A picture of myself that was perfect to me. You think you know who I am, but you really don’t. At heart, I’m not from Long Island. I don’t even understand Long Island. I’m a Saranac Lake Guy. And people there are so much cooler than you. And up here, I’m already gone.
But there’s just no way my son can have the same connection to this place. These are very different times, and his life experiences have been radically different from mine. He’s not me, but that’s OK. How could he be? And really, why would he want to be? I was five years older than he is now when I took on that adventure, and my parents didn’t seem to have a problem with it (or weren’t really listening when I proposed it), as they had seen four older children take lesser risks and not die from them. The Dude is still not at the point where we’d let him cross the four lane road that separates us from the rest of the world, mostly because of the rest of the world. We had a horrible story in Valley Stream a few years back of a twelve year-old boy who was killed by a truck on Merrick Road after convincing his mom he was old enough to walk to school by himself. Going to Saranac Lake by myself at 17 was pretty calculated risk. But it obviously reaped great rewards to me on the 4th of July in 1980. But now letting my son ride his bike to the Valley Stream Pool, right past the flowers and stuffed animals wrapped on the pole on Merrick Road, would be considered outrageously irresponsible. All I can tell you is, like many people my age, I’m glad I grew up then and not now.
Back in the House on The Hill, our first morning was a cloudy, slightly rainy Sunday. Mookie and I went for a good long walk while Trisha hung out enjoying the house and The Dude slept. We walked down Church, across Main, down Broadway to River Street. We stopped in at the Blue Line Sport Shop on the way to see if they sold pedometers because I’m OCD and I thought I had left mine at home. A guy with a big thick beard rubbed Mookie’s face. We got ourselves a bacon and egg on a roll from the Lakeview Deli and ate it on a bench looking out at the big houses across the lake on Kiwassa Road. Though I don’t have the $264,000 to buy the one I have my eye on, nevertheless I was in heaven.
Later that day, after driving around, doing a little shopping and enjoying the hell out of the House on The Hill,, we all took a walk down Church Street. It had become a hot, steamy afternoon and the Dude started getting snitty and punky on us, just like he got snitty and punky on us last year. I was thinking, and I know Trisha knows I was thinking, Christ, you’re going to ruin this place for me, too? Is nothing sacred with you? I suggested calmly that maybe we should just turn around and go home. I thought he might call my bluff, but he didn’t. And then I kept walking towards Broadway. I paddled left.
Because I remembered that he’s not me. To him, this place is only the place we take a long drive to that Dad used to hang out in a million years ago. It’s nice and all that, but I grew up going to the beach at Grandma’s house in Point Lookout and having the little town of Copake Falls in the summer, where everybody knows me and I know everybody. And I love Valley Stream. I wouldn’t live anywhere else and I’m never leaving. This isn’t my scene, Dad, and unfamiliar sensory processing is not my strong suit. And really, why should I give a crap about your little rickety mountain town?.
I made adjustments to my positive visualization. We walked over to Broadway. Trisha and I sat down on the bench in front of the office of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise (established in 1895) and Mookie sat down in a puddle of his own dribbled water on the sidewalk (established five seconds earlier). I handed The Dude my phone and asked him to go across the street to the steps of the post office and take our picture. Suddenly, he had a purpose besides just tagging along. And he was astounded that when he stepped into the crosswalk, the cars stopped. And he took some nice pictures. And we went home and had a nice dinner. It was vanilla twisted with chocolate night at Donnelly’s. (The rest of the week went as follows: Nut Surprise, Chocolate Again, Blueberry, Strawberry. with one rain out in the middle. It’s important to know what tonight’s flavor at Donnelly’s is if you live in Saranac Lake. And no one was denied ice cream in any way for any reason). On the way back to the House on the Hill, we made a plan to take Levon the Boat out on Lake Colby later in the week.
The day ended on a good note, but I warned Trisha, who in turn warned The Dude, that if he tried to ruin the next day, which included Dad’s positive visualization of a trip with Levon the Boat out to Lake Kushaqua, I would be very put out.
In the car on the ride to Onchiota, he started getting snitty and punky again, and we enjoyed the scenery. He announced that he “wasn’t really into going out in the boat anymore”. I ignored him and turned up the radio. We got down to Family Beach at Kushaqua and ran right into our old friend (and yours if you read “A Saranac Lake Guy”), Pat Haltigan. Pat was down at the lake with his 9 year-old son, who is always looking for someone to throw a football around with. They were waiting for Pat’s daughter and her boyfriend, who were camping on the lake, while his sister Mary Grace’s family were renting Road’s End, one of the two remaining Camp Lavigerie cottages. The Dude was happy enough to see Pat and his son, although he has never, ever once in his life looked for anyone to throw anything back and forth with.
I blew up Levon the Boat and headed off by myself to visit Children’s Beach, around the cove from where we were, which at Camp Lavigerie was called Family Beach. It was a promise I made to myself last year. My positive visualization was that I could pull ashore and look at White Cross Mountain from the same perspective as my mother had when she used to go to Children’s Beach to get the hell away from her children. Then I made adjustments.
There’s not much of a clearing left where Children’s Beach was. I got about twenty feet offshore of it, stopped and took it in, decided I probably shouldn’t be out of sight for too long and headed back to the my family on Family Beach, where I found Trisha trying to stop Mookie from frantically swimming out to save me and The Dude attempting to throw a football back and forth in the lake. He asked me if he could do a solo paddle, and I handed him the keys. Out he went for a short spin by himself on beautiful, beautiful Lake Kushaqua. I proudly watched as he did something I did when I was twelve, and loved it. And though it wasn’t a big risk, it was a risk just the same, and it produced a little reward for both of us.
That night after Donnelly’s, we took a little detour through the neighborhood in back of the House on The Hill, called Highland Park. The north side of Park Avenue is lined with the famous cure cottages of Saranac Lake. If you don’t know the story, in the 1870’s a New York City doctor named E.L. Trudeau, who had seen his own brother die of tuberculosis, contracted the disease himself and decided to visit Saranac Lake for the clean, cold air. He was miraculously “cured”, but subsequently died from tuberculosis in 1915. But in the 40 years he lived in Saranac in the interim, Dr. Trudeau researched the disease in his laboratory on Church Street and began the “cottage industry”(and everyone who uses that pun intends it) of bringing tuberculosis patients to the picturesque little North Country village to “take the cure”. Part of taking the cure involved sitting on a the porch of a cure cottage in a “cure chair” (naturally) with the windows wide open and breathing as much as possible; the colder the air, the better. (The House on The Hill has some very cool antique cure chairs that we carefully tried out, as one was broken and one wasn’t yet. The flower lady and the cleaning lady think the Rugby team was responsible. I know it wasn’t us).
As many people found a “cure” for tuberculosis in Saranac Lake, more and more of these humongous cure cottages were built, and people charged “lungers” (that’s what they called them) and their families room and board to stay in the houses as long as they needed to. Some lived and prospered, some died, and 40 years after Trudeau’s death, the antibiotic streptomycin more or less wiped out tuberculosis for good. But the houses stood.,’cause where were they going to go? Today, some of them are well-maintained apartment buildings, bed and breakfasts, or very rich family homes, and some of them are rat and squatter emporiums. But they are all still beautiful. The architecture is like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else. They sit majestically surveying the mountains and lakes and sky, exuding the stories that were lived in them. People in Saranac are comfortable with being surrounded by the benevolent ghosts that live in the cure cottages. It’s part of the character of the town.
My own story in the Adirondacks started fifty years ago with my parents drove five kids up to a camp built on the site of the Stony Wold Sanitarium, so those ghosts are my ghosts, too. And part of my character.
I had never seen these Highland Park cure cottages in all my trips “back home” to Saranac, and after seeing them up close on the drive that night after Donnelly’s, I took a nice slow walk along Park Ave. with Mookie the next morning, just to take it all in. We passed by Baker Street and I got a song caught in my head for the rest of the week, and we also made our annual pilgrimage to DJ’s Rustic Restaurant on Broadway for gigantic blueberry pancakes to go. If you like breakfast, remember that name.
The houses we saw on our walk fascinated me. (Particularly the one that looks uninhabitable with a tent pitched and colorful signs and hippy-painted cars on the front lawn). I wanted to learn more about the stories behind these gorgeous old buildings. The lady who owned the House on The Hill had all the local history books I could possibly want to look through, plus the wi-fi connectivity to ask my magic rectangle anything else I wanted to know. My absolute favorite factoid about Dr. Trudeau was that once he started feeling better, he challenged a local mountain man to engage in one of his favorite pastimes, “fisticuffs”. They even have an illustration of the event in the Laboratory Museum. A scrawny little doctor in a fistfight with a gigantic lumberjack.
You can’t beat that.
Back at The House on The Hill, as Tuesday moved on , it rained and it rained. We had a plan for the rainy day, though. The best positive visualization we could put together. Throw on some raincoats and drive to the interesting and fun (we hoped and prayed) things that were actually within walking distance if it weren’t pouring rain: The Adirondack Carousel, The Trudeau Laboratory and Romano’s Saranac Lanes, a bowling alley that I had passed by several hundred times since 1966 but had yet to visit. I had no idea on any one of those several hundred occasions how that bowling alley would eventually work its way into my life story.
First of all, The Dude was too cool to go on the Carousel, which is ridiculous, but he’s 12. The whole thing is carved out of wood, and the “horses” are Adirondack animals, all hand carved by local artists. It’s the coolest merry-go-round you’ve ever seen. Here’s a picture. You want to go on it right now, don’t you?
We anticipated this, and we decided we didn’t give a fuck. We rode it without him, just me and Trisha. I took the Giant Bunny so she could ride next to me on the River Otter, which is the closest thing to her favorite animal, which is the sloth. I do love that woman. And our son loves us. So despite his pre-adolescent need to be no fun sometimes, he was most definitely amused by watching his parents being children.
But The Dude was actually engaged by the Saranac Laboratory Museum, which to their credit is no easy task. They’ve really done an excellent job of telling the story of Trudeau and the lives of the tuberculosis patients, and the place is definitely worth a visit. Trudeau’s laboratory has been kept essentially intact, enhanced by little phone receivers through which the good doctor and some early patients “talk” to you and tell you about what you’re looking at.
There’s also a room where you’ll find a cure chair next to a widow with a large brown fur coat draped over it, and if you listen on the old-fashioned phone receiver, you’ll hear the story and poetry of a woman who spent her entire adult life sitting in one of those chairs, wearing one of the coats in the brutal winter on an open porch, trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to survive tuberculosis. It’s sobering stuff. They also have a room of “Medical Marvels”, which are the god-awful machines used to treat conditions and diseases dating back to the 19th Century. All of this was enough of a distraction to keep the Dude from trying to find the machine room and the electrical panel box, which his usual plan upon entering any building for the first time. It was a very good take your twelve year old to a museum experience.
And then we went bowling.
Now mind you, The Dude had gone bowling before. Quite a few times, actually. And I had already experienced a bowling alley meltdown a couple of years back. But I was TOLD that he won a game on a recent day camp field trip, so I was under the impression he must have figured it out. I guess they must have not told me about the gutter guards.
And as Trisha pointed out to me later, we went from a quiet museum to a comparatively noisy bowling alley, where the implication was that we had to on our best behavior, since we were among the locals now. Our son has difficulty with sensory overload. He can’t process everything at once because he perceives so much. He gets overwhelmed. We may as well have set a bomb off behind him when we brought him into that bowling alley. And it was pretty much all my idea.
And I’m sure Jeff Romano, proud owner of Romano’s Saranac Lanes, probably had gutter guards on lane 8, because I saw a family with (much) smaller children using them. But I didn’t ask and he didn’t offer.
As I mentioned earlier, I had never actually walked into Saranac Lanes, despite having passed by it hundreds of times. It’s always been there, and in my memory, and based on the condition of the building and the slightly shady-looking people I’d seen outside of it over the years, it always seemed just a little bit unprosperous. And apparently that was true (as I found out later) before Jeff and Cathy Romano took over ten years ago and sunk a very, very large amount of money into the business. I had a visualization of what it would be like at two o’clock on a rainy afternoon, and the reality was much, much better than my visualization.
It’s a delightful place. When you walk in, there’s a bar area along the left side with a pool table and at least one big TV with a game on. There were three little girls playing pool in the bar area. The bar is separated by a wall and windows from the rest of the business, which also features an L-shaped, sparkling clean lunch counter with old-time spinning stools and an arcade area. The bowling alley itself is eight lanes and state-of-the-art, with all the video and interactive stuff to keep score. It’s all just big enough for a town of 5600 people, and it turns out, for passing tourists with children who are occasionally prone to screaming meltdowns.
Now The Dude is not a competitive guy in any way. But unfortunately, while he doesn’t try to figure out strategies to win, he also hates losing. I probably wouldn’t have even kept score if the video screen didn’t do it automatically. But he would have known how much he was sucking anyway. Games were $5 each, and it just so happened that Tuesday afternoons were 2 for 1, but I didn’t know that. So we were unaware at the time that had two free games to play after the initial two games. (Trisha has a cranky back, so we decided to put The Dude on one game and split the other one). And I’m not good at all, and threw a few gutters while I was trying to remember how to do it. But I managed to keep in perspective that I was there to have fun. The Dude, not so much.
As the game went on, he fell into the spiral familiar to seven years of teachers. I tried to show him what he was doing wrong and got “I KNOW how to DO IT! Leave me ALONE!” and he threw another gutter ball. I tried to show him that he should be using a lighter ball, and how to hold his fingers. “The ball’s FINE!” After another gutter in the sixth or seventh frame, he said, “Just SAY it! I SUCK ! PLEASE tell me I suck!” I offered again to help and again got stepped on. The game went on like this, as the people on the other seven lanes had an enjoyable afternoon at the bowling alley. By the time it was over, The Dude had bowled a 20, and was seemingly on an unstoppable trajectory towards rage mode. He told us he was going to take a walk and started walking towards the door. I told him he had to change out of the bowling shoes. He threw one of them against a wall. And he got angrier and angrier when Jeff Romano told us we still had two free games and Trisha and I embarrassingly had to explain that our son was too far gone at this point. he headed for the door, towards a very busy street. I had to catch him and fight off flailing arms and put him in a restraining bear grip as he screamed his head off and the little girls playing on the pool table next to the bar and everybody else watched on.
We literally threw him into the car, which we had fortuitously parked right in front of the bowling alley, and he screamed that he hated us, that we were ignorant, horrible fucking parents and he wanted to get away from us. He kicked the driver’s seat over and over and screamed and screamed. At this point, I just had to pull over around the corner and wait it out. I told him I couldn’t go back to the house as long as he was raging, ’cause I couldn’t afford to replace the things he’d break. I think he must have realized that he needed to go back to “his room” in the basement of The House on The Hill to hide and to somehow save himself, but his Dad wouldn’t risk taking him there if her were still screaming and kicking the chair, so he stopped.He made himself stop. We parked the car in the driveway.
Trisha stayed with him in the car for a few minutes. He got out and did a long 360 around The House on the Hill, which we had all quickly grown to love. He walked through the living room, stomped down the narrow spiral staircase and slammed the door of his room. I asked Trisha to go down and make sure he wasn’t trashing the room. He wasn’t. He was beneath the covers, crying it out. I gave it twenty minutes or so. I went downstairs.
He was completely out of rage. He was done and he was sorry. He was ashamed. I told him I had a picture in my head: Just you and me. We walk over to ride the Carousel, then we apologize to the man at the bowling alley and we enjoy a game, and you let me help you, you let me teach you.
He didn’t want to do the Carousel. He thought it was embarrassing. He’s afraid of being perceived as a little kid, yet he’s afraid to grow up. I adjusted. I paddled right. Forget the Carousel, but let’s wipe out an ugly memory of the bowling alley with a happy one. We’ve only got this time and this place, only here and only now. Let’s do it right.
He washed the tears away. We walked down the hill. The rain was letting up. Not knowing what I was dealing with, I warned him on the walk over that the guy at the bowling alley might say he doesn’t feel comfortable letting you back in. I thought this might be a possible scenario and had to plan for it, though I doubted it. Still. We practiced a simple apology. “I’m really sorry for acting out here before. I’d like to play another game.”
I don’t know if Jeff Romano is originally from Saranac Lake. I saw a picture of him online, standing proudly with his wife Catherine, holding the Adirondack Daily Enterprise readers’ choice award for best bowling alley in the region. In the picture he was wearing a Mets t-shirt. I usually don’t wear my Mets cap upstate because it screams where I’m from, and when I’m upstate I’m not proud of where I’m from because by comparison it really, really sucks here. My decision to live on Long Island ultimately shows bad judgement on my part. But if you read this, Jeff, we have something in common. Let’s Go Mets!
But unlike myself, wherever you’re from Jeff, you’re a true Saranac Lake Guy.
A true Saranac Lake Guy knows that kids throw tantrums, and sometimes they do it in his bowling alley. And it shouldn’t be embarrassing and it doesn’t reflect any judgement of any kind on the kid or on his parents, other than it happens sometimes. And with some kids, it happens a little more often. And Jeff Romano accepted The Dude’s articulate apology and smiled, and told him we still had our free games, gave us the same lane and asked for our shoe sizes.
And The Dude bowled a 64. We both had a couple of gutters. I had a strike and he rejoiced in my success. We high fived. We laughed. He let me show him what he was doing wrong as best as I could and he got better. He took his poor executions in stride as best as he could, and he reveled in his better ones. In short, he had fun bowling. He sat down calmly when it was my turn. He looked around at the other people playing . He was digging the scene. I asked him how he felt. He told me it felt very comfortable here.
I had a nice chat with Jeff Romano on the way out, though he was busy doing at least three jobs at the same time. I thanked him and asked him about his business. That’s when he told me what he and his wife had invested in what was, in fact, a pretty run-down place at one time. And I was heartened for my old friend Saranac Lake that these wonderful, hardworking people run a business where you can have good, clean fun for not a lot of money. I correctly noted that he must really like rainy days. It was one of those restore your faith in humanity moments. He tried to get me to come back for Wing Night, and I told him my wife was cooking a steak.
The Dude and I walked along Bloomingdale Avenue, past Church Street, across the railroad tracks back home to The House on The Hill. It’s a beautiful moment in time, frozen in my mind forever, just like the one from 36 years ago on this same stage, but for completely different reasons. My son was beautiful to me at that moment. Beautiful and perfect.
And Trisha, beautiful and perfect in her own right, is so much more perceptive than I am. And like The Dude, she was and still is much more of a stranger to Saranac Lake than I am. She saw things in the situation that I didn’t see. He knew how to bowl much better than he did. It was much more about sensory processing than physical limitations. He was completely out of his element, and he fought against the feeling until he couldn’t fight it anymore.
But she reminded me that there was a point where the meltdowns used to come almost every day, and once the meltdown came, the rest of the day was shot. What was shocking to us about the bowling alley meltdown is how long it had been since we’d seen one like that. At least four months. And I agreed with my very smart wife that we could’ve somehow found a way to handle it better. We always could. She could have taken him for a walk and I could’ve stayed there and bowled until he was ready to come back and join me. And that probably would’ve worked. Woulda, shoulda, coulda.
We walk a line, Trisha and I. The line we walk is between “we completely understand why the bowling alley would overwhelm you” and “it’s a goddamn bowling alley for Christ’s sake.” Between knowing what the result might be in the transition from one a given sensory input to another and knowing that the big, wide world can and will throw much harder challenges at our son then transitioning from a museum to a bowling alley.
And our son walks that same line. He knows it all by this time. He’s a mechanical genius who can’t stop fussing with his hair. A steel-trap learning machine that can’t remember where he left his glasses. A guy who knows his own potential for raging (as he now calls it) and fights through his frustrations as hard as he can. He doesn’t need us to tell him what he has to deal with in his own head every second of every day. The brave young man who loves his father very much walked back into that bowling alley a second time strapped with the best visualization he could carry, determined to enjoy the experience.
He told me last year that he wanted to learn how to be a Saranac Lake Guy. To me, the title refers to a special quality that I’ve observed in so many of the people I’ve met there (men and women). The best way I can describe it is “easiness”: They go easy, or always seem to. They’re easy with other people, with nature, with animals, with seasons, with situations. I certainly can’t say that I’m that way all the time. Not even close. But I try to be. And what would you be if you didn’t try. (The Dude once answered that question when he was very young with : “A Non-Trying Guy”). I’ve tried to teach my son the value of that quality. Just go easy. Easy does it. But to think he would learn it just by being in the place I associate with that quality, like it would just wash over him like baptismal water, is a pretty stupid notion. He’ll get there, as close as he can get, on his own time in his own place. Me too, maybe.
We had a great time the rest of the week. The weather slowly got better. We went to The Wild Center in Tupper lake, and so should you. Trisha and The Dude took the Scenic Railroad to Lake Placid and Mookie and I drove there and met them at the station. We meandered along the River Walk and took in all the little nooks and crannies of Saranac Lake, NY. The river was extremely low, because it hadn’t rained much before we showed up, which took out my idea of paddling from downtown out to Route 3, but we took a beautiful paddle out of Lake Colby on Levon the boat Thursday afternoon. If you were driving past the hospital on 86 and you looked out at the water at two people out in a kayak and said to yourself, “damn, that looks nice”, that was us, and it was.
On Thursday night we went for a walk downtown. For some reason, Thursday Night is Friday Night in Saranac Lake. There’s always a lot going on. On this particular night, artists were selling paintings they had painted around town during the week as part of the “Plein Air Festival” and there were running races for all ages down along Lake Flower. But most of all, I wanted to stand in front of Waterhole #3, across from Town Hall, and check out the scene for awhile.
Trust me when I tell you that Waterhole #3 is one of the coolest, friendliest bars you could ever walk into (and you should trust me, because if you have never been to Saranac and you walk by “The Hole”during the day you might be frightened at first. Don’t be). It’s the happiest place in the world when a band is playing on the patio, surrounded by two floors of big balconies for spectators, on a beautiful summer night. The band playing on the patio that night was called Raisinhead. They were playing “New Speedway Boogie” by The Grateful Dead when we started getting close enough to hear.
Spent a little time on the mountain. / Spent a little time on the hill / Things went down we don’t understand / But I think in time we will.
And if that weren’t enough:
You can’t overlook the lack, Jack, of any other highway to ride / It’s got no signs or dividing lines, and very few rules to guide.
Ironically, at that moment The Dude suddenly realized that he hadn’t changed out of the bathing suit he wore out on Lake Colby and wanted to turn around and go home because he thought people would actually notice or care. And it was getting late, and we wanted to get to Donnelly’s for ice cream, so we told him he had to deal with it. And the kicker is that we KNEW he was still wearing the bathing suit, and didn’t want to annoy him by telling him to change his clothes after dinner. One way or another, this darkness got to give.
So Trisha, Mookie and I took in a song or two on the steps of the Town Hall (watching a scene wherein all the people on the two-floor balcony erupted into applause when one couple showed up in a camper) and The Dude walked down to the River Walk in back of the Town Hall to get away from people and wound up meeting some nice people on the River Walk behind the Town Hall and almost forgetting he was wearing his bathing suit.
Trisha let me go back to Raisinhead with Mookie after we got ice cream. The people outside The Waterhole, already quite happy, were overjoyed to meet Mookie, and Mookie was overjoyed to meet them, despite the very, very loud music. I had left my wallet back at the house, but I could’ve handed someone my dog and gone in for a beer and not thought twice about it. I even ran into some of my neighbors. And you could hear Raisinhead all over town until 11pm. I was listening from The House on the Hill when they finished with 200 happy revelers singing the chorus of “Willing” by Little Feet, just as the Town Hall rang 11 bells. I felt like I was missing a really good time because I was, but at least I had caught a little piece of it.
Friday was a stunner of a weather day. We drove back out to Onchiota to visit Road’s End, where we knew Mary Grace Haltigan’s family was staying. The Dude got to explore the house a little, but Mookie had to wait in the car, because they had three dogs, and he’d been growling at strange dogs all week, thinking he had to protect us. (He was out of his element a bit, too. He’s not quite a Saranac Lake Dog yet but he’s working on it. He likes the way people rub his face there). We went back to Kushaqua, this time without the boat, because Dad didn’t really want to risk driving Lou the Subaru down what’s left of the road that goes to the beach when we had a 330-mile drive the next day, so we left the car at the top of the hill and brought some chairs and lunches, and Mookie went swimming. (That’s it. Subaru just yanked the sponsorship. Seriously guys. Your cars are great. It’s not you, it’s me).
Despite enjoying his visit to Road’s End, The Dude was growing out of sorts by the time we got to Kushaqua. But he was trying to not make it anyone else’s problem, and we could see that. Still, when Pat asked if we could watch his son for awhile, I had to tell him I didn’t know how long my son would last down on the beach. It would have been nice if he could have just played with another kid without being aware of the time, but I knew he couldn’t have handled it for very long. Pat totally understood and said sometimes his kid gets that way, too. Everybody’s kid gets that way.
We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked, and I didn’t like the fact that The Dude had brought his phone down to the beach. Last year, I had a visualization of leaving all the electronic stuff at home. But we decided that just wasn’t worth the stress it would have put The Dude under, or us. He is of his time and of his place. He’s a guy who appreciates the Adirondacks but would like to have his phone with him while he’s there. At one point as I stood out in the lake with Mookie, I looked back to see The Dude sitting on a rock staring down at his phone. I rolled my eyes. Then I called Trisha over to me. I said, “Hey Dude! Take a picture of me and Mom!” Trisha and I posed by giving each other a big kiss. The Dude said, “I’m going to post that all over the Internet!” I told him send it to me and I’ll beat you to it.
People have been coming to Saranac Lake to “take the cure” for 150 years. Back when there was no cure for tuberculosis, people came to Saranac on faith, that somehow being there would make them feel better, feel stronger. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t. It works for me.
Fact is, there’s no streptomycin to cure the tough parts of being a parent, or to ease the pain of the tides, currents and winds that come with being a very intelligent but very sensitive 12 year-old boy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come back here and keep taking the cure the old-fashioned way whenever we can.
There’s a great bowling alley in town if you need something to do on a rainy day. And up at Donnelly’s, just outside of town on the road to Onchiota, they have the best soft serve ice cream in the world. And we’ve earned it. ’cause we’ve been trying to be good. Even Mookie.