The socially climbing Victorian assholes who colonized the North Country for summering purposes had a fetish for naming their “camps.” The one that my mom bought in the early 1960’s had been christened Over-the-Rhine. Of course it wasn’t actually called Over-the-Rhine, and it sure as hell wasn’t called The Pork-n-Beans, one of the real Over-the-Rhine’s real equivalents in Miami, as television has taught me; I’m just trying to keep the Google-fu of any potentially troublesome local history buffs from leading directly to these pages. You get the idea, though. They built a “camp,” and, the better to “summer” in it, they gave it an affected name connoting cool change rural shit and preen to their buddies that they had their own little Balmoral.
On one of my first trips to see my parents at their new retirement house on this same parcel, my mom proudly informed me that she had embroidered a number of bath towels, including ones in the guest bathroom that I was using, with the historic name of Over-the-Rhine. She was obviously fishing for compliments and likely to throw a minor fit if I didn’t oblige her or, worse, criticized her. Frankly, I was disgusted and a bit horrified when she told me of this embroidery project and took a look at the results. It sounded just close enough to shut-in senility to give me the sinking feeling that I had a future, and one none too distant, of having to buy same-day airfare to Albany in order to deal with some bizarre, unpredictable family emergency.
It wasn’t just that this was a stupid, pathetic project; it was also that my mom thought I’d be captivated by such a thing, or should have been, in any event. They’ve since mellowed out on this point, but for the first year or two my parents went to absurd lengths to insinuate that I had given them my blessing to move more than three hundred miles away from what had been our hometown for two decades and retire to this wankery lake with a chronically poor job market and absolutely no public transit. It was in this spirit that my mom expected me to be taken with these stupid fucking monogrammed bath towels, as with other equally twee “cute” shit that my parents have come to find so resonant since they moved to that goddamned lake.
The midcentury backstory to this old-timey summer cabin that my mom pretends to have resurrected like a dipshit phoenix is a real kicker. The building whose name she embroidered on the towels was the same one she had had the local fire company burn down in a training exercise. This Victorian gem had been abandoned during the Great Compression and turned into a deathtrap by the time my mom bought the parcel, and she didn’t want the liability. Any number of townie drunks might have wandered in, gotten dead somehow, and inspired a wrongful death lawsuit by their next of kin.
This is the venerable tradition that my mom is trying to larp. The old collapsing pile of debris that she had the firemen Shermanize was no Fallingwater, even in its glory days, and neither is the new place.
It’s appalling that no authority involved in the Byzantine thicket of permitting required for new construction within the Adirondack State Park vetoed the design of the driveway to my parents’ place, with its grades of at least 8% (probably more like 10% at the steepest) running between a 120-degree curve to the garage and, at the bottom, a narrow county road with limited lines of sight immediately fronting a lake. My parents have generally held that the difficulty, and sometimes impossibility, of navigating this driveway is just cute country life, and sometimes even amusing, like when some visiting friends skidded down the sloped portion clear into the road over a fresh six-inch snowfall. No, that isn’t cute; that’s retarded design and derelict maintenance of way that could have gotten someone killed. The driveway surface keeps getting fucked up by delivery truck drivers and, come winter, by the private plow crews my parents hire through the local good old boy responsible for driveway plowing in their half of the town. These guys drive like bats out of hell around blind corners, in consideration of the slower, more laidback pace of country living. It’s mainly luck that they haven’t killed anyone yet.
My parents built this house without air conditioning and with windows that are totally incompatible with window units. Wall windows that open and close are low-class, you see. They won’t come out and say this, but it’s a consideration. How conscious it is, I can’t say, but it’s there. Window units are super low-class, but they work, and the dehumidifier doesn’t. They also managed to get the original plumbing laid out so that parts of it froze overnight at temperatures below ten Fahrenheit unless they left the water running. They were wise enough to use flexible plastic piping that resists bursting, but somebody at the firm they paid $400k or so to design and build the place should have thought about winter. It’s a regular occurrence in these parts, you know.
So is summer, and it’s usually the humid kind. But the old-timey summer people, including the ones who built my grandparents’ place, didn’t have air conditioning. I’m sure this factors into my parents’ thinking. The old-timers didn’t have air conditioning because it hadn’t been invented yet. It’s the same reason why they didn’t have Enterprise meet them at the Amtrak station, or drive their own cars, like any other proletarian without a driver, up the Thruway and the Northway. There wasn’t one. There wasn’t even the Taconic State Parkway, the earliest (and still most bitchin’) of New York’s long-distance divided highways. My grandmother didn’t install air conditioning in her cabin for a couple of reasons: it was well shaded and had no passive solar heating to speak of due to its small windows, and also she was hella cheap. She had to save the electric bill for cold nights in the fall when everyone huddled around the open door of the electric oven in the kitchen to keep warm.
Everyone knows that the Victorian bougies and aristos came north to escape the heat. This is true, but it doesn’t mean that the weather up north was some kind of Elysian Fields perfection and that they wouldn’t have installed air conditioning in the interest of rustic simplicity regardless of the weather. These fuckers knew how to glamp. They were also escaping a number of unpleasant things about New York City besides the heat per se, including the coal smog, the piles of horseshit, and proto-Westside Story horseshit of a less literal kind, mainly involving the shanty Irish and the kikes. Don’t blame me; I wasn’t one of the highbrow Germanic Jews who popularized that term for the Lebensraum contingent of the Tribe.
Our Crowd didn’t start showing up in the North Country in any real numbers until later, if it ever did; the Borsht Belt is quite a bit to the south, and to this day it has better public transit, just sayin’. Short Line represent! Some of the summer people up this way are by now seventh generation WASP assholes, or at least fifth. Maybe they miscegenated with the Jews somewhere along the line, like my cracker forebears did, but I doubt it matters. And there are still non-generationally-wealthy fools, including my parents, who cherish the idea of successfully aping these assholes, because they were classy. The lace curtain Irish became a big deal in Hyannisport and stayed that way, and it still sucks to be a hard-knocks mick in Southie. The absence of some specific, overt ethnic prejudice is a half-assed mitigating factor for old money and the high bougies aping them in a pissing contest to be superior to all the low North English local poories, and to one another. They’re still left with abiding class prejudice, maybe even bigotry. Congratulations.
Their daughters may be fuckable, but they remain unmarriageable. This is an important point that might as well be discussed crudely. The sentiments involved here are a lot cruder than any sentiment I’ve felt about maybe porking some crazy chick with a chip on her shoulder from downstate. Casual rumpy-pumpy is much more wholesome than marrying into some cheapskate Downton Abbey conceit maintained by one’s socially climbing in-laws. It’s most wholesome to have the casual rumpy-pumpy with Quebecker chicks, but I’m not writing this from Montreal, and if I were, I’d be writing about something else. If Quebec’s municipal authorities stop dumping raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River, the contamination quickly abates. If I stop being a stuck-up asshole and casting my lot with the summer crowd, as I’ve already done, others will take up the slack and accuse me of harshing their mellow. This is a contamination that comes from the heart. #TeshTips: You might not want to marry into it.
Marrying me might not be too smart, either. Do you feel like taking on in-laws who are slowly going crazy as borderline shut-ins in a county heavily populated by gutter drunks? This can be yours, too, but no rush.
It’s three AM, I must be lonely and thinking about marrying a Canuck chick for the mutual permanent residency deal. Come to think of it, though, I can probably find one whose own parents are even crazier lakefront shut-ins than mine. They’ve got enough lakes for it, to be sure.
No, my parents aren’t certifiable shut-ins, but it’s bad enough that they have partial shut-in tendencies that are worsening as they age, and that one consequence has been the massive fucking-up of my travel logistics. Looking at airfares and schedules into Albany has a way of inducing despair. I don’t have the money to pay for that shit, and my parents act like they don’t, either. Whether it’s true or not is beside the point; if I can’t pay for it and they won’t, I get to make the last 250 to 450 miles of the trip by ground, including whatever jacked-up airport rapid transit fares some crew of featherbedding cronies feel like charging to hose the traveling public.
But even if flights into Albany were hella cheap, with seamless connections to every third-tier airport from San Diego to Bellingham, the Albany Airport would still be a long-ass drive down the Northway from my parents’ place. There’s fucking nothing around here. There are some maples to tap come spring (I’d tap that; no, seriously, I’ve looked at sugarbush job postings). Until then, there’s drinking, and the locals are champs at it. A fair portion of the summer crowd, too, must know how to get trashed.
This whole area is crazymaking. It’s like one of those dystopian experiments in which lab mice are given everything they need to survive with no effort at all and end up doing nothing but grooming themselves all day. There are all sorts of outdoor activities available within an hour’s drive, but these cost more money than sitting around the house and waiting for the next Social Security deposit, so my parents aren’t too keen on my getting out to go skiing or hiking. Their exception is joy rides on their pontoon boat, but that plan was scotched for the rest of the season sometime in September when rodents got into the outboard motor assembly and no one at the marina had time to repair it. Every time I’ve suggested either driving my car back east or renting or buying one, my dad has acted like he’ll flip if I don’t quickly bury the hatchet. I don’t seem to have enough credit to rent a car without a cosigner, so I’m stuck. I actually had enough money last winter to buy a clunker, and I should have gone through with it, my parents’ sniveling wishes be damned because it was not a frivolous idea. I don’t know when I’ll have that much of a cushion again, unless I draw down my non-retirement stock holdings to damn near nothing.
Don’t worry; my entire net worth wouldn’t be enough to replace that fucking pontoon boat.
The combination of my parents’ cheapness, cocooning, and neurotic clinginess is why I’ve already spent over $1,900 at long-term airport parking lots this calendar year and am currently racking up another $10 per day in bills at the Reno-Tahoe surface lot so that the airport director may have a fuller pot to loot. It’s fucking insane, but no matter how civilly and rationally I try to present my case, they’ll bristle and shut me down. It’s impossible. This, of course, is an excellent reason why I should have a car of my own up here. I don’t give a shit how ass-ugly or uncool it is as long as it seems safe and is generally operable. The prospect of my having two cars, however, somehow upsets my parents’ assumptions about how things should be, even if their combined Blue Book value is a third of what they paid to buy that stupid boat. My only prayer is to buy the clunker while I’m out of town, either around public transit or in a place where I can get friends to provide me taxi mitzvahs, and then show up at my parents’ place with it. That, or to show up in my Civic on a future trip and tell them that the solution to their handwringing worries about wear and tear on that beast is for me to have a different car of my own whenever I’m visiting them.
The reason I can’t get their prior approval for something so bare-bones (realistically, I’m talking junkyard van straight out of Sanford and Son) is that my insistence on having a car of my own when visiting my parents will inevitably stir the pot about the pathology of their turning into shut-ins and sandbagging my efforts to get out of the fucking neighborhood for the afternoon. The carrying-on won’t be noticeably worse if I tell them that I’ve already bought my piece-of-shit ride and will be bringing it up to their hood than if I try to talk about it, especially if I raise the subject while I’m stranded in this damned retirement house. Again and again, they insist on spending lots of money on stupid shit, then bellyache that they’re short on cash. They consider $16-a-pound coffee from a bespoke roasting company in the Okanagan a crucial staple, and they drive to a foo-foo natural foods store in Saratoga Springs to buy it, but they’d wring their hands at the frivolousness of my borrowing one of their cars to take a joy ride to Stewart’s to fress on buffalo chicken pizza at my own expense, even if I tanked it up for them. This is why I’m relieved when my dad tells me that he’s forgotten some shit like sage leaves at the grocery store and asks me to make a dedicated run; it gets me out of the house and–is this too much to ask?–gives me an opportunity to interact face-to-face with someone besides my parents.
When it comes to indulgences like the pizza, which I’ve mostly not disclosed to my parents, my dad would probably wring his hands about how I’m getting too fat and hypertensive and maybe prediabetic and oh dear. Not that this could have anything to do with my sitting around the house all day for weeks on end, surrounded by food, often including a baked cod recipe that involves slathering the filet with a quarter inch of mayonnaise and parmesan. My dad has known damn well that I stress-eat ever since 1992, when he was preparing to move us to Pennsylvania and I, not quite ten years old, was stuffing my face with ever-more-liberal helpings of Graham crackers. Even so, when I tell him that I’m going out to the garage to work out on the kettle bells, his reaction is sometimes like, oh, why would you do that. When he picked me up at the Saratoga train station the other day, my dad remarked that I appeared to have lost weight. I lost it because I was staying active in places where I had obvious stimuli other than food. If I start gaining the weight back (say, by not spending enough time in the garage), he’ll start openly prophesying a future of diabetes and coronary artery disease for me, and half an hour later he’ll offer me Christmas cookies. We’ve been down this road before.
Much of this nonsense is driven by insane class considerations. By my parents’ reckoning, we’re the sort of people who own only one car apiece, but a nice, well-maintained one. If I bring my car back east in its current cosmetic condition (which I cannot afford to fully repair, and which wouldn’t be worth fully repairing anyway), they’ll get all worked up about how I’m not maintaining it properly, never mind that unless they don’t sincerely believe that I’m truly endangering myself, it’s none of their business. They’ll get worked up if they see all the crap I’ve allowed to accumulate in the backseat and footwells, and the somewhat smaller pile I’ve cultivated around the front passenger’s seat. I’d be amazed if they simply offered to pay for the repairs instead of humiliating me for driving a car that isn’t up to their aesthetic standards. My problem isn’t with having a crappy-looking car; it’s with being mocked and insulted for having a crappy-looking car by people who have never found themselves in my recent circumstances. I routinely overestimate how shitty my car looks to others, especially to cops; any number of cars pass by patrol officers unmolested in spite of serious damage, like smashed-in bumpers or entire windows missing and replaced with plastic bags. I don’t need a condescending bougie freakout about this halfway ugly workhorse. It’s uncalled for.
Then there’s the horseshit about bourgeois etiquette customs that I simply cannot afford to observe. When I was visiting one of my best friends and his wife in Pennsylvania over the summer, my dad basically ordered me to take them out to dinner and promised that he’d reimburse me. This was fucking insane. These friends of mine are the last people who would be offended by my not doing such a thing, especially given that I’d spent the summer doing sub-minimum-wage piece rate work at that blueberry farm. After prevailing upon me to do this, my dad did not reimburse me for this dinner and, worse, cut back and spaced out a number of previously agreed-upon wire transfers this fall, citing tight cash flow.
There was absolutely no good reason for me to diddle around with shows of bourgeois reciprocity that I couldn’t afford in order to curry favor with people who are far too gracious to expect such a thing. Regardless of what my parents and their affluent (and downright wealthy) friends do to observe houseguest or restaurant check etiquette, these friends of mine are different people from the ones my parents visit, and it wasn’t anyone else’s business how, or if, I chose to reciprocate their hospitality. The truth is that I do not hang out with the sort of people who keep score about shit like that; that kind has pretty much abandoned me over the years, and for the most part it’s just as well because they can be real scum. My friends don’t hold it against me that I’m indigent and homeless, and they don’t expect me to keep up appearances. Theoretically, this ought to be a standing assumption about any friendship, but of course it’s too much to ask in times as socioeconomically treacherous as ours. It ought to be a standing assumption about marriage, too, but if you believe that, the divorce bar would like to share some stories. Maybe you can get one of its esteemed members to buy you a few gin and tonics during story hour, in the tradition of popping some punk-ass Bloods.
If we’re interested in reciprocity towards the moneyed or the landed, why hasn’t one of these bigshots given me a job yet? Why hasn’t Joe Dirtbag reciprocated my 1,300-plus hours of unpaid farm labor with a place to stay that isn’t drafty, cluttered, and stunk up with cat piss on more than one night since May of 2012? If I’m going to deal with mob-style vindictive assholery as a lifestyle affect or Tammany Hall-style pay-for-play corruption in my social circle, I have a right to expect Tammany Hall-style results. I have every reason to expect someone in this crooked crowd to give me a job. Someone had better deliver the fucking goods. That’s how ward politics work: if they don’t weigh you down in chains and chuck you into the Chicago River, they hook your white ass up with a job. That’s reciprocity, not having some homeless pushover pretend to be affluent like his parents so that their friends aren’t all embarrassed by their social equality with the poors.
I keep earning Kato Kaelin houseguest karma by working for that freeloader in his life-threatening squalor, and I have nowhere to redeem it but at this lake house where everyone goes crazy. Well, that’s not quite true. I have several friends with crashable pads. But it takes hundreds of dollars in train fare to get to their places from my parents’ place.
These are First World Problems until some Ugandan refugee is like, shit, white boy, you’re sleeping in your car, and they aren’t even having a war in your country. That isn’t the only cause for shit, white boy around here. Will I play that funky music on demand? If the price is right, I guess. I may help run a bastard relative’s farm for free, but mark my words, I will be paid in advance to beclown myself with Wild Cherry covers.