Sunday, July 31, 2011

My August Childhood

Early on every morning of my childhood between mid and late July, I awoke to the rhythm of horses' hooves coming from the Oklahoma training track across the street from our Fifth Avenue home in Saratoga Springs. I lay in my bed, eyes closed, listening. First one set of hooves, then another, faster, approaching and disappearing, or a group of them together. Sometimes conversation or the gentle crooning of "workout boys," as we called them then, joined the rhythm.

I would roll out of bed, and kneel on the floor, my elbows perched on the windowsill, my chin resting on my hands. I hoped to catch glimpses of the horses between the houses and trees that partially blocked my view. I was glad that my bedroom was in the front of the house where I could begin my summer mornings this way.

But by August, when racing traditionally began, I had moved my sleeping quarters to the basement where my older sister, Carolyn, and I would spend the month, because my parents rented the four upstairs bedrooms. In the final days of July, we emptied our closets, our desks and dressers, and made the rooms look ready for our "roomers." My parents slept in the livingroom for the month using the hide-a-bed (a fold-out sofa), opening it every night and closing it up every morning.

In the early years, my parents put a wooden sign on the lawn that read "ROOMS" in my mothers artistic lettering. Before long, we became part of the network of Saratogians who rented rooms or houses to August people, bringing in some additional household cash. When the husbands went to work for the day, housewives knew who to call. Lois might call my mother, "I have a man who needs a room and mine are full. Do you have anything?" My mother might call Marilyn, "I have two men, but can only take one more. Can I send the other to you?"

Our four bedrooms were always full, either from people who came year after year, or from someone who knew someone who recommended someone who needed a place. Most of the time our roomers were employed by the track. A few came to play the horses, but my parents preferred not to have flighty bettors who might not be depended upon to stay the entire four-week season.

Because our upstairs had only one bathroom, my parents almost always rented exclusively to men. "The men don't want to share the bathroom with women," my mother would say. Occasionally, a wife might be allowed to visit on the weekend.

We had Mr. Snow who loved "coming up to the country." He complimented my violin practice, and, when he returned to Queens, he sent me first-day-covers for my stamp collection. On Tuesdays, the track's dark day, Mr. Snow drove out to Washington County for Hand melons, and to Winslow's on route 9 for their turkey dinner.

Mr. Ludski did not have a car. Since our house was an easy walk to the flat track, this wasn't a problem, but in his free time he wanted to find unusual flowers. He would prowl the roadsides and nearby parks assuaging his botanical interest, walking many miles on a Tuesday. When he returned to New York, he would scatter seeds of wildflowers in Central Park.

We had a horse salesman from Ireland; the "boys," Charlie, and Marshall Cassidy, who were just beginning long careers with the New York Racing Association; the "three musketeers" who came back to the house in a slump if they had lost that day, and the "girls," who came only one season, adding drama and glamour, their sequined ball gowns hanging from the door jambs; and countless others.

In the mornings, Carolyn and I had a few chores. The men would leave by 6 a.m. My mother went into action instantly. I emptied the ash trays and waste baskets, and brought used sheets, towels, and water glasses to the kitchen. Waste baskets would be filled with pink sheets and The New York Times. How strange it seems to me now that the men smoked in the bedrooms! Further dating my experience to the 1960s and 70s, each man had a small fan to keep himself comfortable on the hot nights. Few people had, and no one expected, air conditioners.

Bedsheets were changed every third day. My mother had two long clotheslines across our large back yard. Sheets and towels went from end-to-end and side-to side. If rain persisted, she hung the laundry in the basement, but that would be a stressful week. Before any of the men might reappear, she would race up the stairs with cleaning supplies in hand. By 10 a.m., in her "work dress," as she called the A-line sleeveless shifts she made for summer, she was ready to sit for just a minute in the livingroom in front of one of our large oscillating fans, wiping her face with a kleenex.

Most of the men would return in the late morning and leave again before the 1:00 post-time. When we heard the track's bugle call from our house, we knew they would be gone until 6 p.m., around the time of the final race. Then they would go out for dinner, and be in by 8:00, ready to study the news for tomorrow's race day. Somewhere in-between times, Carolyn and I had to run upstairs to take our showers. Our first floor only had a half-bath. If we missed our chance for the day, we had to take a sponge bath in the basement set-tubs.

Carolyn and I liked sleeping in the basement. We had comfortable twin beds without bedspreads so they were easier to make each morning. The basement was cooler than our upstairs rooms, and sharing a room for a while was fun. In addition, our toys were in the basement, and we really weren't too worried about making that window of time for an upstairs bath. Some of this novelty wore off as we got to high school and college, but, for the two of us, the racing season always brought a sense of newness and curiosity.

For one week each August, my parents shipped us off to our grandparents who lived in a small rural home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. We swam in the nearby river, sent sticks sailing in the brook, picked raspberries, helped our grandfather in his toy shop, climbed the apple trees, ate four meals a day, walked a half-mile to the tiny post office for the mail and a treat, and were doted upon but not spoiled (horrors!). If it sounds idyllic, that's because it was.

Some years, we also spent an August week at our aunt and uncle's in northern New Jersey. Then we might get a trip to the ocean where there were boardwalks and salt water taffy, an exotic outing for children who grew up with Adirondack lakes. At their suburban Victorian home, we ate gingersnaps from a box and made leaves burn using the sun and a magnifying glass.

But back in Saratoga, we found plenty to do. We could pick up the Spa bus on Circular Street and ride out to the Peerless Pools. Orthodox Jews who rented places on Phila Street also rode the bus, getting off at the Lincoln Baths. By the time I was ten, my best friend, Patti, and I could ride our bikes the four miles to the Spa pools or to play in Ferndell Spring.

For a few years, Patti and I made a checklist with the name of every state on a piece of paper. Riding our bikes, studying the license plates of the cars parked along the sidestreets, we tried to find a car for every state in the country. (Nooo, we did not have cars parked on the front yards. Our neighborhood of finely groomed grass never allowed such a thing!) Any state in the northeast was an easy find. More distant places like Illinois or Georgia intrigued us, but Alaska and Hawaii were the real trophies. Years could go by without finding one of those, although now and then a Rolls Royce with a British license plate crossed our path! This required adding a whole new line on our checklist.

And we were horse crazy. Patti and I drew horses, painted horse pictures, pretended to be horses, talked horses with our friends, read every girl-and-her-horse story we could find, and knew the different horse breeds from books. Even though my parents rarely went to the races and kids were not allowed to go, we made regular pilgrimages to the flat track early in the morning to watch the workout. We always had some knowledge of the year's star horses and jockeys and hoped to see them.

Then August would come to a close. Before the Henning Road entry, horse trailers rumbled up our street to the stables a few blocks away. We were ready for it all to end. My mother looked forward to taking down one of the two clotheslines and folding up that hide-a-bed until company came for Christmas. Carolyn and I had tired of our toys and the basement. We had nice bedrooms and were ready to reclaim them.

No sooner had the last roomer walked out the front door, than we began cleaning and moving our clothes back upstairs. Now horse trailers went by in the opposite direction with horses peering out from behind the small windows. Still, a few of them stayed a while and worked out across the street. In the misty cool late-summer mornings, the rhythm of hooves would wake me as I again slept in my bedroom. Now-and-then I would hear the soft singing of the workout boys whom I knew sat high in the saddle of the sleek thoroughbreds as they went around the Oklahoma Track.

By early September, the horses would all have gone, just leaving their flies behind. Cars no longer parked along the street, August's earnings went into the budget, and my mother went back to her part-time job at Skidmore College, while Carolyn and I headed to school.

After I graduated from college in 1978, my parents rented to just a few people for a couple of weeks during August for the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales. Before long, they stopped having roomers altogether. Still, until they sold the Fifth Avenue house in 2007, I made a point of staying overnight in my childhood bedroom once during the season and listening to the sound of horses' hooves going by.

I'll be heading to Saratoga tonight and will have my calendar in hand. My parents and I need to find a date to go early to the flat track and watch the morning workouts and admire the sleek thoroughbreds. Maybe I'll even see a car with a British license plate parked along the street.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What's in Sharon Springs these days?

When my friend, Maggie, said that our outing this summer would be to the town of Sharon Springs, she added, "Bring your camera. This will be perfect for your blog!"

I was a bit skeptical. Bill and I had explored Sharon Springs ten or fifteen years ago when it was on an upswing, featured in the local and national newspapers. Since then, I'd heard nothing of it. And also, as a Saratoga native, I knew that this town had always been Saratoga's second cousin.

As I climbed in Maggie's car, joining her teenage granddaughter, Jorian, Maggie's first words to me were, "Did you do your homework?" Uh-oh, I hastily changed the subject!

I didn't have to worry because our first stop for the day was My Sisters' Place Cafe in the "upstreet" area of Sharon Springs. Tucked away, it presented a comfortable setting that would make anyone feel at home. Margi, the owner, offered us the day's selections. I chose a highly-recommended omelet made with goat cheese and pesto. Although, truth be told, I could have chosen anything she mentioned--the food here is fresh and local, just what I like. The omelet came with side salad of mixed greens.

Maggie, Jorian, and I had pleasant conversation and then we headed outdoors. "Be sure to walk the labyrinth," Margi told us, describing how neighbors had built it for her, and that Amish carpenters who lived nearby had built the Tea House.

I have been to labyrinths--circles where the path goes in ever smaller rounds--at Kripalu in Lenox, and in Jackson's Garden at Union College in Schenectady. I had tried to understand their meditative aspect and I had diligently walked them both, but walking in circles just didn't do it for me. This serpentine labyrinth was just my style. Large and meandering with the tea house at the far end, it wandered across the lawn. I could imagine getting lost in thought on this narrow gravel path. Already, I was starting to see the charm of Sharon Springs in the 21st century.

Sharon Springs is a town of 517 residents (2009), but in its heyday it boasted a summer crowd of 10,000 sharing its population of rich and famous with Saratoga Springs, just to the north. By the mid-20th century, Sharon Springs, always known as a particular favorite of New York City's Jewish population, attracted holocaust survivors who could take the therapeutic spa treatments as part of a medical reparations package.

Maggie insisted that I try the Eye Water Spring, noted to improve vision and focus. Jorian agreed and hurried over for her own treatment. Having Jorian along added credibility. Okay, Maggie is a friend of nearly 25 years, but I knew you couldn't get anything past a 14 year old. I rubbed some of the water into my eyes and tasted it, clean, sweet, and not sulphury. Below is my picture of the spring today, along with a historic photo from the mid-1900s. Note the women rubbing their eyes.

Unfortunately, the bathhouse, below, has fallen into extreme disrepair. I was surprised when Maggie told me that it had been a working therapeutic center just five years ago. Since then, a Korean-American company bought many of the old properties in 2004, but have been absentee owners. Much speculation revolves around their plans as local folks despair while the spa and several very large old famous hotels crumble.

Past the Bath House, we walked on Main Street, the "downstreet" area of town, where many charming businesses looked welcoming on this summer day.

The historical society had restored an old schoolhouse, while businesses, new just in the last decade, gave the street charm and vitality. And the most famous restoration project, the American Hotel, made a good case for staying overnight here.

(Historic plaques line both sides of the street. This town is justifiably proud of its past.)

(Restored shop buildings and even some "bottle" art reflect glory days as an internationally known Spa.)

(We were full from our lunch at My Sisters' Place, or we might have considered this pretty cafe.)

(This lovely home is now a massage therapy business.)

(The American Hotel, true to its name, sports the red, white, and blue.)

Still, there remain signs of long-ago prosperity and modern neglect. Besides the old hotels, boarded up with tall ever-encroaching weeds, homes and guest houses on the side streets are desperate for repair. I was particularly taken with this one, where columns go nowhere. How long would they continue to stand? Yet, this same building had gorgeous detail, such as the stained glass above every window.

I wondered what would happen to these buildings. They looked ripe for arsonists, the final note to other buildings in this town and such as happens in so many places. And, despite the rural beauty of the surrounding rolling hills and farmland, who would come here in this day and age when few people touted the benefits of mineral waters?

(Stone steps once led to a grand Victorian home entry and a lion-bracketed bench faces a former garden area.)

The residents of Sharon Springs hope to encourage artists and artisans, billing the town as a place off the beaten path for the post-911 crowd of city dwellers seeking the restorative quiet of an artist's community. As such, some homes have been lovingly brought back to life.

For now, go to the cafes, check out the shops, have a massage, and walk the paths of history. Oh, and if you're adventurous, trundle down a path next to the bath house and try clarifying your vision. I didn't notice a difference, but that was before I saw the photo of those ladies from the 1930s. Maybe I need to get a nice white handkerchief and dab gently at my eyes. Splashing the water camping-style didn't do the trick. Still, Jorian swears by it. Well, Maggie does too, but I'm sticking with the opinion of a history-loving, grandmother-accompanying, high schooler.