A Catskill Catalog: September 7, 2011

A woman, absent-mindedly, locks her keys in her still-running car in front of the Fleischmanns Supermarket. Her son is at home mucking out the basement, and she can’t remember where she put the spare keys. She had to leave the house so suddenly, so abruptly, the previous Sunday, Aug. 28, Irene’s Day, that everything’s a bit of a fog since.

A fire policeman, guarding Margaretville’s broken Bridge Street, allows that he hasn’t been able to sleep, visions of rampaging water tearing at his heart.

A homeowner in Shandaken jokes about her beachfront property, the Esopus Creek having deposited, behind her house, mounds of sand in exchange for the 16 feet of backyard the Esopus took away.

“I cried,” the first words I hear from a young woman who stands with her shell-shocked family in front of their devastated home, trying to salvage whatever they can from their soggy, ravaged house.

Confusion, sleeplessness, mordant humor, tears: the effects of Irene’s flood, every bit as real as the thick muck in the basement, the downed trees on the roads.

Oh, there’s the up-beat side, as well: the quickly-cleared streets and rapidly-repaired bridges; the muddy volunteers helping clean out other people’s homes and businesses; the Salvation Army and National Guard and Job Corps all here to help.

Drying out a piece of furniture on the sidewalk, a professional designer speaks of the wonder he and his partner feel for the help that came their way as the waters rose. Didn’t surprise me.
It’s always been that way. Country people help their neighbors. It’s like a basic country value. Help your neighbors and mind your own business. That’s pretty much it.

I discovered that early, in New Kingston. We were the new young couple with a baby when a winter storm blew-out the lights which, in our rented house, meant the heat as well. Joe Hewitt called to invite us to their place, where a wood-stove made a winter storm an adventure, rather than a baby-threatening chill. I’d met Joe maybe once!

So when Allen Gavette appeared in a national AP video news-story as a representative of our tireless, sleep-deprived volunteer firefighters, it didn’t surprise me. I knew his father. Same kind of guy.

The place is full of them: talented, energetic locals who love the community in which they were raised, and are eager to put their talents and energy to use when the chips are down.
How proud Glenn Gavette and Dick Miller and Orville Rosa and all the other dedicated firemen of an earlier day would be. And it’s replicated in every other department, village, and town, from Roxbury to Halcottsville to Arkville to Fleischmanns to Pine Hill to Shandaken to Phoenicia and beyond. Where would we be without them?

The other day I kept a long-standing date to appear on WIOX Radio to promote my book, A Catskill Catalog (Purple Mountain Press, 2011). Seemed a little crass, given the circumstances, until host Glen Pederson assured me we’d be talking more flood recovery than book.

Noah Katz, of Freshtown Supermarket, also appeared on the show. I was thrilled to hear him say the Katz Family was committed to rebuild, committed to the community. “We knew where we were when we built the store,” Noah said. “We’ve experienced fires and other disasters and we know how to rebuild.”

No distractions, please. This is a much-needed shot-in-the-arm. The Katz Family will rebuild. We will have Freshtown back. No debate. Clean up and move on.

Still, I keep coming back to that young woman, the one who told me “I cried.” We all need to cry. I cried as we drove away from her, aware that her father and mother had done everything right: worked hard, constantly; raised a family of smart, respectful, successful kids; kept a beautiful home. And now? It’s all gone, all changed, as the poet wrote, “changed utterly.”

We’re not a watershed. We’re flesh and blood, a people, a community. We can’t leave the valleys, and valleys, by their very nature, flood. But you can’t make a life in the Catskills on the mountainsides. There’s a reason our villages are streamside.

Locals and second-homers, new residents and long timers, fire departments and churches, elected officials and shovel-slogging volunteers, our communities have pitched-in together. We’ll get back. We have to.

But I just can’t help feeling sad. I think that’s okay.
© William Birns