This humorous, but gentle instruction is what you hear when you get the answering machine of Danny Ryan, of Saranac Lake, letting the caller know right away if they have reached the “right or wrong” Danny Ryan. His ability for direct, clear and courteous communication has been helpful to Danny in his various occupations. Since 2002, Danny has been a counselor at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Center in Saranac Lake, in what he said is the most demanding, yet most rewarding, of his career choices. Though confidentiality prohibits much discussion of his work at St. Joe’s, the mission of the program is to “Promote healing and recovery for all persons who suffer from the disease of alcoholism and chemical dependency.”
Danny comes from an Irish-American family with strong roots in the northern Adirondacks. Grandfather Ryan was born in Au Sable Forks, but as a young man, moved to Vermontville to establish and operate Cloverdale, a dairy farm where the Cold Brook and Fletcher Farm roads now meet. The family operated the dairy for about 30 years. After 1920, with the arrival of Crystal Springs Dairy, the competition for the lucrative milk business arising from the tuberculosis curing became too much. It was then that the Ryan family moved to Saranac Lake, first to Algonquin Avenue, then Lake Street. In the late 1950s, his father moved his family to a cure cottage on Clinton Avenue, which would be where Danny lived for most of his growing-up years.
Interestingly, this was the house in which American poet Adelaide Crapsey spent her last year while in treatment for tuberculosis in Saranac Lake. It was here that she invented a sparse and delicate verse form, the cinquain. She ironically referred to the Pine Ridge Cemetery as “Doctor Trudeau’s Garden,” but it was young Danny Ryan’s front yard and playground. Many quiet (and not-so-quiet) hours of his childhood were spent imagining all sorts of exciting and exotic places into being.
“My e-mail address (lotwindow) stands for “looks out the window,” which is something I’m told I did a lot of when I was young,” Danny said.
Danny was born in 1955, and when he was f4years old, his mother Catherine died. His father, Robert, (known as “Poker” for his bluffing ability) worked as a steward at the Vet’s Club and then as a lock tender at the Lower Locks. He took care of his three children, and some of Danny’s fondest childhood memories are the days the family spent aboard his father’s house boat.
“It was probably about 20 feet long by 8 feet wide, but seemed huge to me; we could all sleep on it pretty comfortably,” Danny said. “The best days were those spent up on Round Lake (Middle Saranac) — they seemed endless, like I was suspended in warm sun and water.”
Looking back, Danny is grateful for the efforts and care that his father gave under not the easiest of circumstances.
Danny left Saranac Lake after high school and attended SUNY Oswego, majoring in American studies, which exposed him to the history, literature and philosophies of America. Certainly, this exposure to the beauty and wonder of American culture (“despite what others may say, this is not an oxymoron,” Danny interjected) prompted many of the eventual journeys that have been a part of Danny’s fabric of life.
Upon returning to Saranac Lake after college, Danny worked for his Uncle Bernard (a.k.a. “Pal,” because of his gruff generosity) in the family’s wholesale fruit and vegetable business. “Every week, my uncle would drive this ancient Autocar diesel down to the Hunt’s Point market in the South Bronx in the 1970s to buy what we needed. I went with him once when I was 14, and it was a rather eye-popping experience for a bumpkin like me,” Danny said.
The Ryan Fruit Company supplied local greengrocers (such as Green’s and Oxford markets) and resorts (such as the Whiteface Inn, the Lake Placid Club, Saranac Inn and Seven Keys Lodge on Loon Lake). During the 1970s, there was a sea change in the manner of vacationing; people were staying for shorter periods of times and eating more at fast-food restaurants. Cost began to trump quality, the demand for good fresh vegetables and fruits began to wane, and the business eventually closed in 1984.
After this, Danny did a stint as a deejay with Radio Lake Placid or WIRD, as in “weird,” which was a “cross between “WKRP in Cincinnati” and Cicely’s KBHR on “Northern Exposure.”
“We had what I call an organic format,” Danny said. “Everyone there had similar tastes in music, so we all played what we liked and it all fit together. It was radio the way it ought to be. “However, as too many things are, it was sold and improved to death.”
From the radio station, Danny’s path led him to the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, where Danny worked for seven years. It was here that a visiting Irishman remarked that Danny had a “Cork face,” referring to the Irish county where his family came from, not his complexion.
Those who know Danny Ryan often see him walking or hitchhiking, and rarely if ever, driving a car.
“My earliest experiences with cars were with a series of undependable and bothersome clunkers that caused more problems than they’re worth,” Danny said. “Besides, Saranac Lake is an easy place to get around on foot, and if I need to take a long trip that can’t be made by bus, train or thumb, I rent a car.”
This is the common-sense approach to life that Danny eventually came to embrace. “My father never wanted for anything; he looked outside of his door and found all that he needed and wanted,” Danny said. “When I was growing up, I was of the TV generation and perceived myself as somehow lacking something important, and it took some time to grow through this feeling of always wanting and always being hungry for more.”
Traveling by train or bus, Danny has traversed North America a few times, many times embarking on a hitch-hiking journey (with his trusty “Not a weirdo” sign) after a head start by rail.
“I’m always asked if I know anyone where I’m going, and I always reply ‘not yet.’ I’ve often found that the people are just as magnificent as the land,” Danny said.
Riding with strangers makes for good conversation with people you might never have the chance to meet otherwise. On one ride with a logger in the Pacific Northwest, both he and the logger found the irony in the two of them arguing different sides of an issue that eventually would be decided by some “suit” in Toronto. “The guy almost started giggling about it,” Danny said. “To me, ‘face time’ is so crucial — being able to experience or feel each other.”
The disintegration of this kind of face-to-face dialogue is what Danny thinks is causing much of the breakdown of communities.
“Electronic media and entertainment are consuming the time that used to be spent in human interaction,” Danny said. “Our minds are becoming suburbanized, where we all become seemingly safe in our own little enclaves, which are, by design, isolated from each other. This is tearing the fabric of our society apart.”
Asked if he feels that the unweaving of our community has to do with “outsiders coming in,” Danny emphatically disagrees.
“Saranac Lake has always been a community of people coming from outside and being welcomed in — that is the special ethos of Saranac Lake,” Danny said.
It is interesting to note that Pine Ridge Cemetery (Danny’s childhood playground) has three faiths in one ground, illustrating a culture of the acceptance of diversity that has deep roots in Saranac Lake.
Danny sees any division that is happening in Saranac Lake as a national phenomenon that has less to do with real differences than it does with perceived differences. He believes the loss of the common gathering places for people with differing backgrounds and opinions to meet, on a casual and equal footing, is resulting in a lack of mutual respect amongst people.
“But we have not lost our sense of community yet,” Danny said. “I believe people are supposed to be expressions of the land they live in, and this community — any real community — must, if it is to survive, not only be what it is, but where it is. The Adirondacks, in my opinion, is a land of limitations; a true Adirondacker (regardless of where they were born) in my eyes, is someone who is content with less than most Americans would tolerate, so we may have a good lesson to teach our fellows. There are two forms of wealth: hoarding what’s scarce and enjoying what’s plentiful. We have a place to practice the second kind here.”
No matter where he travels to, Danny said he feels drawn back to Saranac Lake. “Thankfully, it’s finally dawned on me that I’m from this soil and this is where I belong,” Danny said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not fit to live outside the Blue Line and that is very OK with me.”
(Photo by Susan Moody)