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Pishers in Paradise

July 30, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

For a long time I followed the news religiously. I read the New York Times every day, Newsweek and Time every week, and I listened to radio news the rest of the time.

But about 15 years ago, I quit. Why's that? Two reasons.

First, it all ran together. The names and places changed, but the events didn't. It was an endless parade of wars and assassinations, genocidal dictators and crooked politicians, eco-disasters and corporate corruption, with a rare act of decency or a note of hope tossed in, almost by accident.

Second, because all news was bad news, my world-view became more and more jaundiced and cynical. And how could it not, since I was constantly subjected to the Four G's of news - the grim, the gory, the gothic and the grotesque.

I changed from seeing the world as a vast garden of delights, to an evil monolith whose sole purpose was to destroy anyone and anything good.

And I'm not alone: If fear, xenophobia, distrust and despair could be turned into energy, the U.S. would've been self-sufficient decades ago.

Little Lone Eagles

Last week, I wrote about when the circus came to town in 1954. What I didn't write was that since we got into the grounds free (and paid only for the attractions) I went there every day, taking in the sights, smells and magic of It All. And I did it by myself.

Of course, that was no big deal; back then, all us kids wandered around alone - to the town, the woods, the lakes, to everywhere. The only conditions were we had to tell our folks where we were going and had to be home for dinner.

In those days, parents wanted their boys to be mini Huck Finns: According to the prevailing wisdom, any boy who stayed home all day Saturday was sure to become depressed, repressed, oppressed and probably cross-dressed.

As with everything in the distant past, I wasn't sure if my memory was accurate, so I checked with my brother.

"So when we were in single digits, did we really walk or ride our bikes everywhere by ourselves?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, sure," he said.

"And Mom didn't mind?"

"Apparently not," he said. "Especially since she always shooed us out of the house if we were just sittin' around, zuggin' out."

"Do parents let little kids go wander around alone today?" I asked.

"Not unless they enjoy getting reported to the cops and Social Services."

And then, suddenly, a recollection hit me right between the running lights.

Babes in the Big City

In the summer of eighth grade, I met a kid named Mike Newman. He was from Yonkers, but his family had a summer place up here. He was a great kid - smart, funny, sociable - and within a very short time we became best of friends.

We stayed in touch by letter - something that doesn't happen with adults anymore, let alone kids and every other Christmas one would visit the other. I visited him for Christmas of 1960 and one event still sticks in my mind our trip together to the Big Apple.

His mom dropped us off at the Yonkers train station; we bought our round-trip tickets ($1.50), the train pulled in, and then we were off.

Once in the city, after taking in the hustle, bustle and sheer worldliness of it all, at my insistence we did the touristy thing - we went to the Empire State Building. And it wasn't enough for me to just look at it; we had to go to the very top.

There's no way to describe the view from atop the Empire State Building - especially to a kid whose greatest urban panorama had been My Home Town from atop Petrova Hill - so I won't even bother. I'll only say I haven't been to the ESB since then, but I can still remember being breathless at the vista.

I remember something else as well. When we returned to the street, I got as close to the building as I could and looked straight up at its top. It was a dizzying experience, literally. While I was looking up, I didn't realize I was actually moving this way and that until I didn't move at all. And the reason I didn't move was because I plowed full and front on into a tall woman of extremely buxom endowment.

Once I'd wriggled my way out, I looked up at her and apologized. She was not amused. Mike, however, was convulsed in laughter, so I guess that made up for it.

After that, we took the subway to Greenwich Village, center of All Things Bohemian. There, after taking in the muy alternativo characters and businesses, we went into a bookshop. This may not sound a like a big deal to you, but to me it was mind-boggling.

We had Grey's bookstore back home, but it had only unaffordable hardbacks and coffee table books. There were paperback books in the drugstores, but they were mostly mysteries and popular novels, which I didn't care about. But that Village bookstore had a huge array of paperbacks, many on subjects that probably were never even talked about in polite Saranac Lake company, let alone found in any books there.

I bought an anthology for 35 cents called The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men. It was my first exposure to the Beats - something I cherished at the time, and something I still cherish.

Our trippy trip in the Village at end, we went back to Grand Central to wait for our train. And while we did, we had another adventure. Somehow we ended up talking to an old guy by a newsstand (another no-no: talking to strangers). After a few pleasantries he went on a diatribe about all the aliens who lived there. But he wasn't talking about aliens without green cards; he was talking about aliens with green faces and scales - aliens from other planets.

I don't know if he was serious or was just goofing on a couple of pishers, but either way it made no difference. To me, he was a perfect example of one of those great urban nuts I might've read about but had never seen in person. Sure, we had some eccentrics in Saranac Lake, even a few authentic oddballs, but none who could spin tales about the extraterrestrials among us. Nope, you had to go to the city to find one of them, and that's exactly what I'd done. It was a discovery of epic proportions.

Finally Mike and I tore ourselves away from the Lowell Thomas of the Twilight Zone and caught our train back to Yonkers, arriving in time to regale everyone at dinner with our adventures.

So would today's parents allow their 13-year-olds to diddy bop around New York City for the day, without cell phone, chaperone, or even a clue?

Probably not, since today's children are protected far more than we ever were.

Then again, while we didn't have the protection they have, we had a lot more freedom.

So who's better off? Hard to say.

But what I will say is if the world isn't as horrible as the media makes it out to be (and I don't think it is) then we got the far better deal.



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