Last week I ran into my pal and fellow hack Howard Riley. Right after we said hello, we did what we always do - jumped into a freewheeling exchange of old-time Saranac Lake stories.
To an outsider, it probably looked like a competition, with each of us taking turns trying to outdo the other, but nothing could be farther from the truth. While I love to tell and hear those stories, my enjoyment is driven by grim purpose: I think electronic media - cell phones, iPods, iPads, computers, TVs, tweets and the rest - take up so much of people's time that cyberworld has become the new reality.
People are plugged into everything except their immediate environment. They text friends 50 feet away. They follow tweets of Hollywood has-beens, never-wases, and never-gonna-bes. They listen to music that can only be produced in a studio; they "date" people they'll never meet, and so on down the line and down the tubes.
As a result, I think storytelling will soon be a lost art, if it already isn't.
I use "storytelling" in its broadest sense. To me, storytellers are not the people who regale coffee houses, open mics and NPR hosts with scripted (and often derivative and self-consciously-precious) fables, folk stories, object lessons and the like.
No, storytellers are ordinary people with the extraordinary gift of being able to see a story buried in the everyday, which they then take and shape and deliver, not as another mundane event but as the gem it truly is.
These are the people who keep our past alive, something I think is vital because once we lose those stories, we lose our connection to the people in them.
All of which takes me to my chats with Howard, in the course of which I learn about town history, as well as improving my timing and delivery.
One reason Howard has such a store of stories is that in addition to living here all his life, he's had all sorts of jobs which put him in with all kinds of people. He was a bellhop at the Alpine Hotel. He worked for the Enterprise for years, working every job, including editor. He managed the Lake Placid Club just before it crashed and burned (or as he put it: "It was like being made the captain of the Titanic just before it hit the iceberg"). He was a village trustee, village manager and served two terms as the mayor of our illustrious ville.
As mayor, he had two distinctions: One was being only the third Democrat to hold that office. The other was that when he was elected (1962), he was our youngest mayor in memory. And thus Enterprise stalwart Bill McLaughlin dubbed him "The Boy Mayor," a moniker that stuck long past his reign.
Howard's stories of his stint as mayor have a consistent theme, namely how young and inexperienced he was. Or to use his words, "I didn't know a damn thing about the job." Of course, he stuck it out and not only learned the job and the byzantine workings of village infrastructure and politics, but got some great stories as well, a couple of which I'd like to share.
The unimportance of being earnest
A brief note: When Howard talks of his being mayor, he always does it in a self-effacing manner, which I'm only repeating here. Hey, if I'm going to scoop Howard, the least I can do is tell it as close to how he would as possible.
The first story involves a picture of him taken right after he assumed office. He was on the steps of the town hall, decked out in a three-piece suit. His jacket was open; he had one hand on his hip. He was staring into the high middle distance, presumably at the glorious future his tenure would herald for My Home Town.
At least that's how Howard saw it. Someone from his past saw it differently.
That "someone" was Harry Nason. Nason was a real old-time, big-city newspaperman who'd worked for the New York World before he contracted TB and came to Saranac Lake to cure. After he cured, he became the Enterprise editor, which is how he knew Howard.
From what I've heard about him, Nason was one tough old bird. He was a boozer who always had a cigarette in his mouth and a curse on his lips. He knew the business inside and out; he did not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, and always told it like it was.
And so it was that after Howard's power picture hit front page of the Enterprise he got a note from Nason, then retired in Florida.
It was a triumph of journalistic conciseness. All it said was, "Riley, it's OK to be important, but quit trying to look important."
After Howard told that anecdote, he shrugged and said only one thing: "he was right, you know."
Saving the best for last
The second tale about the Boy Mayor took place at the New York World's Fair in 1964.
Howard and his wife Shirley had gone to the fair, and at the same time a New York Council of Mayors meeting was being held there. Howard showed up at the fair with Shirley at his side and on his chest a medallion with a big white ribbon, proclaiming in big letters, "MAYOR." To bystanders it might've looked like something out of a turn-of-the-century July 4th celebration, but Howard couldn't have been prouder of it.
At one point he and Shirley went into the Bell Telephone pavilion, and right after they did, Howard spotted a guy from Saranac Lake named Archie Swinyer. Archie worked for the phone company and was on duty at the pavilion. He was older than Howard, and while Howard knew Archie, he didn't know if the reverse was true. Nevertheless, Howard approached him.
"Hey, Archie," he said, holding out his hand. "Good to see you."
They shook and then Howard pointed at his ribbon.
"I'm the mayor of Saranac Lake," he said, and nothing else.
Archie congratulated him on his high office and they chatted a bit more before Howard and Shirley went off to see the other pavilion exhibits.
While Archie had been reserved when Howard first approached him, he was the exact opposite when Howard came back out of the exhibit. He greeted them both by name, and with the greatest enthusiasm.
"It seemed," said Howard, "that we were the best of friends."
They talked some more and then the Rileys left, to take in the rest of the fair. The whole time Howard was impressed that Archie had been so effusive, but figured it was due to the status that came with the mayor's office. Only when he got home did he find out the real reason for Swinyer's bonhomie.
Howard ran into Jack Lawless, at that time the owner of E. John's (now the Rusty Nail).
"Hey," said Jack, before Howard had a chance to speak, "I understand you ran into Archie Swinyer at the World's Fair."
Howard was completely taken aback.
"I did " he said, " but how'd you know?"
"Well," said Jack, "apparently right after you and Shirley ran into him, he called me at the bar."
"Really?" said Howard. "Why?"
"He had two reasons," said Jack.
"What were they?" asked Howard.
"One was to tell me the mayor of Saranac Lake and his wife had just come in the pavilion."
"And the other?"
"The other," said Jack, "was a question."
"What was it?"
Jack, a man with keen senses of both irony and timing, paused before he delivered the kicker.
"He asked," said Jack, "if I knew what they hell their names were."