posted by SWC on July 13th, 2012 · 1 Comment ·
The Map. In childhood I was given to improvising maps of small towns and villages. I would often start with a stream, add a bridge, a railroad, then several roads that would converge at the town’s center. And there would be a small park, a railroad station, a store, a post office, a school, a diner, and I would add a few side streets with houses. When the map was complete, or when I ran out of ideas, I declared the town done. And then one day, not long ago, I realized that I had chosen just such a place to call home.
The Gem Spa. Back in that never-finished era we know as The Sixties I was greeted on a summer’s day in Washington Square Park by a German tourist couple who politely asked me “where the hippies is ?” Hippies were what they had come to the village, perhaps to New York, to see. Washington Square was evidently a disappointment.
Without hesitation, I directed the couple to the corner of Saint Marks Place and Second Avenue, specifically to the Gem Spa, sweetly fragrant of egg creams, dripping chocolate cones, pot, and sweat of uncertain vintage; it was a mere ten-minute stroll into the heart of the East Village. I lived down the street from the Gem Spa. It was where I bought my cigarettes and newspapers. The front steps of nearby brownstones, including mine, were often littered with the living dead. Most were homeless Bowery winos, who might have been mistaken by the German tourist couple for hippies. On the other hand, hippies had homes, I thought, where they were probably wanted and could still return to, homes which were in the words of Robert Frost, “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
The Film. About this time a film was released, which was directed and written by, and based on the affluent, but drug-afflicted life of Conrad Rooks, who starred as an underground cult-movie version of himself. Many of the iconic and subiconic figures of the day appeared in cameo roles: William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Moondog, the Fugs, Ravi Shankar, Swami Satchidananda. Native Americans and African Americans seen in spiritual ecstasies added point to the film’s sense that the hero’s private psychedelic hell could be breached with intensive rhythmic, metaphysical, and eventual clinical guidance. The name of the film was Chappaqua.
During Rooks’s treatment at a seriously-guarded French rehabilitation clinic he is asked by the director (Jean-Louis Barrault) where, if he left, he would want to go. Rooks says that he would like to return to Chappaqua, his childhood home, once an Indian burial ground where only arrowheads and its variously translated Algonquian name survive.
The spiritual home to which Rooks would return is a 50-minute train ride north of New York. To reach that destination one passes by uncounted acres of cemeteries between the appropriately named towns of Valhalla and Pleasantville, where it might be assumed that at least some Native Americans lie buried. However, the acres of parked cars at the recently renovated Chappaqua train station belong to the bankers, lawyers, and executives, who, together with limo-riding political celebrities like Bill and Hillary Clinton, give the area its self-consciousness and far-reaching tone.
Susan Lawrence. It is an easy ten-minute walk from my house to the center of Chappaqua where North Greeley and King Street meet. At this intersection there is a Starbucks, a Sotheby real estate agency and just north of that a conspicuously charming pocket park with a small sign that lets you know that you are in the Town of New Castle. Not that you are likely to hear anyone say that he or she or they live in a place with that name. Yet New Castle does nearly everything for its little hamlet. It handles the municipal and paperwork realities, the police, the fire, the clean-up people, the water bill people, and much more, including probably Chappaqua’s entire geopolitical existence.
Chappaqua, the name, arguably qualifies as an honorific, a consideration that might justifiably appear on mortgage statements. It is best pronounced and spelled with patient assistance. Its municipal purity is clear from its official recognition as a Census-Designated Place, or CDP, which means that it derives its unincorporated identity from the cultural commonality of its residents; i.e. the people who say they live in Chappaqua and who ban traffic lights, movie houses, and bars as such, and who on Saturday mornings and on the days before feast days ritually pour into Susan Lawrence, a gourmet food and dessert elegance, and practice being Chappaquans in full view of each other, to the accompaniment of a perpetually ongoing recorded Haydn trio.
Susan Lawrence does not sell egg creams, or newspapers, or cigarettes of any kind, though you might observantly spot a former hippie or two in the crowd. It does the definitional work for Chappaqua that the Gem Spa did, and still does, for the East Village. That alone would justify its prices, if it did not also add to its customers’ already robust sense of self-worth the notion that they are participating in an eat-in/take-out experience that not even Bronxville, which anyone can pronounce, could match.