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Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

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The Stallion & The Donkey

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
Once upon a time a black stallion and a donkey lived together in a shed on a horse farm in New Paltz, NY. They lived in perfect harmony with one another, the landscape and their owners. I visited them whenever I walked down Dubois Road, formerly the homestead—twelve generations ago—of Jennifer Dubois Bruntil’s French Huguenot family. I have written about Jennifer’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot,” in a post on May 7 and, since then, have walked the road on Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

The French Huguenots escaped from persecution in France and settled in this magnificent valley in the late 17th century. Despite their own struggles, they became slave owners. Historians at the Huguenot Historic Site (HHS) uncovered a slave register more than a decade ago. It documented what everyone knew: By 1790 there were 302 slaves in New Paltz belonging to 77 families, 13% of the population.

For more information about slavery in the Hudson Valley:

https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/missing-chapter

Currently, there is a controversy on the SUNY campus about removal of Huguenot family names from dormitories—another “monuments” discussion. Decisions are forthcoming in a report that was due in April but has been delayed. Meanwhile, many roads in this town are named after the Huguenot families, including Dubois Road. What will the town do about them, ultimately, I wonder? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a memorial to the slaves who labored here will also be erected. There are many possible solutions. The horse farm has changed hands many times over the centuries, but originally was on the Dubois tract or patent “purchased” from the Esopus tribal sachems. But that is another story.

Echoes of past lives are everywhere here, and so much history that still feels very present, very visible. Devoted New Paltz citizens, descendants of slave-owning families, have inherited some tough history. There is a reckoning now both locally and nationally. I hope it remains civil.

***

I grew up in the city and don’t know anything about horses or donkeys, but I was as captivated by these two gentle creatures living together without discord as I have been by the history of the area. They always came to my call: first the stallion, then the donkey. The stallion was taller than I am, a very large creature indeed. He would broadside his body to the fence, snort a bit, which I took as a greeting, and let me stroke him. I talked to him for a while, he went on his way, and then the donkey arrived. I had never seen a donkey up close before. Those ears and eyes and snout, so adorable. Biblical creatures, they have been used as beasts of burden for 5000 years.

I looked forward to these visits every week and to learning more about the farm, its particular history and its current owners. But this past Saturday, when I returned to the field where the horse and donkey grazed, it was empty, as was the shed. I picked up the newspaper at the end of the driveway and walked to the iron gate. There was algae bloom on the pond, the gate was closed with a bungee cord and the greenhouse was overgrown. This farm, like so many in America, is hurting. I soon learned from the grand-daughter of the owners that it is up for sale and that sadly, inexplicably, the beautiful black stallion has died. It wasn’t the heat; they’d been hosing the animals down all day. No, he had an attack of colic—horses cannot vomit to clear their digestive tract—and the vet could not save him. He was only sixteen, which is young for a horse these days.

The owners are bereft, as am I. Before leaving I walked into another field where the lone donkey was grazing peacefully. I don’t know if he feels the loss of his stallion friend—these are human emotions projected onto our beloved animals—but before I walked away I marveled at the dignity and simplicity of their lives.  Read More 
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Hugo the Huguenot

Photo courtesy Jennifer DuBois Bruntil
I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women’s locker room the first week I moved up to New Paltz. We’re both lap swimmers and I’d noticed that she has a smooth competitor’s stroke and mentioned that I ,too, had once been a competitive swimmer. I don’t do flip turns any more, nor do I rotate my head side to side to breathe, though I still love to swim. That was the beginning of our conversation.

Jennifer is a trained teacher who, at the time, was working at Historic Huguenot Street as the School Programming Coordinator. She lives in New Paltz with her family, not in the original farmhouse--they were dairy farmers--but in a house her grandfather built when he retired. However, to say she “lives,” in New Paltz is not accurate; her family has been anchored here for twelve generations. The DuBois name is everywhere in town.

I was intrigued and started to read everything I could about the history of New Paltz from the first Dutch settlements to the present day. Dear Reader, I went to the local library. There I found various books on the shelves, an archivist, a huge collection of memorabilia, and a link to 66 libraries in the Mid-Hudson Valley for loans.

As soon as I began to read, I wanted to know more:

What happened to the Esopus people? They were the First Americans to live here. Unlike the descendants of the Dutch, English and French Huguenot families who still reside in New Paltz, their history is mostly absent from a history of New Paltz photo book for sale at the library. Yet the Algonquin language the tribe (still) speaks is evident everywhere—the Esopus creek, the town of Esopus, Kerhonkson, and so much more.

The tribe was decimated by disease, enslaved by the Dutch “settlers,” pushed west into Wisconsin and Canada by the US government—a trail of tears—and by the time the Huguenots arrived, their numbers had diminished significantly, they were in survival mode and struck financially beneficial deals. By all accounts, they lived mostly peacefully with the Huguenot settlers who themselves had escaped persecution. It’s a complex, fascinating and troubling story that still resonates today.

“The subject of my town’s local history had been on my mind for a few reasons. For one, I am a descendant of the New Paltz Huguenots,” Jennifer DuBois Bruntil explains in an article she wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal in December, 2016 to publicize her children’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot.”

Although Jennifer had never considered herself an author, the idea for the book began as a poem in her head in the middle of the night. She got up and wrote it all down, consulted friends, found a local illustrator, Matthew Kelly, and started to raise funds through Kickstarter. The book is charming, informative and, for the most part, historically responsible. More than a simple “congratulations on getting published” is due here. To her credit, Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has included four beautifully illustrated pages devoted to the Esopus presence on the land the Huguenots purchased. Missing, however, is any reference--even in the background illustrations-- to the African slaves in New Paltz. Yet, the history of slavery in New Paltz has been carefully documented by historians Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn in the Huguenot Historic Site's“register” of slaves (1799-1825). They write:

“Often overlooked is the fact that African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with an abundant supply of labor for use in the farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. The institution of slavery thus provided the Huguenots and their descendants with much of the labor upon which to build their communities, prosperity, and longevity.”

The register is fascinating to read:

https://www.hrvh.org/cdm/ref/collection/hhs/id/718

Few families in Colonial America, including the Jews in New York and our Founding Fathers, remained innocent as the barbarity of the slave trade intensified. Either they owned slaves themselves, were complicit in the “legalization” of the institution, or succumbed to the temptation of free labor.

Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has ended her modest children’s book with the arrival of the Huguenots in America, before they purchased slaves themselves. A sequel would undoubtedly have to include all this subsequent, disturbing history explained simply, but honestly, to young readers. During the educational tours at the Huguenot Historic Site, students are taken to different "stations" where they find out about the Esopus at one station, and family life, including slaves, at another. None of the local history is ignored. And during the summer months, SUNY New Paltz Professor Joseph Diamond supervises students as they dig for artifacts left by the settlers, the Native Americans, and slaves, in front of the DuBois Fort, the Esopus Wigwam, and elsewhere in the carefully preserved, landmarked area. This year he hopes to excavate part of the road. I plan to stop by to observe their progress and will report again in another blog post. Stay tuned.

***

“Hugo the Huguenot” is available online or at the Huguenot Historic Site gift shop in the Fort:

https://historic-huguenot-street-museum-shop.myshopify.com/products/hugo-the-huguenot

 Read More 
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Good Morning Sparrow


My city Facebook friends are posting photos of spring blossoms in Central Park, Prospect Park and Fort Tryon Park. But it is still in the 30’s in the mornings in the Lower Catskills and spring has not yet fully arrived. On one of our first mornings here, I found a steep road into an apple orchard, and snapped photos of buds, but they have not opened. Red tailed hawks, falcons, and an eagle or two sail on the updrafts searching for prey. The crows and sparrows stay closer to ground level, the groundhogs scamper in and out of their dens. There is abundant visible wildlife whenever I step outside; earth day is every day in this mountainous region. Plastic bags are not permitted in the shops, the local antique barn has a solar roof, the Wallkill Alliance is working with Riverkeeper to clean up the Wallkill River that flows through the town, a reminder of how improvements in the environment—and in the political landscape—can be achieved on the local level. Soon, I will see flaws, I know that, and feel the challenge of small-town living, but for right now I’m living in an idyll or, maybe, I’m just on vacation!

A slower pace, no delays to consider as we board the subway, less socializing in noisy upscale venues. Our forays into the city to work continue, but they are circumscribed and carefully planned. I’ve written two blog posts and completed a short story in the three weeks we have been here. I am reading in a more concentrated way, I am watching the sun set over the mountains, I am sleeping soundly.

As I was walking into the orchard last weekend, I realized that it was a private road and I’d better ask permission. There weren’t any signs and I didn’t want to be surprised by a shotgun or a police car. So I penned a warm note explaining who I was—an urban transplant, a new neighbor in love with the orchard, a writer—and would it be okay if I walked the road? In return for this privilege , I would clean up debris—many plastic containers, beer cans, tires!! I’d already done a lot of this. Had they spotted me and decided to leave me alone? Did they think I was a mad woman?

I walked my well-crafted note to the top of the rise to a house, which I assumed belonged to the owner of the orchard. I went round the back—kids toys, a swing set, dishes in the sink—and rang the bell. It was a tenant, not the owner, and yes, of course, she’d pass my note along. She wasn’t sure if it would be okay, there have been problems in the past. Oh, dear.

As of today, I haven’t heard anything from the owner. But it was so gorgeous this morning that I walked into the orchard anyway.  Read More 
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Remain Calm While You Read This

My"Keep Calm and Carry On" cup. Every home should have (at least) one for those special cliff-hanging moments, personal and political.
We were eating in a Japanese restaurant in New Paltz when my daughter slipped me a carefully folded note: “Remain calm while you read this…” I opened the note and read further: “Hugh Jackman and his family are sitting to your right.”

My daughter and I are Hugh Jackman fans, not “Wolverine” but “Les Miserables” on Broadway, 2013, Jackman singing and dancing. Plus, my son-in-law looks a lot like him, but is even more handsome.

Of course, when one is told not to do something, how can one resist? In fact, this is a psychological phenomena similar to the urge to jump off a cliff, a bridge or a high building, no suicide intended. The French have a poetic phrase for it: L’appel du vide. The call of the void.

I looked all around, desperately trying to avoid looking to my right and to stay calm. I saw other diners chatting and enjoying their sushi. Then I saw HIM, or felt him, more probably, as the tables are in close proximity in this serene, small-town restaurant. Hugh Jackman! His wife was across from HIM, two kids, one on each side of the table, if memory serves, everyone enjoying their sushi. I’d be a terrible spy for The National Enquirer as I don’t recall all the details, just my embarrassment at discovering them, so to speak, though I had been told to remain calm.

Suddenly, I felt more than embarrassed, I felt nervous. And that is strange because I have interviewed more than a few celebrities and they are, as I have written here, just recently, persons to me. It is my mandate, as a writer, to write about them in the most human way possible, right? So why was I dumbstruck when my daughter handed me the note? L’appel du vide, obviously. I had jumped off a mental cliff.

Remember the British WW II poster: “Remain Calm and Carry On?” More than two million were printed in 1939 in anticipation of the Nazi advance across the Channel, but they were never distributed, they were stored away, only to be rediscovered in the 21st century and reprinted ad infinitum on cups and t-shirts. And the reason the posters were not distributed is interesting: the War Ministry didn’t like the wording, they thought it was condescending. As everyone knows, Brits always carry on, they can be trusted to carry on, it’s in the DNA.

But back to the restaurant: I think my husband felt my muscles tense and put his hand on my arm. I tried to eat and look straight ahead at my daughter and the mountains beyond, but I didn’t say a word. I carried on eating. And so did Hugh Jackman and his family. Had we allowed ourselves to speak casually to one another, as neighbors in a restaurant often do, I think we would all have agreed that the food was good.  Read More 
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