I’m spending a month in the Catskills with my girlfriend—it was her idea!—and so far, so good. Last night we were in Callicoon, on the Delaware River, eating great burgers, but mostly we just grill whatever animal spills from the freezer before noon.
We eat breakfast over the electronic Times, then go to work—OK, she works all goddamn day, she’s on a deadline, I just fuck around on Facebook for a while and maybe try to write the memoir—and then (when?) we take a walk around the lake that anchors the tiny borough of Smallwood, New York, founded in 1928 as a gated community reserved for Christian Caucasians. There are still covenants in the deeds, but there are only 566 residents and 129 households left here, according to the 2000 Census.
It’s a landlocked island worthy of anthropological attention. Its residents are marooned right now, because 300,000 Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish Caucasians from Brooklyn are taking their summer vacations right here, in Sullivan County, a desperately poor place that, like most of upstate New York, looks to have been abandoned right around 1973.
Does that number sound outlandish or inflated? In the 1950s, it was three times that large, because, according to the Catskills Institute run by Professor Phil Brown of Northeastern University—c’mon, could I make that up?—“more than a million [Jewish] people inhabited the summer world of bungalow colonies, summer camps and small hotels.” Remember the big hotels, Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s (where Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, and Leo Spinks trained), the Concord? They’re gone, but the bungalows remain.
Therein lies a political problem. Or is it ethical? In the last few years, certain townships have stirred local movements in Sullivan County to limit the building, even the maintenance, of the bungalow colonies where the Jews vacation. (There are 100 Orthodox summer camps in this county.) The logic is impeccable. The Jews mean more summer spending, to be sure, but less room for aesthetically pleasing apartments to house all the people clamoring to live here year round, even when it snows four feet and the only paying job in town is plowing it for the Public Works Department.
Sullivan County, like most places colonized by gambling, whether on the horses or the cards, is, empirically speaking, a desolate place, unless you think that Nature is something like the parents you wanted, a benign presence that let you live your own life, not reproduce theirs. Trees thrive here, but little else. Climate change notwithstanding, there are more of them in these parts than there were in 1916, or in 1816, because when human beings leave, the residual flora and fauna reassert their claims to the land.
Get off NY 17—future Interstate 86, there’s a kind of progress for you—toward the racetrack in Monticello, or yet further, to Smallwood and other vacation “resorts,” and you will find nothing open on 17B except antique stores and gas stations, the mini-marts where beer, aspirin, condoms, and potato chips are the featured items because every customer is presumably headed for that ideal one-night stand. Between Monticello and Smallwood, not even the strip club is open, although the Help Wanted sign still stands. (And who among us would not want to fill out the application form?)
Nobody shops in Monticello, the once-quaint little town six miles down the road from Smallwood, because there’s nothing left to buy, or rather no stores to sell what you might want or need to buy, except for the quiet CVS on East Broadway. Instead, everybody goes to the Shop-Rite and the Walmart on Route 42, between Exits 104 and 105 off NY 17, future Interstate 86.
In these places, you will feel the hustle and the bustle of the city—you will feel a seething, almost athletic energy—because these are the places where the young men and women, whether Orthodox or Hasidic, can have some fun. Otherwise they’re studying Talmud or caring for their siblings.
We hit the Shop-Rite on Friday night about 6:00, July 1, having already stopped at the Costco in Clifton, NJ. The lines at the registers here in Monticello looked like a mosh pit except that nobody was high, happy, or horizontal. It was the weekend of the 4th, a hallowed secular holiday, so the locals were stocking up on beer, painkillers, and ice—these items are always at the top of my list—but it was also almost Shabbas, a real holiday, and the sun was going down, so the vacationers were stocking up on . . . bottled water. It was bedlam because everybody knew the rules, and didn’t care. I certainly didn’t. Macy’s on Black Friday? I’ve been there, and this was far worse.
My girlfriend is a real shopper—she pays attention to the prices and the possibilities. (I just buy shit.) She was dismayed by the crowd, but not daunted, or rather panicked, as I was. When I said, “I gotta get outta here, this is making me crazy,” she said, “We will, calm down, buy some beer, and find the whole milk.” I didn’t calm down, but I accomplished the other assigned tasks. I bought a lot of beer.
On our return to Smallwood—we had unloaded our city cargo and then gone back to the Shop-Rite—I apologized to my girlfriend for being insanely impatient, seething in my own unathletic way. She was uncharacteristically diplomatic. She said, “Well, that was a scene.”