On screaming in Phoenicia

Publisher’s note: John Burdick is taking today off from his Village Voice. He is among a group of writers and other artists refraining from the use of social media today, a movement called Blackout Tuesday, as a gesture of protest against George Floyd’s murder. We wholeheartedly support his gesture, and stand in solidarity with him. We today offer a guest Village Voice by Robert Burke Warren.


Our first Phoenicia summer season – technically Memorial Day weekend, 2003 – began with screaming. The screaming was coming from the Esopus Creek, which runs across the street from the fixer-upper we’d bought, a Victorian folks referred to as “the McGrath House,” owing to the longstanding Shandaken family who built it in 1910.

We’d been here since September of ’02, and I’d spent many hours on this porch, but this was the first time I’d heard screaming. My wife and five-year-old son and I had come from St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. I’d spent 17 years there, and had become accustomed to noise, even screaming, especially on weekend nights, when the bar scene was hopping. In the way a parent can discern whether or not a child’s scream genuinely signals crisis, I’d gotten pretty good at lying in bed below the barred window of our fourth-floor walkup, and saying with conviction: “That’s not a person in danger.” Or occasionally, “That definitely is a person in danger.”

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Clearly, my ears were rusty on that Memorial Day weekend in 2003, as I was immediately convinced someone was drowning in the Esopus. I ran across the street, through the copse of birches growing through the long-disused railroad tracks, and to the cold water’s edge.

I discovered not crisis, but tourists “tubing the Esopus” in big black inner tubes rented from the Town Tinker Tube Company. They were screaming with joy, screaming from fun. They floated by on the mild rapids, waving and hooting, their happy cries echoing through the maples, the birches, and the ash trees.

In the years to come, as I became less a transplanted New Yorker and ever more a Phoenician, I would mark the start of the summer season with several things: Main Street swamped with tourists, the Ice Cream Station open, the scent of campfires at Black Bear Campground, patio tables at the Sportsman and Brio’s, and tubers screaming. All of it commencing, without fail, the Saturday before Memorial Day. Summer’s coming!

Of course, this year is different. Brio’s and the Sportsman are take-out only. The Ice Cream Station is open, but with just window service, and no cones. Black Bear allows only RVs, so fires are fewer. And the Town Tinker, naturally, is closed for the season, so no primal human screams to herald the coming longer days, to mark the arrival of the heat I love so. The intensity of my longing for those screams surprises me.

But summer 2020 is coming anyway. Spring 2020, in fact, has been unusually lush and beautiful. Or maybe we’ve all just been paying closer attention. After almost two decades here, I am finally learning the names and calls of birds, the species of trees that have watched over this most interesting chapter of my life.

Whereas back in 2003 I sat on my porch, often with acoustic guitar over my knee, and reflected on a week of teaching preschoolers in Mount Tremper, and what had transpired regarding my country’s invasion of Iraq, in 2020 I reflect on Zoom lessons, writing work (like this), and the previous week’s pandemic-related events, the increasing social unrest and fear, the horror, even as Covid 19 numbers in my area steadily decrease. There’s no human noise from the Esopus, but oh my God, the human noise beyond this Catskills bubble. The screaming is definitely people in crisis this time.

The one constant in those two timelines is my stubborn tendency to grasp at any flicker of hope, and compulsively try to give it oxygen. Not seeking hope to diminish the crises, but to bolster myself, and my loved ones, to get through this. Memory is weird, so I can’t say with conviction if it was easier to find that hope in 2003, but I’m going to go ahead and say it was. Nevertheless, I can – actually I must – find it now, too.

The hope I harbor is that seasonal change 2020, much noisier in some aspects and much quieter in others, will not, in fact, be “the new normal.” Screaming and hooting for joy in the sunshine, feeling unafraid in rushing waters – or on a city street, for that matter – is the normal I long for, and will work toward, in mind and deed, for all of us.

Even as the birds – the phoebes and sparrows, to be exact – seem to prefer things as they are, with humans chastened and on edge, like the wild animals who share this terrain with us. That’s fine. I understand them. I don’t expect them to understand me, because hope, after all, is a human thing. It is, arguably, one of our better traits.

– Robert Burke Warren