Fourteen calls on the answering machine after three hours away. The first ten are long pauses with breathing, the sound of fingers on dials. Then a couple of hang-ups, designated by a mechanical beeping noise and a female robot voice asking that you please hang up the phone. Then a very loud, “Hello” from an older voice, distorted by being too close to the old-style phone receiver the caller is literally yelling into. Followed by silence and cursing. And another hang-up.
Only on the final attempt to speak to my answering machine did the late Shandaken town supervisor Neil Grant succeed in leaving a message, all yelled. He wanted to alert me about an upcoming meeting. This was after Grant, a rotund man with a gruff appearance who’d spent his life doing laundry pickups in rural areas, had started and closed a couple of meetings before their publicized start times, leaving roomfuls of quietly angry residents and a couple of stalwart members of the press in town hall.
These are what I remember as local news as we started entering the digital age in the Catskills a few decades back. One time a zoning-board member showed up at a meeting in his pajamas. Another time an entire meeting seemed to fall asleep except for me in the town clerk’s overheated kitchen deep in Delaware County. They were all listening to a tape of another meeting.
People could smoke in town meetings in Shandaken. It was rumored that some drank as well.
Meetings would break down as people yelled at each other in the audience, from the audience at board members up front, or from town officials berating and belittling members of the audience. Afterwards, people would linger together near their cars, laughing. Even in the cold of winter, or on those few nights the weather would grow sultry, they’d lift a finger in acknowledgement as they drove past each other on local roads.
That was a time when crowds would come out to demand more cable access for the region’s deep notches and kills. After they got better television, those crowds disappeared until tax revals occurred, or when big outside developments would descend on a town, or on Airbnb’s arrival.
Good old days? Incumbents could get re-elected once indicted. Or after passing budgets without a revenue side. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about dead officials getting re-elected. Eventually, they also had to deal with computers and creeks risen from climate change. They had to confront real diversity when younger freelance workers with fix-it skills for reviving the region’s decaying housing stock instead of just building new joined the retirees.
Enough for now? Change doesn’t work like that. Challenges rise to meet the times, as do solutions.
We keep the old stories alive to remind us of what the spirit of the recent past was like, and how lucky we’d be if that spirit in a new form would remain.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.