February 26, 2018

Brookfield, Real and Imagined

An opportunity to expiate my sins...

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to atone for an eight-year-old crime.  I didn’t know until a year and a half ago I had committed it but, by then, it was too late to do anything about it.  The worst part is that, even when I knew what I was doing, I didn’t stop.

Nine years ago, Betty came home from a meeting of the Medfield Garden Club and said, “You won’t believe what I heard this morning.”  I asked her to tell me all about it.  She told me about an elderly member of the club who had had been repeatedly ignored by the teenaged clerks at a local drugstore, and her walking out of the store without paying for $1.98 of photos.  How had the woman gotten away with this act of larceny?  Her answer when I asked: “I’m 71 years old.  I’m invisible.”

A light bulb went off in my head. 

Betty was designing at the fair...
Ten days later, I made an early morning, 50-mile drive with Betty from Medfield to the Topsfield Fair, where she was entered in a floral design competition.  I was banished from the building where she was creating her arrangement.  I went outside and noted the proximity of the fair’s ‘Flowers’ building with its main entrance and administration building.  As I mentally noted the cluster, I watched as an armored truck pulled in, parked in front of the administration building, two men walked into the building and returned a minute later with bags of, presumably, money.  Thirty seconds later, they were gone. 

Which is when I realized I had the plot of a book: what would happen if four ‘women of a certain age’ used their invisibility to rob the daily gate of a New England fair?  At the Topsfield Fair a few days later, I confirmed a hunch:  that in an era of debit and credit cards, green is still king at fairs.  There’s a lot of cash sloshing around.

Six months later I had the draft of ‘The Garden Club Gang’.  I also had a problem: for reasons that become obvious in the book, I couldn’t make the Topsfield Fair the setting of the heist.  I needed to invent one.  I looked at a map of Massachusetts.  Marshfield also has a fair, and the idea of the ‘(Blank)field Fair’ seemed appropriate.  I ruled out ‘Riverfield’ and ‘Meadowfield’.  I couldn’t find a ‘Brookfield’ on the map and had never heard of such a town.  And so, the heist took place at the Brookfield Fair.

‘The Garden Club Gang’ was an instant hit.  Everyone loved the four ladies and women quickly identified with the characters.  When I began speaking to garden clubs four years ago, I incorporated a segment about the book’s origins as part of my talk.  Instead of tailing off, sales of the book soared.

There really is a town of Brookfield!
Fast-forward to September 2016.  Betty and I were returning from a trip to the Berkshires on the Mass Pike.  Just as we got to the Palmer exit, traffic came to a complete stop.  We made what seemed like a wise decision and got off onto local roads, only to come a cropper with an even worst morass of traffic leaving the Brimfield Antiques Fair (which sprawls along several miles of Route 20, paralleling the Pike).  We started taking any side road that seemed to point us even vaguely east.  Forty-five minutes later, we found ourselves entering the town of…. Brookfield.

The real and imaginary towns are
48 miles apart
It was a beautiful little town of 3500 people.  Just like the one I describe in the book.  Except that it was in the wrong place.  ‘My’ Brookfield is located 48 miles east, along I-495, roughly where the real town of Stow lies. 

I had a dilemma.  In seven years, no one had ever mentioned that there was a town called Brookfield in southern Worcester County.  I had spoken to groups in nearby towns with nary a peep.  Worse, a second Garden Club Gang book, ‘Deadly Deeds’, repeated the error from the first book; a character who lives in ‘my’ Brookfield makes appearances in other books; and I made Brookfield the home of the infamous Joey McCoy of ‘How to Murder Your Contractor’ – who complains about the traffic on 495.

I had quite a crowd...
Then, three months ago, I was invited by the ‘real’ Brookfield Garden Club to come present ‘Gardening in Murder’.  The presentation was yesterday.  The Fellowship Hall of the Brookfield Congregational Church was packed.  Before the projector came on, I confessed everything... all the duplicity, including that I have just completed yet another Garden Club Gang installment that soft-peddles the canard that Brookfield is located where it isn’t.

My audience took it with good grace and, for that, I am thankful.  If you are ever in central Massachusetts, I encourage you to make a stop in Brookfield.  It is, indeed, a lovely New England village with a storied history and friendly people.

Just don’t ask them about their fair…

February 5, 2018

Another February 5th, Forty Years Ago...

Forty years ago this morning, my wife and I started on a fantastic journey, which turned out to be a little more ‘unscheduled’ than we expected.  After living in Chicago for two years, I had accepted a job in New York City.  On the morning on February 5, Betty and I boarded a 7:30 flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for New York LaGuardia.  Our flight time was supposed to be 90 minutes.  We were told there was ‘some snow’ in the New York area but that we should arrive on time at 10 a.m.  We carried four large suitcases plus two carry-ons with us (this was before airlines discovered they could mint money by charging for such things).

The Blizzard of '78 shut down the
Northeast for more than a week
At a few minutes before ten, we were circling LaGuardia and the ‘some snow’ was getting much more serious.  At one point we were told we were next in line to land.  Then, after half an hour of circling, the announcement came that LaGuardia had just closed due to weather conditions and that we would be diverted to Bradley Field north of Hartford.

We landed at Hartford in blinding snow, the last plane to do so before that airport, too, was closed.  Our airline (I believe it was American) gave passengers the option of being taken by bus the fifty miles to New Haven where we could get the train for New York, or being put up ‘overnight’ at a hotel near the airport.

Betty grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York state, the land of ‘lake effect’ snow that can drop two feet of the stuff overnight.  She took a look at the snow and said, “We can do this.”  At noon, thirty intrepid passengers stowed their luggage on the bus and we headed south.

Double-click to see snowfall
totals - we landed right in the
thick of the thing.
Fifteen miles south of Hartford in swiftly deteriorating conditions, our bus skidded off the road and – very fortunately – into a guard rail.  It was fortunate because the guard rail was all that stood between us a steep ravine.  The bus could go no further.  Miraculously, another bus was dispatched, picked us up, and we slowly made out way down to New Haven.

It took three hours to reach New Haven and we feared we had missed the last New-York-bound train.  But there were people on the platform and so we lugged our many suitcases and waited.  A few minutes later, an Amtrak train pulled in.  It was now 4 p.m.  The train had left Boston at 6 a.m.  and would, as it turned out, the only train to make the trek that day.  Had we been a few minutes later, we would have been stranded in New Haven for the duration.

Note the fifth bullet...
There were no seats on the train; we sat on our luggage in one of the passenger compartments.  But at least we were inside the train.  Most of those who boarded at New Haven spent the next several hours in the unheated vestibule between cars.  Pushing snow in front of it, the train made it to Penn Station at about 8 p.m.

I had done one intelligent thing that day.  At Bradley Field, I had called my employer’s Manhattan office and pleaded for someone to walk over to the Statler Hilton and pay for our room, get a key, and leave it with the concierge.

It turned out to be a prescient move.  We arrived to a city that had shut down, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and commuters in the city.  Seventh Avenue was covered with two feet of snow and almost nothing moving.  A porter helped get our suitcases across the street to the hotel where we found a mob of people occupying every square foot of sleepable surface.  I went the concierge desk and held my breath.

A minute later, I held up the key for Betty to see.  Twelve hours after we left Chicago, we were finally in New York.
* * * * *
This is what we saw when we
got off the subway in Brooklyn
The blizzard turned out to be a fortunate event for us.  While the city was paralyzed, the subways were running on the subterranean part of their routes.  Two days after our arrival, a Realtor met us in Boerum Hill in Brooklyn. “If you can get here, I’ll show you houses,” she told us.  We emerged from the subway to a landscape of unplowed streets, with a police car – immobilized up to its windows in snow – blocking an intersection.  A bus sat abandoned in snow drifts in front of the brownstone we were there to see.

It was the house we had looked for in vain in Chicago.  Betty and I squeezed one another’s hand so tightly I nearly broke her fingers.  We made an offer that day, counter-offered over dinner that evening at the then-newly-opened River CafĂ©, and had our offer accepted over dessert.

211 Bergen Street in Boerum Hill.
We planted that tree in front, at left.
That was 40 years ago.  It was a time before cell phones, the internet or reliable forecasts.  Today, of course, everyone knows to stay home .  Passengers on the 7:30 flight from Chicago to New York are called the night before and told their flight has been cancelled and they have been re-booked for Thursday.  In short, apart from ones based on stupidity, there are a lot fewer ‘blizzard stories’ today.

But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was an adventure – albeit a harrowing one at the time.  We got through it and we found the house of our dreams, made possible in large part by our perseverance.

February 2, 2018

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

For New England gardeners, January and February are a single, 59-day-long morass of cold, miserable weather which we know is killing our shrubs; punctuated by the occasional thaw that we are certain is unceremoniously heaving our perennials out of the ground. We can’t wait for March to come.

This is what 30 inches of
snow looks like
But, thinking about being buried under two feet of snow by winter storm Liam, Quinn, Skylar, or Toby (which are actual names chosen for 2018 by meteorologists whose sense of humor escapes me) is just too depressing. 

Accordingly, optimistic gardeners place seed orders and tend their houseplants.  However, I’m not allowed to place seed orders.  I always go straight for the most whimsically named vegetables (think ‘Lettuce Entertain You’ and ‘Beets Me’), even if they’re 180 days to maturity in a climate where 150 days is stretching the boundary of common sense.  I also fail to read the fine print (“One plant will produce enough zucchini to feed Latvia for a year, although our taste panel agrees it has both the aroma and texture of well-worn gym socks...”).  

I’m also off the houseplant watering detail ever since a minor mishap with a fern that resulted in three inches of water in our basement a few years back.  The less said about this unfortunate event, the better.

The Scott Arboretum encompasses
pretty much the entirety of the
Swarthmore College campus
So, instead of having responsibility for actual plants and such, Betty gives me the task of planning warmer-weather, horticulture-centric travel.  For example, I need to be in Philadelphia in the latter part of May.  I’ve already added two days to that trip to get re-acquainted with Longwood, Chanticleer, Winterthur, and the Scott Arboretum after a too-long absence. 

The Beatrix Farrand garden in Maine.
It's on our to-do list for 2018.
To me, ‘big’ gardens are more than just spectacles; they also contain educational elements for those of us who don’t have hundred-acre estates.  The Scott Arboretum (essentially, the entire campus of Swarthmore College) is a practical demonstration of how to combine ecology, horticulture, and botany into a home landscape.  The fact that the Arboretum represents the vision of acclaimed horticulturalist Claire Sawyer, who is now in her 28th year as its Director, is all the more reason to check in for a refresher.

I’m also going to head north (or is that down east?).  Last year I saw the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for the first time (shame on me…). That visit was in June.  This year it will be in a different month and I intend to also see the Beatrix Farrand Garden and a few other historic properties in that state.

And, we've blocked off a week in
September to see Yosemite.
As long as I’m planning, how about something outside of the Northeast?  I sometimes feel as though I spent an entire year of my life on airplanes commuting between Boston and San Jose or San Francisco.  On those business trips, I flew over Yosemite National Park a hundred times without ever managing to visit it.  I have decreed this is the year I rectify that omission.  It will likely be in the fall, after most of the tourists have decamped.  It was America’s first National Park and still, arguably, its most dramatic.

The thermometer outside my window says it is 18˚ right now.  But, just by writing this, I’m already starting to feel as though I just might make it through this winter intact.