Last Tuesday afternoon, having seen too many plays and written too many pieces and desiring to break free of my life for a few short days, I shut my iBook, packed a small bag, picked up a Zipcar at a garage around the corner from my Upper West Side apartment, and drove over the George Washington Bridge, up the Palisades Parkway, past West Point, and across a twisty road cut into the side of Storm King Mountain. Within an hour I was well north of all my usual Hudson Valley haunts, and by suppertime I was rolling into Woodstock, New York, a town that time seems to have left behind—thirty-six years behind, to be exact. My destination was the Woodstock Inn by the Millstream, an old-fashioned motel lately converted into something not unlike a newfangled B&B. The simple yet attractive rooms are a few steps away from what the inn’s Web site correctly describes as “a swimming hole gracefully carved from the rocky bed of the Millstream.” I sat at a table by the water until it was too dark to keep on reading De Kooning: An American Master. I tried to check my messages, but my cell phone was out of range, so I went to bed, read until I was drowsy, switched off the lamp, and fell asleep.
I returned to my brookside table in the morning to partake of what the modest proprietors of the Woodstock Inn are pleased to call a continental breakfast, though in point of fact it includes such tasty treats as smoked salmon and miniature quiches. My original plan had been to go more or less straight from there to my next stop, but ten minutes out of Woodstock I decided to improvise, turned right instead of left, threw open the windows and sunroof, cranked up Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight, and drove all the way through the Catskill Park to the Pepacton Reservoir, a man-made body of water whose creation required the seizure, condemnation, and flooding in 1955 of four now-forgotten villages to whose former existence four small roadside signs pay tribute. (Donald Westlake once wrote a comic crime novel whose hapless protagonists sought to retrieve a buried stash from one of those underwater towns.) I felt as though I had come at last to the far side of the world, infinitely removed from the irritations of everyday existence.
I stopped for lunch in a mountain town with the quaint name of Roscoe. Spotting a B&B by the side of the road, I resolved on the spot to stay there one day, but since I had another place to be that night, I pointed my Zipcar southward and drove unhurriedly through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, pausing briefly to take a roadside nap. No sooner did I exit the National Recreation Area than I found myself trapped in the hideous foothills of the Poconos, surrounded by tourist-trap attractions of the grubbiest sort. I drove by a huge sign directing me to Caesars Pocono Palace and declaring that Crosby, Stills & Nash would be playing there in August. Only a week or two before, I’d been wondering whatever had become of Stephen Stills, one of the musical idols of my rock-and-roll youth. Now, mere hours after I’d spent a perfectly happy night in Woodstock, answer there came in the form of a bright neon sign: he plays casinos. To sing the blues you’ve got to live the tunes…and carry on, I thought, and shuddered.
Before long I was snaking down the Delaware River to Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, the home of Bridgeton House On-the-Delaware, an inn about which I can’t begin to say enough good things. It’s on the river, the rooms are handsomely appointed, and most even have their own private riverfront balconies. After driving across the bridge to the Milford Oyster House, there to sup on Crab Norfolk and a garlic-laden salad, I retreated to my balcony to watch the river flow and the fireflies blink. It was a hot and humid night, but before 15 minutes had passed the temperature had plunged at least as many degrees, and the fireflies flew off to make way for a thunderstorm. The lightning exploded over Upper Black Eddy as I looked on, delighting in the gaudy detonations far overhead. A half-hour later the storm was gone, and I climbed gratefully into my soft bed to read February House: The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America and drift at length into yet another deep, untroubled sleep.
Another tasty breakfast, another unhurried drive across the river and along country roads, and in a couple of hours I had made my roundabout way to the rusty outskirts of Newark. Is there any other place in the world where beauty and ugliness alternate with such dizzying rapidity as in New Jersey? My midday destination was the Newark Museum, where I planned to spend an hour or two looking at “In the American Grain: Dove, Hartley, Marin, O’Keeffe, and Stieglitz,” a touring exhibition put together by the Phillips Collection, and inspecting the museum’s own permanent collection of American art, about which I’d long heard great things, all of which are true. Alas, the Newark Museum has become yet another of those aging inner-city temples to art that has outlived its clientele and now behaves as though it’s slightly embarrassed to display its paintings, hiding them upstairs and explaining their beauties away with the kind of hectoring, didactic wall labels that give art scholarship a bad name. (It says everything about the museum that its own shop sells not a single book or pamphlet describing the permanent collection.) I arrived halfway through a noontime jazz concert, passed up an exhibition called “Here Come the Brides: Fairy Tales, Folklore & Wedding Traditions,” and finally made my circuitous way to the upstairs galleries. Except for three stone-faced guards, I was the only living soul there. I oohed and aahed at Marsden Hartley’s “Still Life—Calla Lilies,” Joseph Stella’s “Voice of the City of New York Interpreted,” and Joseph Cornell’s “Les Constellations Voisines du Pôle,” then reveled in a dozen fabulous John Marins and Arthur Doves that haven’t been on view for the past couple of years. Yet I don’t know when I’ve seen a sadder museum.
I fled Newark as fast as my Zipcar would carry me, roaring down the New Jersey Turnpike past mile after mile of industrial blight (And was Jerusalem builded here/Among these dark Satanic mills?), arriving in due course at the Jersey Shore, a place I’d heard about for years but never seen. Coming as I do from the middle of America, I find at the age of forty-nine that I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of nights I’ve slept by an ocean. Like everyone who falls in love with the sea in adulthood, I’m incapable of saying anything about it that hasn’t been said a million times before: its ever-changing, self-renewing presence instantly reduces me to clichés. As I sat on the boardwalk and watched the waves that my beloved Fairfield Porter painted so well, I could do no better than to recall the words of Jean de la Ville de Mirmont that Gabriel Fauré set to music with such exquisitely apposite simplicity in L’horizon chimérique, the most perfect of all his song cycles: The sea is infinite and my dreams are wild.
Would that the Jersey Shore were better suited to such romantic reflections! It is what it is, a strip of sandy beach overlooked by the balconies of a thousand tacky condos, crammed to overflowing with noisily joyous vacationers, and I was what I was, a middle-aged aesthete dressed in black, seated on a bench and gazing in silent wonder at the surf. Still and all, I liked it just fine, though I’m probably too old ever to feel what my friend John Pizzarelli feels when he sings “I Like Jersey Best”:
Traveling down the Turnpike
Heading for the shore
A thought just then occurred to me
I never thought before
I’ve been a lot of places
Seen pictures of the rest
But of all the places I can think of
I like Jersey best.
I sat by the sea for a good half-hour before I thought to pull out my cell phone and call my mother back in Smalltown, U.S.A. “Listen, Mom,” I said, and held the phone up to catch the sound of the waves. “Can you hear the ocean?”
“No, not really…oh, yes! Yes, I can.” She paused. “I hate to tell you bad news in the middle of your vacation, but did you hear what happened in London today?”
“No,” I said, realizing in a sickening instant what it must have been. “I haven’t seen a paper or turned on my car radio since I left New York.”
She told me of the four bombs that mere hours before had killed four dozen Londoners on the other side of the ocean by which I sat. All at once I remembered Auden’s poem about how suffering takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. On Thursday I was one of those someone elses.
The waves having briefly lost their savor, I gave up my bench and walked across Ocean Avenue to the Cashelmara Inn, my comfortable home for the night, on whose broad, inviting veranda I sat in a rocking chair for a peaceful hour, listening to my iPod, lapping up the sea breeze, and playing idly with the two golden retrievers who call the inn home. After dining at a cheerful restaurant a block away, I retired to my cozy dormered room on the third floor. I slept badly, awakened by a nightmare for whose origins I didn’t have to look far.
My window was spattered with fast-falling rain when I got up the next morning. I knew there would be no more sitting on the boardwalk, so I packed my bag resignedly and went down to breakfast. The dining room was occupied by four families and an unattached woman, a bespectacled brunette with sharp, pretty features who read Good Housekeeping while she ate. I cast sidelong glances at the happy families that surrounded us on all sides. Don’t be so sure of yourselves, I thought, feeling a wave of silent camaraderie for my fellow singleton. I was once as you are, and someday you may be as we are. Life is pandemonium!
An hour later I was driving back up the New Jersey Turnpike toward the George Washington Bridge, and an hour after that I was unlocking the door of my apartment. I greeted the etchings and lithographs on the walls as if they were my own family, then turned on my iBook for the first time in three days and found 205 pieces of e-mail awaiting me. I closed my eyes and thought of fireflies, smoked salmon, the smell of the ocean, and the half-recalled colors of a painting by Arthur Dove. “I can’t wait to do it all again,” I said out loud. Then I dragged my chair a little closer to the cluttered desk and started answering my mail, and the tentacles of dailiness reached out and swept me back into their embrace.