The Stranger at the Other End of Front Street

PumpellyHouse

I can feel the soft cool breeze blowing through my room from the Susquehanna River behind me.  I am sitting at a small desk writing this post.  My wife is sleeping deeply on the bed to my right.  I am facing Front Street.  The trucks speed past the town on the Southern Tier Expressway (Future I 86, so the signs say).  I am in Owego, New York, the town where I was born and raised.

But something is wrong.  Something doesn’t feel right.  I am not in my home.  I am going to sleep tonight in a strange bed, in a house, the inside of which, I have never seen before this afternoon.  For what may be the third time in my long life, I am going to lay down in a place that does not belong to my family…right here in Owego.

How did I get here?

I remember closing the front door of my home at 420 Front Street, walking down our sidewalk and turning left, toward town.  I started that journey many years ago.  I can still recall the little details…the little fragments of recollections that most people would dismiss as inconsequential.  But I remember.  Yes, I remember.

The first house I pass is a large red brick structure where Lester and Madeline Sparks live.  I just got through playing in their backyard.  My brother just hit a softball through Lester’s window.  Lester managed the old J.C.Penney’s store on Lake Street. His wife was a nurse.  I look to my right and see John Street…the sweet street that led to Harvey’s grocery store where my lawn-mowing nickels were spent on Mars bars or a Baby Ruth.  The street where the Gavin’s lived.  The street where Craig and Ricky Phelps lived.  I played my childhood away with them.  Further up John Street was George Forsyth’s house.  At the corner of John and Main, lived “Duggie” Dugan.

I continue my walk up Front.  I pass the house where “Clyde” my childhood playmate who told whoppers lived for a few years.  There was the old Taylor house.  Victorian…tall windows…abandonded…and most definitely haunted.  Across the street is the reclusive daughter of A. Loring, the Naturalist.  John Gorman the Lawyer lived a door or two away.  I pass the house where a woman MD practiced medicine.  She had a roll-top desk stuffed with papers and samples.  I pass the black iron railings of Dr. Amouck’s house…the best lawn-mowing job to be had in town.  He paid five whole dollars!  I pass a yellow house where Candy S. lived.  Then came the “Old Ladies Home”, the Riverview Rest Home where the short-tempered man who voiced one of the dwarfs for Disney stayed.

I cross the street and continue.  I’m older by a few years.  I chase my dog King back home.  He followed me to school one day.  “Go home, King,” I would yell.  Once I decided to run to St. Patrick’s.  I was late for class and I didn’t want to get yelled at by Sister Vincent.  I closed my eyes and ran like the wind.  I ran like the wind into a large Elm tree.  I went home, bleeding copiously from my lips and nose.  I never run with my eyes closed anymore.

I pass St. Patrick’s.  I went there for eight years and was taught to be a good Catholic.  I went into the world of ‘heathens’ (Protestants) in 1961, when I entered high school.  At St. Pat’s I fell in love with a tiny third grade girl with short dark hair.  She sat near the adorable blonde, Angie.    There was Ray Stella.  There was his sister, Rita.  Toni Montgomery sat close.  Linda Dramus and Lenny Schmidt.  Jimmy Merrill often walked home with me.  Nearby was Pete Gillette.  Pete came late into our 8th grade.  His father, Dr. Gillette was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1960, so he took his family on a motor trip around the U. S.  Across from the school was a large tree with a stone bench.  It faced the river.  I sat with Mary on the stone on bright nights and watched the moonlight shimmer on the waves of the Susquehanna.  The tree and the stone are gone now.  Mary lives far away.  I’ve seen other couples on the stone bench, they didn’t realize it belonged to two other people…but I said nothing.  Near the bench was the first Owego museum that I can recall.

I’m older now and I’m going to a dance at the Elks.  First I must pass Dr. Nichols office.  He made house calls.  He took my brother’s appendix out.  He gave me my Polio vaccine.

I’m getting near Pete Gillette’s house.  The music of The Kingsmen blared from the Elks whenever someone opened the door.

I’m older and I stop into the bar that is now John Barleycorn.  I have a legal drink.  I continue up Front Street.  The buildings are changing from plastic and aluminum facades to brightly painted shops called River Row.  I look across the street and see the Dean Phillips Hardware store.  It transforms into the River Row Bookstore.  It carries copies of my first novel.

I’m older.  I cross over to the Court House Square.  I read the names of my classmates who died in Viet Nam.  I sat in front of Gary Fawcett in home room.  [Years ago I found his name on the Wall in Washington, D.C.].

I pass the Parkview Hotel.  An old brothel, I once read.  The ladies would be there for the Irish railroad workers from across the river putting down the tracks of the Lackawanna RR.  I had dinner there after the calling hours were over for my mother, at Esty & Monroe Funeral Home.

I pass the Historical Society.  I once gave two public lectures there (with slides) in a series called “The World Comes to Tioga County.”  I think I was well received.

It’s been a long journey from the other end of Front Street.  Once I passed this house [The Pumpelly House B & B] to continue to the very end and have a play date with Emerice Perry.  I wonder if she remembers my being there at her house?

I may have brought my daughter, Erin and later my son, Brian, Trick or Treating at this end of the street.  I always wanted to see what the other houses in town were like.

Now I know.

I came in tonight.  I climbed the curved staircase.  I feel the river air and see the curtains move slightly.  I hear the breeze and it seems to be telling me something…but I can’t quite hear it.

Wait, they’re not stories…they are memories.  They’re memories, aren’t they?  Or are they dreams?  I honestly can’t tell you that some memories I have of my life in Owego were real…making it a true memory, or something I dreamed one night 26 years ago?  I am troubled, sometimes, when I have a distinct recollection of an event, or a person, or a house or a kiss that it may exist only in my mind and not in reality.

I’ve spent time wondering about memory and reality and dreams.  Maybe it’s time in my life to just let it all fade?  Maybe I should pack them up and toss them into the muddy waters off the Court Street Bridge?  I could then start with a clean slate.  I could walk down Lake Street, sit at Sa Sa Na Loft’s grave on Cemetery Hill and see the village like a tourist.  Like someone who never lived, loved, danced, sang and cried here.  I could sit on steps of the Coburn Library and not be confronted by a thousand images of my youth.  [When I walk into the library, I can still smell the crayons that the nun used when she would bring us (was it 3rd grade?) for art class.]

Pretend that it really doesn’t matter…

No, I can’t really do that, because it does matter…to me.

FrontStOwego

This Old House

There is so much to be done when your last surviving parent dies.  My father passed away nearly ten years to the day and I can remember so much of the aftermath that my brother, wife and I had to deal with.  The lawyers, the probate, the will, endless medical records, phone calls, funeral arrangement and other decisions more numerous to mention.

Some of that process was unbearable.  I went through hundreds of family photos, many were unlabeled, cracked and yellowed.  Who were these people? When was this shot taken?  I found a few to mount and have on view during the wake.  Each one of the pictures that I could recognize brought along a thousand memories.

There were papers to shred that contained medical information that no one needed ever know about.  There were old tax forms from the late 1970’s that he thought he needed to keep.

Then there was the house.  Dealing with the rooms and contents was something I had dreaded for years.  My father, you see, never liked to throw things away.  He felt that when the next World War or Great Depression came again, these were items he might need.

To be fair, he realized this was going to be a problem, so about ten years before his death, he began to “clean things out” as he put it.

“I’ve been in the cellar and have some trash.  I’m cleaning things out,” he would say on the phone.  I listened as I sat in my apartment in Manhattan with him at the other end of the line, in our family home in Owego, New York.

So, on the next visit, I would ask about the trash.  He would point to a box, about the size that would hold a case of beer.  I went to the back porch where the box sat and I opened it.  Inside was about five empty gallon cans that once held paint.  Paint that was applied to one of our bedrooms about 1968.  I folded the box closed and thought about the “stuff” in the house.  I knew someday there would be a job to do–and that job was going to fall on my brother, my wife and myself.

To put things in a little better perspective, I should tell you that my mother passed away ten years before he did.  That gave him nearly ten years in a big old house by himself.

Then something happened that was to set in motion a long series of events that were to culminate on a July day, the 14th to be exact, because it was my son’s birthday.  It begins with his diagnosis of a lesion.  It was terminal.

The phone rang at our apartment in New York.  It was my father.  My wife picked up the extension first.  She spoke with  him for few moments before I got the other phone to my ear.  My dad was in mid-sentence–I heard him crying and saying, with difficulty, how proud he was of me. (I had just learned I was in total remission from a rare leukemia).

Before I knew it, we were going through the papers and beginning the process of cleaning out the house.

The house.

My parents bought this big Queen Anne in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so this is the house where mom and dad brought me in early June of ’47.  It was the home of my infancy, childhood, teenage years and adulthood.  When I left for college in 1965, the house ceased to be my home, as such, it was a place where I would visit or live for a short time.  It  was my home but only in that unique way that is buried in the phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

As I went from room to room, cleaning and gleaning, I was like an archeologist, peeling away the layers of several lives.  I would sit with a box trying to decide what would stay and what would go, what to leave in and what to take out.  Memories would push me against the wall while I thought of all that had transpired in the old place.

I was the youngest of four boys.  There were five bedrooms.  Each of our rooms was our castle.  Each room defined who we were as boys.

I recalled building a house of blocks around our cat while it slept in the middle of the living room.  The train set around the Christmas tree.  The parakeet that opened its door and flew out of an open window.  I recalled the late summer haze and crickets from the Brick Pond.  The river bank where I capsized in a canoe.  The Old Fort on the adjacent property where we had lethal apple fights.  The living room where my mother would host Home Bureau meetings.  The card parties my parents threw–I would peek through the wood rungs of the bannister and see a room full of blue smoke.  Once, on the morning after one of these parties, I came down and found long-necked beer bottles in various places.  I was a curious brat, so I looked around to make sure of my privacy, and took a gulp from a bottle of Utica Club.  How could I have known that someone had used the bottle as an ash tray.  But, luck was with me–we had a downstairs bathroom where I could vomit in peace.

I listened to my first Bob Dylan song on our Hi-Fi.  A friend brought it over.

“God, this guy can’t sing,” I said.  I went back to my Dion albums.  That same room is where where I kissed my childhood sweetheart, while Ray Charles sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or Roy Orbison breaking my heart with “Crying”.

Then the attic.  I was faced with getting rid of items that had been laying in the same place for over fifty years.  I did it all like a robot and I was to pay the price dearly for all this loss a few years later–but that’s another story.

So, two years after my past was driven away in the back of a green pickup truck, the house was ready to be sold.  I felt as if our family practically discovered Owego we had been there so long.  But in an old town, sixty years is thought of as yesterday.  It’s as if we had moved in yesterday.

But we didn’t.  This was my house of memories, adventures, laughter, romances and unbearable heartaches.

The new owners wanted the keys.  The agent had let them in and they waited for me on that July 14th.  I went up the steps of my porch and rang the bell, like a fuller brush man, I turned the ornate doorknob that my little boy hands had turned in summer heat and winter cold.  I was let into my living room.  There they were: husband, wife, two somewhat bratty boys and a sulking teenage girl, all goth, all black, who sat by herself on the window seat.

They want to hear some stories about the house, but the most repeated question was “was it haunted?”.  How could I answer that?  Of course it was haunted.  Couldn’t they hear the voices of four boys running by?  The wooden blocks tumbling down when the cat woke up from her nap?  The walls had sixty years of ghost voices still embedded in the plaster.  The floor had sixty years of ghost footfalls.

Was it haunted?  I didn’t think they would want to hear of the ghosts of my departed parents and two brothers.  So I told them a few stories I had heard over the years.  How my older brother settled into his bath near the top of the stairs.  He said he heard the front door open and then steps on the wooden stairs–what spooked him was the fact the footfalls never ended.  I told them how my mother would go into the back yard to do some gardening and then felt, she said, the presence of an Indian standing nearby.  I held back on telling them that one night our cat was in one of the bedrooms and three of the boys, me included, were trying to catch it.  But it looked beyond us and arched her back and hissed.  I looked over at the goth-girl, and saw how pretty she was through the black eyeshadow and Elvira look.  I didn’t tell her that all the boys were convinced that the very window seat she reclined on had the perfect shape of a coffin and that we were all sure that there was a mummified body in there.

I did tell them that there was a room with four doors on the second floor.  You had to take someone in there, close the doors, blindfold them and spin them around to disorient them.  Trying to find the way out was downright puzzling–in a scary way.

But I didn’t tell them that in the space between where I was sitting and where the husband was standing there once appeared a disembodied head that floated in the pre-dawn light.  My brother swore he saw this after he woke from an early morning nap.

So, the time came.  I shook hands and without a second thought handed over the keys to the big oak front door.  How could I dwell–the tears were welling in my eyes.  I bid them a hasty good-bye and good luck with the old place.

I left one last time through the door that I was carried crying to kindergarten, the door I went off to school each day, the door I went out to my Senior Prom and the day I left for college.

I’ve no doubt every family has such a tale to tell–such a house to celebrate and then to mourn.

I heard several years later that the family broke up.  The parents divorced.  Maybe, I thought, just maybe, the house was too haunted for them by my family and the spirit energy that filled each closet and cranny.  Maybe there were too many people living in that big old house.

I have not set foot in the house since July 14, 2006, and I don’t think I ever will.  I closed the door behind me that day, and I locked it.

420 Front St.-