A drive through the Berkshires: yuppies, dilapidated barns, old mill towns and rich college kids

Just a warning to the people with short attention spans. This post is extremely long- 8 pages on word to be exact, I warned you- with that said I happen to think this is one of my best essays in a long time. If enjoy run on sentances, very wordy rants and tons of descriptive details then this may be for you. It does not contain any frummy stuff within its depths.

After shachris and a an hour of learning Tanya I decided to take advantage of the bright sunshiny day that was glaring at me from beyond my car windows. The air was bitter cold, or at least that’s what it felt like after not having been below twenty degrees the whole winter as of yet. A breakfast of two bagels messily smeared with country crocks easy to use butter a couple swigs of some packaged mango-apple smoothie I had bought at Wal Mart and I was off. Driving east, destination unknown, with an itch to see some rolling farmland and dense forests I decided on the northwest area of Massachusetts known to downstaters as the Berkshires. My car stereo blaring the funky sounds of James Brown and his backup screaming came at me full force as the sun still off to the east shined directly into my eyes forcing me to put the sun shade down, obscuring my vision of the white salt streaked road. Exiting off the highway downshifting and sailing onto route 43 I began to take in the cold mid morning sights. Frosty brown fields devoid of their vegetation lay soaking up the suns warmth as small squalls of blowing snow whipped up around the corners of the fields where narrow bumpy roads that gave access to farmers and were now just frozen swaths of mud with deep tire tracks like fossilized remnants of summers mud and dust. I passed a broken down red barn, roof caved in, silo standing tall holding its head high against the brutal upstate NY winters and winds that ravage its hollow done all year long steadily trying to push it down next to its fallen brothers. All over the east these fallen, roof caved in, red barns lay amidst the rubbish left by passersby on which ever road they may be, rusting hulks of washing machines and stoves litter the insides of these fallen houses of farm. These once heavily used hay storage, cow shelters or tractor garages lay sulking away, slowly biodegrading into the earth whence they came from, leaving behind only empty beer cans and old tires. The stone foundations usually the only true remnants of the once proud red barn that stood off to the side of the main house. I stare sadly at these barns, sometimes photographing them so they will stay in the memories of some, as if they were treasures to humans for some reason or another. I don’t know why, the architecture is not any different, barns are barns after all, but sometimes there are different ones and they stand out among the millions of fallen red barns around the country, these few structures catch the driver, forcing dangerous u-turns in the middle of fast two lane byways, quickly jumping out the driver will grab a few pictures, maybe of its slightly more decorated sidewalls, maybe just below its roof, it states the names of the folks who erected it in 1889 or maybe an old advertisement for mail pouch tobacco graces its walls, trying to entice the rushing driver into slowing down for some fresh tobacco. Maybe a rusting old John Deere sits on cinderblocks, engine long gone, red or green exterior just plain old rust, yet it cathes the eye of someone, beckoning them to take a further look, ignoring the posted signs declaring no trespassing, they climb over an old downed barbed wire fence, sneaking around the back to see what long forgotten treasures lay in back of the cobble stone foundation and this aging tractor. Maybe some old cars, or old farm machinery will lay under some dense thorny bushes, maybe an old gas pump surrounded by old growth trees obscuring the fact that at one point this area was paved, not for 50 years at least, judging by the radius of the trees, but you can imagine, local growers coming here to get gasoline and diesel for their trucks and tractors, talking of the seasons length and goodness or badness, talking of the market and what bushels of wheat are going for in Chicago and how the dust bowl is just worsening in Kansas.

Driving past stands of stately pine and frozen solid bush, the ice got thicker and thicker until the forests looked like popsicle sticks, they reflected off the sun and made rainbows in front of my eyes bouncing back forth between each other. I assumed this was the remnants of the mini-ice storm which left many without power to overcome the first actual frigid night in the east all year. It was roughly 15 degrees as I crossed over he New York line into Massachusetts. The hills grew taller, and traces of white could be seen at the tops, snow had recently fallen, everything else was bare except for the very tops of these tall peaks surrounding Mount Greylock the tallest mountain in the state. Its top was blemished by the antennas and towers sticking from the top ruining the beauty that was once there, scarring the land in the name of convenience and television. I drove to the sounds of Tim McGraw singing where the green grass grows with the help of a mighty fiddle ensemble backing up the song crying out for green in the midst of suburban shopping plazas and 6 lane freeways. I liked the song, I sang along feeling bad for all the sorry folks who chose the big city life, recalling the city song by the Steve Miller band which also feels sorry for the city folk. Keep them in the cities, I thought to myself as I passed by a line of uncut hay bushels sticking out of the machine that puts them into white plastic, like a 100 yard long white sausage of hay waiting to be cut up and divided up amongst the fields for the lonely cows that don’t have any grass to eat in the winter. Thank God for cities, without them the population growth of the last few hundred years would hae wiped out the beauty that was unrolling at 60 miles per hour before my very eyes. I could just imagine bulldozers tearing up the land to make way for 4000 square foot homes with 3 car garages for families with one or two kids, I could see the pile of discarded logs off to the side, and newly planted short trees held up by stakes to keep them from falling down, ah artificial trees in the place of the real old growths that are trucked to International Paper factories in northern Maine to, well, make paper and other discard able items that litter the roadways and trails that cut great swaths through the land and originally provided for the paper through the trees removed that wound up back on the roadway, though this time in the form of litter and trash and long forgotten are the great oaks and birch that stood proud and tall, providing shade, oxygen, beauty in the fall and cover from the rain when those few brave souls would venture into the woods to be among Gods creations.

I pulled into Williamstown, a beautiful New England town, big tall anorexic white church steeples the only structures that can be seen over the huge old growth trees that line up for you as you proceed down main street, around a rotary circle, past the old 4 chimney buildings of Williams College, a wealthy elitist school. Right up there with Colgate, Colby, Clark and Middlebury. New England WASP institutions that are made up of generations of the same last named students, wealthy kids from wealthy families wh need not worry about working hard, they have it on the silver platter, driving their Volvos wagons plastered with peace now and Impeach Bush bumper stickers, real idealist who don’t know what the ghetto looks like or smells like or tastes like. They come from towns like Northampton-MA and Bennington-VT or Englewood- NJ and Manlius- NY. Wealthy towns where kids all go to top colleges and a state school would be like a slap in the face, they get BMW SUV’s for their 16th birthdays and go on week long ski vacations in Utah, they eat organic food and have record players, they listen to jazz and classical music as well as Grateful Dead style music and electronica, drum and bass and punk rock. They are interesting, have hobbies like photography, yoga and practice things like feng-shua and kabala. They attend concerts and plays and think that all folks who live in the sticks are uncultured, wear flannel and orange blaze, carry shotguns and listen to country music. Country music is fine if its classic- because classic like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash is funky, they love funky and retro, funky shops like Urban Outfitters and retro shops that sell records and vintage clothing that is just good selections from the local goodwill or Salvation army store. They think pickup trucks are for rednecks and hicks, they don’t like guns and the people who use them, unless it’s a trap shoot, some of them like competition shooting, the uppity type events where they have silver plated under over lever action Winchesters and double barrel hand carved shotguns strictly made for trap and skeet shooting contests.

I see them walking to and from class as I pass by at the prescribed 25 mile per hour speed limit, I stare out the window at the eccentric looking students, in their chic scarves and glasses, breathing puffs of smoke in the frosty air. I stop like everyone else to let throngs of students wearing jeans and brown loafers clenching their side messenger style bags as they scurry across the road rushing to some stately late 1700s building that is made of red brick, contains two neatly placed chimneys on the sides of the walls and has a name like Harold Eldred Hall or Clark.

A large very interesting building with a roof protruding out of it like the top of a large ark in a Jewish Temple. I think of a similar architecture at my old shull the West Side Institutional Synagogue in NYC on 76th street. This roof that is extended from this glass and brick very hard to explain style building is made of hardwood, looks like a hardwood floor actually, ah modern art in the name of 100 million dollar donors that graduated and were immediately making more then I or anyone reading this will dream of. I snap several pictures of it, luckily the sun is beating down on my black fleece from the back, providing me with good light minus the ever present glare preventing over exposure and making me satisfied with my shutter speeds in this bright yet glare less light. I make a u-turn and wait for several very cold students as they hold their ears and run into a building.

I decide not to turn down the main street, where I am sure there will be several used bookstores, with books by Nietzsche and Marx and Kerouac and Ginsburg lining their dusty old hardwood shelves, purposefully messy to bring the beatnik, socialist, idealist days back to the modern student who is looking for Harry Potter while listening to some Morcheeba on their I-pod. I am sure some of these stores will stand on the fine main street, complete with fake red brick cobble stones trying to remind us of yesteryear before the 1960s urban renewal period. Trying to invoke memories of trolleys passing by department stores that all had Jewish names and sold fine men’s suites and hats, women walking up and down main street gossiping, wearing large hats and holding fine leather handbags, while holding up silver mirrors and brushing up their makeup and unwrinkling their dresses as they sat down to tea while watching the action on the street. I am also sure there will be some organic food store, that smells of incense and hippies and some long haired dreaded girl with three piercings in her nose sitting glumly behind the counter reading a magazine like Adbusters or Orion that are slowly brainwashing her to be anti private property rights and deny that Israel is even a country. Half of the store is dedicated to holistic healing and naturopathic doctor type medicinal herbs and such. Small jars filled with weird sounding names and ginko balboa pills and ginseng healing lotions and ice cream made of hemp line the wooden shelves with little sticky notes explaining the healing power of each overly priced gimmick. Shoppers range from ordinary business men and women to dread locked Rastafarian dudes and girls dressed like Paula Abdul in their fishnets and frizzy hair. The weirdoes are all there buying food they thin will “heal” them and complaining about the current state of this countries Theocracy and why people don’t buy more Hybrid cars and how people can eat non-organic foods and drink tap water. Almost like a public meeting of socialist- idealists that are only that way due to the shelter of their town, being quite far from crime, ghettos, crack houses and the cities of the Midwestern rustbelt. These free loving, Volvo driving Marxists go on thinking that they know it all.

I continue on down the road, Tim McGraw singing of broken hearts and lonesome nights. All of the sudden a sign declaring my entrance into North Adams, my blood pumps I am excited, I have been here many times to wander its gentrified main streets with red bricked, shuttered windowed store fronts, old advertisements plastered on the sides of the buildings peeling and fading from the wind and rain barely hanging on, 50 years old, white and black letters, big bold ones announcing the best deals on laundered clothing town, prices in the cents revealing their age, old signs painted on to buildings, before the advent of billboards that choke out the view and signal to the driver that an ugly big strip mall laden boulevard is close by, full of car dealerships, muffler stores, chain fast food restaurants if they can be called that, and large boxes that say they are stores, huge bulky department stores with headquarters that must be 1000 miles from the town they are polluting the groundwater in. North Adams is a mill town, a big one for that matter, big not in population, but it does have a very quaint main street with nice looking storefronts, shutters on the windows of the higher floors in the buildings that used to house warehouses for the department stores that took up the ground floor. Now there are shop, quiet gift shops telling tourists to stop in for free coffee and a free gift with a fifty dollar purchase. Old looking black lampposts, the type that accompany a towns decision to implement economic development policies to try and usher out the era of downtown crack houses and winos on the corners to try and bring baqck the nice shops and cafes that existed prior to the urban renewal riot ridden 1960s and 1970s, the stupid idea that old was unacceptable and new was better, new buildings with modern plain windowless panels with large names of stores like Cohoes and Sears replaced the traditional 4 or 5 story walkup with Victorian roof styles and carved out window bays. They were destroyed in the name of progress and new era trying to move ahead, the post war attitude the cold war attitude, progress and rejection of old architectural styles and all it did was send small cities and villages into further decline, until something called historic preservation was kicked into gear and someone woke up and said we need to save these grand old pieces of our past. All of the sudden historic landmark preservation laws were enacted preventing the destruction or even changing the façade f these treasures that were being destroyed by the block in favor of big boxy ugly behemoths which can be found on main streets all across America. New Orleans’ Canal Street has some fine examples of 1960s architecture as do the cities of Kansas City, Buffalo and Cleveland. Some cities were spared, but many were razed of their treasures only to regret it immensely later on.

The mills of North Adams are beautiful, the largest one has been made into Mass MoCa, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a long beautiful mill standing on the banks of the Hoosic River, the Hoosic runs down from Vermont and hits North Adams with the branching of itself providing lots of water power, this is obvious, its red brick mills with green windows and tall narrow smokestacks compete with the several tall church steeples for the award of tallest structure in northern Mass. The mills win with their immense smokestacks, no longer spewing any smoke, but nevertheless a beautiful sight and reminder of the great industrial age of the late 1800s that struck both America and England with, steel, coal, steam, railroads and iron clad screw steamships, taking over one after the other to provide the world with higher living standards and more class wars than the world had ever seen. I thought back to Williamstown just down the road maybe 10 miles with its huge Victorian homes and revolutionary war era mansions taking up 3 acres a piece. Did the owners and bourgeoisie of North Adams reside in Williamstown and leave North Adams each day to the ravages as they so called who ran the very factories and mills which allowed the elite classes to afford such homes. Was North Adams the classic blue collar industrial town, with a high per capita of bars, saloons, brothels and gambling joints? In its heyday were the streets crowded with drunks and drug addicts who were fired from the mill and therefore couldn’t pay for their company owned home? Or was it a classy kind of town? I couldn’t tell, though judging by the modest main street and rather small cottages littering the hill sides that were the base of the high point Mount Greylock, it appeared as if this were the poor company town that I had referred to and it may have been a crowded rowdy place in the heyday of its industrial prowess when there were dozens of manufacturing companies littering the sides of the Hoosic River harnessing its swift moving waters that came from Vermont.

I took dozens of pictures of the mills along the sides of the Hoosic, imagining how they looked with steam pouring out from their depths choking the air with soot and dust, a hovering cloud of progress that hung low in the air between the two masses of mountains that made up the valley in which this city was located in, rising out of the valley going east on route 2 which cuts a zigzagged path somewhat straight across the north of the state, cutting a squiggly jagged line on the map, where it is listed as a scenic route, and eventually meets up with the relatively new Interstate 91 which comes from Hartford and leads into Vermont and to the Canadian Border. I drove up the steep hill, around a hairpin curve shifting into first gear, hearing the engine beg to be shifted as I went steeper up the hill, behind a pickup truck with pieces of ice flying off its wheel wells and bouncing across the road until they came to rest at the base of the cliffs with huge frozen streams of water that were water just yesterday or the day before. These massive icicles went 50 feet up and then disappeared above my window, I wondered how strong they were, could they support an ice climber? Probably not, but that would be cool to see someone climbing up that small frozen rivet of ice that clung to the sheer rock face like a new born to its mothers nipple, it held fast, occasionally letting go a chunk that had somehow melted in the glare of the sun.

The farther up I drove the more the snow started to show and until the ground was hidden underneath it, the first snow I had seen in the daytime all year long, it was amazing, what was unfolding before my eyes, suddenly the whole world was frozen besides the white salt filled road, the sides of he road were heaps of snow covered in icicles, broken icicles that had fallen down together with many branches from the trees that were bowing graciously under the weight of their frozen tentacles. These trees mostly deciduous, hung over waiting to be freed of their ice caused posture or waiting to crack in half which many of them had already succumbed to, it was much more then the ones I had seen earlier, this time the world was frozen and glaring with bright cloudless ultra violet rays which the sun had provided purely for my amusement as I constantly pulled over to get another picture of the ice cacophony unfolding before my eyes as I drove higher up the mountain, at the very top there was a huge snow covered parking lot, after a closer look while freezing my face and hands I was able to see that somehow the ice had formed upward pointing icicles from the ground it looked as though the ground was depressed and all that poked through were rounded at the ends ice pieces, a big polka dot ice madness that I hopefully was masterful enough to catch on film, you never do know with film, that’s half the fun, digital gives it away, film is patience, the opposite of instant gratification.

I put on some Alabama; I was in a country mood, the back roads of America bringing out the best in me, with their trailer parks and fresh apple pie, fruit stands and gun sales, old Mustangs sitting on cinderblocks and bars that open at 8 in the morning. I felt good, sun shining down, Alabama singing about cotton picking and pushing plows during the Depression on my way steadily down a hill and out of the Berkshires. I was in a great valley and then it closed up around me, providing the road with full shade, the sun couldn’t reach into the depths of this hollow as the southerners would call it, I would call it a slight canyon, complete with fast moving river, tumbling over boulders, churning white and stopping for nothing save for a few large dead trees that couldn’t hold their roots in the ground during the last time the river rose over flood stage. I enjoyed the sweet silence of the day, empty road, no shoulders, no houses, no power lines promising populated areas, just the occasional curve warning sign and bridge, the bridges were all built in 1924 I could quickly gather s I drove across them and looked at their crumbling clay railings, that’s pretty old I thought to myself, NY bridges on roads like these were always rather new, with visible old bridge abutments sticking slightly to the left or right of the new bridge revealing the old path of the road. I like looking for signs of the old road, I try to figure out why the road was redirected, how long ago it was rebuilt and how long the old roadbed has been sitting unnoticed on the side of the new modern road, with weeds poking through its thin old asphalt or maybe concrete surface and finally the surface giving up its hold over nature and allowing trees to push through its man made nature killing substances and reclaim what was rightfully theirs before the motor car came along and forced the widening of the double tracked rutted carriage road.

A sign warning me of a highly settled area precedes a lonely trailer park on the left side of the road, clotheslines flutter their hangers empty as they sway in the frigid breeze, red and black and blue pickup trucks are scattered about, a few snowmobiles lay untouched as they long for winters return in front of peoples houses, a few dirt bikes and children’s bicycles lay rusting about as they wait for summers vacation and muddy trails to unfreeze from winters wrath. I wonder about the folks who live there, are they poor, do they choose to live I confined quarters on the side of a highway their backyards facing the prying eye of a tourist in his Mercedes luxury car to poke fun at the poor unsophisticated country folk who don’t have the decency to have their own private back yards.

I can see it from miles away I know its coming but I hold on to my world, the world of bare-chested men, shirt tails flying in the wind as they mow their 3 acre lawns with John Deere riding mowers, I hold on to farm stands and vast fields of corn stalks and kids shooting bottles with the Ruger .22 rifle. But it was inevitable, city, suburbia, it hits you so fast, first with two lanes on each side of the small country road, then with high voltage power lines that remind me of Rosy the Robot on the Jetsons, then a car dealership with its massive lot of trucks and shiny cars with yellow price tags and large name of some unknown local person who made it big in the car sales business, names like Doan Dodge or Van Bortel Subaru, every town has them, and every person from the town gets a surge of joy when traveling o some random highway far away from home and someone pulls in front of them with a locally known car dealership tag keeping their license plate on. Then the fast food joints start and its all done with, gone is my rural fantasy, the litter starts, the gas stations with their similar facades neon signs and snack shacks, everything is on the go or on the run depending upon which brand you so choose, tons of brands, I pass a Super Stop and Shop, then I am in Greenfield, another industrial looking town, I might as well check out Northampton while I am down here, maybe they have some good record shops, I just got paid, I have some cash, Gas is cheap, at least this city on the edge of the wilderness is good for something.

Northampton is one of those towns that kids from fancy colleges like Williams College come from. The streets are all pedestrian friendly and they give you dirty looks if you drive to fast through them, everyone is hip, even the homeless people look as if they have some sort of style, the backpacker choose to unemployed begging style, everyone is nice, maybe it’s a cover up, maybe its because they are all rich, living in this ghetto free, enclave of yuppiedom. Just like I thought the town is made up of crate and barrel type stores that sell glass wares and other expensive yuppie things that middle class people only see in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens but never think of buying, who spends 200 bucks on a tea pot? Every store has some sort of declaration trying to prove their allegiance to the extreme left wing, as if it matters that the person who happened to blow the glass that made your $200 tea pot was not only a Bush hater but happened to support local organic farming and was an avid reader of Engel’s and Marx. Or that the person serving your biscotti and soy latte was a flaming PETA supporter, it doesn’t matter but to these people it does, it compares to non-Jews who have fruit stores in Boro-Park and keep them closed on shabbos, some kind of thing, it doesn’t matter but some people like it that way. I park my car at a one hour meter, deposit one dollar woth of quarters and leave to find me a record shop. This town is perfectly kept and in great shape, no ugly buildings exist, just old New England brick store fronts that have apartments above them. I eventually find the record shop I have pointed to by a women in a random art gallery I parked in front of, artists, yuppies, hippies, basically idealistic rich kids who happened to attend one of the 5or more colleges located within a 15 minute drive of here. UMASS is right down the road in Amherst, few towns like this exist outside the general vicinity of New York City, once you get upstate there are a few yuppie enclaves but they are not of this size, only Saratoga Springs comes to mind, and there its not even as yuppie, more wannabe yuppies who cant give up their Starbucks for fair trade coffees and love having that massive control what you read chain store otherwise known as Barnes and Nobles, that massive store full of books yet lacking of character and uniqueness that is never found in chain stores save for the clearance racks in Marshalls and TJ Maxx.

Down three flights of stares in some weird yuppie mall to a most glorious sight. Wall to wall records and CD’s greet my loving eyes, a bunch of weirdoes browsing through loads of vinyl and used CD’s, I am in my happy place, and all the CD’s are out of those big nasty cases allowing me the freedom of browsal that I so dearly need, happyess almost overwhelms me as I come to the realization that yuppies and the cultured crowd listens to obscure music promising sections full of rocking jazz, ethnic music and possibly some good punk rock. I am not let down, a huge jazz section awaits with me flicking through albums by Coleman, Porter, Coltrane, Davis, Hunter, Parker, Bruebeck, Jolsen, its wonderful hundreds of used albums free to listen, no screwing around with large cases and having some staff open them for you and complain when you want to listen to 30 albums at a time. My hands ache as I load up on jazz and klezmer, even some Arabic, some obscure indie rock and I am done. After over an hour I am out of the store $40 dollars or so poorer but with a wealth of music contained in a bunch of CD’s in a small white bag. I grab my car and pull a u-turn, I hear a pounding on the rear and notice that some angry pedestrian whom I hadn’t noticed hit the rear with his fist, giving me dirty looks for not having stopped by the small yellow signs standing on wood in the lightly colored crosswalk demanding all cars come to a halt when pedestrians are present, he looks at me and grins, I don’t care, middle fingers coming from me, I have all these brilliant CD’s sitting on top of a few atlases and cameras in my front seat.

I pull into a longer period meter on another main drag and throw some more quarters in. one hour and twenty six minutes, I need to find the other music store, I heard its on some corner, after searching all around the candy store folks tell me its down some stairs and it is, rather small I think to myself, but a quick survey reveals its size is fooling since it lacks vinyl and only has CD’s, tons of them once again out of those annoying protectorate cases, perfect, nothing like convenience to rape my wallet, but I am here willingly and definitely ready for round two, straight to the jazz section, jazz is hard to find in normal cities, any good quantity of used material that is, they have lots and its neat, mostly 5 to 8 bucks, decent though the steep 8 dollar price tag keeps me away from stuff I can find elsewhere, I need obscurity now. I have a fast forming stack and go to groove on it at a listening station. This store kept me much longer its smaller size made it extremely quick and easy to move around, and it had better selection, I love stores that lack the normal big sections of Led Zeplin and famous bands, having large sections for obscure bands like Dream Theater and Portishead or King Crimson and Madeski Martin and Wood.

I got out of the store and did me one of those quick- side of the car hope no one thinks I am nuts for talking to myself – minchas. The sun was setting quickly and I hopped in my car to try and catch its brilliance as it set, the sky was perfectly clear and the only clouds were those coming out of the few jets flying high above in the unlimited visibility skies. I opted for the interstate because I was tired, I munched on white chocolate covered caramel popcorn and drank some frozen water I had, I put some Arabic techno that I had just bought into my car stereo and started grooving to the thumping bass and soft sounds of some women with a high pitched voice singing God knows what in that mysterious language of Arabic. I wondered what she was saying as the bass started getting crazy and the Arabic violins were going nuts, I was totally grooving and bobbing my head as the sun disappeared below the horizon, leaving few pinkish redish hues in its absence.

In case you are wondering what I did buy in thiose record shops here is a list of what I bought.

Made in the Shade- interesting bop/rag time/ New Orleans style jumpy swing

2 Arabic dance music mixes

Jimmy Smith– Six views on the Blues – Jimmy is the best organ player ever

The Klezmatics– Rise Up – klezmer at its best

Symphony X– The Odyssey- progressive metal with an orchestra

Thelonous Monk– The Charm- technical jazz

Hiromi– Spiral – experimental piano jazz- she is brilliant I have two others of hers

Hypnotic Clambake– Square Dance Messiah – weird bluegrass

Joe Satriani– Strange Beautiful Music – one of the best guitarists rises again