Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Willow and Other Wonders

The Rifton Hotel

Red worms, catfish, snakeskins, wasps, bats, pickerel, beaver dams, burned autumn leaves, sleigh rides and lily pads.

These bits of Americana were, along with others, part of a year spent in rural New York state. The location, to be precise, was the Rifton Spanish-American Hotel and Country Club.

It loomed alongside a two-lane country road around the bend from which sat a tiny hamlet featuring a grocery story with a screen door that screamed at the springs when pushed open.

There was a giant, three-story hotel connected by a walkway between green lawns and towering maple trees, to a casino with bar and bandstand. A shady hill dropped down to a blackish-brown pond known as "The Lake."

There were rowboats on small, muddy beaches at the hill's end, and directly across the pond. It was not so much a pond or lake as the widening of a stream passing through the property and under a bridge where it continued its narrow journey as part of the larger Esopus Creek watershed.

Down the path over that bridge, toward the back of the property, was a sky blue swimming pool with many a patch job in evidence. Some fifty feet away was a "haunted house" that had lodged the resort's domestic help in better times, abandoned and vandalized.

Each of the singular elements surrounding the hotel - The Lake and pool, the casino, the bungalow where we lived - represented complex worlds to the eyes of a seven-year old boy bursting with curiosity and bloodlust. And these were augmented by other sections of the 100-plus-acre property. Distinct kingdoms of animal life and sap-thick richness to fully overwhelm the imagination of any child, at any age.

That single summer, for an able wordsmith and observer, offered enough stories to fill a book and perhaps, in later years with the wells of imagination and experience run dry, will lead to something like that. For now these select recollections must do as a list of all-star anecdotes in a long rank-and-file of remembrances.

One involves a willow tree. Perhaps 100 years ago, most American boys still inhabiting an undeveloped landscape, might hope to have their own, but by the late 1960s, the possibility had diminished.

But I had a willow.

It was a majestic thing that swung out over The Lake on the path down to the pool, just before the bridge that covered the creek. It's overall effect was that of a shelter. Only the slightest glimmers of sunshine on a hot summer day could spark through the thick roofing of olive-colored leaves. The branches drooped until they tickled the water's surface so that the tree marked a definite world, a micro-universe unique unto itself.

Fish liked the coverage as much as the seven-year old boy did. And if that weren't enough, through the rails of the plank fence and directly across the pathway was a six-foot parcel of much-turned soil riddled with reddish worms. These were the favorite food of the sunnies and catfish and carp that called the shady pool beneath the willow arcade home. It is almost a certainty that these fish, beneficiaries of a "never kill" policy, were caught repeated times by the little Indian who lorded over their inky universe.

My Willow in the background.
Still a child with childlike notions, I would leave behind a rod in the water with many worms writhing about the rusty hook, fully expecting a much larger fish to be caught upon returning; the logic being that the more time the line was submerged, the bigger the prey.

From the dark, dank, mostly unoccupied third story of the hotel, the pond's meatiest inhabitants could be seen suspended on a sunny day, and they remained, forever, desired quarry never to be captured.

The wormy trap left behind, the path led up to the hotel before which spread a gravel parking lot. It lay on a significant dip down from a driveway facing the front porch with its forty or fifty wicker-wound rockers. It featured a rusty barrel meant to serve as garbage pale, but doing dual duty as a strike-zone for long, conjured baseball games in which no hits were achieved by either the New York Yankees or one of their American League rivals.

Winding up and hurling the gravel at the barrel yielded either a strike - when it was hit - or a ball, and complete games of nine innings were unwound with the Yankees usually finding a little help into the winner's column from that boy's prejudiced arm.

Baseball was a reigning passion, but there was no television to speak of in "the country" at the time. Locals had elaborate, spidery antennae to draw a channel or two from New York City and a visit with them was a treat, although even they did not always get a "clean reception."

The New York Daily News was available from the grocer with the screaming screen door, but technology was such that it went to press without the outcome of an evening contest having been decided. "Yankees - Baltimore nt" the box score would read; code for night game with unknown result. The upshot was that it sometimes took three days to find out who won. Unless, of course, some guest from the city arrived with the news.

The hotel itself seemed terribly old and beyond the grasp of a juvenile's perception in terms of time and size. There was a wooden lobby at the center of the structure that might have been small but seemed enormous to someone no taller than four feet. There was an equally wooden staircase that fed the behemoth's two different wings with luggage carting arrivals.

Brown, mahogany, maroon and velvety are accents that force their way through the cobwebs of time altogether. The walls were stucco and furniture in the rooms slung simple iron loops, sinks of porcelain, and embellishments seemingly old beyond belief, but probably not so dated for anyone exceeding 20 years of age.

Some rooms had bathes, showers, and toilets, but those that didn't were served by a public facility down the hall. Another accent, a surviving accident, from a time gone by. My grandmother, ever economical, prepared the place for opening weekend by putting myself and the little sister to work painting walls.

She got what she paid for and couldn't have been more pleased with both the joy we took in our labors and their sloppy final result.

Musty and moldy, the hotel was also foreign, with its Puerto Rican chefs and scent of heavy cooking oil in the great timber and steel kitchen, its crossdressing waiters from Cuba, and its Spanish-inspired dishes. It was a world of people with accents and bilingual tics all of which would serve in accommodating us to the changing face of America for, exposed young, such things never seemed foreign at all.

The Author With His Sister in the Driveway.
There was a dining room that also impressed for its size, the number of tables and chairs, but most of all, for its light which poured in from the two walls of windows that met at a perpendicular angle and opened up onto the lovely green and wild vistas of the carelessly kept grounds.

Of course, the reality may have been something other, but renderings are pulled from the walls of memory erected in a harried human head.

My Parents managed the property in its waning days and to augment income they would contract with "jiras" or tour groups of Latins from inner city Manhattan who came up for the day to play congas, drink beer, be entertained by the salsa band at work in the casino before leaving a mess behind, and heading home again. Wild and intimidating and unkempt, they arrived with tough and uncouth children who lacked the kind of polish expected of ourselves or evidenced in the offspring of families who came to stay for one week or even two. But nothing bad ever happened and their presence served to plant further seeds of familiarity with a culture that would become partially our own.

There are many other components to the larger memory of that time and place. The bats that flew at night, the croaking of giant bullfrogs in the evening, giant wasps nests, the anxious preparations for the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day weekends.

There are specific personalities that include American rustics and south-of-the-border exotics, Manhattanite sophisticates, and a great giant St. Bernard that had to be banished from the place because of all the business he drove away with his unrestrained antics.

But nature, and two elements in particular, push their smells and features through 40years of time and forgetfulness.

Chronologically, we must start with the strawberries. Down the hill from the path connecting the hotel and the casino, past the cut and sloping lawn, were some dilapidated and worm-eaten wooden fences beyond which things began to grow wild before being halted by the stream meandering into The Lake.

Here were found wild strawberries not evident to the untrained eye, camouflaged by so much ground coverage, poison ivy, myrtle, but tiny, ripe, and plentiful in the earliest phases of spring. Down the hill we bounded with pails and into the natural garden we dove, alternately eating our catch and storing them for later failed experiments in preserve-making back at the cavernous kitchen. They were delicious and a source of marvel to young souls confronted with proof that out of the incongruous dirt something better than candy could be coaxed.

In the autumn the property, rich with trees, was covered in a carpet of flame-marbled leaves that had to be gathered up into great piles before being placed into the same barrel that served as a summertime batter's box, for burning.

With grandmother as field marshal, the rhythm was anything but harried and the job could take all day. There were leaves to be chased as they dropped dead from the spindly branches, tracked in whimsical circles until they fell into our hands or softly to the padded ground. There were piles, often moistened by grass and mud intermingled with the sheaves, that had to be broken with full body dives and spread about by writhing little limbs.

Halloween shadows were ever-present to our young imaginations, the country road beckoning for that dark night, when the jack-o-lanterns glowed with orange light, and the nipping winds and animal spirits commingled and converted cozy homes to haunted houses.

And then there was the burning of the leaves itself, the fixed stare at the crackly yellow fires, and the crisp smell that only people who lived in that time might still identify with copper autumn and the foreboding gray and snow-bleached winter following close behind.


F. Javier Llera said...

It's been a pleasure to read about the Rifton Hotel. This article brings me many cherished "memories".
This may sound strange for someone in his 40's living in the region of Asturias, in northern Spain, who has visited just twice New York City, and of course has never ventured in upstate New York State.
However, there is an explanation. The author's mother, herself a daughter of the couple of Asturian-born immigrants who revived the Rifton Hotel in the mid 1940's after purchasing it, was sent in her teens for one or two school years to Our Lady of the Assumption school in Gijón (Asturias), where she became classmate of my mother. In a trip to Asturias a few years ago, she was kind enough to hand to my mother a photocopy of the typewritten text of her memories, significantly entitled "THE RIFTON".
Last year I undertook to translate these memories into Spanish, for the benefit of my mother, and certainly for my pleasure as a reader.
I discovered there an exciting world of Spanish immigrants to New York, a story of determination in a rural American seeting, and above all a place profoundly marking their lives: The Rifton Hotel.
Helped by a few pictures from photographer Paul Perez, I could somehow imagine the atmosphere of the Rifton in the golden early days: the building itself, the lake where Manhattan ladies roamed in high heels, the dining room with views to the lawns and woods, the guests coming to the kitchen to congratulate the cook and present him with cigars, the casino for dancing and drinking,...
That's why I've very much enjoyed the author's account of stories from a time spent as a child in that magic place, the Rifton Hotel.

Rosemary Siciliano said...

Exactly as I remember it: vital and alive and musty and worn. So enormously present, yet with one foot in the past. An entrepreneurial American enterprise deeply infused with Spanish and Latino sound and flavor, color and spark.

Life at the Rifton Hotel emanated a unique rhythm, an offbeat cadence of life that can only be recalled, never recreated, even in its most universal elements: The ever persistent song of crickets in the night and the desultory dance of fireflies in an immense darkness. The tartly sweet jolt of wild strawberries in your mouth and the insufferably itchy penitence for their harvest, wrought by the slyest of poison ivies. The laughter of somehow familiar strangers, and the morning-after smell of spilled beer in the casino. Arroz con pollo. And the dance-worthy strains of the old upright piano floating seductively from the casino stage back to the hotel porch, where Pilar's grandchildren, my brother and me, rocked awkwardly in oversized Adirondacks. The broad red wooden armrests, had been scratched by guests, graffiti-style, to reveal the many other reds and oranges of the many years before. Often times we sang playfully as we rocked, “Yo te daré, te daré niña hermosa, te daré una cosa… una cosa que yo solo sé: café!”

At the Rifton, Carmen, the red-gowned Puerto Rican lead singer of a salsa band, would give you a quarter close to midnight if your tooth fell out. That way you could put it under your pillow after you made your way back to the hotel through the cool summer-night blackness and toward the porch lights. Sometimes a field mouse would scurry across your path, or the low muffled voices of couples murmuring, hidden among the trees, would usher you along. On a rainy day, Oreste the Cuban waiter might shake his booty to make you laugh while you played ping-pong and hoped for rice pudding at dinner. You could even retreat upstairs to your very own hotel room away from the guests (but not from the mosquitoes). Early in the morning and late at night you could listen, from atop a cozy old and ample ‘40’s style brass bed, to either a reveille of birdsong or a bullfrog lullaby. In the distance, or so it seemed, the kitchen staff bickered and barked in Spanish, clanging pots on stove. In the winter, all went dormant under the snow.

But during the summer, the season of las jiras, you could become invisible in the richness of all that was Rifton. Lost among the Latino families and merrymakers, a child would barely be noticed at the edges of the dance floor, rarely heard above the splashing of swimmers or the roar of the mower as it coiffed acre after acre of grass each week. Even the rowboats on the water passively commanded attention to themselves, their oars creaking in their rings, their sides thumping dully against the dock. Even so, if you needed to hide, the crawl space beneath the hotel porch offered a place where, for long stretches of time, you could peer out from between the woven slats without being revealed.

But most cloaking of all were the languid, hot and silent summer afternoons, so very still that time itself might have checked into the Rifton for respite, leaving nothing behind but the disharmonic hum of insects, a blonde boy and dark little girl collecting Coke bottle caps from the lawn for their allowance, and the almost imperceptible fluttering of a few impossibly graceful branches of an unforgettable willow.