Real Townies are always Home at the Fay Club 1.12.08

January 5, 2008


Fitchburg – Writer Sally Cragin presents “Real Townies Are Always Home,” a spoken word celebration of New England at the historic Fay Club, 658 Main Street, Fitchburg on Saturday, January 12, 2008. A traditional New England dinner will be served at 6 p.m. and the performance begins at 7:30 p.m. The menu includes New England Fish Chowder, Yankee Pot Roast with root vegetables, Apple Crisp with Ice Cream. The price is $29 which includes tax and gratuity. Reserve a seat by calling 978-345-4537.

“Real Townies Are Always Home” is an entertaining exploration of aspects of New England seldom considered such as the pink plastic flamingo (a native invention), boisterous visiting geese, town pounds, the winter beater, the dreaded-but-welcome plowman, canoeing by moonlight, the awesome snapping turtle and the soul-reviving qualities of a pond,” explains Cragin, an arts writer for the Boston Phoenix whose work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Yankee Magazine and many other publications.

“The star of “ Real Townies Are Always Home” is Hollis the Mountain Man. You know Hollis. He’s that guy with the flannel shirt drinking a cup of coffee and shaking his head. He’s the guy who never gets around to putting all his tools away so there’s always an engine block on the kitchen table. About once a year, everyone decides to participate in Tritown’s only sporting event, the totally random and unofficial String-Saving Cheap Yankee contest, to see who can show the most ingenuity or diabolical thriftiness with rubbish.”

SALLY CRAGIN writes for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix and has taught writing at Harvard Extension School, Webster University and Fitchburg Art Museum. She has performed “Real Townies” at numerous area historical societies, libraries and schools. Books and calendars are published by Llewellyn publications. She edits BUTTON, New England’s Tiniest Magazine of poetry, fiction & gracious living.

Fitchburg’s FAY CLUB is Worcester County’s preeminent city club since 1911. This three-story brick mansion was designed and built by Richard Michell Upjohn (1828-1903). The architectural design is an eclectic and unique blend of Italianate and Gothic styles. The interior of the Fay Club features elegant “Arts and Crafts” style workmanship. C. Howard Walker designed and painted the murals in the Fay Club’s main hall before founding the School of Fine Arts, Crafts and Decorative Design in Boston in 1913. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings,

To make a reservation, call 978 345-4537.
For more information about “Real Townies,” call 978-407-6482.


Christmas (2007)

December 25, 2007

Twas the night before Christmas and Hollis the Mountain Man was busy scraping the crud off some milk crates he was planning to give to Aunt Winnie. Her pantry shelves were sagging under the canned goods and he knew that some planks and crates would do the job. When he’d been in there earlier in the week he noticed the mice were back. A square of baker’s chocolate had been nudged from its carton, and one corner delicately nibbled.

Hollis turned the square over in his hand, marvelling at the precisely chiselled incisor imprints. Mouse crap was a real pain to find, but every now and then Mouse World and Human World would intersect. He’d yank open a file drawer in the barn, and find a perfectly amoebic nest constructed of chewed tax returns from 1947, threads from an oil-changing rag and sawdust. Never any mice. What made them decide to change houses? Winnie’s cat was a sagging, creaking, skeletal old tom cat who, if he chased mice, chased them only in his mind as he dozed on the newspapers in the enclosed porch.

Perhaps a couple of mousetraps would be a good gift to include. Winnie was raised in a less-emotionally taxable generation and had no problem disposing of “the vermin.” Hollis, given the choice, would always let a mouse go free. A boyhood with a BB gun had disposed of any hunter urges.

As for his own festivities, he’d dragged in a tree and draped some colored twinkle lights on it. His presents lay waiting for Christmas morning. Some Christmas eves it snowed hard, and he was trapped in the Mountain Lair for a day or so. Nothing wrong with that. He was a reliable soul and along with his regular gifts to his parents (a new appliance to replace whichever one had finally gone), his friend Delia Ellis Bell (shrunken sweaters from Salvation Army ready for felting), and Lorencz the Hermit (extra cordwood on the porch for Lorencz to “appropriate” for his own home, an abandoned schoolbus in the woods), Hollis always knew what Hollis needed. And so a square carton of Pilsner Urquell, a bottle of Laphroig and a sheaf of scratchers awaited him Christmas morning. A ridiculous, preposterous outlay of cash, given that Tritown Ale was a third the price and scratch tickets were definitely sinful. But why not indulge when Christmas comes but once a year?

Gift Rapt (Dec. 1997)

December 19, 2007

I’m trying to put these up in the order that they were written, but this one is useful because it has the whole gamut of characters referenced in one place. I had story arcs for everyone except Hollis (whose life was never in danger of changing, really).
Tritown makes time for the present
‘Twas the week before Christmas and Tritown was shopping for family and friends and the dog’s Christmas stocking; the smart ones have finished and wrapped all their stuff but most of ’em feel that too much ain’t enough . . .

Hollis the Mountain Man’s Seasonal Affective Disorder always takes a break around the Yule season, coming back with a vengeance on New Year’s Eve. He is always pleasantly surprised by this “cessation from hostilities,” as Delia Ellis Bell the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable great-great-grandmother) put it.
Of course, he still regards Christmas celebrations as mostly humbug and grudgingly buys presents for his small circle, but during the holidays he enjoys touring the old mill neighborhoods of Tritown. The cottages are fantastically decorated, and he relishes estimating what the monthly electricity bill might be (schadenfreude being an animating instinct for Hollis).
Still, a well-timed application of fantasy could nudge him out of his Scroogey attitude. Delia always enjoyed finding out what Hollis would really like for Christmas. After all, she thought, he’s like a Zen-master most of the year anyway — what do you get a man who wants nothing?

HOLLIS MAKES A POINT of saying he doesn’t need anything, but his list is actually quite long: new points for the truck; another pair of workboots, because the current pair is beyond Shoe-Goo; a new frying pan; dimmer switch for the bedroom alcove. Chances are, he’ll get a turtleneck sweater knitted out of some kind of oiled wool that itches for the first several months. When he finally begins to break it in, he usually takes pity on Lorencz the Hermit, who looks seedier than ever, so he passes on last year’s Christmas sweater to the madman in the woods. And then mildly envies his comfortable, broken-in old sweater.
Lorencz the Hermit can never concentrate on anything for very long, but when he’s asked by Hollis what he wants for Christmas, all he can think of is that he wants the damn government to put the Unibomber’s 13-by-13-foot cabin back-where-the-hell-it-was! Whodotheythinktheyare? . . . He also wants a cease fire from some of his more dark and menacing dreams but since he refuses Hollis’s offer to take him to the VA to have his medication readjusted, this will not happen. He will receive, of course, Hollis’s Christmas sweater.
Delia Ellis Bell wants a solitary hejira on a bike in some warm, flat country. But as she’s done nothing to enable these dreams to come true, she’ll have a treat when she drives north to Outlet Town to pick out new flatware.
Andre the Lumberjack (and occasional mountain bicyclist) wants and will receive a replacement chain for his saw. He also wants the deer to go nibble someplace other than where his landscaping clients live, but this isn’t likely — the perils of having a green thumb and hands are great.
Felix the Urban Naturalist wants and receives birdseed, thistleseed (for the spring finches), and a crate of seedbells for the chickadees. He wants but does not receive a visit from the California Condor.
Ozzie the Wiz, Tritown’s resident sage and expert, is hoping for a home subscription to Britannica Online but is willing to settle for a copy of the 1998 World Almanac. He wants these things because he’s a “busman’s holiday” kind of librarian; he uses them all day at work and wants to have ’em around when he’s at home, too.
Ward the Winger, Tritown’s pond-hockey pro, wants peace on Earth, goodwill toward men, smooth ice, and a chance to hip-check his old nemeses, Whitey and Bob LeBlanc, into another galaxy when the Tritown Senior Men’s Tourney happens next month. He will get his wish.
Hollis’s Aunt Winnie, locally famous fly fisher and cottage crafter, wishes she’d catch that big old trout lurking in the bottom of Picture Pond. She saw it last summer, and she promises the Almighty that aside from a little less creakiness in her joints, that’d be fine. Unlike most old gals who receive housecoats, slippers, and lavender-scented soap, her family knows her well-enough to give her badly needed new hip waders.
At Happy’s Coffee & Qwik-Stop (Coffee, Doughnuts, and lottery tickets, not in that order), proprietor Happy wishes that once — just once — someone would win a sum larger than $20 from a scratch ticket bought at his place. He also wants that someone to be him but, as things turn out in 1998, it isn’t. His daughter, $erena the Waitress, wants a number of things: a leopard-pattern catsuit, a gift certificate for a year’s worth of tanning-booth visits, a new transmission, some kind of significant piece of jewelry from her longtime on-and-off boyfriend, Hasky Tarbox, that isn’t made of cubic zirconia — or heads will get ripped. But, in the cold light of reality, if her aunt gets her the Estée Lauder 40-piece cosmetic gift box and tote bag she’d be wicked psyched.
At the Tarbox Automotive (“Collisions? A Specialty”), Old Man Tarbox wishes the doctor would stop telling him to stop smoking, eating red meat, and drinking scotch, but since the Missus is willing to supervise he’ll get what she wants, which is another Christmas without an Emergency Room visit. The Tarbox seniors want and will receive a long weekend gambling Hasky Jr.’s inheritance at Mohegan Sun, and they will enjoy every last minute.
Hasky Tarbox, Jr. wants a plane ticket so he can go to Las Vegas for the Elvis Presley Impersonator Convention. He also wants to get beyond third base with $erena the Waitress. He’ll get one of his wishes.

And if you run out of wrapping paper, do what Hollis the Mountain Man usually does. “Aluminum foil is damn festive,” he asserts. “And you can make a very nice bow out of it, too!”
Sally Cragin would like some nicely timed snow days for the holidays.

The Townie Introduction (1997)

December 12, 2007

(This is early 1997, I think. I am more guilty every year of the “townie introduction.” Also, I’ve left in the sidebar about Marcella Stasa because this year I finally bought the full-on year subscription to Miniature Art, and it’s completely wonderful, and highly recommended.)

Shake hands and smile
Some townies don’t know each other — and don’t want to. Also, a tour of Miniature Art.
by Sally Cragin
Residents of Tritown seldom have the opportunity to meet someone new, because nearly everyone is related, if not by blood then by employment history or a shared school past. Hollis the Mountain Man is the least sociable denizen of Tritown, yet he’s frequently persuaded by his father and mother to appear at local gatherings. “To swell the headcount,” says his mother, a political maven on both town and state levels.
One afternoon, when the sun is warm, he sits on the porch facing the lake with Delia Ellis Bell the Partial Yankee (there was a questionable great-great-grandmother). Hollis tells her his mother recently commanded him to appear at a dinner to benefit a local river clean-up. He only agreed to attend because flannel shirt and dungarees were an acceptable costume for an environmental event. Delia wanted to hear gossip, but all Hollis could talk about were his father’s well-meaning but awkward attempts to acquaint him with various attendees.
(The `Townie Introduction’ is a specialized formality, usually containing a dissertation’s worth of background information, extraneous genealogy, and footnoted asides.)
Hollis begins, “My Dad actually introduced me to an old geezer with this phrase: `Hollis, you remember Mr. Fogarty, who used to go hunting with your Uncle Wilton? Well, his daughter is the step-cousin of Mr. Flinty here, whose wife used to work at the handcrafts table at the Hospital Fair with your mother.’ Then Mr. Fogarty — or Mr. Flinty, I was really confused by this time — held out his hand and smiled and said, `Hollis, I knew your brother, Mason, better than you, because he used to come cut the grass at my sister Frances’s place. But then, of course, I used to see your Dad at the Honorable Brotherhood of Moose barbecue in the summer.'”
“Your eyes must have glazed over,” Delia says. “So who was the old geezer, anyway?”
“Dunno,” Hollis shrugs. “I just shook hands and smiled, like Ma told me to. But that wasn’t the worst of it.”
“Oh really,” says Delia. “Do tell . . . ”
“Well,” Hollis begins haltingly. “There was this kind-of attractive woman there — unfortunately, completely, obviously married,” he supplies.
“Howdja know?” asks Delia.
“Well, a big clunker on the relevant finger,” he continues. “Plus, when she heard my name, she said, `Oh, my husband went to school with your brother, Mason, and my cousin Muffin has a summer-house on The Point where your uncle Webster and aunt Winnie live.'”
Hollis fiddles with his fraying shirtcuff. Formal socializing tends to leave him with an emotional hangover, and he has small capacity for meeting new faces, even appealing female ones.
“Oh, well,” Delia says. “Maybe if she becomes available, you’ll at least know how to track her down.” Then the other shoe drops. “`Muffin’?!” she cackles. “I didn’t know Webster and Winnie, the consummate Granite State pair, actually crossed paths with preppy swells . . . ”
“They don’t!” he insists. “Webster and Winnie live near the same bass-crammed lake in New Hampshire they’ve lived near for 40 years. It’s the preppy swells who cross paths with them!”
“Well, you don’t have to yell!” she barks irritably. For a moment, all is silent at the Mountain Lair. Delia and Hollis sit on the front porch, watching a breeze ripple the newly melted pond.
Most of the snow has melted, but patches remain in the shady areas. Overhead, birds twitter companionably, and the spring sun warms the earth, prompting a rich aroma of humus to waft about the Mountain Lair. Hollis speaks first. “I hate parties,” he grumbles. “The people you already know, you met already, and the other people you’re never going to see again, so what’s the point?”
“Hollis,” Delia says, with an edge in her voice. “Your mother manages to persuade you into the social arena about twice a year, which is a tiny percentage of your time, really.”
He thinks for a moment, and then exhales loudly. “Yeah, that’s true. No matter how social she gets, there’s a limit. And, eventually, Mason and Sunshine’s Tots will grow up, and she can get them to go to parties.”
“A perfect plan,” says Delia, and then snickers softly. “`Muffin’ and the Mountain Clan — what a pairing.” Hollis shoots her a poisonous look, and she diplomatically changes the subject. “Uh, Hollis? Didn’t I see a tray of goodies from that party in your fridge? Ham salad “bunwiches,” three-bean salad, and coconut tea-cake? Feel like having a snack?”
“Might as well,” he says, bounding to his feet. “I got so nervous at that party, I just kept stashing food for later.”
“And you call yourself an amateur partygoer,” chides Delia good- naturedly, leading him back to the kitchen.

Small is beautiful for the recipients of Upton-based artist Marcella Stasa’s unique “Miniature Art of the Month Club.” For the past dozen years, she has constructed, packaged, and mailed charming — and tiny — works of art to subscribers. One month recipients might get a dried leaf, inked and waxed, that’s been crocheted around the edges. Another month might bring an “installation” constructed of wire, shells, chamois cloth, and ink no bigger than a matchbox.
At the end of a year, one has an exhibit of tiny masterpieces, all linked thematically or by material. “I’ll create something that is a miniature `space,’ so that if you were a mouse, you could enjoy it,” says the artist. “Part of what I want to convey is a sense of intimacy and magic — even ethereal.”
Stasa’s work has been exhibited at a variety of galleries, studios, and museums, and she is the recipient of numerous state and foundation grants. She is one of the rare artists who supports her art — with other art.
For the past 13 years, Stasa has been running Miniature Art as an adjunct to her principal occupation as a ceramicist (her whimsical clay animals are on sale in Cambridge (Cambridge Artist’s Coop, and Suzie’s Gallery), Rockport, and in studios in San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere. She mails Miniature Art of the Month all over the country.
“I want my hand in every one,” she says. “Telling people why art is important is hard, because it may not be as important as feeding your kids, but feeding your mind is important. I feel that’s what I teach people to do — open up their minds.”
For more information, send an SASE to: Miniature Art, 211 North Street, Upton 01568.

Murder Those Crows (1996)

December 7, 2007

Birds of a feather mock together; farewell to Hedley Bray

(The newspaperman referenced is my late father, Donald H. Cragin. I’m amazed reading all this ancient copy at the headlines I wrote. I have minimal memory of writing these particular columns — Tales rampaged on for seven years — but some of the triggers that occasioned them — being awakened by crows — are still accessible)

For the past week or more, Hollis the Mountain Man has been awakened by the deafening cacaphony of crows roosting in a tree he calls “Old Man Butternut.” The crows swoop in before dawn, and begin their morning caws, squawks, calls, cries, shrieks, and general avian badinage. Morning birds aren’t unusual — what’s striking about this crowd is that there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them. One morning, he counted 30 on the Old Man, and that’s not counting the ones roosting on neighboring trees. “It’s really alarming,” he reports, “They surround the house. They roost on the topmost branches like little Dickensian undertakers, and they’re constantly rearranging themselves, and making the branches sag.”

Like the passing hearse, or anticipated thunderstorm, crows have a strange and at times unsettling effect on their fellow bipeds. H.D. Thoreau, who enjoyed observing birds because of the insights they provided into his own character, was most perplexed by the crow, and his “singular wild and suspicious ways.” He wrote in 1860, “You will see a couple flying high as if about their business, but lo, they turn and circle and caw over your head again and again for a mile; and this is their business, — as if a mile and an afternoon were nothing for them to throw away. This even in winter, when they have no nests to be anxious about. But it is affecting to hear them cawing about their ancient seat which the choppers are laying low.”

Fortunately for the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), he invariably survives the disruption of his nest. This is one highly adaptable bird, undoubtedly more numerous now than when European settlers first arrived, and one which occupies virtually the entire North American continent. For the most part, Hollis the Mountain Man, has resigned himself to living with crows. “Between roadkill and trash, they’re well taken care of here,” he sighs, and agrees with Thoreau that the ways of the crow are mysterious. “Sometimes I’ll see hundreds of them in a tree for quite a while and then they’ll rise up en masse and land on the next tree over. And the other day I saw a solitary one sitting on a railing on a bridge. It opened its beak, and I expected to hear this c-a-a-a-w, but instead it made this beautiful burble — I guess they can mimick other birds if they want to.”

And if they’re determined, they’re not easily deterred. Crows can gather in roosts of more than half-a-million birds and can be wildly destructive to crops and agriculture. One winter, hundreds of thousands of crows descended on a suburb of Springfield, and the noise and environmental befouling drove the residents wiggy. But infestations of crows are just a sidebar to increased suburbanization. When you remove the understory of trees, songbirds and smaller species lose their habitat while omnivorous, larger breeds proliferate. And once installed, crows are difficult to dislodge. Felix’s downstairs neighbor, a vigorous octagenarian, made frequent forays onto her porch armed with a frypan and spoon. “She was banging away and yelling at the crows to make them leave,” recalls Felix. “But they just seemed amused at all the noise she was making, and screamed with laughter all the louder.”

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife does what it can to regulate the rogue corvid population — for hunters, there’s no bag limit on crows, and open season is nearly year-long. But, from all reports, eating crow is not just a distasteful metaphorical exercise.

When two-time Fitchburg mayor Hedley Bray began his political career, it was the 1950s, and the English-born farmer worked a piece of land just past Westminster’s Old Mill. He also had a farmstand near the newly-built Route 2, and one retired newspaperman recalls: “He became something of a character at the farmstand — people would go to buy corn and listen to him discourse. He had a lot of socialist ideas, and at the same time, he had a column in the Fitchburg Sentinel ‘Farmer Bray Says…’ Before long, people were saying, ‘Why don’t you run for office?’ and he said, ‘Gee, what a grand idea!'” Bray was also famous for stripping to the waist at any opportunity — residents who went to harvest parades in the 1950s remember Bray standing knee-deep in corn on the back of a haywagon with a big “Farmer Bray” sign hurling ears to the eager crowd.

The newspaperman continues: “During Bray’s second term, there was one of those typical north county winter snowstorms — you know Fitchburg, being in a valley surrounded by hills, what the snow accumulation is like. Well, people were outraged because it hadn’t been plowed. Hedley’s answer was: ‘God put it there. God will take it away.’ You see, he didn’t want to spend the money on snow removal. After you spend the money — you don’t get anything for it. He was very difficult if you were a city department head, and he was famous for driving school superintendants to complete distraction — he’d show up and raise hell at committee meetings, or not show up at all. But if you went along with him, roads were tarred and paved in your ward.”

Bray’s second mayoral term was in the 1970s, and for his 70th birthday, he posed for a picture for the front page of the Sentinel again, stripped to the waist. “He was a canny guy,” says the newspaperman, “But along with cannyness, went callowness.” Still, Bray had one of the more remarkably varied political careers in the north county, serving on the city council and as a councilor-at-large. He passed away last month at the age of 88, and it’s a shame Sinclair Lewis had to miss this career.

Sally Cragin wonders why you never find cardinal feathers on the forest floor.

Automobiliaphila (1996)

December 6, 2007

(2007: This is a piece I do when performing “Tales” live. Some details have changed with the passage of time, such as that insurance thing — you’re not allowed to switch policies the way Hollis has.)
Hollis the Mountain Man ponders love and the winter rat

For the first time in the many years we’ve been acquainted, Hollis the Mountain Man is not running a “winter rat.” Here in New England, where the snow, and the state-sponsored salt corrodes us all, automobiles have an impressively shortened life. A winter rat (also known as a “beater”) is usually a big six cylinder American-made car like Chevy, Ford, or Dodge. A wide wheel wheel base is preferable for weight on the ice), you can put your “real” car on blocks for the season, and drive the rust-bucket with impunity. As recently as the 1980s, one could pick up, say, a ’70s Nova for two hundred bucks, insure it for another two hundred and laugh as the salt rotted the floor beneath your feet. What the hey — it was only for the winter months.

Hollis was the longtime champ of the winter rat derby. His collection of Chilton manuals was unrivalled, and his rats were bigger, more hulking, with more weird engine pinging. He’d find them by the side of the road, deep in New Hampshire through the WantAdvertiser (the Tritownie book of psalms), or somehow, in an automotive version of destiny, the car would find him. Of course these clunkers would break down, seize up, develop an settling shimmy at 17 miles an hour, but he’d just get another one. Wasn’t that the point of the winter rat?

“My recommendation now,” says Hollis with the prim zealotry of the newly converted, “is that you save throughout the year, and in the fall, buy a new one. When you buy a $1000 winter rat, and insure it for $300, by the end of December, you have a $1300 investment that doesn’t run. Don’t forget — cars never break down in the summer. It always happens with three feet of snow, at minus ten with a 30 mile an hour wind out of the north. At night.”

“You sound sadder than wiser about this,” I say. “What about your “fun” cars — the VW
Thing, the Volvo, the Yugo, the Bel Air, the DeSoto, the schoolbus you were going to buy, convert to a trailer-home and park in the woods and live for free?”
“Dreams of youth,” sighs Hollis, meditatively warming his calloused fingertips around
a Syracuse mug filled with coffee as thick and as dark as three-year-old crankcase oil. His eyes crinkle a bit at the corners, but his thin lips are smoothly set. Won’t get fooled again, as the band of our youth says.
The practical problems with running a winter rat in this state have finally overwhelmed the pleasures. Used to be, you could transfer your registration from your winter rat to your summer rat. Now when you stop insurance, you have to bring the plate in. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m not insuring this for summer ’cause it’s my winter rat,'” explain Hollis regretfully.

Currently Hollis drives a Japanese pick-up truck. It’s brown, it’s two years old, it has some dented fenders, and he never has to think about it. Even when he got rammed anonymously in a parking lot, he didn’t gripe for more than a week. “My luck with cars mirrors my luck with romance,” he muses. “The less attention I pay to it, the better it is. The more I care about it — well, that guarantees disaster.” But surely it must be a pleasure to drive a vehicle that fires up every time you insert the key and doesn’t have distressing mechanical failures like doors coming off hinges or rear-view mirrors detaching.

“I’m totally indifferent to this truck. It was bought for practical reasons only,” he says
serenely. “I have lost interest in love and cars. I can’t afford either anymore.”

The real reason for Hollis’s disaffection for cars is less complicated and completely
unexpected. They break on him. He has the alltime worst luck when it comes to making a vehicle go when he wants it to. Which is utterly perverse because he hails from a family of scientists and handymen, theorists and tinkerers. He can diagnose a car problem quicker than Click or Clack, and without the damn sarcasm either. Felix the Urban Naturalist was having trouble with his Ford — on sub-zero days, the car would take longer to warm up, and then mysteriously conk out on the road. “Could be carburator icing,” says Hollis authoritatively. “Or the heat riser valve. When the engine is cold, it’s supposed to control the flow of warm air from exhaust manifold to carburator to allow proper mixing, also to allow de-icing and maintain a temperature that keeps gas from condensing on the cylinder wall. The way you can tell about that, water in the fuel filters begins to ice up.”

At this point, my contact lenses shift on my eyeballs and the world turns misty. Car talk
always makes me nervous — it’s flirting with disaster. “Most of the people I know spend $300 to a grand on a car, slap some tires on, pour gunk in the radiator to seal the leaks. If I do that, I get nothing but problems, but the minute I give a car to a friend, it runs perfectly and they drive it for the next two years.” A few years back, Hollis and his friend Andre the Lumberjack were scouting out a lot, and Andre noticed an orange Volvo sedan with tiger stripes and more than 100k on the odometer. Hollis, for once, didn’t buy anything, “but Andre offered what amounted to the change in his pocket for the Volvo, and ended up driving it back and forth across the country. I tell you, I have no luck with cars.”

Hollis’s automobiliaphilia reached a peak in the mid-1980s. “I went through five cars in a single year — a Renault Fuego, a Pinto hatchback, a vw thing, a Volvo stationwagon and a Toyota celica — a ’76, the best year for those. I received five excise bills from the town, and the registry had no clue what car I had on the road. Neither did my insurance company — they were always three cars behind. So they lost track of the excise, and when it finally caught up to me eight years later, I paid all kinds of penalties, and ultimately, for a couple of these cars, much more than I’d paid for them in the first place.” Sadder but not necessarily wiser, indeed. For Hollis, there are certain cars that are the ur-vehicles, which he covets. His favorite cars share certain features like rounded design lines, curved rear windows, big round bumpers. Late ’40s Desotos, most ’50s Chevies, the more bulbous the better. All we had to see was the rounded top of a deux cheveaux or the squat profile of a mid-’60s Volvo, to say, “Cute. A Hollis the Mountain Man car.”

“Most guys have a thing for muscle cars — ’70s sports cars with hardtops, like the kind your brother likes.” Indeed, my brother went through a prolonged infatuation with Chargers, GTOs, Mustangs, and, the sharklike trophy of Detroit’s pre-oil embargo design squad: the Challenger. Of course, he usually had some rustiferous, clanking metal beast as well. For the winter.

Nowadays, Hollis acts as hands-on Bodhissatva for his friends’ automotive difficulties.
Like his pal Rollo the Late Shift Laborer, who has driven a Yugo since the Bush
administration. “Now that car’s fine for him, because he’s driving it,” says Hollis. “If I bought that car, the steering wheel would have come off in my hands, the heater switch crumbled to dust against the dashboard, and the seat would have bucked through the floor and thrown off sparks against the road. But if anything goes wrong, Rollo just brings it up here and I fix it. It’s when I fix things of my own, that they get worse. Like, I got my Rambler–” (a hulking sedan, with a sinister chrome grin) “–and it had frozen brakes. So I put in a new master cylinder, turned the drums, checked it all. And now none of ’em brake. That’s just the way it is.”I went from two brakes functioning some of the time to no brakes working ever. At least you can move the damn thing now — you can roll it. I move it around the driveway to give the false impression that I’ve taken it out for a spin.”

Hollis warms to his subject, filled with the righteousness of the prophet of his time, equating the quixotic forces of love and cars. “Everything I’ve loved has left its scar, like the car I loved the most, Babs, the ’56 Bel Air.” We remind him of his caveat never to name cars unless you intend to put them on blocks, remove the engine and grow sunflowers in the hood cavity, and he shakes his head ruefully. “Babs, I loved, and on a cold and blustery night, that car went into a wall, threw me through the door, and then pissed gasoline all over me. And 11 years later, the three ribs she so lovingly broke in this accident have never healed. Now I have pains along both sides of my chest as I reach geriatric age. Not quite in the right place for heartache, but damn close. Car ache.”

Ice Sage (from 1996)

December 4, 2007


Ice Sage
Tritown goes into the deep freeze

by Sally Cragin

Hollis has to dig out his truck again, so Delia walks over to the
Mountain Lair to provide moral support. “In the summer, I try to
imagine what it was like here 10,000 years ago,” he huffs,
shovelling snow onto a heap bigger than a Saxon burial mound.
“God, I hope I don’t have a heart attack doing this,” he huffs.
“This has been the winter of the snow-shovelling heart seizure
and the Ethan Frome-style sledding accident.” Delia walks around the
back of his truck and kick ice from the wheel well. “That’s good,
I always forget about that,” says Hollis, “Well, as I was saying,
I stand in the back woods and look up, and try to imagine the top
of the Wisconsinian ice sheet that would be a mile above my
head. And after a month like January, continental glaciation
doesn’t seem unlikely or exotic.”

To date, we’ve had nearly enough snow to bury a basketball hoop,
and there’s plenty of winter to go. So the residents of Tritown
muddle through another snow season comforted by small and humble
fantasies: a warm coat, a reliable plowman, and squirrel-free
birdfeeders. Once the Christmas wreath comes down, the only
decoration on the porch is a stack of snow shovels, and the whine
of a snow-blower haunts our dreams.

After the first storm, Hollis considered buying a snowplow
attachment for his truck. “Of course, they were wicked cheap in
the WantAdvertiser last summer,” he explains, “but who’s going to
buy a plow in July? I’m checking out the prices now, and once
again, it’s out of reach.” Already, I can tell the winter will be
long and difficult because after the 15-inch storm, Hollis bought
himself a pair of ital[new] insulated gloves. (Townies buy new
clothes if they’ve won a pool, or if the weather is
serious). He’s still debating about the snowplow. “If I get
it, I’ve got to be realistic about going into business with it,
which means being ital[out there] in all weather. Plus, I’ll have
to get “fogcutters” for the top of the truck, and be willing to
answer my phone.” Chances are, he won’t buy the snowplow. Hollis
has a terrible time accepting money for services rendered, and
usually does business by barter.

“I’ve already got some elderly relatives I shovel out when I can,
and if I had a plow, my obligations would increase ten-fold,” he
says. “Maybe I should just get a new jacket.” Hollis likes down,
the bigger and loftier the better, though his current coat is
worn nearly flat and patched with silver duck tape. Every time he
puts it on, clouds of silky feathers squirt from every frayed
seam. But he’s been pricing down jackets, “and they’re asking two
bills, and I [know Salvation Army will have some good ones,”
he says. “But not til June.”

Unlike Hollis, Delia Ellis Bell the 13.5-generation Yankee cannot
abide down in any wearable form. “A comforter’s one thing, but I
really loathe the look of a ‘mummy bag’ coat.” To combat the
cold, Delia adds layers faster than did the Carboniferous Era.
Silk and cotton undergarments, two turtlenecks, a thin wool
sweater, a bulky, Irish-knit sweater, a hunter’s reversible vest,
and finally a wool duffel-coat, and assorted wool wrappings. She
swears by the hunter’s vest.

“I found it up in the attic,” she says. “It must have belonged to
one of the ancestors, since we don’t hunt. This odd vest has a
red side for deer-hunting, and a green side for duck-hunting. The
pocket has a strip of elastic webbing sewn in segments so there
are slots for shotgun shells. Interestingly, the slots are the
perfect size for lipstick, lipbalm, and a perfume atomizer.” She
laughs, “I can still be dressed to kill without having to carry a

Felix the Urban Naturalist doesn’t mind down, but knows it isn’t
always enough even for the birds. In cold weather, he puts extra
sunflower seeds out for the chickadees, and adds water to the
bird bath. “With all the precipitation, you’d think the birds can
get enough water, but when the weather is below-freezing for
several days, they’re in tough shape,” he says.

Back in the woods, Hollis the Mountain Man seldom remembers the
water, but at long last, he has the edge on the squirrels. If you
visit the Mountain Lair, you’ll notice the trees festooned with
genuine squirrel-proof feeders: a two-liter pop-bottle with a
seedbell hanging beneath it. “They’re easy to make,” he gloats.
“I saved up my two-liter 7-Up bottles, took an awl, and put two
holes in the bottom of each bottle. Then, you push the ends of a
30-inch piece of twine down each hole, so the ends come out the
neck, then tie a washer around them, so the twine doesn’t
disappear back into the bottle. The seedbell clips onto the twine
on the bottom of the bottle, and the washer is hung on a nail
from a tree.

“The trick is hanging the bottle so that squirrels can’t possibly
leap to it from any part of the tree, nor from the ground,” he
says. “I use the 7-Up bottles because they’re green, and kind of
pretty once you take the labels off.” Hollis has half-a-dozen
bottles hanging from his trees, and the effect is either charming
or hideous, depending on your aesthetic. (Hollis isn’t entirely
anti-squirrel, despite this wood-shed engineering. A delta of
flung bread-crusts, pizza rinds and stale cereal surround the
front stoop.) “Winter’s hard on everyone,” he says
philosophically. “And this ‘un’s a long ‘un.”

I’m back

December 4, 2007

For years, I wrote Tales From Tritown for the Worcester Phoenix. When the paper folded in 2001, I missed Hollis the Mountain Man, Delia Ellis Bell the Partial yankee (there was a questionable great great grandmother) and the other characters. I began the colunn after living in LA and years in Boston. So north Worcester county was a culture shock. I may just upload columns, but we’ll see…It’s different when you’re not getting PAID to write!!