The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Busking and Back September 7, 2015

Never let it be said that we don’t live a rich life. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself on account of our meager monetary situation, I have to step back and pause for a moment to remind myself of the bigger picture. True, we may not have a lot of money, but Elihu and I are rich in life experiences. For one, my son gets the advantage of two homes. In one situation he gets to enjoy a bit of road life with his musician father as well as a bustling household with two younger siblings and a crazy little dog . And when he’s here, he enjoys a nice mix of town and country living. We’ve come to know so many disparate sub-cultures in our life here, and better still – we’ve come to feel at home in all of them. From the down and dirty local animal auction house to the tony happenings in town, we’ve been lucky to get an inside look at it all.

Recently Elihu busked on the crowded streets of Saratoga. He sounded great (as usual) but better still got the chance to play with some other musicians. Many times I looked up to see him laughing in pure bliss. He was in the midst of some real action; he’d chosen a couple of very good nights to be out and playing. There were street musicians and performers taking up every niche and corner, and the sidewalks were absolutely filled with every manner of human being. The well-appointed racing crowd and the tattooed bikers, the young, leggy college girls and ancient, shuffling men, even young parents pushing strollers with sleeping young children draped over their shoulders. Bentleys and Maseratis trolled the streets, dogs and pet pigs walked the strip and the air was filled with sounds bouncing in from all directions. (When walking past a hot rod Elihu remarked ‘nice car’ to which its owner replied ‘nice mom’. I explained that while a few years ago I might have taken offense at the fellow’s remark, these days it was something of a treat to know I wasn’t completely invisible as I often feel these days.)

After several hours of playing, Elihu and I decided to head home sometime around midnight. We walked back to our car, which was parked behind a friend’s home just two blocks from Broadway, an incredibly valuable parking spot in the bursting tourist town. A full moon illuminated our walk through the alley. The scent of lingering phlox blossoms hung in the air, while the first sunflowers of late summer had already begun to bloom. Now the only sound we could hear was a chorus of invisible crickets. Only moments earlier we’d heard the acoustic assault of the street; the constant chatter of people milling about, street performers, loud, drunken people calling to each other over the crowds, and cover bands from almost every venue competing for airspace, their music ricocheting back and forth between the buildings on narrow Caroline Street. We’d seen a man throwing up in the middle of the road, we’d seen more than a few drunken woman come crashing down from their five inch heels onto the pavement, and we’d seen every manner of human – from homeless souls hunkering down in the shadows to handsomely dressed couples, women topped with the finest in modern millenery creations. The alley we walked down seemed almost like a dream in the wake of it all. “It’s so hard to believe that all that noise is completely gone now. Just a minute ago we were in it, and now, look, listen… Can you believe it?” Elihu said. He was thinking just like me. Yeah, I agreed, it was pretty mind-blowing. “Here we are almost in the country! We went from the city to the suburbs in only minutes!” he continued. “Yeah” I agreed, “and just wait ten more minutes, and we’ll really be in the country.”

As we turned onto our road, the full moon shone over the big field, and once again we were both floored by the almost immediate contrast between environments. Coming home is all the more precious on the heels of such chaos. Oh, and his take? Elihu made a cool $106. American Pharoah, the celebrity horse that everyone had staked their hopes on might not have made the big bucks as expected, but my little horse rode home a winner.

IMG_0068The county fair was also a highlight of the past couple weeks…. The Dekalb corn sign reminds me of my previous life in that small town of the same name (and yes, the variety of corn is also from that same Midwestern town).

IMG_0071Seriously? Sigh. And the next car sported a sticker that read “Drop Warheads of Foreheads”. Ich.

IMG_0072Kindred of that scary, ‘warheads on foreheads’ group, no doubt. How long will this close-minded, hateful thinking continue?

IMG_0075One kind of horse in action…

IMG_0078…and another.

Always a loud affair.

IMG_0111In this culture, folks know the cars and riders well. This guy’s a small celebrity…

IMG_0114…and he’s got the merch to prove it.

IMG_0148Elihu rushes past the cows…

IMG_0158…and into our friend Paul Van Arnum’s stand of planters and miscellaneous curios.

IMG_0175I’ve known Paul since I was four (his daughter Sherry and I are the same age and she was also matron of honor at my wedding). He and his wife Betsy are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He runs a greenhouse and must keep the wood fires burning night and day all through the endless cold months. They have had their stand at the local farmer’s markets and fairs for decades; every last item must be unloaded, set up, and then packed away afterwards. Loads of physical work. He’s getting older now, and understandably he’s slowing down a bit. Not sure he’ll be at the fair next year, I hear they didn’t renew their contract for the booth space. Every era must end sometime, but I’m still a little sentimental. Glad we stopped by.

IMG_0189Paul’s thing is lava rock creations. None are to scale, all are absolutely charming; made with sincerity and love.

Watch as these little plants react to being touched.

IMG_0185Of course Elihu delights in the duck fountain. In the end, it’s always about the birds. (Btw – this year there were NO BIRDS of any kind at the fair due to a local bacterial infection in the area’s poultry. Huge bummer – and what’s more, we learned that the emu hen we’d been visiting and smooching for years had died in June. It took the wind out of our sails for sure, but on goes life. We’re thankful we had the opportunity to know a friendly emu.)

IMG_0129A beautiful sunset over the Washington County Fairgrounds.

IMG_0117A mysterious midway with the moon behind.

IMG_0144And a magical, serendipitous meeting with Phoenix and Jonah, two former Waldorf classmates whom Elihu has dearly missed. My son seldom smiles like this!

IMG_0198Phoenix is on the Scrambler too – he’s in the middle, waving.

IMG_0201The first ride of the year is a little scary as it starts…

IMG_0204But oh how we loved it. Went twice. Soothing and repetitious, it had a hypnotic effect.

IMG_0219This one is my all-time favorite. Being on a budget, I only went once, otherwise I would have gone on it again and again. There was some speculation as to the back story here: last year the ride was absent due to ‘technical difficulties’, and this year it returned as 1oo1 Nachts, rather than Nights. Technical or legal glitch – or perhaps both?

IMG_0196My legally blind son takes his chances on slim odds… He needs to get the ping pong ball into a narrow-mouthed glass jar in order to win a goldfish. I prepare him to be disappointed – even those with good vision don’t stand to win.

IMG_0234But wouldn’t ya know – for the second year in a row my kid actually won a fish! The man at the stand even remembered him, which made us both happy. (The fish now resides in our pond with six goldfish cousins.)

IMG_0334On to another kind of nightlife on the busy streets of Saratoga Springs, New York. Racing season is nearing its end, and the streets are jam-packed with revelers.

IMG_0331Elihu enjoyed sitting in with a group….

A little snapshot of Broadway buskers.

IMG_0315… and then he teamed up with Chris. We’ve seen Chris on Broadway over the years, but this is the first time they’ve played together. They were equally matched in skill and enjoyment. (He goes by ChrisUnited – no space – if you want to do a search for him.)

IMG_0317They made some money, but that wasn’t the reason these guys were playing.

Wish the audio were better – I promise you they sounded so much better in person.

IMG_0324They had an absolute blast.

IMG_0327Lots of personality here! This was a night we’ll always remember. Only a few more summer nights to go…


Post Script: The Studio’s open house and ‘friend-raiser’ will be on the last Sunday of September, from 1 – 5. There’s so much to do I almost think my head will explode. Elihu’s also going to be playing tuba in the orchestra this year, so we’re faced with a whole new adventure on that front. Because of all that’s been going on, I’ve found it challenging to create posts – and there will likely be far fewer in the coming months. Thanks as always for coming along on our adventures, and we’ll see you again as soon as possible…

 

Cecil Departs October 7, 2014

Saratoga Springs’ beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie, died this morning. While I haven’t heard directly from his family yet, what I gather is that he was likely asleep when he passed, as for the past few days he’d been heavily medicated to relieve the terrible pain he was experiencing. Earlier this past summer, Cecil was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a type of bone cancer, and the pain he felt at times was excruciating, as his very ribs themselves were fracturing from the cancer. He was one tough cookie though, because even while uncomfortable he still wanted to play music – still had it in him to pull out not one but two banjos at our last visit – plus the bass box too. I’m not a string player by any means, but he coached me as I stumbled my way through the three all-important chords. Bless him for giving us that last precious hang. I wish we’d heard him one last time on the street, but I’m grateful we were able to hear him one last time at all.

Over the past week we visited him a handful of times; sometimes he could barely open his eyes, other times his face would light up and he would try to talk to us. But recently, with the morphine, plus the dryness of mouth that the drugs were giving him, it was even more difficult to understand him. And hey – it was hard enough to understand him to begin with on account of that thick Jamaican accent of his! On one visit I had a moment alone with him, and I leaned in and stroked his head. I told him he was loved by so many, and that all of his friends and family were thinking of him. I told him that I was sure he would soon be in a much better place, that soon he would enjoy that perfect freedom… I’m not as scared as I once was about talking about death with the dying, so I pressed on, hoping for some insight into the thoughts of one who is so very close… “Cecil, are you afraid of dying?” I asked him. “No, no, not really” he said, in a thoughtful way. Then he went on to say more, but try as I did, I couldn’t make it out. He was obviously elaborating on his answer, but I would have to be satisfied with what I got. No, he wasn’t afraid. Good. Cuz I can imagine a lot of people are. I wondered what he was lingering for then, were there any family members yet to see again? I heard he was caught up with everyone. Maybe it’s just hard to let go of your loved ones, maybe one lingers so as not to break the hearts of those left behind. Who knows. As wonderful as the next world may be, there are still a lot of wonderful things about this world that might be hard to break away from.

Yesterday I’d had a flash of inspiration. I looked into my music closet and found my grandmother’s ukelele, now almost a hundred years old. I figured out three chords and quickly jotted down the lyrics to a couple songs, played through them through a couple of times, then with Elihu and his djembe, headed to the hospital to play for Cecil. How happy he would be to hear someone sing for him, I thought. When we arrived, he was in a peaceful sleep, with a CD of his from the old days in Jamaica playing softly, and the article from the weekend’s paper had been taped up on the wall for him to see. We lingered a moment, and looked at him. What to do? We both knew it made no sense to wake him. Elihu cautioned me not to kiss him lest I wake him from his rest. So we just stood for a moment, and watched him sleep, the soft calypso music gently filling the room. The song playing was the last on the CD; fittingly, it was Jamaica Farewell.

Today we returned to the hospital, again ready to play for Cecil, but my heart sank to my knees when I saw the cleaning cart in front of his room. I knew what that meant. We entered the room and were surprised to find our own next door neighbor there. She worked in the housekeeping staff, and was just finishing up with his room. She’d known Cecil too; she always knew the patients. A week or so ago we’d told her about having a friend in the hospital – and she now learned who it was we’d meant. Wherever Cecil went, he was known and loved. He possessed an understated congeniality; pleasant, low-key and friendly to all.

I want to thank you Cecil, because you’ve got me excited to learn a stringed instrument now! More than that, you’ve hipped me to a whole new world of songs, and you’ve opened up a new way in which my son and I can play music together. I’d never thought that I could learn anything new at my age, and with my arthritis, no less. But you’ve got Elihu and me looking eagerly to a new musical future. There’s not a soul who can take your place, but we hope it makes you happy to know that a piece of you will continue to live on in us and all the music we’ve yet to play.

My love and wishes for peace and healing go out to all of Cecil’s family and friends in this deeply sad time.

IMG_4951My last picture with Cecil, just day before yesterday. I hope it didn’t hurt when I made him laugh.

IMG_5048A beautiful fall day on which to leave us.

IMG_5437We thought of you as we dusted off our old, almost-forgotten banjo.

IMG_5486Elihu can even make some good sounds on it already.

IMG_5482It’s a sad day, yes, but we think Cecil would want us to enjoy ourselves…

IMG_5530Lying on our backs in the leaf pile, we look up to the heavens and think of our friend.

This is the song Elihu sang for Cecil on one of our visits.

 

One Gone October 1, 2014

IMG_4914

Yesterday I lost an earring. It was one of the pair that I’ve worn nearly every single day since I left Illinois, now just over six years ago. They were a lovely pair of ‘little nothings’ the shopkeeper and I had agreed when I bought them as a memento to mark the beginning of my new life. Tasteful, elegant, simple and understated. A pretty pale blue, a color that might match the water or the sky on any given day. Perfect little accessories; always there, always giving me the confidence to feel put together and tidy, even when I mostly wasn’t. You’d hardly even notice them on me, yet still, they did their job, and when I went without them, I always felt unfinished. Those sparkly little nothings did their thing just as they were meant to. Except when all of a sudden one was gone.

Somehow, either while planting the new trees at the end of the driveway, or more likely, while getting a quick shower in before running out to teach, one had silently freed itself from my ear. Instantly, the one remaining earring had become completely useless. Instantly alone. All of a sudden this thing that had always been there, was not. These earrings weren’t given to me by a friend, they hadn’t been in my family for generations. They shouldn’t have meant so much – and truly, after all the loss I’ve learned to accept over the years it really is nothing – and yet, still, they meant a lot to me. As a pair. But that one, lonely remaining earring had no purpose anymore. All it did was make me sad. It reminded me of what was gone, of things that can never be retrieved. How perfect things had been, and how perfect they no longer were. How things change in an instant. How one thing can make all the difference. This musing launched me into a new line of thinking and I began to miss other things too; landscapes, homes, bands, people – things that were once here but are now gone. Things I miss still. I’ve been missing my dad a lot this past week, and this one remaining earring makes me think of him again. One thing without the other. Ich.

We’re about to lose another precious thing right now, as Saratoga’s beloved banjo man, Cecil Myrie is in his final hours. His bone cancer has accelerated rapidly over the past few weeks – just since Elihu and I popped over for an impromptu visit and short jam last month. We both feel very lucky that we were able to sit and make some music with him one last time, because it would be our last opportunity. Our jam was cut short by acute pain in Cecil’s chest, and we left him in hopes of taking him out to play on the street one more time. When we called next, he was feeling much worse and declined to go. I was relieved to hear that some of his friends had been able to catch him on a good day and did in fact get him out on Broadway for one final performance. I just can’t get it through my head that we will never again hear strains from Cecil’s banjo floating over the Saratoga streets again, the backdrop of that town for the past three decades. For as long as I can remember – either while living here or visiting – Cecil was always present. He was as dependable and permanent it seemed as the buildings themselves. Slowing to a stoplight on the main drag of town, windows open, there he was. Singing out “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and accompanying his song with that signature, folksy style that shouted Cecil’s name alone. My son had grown up knowing him, and in fact, as I think back on our relationship with the man, I recall something special… The first two dollars that Elihu ever made busking were given to him by Cecil, from his own banjo case. And we have them still. Above Elihu’s bird collection, tucked away in his closet, are those two dollar bills, kept as a reminder of this very generous gift, one which essentially started my son’s career as a paid musician. It was certainly an inspirational moment for Elihu. For us it really was the beginning of an era.

A now here we are at the ending of an era. It’s so sad, and it makes us feel that we feel we need to do something. But what? Hoping to create some way of honoring our friend, Elihu and I come upon an idea. When one thing ends, another thing begins, right? It seems a good idea, so we make some plans… After Elihu’s bass lesson today, we’re going to head over to the hospital to say our goodbyes to Cecil. Elihu is going to ask Cecil for his blessing to play banjo and sing on Broadway. Elihu and I have been wondering lately how he might increase his musical offerings, and this seems a natural fit. Elihu sings loud and well, he’s gifted with stringed instruments, and Cecil had been his first mentor on the street. Certainly Elihu can do this with love in Cecil’s memory with or without his blessing… But just maybe it might mean something to our friend. It’s one gift we can give to Cecil before he leaves us. He’s given us so much; it lifts our hearts to think we might be able to give something back to him.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll hear those familiar songs brought to life again in a new way over the streets of Saratoga; a living remembrance of that one, cherished voice that we’ll always miss so dearly… the one that’s gone.

IMG_0889Bringing flowers from our garden to Cecil, not too long ago.

IMG_0903Cecil shows Elihu the bass box.

IMG_0934Cecil gives me a little lesson.

IMG_4850The last time I saw Cecil out on the street, he was in a wheelchair being pushed by his wife – they were passing this vacant lot in their neighborhood when I waved and shouted hello to them. A perfect place to pick some flowers for him.

IMG_4848Sunflowers for Cecil.

IMG_4856A very sad time.

IMG_4866Marianne and her son-in-law Prince, both from Cecil’s church, come to pray for him and say goodbye.

IMG_4867Nurses do God’s work on the planet. Dan’s own young sons have grown up knowing Cecil and his music.

IMG_4855A view to the south from his windows.

IMG_4928Cecil’s youngest son Josh.

IMG_4930Elihu sang a beautiful song for Cecil and told him that he loved him. Hard to believe that Elihu’s known Cecil for more than half his life. Cecil even tried to speak and opened his eyes while we were there. We know he was with us, even if he couldn’t communicate well.

IMG_4852Some of Cecil’s discography on display.

IMG_4853Now this is how we all remember him. Our banjo man on Broadway.

Goodbye and thank you, Cecil Myrie, we love you so, and we’ll miss you dearly.

And to use Elihu’s parting words to his own dying grandfather, we’ll ‘see you shortly’.

A video of Cecil playing Don’t Worry, Be Happy (a little too dark to see him well).

A much shorter video of Cecil at his post on Broadway by the now-gone parking lot (here you’ll see him fine).

_____________________________________________

Here’s a link to a post from two years ago in which Cecil played a part…

 

Monday Monday July 30, 2013

I live a mere 5 miles from the cosmopolitan hub of downtown Saratoga Springs, New York. And from The Hillhouse to town, it’s all one downhill shot. Pretty easy: a right, a left, another left and a final right and you’re on Broadway at the Riggi’s place. Can’t miss it. It’s a Disney-esque mansion on the corner. It’ll be on your left hand side. Then you make your final turn (right – and due South) and now you’re on Broadway, ready to do the cruise. Ready to see and be seen…

Right now, at the end of July, we are in the midst of racing season. For some folks, this is a Very Big Deal. There is a lot of money floating thru ‘the system’ right now; one doesn’t have to look long or far to see evidence of it. The Mercedes-to-Honda ratio has risen dramatically almost overnight, and so too has the number of people casually walking up and down Broadway in search of their next shamefully over-priced dinner.

I’d had a full day of appointments and errands, and in that they required I wear ‘town’ clothes (the nitty gritty work will happen tomorrow and will require a much humbler wardrobe) I thought that I might as well take advantage of bein all prettied up and take a walk up and down the strip just to see what was a goin on…. Now I don’t really know too many folks in town these days – my life is a rather cloistered one out in the country – yet as it turned out, the few people I might have run into I actually did run into. Such a lovely surprise is life.

At the risk of sounding like an embittered local, this town has changed. Even though I can agree that it’s a much cleaner, healthier town than it was some thirty years ago, much of the soul of the town seems to have disappeared along with the grit. And while Saratoga still has the overall aesthetic feel of a late nineteenth century town, nonetheless I feel its true charm to be waning with each season; each year it seems the large town moves closer towards the status of small city as it loses some of its most iconic, irreplaceable treasures and enormous new structures edge their way in. The Aldelphi Hotel, the very last bastion of old-world elegance, was Saratoga’s last authentic tie to the culture that gave birth to this town almost two hundred years ago. But it’s gone now too. We can only breathe out and through the pain as we ready ourselves for the anonymizing renovations being done presently behind the blackened-out facade. The gold hand-lettered name on the lobby doors from years past remains, and it gives us hope that the Adelphi Hotel will be back again one day, just as it has been for the past century and a half. But those of us whose hearts have been broken before by far less hopeful signs, we know better. It’s really best to remember the grand Adelphi of yesteryear, to savor those memories and then relinquish that lovely vision into the ether of all fond remembrances…

The grand promenade. Not so grand these days, but an evening’s entertainment, no less.  Not a long walk: four blocks up, four blocks back. I say hello to some friends, watch the people and smooch the dogs. An extended and friendly chat with Jim and Gerry, two very kind gentlemen who belong to the resident motorcycling population, then it’s back to the shadows of the country, just in time to get the chickens secured for the night. A quick call in to mom and dad, a brief and enjoyable conversation with each, and I’m ready for a glass of wine and a quick post before I tuck into bed with a book. As Mondays go, this was a nice one.

Monday Monday 021

This is the 150th season of racing at the Saratoga flat track. I was born in 1963, and my mom tells me I attended the tracks’ centennial celebration. Me and MaryLou! (Whitney, that is.)

Monday Monday 013

Just a corner of me – but look! It’s our pal Cecil! At least ONE of Saratoga’s ‘historic’ treasures is still around!!

Monday Monday 012

The new building’s up – but he’s not playing favorites – he splits his time between the Cantina side and Lillian’s…

Monday Monday 015

Don’t we love Cecil? Elihu and I sure do; his CD is a permanent part or our car’s audio library

Monday Monday 004

And look! It’s my buddy, Seamus! I’ve known him since before he was born. His dad and I were jazz-loving college kids who piled into cars and made road trips to shows all over the East… This kid’s doing well in college (pre-med now I hear) and also plays pro-level pipes. Plus he looks damn good in that outfit. Oh the hearts he’s yet to break…

Monday Monday 010

I’ve seen some twenties in his case at times…

Monday Monday 005

Handsome, talented young man…

Monday Monday 019

These guys are having fun across the street. Even the cop (at right, leaning on the column) was digging it.

Monday Monday 017

Not a lot of coin yet, but there’s a lot of competition too.

Monday Monday 030

This is Saratoga’s new thing this year. The giant en pointe shoes. Strikes me as kinda silly. Or maybe it might be better to say pretentious; the New York City Ballet was here at SPAC for less than one whole week this year. In my youth they were here all summer long, and this was truly a ballet town. Now it’s just posing as one. IMHO.

Monday Monday 029

You can see some of the artists’ names…

Monday Monday 028

And here, of course, you can recognize Balanchine’s name. I remember watching him direct the dancers at open rehearsals. Many of my summers as a youth were spent as an NYCB groupie.

Monday Monday 023

The beloved Adelphi Hotel. Such an interior – beautiful trump l’oeil paintings on the walls, the coziest, most densely-green walled-in garden patio you could imagine in back. And each floor had its own collection of antiques and treasures. The floors creaked, the stairways leaned. And I smelled the distinct scent of hyacinths one night in the salon by the main balcony. But now its interior is being radically changed. Likely very little of its historic charm will remain. Progress, you say? Hmm. I have another, far different opinion. Could ya tell?

Monday Monday 024

These are the two final grand hotel fronts on Broadway (the Adelphi’s brown awning in foreground). The one in the background with the white pillars was once the Rip Van Dam Hotel – and as the grand, historic hotels of Saratoga went, this was the lowest one on the totem pole. Appartently is was downright small in comparision with the giants of old, but today it looks fairly regal with its two-story portico. The hotel finally closed a good decade or more ago and became office space. These days it has been restored to a higher station in the city scheme and enjoys its newest incarnation as a high-tag, top-tier restaurant.

Monday Monday 034

There’s always a cluster of bikes in front of the coffee house. Those are my new pals, Jim and Gerry standing guard.

Monday Monday 037

I had an enjoyable visit with two of the riders, Gerry and Jim. This lovely machine is Jim’s ‘third last bike’. ! Love it. My last bike was a long time ago. Maybe when lil man’s a bit older I’ll give bikes another spin. But for now, walking the strip on foot is more my speed. And these days I think I’m less about weekends – and more about Mondays.