I have heard it said both ways; that “patience is a virtue” and “evil is patient.” The reader will decide which platitude fits the author of this column. I first started thinking about the column 23 years ago, within weeks of an Aug. 6, 1987 closing on a modest “spec” house on Longview Drive, straddling the Chatham/Austerlitz border off Red Rock Road. I had done some wise and neighborly things at the closing. First, by overpaying a local lawyer to do it, despite the fact that both Jan, my wife, and I are lawyers who had done several New York home “closings” for friends and family for free. The second was to bring my adorable 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, to the closing so that the sellers, a couple at each other’s throats, would behave during the formalities.
By late October 1987, I, Jan and our three kids had already experienced some of the many wonderful and a few daunting aspects of life in Chatham. We had also gotten a preview of the distinctions among natives, newcomers and people like us — weekenders from New York City. On Oct. 4, we lost many of our trees in the 1,000-year storm which dumped 27 inches of snow on branches full of heavy and still green foliage. Several people died in Chatham that day. Neighbors, who we hadn’t or had barely met, helped dig us out, brought us food, wood for our stove and a corded phone — since our cordless one did not work without electricity. Those were pre-cell phone days.
Weeks before, an aged (now departed) local farmer-sage had bluntly told me how my property taxes in Austerlitz and school levy in Chatham were and would be based on a second homeowner valuation, done differently than those for full-time residents. He told me that he had served on the assessing board and knew what he was talking about. I had chatted up another local farmer who had migrated to the area a decade before, but was told at the Grange meetings “you will never be one of us.” I see this farmer virtually every morning I spend in Chatham and wonder now, more than 30 years on, whether he now “belongs.” At the Crandell, where 1980s movies were shown for 1950s prices, we ran into old “City” friends not seen in many years. One had abandoned a distinguished law practice in Manhattan for the catch as catch can life of a solo country practitioner, so he could also raise sheep. Another couple was a prince and princess in the international art world, but like us, needed to spread out on the weekends in a fortress of solitude, but one where other art royalty hung out as well.
Within a year it seemed clear to me that one price of the space, tranquility and beauty my family found in Chatham, was a tacit understanding that we were to be seen but not heard. We could recreate and consume to our hearts content, but the expression of views about local policy, politics and especially government were not welcome, despite our status as taxpayers who did not send our children to attend the schools and barely utilized many other tax-supported facilities.
As the years went by, I was more than happy with this arrangement, providing peace and pleasure in return for keeping my opinions to myself. Occasionally, there would be a skirmish in the simmering natives/weekenders arena. One involved the “townspeople” virtually starving two fine Chatham food establishments that were rumored to be catering to the weekenders’ tastes and ability to pay for “overpriced” food. Another even nastier one involved a weekender’s purchase and alleged minor alteration of a village landmark and the organized response designed to show this foreigner a thing or two. Unfortunately, the weekender, like me, was a high powered Manhattan lawyer who responded by showing the locals a thing or maybe 10. I vainly tried to help the locals in the latter situation.
Then, in 2007, for a little over a year, Chatham became my primary residence. I went to work for Gov. Eliot Spitzer as his senior policy advisor with, among other things, responsibility for public higher education and for devising and implementing a plan to streamline and make more efficient local governments — including those in and surrounding Chatham. Educators in the area and people in town actually sought out my opinion and help — even after the short and troubled Spitzer administration came to its abrupt and tragic end.
Now, as I navigate the area on foot, in my car, but most often and joyfully on my road bike, I can’t help but see all the possibilities of making this great place even better. No putting the genie back into the bottle. This column will look at Chatham and its environs through the eyes of a weekender. Occasionally, I will send back a report from New York City or the many other places I travel to, but always with the desire to link what is happening in those far-flung destinations to the life and the betterment of Chatham, a place I and my family love.