Catskills Vacations: Cultural Rituals

The men would arrive at the bungalow colony in the Catskills every Friday night to spend the weekends with their families. They would take over the pool, and expect a big dinner, and would entertain one another with stories about how difficult the traffic had been, and whether it would be better to leave late Sunday night or early Monday morning so that they might most easily get back to their jobs in the garment district or the post office.

After dinner, the men congregated on the lawn again and talked candidly, or so it seemed to an eavesdropping teenager, about growing up in the Depression, and the paths not taken. The furrier had trained to be a lawyer; the civil servant took an examination that would settle his life just because some friends were taking it. The wives sat on the arms of the patio chairs in skirts and sweaters listening attentively before going off to put the children to bed. The men would stay up longer, exchanging smutty stories and confidences about their bosses before joining their wives and their sleeping children in the little cottages that surrounded the central lawn.

The rest of the week, women's ways dominated the bungalow colony. While they did the wash or prepared lunch for the children, the women talked about who had the nicer bungalow or the cleaner linoleum or whether to change to a different colony the next year. In the evenings, while the children wandered the lawns before bedtime, they talked about how to convey to children the idea that you loved them, when to exercise control and when to try to influence, how to deal with daughters turning womanly. They said that men could also be tender despite appearances.

They never dwelt on what was, but only on what appeared to be, and so their way was the spirit of comedy. They made fun of a young matron who wore a bra under her halter. The halter was too small, and so the bra showed out from under it. An overly scrupulous modesty had betrayed itself. They made fun of one another's pretenses to cleanliness or a more elevated sense of manners and, to one or another confident, made fun of a husband they thought henpecked or a wife they thought flirtatious. They encouraged me in my reading and told me men made good chefs.

But it seemed to me that the men spoke of things as they were, or at least thought they were. Their way embodied the spirit of tragedy: of never living up to expectations, but plodding on anyway. When they took me aside it was to tell me how important it was to be faithful to wives, because women could chew you up, and that you had to risk losing your job to protect your self-respect, even if you never told your wife how close you came to being out of work. Though the women, sensing the tension, also knew, and knew not to speak of it. I did not know if I could live up to being one of these men.

On Saturdays the men might make an attempt at a softball game, but usually it was just a stroll into town with the children. The more adventurous men would take their wives to see the Saturday night show at one of the major hotels, but for the rest there was a movie in town or card playing or bingo in a free-standing building called the casino. Sunday was a let down, an expectation of the three or more hour drive home, but Saturday night was excitement.

The bungalow colony or a separate recreation fund created by the summer families-- I was never sure which-- would sometimes book entertainment into the casino for Saturday night. These were inferior acts that could not find summer employment in any hotel and would travel to the casinos of three or more colonies during a single evening. I even remember an Irish tenor who started earlier than that with an afternoon performance at a bungalow colony that was favored by elderly Jews who with their grandchildren would listen to his songs and his patter about how wonderful it was to be in America after the terrible things that had happened in Europe. A tough audience won over by the universal declaration of tolerance at that time inherent in an appeal to patriotism. George M. Cohan worked every time.

It also worked in the shows put on by the families. The casino was dressed up in paper mache and filtered lighting. After one family put on a puppet show, a man who made his living as a song plugger sang in Yiddish about the heartbreak of being separated from Jerusalem, which had not for very long become an actual rather than merely a spiritual anchor. People cried, remembering the family members they had lost in Europe who might well have resettled themselves in Palestine, if not America, before it was too late.

In earlier years, the families could only have afforded shows they put on for themselves, even if the colony circuit had at that time existed. I remember a rooming house where my family stayed every summer during the years, before I was ten years old, when my father worked as a chauffeur and bellhop at one or another of the Catskills hotels. The community kitchen was turned into a casino a few times a season. One housewife dressed up as Carmen Miranda, complete with overdone makeup and a basket of fruit on her head, and was presented as a gift to her husband. The children were allowed to stay up, watch the show, and join the conga line that weaved between the tables and into the parlor and onto the porch.

Culture was a recognized but always a communal activity. Children were required to recite nursery rhymes at one another's birthdays, and mothers would comment on the moral values of the books young children read or had read to them. Radio programs supplied ready references for catch phrases and touching moments. My mother thought how impressive it was that the Andrews Sisters, who were not even Jewish, had so well mastered Yiddish intonations for "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen."

And there were the very hurried preparations for the celebration of V-J day. We all went into town, the little children included, to watch the young people dance the hora barefoot around a bonfire in the central area near the railroad station. It was an open and undecorated, sloping bottom of the cup that served as a plaza. It was set against the main shopping street in the town, roads departed to other places north and east or else led onto a long, dead end street, towards the end of one of which my grandparents live. That setting remains my classic villagescape, the way the village looked as a backdrop for freight trains that seemed to take all afternoon to pass through town, and the site of the movie theatre where I would go with my mother to see what were derisively considered "women's movies", such as those which starred Bette Davis, but which my mother defended as combining tragedy, romance and adventure, and which I regarded as a portrayal of life as it really was, full of the deep emotions of adult life. The villagescape was a permanent background that, because we were on vacation, we could enjoy as a stage set interesting for itself as well as for the stories that were played out upon it.

There were also those moments of ordinary life that were picked out for comment as representations of life, and so qualify for what anthropologists trivialize as "cultural rituals", even though people knew perfectly well they were turning these moments into images that could serve as emblems of deep relationships, just as they knew that their "high culture" of movies and radio and theatrical satires were ways to glamorize their lives by making life seem larger than and so unlike itself. The men who came up on those earlier weekends combined the two when they invented tall tales about three hour detours to get past the Sloatsburg Hills.

My father pursued the lower form of culture when he would take me to the blueberry patch in the hills behind the rooming house, and we would bring back basketfuls of berries for my mother to prepare. My father boasted that the men had replenished the larder and my mother answered back by saying we could have sold in town all the berries we were now carrying around in our stomachs.

The women used low culture to comment on styles of life rather than on economics. When the iceman came every few weeks to the rooming house to replace the large chunks that had evaporated down to slivers, the women would joke with one another about which of them had less ice left over because they had not known enough to close the icebox as quickly as possible after using it. Not so long ago, in Europe, no one had anything but iceboxes, and so the recent immigrants could take pride in knowing how to manage them. It was alright to make fun of the primitive conditions of country living as a reminder of how fortunate everyone was to have refrigerators in the city.

The children, of course, were engaged in the low view of culture when they would make believe they were trying to frighten the even littler children with ritualistic hocus pocus. They would escort a youngster new to the community to the Big Rock that stood in a patch of bushes at one end of the property. The neophyte would be made to climb it and then I would pronounce some incantatory words to make that person a member of our gang. All the neophytes knew that it was only a ritual, and that it was silly of them to feel any fright at all. 

But the mothers were all a bit unnerved and unapproving of my own involvement in high culture, even at that age, because it was pursued in solitude, a sign of misdevelopment as sure as the social drinker who starts to drink alone. Like many another useful and pleasurable diversion, culture could be turned into a vice through excess. Children could be praised for their ability to recite Hebrew prayers quickly, or for knowing dance steps, or for doing well in school, or for being articulate or informed about politics. But I would retreat to the cool of the freshly made beds and spend the afternoons reading, a necessarily private experience, even though I was sociable enough to be drawn down to the lawn for the games before dinner that were an excuse for noticing how long it took for a summer afternoon to turn to evening, and how an August shower seemed particularly damp even when it was over. Going outdoors was a call back to the community that was non-literate, even though everyone in it read newspapers and managed their finances and jobs, because very few engaged in reading as a cultural activity. The summer community did not need reading as a source of the pleasure that comes from the expression and recognition of what was known and felt.

By the time I became a teenager, and only spent a few weeks a year at a bungalow colony, the one referred to at the beginning of this essay, I no longer minded being an observer, perhaps because I had found a set of friends in the city who shared common interests. The other teenagers at the colony thought I was snotty because I used words like "nor" but mostly because I still found the adults more engaging than my peers. I once went down to the tennis court to watch a teenage girl only slightly older than myself practice baton-twirling. Neither of us knew what to say to one another, so I just watched and she did not object, though she criticized me for being high-falutin' when we joined the adults that evening and I tried to join in the conversation. Mostly I read, took walks, thought about the showgirls I had glimpsed over the years at the hotels where my father had taken me to wait for him while he did errands.

A not much older aunt of mine became a vocalist over the years that connected the community kitchen to the casino. In earlier years, when she went off to make demo records or try out at one of the hotels, she confided in her nephew that she wanted to sing "light classical", which at the time was a cross between Sigmund Romberg and Jan Peerce's rendition of "Bluebird of Paradise". I think she had Kathryn Grayson in mind. In later years, when she did the bar mitzvah circuit, Eydie Gorme was her model of an accomplished singer who was popular.

She once casually asked me, in the casino years, what I wanted to be, and we talked past one another. I told her I wanted to be a standup comic because then I could say whatever I wanted to, which she understood to be false, since comics say what they think will amuse their audience. The comic works to please without even a voice or a dance step, and here I thought, she thought, a comic was a kind of philosopher. But I had lied, not telling her that I wanted only to be like a comic, one who had found a way to say what he thought and still managed to please.

There is a story that captures the difference between the Catskill notion of culture as made up of spectacles and rituals of the routine recognized through jokes, and my own evolving sense that culture was, like religion, also private. A couple had been booked for the casino on one of those Saturday nights of my adolescence. They arrived two hours late, after many phone calls to the booking agent, claiming their car had broken down. The woman was carrying an infant with her, and asked for a place to change. The husband, finally, began his opening act: some card tricks and smutty stories. Then his wife, in fish-net hose and an abbreviated costume, did a mildly suggestive dance, her music supplied by a tape recorder, which was also the back-up band for the closing act, some popular songs by her husband.

What surprised me was the response of the audience, all up well past their bedtime and soured by this time at the botched arrangements. They laughed at the jokes and applauded the songs. One of the women took the infant back to a bungalow and babysat. The men had a conference and doubled the usual tip for entertainers.

Do not misunderstand. The men did not feel the guilt that might accost those who suddenly recognize themselves as having assumed the role of exploiters, for how could someone be an exploiter if he was helping people to make a living? Rather, the men shifted back and forth between being the audience and the producers of the occasion, and far from this distracting them from their enjoyment, it made them feel, I think, more responsible, more in charge of their lives, because they were arranging for their entertainment and being judicious in the way they managed these temporary employees who were not so different from themselves, just as they managed to make a summer of leisure for their wives and children and a little bit for themselves.

I treasure that moment, however, not because of the humanity of the colony, but because it was so contrary to what I understood and what I would be taught to understand was the nature of high culture. I would have been more impatient than the adults were, I thought at the time, if the entertainment were one that had appealed to me. The colony had not gotten its money's worth, had found it necessary to service the people who for some brief moment had been hired to provide to the colony what it regarded as a luxury.

I think now, however, that I was angry for the adults as well as compassionate for the couple because I was too selfish about fantasies and needed them too much to suspend them so easily. Art was the power of escape into other people's adventures as well as the set of discovered reflections of my own problems, and so was not to be trifled with by performances that only barely acknowledged the invisible proscenium arch that always divides the illusion makers from those who hunger for illusions.

But the members of the bungalow colony took their entertainment more lightly than that. It was a more whimsical escape, a more transitory phenomenon It did not, even at its most compelling, replace their lives for them as much as literature did for me. And so, expecting less, the colonists could more easily than I shift back and forth from the frame of audience to the frame of reality. They did not expect art to alter their lives, but simply to amuse them by the way it reflected it, like a family photograph, or the way a smutty story or a short skirt told more than it claimed to.

If this made them more free with the arts of representation and escape than I was, less enthralled to them, it also made them less free, because they could not or would not say directly what these representations meant to them or stimulated in them, but restricted their art of criticism to satirical remarks. When I told a musician friend of my aunt's the truth, which was that I wanted to be a literary critic, he thought I intended to be a book reviewer, and so told me to be ready for people to be nasty to me when I criticized them, when here I was thinking of criticism as the singular discipline that went beyond pans and praise to the truth of the experience of art.

I thought that I was the courageous one, because I could give names and words-- such as "plot", or "symbol", or "melodrama"-- to the ways in which a representation can be made, and hence to the ins and outs of how successfully a representation is constructed. One person's life is a poor farce, and another's is held together by taking dramatic acts of filial obedience as the meaning of personal responsibility. I could admit to myself that I knew how people represent their lives to themselves, but I could not admit this knowledge to those I was with at the time, though I do not think that I very well represented myself as thinking otherwise, and so all the adults and children who cared to notice knew my secret.

I told myself that I would allow myself to think true things even if not to speak of them for I did not wish to give offense to the women who I thought would be angry with me for what I thought I had learned to notice, through literature, about the way people conduct their everyday lives. The women would belittle me for entering too much into women's knowledge. And so they did, when my guard slipped. I was also afraid to trust my confidences to these men who kept their anger so well hidden, for fear they would think me impertinent for claiming to know better through books what they had learned from life. And so they hid their anger at me from me. And so I bided my time, awaiting my liberation from summer vacations.