Sunday, June 19, 2005

My Impersonation of Garrison Keillor

(You know, the Lake Wobegon guy.)

If they notice you at all, people look at you funny when you carry a toilet seat on the subway. See, and now you're looking at me funny, too. Admit it.

Why, you could rightly ask, was I carrying a toilet seat on the subway? Well, the short version of the story is that I missed a chance to relax this weekend. Ready for the long version?

For longer than I've been alive, my family has owned a cottage on Wellesley Island, one of the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence river. Specifically, our cottage is part of a community called Thousand Island Park - more commonly abbreviated to "TI Park" for the locals. Because Wikipedia has an entry for everything, here's the link for Wellesley Island. The picture shows an island with a small house on it - that's decidedly not my cottage, but I've seen it frequently - you can see it from where we go swimming.

It's hard to describe exactly what made TI Park such a great place as a kid. The simplest explanation would be to say that, if you were bored it only meant you weren't trying. For me, it was where I became the reading nut that I am today, pleasing my father greatly while I made regular trips to the surprisingly well-stocked library. It was also where I discovered my passion for Science Fiction, pleasing my father somewhat less. Of course, there was plenty of physical activity too, for the people who "vacation" strangely translates in to "do things". To me, "vacation" has always meant "doing" is optional.

My preferred physical activity was swimming. Around the age of 9, I learned that a lot of people apparently went swimming in their shorts, without emptying their pockets first. That was an extremely lucrative summer for me, as I think I collected something on the order of $40 (American!) off the bottom of the river from overly-eager swimmers, armed with nothing but a mask and young, healthy lungs. Of course, this was back in a time when $40 (American!) was like winning the Powerball. Unfortunately, I think word got around and the following summers were pretty slim pickings - either people became more careful, or I got competition, I never figured out which.

TI Park is the kind of community where everything is a "The" something - because there's usually just one. The swimming hole nearest my cottage is The Rocks. Further away is The Main Docks. then The Cove, and on special days, The State Park. (Actually, not only are there multiple state parks on Wellesley Island, but they all have proper names. It's just that I've never cared to learn which one we go to.) This gives conversations the vague feeling that you're living in an episode of "Lassie" - Hey guys! Let's go hang out at The Water Tower! Lassie or no, we would usually manage to fill days and weeks doing everything and nothing at all.

Despite being about as small a town as I'm comfortable with, TI Park does have most of the necessities, without having the crap that just serves to clutter up our lives - running water and electricity, but my grandmother died without ever seeing a television in our cottage. She wasn't a luddite, but she knew that some things you leave at home. Okay, she was a bit of a luddite. But she was also right about the television. (Which I get to admit, now that she's dead.) There's a church that serves as a movie theatre some nights. Other nights, city slickers like myself were entertained by these bright spots in the sky people called stars. Odd, to be able to see whole constellations, plural.

One of the other things that was great about my cottage was the extended family. Between aunts, uncles, cousins (more than I can count), parents and grand-parents, nobody was an only child. During the summers at least, it was impossible to be lonely - not that you didn't get occasionally left out (especially if you were bookish and not inclinced towards sports) - but there was usually someone looking to do something, if you were willing to go along. At night, after a long day, we'd sit down to dinners which often included a dozen people. I was probably listening to political conversations in my family before I understood what politics was - given my family, it was only natural.

What does any of this have to do with a toilet seat? Well, the last time Wellesley Island made it in to the headlines was shortly before I was born, when Abbie Hoffman came out of hiding in 1980. One of the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman was one of the legendary activists from the late 1960s, who had to go underground because of cocaine charges.

Of course, men like Hoffman never truly retire. When the Army Corps of Engineers decided that the St. Lawrence river was too bumpy and steep for maritime shipping, they figured digging a nice, flat ditch would solve the problem. That this would destroy wildlife and the tourism industry along one of the largest rivers in the world was, of course, immaterial. The plan entailed removing 70 million cubic metres of river-bottom, enough to cover Manhattan Island with 4 feet of dirt. Communities all along the St. Lawrence were outraged, including one little hamlet called Fineview where one Barry Freed, formerly Abbie Hoffman, resided. When concerned citizens formed the Save the River Committee, Mr. Freed became one of it's most outspoken members.

There's a story my dad loves to tell about Freed getting really drunk one night at the local bar and confessing his true identity to the bartender.

"Mac, I'm really Abbie Hoffman," says Freed.

"Fuck off!" says the bartender.

Hoffman eventually came out of hiding and was given a lenient sentence for his cocaine charges. Still, he comitted suicide in 1989. Sometime before then, however, my aunt Margot managed to get her hands on... his toilet seat. (So goes the family legend, anyway.) I'd like to think that Margot stole it - it seems fitting. Said toilet seat must have been brought to our cottage before Hoffman died, in any case, because it's been there longer than I can remember. But times change, and so has our cottage. The moment finally came this spring, when it was decided to finally replace Abbie's old toilet seat with a seat that would stay up - I think on the theory that this will encourage the younger men to actually put the seat up to pee.

However, my father refuses to go gently in to that good night. Rather than throw out the toilet seat, he carefully and delicately removed the seat, and brought it back from the cottage with him, so that he could give it to one of Margot's sons. After bringing it four hours in the rental car, I didn't see it when we were unloading and we accidentally left a decades-old toilet seat in a rented Chevy Trailblazer. This meant we had to go back to the rental garage, and I had to carry the toilet seat home on the subway.

I would have been up there at the cottage this weekend, but I began a new job and foolishly decided to start right away, rather than spend father's day with my father. For some reason, this seemed like a perfectly rational choice at the time. In retrospect, it seems like incontrovertible proof that I've been away too long.

If you've got a Lexis-Nexis account*, you can verify everything I've written here. Except of course for the question of whose toilet seat it was. But if we were going to make up a story about a family heirloom belonging to a famous radical, you'd think we'd pick something other than a toilet seat, right? Then again, in our family...

*If you're interested, I used the New York Times:
On the Save the River Campaign: "Thousand Islanders United By The River Separating Them" September 8, 1980.
On Hoffman's Death: "Abbie Hoffman, 60s Icon, Dies" April 14, 1989.

A Lexis search for "Abbie Hoffman" found both of those.


Anonymous said...

This is so lovely - you might have to clean up the language for publication - but submit it somewhere - e.g. Globe back page, TI Sun.

We missed you on the weekend so we set up a shrine in the kidzroom.



Anonymous said...

This is so lovely - you might have to clean up the language for publication - but submit it somewhere - e.g. Globe back page, TI Sun.

We missed you on the weekend so we set up a shrine in the kidzroom.



Anonymous said...

Having been there at the time of the purchase of the toilet seat at Abbie Hoffman's garage sale in Fineview N.Y. I can attest to the validity of the story. I purchased a 6 volume set of the history of American pop music from him (on cassette tape - remember them?)... missing volume six of course. After all it was a garage sale. Margot also managed a canvas squawl jacket which she treasured being somewhat of a radical thinker herself - plus the fact that it did a marvelous job of keeping the wind out on a blustery day.

Thanks for the memory J.M.


Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful piece of writing.
Before I ever met your dad, or Margie or Margot, I knew Abbie Hoffman. Actually, I knew Barry Freed. I interviewed him a bunch of times about the Save the River campaign. I kept telling him he looked familiar. He kept telling me he had "one of those faces". He finally revealed himself as Abbie in one of our conversations. It all made sense.

I think he would have been touched about the toilet seat. And moved by your piece.

Shelagh R., friend of John's.

Anonymous said...

and a garage sale update: I seem to recall that Margot then traded the canvas squall jacket for a secondhand Weber bar-b-que for the cottage.

Anonymous said...

Such a seemingly impossible, magical place to capture in words...and you did it! We will look forward to more installments: bat brigades,The Guzzle,the sprint for the New York Times...?
Bravo JM!

one of the first cousins-once-removed

adam said...

Just wanted to throw in, as a non-family member, that I really enjoyed this piece too. Of course, I've got some similar memories from other places, so it's not that I can't identify with this little bit of nostalgia.

Yeah, good story.

Anonymous said...

this is fab.
i have only three words for you: museum of continence.
sure to become a niagara falls fixture!
(first met u when ur age ended with a teen -- now, soon, it will end with a bunch of degree-type-letters -- yikes -- well-earned i'm guessing)

carl said...

Wonderful story.
My family has a camp the island, and knew about his spot there. I think the Save the River campaign is great. Goes to show that he could not stand to see injustice even though he was in "hiding". Save the River, everybody could get behind that. If only everybody up there knew his pranksker side too.