What Westchester Means to Me

Four celebrated authors (and one superstar poet) share their thoughts about living and writing in Westchester.


Published:

My Westchester

 

Essays by

Kate Buford,

Benjamin Cheever,  Lawrence Otis Graham, John Mariani

And a poem by

Billy Collins

 

Coming Home

By John Mariani

 

Itravel. A lot.  All over the world. Often. I stroll boulevards in Paris, eat at trattorias in Rome, drive up the coast of Big Sur and visit ruins in Mexico. Yet, while I wouldn’t trade any of it for a life always at home, I also wouldn’t trade my life at home for a chance to circle the world.

 

For, on those occasions when I return from a trip that might have been glorious or grim, having enjoyed the three-star pleasures of Europe along with the wretched indignities of airline service, I slip into the calming, secure mode of all road warriors who’ve come home. Odysseus returns to Penelope, Ivanhoe returns to Rowena, Archie returns to Edith. It’s all the same, when you’ve been away, thinking about going home. It may not matter very much where home is, or even what it’s like.

 

Fortunately for me, my home is in one of the loveliest places in America, Westchester County, bound on the west by the slow-moving Hudson, on the east by the fast-flowing Long Island Sound, to the south by the great spired city, and to the north by the green-gold lake country.  My own small plot of this large county is a third of an acre, a significant chunk of Tuckahoe, which in its entirety is only six-tenths of a hilly square mile. Yet we have a charming village center; a soon-to-open Italian-American Museum; two railroad stations; numerous churches and denominations in various styles; good restaurants; a famous, now depleted marble quarry whose stones went into the Washington Monument; and a mix of people that is 70 percent white, 10 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 5.6 percent Asian.

 

I’ve lived here happily for more than 25 years, but before that I lived in an apartment in Bronxville, before that on the second floor of an old Victorian mansion in Yonkers, and before that in Eastchester, where my family moved to a Cape Cod-style house on what had been potato fields only months earlier. It was then that I was able to discover the remarkable diversity of the county, starting with the trickling rivulet that ran nearby our house, the rows of maples and oaks that lined the trees of older neighborhoods, the placid beauty of Lake Isle and, at least back then, working farms that sold their produce straight from the field. 

 

There was the warm and welcoming silence of our wood-and-stone parish church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, and after Mass, my father picked up the papers at the candy store in North End while I got the hard rolls from the bakery. 

We had an extraordinary bounty of fine New York City department stores half a mile away—Lord & Taylor (where Santa Claus came every year), DePinna’s, Best & Co., and others in White Plains and New Rochelle. My school, Iona Grammar, was a mile from my house, and all the wonders of New York were a half-hour’s drive south. 

Winters were white, spring took its time coming, and the long, humid summers seemed to stretch on and on until autumn brought a slow coolness that took us back to school and all the holidays.

 

I am still at my happiest when I’ve returned from a trip to God-knows-where and I’ve unpacked my bags while my wife, Galina, prepares a meal I would not have been eating in the place I’d just come from. If it’s summer, we eat out in the embrace of our backyard, which my wife has turned into a riot of color with roses and dahlias.

 

Sometimes I can hear the trains in the distance, whooshing through Tuckahoe and onward north. For some reason, the sky always seems very high above our house, streaked with pink and violet as the sun sets in the west. I sit out back with a cocktail and listen to some jazz, maybe Oscar Peterson or Diana Krall, and my sons join us for dinner and a very good bottle of wine I drink on such occasions. Coming home to Westchester is always an occasion for me. It’s where I can assess where I’ve been and why I don’t want to leave where I live. 

 

In Westchester, I have four seasons to revel in and tire of, and a diversity of landscapes, from the historic Dutch towns along the Hudson to the Jazz Age mansions hugging the shore of the Sound. I look forward to football in fall and soccer in spring, and do nothing at all in summer but drive up the sway of the Taconic, or along the Bronx River, or maybe drop down to City Island for a fish dinner outside on a wooden deck at Johnny’s Reef.

 

The more I’m here, the more I hate to leave. And the more I travel, the more I see, the more I experience wildly different cultures, the more I reflect on how important my house and home and family are to me. And then I recall those perfect lines of Alexander Pope when he observed, Happy the man whose wish and care

A few paternal acres bound,Content to breathe his native air, In his own ground.

                       

John Mariani is a food journalist and author of The Dictionary of Italian Food & Drink and, with Marie Rama, Grilling for Dummies. Mariani is currently food and travel columnist for Esquire; restaurant columnist for Wine Spectator; food columnist for Diversion; and restaurant columnist for Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report Collection.

 

The Ideal Community

By Lawrence Otis Graham

 

I have lived in Westchester my entire life. I love the county because it is a child-sensitive place that values its past and has citizens and communities that place great value on their history, their personalities and the qualities that make them distinctive. It is a county that has developed and grown in such a thoughtful way that makes it both complex and fascinating for residents, no matter what their age.

 

Westchester feels like a big small town. It is not only a child-friendly community but a community with residents who value these qualities and fight to preserve them generation after generation. It is a county where institutions are preserved and embraced simply for the sake of our children—even when other cities have long ago closed or abandoned the notion that child-friendly institutions and programs can enhance our lives.

 

When I was a five-year-old about to start kindergarten, my parents found a neat little summer camp, Mount Tom, hidden away on the border of Pelham and New Rochelle. With only a couple hundred day-campers, my parents knew it would be right for a shy child who’d never been away from home. Three decades later, this same cozy camp was our first stop when it was time to introduce my own shy five-year-old to camp life. In a place like Westchester, terms like cozy, small and intimate are valued as important qualities for a child’s environment.

 

As children who were fascinated by Disneyland and Disney World, my brother and I were enthralled by the magical spring and summer evenings that we could enjoy just minutes away at Rye Playland, riding the Monster Mouse, the Dragon Coaster or the Spider. Years later, I learned that Westchester was unique in having this county-run amusement park. And today, I see this whimsical park through my children’s eyes, as well as through my own adult point of view that appreciates the 1920s Art Deco architecture and old-fashioned kitschy surroundings of bright lights and cotton-candy vendors.

 

Despite its proximity to New York, much of our county is still plain and unspoiled enough to create an atmosphere that is free from the cynicism that bombards so many children today. The Westchester that I knew as a child was one where it was fun, honorable and relatively hip to have one’s own paper route and to belong to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Delivering Reporter Dispatch newspapers in White Plains from the seat of my red, three-speed Schwinn Speedster and going to Klondike Derby Scout events at Mohansic State Park in Yorktown with the other guys from my Boy Scout Troop 17 shaped my view of what the American childhood was supposed to encompass. Years later, when I became a columnist for the same paper and joined the board of the Westchester Putnam Boy Scout Council, I marveled at how long-lasting and widely embraced these Westchester institutions had become.

 

My parents always told us that when they moved to Westchester in 1957, they did so because it was the ideal community for families and children. They ultimately gave me the ideal childhood in the ideal community. It was a 1960s and 1970s childhood of buying clothes at B. Altman’s or Saks in White Plains, picking out toys at Korvettes in Pelham, seeing movies at the Parkway Theater in Mt. Vernon and having weekend lunches at Patricia Murphy in Yonkers or at the Piedmont Inn in Scarsdale. While all of these places are gone, and have been replaced by new places like The Westchester and New Roc City, the most important aspects and institutions of child-friendly Westchester are still here: the parks, the schools, the libraries, the houses of worship, the skating rinks, the children’s programs and the families that preserve them.

 

Having lost both of my parents during the past two years, I am particularly aware of how much of my Westchester childhood is gone, yet how much is still around me. I am glad that my children are benefiting from all this community has to offer. It is the best possible place for my children and for my own inner child who remembers the wonders of a place that I will always call home.

 

Chappaqua resident Lawrence Otis Graham is the author of 13 books including Our Kind of People: the History of America’s Black Upper Class, as well as the upcoming book, The Senator and the Socialite. He is an attorney and commentator on race and politics in America.

 

 

Defining Home

By Kate Buford

 

Maybe it’s because I grew up surrounded by the golden hill mounds of Contra Costa County, just east of the Berkeley Hills in Northern California. Or maybe it’s because I could (in my own native California mind) drive a car before I could walk. But what I first love about living in Westchester County is the deep pleasure of driving up, down and around the hills, rocks, stone walls and winding parkways of the land.

 

Let me be specific. I am talking here about the western edge of Westchester County, next to the Hudson. The eastern half of the county is flat, not so fun to drive around in. Such feelings are subjective if not prejudiced, but that part of the county seems to me to be more settled, more conventional, not so surprising in either terrain or culture. It used to be that when Upper West-Siders or Down-towners wanted to move to the suburbs, they just shifted farther north, to Hastings (Greenwich Village North), Dobbs Ferry (Little Italy North) and points farther up the Hudson Valley. Upper East-Siders also moved north, but to Rye, Larchmont, Darien and Greenwich. These patterns persist.

 

If I drive north of Pocantico, I get lost. Especially at night. One friend likened the experience of getting lost in western Westchester to the terror and confusion of falling into the world of Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman. Anything can happen. When my father first came to visit me here, no matter in which direction he started out, he found himself driving across the Tappan Zee Bridge. One day shortly after I moved to Westchester, it took me three hours to get from Bedford to Tarrytown. Shaken, almost in tears, I took the children into the local coffee shop for a very late lunch and wished I could order a triple martini.

 

An obvious part of the appeal of living in any part of Westchester is the fact that Manhattan is a mere 25 miles south. If you live in the western part of the county, the drive (or train ride) to “the city” takes you right along the east bank of the Hudson—a spectacular trip by anybody’s standards. Just as the proximity to San Francisco and Berkeley colored every aspect of my childhood, so did the access to New York City deeply condition the childhood of my children. They are suburban brats, just as I was—and that’s not a bad thing. They went to good public schools, just as I did. Driving them around to soccer, football and volleyball games and music recitals, I realized that all I’d ever wanted to be on a personal level was a suburban matron, driving the station wagon (minivan/SUV) up and down hills settled by intelligent, hard-working people drawn to a major center of our culture. My dream had come true.

 

But let me be even more specific. What I love about Westchester is the village where I live. Irvington is a rare place. Its Main Street, unlike those of other river villages, is perpendicular to the river. As you drive down its hill to the train station, the great gray mass of water is dead ahead, never out of your sight. On foot, you understand what Al Green was getting at when he sang, “Love is a walk down Main Street.” The sound of the Hudson Line Metro-North and Amtrak trains all day and all night punctuates the hours, like the clock in the Town Hall tower that—when it’s working—tolls the time.

 

And then there is the light. The river light is so much a part of life on this side of the county we hardly notice it. West of Broadway, on the slope of land that descends to the river, the light lasts longer. All day long the luminous ether bathes every building on Main Street. Rosy and generous, it warms our lives.

 

Irvington, like the rest of the county, has gone through remarkable civic transformations in the last decade. What began as a robber-baron summer enclave more than a century ago has become a village characterized by what one Westchester architect described as an unusual “catholicity.” Longtime residents, many of them descendents of those immigrants who worked for the owners of the big estates, mix with newcomers to create an unusually amicable polity. The village works—and works well. For those of us lucky enough to contribute to some of these local projects, the experience has created friendships based on deeply satisfying feelings of accomplishment. It’s much more fun, after all, to be a grown-up on the other side of life’s continuum—not to mention

the continent—taking charge, making things happen.

 

This ambience is an ideal environment in which to write. Each of my book projects—as well as my print and radio articles—has relied on the expertise of many Irvington residents. An almost spooky synergy brings forth people who know what I need to know—and they live right down the street. The local library is invaluable for inter-library loans that locate useful material, no matter how arcane, from anywhere in the big country out there across the Hudson. It takes a village to write a book.

 

I have now lived in Westchester longer than I had lived in California. When I set out in my car for a (known) destination—the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, the discount shoe store in Elmsford, a friend’s home in White Plains—it is with the certainty that every twist and turn of the route, every stoplight, all the gas stations, will be familiar. A Parisian friend once told me that when she walks down the streets of that city, the stones know her (“Les pierres me connaissent”). That may be as good a definition as any of home. 

 

Kate Buford has been a National Public Radio and “Marketplace” commentator and is the author of the critically acclaimed, bestselling biography, Burt Lancaster: An American Life. She was the first writer to win cooperation from Lancaster’s widow and close friends. Having grown up in Contra Costa County in Northern California, Buford now divides her life between Irvington and Lexington, VA, with her family.

 

 

Gateway to India

By Benjamin Cheever

 

When I’m traveling and strangers ask me where I’m from, I tell them Westchester. Often they have no idea what I’m talking about.

 

Not surprising. What is startling: I also have no idea what I’m talking about.

“It’s in Pennsylvania, right?” they’ll say, and I think they have a point, because when you drive into Pennsylvania, there’s a sign that reads, “America Starts Here.” But America doesn’t start in Pennsylvania. The America I know starts here, started here back in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon up our estuary.

 

Like a lot of those associated with this county, Hudson was just passing through. He was an Englishman looking for the Northwest Passage. We’re from all over, from England too, and Africa, Cuba, India. We’re looking for a part on Broadway, a job on Wall Street, love, good public schools or a backyard with a tree in it. Hudson was looking for India.  

I don’t say all this to the stranger, of course. “The one in Pennsylvania is two words,” I’ll say, or else I’ll toss out a  great and clattery cliché: “Bill Clinton  lives there.” Or I’ll say, “We’re near Manhattan.” Many of us who live in Westchester still work in the city. But many of us who live in Westchester nowadays work in the county.  I lived on Riverside Drive for a year and reverse-commuted to my office in Chappaqua, when I worked at The Reader’s Digest, which was then flourishing.  This was in the mid-eighties, not a long time ago.

 

Running on the Rockefeller  estate in Pocantico Hills, you pass tongues of white marble which come poking out of the ground.  Westchester is not built on marble, though. Westchester is built on casters. The county is more a stage-set than a place. What goes up often comes right back down.

 

If the county had a flag, it might have a wrecking ball swinging across an azure sky, bulldozers rampant on the lawn below. Eyesore-orange and huge as dinosaurs, these monsters dot the landscape. They sleep right where they work. Then, on a whim that is entirely inexplicable to anyone not himself a contractor, they’ll growl to life one morning and level a hill, or dig a basement. The speakers at the memorial service held for my father at Trinity Episcopal Church in Ossining had to pause in their eulogies to allow for the rumble of dozers outside.

 

“Dear Mrs. Josie,” my father had written to his friend, the writer Josephine Herbst, before we left Manhattan in 1951. “We move on the 28th—a week from yesterday and from now on, I guess, unreality takes over. We have a pleasant Hungarian moving man who keeps asking: ‘Who knows what brings the future?’” 

 

You’d expect nomads like us to sleep in tents, but nope, we’ve thrown up buildings—my but we’ve thrown up buildings—apartments, condos and houses in every style and color.   There are people, like the lichen that cling to rocks in a fast-moving stream, who have spent most of their lives in this county. I am one of these. Always uncertain, always slightly alien, but always here.

 

The landscape I now motor across, sometimes with a grown son at the wheel, is enlivened for me by landmarks. That’s the Todd School in Briarcliff, where I was accused of cheating on my first day, because I made friends with a little girl (I was supposed to make friends, wasn’t I?), and we decided to puzzle out the alphabet together.  There’s the intersection where a young woman who was learning to drive made a left, and in the accident this caused, she killed her father. Running beside the Croton Reservoir I told a friend that I had sent a letter to a dark-haired woman. She hadn’t responded. “Well at least I told her that I like her eyes.” That dark-haired woman and I have been married now for 22 years.

 

Clearly it’s too much to expect somebody on a cruise ship, or in a Paris Café, to come to appreciate my entire life, but even if I draw back, remove the personal, the job of locating and explaining  Westchester remains a daunting one.

 

You might suppose I have a head start. It’s been called Cheever country. But that’s a slogan and does fatal harm both to the county and to my father’s prose. His tour of the suburbs owes more to Dante than to Holmes & Kennedy. His characters robbed their neighbors (The Housebreaker of Shady Hill), poisoned the water and each other (Oh What a Paradise It Seems) and tried to crucify the children (Bullet Park). Oddly—since the books are still in print—all of this has been papered over. Cheever country means smug couples with a lawn by Scott, a house that’s paid for and gin on ice. 

The displacement has been forgotten. And yet displacement is our essential characteristic, displacement was my father’s bread and butter. 

 

“There are some Americans who, although their fathers emigrated from the Old World three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage and I am one of these,” he wrote in a favorite story, The Death of Justina. “I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents, and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world—where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time—everyone should seem to be disappointed.”

 

Do you suppose all nomads are a

little sad? Rivers, roads and death are central themes for us. The Hutchinson River Parkway is named after the Hutchinson River, which is named after Anne Hutchinson. She was killed by Indians. Yonkers is named after Adriaen Van der Donck. Van der Donck’s mill gave its name to the Saw Mill River, which gave its name to the Saw Mill River Parkway. He, too, was killed

by Indians.

 

Of course the white men killed the Indians right back, and also one another. Hudson himself was destroyed by his need to move on. Next time out in search of India, he went north into Hudson’s Bay (it couldn’t have been Hudson’s Bay then, could it?). He drove the crew hard, according to Russell Shorto’s delightful history, The Island at the Center of the World. Food ran out and they had begun to lose their teeth and to scavenge moss to eat. The 22-man crew wanted to turn back. Hudson didn’t want to turn back. The captain stepped out of his cabin at daybreak and they jumped him, took Hudson and his young son, John, the loyal and the sick, and put them off in a small open boat to die.

 

Then, and this is where the story gets good, the mutineers sailed back to England, where some of them confessed. They might have been executed themselves, but they said that Hudson had discovered the Northwest Passage and they knew where it was.

I like that. Not exactly inspiring, but with a ring of authenticity.

 

Despite its checkered past, the county has a reputation now for stolid affluence. Nonsense. There are rich people in Westchester, but there are also poor ones. The county is said to be exclusive, but this, too, is an obvious canard. Four hundred forty-eight square miles, 940,000 people, and no two alike. We’ve got most every nationality and every major faith. Move the Bronx Zoo north a bit and Noah could dock in Yonkers and fill his ark again, two of every creature under God. 

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