In the Catskills, a Big Slice of 1953
Where do you spend your summer vacation? The beach? The boonies? The bleachers? All fantastic. But my family prefers to summer someplace else: 1953.
Or maybe it's 1962 or 1947. I can't quite put my finger on it. But when we get up to our tiny, rented bungalow in the Catskills — actually, just an hour and a half away from Manhattan — we can't possibly still be in 2007.
If we were, how to explain our linoleum floor and white enamel Acme brand sink? How come our end table, when turned upside down, reveals a yellowing tag that says "Radio Table"? How could it be 2007 and yet we let our kids run around outside and don't worry about where they are? And when it's dark and they finally come home, they can sleep on the porch, drifting off to the sounds of a canasta game next door. Or if it's a Saturday night, we can get a sitter and walk over to a wooden building absurdly called the "Casino" — really a barn with tables and free seltzer — where a lounge singer materializes, along with a Borscht Belt comedian?
That kind of thing just doesn't happen in the 21st century. So the easiest way to tell people about our bungalow colony — the Rosmarins Cottages — is just to say it's Brigadoon: a hideaway that only comes to life once every 100 years (or really, only for a few months every summer), where nothing ever changes.
Although they did put in a pool in 1958.
Bungalow colonies like this used to be all over the Catskills aka the Jewish Alps. From the early 20th century on, cramped city dwellers eager to escape the city's heat — and polio — fled, usually with their own ethnic group, to clusters of rustic cabins.
At first the cabins were so rustic, they had shared kitchens. But as time went by and the grandly poor became the modestly middle class, these cabins morphed into "cuchulains" — Yiddish for "cook alones," something most housewives were, apparently, desperate to do.
"My mother went once to a shared kitchen and she could not stand it!" a woman named Estelle was saying as we bobbed in the pool the other day.
"You should see my pots," a lady named Fran piped up, dog paddling over. "Some of them are 50 years old and shiny as new. You'll come over, I'll show you and then …"
That's bungalow life in a nutshell: All schmoozing, all the time. You pull up a lawn chair and start talking. Or you drop in on someone, or someone drops in on you, and you get out the coffee and then some cookies … and eight hours later, it's time for dinner outside on the picnic table. You invite them to stay. They do. And you talk.
Where are the kids? Ah, that is the best part of all. The kids are … somewhere. You don't have to know exactly where. There are no cars allowed amidst the 100 bungalows, so no one can get run over. And because everyone more or less knows everyone else — some families have been coming for decades (we've only been coming for seven years) — it's just not scary. The kids run around, they play ball, sometimes they mope. What'd they used to call that again?
Oh, yeah. Childhood. Or maybe childhood circa 1953.
Bungalows flourished through the '50s and even the '60s, but they started to peter out in the '70s, done in by the three A's: air conditioning, airplanes and assimilation. Air-conditioned homes were comfier than Catskills cabins. Airplanes took people to more exciting places. And assimilation meant that anybody who didn't want to hang with his peeps didn't have to anymore. Today, most of the bungalow colonies still in existence cater exclusively to Hasidic or Russian-born clientele.
There are, however, a few holdouts such as the one we go to. I wish there were more. Maybe the world really wasn't any better in 1953 — but I have a feeling summers were.
Lenore Skenazy is a contributing editor at The New York Sun. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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