They were never dancing
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They were never dancing

A look back at the Catskills 40 years ago and the left-out locals

Charles Rubin is a computer systems engineer with a major media company. He lives in Hoboken.

The once majestic indoor pool lies in ruins at Grossinger’s.
The once majestic indoor pool lies in ruins at Grossinger’s.

First Person

Anyone who is not familiar with the part of the Catskills that I summer in could learn about it from the movie “Dirty Dancing,” which shows those Julys and Augusts during the 1960s. “Sweet Lorraine” and “A Walk on The Moon,” two lesser known movies, provide a broader perspective into that era. The three films force me to confront a serious insensitivity toward the communities that we visited, an insensitivity that continues to the present.

The places that inspired those films are gone, but the awkwardness continues.

“Sweet Lorraine,” directed by Steve Gomer, is the story of Molly Garber (Trini Alvarado), who escapes her parents’ failing marriage in California and makes her way to work at her grandmother’s hotel in South Fallsburg, New York. The hotel is a lively place, with aerobics by the pool, a tummler (activity director) who gets everyone up and moving, mahjong, cards, and schmaltzy shows in the evening. Over the course of that summer, Molly’s grandmother (Maureen Stapleton) realizes that she can no longer keep the place open. Reluctantly, Molly comes to the same conclusion.

“A Walk on the Moon,” directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Diane Lane and Anna Paquin, looks at a different part of the Catskills experience, the bungalow colony as an odd mashup as city neighbors transplant themselves there from late June until Labor Day. The days at the bungalow colony are punctuated by visits from the pickle man, the blouse man, the ice cream man, whose arrivals were announced over the public address system. It was summer 1969 and a mother and teenage daughter discover themselves.

Charles Rubin

“Dirty Dancing” portrayed a life of romancers and dangerous liaisons with the guests. My Catskill summers were more mundane, spent at Jewish summer camps and resorts long past their glory days. I was among high school and college kids, mostly from Brooklyn and the Bronx, working 10-hour days, six days a week. We slept in bunks, 15 to a room, with no indoor plumbing. We were young and away from home with few responsibilities and some money in our pockets. It was heaven. We were just kids; we were studying to be accountants, attorneys, doctors, and engineers, but during the summer we worked as busboys, stagehands, waiters, and kitchen help.

Still, there were jobs that we didn’t do. We were rarely dishwashers, cooks, groundskeepers, housekeepers, or pot washers. We had a special pejorative name for the people who did these less glamorous jobs that I’ve never heard used elsewhere — bimmy. A bimmy was someone down on his luck and willing to take a bus ticket to Monticello for room, board, and a job. Bimmies rarely lasted more than the two weeks it took to get a pay envelope before they took the cash, got a bus back to New York City, and never returned. We rarely learned their names. Our lack of empathy as I write this makes me shudder.

This was where the three movies got it right, highlighting the dearth of our interactions with the local population. There was always a handyman, like in “Sweet Lorraine,” or a blouse man, as in “A Walk on the Moon,” but there was little other acknowledgement that people actually lived full time, not very far away. The hotels and camps rarely considered hiring locals. We never even thought about them. If we went out to a local watering hole, it grew tense if we rubbed shoulders with anyone other than summer workers like us.

I don’t understand how we were so blind.

All three movies involved an attempt to break through the barrier; each was a cautionary tale. In “Dirty Dancing,” Johnny Castle, the charismatic dancer, is fired because he is suspected of getting a waitress pregnant. “A Walk on the Moon” tells about the scandalous affair between Pearl Kantrowitz and the blouse man. Molly, in “Sweet Lorraine,” has a summer romance with the indispensable handyman, which her grandmother and co-workers frown upon. “A Walk on the Moon” also includes an invasion of long-haired naked revelers, spilling over from the nearby Woodstock festival, as a reminder of how frightened we were of people who weren’t like us.

An abandoned bungalow colony in Lake Huntington, N.Y.

The Catskills still stand. I know that because I still summer there. In 1986 I lived in New York City and dreamed of escaping the day-to-day of my midtown Manhattan job for the wooded hills, cold lakes, and winding roads of my beloved Catskills. I bought a cabin in a bungalow colony that had been converted to a co-op in Lake Huntington, N.Y., 18 miles west of Monticello, once the hub of faded Catskill glory.

What our 2018 community shares with my experiences of 40 years ago is the way we still refuse to integrate with the community around us. Other than the help we need for maintenance, landscaping, and manual labor, we have almost no contact with the people who actually live there.

Most of our summer retreats of 40 years ago are gone, but what remains is that wall. I only realize now how deliberately we continue to set ourselves apart from our neighbors, and I am ashamed.

My summer community has taken minimal steps toward bridging that gap, attending the occasional pancake breakfast, tractor parade, or penny social (a kind of mass raffle of eclectic stuff). Some of my summer-only neighbors recently registered to vote in our upstate New York district, hoping to influence the debate on fracking. I doubt that made us many friends among our full-year neighbors, who see the jobs and the leases fracking offers as a lifeline.

I am impressed with our neighbors’ tolerance of us, and I wonder how they interpret “Dirty Dancing,” “A Walk on the Moon,” and “Sweet Lorraine.” We need a movie showing their ‘60s Catskills, where they were during Woodstock, and what they think about the strangers who arrive in June and are gone by September.

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