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Paving the way

December 8, 2011
By David Smith

Although Roger Tubby, the then-co-publisher of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, in writing in support of my application to college in 1954, noted that I grew up in "straightened conditions" (a somewhat typical state of affairs on certain parts of French Hill in the '40s and '50s), I, in fact, had the most privileged of childhoods. And I have never for a moment lost my sense of gratitude to those who contributed to it - and to the town that made it possible.

On Broadway, over the Top Hat Bar, was a magic shop where, for 10 cents, I could walk away with "Instant Smoke from your Fingertips," "Nail through Finger" or "Dead Finger in Box." I forgot the name of the man who ran the shop, although I like to think it was Mr. Hand.

Around the corner on Bloomingdale Avenue was the William Morris playground. I made my debut at the playground in a most-beautiful-baby contest (skeptics can look it up in the Enterprise), and in the ensuing years, I managed to down endless glasses of milk and oatmeal cookies, which tasted particularly good because they were free. Had they awarded frequent-flyer miles for using the swings at the William Morris playground, I could have circled the globe a few times. I think I circled the metal crossbar at the top of the swings once. Once was enough.

In any case, there were some very kind people looking after the playground.

Further up Broadway was the Pontiac Theater, where for 25 cents my Broadway School friends and I could see the Bowery Boys or Charlie Chan or Gene Autry plus a serial and "The March of Time," interrupted only by repairs that the projectionist needed to make when the filmstrips broke. At home we had a console radio with which I could circle the globe with "Sky King," "Captain Midnight," "Smilin' Jack" and "Terry and the Pirates."

Early on I lucked into the most incredible of jobs: waiting on customers, carrying out the garbage, cleaning the garbage chute and washing and decorating the display windows at Meyer's Drugstore. The garbage chute ran from the soda fountain to the basement. It was at the drugstore - after school, during holidays and every summer between the age of 10 and my graduation from college - that I met a cast of characters that you could otherwise find only on the screen at the Pontiac: A.C. "Bags" Bagdasarian, who worked at the radio station (he and others and I performed several radio mysteries on WNBZ; I think I was mostly in charge of the sound effects); Eddie Vogt, the ex-vaudevillian who wrote the "Our Town" column for the Enterprise; the actors and actresses who performed in the Saranac Summer Theater, all from the Yale Drama School (I was enlisted from behind displays of Pepto-Bismol and Bromo-Seltzer to be a Japanese houseboy in "The Bat" (my blond hair was carbon-papered every night) and a stable boy in "The Importance of Being Earnest"); the Amazing Ballantine, a patient at Will Rogers who taught me a mesmerizing assortment of magic routines (he later was Gruber on "McHale's Navy"!); and an endless stream of TB patients, always ready with the bon mots and repartee, and always smiling and laughing and talking about stuff I only vaguely understood, which was probably just as well. The garbage chute, by the way, had to be cleaned from below, to loosen the blockage, and it was always a mistake to look up the chute to see what was going on. Bill Meyer was a great boss. He said that cleaning the chute built character.

On Christmas Eve at Meyer's, there would always be at least one phone call at about 10 at night with some guy at the other end shouting, "Don't close! Don't close!" He'd show up 20 minutes later and buy a huge bottle of cologne that would probably last his wife a lifetime. (I try to call Bill every Christmas Eve about 10 p.m. at his home in Florida and plead, "Don't close! Don't close!")

I learned recently about the carousel planned for the William Morris playground, and I checked with my brother and two sisters, who confirmed that the playground was, for them also, a second home. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I was bitten by a strange dog at the playground once. Sometime thereafter my father brought home a stray mongrel, presumably with the idea that in the future I could be bitten by a dog I knew.) In any case, I can't tell you how happy we all were to learn that we would have the chance to honor our mother by way of one of the paver stones leading to the carousel. In the early days, our mother oversaw our visits to the playground. Those visits were also an opportunity for her to talk with other mothers, and I have, in my mind, pictures of her laughing and smiling along with all of the children and all the mothers.

You can't have a better memory than that. I expect that my readers spent their formative, equally happy years at the playground or know someone who did. So if you've read this far, here's a thought: Instead of a gallon bottle of Chanel for her for Christmas, how about an Adirondack Carousel paverstone?


David Smith graduated from Saranac Lake High School in 1954 (where, he says, he had the finest collection of classmates a boy could hope to have) and then attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School (where, years later, he became vice dean). Following in the footsteps of Captain Midnight and the others, he has lived and worked in Africa and Asia. He is currently a professor at a law school in Singapore. He performs magic for all of his classes. He is the author of two mysteries, "The Leo Conversion" and "Timbuktu," and is just completing a novel of a childhood in Saranac Lake.



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