The small New Jersey town where I was born (and whose name happened to be eponymous with that of my family) was directly across the Hudson River from New York City – by ferry or the George Washington Bridge. Most of my neighbors saw it as a patriotic duty to avoid that trip, and Coytesville was a typically self-reliant community as it had been for a hundred years before they built the bridge; long before my first Coyte ancestor stepped ashore from Plymouth. We had not one, but two barber shops – Jack’s and Robert DeNesio’s, and a first-rate tailor named Fidelio Barbanti whose portly wife set in motion my deep love affair with Italian cooking.
On Sunday mornings we listened first to the Catholic Church bells announcing Early Mass followed by the deep notes born in the Dutch Reformed Belfry (where I went to catch gray squirrels on Boy Scout nights) and finally by the mighty carillons from St. Stephens Episcopal with me swinging on the thick ropes below after I first started the electric-powered pump for the organ my uncle would preside over. It was a “Norman Rockwell-kind” of town in those pre-war days when America slept almost blissfully.
Of all the institutions that gave identity to our pioneer village none held more fascination for young kids than the local shoemakers’ shop, situated close to the middle of town where 2nd street turned into Washington Avenue. Make no mistake, this was no “fix-it” emporium where one dropped off damaged and wounded footwear needing some first-aid (although that happened there also); this was where real artisans made shoes from the “last” up; shoes that had real souls so to speak. It featured a glass store-front through which passers-by could pause to watch the maze of moving belts and turning gears and shafts and sheaves which transferred power and motion to sweet-smelling slabs of hand-cut leather cut to size by blades and pierced by awls and thread and polished by shiny oils and stains and waxes. The myriad smells and perfumes filling the air only hinted at the magical alchemy going on amidst all that organized sound and motion. Pipe smoke mixing with all those other tantalizing nose-tingling odors only added to the experience. I’m sure that within a mile or two of our town – certainly in Englewood or Hackensack – there were other shops where the same kind of small manufacturing operations went on. (After all, there was a baby carriage factory where it was known gambling tables came out after dark.)
In 1917 – about the time my father along with many others – went off to France to fight the Boche the typical American still traveled less than 2000 miles a year of which 1600 was just walking around. The battle of Gettysburg was fought back in 1863 when Confederate forces learned they could obtain replacement shoes in that Pennsylvania crossroads town. Perhaps no human statistic has seen more dramatic change in recent years than international travel. My son who is engaged in a business which is global in nature has found himself flying about 200,000 miles (approximately 80-100 flight segments) a year requiring him to be away from home 100 to 150 nights per year.) A single generation ago such a schedule would have been untenable, and even today poses its own kinds of challenges to personal and health management skills.
The very memories inlaid among the unusual archeology of the 200-year-old family home in which my early years were lived bring nostalgic smiles to mind. The largest, most capacious closet in that old home had been created from a space which had been reclaimed from an old dumbwaiter which had once connected the downstairs kitchens of the old Stagecoach Inn to the upstairs dining room. It had become the multigenerational household “shoe closet” housing its own secrets, including a pair of old farm shoes with a secret notch cut into one heel designed to quickly and bloodlessly bring the life of an overage hen to a swift and quiet close in time for a Sunday dinner beneath the talented foot of a family war bride from Iowa.