A Stroll at 4 a.m.

A Stroll at 4 a.m.

J.P. Slote


Reach for the Iphone. Click. Time: 3:30 am. Another sleepless hour gone by. To hell with this. Get up. Pull on clothes at foot of bed. Soundlessly slip on shoes. Snores from other side of bed. Take key from dresser. Quietly close door. Stand for moment and listen. Silence. Walk slowly across landing to stairs. Stop. Listen. 259 souls—

—more! (Husbands, wives, grandparents, great grandparents, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren). Every room (259 rooms!) in the house is occupied. All sleeping. The tumult of the day, the supper hall, the buffet scene, the groaning plates—the “Full American Plan,” three meals a day plus afternoon tea—the cooks, waiters, dishwashers, doormen and reception people, cleaning staff and spa people—all gone, departed, either back down the mountain to the town, or to their sleeping quarters, all—in town and castle—sunk into heavy sleep. Descend the main staircase, broad, carpeted, creaking stairs. Descend thru vast sleeping silence to the main floor. Glance left, right.

In each direction, long winding halls lined with sepia photographs of statesmen, presidents, clergymen, even Abdu’l-Baha, eldest son of the founder of the Ba’hai faith, even Thomas Mann! All guests here once. The storied past. Photos of dignitaries gathered between 1895 and 1916, for Conferences on International Arbitration, which, the accompanying caption explains, led to the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

A rustic lodge on Shawangunk Ridge, on Lake Mohonk, with a view of the Catskills to the north. Built on a grand scale, stone and turrets; started in 1879, completed in 1910; built by two Quaker brothers, twins no less, to provide for their friends’ comfort; a getaway from the stress of modern life, where nature could be contemplated in its untrammeled beauty, indeed where nature could be supported and improved upon. The worthy brothers were early practitioners of conservation and stewardship of nature and the study of botany, geology, and outdoor living. The traditions continue to this day, as the doorman told us: It is still a family-owned place. Descendants of the Smiley brothers continue the traditions. The place has its own heating system, fire department, public works department, etc. etc. Yet there’s still a Teddy Roosevelt-feel about the place. Indeed, Teddy was a guest here, and so were John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, and Rutherford B. Hayes….

Off the twisting, winding halls are innumerable alcoves, one more charming than the next, with small fireplaces where fires burn on a cold day, with Victorian-era chaise-lounges and love seats in fading plush, and bay windows looking out at charming gardens, the lake, or the mountains.

Pass the cozy reading room (friendly reading lights still on should a sleepless guest seek the comfort of a bestseller of yesteryear or an ancient classic). A modest sign advises “No computers or cell phones please.” The fires in the fireplaces are out. The absent servers (no longer servants, now employees) will resume their labors in the early morning, lighting the fires just as they put them out the night before, like celestial adjuncts to the sun god, whose daily labors facilitate his chariot’s passage across the sky. Unsung heroes laboring for the common good. For now, however, the whole house sleeps as if with one heavy breast, rising and falling, sunk in dream.

Don’t hesitate. Push open the doors to the Grand Parlor. What a room! A vast room with high ceiling, huge stone fireplace. Plush chairs still set out in lines for an audience that has departed….. Earlier that night after the massive dinner buffet we peeked in on the night’s entertainment. An hour in, we thought, we’d catch the end. Word had gone around that tonight was Bubblemania! A treat for the whole family! Every seat in the room was taken, all eyes fixed upon a high stage set up at the back. The show was in full swing. We went up to the balcony, found seats on Victorian loveseats. Peered down at the rapt attention of the spectators, eyes lifted, fixed upon the stage. The Bubble Man held complete sway. He was in high gear. Everyone was clapping now for a little girl from the audience who had volunteered. Then he sent her on her way back to her parents. He launched into some self-promotional patter, nimbly bounding off the stage—he had some cards on an easel on the side which anyone could take after the show, the cards told some nifty bubble tricks that anyone could do. “You don’t need computers and video games to have fun, kids, all you need is bubbles,” as well as how to hire him for events. He advised that he would autograph the cards after the show. Then he bounded back onto the stage. He was a cheery bald clean-shaven guy of perhaps 60, a graduate of Ringling Brothers Clown College, he told us, who loved bubbles and big band music. He did a bubble ballet to a Count Basie number. Applause. Now he needed another volunteer. A boy this time. Many hands shot up eagerly. A lucky boy was chosen and came up to the stage.

There were several warm-up tricks, performed with the help of the boy. “You hold this and step over here, and then (bubble wand in the bubble water) look at this!” Multifarious glistening bubbles billowing and wallowing over the stage, before bursting in a wet mess on the stage.

But now Bubble Man was introducing his pièce de résistance. “I am going to put this boy inside a bubble! Don’t worry son, there’s air inside the bubble. You’ll be able to breathe.” And, with fanfare, he ceremoniously placed at mat on the floor in the center of the stage and had the boy step onto it. Then Bubble Man disappeared, only for an instant, behind a scrim and came out holding… a super big bowl of bubble water! Which he carefully placed adjacent to the boy. Then back behind the scrim again and this time appearing with—a super big, bubble wand! The biggest anyone had ever seen. The bubble wand fit perfectly inside the bowl! “Now,” Bubble Man intoned, “I just go like this (sloshing the wand inside the stuff) and…” pulling the wand out with the gesture of a master he slid the bubble wand down around the small standing figure of the boy and—yes! for a breathless instant! the boy was inside the luminescent oily-prismed bubble—and then, just when you thought the moment had passed, Bubble Man slid the wand swiftly up around the boy and arced it over and down around himself and—the two of them looked out at us in wonder! “We’re both inside the same bubble!” Bubble Man, triumphant! Then the bubble burst. Thunderous applause. Bubble Man had the boy take a bow.

Shortly after that, the show was over. “Klein kunst,” Martin said, getting up. “That’s what it’s called in German.” We went downstairs, into the parlor, to say goodnight to the two ancients, our hosts. Families were collecting themselves. Sleeping children had to be carried back to their rooms. “That was awesome!” one boy with stars in his eyes said as his family moved past us. We found our two ancient ones (all smiles, “Oh, did you see the show?”) and said goodnight. Then moved up the grand staircase together with the throng, and opened the door to our room, number 237, small but comfortable, mostly bed with crisp white covers, and a balcony with two wooden rocking chairs, looking out beyond the parking lot to the distant mountains, where we smoked.

But waking at 2, not asleep at 3, finally getting up and dressed at 3:30, slipping out of the room. Descending the staircase where the sounds of children’s delight—liberated from the 21st century by the contours of this anachronistic lodge—seemed like soap bubbles burst on the carpet. Silence. Utter silence. Could be a different planet. Everyone’s gone to the moon. Just one roams restless, ambulatory in the silence magnified by vanished echoes.

Will all the doors be open (or locked?) No, the doors to the Grand Parlor open. Even most vast and spacious, with rows of empty chairs. The stage has been removed. In its place a large space and behind it, a large window looking out at the lake. Roam around like a cat in the dark. It’s not completely dark though. High on opposite walls, four giant oil portraits are illuminated, the two brothers, the Smiley twins, Albert and Alfred—full beards, bald pates, clean-shaven above the lip, sober suits—and their Victorian wives. On opposite walls of the Grand Parlor, all night long, they stand (gentlemen) and sit (ladies) illuminated even at 4 in the morning, absent the gaze of observers. . . . Another object, earthbound, wreathed in shadows, draws the attention. Moving across the room to an impressive bronze bust on an impressive wooden stand, come face to face with Sagonaquado, Native American chief. Stern-faced, strong-browed, gaze unwavering. There’s information, on a bronze plaque, to this effect:

“From 1883 to 1916, annual conferences took place at Mohonk Mountain House, sponsored by Albert Smiley, to improve the living standards of native American Indian populations. These meetings brought together government representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the House and Senate committees on Indian Affairs, as well as educators, philanthropists, and Indian leaders to discuss the formulation of policy. The 22,000 records from the 34 conference reports are now at the library of Haverford College for researchers and students of American history.” [Wikipedia]

There’s also a story:

“Sagonaquado was a noble chief, the soul of honor. He lived with his people on the shores of Lake Michigan, near Squaw Bay, where Deep River enters the lake, near the white people. Sagonaquado was the father of twin boys, who resembled each other as much as the twin brothers of Mohonk, Albert and Alfred Smiley. One day, Sagonaquado’s sons were playing. They kindled a fire that destroyed a single haystack belonging to a white neighbor. Sagonaquado saw the destruction. He was a poor man but he went straight to his neighbor and said, “I have no herdgrass, I have no maize, but we are at fault and we must pay the damages.” The kind neighbor said, “Not at all, Sagonaquado. I have a boy myself, and boys will be boys. Let it all be forgotten, as it shall be forgiven.” “Not so,” said Sagonaquado, “you must take an installment of the best I have.” And he threw down a coonskin and a bearskin and said, “Take these.” The white man protested, but in vain. Sagonaquado left. Six months he was gone. The following March he returned laden with furs of the richest kind. He went directly to the white man’s house, and said, “I have come to pay my debt.” “No,” said the white man, “I can take nothing more from you.” The chief straightened up with dignity, and said, “I am a man!” threw down the pelts, and strode away.” [Proceedings of the Annual Meeting: forgottenbooks]

The Smiley twins’ good Quaker hearts were enflamed by the long history of injustice visited upon the Indian people by the greedy and conniving white man. In their zeal, they strove to bring Christianity, churches, and schools, the English language, civilized dress and manners to the Indians. In recognition of their tireless labors, the artist Mr. Theodore Bauer, presented them with Sagonaquado’s bust “at the moment where, lifting his stern face, he says, ‘I am a man.’”

The floor creaks. A window sash sighs. Sleepers shift in 259 beds.

Turn away, traverse the fraying carpets, past the plush and faded divans. Cross the Grand Parlor, under the sovereign gaze of the Smileys and their wives, eternally illuminated high above.

Head for the side doors (there are doors everywhere). Open or locked? Open. (All doors to the house are open.) Push it open, smell the night air and the lake. Fearing (will it lock behind?). Prop it open with a sign on a stand. (“Please use other door.”)

The night is mild, though it is November. Thanksgiving weekend in fact. The oppressive silence of the house left behind a propped door.

Out here on the porch, silence has no meaning. The night is breezeless, yet one rocking chair in a long row of rocking chairs creaks. The night is full of subtle darkness and exquisite light, thresholds of sound. The cliffs that ring the lake are shadowy, depthless, but the lake shimmers in the reflected light of the stars. The world turned upside down, what is above is below, a glacial bowl of watery starlight, starry water—indifferent to an observer’s gaze.