One man's good move

  • Cartoon of a road leading from New York to Santa Fe

    Diane Sylvain
 

My father is impeccably urban. Except for a stint at boarding school in New England and a few summer jobs in the country - he was fired from one for accidentally hoeing the heads off a half-mile-long row of cabbage - he remained in New York almost his entire life. His tastes, his habits of living and thinking, his soul, belong to the Apple.

Like many native New Yorkers, he is uncomfortable with conspicuous consumption. There's simply no room for it. Where would one put a sports car or a boat? There is barely enough room on the apartment walls to hang the most beloved paintings. He adores Broadway, the Broadway of Gershwin, Mamet, and Shepard; he distrusts motor vehicles that aren't yellow, and did without a car in the city for 30 years. He walks everywhere, and always carries a book in case of a subway ride.

In the face of dirt, muggings and sirens, he possesses an abstract concern and a sangfroid which chiefly consists of ignoring them all. His literary tastes run toward the classical: that is, they are snobby. He drinks his cocktails in a short glass - I have never seen him drink a beer from a bottle - and he once loved a dog the size of a loaf of bread. And he has a fierce, if unconscious, metrocentrism - the same world view that inspired the famous Steinberg cartoon, in which the five boroughs occupy most of the nation, with New Jersey off to the west, and, farther along, a little strip of California. Pop's is the adoration of a feudal vassal to whom even the idea of living any place else would never seriously occur.

He once went to visit my sister in Minneapolis and returned astonished. "I looked down the street," he said, "and there at the end of the street was green. It wasn't a park. It was Minnesota."

Pop recently moved to Santa Fe.

I remember a couple of years ago he told me that he was walking along Madison Avenue on a sunny Sunday morning and looked down to find that he had been following a trail of blood spots running up the pavement. It upset him so much that he returned home and wrote a poem about it. The temptation is to lay his move West at the feet of some simple historical trigger - the blood spots; New York Gov. Pataki; the refurbishing of Times Square. The truth is likely more vague.

My father, like most Americans, is romantic. One of the summer jobs he didn't get fired from was working on a ranch near Durango, Mexico. That was in the "40s, and there were still pistoleros riding the fences and talk of dangerous bands of Apaches in the mountains. Pop returned to his life as a Madison Avenue ad man. He began to dream incessantly of the Great Plains. He became a self-taught expert on the history of the Apaches and several Plains tribes. So it was not remarkable that one summer my parents rented a car and drove west, stopping in Santa Fe.

In truth, what touched my father first was the Santa Fe Bookseller bookstore. It had the most extensive collection of books on Native American history he had ever seen in one place. And there was the clean light and the Spanish influence, the Chicano culture, the nearby pueblos. The art, especially by white artists of Indian subjects, was mostly exploitive - and while there did seem to be a lot of New Yorkers around in cowboy hats and blanket coats, those things, like a garbage strike, could be overlooked.

Two years ago Pop rented a house in Santa Fe for half the year. My parents had separated and he spent half his time there. He extended the lease. He rented a car. He got to know the "war captain" at the Jemez Pueblo and his wife, both ceramicists. My father's significant-other, a painter, found that she was wildly productive in Santa Fe. Pop, who has been retired for a while, took art classes in town. He discovered a cafe that knew how to make iced coffee and had the New York Times. It had a bookstore in back. He got to know the owner. He found that he really loved to drive, out into the desert, to the pueblos, to the mountains. He learned that he liked to hear coyotes instead of sirens. The tourists and the crowds downtown were a nuisance, but they lent a festive atmosphere to the Plaza on Indian Market days. Pop began to dread returning to New York.

Recently he bought a house, and when I told him that Santa Fe was experiencing a bust he sounded gleeful. "I'd love to read about it," he said.

Last August, my sister Callie, a New Yorker, decided to get married in Santa Fe. A week before the wedding, the brother of the groom called my father. "We want to have a bachelor party sort of thing for John the day before," he said. "Not a traditional bachelor party, a ceremony. We thought maybe we could rent horses and go for a ride, you know, out to some spot that was sacred to the Indians, and have it there."

My father became incensed. He called me. He was hot. "For God's sake," he rasped. "What do these guys think? You can rent horses and just ride off to some sacred place? That they're just scattered around like Taco Bells? What the hell would give us the right?"

Like so many immigrants before him, my father had sunk his roots in the West with the speed and tenacity of a willow.

Peter Heller is a writer who lives in Paonia, Colorado.

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