The Haimish Line

Chances are, you missed David Brooks’ column last week in the New York Times.  You were probably too busy mucking out your basement — or you didn’t have lights or computers to read it with.

Too bad.  Brooks described his family’s summer visit to 7 African safari camps.  Some were simple, lacking electricity or running water.  (Sound familiar?)  Others were relatively luxurious, with showers, even pools.

A haimish-looking safari camp.

The simple camps, Brooks said, were “friendly, warm and familial.”  Guests dined together at communal tables.  There were impromptu soccer games, spear-throwing and archery competitions with staff members.

The more elegant camps, Brooks said, “felt colder.”  Families dined at separate tables.  Tents were further apart.  Staff kept their distance too.

Brooks used a Yiddish word — haimish — to describe the simpler camps.  The word, he said, “suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.”

The columnist devised what he called “an invisible Haimish Line” to describe American life today.  Restaurants and bars can exist on either side of it.

So can hotels.  “You’ll find multiple generations at a Comfort Inn breakfast area,” Brooks wrote, with people “likely to exchange pleasantries over the waffle machine.”

In a 4-star hotel, meanwhile, guests “quietly answer email on their phones.”

So too with money.  “When we get some extra income,” Brooks noted, “we spend it on privacy, space and refinement.”

That has benefits, of course — “let’s not forget the nights at the Comfort Inn when we were trying to fall asleep while lacrosse teams partied in the hallways and the rooms next door,” Brooks said — but too often we fall on the wrong side of the Haimish Line.

Last week, Hurricane Irene forced all Westporters to the same side.

When disaster strikes, everyone heads to the diner.

Sherwood Diner — one of the few restaurants in town that never lost power — epitomized haimish.  Lines stretched out the door — so strangers shared tables.  Not all the staff made it in — so patrons cleared food and served coffee.  Conversation flowed easily.  Everyone had stories to tell — and hear.

We were haimish with neighbors, offering extra ice, beds and hands to clean up, even as we worried about our own homes.

We were haimish at the hardware store, providing little tips on how to cope with big problems.

We were haimish as we drove, stopping at light-less lights, waving others through the very intersections we always zoom by, even when red.

Westporters are not normally haimish.  We like our private tables, our luxury safari tents.  Given a choice — and we usually have one — we pick the Ritz over the Comfort Inn.  Or at least the Marriott.

Last week, we didn’t have a choice.  We had to be haimish.

So we were.  And we lived to tell the tale.

Just a few days later, we’ve reverted to our non-haimish ways.  We’re back at our own tables at the diner, and if the waitress doesn’t ask for our order quickly, we’re pissed.  The traffic lights work again, which means we ignore them.

In fact, just a couple of days after Irene, we complained that the noise from our neighbors’ generators kept us up at night.  That’s not very haimish, is it?

Westport will never live on the good side of the Haimish Line.  It’s not in our DNA.  Besides, it takes work.

But maybe — just maybe — now that we’ve seen what the other side is like, we can wander over more frequently for a visit.

4 responses to “The Haimish Line

  1. Missed it? We cut it out and gave it to our kids and have been trying it on all week. Is this Haimish, is that Haimish? Its pretty entertaining looking out for it and it feels marvelous when you spot it, practice it or receive it! Dan, thanks for highlighting the wonderful David Brooks and making it local for all of us!

  2. Dan, please submit it
    to the New York Times asap.

  3. Dick Lowenstein

    The editorial below, from the Westport News is along the same lines as David Brooks’ column, which I enjoyed reading, too. I am also reminded of these lyrics from “The Fantasticks”,

    Try to remember the kind of September
    When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

    Editorial / When the plug is pulled on instant gratification
    Friday Sept. 2, 2011
    No one under the age of 25 will believe this, but it’s true.
    There was a time when, if you were away from home and needed to make a phone call, you had to find a public phone and put coins into it to make a call. And if you didn’t have enough coins or nobody answered, you were flat out of luck.
    There was a time when, if you wanted to see the box score from that night’s ball game or check tomorrow’s movie times, you had to wait for the morning paper.
    There was a time when if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the movies.
    And there was a time when, if the power went out, you lit a candle, turned on a transistor radio and waited.
    Now, of course, everyone over the age of seven has a cell phone. We can call anyone instantly and be called instantly. But even that is so 2001.
    Why strain your vocal chords instantly when we can text instantly, email instantly or tweet instantly — from anywhere with a device that fits in your pocket.
    Why go to the movies when you can get the movies to come to you — on demand. And instantly.
    Technology has made us a society of right-now, instant gratification.
    Maybe that is why some among us seem unable to summon an ounce of patience when the power goes out and they smell a conspiracy if it’s not back on before their laptop batteries die. There is no button to push, no 4G device to get power restored “on demand.”
    We have chosen to live in a coastal community, one where the power of the sea makes us especially vulnerable to severe weather — both to nor’easters from December to March and to tropical storms and hurricanes from August to October.
    After Tropical Storm Irene came crashing into Connecticut early Sunday, she left nearly a million electric customers without power — 8,300 of them in Westport, about two-thirds of the town.
    Yes, Connecticut Light & Power had plenty of warning about this one.
    Yes, by late Wednesday — more than three days after the storm hit — CL&P still had not restored service to a couple of thousand Westport customers.
    Yes, it could be as late as Tuesday before power is restored to everyone in CL&P’s Norwalk service area — of which Westport is a part.
    Yes, when everyone is plugged back in, state utility regulators should conduct a thorough investigation of CL&P’s preparedness, its communication with municipal officials and customers and its effectiveness — or lack thereof — in restoring power.
    So no, we are not an apologist for CL&P.
    That said, some in Westport have had unreasonable expectations.
    Just 24 hours after the storm hit, before floodwaters that spilled from the Saugatuck River into Main Street had fully receded, some impatient Westporters were on the phone, angrily demanding to know why their power had not been restored, accusing both CL&P and town officials of lying to the public and insisting that an investigation be launched.
    On Wednesday afternoon, Westport public works officials were giving CL&P high grades for its communication and cooperation working in unison with town crews.
    Two town public works crews were paired with two CL&P crews and were methodically working together — the town crew clearing away debris so the utility crew could restore power, or, in some cases, the utility crew first killing live wires so the town crew could safely remove felled trees.
    That is a far cry from neighboring communities served by United Illuminating Co. In neighboring Fairfield, town officials are livid because the utility’s communication has been so poor they can’t coordinate public works crews with utility crews.
    While CL&P has been providing regular updates on its website to customers in scores of individual communities, UI’s website has been unable to handle traffic from thousands of customers with no clue when they might get service.
    Twenty-hour hours after the storm hit, a woman in Fairfield planted a sign on her lawn that read, “Where’s My Power?”
    At that moment, half the town was without power; at least 25 streets were closed because of felled trees, live wires in the roadway or other hazards; eight schools were without power; and officials were making it a priority to first restore power to commercial areas where people could buy food, drinking water, gasoline and other necessities.
    “Where’s My Power?” Not our power or even the power but my power.
    Sadly, there were some in Westport with similar attitudes. For every family with young kids who made an adventure out of it and went out for pizza, there was somebody angry because their WiFi was out, they couldn’t find a place to charge their smart phone and the authorities failed to make them a priority.
    Take issue with CL&P’s response and hold the company accountable. But no matter how quickly or slowly they plug people back in, somebody gets to be first and somebody has to be last.
    When misfortune strikes — whether a simple flat tire or a major health crisis — somebody with a sense of entitlement will ask, “Why Me?”
    Someone who is democratic will shrug and ask, “Why not me?”
    Too bad there’s not an app for that.

  4. Virginia Gilbertie

    Both Dan’s column and the Westport News editorial make great points, but I take exception to Dan’s assertion that it’s no longer in our DNA to be haimish. Four generations of my family grew up here and we’ve all witnessed the increase in self-important and entitled behavior. Yet, the community spirit that surfaced during the power outage would have made my father proud. It revived my belief that most Westporters are not stuck up and full of themselves. Maybe we just need to show it more. It would make a stunningly beautiful place even more beautiful!