Fred Cantor: Seeing Westport Through SoCal Eyes

“06880” readers know Fred Cantor as an avid commenter, with a keen eye for Westport’s history, and a passion for its present and future. He’s also a multi-talented writer, movie and play producer, and attorney

Fred Cantor (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

The 1971 Staples High School graduate has had health issues, so for the past few years he and his wife Debbie have spent winters in Southern California. They were there last year, when the pandemic (and his doctor’s advice) turned a few months’ stay into more than a year. It was the longest time he’d been away from Westport since moving here at age 10.

After 17 months, Fred and Debbie are back. Here’s what he sees.

The first thing that grabbed our attention coming off Exit 17 was the empty train station parking lot. We had read about the large number of people working at home, but that was an eye-opener.

Yet then, almost instantly, there were old welcome sights: the approach to the distinctive Cribari Bridge — with early signs of spring (daffodils in full bloom) — and just past the bridge, 19th-century homes with yards fronted by quintessential New England stone walls or wrought-iron fences.

Daffodils near the William F. Cribari Bridge.

I don’t think Debbie and I crossed a bridge over a river once in our area of SoCal— and certainly not a bridge on the National Register of Historic Places — even before the pandemic, when we did more driving. Southern California has much natural beauty, but in the area of Orange County where we rented, numerous rivers and streams are certainly not among them.

And historic 19th century homes — well, they did not exist there. Some of those towns were created in the 1960s or later.

Handsome home on Bridge Street.

Westport’s historic homes, stone walls, rivers and meandering tributaries — such as can be seen along Ford Road — are among the sights I missed the most.

The scene along Ford Road.

Forsythias blooming all around Westport were another “welcome home” sign; that too was much rarer in our part of SoCal.

Forsythia blooms outside a 1930 Imperial Avenue home.

Heading to the beach, I had to stop at Joey’s By The Shore at its new location. I hoped to see Joey after all this time. but he’s away.

Back in business: Joey’s by the Shore.

That reinforced my feelings that, while many of us embrace longtime local establishments, it is largely the proprietors we really have such warm feelings about. That was certainly true when the Nistico family switched its restaurant operation from the Arrow to the Red Barn.

Walking across the street to Old Mill Beach instantly reminded me why that has long been a personal favorite. It’s not only beautiful; it’s often serene, as exemplified by a couple quietly reading their iPad and newspaper on a nearly empty beach.

Old Mill Beach.

When I was away I stayed in touch with Westport friends via email, texts, social media, occasional phone calls and Zoom.

I followed local Westport news via “06880,” so in certain respects I didn’t feel 3,000 miles away from what was happening here.  By contrast, I vividly recall the summer of 1964. I was at camp in Pennsylvania, and learned of my Little League team winning the Minor League World Series a week after the fact, when I received a letter from my parents with a clipping from the Town Crier.

The most difficult thing about being so far away was not being able to see our 93- and 95-year-old moms. Daily phone calls and occasional FaceTime calls didn’t quite suffice.

So that first weekend back in town generated a teary reunion hug between Debbie and her mom. It was coupled with a culinary discovery: delicious mini-babka at the new Kneads Bakery, which we all enjoyed at their outdoor dining area.

Fred’s wife Debbie Silberstein, Debbie’s mother and aide, at Kneads Bakery. (All photos/Fred Cantor)

That first weekend back also generated our first experience with traffic. At 4 p.m. Saturday there was a big backup on Bridge Street toward Saugatuck. Traffic crawled on 95, spilling over onto local streets.

Other than on the single-lane canyon road leading to Laguna Beach, we never experienced major backups in SoCal. The main local roads have 3 lanes in each direction — with an additional two left-hand turn lanes at major intersections.

During that traffic tie-up on Bridge Street I witnessed an “only in Westport” moment (and something I had never seen in close to 60 years here). Moving right by the traffic on a highly unusual mode of transit were two cyclists on penny-farthings (you can look it up🤨).

Seeing that, I knew for sure I was back in Westport!

16 responses to “Fred Cantor: Seeing Westport Through SoCal Eyes

  1. Melissa Augeri

    Welcome back! And, thanks for reminding us about all of the reasons we call Westport home – especially the people we care about most.

  2. Michael A Rea

    Welcome home, Fred !
    We miss ya !

    • Thanks, and I just wanted to note that Mike was one of the stars on that 1964 championship squad (and his brother Jack was a key player too). And for longtime Westporters who might remember him, Lew Hammond, who I only later discovered was a very successful athlete in college, was our manager.

  3. Joyce Bottome

    Welcome Home! Nothing beats being here.

  4. Welcome home Fred. So glad to see you guys made the trek back safely and hopefully Covid-free. Now you can keep even closer tabs on our surprising Knicks.

    We totally related to your feelings of how good it feels being back in Westport after being away for awhile. In 1980 we returned after three years living in Paris and felt the same. To come back from such choice locales as coastal California and Paris and still feel excited says a lot about Westport! Or, perhaps it says something about us?

    By the way, we caught those two guys on their penny-farthings as they wiggled their way through traffic on Riverside Ave.

  5. Carolanne Curry

    Perfectly captured….
    I guess I could say if ever there was a perfect and a vivid measure of the “character” of the Town of Westport, it was captured in this piece.
    This is the character, this is what we can never surrender to Hartford’s Senate Bill 1024, a scary piece of legislation that would deny the very essence of “character” found in
    most everyone of the historic,169 Connecticut municipalities.
    Thank you for this perfect reminder of why we live here and why we love it here.
    Westport needs us now more than ever as a community. Our legislators need to know this is punitive legislation for us…while it is “profitable legislation for the developer/lawyer teams, who see another goldmine just like the one called 8-30g

  6. Wendy Crowther

    Welcome back, Fred. I wish we had a photo of the penny-farthings crossing the Cribari bridge. Both have similar origin dates. Penny-farthings were popular in the 1870s-1880s. The historic Cribari Bridge was built in Westport in 1884 – it’s still the oldest bridge of its type in the nation. That status is threatened if the CDOT gets its way.

  7. Beautifully said! You put a big smile on my face today!

  8. Lynn Untermeyer Miller

    Welcome Home, Fred and Debbie!! “So nice to have you back where you belong!” I hope to see you both soon!💗

    • Are you related to Louis Untermeyer by any chance?

      • Lynn Untermeyer Miller

        Yes. Louis Untermeyer was my grandfather.💗

        • ELIZABETH L LEIBA

          Hi Lynn–Mike Leiba’s mom here–just read above that Louis Untermeyer was your grandfather– he was also a family friend of my parents and aunt. Somewhere, I have some autographed books that he gave to my sister and me when we were children! Hope you are doing well. Liz Leiba

  9. Please just don’t vote like most do in CA and destroy CT even more…

  10. Dale Nordling

    I enjoyed Fred’s travelog of returning Home. He really captured the charm of Westport. I am surprised though that Mom’s “Aide” in the picture was not given the courtesy of being mentioned by name?

    • Dale, thanks for your praise of my guest piece. I wrote a somewhat longer column and provided certain info to be included in possible captions—and I did identify my mother-in-law’s wonderful aide (Ann Marie). Dan edited the piece to shorten it (and I commended Dan in an email for overall making it better). I can tell you that Ann Marie enjoyed it very much notwithstanding the editing out of her name—but I absolutely hear where you are coming from.

      • I’ll take the blame for this one. I did not look closely at the caption information Fred provided. It’s on me. Thanks for including her name, Fred and Dale.