Category Archives: Westport life

Westporter Asks: Where Is The LGBTQ Community?

When Brian McGunagle and his family moved from Rye, New York 4 years ago, they looked at places like Greenwich, Darien and Norwalk.

But it was Westport that most attracted them. McGunagle and his husband Stephen Gustafson liked the town’s progressive, artistic history. The fact that the Brook Cafe opened as a gay bar around 1931, and flourished here for 7 decades, was particularly intriguing.

McGunagle and Gustafson have been happy here. Their 21-month-old son Henry is flourishing in daycare.

Still, when they joined a “new parents” group through Willows Pediatrics, they wondered if they’d be the the only same-sex couple.

They met 2 families in which the husbands were transgender. They learned about a Facebook group for LGBTQ parents that facilitated playdates. Through that, they met several same-sex partners.

Steve Gustafson, Henry and Brian McGunagle go pumpkin picking.

But McGunagle — who works in the energy sector, while studying to become an Episcopal priest — wants more than a quiet, open suburb.

“As one of Westport’s growing same-sex couple families,” he says, “I want to ensure that our community is visible.” He also hopes to provide models to people who are “questioning or awakening to their own sexuality.”

For 30 years, the Triangle Community Center in Norwalk has served the Fairfield County LGBTQ community. There’s a center in New Haven too, and of course plenty of resources in New York City.

Closer to home, Westport’s Unitarian Church has long supported LGBTQ causes, including meetings and programming.

McGunagle’s idea is to complement what exists, with a uniquely Westport spin.

Among his ideas:

  • Celebrating Pride Month in June with a parade and festivities on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, and at the Levitt Pavilion
  • Honoring our LGBTQ history and famous community members through the Westport Museum for History & Culture
  • Designing a rainbow crosswalk downtown
  • Creating programs and resources for people coming out at any age, singles, same-sex families, families with LGBTQ members, those who are transgender or gender fluid, seniors.=
  • Rallying allies
  • Partnering with Staples High School’s Gender Sexuality Alliance
  • Providing mentor opportunities.

“Do those ideas resonate? Is anyone interested?” McGunagle asks.

He hopes to hear feedback. He particularly hopes it is cross-generational.

McGunagle knows there are many individuals like him, and families like his, living quietly in Westport. Now he wants to find them, and bring them together for support, education and excitement.

To learn more, email westportctpride@gmail.com.

Halloween 2020: Town Issues Guidelines

Both Fairfield and Norwalk are now “red” communities: Each has at least 15 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.

Westport is “gray.” We have fewer than 5 cases per 100,000.

But Halloween looms. What does that mean for next Saturday’s trick-or-treating? In recent years, hordes of kids — from this town, and elsewhere — have swarmed Westport’s densest neighborhoods. High on the list: Compo Beach.

In an effort to “protect the health and safety of Westport residents, and keep our schools open,” town officials will close Compo to parking at 3 p.m. Only marina slip holders will be allowed in.

These kids are not wearing masks. That’s okay — the photo is from 2014.

“Parents are encouraged to keep all trick-or-treaters in their own neighborhoods, and are strongly discouraged from allowing trick-or-treating in areas that draw a crowd,” says 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

He adds:

The Centers for Disease Control considers traditional trick-or-treating to be a high-risk activity, and should be avoided. It recommends alternatives for celebrating the holiday with lower risk activities and small events that allow for reduced exposure and ease of contact tracing.

If you decide to participate in trick-or-treating, it is strongly recommended that it be done with increased precautions. A surgical mask must be worn. The CDC advises against wearing decorative masks over surgical masks. Trick or treaters should be aware that if a home is darkened, it is likely not partaking in Halloween festivities and that decision should be respected. Limit the amount of homes visited.

Click for Halloween guidelines from the state Department of Public Health.

Pics Of The Day #1277

Greens Farms Halloween collage (Photos/Bob Weingarten)

1st Selectman: Halloween Will Look Different This Year

Politicians don’t often send Halloween messages. Then again, it’s not often that the holiday is celebrated amid a pandemic. First Selectman Jim Marpe says:

Halloween is a special holiday for many children and families. Due to COVID-19 however, Halloween in Westport will look different from prior years. I urge residents to be considerate and judicious in how they plan to partake in seasonal activities. It is incumbent upon all of us to insure a safe Halloween and upcoming holiday season.

Because the annual Halloween Parade and trick-or-treating in Town Hall has typically drawn increased foot traffic and crowding, the town regrets that it will not host the event this year.

Instead, the Parks and Recreation Department is sponsoring a Halloween House Decorating Contest.  I encourage everyone – young and old – to demonstrate their creativity, and decorate their homes in the spirit of the season. For more information, click here.

The Westport Downtown Merchants Association, in collaboration with the town, is exploring a family-friendly Halloween event on October 25. More information will be available soon.

Please follow these guidelines from the Connecticut Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding Halloween:

The CDC considers trick-or-treating to be a high-risk activity that should be avoided. It recommends alternatives with lower risk activities, and small events that allow for reduced exposure and ease of contact tracing.

Consider candy hunts, small “trunk or treats” with friends and family, crafts, virtual contests and other outdoor activities where social distance can be achieved.

The CDC advises against wearing decorative masks over surgical masks. This year consider a costume that does not require a decorative mask, so that a surgical or CDC-approved mask can be worn instead.

A perfect costume for 2020.

 

Connecticut entered Phase III of its reopening plan yesterday. Phase III continues to cap the number of attendees at all private indoor gatherings at 25. Trick-or-treating and gatherings at locations where Halloween has traditionally prompted increased crowds, either indoors or on town roadways such as Gault Avenue and the Compo Beach area, are strongly discouraged.

If you decide to participate in trick-or-treating on October 31, we recommend that it is done with increased precautions. Trick or treaters should be aware that if a home is darkened, it is likely not partaking in Halloween festivities and that decision should be respected. Limit the number of homes visited.

Town officials advise parents to not drop off children in certain neighborhoods. Instead, it is advisable to keep all trick-or-treaters in their own neighborhoods. We also request that residents not arrange for food trucks or other food, drink or entertainment that promotes gathering in neighborhoods.

In addition to Halloween, the CDC site also has guidance for the upcoming holiday season. Click here before making plans for your holidays.

It’s A New Day: Kids Walk To School

COVID has upended many elementary school routines.

Youngsters attend split sessions — morning or afternoon. There’s no cafeteria service.

And — go figure — more and more kids are walking to school.

Many parents don’t want their kids to ride buses. Not every mom or dad is available every day to drive every kid. So there they are, each morning: boys and girls on foot (and bikes).

It’s almost like the old days.

Except — over the years — Westport has forgotten how to handle kids heading on their own to class.

Wednesday is National Walk to School Day. Kings Highway Elementary celebrates it starting today, through Wednesday.

The school’s PTA figures it’s a great way to focus on road safety.

Parents will be stationed at Post Road West by Ludlow Road and Kings Highway North. They’ll wear neon, hand out balloons, and make themselves and their kids visible — even though (or actually because) there are no school safety zone signs and few crosswalks near the Post Road West building.

Children have made signs, promoting school zone driving safety. They’ll hang them in front of the school. Yesterday, families wrote sidewalk chalk messages about the topic.

In the absence of state signs, this homemade sign — made yesterday — was posted near the school.

The Post Road — aka US 1 — is a state thoroughfare. The town is limited in what it can do. The Kings Highway PTA is working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation and town officials to increase safety precautions, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

So this week — if you see kids walking to Kings Highway (or any other school) — slow down. Wave. Give a gentle honk of support.

And given them plenty of room to enjoy themselves.

In 2014, Kings Highway celebreated Walk to School Day (Top, bottom photos/David Gusitsch)

Jaime Bairaktaris: “I Saw Hatred Today”

Jaime Bairaktaris is a multi-talented, community-minded Westporter. On Monday the 2016 Staples High School graduate, current Sacred Heart University student and 2020 Connecticut Paraeducator of the Year witnessed something disturbing downtown. He writes: 

I’ve heard about hatred in our community. I’ve heard stories from friends, neighbors, social media and news sources. But I had not seen it myself.

This week, I think I saw it. It was ugly and deliberate, in the form of 3 middle school boys with their opinion to display, or partially formed frontal lobes to blame, or a sense of common respect to try to gain.

But there it was, plain as day.

I paused while tutoring another middle schooler. We watched the boys pull up a sign for a national political candidate from Jesup Green. They broke it into pieces, threw it in a trash bin, then took turns spitting on it before walking away, screaming to each other.

Spitting on it!

We were confused. So were the many other kids and adults sharing Jesup Green and Riverwalk tables. My student and I talked about respect, hatred, and why — regardless of opinion — we respect all things, and all people.

A nice day, marred.

We talked about better ways to share our own opinions, and how everyone’s opinion matters in one way or another.

Then we talked about how we never spit. Not during a pandemic, not on a sign, not at another person. Not ever.

As we talked, a group of middle school girls retrieved the sign from the trash. They placed it back on the lawn.

My student and I talked about how there are helpers everywhere. We talked about why we need to restore the good that is sometimes taken from a community, and how sometimes it is taken by people who may not realize they’re doing it — or may not care.

I wish I could have thanked those girls. Not just for putting back the sign, but for caring. For teaching us a positive lesson. And for reminding us that the majority of kids who hang out downtown do care.

But then the boys returned. They ripped the sign from the ground again, threw it onto Jesup Road, and took turns jumping on it. Then they flung it onto the middle of Jesup Green, before finally leaving.

Those boys did not care.

I wish I could have said something to my student, to everyone around us, to the girls who tried to help — something that could have made the situation better.

But I was at a loss. So I went back to our social studies. The hum of conversation and COVID-era working returned to the green.

I reported the incident to the police, so it’s on record. But I don’t know who those 3 boys are. I only know they don’t care. I don’t know their names, their families, their hobbies, their strengths, who they’ve helped in their lives, or who looks up to them.

I don’t know any good things about them. I only know that they destroyed a sign on Jesup Green.

Is this bigotry? Impulsivity? Stress? Lack of education? Too much media? Am I a snowflake? Or a Karen? Do I care too much? Did I not care enough to stop them? Is this a non-issue? Or is this a real probme.

This is not a case of “kids being kids.” The majority of those I see on their skateboards, scooters or bikes, in the deli or on the green, are energetic, loud, and — most importantly — respectful.

They’re doing what they should be doing: having fun, while learning how to make their own choices.

These boys made their choices. They chose hatred.

So I can’t help but wonder: How do we fix this?

Trading Places: Swiss Style

The “06880” tagline is “Where Westport meets the world.”

This is the Swiss edition.

At the end of 2019 Sally Wanamaker and her husband Chris Jay began planning a move to Basel, for his work.

This past February of 2020 the couple — and their 11-year-old, Lucy — flew to Europe. They booked a 6-week Airbnb. Chris would start work; Sally and Lucy would spend 5 days, looking for apartments and doing a trial day at the International School of Basel, before returning to Connecticut with the idea of moving to join Chris in April.  

Lucy, Sally Wanamaker and Chris Jay in February, by the Rhine River.

They met parents of Lucy’s future classmates. When “Connecticut” was mentioned, a mother mentioned another family, the Ferraros – Johnny, Saran, Ellie and Julia —  who left the school the prior month. They’d moved to Westport.  

Sally realized that Lucy would be filling Ellie’s slot. 

When Sally and Lucy returned to Connecticut they called the Ferraros, offering any help they needed to get settled.

The families traded notes, talked about getting together, and marveled at the coincidence that the Ferraro girls were now going to Long Lots — the school Sally taught at for a year, before Green’s Farms Elementary.

Then came COVID-19. On March 12, it was announced that the borders could be closing.

Chris scrambled to get home. The family postponed plans to move (leaving 8 packed suitcases in the Airbnb).

Sally and Saran kept in touch, but could not get together due to restrictions.   The Ferraro girls had only 6 weeks in school before it closed. It was a tough way to begin in a new community.

Both families felt they were living in limbo.

When things began opening up again, Sally and Chris invited the Ferraros for a socially distanced boat ride (one family in the front, the other in back).

The Ferraros, on their socially distanced boat ride.

They talked about Switzerland and Westport. Lucy and Ellie chatted about their mutual friends in the Swiss school. Ellie had known them for years, while Lucy met them on her trial day and stayed in touch through social media and FaceTime.

Finally, the Wanamaker-Jays got the go-ahead to move. The Ferraros dropped a bag of transformers, adaptors, German language books and travel guides on their porch.

Sally had no guidebooks on Westport to pass on. Instead, she introduced the Ferraros to “06880.” 🙂

“Trading Places” is underway. Ellie now plays soccer in Westport. Lucy’s team just won a tournament in Zurich.

Lucy and Sally Wanamaker, on Lucy’s first day of school in Switzerland.

Sally and Saran are in touch every few weeks, chatting about the best grocery stores and sharing pediatrician recommendations in their respective locales.

They’ve discussed the difficulty of joining a new community where you see only the top half of someone’s face.

Ellie and Lucy continue to be on group chats with their mutual friends. It’s all good.

From left: Ellie and Julia Ferraro, and Lucy Wanamaker.

Oh, yeah. There’s one more thing.

The other day Lucy told her parents that she sits next to a girl named Beatriz Watanabe in German class. She just moved from Singapore.

When she found out that Lucy is from Connecticut, she said, “Oh, I lived there too.”

Of course, not just any old town in the state.

Beatriz lived in Westport. She went to Saugatuck Elementary School.

(Happy?) Halloween!

September still has a week to go.

But we’re already a month into Starbucks’ pumpkin latte season. A pop-up Halloween store popped up weeks ago in Compo Shopping Center.

Halloween preparations are already in full swing.

Yet this is 2020 — the year in which the world falls apart, each day’s news is worse than the one before, and every activity we rely upon has changed.

Wait — does that include Halloween?!

Social media is filled with parents (okay, mothers) asking: “What’s happening with Halloween? Is it still on?”

A reader emailed yesterday, asking if Governor Lamont has canceled it. (He has plenty of powers. Controlling Halloween is not, I don’t think, one of them.)

But questions about the spooky night are valid.

In these days of hybrid school, social distancing and frequent hand washing, is sending children out in packs a good idea? If people were concerned about the spread of COVID at Compo Beach — and they were — what happens when hordes of kids converge on the narrow, candy-packed streets near Soundview? And speaking of candy: Should youngsters really be collecting all that stuff that was already handled by so many people?

On the other hand, the whole idea of Halloween is to wear a mask. What’s the harm in wearing another (coronavirus) mask underneath a plastic one of a princess, vampire or Donald Trump? Halloween is an outdoor activity — and plenty of boys and girls are playing plenty of youth sports every day, after school. Consider this too: Kids have lost so much already. Do we really want to take away Halloween?!

Beats me. I sure don’t know. I don’t have a kid, and it’s been decades since I trick-or-treated. (Or participated in mischief. Click here for the spectacularly embarrassing story of how I tossed my own parents’ mailbox into a pond.)

I’m pretty sure there won’t be the annual downtown Halloween parade. That event seems spooked: It’s been canceled frequently in recent years by bad weather.

But a town-sponsored gathering is different from a grassroots community one. This is a free country*, and we are free to not only have Halloween or not, but to argue passionately about it.

A scene from the 2010 Halloween parade.

So the “06880” Comments section is open. Do you think kids should go trick-or-treating this year? Will you stock up on goodies, or turn off the lights? Are there creative alternatives to Halloween? How will you talk to your children about families that have a different position than yours?

Click “Comments” below. As always, please use full, real names.

And remember: There is still a month to go. In COVID time, that’s like 500 years.

*For now, anyway

A house at Compo Beach (Photo/Betsy P. Kahn)

Quite A Quintet: 71 Years Of Friendship And Fun

The other day, Patricia McMahon threw a party.

She had 5 guests. The youngest was 86 years old.

They started out as the Tuesday Night Club — in 1949. There were 10 women them. Some have moved; others died.

But — 71 years later — what a group they are!

Patricia’s mother, Jeanette McMahon — 89 — was a legal secretary. She’s known Angie Spanoghe — 90 — since they were 5 years old, in grade school.

Angie worked as a manager in South Norwalk. She’s planning a trip to Greece, once this stupid coronavirus has passed. (Patricia volunteered to be her chaperone.)

Patricia McMahon and Levon (front) with, from left: Angie Spanoghe, Judy Lamatta, Mary Toss, Elenor Bottler and Jeanette McMahon.

Mary Toss — 88, and a former legal secretary — was at the party. So was Elenor Bottler, 87, who grew up on Murvon Court by Compo Beach, and was a manager at Kiddytown in Norwalk.

The baby of the group — 86-year-old Judy Lamatta — worked as a secretary at Norwalk Hospital. All 5 retired in their early 80s.

Which gives them time to get together 3 times a week. They have dinner, or watch a movie at someone’s house. Except for Mary, who has vision problems, all still drive.

“These ladies have been in my life forever,” says Patricia. “They mean the world to me.

“I learn from them constantly. Their admiration and respect for each other is intoxicating. Plus, they are hilarious!

“They are fully aware of how unique they are, and the bond they have. They take nothing for granted.”

Let’s not take them for granted, either. To Jeanette, Angie, Mary, Elenor and Judy (and their combined 440 years): May you stay forever young.

Another shot, with Patricia’s husband Matthew Levine.

Russ And Isabel Blair: No Stone Unturned

In 1954 a young couple bought a new home in Westport, near what is now Fresh Market. On April 16, they engraved their names on a stone.

Russ and Isabel Blair are still here. They’ve done a lot in their 6-plus decades in town, from EMS to local boards and commissions. She was a beloved Coleytown Elementary School nurse; he led many building projects, including the modern Staples High School.

As they raised their kids, moved to Woodside Avenue and enjoyed all that Westport offers, they forgot about that stone.

The Blairs’ stone.

But 66 years and 1 week from that date Carlos Colorado, his wife and young daughter moved to Westport.

While redoing their patio, they unearthed the stone. They thought about placing it somewhere prominent in their yard.

But after a quick Google search, they realized the Blairs are still alive. And still here.

Carlos posted that story on a local Facebook page. He asked anyone who knew the Blairs to please let them know.

“I am sure they would love to see this piece of their story and their memories, after so many years,” he wrote.

After 2/3 of a century in town, the Blairs are well known. Several people responded — including longtime EMT Mark Blake.

He’s known the couple for decades. He made the connection.

Mark Blake, with the stone.

Carlos showed Mark around his property — including the stone. Carlos cleaned it up, and invited the Blairs over to see “their” house.

“This is just another reason I love Westport, and am proud to serve the community,” Mark said. “These 2 families epitomize what Westport is.”

And on Friday, Carlos, his wife and daughter headed over to Woodside Avenue.

They heard all about life in Westport, when Eisenhower was president and the town was just starting to grow.

The Blairs and Colorados on Woodside Avenue, Friday afternoon.

“The Blairs are incredible people,” Carlos said. “They gave us a warm afternoon. Their strength and vitality left us amazed.

“I just hope that decades from now, my wife and I will be able to receive a young couple that happened to find a rock in the back yard of their recently purchased home in a quiet corner of Westport.

“And I hope we’ll be as bright, hearty and affection as the couple we met yesterday. In the meantime, I’ll take care of their house, as promised.”