(I wrote this blog before the Hurricane Irene rains flooded Phoenicia. Two days after the storm, Main Street reminded me of a Western when I drove through because the powdery dirt left by the receding water now billowed up in clouds of dust behind each car. But the buildings looked fine, despite not yet having power for lights. Here’s wishing Georganna and Marty the best as they clean up.)
For five years, when I lived in Phoenicia in the late 1990s, I enjoyed good health, so I almost never went into the Phoenicia Pharmacy, a corner store on Main Street that looked like time forgotten with its 1950-style department store windows that displayed carousels of sun-faded greeting cards and its interior wooden cases lightly stocked with toothpaste and shampoo under slow ceiling fans. (Not having health insurance, I was also glad not to need prescription medicines.) In fact, my most vivid memory of the pharmacy is of seeing it in a scene in an independent movie shot in the area called Wendigo in which a weekender couple unwittingly buys a kachina-like doll from under the glass counter that turns out to contain the spirit of a wild creature with revenge on its mind, “half-deer loaded with antlers like bone chandeliers/half-human in buckskin leggings” hurdling “like an Olympian through the midnight forest, while strobe lights/flashed beech trees, fierce as totem poles,” as I later wrote in a poem fancying myself as that wild man. But the pharmacy itself didn’t inspire any poems. Like some other mainstays up and down the street—the wooden hotel, the sporting goods store with a long counter of fly fishing flies—it struck me as a holdover from decades ago. The Phoenicia I was drawn to had signs of being Upstate’s East Village to the West Village of Woodstock, a bohemian frontier with a Tibetan gift shop, an upstairs art gallery, and a tiny independent bookstore with a sun-faded copy of The Unabomber Manifesto in the front window.
Two things I know now that I didn’t know then: the pharmacy’s old-time atmosphere may be the secret to its enduring success. “We do really well against the chains,” says Georganna Millman, who owns the business with her husband, Marty, the pharmacist. “We don’t even have an answering machine.” If you call, you’ll get a person, not a recording. Even better, they’ll know you. And your aunt. And your cat. And everything else that weaves together small town life. Compared to the soulless mallness of my Eckerd in Woodstock (and I refuse to set foot in the shinier CVS across the street), I find it delightful to enter this pharmacy that wears the owners’ personalities. Why not their quirky nostalgia to take the grimness off illness and medicine? There’s a Three Stooges photo both in the front window and on the clock above Marty’s computer in the back prescriptions room. There’s an XM Satellite radio station playing 1940s music overhead. Actually, as I now learn, the Brown brothers built this pharmacy in 1951, a little after that music. The Millmans bought the business in 1981 to move upstate from Staten Island and seem not to have changed much. The wonder is that more vintage movies haven’t been shot here, though one day Peter Falk & crew did use the store for what turned out to be about twelve seconds of film. Thirty times Peter Falk rushed up to the counter to rehearse his line with Georganna as his foil. “Can you believe it?” he said to her almost every way possible. “My son is allergic to a peach.”
The other thing I didn’t know in the late 1990s, when I was in my forties and making a serious effort to become a poet after my Thoreauvian retreat from the City to a log cabin, was that Georganna was pursuing the same goal at a similar age but by commuting to Skidmore in Saratoga Springs to earn a B.A., studying with Jay Rogoff and Caroline Forche. In summers she brought along her two young sons for basketball camp across campus while she workshopped. In those days I was so busy being a hermit I had little idea that Phoenicia harbored other poets. Not until I moved to Woodstock did I meet Georganna through the Woodstock Poetry Society.
By now, she has published two fine chapbooks, Formulary, which won an award from the wonderfully named Astounding Beauty Ruffian Press, and Set Theory from Finishing Line. Her sons are grown. Marty no longer needs her full time help at the pharmacy. She has enrolled in a low residency MFA program at the Vermont College of the Arts and spends much of her time writing poetry at home in the valley below Slide Mountain, the heart of the Catskills. “I’m having the time of my life,” she declares. “All the rules I learned as an undergrad are thrown out. As an undergrad, you’re told that you can’t do this or that. Now you’re asked, why can’t you do it?” But the worst rule, drilled into her during a working class girlhood in the town of Catskill, was that you shouldn’t waste time in the arts where you won’t make any money. Georganna has spent years throwing that one off. In the pharmacy lot, I’ve parked behind her maroon Honda Element with “GM POET”on the license plate.
She met Marty on Staten Island in 1976. He was a pharmacist. She was a college art student who came in to fill a prescription for an elderly woman whom she was caretaking to earn money. As she now tells the tale in Marty’s back room, he asked her out to dinner first. Oh no, he replies, he asked her first if she’d run deliveries because the delivery boy hadn’t shown up for work. She looked like an intrepid young woman, standing there in long shorts and bare feet. “And she knew karate,” he adds, still impressed. Georganna rolls her eyes. Being long divorced, I’m touched when long marriages display such playfulness. They look like a case of opposites attracting, for he’s tall and wiry with curly gray hair and a short beard, while she’s short and stocky with long brunette hair worn in braids. She wears stylish flowing clothes, while he looks mismatched in his white pharmacy coat and brown shorts. But the affection is obvious. They share a story about their early days in Phoenicia when an outdoorsman culture of fishing and hunting predominated. On their first foray to a pizza place out in Arkville recommended by a local Italian, they did a double take at the sign by the door: “Leave Your Guns and Knives Outside.” What had they gotten themselves into? A John Wayne Western? But the pizza was fantastic, Marty recalls, baked by an Italian mama in a red bandanna who was profusely sweating in the kitchen that was 120 degrees. That place closed long ago, Georganna adds.
Three years ago, Marty had open heart surgery. Over lunch at Sweet Sue’s Georganna hands me a poem. Composing it gave her a container for her feelings. When she wrote, “Admit you’re afraid of being alone,” she expressed that fear for the first time in words, even to herself.
How To Plant Moonflowers
Do the math in May.
Plan for a trellised wall of shade
in July when the house heats up
and the neighbors are bored.
Slip one seed in with
each windowsill tomato,
three among potted petunias.
Feed them with a silver spoon.
Bury a dozen in wicker baskets
to hook outside the kitchen door.
Line the steps with a hundred more.
Admit you’re afraid of being alone.
Remind your husband that
he promised to sit by you
on the porch an hour after sunset
with the house lights turned off.
Be generous. Want him to see it—
the moment when moonflowers bloom,
those giant white lonely faces
opening to the cool wash of night.
Georganna dates her love of words back to girlhood when she hid under the table to hear her grandmother of Dutch ancestry say “Spuyten Duyvil” or “blatherskites,” words that Georganna would roll around in her mouth and save in her journal. When her tenth grade English teacher started the year with Emily Dickinson, Georganna discovered the place for her beloved words: poetry. Yet busy with the pharmacy and her family, she didn’t feel the drive to be more than a private writer until her mid-thirties. And now twenty years later she’s thrilled to still be learning new approaches in her MFA program. She’s writing poems about “country kids” in the 1950s and 1960s, including this one about an elopement. The knee scar is Marty’s. The love is for him. Yet they didn’t meet until years later. She’s excited by this freedom to invent what never happened, except that in a truer way it did.
Devil’s Paintbrush Mountain
Your plan of escape includes
the summer math of attraction
when no one looks for us.
I unbraid my wild hair
and run away to marry you.
Altitude of hot, thin air.
There is no turning back.
Where you wait,
low scrub flowers cluster the slope,
stirred-up petals a potion
so we see visions.
You can’t take your eyes off of me.
You are as skinny as a stalk.
With a pocket knife I stole from home
I swear I will make you forget
the life you had before me.
You are the boy my parents hate.
I touch the old scar on your knee
with my tongue
because no girl has ever done that
to you before.