The judge, the juice and the junkman

Every day on my drive to work, I pass the Harrietstown Cemetery. And when I do, I often think of my old pal, Karl Griebsch, since that’s his final resting place.

For any differences we had, the judge and I had one big thing in common: He loved to tell stories about My Home Town, and I loved to listen to them. One of his stories that most recently came to mind was about Emmy Bernard.

Emmy Bernard was Saranac Lake’s first full-time recycler. Neither he nor anyone else would’ve labeled him that, since the word wasn’t even used then. Instead, we called him a junkman.

But he truly did recycle things. Scrap metal, paper, rags, glass -?you name it, and he picked it up and sold it. He also had a good eye for old bikes, and a whole lot of us kids’ first bikes came from Emmy. Mine did. It was a green and yellow Columbia one-speed that I rode the bejammers out of, that never failed me, and that I got rid of only when I outgrew it and gave it to another kid on the block.

Emmy lived on the Bloomingdale Road, a few hundred yards this way of the Fish and Game Club and he toodled in and out of town in his truck – an ancient little pickup. His driving pace was glacial and if he ever put it in third gear, it was out of preference, not necessity.

He was a hard-working, quiet man, honest to a fault, and a beloved town character.

One day a town cop came to see Judge Griebsch.

“Karl,” he said, “we’ve got a problem.”

“Oh?” said the judge. “With who?”

“With Emmy Bernard.”

“Emmy Bernard?” said the judge, shocked.

And of course the judge was shocked, since in addition to his other attributes, Emmy was one of the gentlest and most law-abiding creatures on God’s green earth.

“It’s about bottle day,” said the cop.

The judge immediately understood the problem.

On bottle day, Emmy collected empties from all the local businesses. Back then, Saranac Lake had somewhere around 35 bars and dipsomaniacs by the thousands. Thus on bottle day, there were more empties in our bars than losers in Las Vegas.

The thing is, after Emmy collected the bottles in each bar, the bartender gave him a beer. It doesn’t take an Einstein to do the math on that one. And it doesn’t take a breathalyzer to figure out the net result.

The law east of the Pecos

“I know he only drives back and forth to town and he never goes above 20,” said the cop, “but we’ve gotta do something about it.”

The judge agreed, and between them they worked out a plan that was to law enforcement as Rube Goldberg’s plans were to technology.

First, late on the next bottle day, the cop pulled Emmy over and immediately “arrested” him for having a snootful.

Next, he brought him in front of the judge, who was holding a special session. What made it special was no one was there but the judge, the cop, and Emmy.

It was a classic performance of “Good Cop, Bad Cop.” The cop raved and ranted about how Emmy was a detriment to society, an accident waiting to happen, an outlaw the likes of which the town hadn’t seen since Legs Diamond set up residence in the Riverside Hotel.

Reaching the peroration, the cop thundered that Emmy should be immediately taken to Dannemora and given the chair!

Forget that there was no way Emmy could get jail time or that the electric chair was in Sing Sing. None of that mattered to Emmy, who believed it all in as gospel and at this point was petrified.

The cop rested his case and then the judge, who had a flair for drama, took over.

“Hmm ,” he said, stroking his chin, obviously deep in thought. “Hmm.”

A long moment went by then anotherthen another. Finally, the judge spoke.

“Emmy,” he said, “I will not put you in jail.”

Emmy exhaled -?perhaps for the first time since he’d been brought in.

“However,” the judge continued, steely-eyed and stone-faced, “I hereby sentence you. From now on, on bottle days you may drink only sarsaparilla soda!”

Emmy swore he would, and thanked the judge profusely.

The judge said he was welcome. And then, in a trademark gesture, he rapped his gavel and intoned, “Case dismissed.”

After the judge told me this story, we both had a good laugh.

Then an obvious question popped in to my mind.

“So, did he actually drink sarsaparilla soda?” I asked.

“He did,” said the judge.

“You mean they still made the stuff? I only heard of it in the old cowboy movies.”

“They made it, but it was hard to find,” he said. “But his sister found a place in Albany that had it. So she’d order it by the case and they’d ship it up here on the Trailways.”

“And how long did he keep drinking it?” I asked.

“Every bottle day, until the place in Albany ran out of the stuff.”

I paused, mulling over what he said, before I asked the ultimate question.”

“And after that, what happened?”

The judge took a long pause. Then he smiled and shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said, “and I never wanted to find out, either.”