Miracle on Main Street

I’ve always admired administrators and bureaucrats for one good reason: They never make mistakes.

Or at least they never admit they make mistakes. And given the built-in safeguards of their job, they never will.

For example, a college announces they’ve a chance to get a half-million dollar grant to defray costs for underprivileged students. The person responsible for getting the grant is the Dean of Fundraising and Chinese Takeout. He’s a classic sluggard and for months he keeps telling himself he has lots of time to submit the grant. But he misses the deadline, having been laid low at the last minute by a case of the Shanghai Squitters he got from month-old moo shoo pork he found in the back of his fridge.

The students are furious. They demand a reason why the grant didn’t come through. and they get one: “Unforeseen market forces,” he tells them.

What does that mean? Nothing, of course. But it sounds good. And if pressed, he’ll offer more gobbledy-gook – “negative demographics,” “superseded priorities,” or even “unfavorable foreign trade balances.” Getting the real answer – that he didn’t take care of bizness – will never be heard as long as he keeps pulling verbal rabbits out of his hatwhich he will.

Perhaps the best example of irresponsibility-proofing is our national politicians.

Take their stand on Social Security.

“The money’s running out,” they tell us. And why is that? Simple: Today, too many people are living too long.”

It is, of course, a boldfaced lie.

Think about it: It’s our money that we’ve kept putting in, year after year. They were supposed to invest it. If they had, the longer we lived, the more money we’d have. The reason we don’t is because Social Security funds have been plundered, presumably for more important causes. Among them might be raising congressmen’s lifelong health care and pensions, refurbishing the congressional swimming pool, and propping up the regime of every warlord who ever promised to be the George Washington of his country.

We’re living too long for our own good? Only a politician would have the chutzpah to suggest it, since by that logic, the supreme patriotic act for us Great Unwashed would be to take the gas pipe. I’m amazed no congressman has yet suggested it.

Wrong as wrong could be

Unfortunately, writers can’t avail themselves of such dissembling. You put it in print and not only is it there, but it stays there. If you said it and you were wrong, you’d better fess up or you’ll look like a bigger fool than you are.

And now I will fess up: I was wrong and I admit it.

What was I wrong about?

Something of vital concern to all the denizens of My Home Town – the Hotel Saranac sign.

Last week I went on record in Chris Knight’s article about the sign, that not only had I never seen it spell “Hot Sara,” but I never knew anyone else who had either. I further stated it was nothing more than a rural legend.

Well, I was wrong and I found this out talking to Bunk Griffin.

For those who don’t know: Bunk is arguably Saranac Lake’s pre-eminent historian. He has accessed endless records, talked to endless numbers of people, heard reams of reliable first-person accounts, and has personally been in the thick of town happenings since the early ’50s. As for the hotel’s sign, he was an eyewitness.

The historic moment

It was fall 1963. Bunk was working in the Dew Drop Inn alongside his mother, who ran the kitchen. And she ran it with an iron fist. She allowed no slacking, skylarking or sass. The food was cooked and served exactly how and when it was supposed to. One of her dicta: The steak lands on the table, not hot, but sizzling!

On the night in question, Dew’s kitchen was as busy, and efficient, as ever. The only thing out of the ordinary was that one of the kitchen help, a Paul Smith’s kid named Hoppy, constantly kept checking his watch. Bunk, who never misses anything, noticed it. But because he always keeps his council, he said nothing.

Finally, Hoppy approached Bunk’s mom.

“Hey, Mrs. Griffin,” he said. “Can I ask a favor of you?

“What?” she said.

“Come outside with me for a minute,” he said, sneaking a peek at his watch.

“You nuts?” she said. “We’re working.”

“Yeah, I know,” Hoppy said. “But it’s a favor. And just for a minute. “

She refused again.

“Only one minute,” he said. “Honest. Just 60 seconds.”

Again, he looked at his watch.

Mrs. Griffin knew something was up and while she was tough as nails, she also had a sense of humor. Then again, she had to, having Bunk and Bob as sons. Finally, she relented.

Hoppy led Mrs. Griffin outside, followed by Bunk.

“OK,” she said. “What is it?”

“Look around,” said Hoppy.

“Where?” said Mrs. Griffin.

“There,” said Hoppy, pointing at the hotel.

“Why?” said Mrs. Griffin. “There’s nothing.”

And at that moment, some Paul Smith’s kid who’d studied the Hotel sign’s wiring more than his college courses, worked some circuitry magic and five letters’ lights went out. They were of course “E,” “L,” “N,” “A,” and “C.”

And left alight there, in Edison’s finest, was the stuff of legends.

But don’t think Hoppy had committed a mindless and meaningless schoolboy prank. He had, in fact, done quite the opposite – something kind, creative and considerate.

How was that? you ask.

Simple: Mrs. Griffin’s name was Sara … without the H.