For the past few months, while COVID-19 has suspended in-person performances, Arts Editor Alison Rooney has been profiling residents who share unexpected stories from their past. We thought, for our 10th anniversary, we would ask the same of the people who put the paper together.
Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
As a kid in Indiana, I found the ancient world and Middle Ages fascinating. I also loved literature and writing. But women in my Baby Boomer cohort were advised in college not to major in history or English, given the supposedly abysmal job prospects, and to pick something in the humanities with a practical edge. So I plunged into journalism (not necessarily a safe career choice, either) and ended up in Washington, D.C.
After a decade covering politics for a wire service, I took a new position. Not long afterward, there were rumblings that my job would be abolished. That made me think about my old passion for history and possibly pursuing a master’s degree.
I found another job but at the same time enrolled in graduate school and earned a degree in medieval history, specializing in 14th-century British political-military history and the Anglo-Scottish borders, where nocht was “no” and ne’er meant “never.”
That led to what is probably my best investigative reporting ever: a scholarly article revealing a 600-year-old cover-up by a corrupt king who promised to drain the political swamp but became a murderous despot. The sorry tale involves a tragic hero (Sir Harry Percy, aka “Hotspur,” accused of treason and killed by the aforementioned king – the real Hotspur, not Shakespeare’s make-believe version) and burgeoning sentiment for a proto-parliamentary democracy.
Brian PJ Cronin
Although I did write for the school paper in college, I assumed journalism was too fun to do as an actual job, so I majored in theater and made my living in my 20s as a theater technician. My main gig was running sound for the infamous, legendary, much-discussed-but-never-understood experimental playwright and director Richard Foreman in his tiny theater on the second floor of St. Mark’s Church in the East Village.
As a big fan of Richard’s work, this was a dream come true. He would create and rehearse a new show every fall. We’d open in the winter and play five nights a week until summer, then pack up and tour festivals around the world until it was time to create the next show.
Traveling the world ending up teaching me a lot about my current career: Namely that everyone, all over the globe, has a story to tell. It’s just a question of being curious and respectful enough that they’ll feel comfortable telling it to you.
Food Columnist (2010-present)
In my 30s, I washed up in the East Village — by day, an art director; by night, a fledgling rocker. I played guitar for a nine-piece, instrumental-only art-rock band, The Ordinaires.
We had two violins, two saxophones, two guitars, cello, bass and drums. We were a mashup of Booker T. & the M.G.’s and The Mothers of Invention. Composer, saxophonist and fellow traveler Kurt Hoffman defined it as “a big, loud contrapuntal mess that you can dance to” — also apt, also limiting.
We shared stages with The Beastie Boys, Max Roach, They Might Be Giants and Camper Van Beethoven. We had an MTV video (a “Buzz Bin” cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”). We haunted CBGBs, The Knitting Factory and The Bottom Line, and drove around the country for months in two vans. We rocked, we rambled, we fell apart. Words still can’t do it justice — you had to be there. I’m happy to say I was.
Gardening Columnist (2013-present)
After years of anti-apartheid work and organizing a speaking tour in the Pacific Northwest for the African National Congress in 1993, I was invited to join an ANC Youth League Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.
The conference was canceled days before I was to leave but friends there convinced me to come anyway. It was four months before the first democratic elections brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC into governing.
My trip included representing Seattle’s sister community project and meeting with union organizers from the Domestic Workers Union as an exchange with my union, the Service Employees International Union. It was illuminating.
One of the highlights of my life was going out with ANC volunteers to do voter education in Cape Town. It’s impossible to describe the energy and hope for a better future and the confidence that voting was a step to get there. The revolution was happening.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to return. I knew in my heart, though, that as a white American my work was here.
Advertising Director (2011-present)
I wrote my first song, “Runner,” by playing the first string of an old guitar to harmonize with the melody. I saved the handwritten lyrics and, no, it wasn’t any good.
Fifty-two years and hundreds of songs later, I have had the honor, for the past eight years, of helping others find their inspiration as a songwriting instructor at Dar Williams’ “Writing a Song That Matters” retreat. We usually gather each summer at the Garrison Institute, but we’ll meet virtually this year. We are a unique community, compelled to express ourselves through song, joyful at finding kinship in each other.
My songwriting journey has guided so many life choices and led me to my husband, Rick, my musical partner in our duo called Open Book.
Investigative Cartoonist (2016-present)
I have fallen off horses a lot.
As an inexperienced but enthusiastic rider I found out that:
- Horses spook.
- Horses have saddles which can flip upside-down if the cinch is too loose.
- Horses play tricks. Like running under apple trees.
And then there are the horses that buck. I bought Sugar with my babysitting earnings. She bucked me off every day for a month. But I kept getting back on.
Finally, we compromised. We’d mince slowly away from the barn. If I squeezed hard enough, maybe we’d trot. The moment we turned around, she’d gallop back pell-mell. As the 5-foot-high gate that stood between us and the barn drew closer and closer, I’d rise up in the saddle preparing for the inevitable jump. At the last second, she’d skid to a stop and lift her hind quarters skyward.
Later, I played polo in college. One of our practice drills was dismounting at high speed. I excelled.
Arts Editor (2010-present)
I was once a passenger-service liaison during an icebreaker expedition to Antarctica. During the three-week trip, my duties consisted mostly of checking with seasick passengers who hadn’t emerged from their cabins during the first days of the journey in the Southern Ocean, when we passed through the “Roaring Forties” winds. Sporting a bulky parka — though I found the weather was less fierce than a typical February in the Hudson Valley — I was able to partake of all the history lectures and slide shows (that’s how long ago it was).
For some people, traveling to Antarctica is a dream. It never was for me. I am not overly fond of winter. But I was amazed at how magical it was. We sailed from Tasmania and returned to New Zealand, using Zodiac craft to land at places such as Macquarie Island, where thousands of royal penguins packed the beaches. We visited scientific bases and explorer Douglas Mawson’s perfectly preserved hut and saw the Ross Ice Shelf, which is sadly now melting. We encountered elephant seals, leopard seals and albatrosses, and the air and light felt as if they were from a different dimension.
I would like for the world to be organized, and so, when I was in elementary school, I fell hard into genealogy. It was appealing to fill in the names and dates, although you quickly learn the entire exercise is a black hole because you’ll never finish. My local newspaper in Michigan profiled me — the 14-year-old family historian. I made several lifelong friends who were in their 70s — all of them long gone now, but we traded many letters. They liked giving me advice.
The thing is, I was sloppy. Like many genealogists, I wanted so badly to believe. You can’t imagine my joy when I was able to connect to the charts in an old book and extend my line to Adam and Eve. (Later, I apparently had doubts because I wrote along the top of my carefully typed line of descent, “Disputed.”)
Once I became an adult and a journalist, I became more meticulous — and once I learned more U.S. history, I had to be honest about what I found. For instance, my grandmother was a descendant of Stephen Hopkins of the Mayflower, which is great. My grandfather was a descendant of a Kentucky slaveholder. Not so great.
After moving to Philipstown 14 years ago, I thought “Putnam County” sounded familiar and dug into my old charts. It turns out my ancestors had lived in Carmel — Joseph Hopkins (1751-1833) and his wife, Elizabeth Townsend, are buried near the historic courthouse. In fact, a fraktur made in 1801 that lists their children was carried to Michigan and now has returned to Putnam. So I’m not a transplant at all.
In high school, I consumed nothing but punk rock.
My college applications would have surely looked better had I participated in a single extra-curricular activity at school, but I had no interest.
Beginning in 1990, my junior year, a handful of friends and I began booking punk shows in our own makeshift “club.” With the help of a friend who was a year older, we rented a small space in then-desolate downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
It had most recently been a sweater shop. Once we took over, we painted the walls black and built a stage, calling the club New Start.
We printed and distributed flyers and charged a few bucks to get in. We never made enough to cover rent, so we pitched in with what we’d made working summer jobs. Sadly, none of this could ever happen today.
Avail, a Richmond, Virginia, band that last year sold out a reunion gig in less than a minute, played its first out-of-town show at our venue. Another band, Shelter, achieved commercial success by the mid-1990s, but in 1991 the band had to sleep on the floor of our dingy club because none of us could convince our parents to let them crash at our homes.
Senior Editor (2020-present)
Who wants to go to Iraq amid an insurgency? I did.
There was no hesitation when my editor at the Baltimore Afro-American asked me, in 2006, to travel to Iraq under the Pentagon’s “embed” program, which paired reporters with military units. In my case, it would be the U.S. Army Reserves’ 298th Transportation Co., whose job was to truck supplies between bases in Iraq.
I met the soldiers in Pennsylvania as they trained. Once the unit was settled in Iraq, I hopped a flight to Kuwait International Airport and was driven to Ali Al Salem Air Base. My baggage included far too many clothes, a portable satellite, a Kevlar helmet and a bulletproof vest.
Part of the adventure was getting to Camp Speicher, the base in northwest Iraq where the 298th was stationed. The only safe way to travel was by military transport, usually helicopters. It took days to catch a flight to Baghdad, where I had to get my press credentials. Getting to Camp Speicher took another two days.
After reuniting with the unit, I joined them for two supply runs — long, nighttime convoys of trucks accompanied by security personnel. On each trip the convoy stopped because of suspected improvised explosive devices. I also rode with soldiers from another unit to meet an Iraqi general. We stopped to meet some Iraqi children and see the ruins of Hatra, an ancient city, that were later razed by ISIS. I returned to the U.S. with a more informed perspective on the world.
Until now it’s been a well-kept secret: I answer to two nicknames. The staff at the Conservation Authority where I worked in Ontario for 25 years participated in numerous co-ed sports. When our overly competitive manager insisted our softball team have an overly serious name, a small revolt put me in charge of selecting a lighter, conservation-related moniker.
I considered The Little Brown Bats and The Least Flycatchers before selecting a native plant with an intriguing name. The team became The Mad Dog Skullcaps and I became “Maddog.”
Around the same time, while golfing with three friends, I happened to be wearing heavy, salmon-colored denim jeans; a threadbare, fuzzy, mottled brown sweater; and a bright new multicolored paisley shirt. One of my golf mates suggested it was an outfit that only Ozzie Nelson would wear. “Ozzie” stuck, as did my fashion sense.
Is there something about you most people in the community aren’t aware of? It can be job-related, a hidden talent — basically anything, serious or funny. If you’d like to share your story, email [email protected] and we’ll get in touch.