The Sixth Borough: Things People Do in their Basements


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I shouldn't be bowled every time, but I can't seem to work up a decent level of jadedness. On assignment, I go interview someone in the middle of nowhere because I heard about them from someone else in the middle of nowhere, and I pull up to their house and pet the dog and walk downstairs. And gasp.


What do I find downstairs? What don't I find downstairs. A laboratory where yeasts are being incubated for experimental, out of this world beers that few will ever taste because they cannot be sold, can only be poured into tasting glasses and offered, along with historical explanations of each variety, to visitors who happen to have the good fortune of finding themselves in this basement.


A big room filled entirely by a world of antique toy trains on multiple tracks and elevation levels, with bridges and airplanes and different towns and tunnels and a hot air balloon. You have to turn the trains on gradually or it scares people ? and this wasn't even what I came to interview this guy about. And no kids live here.


Maybe it's not a basement but a turret, attached to a domed house that a giant man built with his own giant hands and the sawmill in his yard. The house draws its energy from a hydro-plant the giant man also built at the mouth of a waterfall down the hill, which he can monitor from his living room using the touch screen of an iPad. The turret is made out of an old silo, and in its top is the bedroom, from which he and his wife watch flying squirrels glide through the tree canopy.


A music teacher whose son went off to college spins the hair from her pet rabbits, on a foot-powered spinning wheel, into the yarn with which she knits sweaters.


The wicker handbag that a co-worker tosses onto the lunch room table at the office is, on closer inspection, not wicker at all, but crocheted, by her, out of hundreds of plastic bags.


If these people had P.R. agents, they'd be all over the New York Times Thursday Styles section. But they are content to toil away in their basements, probably doing better work because they do it just because, because they like it, and there's not much else to do around here.


"You wouldn't believe!" When I get home from an interview, I try to convey the world I just stepped out of. But I am too easily amazed, too often incredulous, to be a trustworthy authority on what's worth getting worked up about.


Husband Joe listens, and more often than not replies: "It's their ultimate." What he means is that he and I spend an inordinate amount of time playing the obscure sport of ultimate Frisbee. Other people have the same amount of energy, and pour it into other outlets, with results that appear astounding to outsiders.


I chafe a little when I read a breathless story about a restaurateur who grew a beard and moved from the city to the nether reaches of the Hudson Valley to open a boutique bistro featuring wild game. Do you know? I grumble. That this is not some uninhabited wasteland that you've just discovered and civilized? That the people who already live here are making sausage from the deer they hunted, and carving canoes out of tree trunks like it's no big deal? That they are doing things in their basements that you just cannot believe?


Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite who now lives on a farm upstate and writes about the rural life.


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