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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 23, 2006


New York has grasp on what it means to be weird

By Matt Cook

New York is a big place.

New Jersey native Chris Gethard found that out, spending a year circumnavigating the state. He discovered that, in a state as big and diverse as New York, there are plenty of places for weird things to hide, from the bottom of Lake Champlain, to the tip of Long Island, to a creepy graveyard in southwest New York, near the Pennsylvania border.

"New York is crammed full of places of intrigue, mystery, and wonder," Gethard wrote in the introduction to his book, Weird New York. "...This state truly has a grasp on what it means to be weird."

In 263 pages, Gethard examines strange people, places, and phenomena throughout the state. New York provided such a wealth of material, he told The Enterprise, 40 percent of what he found didn't make it into the book—including much in the Capital Region.

"We would hear about another castle or a ghost on the road at night, and we'd have to choose one," Gethard said. "It makes me want to rip my heart out. In New York, there's always something just around the corner. I wish I had another year to do it."

Gethard visited almost all of the sites in his book.

"Nine times out of 10, I jumped in my car and drove out to see it for myself," Gethard said, "which has produced the best year of writing."

It also produced a lot of time on the road. As his deadline loomed, Gethard got behind the wheel and drove along the state's border, making a three-week circuit from his home in New York City.

Growing up in New Jersey and spending his summers at Lake George, Gethard was familiar with the Hudson River corridor, but, he said, "Western New York was kind of an open book for me."

Weird New York is the third book from the publishers of Weird New Jersey, a popular newsletter-turned-magazine that documents New York's bizarre neighbor to the south. The publishers, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman, have turned their sights, in book form, on the other 49 states, starting with New York.

Gethard has been in on the Weird operation since he was a teenager, submitting stories to the then-small newsletter. When the magazine took off, the two Marks brought their frequent contributor on as an associate editor.

Weird New York represents a return to the genre for Gethard. A professional actor, he moved to New York a few years ago after living for a while in California.

"It’s a pretty killer day job," Gethard said of writing the book.

Myths and legends

Weird New York is divided into sections that categorize the state’s unusual and unknown.

"Local Legends and Lore," for example, includes stories about the Devil on Long Island and a cursed cave at Niagara Falls, visited by President William McKinley just hours before his assassination.

"Bizarre Beasts" includes famous creatures, like Lake Champlain’s Champ and the alleged alligators in the New York City sewer system, and the lesser-known, like the Ford Street Beast, an elusive furry monster who seems to confine himself to the woods surrounding a football-field-sized street in Kent, near Lake Ontario.

To find items for his book, Gethard did a lot of research, and not just in the library. Suggestions poured in to the Weird U.S. offices through the Internet and telephone. When he visited a town, Gethard said, locals were more than happy to help.

"A lot of times, people would contact us and say we should check this out and we should check that out," he said.

Of course, some claims were more dubious than others. The more he heard about something, Gethard said, the more likely it was to get into the book.

Still, Weird New York makes no claims of giving the hard facts or getting to the bottom of urban legends. It serves more as a record of myths than proof of their truthfulness.

Hence, some of Gethard’s entries are based on hearsay and rumors: the Clawfoot people of the Zoar valley near Gowanda, or the time traveler in Times Square. Others are historical oddities, like Olga Benga, a Congolese pygmy who was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in 1906 as the "wild man from Africa."

While the book warns against trespassing, many items in Weird New York are open for visitors. In Saugerties, Harvey Fite crafted massive stone sculptures using nothing but hand tools and blasting powder. Though Fite is dead, his collection is open daily in the spring.

Two pizzerias made the weird list. The Pollywog Hollër in Belmont is completely surrounded by woods and accessible only on foot, and John’s Pizzeria, in Manhattan, sits within an unaltered old church, complete with stained glass.

Albany's Nipper, the largest man-made dog on the planet, shares pages with giant ducks, Indians, and lumberjacks.

One of Gethard's favorite spots in the book, he said, is in Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island. As the story goes, the government conducted illicit mind-control experiments at an old underground airforce base there. By blasting energy waves at psychics, scientists were able to control space and time, legend says.

It gets even weirder. Some of the scientists were worried things had gone too far, Gethard writes, and used a powerful psychic to conjure up a bigfoot-like creature to destroy the place. What remains is a state park and a few concrete structures. What lies beneath is anyone’s guess.

"I'm sure that the truth isn’t as bizarre as the legends," Gethard said, "but there had to be something there."

It’s like that for a lot of items in his book, he said.

"It’s pretty fantastic to stand on a spot and say, ‘70 years ago, something happened here,’ even if you're not exactly sure what that something was," Gethard said.

Other spots, he didn't want to stand on at all. On a visit to the lonely Gurnsey Hollow Cemetery near Frewsburg to take pictures, he got so scared, he literally, "turned and ran."

"It may have been just because I was alone or because the sun was quickly falling as I took these pictures at the end of a very long day," Gethard writes. "But in that moment, running down the trail at the end of that long dirt road, Gurnsey Hollow was completely terrifying. If you decide to visit for yourself, take caution."

***

Weird New York is available at bookstores or on-line at www.weirdus.com for $19.95.


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