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   in and around Middletown
Tuesday, November 27 2018
As you may remember, Gretchen has decided to spend something like $30,000 to completely redo our kitchen. Among the regrettable things that will happen in the remodel is that our beautiful (and unusual) green granite countertops will be replaced with something else, since they will no longer fit. Originally Gretchen had been sold on the idea of replacing them with soapstone, though she thought better of it once I told her how soft soapstone is; it is, as it turns out, often given as an example of the softest stone there is. In our kitchen, it would soon be full of scratches, divots, and gouges.
Today Gretchen had arranged a visit to a stone yard near Middletown (down in Orange County, NY) so she could pick out a suitable material for the new countertops, and she wanted me to come along. So I told the powers that be that I'd be working remotely. I even managed to debug a server script issue before we set out using my trusty desktop computer Woodchuck (instead of my workplace laptop, which, partly because it runs Windows 10, I do not consider trusty at all).
The stone yard, Allstate Fabrication, was actually a huge unlabeled building clad in sheet metal. At first it was difficult to even determine how to get inside. Why would a business be so on the downlow? Was it trying to avoid extra-legal incidents with the Russian granite mafia? (A group of burly not-particularly-friendly Russians from New Jersey had installed our existing countertops twelve years ago, and they'd done a great job.)
Once we found the door and gone inside, it was clear we were at the right place. The waiting area had an absurdly high ceiling and lots of unused space, some of which had been used to display stone samples on racks. Clearly the people running this stone yard were not part of the Russian mafia; all the people we interacted with there appeared to be Indians (or perhaps South Asians) who had grown up in North America.
Eventually a young man appeared to lead us into the cavernous main space of the building. This was where the slabs of stone big enough to outfit a kitchen were kept. The enormous space was arranged similarly to a cathedral, with a central "nave" space running the length of the building and two smaller "aisle" spaces on either side, each divided from the main space by a row of columns (these were entirely structural; nothing here was beautiful). Each of these spaces had its own five ton hoist mounted overhead that could reach down a cable carrying a pair of grippers to lift any piece of stone up and over to anywhere else in the space. Initially, this hoist was unnecessary, as all the pieces the employee wanted to show us were visible without rearranging anything.
It soon became clear that Gretchen and I had different taste in stone, which was a little odd. Usually my tastes are similar enough to Gretchen's (and, indeed, they've come to conform to hers over the years) that I defer to her. But while I preferred the stones with large-scale patterns (similar to the existing countertops, which Gretchen had selected without much input from me), now Gretchen seemed to prefer "less busy" patterns, some of which I found overly-dark or just boring. Gretchen was also willing to consider artificial stone (that is, stone made of a mixture of stone and some sort of binder like epoxy), which kind of appalled me. For one thing, I didn't have confidence it would age very well. And I was pretty sure the man-made patterns would eventually grate on me, no matter how naturalistic they initially appeared to be. There's a time and place for faux materials (the vinyl faux wood flooring in the basement for example, though even that doesn't sit with me perfectly), but the kitchen is probably not one of them, especially if what is being replaced is already natural. I injected these ideas gently but repeatedly into our selection process, eventually torpedoing Gretchen's favorite slab of "stone," a dark faux granite with green and blue details and a few large-scale white lines. My favorite rock was a slab of natural granite that looked like moss, but Gretchen disliked it because it looked "muddy" and had a few large light spots. Gretchen rather liked a natural piece with an odd texture, but the employee suggested we not get that for a kitchen, since it was fragile. To me it looked like some of it might actually be mica about to exfoliate.
Our tour of the stone yard was extensive. The employee had been told we were interested in greens, so those were most of what we saw (though there weren't all that many of them). Most of the material there was much too pastel for us. In the end we settled on a dark sparkly piece of natural granite with both purple and green details. At this point I'd given up on the hope of having a mix of large and small scale details since that was clearly not what Gretchen wanted. It was also important to understand that the kitchen is more Gretchen's thing than it is mine.
I should probably add that I kind of found the whole process excruciating. I know this stuff is more important to Gretchen and she's a little slower at decisions of this type than I am (this reminds me of our differences when reading restaurant menus). After a glance at all the options, I immediately knew what I wanted and I required no deliberation. With that one out of the running, I fell back to whatever was acceptable to Gretchen. And that was it. But Gretchen kept wanting to look at things multiple times, repeatedly holding up an example of what our cabinet doors will look like along with an extra of the existing floor tiles (which won't change) to be sure the colors wouldn't clash.
After picking a bevel for the edge, we were done with our work at the stone yard. Finally I could emerge from the faraday cage of its metal skin, obtain a cellphone signal, and could see if anyone needed me for anything in the workplace I was supposed to be working in.
Our next destination was Saffron, an Indian restaurant Gretchen had researched in the greater Middletown area. On the drive there, we were listening to an episode of Fresh Air in which a somewhat-dense Terry Gross was interviewing Rob Dunn, a professor of "applied ecology," about the microbes swarming over everything in our environment. To Terry, this was horrifying, but Dunn made it clear that this was completely normal and even healthy. To interfere with this state of affairs by attacking surfaces with antibacterial chemicals invites antibacterial-resistant microbes, which also tend to be more interested in humans and more deadly. Dunn also stated that the way people live today (isolated from nature, particularly people on the upper floors of apartment buildings) ensures that the only microbes they interact with are human-related or food-related, and that the lack of other kinds of microbes makes these more dangerous. It also means that children in modern households have confused immune systems, and this accounts for at least part of the epidemic of allergies.
Saffron was in a dreary shopping center that looked like something one might see in a third world country. Before eating anything, we wanted to get the stoneyard dust off our hands. Maddeningly, the only soap in the Saffron bathrooms was "antibacterial," which, after that episode of Fresh Air, made us feel like we were compromising the health of our hands. We'd arrived after the lunch rush, though the buffet was still happening, and, since there seemed to be enough stuff for us (I was particularly excited about a mushroom curry), we went with that. My expectations were kind of low after my last Indian buffet experience, which had been in Rhinebeck and both expensive and not very tasty. But damn, Saffron was delicious, even the stepped-on aftermath of a lunch buffet. It was also incredibly cheap, costing us something like $23 for the both of us.
Maybe Middletown has an unusually large or vibrant Indian community, because not only did they have a great inexpensive Indian restaurant, but they also had Aaojee, an Indian grocery located in a private house. Gretchen had a big shopping list of spices, beans, flours, and herbs to buy that she'd compiled from a cookbook she'd picked up about preparing vegetarian Indian food in a InstaPot (some months ago, we replaced a number of kitchen devices with this suddenly-popular all-purpose cooking device). Supposedly one should never shop with an empty stomach because one tends to buy too much expensive prepared food. Today we were making the opposite mistake: shopping with full stomachs. When one does that, food seems like an abstraction, and it's hard to imagine ever finding a use for anything in a grocery store. Gretchen's list certainly helped, and we even managed to imagine a time when we might want to eat things like the freshly-prepared samosas available for purchase at the front counter. It was hard to tell who was working there and who was a customer. One woman whom Gretchen had asked for the location of things proceeded to buy something, and then she recommended to me that I buy something containing milk chocolate. "Oh, but it has milk!" I said. She apologized profusely, perhaps thinking I might take it the same way she'd take being recommended a T-bone steak. But no, it was no big deal.
Gretchen had noticed the weirdness of the Middletown neighborhoods, where most of the pedestrians look to be Hispanic. The houses all seem trapped in a timewarp from just before the emergence of post-WWII architectural styles, and this applies even to the signs hanging on businesses. The oddness of the juxtapositions reminded us of similar neighborhoods we'd seen in Paramus, New Jersey (away from the Route 17 retail corridor).
It was starting to get dark by the time we got home, and my workday was almost over. At around 5:00pm, I cracked open a beer.


Crazy dark blue skies to the east as we arrived back at our own Exit 19 on the Thruway today.


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