Phyllis Herbert was not one to go gentle into that good night. Living out the last decade of her life in Hudson, she could be at times, well, ornery.
As memory failed her, she was prone to frustration with both herself and her interlocutors. She loved conversation, dropping by my office almost every weekday for years. Though her mind was full of both probing questions and lively anecdotes, as the fight got busier and busier I often had to instruct my staff not to let her know I was working downstairs, since such conversations could prove difficult to wind up.
In saying so, I am not trying to tarnish Phyllis’ memory, but to conjure up her intense sense of self and willpower. She prided herself on her independence of mind and lifestyle. To the last, she could be seen chugging up Warren Street in practical sneakers and a long jean skirt, pursuing some errand she insisted on completing herself even after driving a car became impossible. She resisted many attempts by worried relations to move her to assisted living, and finally succeeded in her effort to die at home in Hudson.
She could try the patience and generosity of friends who did their best to help with housework and repairs around the small home she bought in 1998 in the 100 block of Warren Street, after a bitter divorce from her longtime husband. (I discovered, after we’d known each other for a time, that they had lived next-door to my grandparents on Grove Street in the West Village. That explained a lot to me about her character and interests—she brought to Hudson a whiff of old Village contrarianism.)
She was an excellent cook, but could be the victim of her own perfectionism. During the period of the cement controversy, those of us living in “The Flatlands”—the level blocks at the end of Warren—would take turns hosting impromptu neighborhood potluck picnics. Phyllis was invariably too ambitious in her choice of a dish—preparing, say, an elaborate potroast. Wanting to get it just right, she would miscalculate the prep time necessary. Arriving very late to the cookout, bearing a delicious dish which no one had any more room to eat (having already finished dessert), she could become furious at both her neighbors and herself.
Phyllis was smart, warm and cynically humorous when she wanted to be. She had an extensive collection of discarded (often academic) books she had picked up at library sales and thrift stores, and had clearly paid a lot of attention to the theories of Jane Jacobs, another Villager. Among those she loaned me was a 1958 tome called “Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power, and Religion in a Rural Community.” She thought it might provide some insight into how local officials and their constituents view issues like the St. Lawrence Cement proposal, and she was right. In particular, the book helped crystallize for me how going-along-to-get-along is a powerful force in local decisionmaking, and helped me see ways to break down that predictable dynamic which favors the status quo.
Phyllis contributed to the cement struggle in other unexpected ways. She was something of a hoarder, so a neighbor and my part-time employee Maiysha Kramer tried to help tame this vast collection of books and papers. Her habit of never throwing anything away turned out to have an unexpected benefit: the little house (which is now the Davis-Orton Gallery) contained virtually every issue of the Register-Star and Independent from the day she arrived in Hudson.
In a time when few papers were digitized, this had a great value to our opposition research against St. Lawrence, since one of our favorite strategies was to catch the company contradicting its past claims. So Phyllis—despairing of ever sorting through the entire informal archive—agreed to donate it to the cause. This was turned into a sort of reference library at my office, and it proved helpful time and time again.
Two neighbors who tried their best to help Phyllis manage things were Fran and Vinny DeGrazia, a not-quite-as-elderly couple who lived directly across the street. Fran had been a stewardess, and Vinny a musician and bartender. For a brief time, they kept an antique shop—a tchotchke shop, really—several doors upstreet from their two-story house. They loved yardsaling, and it kept them busy in retirement.
They loved jazz, and carried around with them an oldschool vibe of the Ratpack days. One could easily imagine them taking in a Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr. show in Atlantic City, and dancing up a storm. (Occasionally, that oldschool vibe would include some salty or outmoded language, the latter which I took as testament to the ingrained, inherited prejudices of their generation than any mean-spritedness, especially given the diversity of their neighbors and circle of friends. The 100 block of Warren was unusually close-knit back then, but virtually every house has changed owners in the 17 years I’ve been here.)
I remember Fran and Vinny as among the very most reliable volunteers for the cement cause. Putting labels on 5,000-piece mailings was a frequent task, and the two of them never failed to show up to help. Vinny also consistently donated his bartending services to Stop the Plant fundraising events, often working in tandem with Bob Mechling. They died within a relatively short time of each other, and it was indeed hard to imagine one without the other.
Phyllis, Fran and Vinny taught me, among other things, that it takes all kinds of people and personalities for a community to beat back a multinational corporation. As did each of the 4,000 members of the group that prevailed against SLC ten years ago, these three friends and neighbors contributed in their own idiosyncratic and surprising ways... the point of these remembrances not being canonization, but to be as true as possible to their presences.