February 27, 2013

Starving Artist

Starving Artist 
By John Greenwood

If you could see what I see when I stand in front of a full length mirror you would know that I am not even close to starving and I only dream of being an artist. I am however a man on the upper end of his fifties who is starving to express his artistic side. I awake every day searching for a way to share creativity in some way. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to paint, carve, sing, play an instrument, act, write, or do anything that would enable me to share what’s inside of me to others on the outside. A few years ago I mustered every ounce of courage I had and began this blog Raining Iguanas. All fear of opening up my heart and mind to the world disappeared. I started slowly but I was persistent. The more I opened up the more I wanted to learn. The more I learned the more I wanted to share. The journey I am on is not uncommon. What I have discovered over the past few years is how many people share this need. Once you open up and write about it, talk about it, and read about it you realize what a human need creativity is. Whether I'm at work or at home, I am in perpetual search mode. It's like waving a metal detector over buried treasure below and listening for a beep, then two. Then just when you're about to call it a day, a steady song of discovery rings out. I dig and dig with everything I have. I heap the earth behind me like a hound dog on his way to the other side. I remain restless and edgy until the results are posted. I am impatient about it. My pulse quickens when I feel an idea or vision has substance. The feeling you when you post something you like, can be compared to enjoying an expensive meal with your family. It’s great having everyone together. Money is no object. Laughter runs rampant. Smiles and memories flow like water. The bill comes. They swipe your card. You sign your name. Fast forward to Monday. The big bill comes in the mail. That family high seems to have vanished into the night. Then Christmas shows up. The pattern repeats. This is the way of artistic expression. A roller coaster ride of oohs and aahs followed by a seat on a nearby bench just long enough to let your internal organs settle back where they belong and off you go to get back in line. Your thirst never fully quenched, you wake each day, grab your pad and pen, and head for the faucet. The pattern repeats--once more... 

February 26, 2013

A Lunch Sign

A Lunch Sign
By John R. Greenwood

The Van Raalte Company 2013
This is how it happens. It's around noon on a Monday. I get a call on my cell phone. I answer it. Five miles away and five minutes later another sign is staring me in the face. The call was from someone I do business with. I had paperwork and a check for him. He had some paperwork for me. I offered to run over to his office on my lunch break to make the simple swap. My offer had selfish intentions. I wanted the chance to see what the inside of the old Van Raalte building looked like. The office building is now referred to as, "The Mill". In a previous post I mention the fact that my grandfather Elmer Greenwood was a foreman in the knitting department at the Van Raalte mill for many years. He worked in the mill from 1931 until his retirement in 1964. At the time of his retirement he was superintendent of all knitting at the mill. I have more detailed history of Van Raalte's that my grandfather left me. I have not been in that building in over forty years. I haven't thought much about the Van Raalte Mill since it closed the doors for the last time in 1986. Now, in less than a week,  I have multiple signs pointing me there. I couldn't think of a better way to spend a lunch break than a trip down memory lane. 

As I approached the facade of this beautifully renovated knitting mill I was magically transported back several decades. I swear I could hear the methodical rhythm of the huge knitting machines as they reeled off yards and yards of finely crafted fabric. I could smell the machine oil that soaked the wide planked floors for almost a century. As I entered the front door I expected to see my aunt Ann sitting there waiting for me. She also worked there for many years. I visualized my grandfather standing there speaking to one of the machine operators about an adjustment they needed to make on Machine # 1. I almost expected to see Clem's sisters,  Eunice and Elizabeth seated at a table together making alterations to a vintage pair of gloves. I was in a time machine and it was stuck in gear. 

Back to reality. I wasn't in the door more than ten feet and to my right I see this framed gloved on the wall. I'm instantly drawn to it and thrilled to see the artifact. 

My head begins to swivel side to side like a child in a toy store. The woman at the desk in the lobby seemed to sense my mood and patiently waited for me to come back to earth. Her name was Mary Ellen and she was the building's facility manager (JACKPOT). She  would most certainly understand my interest in the history of the place. I would soon discover I was correct in my assumption 

Mary Ellen politely directed me to the upstairs office where I completed my business transaction. When I was done I returned to her desk in the lobby and asked if there were any more photographs of the original mill. It was at this point I began to divulge my attachment and interest in the place. She explained that although she had only lived in the area for about fifteen years she had acquired a keen interest in the city's deep rooted history. It's almost impossible to even drive through Saratoga and not be absorbed by it. 

I asked about a spring I remembered being inside the building some forty years ago. Her eyes lit up as she confirmed my memory. She went on to explain that the Empire Spring was piped outside and was still working. Presently it was sealed off for the winter. She then told me about an Empire Spring bottle that she had purchased. She kindly offered to get it from a storage closet and show it to me. She had hopes of being able to display it in a curio cabinet in the future. I have seen a lot of Saratoga bottles. In fact I have a few of my own, but this was the most beautiful spring water bottle I have ever seen. This is why I never even go to the mailbox without my camera. Mary Ellen graciously allowed me to take a photograph of the gorgeous green bottle. After a few more minutes of exchanging business cards and some ideas about sharing some additional Van Raalte history, I thanked her profusely for her kindness and headed back to work. As I left the building I looked off to the right. There you can see the sloping remnants of the road that used to curve down alongside the mill. I'm not certain the year they closed off that street but seeing it covered in grass and dotted with snow gave me mixed feelings. Progress and preservation can work together when they want to. I have witnessed a city go from one extreme to the next in the last fifty years. It is always heartbreaking to see old buildings come down. Preservation is expensive and sometimes impossible. I think Saratoga Springs and its citizens have done a good job compared to other cities throughout the state. You always hope for more but time waits for no one, including Saratogians. You do the best you can and hope that along the way we have recorded our history well enough that someday when my great-great grandchildren visit High Rock Park they gaze off to the east and say, " I think I remember reading something about a Greenwood descendent who worked in that mill back in the 1900's. Let's walk over to the library and check it out." 

This street was once open and connected Maple and High Rock Avenues 

I began this blog as a venue to share stories, thoughts, poems, photographs, ideas, compliments and complaints. It may contain inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Don't be upset if you discover either or both. I try to state facts to the best of my abilities but my memory can play games with me and at times lead me slightly astray. Be open minded with any errors you find. I  will correct them if they are significant or hurtful. I love company and encourage you to share my blog with anyone who you feel might enjoy it. Many of my posts are not time sensitive so feel free to go back to earlier archives and look around. You may be surprised at what you find--I usually am. Again I appreciate your patronage. Be happy-Be safe.

February 24, 2013

Saturday Signs

Saturday Signs
By John R. Greenwood
East Side Rec Saratoga Springs N.Y.
My grandfather Elmer to the left of the trophy 
I headed to the Saratoga Springs Public Library to continue my search for a sign from Clem today. I soon realized that finding Clem himself might prove to be easier then finding a place to park. The city was a buzz so just getting to the library took some doing. By the time I had driven through the library parking lot, the parking garage down the street, and the block long city parking lot (twice) I began to rethink my agenda for the afternoon. I tend to be a little (very) knot-headed so my patience paid off and just before I ran out of gas a car pulled out right next to the front steps and voila I was on my way to new adventure. I started by pulling out the box of skating scrapbooks I found on my last visit.  Do you see how easily distracted I get. The ironic part was it caught the attention of another library patron who was nearby. She noticed what I was looking at and asked me about it. She seemed a bit shocked when I mentioned old Saratoga Winter Club albums. She then proceed to tell me she was in the Winter Club in the 1960's. I slid the box of memorabilia over to her and it was game on. Another sign answered.

Saratoga Springs City Directory 1948 
I then proceeded to the city directories. They have them dating back to the early 1900's.  It is so much fun leafing through them, I could do that for hours-and so I did. I started by going back to the first listing of Walter L. Clements.  Back then the directories listed the addresses of both your business and residence. I followed Clem's path to all corners of the city and back again. As most young men he had a couple different jobs in his early years. He did spend 90% of his life listed in the phone books as a sign painter. The most interesting discovery came in the 1948 city directory.  His father died in that time period. You know that because his mother was listed as widowed in the directory above. His twin sisters, as well as other family, lived at the same address as his mother. He too was living at that address at this time. This is where I started to assess today's sign from Clem. The address was 190 Lake Ave. This is just around the corner from East Avenue where my grandparents lived at the time. It was less than six houses away. The other connection that stopped me in my tracks was the fact that it listed his sisters as both being employed by the Van Raalte Company. That by itself wouldn't be exciting except for the fact that my grandfather was a foreman in the knitting department at that time. Not only would he have known the entire family, at least two of them would have worked with him at the time. The Van Raalte mill was thriving in those years. I have a binder full of information that my grandfather assembled in his later years. He describes the transition and improvements that were made at the time. He details some of the changes he was involved in that allowed the huge looms to produce some of the worlds finest lingerie and gloves of the period.

So now I possessed another lead, another road sign pointing in a new direction. I will now pull out my grandfathers documents to see if I've had a Clem connection I never knew existed. I stopped at the 190 Lake Ave. address on my way home from the library. I grabbed my camera and jumped out to snap a photo of the place. I could visualize everyone coming home from work and sitting around the kitchen table eating pot roast and buttered bread. Everyone exhausted from the labors of the day. I am told that Clem's twin sisters where deaf. The table conversation may have been a little different than what we would have experienced but I'm sure it occurred smoothly and with more loving signs than the rest of us might imagine.
Oh!, I have one more fun fact. My wife lived one street over growing up so the backyards face each other. And..., the house next door on the left of 190 Lake Ave;when my wife was a teenager she spent many days and evenings babysitting the children who lived there. It was the early 70's. We were starting to date at that time. How cool is that? Small world? You think?

I realize that these connections are not that strange in a city the size of Saratoga but its more than that. It's about the constant pull I have to keep looking for more signs. So far it has lead me to a dozen scrapbooks filled with my grandfathers memorabilia that I didn't even know existed. It has me looking at city homes that I've driven by for over fifty years in a totally different light. It has me cautious about touching a family nerve that someone may not want exposed. But for now I will keep searching for Clem's signs and seeing what they may be trying to tell me. After all, if I wasn't doing this I might have to do those home repairs I keep putting off. Mrs. G. may be a painting a sign of her own this very minute.

I want to thank everyone who follows along on my journey. This is post is number 300 for Raining Iguanas. I never dreamed that Raining Iguanas would become such a large and important part of my life. I can't explain the feeling I get when I hit the 'Publish' key that sends each post out into the world. It's scary, yet exhilarating. It has been 99% positive and 1% 'other'. I make every effort not to hurt anyone with my writing. I would never be a successful critic--although I often dream of being an investigative reporter exposing slime-balls who pray on the elderly or children. For now I will simply enjoy searching for a sign on a street near you. 

February 21, 2013

A House Of Pizza and Memories

A House Of Pizza and Memories
by John R. Greenwood

My friend AJ who once worked at both Saratoga Pizza House locations sent me a message the other night. AJ now lives in Stockton Missouri. He has been following my blog and he is aware of my search for a sign from Clem. AJ’s message said he was fairly certain that Clem had painted the menu board at the second Saratoga Pizza House location in the old Dairy Queen on So. Broadway, Saratoga. The Pizza House has been closed for some time now and it has been even longer since the last time I had been in there. I haven’t been inundated with information about possible Clem signs so when I read his message my heart rate rose a little. The next morning I dropped my wife off at work and headed down Broadway. I was very excited and hoping that AJ’s tip panned out. It was sad to see such a once vibrant business sitting there in silent decay. I must have spent thousands of dollars over the years on pizza and ice cream at that location. Multiply that times all the tourists and locals who did the same and you have one crazy big number. 

Another Saratoga Classic in the reflection...
I think the reason you have such fond memories of places like the Pizza House is that each visit was before or after an equally fond memory. One of my first dates with the beautiful Mrs. Greenwood was a movie at the Community Theater on Broadway followed by a small pizza with the works at the Saratoga Pizza House. That was the early 70‘s and the original Saratoga Pizza House was on the other end of Broadway just north of City Hall. There were many other visits after concerts and parties over the years. In later years it was a family event, our young boys fidgeting and poking each other all through dinner.

The soul of the Pizza House seemed to dry up after the original owner Steve lost his young daughter in a car accident. The business was sold several years after that and although it continued to be successful it never seemed quite the same. Alexandra’s name still graces the buildings facade. Most motorist passing by never aware of the sadness that comes with the name above.

"Not" a sign from Clem

Now with the history lesson complete let’s peek in the window to see if our search for a remnant from Clem was a success. I’m sad to say it was not. The original white sign with the red hand-painted menu was gone. It had been replaced by one of those plastic jobs with the individual letters and numbers that could be changed in a moments notice. I think all signs should have to be hand painted in this country. We might not be so quick to jump up the price of a burger and fries if every time we did you had to call Clem to repaint them. 

Their are pizza joints, pizza parlors, pizza huts, pizza shops, and pizza places, but there was only one true Saratoga Pizza House. 

I may not have found a sign from Clem today but I did make a discovery. "Friends may be separated by many years and even more miles but the memories they share are always close to home."- John R. Greenwood 

This post is dedicated to AJ and the love of music he shares with us all. 
Thanks friend...

February 19, 2013

Cumberland Crisp

Cumberland Crisp
By John R. Greenwood

One perk of working for a company with over three hundred locations across New York State is having the opportunity to travel to them all. On this particular day my responsibilities brought me to Plattsburgh. As always, I take advantage of anything that provides blog material--this trip was no exception. I arrived with enough daylight left to sneak up to North Plattsburgh and visit Cumberland Bay State Park

The park is a pine lined beauty with a majestic view of Lake Champlain. Except for a bundled up man walking his hearty lab, the  park was barren. I grabbed my camera and pulled my wool hat down low. The air possessed a February crispness that gives everything sharper edges and more color. There were splotches of snow here and there but the majority of the park was blanketed with pine needles begging to be walked on. It was only a short visit but that was all that was needed-- a few minutes of clarity, few shudder clicks, a few moments off the grid. It works like that for me. I've learned to grab twigs of life when they reach out from the edges of the path. I never snap them off in anger when they swat my face. It's important to pay close attention to where they are pointing. Toward a destination?, a light?, a sign?...

Cumberland Bay State Park
By John R. Greenwood

Pine palace of the big lake
A needle edged sand bar
curved like a quarter moon

One man and his lab
far off
head down smelling the winter air

Picnic-less tables scattered where they feel like it
Proud in their winter toughness
to be 
the best seat in town

February 17, 2013

Simmering Mind

Simmering Mind

I just finished watching a PBS documentary on Woody Guthrie. What kept me riveted to the television was the fact that no matter what happened in his life he couldn't stop writing. One story spoke about him being hold up in a loft with friends. He would bang away on a typewriter all night long and just peel out page after page of lyrics, stories, poems, and just toss them to the floor. His friends would wake up and find the floor littered with filled pages. It was wonderfully done documentary which really grasped my attention. He travelled back and forth across the country his entire life. His story although fascinating boiled down to the simple fact that he was driven to write and perform music that spoke of the life and country that existed around him. In the end Woody died of Huntington's Disease. The last minutes of the documentary described Woody attending a folk concert in New York City. He was consumed by this horrible disease which leaves the mind intact but disables your muscles and ability to speak. With nurses by his side one of the groups performed his song, This Land Is Your Land. He began flailing his arms in unison to the music with such fervor that the nurses asked the group to stop before Woody injured himself. He died in 1967. His life was certainly a mixed bag of experiences. The main point of this post was the connection I felt each time the documentary's timeline discussed his need to write. I find myself constantly searching for a sign from something or someone from somewhere. It never leaves me for a moment. My personal conflict comes when I can't see anything up ahead. Many of my posts begin with an inspiring photograph, -- a trigger, a spark. If  I sit down and try to muster up a post without having a ignition point I simmer like a pot of water that just won't boil. It's actually painful and distracts me from other tasks. It's an endless loop that consumes me from that first snooze button swat to that last late night pillow punch. I could never have imagined myself sharing thoughts like this with the world a few years ago. Now I can't imagine life without this freedom at my fingertips. My goal in life is to fine tune this dream into something more. Something substantial and vital. For now I will continue to simmer happily. The water is warm and comfortable. The future holds something more. The signs are there. I just have to uncover the next one.

February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day 

When you encapsulate thirty-nine years of Valentine's Day, I love you's, you realize how significant the accomplishment is. It's not about surviving marriage, it's about marriage surviving you. Each dab of uncertainty wilts away into the night. As a couple you become this mesh of tears and laughter rolled into a delicious mix of experience and discovery. No one joy stands out above the other yet when you gently pry a random piece away from the whole you see how beautiful marriage is--inside and out. Marriage absorbs all that is good and bad . What we feel as a young couple evolves slowly into something much larger. We don't understand it at the time but when you look back at where you began, where you've been, and where you hope to go, you can't help but savor the entire collection. After all, that's why we marry in the first place. We commit to better or worse and then want to change the rules when the pavement ends and the gravel begins. It's being fifty plus and listening to your favorite song at the age of fifteen. Yes it sounds different but, it stirs the same emotion. It reminds you of what you were all about then and transports that feeling decades ahead. It helps to reacquaint yourself with that feeling. It's not magic, its hard work that turns into something special. I am one of the lucky ones who found someone with a good heart and a strong will who is determined to stick around long enough to see me grow up. That's a true Valentine...

February 10, 2013


Free form signal waves proudly to passers-by. Most never notice until long past the anthem sound a gentle breeze makes. Red and white voice sings out; whipping patriot pride into place.

February 09, 2013

Finding Signs Of Signs

Finding Signs Of Signs

Photo supplied by Robert Wheaton Jr.of Saratoga Springs. 
The search continues and the surprises keep coming.  I received a message and this photo from Saratoga artist Robert J. Wheaton Jr. It's a photo of a framed sign Clem painted several years ago. The sign advertises custom framing and is done in calligraphy. Much of Clem's work seems to be in that same form. The Price's Dairy he painted on my truck was done in the same style. To me this indicates Clem had an artistic desire that ran deeper than simply painting signs for a living. Just hours after seeing this photo another area resident provided another Clem tip. I'm told Clem painted wallpaper designs in a home here in Saratoga.  My hope is to capture a photo and maybe some additional story line to go along with it. I will keep you posted. 

If you're new to my blog you may wonder what is fueling my search for remnants of long time Saratoga sign painter Walter "Clem" Clements. To be truthful I'm not totally sure of the reason. Part of it may be for nostalgic reasons. The main reason was to simply shove off from shore with an idea and a personal mission and see where the journey landed me. I was certain that as I floated along the river of this search that I would discover new friends, buried stories, and hidden treasure. All three of those appeared just days into my first public post about my search for a sign from Clem. As you can see above they are still arriving at my doorstep and I honestly believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. I found a family collection of scrapbooks, a vintage photo of Clem himself, a sign of a sign, and a hot lead to yet another one of Clem's works of art. My links and discoveries are to me what life is all about. It's not simply a yearning for, 'the good old days', it's much, much more than that. My desire to write and share has created a need for connections and fresh ideas. I am not content spending my time waiting for life to come to me. I have enjoyed a good full life so far. In my mind it is just beginning in many ways. I want to see what's out there. I want to write about it because from everything I have witnessed since posting my first story on this blog a few years ago, there are thousands of others out there wanting the same thing. I made a conscious decision to act on that desire and see what happens. I have not been disappointed. Please stayed tuned for more signs, they seem to be everywhere. 

* Robert Wheaton Jr. manages the art department at Soave Faire in Saratoga. The frame in the photo can be found at their store on Broadway. 

February 06, 2013

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure

Kaydeross Park, Saratoga Lake
Late 30's early 40's
When I headed off to the Saratoga Springs Public Library on this cold February evening I never imagined that I would discover a family archive of albums sitting on a shelf in the center of the library's Saratoga Room.  However that is exactly what happened. I have been fighting a good old fashioned head cold for the last week, so my search for a sign from Clem had been placed on hold. I have been itching to get back to the library and feeling a little better today, I promised myself I would do just that. I was greeted by Victoria who immediately did every thing in her power to lead me to another sign from Clem. She made several suggestions and provided dozens of names of people who might be helpful in my search. As she was checking some things on the computer I was slowly prowling the shelves for a sign of my own. In the very center of the Saratoga Room there are large shelves full of these huge cardboard boxes. Each box has an identifying tag on the side indicating the contents. Many of them  were family collections of albums. Some of the albums were full of newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. I was bent over at a right angle when a very familiar family named appeared before my eyes. It was the name Greenwood. 

What stopped my heart for a few seconds was the fact that it was my grandfather Elmer Greenwood. It gets better. I pulled out the large box and placed it on top of the counter. I carefully opened it up and was floored to find it packed with five different size albums dating back to the 1930's. A sheet of paper lying on top of them indicated that the items were mostly from the Saratoga Winter Club and other winter sports. Suddenly my search for a sign from Clem had served up another family heirloom I never knew existed. 

A gold nugget
The pages of these scrapbooks were jammed with articles about local speed skating athletes, some with Olympic ties. Once again my search for a sign provided a roadside full of billboards to read and rediscover. I can't wait to see what's around the next turn. 

My grandfather Elmer Greenwood (left) and Bob Walton Sr.
Bob was the original owner of Walton's Sport Shop on Lake Ave. 

February 03, 2013


By John R. Greenwood

A winter ritual reaches out and grips you tight around the neck. It starts slowly with a scratchy swallow, sandpaper-rough. Your temples begin to throb with every pass of flickering light. Visions of a soft pillow and heavy quilt invade every thought. Your legs become noodle-like. Body aches work themselves deep into every available space. We know it’s coming yet we act like we should be excused this time around. Why me? I drank my juice! But it comes anyway and it knocks you down like a neighborhood bully. It looks down at you and sneers. You pull up the covers tight around your head. You lay pathetic, horizontal, a shivering mummy squirming from side to side on a safe familiar sofa. You turn off the world for as long as you can. No amount of sympathy seems enough. The drone of daytime television lulls you to sleep. The reviving smell of warm toast, that next glimmer of life, is  still days away. Hours accumulate, turn into days, and slowly you come back to life. Appetites return as ginger-ale inventories dwindle. The sun becomes more welcome. A hot shower melts your aches away for good. Life returns to normal. Back to work tomorrow...