A New Case of the Danbury Shakes

When John Oliver badmouthed Danbury, I donned my best Mad Hatter attitude, pulled out my Danbury Historic Booklet Series, and climbed my family tree. Ron caught wind of my indignation. It got his dander going.

See, I’m from Danbury. Although I was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, I escaped to Danbury when I started college. At the time, Western Connecticut State University was called Danbury State College. One of my literature professors was my mother’s high school English teacher. She confided that the blue-haired professor was old even then.

My mother’s family lived in Danbury for generations. The homestead abuts the Hearthstone Castle, where cousins and siblings played as kids. Gramp was a union leader in the hat industry. Uncle Steve started working at the Danbury News Times in the 1920s; 52 years later he retired as the editorial page manager. One uncle owned a small stationery store. Another worked at the local Kimberly Clark factory. Aunt Jeanne was a lifelong member of Saint Peter’s Church. That’s where I taught English and later yoga when I was with the local Integral Yoga Institute.  

The city has a 300-year-old quirky profile. First known as Pahquioque by its namesake tribe, it evolved into the 19th century Mad Hatter City. The moniker refers to erethism merculialis, a neurological disorder also known as the Danbury Shakes, which workers developed from inhaling mercury fumes associated with hat manufacturing. Around that same time, danburite—a quartz-like mineral reputed to have spiritual powers that activate enlightenment—was discovered. About 150 years later, a local teacher found evidence of Druid chambers in nearby woodlands.

Against this curious backdrop, the Age of Aquarius dawned in the 1970s, giving Danbury a new set of shakes. Just an hour from New York City, the small-town ambiance and rolling hills drew scores of musicians, artistes, and virtuosos. I was Padma, my boyfriend Krishna; we studied yoga at the feet of Swami Satchidananda, the guru who opened the Woodstock Music Festival and lived in a secluded pagoda on Zinn Road. I cleaned his house.

A friend owned Nature’s Cupboard, the only health-food store for miles around. Another ran the Royal Embassy of Ooh-Ah Land. These businesses were the nexus of an eclectic crowd of meditating macrobiotic vegans, Catholic teachers, Buddhist dancers, kosher pot smokers, massage therapists, agnostic filmmakers, songwriters, poets, séance mediums, a Native American shaman, disciples of esoteric gurus, and truth-seekers of every shape and color.

I also know a seedy side of Danbury. My chemistry professor was convicted of pedophilia in 2014. That was a few years after Saint Peter’s Father (later Monsignor) Kevin Wallin got involved in meth. Who would have thought that the chemistry teacher would become a pedophile and the priest a drug dealer? It was really too bad, because they were both involved with the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, which provides food and shelter for the homeless.

So I’m delighted that Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton announced that the city will rename its sewage plant after the John Oliver. The so-called comedian gave me a new case of the Danbury Shakes.

Published by Patti M. Walsh

A storyteller since her first fib, Patti M. Walsh is an award-winning author who writes short stories, novels, and memoirs. Her first novel, GHOST GIRL, is a middle-grade coming-of-age ghost story based on Celtic mythology. In addition to extensive experience teaching and counseling, Patti is a Hermes award-winning business and technical writer. Visit www.pattimwalsh.com.

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