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I Never Left Binghamton
A tired, old, inaccurate cliche says, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” If you’re born a hick, you’re stuck with strains of bumpkin strumming banjos in your brain, that’s the circulated untruth.
But you can leave it all behind if you tie up your loose ends. I never got to do that. Dangling threads and unknotted strings are all over the place.
Such is my personal slice of the calamitous legacy Mom’s strike for freedom and better weather dropped over us like a sudden shower.
Binghamton was a beautiful, successful small town in the Fifties, a middle class dream come true before the social configurations binding America got busted. Had New York under our loose-zippered governor, Nelson Rockefeller, not converted Harper College into Binghamton University during our fleeting national romance with education, the city nearby might be no more than a mouldering slag heap of depopulation by now, its reason for being left to idle in under financed libraries, detritus sifted through the cracks as industry fled.
Hitched along in the boom the Erie Canal seeded all across upstate after DeWitt Clinton willed it into being, blowing off the experts, Binghamton got luckier than most. A pioneering shoe company built a community within the community, what was then called “a company town,” now something less than a punch line. Endicott-Johnson prospered from winning the right to supply footwear to America’s fighting men until the Cold War dried up the blood flow of wealth. Fifty years later, population scraped down to half, tanneries you once smelled from miles away demolished, Binghamton competes to be the least destroyed of cities progress and manifold national priorities failed to tug along.
A middle finger casually raised to the working class can still be seen as it speeds away on the interstate.
When a species finds its role in nature no longer necessary, say because it chewed up all its bounty, it fails and, if lucky enough to collapse in mud, vanishes into fossils, otherwise into barely visible traces inside a helix. Outside the fossil record, the species becomes what is known during down-to-earth debates as a fart in a windstorm. Gone. Something else fills the gap.
In American cities, we decided to defy the natural order. We restocked the potholed streets and rusting infrastructure with or grasping poor and otherwise objectionable subcultures. The needy now fail from lack of nourishment around deteriorating skeletons. We scratch our heads, mystified over how that happened. Our voices rise passionately to fables of a vanishing middle class, but we seem just as addicted to maintaining impoverished cousins, rank and file placeholders, on which to bank our pride.
Binghamton wasn’t a wreck when I grew up. It was a perfect American town, muscled by woking families. You could always find a job at Endicott-Johnson or IBM. Stretched out along the Brandywine Highway, Link Aviation was still too strong for hungry Wall Street predators. Innovative companies sunk roots in a valley scooped out by the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers, joined at an oblique angle. We had our assimilated, Italians and Poles stocking neighborhoods. Blacks settled along Susquehanna Street and in public housing on the fringe of the South Side.
At the center of the city, Chenango Street bends into Court as cars flow through downtown. The domed county courthouse rests behind a broad lawn stretching to the street. Shade trees lend it a relaxed country feeling. Look west and at the end of a commercial strip, a bridge carries traffic across the river, a feeder canal in busier times.
Tony, Hector, I and some other West Side guys hung out in front of the serious columns of a bank building on the north side of Court. Shoppers filled the sidewalks on Monday and Thursday evenings, drawn to McCleans and Fowlers, anchor department stores, and satellite speciality shops between. We were sixteen, girl crazy and afloat with rock and roll. It was the summer of the Stones. Smoking cigarettes, we flirted with girls we didn’t know. The flavor of the world ahead came to us. Across the street, where Washington intersected, boys from North High, which was farther east than East Junior, and nowhere near the border with Port Dickinson and Sunrise Terrace, gathered to gossip. Our views were optimistic. The only downside we ever heard about was reserved for high school dropouts, of which I was not yet one. Kennedy had been assassinated, an impossible happening the government helped us pass off as extraordinary, an anomaly that could never happen again. A minor war heated up. We’d all sign up for draft cards, but college, then marriage would keep us out of the horror of the first war broadcast live.
You didn’t have to go far. Cross any of the nearby bridges over the Susquehanna or Chenango or climb the viaduct above the Erie-Lackawanna depot, you walked a neighborhood in less than ten minutes. Attended gas stations hosted cars. Community churches and corner stores kept communities fed. Mothers networked. Kids found friends on quiet streets and playgrounds. Rudy Fox’s gang menaced, echoing the noise from New York City, one-hundred and fifty miles away, on the fringes. Bad guys and girls with reputations joined. The rest of us steered clear, our lives hooked into school routines, sports and weekend dances. Families, except for mine and an invisible sprinkling of others, were glued intact, nuclear and traditional. The middle class worked until the factories closed, and the avalanche of social decline began rolling downhill with the certainty of springtime floods along the rivers.
If any of us saw what was coming, he kept his mouth shut. Tony and I, sixteen that summer, were emotionally preoccupied with trying to control our rambling girlfriends, dreading the end of summer and our earliest sexual dramas. Making out with me in Tony’s basement, Sandy finally stopped batting my hand away from her breast. “I figured if that’s all you wanted, fine,” she later told me. It was, and it was all I got before autumn came and she bumped me aside for a guy with a car. Storm clouds never dimmed the broader horizon. What was about to go wrong was not so brief or forgettable as a burst of thunder, lightning and drenching rain. It was in the ground, poisoning the roots. We couldn’t see it. Well, maybe some of us could if we wanted to, but we didn’t.
Five years later, I packed my books and shoes and carried what little else I owned away from Binghamton, sent by my draft board to arctic exile in snowbound Buffalo. Any other hell was better than Southeast Asia. By then, the world had changed in ways both large and small. Tony was already dead, killed in a car wreck while racing home to see his family before shipping out to Vietnam. My generation gave up its young men in bulk as the Chamber of Commerce pushed to keep Vietnam, 10,000 miles away, from independence. Many died fighting a jungle war. More were lost in spirit and disillusion. Tens of thousands crippled. And nobody could tell us why in ways more appealing than a spooky domino theory that hardly justified losing a life. Guys went anyway, still trusting. Guys went out of patriotism. Guys went out of fear. The jungles seemed so far away, the condemnation so close.
My best friend before Tony volunteered. Abandoned by his alcoholic family, Denny found a place to grow up in the home of a man who made it his cause to help teenage boys in trouble. Red gave him shelter on his small farm in the Windsor foothills. He’d inherited the place from his mother as well as responsibility for his sister who’d arrived on Earth without enough of a mind to get by on her own. Unmarried, Red played foster father to boys who were close to falling through the social cracks most Americans preferred not to know were there.
Denny and I spent a summer riding two odd horses Red also rescued. One was a retired trotter, his steady pace a wonder to watch and a horror to ride; the other a muscular palomino. Because we were boys, we saddled up even the trotter and raced in a field claimed by ghosts at night. A trotter is no competition for a naturally running horse, but Denny exercised his rights of near ownership to assign ridership. He relented after I wobbled home with my first and, so far, only saddle sores.
Red required us to feed the horses, clean out the stalls and to carry pails of fresh water up to the house. At night, when heat held like fog over the rolling hilltop, he let us haul sleeping bags out to the woods to rest under the cooling trees. There I found another first: ghosts. Or ghost, maybe. We couldn’t be sure of the number, but of the existence, there was no question.
Stretched out on ground, bags zipped up, smoking cigarettes and looking up through the branches at tiny breaks of black sky and faint stars, Denny and I continued that long conversation boys had as we calculated the mechanics and manners of becoming men. I doubt this happens much anymore, now in the era of minutely managed childhoods, but we traded what we knew about girls, jobs and how the social strata worked itself out. We tried on guesses about what our lives might become. Both of us were more detached from our families than our friends were, our imaginations less confined by expectations.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, as we drifted toward that indescribable zone where waking slides sideways into sleep, rocks began cutting through the leafy canopy, thudding and bouncing on ground cushioned by decades of crushed and decaying leaves.
“Who the fuck’s out there throwing rocks?” Denny asked.
The rocks seemed to be flying in from the open field where we raced earlier.
One after another, they ripped through the branches overhead, sometimes bouncing off as gravity pulled them down.
We speculated uselessly on what asshole would take the trouble to come out here in the dark to toss rocks into the trees, probably to bug us. But Denny had a stranger question.
“Where is he getting all those stones?”
Without interruption, they kept falling. Where would someone find stones in a wheat field in the dark?
Growing up in the country, you get used to living with odd phenomena, dogs that bark at invisible intruders, lightning sparking out of a cloudless sky, creaking floorboards. You learn that it’s benign, not worth stopping whatever you’re doing. That was about to become our position on the rock thrower as sleep grew more enticing, but then, it began to rain.
In the woods, you hear rain slapping leaves over your head minutes before the water finds its way to you. We listened, wondering if it might pass quickly and leave us dry. The splashing increased, the drops larger.
“Ah, shit,” Denny said. “We better get back to the barn before we’re soaked.”
It was too dark to roll up our bags, and we didn’t want to take the time anyway. We’d be spreading them across the barn floor near the horse stalls in just a few minutes.
We weaved through the trees, nearly blind in the moonless dark. The woods stirred with spirits. You could feel them, beacons of energy around us like a million dim fireflies. Were they here to guide us or kick us out? The rocks hadn’t chased us away. So, now, had the spirits escalated?
Rain filled the air, raising an indistinct chorus in the cottony dark as Denny and I walked out of the woods and onto the double-rutted trail used earlier to lead our horses. By the time we pulled the barn door open, laid out our bags and fell into nearly instant slumber, we were too lost with exhaustion to wonder aloud about what we’d seen. On a freshly washed morning, mist lifting off the trees across the pasture, we started over, never rolling out our sleeping bags in those woods again.
Two years later, Denny was fighting in Vietnam. How much time had really passed?
A letter arrived with a complicated, military return address, and I tore it open. Always the more swaggering of us, he boasted about his confirmed kills and how many were women and children, “at that.”
Shapeless fear smoked up from fires rekindled in forgotten pits in the soils of cultures past.
“I hear my sister is running around with niggers,” he added. “Let me know if you can find out. I’ll take care of that shit when I get home.”
I used to save letters, but this one I didn’t. I threw it in the trash, and even knowing Denny was lost to the madness of war, I never tried to find him. A primitive wave washed up, and he was gone.
An unreleasable connection lingers. One night, a year before, Denny fixed me up with his sister while he paired off with her friend. I liked Linda, and she liked me enough to let me struggle through a whole night with her, unable pull off the magic of inserting a nickel into a dime slot. Sixteen, I lacked a permanent home I was willing to live in for the first time. In the morning, after everyone else left, I was in the unfamiliar house alone. My life was just beginning in an awkward, mapless way.
I couldn’t stay here. I needed to find a place to live and money to pay for it. The classifieds listed one thing I really wanted to do: stand up comedy. Paralyzing insecurity on stage and inexperience kept me from dialing the number.
Walking along the Brandywine Highway toward Robinson Street, I disappeared into the stream of observation that made becoming a writer inevitable. A rawness of unfinished spring left grass descending from the shoulder an unsatisfying, dirty green, the gravelly surface hard-damp with lingering winter.
One thing an outsider notices is that the world will never pause to let you come in or invite you to catch up. You have to force it, an act which means some part of you will always be other, out, because you came through the wrong door or no door.
Finding the sidewalk, I headed down Robinson toward Chenango on a trail roughened with familiar, lost things. The difficult truth hadn’t landed with me yet that I was a skater, gliding through crowds without entangling. New sets were being assembled, others left behind without finish, me a human neutrino. I looked down Liberty Street, the worst place in the city. My short term friend Dominick lived on this falling apart street, the year we finished grade school. We bused from the country into the hard city every day, then. Dominick was gone, now. So was Jimmy. And Lynn, the first girl I fantasized about marrying when I was eleven years old, desperate to calculate normal and a place to belong.
Robinson Street ends at another oblique angle with Chenango, a slanting artery in a square town. In the dark brick public school near the corner, I finally left the sixth grade, my report card filled with As and Bs diminished by the scolding I caught from my brothers, once protectors, now scowling judges.
“You should get all As when you repeat a grade,” I heard.
Dad looked at my report card.
“I see you finally passed,” he said, joining the chorus.
How could I ever leave them?
How could I not?
My brothers, my jailers.
On into town, I walked past the sketchy neighborhoods in the mix with factories and railroads making up the interim space. A viaduct carried traffic over the Erie-Lackawanna tracks to Henry Street where everything changed, the Hotel Arlington filling the corner.
Every time I walked down that viaduct, the hotel straight ahead, a memory floated up of Ronnie Spector’s voice embedded in Phil’s wall of sound, Be My Baby singing in my head, downstream toward my first evanescent crush. The Arlington hosted teen dances then, scrambling for alternative sources of revenue. The station across the street got fewer trains as Binghamton’s economic erosion muddied the fertile medium of business travel, all that transparent to us as we walked through the upholstered lobby to the ballroom. All we cared about was the music, the dance and emotions swelling the space.
I see myself in a wiggle-wobble line that night, teaching redheaded Leslie how to shuffle her feet, positioning them for a small, sweeping jump before dancing back. Wiggle-wobble lines disappeared before my memories of that night and Leslie did.
For once, my brothers were proud of me.
“He goes right to the top, dancing with a girl who’s already graduated,” one joked.
Maybe Leslie didn’t know she had two years on me, but it couldn’t be a secret for long. What was I going to do? Date her? With no money, no car and not old enough to get a license to drive it if I did, I settled for a confidence builder. My next dance was months away, and Leslie, I found out, was Jewish, a line not yet ready to be crossed.
After the Hotel Arlington, the street up to Court is filled with markers, none yet set. The future was as blank as it could be. Skater, rambler, I’d treat my Dad to lunch at the Little Venice, the last private time we had together, before driving across town to Philadelphia Sales on Clinton Street, the bargains shoppers’ paradise where he took us at the end of summer to get outfits before school started. Ahead was the Greyhound terminal where I popped out on a summer day and saw Joyce with her friend Hobbs on the corner, coincidence beyond calculation. The dirt parking lot where a building had been raised, The Queen E diner, the county courthouse with its expansive lawn like a pool forcing the roads to pass…
You figure out later that there’s a partial transfer of ownership. Buildings and street corners, dives over on Washington where you ate cheap hamburgers bulked up with oatmeal, small alleys where you kissed girls in the dark, the riverbank beneath the bridge where you hid to drink beer alone and watch the water flow, the courthouse lawn, the hard-edged parking ramp, Tricia Nixon telling us we were misinformed about her daddy in 1968, the department stores, the Endicott-Johnson corner shop where you sold shoes — these places own some of you, even when they’re gone or changed. You invested.
Taking off on Bell’s Theorem, nonlocality, interpreted by some as proving that, once connected, the smallest particles remain intimately entwined forever, even drifting billions of miles apart, unable to act without an instant, equivalent forced on the other, dreamers now suggest it works the same way in the macro universe as it does in the micro. As below, so it is above. The seething uncertainty of the quantum sea never lets us dry out on the beach…
But when I go back, the ghosts fade. E-Js is now a Chinese takeout, Thom McAn’s across the street a nondescript, legacy men’s shop. The passions I felt at seventeen are scarcely traceable. I try but don’t care anymore what became of the other players in that drama. Pushed aside, the past decays. The tug of reminiscence is not enough. It all goes.
Some stays though, compressed. Bell’s Theorem isn’t complete for people. As we trail off across the endless, thinning universe, contact lessons, response withers.
We all go away. Our universes go with us.
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Next: Conversation with Val
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