Monday, February 20, 2012


Like everything else imbued with human associations, geography is a funny thing: we have ways of sowing it with little landmines just in the course of living our life, nostalgic deathtraps that seem to grow in power the longer we ignore them, especially in those places that struggle to ever change. I had a trip to New York the other week, to the Saratoga Springs area, near which my current employers operate a mill. It is a stretch that is not by any means The City, but is also not upstate in a meaningful sense, and while New York has plenty of nowheres to find yourself in the middle of, it is close enough to a handful of somewheres to almost count. And there’s something additionally lonely in the nightlife of a tourist town off-season. Everything’s open, but no one’s there.

If you ever need to drive from Massachusetts to eastern New York, you can’t do better than to take the length of route 2. Even as a guy who resents every motherfucking minute of my life that I waste piloting a motor vehicle, I love this particular drive. It’ll take you up through the Berkshires, around the quasi-famous hairpin turn, descending into artsy Williamstown, and up again through mountains in New York. The vistas feel local and private, not open, made up of imposing tree-covered grades across which the road is compelled to switch back and forth in order to ascend, each turn opening up to find you in the thick of more wooded slopes. Where a view does open up on the peaks, it’s inevitably affixed with the quarter-century-old ruins of motels and kitsch shops, abandoned from a time when people did more budget sightseeing. I guess even the leaf-peepers can’t be arsed to go across that way, and something in that appeals to me. If I was in a field where I could make a living while avoiding people, then, if it wasn’t the Green or White mountains, or the Litchfield Hills, then I’d live in a place like this. It’s the trees and the hillls.

It’s a lovely way come back from the Saratoga area, especially in a solitary mood, but I couldn’t return along 2 without traversing the old minefields. I went to school in Troy NY, and while on one level I enjoyed it, and although it felt like one of the few life decisions I was able to make that was right, I also managed to plant a disproportionate number of depth charges there, and that town changes slowly enough to keep nostalgia alive, even if the university continues its quixotic effort to "improve." The trip took me right through the heart of memory, and I went so far as to stop at the student union to take a leak and hopefully steal a couple minutes of wireless access, but apparently the latter privilege only comes with a thirty thousand yearly subscription. Relieving myself is harder to prevent, I guess. The trip went badly, emotion-wise, dredging up regrets that I hardly knew I had in the day, and I am in a mind to take a big old piss on the place, instead of one discreetly within its borders, as if it bears some fault for how my life has gone.

In his books, Kurt Vonnegut often referred to the town of Ilium, a sort of Mecca of American innovation and urbanity that has evaded its actual namesake for at least a century. Real-life Ilium is that rare university town that suffers little of the prestige of the couple or three institutions within its borders. Up the river there’s the Schenectady where Proteus Steinmetz worked to define electrical engineering, where even now, GE still hasn’t outsourced its R&D headquarters. Down the river, there’s the goddamn capital. In between, you got a whole lot of depressing Trojanness, as if it were rebuilt, but only just barely, after the last time it burned down 150 years ago. Back on the Fray, I had a conversation a few years ago with a guy who went to RPI fifty years before I did. Troy was, he recalled, a shantytown then too, and it must have been quite a defiant one to suck so thoroughly in the middle of a technological hotbed in boom times, supplying it with engineers even. I mean, Wikipedia tells me that it was a prosperous town once, but that was over a century ago, sometime way back before Big Steel went to Pennsylvania. It’s been sliding inexorably since. It’s got to be why Vonnegut felt he had to code-name the place, to fictionalize the Capital District enough to write out its problem middle child.

Longtime readers of this blog will notice a recurring fascination I have with New England’s midlist factory towns, as I’ve lived or passed through them, trying to piece the cultural character based on its vintage industry. It seems like I always end up in or around one of them, and I give you the likes of Waterbury and Torrington CT (brass), Willimantic CT and Lowell MA (textiles), Leominster MA Naugatuck CT (polymers). They’ve all as good as left, the industries, and the cities are filled with a different selection of immigrants servicing the different economic niches that are available nowadays. They’re similar enough historically, ethnically, and geographically, and make for interesting compare and contrast exercises. Do the cultural differences come from the nature of the work? Or maybe it’s the titans that once governed it. I still can’t answer that question well. You find all these old mills still perched on their now-less-polluted riverbanks, anti-jewels set in pastoral velvet, monuments in smoke-scorched red brick (America is only so old) to more barbarously productive ages. The rivers were convenient as drains or raw materials or (depending on how far back you might go) power, but the surrounding areas stayed rural for a long time, and you can head out to the outskirts of any of these places, and find, even now, a couple farms that aren’t quite given over to burbclaves. The vogue for the factories themselves is to renovate them into designer lofts, and the attendant railroads have been dismantled for scrap and landscaping.

My immediate and lasting impression of Troy was as a mirror of Waterbury, which is more or less where I grew up. (In one of the suburbs, itself an old factory town. I am more familiar with the edges of Waterbury, where my grandparents lived.) And although they’d look pretty comparable in a slide-by-slide comparison of their greater and lesser parts, there’s something about Troy that makes it seem so much more fundamentally shabby and depressing, like it just stopped trying. (I mean, it does have the universities, which is an incredible point in its favor, and eastern New York is almost as nice as eastern Connecticut, but these assets don’t seem to buoy the place up.) Maybe a technical college town just invites weary cynicism, because after all, who’s more grouchy and depressed than your average engineer? Waterbury, if you read the local paper, supports some sort of vindictive, authoritarian pride of place, but at least it’s something. The area is churchier, which helps the architecture some, and it has a downtown stretch that you’d be tempted to stroll around. When you drive past Waterbury, you go past the hospital, the iconic brick clocktower, and then, across the river, the south end of town manifests as white houses popping up through the trees. Troy, on the other hand, crouches on the side of the Hudson like a surly pile of rubble, like a rusting hulk, sucking away your hopes before you even cross the bridge. Yes, the alma mater rises tastefully on the hill, a pearl on the midden, and for reasons of its own, it’s been dwarfing the iconic green copper roofs with a succession of 1970s-style brutalism and zippy 1950s-style sci-fi palaces. The town itself has some notoriety for its preserved 19th century buildings, but not, like these towns east of the Berkshires, in the form of big, imposing industrial cathedrals, and more of the closed-in and oppressive variety that recalls the squalid living in old New York City that you couldn’t escape even with great wealth. Troy is a shithole’s shithole.

Although I have to say that to this day, I have never known a place in Waterbury where I’d like to get a beer, and those little niches of mordant hospitality were my absolute favorite part of living in Ilium. The place wasn’t so far gone that there weren’t places of peace and humor if you needed them, and there’s something satisfying and personal about being one to get that. And sure, the outskirts got interesting in one or two directions. It often occurs to me that maybe I’m the reason the place made such a weird impression. God knows I’m better tuned to love/hate than to uncomplicated love. Fucking regret. Seriously.


Schmutzie said...

Regrets? What were your impressions of the place when you were there the first time around K? Hopeful?

Do you think that what has transpired in your life subsequently has changed your impression of Troy, or your memories of it? I've gone back to my old high school a couple of times, and watched my niece and nephew graduate in the same old gymnasium that I did. It was impossible not to look around, to walk the old hallways, and have the memories come flooding back. That's the cafeteria where I met my wife. Had no idea at the time she'd tear my heart out of my chest. Fond memories of that caf for the first 10 years, it wasn't until later...when the mere sight of the room made me sadder than any simple room should be able to, that I realized that I had changed. Same room, different me. Unfond memories now, because of what had happened to me, because of the choices I'd made later on. There are kids using that cafeteria today, not realizing that when they return in 20 years, it's going to look a lot them.

Took a drive through the Colorado Rockies in December. First time I'd made the trip since my divorce in 1990. The first 1000 miles, Chicago to Denver, were more of the same. Everything reminded me of younger days. Days spent with my wife. Back then, we'd driven up 70 and across the Continental Divide dozens of times. And I looked forward to it every time we went. This trip was very different for me. I was alone in Iowa, Nebraska & Colorado for the first time. And that drive through the Eisenhower Tunnel, over Vail Pass, through the Glenwood Canyon....a drive I used to absolutely love, now made me sad. Just as beautiful today as it was then outside the car, but things had changed inside the car. The memories haunted the fuck out of me. Couldn't wait to get across the mountains, through Grand Junction, and into Utah, a place I'd never been before. And it was good damn it! These were new memories that I was forging for myself. Down through Moab, and Monument Valley, and 400 new miles of highway I'd never traveled. Amazing how my mood brightened. The trip through Iowa, Nebraska, & Colorado had me revisiting the past, and I guess I'd say I felt regret. It wasn't so much regret about what I, what we, had done 30 years ago, as it was regret over what happened next. Know what I mean? We go back to the old haunts, and they remind us of when we were younger and filled with hope for the future. Of course the future never works out the way we think it will. Maybe try a different road next time Keith, one you've never taken before. Fresh memories of where you are now, who you are now, instead of who and where you used to be.

(The links don't work dude. Where the fuck did you go to link school, Rensselaer Poly?)

Keifus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Schmutzie said...

Wasn't trying to peg you buddy. Just giving you my impression of what your writing made me think of. Your line 'the last chance you had to steer this thing' resonates greatly. You have obligations now that I don't,,,,daughters, wife, house. I'm somewhat at a point where I can still steer this thing, and yet for for some reason I don't feel like I can make a radical course change. Maybe it's fear of making a wrong turn at 52 years old. I think maybe we're all on a track in one way or another, inertia driven. It takes great effort to change course. I have confidence in you Keith. You're smart, and talented. You'll do well no matter which path you choose.

"The Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting, with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go."

I always loved that line, almost enough to get in the car and drive there.

TenaciousK said...

Lovely piece, Keifus. Puts me in mind of a Joan Didion quote that's been on my mind lately; “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”

Every couple of weeks I drive down to my hometown, where I'm supervising a resident working for a residential program there. Lately I've been taking the long way home, down the highway I used to ride my bike down, as I was making my first real stabs at autonomy.

There are ghosts popping out all over down there, and memories of all the missteps, and ungraceful moments that characterized that time of my life. But underneath that, there's this fifteen-year-old kid who was determined to figure difficult things out all on his own.

So I send him a little love. He sure fucked some things up, but he also got out, and for that I'm profoundly grateful.

Keifus said...

Just meant that we seem to have landed on the same page with that, Smutty. Thanks too.

Man, and I should drive across teh country at some point in my life, just once.

TK, the hometown is similar, and filled with all kinds of memories too, but I don't know, there are plenty of bitter ones, and plenty of sweet ones, but it's not bittersweet in at all the same way.

I got Slouching Toward Bethlehem a few months ago, more or less on your wife's recommendation, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. It seems, from various descriptions, to have a forbidding amount of meat to it for a later review.

I dunno guys, how is it that we haven't ever gathered to drink and bullshit about life for a few hours? Speaking of missed chances and all.

Schmutzie said...

We'll have a few drinks one of these years. Either when I take a trip through the Berkshires, when you come to Chicago, or when we both take a drive to Utah. I think we'll have to schedule the Utah thing carefully. Can't always buy a drink there.