Binghamton, My Battered Hometown

It was a year ago today when my hometown became the latest victim of seemingly random violence. I usually steer away from the phrase “senseless violence”, because it gives the impression that violence is sensible. One can argue that it is necessary, such as in self-defense, but not that it’s sensible.

In any case, I wrote this piece last year, and posted it elsewhere but I never actually posted it in THIS blog, to my surprise. So on the anniversary of the event here’s what I wrote. The * is to an article link that no longer works.
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I grew up on Gaines Street in Binghamton, NY’s First Ward (or The Ward, as it was commonly referred to.) Gaines is a one-block street between Oak and Front Streets. When I walked to high school, I’d pass one house before heading south on Front Street. I’d go by the houses that were on my newspaper route a couple years earlier – the Evening and Sunday Press, back in the days when the city of 70,000 had two newspapers six days a week. Invariably, I’d look up Dickinson Street so see in the distance my elementary/junior high school, Daniel S. Dickinson. Then I’d go by the place I used to attend Bible study, followed closely by the American Civic Association, then turn right onto Main Street to get to Binghamton Central high School.

The ACA was not just a place I went by, though. My late father, Les Green, was active in the civil rights front and the Association was active in trying to bring different people together, so he had some relationship with the place, the specifics of which unfortunately escape me.

What I do remember, though, is the fact that my father, sister Leslie and I performed there at least once as the Green Family Singers, with a repertoire of folk, gospel and popular songs. More ingrained in my mind is the fact that in March of 1969, I had my 16th birthday party there. This was an extravagant act on the part of my parents, I thought, renting out the hall for my friends and me. (I specifically recall my father catching one couple making out in a closet.) I still remember some of the presents I received, including Judy Collins’ Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

Then on April 3, 2009, the place of some very pleasant memories became the location of yet another batch of senseless violence. Reading the coverage was not an act of disengaged voyeurism; I walked those streets shown on the television, probably a thousand times or more. And my hometown, now a city of 45,000, with but one public high school that was for a time in lockdown that day, became, most awfully, the lead story on the evening news.

Reading the reports, I couldn’t help noting that there are those who will always comment on a story to drive home their agenda. In the city’s now single local paper’s website*, along with expressions of sympathy, distress about the human condition, requests for more help for the mentally ill, and people on both sides of the gun control issue were xenophobic rants about immigration, as though that were the lesson to be learned. I happened across this list of recent mass killings – which I did not even have to look for – makes such a conclusion just bizarre to my mind.

I will save the whys for later. Right now, all I can do is grieve for my hometown in a way that words fail.
ROG

Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 2

Sunday Stealing: One Long Meme (Part Two)

27. Do you prefer to sleep or eat?

Depends on how tired I am. I NEED that first burst of sleep in order to function. Other than that, I’d probably pick eating.

28. Do you look like your mom or dad?

There are pictures of Carol’s and my wedding when I look extraordinarily like my father. Carol, BTW, is still getting used to how much she looks like her mother.

29. How long does it take you in the shower?

Ten minutes, max, unless I’m in there for the massage function of the shower, rather than to clean. The other factors are 1) I’m usually at the Y on the way to work, so I need to hustle and 2) at home, I have to wait out my wife, who takes a bit longer.

30. Can you do the splits?

I could never do a split, even as a kid.

31. What movie do you want to see right now?

Still haven’t seen Ponyo, but there are a bunch of them.

32. What did you do for New Year’s?

We probably went to sleep before midnight. Or Carol did and I crawled into bed at 12:01.

33. Do you think The Grudge was scary?

I have no idea what this is.

34. Do you own a camera phone?

There’s a photo function on my cellphone, but I don’t know how it works.

35. Was your mom a cheerleader?

Seriously doubt it.

36. What’s the last letter of your middle name?

N, as in Owen.

37. How many hours of sleep do you get a night?

Six, almost never in one continous shot.

38. Do you like Care Bears?

Not really, but I haven’t done an in-depth analysis as to whether I should.

39. What do you buy at the movies?

Butter, with popcorn. Or the other way around, I think.

40. Do you know how to play poker?

Define “know”. I’ve played for pennies or matchsticks; haven’t ever played for real money in decades, and that was for a dollar ante.

41. Do you wear your seat belt?

Oh, heavens yes. Seat belt almost certainly saved my life at least once, and probably thrice.

42. What do you wear to sleep?

Depends on the season. Summer is T-shirt and pajama botttoms. In cooler weather, pajamas; the top and the bottom don’t alwasys match.

43. Anything big ever happen in your hometown?

Rod Serling grew up there. There was that dreadful murderous rampage back in April of 2009. Actually, the first big thing I remember happening in Binghamton was the “salt babies” incident.

44. How many meals do you eat a day?

Generally, three.

45. Is your tongue pierced?

No, and don’t forsee me doing it.

46. Do you always read MySpace bulletins?

It’s been so long since I’ve dealt with my MySpace page. Hard enough to do Facebook and Twitter.

47. Do you like funny or serious people better?

Depends. There are people who think they are funny but who I don’t. Conversely, there are some folks who are so damn serious, they are unrelentingly boring. I’ll say funny people, but they actually have to BE funny.

48. Ever been to L.A.?

No; the closest I’ve been is the Angels stadium in Anaheim.

49. Did you eat a cookie today?

No, but the day is young.

50. Do you use cuss words in other languages?

Only mild invectives.

51. Do you steal or pay for your music downloads?

Actually neither. Amazon has free downloads sometimes as do some artists. I have contributed to the latter.

52. Do you hate chocolate?

No, but I prefer strawberry.

53. What do you and your parents fight about the most?

In the day, it had to do with curfew; I hasd a lousy sense of time when I was a kid.

54. Are you a gullible person?

A useful quote from Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.” And I never even voted for him.

55. Do you need a girlfriend to be happy?

No, my wife would object.

56. If you could have any job (assuming you have the skills) what what would it be?

A syndicated columnist.

57. Are you easy to get along with?

You mean you don’t think I am? Honestly, I’m very mellow about things when I don’t have a strong opinion, but I can draw a line in the sand on things important to me. All in all, I’D say yes, but you’d need to ask others, wouldn’t you?

58. What is your favorite time of day?

If I’m awake, 5 a.m. It’s my alone time.
ROG

A Meme of Firsts

Via SamuraiFrog:

1. Who was your FIRST date?
Difficult to say. I don’t recall dating Martha as much as hanging out with her with my friends, then with her more than my other friends. Eventually we kissed a lot.

2. Do you still talk to your FIRST love?
Yeah, but not often. I went to her wedding. I’m reasonably sure that her husband doesn’t know we dated. I used to think that was weird. Then there was this other woman I dated considerably later on; I was going to mention her in this blog actually, but she preferred that I didn’t. She’s comfortable with the fiction that her husband is the “only one”, despite the fact that she was married before. HER husband knows we dated, and in fact recognized me from a drawing of me as a duck that the late Raoul Vezina drew. So maintaining a fiction about the past I’ve learned to recognize as important to some people. I suppose that includes me.

3. What was your FIRST alcoholic drink?
I don’t remember what, but I remember where: it was in a bar on Clinton Street in Binghamton. I was 18, the legal age. My sister was singing there, if I recall correctly and I don’t think I had to pay for the drink. It was almost certainly a mixed drink; I want to say Tom Collins.

4. What was your FIRST job?
I’ve answered this before (newspaper deliverer or library page). The first job I had where I was making any real money was working at IBM in Endicott, near Binghamton. I had graduated from high school in January 1971, and I worked there from March through August. My job was to do these three processes. First was to put this coating over these circuit boards. The second (and the most difficult) was to bake them in these ovens, making sure not to bend the pins or have the coating get on the pins. The third task was to bake this plastic holder onto the circuit boards.

Irritatingly, the first shift did a lot of the first task, leaving the second task to me. And I really had to do it, because the coating would start riding up the pins if they weren’t baked within 10 or 12 hours. They didn’t like me because I would do the first task so fast that the company raised the rate for that job, something like from 60 to 80 boards per hour. That WAS a tactical error on my part.

I was on the second shift, which ostensibly was 5:12 p.m. to 2 a.m ., with a 48-minute lunch. But I hardly ever worked that shift. It was usually 5:12 p.m. to 4 a.m., and then from 12 noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. Not only did I save lots of money for college because of the 16 hours of overtime per week – and because I was generally too tired to go out – I managed to lose 30 pounds because I was too tired to eat.

In the summer, there was a guy – I wish I remembered his name – who was a son of an IBM bigwig; he was quite intelligent and as bored as I was. So we would get into his Aston Martin and drive as far away as we could for 20 minutes, then reluctantly drive back.

First time I ever gave blood was while I worked there because I could get paid at work while taking of the hour to donate.

5. What was your FIRST car?
No idea. It was the S.O.’s and it was red and had push button transmission. I once knocked over a Dumpster while driving it; I wanted to go forward but went into reverse.

6. Where did you go on your FIRST ride on an airplane?
I had gotten chosen for this Governor’s Conference on Children and Youth when I was in high school, and there were seven of us from the Binghamton area who flew to Albany in a plane with perhaps a dozen seats. It was during a lightning and thunderstorm on the way up. Met Nelson Rockefeller for the first time.

7. Who was your FIRST best friend & do you still talk?
My first best friend was probably Ray Lia from second grade. We were in Cub Scouts together; his mom was our den mother. I didn’t see him much in high school; he went to North High instead of Central, because it offered some technical courses he wanted. I pretty much lost track of him until 1976, five years after high school, when he invited me to be in his wedding. I escorted his mom to her seat, which as nice. I caught the garter, which wasn’t. We exchange Christmas cards, though most of the writing is by his wife Pam. He is, as of about a month ago, one of my Facebook friends.

8. Whose wedding did you attend the FIRST time?
I have no idea. When I grew up in the church, most of the weddings were open to all the parishoners. So I went to a lot of weddings as a kid. I even sang at a few, notably I Love You Truly, a truly horrific piece of claptrap. I know I attended my sister’s godfather Elmer’s wedding to Barbara in that period.

As for which of my friends married first whose wedding I actually attended, I’m not at all sure. My sister got married on Halloween 1975; a definite contender.

9. Tell us about your FIRST roommate.
That would be Ron Fields. At New Paltz in 1971-72, there were only two black males in Scudder Hall, a grad student in biology (Ron) and a freshman poli sci major (me), and somehow we ended up as roommates. I’m pretty sure it was no accident. Ron was fine. He did have one great idiosyncrasy that amused me and others; he recorded every cent he spent in a notebook. “Soda, 50 cents,” etc. One day, he bought a used car. “Car, $1000.” It cracked both of us up.

One day in March 1972, the phone rang fairly early in the morning. It was my father, but Ron didn’t let on. He did prompt us to clean the room, then conspired with a friend of mine to get me out of my room so that my family and friends could surprise me that weekend for my 19th birthday. Kentucky Fried Chicken, as I recall.

10. If you had one wish, what would it be (other than more wishes)?
Either the ability to fly or to transport.

11. What is something you would learn if you had the chance?
If I had time, I’d become more computer savvy; I just muddle through.

12. Did you marry the FIRST person you were in love with?
No, and we tried to make it work more than once.

13. What were the first lessons you ever took and why?
Piano lessons when I was eight with Mrs. Hamlin. I was not at all good, but I still remember a lot of those intro lessons by heart. It was also useful in singing, so it wasn’t a total waste.

14. What is the first thing you do when you get home?
Take off my shoes. Keep the carpet clean.

ROG

B is for Binghamton

Binghamton is a city located on the Southern Tier of New York State. It is the county seat of Broome County. It was named after a rich guy named William Bingham, how owned the land in the 1790s. Yet, the place has often been misspelled as Binghampton, as though it were part of the Hamptons of Long Island. Google “Binghampton” and you’ll find some references to Binghamptons in Illinois and Tennessee, among others, but also many erroneously referring to a place in in New York State, such as this one. The most egregious error I ever saw was on a road map book. The New York State map actually was accurate, but the Pennsylvania map – Binghamton is less than 20 miles from the PA border – spelled it Binghampton. It’s BINGHAMton, town of Bingham.

Why am I obsessing on this? Because it’s my hometown.

You can read about Binghamton in its Wikipedia posting, and it seems accurate as far as it goes. It is at the confluence of two rivers; I was almost arrested for swimming in one once, a long time ago. It WAS called the Parlor City, and I recall a Parlor City Shoe Store when I was lived there in the 1960s.

I grew up in the First Ward of Binghamton, or “The Ward”, a melting pot of largely people of southern and eastern European stock (Italian, Czech, Ukrainian, Russian, and especially Polish). I remember halupki and pierogies, plus the regional favorite, the spiedie.

Binghamton’s school district used to do something quite interesting when I was growing up. Instead of starting school only in September, kids could start in September or February. the kids that started in the winter had birthdays in December through March, generally. While my sisters (born in May and July) went to school in September, I started in February because my birthday was in March. Of course, our class sizer was smaller because it was taken from a different calendar pool. One of the things I recall is that, while we had the same teacher for kindergarten (Miss Cady) all year, we had eight different teachers for Grades 1 through 4. At least two of the teachers left because they were “in the family way”, as they used to call pregnancy.

What was particularly important in my growing up was that our school, Daniel S. Dickinson, was a K-9 school, with the younger kids on the lowest floor and the junior high kids on the third floor. There were 16 kids in my sixth grade class, nine (including me) who had gone to kindergarten together. Seventh grade meant an infusion from other elementary schools including the Catholic parochial school nearby. Yet by the end of ninth grade, we still only had 16 kids, including the same none from K. Dickinson was razed a couple decades ago for a housing development.

I went to Binghamton Central High School back in the day when there were two public schools, Central and North. The declining city population, from over 80,000 in 1950 to under 50,000 in 2000 meant that the blue and white of the Central HS Bulldogs and the red and blue of the North HS Indians gave way in 1982 to the red, white and blue of the Binghamton HS Patriots.

For many years, the area used to have a baseball team called the Triplets, named for Triple Cities of Binghamton, Johnson City and Endicott, though the latter two were actually villages rather than cities. It was never called, in my hearing/reading, Binghamton Triplets except in out-of-town box scores. It was primarily a farm team of the New York Yankees, though other teams had brief affiliations. Johnson Field, in Johnson City, was razed in the late 1960s that Route 17, the major east/west corridor from the northern suburbs of New York City to western New York State, could be rerouted through the area. Binghamton was without a minor league baseball team (or stadium for same) until the early 1990s, when the Binghamton Mets, a farm team of the New York Mets, came to town.

I recall vividly Christmas Eve 1971 when downtown Binghamton was bustling with activity at McLean’s and Fowler’s department stores, plus a variety of other shops. The decline in downtown was easily visible to anyone who had been there over time, with one department store, Boscov’s in the old Fowler’s building now a primary guardian against a massive collapse of the downtown business district.

I know it’s a story not unusual in the so-called Rust Belt of the Northeast and Midwest United States, where formerly thriving industrial towns are now struggling. I myself thought of Binghamton like the Simon & Garfunkel song My Little Town; Billy Joel’s Allentown also comes to mind. It is, though, http://www.streetsblog.org/2006/09/11/binghamton-revitalizing-around-livable-downtown/ trying to make a comeback.

Still, it was where I was rooted. It is a comfortable place to return from time to time. I mean, it’s the carousel capital of America; the one in Recreation Park inspired Rod Serling, who grew up in Binghamton in the late 1930s, to write an episode of his television series, the Twilight Zone in the 1960s. So it was with no small bit of surreal horror when I discovered on April 3 of this year, that my little town was the site of another case of mass violence. I don’t have much more to say on it than I said here, except to reiterate that it wasn’t just an assault on the city, but of the specific location, one with which I had more than passing familiarity.

Binghamton was incorporated as a village in 1834, so this year marks 175 years since that event, though it wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1867. I wish my hometown hope and healing.

The map is c. 1920. The high school noted was my high school, the cemetery south of Prospect Street is Spring Forest Cemetery, where my material grandmother and many of her relatives are buried, and very close to where she lived. I lived just off Front Street, north of the railroad tracks. The First Ward is north of the tracks and west of the north/south running Chenango River.

ROG

Sweet Hitchhiker

Something Jacquandor cited reminded me of this: my primary form of transportation during my college days in New Paltz in the Mid-Hudson Valley of NYS was hitchhiking. I lived in Binghamton in the Southern Tier of NYS my first year in college, 150 miles and at least three highways away (Route 17, and then there were options). Even when I moved to New Paltz, there were friends to visit back in my hometown.

The easiest hitch I ever had involved me trying to get from New Paltz to Binghamton. Somehow, I found a large metal orange and white sign, perhaps cast off from a gas station. It said 17. I put it out on the outskirts of town and got picked up by a guy from the CIA who dropped me off at the Binghamton exit maybe a half mile from my grandmother’s house. Oh, the CIA is the Culinary Institute of America.

I lived briefly in Kingston, maybe a dozen miles away from New Paltz, and hitched back and forth on Route 32 as well.

But my regular hitch in my freshman year was with my buddy Jay Rose. It was exceedingly easy to thumb a ride to New York City; just stand at the Thruway entrance. What was more difficult was hitching back to New Paltz. I discovered that the best way was to take the subway #4 line as far north as possible, take a commuter bus as far north as it would go on 90 cents, and THEN start seeking rides.

For four months in 1977, I lived in Charlotte, NC, a place that I did not much enjoy. It had lousy mass transit and I was broke. Ultimately, I hitched out of Charlotte to Binghamton; it took about 24 hours. Hitching in the South in 1977 might not have been the wisest move, but it was an incident-free trip, though I was stuck outside of Harrisburg, PA seemingly forever.

I stopped hitching in 1979, not out of any sense of real danger, but because it just took too long. A 150-mile trip from Binghamton to Schenectady took over six hours on old Route 7, pre I-88.

The trip I remember best I did with my friend Alice. Friends of ours were in a terrible car accident; a couple died and the rest were in a hospital in Hornell, NY, pretty much in the middle of the state. We got through Binghamton OK, but had slow going past there. Then one guy finally picked us up. He wanted to save our souls, and surely our souls needed saving, for we appeared to be a mixed race couple, and miscegenation was a sin according to his interpretation of the Word. (His basis for this theory was the OT prohibition against Jews intermarrying, I’m guessing.) However, he was otherwise harmless and let us out when he got to where he was going.

Alice and I never did get to Hornell, since this involved traveling on a rural road, Route 34, and we may not have met the appropriate demographic profile to get picked up. Instead, we went back to New Paltz, in record time, considering it was the middle of the night by then.

We always wondered what that guy would have said if he had found out that Alice was a lesbian.
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In honor of John Fogerty’s birthday late last month, Sweet Hitchhiker – Creedence Clearwater Revival

ROG