Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

I came to the art gallery on our trip searching for waterfalls to look at art from the Depression, but to my surprise, I found myself thinking about economics and the future of the country. Also to my surprise, I found myself thinking about a disease that ravaged the world throughout most of our history.

The art gallery displaying WPA paintings in Mt. Morris, New York, was in a building that had once been part of a tuberculosis sanitarium. That disease, in earlier times called consumption, was a common disease throughout most of history. In the nineteenth and twentieth century it was often associated with artists. John Keats died from it when he was twenty-five. Franz Kafka died from TB when he was forty. The deaths of Amedeo Modigliani and Aubrey Beardsley were caused or hastened by tuberculosis. The disease, however, was not limited to the creative but widespread in all classes of society. And it was a killer; two-thirds who got the active form died from it. One in every four or five deaths in England and France in 1900 were from TB.

Until the late nineteenth century, it was believed that TB was hereditary. Something in the biological makeup of a person produced the disease. However, in 1882 the German doctor and microbiologist Robert Koch discovered it was caused by a bacillus and that it was contagious. This led to movements to limit the contagion in various ways such as posters warnin against the kissing of infants and laws against spitting. (When I moved to New York, the subways still had signs stating that spitting was prohibited. I did not notice when they came down.)

The sanitarium movement also began. It was believed that TB sufferers would best recover if they were removed from the general population to a place with healthy air, nutritious food, and the opportunity for exercise, which generally meant walking. Hundreds of sanitariums, often on mountains, hills, or in a desert, were established. Stays often lasted many years, and perhaps each facility developed its own society and culture akin to the one created in the maddening and marvelous novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

Still the hardships of the sanitariums were real. Families may have been allowed to visit, but for the most part the inmates were cut off most of the time from friends and relatives, and their access to constructive and meaningful activity was limited. Not surprisingly, even though the amount of money spent on them was enormous, the quality of the facilities varied, and they probably did little good. As with many medical treatments over the ages, no evidence shows that sanitarium stays were efficacious in the treatment of TB. A lot of money was spent and a lot of lives were disrupted with nothing to show for it. Instead, tuberculosis only waned in this country when antibiotics found in the 1940s were shown to attack the bacillus. The later discovery of a vaccine further controlled the disease. By 1971, when the Mt. Morris sanitarium closed, most such TB facilities were shutting down.

Some of the institutions have been torn down. Some are just decaying hulks. Many like the one in Mt. Morris have been repurposed. Indeed, the building and grounds that once held hundreds of patients and medical personnel now makes a lovely campus for county offices.

I have heard that many of the old sanitariums are haunted. I did not gain any firsthand knowledge of ghosts in Mt. Morris. But we were still expecting more firsthand knowledge of waterfalls as our trip continued. . . .

(continued sporadically)

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

I had hope for Trump’s presidency because he promised vast improvements in our infrastructure. I knew that the GOP would block such spending, citing deficits, if a Democrat had been elected, but I thought that perhaps a Republican president could get Republicans to maintain and improve many needed things around the country. That, of course, has not happened. Instead we got more tax cuts and ludicrous promises. We were told that the tax cuts would benefit the middle class more than the rich. False. We were told that tax cuts would pay for themselves because they would turbocharge the economy, windfalling tax receipts. Independent analysts said that would not happen. The Congressional Budget Office said that even with a better economy, tax cuts would add $1.9 trillion to the deficits. Even so, conservatives ignored these expert opinions and maintained that tax cuts would pay for themselves. Instead, deficits are up by nearly 40% over pre-tax-cut days. The conservatives eschewed learning from experience; the deficit increased after Reagan’s tax cuts of 1980s and George W. Bush’s of 2000. This was also true in Kansas when that state slashed taxes a few years ago.

The Trump tax cuts were also supported by arguments that they would lead to increased capital spending by corporations and this would lead to jobs. This, too, was a surprising argument because even before the tax cuts, corporations had been making large profits. They already were sitting on bundles of cash. If they weren’t making capital investments, it was not for the lack of money. Not surprisingly, the tax cuts have not led to a surge in corporate capital expenditures. But now income inequality is greater now than ever recorded before in this country.

Perhaps a trip chasing waterfalls to Mt. Morris and Letchworth State Park is more than just an opportunity to see natural wonders and paintings done several generations ago. Perhaps it was also to be a lesson that the government can improve this country in temporary and lasting ways that might be better than reducing taxes. Our bridges and roads need work. Our broadband needs expansion. Our energy grid is frightening. Our elections need security. If these needed things can’t be done because they will lead to deficits, then perhaps we should think about the wisdom of our tax cuts.

And a recent column about a new book, Triumph of Injustice, by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, professors at Berkeley, reveals something more that is shocking about our tax system. Now the four hundred richest families in this country pay a combined federal, state, and local tax rate lower than any other income group. (See: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/06/opinion/income-tax-rate-wealthy.html) The overall tax rate for this group is only 23 percent. The first half of the twentieth century saw increasingly progressive taxes, and the overall tax rate on the wealthiest Americans was seventy percent in 1950. Since then we have increasingly cut taxes on the rich. Their overall tax rate was forty-seven percent in 1980 and is now half that. The pitch for slashing taxes on the rich has almost always been that the economy as a whole will benefit and everybody will be much better off. (Of course, those who advocate slashing taxes on the wealthy don’t call them rich people. Instead other terms are used, such as “job-creators.”)

The rationale has been hogwash. David Leonhardt, the columnist, states, “The wealthy, and only the wealthy, have done fantastically well over the last decades. G.D.P. growth has been disappointing, and middle-class income growth even worse.” As was true in the years before the Great Depression and now, “The American economy just doesn’t function very well when tax rates on the rich are low and inequality is sky high. . . . Which means that raising high-end taxes isn’t about punishing the rich (who, by the way, will still be rich). It’s about creating an economy that works better for the vast majority of Americans.”

(continued October 21)

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

The spouse and I went to Mt. Morris, New York, because it is a jumping off place for the beautiful waterfalls of Letchworth State Park. Only after we got to Mt. Morris did we learn that it has a unique art trove. A tuberculosis hospital complex opened on a hilltop there in 1936. The planning for it began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was governor of New York, and Eleanor Roosevelt had a particular interest in the sanitarium. To brighten the lives of the 200 adult and 50 children patients, she had art created by the Works Progress Administration placed in the rooms.

The sanitarium closed in 1971, and the five buildings and the land were sold to Livingston County, New York, for a dollar a year later. The WPA art, over 230 paintings as well as sculptures and murals, became the property of the federal government’s General Services Administration but remained on what had been the tuberculosis campus. Livingston County partnered with the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts to create an exhibition space for the art in what had been four apartments for the tuberculosis doctors and their families. This gallery contains the largest collection of WPA art in any one place.

 The Art Gallery is open to the public and free. My guess is that, at least in September, it does not get many visitors. When the spouse and I entered we initially saw no one. We wandered through four or five rooms looking at paintings. About half were painted under the WPA, and the rest were by local artists and for sale. We were about to go when the spouse startled a person working in what might have originally been a closet. We asked her questions, but she said this was only her second day on the job writing grants for the art council and had much to learn about the history of the place.

We poked around a bit more when a man appeared. He, like men in the antique shops we had met the day before, was retired. In fact, he said, he had been retired several times. He had worked as a graphic artist for General Motors in nearby Rochester, New York. With a note of bitterness, he indicated that perhaps this retirement had not really been voluntary, but I did not inquire further. He then worked at a printing company, and apparently, he left there voluntarily. He also said that at local fairs and other events he sold tee shirts with wildlife images he had created and printed. Clearly proud of this art, he said, “I put three kids through college doing this.” (I was struck by this pronouncement because I had heard two other artists say almost the same thing in the preceding month. Both were musicians based in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Neither was nationally known, but both made a living from their music, and said that they had put their children through college with their guitar playing.)

The man in the gallery now volunteered with the arts council several days a week coming over from his home in nearby Nunda. (The spouse and I had driven through this crossroad village, which we had pronounced Nun-Duh. He told us it was pronounced Nun-Day. I have yet to find a way to introduce this new-found knowledge into a conversation.)

Like the retired men in the Mt. Morris antique stores, he wanted to talk, and we learned a lot from him about the history of the campus after its decommissioning as a TB institution. He talked about a vibrant arts community in the Genesee Valley. He explained that the gallery had the space to display only a fraction of the WPA art at any one time, that the displayed paintings were changed several times a year, and that some of the paintings needed restoration. He told us that the council was now collaborating with a local college to digitize and catalog all the paintings with a goal of having images of all the art online, and, perhaps, then prints of them would be for sale. (The spouse had especially liked one WPA painting and had asked if there were any prints of it for sale. I had liked a painting of a cow by a local artist, but I would have had to return at the end of the exhibition’s run to get it if I bought it. It would have been a long way to go for $150 painting.)

Going through the gallery, I thought about the Works Progress Administration and what it produced. I am no art critic, but the paintings seemed to be of mixed quality, and only a fraction of them may be truly lasting art. On the other hand, the WPA did many other things, including building roads, bridges, and parks in almost every American community during the Great Depression, many of which we continue to use. We had seen beautiful stonework in Letchworth State Park, and we were told that most of it had been built during the Depression. The WPA gave jobs to those who then needed them and gave us today a rich legacy.

This country has changed. Our government during the Great Recession of a decade ago did authorize work on our infrastructure but not nearly enough to meet our country’s needs. Conservatives fought to keep the funding low maintaining that the resulting deficits would be harmful. They had no sense of irony when they made these arguments even though they had assured there would be major budget deficits without infrastructure spending.

Eight years earlier the conservatives had inherited a budget with a hefty surplus. They did not pay down the debt; they did not undertake needed governmental projects. Instead they enacted rounds of tax cuts even though economists said that these would cause large deficits. But conservatives then followed the lead of Vice President Dick Cheney who was reported to announce, “Deficits don’t matter.” The deficits grew enormously; income inequality followed.

Deficits did not matter to conservatives when Bush was president and tax cuts were on the table. The deficits, however, did concern them when Obama took office and the country could have benefited dramatically from increased infrastructure spending. Only a limited amount of funding was authorized, even though our infrastructure cries out for help and even though would have given jobs to workers. Deficits apparently don’t matter when the issue is tax cuts; otherwise they do.

(continued October 18)

Snippets

Our president tweeted: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)”

The plot I just hatched

With my wisdom unmatched

Puts the Kurds at great risk.

But I reiterate

That my wisdom is great,

And Turkey must fear for its fisc.

Should this help the Islamic State,

My move still is great.

Under my hairsprayed thatch

Lies wisdom that no one can match.

          Many of the Democratic presidential candidates have said that they would not allow their children to take a position akin to the one Hunter Biden had with the Ukrainian company. Their statements trouble me not because their progeny should take such corporate directorships, but because I find it of concern that the candidates think they have the absolute power to order their grown children around.

          Remember those Boeing Max 737’s that crashed? A multiagency task force concluded that a poor regulatory system that relied heavily on Boeing to ensure the planes’ safety had helped compromise that safety. Crowds at Trump rallies mindlessly cheer when he proudly announces that he has slashed “regulations.” Perhaps these people who blindly trust corporations to do the right thing should have to fly in Boeing Max 737s.

I am no one’s pawn,

But I invite to the White House lawn,

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

He flatters me as he should.

He’s my friend; thus, he is good.

He may kill our allied Kurds,

But I will stop him with words.

But he will listen to me, this Erdogan.

If he does not—his economy’s gone.

The say it’s too late.

The Islamic State is

          Resurging at this very minute

No matter

It won’t be my fault because

I know just how to spin it.

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

Mary Jemison was born in 1743 on board a ship as her parents emigrated from what is now Northern Ireland to America. When she was twelve, she and family members were captured from their Pennsylvania farm by Indians. The rest of her family was killed, but she was adopted by the Seneca. She married a member of the Lenape Indians, and after he died, she married a Seneca man. She had a half dozen children with the two men. When she was eighty, she published her life story, or at least the story as it was written down by an American minister, James Everett Seaver.

This book falls into the once-popular genre of captivity narrative. (Much of what I know about captivity narratives comes from Leonard Slatkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860). The numbers are not precise, but over athousand European descendants from New England villages were captured by and lived with Native Americans between 1677 and 1750. A study of 750 of these whose fates were known found that about 300 were ransomed and returned to New England after captivities ranging from six months to twenty years. Fewer than a hundred were killed, and others disappeared into Canada or elsewhere, and sixty became Indians. Some who returned to European settlements wrote about their experiences. Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was the first and perhaps the most popular. A hundred years after its first publication in 1682, the memoir was still being printed.

Rowlandson’s book was the archetype for many captivity narratives to follow. In her first-person account, as Slotkin puts it, “[T]he Indians become the instruments of God for the chastisement of his guilty people. . . . The experience of captivity . . . leads her to the perception of her own fallen debased, even beastlike condition, her absolute dependence on God, her weakness in the face of sin, and the precarious nature of all human conditions.” The return to the New England community did not fully resolve this pain and anxiety. “Yet the captive, like the regenerate convert, has experienced a thing that his fellows has not. . . . He has perceived that life is lived on the brink of an abyss, and this perception stays with him as an acute and continuing anxiety for the state of his soul and the wrath of God’s judgment on sinful people.”

Jemison’s story, written a century and a half after Rolandson’s, was not one of survival and Christian salvation, but it, too, was popular, selling in the 1820s as much as the best-selling novelists, Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper. While Jemison may also have represented American values in an alien world, her resolution of this dichotomy was not with a return to the white world but by finding her place in Native American society.

The Seneca certainly valued Mary Jemison. In 1797, the Seneca Nation signed the Treaty of Big Tree with the United States. The Seneca negotiators included Mary Jemison. Not surprisingly, no woman was part of the negotiating team for the Americans. I have no idea when a woman first helped the United States negotiate a treaty, but I am willing to bet it was long after Jemison acted for the Seneca. And perhaps those facts might help us understand why some abducted colonial women chose to stay with the Native Americans.

Although the Seneca surrendered much land in the treaty in exchange for money, they also retained essential hunting and fishing rights and some relatively small parcels of land. Jemison was praised for how well she negotiated, and after the treaty the Seneca made her a land grant making her one of the largest landowners in western New York, the title to which was confirmed by the state in 1817.

Perhaps to the surprise of many readers, she spoke movingly about her first Indian husband, “Sheninjee was a noble man. . . . Yet, Sheninjee was an Indian. The idea of spending my days with him, at first completely irreconcilable to my feelings; but his good nature, generosity, tenderness, and friendship towards me soon gained my affection; and strange as it may seem, I loved him!”

After Sheninjee died, however, she married a much different man. Slotkin describes Hiokatoo as “no such quasi Christian as Sheninjee but a war-loving, torturing red devil, renowned for his cruelty to the whites.” Even so, Jemison came to admire him as “a kind of Indian Daniel Boone,” who had more strength and power than those around him. “Mrs. Jemison and her second husband—the pure white and the pure Indian—emerge as admirable characters in her narrative. She states that she has refused an opportunity to return to her white family, preferring her family ties to the bloody Hiokatoo.”

The land that she was granted now is part of Letchworth State Park. She sold the land late in her life when she felt that too many whites were moving nearby. She moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died in 1833. Four decades later, she was reinterred near her old home on the Genesee River on what is now Letchworth State Park land.

In chasing waterfalls, we learned about two women who had much to do with Letchworth State Park—Caroline Bishop, who was not widely known, and Mary Jemison, who had much fame. We also learned that one of the most famous women in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, helped create a unique attraction near the waterfalls.

(continued sporadically)

Chasing Waterfalls (continued from October 4)

We went chasing waterfalls to Letchworth State Park in western New York state.  The park is a seventeen-mile strip along the Genesee River as it flows north to Lake Ontario. (Yes, there are a lot of rivers that flow north.) We were chasing waterfalls, and the park has three large ones. They were all magnificent, but they made me feel old. The spouse and I wished we had visited the park decades ago (but we never heard of Letchworth until much later) because we would have done much more hiking on the well-maintained trails.

Our country has many wonderful state parks, but surely few of us are familiar with even most of them, and the 2015 newspaper poll that labeled Letchworth the number one state park in the country was a bit silly. However, having been there, that outcome seems at least defensible.

On the other hand, while the Genesee flows through a scenic gorge that was beautiful from every angle, it does seem a stretch to call Letchworth, as some do, “the Grand Canyon of the East.” It does not have the depth of the Grand Canyon with different climates and flora as you descend. It does not have the colors of the Grand Canyon. It does not have the burros of the Grand Canyon. It is not the Grand Canyon of the East. Letchworth, instead, has beauty and charm of its own. And it has its own history.

William Pryor Letchworth donated a thousand acres to New York state in 1906 that formed the heart of Letchworth State Park. Mr. Letchworth, a successful industrialist and businessman from nearby Buffalo, had started buying the land a half century before. Pictures at the park show that the riverbank was clear cut and studded with ugly lumbering mills. W. P. Letchworth razed the mills and allowed most of the land to reseed naturally. A house was also part of the purchase. Letchworh had this site landscaped by William Webster, who had been mentored by Frederick Law Olmstead. Letchworth named this estate Glen Iris. Glen Iris functions today as an inn.

The restaurant in the inn, where we had an ok lunch, is named Caroline’s. The back of the menu explained why but left me with some questions. Letchworth did much charitable and social work with a special concern for children, and in 1875 he inspected all the state institutions that housed children. The menu indicates that Caroline Bishop met Letchworth when she was fifteen and was impressed by him. She completed her education and taught school for ten years but then in 1883 became a secretary and executive assistant to Letchworth, who was sixty. The menu states, “Caroline was his true right hand—from research and writing assistance for his numerous books to knowing every detail of his business and legal documents.”

She was with Letchworth when he suffered a stroke and when he died seven years later in 1910. She became superintendent of the park at its inception and later the curator and librarian of the museum that stands on the Glen Iris grounds. She worked at the park until shortly before her death in 1926.

William Pryor Letchworth was a noteworthy man, and his name lives as does a bit of his story in Letchworth State Park. Caroline Bishop must have been a noteworthy woman. How many females were superintendents of state parks in 1915 or helped create a museum that still attracts people? But as with many other noteworthy women, even with her abilities widely apparent, she was consigned to be the sidekick to a “great man.” Most of these women are lost to history, so I was glad that the restaurant in Glen Iris was named after her, and I could learn something about Caroline Bishop.

But, I must confess, I wanted to know a bit more. The brief accounts of Mr. Letchworth I have read mention no marriage but an active male social life. The brief accounts of Bishop’s life do not mention any social life except for what seems the delicately put statement that Caroline “was also a close companion [to Letchworth], because once she began as his assistance (sic), she never left his side.” My prurient side was left hanging. Tell me more, please, tell me more.

Caroline Bishop’s roles in the life of Mr. Letchworth and in the creation of the park named after him may have been largely forgotten and she may have been little known in her lifetime except as an easily forgettable minor adjunct to Letchworh, but another woman with a connection to the land that would become Letchworth State Park, Mary Jemison, was widely known.

(continued October 11)

Snippets

News reports state that “Ukrainian oligarch” Victor Pinchuk donated $150,000 to Donald Trump’s now-defunct foundation. (Can any of you tell me any good works that the Trump Foundation did while it was funct?) In 2015 Pinchuk invited Trump to speak at a conference in Kiev, which Trump did by a video link. Trump praised Pinchuk as “a very, very special man.” But as you assess how this makes you think about our president, throw into your thought hopper that the same news report also said that Pinchuk gave more than $10 million to the Clinton Foundation and was invited to dinner at Hillary and Bill Clinton’s Washington home.

Not too long ago, I played a game while watching Fox News. I would bet with myself how long it would take until I heard “Hillary.” On Hannity’s show, it almost never took more than a minute and usually fewer than fifteen seconds. Now while watching Fox I count the seconds until I hear “Hunter Biden.” And, I note, the last time I watched Hannity, within five seconds I heard both Hillary and Hunter Biden mentioned. (I do not recommend turning this into a drinking game. It would be too dangerous to your health.)

When did Rudy Giuliani stop mentioning 9/11 every time he spoke? I almost miss that guy.

The notes of the phone call between the American and Ukrainian presidents have Volodymyr Zelensky saying to Donald: “I would like to tell you that I also have quite a few Ukrainian friends that live in the United States. Actually last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower. I will talk to them and I hope to see them again in the future.” Isn’t it sad that the Ukrainian thought he could ingratiate himself with the American president by saying that he had stayed in a $600-a-night hotel room and that he might get friends to do so, too? Isn’t it even sadder that he might have been right?

My very large brain       

Said lean on Ukraine

To get me some poo

So I can be re-elected.

But a whistle blew,

I’m in such deep doo,

I might even be ejected.

I could be impeached;

Not fair! The law I was not teached.

          “The man was intoxicated; drunk on a little man’s dreams of revenge.” Robert Harris, Munich.

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

We drove south from Niagara Falls, skirting Buffalo, to Mt. Morris, New York, as we chased waterfalls. Although I have been a resident of New York for a half century, I had never been to this part of the state. I was struck by the beauty of western New York made more beautiful by goldenrod blooming everywhere. It not only lined roads and driveways, huge fields of the golden flowers were around every bend. I had had no idea of goldenrod’s beauty before. Was it planted? Did it have a use? Of course, I thought of allergies, but I later learned that goldenrod is not a major cause of hay fever. It blooms the same time as rag weed, and rag weed is the major culprit of allergy sufferers.

Although I had not before seen so much blooming goldenrod, the golden colors made the spouse and me think of our spring barge trip through Burgundy where the blooming colza fields carpeted the land with a similar shade of yellow. I could not help but wonder what van Gogh would have produced from this wondrous western New York of hills and valleys colored in swatches and patches and fields of gold.

We got to Mt. Morris, New York, late in the afternoon, checked into a not-very-good motel, and drove to what passed for a downtown—little more than an intersection. My economic calculus says that there is an inverse relationship between the number of “antique” stores in a locality and the town’s prosperity. Of the few downtown blocks of Mt. Morris, one was lined with what proclaimed themselves to be antique stores, perhaps comprising a quarter of the existing establishments. Such stores in struggling towns seldom contain valuable items but are primarily filled with stuff that looks as if it had been discarded, and the Mt. Morris stores followed that pattern. Even so, the spouse and I like poking around such places, and we filled the remainder of the afternoon at a couple of the stores.

I was looking at some respectable shirts in the first store, but they did not fit. (Of course, they were too small.) The person manning the store came over and tried to find one that could contain me, but I don’t think that a sale was the chief goal. He wanted to talk. On a weekday in September, he did not have many customers. It took some effort to get away from what could have been a never-ending conversation, but the escape was brief, for a clone of this person was manning the second store we entered.

He, too, was retired and after parting with this fact he told us what the job had been—something with New York state—and what his starting salary had been and how that pay had impressed his father. Hardly taking a breath, he said that his mother now took care of him and did his laundry and cooking. After the briefest of pauses, he said that she was ninety-nine. The spouse and I separated and foraged in the store piled high everywhere with cast iron pans, bottles, Christmas ornaments. I don’t remember if I asked him, but he did old us he did not make a living from the store. “Last month may have been the first time I made enough to pay the rent.” Acquisition was his hobby. He went to auctions on the weekend, and he loved getting something that intrigued him. The store seemed to be the result, but he said that he had several barns even more filled than his store. He did not seem to mind that we stayed beyond closing time, and even though we bought $40 worth of “antiques,” he did not really seem to care whether we made the purchases as long as we would listen to him talk and, occasionally, reply.

The two men manning the antique stores as well as the motel clerk all recommended Questa Lasagna for dinner. We went and were surprised. The cook and owner, we were told by a server, was a graduate of the CIA—no not that one, but the Culinary Institute of America. I have been to other restaurants in out-of-the-way places were a CIA graduate was cooking, and the food has always been good or better than good.  That was also true for Questa Lasagna, where all the pasta was homemade. You don’t get house-made pasta in many restaurants in population centers; I certainly didn’t expect it in a town of a couple thousand in western New York.

Eating is part of the reason I travel. I go to experience new things—landscapes with flora and fauna I have not seen; people who are different from those I encounter in my daily routines; museums that get me to see things I had not before; architecture that has me experience shapes and forms and spaces outside of my normal encounters; music I don’t normally hear; stores with goods and books and prints that I will not see at home. And I want to experience food. Of course, on any trip, I have to eat, but I want the experience of someone “cooking.”  By that I mean that a restaurant is not just microwaving or presenting meals prepared by some distribution company that I could get in a thousand different places, but that someone in the kitchen is actually cooking, not just thawing what someone else has prepared. And at Questa Lasagna someone was actually cooking.

Adding to our surprise, we found a restaurant five miles away the next night where people were cooking, EuropaCafe. Two women born in Poland, but who met in New York, owned this place. They offered among other items an incredible array of soups, many of which I had never heard of before. I had a sour rye soup, whose Polish name I don’t remember, that was distinctive and incredibly good and incredibly filling. Although I went on to get more food—a hunter’s stew based on sauerkraut, fresh green beans, stuffed cabbage—I really needed nothing beyond the soup. I heartily recommend both these restaurants.

While the real cooking of these places was a bonus for our visit, our reason for being in the Mt. Morris area was to visit Letchworth State Park and chase more waterfalls.

(continued sporadically)

Chasing Waterfalls

          We did go chasing waterfalls, looking not for a lost son, but for an unseen (by us) part of America and perhaps a long-lost youth.

          We drove the Honda Fit the six hours from the Poconos of Pennsylvania to Niagara Falls. I had done most of this drive before, but the spouse had not. I was happy to do it again since it is lovely countryside, but the point was not the hills and spacious valleys with well-tended farms, but those fabled Falls where neither of us had been. We had, of course, seen Niagara Falls many times, or at least images of it in pictures, movies, and television. That does raise the question of why go see something in person that you have “seen” many, many times before. Does your physical presence near a famous sight really add something significant to your already existing experiences of it? For me, it has varied. I, not surprisingly, “saw” the Eiffel Tower many times before I was in Paris, but I, of course, thought that a Paris trip should take in the Eiffel Tower. That in-person view did not affect me much. It did not seem to add much of significance to my life experiences other than that I could now check off that I had seen the Eiffel Tower.

          On the other hand, on each of my visits to the Grand Canyon I have felt that no picture could ever do it justice, and I was thrilled that I had personally seen the view from both rims. The differing reactions are not just because one is manmade and the other is a wonder of nature. I have seen many views of the New York skyline from the air—from planes or helicopters or buildings. But every time I went up to the observation deck or upper floors of the World Trade Center, I was mesmerized by the sight of New York City from even though I had “seen” it many times before. The spouse had seen many images of Chartres Cathedral, but when we finally went there, she was moved to tears.

          I have no theory about my different reactions in personally seeing a famous sight–why those personal views of the Grand Canyon or the city skyline made me see them fresh and anew and as if I had never encountered them in any way before, while the Eiffel Tower sighting was close to “Been there, done that.” But off I went to the I-already-know-what-this-looks-like Niagara Falls.

          That déjà vu feeling was certainly there for the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario, which we drove through before seeing the Falls. It may once have been a cute village, but now it is hard to separate it from many other tourist towns. It did not have its own unique identity but was seeking to be a mini-Las Vegas—tacky shops, huge hotels, casinos, light shows, Ferris wheels, and dancing fountains. But, of course, this Las Vegas wannabe has what the big LV does not have—Niagara Falls.

          We did not see the Falls until we had checked into the hotel and ascended to our room. We pulled back the curtains, and there was the promised view—American Falls, the higher but narrower cascade, off to our left and the panorama of Horseshoe Falls almost in front of us. Even though we were looking through framed glass, I realized that I was not glancing at a picture or a video; I was staring intently at something that seemed alive right in front of me.

          We walked to the Niagara River, but on the way, we encountered Niagara Falls, the town. We thought that we could take a shortcut through a casino that stood between our hotel and the waterfront, but, in good casino fashion, no route was straightforward thus forcing visitors to spend as much time in the gambling joint as possible. We got out of the casino close to where we entered, but then made our way down several steep blocks (which somehow were even steeper on the way back) to the well-maintained park at the river’s edge. It had perfect views of the two falls. We walked to the railing and stared. We then strolled a few feet, leaned on the railing, and stared. Walked a few more feet, leaned on the railing, and so on. It was hard to take my eyes off the Falls, partly because they played a great trick with the mind. They were ever-changing; the water that came over them would never go over the Falls again. But simultaneously, the Falls seemed eternal. Even though I knew that the Falls had changed in man’s memory as chunks of the ledges had fallen away under the water’s constant pressure, what I saw seemed as if it had always been there and always would be.

          The Falls made me think not only of time immemorial but also of my youth. I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, and some of the water I watched falling could have started its journey from Wisconsin rivers and streams. How likely was that? How long would such a trip take? We high school boys had a ritual of relieving ourselves of the excessive beer we had drunk into Lake Michigan off the end of the Sheboygan lighthouse pier. Was it possible that the cascade at Niagara Falls was partly me?

          Every time we could, we looked at the Falls. At the park, riding a funicular to the waterfront, out of our hotel room in the different lights of the day and night. They were always the same and always different. They are lit at night, which makes them different, but not really, from the day. At sunrise with the barest pink on the horizon, they had a different setting but were still unalterable. The mist, or the spray, or the fog, or whatever is the proper name for the water vapor that rises out of the base of the Falls, however, did change. It was always present, but its height varied every time we looked. Early in the morning it reached as high as our hotel room, fifty stories in the air.

          As is to be expected, we did a few touristy things besides gawk at the Falls. We went to a concept restaurant, but neither of us would recommend it. On the other hand, we took the walk under Horseshoe Falls. We descended in an elevator to an observation post nearly at the foot of the Falls. Then we entered tunnels under the cascade with portals that allowed us to stand a few feet behind the water. We could sense, but never truly comprehend, the power that was produced by this geologic formation.

          I would not say your life is incomplete if you don’t see Niagara Falls. On the other hand, it is not a waste of time to see them. In its literal meaning of creating awe, they are awesome.

Twenty-four hours at Niagara Falls, however, was sufficient, and the next day we drove to Mt. Morris, New York, to chase more waterfalls.

(Continued October 4)

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (concluded)

The 1950s was the beginning of many changes to America, and the famous playoff stood on that cusp. Looking back at that game, there seems to be a time up until Thomson’s home run and a different time afterwards, and DeLillo creates scenes in the grandstands that indicate changes soon to come. No one knows, as far as I know, what happened to the baseball Thomson hit once it landed in the left field seats, but in DeLillo’s telling one Cotter Martin wrests it away from others scrambling for the ball and leaves the park with it. Cotter, an African-American youth, has sneaked into the contest and is seemingly befriended by a white man seating nearby. Of course, almost all Americans in 1951 knew that a major change in our race relations had occurred only a few years before when the major leagues’ color barrier was broken when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, who played in the famous game. A few know that the next scheduled batter after Thomson was Willie Mays, who would not have been playing if that color bar had not been bashed. In 1951, it may have seemed that we were finally making great peaceful strides towards resolving our racial problems. Bill Waterson, the white man talking with the black kid in the novel, seems to capture that, but we readers know that racial peace and resolution faced many violent episodes after 1951 and still has not be reached.

Emmitt Till and the Birmingham church bombings, snapping dogs and firehoses, bus boycotts and many killings were yet to come. And DeLillo has Waterson turn creepy towards Cotter. The white man wants the baseball that the boy has fought for. Bill yells at Cotter that he is going to get the ball and threatens violence. He chases Cotter out of the stadium and through the surrounding streets, and Cotter is only safe with his new possession when he makes it into the black Harlem that was not far from the Polo Grounds.

The game also stood on the cusp of a great change in American mass culture: the rise of network TV. The coast-to-coast broadcast of the game was itself a harbinger of that, but DeLillo signals it in another way. He has Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor, and J. Edgar Hoover together in attendance. (I do not know if Sinatra, Gleason, and Shor were at the game, but I know Hoover was there.) They joke and drink, but Gleason keeps saying that he should be at rehearsal for “The Honeymooners,” an icon of 1950s television that lived long after its initial short run, which was to air for the first time in two days.

But something else happened on the very day of Thomson’s home run that would greatly change America. Until 1951, Americans had been little bothered by the thought that they might be killed at home by a foreign government, but on October 3, 1951, the same day as the famous playoff game, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. We learn that fact when a message is delivered to Hoover informing him of that blast. After that October day, Americans could never again safely tuck themselves into bed the way they had before. The always present strain of paranoia in American now had a much firmer basis, and that paranoia was going to dominate the U.S. in coming years.

An apocalypse was now palpably possible, and DeLillo, a master of portraying American paranoia, has sheets of Life magazine float down from the upper deck onto Hoover. Those pages contain a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s panoramic painting of apocalyptic slaughter. Hoover becomes mesmerized by the images of incredible agony, and the painting and its horrific portrayals recur again and again in the novel.

We want that baseball game to be a kind of unifying experience. DeLillo has Russ Hodges, the Giants announcer, think “this is another kind of history. He thinks [the fans] will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to a memory with a protective power. . . . Isn’t it possible that this midcentury moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping of strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses—the mapped visions that pierce our dreams?” However, the game may have been memorable, but almost instantly it was only a memory. This prologue concludes with a drunk in a raincoat running the bases who leaves his feet to slide into second base: “All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things to come. . . . It is all falling indelibly into the past.”

DeLillo had first published his depiction of the baseball game as a magazine piece before the book was written. He titled the piece “Pafko at the Wall.” (Andy Pafko was the Dodgers left fielder who watched the ball sail over his head into the stands.) When DeLillo placed this piece as the beginning portion of Underworld, he re-titled it as “The Triumph of Death.”