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)

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)