February 26, 2007

Ithaca: Reality and Dream

Don't wait around for any gritty, hard-hitting dramatic series about the Ithaca police department any time soon. This cute little yellow Beetle, with its rear windshield slogan "Cops, Kids, and Toys," is on special duty at the downtown Commons to persuade kids to stay off drugs -- although the lingering influence of 1960s psychedelia is not undiscernible on the car itself. The department also has normal cruisers, you'll be relieved to know; there was one parked in the Beetle's place later that night, with wet flurries speckling it.

Ithaca turns out to be a cute, old college town about the size of downtown Madison, with grand stone churches and brown-red brick homes. It's surprisingly hilly, but unlike San Francisco which has hill after hill after hill, here there's one immense main climb, with Cornell University at the top and the downtown area at the bottom, so if you're a student who lives downwtown you get great exercise walking to and from campus every day. Most students live at the collegiate top of the hill, though, and rarely go downtown because then they'd have to walk back uphill drunk at three every Saturday morning, punctually punching the ol' bar-crawl clock as they do. In both areas there are a lot of rundown student apartments -- one can only imagine how much profit the landlords, who have owned those houses forever, are making, considering the minimal amount of repair they seem to do.

Ithaca is the only city in my experience in which, if you're waiting to cross a street at a trafic light and you press the Walk button, you can see an immediate, direct, causal relationship between pushing the button and the light changing to green. Because of this, Ithacans go around happily pressing the Walk light button at every opportunity and waiting a split second for the light to change, even if there's no traffic in sight. Not only that, but at major intersections a woman's voice comes on, floatging thrugh the air to tell you things like, "Begin crossing Oak Avenue..." and five seconds later, "Do not begin to cross Oak Avenue if you are not already in the crosswalk." Then a little birdie cheeps twice.

The restaurant/cafe scene is rather thin; if a student brings his visiting parents to dinner, there are only a handful of choices, as in Madison circa 1980, and so at every place we stopped last night we ran into my son John's fellow law students. The places we did find were good, though. The coffeehouses, Stella's and Gimme! Coffee, both had dark reddish walls with little artworks and mirrors, creating an old-fashioned atmosphere (more so at Stella's because of its solid, dark wood booths) where you could linger and imagine yourself drinking absinthe and writing French poetry. For dinner we went to Za Za's, a family-style Italian restaurant in a big, 1950s-swank room with white tablecloths and chairs, an arched, padded ceiling, and a wonderful, completely unused Art Deco bar with a big hourglass-shaped lamp and a sky ceiling, dark blue with pinprick stars. If I lived in Ithaca I would hang out there and sip gibsons and make it a hip discovery amng my (imaginary) in-crowd. (But what kind of restaurant wwebsite requires Macromedia Flash? If you're searching for a restaurant online, you have to have that software on your computer in order to figure out whether to eat there.)

After Za Za's we walked through wet snowfall (a sign of the unusually warm winter in upstate New York this year) to Felicia's Atomic Lounge, a likably grungy hangout with an unobtrusively sapphic vibe, tin squares on the bar wall, and a Leo Kottke-imitating singer-guitarist who was impressive and enjoyable when he fingerpicked his acoustic, and obnoxious when he plugged in and sang his magnum opus denouncing the sexual promiscuity of Paris Hilton, recruiting three young women from the audience as backups to sing a chorus of the crudest, most misogynistic insults.

Well, what do you expect in one of our leading university communities?

Earlier, Ann had been with us as we stalked the downtown area in search of things to quip about. Ann's got a good post about that part of the day, culminating in a YouTube video in which she, John, and I riff off each other about the window display in a used record store. Unfortunately, most of my witty remarks are scarcely audible, the microphone having been at a distance. Listening, I remember the riff extending over seventeen years (including my relative inaudibility), covering every passing phenomenon that intruded into our fields of vision, and ranging in tone from full symbiosis to raging hostility.

As I reach a certain point in life, it seems in retrospect impossible to tell reality from illusion. What did one really feel, what was one convincing oneself to feel, what was one convinced by others to feel, why doesn't one feel it anymore, what happened to change it, was the change positive or negative? I'm not just referring to a specific marriage but to any kind of love, any attraction or repulsion, including my current satisfaction with solitary life. Yet more than any time in the past twenty years or so, I want to touch once again my memories of long-gone people and places, to try to reclaim who I was and what resemblance remains to who I am now. To reclaim all of myself, past present future. Otherwise it's like breathing thin air. Deep companionship is bleached to casual acquaintanceship overnight; I visit someone I've spent the past almost two decades with and think, "What a beautiful woman, I'd like to meet her." (Notice I'm conflating two marriages here. That's part of the illusion-building process. Sometimes I don't know which I'm remembering.)

Maybe the mystery of changing identity explains the dream I had early this morning: I was visiting Ithaca New York, but it looked like a Greek island, with rocky cliffs to which I sailed on a little ferry. The natives were old-style New Yorkers, cordially rude Italians and Jews, and they worked and shopped in big underground caves that looked like subway stations, and I was baffled and worried but as I stayed and found my way I began to understand.

Snow flurries again this morning. This afternoon I fly to Austin via Detroit. The scenery keeps shifting.

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