Thursday, May 14, 2009

from New York, upstate, one last time

When did our conversation change? When did we start thinking about maybe another trip out here? At what point did I think that maybe Sharon Springs can have a small corner of the vacation market again?

Probably not until this morning, when Ed and I pulled up to the Black Cat Café before our drive back to the Midwest.

The Café was open now and the proprietor was there, behind the counter, chatting to the patrons who streamed in steadily for a coffee, or doughnut, or something more substantial.



Are you from here? I ask him.
Oh my gosh, no! From the city… moved to Connecticut … too suburban there … sold the house and moved here.
We’re from the houses up on Washington Street– Ed explains.
Oh! So you know the lady that comes down here still…
My aunt.
And the gentleman in the yellow house? With his sons?
My cousins.

We chat about the opening up of the American Hotel, the attempt to serve food at the Roxboro…

And I notice a difference in the way that I’m listening. I hear about these little efforts at rebuilding community and I think that maybe there really is one here. Not snuffed out yet, no, not at all. And I think – maybe even now, without the sulphur baths, you would want to come here. For the quiet, rural life. For the opening of this café, and that hotel, and the gallery up the street, and the soap store down the road. And the good New York wines in the liquor store. Maybe…

We drive away reluctantly. We would have liked to stick around a little, gossip some, but I have a flight to catch and work to do and so we say good bye and leave.

I should back up a little. Yesterday, we visited the richer neighbor – Cooperstown. Do you know it? It’s also a village, some twenty miles west of Sharon Springs. True, it’s at the shores of a lovely little Lake Otsego, but this isn’t the draw: it is the village that claims to be home to American baseball. And with those bragging rights, it has pulled in a tourist traffic that would make any resort town blue with envy. Here, after all, is the great Baseball Hall of Fame.

Me, going to a Baseball Hall of Fame? I know – it’s an insane idea. Not that I don’t get baseball (like, say, football). I know the basic rules, I even once owned a mitt (I was 10 and I was drawn to American icons). But I just don’t follow the stuff. Still, Cooperstown is a place where Ed went numerous times with his family -- for the museum, for sailing, for a fancy lunch at the Otsego Inn. So I was curious.

Cooperstown. What can I say. It’s where Sharon Springs would be if sulphur baths were half as popular in this country as baseball. Cooperstown is doing very very well.


I hesitate before spending the money on an entrance ticket to the Baseball Museum. They charge a lot. People will pay a small fortune to see the dusty, well worn shoes of Babe Ruth. Or the authentic bricks of the home where Hank Aaron once lived. But, it’s the thing to do here and I like reading small bits of history. Even if it’s baseball history.


True, in the Hall of Fame, I don’t have the feeling that others may have here – of standing among giants – but it’s a fascinating place nonetheless. With an aura to it. Letting you believe that this is important stuff! These are our heroes, our accomplished men of sport! Not many women celebrated here (I counted one), that’s for sure, but then, baseball has never been very open-minded about such things as gender. And why should we care. As I sit through a film clip that asks us to sing along to "Take me out to the ballgame…” (Ed almost leaves at this point, but I hold him back), I think – this is fine. A good rousing song and a few more rooms of baseball bats and old uniforms. Yeah. Way better than sulphur springs. I guess.

Cooperstown’s inns never closed in the way that Sharon Springs inns did.


Cooperstown also has a main street that is lined with stores selling baseball paraphernalia.

And I think – what a drag. This isn’t a village to bring your relatives to for long dinners of corn on the cob and grilled one thing or another. It’s a tourist destination, mostly, by the looks of it – for men in baseball caps and hours of watching The Game under their belts.

Ed and I stroll toward the lake and picnic on a bench in the well tended park. The waters are quiet and very beautiful. Empty now. Not quite the summer season yet. Ed talks about days of learning to sail here with his father.


Success invites the successful and as we stroll, it becomes obvious that property values here are significantly different than up in Sharon Springs. Homes are well cared for. Painted on a regular schedule. And on this bright May afternoon, the gardens look remarkable.

Ehhh… Too fussy. The place not only has a money-making baseball motif to it, but it also has that feeling of privacy and wealth, rather than pulling together and creating community (I do think that it’s rare for the two to overlap).

Ed and I drive past a tennis court. We get out and volley the ball for a while, enjoying the feeling of spring.

And eventually, we leave, driving the backroads east again, past small villages that are clearly struggling. But not unbeautiful in their simplicity and quiet. You have to believe that kids still come by to the store for candy and that they get a break if they don't have the right change.


Ed has an appointment with an attorney. A local guy who knows everything about the villages here. We spend a while with him – too long probably, but it’s so easy to lapse into idle talk here.

We stop at the village right next to Sharon Springs: Cobleskill. That’s where you’ll find the closest grocery store. And the Bull’s Head Inn, where Ed and his family would occasionally come for dinner.


What did you order then? – I ask. (He wont admit to ever liking beef and it’s fun to tease out the truth about past eating habits)
Oh, you know, the same stuff.
Oh, probably not so much.
Did your mother order steak?
Yeah, sure…
Did she eat it all? (His mother looked pretty svelte in the photos I looked at the other day.)
No, not the whole thing…
Did she take the leftovers home?
Oh no, not that. You know, we finished it up for her.

In the last rays of the sun, we pace through the Sharon Springs property again, imagining what would be done with it in the years ahead. In the melon yellow evening light, the grandparents' house looks again splendid. For a minute, the decay, the peeling paint, the too-old windows are hidden from us. As if the old lady wants to be remembered for what she once was -- a place of elegance and warmth.


And again I feel nothing but sadness for the fate of these houses, for the dwindling connection that so many feel toward this land.

One last peak, from behind the lilac bushes and we turn our backs to her, retreating for the last time to the cousins' house.


I fall asleep early and Ed tells me I sleep for twelve hours. He exaggerates, but not by much.

We are driving now toward Rochester, New York where I have a plane to catch. We pass apple orchards, beautiful apple orchards…


…and we talk about how great it would be if Sharon Springs had a farmers market – with the apples and cheeses and produce from the area. And how beautiful the littlest house, the Button House would be if some took it under their wing. And how wonderful it would be to stroll into town and get a coffee and gossip about the food at the Roxboro, or the art gallery, or the future of Sharon Springs.

We continue due west. One last stop, just one final pause. At the northern edge of the Finger Lakes, we get out of the truck at Seneca Falls. You probably don't know that this town was the inspirational model for Bedford Falls, of It's a Wonderful Life fame. You probably do know that this was also the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

There's a Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, honoring accomplished American women. It's tiny! And rather lean in demeanor. Truly, it should not be viewed immediately after a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I remember a wall mounting from the Baseball Museum where the question was posed: should a baseball player earn as much as a Nobel Prize laureat? Maybe. But here's mine -- should a Hall of Fame honoring women be so poorly funded comapred to a Baseball Hall of Fame? Maybe not. I'll say this much -- the entry fee is a fraction of the one in Cooperstown.

So ends our road trip. Maybe we’ll go back to Sharon Springs, maybe not. Keep reading Ocean in the years ahead.

In the meantime, I have a week-end ahead packed with details, most having to do with making sure that I have with me all that I need for the month ahead: exams to grade, numerous texts to read – that’s the serious stuff -- and also proper attire for warm city life and cold country ramblings. I'm relocating to the other side of the ocean for a month come Sunday. But first I have to get myself to Madison today. Last I heard, I wont be making my connection.

I can't believe riding back with Ed in his rickety truck would have been more reliable than using a return flight ticket from the east coast. Life is so unpredictable!