Thursday, January 12, 2017


296. PEACH 
I'd think to say one
of the first times I
became enamored of
a 'social' writer, as
opposed to a
creative writer,
was in 1972,
Ithaca, Cornell
University. There
are big stone
gates there with
an inscribed
plaque about
Universities and
Colleges' a long
time back and how
Cornell University
was one of those.
Way out, high up,
an isolated adjunct
of itself alone, for
learning and the
dedication of study
and scholarship.
The story went,
as I'd read, that
this fellow named
Thorstein Veblen
had sauntered in
one day, into the
Dean's office, or
the head office
somewhere, sat
himself down
and proclaimed,
'I am Thorstein
Veblen, and I
wish to be part
of your school.'
Graduate studies,
etc. Something
like that. Of course,
they were stunned,
the guy was weird,
foreign in outlook,
had been around, a
'writer' on economics
and social situations,
how people lived,
etc. Sarcastic, he
debunked the
wealthy, made
fun of strivers
and generally
cast trouble all
along his horizon.
'The Theory Of
the Leisure Class.'
He was Norwegian,
from Minnesota or
Wisconsin, I forget,
and he died in 1929.
He was a critic and
sociologist of society
-  'Conspicuous
Consumption,' and
'Conspicuous Leisure,'
were also his subjects.
People doing things
just to be seen doing it.
They were his terms,
he coined a lot of
concepts, did a lot
of work. That all, and
he too, made me
completely absorbed
within Cornell
University -  it's
life and place
and being and
history. Back in
those days anyone
could come and go,
really, without any
limits. Unlike today,
where everything's
under lock and key,
with passes and
scanners and ID
cards to be swiped
and all the rest,
you basically
can't go anywhere
without first being
properly credentialed.
I had none of that,
but we were never
stopped, never
parceled out,
never questioned,
never sent aside
for trouble or
trespass. learning
was free and
open  -  library
stacks, bookstores,
lounges and
study rooms.
Back then, too,
some of the
there was
stuff. There was
an Agronomy
Building, raw,
structural steel
which had been
designed to rust,
or at least to
use and show
the rust as its
finish, and out
behind it was a
lake with canoes
and boats  -  rental
stuff, but we never
rented. Able
instead, on
off-times, to
get a boat out
and just run with
it on the water
with some oars.
As I said, no
one gave a hoot
about anything. 1973
security was pretty
miserable. The
Johnson Art
Museum was
also brand new
back then; right
on campus, just
opened, grand-opening
fete and all. It was
(still is, I've gone)
free then, now
they charge  -
tall, angular,
sort of brutalist
in architectural
'moderne' form.
Striking, but
not much else.
It was a nice
museum, but
left one cold.
Art shouldn't
be shouldered
with the
 of having to
also carry the
building it's
in. That (building)
should be strong
and pleasant
enough to
recede and
let you view
the art. It just
seems like
began getting
mixed up like
that back then.
The mid and
later 70's were
really crummy
for stuff like
Plus, the problem
with that sort of
modern, poured or
stressed concrete
building is that it
never really ages
well. At first it
was really striking,
all whitish and
gleaming new;
and then over
time, and now
especially, it
gets ever so
slightly discolored;
no one does
anything about
it because, on
a day-to-day
basis, unless
you gauge this
carefully and
constantly you
don't even
notice  -  it's
very gradual.
Cracks form,
the stairs start
chipping, and,
on the whole,
it just never
leaves its own
time period  -
which was bad
to begin with  -
and only looks
worse in retrospect.
The sort of Winters
up there necessitate
plowing and salting,
for the parking
areas and lobbies
and all, and that
only adds to the
mess. The salt
begins dissolving
everything over
the years, and it 
begins eroding the 
and corners; and
the plows, as they
hit things, start
chipping it all
away. It's a mess
before you know.
So, Thorstein Veblen
captivated me, kept
me coming back. It
was maybe a 20 mile
trip from Elmira,
maybe a few more,
but it never mattered.
There were so
many cool, old
things along the
way that it was
constantly interesting.
Ithaca's a two-level
town. Up at the top,
some real hills, is
all the University
stuff plus a small
celestial observatory,
from the old days,
one of those
rounded, domed
buildings with
a strong telescope
in it for the Heavens.
Down below, if
you needed it, was
all the regular
town stuff  -  the
restaurants and
stores and movie
houses and bars
and all that. For
regular people.
Up top had that
stuff too, but
everything was
wild and unkempt,
messy and overgrown.
Made for the wild
and the wooley style
of the college student.
There are cliffs
and gorges all
about up there
too  -  which
became one of
the problems.
People were
jumping to their
deaths, 3 or 4
probably a year,
maybe more.
Failed exams,
lousy prospects,
broken hearts,
whatever. All
you had to do
was leap  -
walkways and
bridges, or just
off the rocks
in certain spots
-  and you were
done for in
about 4 seconds.
There wasn't
any coming
back, after your
brains are
splattered on
the rocks below.
I used to call
it conspicuous
For me, at this 
time, there was 
so little else to 
do worthwhile 
up there, other 
than the solitude 
and thought and 
work, which was 
all part of the plan 
and which was 
always fine, that 
any visit to Ithaca 
and Cornell was 
like a trip to the 
promised land; 
an international 
space station of 
cosmopolitan tastes, 
varied nationalities 
and different people 
all mingled together, 
up high anyway, 
at the campus level.
 I often felt like 
Henry David Thoreau 
coming out from 
Walden Pond. 
When the 
pressure pot was 
fired up and about 
to burst, a slow 
saunter into town, 
for him, relieved 
all that; as it 
did for me, 
going into 
Ithaca. Down 
below was all 
the same sort 
of beleaguered 
and somewhat 
sour local country-farm 
folk. If you weren't 
a farmer or part 
of a farm family, 
back then, it 
was pretty hard 
to justify  -  if you 
had any sort of 
inquisitive nature 
or working brain  -
staying around 
there. The 
were mostly 
people who 
had lived in 
Ithaca all their 
lives, with family 
histories there  -  
they owned homes 
and places with 
the small city 
limits. For up 
there it wasn't 
so small, but by 
any other normal 
standards, it was 
just a really small, 
oddball place. 
Factory work, 
University service 
work, or working 
for the road or 
town departments 
took up a lot of it. 
Everything else 
was just travel. 
Wide-open roads 
and such, but 
still travel. That 
whole thing about 
a 'country mile,' 
I never quite got. 
I think it meant 
long distances 
went fast because 
there was no 
road traffic or 
jams. I think. 
A mile's a mile, 
so no much-matter 
there. In the back, 
deeper woods, 
there was some 
real magic, but, 
except for hunters 
and things, most 
people left all 
that alone. In 
the summers, 
there was a 
real tourist 
trove of crap 
going too. We 
used to just pick 
a waterway, 
small streams 
and rivulets 
and things, 
and just walk 
it  -  through it, 
on the rocks, 
or the path next 
to it  -  never 
really knowing 
where it would 
lead. Plenty of 
surprises turned 
up  -  sudden 
deep gorges, 
waterfall streams 
down sheer rock 
faces, 100 feet 
drops, all rock-lined, 
occasional cabins 
and small houses, 
car tracks, lots of 
things. Six hours
later we'd be back 
to the car, tearing 
out. Everything 
has descriptive 
names out there 
too  -  Peach 
Orchard Road, 
stuff like that.
There's a certain
simplicity to country 
place-names, based as
they are on real senses
of usefulness  -  direction 
and information and all.
You don't find too many
'Jonathan Road' and 
'Eileen Way' sorts of
things  - more like 'Red
Carriage Lane' and
'Appleby Carriage
Highway.' Or just plain
old directional names -
'Ithaca-Hartford Road.'
There was another 
1950's writer, at that time, 
named Vance Packard,
who  -  in his way  -  did 
the same thing as Thorstein
Veblen had done. In a much
more colloquial and 1950's
TV way, he unmasked all
the crap behind the scenes
of the advertising industry
and the cultural morass
which had become America  
because of it  -  unknowingly.
He too was pretty much
unwelcome within the
'social circles' he wrote
of. But 'Devil be damned,' 
these guys went ahead with
all this anyway. I loved
to read these books  -  I
really got a kick from 
learning how duped the
average silly 'Joe' was,
in America. Much of this
all-new cultural ground,
never before trod. An 
entire behind-the scenes
fake gentility was underway,
enticing people into the
false veneer of a 'good'
life  -  good as long as you
were steered, like sheep,
in buying the products
they wished you to keep.

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