Taste of Syracuse

Part 1.

I consider myself a pretty simple person. There’s nothing I really need or demand from my environment. I’m not picky about food or entertainment options, or really, anything else. Consider my life. I go to baseball games, I watch movies, and I veg out at home. I’m pretty much as happy as I can be – and thus I think, I’m pretty easy to please. Two weeks at Syracuse University for an academic crash-course on methods, while being put up at the Sheraton? Sure, why the fuck not. It’s gonna be great!*

*Spoiler alert: It was not great.

I arrived around 10 pm on a Monday evening, and was struck by how run-down the city was through the shuttle window. Starving, I wandered the block around the hotel (which itself was a block north of campus), and immediately encountered homeless people and cop cars. And so it began.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. I was a bit taken back, but it is an urban area, so it was not completely unexpected. The first couple of days, I actually noticed the beauty of the campus, the open areas and the cool architecture.

Plus I discovered the Carrier Dome ticket window was open, which allowed some free-range exploration on my part. Domes (and sporting venues) fascinate me in general; I just love the way they juxtapose with other buildings. Look at me pretending to know what I’m talking about.

And then there’s the cool statue of Ernie “The Express” Davis (now available on DVD). The movie’s actually got pretty much the saddest ending to an ‘uplifting sports story’ you’ll ever see, especially if you don’t know the facts. Sort of like Bridge to Terabithia, except uh… not fictional.

So pretty much every day, instead of interacting with the other 150+ attendees of the institute (more on this later), I used the 1 1/2 hours we had for lunch to explore different parts of the campus.

Eventually, I noticed that there was no real coherence to anything. A ton of different architectural styles that were cool on their own but didn’t really mesh, along with a ton of open areas that made the school seem disjointed. Here, the “Haunted Mansion” Hall of Languages.

And then here’s some random modern design with a skylight. The campus itself was just spread out into the “city”; you’d walk around and there’d be an odd school building here and there. It was all just kind of strange, as though the architectural plan had gone through major rewrites.

Part 2.

I can’t fake it. And when my first lunch conversation with a fellow attendee involves him talking about his research for 10 minutes nonstop, when I see people bringing readings down to the hotel bar at 11:45 pm, and when everyone uses our 30-minute breaks to… gather and chat some more about the sessions (8:30 am – 5:30 pm) and their own research, well, I can’t play that game. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the way everyone trudged back towards the hotel every. single. lunch. All together, back to the same one-block radius. I cannot overstate how fucking deflating that was. So I went exploring.

And there was NOTHING THERE. On this map, I have marked where all the food options were (rectangles). Where the classroom was (arrow in the middle). The (A) is the hotel, and the highlights trace the path of my off-campus forays. It was the weirdest ‘university town’ I could have ever imagined.

The closest movie theater was in a mall five miles away, which is undergoing construction to become the fourth biggest mall in America. By the way, when that happens, I will have visited #2 (Mall of America), #3 (South Coast Plaza), and the aforementioned (Carousel Center). Truly a supreme accomplishment.

I mean, what the hell was this? Sunday afternoon, and no semblance of life or anything else in the area. I went to a giant park where I was practically alone. I walked past a farmer’s market at a church parking lot that had three booths. And why were Subway’s and Dunkin’ Donuts the only fast food franchises around?

There was at least one redeeming feature of the city, though. The Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs! In true Syracuse form, in order to get to the ballpark, we had to maneuver around a neighborhood that featured three strip clubs in a one-block radius, as well as a police station slash community center. It was like being in a bad 70s movie.

And rather tellingly, my (similarly rare non-intellectual, non-douchebag) roommate and I actually made it to two games. Enough for me to introduce you to SCOOCH! The ambiguous but decidedly not-an-offensive-Native-American-stereotype mascot of the Chiefs.

Tickets were a cool $10 for the first game (third row, home plate), and free for the second (thanks to some local). Attendance was supposedly a paid 4,300+ for each, but appeared not to crack 500 due to predictions for bad weather that never materialized. At least, I would surmise that’s the reason. Because seriously, what the fuck else are you going to do?

Drink, of course. I spent 16+ days in Syracuse. I have 10 bar tabs on my credit card (prior to this, I probably had not gone to bars 10 times in the past two years). It was so bad that a local Lakers fan spotted me during Game 3 of the Finals, exchanged greetings with me, then proclaimed to his friends, “Yo, this guy’s here every night!” Syracuse!

Part 3.

There was a very vivid moment about five days in when – faced with the prospect of having to eat in that same goddamn block radius (with half the restaurants closed on the weekend) – I felt very depressed. I missed my car more than I ever had in my life, and even my little ‘rebellious’ campus / city explorations weren’t enough: I knew that I had to get the hell out of Syracuse. And suddenly, a 5:00 am wake-up call and two bus rides to get to Cooperstown seemed like the easiest decision in the world.

I spent 4+ hours at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s impossible for me to express how cool it all was. A ticket to Larsen’s perfect game. Baseball cards of Tinkers to Evers to Chance. The championship ring of every team ever (the 2003 Marlins decked out). Chills, man. Chills.

There were things I’ve seen and heard a million times before, but appreciated all over again. The Shot Heard Round the World. Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First routine. And one of my favorite displays… George Brett’s pine tar bat, along with the signature, “This is the pine tar bat.” Donated by the Brett family. That’s the aura of baseball.

A million things could go wrong – but on this particular day in your life, none of them do.

I just absolutely loved this quote from Jim Bunning in the no-hitters section of the hall. And there were all sorts of cool things. A Phillie Phanatic. A homer hanky. A rally monkey!

Then there was the actual hall. I’ve got nothing but respect and admiration for Lou Gehrig. Jackie Robinson. Hank Aaron. Man. Plus baseball players have the best nicknames. Stan “The Man” Musial. “Joltin’” Joe DiMaggio. Willard Brown – known as “Ese Hombre.” My all-time underrated guy is Hack Wilson though… 190 RBIs in one season. 190!

I could go on forever, but basically, when you get to knock an item off your bucket list, it’s a pretty fucking great day. Even if I was operating on three hours of sleep and drained like no time in my life I could recall by the time I returned to my hotel close to 11 pm.

I also took some time to walk around the city and check out Otsego Lake. Cooperstown is just an absolutely quaint little place. Soon, however, it was on a bus (literally BY MYSELF!) to Utica, NY, awaiting for the Amtrak that would take me back ‘home’ to Syracuse.

And that’s where I encountered one of the truly most saddest things I’ve ever seen in my life. A high school senior ball taking place at the train station in Utica. Yeah. There’s really nothing more to add here. A senior ball at a train station. It will be my lasting image of upstate New York.

Part 4.

The institute ran for four days, had a two-day break, ran for four more days, had another two-day break, and finished off with a final two+ days. Having that second break was brutal. Cooperstown was my first weekend. A trip to the Carousel Center was originally to be the highlight of my second. Luckily, a friend (another normal-person oddity!) suggested something slightly more ambitious. So we rented a car and drove up north about 100 miles to Alexandria Bay. It is rather revealing that the stay in Syracuse had become reduced to “let’s get the hell out of Syracuse.”

Another day, another boat trip. This was along the St. Lawrence River (with an outfit happily titled Uncle Sam’s Boat Tours), and there’s the patron saint watching over us. He appears to be holding a paddle with holes. Hmm. Are we sure this isn’t the St. Lawrence Memorial River?

The tour took us past ‘millionaire’s row’ and past a few bridges (American, Canadian, and international). By the way, the only thing I know about international waters is from old movies: anything goes, and everybody needs to reach it to commit crimes. Also, I’ve definitely mentioned this before, but bridges are amazing: they’re so majestic and cool.

The area is known the Thousand Islands Region (actual count: 1800+), and here’s Tom Thumb, the smallest of them all! According to the guide, and the sign on the island, it can hold up to 17 people. I’ll take their word for it.

CANADIANS! Here’s another semi-surreal thing that amuses me: non-American flags. I’m pretty sure I brought this up during the London-Paris recap. I swear, a) I’ve had a blog for way too long, and b) I am exceedingly easy to entertain. And yet… Syracuse…

The final stop of the tour was on Heart Island, at Boldt Castle. Don’t let the name fool you; there’s a tragic story here. The millionaire’s beloved passed away before he could complete the castle (intended as a display of his love for her); he immediately halted all work and never returned again.

Naturally, people being what they are, the proper authorities decided to restore the castle and complete the project. It’s exactly what George Boldt would have wanted, only the complete opposite. Taking a walk around was incredibly weird. I’d haunt the fucking place if I were him.

And then it was off to the Wellesley Island State Park and close encounters with a tiny snake, deer, chipmunks, plus a ton of bugs and spider-webs. Yay nature! It almost makes you yearn for Syracuse. Okay, that’s a total lie. But it makes you yearn for the shower back in the hotel… which happens to be in Syracuse. And that’s about the best I can do.

Part 5.

I spent my last free day in Syracuse at the mall. I also stopped by a small farmer’s market, then dropped by the event of the year: A Taste of Syracuse, a two-day food-sampling extravaganza. I enjoyed the food, but the scene was just kind of sad: two blocks of vendors, tons of obese people, plenty of alcohol. I can’t imagine what it’s like out there when it’s not 70 degrees. The city is beat-down, and there’s just not much to offer. There’s no sense of vibrancy or life at all. I spent my last free night in a bar, unsurprisingly. Due solely to boredom, I hit the gym every other day, and even swam a couple of times (I hate water). It’s just an altogether depressing atmosphere, man. But hey… at least it’s not Utica. Senior ball in a train station. Jesus Christ.

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