December 7, 2018
Syracuse, New York
Everyone got ready for work and school so uncharacteristically quickly that I had extra time to dust off the snow that had accumulated on the car overnight, start the engine, and turn on the heated seats. It was in the 20s and there was just a dusting of dry snow, so the windshield only needed minimal scraping, and by the time I got to the rear windshield, the defroster has done most of the work for me. My daughter had a rehearsal for violin recital, so we’re listened to her recital piece on repeat as we backed out of the driveway and head toward James Street. We’d hear the piece approximately 10 times before we got to her school.
We passed Lincoln Middle School on our left, turning right onto Teall Ave. Teall climbs a steady hill, at the top of which is Henninger High School. We coasted down the other side of the hill toward the shallow valley below where the Erie Canal used to run, now filled in with concrete and asphalt to become Erie Boulevard. By now, we were on the second repeat of the song, and I was already approaching a Bach-induced trance. Turning onto Vann Street, we slowly passed by a young mother waving to her daughter, who was being loaded into a privatized school bus.
The next left turn takes us out onto Burnet Avenue, where a string of light manufacturing sites face old-stock housing and a few sketchy commercial properties. The archipelago of dive bars, VFWs, and other watering holes was closed, but would be packed by sundown when we made the return trip. As we turned onto Peat Street, I swung the car left to give plenty of room to a clutch of high school students headed to Henninger. The walk to school might, depending on where they live, be literally uphill both ways for them. In the snow.
Crossing Erie Boulevard requires crossing all the old parallel streets that lined the canal in the 1800s. In most places, it’s a complex series of stop signs, traffic lights, and protected arrows. A red light here can be the difference between on-time and late to wherever you’re headed. Luck was with us today, and we crossed without having to wait, cruising up the valley’s other ridge past public housing and the many parents and children waiting for the school bus, and the few who waited for the city bus at a stop nestled into the side of a city-owned foreclosure property—all of them in full view of the chain of blinking blue lights atop a series of police surveillance cameras. I’d lost count, but I think we were beginning the fourth time through “Minuet No. 2.”
At the crest of the second ridge, we threaded our way through a congested street alongside the Levy School, another public school currently serving as the site for another, much larger school elsewhere in the neighborhood that’s closed for major bond-funded renovations. There isn’t enough parking for staff at this smaller school, so there was at least a half-block of cars parked along the street in every direction. I silently gave thanks that it was only December. Later this winter, when snow will be heavy, driving down it will feel like a video game. We pulled into our daughter’s Montessori school. My partner and I said goodbye to our daughter in the circle drive, and began the hour-long drive to the upscale college where we both work.
Ordinarily, I prefer to listen to a podcast, but since my partner was grading in the front seat, she requested music. I put on my favorite Yo La Tengo album and thought about the time I got stoned by myself and freaked out to the creepy bass lines. Outside, along I-90, the tall grasses and reeds poked out above the snow, which made it look speckled and dirty. There was only about 6 inches on the ground; it’s melted and refrozen enough that the new light snow gave the old snow in the ditches near the highway the consistency of cat litter. Beyond the highway, in the stubbly corn fields, it was a wide and peaceful expanse of white. I remembered being baffled by the cover of Perry Miller’s The American Puritans: Their Poetry and Prose as a college student. Why was this psychedelic alien landscape drawn on the cover? Was it supposed to be the world after God’s apocalypse? It wasn’t until I moved to Upstate New York five years ago, that I realized that the cover was a just a drawing of a snowy field at sunrise.
Farther along, a big casino rose out of the grass and fields. It is the largest enterprise of the Oneida Nation, the indigenous people across whose land we were driving. It’s also one of the largest employers in the region. Strangers and acquaintances all tell me that the restaurant is good, and plenty of others swear by the spa. I’ve never been.
At work, my office helped organize a lunchtime event to bring an indigenous speaker to campus to celebrate the founder of our college, Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian missionary who imagined a residential Christian education for the Oneida nation. After three years, this was the first year we’ve been able to get an indigenous speaker. The specific institutional politics of this event made me nervous. I wanted everything to go okay.
I arrived a little bit late, but was pleased to see about 50 people in the big barn-like building. About a dozen folks from the Oneida and Haudenosaunee nations made the drive over, but most of the people in the room were from the college. I was nervous before the event that the space would appear too large, but all the tables were arranged to make the room seem full. Even so, I felt a little embarrassed at how poorly the geometric wood paneling has aged.
The speaker, Michelle Schenandoah, a 30-something matrilineal descendant of Oneida leadership, started off slow with her biography: going down the path of big city professional, having children, losing a marriage, shuffling priorities, and moving back to the family. People weren’t bored exactly, but I was beginning to wonder where she was going. Then her speech turned to the importance of the land, and she ended by calling out our college for never graduating or even admitting an Oneida student. The people attending agreed with her, I think, but the pace of institutional change sometimes makes me unsure about where all this work is heading.
In the buffet line, before I returned to my office for the afternoon, the speaker’s husband and I laughed over our shared misreading of one of the catering tags, mistaking rustic root vegetables for Rusted Root vegetables.
After work, we grabbed a quick dinner out and then went to the recital rehearsal. We waited in the foyer listening while one of the advanced kids played George Perlman’s “Israeli Concertino.” He played so expressively and with such gusto he could charm anyone with his bushy, bouncing red hair. After he finished, we slipped quietly in and sat in the back of the hall, silently, because the stern email from the violin teacher specifically mentioned no talking or excess movement. The accompanist, a gifted pianist, asked the next student, “Are you in tune?” She then had a conversation with herself about what a weird question she’s just asked, as if it referred to something more than just the violin. I think I was the only one in the room that got the joke, or even noticed that a joke had been made.
When it was her turn, my daughter played just fine, makes a few mistakes, recovered. She was so nervous that the violin teacher checked with us afterward about whether she still wanted to keep playing “Minuet No. 2.” We all agreed that it would be best to keep our commitment to the piece we’ve been practicing.