Bouncer and I got off the Thruway at the Utica exit and proceeded south to the Cornhill section of the city.
“The first place I want to see is my old neighborhood,” I said with quite a bit of enthusiasm. My mood had lifted tremendously since leaving Saugerties a little over two hours before and I was excited about seeing where I lived as a boy and also the house in which my grandparents lived when I was quite young..
But what a tragedy Utica has become. We scooted south down Genesee Street and promptly got lost somewhere over Bagg's Square, which isn't really there any longer. It's somewhere beneath a traffic ramp that flies over a few hundred years of history and lands at the foot of John St. You get dumped on John St. only if you aim for Genesee St. and vice versa. I wondered if that was the city’s self constructed omen.
We drove up through an empty intersection that was called the Busy Corner. The Hotel Utica sat quietly off to our right a few blocks away. I wanted to stop the car in the middle of what used to be a very busy thoroughfare, get out and shout, "It's OK, everyone can come out now! We won't hurt you! We bring greetings from another planet." But Bouncer talked me out of it.
We continued up Genesee St., myself driving.
“Have you seen that tractor trailer that’s been following us since we got off the Thruway,” Bouncer asked.
“Not really,” I said. I was too busy watching the storefronts glide by as I hoped to recognize at least a few names amng the businesses. There were none that I remembered. Bouncer scrunched down in his seat and looked behind us.
“It’s an older woman wearing a Boston Red Sox hat, “he said.
“That’s nice, I replied,” but I wasn’t really listening. Where the hell was that ice cream shop we used to go to after school when I was a sophomore?
At the top of the hill, we turned left on Eagle Street and that's when I began to realize the Cornhill before my eyes in no way resembled the Cornhill I remembered. Half of the homes were gone, burned down I had heard, some by residents and some by the city.
How does that happen? An entire section of the city that once housed working men and their families, church goers for the most part who kept regular hours, who took vacations in the summer, bought books for their kids as well as movie tickets and tried to raise them to be responsible adults. How did it all disappear, to be replaced by poor families, many of whom accepted social welfare benefits as a right rather than a loan? What rights did the current residents possess that men and woman of our parents’ generation did not have? What society or government had allowed it to happen? And why?
We stopped the car on Steuben Street in front of my grandfather's small bungalow. The man had died there in 1948 and Grandma came to live us. A black man sat on the front porch. I saw him reach his hand under his jacket and leave it there as the two of us got out of the car.
"Hi, we're religious brothers," I said unnecessarily, since we were wearing our robes. "We stopped to look around. My grandfather lived in your house," and I waved to indicate the house.
The man on the porch said nothing, but continued to look from one to the other of us.
"Many years ago," I continued. "They lived here back in the 1940's. And Thirties and Twenties ...."
No response came from the porch. I looked up and down the steet and wondered when was the last time it was filled at mid day with children playing. Girls drawing hopscotch diagrams on sidewalks and boys darting in and out of driveways and down the sidewalks on their bikes.
"What do you want?" the man finally spoke.
Under his breath Bouncer said, “Gun, Jesse.”
"Uh huh,” I answered. Then louder to the man on the porch, “Nothing, Thank You." I was watching where the man’s hand had disappeared under his jacket and I didn't plan to take my eyes off that spot.
"Well, Thanks," I said. “We’ll be going now.”
It was then I heard the tractor trailer engine roar to life and an air horn begin to blast.
“Take this with you!” screamed the man on the porch and I could see something in his hand glinting in the sunlight that I assumed was a gun. Bouncer and I stood frozen as the truck pulled up behind us.
The man on the porch swung his warm around behind him as if he was winding up for the greatest baseball pitch of his life. When his arm came down he caught his gun hand with the other and stood in the classic firing pose, slightly crouched, arms extended out in front of him, aiming at us.
A terrible sadness crept over me as I watched the agent of my destruction prepare my death and I could not tear my eyes away. Behind me air exploded out of the brake cylinders and the pads slammed down inside the wheels. Bouncer stood slightly ahead of me and I could see he had turned to look at the truck.
“Holy Shit,” was all he said.
The man on the porch fired off three shots in quick succession and I heard at least one of them strike metal behind me.
“Oh, Jesus, Jesus,” Bouncer was murmuring. We were both still standing and I didn’t think either of us was hit. The man on the porch turned and ran in the front door of the house.
The sound of a truck door slamming behind me brought me back to earth. The tractor trailer crunched into first gear as I turned around and it slowly began to move away down the street.
“Did you see her? Is she OK?” I asked Bouncer.
“Was it a woman?” he asked.
“What did you see, Bouncer?” I asked as I grabbed his arm and turned him toward me.
“I don’t know,” was his reply.
I tried a few times to get Bouncer to describe what he saw that afternoon on Steuben Street, but he would shrug his shoulders and remain quiet. I’m convinced he witnessed something sacred and indescribable.
“I don’t want to ever see anything like that again,” he said, out of the blue, as we were returning from the village not long ago. I immediately knew what he was referring to.
“You probably won’t,” I said. “We always worry about events repeating, but it turns out the important things in life only happen once.”
“That’s probably true,” Bouncer replied.
“I think so,” I said, “the good and the bad.”
Back In The USA