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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Dreaming of a white Christmas

Yesterday, briefly, as I was getting out of the car with SuperGirlfriend over at a nearby grocery store, she pointed to a few sparkling flakes in the air and said "Look... snow!"

It was the first time I'd seen snow since 1997, and she knew what it meant to me.

As it turned out, 1997's winter was the last one I was to spend in Syracuse, NY. I'd gone to Syracuse in 1979 to attend the University there, and nearly instantly fallen in love with it. Syracuse is a city that alternates between the strange and the shabby; one of the four mid New York State cities that lie along the Rte 81 corridor, closely paralleling the one time track of the Erie Canal. Where Buffalo is much like Gotham City writ small in its hulking grey concrete facade, and Rochester and Albany are both oddly grimy and small town seeming for all their mid sized city bulk, Syracuse is a weird conglomeration of architectural styles and an even stranger stew of politics, with the far right wing conservative dairy farmers and blue collar workers of central New York mixing headily with the far left wing influence of the dozen or more colleges and campuses that make up so much of the cityscape.

Syracuse had a decent if not thriving economy for the first several decades after WWII; both GM and Chrysler built large auto plants there, and that brought in a pretty solid array of satellite businesses. In the late 80s, though, GM's first wave of plant closings hit Syracuse hard, and Chrysler substantially downsized its operations there as well. Syracuse's economy, for the most part, went belly up and to this day hasn't recovered. The local labor market collapsed, and by the mid 80s, anyone still employed in Central New York was doing their own work, as well as the jobs of two other people no longer with the company... and counting themselves as lucky that they'd survived the cutbacks.

I dropped out of college in 1984, filled with idiocy and ignorance as to exactly what conditions were like in the real world at that point. I'd just been spinning my wheels for the previous two years at SU, and finally reached my nadir of despair one day when I showed up for a Public Affairs class taught by a professor I knew passed out easy A's, and after looking the syllabus over doubtfully, realized I'd taken (and easily passed) the same class in my sophomore year. That nightmarish moment, as I fully realized I really was just going in circles which were gradually becoming narrower, bleaker, and more desolate as all my college friends and acquainances graduated and moved on, while I just stayed and stayed, hit me like a hammer.

So I dropped out and went looking for a job.

With no job search skills, what I ended up with was a position bagging groceries at a local supermarket named Peter's. Stephen King has written eloquently in his wonderful novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" about how there are only very young bag boys or very old bag boys with nothing in between; for much of 1984, I proved him wrong. I was the only bag boy at Peter's, or, I suspect, any grocery store anywhere, in my early 20s, and it was only the fact that I was still living largely within the confines of a college's student's economy that let me get along on the miserable pittance I was making doing it.

Eventually despair, and a very cunning National Guard recruiter, saw me enlisting and heading off to Basic Training in March of 1985. When I got back from that, I got hired at my favorite campus eatery, Hungry Charlie's, for a brief period, before I pissed off one the one manager there that no one else could stand either and got fired. I then landed a gig selling newspaper subscriptions over the phone... something I started out very good at, impressing my new boss inordinately with natural talent for talking people into trying the paper for six weeks free. Over the course of a few months, though, my effectiveness at the job abraded in direct inverse proportion to my growing empathy for the people whose home phones I was abusing and whose privacy I was intruding on every time I placed one of those calls. Eventually I got fired, which was okay because I hadn't been making much money doing it for a while anyway, and I started the temp agency rounds.

I did a lot of lousy stuff at that point... washing dishes in campus dining halls, packing boxes on an assembly line at a local pharmaceuticals warehouse, tossing newspaper bundles onto pallets in the press room of the Syracuse Herald Journal... until it finally dawned on me that I knew how to type, and was actually pretty fast at it. That upgraded the level of temp work I was able to get, and my life became nearly livable... for a brief time, until GM shut down its local plant, and the Syracuse economy pretty much imploded.

After that, it was back to blue collar work for a while. A job agency found me a permanent position at a place called Sunburst Optics, where I started out running a bank of machines that polished plastic lenses, and eventually, over the next three years, worked my way up to running the glass generator, arguably the most difficult and demanding of all jobs in the optics lab. Over the course of that three years I met my second girlfriend, Kristy, and although I hated the blue collar environment I was working in, and loathed most of my co-workers, still, life wasn't all that bad.

In 1989 Sunbust Optics finally laid me off. One of the managers there had taken two good hard swings at getting rid of me prior to that -- I wasn't getting along well with his brother in law, whom everyone else in the lab cordially loathed as well, but I've never been as good at hiding politically incorrect feelings as others are -- and eventually, despite all my efforts to do what turned out to be a pretty excellent job at whatever position he stuck me in hoping for conspicuous failure, he just said 'fuck it' and pink slipped me. Having given up on finding real grounds to term me, he finally just told me he was reorganizing and he just didn't have a place for me any more.

From there I collected Unemployment until the same agency that found me the Sunburst gig managed to place me at Sandy's Secretarial Service, out in East Syracuse. It was a long bus ride to work and back, but it paid better than any job I'd had to date. Unfortunately, times were still hard, and the owner of the company was a fairly loathsome bitch who didn't seem particularly comfortable employing anyone with a penis, so about a year later she laid me off, too. She was wilier in the ways of Unemployment than I was, also, and she managed to fairly effortlessly disqualify me of my benefits a few weeks after she kicked me to the curb. So times were pretty desperate for me and Kristy.

I went back to temping, and for the most part, my ability to type, along with Kristy's part time paycheck from Burlington Coat Factory, kept food on the table and a roof over our heads for the next couple of years. Around 1995, though, things went south for very nearly the final time for me in Syracuse... work dried up even further, and Kristy dumped me for a good friend of mine who had a steady job that made far more money than I'd ever even dreamed about making.

My last two years in Syracuse were an exercise in steadily mounting depression and futility. Had I not had an understanding landlord, I'd have most likely been out on the street very soon after Kristy broke up with me. Intermittent toting and hauling gigs from the lowest day labor temp agencies interspersed with occasional Unemployment checks gave way, over the last spring and early summer I spent in Syracuse, to me simply living off infrequent sales of Magic cards at local tournaments and whatever left overs remained in the fridge from the food my players ordered at our weekly roleplaying sessions. If I hadn't had a computer with an Internet connection and a few good friends (Nate, Kenny, Scott, and, at a distance, Mike Norton) I'd most likely have given up in despair.

Finally, in early July, my landlord kicked me off the cliff I'd been clinging to so precariously for years at that point. He'd made the disastrous mistake of letting the son of a previous tenant move into the building as a personal favor to her, since the kid needed to be able to post a permanent address or he couldn't get parole. I'd thought it was a big red flag that this kid apparently couldn't move back in with his mom, who had so successfully foisted him off on my building instead, but my landlord didn't want to hear that.

This kid had turned out to be as bad as I expected him to be and far worse than our mutual landlord had thought was possible; not only did he instantly resume the same dope slinging lifestyle that had gotten him thrown in the pokey in the first place, but, much more damning in my elderly Italian landlord's eyes, his primary customers/buddies were 20 and 30ish black ghetto hoods... and teenage white girls.

My landlord Mike shrugged off my complaints for several weeks, but when he finally rolled up one mid-week evening and saw the nightly curbside party in full swing in front of his building, with dozens of bling-laden black guys pimpin it up with an even larger number of very scantily clad white high school girls, and his new tenant in the thick of it, he went ballistic. Next day, he papered the doors in the building with eviction notices. I guess he figured, as long as he was down at the Sheriff's office filling out the forms, he might as well get rid of me, too, since I hadn't given him anything like a full rent payment in over a year at that point.

Years before that, as part of my family's never ending campaign to get me to relocate to Florida, my brother Pat had solemnly promised that if I ever decided to migrate southward, he would come up and get me and all my stuff and drive me down himself. So I made a phone call, and a week and a half later, he and my brother Sean showed up in a rented mini van. We crammed it full of books, videotapes, and electronics, left my comic book collection that wouldn't fit to be stored by my buddy Kenny, abandoned several years worth of furniture rescued from various street corners, along with a lovely bookshelf Kristy had given me for our first Christmas together, and the big queen sized wood framed bed she and I had bought together, and headed south.

I'm skipping over a lot of stuff, of course. Kristy's marriage to Gary had come in the months preceding my final exile, and I'm not going into how badly I had to twist their arm to get them to take in Cassie, the adult cat we'd adopted as a kitten based on Kristy's solemn promise that if I ever had to leave Syracuse, she'd take care of her. (I still miss Cassie; raised from a kitten in that second floor apartment, she must have been terrified at being uprooted and taken elsewhere. Kristy finally wound up farming her out to some home for cats out in the country, and my poor kitten is almost certainly dead by now, probably never understanding what had happened to her home or why I let it go down that way. Poor baby.)

I'm also going into no detail on how acrimonious things became between my landlord and myself over that last ten days in Syracuse. Having put the eviction notice on my door, he wanted me out that goddam minute and no later, and wasn't in the mood to wait another week and a half until my ride showed up. We went to court about it, where I learned that under New York State law it is illegal to pile up back rent and hold it over someone's head for longer than two months, among other interesting things. The judge in our case wound up ruling in my favor once he found out that all I wanted was ten days in the place until my brothers showed up to collect me; I doubt my landlord has forgiven me for that to this day.

My involuntary exile to Florida was hard on me. Being near my family was a mixed blessing, and the first four months I spent in Florida, living in my mom's spare bedroom, were a pretty fair facsimile of hell, since my mom had only recently remarried and my new stepfather deeply resented having another male under his roof who had a better relationship with his wife than he did. Once I found a job and moved into Tampa, things got better. Tampa is a pretty city and in many ways a good place to live, and I think it could be an excellent city indeed if it were just not irredeemably mired in the hellish swamp that is Florida, but unfortunately it is. The state of Florida itself is a hateful place for nearly any thinking being, especially one of Yankee stock. Southern accents sound charming on most women (but deeply retarded on most men) and living in a place where the default music in every restaurant is country, and there's a TV or radio tuned to a NASCAR race in nearly every public gathering place, is tough on anyone who has a functional cerebrum.

And I missed snow. Not all the time, but... okay, yeah, all the time, just especially around Christmas. I'm not deluded, and even back then I fully remembered what a pain in the ass the white shit can be, but still... there's something fundamentally unnatural about a place where it never snows, where the shifting of the seasons is mostly marked by a browning of pine needles and a curling at the tips of palm leaves. Celebrating Halloween in a place where most Halloween costumes are too bulky to wear in the 80 degree heat is disorienting and sad; Thanksgiving at 80 degrees is exasperating, and trying to get into the Christmas spirit when there are palm trees everywhere is just too goddam hard for me. It does get cold in Florida, and it often gets cold around Christmas, but a solid hard cold, even when it's down to 20 degrees, even at Christmas, just seems like an uncomfortable hardship if you can't get any damn snow to go with it.

So I missed snow, a lot, nearly always. And SuperGirlfriend understands that, just as she understood that back when we first started talking about me moving to Louisville, a large part of my reluctance was my inability to believe that it could actually snow in any place as Southern seeming as Kentucky.

But yesterday I saw snow in the air for the first time in eight years, and SuperGirlfriend assures me that I'll see more before I see spring again, and, well, I can't wait.

We were planning to break out the Christmas decorations tomorrow. Prior to this year I've always had an easy, casual contempt for those who decorate for Christmas before it's even December, but I've lately realized that Christmas is the best time of the year, and we get too little of it anyway. I still curl my upper lip at those who decorate for it before Thanksgiving is over, but I'm now on board with moving into Christmas as soon as possible after the turkey has been carved. And since we get the SuperKids back for a few hours tonight, we're going to let them help us decorate.

So Christmas starts early this year in the Highlander household, and I can't wait.

Let it snow.

7 Comments:

At 5:45 PM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

The comments about something being fundamentally wrong with Florida reminded me of the scene from Full Metal Jacket where Cowboy complains that there's something fundamentally wrong with a country that doesn't have any horses. I find myself agreeing at the gut level with both of you.

Our overnight half inch or so of snow vanished by mid-morning, but it was pretty in the pre-dawn.

Most years the Christmas decorations happen much closer to Christmas, but we've decided to at least kick them off this Friday. I'll most likely write something about it on my blog as it'll be easier than really doing any of it...

 
At 6:14 PM , Anonymous The always esteemed Scott said...

I hope you all won't think I'm gloating when I say that we have gotten 10cm of the stuff (thats...um...5 inches?) since this morning.

Plus, it's minus 10.

And you are so right about Florida.

 
At 11:15 AM , Anonymous Tammy said...

I always love these poignant "walks down memory lane" with you. Very well-written piece, Sweetie.

I'm greatly looking forward to a first walk in the snow with you. Watching you throw snowballs with the kids. Handing you the shovel, as I walk back inside.....;)

 
At 7:42 PM , Anonymous Nate said...

Kind of reminds me of Joe vs. The Volcano... where he tells Meg's third character that meeting her was "a long time a' coming, down a crooked road".

Just glad for you that Tammy was at the end of it.

 
At 1:02 AM , Anonymous Tammy said...

Nate, you are a very sweet boy. Thanks! And while you said it (ever so slightly) differently than he USUALLY does...he tells me virtually the same thing almost every day. It's pretty nice hearing it. I hope I don't screw it up....

 
At 5:02 PM , Anonymous Nate said...

Oh geeze... there goes my street cred.

BIXORI, it's not just for breakfast anymore...

 
At 12:03 AM , Anonymous Steven Tice said...

Anyone who loves snow is a friend of mine! :-) We had a white Thanksgiving this year...not to mention that we got a few inches of snow a week before Halloween! But just watch, we'll have a brown Christmas... I'll keep my fingers crossed, as always!

 

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