Hamilton-Part 1 (and full text) Image: Chroma Gallery Inverse Pastiche-2

The summer of 1969 was the Woodstock and moon-landing summer. It was also the summer Eve and I spent almost every weekend driving around Upstate New York looking for whatever it was we were looking for back then. Paul Simon’s “America” was my anthem that summer so I’m pretty sure we were searching for America—on the weekends.

I suppose Upstate was as good a place to look as any.

When we weren’t searching for America we had jobs during the week—earning money for college in the fall. We enjoyed the aimless movement and the passing homes, towns, forest and farmland and while I can’t speak for Eve—who disappeared into the world of social work and adulthood—I don’t remember finding America that summer in any specific sense. There was no special place, event, person or object that proffered any sort of gratifying definition. I do remember it was a poignant and memorable time in my American life that I treasure and that’s probably why I created my character Greg and put him and his friends in undergraduate school in 1969—to continue the search for me.

Forty years later in late fall of 2009—while back home visiting in the Mohawk Valley—one snowy afternoon I drove down to Hamilton, New York to do informal research and gather impressions for my Greg story. Hamilton is the home of Colgate University and the setting for much of Greg’s struggles and misadventures. Greg I should mention, is a British transfer student on a prestigious scholarship, a brilliant scholar and unusually good-looking. Being from Britain he would have some detachment from the American scene of that era and might have better luck with the search.

The thirty mile drive south was unexpectedly lonely. I hadn’t thought about her in several decades but I suddenly missed Eve. Glancing at the empty seat on my right I could almost see her—almost smell her perfume. It wasn’t really the person I missed but what she represented—that sense of soaring freedom and gratifying purpose that the right girl in the right adventure at that age provided. One more reason I created Greg and his girls.

The drive down took me through a number of small towns like Munnsville—which is a pretty typical Upstate town. As you enter town you pass the requisite “Welcome to Munnsville” sign, shot full of holes by brainless red-necks. Driving 25 miles per hour down the main street you pass empty stores with dusty cardboard boxes and dead potted plants in the front windows. You pass the one bar still in business—a paint-peeling wooden building sitting on a crumbling foundation with the usual Utica Club Beer neon sign in the window. A single car is parked out front—probably belonging to one of the guys who shot up the “Welcome to Munnsville” sign.

One nearly collapsed building caught my eye. I parked and got out to take a closer look. I knew immediately it was The Red Boar—or had been forty years ago—one place Greg sometimes hung out. The Boar was set up like an English pub by a British ex-patriot—Audley Bigg, (AKA “Mr. Bigg”) and once a week or so Greg would bring a girl or two and get drunk with the owner and a few locals. Some locals affectionately called it “The Bed and Whore” since a couple of girls from Syracuse usually came down Friday and Saturday evenings to ply their trade and Mr. Bigg always provided rooms on the second floor for the ladies to carry on their enterprise.

In 1969 towns like Munnsville were more prosperous—fresh paint on the bars—groceries, clothes, hardware in the store windows. Two or three times a day huge, apocalyptic SAC bombers roaring out of Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, would rumble overhead carrying their tons of death-cargo through the cold-war skies. The stench of impending doom was good business for central New York largely because of enormous primary and secondary defense spending.

But when the Soviet Union went out of business so did a lot of Upstate New York. The manufacturing base of the regional economy evaporated as defense spending dried up. And it didn’t help that many businesses during those years figured out they could improve their bottom line by paying people overseas ten cents an hour rather than 5 or 6 dollars an hour here.

Snow flurries fluttered down from gray skies falling delicately on rotting planks and siding and blew through broken windows. I closed my eyes and imagined the warm, burnished atmosphere of the pub. 40 years ago. I could easily see Greg, Audley, a couple of pretty co-eds and maybe a few of the “sporting ladies” laughing and celebrating the moment—safe against the winter cold and the death-birds in the night sky above. Brushing the snow off my hat and returning alone to my car, I thought I spotted Greg driving away—his car disappearing into the snowy distance down route twenty-six—a couple of sorority girls next to him.

Continuing down Route 26 I remembered Eve and I stopped briefly in Hamilton one weekend and motored around the campus. Staring into the snow flying into the windshield, vague memories of imposing, gray stone, academic mausoleums rising in massive silence up out of the center of the earth, drifted into my thoughts. As for the town of Hamilton itself where I would be focusing most of my efforts this day—I couldn’t remember anything. That day in 1969 I guess America—in any concrete sense—wasn’t to be found. Maybe Greg will have better luck.

There was no problem with the search for Hamilton—it was right where everybody said it would be. I found convenient—and free—parking adjacent to the town square. Yeah—they had an actual town square with flower beds and a gazebo band-stand.

Zipping up my coat and snugging down my fedora, I started down the immaculate main street lined with perfectly restored early 1900s stores, shops, bistros and boutiques. Shuffling in and out of the Starbuck’s and Barnes and Nobles, beautiful young Colgate students from a dozen countries dressed in $300.00 parkas and alligator skin boots, blended with the locals like that stuff in Lava Lamps blends with the medium it rises and falls in. As earlier—I thought I glimpsed Greg going into the Hamilton Theater on Lebanon Street.

The pub in Munnsville wasn’t enough—I needed an in-town, close to campus bar a guy like Greg would hang out in as he took hedonism and irresponsibility to new heights. In 1969 Greg was 19 but back in those days the legal drinking age in New York State was 18.

I found it in about three minutes—The Payne Street Corner Bar. It was perfect.

The Payne Street bar is today—as it was in 1969—part of the gorgeous old Hamilton Inn. In keeping with my life-long search for America, large, twin American flags on long poles flank both sides of the majestic front entrance. The main lobby of the hotel is right out of central casting. Deep plush, maroon carpeting, darkly gleaming walnut paneling, polished brass sconces. The front desk is massive, hand-carved Cuban Mahogany and the Colgate co-ed behind it—“Alison” on her name plate—was also out of central—the drop-dead beautiful girl department.

I wandered around the lobby—which reeks of, “if you have to ask how much, you can’t afford to be here”—studying the furnishings and décor’ and find myself thinking about Sherlock Holmes’ ‘Diogenes Club.’ When I got to within 8 or 10 feet of the front desk I stopped and briefly made eye-contact with Alison who looked at me ambivalently—kind of like the way a beautiful young girl looks at a shriveled up old-timer in an Indiana Jones Fedora.

I smiled, nodded and wandered off in the direction of the bar—which is reached through a door connecting it to the lobby. But before I get to it I see Greg and his pretty American girl friend Samantha entering the lobby. Greg and Sam were high-school sweethearts—Greg attended the same high school as Sam his senior year. Sam’s friend Sherry and her new boyfriend Noah are with them—the two couples come laughing and chattering through the big revolving door from the street. The two couples crowd around the front desk.

Alison is not at the front desk to register the two couples of course. She won’t be born for another 24 years. Instead an aunt of hers—Mary Jane who is in her early 20s in 1969 and just as pretty as her niece will be—is holding down the Cuban Mahogany fort. By this point in the story Greg had become well acquainted with Mary Jane and Marco the concierge and was able to score two vacant rooms for the cost of the maid’s tip in this four-star establishment.

Greg befriended Mary Jane one evening shortly after arriving in Hamilton when he rescued her from a jammed and derailed drawer in a big gray filing cabinet that was giving her fits. After 5 or 6 minutes of frustrated struggling she was looking around with that “somebody please help me” expression on her face and he offered to help. Greg quickly found and replaced the screw that attached the drawer glide to the cabinet carcass and remedied the problem. As he demonstrated the now smoothly functioning drawer he warned Mary Jane the common sheet-metal screw should be replaced with a locking screw or it would eventually come loose again.

Mary Jane—a niece of one of the owners—was going through a divorce and no—she and Greg did not become lovers. They did become friends—after 10 or 12 beers and several hours of commiseration in the bar discussing their love lives. After hearing Greg’s story Mary Jane encourages him to go back to Sam but Greg isn’t quite ready for that yet. Whenever Greg was in the bar after that evening he would swing by the front desk and speak with Mary Jane.

With room keys in hand the two couples put their bags on a luggage cart and roll it into the elevator. I don’t know what’s coming next because that part of the story hasn’t been written yet. Probably they’ll hit the showers, have sex for an hour or so then come back down for dinner and drinks in the dining room.

I go into the bar—which looks a lot like the lobby except for the ancient jukebox—a 1953 Seeburg—at the back. I sit down at an empty corner table where I can see the entire room, especially the people coming and going through the street door.

Bar maid ”Susan” on her name plate—takes my order—a Gin & Tonic without the gin. Her manner is that detached pleasantness phoned in from the other side of that glass wall of time many young people reserve for old people. She brings the drink—six bucks for a glass of tonic water with a wedge of lemon. To be fair—it was a very nice lemon wedge.

Its mid afternoon—only a few customers at the bar muttering across the hushed space separating us. The place looks exactly as it did in 1969. Through the front windows snow can be seen falling thickly hitting the warm street and melting as soon as it strikes the wet pavement.

Greg enters from the street. I quickly pull out a notebook to take notes. He walks directly to the jukebox and drops in several quarters—the Beatles,’ “I’m Looking through You” floods the quiet room. He takes a seat at a table near the large front window so he can see the entire room but by turning his head, look out on the street.

Sue-Anne (Susan’s mother—a year or two older than Greg in 1969) practically sprints to his table.

“Hi Greg,” she purrs and bends over to share her cleavage as she places a napkin on the table, “what would you like sweetie?—you just name it,” she says breathlessly, staring directly into his eyes.

“That’s sweet of you love,” he says with a flicker of a smile, “please bring me a ‘Jenny Cream Ale.’”

“One cold Genesee coming up,” Sue Anne pronounces and hurries away, glancing back over her shoulder as she almost collides with another table.

The beer arrives—Sue Anne pours it into a glass for him. Greg absent-mindedly thanks the girl—he is lost in thought. He is remembering the last time he spoke with Sam—in Rome, NY. about a month before—and it was not a pleasant occasion. That part of Greg’s story has been written.

It was after a dinner date—the night before he was to leave for Colgate. Greg had met two Delta, Delta, Sigma sorority girls from Colgate a few weeks previous and it was obvious to Sam he was taken with them.

After the date—which went badly—Greg let Sam off in her driveway. Here’s that part of the story:

Sam leaned over to speak directly through the open driver’s side window. “Look me in the eye Greg,” she went on, “Look me in the eye and say you love me, that you’re not tired of me and that you’ll be coming back to be with me every chance you get.”

Speaking through gritted teeth she hissed at him, “And tell me—promise me—that sometime in the next 24 hours you won’t be fucking one of those Delta whores.”

Greg was taken aback—even shaken. This was a side of Sam he’d never seen before. Red with embarrassment he could not make eye contact with her—it flashed through his mind this would never happen to his hero James Bond. He said nothing but started the car and put it in gear. She watched him—watched his eyes—he would not look at her. Greg looked into the rear view mirror and carefully backed the car out of the driveway into the street. Finally—glancing briefly at her through the passenger-side window—he smiled self-consciously and pulled away.

As she watched the red tail lights disappear down the street she felt certain that there would be another girl—one of those Delta girls—occupying the seat she just left—within 24 hours.

She was wrong. It would be less than 12 hours.

So yeah—Greg has been partying his brains out since he started at Colgate a few weeks ago and has a lot of unresolved feelings about Sam who he knows in his heart is a very special girl. Greg is away from parental control for the first time and has a fairly generous stipend from his scholarship. He answers to no one except his academic advisor and spiritual mentor Dr. Samuel Freeman—chairman of the Religion and philosophy department and a former Zen monk. Since arriving at the school Greg has drunk more alcohol, smoked more pot and bedded more girls in two weeks than he had in his life prior to starting at the University. The weekend at the hotel with Sam and the other couple would not come until fall semester of ’69—a few months after he nearly destroyed himself.

Here’s that part of the story:

He started awake—falling off the ragged couch he’d been sleeping on. Looking around he found himself enveloped in darkness—he had no idea where he was or how he’d gotten there. Lashing out blindly he stood up, tripped over something in the blackness and fell, briefly stunning himself. He lay with his face pressed into a carpet smelling of urine and filth. Looking around the darkened room there was no way to orient himself. Trembling and nauseous, he could hear snoring and muttering from others somewhere in the foul darkness.

“Lost,” he thought in panic. “Lost—how do I get out of here?’ Turning around wildly he fell again—this time to his knees—as a hellish blackness crushed his soul and mind. Grasping the edge of a small table next to the couch to pull himself up—something sharp stabbed into his right hand. With his other hand he pulled it out, recognizing it as a syringe. He suddenly felt a cleansing breeze flowing across his face and realized a window was open somewhere. He stood again—moving cautiously—feeling his way—toward the unseen open window. Finding it he stuck his head out—in the moonlight he could see the ground was only 4 or 5 feet below him.

He slipped through the window and fell lightly to the earth, landing on his feet. He could hear the night sounds of the countryside—crickets, a small stream flowing over rocks somewhere, late summer leaves rustling in distant trees. A solitary car passed by on a nearby road. Looking around he thought again to himself, “Lost—how do I get out of here?” From somewhere in the darkness—very faintly on the clean night air—he detected a familiar fragrance.

“Lily of the Valley”—Sam’s perfume.

Following the fragrance he found himself by the side of the road. He had no shirt on—he began to tremble in the chilly night air. Looking up, the black sky was filled with brilliant stars—the Milky Way arching in eternal majesty across the heavens. He fell to his hands and knees in the dirt and gravel on the road’s shoulder. Leaning back and lifting his hands to his face his palms were muddy, small bits of gravel and a few tiny shards of glass stuck to them, blood tricked from several small wounds.”

He pressed his hands to his face—the blood and dirt smearing his cheeks. Tears filled his eyes flowing into his hands—the bloody mud trickling between his fingers. He again looked up into the shining, silent heavens.

“I have been mad,” he said out loud addressing the universe in a shaky whisper, “a damned stupid fool. Forgive me,” he said staring into the stars. Covering his eyes with his hands, now on the verge of vomiting, he pleaded under his breath, “And please forgive me, Sam.”

Sitting by the side of the road convulsively sobbing and shaking Greg became aware the pavement in front of him was lit by headlights—a car engine idling quietly a few yards behind him. A strong, kindly—very familiar—voice behind him said, “Greg, are you quite done?”

It was Sam Freeman. Greg stood and turned to find Dr. Freeman’s hand extended to him. When Greg accepted his hand the old man pulled the young man to him and embraced him. Greg returned his professor’s embrace wrapping himself in the old monk’s love and not since he was a small boy in his mother’s arms had he felt so warm, so protected and so grateful.

“I’m done,” he whispered in the old man’s ear.”

Meanwhile back at the Payne Street Bar, Greg has nearly finished his beer. He gets up from his table, walks back over to the jukebox and drops in more change—playing several more songs from the “Rubber Soul” album. He really likes this album—great songs on it—the Beatles are his favorite group and—being a believer in reincarnation—he knows that the name “Rubber Soul” refers to the soul bouncing back into this world after each life is completed.

While he is at the jukebox a car can be seen through the windows pulling up at the curb right outside the bar’s front entrance. A remarkably attractive young woman enters, looks around and spots Greg at the back. She walks quickly to him—touches his shoulder—they speak briefly. Taking his hand she leads him out of the bar to the waiting car. Sue Anne watches them leave with an expressionless face but tears trickle silently down her cheeks. The car accelerates away—down Payne Street heading north out of town. I suspect they’re going to The Red Boar. Walking to the door and out onto the street I watch the car disappear down Utica Street into the blowing snow. I haven’t developed that part of the story yet so I don’t know what’s coming.

The bar is starting to get busy. Susan will need my table for the people coming in who will order drinks with alcohol in them. I return to the lobby and find a comfortable upholstered chair near a big front window. From my chair I can look over my shoulder outside at the flags—keeping their limp vigil in the falling snow—but looking in front of me I can watch hotel guests moving into and out of the elevator. I’m hoping to see Greg and his friends come down from upstairs but they don’t come.

After half an hour I give up, stand up and turn to watch the snow and hanging flags through the window and think about what’s happened and is happening. The Greg I created is searching for his soul, not America—so maybe what I’m after isn’t America really—but my American soul. I don’t know where else to look. Eve is gone, the death-birds are gone, the searching summer freedom of youth—gone and this is where the road ends.

Watching the flags in the falling American snow I wonder if I haven’t found all there is to find—memories, imagination, aloneness and the self-inflicted yearning that only Americans can achieve—American yearning. Maybe that’s the soul of America.

I hear a banging coming from the front desk—Alison is having trouble with the big gray filing cabinet. Unable to get the drawer open she keeps pulling and pushing, jerking and banging. She’s becoming increasingly frustrated—she has that “somebody please help me” look as she glances around.

I turn away from the window and walk over. I think I know what the problem is.

End Part 4. End story

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