Man In A Suitcase

Rochester, New York

Here's an unshocking insight for you: visiting a place you once lived but haven't seen in a while is a quick way to discover just how much you've changed. In my case Rochester's the place; I spent my college years here and then returned briefly after working in New York City post-graduation and before heading west. My revelation concerns how incurious the younger me was. In a four day visit during homecoming I discovered that Rochester is a far more interesting place than I ever knew. Picturesque, even, at least during that brief part of the year when icy winds aren't threatening to break off parts of my anatomy.

I knew, for example, that Rochester was once known as the Flour City and that later, after the flour mills had all shut down, reinvented itself in the seed business as the Flower City. Yet somehow in my years in residence I never found my way to the site of the flour mills that gave the city its prominence, or even knew about the waterfall downtown that provided the motive power for that industry. Nor did I make the connection between Rochester's location on the shore of Lake Ontario, with Toronto and all those Canadian wheatfields a short sail away, and its business of grinding wheat into flour. Where did I think all that stuff to be ground (grinded?) came from? Truth is I never thought to ask the question.

I knew about the Genesee River, a slow moving waterway that runs right by the RIT campus on its way north to the lake. Yes, the Genesee is one of a very few rivers that flow northward, the Nile being the only other one I can think of. Turns out there are a lot of nice homes along the river, especially at the lake end. Lots of boats as well, although I wonder how much use their owners get from them, Rochester weather being what it is. Gordon Lightfoot may have been writing about Superior when he talked about the gales of November, but I can't imagine Ontario's much of a joy either as winter gets close. Still, on this October day it was all calm and warm and picturesque as hell. And what a surprise to see a ferry in port, ready to take passengers over to Toronto. Much more relaxing than all that driving we did back in the day. Although a quick Google tells me the ferry service lasted all of ten months before being given up as a bad idea.

Rochester is one of the stops along the Erie Canal. The canal was the last link in a 19th century transportation chain, with goods coming via Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, traveling down the Genesee, along the canal to the Hudson and then to New York City. The canal was rebuilt several times in its first century, widening and deepening it and even relocating it in places. The canal was an unimaginable achievement in its day, an engineering marvel that now mostly serves the occasional power boater. And the jogger and cyclist and even the odd photographer. (Yes, very odd. Let's move along, shall we?)

I'll spare you the jokes about California seasons. (Okay, just one: Southern California has two seasons: day and night.) But it's true that we don't get the dramatic color change I grew up with. Then again, we also don't get blizzards, so it balances out. Still, I was kind of excited to see that even this early in October there were some dramatic colors among the trees. When my homecoming activities didn't keep me busy, which they didn't, I had plenty of time to drive around and admire nature's show. Supposedly it's a lot dramatic a week later as I write this. Oh, and here's the Rochester version of the So Cal joke. Rochester also has two seasons: winter and construction. Except that's not a joke.

I also took the time to see a little of the countryside. Despite not springing for the GPS in my rental car I managed not to get lost, or at least not for long. But even a little bit lost was worth it for the chance to wander through farm country. There's something especially poignant about the place at right, which clearly hasn't been worked for some time. I've heard of back to nature of course, but I don't expect to see nature taking over to quite this degree.

Rochester Institute of Technology

And then there's my alma mater, RIT, known fondly as Brick City for reasons that are obvious almost immediately. (There are other names when we're being less fond, sometimes related to its presence in the township of South Henrietta. Okay, it's actually in north Henrietta, but the joke doesn't work that way.) I hadn't been on campus in more than ten years, and was surprised at how much had changed. Lots more bricks than in my day. But still a lot of unspoiled land among the 1300 acres.

I wasn't much of a sports fan back in the day, not even for women's sports like this soccer match. Hockey, yes, although that was at least in part for the possibility of violence. Still, playing spectator was a pleasant way to spend some time between homecoming activities. As was watching the two thespians at right, alternating between playing as statues and reciting Tennessee Williams. (When I wasn't being distracted by that bronze rendition of the RIT tiger, wearing a sweater in the officially garish school colors.) Somehow I don't think their costumes were quite what Mr. Williams had in mind. (Dunno what he'd have thought about the sweatered tiger either.) But to be fair, I'm not exactly the RIT Players' target audience.

The College Union building of my day has been renamed the Student Union, likely in a pretense of it being by and for the students. RIT didn't bother even pretending back when I was a student. Then again, they didn't try to ban alcohol, surely the only way to survive a Rochester winter with bits of your sanity intact. At least that was my excuse in those times when eighteen year olds were allowed to vote, drink and be drafted. Yeah, maybe having to wait a few more years isn't such a bad tradeoff at that.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California