274 Utica, NY: Camel's Hump

Utica, NY: Camel's Hump

Stephen King once said he got his ideas from Utica. I got the idea where to start exploring the town from the landlords who had put up my niece when she was at nearby Hamilton College. They recommend a place that my web research did not turn up: Domenico's. In a mob town known for family networks, mine was paying off.

The space had brightly-colored walls filled with original paintings, as well as reproduction portraits of famous writers, musicians, and artists. A bullet hole pierced the back window. I couldn't have picked a better starting place. Within his first three sentences, Orin, the owner working the counter, mentioned some of my favorite philosophers, like James Hillman and Joseph Campbell. "The coffee shop," he related, "from the beginning, was kind of envisioned both as a business and a place to address isolation." Orin was a bit shy of six feet, paunchy and gray-bearded, draped in a black apron with a small black-and-white peace sign pin on his lapel.

"There just aren't places for people to meet face to face and to talk to each other anymore. There's a quotation by James Hillman in an essay that he wrote about cities that I used in the first letter I wrote trying to raise funds to start this place. (I ended up doing it without raising these funds.) He talks about the need for places in the city where people meet 'at eye level.' I tried to make a place that would appeal to a cross-section of people, so that different sorts of people would end up talking to each other. Boy I get 'em! I get everybody from the mobsters to the peace coalition. It's fun.

"I had people saying to me when I started this, 'Oh, the best thing is you'll make out real well and Starbucks will buy you out.' I said, 'I'm not interested in starting another Starbucks; I'm interested in this place and keeping this great.' We're very interested in promoting the idea of local economy. These items you see for sale in our display case, this milk and eggs, are from a nearby organic farm run by a retired airline pilot and an Ivy League economist.

"There is an isolation in Utica," he mused in answer to my question. "Part of it is just modern life; that's a better word than culture. I don't like to use culture to describe what we have in this country. There's another element here, and that's that a lot of people in the community come from Southern Italy originally. You tend to run into a lot of dysfunctional cynical attitudes. There's been a lot of in-fighting and back-biting for years in politics here that I think contributes to the isolation. I have a friend who calls people here 'Utaricans;' that's his way of saying they have small, stubborn politics. And that further increases the kind of distance that exists between groups. For a small place, there's a lot more of that here than there needs to be.

"A whole hell of a lot of people have left Utica," he lamented. "You had kind of an economic catastrophe. When I was growing up around here you had Griffiths Air Force Base, which was very much a product of the Cold War. My father worked as an artist who ran the graphic arts department for the air base. And besides that there were mills. They're all gone. General Electric sold out; they're gone too. And with that went a large lump of the population. I lived within three to five blocks of both of my grandparents, several uncles, bunches of cousins, and there was this kind of fabric of the community. You knew everyone. There isn't one of my uncles who lives in this area anymore.

"There's several good things happening right now," he noted. "I see a lot of people who are starting to look for places like this to get out of big cities. We've got two guys, just for instance, from Los Angeles who've bought the church up the street here and put in a recording studio."

A woman who had stepped in to the café and ordered several coffees to go, jumped in, "Yeah, he's my dad; I'm the studio manager. He's from San Francisco actually."

"People would love it here if there was more opportunity, don't you think?" he asked her.

"Absolutely," she agreed. "You've got gorgeous architecture. It's like traveling back in time."

Since she had included herself, I asked her my question. "I don't feel isolated," she shook her long blond hair. "My whole family's here. I'm Italian and Irish, and I have five hundred cousins and aunts and uncles, and they all stayed here. My mom and I are the only ones who left. For two hundred years my family's been here. Both sides. 1803. I felt way more isolated in San Francisco because it's such a transitory city. This city: talk about roots, they're here. People would come back, they definitely would. It's just there's no economic opportunity for them."

Orin continued, "I would like to see my kids make it [Utica] somethin'. Have my grandchildren around. If corporations start looking seriously at putting things like chip plants here, it's because we've become third world. Your wages have to be so low, and they have to give away so many things for them environmentally and tax-wise and so forth that you don't even want 'em here. And besides which, there's no loyalty. You guys set the studio up here, with all the work you put into it, you're not just going to leave next month."

"Right," she said enthusiastically. "I'm gonna inherit that studio."

The Hopper here, Camel's Hump, shows a series of Cape Cod hills, bright in the foreground, darker in back, under a pale blue sky with one white cloud. The slanting hillsides converge like arrows. There are no figures, no architecture, just the light catching the camel's hump. Jo described it in the ledger as "Bare saddle shaped dune (Indian campground) on skyline." Hopper had painted the same subject from a different perspective the year before in Hills, South Truro, now in Cleveland's museum. Cape Cod was still new to Hopper as a subject when he painted this in 1931.

The painting hangs at the Munson William Proctor Institute (MWPI), whose mouth-garbling name is shortened by locals to "Munstitute." I was at the museum the day that artists were dropping off submissions for the annual art contest. I asked one who had stopped in front of Camel's Hump her thoughts about isolation in Utica. She was a sturdy 5'8", with big round face, crooked teeth, short black hair, and lots of eye shadow ringing her brown eyes. She leaned away from me at a forty-five degree angle suspiciously.

"Definitely yeah, I agree," she began.

"Isolated from each other?" I probed, "or isolated from the rest of the state and country?"

"All of those," she exclaimed. "I grew up here, but I was away for twelve years. I just now came back. I've seen isolation like this. But my perspective comes from my life experience. You know, you talk to someone else, and they might feel completely different. And if you had interviewed me fifteen years ago, I probably would feel very differently about a lot of things because I was doing very different things."

"Would you have been more or less inclined," I wondered, "to agree that people are isolated at that point?"

"Less inclined," she said, "because my life was very different then. I was married. I was busy all of the time. I had virtually no down time, no time for myself. So I wouldn't know if people were isolated, because I was not isolated. Now things are very different, and I just want to spend time with myself. Art is an isolating work. I don't have the same kind of money I used to have, you know what I mean? It's just the way my life went. I was alone at the time. I had a bunch of time. I've been sketching and all this stuff since I was a toddler. Until the last six years, I never really had time to put into that. Now I can."

"Is there a place in town where I might interview other artists?"

"Oh gosh," she ahemed, "you know, that's the thing. Nah. Everybody's got their own schedules. There're a couple artists friends that I have conversations with, but there are other artists around town who I don't know. Some I don't want to."

I found in the files an original hand-drawn map by Jo Hopper of how to get from the local train station to their studio. Another note told me who had gained possession of Jo's journals. A letter from painter Phillip Koch, who had a residency in Hopper's studio in 1996, reported that the hill known as Camel's Hump was bulldozed after Hopper's death.

Camel's Hump was bought by Edward Root, son of Elihu Root, who had been born in a cottage on the campus of nearby Hamilton College and went on to become Secretary of State and 1912 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Root admired Hopper's "feeling for the brilliant sharply defined iconic appearance of the American Landscape."

Out in the galleries, I spoke with a short, stocky woman in droopy jeans and a "Get Art?" T-shirt. She wore a backpack and had frizzy light brown hair, several ear rings, chubby cheeks, and gaps in her teeth.

"Um, I'm not sure isolated," she mumbled, She was always moving and held a Coke in one hand and candy bar in the other. "But you know I think they must really [be] on a level. Location-wise, I think maybe [they are isolated] because the valley area is definitely out of the way. It's kind of in an area where there's farm lands all over the place, and there's the city right in the middle of it. I think a lot of people can relate to this painting just because they see hills and stuff. So I think maybe even though he may not have painted it around here, people say like, 'I kind of seen that around here, too.' There's definitely serenity about the painting, too. I think maybe people relate to that kind of green serene feelings around here. What kind of isolation I like is in the woods. Someone from around here?" she balked. "If they saw this? I don't know if this is isolation; this is just home."

Stephanie's sister, Jennifer, worked at the museum and came over to us. She looked similar because they were part of identical triplets, but her green eyes were framed by fashionable oval glass frames, and her dark hair was cut in a short pageboy.

"From what I know of his characters," Jennifer responded, "they do seem very caught up in their own business, and Utica can certainly be like that!" She and her sister both laughed at this. "There is a sense that people are only looking out for themselves. Certainly, if I needed directions to go somewhere, I wouldn't feel totally comfortable just asking any random person off the street. I would want to make sure I was asking a respectable person, someone in a respectable position anyway."

The building housing the MWPI collection's decorative arts was Fountain Elms, an 1850 Italianate mansion from Utica's prime that was the ancestral home of the institute's founders. The tour guide there gave me a history of the place and explained the origins of its long name.

"Okay," she began, "Alfred Munson came from Connecticut and he gets in on the Erie Canal that's just about to open. Mr. Munson makes a ton of money. He's the first millionaire in Oneida County in 1823. He has a lovely daughter Helen. This is her portrait here. She falls in love with a local attorney, James Williams. She becomes Helen Munson-Williams. They raise two young ladies, Rachel Williams and Mariah Williams who marry two Proctor brothers. So now we have Munson-Williams-Proctor."

I asked her, "Do you feel that people in Utica are isolated like Hopper's characters?"

"Uh," she hesitated, "no I don't, not at all. I don't feel an isolation like that exists here. Maybe it's just because of the fact that I work here, and we see people on an international basis. But even the city itself, we have a lot of different ethnic groups. It's a very friendly community. "

I said, "In a town of 60,000, you probably see your neighbors fairly regularly, too."

"Oh, I know all my neighbors," she said. "You know names from high school and grammar school, and they're still here. If you don't know them, somebody else does. So it's a close-knit community. Very friendly people here, very generous people. Well certainly these people [the Munson-Williams-Proctors] are, right?"

The town's name was chosen out of a hat with 13 names in it. If that number wasn't a bad omen, the source of the name was. During the Roman Empire, Utica was a North African state overrun alternately by Romans, Carthaginians and Arabs. New York's Utica began in 1758 with the establishment of Fort Schuyler. It was chartered as a city in 1832 and became a manufacturing hub, halfway along the Erie Canal from New York to Buffalo. As the economy crumbled and the population dwindled, the town gained a reputation as a haven for the Mafia. Even today, mob hits don't raise eyebrows here. They had to call in the Federal Arson Squad recently because so many buildings were being torched.

Knowing Utica's staunch Italian history, I expected the Italian delis and stores to be in thriving neighborhoods. Instead, they were the only businesses left amidst blocks of homes burnt, boarded or for rent and storefronts now derelict or colonized by ad hoc pawn shops, small grocers, etc. The Italian Heritage Center had even packed up and moved to Syracuse. One storefront had nothing except black tinted windows and signs on the walls that blared, "For Members Only"!

I had read online about Utica's mysterious "pusties," the favorite food of townies. I learned that it was short for pasticciotti, an Italian pastry. The name comes from Naples and means "big mess" (a potshot metaphor for the town). When I stepped into Caruso's to order one, I asked for one second to see whether I wanted anything else as well. After a count of two, the flabby-armed woman behind the counter said, "Time's up."

Seeing that the Italian neighborhood was not what it used to be, I headed for the heart of downtown, lorded over by a bank's huge gold dome. Genesee Street, the main artery, sloped up from the Mohawk River Valley and passed the Hopper-era Stanley Theater: whose sign read "Stacey, we love you so much, The Amigos and Me." You can also rent the lobby, and it has become a local tradition for wedding parties to have their photographs taken on the grand staircases in the lobby--though that might not be a lucky thing because legend has it this one was designed to resemble the grand staircase on the Titanic. The theater tradition in Utica began (of all places) on Hopper Street, where, in 1914, the Players Theater produced an evening of plays at the New Century Club.

Near Hopper Street was the appropriately Hopperesque Triangle Café, a tiny greasy spoon diner shaped like the one in Hopper's Nighthawks because it was at the tip of a triangular building. A sign advertised a special price for a "hamburg," which in Utica comes without the final "-er." The walls were covered halfway up with wood paneling, halfway down with dingy plaid wallpaper. Fluorescent lights buzzed on the dropped ceiling. A spacey-eyed, wiry character to my right smoked a cigarette with zombie-like slowness. Three women mindlessly rubbing lottery tickets with their spoon ends talked weather, taxes, and lottery. I sat at the counter and leaned on my elbows. The transformation was complete.

Some things remained vital downtown. The Hotel Utica had been saved and restored with a lobby decked out in Tiffany lamps, crystal chandeliers, and caged birds. A live pianist and violinist played classical music from one corner under the balcony ringing the room. As I jotted down the day's notes, the candle at my table burned out, the only one to do so, like some Sicilian curse, malocchio.

My waitress's gold nameplate read, "Tina." She was tall and trim, wearing black pants and a white shirt. She had a fresh pale face and brown heavy-lidded eyes beneath reddish-brown hair pulled tight behind her head. She looked sweet and young, but she approached with the self-assured, square-shouldered walk of a man and spoke with a strikingly husky tone.

"The answer to the question," she asserted, "is yes. I've been out of this country, and I feel more warmth [elsewhere]. I've been to Italy and seen a different way. I grew up with a family community that was stronger than most Americans because it had Italian heritage. My father moved here when he was 17. I feel they are different from my friends' families, and that's why I say, absolutely."

I asked, "Did you notice when you grew up in Utica that this was isolated?"

"No," Tina pondered, "I think I learned that as I got older. I've been more isolated places. At least people here will acknowledge if you say something in the store line. And Monday Night Utica is a great tradition; different ethnic groups take each one. My father claims that Genesee Street was formerly so packed on a Saturday night that traffic was at a standstill."

"Why are you back?" I asked.

"This is where my family lives," she shrugged.

Another still-vital Utica institution was Utica's 1914 Union Station, the last grand station built by the New York Central Railroad. I visited in the evening, and the cavernous hall was empty, save for a teenage girl slumped on a long bench and an East Indian man in a business jacket standing beside his luggage. Three workers were sweeping up one corner. One was a paunchy, white guy with a gray-haired buzz cut. His partner was a tight-lipped muscular young African American. Their supervisor was a middle-aged African American man who had the ease and fleshiness of a Buddha, calmly smoking a pipe beneath a dark mustache.

The supervisor said he didn't really have an opinion, then turned to his workers and explained what I asked him.

"Oh yeah, we get along," the paunchy guy said. "We've been talking to each other all day. If you look on a State of New York map, we're right in the center of the state, between New York City and Buffalo, New York."

"Unfortunately," the African American supervisor said, "we haven't been able to capitalize on it, on our location. Well," he amended, "we've been getting a big influx of individuals from New York. This afternoon we had a Hispanic gentleman who was here with his son who looked at Utica College campus, and he was trying to decide whether he wants to move up here. And, you know, he said, 'well, where's all the people?' Well, you probably said the same thing when you came in here. But we're getting a lot of Bosnian immigrants; you know, Russian immigrants, Hispanics, people from Nicaragua, you know? Vietnamese.

"Matter of fact," he perked up, "I wouldn't say that I'm isolated, but I have some Vietnamese neighbors; they've been living next door to us, I would say for about five or six years, and they pretty much keep to themselves. We have some Hispanic people on our block also, and they pretty much keep to themselves, too. I don't think that's healthy, but I guess that's their culture. And I guess that's they way they want to live. In fact, the case is the neighbor that I have who's Vietnamese, I do his lawn, when I do my lawn, and the guy has never said, 'Thank you.' And my daughter said, 'Well, why do you continue to do his lawn if the guy don't even say thank you?' but, you know, my house would look as dumb if my lawn was done and his lawn wasn't done.

The lobby housed the Adirondack Scenic Railway office. The man who ran it was just over 50, had a gray beard and a big nose, and wore a blue shirt with the Adirondack Scenic Railroad logo on it.

"This place," he informed me, "is the middle of the New York State Rustbelt. I mean it's taken a beating. Somebody said they took down five hundred homes in the same night just because people walked away from them. This is something I know about, and I'm just recently here ten years. That's funny, this town probably by default has a lot of its original structures. Nobody wanted to build anything there, so they didn't take anything down. So we have more beautiful downtown, a fairly intact Main Street here. Take this station for instance. It's one of the grand old railroad stations, the only one left between New York and Chicago. It's all the marble and stuff; some of these columns came out of the original Grand Central that was taken down in 1908. Some day I'd like to turn it into The New York State Railroad Museum. I mean it's empty now. It's a shell, but it's still there.

I said, "The painting I'm here for is called Camel's Hump, and it might have the New York-New Haven-Hartford track in it. You should check it out."

"Ha," he exclaimed. "There's a spot on this railroad they call 'The Camel's Hump', too. I mean, if you want a story, this is a story. It was saved by a bunch of volunteers with hard heads that wouldn't let the state rip this railroad up, and they have a world-class railroad going back to Lake Placid. There's a story for you; put that in."

The station also housed a taxi company, barber shop, restaurant & bar, and newsstand, where the woman working the counter was fiftyish and a stout 5'5". When I asked if she though people in Utica were isolated, she said, "Yes, I really do." She had a big friendly pale face with freckles, brown hair, and kind brown eyes. A gold cross with inset diamonds dangled on her white T-shirt beneath a plaid soft short-sleeved shirt. "It never ceases to amaze me that little pleasantries that used to occur twenty-thirty years ago just don't happen. You can say something funny to the person in front of you or behind you, and they won't answer back. It's like everyone is just scared of their own shadow. It isn't because of 9/11. This happened earlier than that. I think that it's the tremendous media coverage making the smallest things and the most random and infrequent things appear like everyday occurrences. People perceive threats around them that just aren't there."

"Every once in a while," she continued, "you'll be in a grocery store or somewhere, you know you'll see a little kid struggling with something; you'll just give 'em a hint how to do it. And I was here tellin' a little girl, next to her mother. And when they're walking away, the little girl said, 'Do you know that lady?' and she said 'no.' And she said, 'Then why was she helping me?' And she said, 'She was just a nice lady.' But, you know, even the kid noticed the difference.

"I help out people who come through here," she continued. "There was a gentleman who told me he had come to town to visit his long-lost daughter, and he came in here and he got a cab to the address, and then was back in an hour. And I said, 'Didn't it go well?' And he said, 'I got there; it was an empty lot.' And I said, 'Stay right there,' called the police department, had them work backwards and found her, and she was one number off across the street. And he went back and had Christmas with her. You never know when someone's gonna need something.

"One time I gave somebody a ticket. Someone came in had a ticket to New York on a voucher, then got a ride; his girlfriend came and picked him up. So I had the voucher. And there was this woman in the lobby, and I asked if she needed help because I just had a funny feeling. And she said, 'Oh, I just have to get to New York, and I don't have enough for a ticket.' And I said, 'I guess you're the lucky one. Here, use this ticket. And if the driver asks if you're just being released from jail, just tell him yes! Because that's what the ticket is for, and you have to pretend you just got released.' So she went down to New York, and two years later her daughter was up here and came to thank me and explain. That was her mother, and she had lost her medicine, was stuck in Utica, and was starting to have problems because she didn't have her medicine. And had lost her money. And she said, 'You saved my mother's life because you gave her a ticket that day.' So you just don't know how far-reaching some of the things you do really are until the people come back and tell you about them. It's like It's a Wonderful Life."

"Corporate America," she cautioned, "is out to get everybody. I started a bus ticket company from nothing. I had a two-million-dollar business here I started from nothing. And, on thirty days notice, they took the business that I spent all those years growing and gave it to the drinking buddy of the Greyhound area sales manager. And I'm stuck in a long-term lease. So, I had to make the best of it, so I added lotto, and I'm about to add Internet access in the back, expanding into fancier coffee and things. 'Cause you gotta do something. I own two houses two-thirds paid for. I wouldn't have anywhere to live. So you just gotta keep doing what you have to do. And I don't lose my outlook. I don't know why everyone else does," she laughed, "I'm the one who has the reason to.

"People are struggling. They're not banding together yet, but we gotta. My husband and his brother are making a big attempt. They're starting a club, Internet-wide, that we're gonna push for an amendment to change income tax. So that the people who have the money are paying it. Instead of hiring lawyers and accountants to not pay it. But I'm only here because I wanna be, you know, I could be elsewhere."

"Did you grow up in Utica?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I grew up in Long Island. I went to Clarkson on full scholarship. I was one of the ten smartest girls in the country in 1965. So I had every expense plus spending money if I'd go to Clarkson over MIT and Duke. And Cornell didn't have enough dorms for women then in sciences. Only if I would take Home-Ec. So I wouldn't do that. And now I'm thinking about going back and getting my master's and getting back into research. The kids are all grown, and I've lost a quarter of a million dollars in the last three years because I was committed to these huge things."

I said, "Is there anything specific to Utica that would make people here more or less isolated than other Americans?"

"I think around here it's the old, y' know, mafia history," she opined. "And people being afraid of who they might say something to or about. Because there have been people blown up; there've been people hit. There was a man who worked in this lobby who was found beaten to death with a baseball bat. And, you know, when it strikes home like that, it makes people more cautious."

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