College Town, Day One

There's a light snow drifting down in Ithaca. You are shocked, shocked to discover this, I'm sure.

But I'm sort of reconnecting with a very old, very familiar vibe: that of the college town. The house's wireless is currently inoperable--something I hope we'll fix soon--but that's why I decided to come out and get some breakfast. I'm sitting in a bagel shop--Collegetown Bagels, at the corner of Seneca and Aurora--with a cup of coffee, a bagel, and a wireless connection. Except for the wireless connection and slightly higher quality of the coffee, this could very easily be a morning from, say, 1982. Heck, I walked in and the song on the in-store music was Robert Palmer's "Clues," followed by the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday"; nothing is screaming 2011 yet.

But it's not quite the same as breakfast in Orange. Here there are definitely people preparing for work, but their work doesn't all start at the same time. Some are students going over notes, some are middle-aged folks going over voluminous newspapers. And me? I've got something I almost never get: time and opportunity to watch people.

A spindly young guy in the window seat is eating a tuna melt--at ten a.m.--and underlining his xeroxed class handouts with a pen shaped like a carrot.

I got to my lodgings last night just after sundown. I'm renting a room in the downstairs of a house, and there's a separate apartment upstairs, where two women I haven't met yet are living; all I know is that one of them plays the cello, and she's good. I had dinner with my landlord, a sculptor named Sean whose hobby is cooking, which promises to be a major advantage of the arrangement. Last night was pasta with an improvised red sauce containing prosciutto and some kind of heirloom onion resembling a shalotte. Magnifico.

A father with big black hipster glasses and a soul patch is pushing a baby carriage containing an adorable little girl in a striped purple onesie; sure enough, she's soon crying for mama, and he lays her out on another window seat to change her.

Strolling down State Street to the Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall, I thought about the fact that I spent years walking down sidewalks in Chapel Hill (and for a year in Manchester), but I hardly ever do it now. No matter how much hiking I've done at Woodberry, there's not much in the way of sidewalks; oh, sure, there are brick walkways between the buildings, but it's a very different feeling. On a Woodberry walkway, you know to some degree where everybody's going and why; you're all part of the same narrative, flowing along like blood cells to locations that differ somewhat, but which are all enclosed in the same system. But on the sidewalks of Ithaca, there are dozens of different stories, crossing only momentarily; I passed people on the street this morning that I'd never seen before and may well never see again. I don't know where they're headed or why--and I'm not responsible for knowing that, either.

A burly young south Asian guy (again with big black hipster glasses) sits across the table from a woman and talks about his plans for the future. He has a shaved head and dark skin, and if I hadn't caught his accent I might well have assumed he was African-American. Heck, as I think about it, there's no reason his ancestors couldn't be African, but at the  very least he learned English from someone who learned it in Pakistan or India.

I have now consumed a chocolate-chip muffin, and Buddy Holly is singing "Not Fade Away."

A thirtyish woman walks into the shop and heads straight for the back, with curly hair piled high, a pale pink faux lambskin jacket, bright magenta tights, big Uggish boots and a black miniskirt. She looks kind of like she's wandered over from a live reenactment of Desperately Seeking Susan and needs to run to the bathroom to air-dry her armpits.


Despite my longstanding prejudices about Southern hospitality, everybody at the counter seems to be saying "Thank you," and "Have a nice day."

A bearded sixtyish guy in a white Oxford shirt, black dress pants hitched high, a boldly multicolored necktie and tan shoes and belt is ordering at the counter. From the front he could be any veteran clerical worker at any office in the world. But from behind, you can see that his long grey-blond ponytail extends over his somewhat hunched shoulders to the middle of his back.

The snow lets up, and the sun is now shining off damp asphalt and streetside trees just barely starting to bud.

A tall and big-boned young woman stands at the counter in a a loose pair of grey pants--a little too tailored to be sweat pants. She wears a loose pair of moccasins, and in some circumstances she might look a bit underdressed, but her white windbreaker, trimmed in black, is neat and clean, and her shoulder-length brown hair is sleek and carefully brushed. She seems purposeful climbing back into her silver Saturn with Jersey plates.

Nobody in here seems tired. Or maybe it's just that, for a change, I'M not tired.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 14, 2011 9:54 AM.

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