Not the Thruway
Leave behind the goals and the timelines and expectations of productivity when you take to the road. Unless that road is the Thruway.
The New York State Thruway, officially named for Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a man who was for a brief moment in 1948 known as the next President of the United States, is just shy of 500 miles long. Most of its length, from just north of the New York City line to the Pennsylvania border, sixty miles from where I sit, was built in the 1950’s. It was renamed for the former Governor who had actually opposed funding it with state funds and instead instituted the tolls that drivers now pay. (Dewey was still alive when the legislature voted to name the Thruway after him in 1964, violating one of my few non-fungible political beliefs, that politicians who want stuff named after themselves should first be in their graves). Since I was only 9 at the time of the rebranding, I was not consulted.
But I digress. Got a lot of sun today. I think I left my sunscreen in Sean Kirst’s apartment.
Sean is one of those rare people who qualifies as both a legend and a really good person. He was our neighbor in Syracuse, attended the same church as we did, coached Little League, and volunteers to clear trash from city streets (one of his obsessions). I think he even sponsored my younger son at confirmation.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
When I came out of Wegman’s in Canandaigua, I set up at an intersection that offered two possibilities. I was on the edge of Rt. 20 West just in front of a ramp that led to Rt. 414 headed north toward the Thruway. I decided that I would take a ride on 20 for any distance, or a ride to the Thruway if the driver was going west.
It wasn’t long before I heard a voice calling and turned to see a tall young man in a Panama hat running toward me and waving. Rogo had pulled his minivan to the side of 414 and hopped out to get me. I grabbed the pack and scrambled towards him. He had a couple of work stops to make, but said he could take me to Thruway for a ride west, as long as I didn’t mind waiting. Rogo sells a product that offers paint protection to car dealerships, and he spends much of his time at home caring for his two little ones. Having been a stay-at-home Dad for five years myself, we had lots to talk about.
Raised near Rochester, Rogo shipped west to Colorado where he met his wife, attended massage school, built two businesses, watched them go belly up, and moved back to the Rochester area, a place where he had some ties and knew that real estate was affordable. The house he lives in now would sell for $600,000 in Boulder, he estimates. They paid less than one tenth of that.
When Rogo offered to take me all the way to Rochester, I sent a text to Sean. Rogo dropped me at the bus station, and fifteen minutes later I was on the Thruway in a Greyhound bound for Buffalo. Sean was waiting at the station.
We had dinner at a sweet neighborhood Mexican restaurant, Don Tequila’s , our carne asada and fajitas served by a waiter from Bolivia.
After dinner, Sean took me to his workplace. Stepping into the newsroom at The Buffalo News was like stepping back to – well, 1978. There was an acre of desks, most of them buried under stacks of papers and adorned with grade-school kid crayon art work.
I love newspapers. Not news organizations, not digital information operations. Newspapers with print that gets on your fingers and paper that you can hear and fold, pages that contain stuff you weren’t looking for but you find entertaining or fascinating. Forty years ago, we crossed the US and I read at least 40 different papers. If we stopped in three towns in a day, I read three newspapers, more if a town had two papers (many did).
Last night I was stuck for a bit at a gas station. They had the Syracuse paper which I had already read online. The last time I passed through Syracuse on a cross-country trip there were two daily papers, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. The afternoon paper died in 2001. All we have left is a slimmed down, thrice weekly version of the morning paper, The Post Standard. Though I respect many people who work there, three years ago I made the painful decision that it was not worth the walk to the mailbox. I canceled my subscription.
The other paper on the rack was the Auburn Citizen, which carried a story on the renovation of the Carrier Dome on its front page. I went to buy it and the man asked for two dollars. I thought there was a mistake, but that was in fact the price. I couldn’t bring myself to fork over two bucks for a skimpy newspaper, so, sorry, Auburn Citizen, I guess I’m part of the problem. No one has yet found a way to continue to fund and afford quality daily news reporting, and what we now call news, a combination of twitter feeds and talking heads breaking news on cable, just doesn’t compare.
Think about this – in the 1980’s four national TV networks, two wire services, a half dozen radio networks, and newspapers from at least seven major US cities (among them Baltimore and Dallas) had correspondents based in Managua, Nicaragua. Managua! Granted that Managua was a capital at the center of the Cold War drama, but it was not the only city whose pulse was being taken every day by a clot of reporters from US papers.
Today there is no equivalent deployment of journalistic person power bringing us the news we need to feed our public debates. Parachuting television personalities stand in front of breaking news banners and read reports based on what their producers have been able to scrape up in the course of a few days, if we’re lucky. That pattern of shrinkage has become the norm almost everywhere.
As newspapers wither and die two things are lost – depth and periodicity. Depth speaks for itself. News outlets racing to break news don’t get to ask the harder questions, don’t get to probe an issue in depth, much less cultivate the sources that feed insight to a reporter. That brings us to periodicity. They are related. In daily print journalism, there are deadlines and a regular schedule at which news gets reported. It is understood that events have to rise to a certain level of importance to make the paper, and as their importance rises, they inch closer to the front page.
Everyone at a daily paper had to rush to get things done by deadline. But at the same time, they had a full day to finish a story. There was always a madness to the creation of the famous “first draft of history,” but it wasn’t a minute-to-minute pressure cooker that prized getting the word out first (that was job left to radio).
It was a race to see who, by the light of dawn, had the most accurate and best written version of events.
That is what we have lost as newspapers from coast to coast have crashed and burned.
One refugee from the shrinking Syracuse print journalism community is the man who picked me up in Buffalo, a writer who would have won MVP for a dozen years running if Upstate New York journalism had such a prize. Sean Kirst is a great friend, a great human being, and among that special breed of writer who combines style and soul with dogged reporting.
Sean is from Dunkirk, NY, but he loves Syracuse more than any transplant I know. He’s such a great storyteller that he even made my younger son Robert enjoy Sunday School. Sean Kirst is hands down the best columnist ever to come out of Syracuse, and I say that as a former columnist for a newspaper in Syracuse.
Treat yourself to a taste of his work, which he anthologized in this beautiful book,
Sean migrated a few years back to the Buffalo News, and invited me to come to work with him (this must be “bring a hitchhiker to work day.”) We walked through a garage, past loading docks and into the building past the cavernous rooms where the giant presses run, and were transported to a place frozen in time, a football field sized newsroom that is, with the exception of its computers, essentially unchanged since the day in July 1978 that Joe and I hitched past this city in July of 1978.
Even the phones are relics. But the product, for this hitch hiker, can’t be beat.
Micere Githae Mugo
What a read! And, what invaluable information/history contextualizing the places you are passing through. I knew you were a journalist and creative writer, but I did not know you were a historian and cultural recorder as well.
You seem to have met beauty-full people on the road already and I give thanks for this glimpse of humanity in action, living as we are in the 21st century semi-desert of humanness. I only have one question: when did you find the time to write such a beautiful piece?
Journey well, my friend!