Category Archives: Fairmount

Saturday, April 18: Emergence

My personal pandemic program has always been to try to stay a week ahead (or at least a day ahead, in the case of Hallinan’s Liquors) of the curve. I never seem to quite hit that goal, as events move fast, but earlier this week I realized that it was time to start taking more risks and just getting out and doing some more normal tasks. It was time to venture out to Wegman’s once again… if only to see what it’s become. I don’t feel right about relying on delivery services, either, so this is going to have to be part of the program.

A Twitter friend of mine commented that his recent trip to my secondary Wegmans was like “the cantina scene from Star Wars” what with all the variety of homemade masks being used, and I found this pretty hilarious, and made me think my primary Wegmans might not be too much a bummer. I wish I could say that was my experience today, but it wasn’t.

It was a bummer.

Some people enjoy grocery shopping as a social thing, but that’s not me. However, Wegmans really was and hopefully still will be a pleasant place to shop. It is the wonderful people who work there who have always made it that way. (On the extremely rare instances you are served by someone who is in a bad mood or is making mistakes, one’s first impulse is to call the store and ask, “Is there something wrong with [name of cashier]? Is he doing okay?”)

Today, I sinned against the Snow God and went out quite early to do some major shopping. I planned ahead, bringing a fresh surgical mask from my dwindling box (as I don’t have a comfortable cloth mask yet that doesn’t look it was taken off a dead Tusken Raider), wearing boots that I would take off in the entryway, and reminding myself I’d need to take my coat off too before coming inside. Hand sanitizer in the car? Check. And I was off to drive to the store, trying to avoid a whole generation of streetwalking robins whose babies this spring will grow up not knowing what a car is.

I was expecting to find a line of socially distanced people waiting to be admitted into the store, but it was probably too early. The only sign something was different was a big “ENTER HERE” on one side, and a sign reassuring customers that carts had already been sanitized. Other than that and stickers placed on the floor advising everyone to stay a cart apart for safety, there was… nothing inside the store designed to control traffic flow. Wegmans is not interested in one-way aisles. Fortunately, 90% of the people inside were doing a good job of staying apart.

What’s hard to get used to, what truly seems un-Wegmanslike and surreal, is the silence. No one talks. There is no chatting. People hardly look at each other (too busy being avoidant). Most people are moving around purposefully with seriousness. Wegmans is no longer a place where you want to linger.

Our officials and experts, as recently as last week, were still soothsaying about the supply chain (“Plenty of food! Nothing to worry about!”) We now know that’s bullshit because we’ve learned about how presumptuous our supply chain really was about mankind’s dominion over the earth. You wonder what else they don’t have a handle on.

Apparently boneless chicken thighs are an extremely popular item, because when you walk into my Wegmans, the first thing that greets you is a single portable freezer where reduced-for-sale meat is on display, and they are selling individually wrapped chicken thighs for $1 each. This is apparently being done to preserve the illusion that there are ample boneless chicken thighs for all, or to make sure everyone gets at least one. But why are boneless chicken thighs so scarce? By the time you get back to the real meat area of the store, and see there’s almost nothing but bulk packs of chicken, and that there is an unusually large amount of bone-in chicken thighs, you get it: There aren’t enough workers to take out the bones at the processing facilities, or else maybe Wegmans lost the sourcing battle to Kroger’s.

There are also now packs of chicken with generic wrapping, labeled “Born/Hatched, Raised, and. Slaughtered/Harvested in the U.S.” I think this phrase must have been on all chicken in the past, but the labels were better designed to keep that in the background. If we’re going to still eat chicken, I guess we consumers now have no excuse not to know where it comes from.

Other than the toilet paper and hand sanitizer that may never actually return, my Wegmans seemed reasonably well-stocked. Workers had masks and Plexiglas shields. (Most of the customer’s masks seemed to be bland paper surgical masks, like mine.) My cashier seemed cheerful, though she lowered her mask to talk to the cashier in the next aisle… in the way that teenagers do when they know they aren’t probably aren’t going to die from this thing.

I was in and out of there pretty quick, and had found everything I needed. Back at the car, a moment to carefully take off my mask and store in a plastic bag for disposal at home, and to sanitize my hands, and I was out of there. It felt more like a spacewalk than I had imagined, though, and I would never feel like doing this sort of thing once a week. I hope Wegmans can work it out and I hope they can adapt to the new normal (and more convenient days are ahead, I’m sure).

In normal times, when I’m in Wegmans parking lot, hoping I can get out of the traffic and get home quickly, I indulge in imagining the past, when Wegmans was one of George Geddes’ elaborately drained farm fields.

After my many years of studying Fairmount’s history, growing to understand its cycles of transformation over 225 years and more, I began to feel I could apprehend the faint shape of its future, of a way of life that would one day be going on here, probably within 30 years. That’s a topic for another day’s long post. But I will say that this future seems both very different (and somewhat disturbing) and logical. Current trends and past patterns both pointed toward this future; but I still couldn’t understand what could possibly happen to create conditions for these changes even within three decades. (Another world war, fought far away, didn’t seem like quite enough to do it.)

What kind of discontinuity, what dislocation, would dislodge this current way of life in Fairmount and create room for this future to happen? I wonder no more.


In recent weeks, has published a lot of astonishing stories about the forgotten Spanish Flu pandemic. We have forgotten that even smaller epidemics were once much part of the backdrop of New York life. And because it seems there is a Fairmount story for absolutely everything, let’s go back to yesteryear (1837 or thereabouts) for a slice of life from a long-forgotten cholera epidemic that plagued Central New York.

Some background: The writer of this account was a traveling preacher who was reminiscing about this incident much later, in the 1870’s. At the time of this story, Fairmount was the rural seat of the Geddes family, with their cousins, the Jeromes, living just down the road. (James Geddes, the Erie Canal engineer, was probably still living at this time.)

George Geddes, who had assumed control of the family farm some years earlier, was never a big Bible-quoter in his many agricultural writings over the decades. But he actually wrote quite forcefully from a Christian position when addressing church governance and slavery before the Civil War. Perhaps this incident explains the origins of that passion. In any case, it’s a story of how things can happen fast. (Not sure whether to feel inspired, or — looking at it from poor Theodore’s point of view — amused. A little of both?)

I had preached in the morning at Camillus, a few miles west from Brother Jerome’s. I had for one of my hearers Mr. Geo. Geddes, who was a decided sceptic. By invitation I dined that day at Brother Woodward’s, whose premises were separated from Brother Jerome’s only by the dooryard fence. While we were at dinner, an irreligious son, Theodore, rushed into the room unceremoniously and, addressing me, said, “Father wants you to come over to our house as soon as possible.” Inferring from his great haste and expression of his countenance that someone of the family was seized with an attack of cholera, we immediately dropped knife and fork and ran over.

On entering the house we found George Geddes on his knees surrounded by a group of friends. Mr. G had learned, doubtless, that I was a former sceptic, and the all-absorbing question with him seemed to be whether God could or would extend mercy to an infidel. When I instanced my own case, his doubts shortly dissolved into a sweet consciousness of God’s willingness to save. Faith triumphed and there was a time of sweet and heavenly rejoicing.

We returned to finish our dinner. But before we were through with the meal, in came Theodore, saying, “There is another case; Father wants you to come over as soon as you can.” There we found Dr. Jerome, a nephew, penitent, pleading for mercy. Touched by the story of his cousin, Geo. Geddes, he was not long in forming the purpose to become a Christian. We all united in prayer; the struggle was “short, sharp and decisive.” Again, we sang the doxology and we retired to finish the “desert.”

Now we supposed, of course, that we should have no more special case, but we were mistaken. Theodore was on hand again and informed us that Mrs. Geddes was very much distressed in her mind and wanted us to pray for her. O the mystery of Divine love. She saw the change wrought in her husband, and immediately sought for herself the great salvation. That Sabbath evening she was converted. That same evening, the servants, a man and a woman, were converted. The whole household converted! What a happy family!

(This story appeared in the (Auburn) Northern Christian Advocate of October 17, 1878.)

History as voodoo

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation has started a potentially interesting new project examining some of the historical markers in Central New York. They have a Google map of markers started, and a list of good questions to ask about any markers you might encounter.

The study of history is supposed to enlarge one’s consciousness of reality, linking the past (and future) with the present. With the acquisition of more solid local knowledge, the mind’s eye can glance from 1981 to 1846 to 2072 in an instant. But in practice, creating historical memorials seems to often be more about limiting and controlling thoughts about this historical “space” we all live in.

Last week I was once again over by Cayuga Lake. Although the sour tang of the historical air there isn’t new to me, I got a fresh whiff of it when I started to notice how numerous and how well-kept the historical markers are over there. Especially as you get down near Aurora, there seems to be one on every other corner. I’ve never seen any other part of the state (except maybe in the Capital district) where they are so lovingly repainted and mowed around. People in Cayuga County want you to see their markers.

The other thing you notice is that not only are the “No Sovereign Nation – No Reservation” lawn signs as ubiquitous as ever, but they’re shiny and new. Even the well-to-do lakeside summer camp owners have them, something that always strikes me as particularly weird. The Cayugas are the only New York native nation who don’t have a reservation of their own, and they’re hardly rolling in serious dough (not like the Oneidas with Turning Stone), but I’ve always felt the palpable difference in the air when you’re in Cayuga country vs. Oneida country in terms of how disturbed the citizenry is about tax-free cigarettes and native land purchases.

The historical markers, I’m convinced, are there for the conservation of the present, not of the past. I call them “voodoo markers.” With protective magic, they glorify European and white American achievements, and help dispel the smoky miasma of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign which hit Cayuga country especially hard. (My favorite one is the marker on Route 90 that says “INDIAN MOUNDS” but then goes on only to speak of the Jesuits.) The campaign was both a tactical military expedition and a deliberate land grab — and “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” The land is still being fought over in some vague, half-forgotten way. Therefore, the markers have to be kept legible and numerous.

But honestly I can’t be too critical of Cayuga residents, because these markers can be pretty convenient after all. For example, Fairmount doesn’t have very many old buildings left. The oldest building, the former Whelan’s Funeral Home at Fairmount Corners, was once only narrowly saved from demolition (for a gas station) in the late ’60s. (It’s up for sale again.) The property sports an older historical marker which implies that the building was the home of James Geddes. This is probably incorrect, as his house was actually across the street.

So why don’t I care a whole lot? Because in a world where old buildings get knocked down, even a misleading historical marker grants a certain enhanced value to a property. It becomes its own sort of “voodoo marker,” offering a magical, deceptive protection. And it’s a deception that I’m inclined to give tacit approval of. I suppose the same magical protections can be extended by other kinds of historical markers, such as books about historical subjects. I guess we’re all a little guilty.

History for sale

Recently I noticed that the “Brockway Tavern house” (aka the funeral home at Fairmount Corners, aka the former Walter White’s) has been put up for sale. Hopefully, even in this bad economic climate, it will find a buyer willing to keep up the property and maybe even turn it back into, uh, a livelier business. It’s the oldest building in Fairmount (date of construction given variously as 1808 and 1820), saved from destruction in the late 1960s. This is the original location of the Green Gate Inn, an establishment that is synonymous with Camillus village but actually got its start in Fairmount. (It is sometimes mistaken for James Geddes’ house, due to an unfortunately placed historical marker.)

Here’s a photo of it when it was Tobin’s Restaurant, its pre-Walter White incarnation.

And here it is today.

Dirt Day 2010

I have just gotten around to reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which is probably part of any self-respecting “doomer”‘s library, along with other books I’ve found worthwhile, such as Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov or the seminal classic The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. Except, I’m not a doomer (and I hate that term anyway). I’m just someone interested in thinking about our times in different ways.

There doesn’t seem to be any cause for feelings of doom when you read the paper today and see that CNY’ers (the real CNY’ers) are genuinely green in their outlook and behavior. The sample for this survey is small and perhaps too much is being made of it, but it’s heartening to see CNYers understanding that “greenwashing” (cloaking corporate interests in green costume) can be a big problem too. This question makes me take the survey a little more seriously. But mainly what I see in this survey is that the less affluent a place is, the more serious-minded they may be about changing the way they live and giving back to the earth. Perhaps this is similar to the way poorer people tend to be the most generous in giving to charity.

Then again, we’re still not thinking entirely clearly. There are some “No to Wastebed 13” signs on my street now. This is because some of my former neighbors now live in Golden Meadows, the subdivision that was built near the old wastebed where Honeywell and the state propose to store Onondaga Lake sediments. I’m still trying to find out why I knew about Wastebed 13 before homeowners there apparently did. I’m not exactly an environmental activist, and I knew. I read the paper, and was following along with the lake cleanup mainly because of my concern/interest in the Onondaga LRA. I feel badly for the Golden Meadows homeowners, particularly my former neighbors, and wonder how the Onondaga Nation’s recent vision statement for Onondaga Lake speaks to them. (Are we speaking to one another?)

The anti-wastebed signs are bright yellow; you can’t miss them. Coming home from work, I noticed a little yellow flag fluttering in the grass in the yard next door to one of the signs. Someone had their lawn freshly pesticided for spring. Toxic waste is not okay for landfills and lakes, but still okay for lawns, I guess. That’s the right sort of poison for our homes and children! Until we get over this willful blindness, we’re going to keep running into dilemmas like Wastebed 13.

But back to the dirt. I thought I would be more interested by The World Without Us for its description of how suburban homes and mighty cities decay, but I actually found myself fascinated by the chapter on dirt and what sticks around in it. The story of the long-term soil experiments at an English research farm reminded me a lot of agricultural writings by and about George Geddes and Fairmount in the 19th century. I was not so interested in this stuff when I was doing the start of my Fairmount research, but now as I’m trying to ease into learning gardening, I am. What’s in my dirt?

Aspiring gardeners in Fairmount don’t know how good they have it: the provenance of their dirt is surprisingly well documented, thanks to old George. While I’m fairly sure that the land my house sits on was either not actually Geddes family land, or was not actually farmed (too many large stones present – although it could have been grazing land for his sheep), I’m confident that it probably wasn’t greatly disturbed in the early years of the 20th century either. It probably wasn’t sprayed with fertilizer. The biggest mystery therefore is how the homebuilders messed with it in the mid-1950s. My mother believes, from her childhood memories, that the homebuilders did not truck in much new dirt. I can also quiz her what the original homeowners (my grandparents) put on it in the way of pesticides and lawn fertilizer back in the beginning.

It would be nice to get soil samples tested – not, as one usually might do, to determine the best spot for gardening, but to try and find a spot that might be the least transformed from the time before the house was built. This would be in the back yard, away from the road and the house. I also want to sample the soil in the front yard (which I expect will be more contaminated) and a sample from my sister’s house in the city. I have a feeling that doing the sort of testing I’m interested in would be very expensive, though, so I’ll have to find out if it’s really feasible to do.