the leafy streets of Rochester, NY
Friday, June 30 2023
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, NY
I'd taken the day off of work, so all I had to do after getting up this morning was to take care of some personal things and do some last minute things before Gretchen and I left for our weekend trip to visit friends in Rochester, the biggish city in northwestern New York (which neither Gretchen nor I had ever been to before). Among the things I did was to transplant some pot seedlings into bigger pots; these were from some viable seeds given to me recently by my high school friend Eric when I was back in Staunton, Virginia.
At the last minute we'd learned that Nancy and Ray couldn't dogsit for us, so Gretchen hired her friend Lisa P's daughter Clara to come dogsit overnight. She arrived this morning in a vehicle that was nearly identical to our dark grey Subaru Forester. (Lisa P and her husband also own a black Chevy Bolt, meaning the only difference between their fleet and ours is that I've added some custom roof rack cross-bars to our Subaru.) After Gretchen gave Clara the rundown, we set out in our Bolt, heading northward up the Thruway as if we were driving to the cabin. We'd considerered taking an alternative route using Route 145 instead of most of I-87, but I'd looked at the cellphone coverage map and seen there were broad deadzones for the AT&T network, and during the drive Gretchen needed to be attending a remote prison volunteer re-orientation on her phone as a requirement for continuing to teach in the prison system. Because of that orientation, we were unable to stop at Pearl's Bagels in Albany, as we'd initially hoped to do. We just kept driving west, past the Amsterdam and Fultonville exits. We hadn't been west of these on the Thruway in eight years.
Beyond those exits, the landscape of the Mohawk Valley becomes surprisingly beautiful, particularly near Randall, where the Mohawk cuts into a plateau, forming what appear to be low (but steep) mountains on either side.
Gretchen's call ended at around the time we got off the Thruway at the Herkimer exit. There was an Electrify America charger there near a Denny's restaurant and a Red Roof Inn at a convenient place along our route. As is normal at an Electrify America charger, the first cable I tried didn't seem to work at all. So then I parked all weird and tried another, assuming it would fail as well. But this one worked, so I had to leave the car parked cattywampus while we waited for it to charge. Unlike at all the other Electrify America stations I've visited, there was absolutely nothing to do at this one. I suppose we could've had a meal at the Denny's, but I don't think there's much for a vegan in that franchise (which also has a reputation for being racist). [Though it turns out that I'm wrong.] So instead we walked down a road ("Marginal Road") along a thinly-developed commercial strip stretched out between the railroad track and the Thruway. There was exactly one residence in this area (43.01901N, 74.98575W), which struck Gretchen as incredibly weird. Usually zoning prevents such things. Then I happened to look down at our charge status on my phone and I saw that it was stuck at 38% and hadn't received an update in 15 minutes. If our car wasn't charging, that was a problem, so we hurried back to check on it. It turned out it was charging just fine, but there had been a glitch in the updating of the app on my phone. That's another thing to be expected with the ever-glitchy Electrify America charging network. Meanwhile someone else had shown up and done his best to park in the cramped space I'd left next to our poorly-parked Bolt, a space where the charger didn't even work. Gretchen apologized, but he didn't seem the least bit irritated. More irritating, surely, was the fact that he had to wait, since there only four usable chargers at Herkimer. Gretchen and I went off to explore some more of the local area, which was even grimmer than expected. There was a tiny Budget Inn (a one-stay hotel; 43.01825N, 74.9926W) with only about a dozen rentable room, none of which have back or side windows, just front windows looking out into a Tractor Supply parking lot.
Things were getting weird and depressing as we were heading into Western New York, a feeling intensified by the apocalyptic haze of Canadian wildfire smoke, which had returned after weeks of darkening other people's skies.
Our next stop was at a slow (level 2) ChargePoint charger in Syracuse, one we'd picked because of its proximity to Strong Hearts Café, a legendary anarchist vegan comfort-food joint that had been a highlight of earlier trips to Western New York. We'd last visited Strong Hearts back in 2015, and, before that, in 2010, back in the grim early years of veganism, when their food really stood heads and shoulders above widespread mediocrity in the vegan world. It had moved to a bigger space in the first floor of a newer building. The food was all just as good as we'd remembered it. I had some sort of buffalo bleu "chicken" sandwich with macaroni salad and a cup of too-strong (for my heart, at least) coffee. The place was busy given that it was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday.
To give our car more time to charge, Gretchen wanted to check out a community Folk Art Center. When we arrived, we had to be buzzed in, and initially the very round man who greeted us told us that it was closed. But when we continued to express interest, I suppose that made him feel validated, and he ended up giving us a comprehensive tour of the place, which included a theatre, a pottery studio, a children's art studio, and a performance space, all of it funded (to some extent) by the Univerity of Syracuse, but targeted mainly at disadvantaged communities.
Back out on Genesee Street, I said that it reminded me of the old place that Strong Hearts used to be. And then we just happened to find the very place it had been. Some other café is using the space now, and it was closed when we arrived. But there it was, with the old squeaky wooden floors I'd remembered after eight years.
As for the rest of what we could see of Syracuse, we both found it to be an ugly, somewhat poorly-arranged city. Part of what gave it the appearance of a grim city from Eastern Europe circa 1978 was the Canadian wildfire smoke shrouding everything more than a quarter mile in the distance. But the buildings also seemed chaotically unrelated in their architecture and purpose, reminding us more of the disorganized city planning we've often noticed in New Jersey. In New York, we're used to cities having greater consistency (even if it is punctuated periodically with injections of wildly-inappropriate urban renewal).
We found our way back to our car, and found that it now had enough of charge to easily make it to Rochester, which was only about an hour's drive away.
When we arrived in Rochester, it too was shrouded in smoke. But it was a much more beautiful city, with old high-density neighborhoods of small Victorian houses set among enormous trees that had managed to survive all the various blights that have swept through from east-coast harbors (this is largely due to the fact that most of its trees are acacias, sycamores, and norway maples, species for which there have yet to be blights). The first place we went to was Mariann's house on especially-leafy Mulberry Street. She greeted us out in the front yard and showed us to the room we'd be staying in for the weekend on the second floor of a house whose arrangement is very similar to our Brewster Street rental's. Mariann had bought it from a gay gentleman, a fact that was obvious from the fixtures in the bathroom and the fact that one of the second floor bedrooms had been made into a huge closet for clothes. (Neither Gretchen nor I could imagine having enough clothes for such a space, but Mariann was using it in the manner intended.)
After I'd taken a shower (Gretchen told me my armpits were stinking, something they do sometimes since I haven't used deodorant more than a handful of times in the last thirty five years), we drove with Mariann over to Jasmin & Moore's house about a mile away on another leafy street, this one near the graveyard where Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were buried. Jasmin gave us a quick tour of the house. They'd done a lot of work on it in the short time they'd lived there, adding solar panels to the roof and a geothermal heating system buried under the yard. They drive an electric car, a Kia EV6, so they have a level-2 charger at the back end of their driveway. They'd told us we could use it to charge, so that was what our car would spend the night doing. Meanwhile, the five of us were off to dinner in the EV6, which, with all its its cameras and features, seemed like something from about ten years in the future. Gretchen and I perked up when we learned the EV6 is all-wheel drive, since we'd like to replace our gas-guzzling Subaru Forester with something that can get us around in the snow. But the EV6 is an expensive car; their model cost $60,000. They said they lease it for $700/month, something we would never do. "Leasing is the most expensive way to own a car," I mused, playing a sample of some wisdom put in my head by Dave Ramsey.
As we were sitting around for not all that long in Moore & Jasmin's living room, a very friendly short-haired black cat was demanding attention from me. As I pet the cat, lots of black fur was coming loose, so I rolled it all into a perfect little sphere of black felt, which I told Moore and Jasmin that they should add to over time. This would have many benefits: cats like help with removing their loose fur, loose fur removed from the cat doesn't end up where it's not wanted in the house, and a sphere of black cat fur is a fun conversation starter, as I myself have discovered.
All five of us are vegans (Gretchen met the others via the New York City vegan world), so the plan tonight was to get pizza at Sasquatcho's, an all-vegan pizzeria. But as we prepared to order, the woman at the Sasquatcho's counter told us they were "out of pizza," evidently because of a Friday evening rush. They could still make subs and such, but we decided to go get Ethiopian instead.
Rochester evidently has a vibrant Ethiopian community, and there are several Ethiopian restaurants. The one we ended up at was called Addis Ababa, and we ordered a communal vegetarian plate for five. I'm not as fussy about Ethiopian food as Gretchen is, but even I found the food at Addis Ababa less than ideal. The yellow lentils, for example, desperately needed salt. And the injera was extra rubbery and not very sour. Gretchen later told me that she'd considered the food to be horrible.
After Moore and Jasmin dropped us off at Mariann's house, Gretchen and Mariann stayed up late watching a reportedly hilarious murder mystery program set in Tasmania called Deadloch. Meanwhile, I was up in the bedroom noodling around on my work-issued laptop.
Smoky haze shrouds the distance viewed from somewhere along I-90 west of Syracuse in or near the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge (at the north end of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes).
The leafy street near Mariann's house. Click to enlarge.
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