Saturday began with a household project- breaking up the major pieces of brickwork still in place from last month's demolition festival on our old, ugly and dangerous front planter. Eleanor was concerned that it was going to take many weeks just to get this part of the job done- but between chisels, a power drill and mutual grit, more than a third was gone from the front yard within a few hours:
That whole thing? Ya, busted up and wheelbarrowed to the back. We were both sore from the efforts, but it was time for my repast to begin; the real soreness didn't set in for me until I woke up this morning.
Usually my trips to the 607 involve detours- leaving from Rochester, or seeing the kids in Palmyra- but this was a straight shot to Ithaca to meet friends for a last lunch at its longtime downtown deli palace, so I wasn't in anything of a rush. Something tempted me to break from my usual route- NY 89 right along Cayuga's west shore- to take the Thruway-recommended higher ground along Route 96 through Waterloo, Interlaken and Trumansburg. Each brought back memories and, the last two, new photos.
It was four Memorial Day weekends ago that I spent a dedicated amount of time in Waterloo, the Congressionally designated Home of the Holiday. They still mostly ignore the Monday holiday, preferring whatever day the 30th falls on, but the museum is open and you can get acquainted with the sentiments of the sesquicentenary ago. (This post from 2015 has the 2013 pics.) So this time I didn't even stop, continuing south on 96 through the actual "downtowns" of towns I knew the names of better from the lakeshore route: Romulus, Varick and Ovid (19th century homesteaders were big on their Roman history), and finally the town of Covert and its village of Interlaken- so named because it lies between Seneca and Cayuga.
I cleared the village, close to an hour ahead of my designated meeting with baseball friends, and decided to double back to find a grave I knew needed to be found. Interlaken, I knew, was the final resting place of Twilight Zone creator, host and regular writer Rod Serling. He'd worked his Finger Lakes connection into the "Midnight Sun" episode that he wrote, where the main character painted a picture of the nearby Taughannock Falls, to help her keep cool in a world which turned out, in the final reel, to need way more global warming. Siri told me where to find the cemetery; findagrave dot com gave further clues once there.
And after some investigation there he was:
A close-up of the bottom of the stone, showing the reference someone left to the beloved Burgess Meredith episode:
Other visitors were there for more ordinary family members and veterans, and the cheat sheet in the front building did not present Mr. Serling for your approval, but nobody minded that I shared a few moments of silence and respect for a soldier, a writer, and a great American. Within miles of his resting place were at least one Confederate flag, a REPEAL THE SAFE ACT sign and a gun and ammo shop- but I was heading further south to where such things would be overcome:
I was heading to the People's Republic of Ithaca.
Trumansburg was first. Just over the line into Ithaca's Tompkins County, it has its redneck presences, but also the first hints that you are about to be among your own people. The oldest and most significant of these stops is this performance venue, which goes back to my college days:
Alas, as of late last year, the Rongo wasno longer issuing passports or accepting refugees:
For years the Rongovian Embassy has been the living room of Trumansburg. Its name alone has drawn many locals and visitors to the village since it first opened in 1973. Current manager Robert Thomas is one of many who grew up spending time at the Rongo in those early days.
"The place would be packed night after night and so they would only have live music on maybe Tuesday's and Wednesday's not on Friday and Saturday because the bar was packed with people anyways," Thomas said.
That was when the Rongo was just a bar and the drinking age 18. Once it was raised to 21 a neighboring building was purchased and it expanded making way for a restaurant most known for its Mexican food.
Thomas says operating as a bar and restaurant worked for then owners Mary and Eric Ott. They sold the Rongo in 2002. Since then it has struggled to stay afloat. Thomas and a management team of other community members came together in 2014 with the hope of helping its legacy continue.
"Business was great for the first six months or so, but it didn't have the staying power to attract sufficient clientele day in and day out," Thomas said.
With the last live music performance taking place this Sunday, the hope is that the Rongo will not be closing their doors permanently. After all this will be the 7th closure in its 43 year history.
"We want it here everyone wants it here," said Daniel Scherer, Rongovian Embassy landlord and part owner. "I want it here, believe me, as the building owner more than anyone else I think. I want a viable profitable thriving business here."
One popular but expensive idea is being discussed.
"If this became a brewery, a brewpub you start to bring in more people because of that," said Scherer. "Its a very attractive type of establishment for this region because there's other businesses doing similar things. I think that would get more traffic in the door and it would be another source of revenue."
They've kept the storefront pristine, and a sign in the window invites inquiries about restoring the Embassy to its eighth regeneration. So hope remains in the Town of Ulysses for another iteration of the Iliad.
Moments later, JARVIS placed me a block from the Ithaca Commons, where I awaited the arrival of Rochester friends and one last nosh at the legendary deli that was home to many a college paper dinner break and annual pilgrimages ever since. Word came a few months ago that Hal's kids were hanging it up, and that they'd be closed by the end of May. On arrival, despite what Yelp said, it turned out that The End came a few days sooner:
That sign on the door said CLOSED. No online articles mourned the loss or covered the last orders. The space is FOR RENT, and four hungry people wound up scoring bagelish fare a block north in Hal's honor. Their much more extensive menu of bagels, wraps and paninis was filled with local references- I had an Octopus, not far off from a Hal's Number 8, referencing a longago-reconstructed local intersection of infamy- but the special on the menu was "the Biden," a turkey panini in honor of the former Veep who spoke earlier that day at Cornell's pre-graduation convocation. (Cornell graduations themselves are ruthlessly efficient- in and out in barely an hour, no honorary degrees, speechifying only by the Uni president, degrees conferred by the thousands on schools and colleges.)
On the bright side, a longtime Ithaca Commons bar, put out of business a few years ago when a runaway truck plowed into it, has been restored and was quite busy. Many other businesses I remembered are still going strong. And Scott and his family loved their repast in a comics store next to the bagel joint, where I found this to be the most endearing sight:
We said our temporary goodbyes as I headed to meet my sister for what would prove to be her first-ever baseball game appearance in her now-71 years on the planet. The pictures and recollections from that,...tomorrow.