Lent VII: Binghamton, NY. God forgive us all for what we have made

It was on the radio: Hostage taking and siege in Binghamton, New York.

Then Fr. Joe Parrish, editor of the online bulletin of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, asked for prayers.

Then I saw the Yahoo account. I know those hospitals: Wilson and Lourdes. I was treated in both of them. I walked those streets. I lived in that area for almost seven years.

I am heartsick. I shed tears easily these days but this time they came too easily, from an insider’s knowledge and grief.

This is an edited version of what I sent to the Episcopal Diocesan Forum in response to Fr. Joe’s plea for prayers. He referred to Binghamton as a “college town” and then I could not sit by:

Forgive me for putting in a word, but here I simply must. The idea that Binghamton and environs are part of a college town atmosphere is misleading.

I was enrolled in SUNY-Binghamton’s doctoral program in English for 6+ years.  I left in 1976. The fact this is happening is horrifying but it is not particularly surprising to anyone who’s ever lived in the Binghamton area.

Ithaca was and still is a college town.  Binghamton, however, even in good times was never a college town. It was an industrial and manufacturing area, the bluest of blue collar, and there was no love lost on the university population by the “Bingies.” The locals regarded most of the faculty as leftists (they weren’t wrong here) and there was sometimes a not-so-silent expression of sarcasm and vitriol at the number of Long Island and New York City Jews and African-Americans in attendance. Long before my 1998 conversion, I had anti-Semitism thrown directly at me on two occasions I can recall, and I heard other stories about how the outside “real” community regarded the invaders from Downstate. To cap the hostility, several female students were raped because they took a shortcut to leave campus that led them through some woods to a large mall.

It was not a happy place.

Now, this is when employment was good. The presence of foreign workers was not an issue because there weren’t any. Now? Binghamton’s unemployment is around 9% and climbing. And now immigrants are going there to receive social services? It may not matter whether they are undocumented or legitimate. The resentment level in an area long distrustful or foreigners from places like Valley Stream, the Bronx, and Mexico is scarily high.

Pray indeed. But let’s not forget that this terrible moment, albeit it is inexcusable and potentially tragic, is probably not the product of one nutcase with a gun losing it. The fact the hostage-taker targeted an immigrant aid center sadly says it all.

I did not weep over Virginia Tech even though I knew by sight the family of one of the victims. I was appalled over Columbine in 1999 only because those kids could have been mine. This is different.

I know Binghamton. I know it’s beauties and I know its undercurrent of Just Folks savagery. We moved up from New York City at the end of August 1969, a terrible time in the country’s history. Remember there was a war on? It affected everything.

The new landlady, an 82-year-old DAR member named Mae Mead, couldn’t tell much from “Wolman,” so she asked my wife her maiden name. “Katz,” my wife replied. Or snapped, since she had a good idea what was coming next. Well, you could’ve fired Mae out of a Fredericksburg cannon on that one. “Oh, you’re Jewish! <pause> Some of my best friends are Jews.” And I’m thinking like John Keats: “Was this a vision or a waking dream?… Do I wake or sleep?”

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can, really, but why bother when the truth is insane as it is?

A few nights later we were scanning the newspaper to see where to go to the movies. The handyman, an old guy named Art, was fixing a drain and said “Whyn’cha go to the Vestal Theater, owner’s name is Moskowitz, probably’ll letcha in fer nothin’.”

Do I hit the guy with a pipe wrench or do I laugh it off?  Neither. I remember it for tender moments like this one.

That was the first time in my life I was aware of being Jewish.

I learned later that the Binghamton area–which included Endicott and Johnson City–really was the first notch on the Bible Belt. It was not quite the same as the rest of upstate New York. During the 1930s, poor whites from the destitute and played-out mines and farms of Tennessee and Kentucky journeyed north because there was no Depression in Binghamton. There was the expanding IBM factory that occupied over a square mile of Endicott real estate, Endicott-Johnson Shoes (purveyors for years to the U.S. military), and a raft of feeder industries. Everyone was working, and if you weren’t rich, nobody missed a meal either.

And there was Pat Mitchell’s Ice Cream Parlor, which made ice cream in the back. It was the best I ever ate, and I can still taste the peach.

The demographic brought transplanted attitudes. To quote the novelist E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime, “There were no Negroes.” Jews were there but went unnoticed so long as they were out of sight. And it may be telling that Binghamton in the 1930s became the epicenter for the German-American Bund. Nature did not cooperate either. There were periodic floods when the Susquehanna overflowed its banks. The Army Corps of Engineers fixed that for good after a horrific flood in 1936.

The University–it began as Harpur College, part of the State University of New York system–developed slowly. It granted its first Ph.D. only the year before I enrolled in the English Ph.D. program. It slowly acquired a strong influence and reputation for excellence. It also acquired a reputation for vociferous anti-Vietnam War protests, a school strike, some over-the-top flaunted sexual, drug, and racial behavior. And it incurred the animosity of the locals, aka “Bingies.” For them…and this is where I came in back in 1969…SUNY-Binghamton (undergraduate and graduate) was a State-supported whorehouse full of Kikes, Spics, and Niggers from New York City. The whispering was loud enough so you didn’t need an ear trumpet to hear it.

When I left in 1976, “degree in hand,” the mood hadn’t softened a great deal. You could hide in the respectable middle class, but don’t ever do what I did, i.e., work for three months in the IBM factory, because then you’d see the real marrow of the Binghamton area: resentment, petulance, and racism. That is what I remember: barflies sitting in the workingman’s saloons in the Endicott hills, hating everyone who was not them.

When I saw The Deer Hunter I was one of the few who didn’t think it was exaggerated or surreal. It was totally real. It was men I worked next to in the copper plate factory at IBM. It was guys who carried knives on the job. It was being alone in the plant on the first day of deer season.

Maybe it really was surreal. Maybe surrealism was the reality of the Triple Cities.

The brilliant TriCities Opera, which produced the magnificent Jake Gardner, Richard Taylor, and Richard Leech, helped a bit but didn’t quite make up for the Hebe jokes.

So now someone has shot up an immigrant service center. Is it for illegals? Is it for card-holders? I do not know. As of now, the hospitals have about six victims being treated. Will anyone die? Now AP says there are at least thirteen people dead. I don’t know. I’m not a reporter, I’m just in mourning for a part of my life that I was just beginning to see in balance.

What has happened to us? What is happening to us? Dear God in Heaven, what is going to happen to us as we sink deeper in the toilet of a hatred that goes back for generations?

So much for Yes We Can.  No, most likely we can’t.  Another tragedy winds down with the same words: E tardi!


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