Authors: Richard Russo
Some have suggested that the owners of the old tannery, having exterminated everything in a living stream and poisoned the people along its banks, should all be behind bars, and they may be right, but it’s worth remembering that this same tannery sustained our lives for more than a century, that the very dyes that had caused the Cayoga to run red every fourth or fifth day also put bread and meat on our tables. When I was a boy, people were afraid only when the stream
change color, because that meant layoffs and hard times would soon follow. Without admitting it, however, everyone was wary of the stream, and those who could afford to built homes away from its banks. When the cancer study was published, it merely reinforced the wisdom of our common practice. The nearer you lived to the Cayoga, the more likely that you’d contract cancer, even the most exotic varieties of which are represented in unnatural abundance.
Can it be that what provides for us is the very thing that poisons us? Who hasn’t considered this terrible possibility?
of the very first fortunes of the New World were made right in our valley, Thomaston is today a poor town. Like Gaul it is divided into three parts, though these are by no means equal. The two largest sectors are located on opposite sides of—if you can believe it—Division Street. The East End, where I spent much of my youth, is lower middle class, whereas the West End is industrial and poor. Thomaston’s few black families reside in a West End neighborhood called the Hill. None of them, according to my research, descend from the slaves who were kept at Whitcombe Hall, though it’s true that Sir Thomas, like so many Tories, was a slaveholder. But the ancestors of our black families moved here from the South and Midwest just before the First World War.
The third section of Thomaston—the Borough—is located in the northeast sector, contiguous to both the East End and Whitcombe Park, and while it’s smaller than the East and West Ends in terms of both geography and population, what little wealth we have is concentrated here. Needless to say, this is where you’ll find Thomaston Country Club and the prettiest of our town parks, the one that houses a band shell for summer concerts, as well as the most desirable elementary school (Thomaston children have never been bused). Borough streets are wide and tree lined, our houses set back from the pavement and our lawns well tended, for the most part by ourselves; our elderly hire their neighbors’ children to mow in the summer, rake in the autumn and shovel during our long upstate winters. Borough sidewalks run flat and true so our children won’t be injured on their bicycles and Rollerblades. As kids growing up, we rode bikes with little regard for safety; in the summer all the boys wore shorts and rode shirtless, sometimes even shoeless, and whenever we went over the handlebars, we bled from our knees, elbows and foreheads. Now, decades later, recalling our injuries, we Borough parents spare our children similar scrapes and bruises by dressing them in high-tech helmets plus neon-colored knee and elbow pads. Nor do we mind if they’re scoffed at by kids from the less affluent West or East End. We have the wherewithal to keep our children safe, so we do.
Borough residents are mostly Protestant and politically conservative, descendants of Tories like Sir Thomas Whitcombe, who settled our valley and built the great Halls. Loyal to King George, if they’d had their way, they would’ve preserved the Adirondacks, if not all of America, as a giant game reserve for aristocratic Englishmen. My wife’s father used to argue that instead of restoring the Hall, as Sir Thomas’s great residence is locally known, to its former splendor, the town fathers should have razed it and erected a discount store in its place. But he was a man of many opinions, most of them outrageous, and in any case the Hall, by then a mere shell, caught fire years ago and burned to its foundations.
Though we in the Borough are outnumbered by the ethnic Catholics and registered Democrats in both the East and West Ends, our town always has a Republican mayor and is considered a write-off by downstate liberals who don’t waste much campaign money in our local television market. As an East End boy, I wondered how a majority could be outvoted by a minority, and my father could offer no explanation except that this was the way it had always been. My mother, on the other hand, knew why. The reason was fingernails. People in the Borough had clean fingernails because they never had to get them dirty, whereas West Enders got them so dirty, day after day, that they never came entirely clean, and eventually they stopped trying; East Enders like us worked hard, too, my mother claimed, but it was our nature to scrub ourselves raw with stiff brushes and coarse soap, to scrub until we bled, so our fingernails were as clean as those that never dirtied them to begin with. It was human nature, she explained. You don’t identify with people worse off than you are. You make your deals, if you can, with those who have more, because you hope one day to have more yourself. Understand that, she claimed, and you understand America, not just Thomaston. When I asked if it would always be that way, she opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again. “How about I ask
that question in about twenty years?” she suggested. I agreed enthusiastically, enjoying the idea that in twenty years I might be smart enough to figure out what she couldn’t, so we set the date and pledged not to forget, but of course we did.
Though we now live in the Borough and have done so for years, I doubt anyone in Thomaston is more democratic and egalitarian than my wife and me. I myself, in a sense, am spread all over town by virtue of owning property in both the West and East Ends, and I’ve been a walker of Thomaston streets all my life. Even now, I walk at least an hour a day through Thomaston’s different neighborhoods, where I’m recognized and, I hope and trust, respected in all of them. “One of these days you’re going to meet yourself either coming or going, Pop,” our son, also a lifelong resident of our town, often observes, and there’s a good deal of symbolic truth to this remark. Almost nowhere in Thomaston am I not within sight of a personal memory.
The self I meet coming and going is, I confess, relentlessly unexceptional. I’m a large man, like my father, and the resemblance has always been a source of pleasure to me. I loved him more than I can say, so much that even now, many years after his death, it’s hard for me to hear, much less speak, a word against him. Still, there’s also something bittersweet about our resemblance. I am, I believe, an intelligent man, but I’ll admit this isn’t always the impression I convey to others. Over the course of a lifetime a man will overhear a fair number of remarks about himself and learn from them how very wide is the gulf between his public perception and the image he hopes to project. I’ve always known that there’s more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn’t regret that he isn’t more fully understood? I tend to be both self-conscious and reticent. Where others regret speaking in haste, wishing they could recall some unkind or ill-considered opinion, I more often have occasion to regret what I’ve not said. Worse, these regrets accumulate and become a kind of verbal dam, preventing utterance of any sort until the dam finally breaks and I blurt something with inappropriate urgency, the time for that particular observation having long passed. As a result, until people get to know me, they often conclude that I’m slow, and in this I’m also like my father.
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I overheard somebody call Big Lou Lynch a buffoon, but it so surprised me that I looked the word up in the dictionary, convinced I’d somehow mistaken its meaning. This was probably the first time I recognized how deeply unkindness burrows and how helpless we are against it. At any rate, I’ve noticed that people who eventually come to like me often seem embarrassed to, almost as if they need to explain. Though I’ve been well and truly loved, perhaps more than I’ve deserved, my father is the only person in my life to love me uncritically, which may be why I find it impossible to be critical of him. In one other respect, I’m also my father’s son: we both are optimists. It is our nature to dwell upon our blessings. What’s given is to us more important than what’s withheld, or what’s given for a time and then taken away. Until he had to surrender it, too young, my father was glad to have his life, as I am to have mine.
in Thomaston, my earliest memories are of living with my maternal grandparents in a tiny house three miles to the south, its backyard sloping down to the Cayoga Stream. When the winter trees were bare I could see the water sparkling from the upstairs windows, but I wasn’t allowed to play along the banks. My grandfather owned a car, and by the time I awoke in the bedroom I shared with my parents, he and my father had already left for work. I vaguely remember my mother being unhappy about living “in each other’s laps” and that we were saving for the day we could afford a flat of our own in town. With no other children nearby, I’d become a quiet, solitary child, and my mother was determined that I attend kindergarten in town and make friends. With a year of business school under her belt, she was confident she could get part-time work as a bookkeeper once I was in school.
We couldn’t have saved much money, because when the time came to enroll me in kindergarten, the place my parents rented was in Thomaston’s West End on Berman Court. There were only five houses on Berman, two on each side of the street and another—a three-story building—at the dead end where the land fell sharply away to the Cayoga Stream. I remember having a hard time understanding how this was the same river I could see from my grandparents’ house, which felt like a different world to me. My new bedroom window, in the back of the building, was impossibly high, and I remember being afraid of falling from it, down the steep bank and into the stream. Most of the houses in our new neighborhood were slapdash affairs that almost from the day of their construction began to slope and tilt dangerously, their chimneys sporting large fissures and sometimes toppling onto the roofs of their neighbors’ sloping porches. I remember, too, the dank chemical smell of the Cayoga itself, which always permeated the stairwell that led up to our rooms, an odor that was nothing like the overheated apartments, which were ripe with pungent cooking oils and unbathed pets kept too long indoors.
My father was a milkman. His dairy job had paid enough to support us when we lived with my grandparents, but not now, though I was unaware of this at the time. I was proud that everyone in Thomaston seemed to know and like my father, that no matter where we went people would toot their horns or call to him from across Division Street or want to shake his hand in the doorway of the barbershop. My mother, by contrast, lacked this great popularity, and though I loved her, I sometimes wondered why my father had married her. She was terribly thin and angular, and her eyebrows met in the middle of her forehead when she frowned, which was most of the time. Old photographs suggested that she had never been pretty. I don’t mean that she was homely, just the kind of girl you wouldn’t notice, and now that she was a woman people always seemed to be trying to place her. Whenever anyone offered the slightest hesitation, she would supply her name, as if she understood their predicament all too well. I thought it was a shame she didn’t have my father’s good-natured, jovial temperament, because at least that might have made some sort of impression.
After we moved to Berman Court, when my father went out on his milk route, my mother worked at home, keeping the books for several small local businesses, the extra income allowing my father the largesse for which, in those early days, he was well known. “Acting like a big wheel” was what my mother called his willingness to loan a dollar or buy a cup of coffee. I don’t think it occurred to me that we were poor, but my parents often disagreed about money. My father loved to buy things for a quarter or fifty cents at yard sales, items that he claimed were worth far more than he paid for them and that my mother regarded as worthless because we had no use for them. He’d buy a tire for a dollar if it still had tread on it, even though at the time we didn’t own a car. (The milk truck he drove wasn’t for personal use, but he had special permission to use it to buy groceries at the A&P when he finished his shift on Saturday morning.) “I know a guy’ll give me two, three bucks for that, easy,” he’d tell my mother in reference to the tire, and most of the time he was right. When he brought what she called junk home from yard sales, she’d take one look and say, “What in the world did you buy
for,” and he’d reply, “A quarter.” Nor could he resist a lottery ticket or a fifty-cent chance on a Rotary Club raffle, even though my mother insisted that these were “taxes on ignorance.” Winning, which he seemed to do a lot, allowed him to feel vindicated, even when what he won wasn’t something we needed or even wanted. “What if first prize had been a head cold?” my mother would ask when presented with the fishbowl of jelly beans he’d won by guessing how many it contained. “Would you have bought a ticket? You don’t even like jelly beans.” He just replied that he supposed he could
to like them. In fact, he’d have nine hundred and seventy-three opportunities. “Besides,” he continued, “our Louie here likes jelly beans, don’t you?” And I said I did, though in truth I wasn’t overly fond of them. “Great,” my mother said. “Fifty dollars’ worth of cavities, minimum.” But it was true, my father was always winning things, and if I had to explain why our family was so fortunate, I’d have said it was due to my father’s luck. I felt lucky just standing next to him, confident that I, too, would come up a winner.
If my mother thought moving into town would guarantee me friends, she was mistaken. That first day of kindergarten, when I got my nickname, made me wary of the other children, and a year after we’d moved to Berman Court I was still nearly as solitary as I’d been in the country at my grandparents’. I say “nearly” because I did have one friend, of a sort, in Bobby Marconi, whose family lived on the second floor of our building. His father worked nights as a desk clerk at the hotel but was trying to get on at the post office, where he filled in whenever a letter carrier got sick. Ours was, alas, mostly a walk-to-and-from-school sort of friendship. Once we arrived back at Berman Court we seldom saw each other until the following morning, and we never played together on weekends. On Sundays, of course, the Marconis attended Mount Carmel with the Italians, and we Lynches worshipped with the Irish of St. Francis. It was exasperating to have my only friend right there in the building and yet have so little access to him. My mother explained that the Marconis preferred to keep to themselves, and when I asked why, she said it was just the way they were. You couldn’t make people want friends, and we certainly couldn’t make the Marconis want