December 5, 2009

That’s a nickname we have for our hometown, Rochester, NY.

Cruising around Facebook the other night, I looked at some photos from my 40th high school reunion, held this past summer. I am not in touch with my friends and classmates from those days, at all, so I didn’t go. I went to the 10th, though.

So, the photos. Well, we’re old, that’s clear.

It was really a shocker because I have had no recent contact with my classmates. Not in decades. When you remember someone as a rosy-cheeked, fresh-faced boy with blond hair and see a photo of him old and gray, it’s a jarring reality check.

I don’t feel old enough to to look like that. But I suppose I do.

And I saw so many Italian surnames.

I haven’t lived in an Italian neighborhood since I left my hometown. Our town was mostly Italian and our shared heritage was a huge part of every day life. That hasn’t been the case since I left.

While my Anglo friends think The Godfather is a fun story, we know it’s real. Friends and family had mob ties. Mob murders were part of routine life in Rochester. A family friend and neighbor just a few doors down disappeared, murdered by the mob.

Many of my classmates, but not all, stayed in the Rochester area. Looking at them, how they looked, remembering how they were, I imagined their lives in Rochester.

Eastman Kodak was the biggest employer for many years. I think it employed about 40,000 people in the 1970s, a huge number in an area that only reached about 350,000 in its heyday. By 2005 or so, Kodak employment had shrunk to 17,500 and although it’s the third largest employer in Rochester, it’s probably smaller still.

Although the Rust Belt has been on a decades-long decline, at one time Kodak was a city unto itself. Kodak Park. There it is, pictured. I think a lot of it is gone now. It had its own employee sports leagues, bowling alley, movie theatre, and working there, even in “the factory,” gave you a certain cachet, as well as a stable job with a pension. I would bet some of my classmates were thrilled to find work there. I know my parents thought it was the epitome of security. Although as a doctor and a housewife, they had no idea what it was like to work in a factory.

When I thought I was moving back to Rochester in the early 1980s, I met the vice president of corporate communications to talk about a job. There wasn’t an opening, but it was a natural place to try. A few months later I read he’d been picked up on a DUI. A Kodak exec picked up? It was big news in Rochester.

For a small city, it’s not a bad place to live. If you leave out the weather and the constant winter-grey sky. The University of Rochester is an excellent school. The medical school is great. There’s some culture. If you like snow sports, you’re in. It’s on a Great Lake, Ontario. So there are water-related summer sports. It’s a short plane ride to NYC. The cost of living is low compared to the quality of life.

And white hot dogs–Rochester is the home of the “white hot.”

And little greasy spoon joints like Vic & Irv’s and Don & Bob’s. And the Friday night “fish fry.” Yeah, that’s how Catholic the city thought. Meatless Fridays.

I think they used to call it Snobtown, USA and a book was written about that.

I don’t go back to Rochester that often. During my mother’s last year, I went every month. When my sister got married, I flew in for various festivities. When my father was in his last illness and my nephew graduated high school, I went three times.

Other than that? No. I don’t even think about it. I moved away to have a different life, to gain a more expansive perspective, and I’m glad I did. I think Rochester would be a good place to settle down in after you’ve gone away and experienced a broader culture.

M. and I haven’t been to Rochester together in decades. But we will probably go some time. Memory Lane and all that.

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