Summer is peak adventuring season for Yours Truly, and this summer in particular is going to be chock full of adventures with the family. And that means more outrageous tales for you! We had our first mass migration over Memorial Day weekend, saying hello to summer by helping my cousin say good-bye to college.
My cousin was graduating from Cornell University, which, if you’re unaware, has what you might call a competitive atmosphere. This extends beyond the classroom into all aspects of a Cornellian’s life (and yes, students are referred to in this manner). This includes graduation preparations. Hotel rooms for graduation weekend are booked semesters in advance, and the label “graduation weekend” is no misnomer. All the hotels within a ten-mile radius of campus required a three night minimum for reservations.
While my aunt and uncle and the rest of their brood understandably ponied up for the long weekend, the rest of us were free to make our own plans. Unfortunately, making our own plans meant that the closest hotel rooms we could get to Ithaca were in Binghamton. For the geographically unfamiliar, that’s a distance of 50 miles.
Now, I was already skeptical about Ithaca. Given that my college experience was of a lovely campus cautiously overlooking the detritus of a dilapidated steel town, I imagined that a legendary institution in the rural heart of the Empire State would be a similar such juxtaposition. Even the name gave me pause. Ithaca. You can’t even enjoy the historical allusion due to the awful sound of it coming out of your mouth. Ehhhhhhhhthhhhhi-KA.
So while I was prepared for the single lane roads and post-apocalyptic silence of Ithaca, I was in no way prepared for the boarded-up gas stations and miles of elastic waistbands of Binghamton. Remember the scene when Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei first arrive in that town in Alabama in My Cousin Vinny? Mom and I rolling into “downtown” Binghamton was something like that.
I should have seen the warning signs. Literally. As we climbed up the Thruway, the exit signs progressed from vague innuendos like Goshen (as in, “Oh my Goshen, where the hell are we?”) and Horton (as in, Horton Hears A Nothing, Because Nobody Lives Here) to outright cries for help like Wurstboro and Downsville.
Our hotel was perfectly nice, but we arrived before our rooms were ready. With nowhere to crash, and with the delegation from Massachusetts still hours away, Mom and I had no choice but to entertain ourselves in Boscov’s, the department store two blocks from the hotel.
After being yelled at for jaywalking (sir, I cross Seventh Avenue at 34th Street twice a day; I think I can handle Court Street in Binghamton), Mom and I entered the deceptively extensive Boscov’s. Having done my biannual clothes shopping over Mother’s Day weekend, I wasn’t really in the market for any of Boscov’s fine wares. Neither was my mother. Yet knowing that our only other options were to sit in the hotel lobby watching TV or to play this same sad game in the CVS next door, she put on her best bargain hunter’s face and began to shop. I waited dutifully in the husband’s chair while she went through the racks and tried things on, watching the local ladies browse the latest summer imports. They moved like cattle grazing on a plain; slowly, deliberately, unhurried, sampling something from one side and then the other. They all had that short suburban mom hair, where all the mass is at the top and front of their heads and nary a stray wisp touches the nape of their necks. It’s part-perm, part-pineapple. They were all wearing bland t-shirts or sleeveless tops and pale capris. They were big ladies; not obese, but girthy enough that the clothes on the racks swayed back and forth as they passed between, like fronds parting in a prehistoric rain forest as a herd of hadrosaurs passed through. Boscov’s could benefit from a more extensive undergarment section, and so could these ladies. Support was, how shall we say, lacking. In profile, these women’s torsos resembled Olympic ski slopes.
An astonishing hour and nearly $50 later, we left Boscov’s and put our new treats in the car. Mom had purchased a napkin holder, a lawn ornament, a pot to plant her new basil in, socks for 99 cents a pair, and at least three other items so inane that they have since escaped my memory. We’re talking about a store who had a larger “As Seen on TV” department than they did menswear. I thought about buying one of their three-packs of BumpIts for the family Christmukkah Yankee Swap, but thought I have enough time to do better.
That evening, once everyone had arrived from all points east and north, we engaged in my family’s other favorite form of consumption: eating! We had a full three-course meal at a restaurant that was entirely too nice for its surroundings. My cousin, the guest of honor, even brought a date along. This has, historically, been quite the gamble; but she was perfectly lovely and acquitted herself quite well among this vibrant, voracious cast of characters. The Olds even started changing seats throughout the night so as to take turns delicately interrogating her, their focus only shifting when their glasses needed to be refilled.
Since we were so satisfyingly stuffed, I suppose we can be forgiven for assuming that we would find comparable dining on the road to Ithaca. The next morning, with the summer sun already high and hot, we pulled off the road in the town of Whitney Point (I have no jokes to make other than to ask whether or not this is also a character from The Hills) and stepped into a roadside diner where we were the only people wearing natural fibers and shoes with laces. There were no grits on the menu.
However, the decor of this establishment was certainly memorable. Hundreds of teddy bears of all sizes lined the walls, creating an unsettling crown molding of frayed stitches and beady, lifeless eyes that ran across the inside perimeter of the diner. It was like a native village in some Edgar Rice Burroughs story, but instead of the shrunken heads of colonial interlopers, the staff at this bereft bistro had instead strung up your childhood as a warning.
My mother ordered an egg white omelet, which I initially thought was going to lead to a tremendous amount of confusion. But they made it for her, even if they were apparently first waiting for an egg to be laid and then separating the white from the yolk by hand.
We put pedal to metal once the bill was paid, trying desperately to avoid those people actually obeying the speed limit on the winding mountain trail that led to Ithaca. Half of the rellies were already in their seats for the big event, and they were hardly the only ones. You can be sure some parents simply slept in the football stadium rather than forfeit their chance at the perfect camera angle. We arrived with time to spare, as the hour-long academic procession was far from its conclusion. Shortly after the pledge of allegiance, we finally heard from the caboose of our caravan, my brother.
Despite having spent his own college years in the wilds of upstate New York as well, my brother was nevertheless shell-shocked. His first text message to me read, “There are 1,000,000,000 Asians in the concourse of this stadium right now.” When my uncle later asked him how he got to Ithaca (as in, what roads did he take), my brother shrugged and said, “I have no idea.” I’m sure he was answering the question literally as well as metaphorically, as he was joining us on the heels of a giant party for recent alums thrown by he and his housemates. Or as they call it, your average Saturday.
The Cornell graduation ceremony was unlike anything I’d experienced. My own graduating class from my college was one-tenth the size of my cousin’s. The conferring of degrees was done like a papal mass at Yankee Stadium. The university president asked each school of degree candidates to rise, held out his hands, and recited what sounded like the final consecrations given at weddings (“By the power vested in me…” and all that). And boom! Just like that, they had graduated. Of course, this came after his very long speech, in which he highlighted members of the Class of 2010 who seemed to be put on this Earth strictly to make you feel like a slacker: the 76 year-old PhD candidate, the humble local electrician whose six-year-old daughter was bursting with pride in the audience, the Filipino boy who was the first member of not just his family but his entire tribe (his word choice, not mine) to go to college. However, by the time he got to the legless snowboarder, I was growing skeptical.
The ceremony ended with cheers, tossed hats, and a hilariously robust performance of John Phillip Sousa’s “Star and Stripes Forever”. I imagine this was either a nod to Memorial Day, or the Cornellians just share my love of overdoing things.
We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around campus. My cousin picked up his diploma. We found more to eat. My uncle, the proud parent, kept producing bottles of champagne from a seemingly bottomless cooler. He was like the Mary Poppins of booze.
Every school has its own curious traditions, but the one most readily observed at Cornell ranks, to me, as one of the most comical. One of the quads (yes, one of the quads) is guarded by two statues of the school’s founder and its first president. Graduates were lined up by the dozens to have their pictures taken in cap and gown beside these stone-faced sentries. You would have thought these were five-year-olds waiting to have their picture taken with Mickey Mouse. “Step right up, folks, and shake hands with Ezra Cornell. Get your picture with the man who made it all possible. Right here, in Disney’s Dorktown USA!”
Before we went back to my aunt and uncle’s hotel for, what else, some pre-dinner snackage, we were tasked with moving some things out of my cousin’s off-campus house. Now, God knows that the rellies all helped me move out when my college days were done, but my school didn’t have its own zip code and traffic patterns. It’s a good thing my uncle is a West Point graduate, because getting my cousin’s stuff loaded out took more strategic improvisation than Normandy.
We ended the day with dinner at another tiny restaurant wasted on the citizens of Tompkins County. With long drives ahead of us, and knowing now there were no decent places to stop along the way home, we were in a feasting mood. Halfway through ordering our family style side dishes, our waiter politely interrupted. “That…seems like an awful lot of food,” he said. Collectively, we fixed our gaze on him, our eyes colder and crueller than all those dead teddy bears from the Whitney Point diner. Nothing had to be said. Defeated, he lowered his eyes, and added yet another boat of creamed spinach to our order.
Two enormous lamb chops and a piece of pecan pie later, the clock struck 8, and I said my good-byes and got behind the wheel of Mom’s car. I did the first half of our five-hour drive home and let me tell you, it was a strange experience. Upstate, they’re not big on streetlights. Not having any cars in front of you can be a nice thing, but not having any cars behind you is unusual. And in the absolute darkness of the New York State Thruway, it’s a little unsettling. Looking in your rear view mirror and seeing nothing but an inky black expanse… It’s like driving through outer space. Though, truthfully, I felt like I’d been on an alien world for the past 24 hours, so perhaps the metaphor is apt.
Mom taking over the driving didn’t make things any easier. Once in the passenger seat, I suddenly acquired a titanic case of restless leg syndrome, and my nose began running like a faucet. Were these signs of decompression as we came back down to Earth, AKA Westchester County and points south? I tried to hold it together, but almost let out a primal scream of abject suffering when Mom swung into the all-night Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, mere blocks from home. We walked in the front door at a quarter to one, and I was asleep before the next hour began.
My mother woke up the next day at 2:05 PM. I had slept for thirteen hours. So, congratulations, Upstate New York. You kicked this snarky downstater’s ass.
And congratulations, of course, to my cousin, on this wild accomplishment. We’re all very proud. And congrats to the rest of the fam, who get the dual joys of enjoying his success and living with him again. That, too, will be an accomplishment.