Funny how far I was willing to drive to avoid going to a baby shower. No offense to our good friend who was being feted at said shower, but it’s not a place for a guy to go.
So I dropped off Wife L on Saturday at a nice home in a residential area south of Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica and was asked to return three hours later. No problem, says I, there are things to do and places to see.
I did guy things: I found a place along Oriskany Boulevard (Route 5A) in Whitesboro and got the oil changed in my Toyota, luckily not the newer Toyotas with the sticky gas pedals but my 1993 Toyota that moans and groans a bit but still starts on a dime. I went to Lowe’s and prowled aisles and dissuaded myself from spending money.
I ended up back in Utica and drove down Bleecker Street in search of wonderful tomato pie sold at Napoli’s deli, right off Culver Avenue. Closed, unfortunately, as was Roma Sausage and Deli just a little farther down Bleecker. Both places have that wonderful concoction of pizza dough topped with a top-rated sauce and just the slightest hint of parmesan cheese. Very good stuff indeed, but not to be on this day.
Driving around Utica is a little like visiting your 80-year-old uncle, the man who was tough and OK looking in his younger years, who still has that occasional spark of mischief in his eyes, suggesting he’s not done yet, but who walks with a stoop and slow measured steps, who fights with his walker as much as he fights the cancer eating at his insides.
Like that uncle, the city still wants to have game, but what does it have left?
I saw some nice homes along Memorial Parkway as I drove by Val Balias Sports Center, where you can ski, snowboard, ice skate, sled, or cross country ski, right in the city. Lots of pretty natural areas along that corridor, with Roscoe Conkling Park and Forest Hill Cemetery, where lots of famous Uticans are buried.
But I also drove through neighborhoods where the many simple two-story homes, the once proud havens of middle-class families, have fallen into disrepair and are sliced into apartments owned by outsiders who care not for upkeep. Big warehouses that once provided jobs are shuttered, with “for sale” signs plastered along the chain-link fence, screaming out for a buyer to breathe new life into still-usable facilities.
I got my first look at Utica when I took a reporter’s job at the Rome Daily Sentinel newspaper, back in 1983. I can’t say I fell in love with the city, I can’t say it did or does have any charm, but it does have a past, a working, vivid, once-thriving past that is getting harder and harder to recall.
Somehow, after my mindless driving through the city, which left me somewhat morose, as you can tell by now, I ended up in Washington Mills, just east of Route 8 (a roadway that I can never quite figure out where it goes or why). And there, like a beacon in the overcast skies, I came across Packy’s Pub.
In need of solace and a reason to believe, I ventured inside to find a full bar in full-throttled support of a Syracuse Orange basketball team that was struggling mightily against a much lesser talented team in the DePaul Blue Devils.
Here, I thought, was one reason why people stick it out in CNY: groups of friends were gathered at tables and the bar; the barmaid moved from one group to the next, knowing most patrons by name; a woman who had thrown her coat on a chair insisted I take the seat to catch the waning moments of the game.
Granted, it’s probably not a great thing that a bar was busy at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon, but the place was warm and chatty and felt good. I could only stay for a quick pint before collecting Wife L from the baby shower, but it was a nice boost to hear and see folks joined in a common cause, joined together as a community.
Here’s hoping that that sense of place, the connections with family and friends, is enough to keep Utica and its environs a palatable place to live as the city, like much of CNY, works on a vision for the future as it tries to revive bits and pieces of a storied past.