I left for Syracuse early on a Wednesday morning in October, filled with dread for the long drive ahead.
During college, I despised the trip through Pennsylvania. To say that there’s always road construction is giving far too much credit to the road crews.
More accurate: there are always suggestions where construction might go. “You could imagine what road work would look like here if we were actually doing it.” Progress, it seems, is all about perception.
There’s an occasional deserted bulldozer. A flashing merge arrow, if you’re lucky. (Entertainment!) Then, traffic cones for miles and miles with nary a glimmer of labor.
And let me tell you, creeping by the “Speed Limit 65” signs at 4 miles an hour, you have plenty of time to search. By mile 27, you’re bonking your forehead repeatedly against the horn while chanting the official state mantra:
“I’ve gotta pee. I’ve gotta pee. I’ve gotta pee.”
Your trance is broken only to curse at the sparrows who are hopping along the shoulder at a faster clip than you’re driving.
To add insult to injury, there’s an electronic “YOUR SPEED” sign.
They might as well put a giant middle finger on the side of the road.
As you watch the numbers fluctuate between 4 and 6 miles an hour, you give serious though to selling off Pennsylvania to the Chinese.
So you can imagine my surprise when I zipped from I-83 to I-81 and on into New York without a single delay. The mercury surely must have dipped below freezing in hell. I can only speculate that someone got so exasperated at the imaginary construction that they stole all of Pennsylvania’s traffic cones.
I was also surprised to find that the autumn scenery in Pennsylvania was absolutely gorgeous. It’s hard to appreciate the landscape when you’re blind with road rage. But now, cruising at a comfortable 80 miles an hour most of the way, I was able to enjoy the flame-flecked hills and quintessential farmhouses that dotted the highway.
The best thing about central Pennsylvania is the town names. In just 3 hours along I-81, you get to pass Frackville, McAdoo, Nuangola, Moosic and Sugar Notch. One exit near Scranton features both Dunmore and Throop. I decided right away that those will be the names of the wacky detectives in my cop show.
I reached Syracuse in just under 6 hours. A full hour less than it usually takes to make the trip. Brilliant.
Things in Syracuse were largely just as I’d remembered. Though everything seemed more compact. I swear Downtown Syracuse used to be bigger.
Some buildings around town were much more impressive than I recall. Especially along Clinton Square. The architecture was, I daresay, bitchin’. (I think Frank Lloyd Wright would agree.)
At the crossroads of Erie Boulevard and Franklin Street, the Art-Deco Niagara Mohawk building was as imposing as ever. Like something straight out of Gotham.
Other buildings were mind-numbingly drab. Some look as if the 1970s went to a frat party and vomited architecture about the city.
These should be razed as fast as humanly possible for their crimes against aesthetics. I tried ramming one repeatedly with my car, but it was obnoxiously sturdy. Fortunately, I spotted someone nearby and suggested that there was an extra Bulldozer parked near Throop.
The Syracuse University campus was every bit as breathtaking as I remember. The handsome stone buildings wrapped in ivy and nestled among tiers of rolling hills. The fall colors blanketing the brick sidewalks in crimson and gold. The flecks of broken Labatts Blue bottles glistening on the lawns of frat houses.
Strange as it is, I actually do miss this place.
(This statue commemorates the Saltine Warrior, former SU mascot and proud defender of crackers everywhere.)
But I don’t miss Erie Boulevard. Erie Boulevard very well may be the most depressing street in the world. Especially when you consider its history.
Once upon a time, Erie Boulevard was the Erie Canal. It crossed 363 miles, featured 83 locks, and linked Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It was responsible for the explosion of New York City and the development of Central and Western New York. Buffalo. Rochester. Syracuse. You would never have heard of these towns if it weren’t for the new trade route that linked the Midwest to Manhattan.
The logistics and construction of the canal were nothing short of a small miracle. The idea of constructing a canal along the Mohawk River Valley was first proposed in 1724. The first tree wasn’t felled until nearly a century later, on Independence Day, 1817.
In the years between, they set out thousands and thousands of traffic cones.
Though much of the canal still exists, in Syracuse it’s been filled with pavement. Today, Erie Boulevard is little more than a derelict commercial eyesore. A depressing reminder of America at its worst.
I’m sure at one point in its history, Erie Boulevard thrived. But now entire strip malls lie deserted. You can still see the ghosted names of the long bankrupt stores emblazoned on the facades.
The Arthur Treacher’s fish and chips restaurant that was vacant when I first came to Syracuse in 1996 is still vacant some ten years later.
Yukon River Grill, a steakhouse where they used to hand out those vibrating pagers because it was so packed, is now also deserted. Knee-high weeds poke through the cracks in the parking lot.
It’s not terribly surprising to learn that both Dream Girls and Adult World are still going strong. Because, really, what good is a city without a fine selection of strip clubs with lunch buffets?
But Chimney’s video rental didn’t make it. That’s sad. Because Chimney’s was great. A far better video store than Blockbuster. Complete with a large, discreet back room for porn.
Today, it’s been replaced by A&E Cosmetic Surgery Center.
So, where there once were fetish videos about shaving, you can now go for laser hair removal.
A heartwarming reminder of America at its best.
Just beyond the intersection of Erie Boulevard and Thompson Road lies Carrier Circle. Syracuse’s industrial hub. Carrier Circle is home to the Carrier Corporation, Lockheed Martin, and the scenic Motel 6. My fabulous home for three nights.
At a mere $39 a night, it was an easy sale.
What amenities come with a $39 motel room you ask? A view, for one. My panorama featured a pair of emerald dumpsters and a sweeping view of the New York State Thruway. From my room, I could have hit the toll booth with a cantaloupe. (I didn’t. But I could have.)
I never realized it, but Motel 6 is actually pretty inventive. They’ve implemented a foolproof way to keep smokers from smoking in the non-smoking rooms.
Now, stay with me here, cause I’m about to blow your mind.
I pity the poor smoker who gets stuck in that room. He’s fucked.
At the end of the trip, I bid Syracuse adieu. It was much as I expected. Some parts were lovely. Some were lousy. But, like any city that you live with for so long, even its flaws become somewhat endearing.
Here are some other random pictures from the trip:
I bet you never knew that the 24 second shot clock was first used in Syracuse. This new monument in Armory Square commemorates the occasion. Don’t act like you’re not impressed.
This building used to be the Dunk and Bright furniture warehouse. It’s recently been gutted and renovated. Now it’s home to the Syracuse University School of Architecture.
(Her shirt reads: “Trust Jesus”)
FOOD UPDATE: This trip was a gastronomic walk down memory lane. It’s not easy to squeeze 4 years worth of junk food into three days. But somehow, I managed to do pretty well. I kicked off the trip with a visit to Dinosaur BBQ.
Here, I proceeded to stuff myself to the point of hospitalization.
Fried green tomatoes:
A three-meat combo sampler featuring a half rack of ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, honey hush cornbread, baked beans and mashed potatoes with gravy:
Somehow I still managed to choke down a slice of sweet potato pecan pie a la mode:
Because if you’re gonna be a fat bastard, you can’t be half-assed.
(Get it?!?!?! Fat??!?!?! Ass??!?!! Ugh.)
I also ate an obscene amount of pizza at my two favorite haunts on the SU hill: The Varsity and Cosmos.
At Cosmos, I also put away a dozen of the best buffalo wings on the planet. And a THB Sundae. A Toasted Honey Bun (sort of like a large, toasted sub-roll-shaped glazed donut) topped with ice cream and thick hot fudge. My cholesterol doubled in three days, but my face was smiling.
But you know what made me even happier? On the way back home, somewhere north of Harrisburg, I passed this place: