Best Worst Year: Episode 9 (Or, My Dinner with Ithaca)

Found myself in Ithaca, New York last week. Drove up to catch a documentary on the history of experimental film at Cornell and settled in for a day of wandering the town as well as nearby Watkin’s Glen.Why road trip for a documentary on experimental film? Maybe because if I saw another Honey Boo Boo commercial last week I would have scooped out my eyes with a melon baller. You want your Nihilism, just spend a Sunday afternoon trying to watch TLC.

Unemployment’s daily routine can get to be like Groundhog Day–wake up, look for work, nosh, read, write, wanton chaos, doubt, guilt, depression, lunch…what saves you is your ability to break patterns, to not let boredom get to you. Six months into looking for steady work and there are days where motivation equals watching Season One of The Walking Dead. Television is the mindkiller–no real revelation there. Travel keeps the tall shadows from getting that much taller–you can always outrun daylight, right? Even in a late model Buick.

The southern tier has this odd mix of backwoodsiness and quirky mythos not unlike the south R.E.M. introduced us to in their first handful of records. It’s the intersection between mountain man and “mountain,maaaan.” The character of the Southern Tier is a kindred spirit to the best Southern towns, and I think it goes back to its physical isolation, the walkable and knowable small town vibe, and it’s proximity to higher education (pun intended).

Ithaca’s got college town written all over it–bike lanes, head shops, birkenstock window shoppers, freshmen standing on W. Green Street waving pickets signs protesting: Guns, Fracking, Drone Missions, Marijuana laws (in that order). Even as bone rattlingly cold as it was (with a brisk 48 mph wind reducing my insides to icy ribbons), you could feel the town’s weirdness seep into your marrow. Go a little further, peel away a loose corner of carpet, and you’ll find something equally odd and out of place–like Swingblade with Women’s Studies minor or a couple of skate punks with distinctly rural Canadian accents. Ithaca is the type of a place you can find something strange and unexpectedly sustaining.

Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall theatre is old, tiny, with the slight whiff of decay–perfect for the arthouse crowd. It’s the kind of concrete and cinder block theatre where they would say “intimate” and you would say “Where the fuck is the heat?” All immaterial once the film started. The documentary is called Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film, if you get a chance to check it out, do it. The doc is worth the price of admission alone for Stan Brakhage’s interview.

(Don’t know him? Stop reading and Google him. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you…Cool? You’re welcome.)

Spent the better part of the next day engaged in my idea of sightseeing. Beyond a startling amount of coffee at Waffle Frolic (seriously), watching a middle aged man DESPERATELY hit on a hippie at the Free Tibet store (these are real nice scarfs), and doing some drunk people watching, I made a beeline to Autumn Books and it’s basement tenant, Angry Mom Records.

Here’s where the sick truth of my traveling life rears its ugly head. Goddamn record stores. It’s a true illness. It’s a Galactus-level hunger. It’s Johnny Thunders junkie bad. It’s the one vice I’ve really got left. One of the last places on earth which feel unconditionally holy to me–bookstores and record shops, but especially record shops–the slightly musty odor, the rows of wax and cd’s, the mosaic of band and label stickers plastering a register, the flyers for crappy local acts–it’s all part of the spiritual alchemy. Regardless of time and place, almost in spite of myself, nothing changes the barometer of my heart the way walking into a record store does (for more borderline creepy details about my love of record stores, check out my okcupid profile, the unfortunately not-thought-through handle @Vinylfreak75.). If you happen to find yourself in Ithaca, make sure you check out both shops–Angry Mom has a killer selection of wax. My score included (but not limited to):

-The first Jobraith LP
-The Psychedlic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators (on red vinyl)
-Suicide’s self-titled debut
-Funkadelic: Uncle Jam Wants You
-Camper Van Beethoven (featuring the classic “Take the Skinheads Bowling”)

A good haul for the wax safari. Made new friends (us High Fidelity Types smell our own and typically are friendlier than Jack Black’s character–as long as you don’t ask about “I just called to say I love you”).

Rounded out the trip in Watkins Glen at a microbrewery where I watched a crew fresh off their shift at the meth lab order Miller Lites. Ordering a Miller Lite at a microbrew pub is like asking to use the bathroom and then pissing your pants. I think that’s the line of distinction between Watkins Glen and Ithaca. At some point the charming quirkiness of these kind of towns gives way to truth that you are only passing through–that the hardcore townies are just that–hardcore townies. I finished my pint and headed for the horizon, running smack dab into a wintery mix with windshield wipers of questionable value.

Took a nap at rest area in the Siberian wilderness between Corning and Mansfield. Only slightly froze and headed back to a working turntable and something approximates home. The real good trips aren’t encumbered by the forced perspective of epiphany and insight to yourself, at least, for me they can’t start out with such grand details and expectations. I think when you spend as much time on interstates and in cars alone as I do, the temptation is there to go symbol hunting with a net and your therapist’s phone number. I can’t. Maybe that makes me less self aware, more shallow. I don’t know. I do know that if I couldn’t put some good miles between me and a decent night’s sleep on a regular basis I don’t know if I could survive being so untethered in the way being unemployed can make your life.

I also know that the first Jobriath album out-Ziggy’s Bowie time and time again. You should track it down–it’s worth the trouble for the spin.

Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He is truly obsessed with vinyl and spent the better part of last Saturday night downloading the new My Bloody Valentine record (and regrets nothing!). Recommend a killer record store to him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim or check out his daily wax pics on Instagram: @whoismisterjim.

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