Last year John and I spent a few weeks near Siracusa, the birthplace of Archimedes and site of a massive stone amphitheater where the plays of Aeschylus were once performed. Now it was time to see Syracuse, New York, “The FIRST to Say Yes to Education City in the Nation” and erstwhile home of L. Frank Baum.
We were decanted from our coach into the bus station, a multi-national scene smelling of the quasi-herbal fragrance emitted by the Subway franchise. Leaving John with the luggage, I set out to locate a taxi stand and found one at the front of the station. A cab happened to be leaving right at that moment, which suggested that the stand was not defunct.
By the time we’d hauled all our stuff over to the stand, however, doubt had crept in.
“What do we do if he doesn’t come back?” John asked.
‘Well, we’ll just call another one,” I replied.
“How? Everyone uses Uber now. We don’t have Uber. We are primitive people.”
“OK, I’ll go inside and ask someone.”
I ventured into a little shop inside the bus station and asked the young woman at the cash register if she knew whether taxis waited outside as a rule.
“I don’t think so,” she shrugged.
“Well, do you know the number of any local taxi company?”
“No,” she said, but then her face brightened. “Why don’t you just call an Uber?”
“We don’t have the app on my phone and my phone is nearly depleted of battery power due to our faulty charging cord.”
Her eyes glazed over.
“Well, have a good day,” she said crisply, closing the interaction.
I walked out with a heavy heart only to see John piling our stuff into a taxi. A broad-chested guy was assisting him.
“How are you folks doing today?” The driver asked as we set off.
“Fine. We’re glad to see you; I wasn’t sure how we were going to get to our hotel.”
“Oh we’re there all the time,” he said. “It was just that a train had come through ten minutes ago so we were all busy, but I came right back.”
So the shop girl was wrong! What did she spend her time thinking about, I wondered. Gel nail designs?
“This your first time in Syracuse?” The driver asked.
“What brings you to our little town?”
“My wife’s running a trail marathon in Vermont, like a loon,” said John.
“Marathon huh? And are you underweight? Overweight?”
“Uh, probably a little overweight. But I’m not a competitive runner. I like to go slow.”
“Ah, a turtle,” he nodded.
“It’s a good way to see the countryside,” I replied primly.
“It’s been a long time since I did any running,” he mused. “My kneecaps are gone.”
“You played football?” John asked.
“Football, basketball, baseball, you name it. Not anymore though,” he laughed sadly.
“I heard they can do things for knees now,” I said helpfully.
“Oh no, I’m not going near any doctors. Don’t trust ‘em.”
John agreed enthusiastically.
“Now, to your left is the local football stadium, and there’s the local farmer’s market. Empty now but busy as anything on weekends. Another thing we’re known for here is fishing. Either of you fish?”
“No. But I’ve heard there are big salmon around here.”
“Huge! My granddaughter fishes too, she’s nine.”
The driver was certainly very chatty. He kept up a patter all the way to the hotel.
Mostly what we did in Syracuse was sleep but I did go for a run to see more of the town. The part near us was mainly highways, fast-food outlets, a railway, industrial warehouses and parking lots reverting to Nature.
As I turned right on James Street, though, a real town gradually came into shape. There was a tattoo parlour, a theatre where an improbable number of people were queuing at 6 o’clock in the evening, several real estate offices and beauty salons and a big used-book store.
Moving east, the streets turned from dog-eared businesses to grand old mansions exhaling odors of the past. The most imposing building was the Barnes-Hiscock mansion, former residence of George and Rebecca Barnes, heroes of the Underground Railway in Syracuse. Together with other influential families in the neighborhood and the Rev. Jermain Loguen they held anti-slavery meetings and helped prevent fugitive slaves from being caught or paid their bail.
Stamped on the sidewalk every 100 meters or so was the face of someone named Henry McConnell. I thought this must be some historical personage until I looked him up and saw that there is a company called Henry McConnell Concrete Floors Inc. in Syracuse.
This mix-up reminded me of the Cardiff Giant, which was ‘discovered’ just south of Syracuse in 1869. This was a little practical joke played on the locals by tobacconist, atheist and all-round ratbag George Hull. Here is the whole sordid story from Wikipedia:
“Hull hired men to quarry out a 10-foot-4.5-inch-long (3.2 m) block of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired Edward Burghardt, a German stonecutter, to carve it into the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy…During November 1868, Hull transported the giant by railroad to the farm of his cousin, William Newell…Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and on October 16, 1869 they found the giant.”
Newell soon found a way to turn the discovery into cash, charging people to come see one of the Giants of Yore. Pretty soon P.T. Barnum wanted in on the action and muscled his way in. Ultimately, Hull confessed everything to the press.
The spirit of entrepreneurship remains alive and well in Syracuse, as I discovered during breakfast in Dunkin’ Donuts. A burly man sat explaining sincerely why his renovation services would cost twice as much as originally agreed; a smartly dressed man in a suit was making a pitch to a smartly dressed woman and some secret goings-on were happening between four or five citizens in the ‘Community Room’. As I chewed on my delicious cheese-and-egg English muffin, I thought that they could do with another Giant, updated for the new audience. What are people looking for these days? Peace-loving aliens? Paleolithic Russian invaders?