Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
"Life is an onion. You can't peel it without tears."
Located between Syracuse and Utica, Canastota, New York once produced most of the onions in the Northeast, but its legendary mucklands, primarily cultivated by Sicilian immigrants and their children, are not a natural phenomenon. Like almost everything else in Onion Town, the rich soil is a product of the Erie Canal, which transformed Canastota, incorporated in 1835, from a backwards hamlet to a prosperous town with four railroad lines and factories that manufactured cut glass, coaster and dump wagons, and steerable sleds. In fact, when the village was first settled in 1810, the mucklands didn’t even exist. They were submerged under an enormous swamp stretching three miles north of the village, a Stygian tangle of trees, roots, and mud that flooded so often the settlers were obliged to build their first houses on stilts. A year later, a plank path was built through the swamp to connect Canastota to Oneida Lake, followed by an Indian trail, but the Oneidas avoided the area unless the season was very dry.
Although some early Canastotans had the foresight to see agricultural potential in this slough, canal engineers made that dream a reality. Gentleman venturers with a classical bent, they tackled the problem with the methodicalness of a Frontinius. In 1850, Douglas Ditch was cut between the swamp and Oneida Lake and twice extended in 1867 and 1875 to form a line between Sullivan and Lenox townships. Twelve years later, State Highway Commissioner Charles Foster decided that the whole area should be drained and converted into productive farm land, a project more ambitious than the Emperor Claudius’s draining of the FucineLake. After winning the skeptical town’s approval, he began constructing what was to become Onion Town Road.
The incentive to cultivate the land, however, was spurred by the depression of 1893. After the local economy collapsed, Canastotans sought other ways to make money, so they sluiced, cleared, and tilled the bog north of the village, between Main Street and SouthBay, and constructed houses and barns. The work was backbreaking and frustrating, so it is no surprise they had put if off for fifty years.
Since horses were helpless in the swampy land, ditches had to be dug almost entirely by hand. Thick patches of trees, small bushes, and tangled roots still remained, and stumps had to dynamited. Even then, many patches had poor drainage, and during the wet season, some crops were always under water. The first muck farmers were Americans, who would not stay the course. The work seemed dirty and a degrading, a comedown from the village’s recent glory days. But for the Italian immigrants who succeeded them, working the muck was like clearing the Promised Land.
First came the Genovese. Domenico and Assumpta Cervasco moved to the village in 1886. They operated a peanut stand on the banks of Erie off the Peterboro Street bridge and convinced friends and relatives to join them. The Sicilians arrived a decade later. As manual laborers for the LehighValley, WestShore, and New York Central Railroads, they dead-ended in Canastota and had nowhere else to go. They lived in abandoned railroad cars on the edge of town and foraged for dandelion greens. Factory work was scarce because of the depression. Fortunately, the newcomers’ arrival coincided with the village’s push to cultivate the mucklands.
While the Sicilians recognized this opportunity, they were reluctant to embrace it. Most had abandoned agriculture, having become thoroughly disillusioned with the soil. “Who tends the earth tends his grave,” they said. Back in Sicily, they had not been contadini, peasants who owned and worked their own fields and vineyards, or fittivali, tenant farmers, or even mezzadri, sharecroppers, but cafone, unskilled farm hands and migrant pickers. The equivalent of white trash, they had lost all love for the land. It was the ancient curse of Sicily.
Twenty-five centuries of colonialism had transformed Ceres’ island from the garden of the Mediterranean, where even the keenest blood hounds would lose a scent because of the abundant flowers and herbs, into a lunar rock. The Carthaginians, to punish the Sicilians for their loyalty to the Greeks, burned wheat fields and sowed salt in the earth. The Romans, who conquered the Carthaginians, overworked the soil to feed their gluttony. The Arabs, their successors, introduced irrigation and citrus farming but also brought goats, which munched their way through the greenery. The Normans, who expelled the Arabs, deforested the island to create their fleets and composed chivalric epics while the topsoil washed away. The Spanish, who kept the best fields for themselves, were worthless, irresponsible landlords, but the Bourbons, at least, would not tax livestock, produce, and draft animals. After the revolution, however, the new Italian government taxed all three, wrecking Sicily’s agriculture and sparking the Fasci riots of the 1880's. In the wake of this chaos, Sicilian peasants were faced with a stark choice: emigration or starvation. Little wonder, then, that most of Canastota’s newest arrivals had sworn off farming.
But the vast mucklands seduced them. They were a return to the Golden Age. Never before had the Sicilians seen such miraculous soil. Black, rich, moist. Anything could grow in it: cabbage, chicory, celery; above all, onions. The onions tantalized them. Back in the Old Country, the man who owned an onion patch was a king. What were the glories of Segesta and Agrigento, those Grecian temples and peristyles, compared to a fertile onion patch? This attitude still prevails in Sicily, where as recently as 1975 an outraged farmer near Palazzalo Acreìde defaced a priceless Attic frieze on his property because tourists and archeologists would trample his onions to see it.
The Americani had their priorities straight. No ruins, just onions. And such onions! As big as your fist. Hell, bigger than the head of your first born! The Canastotans were rightly proud of them and gave them the sonorous names of race horses: Bronze Fiesta, Ebenezer, Golden Beauty, Southport White Globe. A carillon of bulbs in a paradise of onions! And if the Americani, with their haphazard, heavy-handed methods, could work such miracles, what might the Sicilians do, with their thousand tried-and-true, subtle techniques of coaxing crops from the dust? They gladly became sharecroppers in the American onion fields. . .
|Anthony DiRenzo is an Associate Professor of Writing in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY.|
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
For over six months now there have not been any of those sensational stories in the media speculating on his whereabouts, or the varied reasons for his disappearance. If you recall, John S______ went missing on the very night he won election to the United States Congress. Despite the massive search that was conducted for him, not a trace of what may have happened to John has ever been found, or if it has it has not been revealed to the public.
I was, according to the New York City police, the last person to see John before he vanished. Although I was interviewed by their detectives, who dragged me out of my workplace on the next day and treated me with suspicion, no one has been in touch with me since then. My reluctance to tell what I believe to be the full truth behind John S______’s bizarre story could possibly be attributed to my bewilderment at what I have learned. Or should I more accurately say my fear, and a shade of helplessness, at what might happen to me because of what I now know.
I have transcribed most of the material you are about to read from text I found saved on a computer flash drive apparently left behind by John himself. Although I do appear as a character in the story, near the very end, I was by and large only an incidental bystander. No accumulation of words can adequately convey my wonder at what has supposedly happened. All that I can do is to begin, straightforwardly, and hope to communicate my message, without the reader thinking I have winked my eye. The time these events take place in is the recent past, or perhaps in the near future.
John S______ was born and grew up in a small, former coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania, a forlorn place of fallen-down collieries, culm banks, abandoned strip mines, boarded over storefronts, and empty houses. His hometown, by coincidence, lay in the same valley that held the birthplace of John’s boyhood hero; a Hollywood film star recently deceased. This actor fraught, or perhaps blessed, with an extremely hard face, had achieved great fame, and fortune, from his portrayal of tough-talking bad guys in grade B Western movies. John had been not so much impressed by the actor’s reputation as by his origin, having paid little attention to the man’s career until he learned where the cowboy actor hailed from. This knowledge had given John hope that he too might someday act his way out of this depressed, and lackluster area that he lived in.
“So what’s so big about playing a cattle rustler in a movie?”
“But Dad, the man was born in this valley . . . who else from around here has ever amounted to anything?”
“There are a lot of important people that were born in this very town.”
“What about your Uncle Eddie. . . .”
“What about him?”
“He was a bomber pilot in the war.”
“And got shot down . . . and taken prisoner.”
“But he escaped.”
“Then came home only to spend the rest of his life driving a school bus.”
“So he’s got his name on a memorial in front of the town firehouse, doesn’t he? That’s pretty famous . . . at least for around here.”
This conversation with his father was as John wrote it down. Just why he includedit in his notes I am not exactly sure. He did not record that his father ever wrote him anything, like a letter perhaps. Of course, John lived at home for the first twenty-six years of his life, so his father would have had no need to write him. But they did not correspond when John lived in New York City either, or at least John never mentioned any letters in the material I later found.
Throughout most of his school years, planning to follow in his actor hero’s footsteps, John applied himself rather casually to his studies. Instead, he devoted his time and energy to the stage. By the age of nine, he had set up a theater in the basement of his parent’s home, where young John starred in plays he had written, produced, and directed. Unfortunately, this venue was quickly shut down by his parents when they discovered he had convinced a young girl from his third grade class to dance naked for one of his productions.
As John’s performances in his high school plays displayed considerable potential, his drama teacher suggested he might try out with the local amateur theatrical group, who needed a young boy for a role in a play they were putting on. Dressed in what he considered his most sophisticated clothes, and wearing his Sunday shoes, John S______ walked the three miles to their theater in town to save bus fare. The summer heat did not dissuade him as he strode confidently over the War Hero’s Bridge, imagining how he would strut before his high school classmates when he announced he had been selected for a major role in a production by the regionally famous “Valley Players.”
“And so who is this handsome young fellow? And what does he want?
“My name is John S______, and I’m here to audition for a part in your next play.”
“And I’m Jake Hemlock, the director of this theater. . . .”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Hemlock.”
“I see you’re from the other side of the river. . . .”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“By the way you’re dressed.”
John’s face flushed. He heard a faint titter from the three other boys who were sitting there, apparently also waiting to read for the part.
“And the way you speak. . . .”
“The way I speak?”
More laughter came from the other boys, this time louder and not suppressed.
“Never mind them. Let’s start with you. Here’s the script. Turn to page 27, at the top, you are Guy, I’ll be your father, George.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Okay, then come over here and sit on my lap.”
“Sit on your lap? I’m a little old for that. . . .”
“Yes, but you’re playing a young boy, a bit younger than you must actually be, however, that will be all right . . . and you’re sitting on your father’s lap just talking to him.”
“Okay. . . .”
John began to read. Hemlock had his free hand on John’s knee, gently stroking it. He could feel a warm lump under his bottom side growing larger and harder. John jumped up.
“What’s the matter? You were doing fine. . . .”
“I don’t think I want a part in this play,” John announced. “I’m going home.”
What would John tell his friends about why he didn’t get a part in the play? On his way back across the bridge John thought about the reasons he could give. He had never told anyone he was coming to this audition. Or did he? Wait! That’s it; he said to himself suddenly coming up with an idea; he was too old. It wouldn’t even be untrue, John rationalized. The director had said the character was much younger than he was. At that young age John had not yet learned to lie.
Having barely achieved the minimum grade average in high school, John found the only institution of higher learning that would accept him was the nearby community college. Not that John S______ was dumb, or lazy, he had just been very preoccupied with theater. It was also a matter of money. His father, though never well off, was too proud to allow his son to, as he put it, “beg for financial aid.” He could afford to pay for his son’s education if the boy lived at home, and worked in an automobile repair shop after classes and on Saturdays.
Being around rough, working people made John suspect intellectuals. Devoting one’s life to abstract ideas seemed wasteful to him. He respected the men he worked with in the automobile shop for their practical knowledge and common sense even though they tended to curse and swear too much for his liking. Often the butt of his co-worker’s jokes because he was a “Joe-college,” John usually took his breaks, and ate his lunch from the paper bag he brought it in, sitting alone in a quiet corner of the paint shop.
Despite a total lack of interest in his studies, John managed to graduate from college within the allotted four years, albeit without distinction, but with a strong local reputation as an actor. He had starred in the college theater group’s plays, and even earned bit parts in a small summer stock theater in the nearby mountains that sometimes featured professional talent from New York.
After graduation, when no other employment prospects presented themselves, John’s father, who ran his own used car lot, offered him a job. This secretly had been the man’s plan all along. The father, also named John, hoped that his son would eventually take over the business when he became too old to manage it.
The elder John had opened his lot with money he received as a settlement from a mine accident that had cost him both his legs. Although he was now a cripple who got around in a wheelchair, he was happy he did not to have to go down into the pits anymore. But then there were few mines still in operation by that time, and he probably would have been out of work anyway. John’s father went to church regularly, and thanked God for his good fortune.
Unfortunately his used car lot was not one of the valley’s premier operations. It had the unenviable reputation of selling the shabbiest vehicles in the area, ratted out clunkers that other dealers at the automobile auctions would not even bother to place a bid on. A wash job was about all these cars got before being placed out for sale.
And so young John began what he hoped was his temporary life.
The Third Candidate
by Stephen Poleskie
Saturday, April 26, 2008
UNESCO Admits Destroying 100,000 Books
IT'S NOT 1938, and we are not talking about the Nazis, and the books were not actually burned, rather they were pulped, but the result was the same. The books are gone. According to an article in THE GUARDIAN WEEKLY dated 18.04.08 an inquiry has been launched into why UNESCO paid to pulp nearly 100,000 books.
The destruction occurred between 2004 and 2005, when UNESCO's overflowing book storage warehouses in Paris were relocated to Brussels. Rather than pay the cost of moving 94,500 books UNESCO officials ordered all copies destroyed.
Nino Munoz Gomez, director of UNESCO's Bureau Chief of Public Information and chief of the publications division, claims that at least half of the volumes were outdated and contained obsolete data. While the auditors did acknowledge that some of the publications were out of date others "on historical or purely literary themes were not at all affected by obsolescence." It concluded that a "solution other than destruction" should have been considered, "such as free distribution to libraries."
Munoz Gomez, who assumed his post in April 2005 and was chief of the publishing section for nine months while the book destruction was taking place, said that he did not learn of it until 2006, when a new employee showed him thousands of dollars of bills charged for the pulping. He claimed that while he had authorized the payment of these bills, he did not realize the magnitude of the operation. When he became aware of what was going Munoz Gomez attempted to halt the pulping, but by then there were no more books left to destroy.
Thank you for logging on. We are sorry that we have been away for so long. We are still looking for new material. If you have stories, poems, essays, or book reviews, please send them to me, Sidney Grayling, via e-mail at: OnagerEditions@aol.com.