It was the one word motto of IBM. Simple and brilliant. You could come up with numerous flowery words and phrases that couldn’t sum up that sentiment any better. It flowed from an America that wasn’t near as self-conscious, that did what it did because it wanted to and because something better lay ahead.
Friday: My parents are coming to town because they had some porch furniture my Grandmother had to get rid of because she just recently went into Assisted Living. Laura and I have tried to plan the day’s entertainment for Saturday, but we find it difficult to do so where we live because it always requires driving someplace distant. They arrive. We unload the van. We eat at a decent but uninspiring chain restaurant and fall asleep in front of Netflix.
Saturday: We go to the Allentown Farmer’s Market, pick up some licorice at Mink’s. We eat at a decent but can’t-measure-up-to-the-South Cracker Barrel. Over breakfast, we hem and haw about what to do that day. The conversation drifts. Somehow we’re talking about the storage freezer my Grandmother had. I had no idea she had one. We’ve been wanting one. My parents already have one and don’t need it.
“This still doesn’t solve the question of what we’re going to do today,” I point out, half-laughing.
“We could drive up to New York and have a swim,” says Laura. My parents have a pool. Laura often says this on hot weekends, and after she says it we laugh half-heartedly, go back to what we were doing, and forget it was said. But this time we have an audience.
“We do need to get that freezer,” my mother suggests. She’s about to turn 70 this year and she still can grin like a mischievous eight-year-old.
“Why not?” my father chimes in. He suggests we drive back to Binghamton, or to Howard’s Restaurant on Long Beach Island in New Jersey to get some french-fried lobster. Earlier I had made the mistake of suggesting a location in New Jersey for our day’s destination, forgetting that in my father’s mind, New Jersey = Howard’s. Once, when I was ten or eleven, on a whim we hopped in the car and traveled five hours to Howard’s.
Well, it was nuts. We couldn’t just drop everything and go to New York. That’s what my head said. But then, I thought: what mysterious force is holding us here? We could sit around moping or we could actually do something, get something accomplished.
Half an hour later, we’re in the back of the van on the Turnpike, heading north.
Now I’ll be honest with you: along the way, as we giggled like children, feeling the rare sensation that, in a small way, we’ve bucked the tyrannical authority that keeps us from doing what we want to do in life, I suggested that we find a couple of signs for me to take a picture of, so that I can write a blog about this. This may seem artificial to you, and if it does, who cares what you think, and you’re missing the point.
We are all so self-conscious. We care too much what people think. This point came home to me when I saw a fellow Instagram traveler’s picture; it was of a sign, which of course, got my attention. Her caption was, in effect: I bet the kids outside my window are wondering why this old lady is taking a picture of a sign. Two striking things. First, this Instagrammer was not old, but self-conscious. And second, I wonder what the kids are thinking.
My response: You know what? Forget them.
For years, I failed to take pictures of what I was interested in, and why? Because I was self-conscious. Too self-conscious to get out of the car and hit that shutter button. Somewhere that changed. Now I don’t care. Now I’m free.
So we go looking for signs. My mother suggests Endicott, New York, which is to the west of Binghamton and Johnson City, north of the river from Vestal. As it just so happens, I had been researching it, and looked with fascination on a few signs, and on the empty, hulking giant that is the IBM facility in Endicott.
First, on NY route 17c, which had been route 17 back in the day before they made it a highway along the Southern Tier. In between Johnson City and Endicott is a town called Endwell. I worked in Endwell at a radio station back when local radio made sense. It’s been clouding up all day, which is a bit disappointing, but I forget: old signs and cloudy days can be a terrific combination.
The first sign I had in mind comes into view, the Endwell Motel. I’ve been through Endwell a thousand times, and I can’t believe I never noticed it. But I have an eye for these things now, and now this old hulk in front of a seedy joint has beauty and value:
And just up the road is another. Parsons Mobile Homes, neon, most likely from the forties, judging by the shape of the vehicle at the sign’s top. I marvel at it. I have the same routine of wondering how I could have missed this earlier. Guilt and regret I don’t need. Foolish things. We pull off and I go to work:
This close, I wanted to go to IBM. There’s a chance I might find some signs, but somehow I don’t care. IBM is what I’m interested in.
In case you don’t know, IBM’s primary facilities were built in Endicott in the 30’s. The buildings were modern, but in a thirties way, beautiful and larger than life. We pass through the heart of the beast, marveling at the architecture and its desolation. IBM pulled out of the old place in the 80’s, when most of the industry which had built upstate cities had retreated to lick its wounds and die elsewhere.
Think. It’s written on the buildings.
It made me sad. Angry. Angry to think that IBM left. Angry to think that IBM felt like it had to leave. Glad somehow, glad that the company still exists when so many others have fallen. We drove around and were amazed at the size of it.
We went back and swam in the pool, as Laura always jokes about. We rested. We moved a storage freezer and a couple of chairs. We felt the cool New York breeze, cool even in the brutality of July. We left our self-conscious thoughts behind and were careful not to retrieve them.
We are possibilities.
We are the future.