I’m back again at this burg of perpetual economic slump, a town where a majority of the residents make Republicans look like amateurs, and whose only current exports boasted are guns and beer. If memory serves me correctly, guns may have recently been removed from the equation, so the only living remnant to Utica’s glory is the experience and can design of the famed ‘Utica Club’ label, both rushing forth the golden hue of excretory liquid, where Schultz and Dooley, the German and Irish spokespitchers, praise the product’s virtues and tolerability.The city is surrounded by the beauty of the Mohawk Valley’s aged mountains and dense forests. A baseball park sits idle when the announcement came that Utica’s minor league team would be moving to Maryland after its purchase by Cal Ripkin. The downtown core is a shell, brought to life only by litter and graffiti, and the fading painted logos that once adorned the Boston Store, a shopper’s Mecca when Utica reached its peak in the early 1960s as a major industrial and manufacturing center. Certain phrases of this graffiti mimic the words of former mayor Louis LaPolla (once described by a national television newsmagazine as the most foul-mouthed mayor in America), and those allegedly used in sexual context by Mayor Ed Hanna during a harassment lawsuit.
A new city is built on the outskirts of the shell, with requisite mall structures and similarly styled houses built from the boom end of Utica’s popularity. Our home was no different: chocolate faux-wooden siding with beige shutters and GoodFellas style stonework, with the house address pieced together from large numbers obtained from Sears Roebuck and Co. An extra large garage contained the brown-bodied, white vinyl top 1973 Plymouth Fury which eventually found its way to a demolition derby a decade later at the admission price of $50. Two Fender stacks and a miscellany of musical equipment, destined for temporary stays at biker bars and Moose lodges, littered the area. But now the front fence is missing and the trim is covered in a salmon hue. A color-blind painter has made a statement, and most of the vowels and consonants are missing.
At the foot of the new city is the frontage road, a short journey downward from the home my grandparents used to own, and whose backyard at the edge of the new city is defined by a mobile home park. A left takes you to nearby Schuyler, the candy store and the miniature golf course via a two-lane winding road to smaller communities like Herkimer and Frankfort. Even further lies Little Falls, where my mother spent her American childhood under the watchful eyes of her parents, a mile or so past where one lies buried in the Ukrainian cemetery.
Mom and I are making the drive to Herkimer with her husband Jerry and my aunt Nadia. We’ve been here for a day, via a 770-mile trip from Chicago. It’s early evening and we’ve rented two rooms at the Howard Johnson’s, and get the chance to bear witness to several new uses of Formica to which we were unaccustomed.
Nadia and Mom sigh. The Herkimer they used to know was during a relatively prosperous era during the 1950s. Their parents were able to find factory work relatively easily, long before jobs started moving West, and eventually South. A third of the town is vacant now, and in need of a good coat of paint. The residents we encounter wander vacantly, and the available parking spaces contain more pickup trucks and K-Cars than you can shake a stick at.
We distract ourselves from our surroundings in a search for an evening meal at a restaurant that doesn’t end with the word ‘McDonalds’. The old diner that Mom used to spend weekend evenings with schoolmates is little more than a homeless shelter with fries.
My father used to play at Chirico’s, an Italian restaurant in Ilion (near Frankfort) that was his home for many Friday and Saturday nights, where patrons could hear their fill of Seger, CCR and Stones covers until the wee hours of the morning. The establishment matched the play list, and celebrated the interior decoration of the late 1970s: wood paneled walls, vinyl push-button furniture with earth tones, tables covered with red and white checkered plastic to sweeten the atmosphere, and the fog of fried cheese particles permeating the room, finding open pores in which to nestle.
Mom and I vaguely remember the restaurant’s location, as we used to help dad load and unload equipment for his band here, but we’re unable to find it and have to consult a phone book and a gas station attendant, who looks quizzically at us when we mention its name. Honestly, the town isn’t so large as to be anonymous, and for a moment we think this village might be a bit more metropolitan than it seems.
It takes us a few minutes to realize that we’ve driven past Chirico’s twice, and as we pulled up to the structure the third time, we take note of its charred remains. A local informs us it burned down a year ago. They weren’t sure if it was a grill fire or an insurance scam. Even through what little of the building is left, we ascertain that not a cent went into any renovation prior to its proverbial last call.
A Big Mac, fries, malted, and an episode of ‘Simon and Simon’ end the evening. I proclaim an internal thank you to the powers that be that I am no longer an upstate New Yorker, and feel a sadness that only residents of Flint, Michigan, can understand.
My grandmother, Tatiana Mazvijko, died of congestive heart failure a week ago. She knew she was going to die. She wanted to be with her husband, Mikhailo, and to be with her God.
Funeral services are being held in Herkimer, at the local Ukrainian church. An odor of mothballs and cheap perfume hangs in the room, revealing the demographic of the attendees without a hint of subtlety. Guests speak not of Tatiana or of death, but focus on the craftsmanship of the floral arrangements and what’s wrong with kids these days.
The priest of the church is a menacing looking man. Only about 5 1/2 feet tall, he has the stare of a Mafioso and a head like Telly Savalas. He’s with two henchmen, likely also clergy, as I’m not sure of the hierarchical structure of this franchise of religion, and they follow his every move, standing silently behind me as he gestures and handshakes. I’m introduced to him through one of grandma’s friends, and he responds with a glance of indifference and proceeds to the pulpit after passing Grandma’s body with familiar hand gestures.
I don’t understand any Ukrainian. Mom didn’t think the second language was important to know. Besides yes and no, I know the following: “What are you doing?”, “What do you want?”, and “You’re going to get a spanking.” These are great phrases to know, but not helpful if you’re trying to understand a funeral proceeding, which contains none of these phrases, especially the bit about the spanking.
The casket is open, and Grandma looks peaceful. Her long, veiny hands – the result of decades of honest work – are folded, and the people who have prepared her have taken great care to mold her frail, wrinkled skin into a smile, an occasion we saw rarely after the passing of her second husband, Mikhailo, from a heart attack in 1983.
I touch her hand. It’s cold. She is no longer here with me. I am in the presence of her physical shell, and nothing more. I wish silently that her soul has joined with Mikhailo’s.
As I look around the room, I notice that I’m not really dressed in sync for the occasion. I’m a Sean Cassidy starter kit – I still haven’t really understood what fashion is. The outside world says 1991, while my appearance belches 1979. My hair has that feathery quality, parted down the middle, with a quality that would make the brothers Gibb proud. And the suit! It boasts lapels of unacceptable width to match a tie whose design has more in common with construction area warning strips than a suitable fashion accessory. The tie’s only purpose is to warn, point to and ridicule the Kinney Hush Puppies below. My awkward look contributes to awkward feelings, in an already awkward setting, as I attempt in vein to translate what the priest might be saying. It’s Ukrainian Orthodox, so it has to be pretty formal, and something he’s said 1000 times before.
There’s no one here under the age of 50, and as the proceedings continue, I set my mind to Theorize, and immediately compute that the sons and daughters of these people have left to find work.
The melodic diatribe of backward consonants suddenly comes to a halt. There’s a disturbing silence, and then a shout.
I don’t need to understand the language to know that the priest, a man who had known my grandmother for decades, has forgotten her name. If the Internet had been in active use at this time, there’s the strong possibility that this religious official would have been exposed nationally on some Ukrainian version of the Drudge report. Barring that, the event eventually loses its newsworthiness.
I’ve been asked to be a pallbearer. I cringe, for I am no longer a passive observer, and become acutely aware of what is happening.
We’re riding in a car behind the hearse towards the cemetery. Grandma’s casket is in full view. The Ukrainian Kojak is in the front seat, and a man sitting next to me speaks to the priest but receives no reply. He gives up, and we continue a silent ride to the cemetery. The sky is gray, and rain begins to fall.
Upon our arrival, I spot immediately the gravestone and plot which will be the recipient of my grandmother’s shell. The body of my grandfather lies next to the plot, along a slope of land that contains stones with the Orthodox cross, encased photos, and engraved last names of several friends of theirs – some of who have passed on, and some who are waiting their turn. The Ukrainian people seem to have a proactive stance with the afterlife. Like a holiday, most arrangements have been made and paid for in advance.
The next item of interest spotted is one of my relatives, jumping and speaking erratically like a grasshopper with Tourette’s Syndrome. She snaps photos like the paparazzi and commands her subjects to smile. She’s not well, but due to the circumstances, we really don’t know what to do with that kind of behavior, so we actively ignore her.
The rain falls a bit more consistently as we lower Tatiana’s casket into the ground. More Ukrainian is spoken, and I listen with the others – not knowing what is said, but understanding the finality of its inflection, interrupted only by occasional snaps of a camera and its owner’s ferreting movements.
Mom cries. I won’t understand for another eight years what it’s like to lose the person who brought you into the world. As Jerry comforts her, I can see his embrace aided by Mikhailo and Tatiana, who likely are asking her not to cry and make such a fuss, which is the Ukrainian thing to do.