I could be in Toronto, or somewhere in Ontario, celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day with my recently acquired dojo family or with some other friends. Instead, it’s 4 pm in the afternoon and I’m sitting on a red bench at the Coach Terminal in Rochester, NY, carrying a backpack that is heavier than me.
I am coming home after attending the regional convention (North East) of the Modern Language Association in Rochester, NY, an event which collected panels, seminars, and workshops on each and any modern language taught in North America. It’s an enormous babel, in which each subject area seems to follow its own pace and its own rules.
In my two years and a half as a Graduate Student, my attitude towards this sort of thing has dramatically changed. I no longer share the neophyte’s excitement, and I totally lost the sense of adventure that I used to carry with me in these trips at the beginning. The good news is that scholarship now comes natural to me, that I’ve come to see it as a normal part of my “job”, and, last but not least, that I probably present better papers. At the same time, I’m starting to feel the fatigue of traveling for thousands of miles in order to share my ideas with the entire scientific community.
On the way to Rochester, instead of writing, reading or marking the mountain of students’ compositions that I brought with me, I slept all the time, still tired from the early wake and from the challenging Union meeting of the night before. The journey is always in my style: wake-up before dawn, travel for endless hours on a coach, with a backpack heavy enough to break my back. However, on this occasion I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping alone. I’m tired of epic deeds, such as sleeping on folding beds in the room of colleagues, or spending the night in one out of the 24 beds in the largest dorm in the cheapest youth hostel in some shady, remote, suburb. I still have vivid memories of the time I got lost at 12 AM in Pittsburgh, or of that other time, when a drunk cab-driver offered to chaperon me in the Buffalo nightlife. Nevermore. Since I got two small awards helping me covering my expenses (including a NeMLA Graduate Travel Award, a small, but hard fought for, amount of money), I decided that I could afford something decent.
Rochester is one of those places whose existence, unless you were born here by a strange case, would probably be unknown to you. Exactly like Des Moines, according to Bill Bryson.
All you can see is a bunch of skyscrapers in the most classic early twentieth century style, such as the Kodak tower: the only tourist attraction, or presumed so, of the place. Streets are clean, people are friendly, and even the bus station (usually a rare place of desolation) looks decent. Here some candy-selling machines from the Eighties shine, spotlessly clean, among recently painted walls. There’s even a piece of archaeology from the early years of the video-gaming culture.
Every time I end up in a half-deserted town like this one, I always tell myself: “Don’t be picky, you might end up teaching at a community college in some town like this. Considering the job market out there, you’d still be lucky”.
Rochester is nonetheless a small town, whose “life” seems confined to a few blocks. There is no transition between the outskirts (a never ending succession of empty parking lots, crumbling buildings, and Catholic Family Centers) and the “downtown” area, full of banks, federal buildings, and convention centers. It seems impossible to grab a decent bite. The only available solutions look adventurous, like the advertisement for a Caribbean Pirate’s Inn which is, presumably, in the basement of a concrete building. My Canadian side cheers when passing by a U.S. branch of Tim Hortons. I also pass by a pagoda-shaped restaurant advertising Chinese, Thai, sushi, burgers, french fries, salads, pizza, smoothies, and probably something else that I can’t recall right now. I react with childish excitement to the sight of a bookstore: at the end of the day, Rochester has several colleges and at least one university. However, when I cross the street and get close enough to read the whole sign, I realize it’s an “Adult” bookseller, which proudly offers up to the most recent releases. I end up having two greasy slices of pizza for lunch at a place run by hyphenated Italians. Desolation notwithstanding, it seems to be a popular spot: people are lining up on the sidewalk. “This is not Burger King – You do not get it your way – You get it my way or you do not get the whole thing,” warns a sign, as though Vissani in person were working as a chef. Later that night, some colleagues will tell me funny stories of their unsuccessful search for stores of various kinds and even for a Starbucks (imitations were also acceptable, I guess).
NeMLA people are sharing their space with the Republican Convention of the State of NY. I run away squeaking in terror after incidentally stumbling upon a banquet of Santorum fans. I’d better keep the NeMLA badge also when walking out of the Convention Center, at least for a couple of blocks. Just to avoid confusion.
On Friday, Occupy protesters gather and rally all day. The atmosphere is tense. A massive deployment of national and local TV-trucks thickens in front of the sliding doors. Police officers are patrolling the hall. A dozen of masked people chant slogans incessantly. On the other side of the road, a group of cheerleaders dance for some promotional event dressed in fake graduation gowns. I stop a girl holding a sign, and I ask her what exactly they are protesting at. She tells me of a culture of hatred and of warfare against the poor, against queer people, against blacks, against Muslims, in short against the world. Inside the convention center, it only takes a few meters’ walk to enter a totally segregated world. Young academics compulsively rehearse their papers while biting their nails, graduate students walk by in their fathers’ jackets, flawless scholars chat on FB with their colleagues at home, and young Ivy Leaguers of fine hopes converse with adjuncts and junior faculty from Wyoming or Arizona, clearly thinking that a much brighter future, job-wise, is looming ahead for them. And hell, there’s not a free outlet within a few miles. [more]