When you think of New York State, it first thing that comes to mind is the city named after it. With its unique skyline and the home of the Statue of Liberty, it’s easy to understand why. But in truth, New York City is only a fragment of the state. Upstate, you may say, consists of Albany, Syracuse and even Buffalo. You would still be far off the mark. In fact, most of New York is either a giant field of small towns slowly withering away, farms, or forests. But all was not lost. Hidden within the green desert near the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains lies a village that survived the ravages of time and massive population shifts. That village was Hamilton, the destination of John DeLano.
John was an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in Baltimore, on the edge of turning sixty-seven, and ready to collect Social Security. Childless, and having his wife pass away the year before, John found himself sailing the seas of time on a rudderless ship. Still, he tried to move on. John was a regular at the Senior Community Center and was known to have bowled a little, but most of the time, John found himself in front of a TV, watching Netflix movies and munching on junk food.
It was while John was watching an old episode of Stranger Things, when he received a strange phone call. “Is this John DeLano?” crackled a voice over the phone.
“Yes, it is,” John answered.
“My name is Joe Schapiro. I’m George Flanders’ attorney. I regret to inform you George passed away two days ago.”
George Flanders was a name lost in John’s past, but now was thrusted to the present. In John’s childhood days, George was his best friend and anchor when he used to live in Eaton, a town close to Hamilton. Eaton, like the neighboring towns of West Eaton, Bouckville, and Munnsville, were struggling through its death throws. Trapped together in the husk of this town, John and George made the best of a bad situation. Baseball, along with football on a three-person team was common play for the kids, and when Halloween came, George supplied the rotten tomatoes from his garden to throw at passing cars and I brought the toilet paper to decorate the trees. This was how John lived, until his eighteenth birthday, when he joined the Army, leaving George behind, never to return. Now, John had to face his past.
“Thank you for informing me, Mr. Schapiro. I appreciate you reaching out to me.”
“No problem, John, but the main reason I called you was George left twenty-five thousand dollars for you in his will. There’s just one stipulation. You’ll have to go to Lucky Lucy’s Bar in Hamilton and meet me there.”
John was surprised to learn Lucky Lucy’s still existed after surviving fifty years of the hell in upstate New York. Without the help of Colgate University’s students, it wouldn’t have. John, after quickly reflecting on his life, sadly decided he had nothing holding him back. All ties to Baltimore, as well as his life as he knew it were severed. With no prospects for a good future on the horizon, John realized he was dead as Eaton was. John decided he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So, he agreed to meet Mr. Schapiro at Lucky Lucy’s three days from now.
It was a cloudy Friday afternoon when John crossed the border between Pennsylvania and New York and drove through Binghamton. Besides the addition of a few chain restaurants, nothing had really changed. Aged traffic lights guarded the cracked infested roads and ancient houses, though freshly painted, marred the view of the street. John found himself exiting Binghamton as quickly as possible. It wasn’t long after he traveled up Route 12B, when he was finally greeted with a scenic view of Colgate University and a sign on the road saying, “Welcome to the Village of Hamilton”.
Like what John observed in New York, he discovered little had also changed in Hamilton. Besides the names sported at various shops, the red brick exteriors and facades remain unchanged. Surprisingly though, people of all ages were entering and exiting these stores, carrying shopping bags filled with their purchases. So, unlike most towns he passed through, John discovered Hamilton was a thriving community compared to the other towns.
It wasn’t long after entering the village limits when John reached my destination. Lucky Lucy’s was situated near downtown on Main Street, about a five-minute walk from the frat houses. Lucky for the party seeking sorority sisters and fraternity boys, as well as Lucky Lucy’s. as John entered the bar, he was greeted by the voice of Don McClean singing American Pie, and a pretty face tending the bar.
“What would you like?” the pretty face asked.
“I’ll have a glass of whatever you have on tap, and if you don’t mind,” answered John. “I’m going to sit at one of your tables and wait for someone to meet me.”
As the pretty face filled his glass, she asked, “Someone local, I suppose. Who is it?”
“Some lawyer by the name of George Flanders. Do you know him?”
The pretty face shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry, never heard the name. Maybe he’s not so local. Anyways, here’s your beer and your welcome to wait as long as you want.”
As Don McClean’s voice faded away, Bobby Goldsboro replaced him singing Honey, but before Bobby got to the second verse, a man about John’s age sat across the table from him. “Are you George Flanders?” John asked.
The man peered at John quizzically and smirked. “Is that who you think I am?”
It was then John closely examined the man’s face. Behind the wrinkles of his face, was an image from the past, and when John gazed into his eyes, he was left with no doubt who he was facing. “What the hell. Is that you George?”
George laughed. “It didn’t take you long to discover my identity.” He turned to the bartender. “Hey, Gracie, pour my friend another drink and give me one of what he is having.”
John lost it. “What’s the meaning of this, George? Why did you tell me you were dead and pretend to be some lawyer filled with promises?”
The grin on George’s face quickly vanished. “If I called you and said, Hi John. It’s George. Remember me? How about you come to Hamilton, and we can have a beer together. Would you have come?”
At this point, there was nothing John could say, for he knew he would never come, hell or high water. After John’s wife Mary succumbed to cancer, John’s world diminished to a mere two square miles, and if he hadn’t been tempted by the twenty-five thousand dollars, he would never have left. But now he was in Hamilton, facing an old friend of his who turned out to be a liar and is waiting for an answer.
“You’re right George. I probably wouldn’t have come if you called. So, tell me. Why after all this time have you decided to get me up here?”
George sighed as he sipped his beer. Then he replied, “Even up here John, we heard about Mary’s passing. I know it’s late, but I still give you, my condolences. Ever since high school, I knew how close Mary and you were, and I know how much it must have torn you apart when she left.”
John muttered, “I don’t want to think about it.”
“I don’t believe you, John. I believe you think about her all the time. That’s why you’ve isolated yourself from the rest of the world. I have a friend in Baltimore check up on you and he told me you’ve been couped up in your house wasting away. Though we haven’t talked for the last forty-five years, I still consider you one of my best friends and I couldn’t leave you hanging like that. So, I concocted this plan to get you to break away from Baltimore and travel up here to the land of the living.”
“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You call this place the land of the living? Most of the buildings in places like Eaton or West Eaton are ancient, abandoned dwellings, collapsing under their own weight. I can’t imagine how many people fled those towns, in order to survive. Upstate New York is dead and you and a few derelicts of the pass refuse to see it.”
With a gleam in his eyes, George said, “Funny you should mention me living among the dead. Yes, maybe the towns themselves our becoming fading memories of the past, but as for the people who remained, they’re far from grip of death, in fact they are thriving. Neighbor helping neighbor is a mantra we live by, and we can’t imagine living without it. Don’t you see, John? When we give and share with our neighbors, we are experiencing love like you can’t imagine. You remember back in the day when we had that big snowstorm, when we took it upon ourselves to shovel the steps to the church. The drifts must have been at least three-feet high. You remember what happened? When the town people saw us out there digging the daylight out of those drifts, they came out with their shovels and helped us out. Now, John, what about you? You live in a big city with a population of a half-million. How many neighbors came out to dig you out of the snow or help you in any way? Can you recall any of your neighbor's names? You claim I live with the dead, but what about you, John? Baltimore may not be a ghost town, but to you, your neighbors are nothing but specters never touching your soul. You should take a lesson from Doroty Gale from The Wizard of Oz and remember there’s no place like home.”
George finished his beer and rose to his feet. “I’m going to leave now John. Think about what I said and if you want to call, you have my number and if you want to stay, at least for a while, I live at 11 Payne Street.” With that said, George walked out the door leaving John to stir in his own juices.
John stared at his beer and wondered if the glass was half empty or half full and when he finished it off, would the glass be empty or his stomach full? John chugged down the remainder of the beer, belched, and walked out the door.