In late May of this year, I sat on the back deck of my family home in Upstate New York with my brothers and some old friends. Everyone was there for a backyard barbeque, something we only get to do once or twice a year anymore. Brother Ed’s toddlers, the twins, were playing with trucks, being generally mischievous and thoroughly adorable. In the backyard Patrick and Julia, brother Jay’s kids, were part of a band of about ten children, all under 14. Some of them were staggering around aimlessly, arms outstretched, moaning and trying to pretend-bite the others. From the (occasionally giggling) horde came the constant demand for “Braaaaaaiiiiiinnnnsssss…..”
Jay acknowledged that this had been a favorite pastime in recent weeks. “It seems to come up every few years,” he said, matter-of-factly. He turned to our buddy Ryk, whose son had just infected his older sister with a neck chomp, and said, “Oh! Did I ever tell you about Halloween a few years back?”
I think he knew that Ryk would get a kick out of the story more than most. It was Ryk, after all, who had submitted an extra-credit project to our high-school-calculus teacher that analyzed how long it would take for a breed of carnivorous cows to take over the world.
Jay leaned forward in his chair and began to recount the time Patrick wanted to be a zombie for Halloween. Jay and his wife Mary Anne liked the idea, so they bought blue and green makeup and made some fake blood in the kitchen. They then tore holes in an old tee-shirt and made a necklace of skulls — a nontraditional, but inspired affectation. In the last week of October, they carved the pumpkin and tinkered with the final presentation of the kids’ costumes. “It’s actually very difficult to make head wounds look realistic,” said Jay, serious as a senior professor of Aesthetic Zombification. But by Wednesday of that week they’d perfected the look, and the kids planned to dress up both for trick-or-treating in the neighborhood and their school parade.
Then on Thursday the school sent home an announcement that all costumes would have to be educational in nature, and revolve around that year’s theme: Australia.
Julia, the older of the two, was pretty easy going. She was going to be a hippie, and figured she could wing the Australian thing. But for Patrick this was a hard blow. It was totally unfair! They had been working on the costume for days, and now . . . Australia?
But my brother is a born problem solver, and while knowing that he might catch some flak from the principal, it would totally be worth it to not disappoint Patrick. On the back porch, Jay readjusted his seat, and made a settling motion to the assembled that indicated he had it all in hand and said, “So, I spent the better part of the evening teaching Patrick to say, ‘G’day mate, I’m here to eat yer braaaaaaaiiiiiins!’ in an Australian accent.”
Everyone laughed, which caught the attention of the kids in the backyard, and soon we were inundated by tiny bodies as gnawing, ticklish zombies slowly stormed through the screen door and all over the deck. Ryan, one of Ed’s twins, got in on the act by gumming his brother’s ear and mimicking, “Rrrraaaiiiinnnssss . . .” before collapsing into a ball of laughter on the slatted wood.
Everybody loves zombies these days. And I love being on that back porch with my tribe, living and undead, alike. These moments are, in equal measures, magical and rare.
I haven’t called Binghamton “home” for 20 years. I left in the early 1990s because I couldn’t find work. And mine is a common story. Over the past two decades the population decreased dramatically as global economic changes have played havoc with my hometown. The city has become much poorer. The crime rate has grown to the point that these days it’s not advisable to walk down Main Street at night alone, something that my friends and I used to do when we were teenagers without a second thought. In many ways, what’s happened to my hometown is deeply sad, but sitting on that back porch and seeing another generation knocking about in the backyard as carefree and silly as we were 30 years ago does the heart good.
As does the endless cooler of beer that we keep well stocked for such occasions.
After the zombie attack is repelled and the kids are herded back into the yard, we spend another hour or so catching up on careers, love, absent friends and carnivorous cows. The evening passes gently until the moon is over the trees, and one-by-one the friends gather up their kids and spouses and head back to hotels or their parents’ homes where they, themselves, grew up. Most of them have left town, too. As is usual, the end of the night finds me and brother Ed sitting up after everyone else has gone to bed. We crack a last beer and reflect that we seem to have done alright with our lives.
Then we hear a fast series of gunshots coming from somewhere on the other side of Main Street and decide it’s time to head inside.
Most of the summer nights I get in Binghamton these days are spent either on the back porch, or if I feel like going out, on a bar stool at the Belmar Pub where my family has been enjoying a pint for generations. Though it’s only a few blocks away, the Belmar shows a different face of Binghamton. And, in ways, it’s a rougher face. The Belmar has . . . characters. Few fancy cocktails are mixed beneath its gorgeous, faded, tufted-vinyl ceiling. It’s a shot-and-a-beer joint, with the occasional round of Jäger-bombs set up for a group of students down from Binghamton University, still a gem in the State University of New York system. In the best sense, the Belmar is “a dive,” in that there’s no pretense in the bar at all. The Belmar takes its identity as a pub seriously. It is a public house, a meeting ground for anyone in the community. It’s not uncommon to see the mayor talking to his constituents at one of the back tables. Nor is it uncommon to hear those constituents kvetch about his administration once he’s gone. But there’s an appreciation he’s been there. City Hall can be imposing, institutional and unfamiliar. Not too many customers at the Belmar would bother heading downtown for a city council meeting. Anyway, they don’t have to. In here the mayor is Matt, and he’s dropping by his local.
The conversations in the Belmar run the gamut from sports and television shows, to spirituality and the state of man. I’ve spent hours in there learning about the pros and cons of natural-gas fracking, or hearing about some form of bubblegum Buddhism being practiced by the vegan chick who drinks tequila. Along the Belmar’s bar there are running commentaries on politics, the local and national economy, public scandals, sexual conquests, and Snookie’s baby. Much of the humor, if taken out of context, would be considered offensive, but it’s a joint where a white guy, a Black guy and a Latino can drink together, be friends and call one another the worst names you could imagine before heading out the door and planning to meet again the following night.
By far, it’s my favorite bar in town.
One of my friend’s grandfathers, Stanley Skrabalak, opened the Belmar in the late 1940s, after he returned home from the war. Stan was with the 45th Infantry Division when they took Sicily, then Salerno, then Anzio and kept marching north, with the division ultimately liberating Dachau. He earned a Bronze Star before coming back to his people and opening up a joint that has been in continuous operation for nearly 70 years. Back when he first opened, Binghamton was a thriving community of nearly 85,000 Poles, Slovaks, Irishmen and Italians, along with some of the Germans and English families that established the town in the mid-19th century. Back in the day, Stan used to book some high-end talent for the bar and would host bigger shows at the Masonic Temple a few blocks down Main. Eva Gabor and Red Buttons leaning across this exact piece of hardwood sharing a drink . . . now that’s nice.
In the 40’s and 50’s, my grandparents, Ray and Peggy Parker, used to stop in to see Stan every week after bowling on Wednesday nights. Grandma said that Stan had the coldest beer and the best “hot-pie” (a local, American-cheese topped version of bar pizza) in town. And she loved the jukebox, particularly when my grandpa would drop a nickel in and play Peg O’My Heart on his way back from the john. She said they always sat in a banquette that was near the front door, to the left as you walked in. The red leather booths are long gone, but still, every time I come into the comforting darkness, I look over to the corner and think about him asking her to dance while singing the first words: “Peg o’my heart, I love you. Don’t let us part.”
She was a big woman, but you can only glide to that song. It’s a slow, gentle lift all the way through.
Back in the middle of the 20th Century, the Binghamton of my grandparents’ and my parents’ generations was a city of businessmen and union men and Legion Halls, and Polish Clubs, and Russian Clubs, the Sons of Italy and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. It was an ethnic city, an industrial city – and it was on the rise. In so many ways, the town worked like a small-scale model of the America we all learned about in grade school, in Binghamton we had wealth and industry, born of local entrepreneurial talent in three successive waves.
In the late 1800s the nation demanded inexpensive, high-quality cigars, and my hometown was at the ready. Binghamton had the railway infrastructure, the local capital and the workforce to begin production. As demand grew, the companies went searching the ports in Boston and New York for immigrants to fill the workshops.
Then, just as the machine-manufactured cigarette industry began to displace all those workers, another local business, the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, got the contract to put boots on every soldier in the U.S. military just as the Doughboys were headed off to World War I. Those contracts lasted through the Great Depression and up to the end of World War II. The city’s population doubled from 1900 to 1950, and the region made it through the 1930s better than a lot of the country.
When the war came, the men went off to Normandy or the Pacific, while the women filled in at the shoe factories and other local manufacturing plants. One of those was a local business that made punch cards for factory workers at the turn of the century. Since that time it had grown into an industry leader in the compiling and sorting of data. Originally it had been known as the International Time Recording Company, but had since changed its name to International Business Machines, or IBM.
Binghamton has been at the leading edge of successive waves of economic history, and we’re on one again right now – only this one is breaking hard and rooted to changes far beyond the hills of the Susquehanna Valley. It’s the world economy, international-trade agreements, financial deregulation and global climate changes that have molded the current world. The modified-capitalist norms that for a nearly a century moderated, imperfectly, against an “us and them” mentality within our own borders have been gelded.
There was a time in this town when a leather cutter on the floor at E.J.’s could live in an at-cost home built by the company and receive medical care for himself and his family on the company dime. That’s long gone. The shoe factories are long gone. One of the other large employers in my hometown when I was growing up, Ansco, made photographic film — a buggy-whip industry in the digital age if ever there was one. Those jobs aren’t anywhere, these days. IBM kept some manufacturing in the region up through the 1990s, but in 2002, just a few miles west of Binghamton down Route 17, the community of Endicott discovered a toxic swamp of chemicals, primarily trichloroethylene, underneath a good portion of their village. The waste had been collecting for fifty years and is now wafting through the soil and into the groundwater and the air. Most of the poison comes from IBM Plant Number One, which manufactured circuit boards. Cancers and other illnesses cluster in the region that residents now refer to simply as, “the plume.”
IBM promised a multi-million dollar clean-up effort, which manifested itself mostly as testing-wells drilled throughout the area and venting pipes to keep the poisonous vapors from collecting in people’s houses and places of business, but soon after the discovery, IBM shuttered the plant and moved manufacturing elsewhere. They claim that they followed all environmental regulations in effect at the time. They probably did, but the kids are still getting leukemia.
Property values, weak for 20 years, have taken a hit across the board, which has lowered the tax base of the city and surrounding towns, leading to a drop in municipal revenues to pay for teachers, cops, firemen, roads, mental-health outreach, parks, libraries, you name it. The state’s in a fiscal crisis because of sharp revenue declines in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and a political consensus to reduce the progressivity of the state tax system. The federal government, after an initial stimulus that helped cities like Binghamton keep the firemen, police officers and teachers on the roles, has been shut down by a Congress who won’t pass anything but wind.
In the midst of this decades-long storm, Binghamton has contracted from its post-war population high of 85,000 back down to 47,000, where it was in the first decade of the 20th Century. The relatively low property values have pulled in poorer families, while more affluent and mobile folk have moved on for greener pastures. The shifting of continent-sized economic plates under our feet has led to a rise in crime, violence, depression, obesity, drug addiction, alcoholism and despair. From a back porch on a summer’s evening, or a bar stool in a joint where my grandparents used to dance, everything can still seem alright. But it’s not.
The last time I was in the Belmar I had the chance to catch up with the owner, Ed. Our fathers were best friends in high school, and Ed and I have known one another since we were kids. As we caught up, a couple of guys just down the bar were discussing the intricacies of The Walking Dead finale from this past season. Ed gestured to them and noted that it makes sense zombies are all the rage these days. He joked that if you look either way down Main Street you’d see more than a few hungry-looking, brain-starved stragglers heading our way. To capitalize on it, he said with a twinkle in his eye, Ed’s considering a Zombie-Defense-Night special. At some point in the evening he’ll blow a whistle, and if the customers and the staff can manage to tack the plywood he’s got stored in the back corner of the bar to the windows and lower the gate on the front door in three minutes he’ll buy a round for the bar.
I think it’s a great idea.
Ed can make those jokes. He’s Binghamton through-and-through. It would be a different story if an outsider started heaping calumny on the hometown, but no one doubts that Ed lives with — and in a lot of ways lives for — the Binghamton community. He’s also one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. Ed knows people, and he knows the role that he plays as the owner of the Belmar. The guy is almost constantly raising money for victims of the recent floods in town, or multiple sclerosis, or environmental causes like the anti-fracking movement in the region. He’s also one of the few business owners in town who donated to the rather rag-tag Occupy Binghamton camp last winter. He provided the port-a-potties and paid for their servicing, a kindness not soon to be forgotten by the protestors or the other residents of the downtown neighborhood where they were encamped. Most of the money comes either from his pocket or the donations of his customers, as the fund-raisers are invariably held either in his bar or, if the weather is good, the Belmar’s backyard.
Ed treats his customers like family, and, like family, he knows how to straight-talk them when necessary. I remember one session on a trip home about a year ago when some customers were complaining about welfare and “that damn Obama giving away unemployment checks to deadbeats.” Ed is no doctrinaire political thinker by any means; he’s a true independent and calls each circumstance on its own merits. But he walked over from the far end of the bar and said with a laugh, “Half you guys wouldn’t have been here last week if it weren’t for unemployment insurance, and the other half won’t be next week if you get your way.”
Then he walked away and went back to stocking the beer fridge.
The fact that everyone shut up indicated that Ed had clipped close to the bone. After a few minutes of murmur and silence, Ed came back with shot glasses. A round of Jameson on his tab said that everything was going to be alright, and the conversation turned to the television screen where the Yanks and the Mets were in interleague play.
That’s another thing about The Belmar that I love. There are two flat screens in the bar, but only sports are shown, and with the sound off except for championships. I’ve never asked Ed why he made that rule, but I presume it’s because if you’re in the Belmar, you’re there to be with people. Get lost in the news or the Real Housewives of New Jersey in your own home. But if you’re here, you’re here to be with your community. I think that Ed understands how important that is, particularly in our hometown. In 2011, Gallup ranked us as the “least optimistic place in America.” Other sources have noted that we’re the second-most obese and the fifth-most economically depressed city in the country. The jobs numbers (and the waistlines) back that up. Between 1980 and 2005, manufacturing jobs declined by 56 percent, while the number of fast-food restaurants exploded like an invasive species of frog.
In reality, the Gallup methodology was flawed. Their numbers were skewed. They polled outside the city itself, but didn’t include the still-thriving university a few miles outside town. Still, it’s a kick in the guts to pick up the morning paper and read that you live in the worst place in the whole country. Particularly when your strongest argument is that you should probably be ranked somewhere around tenth. But what’s odd is that nearly everyone in town still thinks it’s a pretty good place to live. We’re not optimistic, but it is home. Seventy-five percent of those polled still claim that they are satisfied with their community. That says something about Binghamtonians — or about the human capacity to endure. Maybe both.
As Ed gets dragged away by a group of revelers, I chuckle to myself, thinking about him blowing the whistle; I imagine everyone dropping their drinks and rushing for the windows to guard against the shambling horde. On cue, I pick up on the two friends down the bar still discussing The Walking Dead. Their conversation blends into my reflections on the changes of recent years, and suddenly I understand why Zombies are once again so popular in the culture.
Imaginary monsters of all sorts tell us something about what we actually fear. Back when we’re little ones, it’s the unknown, the darkness, which give rise to the terrors under the bed. But grown-ups in America today are scared of something horrible, slow and heartless, something terribly human and grindingly relentless. Most of my friends are keeping their heads above water, but being anywhere near the bottom-half of the middle-class today means living frighteningly close to the edge. For so many, one pink slip, one missed paycheck, one more flood, one uninsured illness is enough to knock us to the ground. For most of us, that one bad day is enough to stagger us, allowing the horde to move in for the kill. The real terror in America today isn’t that you’ve got to run and fight constantly; it’s that you can never mess up, not even once, without risking getting swamped by the nightmare. Unpaid bills beget unpaid bills. Just one bite from any of those heartless, unreasoning forces means the rest of it collapses on top of you until you’re just . . . gone. That stress changes people. For some, it makes them mean, hard and cruel, as I’m about to find out.
The Walking Dead fans have moved to the heart of the matter. They’re discussing the central dramatic theme of Rick vs. Shane. For those of you not into the show, Rick is the default leader of his band of living refugees, and he maintains his authority by trying to keep his humanity in a world gone mad. Shane, once his best friend, has finally cracked out of his decent-guy egg and emerged as a new, hard, mechanical son-of-a-bitch. Rick wants to save everyone. Shane sees the world as “us” vs. “them.” And “them” ain’t just the zombies. It’s anyone that gets in the way of his and his own.
The conversation halts abruptly with the slam of a hand on the bar as Shane’s advocate shouts at his friend, “You just don’t understand how the real world works!”
I don’t know his personal story. Maybe he was just quoting a line from the show. I wasn’t invited into the conversation, so I hold my peace, but I do think he’s wrong. How the world works, at least in our hearts and our hometown watering holes, is a choice, and all around the bar, in the middle of this honestly depressed city, people were making the choice to be together. Folks who might not have the money for a vacation, or a brand-new used car, come to the Belmar to drink together, laugh together, and buy their neighbors round after round of beers and when somebody from the family comes up truly short, they pitch in to help out.
It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not wise that the societal safety nets, built by our parents and our grandparents, are being allowed to weaken and fray, but when people fall, their neighbors still try to catch them before they get taken under by the waves of the great unconcern. There is everything noble in that.
I drift away from Rick and Shane for a few minutes, lost in thought, as I remember a conversation with my dad in the late fall of 2001. We were both living in New York City when The Towers fell. I was 35, and it was the worst year I could remember. I asked my dad if he agreed, and without missing a beat he said, “No, 1968 was far worse.” Then, with his fingers checking off searing memories, he said, “January: The Tet Offensive. April: Martin is killed and the cities burn. June: Bobby is assassinated. August: The Russians crush Prague as Daly crushes Chicago. November: . . . we elect Nixon.”
It didn’t diminish the horrors of that September to note that the world has been burning for a very long time and I suppose if Stan Skrabalak were around, he might offer some deeper perspective, having lived through the Great Depression and then fighting his way from the shores of Sicily to the merciless ovens still smoldering with ashes of stars. Yet, still, he came home and gave his neighbors, his fellow veterans and my grandparents a place to dance. As we move from a world of relative wealth to a world of relative want, any excuses towards selfishness need to stand tall to such honor, humility and grace.
With that said, I can understand why my niece and nephew play zombie games, and I understand why they’re a million-dollar industry out in Hollywood. That particular fear of an unceasing wave of soulless, ravaged human beings fills an odd space in the zeitgeist. It lives deep in the universal hippocampus, oscillating between the pleasure of escapist fantasy and the proximity of unachievable rest. Toying with it is like touching a toothache, repeatedly, with your tongue. It hurts like hell, but it sends a shock of unfiltered truth to mind and soul that you’re still very much alive.
The imagery of the undead horde is self-indulgent, but taken in small doses, it’s a purgative. Still, there’s a danger in staring too long as through a glass, darkly and as I sit at the bar this seems an important point. Politically, socially, economically and spiritually, there is a raging battle in our culture between the Ricks and the Shanes. One philosophy says, “There are dark forces working in the night, but we still move forward together. Just like we always have.” The other says, “Screw you, you’re on your own, and may the devil take the hindmost.”
Neither the patrons of the Belmar, nor the citizens of the City of Binghamton, can reorganize the tectonic plates of the global economy to force IBM to clean up “the plume,” much less return to town and give everybody jobs again. They can’t will property values to rise, nor their city coffers to overflow with surplus revenue. They can’t keep the river from rising again, and again and again. They can’t even make the crime go away. No one has seen a silver bullet or a magic wand around these parts in a very long time.
But they can refuse to give in. They can keep a weather-eye out for cruelty in the face of hardship. They can try to keep it from getting mean out there, and make damn sure it stays decent in here. And when necessary, folks like Ed are there to keep everybody moving forward. Together.
I pay my tab, leave a tip and head towards the door, glancing right to imagine Peg and Ray dancing a tune as Stan busses their table and clears away the empty hot-pie tin. I give my grandma’s ghost a wink and pretend to flip Ray a nickel as I slide out the door. As they turn, my grandma smiles the way I remember her, and then she goes back to the graceful step. Ed’s out front, talking to some of the patrons having a sidewalk smoke, and he tries, unsuccessfully, to convince me to call a cab. I know the streets are dangerous, but I’m feeling protected by good will — and a few shots of whiskey. I give him a hug and tell him I’ll see him in six months.
Half a block on, I see a sketchy-looking guy heading in my direction down near the intersection of Main and Crandall. For a second, I consider taking Ed up on the cab, but then figure that at worst he’s unemployed, not undead.
He’s a big guy, and when we’re about ten steps from one another he bows-up and gives me a hard look. So I bow-up and give it back. At five paces we both realize there’s no threat, and trade “’ts’ups?” As I continue west and he heads east, I think that he looks familiar. Probably the son of some guy I went to school with back in the day. Whoever he is, there’s a reasonable chance he’s heading to the Belmar and will soon be filling up the break in the bar where I left an empty stool.
A few more steps on, I consider the two-week growth of beard on my face and the rips in the knees of my jeans. I’m six-feet tall, two-hundred pounds and I’m walking alone down Main Street in Binghamton at two in the morning, not stumbling exactly, but maybe weaving a bit. Then I suddenly get why the kid gave such a hard look. It struck me so fast that I laughed out loud. “Oh my God! I’m a zombie! I’m a Main Street zombie!”
About three blocks from the bar, I could swear that I hear the distant blast of a coach’s whistle. Did Ed do the test??? Should I go back and see?
Nahhh. It’s better as a mystery. Anyway, it’s late and I’ve gotta head back to New York City tomorrow, then Guatemala.
I keep walking home, to the house where I grew up. When I get there, I’ll have my final beer on the back deck. Maybe if my brother is awake, he’ll join me. Anyway, I figure that by now the windows are boarded up, the gate has come crashing down at the Belmar and everyone inside is raising a salute to their mutual defense against the dark forces of the night.
Once I settle in on the back porch, I’ll raise one, too.
We’re all in this together. Stan Skrabalak and the boys of the 45th Infantry Division knew that. My grandma Peggy and grandpa Ray knew that. My mom and dad and their friends knew that when they were coming up and Ed makes sure that everyone down at the Belmar ain’t gonna forget it on his watch.
I know it, too. I believe it. I’ve just gotta believe it.