Stephen Burke

You moved from a big city to a small town to simplify your life, and it worked.

By city standards your trip to work now qualifies more as a jaunt than a commute. It used to be an hour each way minimum, on a four-lane highway with no control or do-overs: Namely, when a chemical truck flips over there’s no escape, the off-ramp is two miles and thousands of stuck cars ahead of you, and now your main goal is just not to combust. Eventually, with luck, you’ll be someplace else, someplace safe, someplace sane.

Well, now you are, permanently, having made that big move to littleness. Ironically, the things you thought (or knew) you’d miss have not been available much anyway since 2020, even to the closest people and most central residents.

Not that you’d deny anyone the pleasures of the theaters, museums, sports teams, parks, varied neighborhoods, historic buildings, ancient dive bars, family pizza parlors, chopsteak joints: all the old favorites and new finds. But the fact is that many points of pleasure have been closed for a while, or severely restricted in operation.

Much is coming back now, blessedly, and not a moment too soon. Now you can go back and visit. But all along you’ve been in control of the relationship. You’re the one who left.

You changed cars. You knew your transformation was complete, or at least furthered, with that first Volvo. A station wagon, no less. When your city friends saw it they asked if you do a lot of things that require a station wagon. You had to think about it, and of course if you have to think about it the answer is no. You answered no very brightly without knowing quite why. 

Thoreau didn’t live in the automotive age, but if he had, he wouldn’t have said beware all enterprises that require Volvo station wagons. He probably would have said the opposite.

What he did say was beware all enterprises that require new clothes, and here he finds common ground with residents of this small town.    

In Ithaca we extend the exclusion to what in the olden days (not as old as Thoreau’s but say in 1940’s movies) might have jovially been called “swell” clothes: nice clothes, stylish clothes, fancy clothes.

There’s no call for them here. Go to a wedding in too fine an ensemble and you might show up the assembly, and maybe even the principals. Too nice a jacket worn to a job interview, forget about a suit, might cost you that job. Your thin leather shoes are not your best foot forward.

Now those clothes are like friends you don’t see anymore. They even have names: Christian Dior, Bill Blass, Marc Anthony, J. Crew, Lanvin. They’re like fading entries in an old address book. Are they even still alive?

On some occasions it might make sense to break out the apparel not from the bottom of a barrel: when going to the doctor, for instance. Mightn’t they treat you better the more professional you look? Maybe, but then you arrive and you’re the only one in the waiting room not wearing jeans, sweats, shorts, sneakers or sandals, and the staff all wear sneakers, including the practitioner.

If you’re ready to hang up, as in give up, the haberdashery, there are options.

The Recycling Center off Route 13 accepts clothing. They are slightly fussy in that the material must be of donatable quality, i.e. not ragged, and brought in clear plastic bags, or it will be refused.

The Salvation Army, a bit further south on Route 13, is less strict, which seems ironic for an army. My experience there is seeing people bring things in all types of bags and everything is accepted. They do make a point of asking that nothing be left there during off hours.

Catholic Charities on W. Buffalo Street has a service of providing free clothing from donations. I was told they might be particular about acceptances because of space limitations, and because with the pandemic fewer people than usual have been coming in to take things. But when I went they were happy with what I brought, which was of fairly high-toned provenance, but also simply because it was men’s wear, which they said they get much less than women’s. 

It reminded me of the biblical verse, particularly apt in that setting, that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I know this is generally construed as a moral exhortation, but it always seemed to me a mere statement of fact, because it means you have something to give in the first place. I was blessed enough to have had a full closet once, and not to need one now.

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