Well, folks, I’ve recently returned from a trip with my immediate family to my and my brother’s undergraduate institution for fun, merriment, and one of those notable trips down Memory Lane, and though we had a great time going there, I have to report that Cornell University and the environs have changed considerably. A lot of businesses which one thought would be there forever are no longer, and ones which remain have changed almost out of recognition, though sometimes for the better. We eschewed the formal reunions and the organized trips and went where we remembered things being the best, the most interesting, or sometimes the most grueling (because of course since we had my young nephew with us, we had to impress him with tales of just how horrific things could be, as well as reassuring him that should he go there later, he would be able to surmount difficulties as well). We started out the trip with breakfast near the beginning of our trip, and then met a good friend in another town later for lunch at a Belgian restaurant, which was a new cuisine for us. Suffice it to say, it was excellent. Then, we headed straight for Ithaca. We got to our motel, and then went to an exceptional Thai restaurant down on The Commons (what the level ground is called downtown, which is not on one of the two mountainsides where Cornell University and Ithaca College are respectively located). It was called Thai Basil, and was one of the best restaurants around of any kind. Not only did they make special room for us on a very crowded night when we somewhat inconsiderately came by without a reservation, but the food and the ambience were outstanding. The waitstaff was accomodating and very polite, coming by the table quite frequently to see what else we needed even though they were filled to capacity and clearly expecting many more. It was a happy, happy time to end the first leg of our trip.
The next morning and day were the heart of our trip, as we toured around the campus and saw what had changed. After taking the car around to show my nephew all the places my brother and I had lived (he came through 6 years after me), we parked it (though so booming and hearty, Ithaca is still a city where even up around the university it’s possible to find parking fairly quickly). Then, I went (like a city dweller) to sit on the corner of College Ave. at Collegetown Bagels. This is a place with a rich history, and one of the places that has changed much since our first exposure to it. In the old days, there was no seating; you went into a large room and up to a counter where there were bins of numerous different kinds of bagels, and the man or woman behind the counter took your order and slathered whatever you’d chosen onto your bagel. Someone rang you up at the register and you left. Because I didn’t come from a bagel-conscious area, and I got to Ithaca back in the 1970’s, before bagels were popular all over the U.S., I’d never tasted one before; it was a real novelty, one which I hastened to introduce my family to when they came up to visit. When my mother first tasted them years ago, she wasn’t impressed, being used to the softer bread products of our own hometown. But in about six months or so, she was strangely longing to have one again. And thus another cuisine touched our family. Still, Collegetown Bagels has vastly expanded its operations in the time since even my brother was there after me. The whole corner of College Ave. is now Collegetown Bagels, and they have tons of outdoor seating. As well, the counter space is totally new (at least to me) with a complicated “filing-past” procedure of ordering, and beer choices, and a very innovative and ornate menu of items, as well as additional food and juice items of every sort that you could want. So, I chose to sit and take in the pedestrian traffic and watch the crowds (and incidentally, save a table) for my mother, brother, and nephew, who were planning to hike down one of the several gorges–the motto? “Ithaca is Gorges”–before having a late breakfast. I had chosen a plain whole wheat bagel with butter, a bit of yoghurt, and a juice to wait for them with, and soon got into conversation with someone who’d been there when I was and had been in the town since. He was able to tell me that sadly, some campus traditions no longer prevailed. For example, dogs are no longer allowed to roam free on the Cornell campus (into the classrooms and etc., where before they were always good for a diversion from our studies); students no longer “borrow” lunch trays from the main dining halls to slide down the steep slope behind Uris Library in the snow anymore; and other such sad passings. But when I queried as to why there were now such big nets underneath the bridges, he was able to reassure me that at least one unenviable tradition had changed for the better: despairing students have been prevented from “gorging out” (jumping into the gorges in mostly successful and regrettable suicide attempts). As well, when my family rejoined me for a late breakfast (and like a hobbit, I had a little something else to help fill up the spaces), they had to report that the gorge they had hiked up was perhaps a bit less scenic than before, because it had had to be paved along the side and reinforced due to a recent flood, which had washed some trees away. We ate then moved on to tour the campus.
There were people waving to us from the bell tower of the library as the carillon concert began. As if just to please my nephew (who had at his first sight of the campus up on the hill from a distance said that it reminded him of Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts), students were playing a non-levitational form of quidditch when we got to the Arts Quad. We watched for a while, and then went round looking at the old buildings, noticing as well places where new constructions had been added (nothing’s ever totally the same way you left it, and I suppose that’s as it should be). Nevertheless, I was dismayed to learn that the coffeehouse “The Temple of Zeus” in the English building of Goldwin Smith Hall is no longer there or perhaps not what it was, and I saw no happy outpouring of students from “The Green Dragon” in the Architecture and Fine Arts building of Sibley Hall, though that’s not to say they weren’t there at least lurking in spirit somewhere. I was nostalgic for this area because it’s where I spent most of my time, as an English major in Goldwin Smith and as a dual Theatre major in Lincoln Hall. But I have to be happy for the English majors that they are getting a new Humanities Building right next door, and the Theatre students now have a grand new performing arts center in Schwarz, which I saw when I was sitting having breakfast in the morning, as it was centrally located.
Next, we went to show my nephew where my brother and I had lived in our respective dorms on North Campus, and the North Campus Union, and other sights. I, of course, was mournful to observe that the Pancake House–scene of many an early and riotous breakfast after a night of heavy carousing for me and my undergraduate friends–was no longer above the power house along another waterway, but we were rewarded with the sight of a baby blue egret perched on the dam fishing, so it wasn’t all bad. Finally, we went back to the car and once again my nephew was rewarded in his hopes and ambitions: earlier, when we had been driving past a sign on the road that said “Deer Crossing,” he had hoped to be able to see a deer. Now, however, as we were parked just by someone’s backyard in hillside Ithaca, we saw a deer, an older female, standing quietly feeding on someone’s flower bed. My brother pointed out the tumor which had unfortunately formed on her back knee joint. She was not really afraid of us, but just kept a watchful eye out as we quietly started the car and pulled out. We had our last group touring session of the day by going down to Lake Cayuga and sitting there in Stewart Park, under the willows. It was very warm and yet breezy in a pleasant way; we in fact had good weather the entire weekend. Next, my brother wanted to take my mother to see the falls at Taughhannock Park, so we went there. I, however, had worn my weary legs out, so while the three of them hiked five miles in and five miles back out, I sat in the car park under a shade tree and watched all the young families and their kids and dogs coming to enjoy the lawns and water. Finally, it was time to go out to dinner again, and man! were we ready for it this day!
My brother found us a wonderful Indian restaurant up on the hill on Eddy St., where though I was very sad to see that the magnificent Cabbagetown Café of vegetarian fame and excellence was no longer on a corner, I was amply requited with a fine Indian dinner. I wish I could remember the exact name of the restaurant, but there were two Indian restaurants side by side, and my brother left us to choose one, and as they both looked very inviting and hospitable, I cannot recall which one we visited. But both had a five-star rating, so if you happen to be visiting, we went to the one a little further down the hill of Eddy Street toward Martin Luther King St., and if you can’t find room there, maybe the one a little further just up the hill will have room for you. Again, we were welcomed without a reservation, which was excellent, and the dinner moreover was absolutely first-rate. We ended the evening by driving downtown to Purity Ice Cream, a favorite haunt of my brother’s in the old days, and my nephew was rendered replete with good fare and happy memories.
The next morning, we had to go, but we started out in a leisurely fashion and went to see some more falls at the bottom of another gorge (my brother is clearly training my nephew to be a vigorous fellow). Then, we went to another fine restaurant (I know, it sounds like all we did was walk and eat!). We had our breakfast at the Sunset Grill, which was up on one of the high hills of Ithaca, and from which we could see Cornell University sitting on another mountaintop at a distance. It was several notches up from the average diner food, everything was pristine and clean and bright and cheery, they had an “endless cup of coffee,” and we got to eat out on their porch area, in the gorgeous morning air. Now, it really was time to go. We gassed up the car and headed back, stopping in the evening to have dinner at a restaurant just an hour from my brother’s house, where we were not let down either from all the fine fare we had already been served. It was a “country style” restaurant, but though I’d had premonitions of everything being covered in cheap gravy and being served overboiled vegetables, that’s not what it was about at all. It was instead just as fine a dining experience as all the rest, and concluded our trip in a perfect manner.
We drove to my brother’s house full of our experiences and adventures, and busy discussing the traditions which still seemed to be observed, and the things that had changed for the better or worse. One thing is certain: as one might expect (though older people like us never quite seem to get the gist of this the first time they encounter it, and need repeated exposures to this awareness to “get the picture”), the torch has been passed to a new generation, and they are happy with what they have in the main, just as we were happy with what we had, mostly. And that’s all as it should be! Heaven only knows what my nephew will see if and when he goes to Ithaca. Or maybe he will break tradition and go somewhere else, where he will likely discover his own favorite things to expose his family to. Only time will tell! In the meantime, we had a great family outing, and yet another good experience of family bonding. And after all, that’s what it was all about!