One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.
When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.
As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.
Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.
Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.
“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.
So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.
One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.
“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”
I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?
I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.
The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.
A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.
One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.
“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”
She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”
There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.
My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.
This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.