Time in a Box
“You click. We do the rest.”
– Eastman Kodak advertisement for the first Brownie Camera
Once upon a time Rochester, NY was a wonderful place to be from. A sleepy hamlet in the Genesee River Valley in Western New York. Rochester became wealthy and significant when George Eastman was inspired to mass produce the photographic process. This happened around the same time Thomas Edison was conceiving the light bulb and Henry Ford thought up the assembly line for horseless carriages. A seemingly recent moment in the annals of history, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a level of invention to rival the Renaissance and Ancient Rome. The printing press changed the fabric of society in Medieval Europe, changing a sense of society and time. Not a perception, but perception itself changed. No longer could knowledge simply be the domain of the elite. Then time and distance became to an even greater extent relativistic in more than Einstein’s theory of nearly a hundred years ago. Space was compressed by the automobile and paved roads, planes could traverse the Atlantic, and in real time people could speak from one coast, then a continent to another. George Eastman found a way to capture time in a box and the average person could afford what had been the realm of the wealthy and significant.
Cultures can get mired in what works in a particular time and place and fail to adapt. Individuals, usually young ones, don’t know to cling to old ways. In my life, another box, the computer compressed time, space, knowledge, and connection in a way that awed me when my house was first wired to the Internet. “How is this possible?” I would wonder. Certainly cameras and cameras with men on the moon had no real power to impress me; that was just the world I was born into. If the astronomical had become accessible within the imagination, so now had the intimate. I couldn’t have imagined FaceBook “friends” as revolutionaries in Iran and the ability to have Farsi in the Arabic alphabet translated with relative ease. The first cameras, phones, and automobiles for the common family doubtless had the same transcendent quality. Our own essence shimmers in the mind of a larger universe.
My family on both sides came to Rochester during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This glory time still hinted and glimmered in my early life in Rochester. Eastman Kodak was a significant company with iconic social standing – employing most of the city of Monroe County. All of Monroe County aided the U.S. government in the Space Race and in spy craft for the Cold War. Technology suited the landscape of the Genesee River Valley well. The old growth forests, gorges, and rivers spoke as much to a communal memory of Medieval Europe as much as of the New World where the Seneca Indians of the Iroquois Nation once lived. With its beauty and dangers, the long, dark, cold winters pushed one towards the interior and the intellectual. Cabin Fever was as certain as Spring Fever. Dark, silent, starlit nights casting a glow upon glistening snow leaves one to long for some tropical dreamscape – or to imagine technology and numbers than can aid the escape of that particular cold isolation to another place.
Of course, when one is born to a certain world, one never looks at it in terms of its uniqueness until one is older. There was no other way of life, there were no other parents; the immediate is everything contained. Early life becomes a template to work from, an ideal of how things “should be,” whether they are a good idea or not. The sunshine of childhood burns its images onto the silver oxide of the mind and the shapes and shadows remain. Sometimes those shapes become the very houses we live our lives in, with others, faded photographs buried in the attic.
Like a castle or cathedral in Europe, Eastman Kodak loomed large over our daily lives. Its smoke stacks and factory campuses suggesting it was the center of the world and the repository of all known power. To work for Kodak was to be a courtier. My family had been by design low-level courtiers. Italians, Jews, and African-Americans had limited status in early twentieth century America. They could work on the assembly lines at Kodak’s great mills, but not be in management until the Civil Rights movement brought about the sea change of the nineteen sixties. My Italian relatives were ambitious and grasped for more as soon as it became available. Being Sicilian, we knew well other methods of survival going back to ancient Rome, but these methods were dangerous and difficult. As The Godfather films so elegantly document, there is payment for the sins of the fathers no matter how well-intentioned those indiscretions, venal and mortal. The opportunity to be a part of the greater society and not a shadow society is central to the American sensibility. Europe was called the “old country” by my relatives, sometimes in English, often in dialectic Sicilian. Of course, they thought we couldn’t understand the old language, but children pick up things adults don’t. We were part of the “new world.”
I benefitted greatly from the world George Eastman left behind. Rochestarians could notoriously be pretentious regarding immediate communities in the environs, in particular Buffalo, which suffered with the decline of heavy industry. Buffalo had been a major city in the eighteen hundreds, hosting a World’s Fair and being the sight of the assignation of President William McKinley. It was difficult for me to picture this Buffalo. All I thought of when thinking of Buffalo was the bigger airport, football, and the place on the way to Niagara Falls and Marine Land. Rochester had its own significant philharmonic and music school. The community could lay claim to its own planetarium, museum complex, art community, medical school, technical colleges, and solid, public education. This was in an area no more populated than Glendale, California. There was no connection to a larger city. New York City and Toronto, Canada were further than day trips and not integrated into daily life in the Genesee River Valley. Rochester was its own little universe and quite content to be so as long as the world was buying the chemical film process churned out in its large factories and laboratories and sending in the checks.
This all changed in the eighties, with hints beginning in the nineteen seventies. It was at this time my family changed as well. The stuff that glued us all together was getting dried out and coming undone. My parents divorced and the things of stable life for children were denied to my brother and myself. We weren’t living in the shadow of the Greatest Generation but of the Me Generation. Fuji film was a minor competitor to Eastman Kodak, but the real changes coming were digital. It was like everyone knew technology was moving on, leaving behind the hundred year old chemical process of photographic reproduction, but no one knew how to adapt to the changes. We were stuck in the fifties. People weren’t buying film the same way anymore, families were coming apart, and yet we still measured ourselves in terms of the Eisenhower Era. The Cold War ended, the cell phone and Internet became the monikers of modern life, and Rochester stayed behind in time. It joined Buffalo as a kind of memory city. “Remember heavy industry?” “Remember light industry?” “Remember nuclear families?” One could almost become wistful for the Cold War. If it was stagnate and sterile, it certainly was superior to the mass conflagration that was World War.
I knew I had to leave Rochester when I was fairly young. I was part of a family system that was no longer workable. I saw many cousins lives fall apart and even end young in ways that they should not have. We still lived in a place that had much to offer materially and educationally, we were still in the dewy mist of the American Century, but the soul of belief was from another place and time. I thought back on Europe and its tribalism turned to treaties turned to world destructions. A set faith in how things “should be,” time stuck in a box; left little for generations to come. If perfection had been achieved prior, what was the point of more people and generations? Of course perfection had not been achieved, but the images painted in young brains of how the world “should be” were not swayed by images of what could be as life seemed insecure and frightening.
I left behind the “old” world for the “new” in my early twenties. Heading west I fancied a kinship with my lost relatives on Ellis Island. My great grandmother had come to America believing the streets were paved with gold. I was headed to the Golden State. Los Angeles spoke to me of malleable things. I was modern enough to think that Golden State had more to do with a mental condition than valuable metals in paned for in rivers, but the stars still glinted in my eyes. I had a dream when I was driving on Eisenhower’s great thruway system. I was sorting through an archeological dig and found a rock. In big red letters was painted, “Go West.” Then there was an asterisk next to the big words. Underneath was a complete set of instructions – in Chinese. Unfortunately, my subconscious reads Chinese as well as my conscious mind does. Perhaps that was the point in the dream.
America as a whole seems to be in similar place now as Rochester was when I left. The last thirty years have seen little built in America outside of Ponzi schemes while the infrastructure rotted from within. We are stuck in an image of ourselves from another time, and don’t perceive the world changing, let alone adapting to it. The tendency to cling to the past in fear seems to be weighting America against its very essence, the longing for change, adaptation to the new.
Often in Hollywood I would drive by the construction site of the Kodak Theater. First, it was a dirty, old area tourists complained about. Then the spot was a big hole in the ground. I kind of like the hole in the ground phase. It’s where the archeological memories spring from the earth. Then it was a state of the art, digitally equipped theater giving homage to another time and a company that helped build Hollywood, changed the world, and remade how people perceive themselves and others. We could look back into a mirror darkly. We could see our own eyes in the past, but can we see the future in those eyes as well anymore?
America, and to the tenth power, Los Angeles, are malleable places by definition. If it gets harder with age to disregard sentiment and move forward, that very state makes it all the more necessary. I miss the snow, the milk boxes built into the sides of houses because the dairy products would freeze if left outdoors in winter. I miss the ethereal quality of Kodak’s factories and campuses in cold, twilight, twinkling against the night sky. I miss my parents as a married couple, the tract house they bought on the edge of the suburbs, the cornfields I could pillage, the tennis courts turned to skating rinks in November with the use of a garden hose. I miss the awe and wonder of my own beginning; the toys I played with, generously brought by Santa Claus. Still, just like Santa Claus, (yes, Virginia) it is the spirit of the notion and not the thing itself that truly matters. Mid-century Rochester is a thing in my mind, not a place. It’s no more coming back than people making pilgrimages to the Parthenon to pray to Apollo and Athena for some boon. Still the seeking of soul and spirit remains.
Only the shape of things does always need change and rebirth. Freedom is the spring of the new again. We’ve circled the planet. We’ve landed on the moon and planted a flag. Forty years later, we’re still wondering what to do with it. America as a super power always struck me as a burden as a citizen. It’s the stuff that the Caesars, Napoleon, Hitler all loved. The echo of Thomas Jefferson moves me more; “history’s last, best hope.” We can contain time in a box, replicate our own minds in chemicals and machines as much as art in the modern era, but the same questions remain as for any time or place. Does memory trap us – or free us? Do we lose our souls when our image is taken, or share it with the world?