Sunday, June 27, 2010
After visiting my mom and brothers in western Massachusetts, I am heading home, south on the Taconic Parkway (it’s free; I’m cheap). I decide at the last minute—after calling Joyce—that I’ll continue down the Taconic (instead of veering west on I-84, the direct way home), go to Ossining, New York, the final home of writer John Cheever whose complete works I’ve recently read. Cheever’s final home was in Ossining (I want to see it, photograph it), and there are some other Cheever-sites around, as well—including Sing Sing Prison, where he taught writing to convicts, an experience he later used in his 1977 prison novel, Falconer.
|Ossining, NY on "that day"|
I drive into the small town, take some pictures, then drive down a street looking for a place to turn around. The street ends in a parking lot. The employee lot for Sing Prison.
Well, this is great! I think. I’ll get some prison pictures.
I stop, park, get out of the car, take a few photos … when … Hey, you!
I look. The you is I.
The voice is coming from a guard at Sing Sing.
I don’t move. A couple of guards run over to me and … invite … me into the prison.
I try to explain. I’m a teacher … I like John Cheever … he taught prisoners here … I …
No one is interested. Or amused in the slightest. They take me into a little reception area and fire rough questions at me, many of which feature foul language (What the fuck do you think you’re doing?!). They want to see the photos on my digital camera. I show them. They make me delete all the ones of the prison (there are only a few—and, later, I find much better ones on Google Images).
They take my driver’s license. Make some calls. Check me out. Find out I am indeed just a harmless old high school English teacher. They return my camera, my license. Tell me to get out of there.
A black Sing Sing van follows me until I am all the way into town. I’m sure the driver is laughing all the way. I’m not.
Shaken, I drive to Cheever’s street but can not figure out where his house is—it is clearly off the road. I could try one of the twisting driveways (I’ve done that sort of thing many times), but I imagine a phone call from a worried property owner. A visit with the cops. A return engagement at Sing Sing.
So I drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge and visit some sites in Tappan, New York, sites related to Major John André, a British spy during the Revolutionary War who was hanged in the area (I visit the spot—there’s a monument). Washington Irving mentions André in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which I am going to teach in a month or so. If, of course, I’m not in prison.
Later, doing some research on Sing Sing, I learned that our expression sent up the river comes from Sing Sing, which lies up the Hudson River from New York City.
I used my Sing Sing escape story in a speech at the Senior Celebration during the graduation activities at Western Reserve Academy in June 2011. That story is probably (certainly?) the only thing about my talk that those seniors recall. (It’s the only thing that I recall, to tell you the truth.)