“SURE BEATS WILDFIRES AND MUDSLIDES!” So jokes my neighbor to me as we shovel the latest winter storm out of our driveways so we can get to work the next day. My response? Those pathetic little laughs that Chris Ware captures so well in his cartoons, a little sad, and not entirely sure that the joke merits a response. I had hoped when we moved to California in 2008 that I would never experience a snowy winter again, and yet here I was, joined in solidarity against winter weather.
For years, I joked with my Californian students that global warming was frightening only to the extent that it appeared to be an actual threat to people. “Global warming” for my extended family in Michigan, like my new neighbors in New York, seemed to be not so bad. Who wouldn’t want a slightly warmer winter, even if it comes at the cost of a slightly hotter summer as well? That’s nothing air conditioning can’t overcome, after all. Thomas Friedman’s use of “global weirding” seems to capture our present much better, even if “global warming” is a better description of our eventual shared future. “Weirding” captures the uneven, unpredictable nature of nature as it is being recast as a result of carbon-fuel industrialization and its aftermaths. It properly captures how, on April 5, I can be shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway, while friends in California are finding themselves trapped behind the remnants of mudslides brought down by winter rains—while being told, simultaneously, that their multiyear drought still has not abated. The future will be warmer, and it will also be weirder. Rather than the extrapolative line that futures like Butler’s Parables offer, or the intensifications of Robocop, our shared, weird future is more unpredictable, more impossible, than we tend to imagine. Extrapolation and intensification—however disturbing individual stories may be—are comforting, they play out in ways that are familiar; weird, mutant futures might play on already-existing possibilities, but they are shot through with impossibilities brought into being through our imaginative blindness.
In New York, we bought a home in the floodplain off the Susquehanna River. It’s a beautiful old Victorian house, built during the textile boom of the late nineteenth century and lovingly restored by the previous owners. Unlike so many of the homes in the neighborhood where it is located, it has a large yard that runs from the rise on which the home is perched down to the river, affording us a picturesque view of the Susquehanna and the Pocono foothills rising in the distance. I joke to friends that, compared to our old Californian home, it’s twice the house for half the price, but that’s not so much a joke as an economic analysis of the difference between a place where the future is something that people anticipate, and one where the future seems to never come.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing anything about Binghamton, New York. It’s a place defined not so much by itself as by its relations with other places. Located about two hundred miles northwest of New York City, southeast of Buffalo, and north of Philadelphia, Binghamton was a transit hub that, more than a century ago, connected central New York to larger cities for the purpose of moving goods and people. Located at the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers, it also served as a means to ship goods downriver to the Chesapeake Bay. As such, Binghamton served as a necessary point for the development of the western frontier in the early expansion of American settler colonialism toward the Great Lakes. That history has long been obscured, with indigenous groups having been relocated to reservations to the north and the west. Like so many cities that exist between other places, Binghamton loses its youth to more vibrant cities. Like so many other cities developed in the early twentieth century under the influence of the personal automobile, it sprawls into its neighbors, with strip malls and big-box stores stretching down a four-lane parkway that follows, roughly, the Susquehanna River. Whatever natural beauty there is is largely obscured by retail spaces, neighborhoods that creep up hillsides, and the looming threat of another catastrophic flood.
Binghamton and its neighbors have had their moments. During the Second World War, the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company employed some twenty thousand people to make shoes and boots for the American military, turning a regionally respected small business into a major clothing supplier—so successful that it was ultimately bought out after it fell on hard times, moved to Ohio, and its former factories now stand empty. But the arches “erected by workers” that honor the company still stand over Main Street, one on the east side of Johnson City and the other as you enter Endicott to the west. With the benefit of military contracts to support the development of navigation and computing technologies, the Second World War also propelled profits for IBM, which housed one of its factories in nearby Endicott, employing engineers, managers, and industrial workers. The products produced at the Endicott factory resulted in environmental contamination, as the solvents used to clean electronic parts were washed into the river or seeped into the groundwater. The Plume, as this systemic pollution came to be called, was largely composed of trichloroethylene, a substance known to cause cancer, and which could creep up through people’s basements, singlehandedly driving down home values throughout Endicott. What was once a modest, middle-class Southern Tier city had become a toxic spill site, its decades of capitalist gain revealed to be a slow, poisonous catastrophe in the making. The Second World War propelled Binghamton to a level of suburban comfort, but over time—as a result of globalization, of industrialization, of stagnation—it has become a strange nowhere zone, a place where the future never seems to come, and the past haunts it in indelible ways, like toxic plumes creeping into people’s homes, a return of the repressed, but in a way that Sigmund Freud couldn’t imagine (Gordon 1997).
Like so many U.S. cities, convenience stands like a scar across the landscape. Easy shopping, mediocre takeout, and industrially supported grocery stores sprawl from end to end of the parkway. As Amazon and other internet outlets centralize shopping and offer the next level of convenience—why go shopping when delivery is available at the click of a button?—more and more storefronts are emptied. Large department stores that once anchored the local mall, Macy’s and Sears, are now empty commercial husks, and there is news that the third of four shopping pillars in the mall will also close. The shopping mall will be a graveyard to quaint, automobile-fueled consumerism, just as the empty factories and warehouses that populate the landscape stand as monuments to a period of industrial production long gone. Over time, the buildings will fall into disrepair; they’ll decay, and in their place will be fields of waste that will slowly go wild. But that’s a long way off. In the meantime, there’s merely resignation, as the future never seems to come, and the past continues to haunt the present.
My favorite thing about Binghamton is Rod Serling, the man who made The Twilight Zone. My daily dog walk takes me through a park where a bandstand has been erected in his honor, and a plaque dedicated to him stands in front of the high school. Now, watching his episodes of The Twilight Zone, it’s hard for me to separate them from this place, a place that often seems depicted in his scripts as a nonplace marked more by memory than any future-oriented pull. “Where Is Everybody?” is both the title of the first episode of “The Twilight Zone” and the slogan on a bumper sticker that I see on my neighbor’s car. It feels like such a nonjoke, like my other neighbor’s appeal to life without mudslides and wildfires, but it also so perfectly captures the feeling of being in a city that feels vacated of any life, of any presence as a municipal space that people actively participate in. The joke—if it is one—is a strange echo of The Twilight Zone episode, where the viewer follows a man through a day in a city that is mysteriously vacant. The protagonist, too, is vacant, seemingly experiencing amnesia, having forgotten his name, where he is, and what he is doing there. The city appears to have been recently vacated—there is still coffee on the stove, still lit cigars that are slowly burning down, lights that go off and on in the daylight and night, movies that start screening without a projectionist. What we come to learn only after the man has a breakdown is that he is part of a simulation of isolation, using a device that is meant to test his ability to withstand social isolation for the time it would take to transport him to the moon and back. The vacant city is something he imagined, not part of the simulation itself, and was presumably the result of a psychotic break. When asked by the commanding officer in charge of the experiment, “Where did you think you were?,” he responds “A place I don’t want to go again, sir. A town. A town without people, without anybody.” The commanding officer goes on to explain that, despite all the technological know-how that will support this astronaut in space, “There’s one thing we can’t simulate that’s a very basic need. Man’s hunger for companionship. The barrier of loneliness. That’s one thing we haven’t licked yet.” Although they’re talking about the moon and the enforced isolation an individual must face in making the trip—as they imagine it in the mid-1950s—it could also be taken to be an indictment of modern U.S. society. Cities empty of people, and yet all the conveniences remain intact. There’s fresh coffee, food to eat, movies to watch, stores full of stuff to buy—for the time being. But there’s no “companionship.”
If that’s too generic, too much a critique of mid-century U.S. society, then consider the episode “Walking Distance,” whose story hinges on the presence of a carousel. The fortune made by George Johnson, the industrialist behind the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company, was spent, in part, in endowing the region with several carousels that run throughout the summer for children in local parks to enjoy. The story goes that, as a child, Johnson didn’t have enough money to ride on a carousel, so, as an adult, he wanted to make sure no child in his cities faced the same thwarted desire. The carousels are anchors in each of the large parks throughout the Binghamton area, and from Memorial Day through Labor Day children can ride them for free. In “Walking Distance,” Young Marty Sloan is also riding a carousel when his older, time-traveling version tries to confront him. The older version finds himself with a car in need of an oil change just a mile and a half from his hometown of Homewood (which doesn’t exist, sadly). He walks into town and finds his way to the soda jerk he frequented as a child. Over a soda with three scoops of ice cream—still 10 cents, like when he was a boy—he reflects on his surprise at returning to Homewood to find it unchanged. He tells the soda jerk, “The town looks the same, too. Pretty amazing, you know. Twenty years to look so exactly the same. . . . I always thought if I ever came back here, everything would be all changed. You know, nothing recognizable. Instead, it’s just as if I’d left yesterday.” He spends much of the rest of the episode trying to talk to his younger self, if only to impress on him that these are “wonderful years,” which stand apart from the drudgery he faces as a media executive in New York City, where he seems to live a well-fêted life. The suburban charm, the modest conveniences of Homewood call to him across the years—so uncomplicated, so appealing. But in his final attempt to talk to his younger self, staged on a whirling carousel, young Marty trips and injures his leg. Counseled by his younger father, Old Martin is told that we each “only have one summer,” and that this summer should be left to young Marty. Mysteriously returned to the present, Old Martin now has a “bum leg,” confirming that his time travel wasn’t merely a psychotic break brought on by workplace stresses. In Old Martin’s present, the soda shop is full of teenagers, the three-scoop soda has increased in price to 35 cents; time has moved on. Yet, Homewood seems not to have fundamentally changed. One major difference, however, is that the carousel is now broken, like Martin. There’s no more spinning around to be had, whether the slightly pleasurable version of the carousel or the slightly painful version Martin’s regrets propel him through, culminating in the actual time travel he experiences.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been displaced in time, too. Not out of some adulthood malaise that conspires to make me feel like there was some lost opportunity in my bucolic childhood but in the sense that, temporally, Binghamton exists at some prior time compared to California. That might sound snobbish in its way, but I don’t mean it in a general sense but a rather specific one: all of the anxieties about—and pleasures projected into—the future that Californians evidenced, about climate change, about looming ecological disasters, about ever-upward creeping home values and decreasing public support for social services, seem to be all but absent here. Like Old Martin’s spin on the carousel, it feels like New Yorkers in the Southern Tier are stuck in a temporal loop—there’s nothing to stop the carousel from spinning, no real threat on the horizon—or at least not a threat that one can reasonably predict. Instead, there’s the unpredictable weirdness of the Plume and its seeping into people’s homes and bodies, and the catastrophic surges of the Susquehanna River into floods.
First in 2006 and then again in 2011, Binghamton and its neighbors experienced floods that destroyed businesses and homes and flooded streets to the point of necessitating evacuation. You’d be forgiven for not knowing anything about it. Despite being declared an emergency in the state, it lacked the public spectacle that other floods benefited from, like President George W. Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the future-now climate-change Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In comparison, the floods in Binghamton affected very few people, and they caused much less financial loss. It wasn’t the defining moment of a presidency, nor even that of the governor of New York. Its tragedies were local, and the repetition of the event has had a numbing effect. By the time we were looking at homes in the area, our realtor reassured us that flood insurance—provided by our local insurance agent and underwritten by the U.S. government for pennies on the dollar—would cover any losses we might incur. The woman selling us her home assured us that if the house flooded, she would give us our money back—it hadn’t flooded in either the hundred-year flood of 2006 or five-hundred-year flood of 2011. What were the chances that it could flood in the future? It seemed like a safe bet. But we had encountered the same kind of catastrophe callousness in California, particularly regarding earthquakes. For the most part, they’re just a part of everyday life, made banal by their repetition. When true disaster strikes, the government is there to ensure that homeowners are reimbursed for their losses. What’s to lose? My neighbor’s joke as we shoveled snow indexed the same banality: mudslides and wildfires are something to really worry about; floods don’t even merit notice. And, sure enough, when we have had floods, usually as a result of snow melting or heavy rains, the water level of the river rises gently, in entirely expected ways. It’s fascinating to watch the river rise into our yard, flooding close to the river, then inching up toward the rise that leads up to our house. It reaches a peak and then slowly creeps back to the river, creating large puddles in the otherwise-ignorable recesses in our yard, which waterfowl take advantage of for a day or so. The floods also bring beavers up river, who set about dam building, which we watch with great interest. The floods come and they go—just a part of living here, a catastrophe that has been tamed by its banality. And by the state’s ability to ensure that property value is maintained or replaced.
The overwhelming feeling here is that the future happens elsewhere. That’s what I get from Serling’s “Walking Distance.” Time moves on in New York City, but in little Homewood, time spins in circles like the carousel. It might look like time moves on, but the soda shop is full of another crop of teenagers, just like Old Martin was once; the soda jerk is just another white guy, wearing the same uniform. The only things that seem to change are the economy and machinery, evident in the rising costs of sodas and the breakdown of old carousels. But, in Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, the carousels keep spinning. Maybe that’s because the future as it happens elsewhere is just terrifying, and in nearby New York City, the future doesn’t seem far off at all.
Douglas Cheek’s C.H.U.D. (1984) tells a simple, familiar story of New York City. As a result of the U.S. government burying nuclear waste under the streets of Manhattan, specifically SoHo, a race of cannibalistic mutants develops from the homeless people who are exposed to the radioactive material. The mutants live in the sewers, preying largely on the human homeless. Occasionally, they strike out into the surface world, coming up through manhole covers to capture unsuspecting prey. The mutants—who come to be called Chuds, which stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers—take the wife of a local police captain in this way and set into motion the plot of the film, which revolves around the police search for this missing woman and other surface dwellers that have gone missing. An inordinate amount of time is spent in meetings of old white men, as our police captain attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery of why the city government would prefer that he give up trying to find the increasing number of missing people. The conspiracy that Captain Bosch (yes, he seems to be named for Heironymus Bosch, that painter of hellscapes) uncovers is that the city government is in cahoots with the U.S. government and that what C.H.U.D. actually stands for is “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal.” The mutants are a by-product of the government’s attempt to hide the radioactive waste that experimental projects have created, and rather than admit the mistake, the government liaison, referred to only as Wilson, is prepared to flood with natural gas the underground tunnels where the Chuds live and set them alight, thereby burning away the evidence both of the radioactive disposal and the flesh-eating mutants. When confronted by Bosch—“Are you crazy? You’ll blow up the whole city!”—Wilson coolly replies, “I’m not going to flood the whole city. Only a section of SoHo.” In that interchange, the politics of the film are made clear: the homeless, poor, and bohemians who inhabit SoHo in the early 1980s, well before its gentrification, are worthless to the government. They aren’t flesh-eating mutants, but they might as well be.
Alongside Captain Bosch’s investigation, the film follows two other investigators: a reverend who runs a soup kitchen and has noticed that a number of his clients are missing and a photographer who is attempting to break into journalism by documenting the lives of homeless New Yorkers. The three narratives converge in the final moments of the film, as Bosch and Wilson confront one another above the tunnels of SoHo, where the reverend and photographer have uncovered the true meaning of C.H.U.D. As Bosch confronts Wilson aboveground, he explains, “I know what C.H.U.D. stands for. Cannibalistic, my ass! Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal. You’re nothing but the government garbage man. You take industrial waste, you take toxic sludge from every research project, and you dump it right here under the streets of our city.” The city is dangerous. Not just because of flesh-eating mutants, or radioactive dumping, or government neglect, but as the city itself, at the cusp of the future. As our photographer and his fiancée discuss their new pregnancy and how it will change their lives, the mother-to-be suggests they move into her father’s old house, somewhere in the suburbs. She explains, “It’s a nice house. Be a nice place for a kid growing up.” To which the photographer plays his urbane part and responds, “Yeah, but it’s in the suburbs.” Nodding yes, she replies, “Safe. I hate to think of our kids growing up here. It’s scary.” This is before she finds a dead dog hung by its leash in their basement, apparently disposed of there by the Chuds. This is also before she finds herself trapped in the apartment she shares with the photographer, a Chud lurking in the hallway outside their door, waiting to eat her. The city is, by its very nature, “scary,” and the suburbs are “safe.” Their safety is predicated on their repetitive nature: they will move into her father’s old home and raise a family, and the intergenerational social reproduction will continue. But, like with the Plume in Endicott, and the corporate and government neglect of the toxic dumping that occurred, there is always the possibility that the suburban idyll they seek will be disrupted. How it will be disrupted is impossible to know—the future is too unpredictable, too potentially catastrophic—but the figure of the mutant Chud captures this unpredictability perfectly.