Letter from the Lake — Wayne County, Pennsylvania:
Still no cell phone coverage here in the remote reaches of northeastern Pennsylvania. The real estate boom seems to have hit (our neighbor to the left has his three-bedroom cabin with 100-foot of Wrighter Lake frontage on the market for $235,000). The nearest retail store to the south — an old yellow school bus turned into a second-hand furniture store known as Bob’s Bargain Bus — has been converted into a gas station, country store, and ice cream shop known as Arlo’s.
And even some of the bad road that used to separate this spring-fed lake, nearly 2,000 feet in elevation, from the ravages of most 21st century development below it has been replaced with sparkling new macadam.
But even if the hordes do start showing up, they certainly will be inconvenienced when that magic moment comes — the moment to reconnect, to broker a deal, to check in with office, to touch base with their people, to check their machine (as if there could be any important messages since anyone important would certainly already have reached them on the cell). When that moment comes their cell will simply be silent — no signal, no roaming, no contact.
Not just at Wrighter Lake, but in the hills and vales on all sides of it. The wired road warrior will begin losing his connection before he even gets to Forest City, 14 or 15 miles to the south, and then he will fall into a massive telecommunications black hole as he passes through Orson and over the big hill on Oxbow Road and up to the lake.
It’s a shame, of course, because up here at the lake we have some gossip to share — some celebrity gossip no less. It’s not from the lake itself, of course, but rather from our nearest big city — Binghamton, about 40 miles away, just over the border into upstate New York.
Big city is a relative term, and when we talk about Binghamton, we really mean the Triple Cities, Binghamton, Johnson City, and Endicott. From Wrighter Lake it’s nearly an hour’s drive to this metropolis (combined population of 200,000 or so), through the tiny hamlet of Thompson and along winding Route 171 into Susquehanna and past the point where the novelist John Gardner bought the farm in a motorcycle accident in 1982.
From 171 you take I-81 north into Binghamton, the birthplace of Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone on television. Now Yoko Ono has taken up residence in Binghamton, according to the gossip, and reportedly has visited a Koi farm in Sydney, New York, about an hour northeast of Binghamton, to purchase the exotic and colorful Japanese fish.
From I-81 you swing west on Route 17, through Johnson City (once home to the factories of the old Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company). Billy Martin, the former New York Yankees player and manager, had retired to a farm just outside Johnson City at the time of his death in a car accident on Christmas Day, 1989, after an afternoon of hard drinking with a buddy.
And then you pass into Endicott (once but no longer home to high-tech manufacturing operations of IBM). Even Endicott has a celebrity son, cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the B.C. strip.
But now a new celebrity is coming to town: Erin Brockovich, the environmental researcher made famous by the movie starring Julia Roberts. Brockovich’s California firm has joined with a Rochester-based firm to prepare a suit on behalf of Endicott residents against IBM, which allegedly allowed up to 55 acres of land to be contaminated by chemicals during its operations there.
The talk has all the trappings of a classic Brockovich lawsuit. The hometown daily newspaper, the Binghamton Evening Press (where I once worked as a summer intern in the mid-1960s) has reported that "traces of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds have been found in indoor air samples of homes and businesses and in the Endicott water system."
Questionnaires have been distributed to anxious residents. Substantial numbers of suspicious illnesses are being recalled from over the years of the IBM operation. Even though the July 11 issue of Time Magazine’s online edition raises serious doubts about the validity of Brockovich’s approach ("junk science" is the headline), people in Endicott are surely recalling her landmark case from the movie, with 600 residents of a California town splitting a $333 million settlement.
Hometown heroes are coming back to aid their beleaguered town: Isaiah Kacyvenski, whose father still lives in Endicott, went to Harvard, where he studied environmental science, and now is a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. He has come home to gather information and to help out.
And Brockovich herself will be on hand in Endicott and "actively involved," her people promise, as soon as she returns from a vacation in Hawaii. With my feet up in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, I’m enjoying all this idle gossip. I’ll keep you posted, but not by cell phone.