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In Search of the Ithaca Octopus

Sitting outdoors at the Mexican restaurant across from the east end of Ithaca Commons, you can look up one hill that leads to SUNY Ithaca College, and another that leads to Cornell University. Following the Ithaca College road, you find trappings common to New York State colleges, most of which are on campus. Following the one leading to Cornell, you find essentially a second city, Collegetown, with new six-story residence buildings that our hotel manager heard tell command a four-year lease at $2000 per month.

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The roads at by the restaurant (which was very good, by the way, casual food, not pricey) come together in a quirky sort of way, and it will not be possible to iron out the quirks due to the steep hills just yards away. One-way road dictates alleviate some of the chaos. The roads entering the city from the west, however, at the foot of Cayuga Lake, are something else again. They used to be called The Octopus, as eight of them converge from different directions, and not only the hills but also the lake thwart efforts to straighten the mess out.

Verifying that it was once called The Octopus became a mini-obsession during my visit. I first read it in a crime novel with Ithaca as the unlikely setting. The private eye protagonist was routinely driving through ‘The Octopus’ to reach destinations. He could only have meant one place, and it is true that, due to the hemmed-in nature of the city, the quickest (almost only) way to get from north to south is to navigate this mess. When it is ensnarled, locals grumble about it.

The first three persons I asked knew nothing of the nickname, but none of them were longtime residents, and college students, by definition, never stay long. Most cities in New York State are in slow population decline, but Ithaca is growing. The governor is hyping his efforts to jumpstart the economy, so he recently made news by suggesting people are no longer leaving due to lack of opportunity, for he has solved that, but they are leaving due to the weather. This led to a certain smart aleck (me) pointing out that New York did indeed have very high property and school weather. It also has high income weather. And don’t get me started on the sales weather.

The first sign that I might have been on the right track hunting octopus came when I asked the young waitress at Joe’s Italian restaurant (again, very good, highly recommended if you like Italian). She had lived in Ithaca eleven years and she said…yes, she almost thinks that she has heard the term before. This confirmed my sense that it was likely true folklore that the old-timers did not think so important to pass on to the young and the young do not have such fine connections to the old to absorb it anyway.

But the older waitress at the restaurant gave me a blank stare and said that she didn’t know what I was talking about. She may have thought that I was giving her a hard time. Octopus is sort of a squirrelly word, and doesn’t one make a subconscious connection with the James Bond movie Octopussy? James Bond made liberal use of his ‘license to kill,’ and in fact, his license to do whatever, and that license that would surely be, not only revoked in this MeToo age, but he would be summarily fired for predatory behavior. That is the old James Bond, though. He is careful to get consent these days before he goes carrying on the way he does.

The older waitress came back five minutes later. Bullseye. She had talked to some old-time residents in the kitchen. Yes, absolutely, it was once called the Octopus. I could have saved a lot of time by googling the topic, where I would have instantly learned that it was called Octopus and that improvements have been made over the years but it will never truly be complete because there simply isn’t enough room. I could have done that, but the gumshoe method is just so much more fun.

We only spent a day in Ithaca and it ended on a mild downer. We sought to once again traverse the trail along Cascadilla Creek which flows tumbles down a deep ravine through the heart of Cornell country, so deep that you think you are in another world. The trail starts with a steep stair decline by a popular college eatery and finally emerges in the downtown city itself, right by the Christian Scientist church. Alas, the stairs were fenced off. Entry was blocked. It’s been five or six years since they closed that upper access, but I had heard it had at last been repaired. Maybe it was re-blocked, my wife suggested, as there had been recent torrential rains in the area. This possibility called for more gumshoe work, but darkness was falling, and we had ‘miles to go before we would sleep.’

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