Searching for the Twilight Zone—in Binghamton NY
October 28, 2019
Pictured above is the bus terminal of Binghampton, NY. It is no longer just for Greyhound—all county buses now launch from the site. Built in 1938, it is of the Art Deco design known as Streamline Moderne—I love this design!—intended to convey aerodynamics and speed. Only a half dozen of such terminals still exist—there were once ten times that number.
This particular station was the inspiration for Rod Serling’s “The Mirror,” an episode of the anthology series The Twilight Zone. That episode terrified me. All Twilight Zones did, but I didn’t see too many as a boy because it was past my bedtime. Every so often, however—due to circumstances I no longer recall—I succeeded in outmaneuvering my parents and scared myself silly with the off-limits show.
The Mirror is a story of a woman waiting for the bus who becomes unnerved when her exact double appears from another world, intent on replacing her. She is assured by others that such things are imaginary and do not happen, but then she looks up from outside the bus and—gasp!—there is that double seated on board, gazing down upon her.
Rod Serling narrated every opening and closing of The Twilight Zone. For “Mirror Image,” he began with:
“Millicent Barnes, age twenty-five, young woman waiting for a bus on a rainy November night. Not a very imaginative type is Miss Barnes: not given to undue anxiety, or fears, or for that matter even the most temporal flights of fantasy. Like most young career women, she has a generic classification as a, quote, girl with a head on her shoulders, end of quote. All of which is mentioned now because, in just a moment, the head on Miss Barnes' shoulders will be put to a test. Circumstances will assault her sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block. Millicent Barnes, who, in one minute, will wonder if she's going mad.”
A young man in the episode, concerned for Millicent’s visibly deteriorating mental health, settles back in his seat at the terminal after the officers he has summoned have taken the woman away for help. He notices his bag is missing. He spots the thief absconding with it. Overtaking him, he discovers that—gasp!—it is his double!
“Obscure and metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomenon. Reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained. Call it 'parallel planes' or just 'insanity'. Whatever it is, you'll find it in the Twilight Zone.”
Rod Serling was a favorite son of Binghamton, born and raised there. You can run around and view, as we did on a recent visit, the homes in which he grew up—well, two of the three, anyway. It is a small city. Getting from anywhere to anywhere else is a snap. The Rod Serling Archive produces a map that lists other sites. There is the site of Serling’s Market Sanitary—it is a parking lot today. There is Serling’s Market—now a vacant lot, as is the former site of the Arlington Hotel, the inspiration for an episode of Night Gallery, a show he later hosted. The temple where his family once worshiped is now the Binghamton Housing Authority. His six Emmys and Peabody Award are housed at Ithaca College, about 45 minutes away. His own nondescript gravesite is at Interlaken Cemetery, another 45 minutes to the northwest.
Other episodes of the Twilight Zone were fashioned in his home town. The carousel and bandstand of Recreation Park serves as the setting for “Walking Distance.” This is the episode—not particularly scary, though it probably terrified me at the time—in which a man named Martin has his car break down—they often did back then—necessitating repairs in his hometown that he happens to be driving through. While waiting, he wanders into the park that he remembers so well, and finds that time there has stood still. Why—he spots himself as an eleven-year-old riding the carousel! He calls out to his younger self. His call distracts the boy, who tumbles off the horse and breaks his leg. Instantly, the adult Martin feels the pain. And so forth—on goes the storyline.
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men, perhaps there'll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he'll look up from what he's doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there'll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he'll smile then too, because he'll know it isjust an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man's mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.”
We stopped at Recreation Park. The bandstand is still there at an intersection of sidewalks. It is dated, a bit ragged, and is perhaps no longer used for its intended purpose, but the nearby carousel was only closed up because fall had arrived—during summer it sees regular use. Sturdy trees tower over both structures, indeed over all of the park except for what looks like a more recent addition of athletic fields. The leaves were turning—yellow and oranges predominated—and only some had fallen. The small city itself is surrounded by hills—bursting with color during our visit. The day was sunny. The autumn air was crisp.
Then there was Fowler’s (now Boscov’s), a department store on the corner of Court and Water streets. In the old days, the Boscov’s salesman told me, a piano player entertained shoppers. This site was the inspiration for “The After Hours,” an episode featuring a woman named Marsha, who chances into the store and passes all the mannequins. For a transaction, someone asks her for ID, and hers only goes back a month! More strange things transpire. She tries to run away, but freezes into plastic as she does so. The show ends with her a mannequin on display—her turn to be a human has expired—and another store mannequin, one that she passed earlier, is now taking his turn walking about shopping as a human!
“Imagine standing forever still, unable to act, to speak, to touch a reassuring hand. If you were released from such a fate, even for a while, wouldn't you hope to forget that in reality, you're only on a short leave of absence...from the Twilight Zone?”
Boscov’s proved an interesting find in itself, if only because downtown department stores are a dying rarity in most cities. This one is growing—not dying at all—and it is one of a chain of 48. It began as a single dry goods store in Reading PA purchased by Solomon Boscov, a Russian immigrant who arrived in 1914 speaking only Yiddish. 26 Boscov stores are scattered throughout Pennsylvania—it’s first (1962) out-of-state store is this one here in Binghamton, just a few miles over the state line—with four floors, escalators at center, elevators on the side, adjacent to a four-story parking garage, so that you can exit on any level and walk straight to your car. Mirrors make the interior seem larger than it actually is.
Is Boscov’s the department store equivalent of Wegman’s, the family-owned supermarket chain from my home town, Rochester, which opened its 101st store in Brooklyn this week? I left my wife in the store while I walked around the downtown area to snap a few pictures for this post. When I returned, she was exactly where I would have imagined she would be—in the bargain nook on the 4th floor—the Auditorium, probably a preserved holdover from Fowler’s. “This place is like a mall in itself—it has everything!” she exclaimed. I left her there to stroll the floor, where the salesman mentioned previously tried to interest me in furniture. “I might buy a couch if you could deliver it to Rochester,” I responded.
We fell into conversation about my visit to Binghamton. He knew about the Twilight Zone episode at his store, but he hadn’t seen my Archive map of Rod Serling destinations. He didn’t endorse our previous visit to the Cracker Barrel for lunch because each year the chains take about 2% from the business of the struggling Mom and Pop diners that he favors—he had been one of the Pops himself and now he is selling furniture at Boscov’s. So I told him about Dave back in Rochester from my season or three of carrying newspapers.
Newspaper carriers arrive at a ridiculously early hour to pick up and bag their papers for morning delivery. They do this in one of several large warehouses, and I got used to preparing my stock across the table from old Dave, who was preparing his. I lamented the morning that Wegman’s Chase Pitkin home repair store chain went down. Wegman’s had declared that they wished to focus on their core grocery business. The real reason, I said, was that they were steamrollered by the out-of-town corporate Home Depot’s and Lowe’s, and wasn’t that too bad. But Dave didn’t have a bit of sympathy for them. What goes around, comes around, he said. He had once been the Pop of a Mom and Pop hardware store, and Chase Pitkin had sent him packing—now here he was, in his 70s, delivering the morning paper. Karma might be a bitch for Chase-Pitkin, but it but it didn’t bother him even the slightest.
87 Court Street is the former home of Resnick’s Woman’s Apparel, which inspired the Twilight Zone episode “Where is Everybody?”
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, and it lies between the pit of man's fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area that we call, The Twilight Zone.”
In this episode, a man in an Air Force uniform—he cannot recall why—enters a town, finds it completely deserted. As he wanders, he grows increasingly paranoid that he is being watched. His fears grow upon spotting the paperback on the spinning book rack—who set it spinning?— “The Last Man on Earth, Feb, 1959”—his time! Panic mounting, wildly running through the street, he hits a pedestrian call button and screams for help. The pedestrian call button turns out to be a panic button. Military personnel stop the experiment. He has actually been in an isolation booth, and they have been running tests to see if he can endure the long periods of isolation he will encounter on his upcoming space launch to the moon.
“The barrier of loneliness: The palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man. Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting... in The Twilight Zone.”
There is no Resnick’s Woman’s Apparel anymore. It disappeared long ago, as though it, too, had been part of the experiment. The street-front building now houses university students.
Housing students is a growth industry for Binghamton today. The students like to move off campus and into town—same as I did when I was in school. Binghamton University is growing, even though the Bundy Museum docent told me that only 10% of those who apply are admitted. Its prestige shot up recently when one of its professors was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry—highly unusual for a college in the state SUNY school system—it is a prize that generally goes to the most prestigious universities. Professor M Stanley Whittingham had, years prior, conducted research that led to the development of the lithium-ion battery. “I think it’s no question this will make more people know of the university and make people look up, ‘Where is Binghamton,’” he said at a press conference.
“Professor M Stanley Whittingham, a brainy type, a man whose claim to recognition came and departed long ago. Some would call him a has-been, his deeds overlooked by time. A pedant who now teaches ordinary students at an ordinary college in an ordinary small town in upstate New York, the professor long ago resigned himself to a slow downward slide into obscurity. Impossible for such a forgotten man to receive the Nobel Prize, you say? Ordinarily yes. Unless that college happens to be located in the town that forever remains the birthplace of...the Twilight Zone.”
[Paragraphs in italics are the words of Mr. Serling, except for the last, which is mine.]
****** The bookstore