Penelope’s Secret

April 10th, 2007

By Fred Wilcox

In fall, 1978, my wife and I move from a Philadelphia suburb to Ithaca, N.Y. Our daughter is three years old. I am a recent (May l973) honors graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. I’ve been employed as a waiter, ditch digger, secretary, truck driver, carpenter’s helper on high-rise construction and college instructor. I’m energetic, intelligent, versatile and have a family to feed. It should be easy to find work.

I don’t know why I didn’t think that an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop might qualify me to teach at Ithaca College. Life would have been much easier had I knocked on IC’s door. Instead, I tromped the streets, handing out resumes, dismayed to discover, as one employer confided, that Ithaca is a town in which even the bus drivers have PhDs. I quickly learn that Ithaca is also a town that thrives on exploitation. In interviews, I’m offered an hourly wage so paltry that I assume the person sitting across from me is joking. “Excuse me,” I say. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I was making that kind of money ten years ago.” People are polite, friendly, even welcoming; however, the job seekers’ line stretches for miles. I can work for less than a living wage, or go hungry.

My first full time employment turns out to be a job through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. The Tompkins County Day Care Council hires me to conduct research and to write about day care issues in Tompkins County. My 12-month salary will be $5,500, and I will be expected to work full time. My supervisor is a very nice, kind-hearted liberal who bristles when I point out that, once this program ends, the women who are enrolled will go back on public assistance. Like other anti-poverty programs with which I’ve been involved, this one is designed to keep people busy for awhile but not to offer training that will enable them to make a decent living. Fed up with my Marxist chatter, my supervisor fires me on more than one occasion, only to rehire me soon after.

Before moving to Ithaca, I knew little or nothing about Cornell University. Growing up in a working class family in the Midwest, I simply assumed that “higher education” meant attending a state university. In my high school, the best and the brightest—those who graduated in the top of their class—went on to the State University of Iowa. A handful went to mysterious places like Yale and Harvard, but no one was really impressed by this. To us, “ivy” was a vine that grew on walls, not a way of signifying intellectual or social superiority. Perhaps this is why it takes me so long to realize that Ithaca is a company town, dominated in myriad ways by a “great” university.

At the Day Care Council, I learn that Cornell does not provide housing for day care. Instead, the university has commissioned a study that will cost $100,000 to determine the “feasibility” of offering day care to employees. I tell my supervisor that the State University of Iowa rents houses to day care providers for one dollar a year. Students and staff run these centers as theme-based cooperatives; that is to say, there’s a radical feminist day care center, a gay day care center, an anarchist day care center. The university does not attempt to control how these cooperatives are run.

I’m proud of my alma mater and grateful for the rigorous and, in the late sixties, exciting education I received there. And I am surprised to learn how retrograde the institution on the hill appears to be. Would a truly great university question the need for day care? Why, I ask long-term residents of Ithaca, doesn’t this university pay property taxes? What might this university be doing to eliminate poverty in Ithaca and Tompkins County? What role should this ivy- covered college be playing in reducing handgun violence, rebuilding our cities and ending racism in the United States?

It’s the height of the Cold War, and it appears that the superpowers’ mutual paranoia will trigger an atomic holocaust from which the world will never recover. In Ithaca, and other parts of the nation, people gather to talk about ways that we might resist our government’s insane threats to destroy the world in order to save it. One might assume, as at first I did, that Ithaca is a long way from ground zero. I discover that the largest stockpile of components for atomic weapons (this stockpile is no longer there) is about a 45-minute drive from our quaint Birkenstock community; that indeed, should there the missiles fly, Tompkins County will become a massive hole in the ground.

A number of activists climb over the fence that surrounds the depot and submit to military police who wrap our wrists in plastic, take our fingerprints and issue “ban and bar letters,” warning us to stay away from Seneca Army Depot. At one demonstration, 900 people jump the fence. We are kept throughout the day and into the night in dog pens. The soldiers guarding us are curious, polite and friendly. We ask them how they feel about the army. “F…. the army,” they laugh. Like us, they fear that the lunatics who are running our nation will push the annihilation button.

My first semester at Ithaca College, I take 19 students to Seneca Army Depot. They jump the fence, are cuffed and wait for me to join them. But the crotch of my pants gets caught, and I wiggle atop the fence while a photographer for The Ithacan snaps my picture. At this time, Ithaca College is in the throes of a climate of fear. The president behaves as though the college is a coal mine. As CEO, he will make the rules, and we miners—professors, students, and staff—will obey. When my photograph appears on the front page of the student paper, I assume that my days at Ithaca College are numbered. I’ve been warned not to rock the president’s boat. Wait, I’m told, until I secure tenure. Then I can speak my mind. I tell these well-meaning people that we are working at a college, not a prison. Moreover, my grandfather was a coal miner; I am a college professor. If I put my tongue in a cast for seven years, it will atrophy, turn into a stone.

I’m not fired. No administrator at this college ever tries to censor me in any way. I am free to challenge students to think critically and to write about complex, controversial issues. I publish books highly critical of the United States government. I get arrested a number of times and go on trial in a federal court for acts of civil disobedience. I am free to express my views openly and honestly at Ithaca College, and with the exception of a couple of nasty phone calls and a faculty member calling me “crazy” in the student paper, the consequences for my actions are miniscule.

Ithaca is a beguiling town. On the surface, it appears to be a small, friendly, fairly diverse city. In my neighborhood, the Northside, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Vietnamese, gay, straight, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish residents live side by side in apparent harmony. Rarely do we hear about overt acts of racism or attacks upon an individual because of their sexual preference. Yet after three decades in this town, I can say without hesitation that Ithaca is not a genuinely integrated community.

Beneath the veneer of inclusiveness, Ithaca is an incredibly elitist town divided by class, race and income. We, the enlightened, like to pretend that we differ from “rednecks” who drink cheap beer, bowl and prefer “The Simpsons” to documentaries about the murder of baby seals. We never tire of telling ourselves that we live in the “most enlightened community in the United States.” We never stop applauding our support for oppressed people, our opposition to war, our nonviolence, our organic eating habits, and the fact that we live and breathe and work in the shadow of one of the world’s “great” universities.

Apparently we do not see the irony in the fact that even in Ithaca, the rich get richer while the working and middle classes struggle to keep from drowning in a sea of debt. In Ithaca, children of affluent families attend elite universities, while poor children work for low wages, join the military or, if they are lucky, secure a scholarship to college. In Ithaca, African Americans who try to rename a street after Dr. Martin Luther King are insulted and threatened, because racism lives just beneath the surface of our liberal persona.

Perhaps one day, Ithaca will stop patting itself on the back long enough to see that like the rest of our troubled nation, this community is plagued by inequality, racism and poverty. I’ve had the honor to work with many wonderful, committed, even courageous people in this community. Unfortunately, those who challenge the liberal paradigm—capitalism works; the Democratic party offers a bona fide alternative to the right wing; socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried; the way to change the system is to work within the system—are a small minority in a community that insists that the way forward is to embrace a system that stands for everything that we noble Ithacans say we despise.

Fred A. Wilcox is a writing professor who wishes he had the jeans he wore hopping over the Seneca Army Depot fence. Email him at fwilcox[at]

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
Anarchitect Mike Berlin
SaHarrison Desert Harrison Flatau
Metrolollipopolis Jennifer Konerman
Tropic of Scurvy Heather Newberger
Copy Editors Danielle Sherwood
  Jenna Scatena
  Elliott Feedore
Adviser Mary Beth O’Connor
Chief Residents Abby Bertumen
  Kelly Burdick
  Bryan Chambala
  Sam Costello
  Cole Louison
  James Sigman

Buzzsaw Haircut is funded by the Ithaca College Student Government Association, the Park School of Communications and a generous grant from Campus Progress.

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Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
Section dividers of print edition by Jake I. Forney and Justin Lubliner.