Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Rust Belt

By Kevin Comer

In 1925, JDM’s father, Eugene, accepted a job as treasurer with the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York. This is where JDM lived — except brief sojourns at the University of Pennsylvania and in New York City — until 1938, when he departed for Harvard in pursuit of an MBA. When Eugene MacDonald moved his family to Utica, the city was at the center of a vibrant industrial region, and had been for a hundred years.

Utica is located in the Mohawk Valley on the shallowest part of the Mohawk River, which is easily forded. Untold generations of Native Americans had used the locale for trading. In 1773, European immigrants, attracted by the same advantages, established the settlement that would eventually come to be called Utica.

The first section of the Erie Canal, opened in 1819, connected Utica with Rome, New York. The canal reduced transportation costs between Lake Erie and New York City by 95%. Utica began to grow by leaps and bounds. An anonymous traveler noted that by 1829, Utica had become “a really beautiful place . . . [and Utica’s State Street] in no respect inferior to Broadway in New York.”

The slow flow of the Mohawk was insufficient to drive the water powered industrial machinery of the era, but in 1836, the Chenango Canal linked Utica with Binghamton, creating a water route for coal from Northern Pennsylvania. The ready supply of coal allowed manufacturers to make use of the new steam technologies. Utica rapidly became a major hub of textile production. Tool and die manufacturing soon followed. In the early 20th Century, the fledgling electronics industry established operations there and Utica became known as the “Radio Capital of the World.” Waves of immigrants moved into the region, particularly Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Utica, and the surrounding region, prospered until the 1950s. Eventually, however, textile production migrated to the American South before leaving our shores entirely, and the electronics and tool and die industries moved to Asia. Utica and its neighbors began to wither. No longer the Radio Capital of the World, Utica became known as “The City that God Forgot.” In the 1980s, a humorous bumper sticker reading “Last One Out of Utica, Please Turn Out The Lights” began appearing on residents’ vehicles. Today, Utica is suffering the same fate as Detroit and a host of other Rust Belt cities.

In Cinnamon Skin (1982), Travis and Meyer travel to Utica in search of the sister of the man they believe is responsible for the death of Meyer’s niece, Norma. Sport fishing enthusiast Norma died when Meyer’s squatty cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes, was blown to smithereens passing the sea buoy outbound from Bahia Mar under the command of hired skipper Hack Jenkins. Initially, they believe Norma, her husband, and Hack are collateral damage in an attempted assassination of Meyer. Minutes after the explosion, the Fort Lauderdale Police received a phone call claiming Meyer has been the target of terrorist ire. Fortunately, Meyer was in Toronto and not aboard.

Meyer is still recovering from his devastating encounter with Dirty Bob in Free Fall in Crimson (1981) and now all of his possessions, as well as his only living relative, have gone to Davy Jones. He doesn’t even have a picture of Norma. The only photograph extant may be one taken from a passing boat moments before the Keynes was reduced to flotsam. A grainy copy has appeared in newspaper accounts of the tragedy. As a favor to his morose friend, Travis tracks down the woman, Mrs. Simmons Davis, who took the snapshot.

Speaking on the phone, Mrs. Davis explains she snapped the photo because “… she remembered being amused at the unusual name on the cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes; she knew that any mention of Keynesian economic theory tended to make her husband very cross.” She readily agrees to mail an 8 by 10 copy to McGee. Upon its arrival, Travis quickly discerns the figure they had assumed was Norma’s new husband, Evan Lawrence, was actually a hired mate named Pogo.

Now their effort to track down the man they knew as Evan Lawrence has brought Travis and Meyer to Utica. They’ve checked into an aged Howard Johnson’s and are enjoying the veal piccata at Grimaldi’s, a nearby restaurant located across the street from “…some sort of yellow-brick public housing project.” The drinks and meal have been excellent. Meyer is beginning to show signs of a renewed interest in life. McGee considers his fellow diners:

I looked around at the patrons of the restaurant and the bar. Politicos, many of them young. Lawyers and elected officials and appointees. Some with their wives or girls. It looked to me as if a lot of the city and county business might be transacted right here. They had a lot of energy, these Italianate young men, a feverish gregariousness. I wondered aloud why they seemed so frantic about having a good time.

Travis McGee’s best friend and sagacious economist, Meyer, offers a possible explanation:

Meyer studied the question and finally said, “It’s energy without a productive outlet, I think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they make an industry out of government. State office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups… thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale and as the light wanes, they dance.”

Following his service in India during WWII, JDM returned to Utica to begin his writing career. This was home, despite the bitterly cold winters and high cost of living that soon had him seeking sunnier, less expensive climes. His wife, Dorothy, wrote in a letter: “… New York state is our home, where our people are, and Piseco [Lake], and our roots, and … we don’t want to be outsiders the rest of our lives.”

Although JDM and Dorothy eventually settled permanently and happily in Florida, the couple never entirely broke their ties with the region. While serving in India, JDM sent home some money he won playing poker. Dorothy used the money to buy land on Piseco Lake, sixty miles northeast of Utica. In 1948, they began construction of a summer camp on the property. During the remaining decades of his life, JDM and Dorothy often spent their summers there.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Rust Belt

  1. Kevin…for whatever reason, I love to find the background of writers I like so I really enjoyed this.

    I read where he (and Dorothy) were buried in NY state but didn’t know exactly why.

    Great going on posts and glad you enjoy writing them as much as we enjoy reading them.

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