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The XX Files

Getting low


Like a missionary in a land of heathens, my friend is trying to save the souls of my children. To save them, specifically, from me. She thinks I'm not letting them do enough "normal" kid stuff. When the family saw a silent film at the Dryden Theatre despite the kids' pleas to see SpongeBob SquarePants, she couldn't believe it. The next day she whisked them off to SpongeBob with the urgency of a biohazard expert decontaminating an anthraxed mail room.

"Those poor kids," she said after we took them to an RPO concert one Saturday night. "Would it kill you to take them to a video arcade?" The next weekend she showed up, her pockets loaded with quarters, and off they went.

I give my friend --- let's call her T for Trouble --- a hard time about polluting the kids' minds, but I secretly think it's great. We don't have any family nearby, so T saves me from having to do the stupid activities that would normally fall to a doting relative. And my kids adore her. They call her Auntie T. Auntie T talks back to their controlling mother, she's hilarious and warm, and she lets them paw all over her iPod without reminding them, constantly, to be careful.

When I was a kid my aunt brought a similar world of excitement to our house. My mother sipped wine, my aunt drank beer from the can. My mother gave my brother and me handmade toys made of felt and wood from the Peace Co-Op, my aunt gave us a pinball machine, noisy toy guns, and African carvings. I suppose it's karma that I'm now in the role of timorous mother to my friend's wild and beloved aunt.

Despite her fancy doctorate and arts background, when it comes to kids, T and I look at the same Rochester and see two different worlds. For every art happening, world music concert, and film festival I see, she sees miniature golf places, video arcades, and sporting events. Then, last winter, she went too far: She planned to take the kids to an Amerks game. Normally, that would have been fine. But this time she decided I had to go with them.

My friend T and I are engaged in the same high-vs.-low conversation that permeates American culture. It's Kerry vs. Bush, it's the FCC vs. television, and it's the casino vs. the culture center.

We don't have to look much farther than our own downtown to see this national debate writ small. After years of watching the heart of downtown pump erratically, suddenly twin solutions appeared --- poised like defibrillator paddles to shock the city back to life --- in the form of a casino and a cultural arts center. Both promise to revive the patient, each selling dreams of enriching us in their very different ways.

On the one hand we have the visionary architect Moshe Safdie lined up to design the modestly named Renaissance Center. On the other hand we have a downtown casino which, I was surprised to learn recently, all three Democratic mayoral candidates still consider a viable option.

At dinner recently, T launched into an enthusiastic description of the lights and excitement of Las Vegas. I cut her short, explaining to the children the threat casinos pose to communities. First, bankruptcies increase by 10 percent or more ("people lose their money and homes and sometimes jobs," I said); and Upstate New York already has the highest bankruptcy rate in the state. Second, studies show gambling exploits a flaw in our brains that was once an evolutionary advantage --- our urge to try again and again until we achieve the desired result.

"You can see how this would have helped early Man," I was saying, "in pursuit of a rabbit or other game. But in the contrived environment of a casino, you could lose again and ag- "

"Yeah," Auntie T said, cutting me off. "But it's a lot of fun." She rubbed her hands together. "Especially when you win!" The kids lit up like slot machines, their eyes forming four little cherries in a row.

Scratch the surface of Rochester's history and you'll find these same tensions go back a long way, stretching, like the Erie Canal, to the beginning of the settlement of Rochesterville. Beneath the surface of this bustling boomtown a seamy economy of prostitution, child exploitation, and drugs writhed like salmon spawning in the spring.

As now, the high and low cultures were intricately entwined. The same women who later went on to spearhead the women's movement got their activist feet wet in the temperance movement. Their moralizing about "Strong Drink" and prostitution started as a way to clean up their town and eventually empowered a generation of women to help end slavery and get the vote for women and blacks.

Sure, Susan B. is a great role model. But she never had to go to a hockey game. I wasn't sure why T was dragging me on one of her outings with the kids, but she couldn't have picked a more violent activity. The day of the game, I was in a panic. I imagined thuggish skaters clubbing one another while a Boschian audience of beaked beasts clacked and spat as the rink filled with blood.

"If I hate this, we're leaving," I threatened as we entered the Blue Cross Arena.

"You'll love it," she said.

"Just try something new," one of the boys said. 

The game started and T was right: I loved it. It was fast and crazy. Before I knew it I on my feet, my beer sloshing dangerously. I was screaming, "Shoot, dammit. Just shoot the puck!" when I noticed T and the kids eying me warily. T didn't say, "I told you so," but she never invited me along with them again.