A memory card (2016/2017) found and three forgotten stories: Carrie Nation and a Speak Easy at the School Without Walls, The New York Icons at UR’s Palestra and a re-creation of John Henry’s quest at Tops Friendly Market

A memory card (2016/2017) found and three forgotten stories: Carrie Nation and a Speak Easy at the School Without Walls, The New York Icons at UR’s Palestra and a re-creation of John Henry’s quest at Tops Friendly Market
4/9/17. New York Icons on the University of Rochester’s Wilson Quadrangle at the Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals. [Photo: David Kramer]

Recently, I found a forgotten camera memory card from 2016 and 2017, suddenly transporting me three and a half years into the past.  Immediately, I added pictures to the deserted campuses series: the University of Rochester (2), McQuaid Jesuit High School (2) and Monroe Community College, and Cobb’s Hill is closed for business (only a little).

Upon reflection, doing more research and taking new photos, I realized the stories that had not materialized were still interesting, if unfinished: one on an October 25th, 2016 re-creation of a prohibition-era “Speak Easy” at the School Without Walls, another on cheerleaders at the April 9th, 2017 Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals at the University of Rochester’s Palestra, and another on automation in the workplace involving self checkout aisles at Tops, as well as an additions to an already published piece.

So, we offer new wine in old bottles.

October, 2016. Carrie Nation and a Speak Easy at the School Without Walls

The School Without Walls, 480 Broadway, Rochester, NY 14607, 4/26/20

When I was the Make City Schools Better blogger for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I was frequently invited to the School Without Walls Commencement Academy as a Guest Teacher.

The School Without Walls, 4/26/20

In collaboration with faculty, staff and students, we published four well received blog articles:  Holocaust survivors tell their stories at the School Without Walls (May, 2013), Veterans visit the School Without Walls as students begin in depth study of the Vietnam War (September, 2013),  Community Service thriving at the School Without Walls (December, 2013), and CERT training already paying dividends at the School Without Walls (January, 2014).

The articles are collected in “Emerson would have liked the School Without Walls” from Nicholson Baker, SWW, the Eastman School of Music, and author of 16 books (Sep 7, 2016), a piece on novelist and SWW graduate Nicholas Baker.

The School Without Walls, 4/26/20

A month later, I was invited to SWW to participate in a re-creation of a prohibition era “Speak Easy.” The event was part of an all-school project on the 1920s. Unfortunately, an article never materialized. To do the project justice would require trips to the school, gathering material and commentary from teachers and students. I’d want to research prohibition myself, which would be interesting. As much as I would have enjoying completing the article, given my duties in the district and teaching at Keuka College, such an undertaking did not fit my schedule.

The Speak Easy was a blast. At first.

Sheepishly, I skulked past temperance agitator Carrie Nation and prohibition prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the so-called First Lady of the Law. The killjoys scolded us that liquor is poison and no woman would kiss a drunkard.

Carrie Nation and Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the so-called “First Lady of the Law.” October 25th, 2016

First, I bribed a corrupt copper to gain entrance into the room of vice, decorated with period images and objects and filled with decadently costumed customers. I was greeted by a flapper, mistress of ceremonies for the reverie.

corrupt cop and flapper emcee, SWW faculty member Dianna Passero

Concealing my identity, I ordered some devil’s brew. After one cup, frivolity reigned.

I partied with a gin running bootlegger and his molls.

Gin running bootlegger and molls

After the gaiety subsided, I’d learned my lesson. My head ached, the flappers’ cigarette smoke made me cough, and I’d spent all my dough. I confessed my sins to Mabel Walker Willebrandt and Carrie Nation. Liquor has never touched my lips since (although they may have touched a flapper).

In the parking lot behind SWW is a colorful mural painted in 2019. I don’t know if its creators — Boom-Hakar, True- Daze 24 and Silo-Else — are SWW students or grads. But given their talents, I would not be surprised.

4/26/20. Mural in the parking lot behind the School Without Walls. Created by Boom-

April, 2017 The New York Icons at the UR’s Palestra

4/9/17. New York Icons on the University of Rochester’s Wilson Quadrangle at the Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals.

On April 9th, 2017 when at the University of Rochester, I noticed cheerleading squads on the Wilson Quadrangle and outside the Palestra. Not knowing exactly what was happening, I took some pictures of the Rochester-based team, the New York Icons.

Now, I’ve learned I was watching the Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals.

A story on the nationals and the New York Icons never materialized, partially because I was not thrilled with the distance shots, but mostly because back then, I had not mastered the “quick-hit” Talker technique.

Distance shots inside the UR’s Palestra at the Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals, 4/9/17

As much as I like my Canon PowerShot ELPH 180 Digital Camera (Silver) 8×Optical Zoom (a great value for $125 at Rowe Photo), its’ zoom feature is not ideal.

Canon PowerShot ELPH 180 Digital Camera (Silver) 8×Optical Zoom [Photo: backup Canon PowerShot ELPH 180 Digital Camera (Silver) 8×Optical Zoom]

Today, I’d research the New York Icons site where I’d learn:

New York Icons, established in May of 2015, has locations in Rochester, Buffalo & Fairport, New York. After years of merging programs, staff and athletes together, we have established what is now the TOP Cheerleading Program in the area. We also serve as a training facility to many of New York’s most prestigious High School and Collegiate Cheerleading Programs.

Allison Violiette, ALL-STAR DIRECTOR and Coach of Couture, Royalty, Leading Ladies & Perfection, New York Icons

I would then contact Allison Violiette, ALL-STAR DIRECTOR and Coach of Couture, Royalty, Leading Ladies & Perfection, at the Icon’s West Ridge Road headquarters.

I’d send Coach Violiette the pictures and ask: Can you tell me what I’m seeing?

Inside the UR’s Palestra at the Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals, 4/9/17

I’d ask Allison to forward the pics to the mothers and daughters gathered outside the Palestra before the performance.

The New York Icons and fans  outside the UR’s Palestra at the Spirit Unlimited Platinum Nationals, 4/9/17

Hopefully, I’d receive bunches of clichéd, warm and fuzzy comments about female bonding over the generations, perfect for captions.

After the narrative and commentary flowed in, I’d introduce the piece by relating the Icons to the disbanding of the Buffalo Jills, “Bring back the Jills:”: Cheerleaders deserve their stage, on whom we’d written several articles in 2016.

Former Buffalo Jills Jean Zydel (left) and Kathy Benzinger (right) with Jack the Ball; (center) David Kramer at the Otter Lodge in Brighton, 1/23/16 from “Bring back the Jills:”: Cheerleaders deserve their stage

August, 2016. At Tops, a recreation of John Henry’s quest 

In summer 2016, the Tops Friendly Market on South Clinton in Brighton installed self-checkout aisles, Easy Scans, the first of their kind in our area. I found self-checkout to be convenient. When focused and only having a few items, I could zip through self-checkout in what felt like warp speed. Even when lines were not a factor, if I had the choice between a human cashier and a computer cashier (more properly termed a computer assisted cashier), I chose the machine.

The new check out lane got me thinking about automation and job replacement, reminding me of the 19th century African-American folk hero John Henry.  Born a slave, Henry, known as a “steel-driving man,” worked on the railroads in the late 1860s and early 1870s during reconstruction, mostly in the south.  During the construction of a railroad tunnel, Henry’s primary job was hammering a steel drill into rock, making holes for rock blasting explosives.

(l-r) Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia (wikipedia); John Henry Statue, Talcott, Dedication plaque (Patrish, Emporis)

As both a freed slave and a masterful steel driver, Henry took on mythic status when, probably in 1872, he died of a heart attack following a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, inspiring “The Ballad of John Henry.”

As described in “John Henry–Folk hero” (UFCW Local 324/A Voice for Working California):

According to legend, in an attempt to illustrate the superiority of human strength over machinery, Henry challenged the inventor of the steam-powered contraption in a race to finish a railroad tunnel. Armed with his 10-pound hammer Henry worked side-by-side the machine until he finally beat the steam-powered hammer. But as an ultimate tragedy, Henry worked himself to complete exhaustion and died shortly after beating the machine.

At the same time, Henry’s story is about more than human superiority or his extraordinary physical and mental strength. The steam drill replaced men like Henry who pounded spikes into the hard rock on mountain faces, drawing the resentment of railroad workers.

By the 1870s, the Ballad of John Henry surfaced in the south. In the protest ballad, John Henry vowed that before “I let a steam drill beat me down, I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand.” In the race John Henry won, but he “hammered so hard that he broke his heart.” Not written down on paper for 35 years, the work song was heard and passed along by convicts on chain gangs, miners and railroad workers, sung as a reminder of both the dangers of being forced to work too fast as well as the threat to their jobs posed by labor saving tools.

At Tops, I asked one of the cashiers, also a part-time manager, about the new self checkout aisles. He believed that with just a few items, computer-assisted checkouts were faster, but if anything went awry, a human cashier could resolve problems much more quickly.

I also wondered if the counters — like the steam-powered rock drilling machines of the 1870s — would lead to job losses. The employee, also a student at the University of Rochester, was considering a career at Tops. Perhaps towing the company line, the young man did not think the devices took away cashier positions. Self checkout freed up cashiers for other necessary tasks, ultimately improving customer experience.

In the spirit of John Henry’s man vs. machine contest, I contemplated a similar scenario. I was to purchase items from a human cashier (John Henry), and then with the same items, use the self-checkout device (the railroad company’s steam drill). Essentially, the shopper is the locomotive approaching the tunnel being blasted by both John Henry and the mechanical driller. Who will get me (the purchaser/train) through the tunnel (conveyor belt) faster: human or machine?

In August 2016, my sister Leslie and her daughter Audrey visited from California. In the afternoon and evening, we visited Tops to test hypotheses.

Leslie shot the video in the afternoon of the 31st.

Film by Leslie Kramer

In the evening, Audrey took photos. We only did one half of the contest, me self checking out as rapidly as possible.

8/31/16. David Kramer and employee at the Tops in Brighton. [Photos: Audrey Boyce]

My goal was to purchase whole wheat multi grain, olive oil non-butter spread, and four containers of hummus. But when attempting to use my Tops Bonus card and pay with cash, the machine malfunctioned.  First the bills jammed in the pay slot. Then the machine spewed the money back at me. Given the rules of the contest, the observing cashier was not allowed to intervene or help resolve any technical issues.

8/31/16. David Kramer and employee at the Topp’s in Brighton. [Photos: Audrey Boyce]

Both employee and customer gave two big thumbs down. The computer was a bad cashier. Clearly, human cashiers are superior. While we did not have me buy hummus from a human cashier, the implication is that he or she would definitely beat the self checkout device.

Leslie and Audrey returned to the Land of Lotus Eaters, and we never completed the article.

But, of course, our experiment was “staged” or “rigged.” Both customer and computer were presented as flawed and, in my case, inept. The fiasco was like that famous I Love Lucy episode, “Job Switching” (1952), where Ethel and Lucy are overwhelmed when operating a conveyor belt at a candy factory.

I Love Lucy, “Job Switching” (1952) “After Ricky and Fred get upset about the girls’ spending, Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory while the boys do the housework” (IMD)

But John Henry died and technology progressed unabated. A few years ago, Wegmans added self-checkout counters. At Walmart, they are ubiquitous.

When researching this article, I discovered that in April, 2017 a national labor organization, Labor 411, started a petition asking supporters to vow not to use self-checkout machines during Ethical Consumer Week (ECW), April 10-14, 2017, also urging signers to disavow the machines during the holiday season. The petition garnered 1,722 supporters.

See “Three Reasons Why Self-Checkout Machines Are Bad for Everyone” (labor411.org, March 2, 2017, Sahid Fawaz)

In terms of the 411 petition, the 2016 images at Tops render an interesting ideological/ethical template. We see a white middle aged suburban professional who desires convenience face to face with a young black woman [John Henry was both a labor and African-American folk hero], presumably working class, whose job is threatened by automation.

On the one hand, the compulsive professional values technical efficiency and personal autonomy. He would not sign the petition nor boycott the machines.  On the other hand, the liberal professional worries that self-checkout limits opportunities; he would sign the petition. An entry level job as a Tops cashier can lead to advancement. Limited opportunities fuel dynamics that widen social inequalities, inequalities finally coming back to bite the compulsive professional’s butt when — wielding John Henry’ sledgehammer — the working classes rise up to give him the ultimate thumbs down,

March, 2017

In Entering The Jae Era with Deeper than the Subway, on March 3rd, 2017, you entered the Jae era when Erica went deep into the subway.

Erica Jae [ScreamMaker The Producer, Buffalo NY] from Entering The Jae Era with Deeper than the Subway

That night, a First Friday, I met up with Erica outside her studio on the third floor of the Hungerford Building. Erica’s friend and fellow artist-model-actress & poet Erika De Jesus Rodriguez  was performing “Restraint.”

(left) Erica Jae’s 2017 photo and poem. See Restraint.

Erica and I were considering a sequel to the Jae Era and did a hallway photo-op where unfortunately we could not avoid glare.

March 3rd, 2017, the Hungerford Building. Erica Jae [Photos; David Kramer] See Entering The Jae Era with Deeper than the Subway

The 2017 sequel was not realized. Nevertheless, Erica PROMISES to share more of her work with us in 2020.


“Emerson would have liked the School Without Walls” from Nicholson Baker, SWW, the Eastman School of Music, and author of 16 books


Seeing “The Rochester Effect” at the University of Rochester



About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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