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Photo: Alicia Solsman

Upstate Odyssey

Like Homer’s Greek hero, Douglas Rothschild makes the arduous journey from Troy to Ithaca . . . New York

By Josh Potter

A man sits beneath a tree on the side of a country road. A breeze rustles up along a fence line choked by long grass and wildflowers, excites the leaves overhead, and cuts the rising heat of a July morning. After it passes, the only sound comes from insects in the pasture. At the sight of something in the distance, he rises to his feet.

Down in the valley, a traveler approaches by foot, his wide-brim hat becoming visible as he rounds a bend in the road crowded with grazing cattle. With no luggage, he moves at a hearty clip, sipping from a shoulder-slung wineskin as he walks and letting his attention pan across the hillside, taking inventory, it seems, of all he passes. As he draws nearer, the traveler spots the man waiting by the tree and waves.

“Greetings, stranger,” the traveler calls out.

“Hello, traveler,” the man replies. “Where are you off to this morning?”

“I’m going to Ithaca.”

“Mind if I join you on your walk?”

“It would be a great pleasure to have a companion,” the traveler admits, and the two continue down the road together.

The scene is a familiar one. Were it not for the stated destination, the occasion of this traveler encountering this stranger might be plucked from any number of novels, plays, films or folk tales. It’s part of the archetypal road myth, one of the foundational stories of Western civilization that has been told and retold for thousands of years, but the fact that his destination is Ithaca means this traveler can be only one man.

Mythically, this is Odysseus, the original traveler and Greek hero of Homer’s Odyssey, who took 10 years to return home to Ithaca following the fall of Troy. Yet, as filmed through the camera of documentarian Anna Moschovakis, this is Albany resident Douglas Rothschild, a building supervisor, handyman and part-time English professor. Rothschild decided to “retrace” Odysseus’ journey through upstate New York, walking the 170 miles from Troy to Ithaca.

Moschovakis films the interior of Gilligan’s Island, a ’50s style roadside ice cream stand and diner in rural Sherburne, while fellow documentarian Matvei Yankelevich orders breakfast. It’s the sixth day of Rothschild’s walk, and the two look simultaneously overtired and eager for the day in that long-road-trip-whirlwind sort of way. By now, their routine is dialed in and they know just how much time they’ll have to sip coffee before Rothschild makes his way into town from where they’d stayed the prior night, a house listed on couchsurfing.com. For the rest of the day, they’ll travel in two cars, filming Rothschild and the companions who join him, tending to logistics, and occasionally joining the walk. They take red-white-and-blue paper cartoons of eggs and toast out to a picnic table to chart the day’s route.

Yankelevich lights a cigarette and starts to match Google Maps printouts to a gas-station map of the county’s back roads. A writer, Russian translator, Columbia University teacher and founding editor of Ugly Duckling Presse (a small publishing house where Moschovakis also edits), Yankelevich has assumed the duties of navigator. To Rothschild, he is Hermes, the classical messenger of the gods, who sends the traveler text message updates and correspondences from friends. The destination for the day is Cincinnatus, a small town north of Binghamton, about 30 miles from Sherburne, and two days shy of Ithaca. Yankelevich is hopeful that, at the rate Rothschild has been walking, he’ll make it to that night’s couchsurfing stop not long after dark.

Meanwhile, Moschovakis readies her camera equipment. This is her first film, and she says the technical considerations are what most worry her. A writer, editor and teacher at the Pratt Institute in New York City, as well as a book designer, she worked at the Cannes Film Festival for a number of years, so the new medium isn’t exactly foreign. She insists that role-playing the Odyssey was not the project’s intention, but like most who have taken part in the walk, occasionally staging scenes from the story and casting themselves as various characters, Moschovakis and her camera have been cast as Athena, the sympathetic god who continually intervenes in Odysseus’ trek to deliver him home.

Without the luxuries of a professional production team, Moschovakis has found unconventional ways to capture what she needs. For instance, the audio is recorded continually by a microphone Rothschild wears on his shirt. There’s a second reason for this, though, which cuts to the heart of the duo’s project.

“It’s been kind of a pipe dream,” Yankelevich says, of the plan to film Rothschild walking from Troy to Ithaca. This year, the two finally decided to make good on an idea that had been gestating for years. A month or so before the walk, Moschovakis sent an e-mail to friends of Rothschild who know him from all walks of life—as a poet, a teacher, and the sharp-dressed host of the Zinc Bar reading series in Greenwich Village—to gauge interest and enlist participants. Describing the project as an “experiment in potential documentary,” she wrote that the mic would ensure that “all of [Rothschild’s] speech—including talking to himself, if there’s any of that—is recorded.”

The joke, immediately apparent to those who know him, was that Rothschild would almost certainly be talking to himself or anyone within earshot, and, furthermore, that the project had more to do with Rothschild as a personality study than curiosity with the fact so many towns in central New York have classical names. The fact that Rothschild is something of a classics buff, though, is hardly incidental. The idea, she wrote, “just seemed obviously like a good thing to do.”

“I never thought Douglas would agree to it,” admits Moschovakis, who’s known Rothschild for more than a decade, and has put him up in her apartment on more than one occasion. “I wonder if he regrets it? I don’t think he regrets it. He’s really moody in the morning, but when he’s walking he’s so happy, talking to people, listening to birds, telling stories, engaging with strangers. What makes it so perfect is that he has this meandering storytelling style, so an aside will turn into another whole thing.”

“He likes to talk,” Yankelevich adds—perhaps the understatement of the day.

The incredible thing is not that Rothschild at 52 years of age can walk all this way, it’s that while walking he’s able to keep his discourse going and not grow winded. In fact, his disposition is quite cheery, less that of an endurance athlete than an Emersonian saunterer. He attributes his stamina to a few long walks he took in preparation, as well as the muscle-soothing effects of Epsom salts, an old-fashioned remedy he had Yankelevich run out in the middle of the night to retrieve after one of their first days on the road. He describes in great detail the proper soaking procedure. Then the sound of birds singing suddenly steers conversation to ornithology; the sight of a dilapidated barn, to 19th century architecture.

Yankelevich carries the bulk of Rothschild’s belongings in the car, but more than a few things Rothschild prefers to carry on his person. His pockets are a storehouse of plastic baggies, full of beef jerky, banana chips, soy crisps and GORP. He carries a Gatorade bottle in his cargo pants and a wineskin full of a dilute concoction over his shoulder. As he walks and talks, he moves the items about, occasionally referring to the map or producing his cell phone to take a call or a photo of a sign, gravestone or road kill.

It’s likely that little has changed in this part of Chenango County over the past couple hundred years. Rothschild stops at every cemetery he comes to and inspects the names. Some of these same names from the early 1800s appear on the mailboxes and street signs he passes. At the top of a hill, there’s a sign for Boos Law Ford Road. Rothschild takes a picture. Although digressive, he’s incredibly adept at finding classical resonance with almost anything he finds on his journey. He riffs on the theme of hospitality in the Odyssey to forcibly link the three names on the sign.

“It’s all in the Odyssey,” he says, his voice jumping to a higher register for emphasis. He waves his arms to indicate the countryside and history around him. “Every Western story is part of it. Anything that happens to Western man happens in the Odyssey.” It’s not that Rothschild has an Odysseus complex, per se; it’s just that his love of Greek mythology consumes him. Moschovakis travels with a copy of the epic in her car, while Yankelevich has an audio version playing through the stereo, and Rothschild can quote rival classics scholars off the top of his head, but at nearly every stop there is some discussion or disagreement about what actually happens in the plot, and what the significance of particular characters are.

“This is not an attempt to replicate the journey,” Rothschild explains, for if it were, winds would have to blow this Odysseus back the way he came just when Ithaca comes into sight, and Rothschild plans on making the trek only once. Besides, Ithaca is not home to Rothschild, there is no wife Penelope or son Telemachus waiting, and the fact he moves over land and not water itself limits how literally he can take the conceit. Instead, the trip for him is something more interpretive. “It’s an attempt to discover what we can as we go and do this thing—whatever it is we’re doing.”

Some friends have chosen to surprise Rothschild with a reenacted scene from the tale. On the following day (unbeknownst to Rothschild), a couple will stage the Siren scene, where Odysseus is tempted off course by the nymphs’ song. But, as Moschovakis originally conceived, “Homeric overtones [in the journey] may be explicit, implicit, or cast aside altogether.” Two days earlier, it poured all day as Rothschild made his way through Cooperstown. His timing could not have been worse, as crowds attending the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony inundated the town. The trio refers to this day as “Hell day,” in line with Odysseus’ trip to the underworld. True to the story, Rothschild tried to liberate a tortured soul with a libation of blood, buying a guy in an Ozzie Smith jersey a beer.

The element that most clearly grounds Rothschild’s trip in the classical myth is the curious fact that so many towns in central New York have classical names. Troy was the first of the lot, when in 1789 the name was changed from Vanderheyden. Another 25 were changed in 1790, when the Central New York Military Tract divided land into parcels for soldiers returning from the Revolutionary War. A clerk in the office of the surveyor general happened to have an interest in classical literature, and gave the towns names like Ovid, Cicero, Pompey and Homer, imbuing the land with a noble Western history, perhaps to distract from ongoing aggression against the Iroquois people. One of Rothschild’s pet projects on his walk is to see if residents understand where the names come from.

“So, I’m in Smyrna,” Rothschild says of an episode earlier that morning. “I go to the public library and ask if they know where Homer lives, and it goes right over the head of the librarian.” He gives an account of how Smyrna is the presumed home of Homer, given that the Odyssey is one of the first stories to emerge from the Dark Ages, thus placing Homer somewhere east of the Aegean Sea, a region that suffered lesser destruction. “I said, ‘I’m walking from Troy to Ithaca,’ and she didn’t get that either. I had to explain what I was doing and that Homer was from Smyrna, and she got out the historical register to look for Homer.”

He’s only slightly annoyed. A part-time professor in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Rothschild was involved in the academic conversation a couple decades back that moved focus away from the Western canon and toward multicultural studies. “You don’t need Shakespeare,” he says, and confesses that the way most people know the Odyssey these days, through film adaptations and contemporary retellings, is actually a very authentic way, despite the discrepancies that arise. “It’s how the Greeks knew it,” he says. “A guy would come to town and say, ‘Let me tell you the tale of Odysseus.’ It’s like a standard, like Gordon Lightfoot singing about the Edmund Fitzgerald. The story’s going to change a little bit from town to town to include local landmarks and familiar heroes. Why, yes, William Kennedy was there, and Erastus Corning . . .” The important thing, it seems, is that the themes and narrative structure are preserved, making the story universally translatable, even to the plight of a middle-aged man walking through the American countryside.

In a fittingly 21st century turn, Rothschild’s lecture is interrupted by a call to his cell phone. Someone needs their doorknob fixed.

“I got some great footage of Douglas in Albany,” Moschovakis says, of the day they first set out. “I got to his place at eight in the morning, and we didn’t leave until three because he just had so much to do.” When he’s not teaching in New York City, Rothschild works as a building supervisor and handyman for a number of properties in Albany’s Park South neighborhood, including the Mad Lark Laundromat. He is something of a fixture in the neighborhood, hustling between jobs dressed in brightly colored work shirts with the sleeves cut off and a five-gallon bucket full of tools at his hip. In the morning, he might be wedged between washing machines, fixing a connector hose, and in the afternoon parked at a table in Scratch Bakery stacking one-dollar bills from the change dispenser.

In fact, this is the image Rothschild chose to use as the author photo for Theogony, his debut collection of poems that had been a long time in the making and was finally published last year. Next to the photo is this short bio: “Douglas Rothschild’s life has been one long miasma of failure, disappointment, coffee and overarching desire. Though he has not yet accomplished anything of note, Mr. Rothschild intends to continue on for some time yet.”

“I went on a job with him to see this guy, Pinky, whose apartment is crazy,” Moschovakis says. “He’s this really intelligent, thoughtful man who’s been retired from the army for 30 years and now he mostly sits around watching the Discovery Channel. His girlfriend has all these animals she’s moved into the house, like birds and turtles, and tons of snowglobes. But Douglas had to do this horrible task, where he had put up a ceiling fan, but it was wobbling, so he had to take it down, take it apart, fix it and put it back up. He’s this perfectionist who just won’t let things go. And you can tell the people he’s serving have a really nice relationship with him. He probably gives them more respect than they get in a lot of other areas, and he cleans everything up—except for his apartment.”

Rothschild, Moschovakis says, is a certified packrat, but she’s careful not to pass judgment on this fact. “It’s hard to know how many of Douglas’ habits actually cause him pain and how many are just different from other people.” When she first arrived at his apartment, Rothschild pointed to the debris in the hallway, turned to the camera and said, “This is reason number one that I don’t get a date.” Turning to the door, he said, “This is number two.” As the door opened, Moschovakis says, it was like entering a scene from Grey Gardens—except far more hygienic. Everything from the floor up was tidy, with neat rows of books along the wall, but the ground was covered in paper stuff, stacks of opened envelopes arranged in a system only Rothschild could comprehend.

The stacks might form an apt metaphor for Rothschild’s personality and the way he interacts with his social network. “Every trait he has is a trait that a lot of other people like us—his friends—have, but he has it in greater degrees,” says Moschovakis.

“I have a little of that idea,” Yankelevich agrees, “like, oh, that could come in handy. But I know I can’t function if I have stuff everywhere.”

Like the allegorical hero, a role Rothschild has assumed for this journey, he is himself something of this exaggerated everyman, whose brilliance and exceptional qualities stem from how normal he is but how intensely he lives. In a review of Theogony, Mark Scroggins asks the reader to “Imagine Frank O’Hara as a dyed-in-the-wool, place-saturated . . . real New Yorker (continually worried about the rent, about what new enormities the mayor’s about to perpetrate) . . . equipped with an angry socio-political bullshit detector . . . and delight in popular culture.” In describing the book, Juliana Spahr seems to summarize both Rothschild’s work and his journey: “He takes us on one of his walks through the neighborhood where he tells us the history of what we walk by everyday and never notice. . . . he calls us on the phone and laments what it means to be hyperaware in this contemporary moment.”

He’s really moody in the morning, but when he’s walking he’s so happy, talking to people, listening to birds, telling stories, engaging with strangers.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

After blinding the Cyclops Polyphemus with a stick “as big as the mast of a ship,” declaring it was “nobody” who did the deed, and escaping Poseidon’s wrath, Rothschild builds an altar to the god of the sea. He collects a pile of stones, erects the canoe paddle he’s used as a walking stick in the center, places the rusted horseshoe-shaped universal joint from a car and a fossilized rock on top, pours out some liquid from his wineskin, and ad-libs the following monologue:

“In horror, we blinded him to escape so that we may return to the world of men and make sacrifice to the gods, but Polyphemus was beloved by his father Poseidon, who has exacted his revenge upon me. Now let me make sacrifice, having come to the land where they knew not my oar from a winnowing staff. I pour sweet wine mixed with water, and sacrifice a horseshoe, the locomotive mechanism, which transfers power from the engine to the wheels of our iron vehicles, to Poseidon, god of horses. And here I’ve discovered a fossilized bit of an antique world from the bottom of an ancient ocean, which I leave for all to see, so they can understand the greatness of the god of the sea. I now continue my journey, remembering that the homecoming will be hard.”

There is much ground left to cover this day as the afternoon sun begins its descent. Yankelevich has decided upon a shortcut that will take the traveler through Beaver Meadow State Forest, and he takes to the woods, discussing mnemonic devices to remember birdsong, whether Athena assumes the form of Mentor in one critical scene or actually possesses his body, which sex the horse and donkey need to be to breed a mule, and whether or not conservative pundits will ever understand the hypocrisy in their simultaneous fear of the liberal Jewish media and staunch support for the Israeli state.

When the journey ends two days later, Moschovakis and Yankelevich will be left with 11 hours of video and 58 hours of audio to sift through. Rothschild is either an editor’s dream or worst nightmare. But this isn’t the only dichotomy he straddles. For all his manic brilliance, Rothschild can be stubborn, demanding, obstinate and irascible—both the project’s hero and its great liability.

The latter quality comes out after the party has exited the forest, crossed a summer camp, and tries to find a poorly marked turn. Rothschild and Yankelevich argue over whether what looks like a private driveway might in fact be their road. In order to ensure they haven’t passed the turn, Rothschild heads back up a long dusty hill they’d just descended, while Yankelevich follows a few paces behind insisting that he’d already scouted this turn with the car. Rothschild puts his fingers in his ears and marches on.

“He’s not listening,” Moschovakis offers.

“He’s an asshole,” Yankelevich replies.

Up top, Rothschild looks at the street sign, refers to the map and declares, “The track up the hill that looks like a driveway is Beaver Meadow Road.”

“That’s what I might have told you midway up the hill,” Yankelevich says, annoyed.

“You didn’t have to follow me up the hill!” Rothschild yells, and freezes mid-breath as Yankelevich interjects that he can’t read Rothschild’s mind. “This play-acting is me waiting for you to stop talking so I can begin finishing the sentence I had started! I am shouting now because I just wanted to be heard!”

“You don’t have to shout to be heard,” says Yankelevich.

“Alright,” Rothschild says. “Now I’m whispering. I’m whispering now. Can’t you just stop and listen to me finish my goddamn fucking thought?!” At this Rothschild throws his map on the ground and flops backward into the dust. Yankelevich walks back downhill where Moschovakis is busy filming the crucial meltdown scene for her documentary. On his back, Rothschild lifts his head to add, “You did not let me finish. The sentences are long. They have clauses. They actually don’t go back to the beginning and repeat what I just said. They start a whole new direction.”

Moschovakis explains that interruption has been a running theme during the walk. “Sometimes he’ll be talking and it will take him a long time to get his idea out and people will try to finish his sentences and he get’s really upset. If you derail him, he’ll think you don’t want to talk. But he’s aware of it.”

As soon as Rothschild returns to the bottom of the hill, he and Yankelevich exchange apologies, agree to take the road that looks like a driveway, and the team heads on through the tiny hamlet of Plymouth.

In the Odyssey, when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he must be smuggled in disguised as a beggar. It’s only after winning an archery contest, slaughtering the many suitors who vie for his wife Penelope’s hand, and proving his identity to her with intimate knowledge of their past that he can assume his rightful place as king. But when Rothschild arrives in Ithaca, he will be treated to a hero’s welcome.

A banquet of friends awaits. It may be the fastest and loosest the group has played with the Odyssey’s plot, but, again, replication is not the objective, and a bacchanal seems fitting. There will be food, drink, live music, readings from the epic, accounts of his journey, and text- messaged toasts sent to Hermes’ cell phone from such faraway lands as Brooklyn.

And there will likely be more Epsom salts.

Despite, and because of, the extremes Rothschild’s personality can traverse, “there is a tribe of people,” Moschovakis says, “who find a way to keep him in their lives.” This was the impulse for her to include as many secondary characters in her “walkumentary” as possible. Whole cultures come to be defined by the stories of their exceptional characters. And, like Odysseus, whose persona was relatable and tale would be told and retold, debated and revised, eventually forming the substrata of Western civilization, Rothschild wields his own mythological presence. On a certain level, the walk is only metaphor.

But the heat of the day has passed, birdsong has hushed and the miles left to Cincinnatus are very real. Toward the setting sun, Rothschild continues west. He passes a flock of sheep grazing in the day’s final glow and quotes from Ezra Pounds’ “Canto 1,” a poem based on the Odyssey: “Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,/Bore sheep aboard her and our bodies also . . .”


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