Spider-Man guarded my boyhood room. Well, a wooden carving of him did.
It was a gift from my grandpa, Bernard Tavernia, hand-colored with markers and hung above a doorframe in my parents’ home 6 miles south of the New York-Canada border.
It was also the work of an inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora — New York’s largest maximum-security prison, half an hour from my hometown, where my grandpa served as an officer for 23 years.
Ben Stiller’s 2018 Showtime series Escape at Dannemora owes much of its plot to gifts like my Spider-Man sign.
The show, nominated for honors at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, dramatizes the 2015 escape of two murderers from the facility. The duo trade their artwork and charm for favors from prison employees, which they use to advance their escape and plunge the region into an adrenaline-soaked lockdown.
But there’s a quieter escape the show also tries to capture, one understood well by people who grew up in New York’s North Country.
The region is sprawling and rural, home to most of the state’s Adirondack Park. For a lot of young people, it’s not a place with opportunity.
The North Country is the state’s largest geographic region but also its most sparsely populated. Only 2 percent of the state’s total population lives there. Across its six counties there are only three cities, none with more than 30,000 residents. Most people are from similar backgrounds. It’s overwhelmingly white.
That barrenness can get boring. At a certain point in my teens, after the easy pleasure of childhood had long since left, I found myself sitting on couches in my friends’ basements night after night, none of us ever sure what we could do for fun. A lot of times we’d just drive around, maybe cross the bridge arcing over Lake Champlain and act up in the 24-hour convenience store on the Vermont side.
We could fall back on staples — video games, street hockey — but those got old. Eventually we turned to Bud Light or whatever cheap beer we could get. That’s how plenty of people there find excitement.
The region is claustrophobic. The communities are cordoned off from the outside world. They’re close-knit but myopic, and from the get-go everyone seems to be pointing you toward the same path:
You graduate high school and maybe attend one of the local colleges. Then you find a steady job at one of the area’s few large employers — like Clinton Correctional — and hunker down near family. The system steers you there along the way: At my high school, you could take a lot of courses for community college credit, but only two of those Advanced Placement classes more selective (and farther away) colleges love.
It’s not a terrible path. It’s probably the most surefire. And in a place where the world doesn’t seem so big, there’s plenty of space to find meaning in life’s little moments. But it’s easy for people to choke on low expectations. When you’re torn between the simpler life that’s laid out for you and the temptation to bolt and find something fresh, it jades you.
Add together all that — and how half of each year is spent under the weight of snow, ice and subzero temps — and you might just want to escape.
Joyce Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) feels that push-and-pull in each episode of Escape at Dannemora. Based on the real-life Mitchell, a prison tailor shop supervisor who helped escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat, the character fantasizes obsessively about a more exciting life.
She hates her job and seems to hate her husband, Lyle (Eric Lange), whose idea of fun is watching documentaries at a dinky War of 1812 museum and taking a trip for Chinese food.
In one sequence from the show’s third episode, Mitchell gazes at rich out-of-towners who babble about summer home decor and then belittle her when she says her family has lived in the area for 300 years.
The scene cuts to inside a supermarket, where the camera pans over stacks of packed frozen beef as Muzak drones overhead.
In a different episode, she lingers in the street to watch a suave French Canadian man and his two female companions giggle and share ice cream cones before climbing into a vintage Cadillac.
“You ever think about leaving town?” inmate Matt (Benicio Del Toro) asks prison guard Gene Palmer (David Morse) in one scene.
“Once I get the f—- out of here and get my pension,” Palmer says. The prisoners aren’t the only ones who want to escape.
The feeling — though maybe not Mitchell’s creepy staring — isn’t uncommon among the high school friends I keep in touch with.
Some who stayed home after graduation felt stuck in rudderless department store jobs while their ambitions withered. Others moved away and will soon be in grad school. And a few who found trekking off harder than they thought have considered falling back on stable jobs in a region they know.
Years after my grandpa gave me that Spider-Man carving, he pushed me to stay local. He had grown up working on a farm in a family with little money and feared for my financial future. It’d be safer to stay put.
But like Stiller’s characters, I had to get out. I lived in the woods, couldn’t walk to my friends’ houses like the kids on TV. The cloistered worldview up there left me ill equipped to understand people with different life experiences. And I didn’t want to settle for the attainable when I felt like I could achieve something greater.
So I went to college six hours away in New York’s third-largest metro and bounced between summer internships. One brought me briefly back home as a reporter for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, at the same time as the real Dannemora prison escape.
I plodded up and down winding roads in police search areas, knocking on doors to hear people’s fears, talking to the owners of stores where residents were buying locks, flashlights and outdoor lighting systems. When the manhunt ended, I ran around outside the prison’s 30-foot concrete wall and scribbled quotes from cheering locals as rain soaked my notebook.
Eventually, I landed in Tampa Bay, at a place that once seemed far from reality.
My grandpa never got to see me outdo expectations. In late 2012, while I was still in high school, he retired from the prison and made plans to spend the winter in North Fort Myers with my grandma, Sandra.
Then he was hit and killed by a car near Gainesville on Dec. 29, their first day in the state.
Anyone who followed the real-life prison break knows Matt and Sweat never really escaped Dannemora.
Watching the show reminds me that maybe I haven’t either.
Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.
You can stream Escape at Dannemora directly on Showtime’s website or through services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.