Do they still take your kids away if you let them find out about jazz? At the Aldrich Piano store during Troy Night Out, these jazz guys were nice enough to let Rebekah sit in with them. Rebekah lays down some notes during Troy Night Out. She was all like "Für Elise," and they were all like "Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."
It’s hard to relate what it was like growing up in the ’60s, surrounded by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and all that social unrest. We make fun of the air raid drills and “duck and cover” now, but at the time, going down to the elementary school basement and covering your head with your jacket, remaining in total silence, nuclear war seemed like a pretty scary thing. There was nothing to think about other than that if there were really an attack, my parents were somewhere far away from that school basement, and I might never see them again. There was so much gloom and doom in those days — the certainty (which I now know all places shared) that our town was a target for the Russians, the fear that race rioting could come to our rundown city, the talk that there would be some kind of revolution — all unsettling things to young ears that had no other context.
But in the midst of that, there was this bright, shining hope, this crazy human endeavor that sparked the imagination and gave the era a name — the Space Age. For a few years, the level of excitement and interest was incredible, and it was reflected in all aspects of our society — movies, TV, newspapers and magazines were filled with stories of space exploration. Astronauts were the greatest heroes imaginable (and who has taken their place?). And for kids, there were endless space-related toys — some cheesy, some awesome. Even food — the Rocket Pop, Space Food Sticks. It’s hard now to imagine a craze of that level centering around technology and exploration — there’s no one marketing Genome Food Sticks (and if they do, they’ll hear from my lawyers). But at the time, manned space flight served as inspiration, the thought that we would get through the terrible times, that the future would continue.
And sometime in the early or mid-’60s, even the Electric City got caught up in the space craze, and Schenectady built a marvelous space-themed playground in its Central Park. It had rocket swings you could ride, a couple of rocket/lander/space capsule constructions with ladders and slides, climbers shaped like Saturn. It was an absolutely magical place to a kid in the ’60s. It was too far from home to get there except by car, so it was an even more special treat when someone’s parents would load a bunch of us up in a car and drive us over there for an afternoon of being able to live out our space fantasies on real rocket ships instead of having to pretend cardboard boxes were rocketships and tricycles were lunar landers. (Now, children are driven absolutely everywhere. Back then, that wasn’t the case. Getting driven to a playground in another town was almost the same as getting driven to Disneyland.)
Although the fence that once enclosed it is gone, many of those playground toys are still there. Isn’t that cool?
It’s been said you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s almost as true of cities — as much as they seem to be bound up in concrete and steel, it turns out they’re ever-changing, and whether for better or for worse, the geography of the familiar can change until it’s not even recognizable anymore. When I was growing up, there were a couple of blocks of downtown Schenectady that were as much a part of my personal geography as my home and the schoolyard down the street. They were the blocks with the grand department stores and the creaky old stores I never set foot inside, the record store where we used to buy our 79-cent singles and the peanut store I never went into, the newsroom full of cigar smoke but hardly any comic books, the fabric stores where my mother held me hostage for hours and hours, as bored as a boy could be, while she picked out fabric for her next sewing project.
These were blocks with personal history. The Wallace’s Department Store, where my grandmother waitressed in the little cafeteria near the back entrance — because every department store had some kind of lunch counter then. Her aunt worked there as well, in the ladies’ department. My mother worked there, too, making clothes for and dressing mannequins. And my father worked there, first as a valet for the parking lot (though they didn’t use the word valet then — he parked cars), then as a delivery man for the furniture department, whose warehouse was down on Weaver Street. When Mrs. Beauville left the Wallace’s lunch counter to start her own restaurant across the street at 426 State Street (in the space that had been Fox & Murphy Sporting Goods), which became Peggy’s Restaurant, my grandmother went with her, and worked there until she retired around 1980. While my mother was raising children, my father continued with Wallace’s until about 1966, when he went to work for Golub Corp., which operated what were then known as Central Markets. Not too much later they became Price Chopper. Eventually my mother went back to work, just up State Street at the Schenectady Savings Bank, but even before that we made frequent trips to downtown. And so there was a time when I could have closed my eyes and named every business with a storefront between the Hotel Van Curler and Veterans Park. And I would have thought all of that would have been permanent, but of course it was nothing like it. In that 400 block of State, the core of downtown for all those years, not a single business survives from my youth — you might except the Proctor’s Theater, but it’s actually a vast improvement on the ’70s adult “art” movie house with occasional horror movie shows that I remember from my teens. When the Carl Company, Schenectady’s last local department store, succumbed gracefully to the general tendencies that had killed all the other local department stores in upstate New York, and the Woolworth let go of its rundown little corner location, and even the daily newspaper fled its antiquated space for something better way outside of downtown, there was nothing left of that old geography I knew so well, except its skeletons. Some of them, happily, are being renovated and finally put to use after decades of bungled efforts (which famously included the rebuilding of a tiny canal area, which seemed to be based on the premise that was brought people downtown was a small, unusable artificial waterway in no way connected with the canal that the residents of Schenectady had vehemently fought against in the first place).
This obsession has blossomed fully within me into an all-out effort to recapture that geography of my youth, to remember what was where and when, to try to put names to the empty faces on the streets of Schenectady. Some of these efforts can be seen here, where I have scanned a number of photographs of the Electric City as it used to be. And I have also been scanning a number of ads and articles from a pair of old editions of the Schenectady Gazette that my grandparents saved from V-E and V-J days. Brittle, well before my time and not much longer for this world, but fascinating to me. And if you care to, more modern pictures of the City that Lights and Hauls the World here.
This obsession is not limited to where I grew up — I’m pretty much fascinated by the history of every place I’ve been. Of course, not many places in the U.S. have quite as rich and interesting a history as Schenectady. Syracuse, where I lived for a long time, got a late start, comparatively, but I was still always fascinated by its story. I just recently tripped upon a great, detailed site that lays out much of the geography and architecture of the Salt City, Yestercuse. With the history you get a lot of the present, as well, and it’s saddening to me how a city that seemed so vibrant (if struggling) when I lived there seems to have fallen on some very hard times.
Just for today and tomorrow, we’ll be switching to Kelvin, because 254 degrees just sounds a lot better today than fahrenheit or celsius would. Also, we’re hoping the old “too cold to snow” theory holds up, because the last few days have been like life back in the Salt City, with much shoveling and brushing off of cars. The fact that my feet were never dry or warm in the 12 years I lived in Syracuse is not the reason I left, but it sure is a reason not to try to get back.
Every New Year’s Eve, I am faced with the same compelling, seemingly unanswerable question — “what was the name of that bizarre New Year’s Eve movie with the girl who got to live the year over again and the poet who was obsessed with having his poetry published in a book with morocco endpapers?” This question has haunted me since I saw the movie, more than 20 years ago. It doesn’t help that my wife now has no memory of this and suspects I’m crazy. And through the years I have done various searches to try to figure this out, but without knowing the year it was made, the actors in it or even a snippet of plot, I’ve been driven crazy without much to go on.
And every year on New Year’s Eve we try to think of New Year’s Eve movies other than “The Apartment,” and every year I end up stymied in figuring out what this movie was. But today I thought to Google “time travel in movies,” and found a very comprehensive site (because the Internet is truly The Promised Land for anal retentives) of time travel movies and tv shows. Big and lots to browse through, but by focusing on a likely decade of release, I finally found it: Repeat Performance, 1947, starring Joan Leslie, Louis Hayward, and with Richard Basehart in his first movie role as the poet who wants a sugar mama to publish his imperishable words in a bound volume with morocco endpapers. Tragically, not available on DVD or VHS.
Always nice to start off a new year with a success, anyway. Snow on the way — and here are the girls, eating the last snow of 2007: