Lately, life has been a blur — not of Republicans and meat, as Zippy said, but of intense gardening and MRIs, biking and blading, picnicking and cleaning the summer silverware, recitals and concerts, principals’ honors breakfasts and cocktail parties, Texas (inexplicably) and NYC. There was a plumbing disaster solved with an elbow and glue, a heretofore unexpressed need to plant a blueberry bush, and many hours spent watching “Millennium.” There was new music by Elvis and Cracker and The Church, and a bad batch of sunscreen that gave me a rash. There was an owl with one wing which is not any kind of omen at all, and a squirrel that lay on the ground like a squirrelskin rug. Right now there are ominous backup alarms from town trucks, which is never a good sign, and a massive amount of email that needs to be ignored and deleted. So, on with it.
Thanks to J. Eric Smith for reminding me of last summer’s extensive (and never really quite closed-out) Joe Cocker Phase, in which I introduced my long-suffering children to the excesses of Joe Cocker, who in many ways represented the beginning of the end, the more and more and more of rock and roll that ultimately led to the quite-justified Ramones Reaction, to the need to get rid of the backup singers, the double-necked guitars, the insanely large touring bands of the middle ’70s. But Joe was, as I said, only the beginning of the end, and his excesses were born of marrying rock to the rhythm and blues revue, and, of course, to being Joe Cocker. His excesses were still musical and highly entertaining, and by god did his band groove. Joe was also, famously, incoherent. That he became primarily known for his covers may have been something of a blessing, for if we hadn’t known the songs he was singing, we’d have had no idea what he was going on about, and another great talent would have passed by unnoticed. Because when Joe made a song his own, it was his own, and the original lyrics were just serving suggestions.
That said, J. Eric was kind enough to bring this video of Joe Cocker at Woodstock to my attention. I don’t know that anyone before thought to worry about what Joe was singing, but now we know. Highly recommended.
I started out on a hunt for information on a local building that’s undergoing demolition, and finding nothing on the Interwebs, turned to the historian’s version of carbon dating: city directories. Luckily a bunch of these are online now at Ancestry, because it’s tedious work going through them looking for addresses and business names. All I wanted to do was get some idea when this particular building, a former hotel, had started up and how late it had been there, because no one I knew could recall anything at all having been in the building in the last 25 years or more.
But of course instead I got lost in the portrait of a city that is no more, captured in the 1875 Albany City Directory.
For starters, it was a city that existed almost entirely in the area we call downtown. Smaller in population, endlessly more dense in those days before the automobile changed everything. Bounded as it still is by the Capitol to the west and the Hudson River to the east, Madison or Green to the south and perhaps Clinton Street to the north, it would appear there was hardly an empty office for dozens of square blocks. The place was absolutely full. And what businesses they were, a reminder of what our cities were like before refrigeration, rapid transportation, centralization and globalization changed everything. Downtown Albany was home to five cracker bakers, five cream of tartar dealers (an ingredient in baking powder), 12 iron founders, 12 marble workers, 20 news depots, and 25 printers. You wanted oysters? 14 oyster dealers took advantage of the overnight steamboats to New York City’s seafood markets. There were four piano manufacturers (but only two banjo makers). There were six sleigh manufacturers, six furriers, 5 leather curriers (a leather treatment method), and two places that exclusively pinked and marked fabrics. Bonnet getting dingy? There were five places to have your bonnet bleached and pressed. There was one foundry riddler, and if I knew what that was, I’d tell you, but he was presumably not in competition with the dealer in “Yankee notions.”
This isn’t to mention the notaries public and lawyers, who were legion. It’s hard to imagine how many people were packed into such a small space, how hectic and exciting the center of the city must have been. Now, after years and years of revitalization efforts, downtown is busy again, but the big towers are still riddled with vacancies, and the variety of services available to the lawyers and state workers who people the streets pretty much ranges from lunch to lunch, with one holdout jeweler and a couple of opticians thrown in for good measure. Even the variety of twenty years ago, with a bookstore or two, a semi-pro camera shop, and a couple of jewelers on Pearl Street, has been lost. Those spaces have mostly been taken over by restaurants and bars, which has improved the nightlife, but we’re still without the kind of destination retail that brings some character back to a downtown. Would even one Yankee notions dealer be too much to ask?
A busy busy week last week capped off with what was NOT the swine flu but which was about the most painful experience of my life — unfun and not yet fully over. But it gave me an excuse for couch time. Couch time these days mostly involves trying to burn through enough episodes of “Millennium” to keep some space on the DVR. “Millennium” was Chris Carter’s show after “The X-Files,” with the wonderfully craggy Lance Henriksen as a gifted profiler of serial killers who gets mixed up with the ever-more-shady Millennium Group. It is dark, it is unrelenting, there is no musical episode, and yet it remains one of my favorite shows of all time and I was thrilled that a channel I never heard of before, Chiller, is playing it in precise order.
But burning through a couple of Millennium episodes always require a palate-cleanser, for which we turn either to the backlog of Jeopardy shows (the DVR was made for Jeopardy, both to skip through the commercials and the extraordinarily pointless personal stories of the contestants) and TCM movies that I’m dying to see but that no one will watch with me. Last night it was the absolutely seamless comedy tapestry that is “Walk Don’t Run,” a light and wonderful romantic comedy that features Cary Grant, in his final role, at the top of his game. Along with him are the perfectly lovely, graceful and uptight Samantha Eggar, and the charming Jim Hutton. Definitely the kind of movie they don’t make any more.
Today’s goal: less couch. I’ve been off the bike for days but I don’t think this’ll be the day I get back on. But off the couch would be good.