Monthly Archives: April 2011

Beatlemania, 2011

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Abbey Road

This is simply fascinating. I may watch nothing else for the next week
(literally, since the Playstation Network — and therefore my access to
Netflix and Hulu — has been offline for days and they aren’t saying
when it will be back). But that’s okay, because at this Abbey Road
webcam,
you get to watch tourists line up at all hours of the day, trying to recreate the famous “Abbey Road” cover by the Beatles.
While at the same time, they try not to be run over by double-decker
buses, because in fact this is a pretty busy little intersection. Watch
people get their little groups together, get their cameras out, dash out
into the zebra crossing, strike a pose, and dash back out. Can’t tell
you why, but it’s fascinating.
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Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York

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We all love telling our children how hard things were in the three-channels-and-nothing’s-on days. How we amused ourselves with refrigerator boxes, bent nails and rocks. How our electronic options were pretty much limited to a transistor radio (AM, baby) through a single earphone. And how, in those days, the simplest things passed for amusement.

In the summers of my youth, while my parents were working, my great great aunt would usually take us up to her house in “the country,” way out in the wilds of West Glenville. A few miles up in the hills from our house, it might as well have been time travel out of the ’70s and into the Great Depression. There was no indoor plumbing at all – we had to pump water at the outside pump and bring it into the kitchen (where the sink drained into another bucket, which then had to be carried out to the field). The outhouse was an experience that taught me how to hold it in until it was time to go home. On beautiful summer days, I had a delightful up there, lying in the hammock, walking up to the cemetery, wandering through the neighboring cornfields. But on rainy days, there was precious little for an eleven-year-old boy to do in a 65-year-old spinster’s house.

There was a tremendous library, left by a previous occupant, of hundred-year-old books (many of which I still have). There was a copious collection of Photoplay movie magazines and National Enquirers, much of which fed my aunt’s odd fixation with the terrible harm that Peter Lawford had done the Kennedys. (She would never forgive him.) There were exactly two editions of Mad Magazine, which I studied like the Torah. There was a tiny television that on some days could get one channel – luckily it was the channel that aired her favorite “stories.” There was a Victrola, with a wide selection of fox trots and bamboo needles that broke easily. And there were three games: Carrom, which we played in every one of its endless variations; Yahtzee, a dice rolling game; and “The Game of Peter Coddle’s Trip to New York.”

Peter Coddle cover.jpg“Peter Coddle” was apparently first published in about 1889, by Parker Brothers of Salem, Massachusetts. It wasn’t really a game, but an amusement very similar to “mad libs,” except that the fill-in words were supplied by the game. Players would take turns reading Peter’s adventure, and when you came to a blank in the story, you would fill it in with words on paperboard slips pulled from the box. Hilarity ensued, especially since at the time many of the words (“pandowdy,” “a boodle alderman”) were incomprehensible to me.

I’m not sure what edition of the game my aunt had, but it was handed down to me and has been hidden away for ages. But now, you can enjoy it too – just go to Hoxsie’s Peter Coddle page. Every time you refresh the page, the blanks will be refilled randomly. (Just a note: there were exactly as many word slips as there were blanks, but three of them have disappeared over the years; I made up three of my own, and I defy anyone who isn’t a Parker Brother to tell me which entries aren’t original.)

The Game of Peter Coddle’s Trip To New York

The game was also produced by other publishers, and there were many different editions through the years. Learn more at BoardGameGeek.

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Concrete grace

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Thankfully, it’s becoming more common that our highway design engineers give some thought to aesthetics. For too long, millions was spent for concrete and asphalt without a thought given to making it look even slightly appealing. Increasingly in recent years, we’ve had some local examples of highway designers thinking of aesthetics. This was most notable with the Lansingburgh bridge reconstruction, which was a faithful reproduction of its predecessor. And along the Route 85/Slingerlands Bypass corridor, some lovely touches have been included. This particularly nice tulip is in a spot where probably only folks who live in the neighborhood would ever see it, along Berkshire Boulevard. (And if you want to see what preceded it, you can see the old bridge under reconstruction on Google StreetView here.)

This gives me some hope that if the State ever gets around to reconstruction the badly crumbling 9/20 bridge in Rensselaer, it might recreate its graceful crossed appearance and maintain something that was lovely in its time. I’ve seen some recent repairs on another bridge that looks similar, which makes me hopeful that when the time comes aesthetics will be considered, rather than tearing down something lovely and replacing it with jersey barriers and guiderails.

Steal this blog!

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Community has become an odd and interesting thing in this internet age. We are able to join communities around common interests with people from all over the world, people we will never meet, and they seem just as real as the community that revolves around your local school. But there is still something about place, about having place in common, that binds us, especially those of us who are deeply interested in local history. So if you’re from the Capital District, Metroland, the Tri-Cities, or whatever you like to call Albany, Schenectady, and Troy (and Saratoga, Amsterdam, Cohoes, Rensselaer, etc.), then you should be looking at what these local sites are offering.

First, of course, is All Over Albany, which is kind enough to publish some of my historical ramblings and is a great guide to what’s going on in the Albany area.

Then there’s the great little community of indie bloggers that J. Eric Smith has assembled over at IndieAlbany. Eclectic, interesting, and uninfected by commercialism.

Siobhan takes fantastic photos of her kids and shares her life at Ittybits & Pieces.

Paula wanders Albany with her camera, including some parts of Albany where I wouldn’t wander with a camera, and shares little bits of the past with us at Albany Daily Photo.

Chuck Miller writes about trivia, photography and a whole lot else on his Times-Union blog.

If you’ve got any other local faves, feel free to share in the comments.

I just wanna lock my bike

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Millions for parking lots, but not one cent for bike racks! Or: Making Al Gore Cry

Twice in recent days I’ve been in a perfect position to do what I almost never do while riding my bike
– stop and enjoy a cup of coffee and something to eat. And twice in recent days I’ve been reminded why I almost never do that, and why even doing local errands on my bike is a travail: there’s nowhere to lock up. One was at a well-known and loved local coffee shop, tucked up against a large college campus, where you would expect that students would frequently bike. I stopped by after a ride in the neighborhood and thought how nice it would be to dispel the spring cold with a cup of coffee before riding the last little bit and putting the bike up – but there was NO place to lock up. Not even a bad place, like a bench, which I hate to lock to because it makes it hard for people to sit. Just nowhere. So I had to go back to my truck, put up the bike, and then drive back to the coffee shop. Then back to where I needed to be. Very inconvenient.

Same thing happened again Friday, in one of those storybook New England towns with a lovely town center, gorgeous shops I could never afford to buy anything from, a deplorable dearth of open coffee shops in early April, and some very tempting pizza. I was cold and a bit surprised by the hills (the Berkshires are hilly; who knew?) and was for once happy to stop for sustenance. But there was nothing to lock my bike to: not a light pole, certainly not a bike rack. There was a bench, but locking to it would have put my bike square in the walkway and I don’t like to do that. So again, it was off to my truck and back again, making Al Gore cry for the senseless waste all the way.

When I was growing up it seemed that many more people actually rode their bikes and did things with them. In fact, looking through my high school yearbook the other day, I noticed a number of shots that were posed by the bike racks. And what was parked at those bike racks? Bikes. Kids rode their bikes to school. After a couple of years of pleading, I finally got a bike rack installed at my daughter’s high school. Today when I try to do errands, I find one impediment after another, and things are not getting better. Going to the drugstore or the bank on my bike is just a pain, when it shouldn’t be. And even a place that you would think would be welcoming, like Stewart’s, isn’t – of the hundreds of Stewart’s I’ve visited by car and by bike, there’s not a single one that I’ve encountered that has a bike rack. I used to make a point to stop and get an extra drink or ice cream and stretch my legs, but I don’t anymore.

CDTA, our local transportation authority, has done a lot to promote biking in the area (or, in transportation jargon, “intermodal transportation”). They’ve added bike racks to every bus in the region – something I always forget when I’ve got a broken spoke, but which could come in handy. They’ve also been giving away bike racks every year, and have put up a very handy map of where those bike racks have been installed.

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American Scoundrel

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It wasn’t an abiding interest in the Civil War that caused me to tuck into Thomas Keneally‘s “American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.” And it was only a little bit an interest in how a member of Congress was able to murder the son of Francis Scott Key, invent the insanity defense, and somehow later rise to the rank of Major General in the Civil War. What drove me was a need to understand why a downstate Tammany Hall politician opposed the construction of a bridge across the Hudson at Albany, a bridge that would eventually become the Livingston Avenue Bridge, still in service today. He not only opposed it when serving in the State Senate in 1856, he returned to Albany as a war hero in 1864 and spoke to the State Senate broadly on the future of the republic, coincidentally (or not) just the day before the issue of the bridge was taken up again. While the citizens and leaders of Troy vehemently opposed what they thought would be an encumbrance to navigation that would accrue to Albany’s benefit, I find nothing that would tie a New York City politician, even one with some connections to Glens Falls and the Adirondacks, to a position against bridging the Hudson at Albany. Perhaps a potential contractor wasn’t in favor with Tammany. Perhaps the ferry interests were. It’s even possible that Sickles agreed with Troy’s concerns and was taking a principled stand, though having read Keneally’s book that seems unlikely at best.

Keneally apparently found the matter of the bridge uninteresting, preferring instead to focus on these more mundane particulars of Sickles’s life:

  • At 33, he married a 15-year-old girl he had known since she was 3 years old.
  • As part of the Tammany machine, he war part of a group that overran the Broadway post office, gathered up a series of letters opposing a Tammany candidate, and set fire to them in the post office.
  • He was friendly with every president from Pierce to Grant, and was such a particular favorite of Mary Todd Lincoln that there were rumors that their relationship was inappropriate.
  • He became an intimate of famous prostitute and brothel-owner Fanny White and was censured for bringing her onto the floor of the New York State Assembly. He also presented her to Queen Victoria.
  • While a notorious womanizer, he could be little bothered with his child bride, who embarked on an affair with Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles’s anger over the brazenness of this affair would lead him to shoot a defenseless Key in broad daylight in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
  • Sickles used his connections and his will to put himself in a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg, a role that has been debated ever since.
  • After the war, he built on his role in creating Central Park by heading a commission to memorialize the New York regiments at Gettysburg. A large sum of money went missing, presumed to have been siphoned by the General.
  • He married a Spanish society woman, Caroline de Creagh, but did not let his courtship of her interfere with sexual liaisons with Queen Isabella II of Spain.

And there is much, much more. Just don’t be disappointed by the lack of juicy bridge politics.

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