The architecture of our past

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Douglas Coupland in “Polaroids of the Dead” wrote lovingly of the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, how that landmark shaped the architecture of his imagination. Whether one lives in a place with such a grand landmark or not, there is bound to be some building or structure that has that effect. The World Trade Center towers filled that role for many, mostly after their fall. So many New York City landmarks shape imaginations, even for many who have never lived in the city. Bridges all over the world have this effect – a subtle visual subtext of the movie version of “The Wonder Boys” was a loving paean to the bridges of Pittsburgh. Sometimes it is hard to imagine our lives without these structures, but sometimes they are gone, just the same.
I have walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate (skated up to it from Fort Point, in fact, which is a hell of a skate). I’ve been to some of the great monuments of our country. But the structures we grow up with are more intricately tied to us, more intimate and meaningful. I feel a tug just from seeing a Whipple truss bridge, hundreds of which once traversed the Erie Canal, a few of which can still be found, and which are linked to a time and place that I am linked to. But here is the structure, now a quarter-century gone, that I wish I could put back in place, just as it was:
Western Gateway Bridge, Schenectady to Scotia

This was the Western Gateway Bridge, seen from the Schenectady end. It was the grandest of all the bridges that had connected Schenectady across the isles of the Mohawk River with the village of Scotia. It was a long, graceful concrete structure, with lacy concrete x’s in its side walls, tall concrete light posts, lovely arched supports. It connected Schenectady to Scotia — I’d have to look up when it opened, though the 1930s seems right. It came down in 1973 or so, replaced by a low, unlovely, completely utilitarian set of steel spans that eliminated the dangerous curve so prominent in the center of the picture. Yes, cars did occasionally (or often) slide through that curve, through the wall (which I remember as held in place by steel cables) and down into the waiting Binnekill. That stream, a backwater of the Mohawk, is now gone, filled and made into parking and building space for the Schenectady County Community College, which overtook the Hotel Van Curler, seen in the foreground, once Schenectady’s premiere hotel. It still looks pretty much like that. The end of the bridge didn’t look quite this when I was young — those lovely grassy medians were gone. At the top end of the center median is a sign, which was later moved to a small park across from the hotel. The sign celebrates the founding of Schenectady with a cutout depiction of the 1690 Schenectady Massacre, a vision of violence no longer seen in civic displays but completely of a piece with our sense of the city when I was growing up. The Schenectady Massacre was a key sortie in the French and Indian War, in which French and Algonquins attacked the walled city on a winter night and murdered nearly everyone in it. We were all very proud of the massacre; in 3rd grade, we put on a play recreating it, which is hard to imagine doing in our current culture. Paul Dobradi and I portrayed Huntley and Brinkley, the NBC newsmen, reporting on the massacre, and I also played the role of Adam Vrooman, who survived the attack but watched his wife and children tomahawked before his very eyes. I put my little 8-year-old heart into it.
This is the bridge that I crossed hundreds of times — in cars, yes, but also in a perambulator, a baby stroller, on foot, on bicycle. My mother used to pop me in the pram and stroll across the bridge, every day (she says). I remember going downtown often, visiting my grandmother at the restaurant where she worked and getting a fresh, hot order of fries from the cook. We would shop in the old Wallace’s or Carl’s or Barney’s or Kresge’s or Woolworth’s — all those stores within a couple blocks of each other. Downtown Schenectady was in decay even then, but just barely. People had moved out to the suburbs and some of the shopping was going with it, but the big stores were all still downtown and it probably seemed like they always would be. It was the ’70s, and the bridge was gone, by the time downtown really crashed. GE shrank, the Crosstown Arterial changed traffic patterns, and bridges stopped being civic symbols and became ways to get cars across rivers that were a little too big to fill in. (Slowly, we are getting back to building beautiful things on the public dime, but for a long time we let utility and cost be our only design guides, and for this we should be ashamed. It is not a sin for the public to build beautiful things.)
I will always remember walking across that bridge, the concrete crumbling, looking through the criss-cross patterns down to the Mohawk River below, the wind blowing brisk and cold. That will always be the bridge that I walk.

So much city, yada yada

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Finally got to go back to New York after a long hiatus in travel, partly imposed by work requirements and partly impose by my wife’s broken arm, which rendered her somewhat useless in the “Responding to Childhood Emergencies with a Motor Vehicle” department. Rained like crazy, though. Wet feet throughout the day, combined with a lined raincoat that was just way too warm. Typical fall visit to the City, in other words. Took a later train down, and got to see our sparkling new train station for the first time. I must say, it’s beautiful, inviting, a delightful place to be. The cafe was busy, the newsstand was doing a business, and it was all just delightful. I’m not saying it’s worth $65 million or so, but hell, the money’s spent, let’s enjoy it. The bridge over the tracks is particularly pleasant, as it has seating area from which one can simply sit and watch the trains. A nice addition to the area and the system. Now if only Amtrak stays solvent for another few months. (I’m actually torn on that one, because I think we’d end up with Metro North service that would be, most likely, vastly cheaper. But would we still have the train option to DC — that’s the question.)
Despite the rain, got up to Kate’s Paperie (listen, I have got to start using the N/R when appropriate — I won’t even say how I got there), found a little anniversary present for Lee and a bunch of little Christmas presents for the girls and others. Best of all, Kate’s had umbrella bags so you didn’t have to slosh a wet brollie all over the store. Should have taken a bunch of spares. One of my favorite stores in the city, and I hardly ever get to go there because it’s not quite downtown , and it’s not midtown. Going there is always a side trip. But I was glad I went. I even got back up to Penn in time for the 2:45, despite somehow getting turned around at the 6th Ave. N/R station. Well, it was a pleasure just to be out of Albany. But then again, it usually is.
I was reading Douglas Coupland’s “Polaroids from the Dead” on the train. He had a nice piece about how certain architecture of your hometown can become the architecture of your mind, which I’d like to riff on later. Very much set me to thinking. The beginning of the book is a series of depictions of Grateful Dead culture, which wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I’ve never had even the slightest affinity for the Dead. In college, I was often told by Deadhead friends (this was before the pivotal MTV video that apparently sent the band over the edge) that I just hadn’t given the music enough of a chance. Well, over those years I heard many hundreds of hours of their music, and it never grew on me even slightly. I got it, I understood why people were attracted to it and that whole dumb stare-at-your-fingernails post-hippie culture. I understood it, but I didn’t like it at all. Something about the Dead and their followers fundamentally grates on me. But the writing is clear, as always with Coupland, and the rest of the book is quite interesting.
More anon.

My sprained foot

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My sprained foot (not a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and in no way related to The Christy Mathewson Story) (perhaps I’ll explain that someday) is driving me crazy. I gave it a rest, not running for a week, and while I didn’t stretch as much as I should have, I gave it ample time to get over itself. Then I had it massaged on Tuesday, and it really should be ready to run. But it’s not. Ran for an hour at lunch and I just can’t get it to loosen up. And the pain there causes tensing up around the knee in my other leg, so I had to stop and stretch several times during my run. But it was beautiful, sunny and warmish out. I could have gone in shorts, but I was in tights and a vest and quite comfy. So, more stretching tonight, then I’ll try to run on it tomorrow during Bekah’s ballet class, and then on Sunday I have the morning to take a bike ride. Planning on running up to Glens Falls and doing the path to Lake George and back, though maybe I’ll bag all the driving and just go down to Columbia County somewhere and do some back roads. I’ll sort it out. But I love that path, especially on blades — it’s extremely scenic, an old rail bed through the Adirondacks, dumping you at the foot of Lake George. But it’s flattish for a bike (and not too bad on blades, though there are some hills to be treated with respect. I once had a woman on bike stop and watch me swizzle my way down a hill, admiring my technique. I almost never use the brake. Brakes are for pussies!), so perhaps I’ll venture down Kinderhook way. I’d do the Harlem Valley rail trail, but it is VERY flat, and not entirely connected yet. Nice for blading, but I would think a little boring on a bike, especially if I have to drive there.
I’ve gotta find a good bike rack for storing all these bikes in the garage, too. They’re taking up too much space, so I may give in and buy an expensive pole that takes up a lot less space. Hanging them from the ceiling is impractical, since then only I can get them down. With two canoes and all the camping gear, I’m OUT of wall space, so that doesn’t help. The price we pay for being sporting enthusiasts!
Gotta get down the snowshoes soon, too, and I’ve gotta get the kids their season ski rentals. Whiteface and Belleayre are open, and I’m jonesing for some serious skiing.

Winona Ryder needs comforting

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Well, it’s not like I’m hopping on a jet to LA or anything. But still, the opportunity . . .
Okay, this post degraded before it had even begun. Time to get my head together and forget how I burned for her in “Heathers.” Forget that my dislike of Ethan Hawke is based entirely on the fact that Winona couldn’t see that HE wasn’t good enough for her, either (“Reality Bites” – I had no time for slackers). Why couldn’t she see that he was just a pose with a soul patch? Or maybe I was just pissed off because I had given up writing and gone to work for The Man. Damn The Man!
Okay, I really need for the coffee to kick in now, before I say something even more stupid…

Winning isn’t everything…

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But it sure puts food on the table. Nice, clean win for the Gov. While I could never quite scrounge up actual doubt that we would win, there was the possibility that it would be much closer than expected. And, of course, Cuomo’s people never saw it coming in ’94. So it was nice to see the policies and the person vindicated, and to see that the people of the state wouldn’t vote for a candidate who seemed to view the job as his logical next step, or one who played the tired old song about running the state like a business. The state ain’t a business. It’s not supposed to be a business. Get off this….
So, now, some level of security for a while and a million more things to do. I’m very thrilled NYC got the Olympic bid for the USA, because I’d really really really like to be involved in that if we get the final bid. We’ve got to rebuild lower Manhattan. We’ve got to clean up construction diesel emissions. And so many other things. How fucking cool is it that I get to be involved in that? (When I start talking about public administration, I start to sound like Wil Wheaton. I can’t help it.)
The girls were actually a little nervous last night, and I was probably more dismissive than I should have been. When I was 6 or 7 my dad changed jobs, and it was a little stressful. I don’t remember if he was out of work when he switched, or going to be laid off, or if he just made a good move, but I remember it as scary for me that he was going to change jobs. When I left the Senate, Hannah wasn’t even 2, and it confused and worried her that I went to “new work”. She thought that the buildings at the plaza (“old work”) would actually disappear some day. We kept having to assure her that everything was fine, that the buildings would stay there (we drove through it every morning on the way to day care, so she may have had concern for its physical state), that other people still worked there but that I didn’t. Then when she was almost 4, and Bekah was a baby, I changed locations again, but then I was Boss of the Beach, which made me way cool. For a while. Then I went back to where I had been, and by the time we moved downtown last year, neither of them was too concerned. Then last week it finally connected that I worked for the Governor, and that if the Governor lost his job, I would lose mine. Then they got a little nervous. But, as I said, not to worry….
I often have people from outside the appointee realm comment on how they just couldn’t live with that uncertainty — many of them are civil servants, safe no matter what. But really, it’s a lot better than being a middle drone or a worker in a sizeable corporation these days, where your fate doesn’t depend on your performance, your boss’s performance, or much of anything else besides your stock price and whether some deal-making asshole has arranged to have your company sucked up into some other company’s over-leveraged maw. THAT’s what would suck. One thing I liked about small business was that you succeeded, or you didn’t, and it mostly depended on what you did. It was affected by the economy, sure, and if you were in a business there wasn’t much call for, or if, as in the case of typesetting, the handwriting was on the wall, then you’d do best to find another line of work. (Which I did.) But you weren’t subject to takeovers, you didn’t have to deliver to shareholders, and you made so little money that going out of business would almost HAVE to improve your fortunes.
So, four more years!

I hate election day

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My choices for election day are always either to go out and do all the volunteer work, such as rousting senior citizens (who, believe me, already voted by the time you call them, and who have been annoyed by 14 other phone calls from other phone banks reminding them it’s election day, as if they need to be told), or doing poll watching in some dank precinct of a city (when they call for volunteers, it’s not because they’re short on people to pollwatch in the nice neighborhoods); OR, hold down the fort by showing up for work when everyone else is out doing the rousting. I picked fort-holding this year. With Lee unable to drive, I need to be available for child emergencies. So, here I am. The fort is doing pretty well. Can’t see anybody coming down from the horizon line. Nope. Nobody. Not a soul. Phone’s not ringing either. And I can’t get Tony Hawk to run on this computer today. So, reading and more reading, and avoiding one simple task I was supposed to have delivered yesterday, just because I’m totally unmotivated to do it.
Well, next week the fun starts right back up with my first trip to NYC since August. I haven’t even been through our new Taj MaTrain station, which is hard to believe. I’m usually on the train at least once a week, sometimes twice. I’ll actually be GLAD to get on the Amtrak. That’s how desperate I am to leave town.
Worked some more last night on posting old pictures to a webpage. Photoshop gives you a nice basic template, but then it’s tweak-tweak-tweak in GoLive, and the next thing you know it’s midnight. Maybe I’ll get to finish it tonight. Just want to get them up so I can share them with friends and family easily. Gotta upload a bunch of stuff to Ofoto, too, and that’s good for hours.
Jesus, somebody just brought in fresh coffee and I can smell it from a mile away. Gotta get me some of that….

Actual music videos!

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Continuing the joy of digital cable, I can actually see music videos again. And what I saw didn’t suck. Watched Foo Fighters on Friday night on MTV2’s $2 Bill. They were fine. I had just gotten MP3s of a couple of acoustic performances Dave Grohl did on Howard Stern, including an incredibly sweet version of Everlong (“Only thing I’ll ever ask of you / You gotta promise not to stop when I say when”), so it was a bit of an FF weekend. Then caught videos by The Distillers and The Hives, and all I can say is, Where the hell have I been? Grabbed a few more of their tunes and loved The Hives especially. Seriously demented high speed fun. And yes, if I like the MP3s, I DO buy the CDs. It’s a demographic thing, you kids wouldn’t understand. Also got turned on to The Donnas again; I had started collecting some of their stuff when my drive crashed on Labor Day, and now I’ve remembered they exist. Very much fun.

Cigars and reading material

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Back when I lived in Syracuse (The Salt City; The City Where The Sun Don’t Shine; So Much City They Named It Once; etc.) I used to make a weekly trek to a newsstand that carried papers from all over the country and just about every magazine imaginable. I never understood how they made money doing this, but it was fun once in a while to pick up the Sunday Boston Globe or the Philadelphia Inquirer, or even just another upstate New York paper. And I bought a lot of magazines back then, too, just about anything that struck my fancy. I think I had a little more time on my hands than I do now. Nowadays, my magazine selection is pretty much specific to activities that I partake in, although I can sometimes go for an Entertainment Weekly just for its infoporn value. And I mostly get to read them on the train back from NYC. But back then, I’d think nothing of picking up a couple of Sunday papers and a couple of magazines just for the hell of it, and I’d read ’em, too. The place where I got the papers was Durston Cigar Store, which at some point in its history had been on Durston Street, hence the name, but had moved to a near west side location and then moved again to a spot on Erie Boulevard across from the Niagara Mohawk building. In addition to about an acre of magazines, the store had a sizeable (though by no means fashionable — this was before cigars became high chic in the ’90s) humidor. And despite the fact that the papers and magazines were nowhere near the cigars, and didn’t stay in the store for all that long, every single thing I brought home from that store had a stale tobacco smell woven into its fibers.
Which brings us to the copy of “Sick Puppy” I borrowed from the library. I noticed that something in the bedroom didn’t smell right the other night, which was odd since the window, as usual, was open. I was sniffing around and Lee said, “Oh, yeah, doesn’t that book stink?” I already knew she didn’t care for Hiaasen, but I didn’t think he quite deserved that level of disdain, until I realized that she meant the phantom odor was in fact coming from the book. I picked it up and sure enough . . . cigars. It’s like the book was soaked in tobacco juice. So now I’m trying to whip through it so I can send it back whence it came.
When we moved to Albany, we rented an apartment on Bertha Street that would have been lovely . . . new (ugly) building, spacious apartment, decent neighborhood, I could walk to work. But the previous renters must have had special cigarette smoking machines designed to go through several dozen packs a day, more than any normal human beings could manage. The windows were literally yellow when we moved in (ALWAYS LOOK AT APARTMENTS IN THE DAYLIGHT!!!). It took hours just to get them clean, washing off this nasty tobacco juice. We scrubbed the walls, to little avail. The carpet, forget about. We spent about 9 months there, leaving the windows open a lot and trying every sachet, potpourri, baking soda concoction possible. Nothing even dented the constant, low level smell.
Stats: I’m mostly getting hits on my genealogy site. Still getting hits for glycerol ester of you know what. My pages of college photos get hit fairly often . . . some poor person looking for Bennington College photos yesterday. Well, I have pictures of college, and pictures of Bennington, but that’s as close as he’ll get.

Bring on the election

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The life of an appointee. A while back, I traded being nervous every two years for being nervous every four. Seems like an improvement, but still, it’s unsettling to have your job depend entirely on factors that are totally beyond your control, and knowing that that will be decided on a given day. I expect this will be my last go-round through an election cycle; time to do something else. Figuring out what that is is another prospect entirely. I’ve already been in this job much longer than most; it’s not a position with a particularly high survival rate. I love it and think I’ve done a lot of good. My kids almost understand what I do, and I’d like to think they’ll be proud of it someday. Any other job seems like less. Any other job probably IS less. No desire to move to Washington. Or even New York — I just can’t see how to raise a family there in the way I want to do it. And I don’t see myself as a corporate asshole whose job is to screw another corporation’s assholes out of money, so I’m a little self-limiting. And lobbying is unattractive. Consulting? Well, if I have to.
Anyway, can’t wait until it’s over with, we’re secure and can do the work of the people for another four years.