O, Small-bany!

A bygone spring: notes from an adopted hometown.

Elisa Albert | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,229 words)

They poisoned the water in the lake again. It’s actually more of an enormous pond. They poison it a few times a year. I’m not listening to music, for a change. My battery’s at 10%, anyway, and I want to eavesdrop. Washington Park’s full of people. Just like the Seurat painting, minus the class status and pointillism.

There’s a black man fishing with his tiny son crouching beside him. The man’s biceps are impressively built and inked. The boy says, “Tell me when you see a fish.” There’s a middle-aged white couple with a contented aura, walking a mid-sized grey mutt. There’s a very petite brown woman in tight blue athleisure berating a man who is pushing a baby in a stroller. Not a status stroller. Athleisure woman is on this man about something. He hadn’t been on time to pick her up. He is playing it cool (“Well, I came, didn’t I?”) but she is unrelenting (“Not when you said you would! Not til after you…”) and then they are out of earshot. There’s a young white mother from the nearby cult (I’m sorry: Intentional Community), holding a toddler’s hand. The Intentional Community manufactures the kind of old-fashioned wooden toys for which my bored mom friends and I go wild. They live and work in a huge brick mansion near the park. There’s free literature about their intentionality to be had in a little kiosk at the entrance to their driveway. Books about making peace with death and living in accordance with the laws of nature. When I was a new mother, I used to loiter around that kiosk. Should I join? They wear homemade clothing and raise children communally. I yearn deeply for the latter but I have a quasi-sexual weakness for fashion, and ultimately I’m not much of a joiner. The young mother in her homemade ankle-length skirt and bonnet is talking to a black man on a bench by the boathouse. He rests one arm on yet another stroller (not status), in which sits a toddler with a delightful head of tight, ombre ringlets. The man reaches out his hand to me.

“Hello!” he says, like we know each other; I don’t think we know each other.

“How are you?” he wonders.

I smile, nod: fine, fine, thank you, and you? I do this intuitive sort of bow, and continue on my way. The cult woman slightly glares at me from under her bonnet. Her glare (real? imagined?) trips some anxiety about running into people I’m not fond of, by which I mean people not fond of me. There’s this one woman in particular, your standard bad-vibes-in-small-town situation, and my nervous system goes insane every goddamn time.

***

Officially Albany is a city of a hundred thousand, but it feels like a very small town. Which can make it hard to take a walk sometimes. Small-bany, some call it. Shmalbany, I prefer. Albanality, a friend of mine says, but the syllables don’t work out. There’s not that fantastically freeing anonymity of your big exciting status places. State capitals are often kind of weird places. It’s a small goddamn town. So much chit-chat always waiting to be had. Just around that bend? Just over this hill? Just past that tree? I arrange my face in a blank mask and bland smile, practicing. I catch myself doing so, catch my thoughts circling this dumb anxiety; shake it off. You are safe, I tell myself. My whole goddamn sympathetic nervous system gets caught up in small town anxiety. It’s hard trying to be friends with everyone all the time. It’s okay if not everybody likes you. I used to kind of seek out people with bad energy, try to make them like me, but that only makes them like you less. I learn slowly.

You are safe, I tell myself, and it works. I am safe. Relatively speaking. More often now I seek to avoid or minimize encounters with people who don’t like me, people who bring out the ugly. This is progress, according to the meditation teacher.

Isn’t this the kind of inner drama we all share? Useless, banal. Best kept to oneself, only then how are we to take comfort in the knowledge that we’re all the same!?

***

Two white men are sitting on a bench, sharing a joint. One takes a drag, coughs extensively, sputters, hocks an impressive loogie.

It is the spring of 2016.

There’s the official sign, stapled to a tree: PESTICIDE TREATED WATER. Bright yellow laminated paper. The date is filled in, and the illegible name of some pesticide. Do not swim, 24 hours. Do not drink, 24 hours. Do not fish, 24 hours.

Officially Albany is a city of a hundred thousand, but it feels like a very small town. ‘Small-bany,’ some call it. ‘Shmalbany,’ I prefer. ‘Albanality,’ a friend of mine says, but the syllables don’t work out.

What happens is, people feed the ducks all manner of processed crap and the ducks shit their brains out and the duck shit throws off the PH balance in the water and the algae flourish and everything’s a mess, so: pesticide.

It’s about a mile around the circumference of the lake (enormous pond?), and there’s just that one single, solitary sign. The water smells weird, looks weird. Brackish, with a sort of opalescent film. Sinister, though maybe I’m projecting. I don’t want to be near it. I move through a cloud of weed smoke by the men on the bench, and detour off the lake path.

Once, in Dolores Park in San Francisco, I came upon two tough-looking teenage girls (but affluent; their shoes gave it away) in a cloud of weed smoke. I asked if they knew where I could get some. It was dusk. I was on a work trip, alone and lonely. Offer me a stupid hit, girls.

“Nope,” they said, avoiding eye contact.

“Well fuck you, too,” I muttered as I walked away.

These men would have offered to share, I bet. But then I’d owe them something. Then I’d run into them and they’d know me. Shmalbany.

***

An ice cream truck’s circling the park, trailing its dinky rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” A melancholy pang of missing my kid, who’s at school. Maybe homeschooling is the way. Maybe I should join the cult. Maybe my quasi-sexual weakness for fashion is holding me back. Maybe we could sit in the park all day eavesdropping and eating ice cream, wearing homemade clothing in a perpetual spring.

I worry for the ice cream truck. Is there enough business? Last year, over Sno-Cones, I asked the driver how it was going.

“Not so good,” he said.

I hope the ice cream truck will be alright. What’s a park without an ice cream truck? It would be just like Shmalbany to fail to sustain a goddamn ice cream truck.

When I was 10, 11, 12, living with my mother in a Beverly Hills rental apartment right on Roxbury Park, there was a great ice cream truck. A thirtysomething Persian man ran it. He had a thick, perfect mustache, meticulous comb-over, and melodious accent. He had an eager, unselfconscious grin. He adored me for some reason. Whenever I think of him I am amazed that this story doesn’t take a dark turn. No dark turn whatsoever. This man gave me free Big Sticks two, three times a week, and that’s not a euphemism. He invited me into his truck and he grinned his enormously kind grin and he told me I was wonderful, beautiful, smart, good. He told me I could come to his truck anytime I wanted, anytime I wanted, I could hang out with him, and he would love it. I wonder if I’m suppressing some memory, here. What are the odds? Reader, that man did not rape me.

My mother was I don’t even know what to call it, my oldest brother had gone far away to college, my middle brother had more or less gone to live with friends, and I had no idea where my father was. San Luis Obispo, maybe? The ice cream man was sort of all I had. And I’m so very sorry to tell you that I ghosted him after a while, because what kind of weirdo would adore me? His adoration and his kindness creeped me the fuck out. This, unfortunately, is more or less how I continued to conduct myself in intimate relations for the following two decades.

***

I venture up toward the playground, where the slide’s still busted. It’s been busted for a year. Obviously, the city doesn’t want to pay for a whole new play structure. They’re much too busy widening the highway to better accommodate the bomb trains. The bomb trains run right alongside the projects. Periodically there’s a public hearing to voice environmental concerns, but no one outside the projects gives much of a shit.

There’s an orange cone sitting atop the hole in the slide. A dozen tiny kids from the church daycare on Lancaster are exhorted to avoid the cone, the slide. I’ll have to write a letter. A series of letters. Who do they think they are, compromising the play of our city’s children? Who do they think they are, compromising the air quality of our city’s residents? I am outraged.

(You are safe.)

(Am I!?)

Albany’s a long way from Beverly Hills. What kind of idiot grows up in Beverly Hills and winds up living in Albany!? Might as well be Siberia.

(This idiot.)

This park was conscripted to public use in the city’s 1686 charter. Bordered by Madison Avenue (four-lanes, people driving too fast, pathetic few blocks of on-street bike lanes despite tireless advocacy, lined with makeshift/failing small businesses and the grandest seen-better-days brownstones you can imagine, crosswalks in dire need of repainting), Willett Street (one way, people driving too fast, ditto the brownstones), State Street (same, same), and South Lake (two lanes, way too fast, same).

“Academic bride,” I tell urbane acquaintances who, with subtle grimaces, wonder why. Interesting how many Brooklyn lefties full of self-righteous social media activism wouldn’t think to set foot north of Hudson.

***

PEOPLE LIVE HERE, I occasionally scream at cars going too fast. Call it a hobby. There’s a pedestrian-right-of-way at the entrance to the park from Hudson Ave. It boasts a three-foot-high fluorescent yellow sign that is more often than not lying on its side. Last year I wrote to the Mayor and the city engineer and our councilman and neighborhood association president, got 50 friends and neighbors to co-sign.

Could we please get some speed bumps around the park? (No, because emergency vehicles would be hindered.) Could we please increase signage? (They’d take this into careful consideration.) Could we please get a ton of reflective road-signs installed? (Maybe!) Could we reduce the speed limit in the park? (Maybe!)

I’m so glad you’ve chosen to raise your family here, said the Mayor in her response.

Nothing’s changed. A state worker advises me to resend the same letter twice a week in perpetuity. This I have not done. I should. I will.

My whole goddamn sympathetic nervous system gets caught up in small town anxiety. It’s hard trying to be friends with everyone all the time. It’s okay if not everybody likes you.

If I’m in a pissy mood and people are blowing through that crosswalk, I sometimes holler YOU HAVE TO STOP! Sometimes I even shake my fist.

If I especially don’t want to sit at my desk and work, I’ll occasionally just saunter slowly back and forth across that crosswalk for a good 10 or 15 minutes, making every. Single. Vehicle. Stop. That’s right, fuckheads, the world ain’t your highway.

Once I screamed YOU HAVE TO FUCKING STOP at a black BMW. I hadn’t done my meditation practice that day.

I enjoy my ineffective brand of urban-renewal activism.

At least Rockefeller didn’t manage to build the highway through the park like he wanted to. Nelson A. Rockefeller. Can’t talk about Albany without talking about that piece of shit. Ashamed of the city’s perceived shabbiness (all those “ethnic” neighborhoods!), he decided to transform it, leave his mark, blah blah, eminent domain, blah blah, razed a thousand perfectly good 19th century brownstones, destroyed the South End, desiccated the vibrant immigrant communities therein, paved over the trolley tracks, and installed his massive concrete state capitol complex (which is, admittedly, sort of cool, now that it’s a fact, but if we could turn back time…).


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The dumb highway Nelson did build blocks pedestrian access to the Hudson River almost entirely: one lousy footbridge can take you from Broadway up and over the dumb highway so you can sit or walk on the bank of the river like a goddamn human animal. A single solitary footbridge. Singular: one footbridge. To connect the homo sapiens of the capital city of New York State to our majestic river. In all fairness, the river stank so bad in the ‘60s that no one wanted to be near it. A poisoned river. Save us from ourselves, Nelson A! Save us from the stinking river, Pete Seeger!

***

The year he was 5, my kid was really into Pete Seeger. Also cops. He wore a cop uniform every single day. Had to wash it while he slept. He wrote endless parking tickets and constantly stopped by our local precinct to say hi to “our buddies.” He was in a super-ego phase, I guess.

The cops adored my little guy. They showed him around over and over again, day in and day out, let him sit in squad cars, flash the lights, run the sirens. They gave him blank tickets and violation slips. (“Not supposed to do this,” they always told me.) They gave him patient, detailed tours of their uniforms and squad cars. Eventually they even let him hang out in the break room, which meant that I, too, spent a lot of time in local precinct break rooms. I’d bat my lashes: Thank you so much, guys. Every day the kid would show up with a thank you card for the day before; soon their walls were covered. He knew their names and ranks. They called out to him from squad cars all over town.

It was the height of Black Lives Matter. Cops were very, very bad. Hanging over highway I-90 was a huge, loathsome “Blue Lives Matter” billboard, paid for by the Police Association.

Everywhere my kid went in uniform, without fail, white people grinned and said “Thanks for keeping us safe, son!” or “Keep up the good work, kid!” And people of color grinned and said, “Don’t arrest me!” Or “I didn’t do nothing!” or “It was him, not me!” Or, most shockingly, “Don’t shoot!” We watched identical scenes unfold everywhere we went that year: Albany, Troy, Hudson, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Los Angeles.

One of our neighborhood bike cops worked out of the basement of a flower shop on Lark, don’t ask me why. The girl at the counter has a huge black beehive and makes these neat rockabilly glitter-and-neon tiki mask paintings.

“Is Kevin around?” my little son would saunter in and casually ask.

“What up, buddy,” Kevin would say, emerging from basement stairs carpeted in rose petals. Kevin was an Adonis. Even I was a little obsessed with Kevin.

I asked Kevin and some of the other cops to patrol the pedestrian crosswalk, nail some drivers blowing heedlessly through. At the end of that summer I bought two tiki paintings from the flower shop girl. Neon green on pink glitter and red on turquoise glitter. They hang above my desk. Tiki masks are said to provide protection and luck. I wanted them in the entry hall or the dining room, but they freaked my husband out.

***

I leave the park, walk toward Central Ave, Albany’s United Nations. Caribbean deli, Halal butcher, knock-off brand-name street clothes, cell phone stores, Vietnamese place, Chinese noodles, Pakistani food, Kosher vegetarian place (soon to close). Arty fucks from downstate are always coming up here to shop at the Asian market, then hightail it back to their fifteen-dollar cocktails and farm-to-table.

Right turn onto Lark, which has seen better days. The denizens of this bus stop in particular seem as good a litmus test as any for the health and sanity of our citizenry. Suffice it to say: seen better days.

The regularity of window-rattling bass is a given. Gangs of choppers, modified sedans. There is sometimes an electric sign warning against noise pollution. The sign comes and goes.

Albany’s a long way from Beverly Hills. What kind of idiot grows up in Beverly Hills and winds up living in Albany!? Might as well be Siberia. ‘Academic Bride,’ I tell urbane acquaintances who, with subtle grimaces, wonder why.

There’s Jamella, who works at the espresso place. Hi, Jamella. There’s “The Mayor”, a semi-homeless guy who washes windows and shovels snow for ten bucks. Hey, Mayor. In a few months he’ll go bonkers and smash the front window of the crappy dry cleaner for no apparent reason. There’s one of the Arab brothers who owns NoHo Pizza. Not to be confused with SoHo Pizza, a few blocks down. Hey, pizza guy.

A massive New England banking chain recently ditched their flagship in the grand old savings bank on the corner, and people said this is it, this is really the end of Lark Street. Grim! But soon a church called “New Hope” took over the space, and who could argue with that?

New construction over on Lark and Madison, in a long-vacant lot where they once found “historical artifacts” (read: human remains). The ground floor retail has been empty for three years and counting, because they’re asking laughably high rent. I’m guessing the developer doesn’t live here.

For a while I was convinced that Albany’s salvation rested on American Apparel opening an outpost in that space. I wrote a letter, suggested they “refine their brand” by setting up shop here. It would be their only Hudson Valley/Capital Region store, and didn’t they know about what was happening in this area? All the Brooklyn refugees and so forth? (Lies!) And wouldn’t their brand profit, branding-wise, from being the first to colonize this gorgeous, haunted old city, rife with punks and actual ethnic and class diversity and all kinds of folk for whom not having to schlep to the godforsaken mall to buy underpants would be a serious miracle? Didn’t they like the idea of being pioneers? I kept throwing around the word brand. Brand! Brand! Brand! Then American Apparel declared bankruptcy and closed all their retail shops all over the world.

I know a woman who waged a successful years-long campaign to bring Trader Joe’s to the Capital Region, but of course they opened that puppy way over at the intersection of all the highways, big-box territory, near the malls, which they’re now talking about filling with hotels and indoor amusement parks, since a lot of folks have by now caught on to the fact that malls are gross and dumb and driving everywhere sucks in every physical and metaphysical and economic and environmental way.

We have our resident boosters: Bloggers, entrepreneurs, local celebrities. For a time we had a shop with Edison bulbs and air plants (it closed). Now there’s another shop with Edison bulbs and air plants. We have a couple okay restaurants. Recently a national chain bought out the adorable independent movie theater and now the movies are less interesting, but there’s another adorable independent theater a mile away showing second runs for five bucks. Their popcorn is made with coconut oil! (In a year it will close, too.) We have a vegan deli and a skateboard shop and two whole other parks. We have a public pool and we have libraries and we have farmers’ markets. We have a bike shop. We have a new, beautiful coffee shop with avocado toast, and we have the best used bookstore in the world. And we have communities so outrageously marginalized you just have to sit in your car at red lights on your way to the stupid highway built to assault said communities, bearing helpless witness. And lord, almighty, do we have strip malls a few miles up the road in any direction. Every direction. Do we ever. Lord Almighty.

We cheer for the smallest signs of gentrification and boo when those small signs of gentrification fizzle. We invite people to visit during the spring, summer, or fall. Lilacs in bloom, birds chirping, cobblestones all cobbled, leaves turning. We picnic in the park. We host house parties. We burn wish paper in the fire pit. We run into neighbors. We are always, always running into neighbors. We watch the sun set on Nelson A’s stupid/outrageous/terrifying/beautiful Plaza. We gawk at the insane modern art collection in the strange underground tunnel system beneath the plaza, which belongs to us, because Nelson left it to the citizens of the State of New York.

“Life seems pretty great here,” say our status-weary visitors.

“Yeah,” we say.

“It could be worse,” we add.

“It has potential,” we decide.

At the espresso place I run into a woman, a new mother who just moved here for grad school. She despises it. I know, I say. I totally, totally know. But honestly, all you need is a few good/real friends and it’s hard to make good/real friends anywhere. I rattle off hikes, day trips, festivals, happenings, nooks and crannies. It takes time, I tell her, but if you put in the work this place reveals itself to be alright.

I am no longer a new mother. I suppose now I’m a seasoned mother. Soon enough I’ll be an Amazon, a Crone, and I’ll joyfully reclaim it in a think piece or ten.

***

Last fall there was a little house for sale in a beautiful town in the Berkshires. I wanted to move. Let’s get out of here, I whined. Having traded the dank one-bedroom in Brooklyn with terrible vibes for this Albany townhouse, we could now trade the Albany townhouse for a pastoral cottage within walking distance to a (presumably non-poisoned, or as non-poisoned as anything is anymore) lake and sweet town at the foot of a mountain an hour from any airport.

We didn’t do it.

One of my students tells me the Native Americans avoided Albany, claiming that this place has circular energy. It could trap you, and keep you.

I continue holding forth for the new mother on the excellent local street art: the black-and-white bicyclist on the corner of Henry Johnson and Washington; the stunning elk in the parking lot between Spring St. and Washington; the Bluebirds commissioned by the city on the side of a concrete parking garage facing the highway on the river; the head of Rockefeller assaulted by a Sven Lukin piece way downtown. (“People come to take pictures all the time,” the man in the utterly dilapidated brown row house next door told me when I stopped once to take a picture.)

Oh and had she been to Troy yet? Troy is cool. Troy: forget about it. Troy is so freaking cool it is almost too late for Troy. Get your real estate while the gettin’s good! Or no, wait, actually: don’t!

***

One of the cops who was always so nice to my kid turned up in the news shortly after Halloween. He had used “excessive force” with a 12-year-old, and he had been suspended, at which point it was uncovered that he had used excessive force with an elderly man a few years back. Now he was permanently suspended.

***

I wander over to the used bookstore in search of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, which I score, alongside Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Montaigne’s Complete Essays, and Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet. I spend a grand total of $19 on this haul.

My whole family lives in West L.A. I think they’re a little embarrassed by my living here. Al-bay-nee, they called it for a long time, like Al the plumber.

***

Time to get in the car to pick the kid up from school. Driving is my least favorite thing.

We have a snack and ride bikes into the park. We dismount at the pedestrian crosswalk, because, as I always tell him, cars are big idiot asshole monsters and want to kill you. The boy has learned to hold up his hand in a STOP gesture, wait for oncoming cars to stop, then cross.

One of my students tells me the Native Americans avoided Albany, claiming that this place has circular energy. It could trap you, and keep you.

“Let’s see if people are gonna be jerks today,” he says. No idea where he picked up that line.

They are not jerks today. He waves to drivers as he crosses, shouts “Thank you!” They wave back, beaming, then gun their engines and burn rubber.

Later, on the way back from the playground, we stop in our tracks when we hear the tell-tale tinkling of “The Entertainer.” Ice cream truck! That direction, over there, heading this way! The tinkling gets louder, and we see the truck approach. Kid gallops toward it, waving his arms maniacally.

“If you get hit by a car I’ll kill you!” I holler. But even the briefest imagining of that makes me fucking nauseous, and I’m immediately on the verge of tears (see also: nervous system), worrying that if he does ever get hit by a car (GOD FORBID) his last thought might be worry that I’m going to be mad at him, and how horrible that would be. This is what it’s like to be a mother. Time to meditate some more.

Hey! Hey! Ice cream truck!! HEY! HEY!!

We’re on a patch of grass by the road, jumping up and down, our hands in the air. But the truck doesn’t see us, doesn’t stop. We watch it speed right through the crosswalk. It must be going 50mph.

* * *

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different. She is at work on short stories and a new novel.

Editor: Sari Botton