Sunday, November 28, 2010

Escape from New York

My vacation ended yesterday as I made the long drive from upstate New York back to Tennessee, made even longer by the horrible lake-effect blizzard that they started having on Friday night. Grimly determined to get home, I loaded up the car, got up at 3 AM, and got ready to go even though the driveway wasn't plowed and I hate driving in any kind of weather at night.

My parents helpfully soothed my fear and stress by offering advice.

"You should wear your sweatshirt over that t-shirt while you're driving."


"So you already have something warm on when you run off the road."

"I'm kind of hoping not to run off the road."

"Right, of course. Now take this blanket, too, and put it on the backseat."


"In case it takes them a really long time to find you."

The fact that I couldn't see the road because nothing was plowed yet made it even more likely that I would run off, but I spent the entire time going 20 miles per hour, loudly praying to God, asking for divine intercession from all the dead people that I know that I thought might be on better terms with God than I am (thanks Bryan, Nanny Eve, and Poppy Harry; I did not ask for intercession from Nanny Maggy because I rode in the car with her a number of times while she was alive and that convinced me that she's not the person to request automotive intervention from), and white-knuckling the wheel so hard that I couldn't even take a hand off to have a sip of Diet Mountain Dew or to snap even one photo through the windshield.

Since I couldn't take a picture, I've drawn one instead:


The size of the snowflakes is not accurate to the size of the car.

There was so much snow that by the time I got to Pennsylvania, hours later, it was still clinging to the bumper of my car:

new york snow

My mom says that the plows went by the house right after I left.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I am Pi

Four days ago, I enjoyed my birthday. According to the candles that my grandmother placed on the cake, I am Pi years old:

cake or pi?

There's no actual significance to the numbers. 3, 1, and 4 happened to be the only three birthday candles that my grandmother had in the house, and she felt that we could not have cake without candles, so she put them on there anyway whether they were accurate or not.

In light of my birthday and my burning need to get out of the house, I accidentally ended up here the other day:

Fair Street Church

That's the Fair Street Church, known around town as the Fair Street Reform, where my parents were married back in 1971. At that time, I was not even a twinkle in their eye, but by 1976 I wasn't just a twinkle: I was an actual baby, and not just any baby. I was the Bicentennial Baby, christened at Fair Street Reform on July 4, 1976, on live radio. My mom still has a copy of the program and a tape of the radio broadcast.

And no, before anyone who knows me points it out, I am not shaving a year off my age. I was born in 1975, and my nationalistic christening was actually my second baptism. I was previously baptized in my native land, West Germany (a country that no longer exists), because my mom did not want to fly back to the United States with an unchristened baby. She was worried that the plane might crash and she would go to heaven but I would end up in Catholic limbo, so she christened me at the nearest available a church and then christened me again when she got home.

I didn't intend to end up at Fair Street Reform the other day. I was actually on my way to the Old Dutch Church:

Old Dutch Church (2)

windows and steeple

church door and lantern

a historic Revolutionary War-era church a few blocks from my grandparents' house. It's not the original church, as that was burned by the British with most of the town of Kingston in 1777, but it was rebuilt almost immediately afterward on the same footprint. I walked down because the churchyard is filled with historic graves:

old dutch churchyard

the most notable of which is the grave of George Clinton:

Gov. Clinton's grave

Clinton was the first governor of New York State, and also served as Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. A few blocks away from the grave, on the Academy Green, there's a large statue of him:

Gov. Clinton

as well as statues of Henry Hudson:

henry hudson

and Pieter Stuyvesant:

Pieter Stuyvesant

the last director of the Dutch New Netherlands colony before it was ceded to the British and became New York.

(Stuyvesant side note: As a hall director, I was in charge of Stuyvesant Tower:


which was named after Pieter Stuyvesant. The main issue that plagued Stuyvesant during my tenure as a hall director there was a problem with the middle elevator, where it consistently refused to operate for weeks at a time. I believed at the time that it was just shoddy construction, but now that I've seen the statue of Stuyvesant up close I understand that the elevator not working was probably a memorial gesture:

Stuyvesant's leg

He only had one leg.)

Other than my walking tour of beautiful historic Kingston:

yankee clipper barber shop

Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center

rainbow house

St. Joseph

I hit two other points of interest in the Catskills:

1) The Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, seen here from Esopus Lighthouse Park.

esopus meadows lighthouse

It is the last remaining wooden lighthouse on the Hudson River, and is reachable only by boat. The tours are closed for the season, so the bank of the river was as close as I could legally get.

2) Deer Camp, which is where my parents go at 5:30 in the morning to kill deer. Soemtimes I go with them, because deer camp can be kind of pretty:

last apple

apple leaves

and sometimes mom makes you hot chocolate with a lot of marshmallows:

hot chocolate

but I am also conscious of the fact that someone may kill a deer while I'm there, and I may have to watch them gut it. After that, they will hang it in a tree, and I will have to stare at it for days.


doe, a deer

I may be celebrating a birthday, but someone else may be killing a deer. It's kind of like the circle of life, but with more gore and less singing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Burning of Philly, and Other Tales From Upstate

After my friend Jen's wedding:


I spent a day helping unnamed drunken hungover bridesmaids stop vomiting and then took off for my parents' house, three hours further north on top of the bajillion hours I'd already spent in the car. I made pretty good time, since the Thruway is pretty much empty heading north on a Monday morning, and two-thirds of the way through the trip I decided that the rest area in Lewis County was a good place to stop. Unlike most New York rest areas, which just have a historical sign telling you that something happened there sometime, this one has actual history:

black river canal locks (1)

black river canal locks (2)

Those locks, and a few others scattered nearby, are all that's left of the Black River Canal, which was finally abandoned less than a hundred years ago. At work we sometimes talk to our student workers about when microwave ovens first came out and just had a big dial instead of buttons, or when a Walkman cost fifty dollars, or when "The Simpsons" wasn't on the air. History and technology move pretty fast, and it's weird to drive up to the locks in my car with the power doors and power windows and computerized electronic system, listening to my iPod and taking film-less photographs of the locks with my rechargeable battery digital camera and thinking that a hundred years ago these were pretty much top of the line transportation technology.

Now they're big hunks of rock at the rest stop, a mile or so from where the river is.

I got home in time to see the last vestiges of fall:

last of the season

and to see that Northern New York remains both classy and trashy:

stretch limo on blocks

That's a stretch limo up on blocks, in front of the vacant motel near the high school. The motel lawn also contains a boat, which you can see in the picture, a bread truck, a pickup, and a tractor. They are currently missing a washing machine, some sort of varmit, and a passel o' children, but I keep hope alive each time I return home.

Home itself is largely unchanged. Philly is Philly:

philly skyline

I did surprise myself by remembering how to navigate around Philly when an accident blocked Route 11 yesterday afternoon. Watching the other cars pull U-Turns and double back, I thought, "Hey, isn't there a road that connects Philly and Evans Mills? I could take that road and then pick up Route 11 again from the Mills."

"Well, yes, I'm certain there is such a road, but the better question is whether you could possibly remember where it is."

"Sand Street, maybe? Do we have a Sand Street?"

"I'm not sure. We went to high school with Stacy Sands. Remember? There was that story about her and Sonja, who sat next to you in French class, and them showering together and taking pictures of it to show boys."

"Yeah, I think they were cousins. They were nice. Also, I think that road is next to the water tower. It's by Deanna and Tamra's mom's house."

"Sure it is. I look forward to the blog entry about how you got lost three miles from your house and circled unmarked farm roads until you ran out of gas and had to call for help because you couldn't figure out how to walk home, either. Happy navigating, Magellan."

It turns out that the road is Sandy Hollow, not Sand Street, but other than that it was exactly where I thought it was and it led exactly where I needed to go. Take that, verbally abusive inner monologue voice.

I was on the road because I wanted to head into Watertown after I'd spent an interesting hour at the Philadelphia Historical Society Museum:

philadelphia historical society

Last time I was home we didn't have a museum, and that building housed an antique shop. Now it's a museum, and it's currently exhibiting over 40 quilts that my friend Bill's mom made. Given that the museum is only three rooms, this means that there are quilts everywhere:


but they are all labeled and they give you a handout when you come in so that you can follow the numbers and read about each one. The people working at the museum are also happy to walk through it with you and tell you about everything there, which was actually very informative. Remember when I went to Bizarro Philly and remarked that actual Philly hasn't contributed anything to the historical record?

That's because everything that ever was in Philly burned down.

Every time I stopped at a case to look at photographs, the story was the same: "That's the original town hall building. The Big M building is on the same footprint. The town hall burned down, and the hot bricks fell through the roof of the restaurant next door and burned that down, too."

"That hotel used to stand by the railroad depot, where the Countie Supply is now.


Took three men with it when it burned."

"Oh, that eagle came from the Eagle Hotel. We had two hotels, then. They got it and the painting there out just before the hotel burned."

"This building used to be the post office. That burned up just recently."

"Yes, we were living here then. My mom called me while it was burning down."

"Just recently", as used there, I think means "about ten years ago".

Sensing an untapped well of local history, I asked the question about Philly that has always nagged at me:

"Why is there a cemetary in the outfield over at the school?"

outfield graves

"Well, that's not the original school building. It's close to where the original was, you see, if you look at this photo, but the original-"


"Yes! How'd you know?"

"Lucky guess."

After I'd signed the guestbook and experienced enough of the Burning of Philly, one building at a time, I headed to Watertown via Sandy Hollow Road because I'd heard that the Flower Memorial Library was a beautiful showpiece, and somehow I've never been inside. It turns out that the rumors were true. The building is imposing and stately enough from the outside:

flower memorial library

library lion

and inside, at least in the original parts, it is gorgeous:

library rotunda

The rotunda dome is covered in a mural celebrating greath writers:

library dome

and the marble floor beneath is inset with the symbols of the Zodiac:


There are high ceilinged reading rooms:

reading room ceiling

knowledge is power

and, for some unknown reason, a room that's a tribute to Napolean:

napolean room

When you head upstairs:

rotunda stairs

there are some historical paintings:

battle of sackets harbor

and a few more reading rooms radiating out from the gallery:

across the rotunda

The modern library is built onto the back of the original, so everything is mostly intact, and it's really nice to walk through even if the lady at the circulation desk hisses, "Please no flash photography!" the minute you take out your camera. I'm thinking that they need a sign.

After the library I had some time to kill before I met my mom for dinner, so I did what most Americans do when they have time to kill and nowhere specific to be: I went to the mall. Other than killing time I had an actual purpose in being there, though. I wanted to see if this machine still existed:

perpetuball motion machine #1 (1)

That sculpture is the "Perpetuball Motion Machine #1", and that used to be the centerpiece of the mall. Little kids would stare at it for hours as the pool balls lifted from the bottom:

perpetuball motion machine #1 (2)

and then dropped down through the machine's many loops and chutes:

perpetuball motion machine #1 (2)

Like the mall, I guess the machine has seen better days. It has been moved off to a side aisle, and the number of balls sitting in the bottom, off track, suggests that it is slowly breaking down:

perpetuball motion machine #1 (4)

Entropy triumphs over everything, even the mall.

Or, in Philly, entropy in the form of fire.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Glimpses of Schenectady and Scotia

I've spent the last three nights in Scotia, New York, a town that I had never stayed in previous to Friday. I came for my friend Jen's wedding, but the wedding itself was an afternoon and evening affair, so I've had a lot of time to kill in between.

I spent some of that time crossing things off on my "going to New York" to-do list, which included things like driving in to Albany to go to my favorite bagel shop and getting an actual New York bagel:


I try to get a bagel at a bagel shop every time I am in New York, because I can't get them at home in Tennessee. Don't get me wrong: we have bagels in Tennessee, and even bagel shops, but something about them just doesn't taste the same. There's something about the consistency of the dough or the cooking process or something that always makes me think of Tennessee bagels as slightly soft, not crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside like a New York bagel. I can't really articulate the difference, but I know it's there, and no one can convince me otherwise.

Another item on my to-do list was to find the replica Statue of Liberty in downtown Schenectady. When I am traveling somewhere and have some control over what I can do there (as opposed to going to a conference, when I'm pretty much locked into that schedule) I look around on the internet to see what I might be missing, and I was delighted to discover that my hotel was just down the street from Schenectady's statue replica:

mini liberty

On looking closely, though, I noticed that the Statue had some rather unorthodox headgear:

liberty's panties

Those are panties.

I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but I'm not. From where I stood to take that picture, I counted two people who seemed homeless and a handful of others scattered around the area that could also have been. A number of buildings facing the statue were closed, boarded up, and seemed abandoned, as a number of buildings in Schenectady are. The truth is that Schenectady is a sad, somewhat tragic shell of a city. Despite its somewhat exciting beginnings:

schenectady welcome

founded by the Dutch and burned to the ground during the French and Indian War, the city now is a crumbling husk. There are areas downtown that have experienced some urban renewal, but for the most part Schenectady is an industrial town whose industries have mostly departed, like a smaller scale version of Detroit, and the image of a disgraced Statue of Liberty seems rather apt for a town where the American dream has not come true.

Rather than dwell on it, though, I tried to look around for something to balance the overwhelming sense of despair that driving down Route 5 causes, and I was fortunate in that my hotel is not actually in Schenectady itself. It's across the Mohawk River in Scotia, and Scotia, though small, at least has some highlights. The river itself is very pretty as it winds alongside the town:

mohawk river

and there are cute restaurants:

jumpin' jack's (2)

and businesses that, while small, seem to be ok:

scotia theater

You even feel safe walking down the sidewalks to get to them. I probably will not visit Scotia again for a while, and hopefully not Schenectady, either, but it was nice to end my stay with a few good pictures rather than just the memory of broken, boarded windows and crumbling brick.