Tag Archives: Albany

That Sinking Feeling: The Boat Part of My Book Tour is Over. Part 1: Prep and Launch

The tides of the Hudson rise and fall as much as six feet in September, in the northern Hudson Valley, depending on the phase of the moon. The tides rise and fall twice a day, so you get two high tides and two low tides, roughly every 6 hours and 5 minutes. My fortunes over the last week have been like the tides, up and down, up again, down again, never abruptly, but noticeably, and, perhaps, predictably.

There was hardly a waking moment between the Friday before my launch and the Friday that I had to abandon ship that I wasn’t either working on the boat, working at my job, driving from my job to work on the boat or vice versa, or sleeping. During the four days before I launched the “finished” boat, I didn’t even shower. I slept between 3 and 5 hours per night.

On Saturday, August 26th, I left Albany for New Baltimore at 9 a.m., having worked till 11 the evening before. The whole point of building the boat was to raise awareness about the book I wrote about my experiences on the Hudson River, so first I checked on the progress of the sign my mother was painting. 

The sign on the top, with the stencils still taped on, needed a second coat of yellow paint, while the bottom sign needed three coats of polyurethane on either side to protect it from the water. Painting the second coat of yellow took most of my time. After every few letters I sprayed a coat of poly on the other sign. Then I drove down to the island where the boat was tied to Jake’s dock. I unloaded some supplies I’d bought at Lowes and Walmart for Monday’s planned construction work. Then I drove home, sent emails to reporters, bookstores, restaurants, etc, until I had to leave for work 3:30-11:30. The next day, Sunday, was similar except I worked on the second sign and drove back to Albany in order to leave for work 2-9:30, and do my correspondence after.

Monday, August 28th, was supposed to be the big day to finish the cabin, get the windmills wired, and try out my 2nd outboard motor. (I’d decided, once again, to supplement the wind power with an outboard motor, because I’d used the electric motor for only an hour since putting it in the water a month earlier, to go 100-feet from Jake’s dock to the landing at Barren Island and back, yet when I’d used the motor on Sunday it barely pushed the boat against a 5 mph wind).

I was excited to go to New Baltimore on Monday and woke up at 6 a.m., like I was getting ready to catch a flight to NOLA. Monday was my first day off in five days and the last I’d have off before I set sail three days later. Having to drive to New Baltimore and back, and clean things up, etc, each time I had a morning to work on the boat, ate up a lot of time. On Monday I figured I’d lined up all the dominoes and now I’d drop them into the “finished” pile one by one.

On the way to New Baltimore I stopped by my friend Justin’s house. He’d a left an outboard motor and gas tank in his barn for me. He said it ran good the last time it was used, and I could have it for $150 (a good price for an outboard) if I wanted it. I’d told him I’d try it out first and let him know, because I’d already bought one outboard motor which was supposed to work, but I couldn’t get it running. So I pulled up to his barn and loaded his 50-lb outboard and gas tank into the passenger seat of my 2005 Ford Taurus sedan. I dropped them off in my parent’s yard and drove to the island (I needed another person to help me carry the motor down the island’s steep cement steps) . I kayaked across Colwell Cove to the boat, pulled the tarps off, stacked the anchor and other junk onto the dock so I’d have room to work on the deck, and then I trolled back to the shore, eager to work in the crisp, cool, late-August morning river air.

This was the high tide; it began to ebb, and continued, through the end of Monday.

The first problem I tackled was the cabin. I didn’t want a cabin made of plywood, because I didn’t want i) the extra weight; or, ii) the wood to act as a sail, shoving my boat over the water instead of where I tried to pilot it. So the cabin was made of 1″ pine frames, over which I would unroll canvas. I’d gotten a dozen reeds of bamboo which a local restaurant was throwing out after using them as decor. My plan was to slide the bamboo over the 1″ cabin joists to look like tiki. But when I carried the bamboo down to the shore I saw that i) they weren’t hollow but had thin disks baffling the inside every foot or so, which were impossible to knock out without splitting the wood; and, ii) most of the reeds were either too narrow to slide over the boards or too thick so that the hole on the inside of the reed was too small. So after trying to knock to inner discs out, cut them out, etc, I gave up trying to make any supports out of the bamboo, and started cutting and screwing more wood and brackets to strengthen the cabin walls. Unfortunately, after I’d added extra joists, diagonal buttresses, etc, it was hard to get in and out of the cabin from the sides of the boat. Now whenever you got onto the boat you had to crouch under a horizontal board two-feet off the deck. And it didn’t really strengthen the cabin walls.

By now it was 12:30 and I drove home to meet my dad, who was just getting home with my mom from . My mom showed me how the sign looked after she took off the stencil. It needed touch-up work where the yellow had bled. At least two hour’s worth. She had small paint brushes and offered to touch up the sign as Dad and I loaded the outboard motor into Dad’s truck and drove to the island. I kayaked out to the dock, brought the boat back with the electric motor, and Dad and I carried the motor and gas tank down the steep cement steps. We loaded these onto the boat, and Dad got onboard for the first time. I pushed us off and motored us over to a mud beach at the inside of the cove. We had to be in water to start the motor, but I wanted the boat to sit steady while we attached it to the transom. Unfortunately, the water at the beach was too shallow to put the motor onto the transom. So we used the electric motor to go back to the dock and tie up, and then we clamped the motor in place. Aside from the little bit of fiddling we’d done with the 60-year-old Johnson motor earlier in the summer, neither of us had ever even looked at an outboard. So we guessed how to hook up the gas tank to the motor, and I bent over the back of the boat to try to read the instructions on the motor. But the instructions were warn away. So we looked at the various levers and figured out which was the choke and which was the throttle, and guessed that a lever on the side was the shift. We primed the motor, turned the choke on, put the throttle to start, and I stood up to pull the starting rope. On the first pull I hit my head on one of the 1″ beams I’d screwed to the top of the cabin. I cursed and unscrewed that beam. Then I pulled the starting rope ten or twenty more times, and it didn’t seem to want to pull over or do anything. We played around with everything again and it didn’t seem like the fuel was going out of the tank into the engine. The palm ball didn’t even get hard when we primed it. So, frustrated, I motored Dad back to the shore, motored back to the dock (the electric battery now almost dead and moving me only inches every few minutes), tied up the boat, and kayaked back to the island. Dad and I drove home, met Katie who had just arrived from Albany and was helping my mom touch up the sign, and I sat and had a beer.

“My god, this is frustrating,” I said to Mom and Katie, who were hunched over the sign, and Dad, who sat at the other end of the table.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Katie asked.

“Grr. Well, there are ten thousand things that I need to do within the next 48 hours, but they’re all moot unless I can get a damn motor working.”

“What about the electric motor?” my mother asked. “I thought you had the windmills for that?”

“Yes, but the batteries give me like an hour and a half of propulsion apiece before they need to be recharged. But they take like eight hours to be recharged. So if I kill one battery by using it for 1.5 hours, let’s say, then I can hook up the next battery, while the first is recharging. After 1.5 hours I’ll have a second battery that is dead, another that is less than 1/4 charged, and two full batteries. So after 6 hours I’ll have three dead batteries and one that is only 3/4 charged. And the windmills only charge if the wind is blowing. But the electric motor isn’t really that strong for pushing a boat through the wind and the tide. So it’s like, I can use the electric motor if I’m going with the tide, and then by the end of 32 hours, I can use it for another six-hour tide. But on Thursday I’m supposed to go up to Troy, so I’ll be using the motor to go up, and then back down to Albany, and then from Albany back down to Coeymans. That’s going to be like 12 hours worth of traveling. I’d really feel more comfortable if I had a motor. It’s not even about comfort. I don’t think I can get from place to place reliably on the electric motor. I have appointments to make on the book tour–it’s not like other years where I could just drift from place to place.”

“Yeah and you don’t want to get stuck out on the river and the battery dies or something and you’re stuck,” my mom said.

“Yes. But now I am the proud owner of not one but TWO NON-WORKING OUTBOARD MOTORS! Ugh!”

“Well, just relax, baby, we’ll figure something out,” Katie said.

“It’d better be soon, because I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do if we can’t figure it out by tomorrow.”

“You could call Jake and ask him to come down and look at the motor tonight,” Katie said.

“I could call Glen [Peters–our auto mechanic] and see if he knows anything about boat motors,” Dad offered.

“Is there anybody else might have a motor you could use?” Mom asked.

“I did text Jake,” I said to Katie, “and he is coming tonight after his Executive Committee meeting to help me figure it out.”

“Oh! That’s good,” Dad said.

“Yes. And if you could call Glen, I’d love to know if he can take a look at the motor, but I’d need it by Thursday.”

“I donno about that…”

“Well, exactly. It doesn’t solve the problem if I can’t get it before Thursday. Oh!” I touched Katie on the arm. “Remember when we went to your co-worker Kate’s housewarming party, and I was playing Corn Hole with that guy? He said he’d just gotten a new outboard motor right out of the box. Maybe I could rent his for two weeks or something!”

“Do you have his number?”

“Yeah–I texted him pictures of the boat the night I met him. I’m going to text him right now, just as a backup plan.”

So I texted the guy, and Dad called Glen the auto mechanic, and then we ate some homemade tomato pie from Mom’s garden and waited for Jake to get out of his meeting.

After dinner, Katie and I went to the island to do some painting and anything else we might do as we waited for Jake. When we were out on the dock we saw Jackson, Jake’s dog, running along the beach, and then heard Jake shout down to us from atop the steep cement steps. So we trolled back to him and we went through the same steps that Dad and I had gone through with the motor four hours earlier, with no effect.  We tried taking the gas tank off of Jake’s sailboat and attaching it to my motor, but the lines had different fixtures. Now it was dusk and Jake had to go home to put his daughter to bed, and all I’d really accomplished on this Monday when I was supposed to get everything done was to put up a couple of support beams and for Mom and Katie to touch up the sign. Very discouraged, we drove back to my parents’ house to debrief them. There, my Dad said he’d spoken to Glen who did know about outboards, and who said he would take a look at mine if we dropped it off to his shop the next day. It was too dark at this point to get the motor from the island, so I told Dad I’d come down the next day so we could get the motor before Dad had to leave with the truck, and he would drop it off to the mechanic. Meanwhile I got a text from the man I’d met playing Corn Hole, and he offered to let me rent his motor. I figured a working motor in hand was worth two non-working motors on hand, so I told him I’d drive up to his house in Cohoes and get the motor that night. I left my parents, drove up to Cohoes, met the guy at 10 p.m., gave him $100 in cash, and for the second time that day I loaded an outboard motor and a gas tank into the passenger seat of my car. I can’t say I loved the idea of having the gas tank in there as I drove, or the expensive motor in the passenger seat as I parked in Center Square. Back in Albany I spent a couple hours corresponding with parties interested in the tour, and making Facebook Event invitations, and went to bed at 2:30, knowing  had to get up at 6:30 to drive the borrowed outboard to New Baltimore, because I didn’t want it sitting in my car during the day.

On Tuesday I drove down in the morning and dropped off the borrowed motor. I showed my mom what I was looking to do with the canvass drop cloths functioning like curtains to roll up and down the side of the cabin. I drove to the island to check on the boat and saw Jake’s gas tank floating away. A barge had just passed and the dock and Jake’s sailboat were rocking from the wake, and the red tank was bobbing out into the channel. I a kayak down the steps and paddled out to rescue it. It was good timing, but I’m not sure Jake would consider it fortunate that I was there, since the whole reason the tank was on his dock (and therefore knocked into the water) rather than on his sailboat, was because he took it out to help me get my motor working the previous day. I brought some supplies from the island back to my parent’s house and then it was time to head back to Albany to go to work. I got out at 10 p.m. and, like the night before, spent the night corresponding and doing clerical tasks for the trip.

Wednesday was do-or-die-time. It reminded me of the days before launching one of our rafts back in the two-thousand-and-0’s. I knew I’d be spending the entire day (outside of work) finishing up the boat. I met my friend Nick in New Baltimore at 7 a.m. Right as we arrived, Jake pulled into my parent’s driveway with his trailer. He left it there before going to his New-Teacher Orientation at Coxsackie-Athens. We put the ball-hitch on my father’s truck, and he took my car to his morning job. Nick and I drove to Barren Island, where Nick dropped me off. He drove up to Coeymans with the trailer.

That’s Life, in the water at Barren Island, 8 a.m., Wednesday, the day before launch.

I kayaked out to the boat and used the trolling motor to go up to Coeymans. We backed the truck down the launch ramp and brought the boat onto the trailer. It was difficult tying it to the trailer because the boat is almost sixteen-feet long, while the trailer is only ten-feet. We ran all of the ropes around the front of the boat so it wouldn’t bounce off the trailer on the way back to my parent’s house. By 9 a.m. we were back with the boat.

The first order of business was to attach an outboard motor mount to the back of the boat. An outboard motor mount is a pretty heavy metal hinge that the outboard vices onto. You can adjust a lever on the mount in order to raise the motor out of the water so it doesn’t strike rocks or mud in shallow water or when transporting or launching the boat. I just happened to have an old mount lying around from a 21-foot sailboat I’d bought off of a man from Delmar 4 years earlier, and cut up into pieces. Nick and I went back into the woods and found the mount among a bunch of other odds and ends I’d collected over the years, like the old paddlewheel from Assiduity, another dilapidated speedboat hull I’d gotten for free from Amsterdam NY, two boat trailers, a sunfish, and some sailing masts. We brought the mount back to the boat and bolted it to the transom, or back end, of That’s Life.

Nick bolting the motor mount into place.

 

The motor mount bolted into place.

 

Next, we made a cover for the center console, to stow small items. It always helps to have a second guy when you’re running a piece of plywood across a table saw. Then we measured and drew out the hatches to cut in the deck so I’d have access to the space in the canoes to store my equipment. The problem was cutting those hatches out. My circular saw is broken, or dull, or something, and burned more than it cut. So I asked my mom if she’d call my Uncle Paul, who is a carpenter, and see if he’d come down and cut the hatches for me while I was at work that night. He said he would. Nick had to leave around 10:30 a.m.. I helped my mom with the canvass coverings she was making for the cabin, then headed up the Napa in Ravena to buy three deep-cycle marine batteries. These cost $349. That included $30 in savings because I returned three old batteries and there is a kind of deposit or credit you get when buying a new battery if you return the core from an old one. Unfortunately the batteries weren’t in stock and the clerk said I’d have to pick them up at 7:30 a.m. the next morning (the morning of my launch). I ensured with the clerk that the batteries would come charged, because I’d have no time to charge them, and he said that they would. Next I went down to Coeymans Marina and bought the “coast guard package”–which is to say, the items which the State mandates I must have on board my vessel. These included a four-pack of flares ($34.25), a white stern light ($20.99), a red/green bow light ($16.95), a throwable life preserver ($16.19) and some other items I needed to finish my boat, for a total cost of $166.49. I’d been saving $10 every shift I worked since last November for the boat, and this finally depleted my budget. I brought the supplies back to New Baltimore, checked on my mom’s progress, and we realized I’d need to buy two more drop cloths to complete the canvas covering for the deck, one more set of hinges, and four more pieces of 1″ boards. I told them I’d pick up the items on my way back down to New Baltimore that evening, then set off for Albany to work my serving shift. 

Luckily, it was a slow night, and my coworkers, the manager and the owner of El Loco were sympathetic to my book sale endeavor. They let me leave at 6:30. I went to Lowes and Walmart (to get the food and other provisions for the trip) and got to New Baltimore at quarter ’til eight. My parents and Uncle Paul were working on the boat under the floodlights of the workshop. Uncle Paul had cut the hatches into the deck and put hinges in place, and drilled holes and ran bungie cords through to close them. This opened up a ton of space. My mother was in the process of sweeping the deck with a broom, because it had gotten covered with mud and pebbles while I worked on it at Barren Island. At the back of the boat I saw that they had attached the motor to the motor mount. After showing me the improvements (Uncle Paul said the price for the work was to take his son, my cousin, Pauly Junior, out on the boat when the trip was over), my dad left to bring Uncle Paul home, my mother went inside with the drop clothes I’d bought at Lowes to make the rest of the cabin walls, and I brought some 2x4s out of the workshop to build the poles that would hold the windmills up under the floodlight. The windmills rotate on 2″ diameter pipes, through which the wires run down. To attach these, I cut 2x4s to the correct height, then used a jigsaw and a chisel to cut 2″ slots in the 4″ sides of the 2x4s, then I lowered the windmill mounts in and duct taped them in place. You’d be surprised how well this holds. This was the same process we’d used to attach the windmills to Assembly Required in 2010 and they held all the way to NYC in 15 mph winds 150 miles. Once I’d bolted these vertical boards to the deck I ran a horizontal board connecting the posts halfway up. By then my Dad was home and we built a frame for holding the gas tank for the outboard motor in place, with a bungie to keep it from popping out. Dad then went inside to help my mom with the canvass flaps for the cabin as I cleaned the boat off, put all the tools away, and loaded the back of his truck with all the supplies I would need for the next day. My mom finished the canvass sides just as I finished cleaning and loading–12:30 a.m.. I drove home to sleep for four hours. 

 

 

Thursday, August 31, was launch day. I woke up at 6 a.m. and drove to New Baltimore. My mom realized she had sewed one of the canvass sides incorrectly, so we took it apart and she started re-glueing it. Dad and I drove to Napa to get the three 60-pound deep-cycle marine batteries, and I bought 5 gallons of gas. Back home we mixed the gas in a 50::1 ratio with marine 2-stoke oil and put it in the boat’s gas tank. Then we noticed that the trailer had a flat tire. So we brought out my grandfather’s old air-compressor and filled the tire. Then we backed up the truck and it took my dad, mom and I about a half an hour to maneuver the trailer with the heavy-as-hell boat hanging 6-feet off the back into place above the ball-hitch on the truck, lower it, and snap it into place. I got into my car and followed my parents as they drove slowly down their driveway. At the bottom of the driveway, which is steep, the back of one of the canoes scraped the pavement. My dad stopped, but I told him to keep going, because we probably wouldn’t go over another section of road as steep as their driveway. 

My plan had been to have the boat in the water at Henry Hudson Park, which is ten miles north of New Baltimore and about 15 miles south of Troy (where I was meeting a reporter that afternoon) at 9 a.m.. But it was 9 a.m. already, and we had to creep along the road because every bounce sent the back of the boat bottoming. I got more and more nervous as we turned onto 144, which runs along the river up to Albany, and started to accumulate traffic behind us. Over one bump a washer came bouncing off the boat and almost hit my car. As we got into Coeymans, where the road is full of potholes, I thought the boat might hit the ground again. Worse, I feared that my parents might get pulled over and a cop would tell us we couldn’t have the boat on the road. So I called my mom on her cellphone and said “Let’s just launch in Coeymans. If the motor works I can make up the time.” So we turned down to Coeymans Marina. 

Dad backed the boat back, as Mom and I directed him, down the boat launch, until Jake’s tires were nearly submerged. Then Dad and I took off our shoes and waded into the water to untie the boat as Mom stood on shore with a length of line. Once the boat was untied we tried to lift the front off the trailer, because the back was in the water. It took a series of back and forth lifts to get it off, but we lifted it and pushed it down into the water with a splash. Once tied, I jumped aboard and opened the hatches to load the supplies from the back of the truck. I was startled to see a foot of water in the port hull. It had never leaked before, but if there was that much water in the hull, it must have a massive hole, I thought. Maybe the hole was made when the boat scraped the driveway. I couldn’t tell how fast the water was coming in. As my mom held the boat and my dad started unloading the truck I ran over to Coeymans Marina to buy a bilge-pump (a battery powered kind of sump pump), for $50. I ran back and hooked it up to the battery to pump the water out. This took about fifteen minutes, and once the water was pumped out, it didn’t seem to flood again. I decided that the boat wasn’t leaking; rather, when Dad and I pushed her off the trailer into the water, the back of the left canoe had gotten pushed under the water and scooped the water up. 

By now it was 10:30–an hour-and-a-half later and 8 miles south of where I’d planned to launch. We started loading the supplies on board and putting the windmills in place and bolting the boat together. A couple of older men gathered around the dock and watched us. Dad had to run home for a hammer and an adjustable wrench. One of the onlookers came over and gave us a hammer without our asking, and we were thankful for it. He asked what we were doing, but seemed exceedingly shy and a share skeptical. By the time we’d loaded the supplies onboard, and screwed in the boards that needed to be screwed, and bolted in the boards that needed to be bolted, it was after noon. Mom started to tell me how she planned to affix the canvass to the frame of the cabin, but I exclaimed that I had to just throw the stuff on board and get going, because I was running out of time. Likewise, Dad tried to suggest how to run the fuel line to the motor so it was out of the way, and different ways to load the supplies onto the boat. Finally I said “I’ve got to just try out this motor already, because if it doesn’t work this whole trip is over!” So we primed the motor, set the choke, Dad and Mom got off the boat, and I pulled the cord. On the third try she started, then began to stall.

“Kill the choke now!” Dad shouted.

I did, and the motor roared to life. Immediately I moved away from the dock. This motor made much more momentum than the trolling motor. Rather than turning on a dime, I started arcing from the dock awkwardly.

“Watch where you’re going, now!” Dad shouted. Indeed, I was headed right for the boats docked at Coeymans Marina. I jerked the motor around and twisted in a 180. Then I turned the throttle lever and twisted her down to a troll. Still I was moving away from the dock. I twisted the motor to face south, toward Barren Island, in order to take the channel around the mile of rocks in the middle of the river, at the end of which was a buoy, where I would turn to port and head north again. After just a moment I was already 50 feet from the dock where my parent’s stood. My mom was shouting to me, but I couldn’t hear her over the motor.

“I can’t hear you!” I shouted, moving rapidly downstream. “I’ll call you in a few minutes. Thank you!” 

I saw them nod and stand watching me on the dock. Every second, they grew smaller from my perspective. I sat down and looked toward the buoys in front of me, and glanced back at the motor, which I’d need to learn how to use on the fly. My trip had begun. 

Musings Comparing Albany with Syracuse, Geneva, New Hope and New Orleans

[Originally posted October 18th, 2016 on Facebook]

I like to compare cities to Albany when I travel, to see what stimulates economic activity in those places, that might work here. In the last year, Katie Carnahan and I have been to New Orleans, LA, New Hope, PA, Cooperstown, Ithaca, Geneva, and Syracuse, NY. Many of these places face similar problems to Albany. Albany and Syracuse might be distinguished by what they lack: a coherent  plan that takes advantage of their physical or cultural assets to draw people to their several business districts.

I know that tourism and nightlife are not the only revenue-generators for a city. But they are an important part of bringing capital from outside into the city in order for that capital to be circulated and concentrated. Tourism and nightlife are perhaps the main factor in providing a place with an identity which is then celebrated by residents and used in local advertising. A vibrant identity leads to more civic activism, cleaner streets, a growing population, therefore innovation, better government, community spirit, lower crime, lower taxes and greater employment through new and thriving small businesses, which are all good things.

We visited New Orleans back in April, after spending a night with my friends Dan and Amy in Picayune, Mississippi. Picayune is a dry town in a backward state. The tumbleweeds blow through the boulevards of a “downtown” that becomes a ghost town after 7:30 pm. Dan pointed out that “you have to try very hard to be optimistic in this place.” In the modern world where a community requires some sort of a tax base, it seems like Picayune cuts off its nose to spite its face by outlawing anything that might draw visitors to it, in the name of morality or old times that never existed or something. New Orleans is the opposite. The place bursts with energy and life–and people spending lots of money to have a good time. If there is one thing that distinguishes New Orleans from other cities in America it is its personal freedom. It is a feeling that the city cultivates: Come Down and Enjoy Yourself. Live music pours from hundreds of bars in the French Quarter alone. People spend $500 to fly to New Orleans, $30 for a taxi from the airport to the city, and $150 a night or more for a hotel, just to be able to carry their cocktail from one bar to another down the street. Thousands of people clog the sidewalks 15 or 16 hours a day, simply because it is enjoyable to feel temporarily unrestricted. Why is it that the French Quarter has bounced back from the physical devastation of Katrina, while cities like Detroit were decimated by the Great Recession? Because there is organic energy in New Orleans which is allowed to grow. In Albany very few people busk on the streets, because pedestrians do not linger on the streets enjoying themselves. Patrons power-walk from bar to bar as quickly as possible, to avoid the mendicants in Albany. In Albany there are very few live bands, because they are disincentivized through a cabaret license fee. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is very little to do in Albany besides go to bars, once you’ve been to the museum and admired the Million Dollar Staircase at the Capitol.  (Don’t try to eat on a sandwich on the steps of the Capitol that face the parks to the east and west, they’re off limits thanks to barricades.) You cannot easily stroll to the riverside like you can in New Orleans, there are no pedestrian streets where artists hang and sell their paintings as in Jackson Square in New Orleans–so the reality is that people go to bars where they talk to people they already know because there is no music and you can’t drink outside. Ultimately, what distinguishes New Orleans from Albany is a difference in “feel” or “atmosphere.” People travel to New Orleans because the place feels inviting–the local businesses thrive as cash flows into the city from all over the nation. Few people travel to Albany to spend their money unless they live within a fifteen minute drive, and even then, the feeling is more like “thank goodness some people I know also showed up at this bar so I can have someone to talk to about how cold the winter is, or is going to be.” A lot of the money circulating in Albany is transferred from one resident to another, rather than flowing from out of the city. Workers in the service industry often joke that the same $20 passes from a customer at one bar to the bartender, who then becomes the customer at the next bar, the same $20 being passed through three hands and back. The downside of New Orleans vis a vis Albany is the high crime rate, for you cannot stray outside of the populated areas at night without risking your life and limb in NOLA–and they have a lot of beggars. Albany seems to have about 1 to 2 beggars or just anti-social weirdos per block in the Lark Street area which bleed down into Center Square. New Orleans has many more, in proportion to the multitudes of out-of-towners with cash. 

New Hope, PA, is worth the drive from Albany (though the opposite is not true, unless you’re doing research at the NYS Archives). It’s rated the highest-valued real estate in Pennsylvania. Unlike New Orleans–but like the rest of the cities in this comparison–New Hope is not massive. It is a small village just across the Delaware River from NJ on what was once a lock on the Delaware Canal. They have a little museum in an old lock-tender’s house. Amazingly to a New Yorker, there are no employees inside the museum. The door is unlocked, and you just let yourself in to look at the exhibits. Behind the museum and the main street of the town is a walking/biking bath through the forest that follows the path of the old canal. So you can either drive to the town and park on the only street, or bike or walk to the town and have lunch. Albany, of course, has nothing like this, because the day- and night-life areas are separated from the river that was the original reason for establishing Albany in the first place. The main street buildings of New Hope emerge from the woods and suddenly there are six or seven restaurants and book stores and antique shops. The restaurants and bars face the main street and sport heat lamps. You feel like you are in an 1800s community because of the trees and pedestrians, yet the businesses are thriving because the place is clean and the establishments are concentrated. At night the businesses have live music. It is PA so you can smoke in the bars, at least outside, for most of the places have bars which begin inside and continue out onto a deck beneath a colorful awning. The “feel” of this town to someone from Upstate New York is like “Wow, it seems like someone decided to orchestrate a cultural identity here, with some sort of an economic plan.” The downside of New Hope is that there is little free parking. Just as Albany might attract more consumers, provide more variety to its residents, and cultivate an identity by liberalizing its laws with regard to drinking and live music at least in certain areas, it could designate another area(s) as pedestrian and bike friendly and cultivate the image of an old community in the style of New Hope–perhaps along the bike trail by the river, if the bridges and railroad didn’t monopolize that area.

Also, New Hope is in PA, which, like the rest of the world, has Uber and other car-sharing services, which Albany doesn’t  (thanks to state-level rather than city-level legislative inaction.) We have a nano-science school to manufacture machines to repair our mitochondria, but we don’t have car-sharing, which the rest of the world has come to expect as a basic service, like indoor plumbing. Instead Albany, like Syracuse, has a reputation for having really really crappy taxis.

So last fall, Katie and I had five days to make a vacation out of. We didn’t want to spend two of those days driving or flying, so we decided to travel somewhere in the northeast within three or four hours of Albany. Our first instinct was to go to Boston, but hotels there were $300 a night. We wanted to see the foliage changing. We decided to go west to the Finger Lakes, to Cooperstown, Ithaca and Geneva.

As we were planning the trip I realized that we chose those cities because they are located in an area with a distinguishable cultural identity–the Finger Lakes region. The name calls to mind rolling hills, waterfalls, hiking trails and wineries. Those images immediately suggest things to do, which are attractive, which are why people go there, which our region lacks. When multiple cities within the same region work together to cultivate a shared identity, it promotes each of the cities,  allows for advertising on economies of scale and multiplies the reputation through word-of-mouth and social media. A person might take a picture of a waterfall and apply the hashtag #Fingerlakes. There is a lost opportunity in the reputation of the Capitol Region. It brings to mind the four Agency Buildings and Empire Plaza, which is about as quaint and welcoming as a security camera mounted above some bars on a ground-level apartment window, and the Capitol itself, which would be harmlessly boring if not for its reputation as the corruption capital of the state. Albany as a city cannot get rid of these state-owned structures and problems, but it could work to vary and to improve that image.

Cooperstown has the Baseball Hall of Fame, which we skipped. It also has the Otesaga, an old hotel at the southern terminus of Otsego Lake. We stayed at a Best Western and took a taxi to the Otesaga, where we had classic cocktails and danced to a live jazz band on a Wednesday night. I wouldn’t drive out to Cooperstown just do dance to a live jazz band, but I would dance to a live jazz band in Albany, except that nobody dances to jazz here. It’s so rare that if you happen to hear actual live jazz at The Speakeasy or Taste (if that place is even still open, I couldn’t find the website), you sit there and listen like you would to a museum exhibit. Which of course is the opposite of what jazz is supposed to be. It was impossible to get food in Cooperstown after 9 p.m., so Katie and I ended up eating bar mix for dinner. So Cooperstown itself is kind of boring if you don’t want to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the next day we went to Ommegang Brewery, which is worth the trip from Albany. We did the tour and got our flights and fell into a conversation with a woman who knew we were from Albany when she heard us mention Lionheart, which is the last remaining neighborhood bar in the Lark Street area.

From Cooperstown we drove to Ithaca, on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. Ithaca is another city with a pedestrian street which forms their downtown business district and contributes to their identity, even as it makes driving there horrendous. The pedestrian street is made of brick with pretty street lamps and benches. There are clothing and book stores, bagel shops, restaurants, etc. I know that Crossgates Mall has all of that and more out in Guilderland, and Stuyvesant Plaza has it a mile closer, but why doesn’t Center Square have a clothing store, a real bakery, a bookstore? Instead of people flocking to Lark Street as the Greenwhich Village of upstate, people drive for culture from Center Square to visit the City of Hudson, a city which 15 years ago had as many vacant storefronts as Coeymans. We stayed outside the town at spa/hotel that had an event called Ithaca by Starlight–bonfires and outside bars under canvass tents with live music and hot totties. We had a great time except that, like Cooperstown, everything closed early and we went without dinner for the second night in a row.

From there we travelled to Geneva, which is on the northern tip of Seneca Lake. This was our favorite part of the trip. During the day we went to several wineries and breweries, many of which were startups founded within the last year, thanks to a state law that has incentivized the winery and beer brewing business. Downtown Geneva is basically just a few square blocks, but it has the look of Bedford Falls from It’s A Wonderful Life. As we were walking around, what surprised Katie and I most was that there were no vacant buildings and every facade was painted and in good repair. I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “How is it that this town in the middle of nowhere in the center of the state can have a thriving downtown with great restaurants and fifteen different kinds of bars, and Albany can’t?” It was clean. We went to about five different bars after having a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose name escapes me. We played shuffleboard with two  college professors in their fifties who were partners, and when it started to snow everybody ran outside to see the flecks falling for the first time. The next day we walked around the antique stores downtown–something else missing from Albany (unless you count that place on the corner of Madison and Dove, which I’d love to check out, but after living in Albany for 10 years I’ve never seen it open).

Our trip to the Finger Lakes last year was so cathartic and relaxing that as we drove through farm fields and the sun shined down on silos, I told Katie that I wanted to quit my office job so I could see what else was out there besides the doldrums of legislative work in the Capitol Region. Looking out the window at the green fields, red and yellow leaves, and robin’s egg sky, Katie said “I think you should quit and be a writer.” I’m glad getting out of the city inspired me to do that, but I wish there was more to inspire people here in this city.

This year it was more difficult to travel, because we’ve been moving and setting up our new apartment, I’ve been editing my book about rafting down the Hudson River, and I no longer work at a job that provides a paid vacation. But we wanted to see another city in the middle of upstate. We chose Syracuse because it was close, and it has the Erie Canal Museum, and I’ve been researching for a book about the canal (the enacting legislation for the canal was passed 200 years ago next year, in 1817).

Whereas the other cities in this post were interesting because of ways in which they differ from Albany, and are thereby thriving, Syracuse was striking because of the similarities to Albany. So much so that we took to calling Syracuse the Negative Photographic Image of Albany as we explored. First, like Albany, you travel into the part of Syracuse where there is stuff to do by driving over a series of tangled overpasses which twist past old industrial buildings in various states of disrepair. Nothing suggests urban decay like overpasses, which are designed to let suburbanites drive overtop of the poor people who live on the periphery of a city’s core, without having to look at them. It was five o’clock on a Saturday when we parked in a lot next to Armory Square, which is similar to but more vibrant than Center Square in Albany. We walked overtop of a feeder canal with running water, which would have been cute except for the amount of garbage floating along, which suggested an open sewer. As soon as we approached the bar at the corner of the square, a middle aged man implored us to give him money–so we felt right at home. He reminded me of John, who solicits outside of Mobil and Dana Park in Albany, except this man seemed less schizophrenic. In quick succession we passed a pub without a name, which was empty, then York restaurant which had a raw bar in the window that made my mouth water, then Kitty Hoynes (which is in the running for best Irish Bar outside of Ireland). At the next intersection we laughed, because we were already noticing the similarities between Syracuse and Albany, when ahead of us a big sign on a corner bar read “CSP”. We passed this bar because it was overflowing with football fans. A Syracuse game was on that day and it obviously attracted people to all of the bars. We explored by walking around and just looking. We came across the eponymous armory, which looked similar to The Armory in Albany which, oddly, is also on the perimeter of Center Square. When we took a left we passed an entire block of businesses which were not open.

“I’m surprised that these places aren’t open,” Katie remarked. “It’s 6:00 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.”

We decided that the blocks in this section of town looked exactly like the blocks across from the SUNY Administration Building on Broadway in Downtown Albany. Cut off from any sort of housing, this area is also practically abandoned on a Saturday afternoon, though it is right in the middle of the business district and the historical epicenter of the city. We turned left and saw a big box store across from a closed-up theatre, and immediately felt that we were on North Pearl Street looking across the intersection at the Rite Aid in Albany. We made our way back to Kitty Hoynes and had corned beef fritters and french onion soup.

We wanted to sample other parts of Syracuse, so we looked up the nightlife on TripAdvisor. It said what we expected, that Armory Square was the place to go for any night life. There was another section which is known as the student area. We figured that meant sticky floors and bros, and didn’t feel the need to check it out. But there was an area called the Tipperary district which was supposed to have neighborhood bars, so we decided to drive up there and have a beer before coming back to Armory Square, at which point I’d have had two beers over two hours, which is my limit for driving. To get to the Tipperary area, we had to drive down a street with railroad tracks to one side and warehouses on another, as the night descended. Like Broadway in Albany, this was a disincentive to walking between the two areas of nightlife, because it looked dangerous. We stopped and took our picture with the “green on top” red light, which is the main tourist attraction in the area. TripAdvisor said that Blarney Stone was the bar to go to in Tipperary square. Amazingly, the place had the same vinyl siding as the old Stone Crowe in Albany, and the same atmosphere inside. So we drove back to Armory Square after one beer.

We found a really nice bar called Al’s Wine and Whiskey Lounge, with leather couches and so many varieties of whiskey that they have ladders to reach the dusty bottles on the top shelves.   I had an Old Fashioned; Katie had wine. The decor was beautiful but I can’t say the bartender was particularly friendly. After we left, Katie gave a donation to a homeless man and his six year old daughter who said they had just come up from Greensboro, NC and sang us a verse of Amazing Grace in two-part harmony. We caught a really cool band with a horn section at Funk and Waffles next door and met a nice couple named Chelsea and Paul, who’d met one another playing PokemonGo. We checked out two more bars and we were ready to go back to our hotel. First we got in line to get pizza but there was a line out the door and it looked like it would take a half hour. Katie called a taxi company and they said they were booked for the next three hours. So we jumped into an idling taxi and watched the meter tick up twenty cents about each time that the cab’s wheels made a rotation. It cost us almost $35 to get back to our hotel 12 minutes away before we even tipped the guy. I wished they had a carshare service! We paid $28 to get back to Armory Square the next morning.

The next day we went to the Erie Canal Museum. Katie and I were impressed. We pictured a dinky sort of place with maybe some pictures of mules tied to boats or something. I’d read three books on the canal since August so I was afraid I’d be bored, but the interactive exhibits were fun and educational. You could press a switch on a map to show the various routes of the canal over time, turn a cylinder filled with gel and water to learn about hydrostatic force, and operate a miniature lock. The museum is in the old Syracuse weigh station and the office of the station manager is preserved. They have a canal boat (on land) that you can get inside of and interact with. Upstairs they have exhibits which explain the economic impact of the canal on the development of cities like Syracuse. For example, toll-collection at the weigh station contributed to the construction and development of banks to hold the toll money, which then lent the money to capitalize other businesses, as well as the construction of warehouses, hardware and grocery stores, and grog-houses, all of which provided employment for local people. The young woman who worked at the museum was very pleasant and helpful, and the three of us fell into a conversation about the economic impact of the canal and the construction the overpass bridges in Syracuse. The woman remarked, “You can’t put in a highway without making two neighborhoods, one of which is going to get redlined.” As we left we mused about why historians, of all people, seem most interested in economic programs to create equitable wealth. Katie suggested that it is because historians study what has worked in the past, and contrast it with today, and want to implement what worked and avoid what hasn’t. I realized that that is basically what we do when we travel to other cities, except instead of comparing past cultures to those of today, we look at the physical, legal and cultural conditions of cities, and wonder why the best of those cities aren’t synthesized here, in our home city.