Category Archives: Albany

That Sinking Feeling, Part II: Launch; Coeymans to Rensselaer and Back

The tide and the wind were both moving downstream. As I left my parents back on the dock, I threaded between red buoys that lead to the main channel. I’d never had to stay in the channel before.

A third of a mile south of Coeymans Marina a green buoy marks the southern terminus of a long dike of rocks, which rise about four feet from the water during low tide, but were submerged during high tide. I worked my way south to this green buoy, then bore to port until I came about and faced upstream, heading north, against the ebbing tide, and into the wind blowing south at 5 mph. Within five minutes I was back even with the dock at Coeymans where my parents stood, now on the other side of the river. In another five minutes I was astride the cranes and barges of the industrial trade zone which has recently been built on the site of the old Powell and Minnock Brick Plant, and where they have been building the new Tapan Zee Bridge and floating it downstream in sections.

Now the boats docked outside of Yanni’s on the western shore blocked my view of Coeymans Landing and my parents, and I focused on motoring north. Across the channel from the trade zone were four five barges moored or just sitting right on the shallow waters outside the channel, though they appeared, at high tide, to be in almost in the middle of the river. After another five minutes I’d passed the trade zone and came abreast of the green conveyer belt of Lafarge Cement Plant dropping gravel into a the bed of a black barge. This conveyer belt runs inland, across 9W, under the Thruway, and through my high school campus into the cliffs behind the high school, which are the southern ridges of the Helderberg Escarpment, of which Thatcher Park is the most famous part. I passed Lafarge and drew the tiller 10 degrees toward me, so that my bow moved to starboard, toward the eastern bank, then straightened out so that I was heading for a spot toward the opposite shore between two pillars of the Castleton highway and Alfred H. Smith railroad bridges. The Castleton bridge brings you across to the Mass Pike, while the Alfred H. Smith is the southernmost freight rail bridge on the Hudson. This bridge creates the Selkirk Hurdle–any freight going to New York City or southern New England has to travel north as far as Selkirk to pass over the Hudson on this bridge. There used to be a railroad bridge next to the FDR/Mid-Hudson Bridge in Pougkeepsie but it burned. After sitting vacant for four decades it opened about five years ago as a pedestrian walking bridge connecting Poughkeepsie and Highland.

It was just past one as I went under the bridges. On the north side of them I started to look around and see what the boat was doing. I looked back at the motor swashing the water in white bubbles. The backs of the canoes cut deep in the water from the force of the motor. The bows of the canoes were out of the water in the front. I worried that water might be splashing or even washing into the canoes at the back. I let go of the motor and jumped to the middle of the boat to look into the hatches at the bottoms of the canoes. There didn’t seem to be too much water coming in. I got back to the stern of the boat and grabbed the motor’s tiller to straighten out again. Now I was passing a little area of river where there are only trees on both shores. This was the spot I’d gotten marooned on The Manhattan Project when a storm hit when Jim Gadani was towing me north, and he’d had to untie me and set me adrift to get back to Coeymans. I saw the beach on the eastern shore where I’d rode out that storm, before moving The Manhattan Project north in the middle of the night. That was back in 2007. That was the first time I’d been on the water, alone, at night, with nothing to eat and no way to call for help. That was two days before somebody stole my boat and set her adrift in the river and I had to call the police so nobody hit her as she floated without lights.

The water was choppy. The wind was blowing south and making waves. When the wind blows in the same direction for hour after hour the water gets a momentum of its own, even when the wind isn’t gusting. The water gets going like a conveyer belt made out of triangular braille waves. Each little wave and trough bounced the boat. I looked behind me to make sure no barges or other boats were coming up behind me in the channel. I played with the throttle and learned how to turn it up or down. When I turned the throttle up, the motor pushed the back of the canoes even lower into the water and the bows even higher out of the water. That’s called “planing.” It used the most gas, and moved me fastest, but it made it hard to steer because the raised-up bows caught the wind, and it made it more likely that I’d swamp the back of the canoes. So I kept the motor around half-power. A motorboat passed me traveling south. A wake radiated out behind it. In a canoe it might take almost a minute for the wake to reach me, and I always had time to steer into the wake so it wouldn’t strike me broadside. But since I was moving upstream quickly, I struck the wake just a second later. I ran over the wake going 4 mph. It sent the boat bouncing up and down and it looked like the cabin would snap off. I hadn’t had time to tie the standing rigging to the tops of the windmill poles to give them extra support. I vowed to slow to the lowest throttle setting whenever I crossed over a boat’s wake, and to hold the cabin’s walls to stabilize them.

As I passed Castleton and it’s marina I saw a No Wake sign. I wondered if I was generating a wake with my motor. I’d never made a wake before, and I’d built eight boats and travelled a cumulative total of almost 1,000 miles on the Hudson and Delaware Rivers and the Champlain Canal. I throttled the motor down so it was almost stalling as I passed the boats. It took about six minutes to pass the marina on the lowest setting going into the wind and against the tide. When I got above the marina docks I opened up the throttle and started planing again. Around 1:45 I passed Henry Hudson Park on the western shore and Campbell Island on the east. The tip of this island I’d named Trombley Point and where the Papscanee Creek meets the Hudson I call Babcock Ellis Bay. My friend Rob and I were caretakers of this island for a short time in 2009, but it was full of all kinds of gun-shooting people and a guy who accused us of scaring eagles away who threatened to have our cars towed and we got terrible poison ivy from head to toe and so we stopped going to the place. Things got worse but you’ll have to read my book to get the juicy details. Anyhow, after I’d passed Henry Hudson, but before I got to Albany, I saw a big boat coming downstream. It turned out to be the Dutch Apple. Some puzzled passengers waved to me from the top deck.

The Dutch Apple, making its way downstream, just north of Castleton.

It was after two now, and I hadn’t yet reached Albany. Meanwhile I had planned to meet a reporter from the Troy Record in Troy at 2:30–ten miles upstream. The Troy Record was the only newspaper that deigned to reply to my emails about the book tour, so it was important to me not blow off the meeting. So I left the tiller, crawled forward to the dash, grabbed the dry box with my cellphone, lighter and wallet, and texted the reporter that I was likely to be late, and that I might not make it to Troy even by four o’clock. She said that getting to Troy was basically the hook by which she’d sold the story to her editor. I said I would try as hard as I could, and I’d text her at 3 p.m. to let her know if I’d past Albany yet.

I looked behind me and saw the Dutch Apple turning around a mile downriver, just north of the Castleton bridges. When I looked north I was rounding a bend by Cooper Kill abreast of the three smokestacks from the power plant you see if you drive south of Albany on 144 in Glenmont, and my first view of our fair city was ahead.

First view of Albany upriver. The tallest building is the Corning tower, next to four identical Agency Buildings. The lighter colored buildings in the foreground are warehouses in the Port of Albany. Furthest left, almost camouflage in the trees, is a green warehouse which is Scarano Boat Builders, at the corner lot at the south of the Port of Albany on the Normanskill Creek.

A few moments later I slid past the juncture of the Hudson and the Normanskill Creek. This was the spot where The Manhattan Project was stolen, burned, and set adrift in 2007. On any of my raft trips I always slow here and observe a moment of silence.

The Normanskill Creek meets the Hudson 42 degrees, 36.5 minutes N Latitude, marking the boundary between the City of Albany and the Town of Bethlehem to the south. Here at the point formed by the confluence of the stream and river, The Manhattan Project was stolen, burned and set adrift in the river in 2007.

The wind agitated me as I entered the Port of Albany. From the Normanskill up to the railroad bridge above the city is about two and a half miles of straight river with no bends. So there was nothing to stop or slow the wind and nothing to slow the momentum of the water which moves like a conveyor belt after its been whipped by the wind for 12 hours. I couldn’t even move to the side of the water to get where the current slows down, because both sides of the Port of Albany are occupied with industry or decayed and rotting piers, all labeled with signs saying “Keep Back 200 Feet” and “Coast Guard Patrolled.” It was 2:30 when I passed the warehouses and salt piles and trash heaps of the Port and I texted the reporter from Troy and said “I don’t know if I’m going to make it up to Troy by 4. If I don’t make it north of Albany by 3 at least, it doesn’t seem likely.” It had taken me about 1.5 hours to go the 8 miles from Henry Hudson Park to Albany, and Troy was at least another 10 miles. 

The U.S.S. Slater just north of the port, just below the maze of bridges known as The Arterial in Albany. This maze of bridges cuts off any access to the river for people living in the city. As a result, Albany might as well be five miles inland, for all the tourism the Hudson brings to the city.

There is basically no way to go from a boat to the City of Albany unless you rent a dock from I don’t even know who, and I’ve gone up and down the river from Albany seven times over eleven years. Albany gets as much tourism from the Hudson as Coeymans Hollow derives from the Alcove Reservoir. The only thing that passes as an attempt by the city planners to connect people with the river is a waterfront park which I refuse to call Jennings Landing, but that’s what it’s called. I call it the Corning Preserve. Anyway, you can get an idea of how much this park and the Hudson River are regarded when you consider that this was a beautiful day, the last day of August, and absolutely no one in the whole city of 80,000+ people was down at the only riverfront park.

Albany’s Corning Preserve, or Riverfront Park.

To get to this one landing area, you have to park in Downtown Albany, which is dead like a ghost town after 5 p.m., and take a walking bridge over a highway and railroad tracks, until you come to an amphitheater.  If there isn’t a city-sponsored concert going on, then there is nothing going on. Unlike most cities and towns with river frontage, you’re not even allowed to tie up to the docks jutting from the shore. A few years ago I got a call from 20 people from Brooklyn who had built a series of paper boats which they were taking from Troy to Manhattan. They wanted my advice about Albany. The leader of the group was exasperated. “Every other town along the way, we’re just pulling off at their dock and resting at the municipal park. Albany is the only city that says we can’t stop there. They said if we want to take our boats out of the water in Albany, we have to buy a $1,000 liability insurance policy!” I told the guy just to take the boats out and rest at Corning Preserve anyway, because nobody ever goes to the park, so the chances are he wasn’t going to get into any trouble. But I told him not to look like he was having too much fun–not to open up a can of beer or play music or dance or laugh too loudly–because then a lot of people would be annoyed, if they heard about it, somehow. 

Just a few minutes later I passed The Riverfront Bar and Grill, which I call The Barge, where I was having my first book signing that evening at 7 p.m. This is Albany’s only riverfront restaurant.

After The Barge I passed under a railroad bridge and then passed the boat launch where the crew teams launch their sculling boats, and where the Albany AquaDucks used to begin the river-portion of their tours. Now it was 3:15, and I texted the reporter to say that I didn’t think I’d be in Troy until at least five. She said it would be better to do a follow-up interview after my book tour was over than to rush that Thursday night. I agreed. Up to starboard, on the western shore, I saw a beach and a dock, and steered for that. About 50 feet from shore I killed the motor and let my momentum bring me onto the beach. I slid in and grounded on the sand. I jumped off with the anchor and dropped it halfway up the mud and gravel beach. Then I sat down and looked over my boat at the river. Then I laid back and closed my eyes in the afternoon sun with the end-of-summer breeze blowing. It was 3:40 and I’d made it as far north as I was going to go, used an outboard for the first time, taken the boat 20 miles north–that morning the boat was on a trailer with a flat tire and I’d not had gas or batteries to charge it. I figured a ten minute power nap was in order.

I heard some talking over my shoulder and saw a white man and a black woman sitting in the shade in the grass on the hill behind me. I thought it was odd that they didn’t think I was odd, but just sat there talking quietly. I had three hours before my signing at The Barge just across the river and downstream. I figured I’d take stock of the boat’s condition and by that point hopefully the beach would be vacant so I could nap.

I brought the anchor line back aboard and started pushing the bow toward a dock up the beach. I heard the man up the hill shout to ask if I needed help. I said “No thanks! I’m good. But what town is this?”

“Rensselaer!” he shouted, surprised.

As I dragged the boat through the water I felt a sharp pain in the soft skin of my left index toe. I assumed I stepped on a water chestnut or bulls-head, but when I looked down there was a big yellow bee flopping around in its death throes still affixed to my skin. I kicked at the gravel and water to pry him off. After I’d reached the dock a moment later my toe and the toes to the right and left of it were achy and itchy and starting to swell.

I tied the boat to the cleats on the municipal dock. I saw the jacket I’d set off with in the morning lying on the deck. One of the sleeves were soaked, so I hung it over the 1″ boards that formed the deck frame to dry. I walked aboard and opened the hatches that led to the port hull. Two inches of water sat still in the hull. This was a result of the splashes made by the waves as I motored from Coeymans. The splashes hit the bottom of the deck and splashed through the space between the deck and the top of the canoe. Two inches for four hours on the water wasn’t bad. I checked the hatch that led into the other canoe and there was about the same amount of water. I removed the clothing and equipment from the canoe that I wanted to dry–like the orange garbage bag of clothes I’d stowed below deck, and some of my electrical equipment. I lifted one of the 60-lb marine batteries onto the deck and hooked up the wires to the bilge pump around the battery’s positive and negative terminals, jammed the clear plastic hose into the pump’s valve, and held it into the bottom of the canoe. The water shot up through the tube and poured over the side of the canoe. I had to stay bent with my head down in the canoe for about ten minutes, conscious of being watched by the people on the shore. Then I crawled over and used the pump on the starboard canoe. The bilge pump can never get the last puddles out of a boat hull, because it is like a vacuum cleaner that pulls water through a grate, and if any air gets in at the same time, it can’t seem to pull the water up. So for the last 1/8″ of water in the canoes I took a towel, dipped it in, held it overboard, then twisted it dry. About five times I did this and then the port canoe was dry. I repeated the process on the starboard canoe, then I hung up the towels so they’d dry in the sun. Then I removed my clothes from the orange plastic bag and hung them around, so they would dry in the afternoon sun. As I did this I heard footsteps coming down the gangplank to the dock.

“You need any help? Came to give you a hand,” I heard.

“Come on, come on, I’m sick, I’m sick, don’t feel good,” I heard, from a woman.

I turned and saw the white man and the black woman who had been sitting in the shade up the hill in the grass behind the beach.

“I’m good, just tidying up,” I said.

“Uhhhh, come on, come on,” the woman said. She made puke noises like she was dry heaving.

“It gets shallow here. There’s tides here,” the man said. “I could give you a push. You better get to the deeper water. You got maybe, ten minutes.”

“I’m alright,” I said. I went about the boat inspecting the supplies that had gotten wet in the bottom, pulling them up and placing them on deck.

“Uhhhh, [dry heave noise, dry heave noise]”–the woman.

“Now you stop it. Stop it now! Go up in the grass I told ya. You gotta get off the water. Go up there now.”–the man. The woman did not go back up the gangplank. She stood sort of hugging the man, looking at the water. The man watched me as I took out my inverter and electric speakers and untangled the cord. “Just a little push, I’m here to help you,” he said. “I know this river. This is the Hudson. I come here all the time.”

“I’m just going to be here a little longer and then I’ll push off,” I said.

I put the inverter on the aft deck next to the marine battery. The inverter translates direct-current (DC or battery power) into alternating current, so you can run appliances that you would plug into a wall. The inverter had a red and a black wire to hook up to the positive and negative battery terminals, respectively. There was a plastic screw to hold the red wire in place on the poles of the inverter. The black plastic screw for holding the negative terminal in place was missing. I looked in the dash and in the bottoms of both canoes, but I couldn’t find it.

“You don’t see a black plastic nut anywhere, do you?” I asked the man. He was staring as his girl friend made puking noises.

“No I don’t see one of those. This is your boat?”


“You built this boat yourself?”

“Yes, out of two canoes.”

“Where’d you come from?”

“New Baltimore, it’s south of Coeymans.”

“You’d have an easier time going the other way. The power of the river goes down, not up.”

“Yes,” I said. “This is as far north as I’m coming.”

I reached into the canoe and twisted the nut off of one of the other batteries. I tried to screw it onto the negative terminal bolt on the battery, it to hold the black cable onto the inverter, but the nut was too large. I held the black cable to the inverter and pressed the power button, and the inverter turned on, but when I let it go, it beeped and turned off. I grabbed a roll of black duct tape from the dash and taped the black cable in place on the inverter. It turned on, then it turned off again.

“That kinda stuff don’t work good for electrical kinda stuff,” the man said.

I needed a steadier connection between the black wire and the inverter. In the dash I found a small L-bracket. I put the eye of the black cable around the negative terminal on the inverter, then I slid the L-bracket on top, then I taped the L-bracket in place. When I turned the inverter on it stayed on. I brought the speakers back to the inverter and plugged them in. I put the headphone jack from the speakers into my cell phone. I opened up the Spotify App and pushed the “shuffle play” button on my “Jazz for Cocktails” playlist. “The Good Life” by Sinatra rang from the speakers.

“Success!” I shouted. “This is the first thing I’ve jerry-rigged since I’ve been out here on the water. Feels good.”

“Frank Sinatra,” the man said. “I like him. I like ‘Singing in the Rain.'”

“Sinatra is good for an afternoon sunset on the water,” I observed.

The woman made puking noises and the man sent her up the dock, but she came back less than a minute later. As I tidied up, she saw the Milkduds and Skittles I’d unpacked to dry.

“Let’s go to Walmart and get some money and get candy!!” she pleaded.

“Later,” the man said. “This boat is like Gilligan’s Island,” the man said to me. “I bet you didn’t think I was old enough to know that.”

“Sure I did. I know it; but I wasn’t alive when it was coming out new.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m 33,” I said.

“Wow, you’re younger than me?” the man exclaimed. The man had no hair and was missing his front teeth.

“I guess so,” I said.

“I thought you were older than me!”

“You saying I look old?” I joked. The woman laughed. The man said nothing for a while. Then he said, “Hey, you think I could have a cigarette?” and I gave him one. He sat Indian-style on the dock, his girl friend hanging on him while continuing to stand.

For about 20 minutes I organized the supplies and put them into the hatches out of the way. I brought out two chairs like you might bring to a sports game if you’re sitting on bleachers–they had no legs but a fold-up backrest and armrests with cupholders. I’d filled a grocery bag with trash.

“Is there a garbage can around here?” I asked.

“Up the beach,” the man said.

“Do me a favor and stay here with the boat for a minute while I throw this out?”

“I’ll carry it up for ya!” the guy said. “Got any returnables?”

“I got one,” I tossed him an empty Coors Light can.

“Thanks! Hey, I’ll bring that garbage up, no problem. But I got one favor to ask. My girl, she ain’t never been on a boat before. Permission for her to board, Captain?”

I said she could. She was very afraid and squealed as the man held the boat and tried to help her over. When she’d gotten onto the boat she laughed nervously.

“I’ll give you a tour,” I said. “That’s the bow of the boat, and back here is the stern. There’s the dash, there, watch your head. Under here are the hatches to go to the bottom of the cabin.” She didn’t say anything, but clutched one of the 1″ cabin frame sticks.

“See, it ain’t so bad, I told ya,” the man said. “Permission to board, Captain?” I told the man he could come onboard, too. So then they were both standing on board.

“You guys want a beer?”

“Yeah!” they both shouted. For a second I wondered if I was somehow immoral. I wouldn’t feel bad giving a beer to any stranger that wanted to sit on my boat and talk to me, but these two people seemed like they might have special needs. But then I thought, what the hell, it’s a Coors Light, and maybe they would enjoy having a beer on the boat more than anybody else would. So we all sat and had a beer and listened to jazz music and talked for a while. They bummed two more cigarettes off of me. The man gave me his number and said his name was Buck and he was from Rensselaer. He asked me about every bracket and rope and little part of the boat. So I got an interview after all, even if these strangers wouldn’t publish what I said in a newspaper. After we finished our beers I was eager to get across the river to a vacant little inlet to steal a nap before I went to The Barge. Buck offered to push me off from the dock after I readied the electric motor. (I only had to go across the river and down about 1/4 mile, with the wind and tide helping me, so I figured I’d just use the motor to steer.) Buck pushed me off and I turned the motor to reverse and plowed myself right back onto the beach. He pushed me off and I turned the motor on and the same thing happened.

“Now, Captain, I said I’d push you off once. This is gettin’ too much,” Buck said. I realized I’d put the cables from the trolling motor on the wrong terminals, and that made the motor turn the propeller in the opposite direction, so that when I hit reverse, it moved me forward. I switched them to the correct position–red to positive, black to negative–and then when Buck pushed me off and I turned the motor on reverse it pulled me out into the river, and the wind and tide started me downstream. A regular stranger would have stood on the beach and watched me for a little while, but Buck and his girl hurried up the beach with the four empty Coors cans, I assume to get to Walmart to get some candy.

I turned around and switched the motor to the forward position to propel myself across the river. Two teenaged crew teams, one male one female, were practicing their sport on the glassy slack water. The young people sat in six long sculling boats, followed by an aluminum bass boat with three coaches, the one at the back barking commands through a megaphone. The electric motor moved me across the channel so I disrupted their nautical meanderings with neither noise nor wake.

Once back on the Albany side of the river I turned off the motor and drifted. I had an hour to go 1/4 mile south. I could see the old railroad bridge and The Barge beyond it.

It was nearing sunset; the shores were shadowy, though the middle of the river, the railroad bridge, and the buildings rising above the tree line to the south reflected yellow and salmon sunlight. I call this the Melancholy Time of Day or the Nostalgic Time of Day. I opened my cooler and used some ice to mix up an Old Fashioned in a rocks glass I’d carefully wrapped in a towel in my backpack.

Before I’d taken a single sip I drifted astride the plastic docks by the rain location for Alive at Five, next to the ramps that the Albany Aquaducks used to launch, and there was a boy about ten years old standing alone looking out at the river. When he saw my boat approaching he waved. I slid my Old Fashioned out of sight and motored over to the dock in front of him. When I tossed a line along the dock cleat he ran over and greeted me.

“Wow did you build this boat?” he asked.

“Yeah. It’s made out of two canoes and wood, and those propellers up there are actually windmills, so if the wind blows it will start to move those propellers, and they have a kind of motor inside, but instead of using power themselves, they take power from the wind and turn it into electricity, and that gets stored in batteries under the deck, and the motor at the back of the boat is hooked up to those batteries. So it’s like maybe you’ve heard of a ‘hybrid car?’ Those are cars that run on both gas and electricity. This is a hybrid boat!”

By now I was standing on the dock while he had his hands on the 1″ cabin frame boards and was leaning way over the deck.

“Can I get on it?”

“You’ll have to ask your mom,” I said. A woman with brown hair was walking toward us from further down the dock where some people were getting ready to greet the crew team when they returned, and a man was launching a jet ski.

“Can I go on, Mom?” the kid shouted.

“Sure!” the mother smiled at me. “But don’t touch anything.”

The kid leapt aboard and I showed him the center hatch and the hatches that led under the deck down inside the canoes, where it was dark, where there were batteries and ropes and the electrical inverter and tester and wires.

“Can I go for a ride?” he asked.

“If it’s okay with your mom,” I said. The mother said sure. She seemed like a cool mom.

“Okay we’ll go for a spin in a big circle around that little island of weeds and come back,” I said. The kid nodded and sat Indian style in the middle of the deck. I motored us away from the dock and back upstream, close to the shore, around a strange hula-hoop-sized circle of weeds fifty feet out from shore.

“What is that?” the kid asked.

“I donno,” I said. It looks like a little island. Imagine that was somebody’s garden, and they had to take a boat out here to work on it?”

“That’d be a lot of work! What are those metal things?” There were some kind of metal poles sticking out of the circle of weeds.

“I donno,” I said.

“Can we take the pipes?”

“I think we better leave them where they are. They look pretty dirty. Plus, what if we pulled the pipes out and they’re holding the island in place and it goes floating down the river?”

We got back to the dock and the kid asked to go out again but I said I had to get moving on. The mother asked about my boat and said her daughter was on the crew team, which was coming back to the dock now. When I untied from the dock, I started drifting south slowly. An old man strolled along the dock asking me questions, until there was no dock left. I retrieved my Old Fashioned and enjoyed a sip as I drifted beneath the railroad bridge toward The Barge.

Under the railroad bridge, looking up.

I was in easy sight of the people eating at The Barge once I’d passed under the railroad bridge. I took my time drifting past them, so they’d get a chance to read DALLASTROMBLEY.COM Coming of Age on the Hudson written across my bow. I was still listening to Sinatra and sipping my Old Fashioned, so I wasn’t in a hurry. This was the nicest time I’d had on the boat since I put her in the water. I actually drifted a little past The Barge but Katie texted me that she’d gotten there already so I used the motor to head into The Barge’s dock and tie up. Katie came down the stairs from the restaurant with a couple of bags, followed by a family with two little girls who wanted to look at the boat, while a couple of guys stood at the railing on the top deck of the restaurant and yelled down some good luck greetings having just googled

This was the first time that Katie had seen the boat since I’d put the motor and signs and the canvass walls on it. She checked out the gas motor and I showed her how it raised and lowered. She looked at the motor with a mixture of respect and fear. Loud machinery like chop saws and outboards connected to gas tanks make her nervous. I remember the first time she watched me on a woodworking project. Two years ago she wanted to make a half-barrel into a wishing well for her friend’s bachelorette party. She had the half-barrel and I designed a roof with a dowel to lower a hanging pale. The gifts would go inside. Anyhow, my tools were at my friend CJ’s garage at the time, because I’d just lost my apartment in a fire. We drove to the garage at dusk and I cracked open a Coors Light and held a cigarette in the other as I held a board in place with my foot in the near-dark. When the saw screeched, Katie looked faint. Back in the present, I showed Katie the hatches and we stored those supplies she didn’t mind getting wet. Then we strolled up the steps to The Barge and ordered some steamed clams and a gourmet salad and drinks while we waited for people to arrive at seven.

The Barge was nice. It is permanently moored to the land, it appears. Of course the interior is an open concept, with the bar located in the middle, rows of high-top tables surrounding it, and then a dining-room dance floor and stage at would have been the bow or stern of the barge. There was a warm cross breeze. Our friends Nick and Louisa showed up first, followed by my friend Bridgette and her cousin, and Rob and Roxanne, who have been involved in boat trips down the Hudson for 12 and 9 years, respectively, (Rob took part on the first trip of the U.S.S. Crablegs in 2006 and participated in every other raft trip, most of the time as the only other participant). While we were looking at the boat, Marty, a friend from my first period of employment at the Assembly, came and chatted for a while, and my former colleague Lekeya, who I knew from working at the Assembly the second time, brought her son, Nick. My boss from 14-10 years ago, who was a kind of mentor for me in my early twenties, Nora, also came, and we ended up drinking Old Fashioneds until the restaurant was closing up. It was a grand evening because I sold five books (my quota for each day was five), Bridgette game me a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and I just always love seeing people from different parts of my life, meeting one another.

We descended to the dock in the dark.  The tide was creeping north again, while we were headed south. Luckily, the wind was blowing downriver, in the direction we wanted to travel. I wanted to use the electric rather than the gas motor now, because it is almost silent and I looked forward to Katie experiencing the river at night, especially south of Albany, where the light pollution wears off and the stars shine through. We bade goodbye to Nick and Louisa and Bridget and Nora and Rob and Roxanne. I was at the top of the wave.

Katie and I had a nice time piloting the boat under the Dunn Memorial Bridge and looking at the industry on the west shore of the Port of Albany. It grew chilly, however. In previous years, Rob and I made trips in canoes or open boats two or three months earlier in the year. The temperature was in the seventies at night. Now it was 56 degrees and the windchill cooled us. We dropped the canvass at the back of the boat to catch and break the wind. The canvass turned concave as it caught the breeze. My back started to knot-up from sitting at the back of the boat facing Katie while twisting my left arm around to steer the trolling motor. After two hours (about 11:25) we passed the Normanskill and left Albany.

Now that we’d been on the water for two hours, the novelty started to wear off. I’d been awake for 18 hours, having put the boat in at Coeymans and travelled to above Albany earlier that day. And I was disappointed not to be able to share the full night-river experience with Katie. In other years, barges passed, and it was eerie how they appeared silently in the night, moved by almost unheard, seen only where they blocked ambient light along the top of the tree line, silent and invisible though they weigh hundreds of tons and cover the area of a football field. But no barges passed on this evening, so I didn’t share this experience. Also, I’d wanted Katie to see the stars. When you look south from the middle of the Hudson over Schodack and Castleton, Bethlehem or Selkirk, (you can’t tell where one jurisdiction ends) you see the sky nearly as the natives of 400 years ago. Transecting the black dome, the Milky Way spills a spectre of stars and you start to think how the sun is a star like all those other stars and there are lightyears of space between each of them, and the disc of the Milky Way is like Saturn’s rings but instead of dust is starstuff, and it takes 500,000 years for the light from the stars in the middle of the galaxy to reach our eyes, and another half of the galaxy stretches on the other side, and we’re just one galaxy out of 100-billion galaxies, and the earth is a lot smaller than any of those stars and you’re a lot smaller than the earth, and you feel afraid at first, because of your smallness, and then you think about it some more and you start to feel liberated by the fact that you exist and there is all this space out there. But the sky was overcast, so we couldn’t ponder the stars. We could only motor on, at 2 mph, on top of liquid blackness, with blackness to either side, under a dome of blackness. We grew tired and the temperature fell.

We started to shiver after 1:30 a.m., as we approached Henry Hudson Park. I suggested to Katie that we forget about getting to Coeymans, where we had dock-space waiting for us, and tie up at Henry Hudson and sleep under the gazebo. We could see the lights of the Castleton Bridge clearly, and Katie knew that that bridge is visible from Coeymans, so she said she’d prefer just to keep going and sleep at my parent’s house. As we motored astride Henry Hudson, it was 2 a.m. and we’d been on the water for six hours, having left The Barge around 9. I told Katie it would take at least two more hours to reach Coeymans at our current speed. She said she was game, so we kept going.

I hadn’t used any of the 4 deep-cycle batteries on the way north that afternoon, so when we left The Barge I’d had a full bank of reserve power. Unfortunately, the windmills weren’t working, so that bank of power was all I had; when they ran out, Katie and I would have to row or drag the boat or try to start the gas motor for the second time, not really knowing how it worked, in the dark. The windmills didn’t work because I hadn’t been able to install the sacrificial overvoltage capacitor, which is a device which burns itself out if the wind gusts, instead of destroying the battery bank and motor. Basically, each deep-cycle battery provides about 1.5 hours of propulsion before they need recharging, depending on the speed at which you run the motor. I’d pushed the batteries so far, using each one for 2 hours, since we left The Barge. I’d hooked up a new battery when we passed the Normanskill at midnight, and I hooked up a new one halfway between the Normanskill and Henry Hudson. Just past Henry Hudson I hooked up the last reserve battery.

As we floated under the Castleton Bridges, the trip was growing irksome. By now I’d been sitting for six hours with my back twisted to steer the motor. The temperature had fallen to 45 degrees. First we’d sat next to each other with the canvass behind us to break the wind and my zero-degree sleeping bag spread over our laps. Now we untied one of the canvass drop-cloths that formed the side of the cabin and used it as a second blanket. Still we shivered with our arms around one another. We snacked on cheese and crackers and Skittles but these failed to fortify us.

Nowadays Coeymans has a tanker which is semi-permanently moored at the Carver industrial facility, with half a dozen cranes and spotlights lighting it up like a small city. We saw the lights on this tanker eight miles upstream. We knew our berth at the Coeymans Marina was less than half a mile south of the tanker. You can imagine how numbingly frustrating it was to see the lights of this barge as we froze and our stomachs grumbled and we tried to keep our eyes open–yet it took four hours to reach the tanker. Think about it: in the time it took us between spotting and passing the tanker, we could have watched Saving Private Ryan (2h 49m), an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (43m), an episode of Darkwing Duck (22m) and a clip from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight sequentially.

We finally passed the tanker at 4:30 a.m. and saw blue lights on the western shore downstream which I knew were party lights at the Coeymans Marina. We were in the middle of the channel in order to avoid the tanker. Downstream I could just descry a white buoy which I knew was a warning for a submerged rock bank which stretches a mile down the middle of the river to protect Coeymans from the wake of passing boats. I steered us toward the western shore above the buoy and then…crunch! We fell forward and came to a dead stop. I shined a flashlight into the water and saw that we were grounded on the line of boulders I just described. We’d missed another unlit buoy a little north which marked the beginning of the boulder dike.

So now it was 4:45 a.m. and we could see our destination 200 feet away, but we were paralyzed. I bent one of my 7-foot aluminum oars trying to push us off the rocks an inch below the surface. It was no use. Our momentum had propelled us right overtop of the rock pile which was nearly as wide as the length of our boat. Nearly exhausted now, I made a fleeting suggestion that we just sleep on the boat and deal with getting off the rocks later. Katie, also exhausted, asked me to try anything I could think of to get us off. In retrospect it was good that she pushed me, because at this point we’d gone through the entire flood tide and the water was ebbing, and if I didn’t do something in the next few minutes, while the boat was still somewhat buoyant, then the boat would have been transfixed on the dike for the next 12 hours, until high tide floated us off, and in addition to the inconvenience of not being able to get to shore during that time, my boat (which blared “” across the bow) would have been marooned for the entire morning and half the afternoon, so I’d have advertised myself as an idiot. I remember a few years back, the Ravena News Herald ran a story and a picture about a sailboat that got stuck on that shoal. At low tide the rocks rise out of the water five-feet high. It would have been very embarrassing. After sending the News Herald and other papers a press release about my boat-book-tour, I wouldn’t blame them for putting such a picture on their front page.

So I took off my shoes and stripped down to my boxer briefs.

“You’re going in the water?” Katie exclaimed.

“I don’t see any other choice!”

“You’re going to freeze!”

I jumped off the boat onto the submerged rocks, thigh deep.

“It’s actually warm. I guess that’s one benefit to doing a boat trip in 45 degree weather. The water actually warms you up a little.”

I was able to lift the bow off the highest rocks and slide it a little back toward the channel. The bottom of the canoes left yellow paint on the points of the boulders. After I’d pointed the bow toward the channel I waded to the stern and lifted the boat, scratching.

“Can you walk to the front of the boat and put your weight there?”

With Katie at the front I lifted the back a slid her, scraping, down the rocks. I kicked off the rocks as I jumped aboard and turned the motor back on. I pointed us back downstream and donned my pants, shivering again.

Now the dock we were supposed to land at was directly to starboard, but we couldn’t get to it without motoring south one mile to the end of the rock shoal, and then motoring north a mile back to the berth on the western side of the river. By now the crepuscular birds were chirping in the trees ashore. We rounded the shoal at the south and turned north toward Coeymans Marina again. Now we fought the tide as well as the wind that had been helping us, and our progress noticeably slowed. Rather than 2 mph, it took us almost half an hour to travel 1/4 mile north.

We approached the municipal dock in Coeymans, which is a stone’s throw from two docks which extend south for 100-feet from Coeymans Marina. Tied to both docks were yachts and sailboats. Between the yachts was a space twenty-feet wide, through which we would have to motor to get to our berth. The wind was making white caps on the water. The whitecaps reflected in the lights from the streetlights in the Coeymans parking lot.

“Honestly, Katie, I don’t really feel comfortable taking the boat between those yachts,” I confided. “The motor is almost dead, the wind is blowing hard–if it blows us into one of those yachts, one little ding and I owe thousands of dollars. What if we just tie up here at the municipal dock, and I’ll come back down here at 7:30 a.m. and bring the boat down to Jake’s island before anybody even sees it tied up here?”

Katie thought that was a fabulous suggestion. We tied to the dock and grabbed any supplies that might blow away or be easily stolen. We climbed onto the dock, crossed the parking lot, and walked across the soccer field with our sandled feet and ankles getting wet with morning dew, to my Uncle Paul’s house on Main Street, where I’d left my car 20 hours before. It was now 5:30 and we’d been on the water 8 hours. I’d been awake for 24 hours. I’d spent 10 of those hours sitting on the boat with my back twisted to steer the motor.

We drove to my parent’s house two miles away, in New Baltimore, washed in their basement bathroom so as not to wake them, crawled into their guest room, and passed out immediately.

It seemed like I’d closed my eyes for 20 seconds when my cellphone alarm went off at 7:30. I’ve had enough boats vandalized, ticketed, and wrecked from weather to know not to leave it tied up on a public dock after sunrise. So I forced myself from bed, drove to Jake’s island, borrowed his kayak, and started kayaking the mile north to Coeymans Marina. The wind was really, really, blowing south now. It had been blowing south the entire day before, so the water was moving in a sheet southward, but the wind was stronger now, and steady rather than gusting. The leaves on the trees ashore showed their blanched undersides, devoid of chlorophyl, which normally weren’t exposed to sunlight. Up ahead the flags on the boats shot southward as erect squares.

I kayaked north of the boat and let the wind blow me back onto the municipal dock. The boat was tied just as I’d left her 2 hours earlier. I lifted the kayak aboard, untied the boat from the dock cleats, and pushed her into the river.

Immediately I moved south as quickly as the motor propelled me the evening before. I hooked up the electric motor just to steer, keeping the bow pointed toward the dock with Jake’s sailboat at Barren Island a mile downstream.

Jake’s sailboat is tied to the north side of his dock. So I approached just to the west, the turned the motor on full-blast to hit his dock on the south side. This is normally an easy maneuver. When I was inches from Jake’s dock I reached out and grabbed one of the dock cleats. Normally it is easy to pull the boat beneath me and hold it to the dock as I’d toss a line around the cleat. But the wind blew the boat south, so that I became outstretched holding the cleat with the boat blowing back behind me. A moment before I’d have lost my footing, I let go of the cleat and ran to the back of the boat. I turned the motor on full power, but it made no difference. I continued drifting south in the wind and the tide toward the rocks on Barren Island.

Less than two minutes later the boat was grounded on the rocks at the bottom of Jake’s island. Obviously I couldn’t use the motor to get back to the dock, because either the battery was dead or the wind and tide were too strong. I think it was the latter, because I jumped off the boat up to my waist in the water, and whereas normally I could push the boat around by hand, on this day the wind kept slamming it into the rocks. When I paused to think, the wind blew the back of the boat around so that the boat hit the rocks broadside. I pushed the stern back out into the water and the momentum carried her stern around onto the rocks, so now the bow faced toward the river, and I worried about the propellor on the gas motor striking the rocks and breaking.

By wading up to my chest in front of the boat, I was able to pull the bow around an outcropping of rocks.  On the other side of the rocks was a bay with a shore of sand. I let go of the boat and watched it be blown into Colewell Cove, onto the mud beach. I waded over to the boat and assessed the situation. The wind was blowing south directly into the beach, at at least 15 mph. There was no way that the boat would float out into the river even as the tide rose. I carried the anchor up the beach just in case the wind changed, and dropped it on the other side of a log. Then I took the kayak off the boat and kayaked back around the outcropping of rocks, carried the kayak up the steep steps at the landing at Jake’s island, got in my car and drove back to my parent’s house. I crawled back into bed with Katie at 9:30 a.m. and fell immediately back to sleep.

At 11 a.m. my alarm sounded again. Katie turned, then shook me urgently.

“Hey! Weren’t you going to move the boat?”

“I did that 2 hours ago,” I said. I hit the snooze button.

“Oh my god, I didn’t even hear you get up I was so tired. So it’s moved already?”

“Yeah. I was gone 7:30 to 9:30.”


“Let’s sleep for 15 more minutes, then check on the boat on the way back up to Albany.”


We rose from the bed fifteen minutes later the way zombies wake from the grave: unsteady and with groaning noises. We made two coffees and grabbed two cans of strawberry seltzer from Mom’s fridge. When we stepped into the driveway Katie asked why my pants and shoes were laying on the blacktop.

“Because I had to jump into the water when I moved the boat.” I pulled the insoles from my sneakers and wrung the water out. They were clammy and cold on my bare feet. It was still only about 55 degrees.

In the car Katie said she’d forgot to pack her contact lenses and glasses.

“I’m basically blind,” she lamented. “I shouldn’t have taken my contacts out last night without making sure I had ones for today. I thought I packed my glasses. I hope I didn’t lose them.”

“Well, we’ll be home in 45 minutes and then we can jump in bed and sleep for a couple hours,” I said. “We’ll just stop at the island so I can make sure everything’s alright with the boat, and then it’s only a half hour back to Albany.”

“Sounds good. I’m just going to shut my eyes for a minute, to remember what it feels like.”

At Jake’s, I took down the chain that blocks the road through the woods, then parked at the tip of the island. From there I saw Jake’s dock and sailboat rocking in the southern wind.

“I’m just going to run to the top of the hill and look out over the beach and check on the boat. I can’t see it from here.”

“Okay, babe. Do you mind if I wait here? I can’t see anything anyway.”

“Sure babe, I’ll be right back.”

So I left Katie in the car and walked to the top of the knoll overlooking the beach cove. When I got to the top of the hill I looked down through the trees and saw the boat in the water.

My spirits sank at the sight.

The boat was sitting in three-feet of water, ten-feet from the shore, stuck on the beach. The port side of the boat was submerged and waves were washing over it. The port canoe must have been completely full of water. As the tide continued to rise it would submerge the other canoe, the batteries, and wreck the outboard motor.

The boat, with the port pontoon flooded.

At that moment, the boat was salvageable. But in an hour she’d be ruined. I needed to get her batteries off, and to do whatever I could to make sure the starboard pontoon didn’t take on water, so that the tide wouldn’t bring the water up over the outboard motor. I jogged back to the boat and told Katie about the problem. There was no way she could help. I ran back to the knoll and looked for a way to get to the beach, because by now the water had covered the outcropping of rocks at the bottom of the island where I normally brought the boat to shore. I tried to scale down the cliffs on the east side of the island overlooking the beach, but the cliffs are sheer. I could walk along the top of them and down a ridge maybe ten-feet, and then they fell off thirty-feet directly into the water. I went back to the car.

“I’m so sorry. I’m going to have to put Jake’s kayak into the water and kayak over to the boat. Then I’m going to have to take everything off the boat that can be damaged from the water, and carry it up the beach past the high tide mark: the four batteries, the trolling motor, our supplies. Then I’m going to have to try to move the boat up the beach so the high tide doesn’t wash over the starboard canoe. Ugh. Do you want to drive back to Albany and I’ll deal with this?”

“Well, I would, but I can’t drive. I’d go up to the hill to see what you’re talking about, but I won’t be able to see it. I’m literally blind without my glasses. I’ll just wait here.”

So I carried the kayak down the cement steps and paddled over to the boat. The waves by now were washing over the middle of the boat, over the hatches, almost into the starboard canoe. I lifted the lid of one of the hatches in the port canoe and saw it was totally swamped.

I deduced what had happened. I’d left the boat with the bow facing toward the beach, so that it would float up the beach as the tide rose. But the night before, as each battery died, we removed the dead battery and wired up the new one. The gas motor was in the middle of the boat, so the electric motor was mounted on the port side. Therefore each of the batteries I’d used, I’d stacked on the port side of the boat. Each discarded battery I’d placed on the port side of the boat. Though it made little difference as far as we could discern with our eyes aboard the boat, the four 60-pound batteries stacked on the port side must have made the port side sink lower in the water than the starboard side, even just an inch. As the boat crept up the beach, the wind blew it until it touched the sand. The port side touched the sand, because it sank lower in the water, while the starboard remained free. The wind then twisted the floating, starboard side, further up the beach, pivoting on the heavier port side, which was touching bottom. Then each whitecap splashed into the broadside of the port canoe. Each drop of water made that side heavier, anchoring it to the bottom, until it was completely submerged. Then as the tide rose, it rose over the canoe and over the middle of the deck, and soon it would start to flood the starboard canoe.

I carried each of the four 60-pound batteries out of the water to a log that marked the high point of the tide, and put them on the other side. I carried the trolling motor, my plastic tote full of books, the cooler, the lifejackets, the oars, the voltmeter, the inverter, the electric speakers, the bag of clothes. It took about ten trips wading through the water up the beach as the tide kept rising. When I’d removed everything that could be damaged from the water, I bent down and grabbed the deck atop the submerged canoe. I figured if I could lift it just a little, then it would float on the starboard buoyant canoe, and I could float it up to the place where the water was lapping the beach. But it was too heavy. I lifted and moved the boat an inch or two, then rested, then tried again. On my third attempt I felt a pop in my back and a feeling like lightening shoot up my spine. I could hardly stoop at all after that. Bending my knees seemed to put my left hand and left leg asleep. So if the water was going to rise, I hoped it wouldn’t rise as high as the outboard, the motor housing of which was now only two-feet above the waves. I looked at the line on the rocks and vegetation which marked the high water mark, and it seemed like it was a little lower than the motor. But if a barge or speedboat passed at high tide and sent a wave higher than the high water mark, it still might wash over the outboard and ruin it. To make sure that the boat wouldn’t somehow work its way back into the channel when the tide receded, I brought the anchor inland and tied two lines to submerged limbs on the beach. That was really all I could do, because I couldn’t even walk along the rocks back to the landing on the other side of the cliffs. I got into the kayak and paddled back. I carried the kayak up the hill and stowed it. Now it was 12:30. I knocked on the window and woke Katie.

“My only choice is to leave the boat here and hope it doesn’t get ruined, and come back at low tide and use the bilge pump to empty the canoes, so that it floats again, hopefully, and hopefully the motor isn’t ruined.”

“When can you do that? I mean, when is low tide?”

“Tonight low tide is at 7 p.m., right in the middle of when I’m supposed to be doing my book signing at Yanni’s. Then the next low tide will be at 1 a.m. but it’ll be too dark to do anything.”

“Jeeze. Can you come back the next day?”

“No, because I have my book signings at 1 at the Stewart House in Athens, and then 4-8 at Crossroads Brewery, and low tide is going to be, again, at 7 that night. I don’t want to cancel events that were the main point of the book tour. So I’ll leave the boat here until Sunday, and pump it out that afternoon.”

The problem was that I was supposed to have been at least as far as Kingston by Sunday afternoon, in order to make it to Poughkeepsie for an event on Wednesday. If, in the best case scenario, I pumped out the boat and got it floating by Sunday, I’d have to travel constantly to make it to Poughkeepsie on time. And I wouldn’t be able to charge any of my batteries, because I wouldn’t get to them until Sunday, and they take 8 hours to charge apiece. And if the water washed over the outboard, it would ruin that, too, leaving me with no propulsion whatsoever.

“Honestly,” I said to Katie, “it looks like the boat part of my book tour is over.”

This was the bottom of the wave, again.


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. 

Grace and The Glory of Minutiae

We set our sights on grand goals–for me, the publication of a new book; my book tour down the Hudson Valley; ultimately, a “grand tour” of the U.S. though the Great Loop. But the great majority of our lives are filled with mundane minutiae. It’s hard not to lose motivation when the victories are so rare while the work is so frequent, unprofitable, and unacknowledged.

Toward achieving happiness we have choices. We can push our dreams and goals out of our minds in order to rid ourselves of the anxiety that comes with trying to attain them. (That strikes me as a pretty sad path). We can set goals and fight through the work that needs to be done, biting our lip and numbing our mind, while telling ourselves that the work will be over soon, and then our goal will be met. But over a timeline it seems like such a path would lead to an aggregate of annoyance for fleeting feelings of success. Or we can take what I think is the enlightened path, where we acknowledge that the minutia, the unacknowledged and unprofitable steps, are part of the whole experience of obtaining the goal, and try to enjoy those steps as part of the chosen experience.

Eleven years ago I read an essay in Farmer’s Almanac about Grace–a word I’d never really thought of before, especially in a secular sense. The author talked about how he used to loathe shoveling snow. As soon as the snow would pile up he’d get mad, then go out and rush through shoveling his driveway, taking the biggest shovelfuls he could lift in order to get back inside as quickly as possible. I remember he said that if you see your neighbor doing that, and you don’t like them, you should let them keep going on that way, because they’ll have a heart attack soon. (If you’re reading this blog I probably like you, which is why I’m trying to convince you not to act that way.) Anyhow one day the author of the essay was outside and suddenly he just had a change of opinion. He realized that picking up the heaviest scoops of snow didn’t get the driveway shoveled faster, because he tired himself out and had to rest. It also made his back hurt. Instead he started taking little scoops, and he stopped sweating, and then he stopped shivering. Then he wasn’t so uncomfortable or cold or achey. He looked around and noticed that it was actually quite beautiful outside as the snow fell. He realized he was getting exercise, which made him feel good about himself. He found himself even making little side paths just for the hell of it. After that, he didn’t look forward to snow falling, but he didn’t resent it either. He just acknowledged that when the snow fell, he had no choice but to go out and shovel it, and that he was equal to the task, so he might as well do it his way, enjoying what he could about it, because what possible benefit was there for him to deplore the idea of doing what he had to do before and while he was doing it? He called that Grace: doing what you have to do without complaining, in a mindful way, and even deriving some joy from what could otherwise be unpleasant. The essay struck me as really very wise, and for the last decade I’ve tried to follow the author’s advice. I think it’s helped me attain an aggregate of happiness that is far beyond what a  person feels if they don’t enjoy how they spend the majority of their time.

For example, last Wednesday was a pretty average day. I had a neat dream that made me think at 5:45, and since I drifted awake, I decided to get up and start living. (If you hate the idea of getting out of bed in the morning because you’re afraid you’ll run out of energy and get yelled at over the course of the day, you’re probably not living gracefully). So I got up and started doing my Fives, as I call them: I wash exactly five dishes, put away exactly five articles of clothes from my hamper, practice a melodic progression on the keyboard exactly five times, do five sit ups, five push ups, and read five pages of a book. None of those things are themselves very taxing, and over the course of the day, if I do my fives five times, I’ve done 25 sit ups and push ups, read 25 pages, learned a melodic progression, done my dishes and put away my clothes. I enjoy going from task to task, thinking about how my hands or stomach muscles feel, or what my mind is thinking as I read. I feel like I’m Here, Existing, which seems to me so much better than having my mind somewhere else because I’m daydreaming because I don’t like what I’m doing because I’m working for someone else’s profit just to get money.

After each set of Fives I do a task which is mundane or boring or irksome–the minutiae of everyday life. I was done with my first set of Fives at 6 a.m. and I updated my Excel spreadsheet which has my list of receipts for expenditures for my book business, including the cost of building my boat for my boat tour. I updated the list and it took about 15 minutes and I thought “Why did I think this was going to be so irksome? Because I had to open a drawer and look at receipts and type them into boxes?” I found that so far this year I’ve spent $1,409 to purchase copies of my book, build a model of my boat, and build the plywood deck. I would normally pay 30% of my income to taxes at the end of the year, so keeping track of this amount (which is tax deductible) will save me about $400. Not bad for 15 minutes worth of work. I did my next round of fives.

Now it was 6:45 and although I hadn’t done much, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I’d done a fair amount of “over-and-above” work before most people’s alarms had gone off. Next I set about re-formatting my new book, Siren Song, so that it will have a title page, a blank page, and then the page numbers would start on the first page with text. First I tried to figure out how to reformat the Word document by clicking on the drop boxes in the toolbar. I didn’t want to Google how to do it and have to find different answers and read them and click between the web browser and the document, reading and following the directions on a help page. But then I did, and discovered that you can divide a Word document into sections using the Headings tab, and number them independently. I made a section including two blank pages, then the title page (so that the title page would appear, like in a book, on the right-hand side after the reader flips one blank page, then an empty page on the left, so that the text would begin halfway down the middle of the next right hand page.) Then I had to Google how to delete the numbers from the first section (which was complicated). After completing and saving the formatting of the draft I signed into CreateSpace, the publishing website, and uploaded the file. They have a proof-reviewer after the document is uploaded. In reformatting the book I’d added an extra page after the title, so the text began on the left page after a full blank page after the title page. Etc. I edited and re-uploaded the draft six times, each time taking several minutes for the draft to upload. I began to wonder if I would get the draft finished before I had to set out for the day. With some luck, just after 8 a.m. (1 hour and fifteen minutes later) I got the document uploaded, the cover designed, and the whole package submitted for final review to the publishing outfit. Review takes 24 hours, and when the book is done I can publish it on Amazon and Kindle. (I have to charge $4.99 to make 84 cents per copy; I will be lucky if I sell 100 copies of the book, called Siren Song, about leaving my employment at the New York State Assembly. So this hour, added to maybe 300 other hours, will bring me in maybe $84. That comes out to about 28 cents per hour–though theoretically I could always sell more copies. (If it wasn’t for grace and patience I could never be a writer.)

By now it was a few minutes past 8 a.m. and I had to leave by quarter to nine to meet my friend Sam at Lowes to get some materials for finishing the construction of the deck of the new boat (which I will use for a book tour down the Hudson Valley in August). So I had about 35 minutes, which I used to edit and post a picture I’d taken two days earlier with Tess Collins, who runs McGeary’s and used to own the Lark Tavern, which was the best bar in Albany, and in which several scenes in my book are set. I emailed myself my picture, then realized it was in my “i-cloud”, but then I had to edit the picture and save it so I could post it on Facebook, and then I struggled trying to tag McGeary’s and the old Lark Tavern page (though it was easy to tag Tess)–so the post took 30 minutes–another piece of minutiae. But, as with the other minutiae that morning, it has the potential to be profitable: the post got 6 shares and 160+ likes, many from people who I do not know, through Tess’ page, who now know about the book. If five people buy the book as a result, I’ll earn $24.25, which isn’t bad for a half-hour’s worth of minutiae.

By 9 a.m. I’d driven to Lowes in Glenmont for the next step that no one will see when the boat is finished. I had to buy a piece of 15/32″ plywood, two 2X4s, 25 3-1/2″ bolts, nuts, washers and a 1/4″ drill bit. I didn’t have a way to transport the plywood with my 2001 Ford Taurus, but my friend Sam met me and we loaded it onto his car’s roof rack. By 9:50 we’d driven the materials to New Baltimore. By 10:10 we’d carried all of the materials out of my parent’s workshop, lined up the canoes, and put the parts of the deck together on top. So 4.5 hours after waking up, I could finally begin the physical work for the day. My goal was to build the bow of the deck, which, like the back portion of the deck, had to sit higher than the middle of the deck, in order to allow for the rise of the canoes at their bows and sterns.

We began by building a simple wooden square, which will be bolted to the center deck and extend between the canoes forward to support the foredeck.

The battery in the picture is keeping the square from falling off. The final boat will have a cable running from the bow of each canoe under the deck as a suspension support. For added support we cut two lengthwise beams running from the bow of each canoe back to the deck. These required a little math to make the correct cut at the front of each beam to allow for the “rise” of either canoe (the two canoes are different brands and rise at different angles.)

Next we built cross-wise braces, and then we screwed the plywood on top and cut it at angles in order to match the shape of the aft deck.

Here is a picture from the opposite angle:

The angles need to be cut and sanded into a prettier shape, but by now it was 1 p.m. and we had to take everything apart and store it in the work shed. By this point in the day I’d been up since 5:45 doing minutiae items and the only “progress” anyone besides me would observe was that I’d built a small front deck for my boat.

I drove back to Albany and slept from 2-3 p.m. before getting ready for work. I worked 4-9:45 and earned $168 dollars from the job that pays my actual bills. By the time I got home, my girlfriend was asleep (she works 8:30-5 in an office), so I kissed her goodnight, then worked on this blog post from 10:30 to midnight. I did not complete it but by midnight I was exhausted, and I wanted to get up by 7 a.m. the next morning, because there is always more work to do, so I went to sleep.

In the past, on boat projects like these, I’ve often felt overwhelmed. But in the past on boat projects like these I was working at the Assembly working 60+ hour weeks, whereas now I work about 32 hours per week. I’ve got a lot more flexibility in how I spent my time. But the main improvement is that nowadays I don’t think of my job, or driving to Lowes, or making expense reports, or cleaning, working out, reading or practicing piano as obligations. Rather, I’ve got hobbies and goals that I want to experience, and an experience includes all of the preparation. I often joke that at 32 years old I’m “semi-retired.” But if you go through your life gracefully performing the minutiae of daily life, it doesn’t seem like work, and since I don’t seem to be doing work, I do feel like I’m retired. Ironically I’m probably more productive now than I’ve ever been, but I feel like I’m playing around all day. So the point of this post is that you can really get a lot more pleasure from life if you own what you’re doing and don’t think of it as toil. Your moods become more even, you get more accomplished, time seems to last longer, you become proud of the miscellany you’ve finished, you’re more mindful, you sleep better…all of that adds up to being happier and healthier.

A New Yorker in New Orleans

*This  post is designed to be a one-stop site for information for people visiting New Orleans, Louisiana (“NOLA”).  There are  hyperlinks to the bars and other places visited, as well as pronunciation guides, cocktail descriptions, and general advice.*


Katie and I made a trip to New Orleans–my fifth and her second. I recommend New Orleans for anyone trying to escape the doldrums of winter in the Northeast, not only because New Orleans is warm, but because the city is alive with another culture with characteristics opposite to those which make Albany seem inanimate.

Albany and New Orleans are both river ports. New Orleans is approximately 31 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, while Albany is 150. Neither New Orleans nor New York were originally British colonies–New York was taken from the Netherlands in 1688 and Louisiana purchased from France in 1803 (it became the 18th state in the union in 1812). As a result, both states have unique aspects to their common law and language which colored the local culture. New York obtained a leading position in the nation after 1825 by virtue of the Erie Canal, the only waterway to travel on an east-west axis through the Appalachian Mountains, which forced all goods from the Great Lakes through the port of New York City. Similarly, all goods traveling down the massive Mississippi Valley had to travel through New Orleans. Both became pots of immigration, graft, and licentiousness. But while New York as a state has been one of the most powerful political units over the nation’s history, Louisiana has been on the losing side of seemingly every cultural conflict from the Civil War through Prohibition to the rejection of federal funds in the 2009 stimulus package. You might say that political machines and corporations are the only effective actors in New York State, while in New Orleans the primacy of the individual still reigns, to the point where the state will resist the receipt of federal money if it would require some curtailment to the state’s citizen’s personal liberties. So you’ve got a very different culture between New York and New Orleans, which is the result not just of differences in climate, but of the idea of what constitutes The Good Life.


We set off for New Orleans from Albany International Airport at 7:14 a.m. When we planned our trip, Katie and I didn’t realize that we would be flying out of Albany on Superbowl Sunday. Perhaps because of that the lines were short and our tickets were fairly cheap. I tried to get a beer at the Saratoga Bistro but it was Sunday morning so we couldn’t buy one because the law says that we have to remember God on Sunday mornings in New York.

If the idea of me trying to get a beer at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning strikes you as odd, you are a victim of contemporary cultural brainwashing. From the history of the world until Prohibition there was no arbitrary noon rule when a person could have a drink without suffering social disapprobation. The rule treats alcohol as a vice per se, and this is a really modern idea. Originally a “cocktail” was medicine, which is why they originated in apothecary shops and used bitters composed of roots and herbs, sugar, fruit and water. John Adams drank a half-gallon of apple jack every morning and strolled through the woods for two hours. If you think about it, it isn’t the drink itself, but the binge behavior or the-attempt-to-get-drunk that is bad–and that behavior and attempt stems in large part from the substance’s restriction, just as the increased potency and decreased quality of cocktails resulted from liquor’s restriction during Prohibition (the only Amendment to the Constitution to have been repealed.)

There is always a layover from Albany to NOLA. Ours was in Charlotte, NC this time, though I’ve stayed over in Memphis, which is better for the restaurants.

The NOLA airport is easy to navigate. I’d recommend taking an Uber from the airport to your hotel. If you’re from Albany it will require you to download the app, but it’s the easiest thing in the world, trust me, and the vehicles are so much nicer than taxis. Our plane ticket came with 20% off Uber vouchers. If you prefer to pay more in order to ride in a crappier vehicle with a more annoying driver, a taxi will cost you about $35 to go from the airport to near the French Quarter, which is where you want to stay if you are going to NOLA for a cultural vacation. (While I prefer ride-sharing to taxis, I do not recommend AirBNB over a hotel for two reasons. First, the people that live and work in the French Quarter will dislike you if you stay in a French Quarter AirBNB because after Katrina a lot of out-of-towners bought the residential properties and they lease them via AirBNB to tourists, with the result that rents have increased beyond the means of the people who actually work in the area, so they have to commute now instead of living where they work. Secondly, if you get an AirBNB outside the French Quarter, as I did in 2012 in Treme, you are going to have to take an Uber or Taxi from the Quarter after dark, or you will be taking your life in your hands. In 2012 I stayed with my girlfriend in what seemed like the only nice gated house in the middle of Treme, which is like Arbor Hill in Albany both in its distance from the nightlife and the character of its residents and residences–broken down cars, stray cats, dilapidated buildings, menacing people seemingly without employment. If you’re going to have to pay an extra $20 or $40 a day for rides into the area you want to walk around, why not just pay for a hotel within safe walking distance? Then you’ll have a base to return to throughout the day.)

We were lucky enough to have a ride waiting for us at the airport. Our friends Dan and Amy live in Slidell, which is about a half-hour north of New Orleans, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, the huge lake to the north of New Orleans. We wanted to stay with Dan and Amy in order to catch up with our friends and to see and explore a new town.

Dan and Amy’s house in Slidell is up on stilts. During Katrina the water in the main part of Slidell was ten feet high, so it is prudent to elevate the buildings. There was clapboard around the stilts so that the ground level functioned like a breezy shaded house-size garage, which was a neat innovation. We dropped off our luggage and started on a perambulatory tour of Slidell, since it was 65 degrees.

Our first stop was Bruiser’s, “Home of the Barduca Dog,” a hot dog spot on Front Street and Fremaux, which is the northeast corner of Olde Towne Slidell. I ordered the Barcuda, which came with cheese, cole slaw, bacon and meat sauce, and surprised me by being 13 inches long. It was a quaint place with friendly locals run by a colorful former firefighter done up head-to-toe in Chicago Cubs apparel. The walls had funny advertisements such as a cartoon dog holding up a yellow tube of mustard with a caption that read “Practice Safe Lunch, Always Use Condiments.” If you happen to be at the bar when a train passes across the street, you get a $1 house shot.

Dan and Amy drove us a half an hour east to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. This was a beach town with a walkway that linked several three-story bars overlooking the gulf. As soon as we parked we heard a live band playing music from the space between two of the bars, in sand, on the other side of a fire pit with Adirondack chairs and two dogs laying, where a dozen people between 40 and 60 were dancing and laughing. We walked into the first level of Buoy’s Bar and ordered a Yuengling apiece for Dan and I and two Frozen Buoys for the ladies. You could taste the booze in the Frozen Buoys–they weren’t weak just because they were cold. We ambled upstairs to look  over the bay from the second deck, where there was an empty bar made from a wooden sailboat cut in half. Katie’s and my cold bones started to thaw as the reggae music echoed off the buildings and the sun began to dip toward the blue water.  We watched the beginning of the Superbowl at Tripletails on the third floor deck, before ambling at sundown to The Blind Tiger for some food, which is Dan’s favorite bar in the area. We had some delicious wings and nachos and stayed to watch Lady Gaga perform the halftime show. We were happy that Atlanta was winning, or rather that the Patriots were losing, and we listened to the third quarter on the radio as Amy drove us back to Slidell after dark. It was fun to listen to the announcers on the radio–even Katie enjoyed it and she is not a sports fan. It felt like we were listening to the radio back in 1960. We got home in time to see the depressing end to the game, which seemed almost a symbol of life in the U.S. right now, wherein the party with the most money, who is most obnoxious, came back to steal victory at the last moment from the workaday team.

One of my favorite things about visiting Dan is that he selects and sets aside several records for my enjoyment while visiting. Dan played a Sinatra album as he made Sazeracs for himself, Katie, Amy and I. [A Sazerac is considered to be the first cocktail. It consists of 1/4 oz. absinthe, one sugar cube, 1.5 oz. rye whiskey or cognac,  and three dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters.] Unfortunately, Amy had to work early in the morning and retired as Dan placed the next record, Billie Holiday, on the phonograph. Soon Katie was flagging too, and turned in, as Dan made us two Old Fashioneds–my favorite cocktail–and he told me that the first time he remembered having an Old Fashioned was the first time he drove me to New Orleans, in 2010, and I made them in our hotel room. [An Old Fashioned: muddle an orange slice and a cherry in an old fashioned glass, add a dash of bitters, a half-teaspoon of sugar, and a shot of bourbon, add ice and top with club soda.] Next Dan dropped the needle on Julie London–perfect late night music (listen to her sing “Cry me a River” at midnight with a glass of whiskey and tell me you don’t think modern American culture is one long declension from the jazz era).  Dan produced two Coors Originals–my favorite beer, and played Sinatra. Then we had another. On our third Sinatra album Dan moved to the kitchen and called,

“Would you like maybe a glass of water and another Coors Original?”

“I don’t feel like I necessarily need the glass of water,” I scoffed.

That was the last day I skipped the water while on vacation. The next morning I was hung over for the only time on the trip.


It was nice to sleep in on Monday morning until ten a.m. Katie gets up around six every day and although I work nights I get up at seven so I don’t feel slovenly. Plus the best time to get reading and writing done if you pay your bills with a regular job is before you go to work, not after. Anyway it was nice to get up and have a cup of coffee on Amy and Dan’s back porch, considering it was 60 degrees in Slidell while it was 30 in Albany. We were surprised that the foliage looked like upstate New York though we were near the Tropic of Cancer.  Dan awoke and said “I can’t keep up with Dallas like I used to,” and took a nap as Katie and I made breakfast using his food and kitchen. We had Wright’s Bacon (This is the only brand Dan buys, and points out that for an extra dollar and a half the bacon is about four times as delicious and thick) eggs with paprika (Katie’s favorite spice) and buttermilk.

After breakfast we drove to Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours. We got a $3 discount because Katie and Dan both forgot their money and I only had $66, and they only accept cash, and the guy said we were close enough. In the shop where we bought our tickets was a very active turtle, a baby alligator and homemade swamp-themed coloring books. We got onto a flat-bottom boat that sat 24. Captain Charlie was struggling with a hangover from the night before, but was pleasant and knowledgeable. He grew up on the West Pearl River where the tours take place.

“In the movies they make it sound like if you fall into the water you have two seconds to live,” he laughed. “I guess they have to make it scary.” But he swam in the river and knew where the gators stayed. He explained that since it was February most of the alligators would be hibernating on the river bottom, because they require 70 degrees and direct sunlight on their skin in order for their stomachs to produce the chemical they need to digest their food. “If they don’t get sunlight they’ll get sick and even die.” Captain Charlie brought our boat up numerous tributaries so that we saw snakes in a tree, a hawk on a log, two baby gators, and a Great Blue Heron. Then we went up a tributary barely as wide as our boat, until we found ourselves in a forest of cyprus trees covered in white dangling Spanish Moss. It looked like a winter forest. Captain Charlie explained that cypress trees can live 1,500-2,500 years, “not as long as redwoods, but that’s still quite impressive if you think about it.” The trees around us were as old as Christ or Cleopatra? Yeah I’d say that is impressive. We stopped and Charlie whistled before throwing marshmallows off the boat, which raccoons came and ate.  He explained that we were in a “bayou,” which is a waterway, and in a “swamp,” which is a flooded forrest, as opposed to a “marsh,” which is a wetland that isn’t a flooded forrest. The most interesting part of the tour was when Charlie said, “Let me see if I can get the hogs,” made a noise, and six boars came out of the woods and swam up to our boat to eat marshmallows. One was a runt and the others kept squealing and running at it and stealing its food, but Charlie lured the others away with thrown marshmallows and then threw some directly to the runt, so he got to eat.

Back in Slidell we stopped into Bonnie C’s at 1768 Front Street for a sampler of onion rings, crawfish pies and crabby cakes. On the way we passed the police station and saw a young male running and smiling, who shouted to us, “I’m running and smiling ’cause I just got outa prison!” That night we went to The Brass Monkey for beers and shuffleboard before dinner, then to KY’s Olde Town Bicycle Shop, where I had a 1/2 catfish po’ boy and my first seafood gumbo of the trip. Later at night we listened to Sinatra albums but limited ourselves to one cocktail and two Coors Originals and made sure to drink a glass of water.


Dan had mailed me a signed copy of the book Lift Your Spirits, by Elizabeth Williams and his favorite bartender, Chris McMillian. If you enjoy craft cocktails, you really should watch this video, in which Chris McMillian plays the quintessential professional cocktail bartender, shows you how to really make a Mint Julep, and even recites a poem. More than a recipe collection, the book illuminates the cocktail culture which underpins the sociology of the nicer sections of New Orleans. Anyhow one of the cocktails listed in the book is the Corpse Reviver. “On those mornings when you wake up paying for the indulgences of the night before, a bit of reviving of the hungover corpse is in order. 1 1/2 oz brandy, 3/4 oz applejack, 3/4 oz sweet vermouth. Stir ingredients together in a cocktail shaker full of ice. Strain into tall glass.” It always sounded nasty to me but Dan insisted he made a great Corpse Revive # 2 (1 oz each: lemon juice, Countreau, gin and Lilet Blanc, plus 3 dashes of absinth liqueur.) In fact, he read from another cocktail book that this cocktail should be made at home, or at least at a real cocktail bar, because the measurements must be exact and an amateur will try to cut corners. Dan made us a round and we were clear to set out for the day, not even buzzed, but fortified.

The plan was for Dan to drive us to New Orleans, but a tornado struck the land exactly between Slidell and that city, so we decided to have lunch in Slidell in case the tornado was still going, because the worst scenario we could imagine was being hit by a tornado while crossing the bridge over Lake Ponchartrain. We went to Que Rico, a Cuban restaurant with brass music, red diner chairs and blue walls. Katie and Dan had tamale platters and I had ropa vieja, my first Cuban food. We also tried two orders of croquettes, which were like fried ham and chicken cheesey sticks. Before we left Slidell Dan took us to the Olde Town Soda Shop, an ice cream parlor with a 1950’s theme with white-aproned workers, chrome stools and table-top jukeboxes that took quarters. Katie even put 50 cents into the motorcycle video game. By mid-afternoon the sky had cleared and Dan drove us to New Orleans. He dropped us off at The French Market Inn on Decatur Street, just about in the middle of the French Quarter. After checking in we brought our luggage through a courtyard with a pool and tables and exposed brick, up to the fourth floor. Though our room had no windows, two walls were exposed brick and it had a skylight, so it was small but nice. We changed and went out to explore.

In the lobby the maitre d’ told us to leave the hotel, go left, take a left on Toulouse Street, and go to the Creole Cookery, which, he said, had a nice courtyard with music, a fountain, and a happy hour. We skipped the courtyard in order to sit at the bar because half the fun of trips to New Orleans is talking to the service staff. Katie ordered a ginger margarita and I ordered a French 75 (Named for the effective French artillery from the First World War: 1 part cognac, 1 part lemon juice, 1 part champagne [gin can be substituted for the cognac.] Serve up in a champagne flute after shaking with ice.) They had 50 cent raw oysters and $1 charred oysters–which we’d never heard of before. This was really a cool place. The bartender, a young guy my age named Wes, wore a white shirt and red tie. Two black guys in black shirts occupied stage left of the bar, which was one large shucking station. The oysters were in a big metal bin; one of the shuckers would take them out and use a knife to open them up. The other took a brush and dipped it in drawn butter, some other sauce, and grated cheese, before placing the half-shells on an open grill range. I’ve always struggled to swallow raw oysters, and Katie tried one and couldn’t stand the texture, but we figured when in Rome…so we ordered 6 of the charred. They were absolutely delicious, with the texture of clams casino…much easier for the novice or the squeamish. We had a conversation with the couple next to us, who were from Canada, just north of North Dakota. They’d flown to Houston for the Super Bowl and then driven to NOLA for their anniversary.

By then it was evening time, which is jazz time in New Orleans. [We didn’t even go to Bourbon Street on this vacation because it’s amateur hour up there–nothing but sugary drinks and debauchery, you can get that in the college ghetto of any city]. Instead we made our way to Frenchman Street, which is just outside the French Quarter, in the Marigny District. As soon as you turn the corner from Decatur or Esplanade Avenue onto Frenchman, you hear about four or five horn bands competing with one another. There is a row of maybe twenty bars on both sides of the street, none of which charge covers for their live music. We walked into Bamboula’s to hear a band made of a standup bass, guitar, clarinet and drums. They were playing Bill Bailey Will You Please Come Home. Since the selected martinis were $5, Katie ordered a Honeysuckle Lemon and I a Cucumber Lime. The lead singer announced that the band was called the Joe Goldberg Trio. They played The Hesitation Blues “with Cassidy Norton assisting on vocals.” During the break they announced, in vintage NOLA style, “Now folks this is our last song. Now Joe Goldberg is going to walk around with a bucket, and the best way to show your affection is when Joe comes around, you take out your wallet, you take $2 out of your wallet, put those $2 in your left pocket, and drop your wallet in our bucket.”

We had planned to have an actual dinner, but it was only about 6:30 p.m. and we strolled up Frenchman to The Spotted Cat, another of my favorite jazz spots. The Little Big Horns were playing Puttin’ On The Ritz as we walked in. The Spotted Cat feels like the old Lark Tavern in Albany when Tess Collins used to own the place–there are pictures, Mardis Gras masks, lots of different people from different backgrounds having fun together–kind of run down but charming because of its lack of pretension–low lighting.

Anyhow I saw on a sign that The Smoking Time Jazz Club was playing at 10 p.m. I love the band, and I’d wanted to interview the singer for some time, so Katie and I left to go back to the hotel and get ready for the evening. After we changed we killed some time by walking to the Napoleon House on Chartres and St. Louis Streets. If you’ve never been to NOLA you have to go to this bar and order a Pimm’s Cup [Basically, Pimm’s liquor, lemonade and a cucumber garnish]. I also tried a Sazerac with Absinth. They play classical music as the air blows in from the french doors and gaslights glow on the walls. I calculated that that day was my 11,905th day of being alive. We each had a Champagne Cocktail, which was kind of dry because of the bitters and brut, but nonetheless very easy to drink [1/3 oz cognac, 1 sugar cube, 3 dashes bitters, 3 oz champagne, topped with a lemon peel and cherry]. Then we made our way back to Frenchman to the Spotted Cat.

Katie chuckled when we were at LAX on Lark Steet in Albany two nights before our trip, reading my notes from the year before, when she read a passage that said “Listening to Smoking Time Jazz Club, my favorite contemporary band.” But they are my favorite contemporary band, and here is why.

I tried to hitch hike to New Orleans in 2007 and failed. In 2010 I visited Dan in Florida and he drove me to New Orleans for the first time. That night he and Amy and I went to the Spotted Cat and The Smoking Time Jazz Club was playing. I was 26 and never before in my life had I heard a live band playing my exact favorite kind of music. The closest I’d come had been when I went to the Jazz Band concerts in high school. I was–I can’t think of any other word but moved–by the idea that musicians playing music today, in the very present, were playing the Big Band music of Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker. Two years later in 2012 I went to New Orleans and happened to see The Smoking Time Jazz Club again, and they were again the band that played exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear, in a 10 or 12 piece orchestra, and the musicians were my age. For the first time I thought that it might be possible to meet people my age who wanted to make Big Band music, and when I got back to New York I started to focus on playing piano. Then I went to Dan’s bachelor party in New Orleans, but I was in grad school and therefore both broke and busy (I had to write a paper while my friends took a fanboat tour and then a ghost tour.) I finished a paper in the hotel room then walked vaguely toward Frenchman Street alone in the late afternoon. I went into Bamboulas and ordered a drink. Then I heard ten instruments strike up some energetic old brass song, and then Sarah Petersen start to sing vocals. Here I was having a cocktail–one of my favorite things–listening to jazz–one of my favorite things–on a beautiful afternoon–one of my favorite things–knowing that I’d hang out with seven of my best friends later–one of my favorite things–and each of those things was more intense than normal, plus all grouped together in a moment–and the band with the female singer crooning really struck me as the  trigger of my cascade of comforting conditions. I bought a CD and played it quite constantly when I returned to New York, and learned a lot about the throat-movements of singing by trying to mimic Sarah Peterson’s voice. Then last year Katie and I made a point of seeing The Smoking Time Jazz Club again, and I bought two more of their CDs, and that officially made them the band that I owned the most CDs of. But to me they are more than just great artists, they are symbols of the possible–of what you can discover if you travel, and therefore why you ought to travel, because you can be missing so much and not even know it if you don’t.

Anyhow, Katie and I got back to the bar and managed to get a seat at the corner next to the stage, though it was quite crowded. Young people swing-danced in front of the band as they played “Mother’s Son in Law.” A young guy in glasses came to the bar to get a drink, but a tiny old lady who looked like she just got off the boat from Estonia 20 minutes before tapped him on the shoulder, and he gave up his spot at the bar to dance with her. I told Katie I wanted to interview the singer, Sarah Peterson, and the other people in the band, but I was nervous.

“But you’re a writer,” Katie said, “you’ve got to just own it and just ask the singer if she’ll talk to you when she comes around.”

There was no cover to hear this 9-piece orchestra. Sarah Peterson announced after two songs,

“If you don’t have a drink it’s something you must do.” [Chuckles from the crowd, but she was serious.] “You must have at least a drink and tip your bartender.” This is a republican state and so there is no government-imposed cabaret fee like in Albany–no bar cover to offset the cost to such a fee–you pay the band directly through tips and the house directly through buying the commodity they sell–booze. The bar was cash-only by the way. As Sarah Peterson went around with her bucket I told Katie I was going to make a split decision and ask her if she’d answer some questions me as I put $5 in her bucket. Meanwhile the bartender came over and was very friendly, and I realized something about New Orleans: The hotel and bar and restaurant employees always make it feel like it’s a special occasion for tourists, because for me my experience is a special occasion; for Katie it is a special occasion; for almost everyone at the bar it is a special occasion. So it is not necessarily an act–it is a special occasion for the workers too, because in New Orleans every day is a special occasion, and that is just a wonderful way of living.

When Sarah got to us I told her I was a writer from New York writing a blog post about New Orleans, and asked if she would talk. She could barely hear me and suggested I talk to her when the band took its next break, outside. So we listened to a few more songs and when the band broke and most of the instrumentalists went outside for cigarettes, Sarah went out just for fresh air, and Katie and I joined her. I’d never performed a time-sensitive interview but I think I did a good job. Here’s what I learned. Sarah is from Boston. The other members of the band are co-workers rather than friends necessarily. They “share a similar lifestyle” but it’s not like they celebrate holidays together. Bars do not charge a fee for performances, but a band generally keeps a percentage of the sales at a guaranteed minimum. The members of the band have their own side projects and pursuits. Sarah had been living in NOLA for 15 years, having travelled to Brazil and loved the street culture. She went back to New York City and the street culture was dead. Basically the musicians in New Orleans love the openness and the opportunity to perform that the city provides. They rehearse while they play in public, or in the back yards of their houses and apartments. Soon the break was over and Sarah had to go back in to sing, though she encouraged me to speak to other members of the band at the next intermission.

Back inside over another drink I met two pilots for Google who were on their first trip to NOLA, who happened to be in the bar only because they heard the music playing from the street and came in. I noticed that even the bar’s bouncer had a trumpet, which he played self-consciously along with the band as they played inside.

After midnight as the bar started to thin out, Jenny the bartender talked to us. She owned a business in Texas and was opening a new Spotted Cat on St. Claude in an up-and-coming area of town. She was married. I thought it was interesting that a married woman who owns one business and is founding another also bartends. I suppose it’s not so different than me owning a cane business and writing but also serving food. The band wanted to pack it in but Jenny called out to them “You have to keep playing because we’re gonna lose everybody if you go!” She gave us some tips on where to go in Algiers Point the next day. After a few more songs the band was done and we figured it was about time to head back to the hotel, since it was around 3 a.m.


We woke up at exactly 10:45 in the morning, to what we came to call the Calliope Alarm Clock. The steamboat Natchez takes on passengers at the riverside across from our hotel in the morning and early afternoon, for tours downriver to the site of the Battle of New Orleans. (I took this tour in 2012 and it’s not really worth the money in my opinion. The tour guide sounded like it took every ounce of his energy to articulate words and the battlefield itself is essentially a big flat ground with a ditch and some old pieces of artillery.) Anyhow our hotel room had a skylight which seemed to catch the calliope music and cast it down into our brick room, where it reverberated. It would have been pleasant if it didn’t wake us up out of the darkness after having slept for 6 hours after a night of drinking.

We decided to have a good southern breakfast to repair our bodies or at least our minds. We took a left out of our hotel onto Decatur and walked two blocks down to Monty’s on the Square, which is right across the street from the Cafe Du Monde. The dining room is open on two sides to the street via three-quarter windows which let in the warm breeze and even a couple of birds. Across the street a five-piece band was playing to the people at Cafe Du Monde, and we could hear them fine–in fact Monty’s didn’t bother to play any music knowing people would rather hear the live stuff. The band consisted of four older black men and one young white kid. The biggest black man had a tuba that looked at least 80 years old, and he sat on two stacked crates. The other men had two trumpets and a trombone, and they sat on chairs. The young white kid played a banjo as he stood, and I had the impression that he might have been strolling by and started playing with the other men on a whim. Katie ordered a short stack of pancakes and bacon while I had a “Country Breakfast” consisting of fried chicken with sausage gravy and crumbled bacon on top, a buttery biscuit, two eggs and a bowl of grits. We had two mimosas of course.

Katie and I wanted to see a new section of New Orleans, which neither of us had seen before. Last year we took a trolly down St. Charles to the Garden District and had brunch at Slim Goodies, then walked around the little shops, past the Spanish mansions, and gave ourselves a tour of Lafayette Cemetery # 1 with tombs from the 1700s. This year we decided to take a ferry across the Mississippi River to Algiers Point, which is a residential area directly across from the French Quarter.

The ferry costs $2 per person and you must have exact cash change. You can sit in the open air on the bottom deck or enclosed area on the top deck. The trip across the river takes 8 minutes and the ferry departs about every half-hour. You board the ferry where Canal Street meets the riverwalk.

Algiers was much quieter than the French Quarter, which was refreshing because I was starting to get sick of the beggars asking me for money on every block by our hotel. We got off the ferry on a pleasant afternoon on top of the dike which keeps the Mississippi from flooding the town. Unsure where to go we took a left and walked along the dike to see the bend in the river. Very large ocean-going tankers and barges passed frequently, and it was interesting to watch them negotiate the turn in the river. It appeared quite dangerous as the massive leviathans basically had to fishtail around the bend. Katie and I remarked to one another that we were surprised that there was no municipal beach at the river. The tide only rises and falls about a foot and a half at that section of the Mississippi, which is kind of surprising considering the Hudson rises and falls up to six feet near Albany, and Albany is five times farther from the ocean than New Orleans is.

Anyhow we circumnavigated a neighborhood of apartment buildings and houses painted in pastels. The place was a ghost down and we wondered if we were missing something. We passed where we’d gotten off the ferry and kept walking this time generally upriver and inland. We stopped into the first bar we saw, The Crown and Anchor English Pub. This was the first English pub we’d seen since leaving Albany. Katie ordered a Ginger Pimm’s Cup and I had a Fuller’s Porter. To our left sat a young guy around my age who worked in a warehouse, who said he’d taken the day before off because he worked in the area where the tornado hit “and you don’t wanna be working in a warehouse in a tornado!” I asked him if tornados were a frequent occurrence and he said no, not at all. Further to our left was a white-haired couple who brought their small dog to the bar with them. To our right were three women, and the bartender, probably about 35 with brown hair and a beard, kept delivering terrible pickup lines to them and making them laugh. They all knew each other from the neighborhood and the bartender said that one of the women had been playing piano an hour before we came in, “and that’s great because she’s a professional piano player, so we got it for free where most bars have to pay her hundreds of dollars.” The bartender said the Crown and Anchor “is like a living room for the neighborhood. You can come in here any time of day and introduce yourself to anybody and they’ll talk to you.” To prove the point, the bartender shouted to Scot Mattox, a man sitting at a table with a laptop, who introduced himself to us as the owner of El Guapo Bitters, Tonics and Syrups. We looked around and all the bitters and syrups in the bar came from El Guapo. They don’t have a distributor in New York but the company will eat the shipping charges so bars can order from the company and it’s like getting it from a distributor, the owner said. Next we went to the Dry Dock Cafe, as recommended by Jenny the bartender from the bar the night before. The place looked like nothing much from outside–basically a one story building with clapboard siding. But inside there was a nice bar and casual dining area, and the food looked really good. We ordered two glasses of champagne and sat outside, watching the sun sink toward the horizon formed by the berm of the dike as the breeze blew gently, and birds chirped. It felt like 8 p.m. in June in Upstate New York but it was 5 p.m. in February in New Orleans. Katie went in to pay the tab and came out smiling because our two glasses of champagne came to a grand total of $6.

Back in the French Quarter it was early evening and we stopped at the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street for a drink at their carousel bar, which takes 15 minutes to rotate. I had a Vieux Carre (pronounced “Voo Car-AY,” it means “the old square,” a reference to the French Quarter; I think of it as a French Quarter Manhattan: 4 dashes bitters, 2 tsp Bénédictine .75 oz sweet vermouth, .75 oz cognac, .75 oz rye whiskey) and Katie had a French 75, this time with gin instead of cognac. While the cocktails and ambiance were delightful, the bartenders seemed stuffy, even unfriendly, so we took off after one drink and made our way back to the Creole Cookery from the night before. We ordered charred oysters again, shrimp remoulade, “Crab Cake Maison,” and crab-stuffed mushrooms. It was “Wine Wednesday,” which meant bottles were half-off, so Katie and I shared a bottle of riesling. Tiffany the bartender and Artemis the oyster shucker gave us pronunciation tips for the streets. Here is a list:

Chartres Street = “Charter”

Conti Street = “Cont-eye”

Tonti Street = “Tont-ee”

Decatur Street = “De-cater”

Toulouse Street = “Te-loose”

Praline = “Praw-lean”

Pecan = “Peck-on”

After dinner we hurried over to Jackson Square in the middle of the Quarter to meet our guide for a vampire tour. It cost $22 per person and they only accept cash. Last year Katie and I took a ghost tour; in 2012 I took a different ghost tour; both times I was part of a group of at least 20 people. This time, being a slow season, Katie and I were the only people on the tour, so we got a pretty awesome personal experience. Our  guide was a woman in her late 30s who had studied anthropology at UCLA. The other tours were campy, and this one had its share of folklore, but our guide sprinkled in some interesting nuggets culled from her primary source research in the NOLA archives, which made it more interesting for skeptics like Katie and I. In New Orleans, anyway, you take such stories and enjoy them for what they are, relishing the mythos, which might as well be true, since you’re paying to pretend that they’re true, anyway. I won’t go into details out of respect for the business’s proprietary information, but one interesting thing we learned was that vampires are supposedly compulsive. If you’re afraid you might get attacked by one, carry a pocketful of rice with you, and then if you’re about to be attacked, throw the rice, and the vampire will be compelled to count the grains while you run away.

In the middle of the tours, which last about two hours, there is usually a break at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon and St. Philip Streets so the customers can get a Hurricane in a to-go cup and use the bathroom. (This high-octane fruity drink originated at Pat O’Brien’s, also on Bourbon, and packs a punch–but it’s sugar content is cloyingly sweet.) Since it was only Katie and I, our guide gave us a choice of going to Lafitte’s, continuing the tour without a break, or getting a drink with her at a goth bar she was fond of. Of course we chose the third option and went to a bar where we were the only patrons besides two old men and a dog who was peeing on a hydrant as we walked in, and then came in and jumped up and stood on the pool table, which no one seemed to mind. When the tour ended we tipped the woman $10, because she probably makes around minimum wage while the company nets the remainder, and as a former thespian, I know how hard it is to give a performance with vigor and animation to so small of an audience as Katie and I constituted.

After our tour, Katie and I decided we wanted to find a bar we had stumbled into the year before, after seeing jazz on Frenchman Street one evening. I thought it was on Bourbon Steet, so we walked up Dumaine Street away from the river. When we got to the corner of Chartres Street there was a bar, Harry’s Corner, which looked like a dive. Since we both had to pee and we didn’t have any drinks in our hands, we decided to go in and use the bathroom and get a to-go beer. As usual, as soon as we stood at the bar, two women to our left started talking to us, and the bartender made conversation as he placed our two Abita Ambers down. Katie and I then proceeded to ask the patrons and Paul, the bartender, if he could tell us the name of the bar we were looking for, based on the details we tried to recall from the year before. But I said I thought the bar was on Bourbon while Katie said she thought she remembered it being on Decatur; I said it was a tiny bar with a low ceiling and Katie said she thought it was in an open courtyard. We both recalled that smoking was allowed, and told the story of how, the year before, we had sat at the bar after seeing jazz on Frenchman, and talked to the bartender, around 2:00 in the morning. While we talked the room filled up with people, all carrying different instruments. Suddenly they all began to play Tommy Dorsey songs–at least 12 people–we were so packed in that Katie and I had to lean back so the trombonist’s slide didn’t hit us in the face–all of these musicians playing the music for nobody but the two of us. When they took a break I asked one of the guys what band they were, and he laughed, “None of us knew each other before we came in here. I just got in from Austin yesterday!” The experience became the most memorable of our trip from the year before, and we wanted to find the place. Paul and the two women asked for more details, which we provided, and suggested two bars on Decatur. Katie and I thanked them and told them that if either of the bars turned out to be the right one, we would come back and let them know.

We went to Decatur Street and when we entered the second bar that they suggested, Molly’s At The Market, we knew immediately we’d found the right place. It was kind of like walking into a dream, because we only remembered bits and pieces of the surroundings: the bar, a mirror, tacked up photo-booth pictures, a wooden bench. We went to the back bar and told the bartender, Keisha, about our experience the year before, and how we were super excited to be at the bar again. She kind of nodded and went back to her phone. We were happy to have found the place, but nothing seemed to be going on, so we left to go back to Harry’s Corner to tell the bartender that he’d given us the right directions.

Three blocks off of Decatur the streets were pretty empty after midnight on that Wednesday night. When we walked through the open threshold into Harry’s Corner the only patrons were an old man with a dog at one end of the bar, and all the way at the other, sitting on a stool with a fedora, was the female bartender from the goth bar our ghost tour guide had taken us to. We told Paul we found “our unicorn bar” we’d been looking for, and he poured us two celebratory beers. The goth bartender started talking to Katie, and she was so drunk her eyes were crossed, but she was really friendly. By this point we were pretty hungry and complaining that although NOLA has such a night life, we could never seem to find a place to get food after 2 a.m. Paul directed us up to the Clover Grill on Bourbon Street, three blocks away. This retro-style diner was a great find. It had red barstools, chrome, and a big open grille. Katie’s burger was delicious–flavored like a meatball with a toasted bun–and my chicken-fried steak sandwich was  mouth-watering. The man behind the counter told us that the diner is open all day, every day. “We only close when the National Guard tells us,” he bragged. Meanwhile Katie masticated and remarked to me again, “This is this best burger I’ve had in years. Years!!!”

So we decided to stop into Harry’s Corner on the way back to the hotel, to tell Paul he’d made another great recommendation. The female bartender from the goth bar was still there, and now another old man was at the other end of the bar, drinking a glass of wine. When we sat down Paul poured us shots and said they were on the house. Really they weren’t shots, but half-glasses of whiskey. Paul was certainly animated and friendly, but there was something about him that suggested unhappiness, too. Now and then he would make a cutting remark about women or accuse me of being a hipster. After awhile he reached under the bar and held up a telephone book and demanded to know if Katie and I knew what it was. Of course we did (Katie and I are in our 30s). Paul said that telephone books are stupid and shouldn’t exist anymore. He grabbed a bottle of 151 and announced, “Come on, we’re burning this shit!” So we went outside, Paul poured the 151 on the book, lit a napkin and dropped it. Katie and I, Paul and the goth bartender, and the old man with the glass of wine stood and watched the book burn in silence. A black sedan pulled up to the sidewalk and a husky black man around 30 years old got out. He stood in the street, looked at us, looked at the burning phone book, and stepped over it to get to a newspaper dispensing machine against the exterior wall of the building. He put three newspapers in, then looked at the phonebook again, with hardly any expression on his face. After a moment he asked, quietly, “Why you burnin’ the phonebook, ’cause it’s out of touch?” “Yeah,” Paul said. “Okay,” said the guy. “Wanted to make sure you’re not burning the newspapers.” He stepped over the now-flecking and flying ashes of paper and got back into his car. Back inside the bar I asked Paul if I could try a Rum Milk Punch, which was on the menu. It took him about fifteen minutes to make the drink because he kept forgetting what he was doing, and then he put the drink down in front of me, saying, “Here you go you old mother fucker.” Which was ironic, because Paul was twice my age. I asked him how much I owed him for the drink and he said, of course, that it was on the house. Katie was getting a little weary of the place, so we left some cash as a tip (seeing as how we’d gotten 6 free drinks that night) and headed back to our hotel. It was 3:45 a.m. and the streets were quite empty, even Decatur, which is usually crowded.


We groaned when we heard the off-key calliope begin its 15-minute medley at 10:45 a.m. We didn’t make it out of the hotel until afternoon, for breakfast. It was warm and sunny, so we wanted to find a place to eat with a gallery. (As we learned during our ghost tour the previous year, the difference between a “balcony” and a “gallery” is that a gallery is supported by poles or pillars, while a balcony hangs off the building supported by corbels.) Anyway we went to The French Market Restaurant on Decatur, so named because it is located across the street from the blocks-long, open-air French Market, a farmer’s/crafts/food/cocktail market along the Mississippi River. On other trips I’d gone to the French Market Restaurant, sat on the gallery, and had seafood boils at night, and I loved the ambiance and friendly service. On this early afternoon I think they were having an off-day. When Katie and I walked upstairs, three different employees walked past us and said “somebody will be right with you;” the bartender was criticizing a waitress for how the bar had been set up or taken down the night before; and consistently throughout the meal it took a long time to get service at every juncture. Katie’s crab cakes were bland, while my seafood gumbo was so salty that it was hard to eat. I actually scooped my gumbo onto her crab cakes to make the two meals palatable together. Again, every other time I’ve been to the restaurant the food was good and the service excellent, and you can’t beat the gallery overlooking the market and the masts of ships on the river, and the sound of jazz music reverberating up from across the street, but this time we were ready to leave and even had to go in and ask around for our check (something which as a waiter I was loathe to do and only did because our drinks were empty and our waitress hadn’t been around for 15 minutes [I even told Katie “Let’s give her five more minutes and then I’ll go in and ask around” and the time ran out]).

After “breakfast” we strolled through the French Market. This is the place to go for your chotchkies, souvenirs and gifts.  There are at least 30 tables where people sell jewelry, voodoo dolls, masks, sunglasses, inlaid wood boxes, cigarette cases, tile coasters with New Orleans themed imprints, shot glasses, etc. I bought five magnets and two shot glasses for under fifteen dollars.

On the way back we were crossing between two pavilions when we saw a disturbing sight. A man in his fifties was dressed head-to-toe as Uncle Sam. He stood in front of some kind of a homemade booth. Behind him were two life-size cut outs, one of Donald Trump and another of Hillary Clinton, egregiously transmogrified,  in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, with the words “grab here” imprinted across her crotch. The guy was in a yelling match with a young woman around 25 years old. Another young guy was standing silently holding a sign that read “Donald Trump supports disenfranchisement of women.” A larger man and his girlfriend stood close by, looking like they were ready to intervene. Katie and I couldn’t decide if the young woman was the Trump supporter, or the man, because we couldn’t believe that the man could possibly be the Trump supporter since the scene was bleeding with parody and was so offensive that any Republican would be ashamed to be associated with it.

We went back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. At five we set out for the Creole Cookery for the third night in a row. We said hello to Kater the white man in his fifties who was the maitre d’. Tiffany was behind the bar again and Artemis was shucking the oysters. They were quite busy but we got a bar seat, and by now the employees came over and shook our hands and knew what we wanted to drink and order. Artemis had his hands full with a stack of order slips for oysters. The place is really the cat’s meow when it comes to atmosphere, good food and the friendliness of the staff.

For dinner though we wanted to try Cane and Table, on Decatur, which we’d passed the year before, and which had good reviews. So we walked back to Decatur, the busy section of town outside of Bourbon, and made our way east. As we passed a restaurant with an exterior bar, where three people could sit on the sidewalk on stools and have bar service from within, Katie said “That was the girl from earlier, the Trump supporter!” We decided to turn around and talk to her to find out what the story was. It turns out, as you might have guessed, that she was not the Trump supporter. The guy dressed as Uncle Sam was. This really blew our mind, that this guy spent his time building a booth and getting cut-outs and dressing as Uncle Sam for…what? For the purpose of annoying people and seeing if he could start an argument? Apparently the guy is there often, and he has cameras built into his booth, and a website where he tries to get “liberals” to sound stupid. If his goal is to annoy people I suppose he is very good at his job, because I am not a Democrat, I don’t like Hillary Clinton, I vote independent, and I consider myself a patriot and somewhat conservative, but  this moron was making a mockery of my values by dressing up as the symbol of my country and acting like an asshole. We told the girl we respected her for confronting the man, and she told us she had to go to court because the guy called the police on her. Apparently he thinks that any woman who states her opinion should be “locked up.”

Cane and Table has no sign and it’s easy to walk past. We had to circle back and use our GPS to find the right door. Inside is pretty dark but they have a very nice bar and dining area. We took a seat at the corner of the bar and took turns going to the lavatory. There is only one and it’s unisex. It is in a courtyard with hanging lights and candles and Spanish arches. There was the usual masonry covered in chipping plaster. The back of the bar was one big piece of furniture, like a giant armoire. We ordered two original Cane and Table cocktails. Katie had a Flor de Jamaica: hibiscus-infused Russian vodka, pomegranate, and a touch of sour, which was floral and spicy, or as the menu said, “perfect for a NOLA winter;” I had a Scotch and Coconut: scotch and I believe mescal and coconut water in an Old Fashioned glass. We tried two appetizers since we’d already had oysters and didn’t want to carry take-out containers with us. For $6 we had Bacalao Fritters: crusted red and poblano peppers  with a habanero vinegar, and Mofongo: mashed plantains, pork rib, avocado and a coconut cucumber pico. They were both delicious–the former a kind of pancake in an iron skillet like a hash, salty, the plantains functioning like a potato producing primarily volume, the cucumber and avocado refreshing.  I’d have liked to have had the latter on top of the former, or on a cracker, because it had the consistency of a pâté.

Cane and Table was on the same block as Molly’s, our unicorn bar from the year before, where we’d been enveloped in a jazz band, so we decided to stop in and survey the scene. We walked to the back bar and the six stools were full. I used the bathroom and left the business card for my book on the urinal, as I had been doing all around New Orleans as an advertising ploy.  Since we couldn’t get a seat in back we went up front and ordered a beer and took our pictures in the photo booth. As we were drinking, Kiesha from the back bar came up and surprised us. She said that we shouldn’t leave, because the people in the back were planning to play music soon. That was really cool because we didn’t think she cared at all about our story from the night before, but she did. We moseyed to the back and stood waiting for a bar seat. A hipster guy emerged from the bathroom with my business card and placed it in front of another guy with a beard. “Look at this,” he said. “What?? Like, Dallas Trombone…Coming…Coming on the Hudson?” He flipped the card over. “There’s nothing on the back.” Katie looked at me, concerned that this would be very deflating to my ego. But I told her that was exactly what I was hoping: that people would be interested in the card because it was so odd to find it as they were peeing, and that they would then talk about it with their friends. The hipster guy and his girl left, so me and Katie got a seat at the bar.

The musicians included a guy playing spoons, who was tattooed with dyed hair, stocky; a white girl with curly hair who played banjo and sang, her flower-studded black boots resting on an overturned skateboard as she sat on a wooden bench; a trumpeter a trombonist and two guitar players. For the second song the guitar player played a song called “In The Danger Zone.” He wore a green wool hat. No one in the band, it seemed, owned a razor. The trumpet player had a green cap, a sizable belly, a brown tee shirt, jeans and sandals, glasses and a goatee. The trombone player was a tall, skinny white kid with a clean face. The group played “Do The Popeye.” He wore a tee shirt and a plaid button-up. Meanwhile Kiesha pointed out that on Thursday nights the bar sold $1 Miller High Life bottles, so Katie and I ordered two of those as we listened to the band discuss the next song. Said the girl with the curly hair, whose boyfriend was eating red beans and rice, “What’s the first chord?”

“D-minor!” the trumpeter shouted.

“No, the bridge?”

“A, E-minor, D.”

No verbal response from the girl. They all began playing, perfectly.

Meanwhile Kiesha was on her phone like nothing out of the ordinary was going on, like the man who put the newspapers in the machine the night before as the telephone book burned on the sidewalk.

The next song was called “Dig-a-do” and was Katie’s favorite, kind of whimsical. I bought everyone a round a beer. Imagine buying everybody in a 6 person band a beer for $6? The different members started coming up to me and introducing themselves because Kiesha had told them I was a writer, and that Katie and I had come specifically to hear musicians like them singing. There is a lot of music in New Orleans but it seemed like a writer was a novelty. I met Jeff Kreis, from Sacramento, who played oboe. Another guy wanted to quit his day job as a disability worker and moved to NOLA to play the trumpet. I asked him how he got into the trumpet. He said “That’s a funny story. As a nine year old I thought it would be easy because there are only three buttons.” Kellen was the bass player. He was the first one to come from Sacramento and the others came later. He was dating the girl with the curls and they got engaged, but he broke it off, because one night two lesbians wanted to hook up with him and he figured he still had some exploring left to do. So now she dated the guy eating the red beans and rice, and they’re all friends. Kellen had lived in Chicago first, and “it seemed just like another city,” but he’d talked to some people from NOLA and it seemed great, so he moved. One of the guys was from Russia and another from Georgia, having dropped out of high school and worked at a shopping mall. He moved to NOLA because “my goal was to become a busker.” The gutter punk kid with the spoons had been a train hopper. I said I’d wanted to hitch-hike on trains in my twenties but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do. He said “If you want to know then you’re doing it wrong.” Scotty was the trombone player. He said “The best musicians in the US are from here.” Katie and I spent a couple of hours listening and talking to those guys, until they got tired of playing and left. It was well after midnight then, so we did the same. We found a pizza place that was still open, and though we felt like it was kind of a waste to get New York style pizza while we were in New Orleans, we did, and it was absolutely delicious. We needed a little taste of home after so much exotic cuisine over the last five days.


Friday was our last full day in NOLA, and our friends Dan and Amy were coming from Slidell. We woke up with the Calliope alarm clock but fell back asleep.  After noon I set out to procure us breakfast as Katie got ready. I noticed a big difference in the crowd on the street on this Friday before the first Mardi Gras parade. There were more people, and a lot more women who looked like they were wearing their club clothes having spent hours in front of a mirror, compared to most people I noticed in the French Quarter previously, who did not seem particularly to care about their appearance.

I failed at procuring breakfast, instead returning with two glasses of sangria. So we went to Franks on Decatur for a Muffuletta. A Muffuletta is a sandwich made with mortadella and other ham meat, on a toasted bun, with olive tapenade. They sell the sandwich by the quarter, the half, and the whole. A quarter is a hearty snack and half is like eating a sub. No one ever eats a whole Muffuletta unless you’re in an eating competition or you forgot your Ambien prescription and you need to sleep for several hours. So that was our breakfast, at 3:15 in the afternoon, having slept till 12:30.

We walked uptown, up Canal Street, to meet Dan and Amy, who would be getting out of work at Tulane University. It was nice to see our friends again–spending time with Dan and Amy bookended our vacation. Dan drove us up to midtown to a bar called Revel, where his favorite bartender, Chris McMillian, was working (this is the bartender with the youtube video making the Mint Julep). Our quartet got four seats at the corner of the bar. Dan commented that corner seats are the best, because people can face one another. We ordered ourselves cocktails from the leather-bound menu. Katie had a Shielavsit (Katie: “How do you pronounce it?” Chris: “She loves it.”) This was a really refreshing drink in a tall glass made of fresh crushed strawberries, lemon cane sugar, Aperol and Prosecco. It was sweet as it hit your mouth, but the Aperol washed the sweetness down and the Prosecco cleared the pallet, keeping the drink from becoming cloying and leaving you longing for another sip, this time to be swished around before swallowing. I had a Blood and Sand, a classic cocktail, one of very few to use scotch as a base. It’s made from equal parts scotch, cherry herring, sweet vermouth, and blood orange. It develops on the pallet in at least three distinct stages. Amy had a Whiskey Girl (I forgot to write down the ingredients) and Dan had a Ramos Gin Fizz. There was a limit of one Ramos Gin Fizz per round because it takes so long to prepare and shake. Chris pointed out that there is no one alive who tasted an original Ramos Gin Fizz–its recipe was a proprietary secret, and anyone who tasted an original made by Henry C. Ramos in New Orleans is long dead (the drink was invented in 1888). Chris also pointed out that the Ramos Gin Fizz is the only drink whose name is preceded by the name of the person who invented it. Katie pointed out that the bar (which was established and is run by Chris McMillian) was set up like a laboratory. He used many different instruments–different-shaped fruit peelers, a large wooden mallet, a muddler, various-sized jiggers–to build his cocktails from the empty glass up, while regaling the patrons with anecdotes. Interestingly, I noticed that Chris also had a large drawer the size of a dishwasher, which he would open in order to pull out pre-chilled liquors and liqueurs. Obviously, this sped the process of chilling the drinks, and kept them from getting watered down by deleting the need for so much ice to cool them. But most bars would be unable to resist the temptation to display all the liquors available as a grand display. The instruments, the chilled liquors and liqueurs, all gave the establishment the feel of an artisan’s shop, or a chemist’s or apothecary, the latter of which, of course, was where cocktails got their start.

Back down in the French Quarter, Katie and I took Amy and Dan to the Creole Cookery. Wes and Tiffany were behind the bar, and Artemis was shucking the oysters again. We said hello to Kater the maitre d’ as we walked in. By now the waiters were coming up to us and saying “Hey you’ve been here four times this week!” We had charred oysters and raw oysters. I still struggle to swallow the raw oysters even though I order a couple every time I have an opportunity, so that someday I can eat them like Chester A. Arthur and all the other swanky politicos. After a drink and the oysters which took off toward Jackson Square for dinner.

Katie and I were eager to take Amy and Dan to Muriel’s on the northeast corner of Jackson Square. This is a beautifully decorated bedroom in a large masonry building, which we’d eaten at last year. The host station is attended by a female host and a male guide in black. (It’s best to make your reservation a week or so ahead of time for a Friday or Saturday night.) If you follow a hall from the hostess’ station you go through a small central dining room to the bar in back. Here we had a cocktail as we waited for our table to be ready. I had a Negroni  (1/3 Gin, 1/3 Sweet Vermouth, 1/3 Campari–it can be served up or on the rocks) because Campari is an aperitif and after appetizers at Revel and oysters at the Creole Cookery, my appetite needed stimulation. Off the center dining room are two larger dining rooms in wings. The one that faces Chartres Street is red with images from Victorian periodicals glazed onto the walls. Last year we’d sat in that dining room and I was impressed when the maitre d’ asked me to remove my fedora. This year we sat in the dining room facing St. Ann, which was blue-grey and decorated with pieces of old architecture (doors, windows, corbels, pillars). For an appetizer we passed around savory gorgonzola cheesecake with prosciutto, honeyed pecans and slices of tart green apple. I tried turtle soup for the first time and it was tasty, the turtle has a consistency like clams. The waiter placed down the warmed bowls and ladled the soup into them in front of us, which, I thought, was a nice touch. For dinner Dan had the seared duck breast, Katie a massive stuffed double pork chop, and I forget what Amy or I had because I thought it would be rude to keep notes during dinner. We did split the bread pudding with candied pecans and rum sauce for dessert, and everything was delicious. Afterwards we took a walk up the stairs to the second floor Seance Lounge, which is worth checking out just to see the jewel-tone decor and plush furniture–about as rich fare for the eye as the cuisine was for the pallet at dinner.

It was about 10:00 when we left Muriel’s to walk to Frenchman Street to hear jazz. Bamboulas became our destination. We managed to get a corner section of the bar (there were no stools now) near the door, and ordered a round of gin and tonics at $7 apiece. Katie pointed out that the trumpet player and I were doppelgangers–he had a clean shaven face and a fedora and we wore almost the same outfit. The lead singer was a black guy in his thirties with a Louie Armstrong voice, who played trombone. After the first song, he and the trumpet player switched instruments. Even his trumpet sounded gravelly when he played. Katie pointed out that he had a unique way of playing the instrument, holding his fingers erect when not depressing a button, instead of resting them atop the buttons. It was like his fingers were jazz-dancing as he played. After a few songs the band announced their name, The Swamp Donkeys, and played Sunny Side of the Street, one of my favorite Tommy Dorsey songs.  (It reminded me: what ever happened to The Sunny Side of the Street Band in Albany? They were the only jazz band I ever saw busking on Lark Street–an activity which breathed some life into the gasping body that is Center Square these days). The band got a huge laugh from the crowd when the singer improvised a lyric. The line normally goes, “If I never had a cent/ I’d be as rich as Rockefeller/ Gold dust at my feet/ On the sunny sunny side of the street.” Instead he sang, “If I never had a cent/ I’d be as rich as Donald Trump/ Have a gold toilet seat/ Never pay my taxes on the sunny side of the street!”

Meanwhile the scene behind the bar was just as entertaining. The bartender was a skinny white kid who looked like his body had taken some abuse over the years. He had a stack of single dollar bills pinned to his shirt, and was stumbling around with glazed eyes. It was his birthday, and he explained that in New Orleans on your birthday, people pin singles to your shirt. Katie handed him a single and he said he couldn’t accept it unless she pinned it to his shirt. So he stood there with clenched teeth as Katie tried to pin the stack to his shirt without impaling his chest. Dan gave us a round of dollars so we could all get the experience. We had several more gin and tonics, which got stronger with each round. During intermission the place cleared out a lot, and I ordered another drink, and this is what I received: first, the bartender came over with the Tanqueray in his hand, looking around, trying to place it on the counter, but he kept missing the counter. Then he looked down and saw the two plastic cups with ice in them, and realized he was making a drink. So he poured about two ounces into a cup, then sprayed a tiny bit of tonic, leaving the cup only half full. He looked up and around, then down at the cup again. Forgetting he’d already poured the gin into the cup, he turned the bottle upside down and poured about another ounce in, but he kept having to shake the bottle because it was almost empty. Then, annoyed, he pulled the pourer off the bottle and threw the empty bottle to a bar-back, who handed him a fresh one. Dan and I looked at each other, smiling. The bartender took the top off the bottle, put the pourer on, looked around, looked down at the cup, looked at the bottle again, then shrugged, and poured another two ounces into the cup. Then he handed me what was essentially a cup of Tanqueray with a splash of tonic. Dan laughed hard and yelled into my ear, “Man, I was watching that guy…the LAST thing that drink needed was MORE gin!”

The band was finished so we decided to move on. When we passed Molly’s I ran in to check out the back bar. Kiesha was playing bar dice with a couple of customers. I scanned the place and asked her if she thought any band people might come and play, because Katie and I wanted to share the experience with Dan and Amy. She said she hadn’t seen anyone with instruments, but said if I wanted to give her my number she’d text me if they started to show up. I thought that was really considerate.

Instead we strolled up the Harry’s Corner, so we could share that experience with Dan and Amy. Paul was behind the bar, and when we walked in I shouted to him, “Heyo! Got any phone books lying around?” He smiled quizzically. I don’t think he even remembered burning the thing two nights before, though there was a char mark on the sidewalk. Paul remembered our names, however, and we introduced Dan and Amy. We got a spot at the corner of the bar, once again, and constituted one half of the patrons in the establishment. Amy had a glass of whiskey straight, while Katie and Dan and I had Strawberry Canebrakes from the Parish Brewing Company. Dan was excited to see a jukebox and played a lot of oldies songs on my behalf. I had about three beers and Katie two before Dan finished his bottle.  After an hour or so we made our way back to Decatur and stopped into Cafe du Monde for 4 a.m. beignets. We left around 4:30 and I wanted to keep drinking, suggesting that we walk up to Bourbon Street to see if anything was open, or try to find a liquor store to drink in the hotel courtyard, but the rest of my party was flagging, so we turned in for the night.


Though we awoke before the calliope alarm clock, a steam whistle blew and startled Dan and Amy as they got ready to depart. We bid adieu to our friends and began packing to return to New York, sad because our trip was over, but eagerly looking forward to getting back to our home. New Orleans is not a relaxing vacation, though it helps to clear your mind of troubles.

We put our luggage in storage because our flight was not until 5, but checkout was at 11. We made our way up to a pizza joint for breakfast, then walked over to Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, a tiki bar on North St. Peter’s Street. Dan had recommended the place. He had a tiki app on his phone that allows you to “unlock” different cocktails based on the ingredients you have in your liquor cabinet and refrigerator. Anyhow the place was decorated in faux Polynesian style, as you might imagine, with ropes and palms and capstans and a wooden mugs shaped like the heads of Easter Island. The drinks are exotic, sweet. You can’t help but feel like you’re back in the 1950’s in the place. The bartender and some of the baby boomer patrons were excited because that night would be the Krewe du Vieux–the first parade of Mardi Gras, and the only one which passes through the French Quarter. It is the most individualistic and politically scathing parade of Mardi Gras, and there was a feeling that the parade was likely to be even more over the top than normal, given all the material ripe for satire in our current political institutions.

We left Latitude 29 and made our way to Royal Street, basically killing time, and walked through some of the really fantastic antique stores on there.

Back at the hotel we got our bags and took a taxi, based on the clerk’s advice, instead of an Uber, against our better judgement. The driver talked the entire time.

Now we were really ready to be done traveling. Unfortunately we got on the plane and were told to sit tight because they couldn’t get some fan to turn off. Then we had to get off the plane because they had to “restart the whole computer.” This took 40 minutes, and the delay meant that when we landed in Charlotte we missed our connecting flight. The airplane company put us up at at hotel, which we arrived at at 11:30 at night. Our next flight was to take off at 11 am the next morning and get into Albany at 1, but we were afraid that it would be cancelled, because a massive snowstorm was forecast to hit the northeast (the second in a week). Anyway we ordered food and watched the end of Saturday Night Live, the end of Godzilla (2014), CNN’s documentary on The Seventies about Watergate, and the first hour of Borat, which I’d never seen, but found hilarious. Then it was 4 a.m. and we figured we’d better try and get some sleep. It was actually quite nice just to lay in bed and watch T.V. for a change, because even at home we watch shows on Roku and we don’t get the commercials, which remind me of being a kid watching T.V. with my parents or grandparents.

Anyhow, we got our shuttle to the airport the next morning and, to my great surprise, took off, even though there had been two to three feet of snow around the Albany area and a snow emergency was declared. We had an uneventful flight until 20 minutes before we were to land, when the pilot came on and said that there was only 1/4 mile visibility and we would have to perform “a fully automatic landing,” which meant that everyone had to turn off all of their electronic devices, airplane mode was not good enough. All I could think of was “We cannot make a car that drives itself, but we somehow have made an airplane that can land itself in snow as the plane pitches up and down in turbulence?” And also that we were going through the exact plot of Die Hard 2 when Pilot Miles O’Brien tells air traffic control that they have to land the plane because they’re on fumes, but the terrorists adjust the computer’s attitude reader so they crash onto the runway in a huge fireball (even though they were running on fumes, somehow). I kept these thoughts to myself rather than share them with Katie. In any case we landed fine and got a ride from her sister, Megan, out to her mom’s house, where we left her car. It took us almost an hour to drive back in the snow storm, the roads were such a mess. And so we were back in New York.


America, an Ideal

[Originally published January 17, 2017 on Facebook]

It was quiet and serene at 6:45, as I stood on the stoop this morning, a Meadowbrook Farms milk truck backing up, the tree branches black against a sky that brightened from navy to cyan over a period of ten minutes. I had been reading a biography of Wilson, and I started musing on America and what it means.

“America…is not a piece of the surface of the Earth. America is not merely a body of towns. America is an idea, America is an ideal, America is a vision,” Wilson said while running for Governor of New Jersey–his first attempt at political office.

As I stood on the stoop, a thin, middle-aged man crossed to my side of the street, pulling a wire cart. Last night was garbage night in Albany, and the man bent from one pile to another, retrieving cans. As he passed he looked in my direction and nodded to me, humbly. I nodded back. I return cans, too. I considered that this man was simply more entrepreneurial than me, when it comes to can-collecting.

The buildings I could see were all in good shape, made of stone and brick, leftover from the 1870s and 80s. I thought of the phrase “make America great again” and considered that it is not the apartments and towers or trees or stoops that are or are not “great”–it is the people who live in the structures, and the systems we put in place for the purpose of increasing our “greatness.”

A garbage truck passed, its side reading “Republic Waste.” Republic is the name of the trash company, obviously, but it was also ironic to see “Republic” and “Waste” so close to one another after thinking about Wilson’s statement of America as an ideal, and all the recent talk about making America “great again,” whatever that means.

The One-Way sign on the corner is chipping and bent, like it’s been hit by a hundred garbage trucks over the years, but nobody thinks to replace it. The intersection of the sidewalk is spray-painted with red letters and arrows from a utility company, though the work has been finished for months, because nobody thinks its necessary to compel utility companies to clean up their spray paint (though we have a graffiti Task Force in case someone puts spray paint on a wall). The sidewalk up and down the street sports accumulations of leaves, black plastic bags, and white plastic cup lids, because no one has swept their sidewalk, because even if they did, the leaves would blow back in front of their houses again because their neighbors didn’t sweep, and the street sweeper hasn’t been down my street in 3 weeks (though The City has given out tickets on the cars that didn’t move because the street-sweeper was supposed to have come). The One-Way sign, the utility graffiti, the leaves and trash, the exploitative tickets without compensatory benefit–these are the signifiers of society being not “great.”

“I feel like everything is like a sham–” (I’m paraphrasing my friend Jess) “–like nothing is built to last or…like you go into a building and its new and from far away it looks impressive, but then you look at the moulding and it doesn’t line up, the paint job is bad–its like we all do 90% of the work on stuff and never do the finishing work.” She was talking about the deck that her father built years ago, which looked great, but he never stained it, so now it’s full of splinters. But she was talking about a trend not just in the built landscape, but in the social landscape.

I continue to feel that the biggest problem with our time in history is the alienation of individuals from the rest of society. All of our other problems basically branch from that main issue, because we could solve most of our problems if we recognized our mutual interests within a community, and used our resources productively.

When I think of a time when America was “great,” I think what people are probably referring to is an idealized version of the 1950s, in a small town, if you were caucasian and Christian. The national economy was operating at near full-employment, there was access to credit, new mechanical gadgets were continually appearing to lessen the toils of life, more people had leisure-time than ever before in history, etc. But none of that gets at why the period seems like it must have been “great.”

What’s missing from the dry statistics is a description of the spirit of the times. What we picture are block parties, backyard barbecues, drive-ins, malt-shops, bake sales, baseball games, rotary club meetings, Church picnics, family picnics, weddings at small community venues–things that involve friends and families–wholesome social structures of which individuals identify as members–which through continual meetings continually reinforce the idea that I–as an individual–am part of larger groups, and those groups are part of a larger society–and it is all possible because we live in a republic.

Immediately, many people will point out, “but that spirit of the times was only great if you were caucasian and Christian, etc. For a lot of people it didn’t apply. Therefore it was a myth.” But between the last two sentences is a lapse of logic–it wasn’t a “myth” for the majority–that’s why people who used to be a majority latched onto the phrase “Make America Great Again” during the last election. Instead of declaring that an inclusive, progressive society is impossible, we ought to seek to make the spirit apply to more people, so that there are fewer who are left out. That is America as “an ideal.” It needs to be a hybrid of conservative and progressive principles.

The flaw in the Republican platform of the last election is that it chose a wall–the great symbol of division–as a symbol for how the party plans to bring about the ideal of an inclusive society. That was a great mistake, which reminds of Harry S Truman’s statement at a dinner of the Federal Bar Association in 1950: “We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat.” A republic cannot exist if it is to be composed of cloistered individuals cowering behind symbolic walls, everyone suspicious of one another, cynical about their own government. A republic must be based on citizen’s mutual self-interest and self help. The Party diminishes republicanism by the same proportion as it diminishes mutual self-interest and self-help. By cultivating divisions in society it encourages segments of the population to depend on the government for their elevation over other segments. It is superlatively ironic that the party that calls itself Republican and champions small government stimulates the conversation that erodes both of those things.

Our politics are like a revolving wheel, turning over cyclically. The people are the actual units that revolve, tied to the wheel. We started at the center, generations ago, but the arguments and philosophies have become more extreme, turning the wheel faster, and causing our people to fly outward, so that we feel connected to society no longer by some great gravitational force, but through a little string of geography: we just happen to live here, next to other people, all under the same government–rather than as fellows who are part of the same society.

In April of 2015 I went out on my stoop, and my neighbor, an old man, was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his stoop. I had planned to smoke a cigarette, but instead I went back inside and returned with a broom, and began to sweep the sidewalk in front of my apartment. “Hello,” the old man introduced himself, “I’m Robert. Do you own this building?”

“Oh no, I just moved in here,” I said.

“Oh, well, its nice of you to sweep, then.”

“Well I saw you doing it and figured it looked pleasant enough that I might as well give it a try!”

I think that is the great challenge of our times, which we should not expect politicians to accomplish: how do we get our neighbors to proverbially sweep? Will we go out and join them? Will that encourage other people to pitch in, because they know that if they sweep just then, they won’t have our leaves blow onto their sidewalk, because we’re sweeping, too? And when the sidewalk is clean, will we finally sit there and realize we are all neighbors, and have the same interest, and demand together that the city send the street-sweeper and fix the One-Way sign, and force the utility company to come back and clean up its graffiti? If we could manage that in all the little patches of earth that make up the towns and cities of America, we’d be much closer to our “ideal.”

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.