June 28, 2014

Miles to go before I sleep

Saturday is typically my long run day, when I go out early in the morning and run anywhere between eight and twelve miles. I know there are some in the running community who swear by the Sunday long run and who would consider it blasphemous to do it on Saturday. To that I say tough shit, we did our long runs on Saturday when I was in college and I see no need to fix what isn’t broken.

Anyway, today I ran through Vale Park in Schenectady for the first time. Vale Park is interesting in that it follows a creek along a very narrow valley, so secluded that if you got dropped there without knowing where you were you’d never guess you were almost smack dab in the middle of a city. It also has quite a lot of dead people in it. Vale begun its life as the city burying grounds, and on the adjacent land to the southwest there is a pretty typical-looking cemetery, also called Vale. The cemetery was all there was until the 1970s when the land around the creek, considered too steep for burying people, was sold to the city as a park. There isn’t a clear dividing line between the cemetery and the park so even when you’ve entered the wooded nature trail if you look from side to side you’re still likely to see weathered, overgrown headstones perched at odd angles amongst the trees.

I had to run through the cemetery to get to the park, which was a little disconcerting as I’ve never intentionally plotted a run through the middle of a graveyard. I wasn’t too concerned about zombies or being haunted but it was such a peaceful quiet morning that I felt as though I were disturbing all the people there with my heavy footsteps and labored breathing. I’ve never been a believer in any sort of sentient higher power, or an afterlife for that matter, so I knew deep down that there wasn’t anything or anyone to disturb but something about the eerie stillness made me a little uneasy.

There are a few people of moderate historical significance buried at Vale. Charles Steinmetz, a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering (and also the namesake of Steinmetz high school in Chicago) is here, as well as members of the Stanford family (one of their sons, Leland, would later move to California and found Stanford University) and the Westinghouse family. There are hundreds, even thousands more inventors, pillars of the community, and other local families signified by their wealth. Even centuries later, despite the slow and deliberate creep of erosion and vines and moss, their mausoleums still stand as a testament to the money and influence they’d gathered during their time on earth. I had no idea who most of these people were but with each crypt I passed, adorned with columns and marble and family crests, it was as if they each had one brief moment to tell me, “Hey, I mattered.”

What I thought about the most, though, in the couple of minutes it took me to run through the cemetery and into the park, where the rows upon rows of humble, utilitarian headstones and the memories of people they signified. With Memorial Day having passed and the Fourth of July coming up I was pleased to see hundreds of the graves of war veterans ordained with flowers and little American flags. But what of the others? The dozens that I passed with each step, hundreds every minute, thousands in the time it took me to cross the cemetery. According to Vale’s records website, there are 33,000 people buried here. How many of those graves get visited regularly? How many have family and relatives still living who know who they were? How many headstones have become illegible with the ravages of time?

Surrounded by so many remnants of generations gone by I became so wrapped in thinking about them that I briefly got lost and had to stop and get my bearings. I stopped at a small stone obelisk, about as tall as I was, emblazoned with a single family name: “Doty.” At its base were half a dozen smaller stones, all nearly flush with the shaggy grass. Parents, children, relatives, the last of whom had died in 1941.

“Who were you?” I said out loud, the sound of my voice jarring against the quiet. What were their likes and dislikes? Where they happy people? What were their greatest triumphs, the darkest tragedies? What were their passions, their callings? All these questions for just one family, and yet I was surrounded by thousands more, lives that were long and full, some cut tragically short, dreams long ago realized or forever deferred, the culmination of every sight, sound, and feeling that entwines us within the human experience all distilled down into a lump of granite with some numbers on it.

I started running again, faster this time, and a couple of hundred yards later the path sloped down into the trees - I was in the park now. Still, there were crypts dug into the side of the hill, although these had been vandalized, their proclamations of “I was important” marred by graffiti and cracked stone. The rest of the park was very nice, cool and green, and a few minutes later I emerged at its entrance near the edge of downtown Schenectady, back into the hurried bustle of the city. Cars cruised down the streets. People strolled on the sidewalks, walking dogs, talking on cellphones, studying the menus posted outside restaurants - the minutiae of modern life. I wonder if any of them knew about the cemetery, the little break in the buildings along Nott Terrace where there stood an ornamental metal arch reading “Vale Park” and all the history beyond it.

I don’t think of myself as a morbid person but reading back over the last few paragraphs might make me reconsider that. Regardless, spending time amongst the dead can alter your perspective on being alive, however briefly. I still had nearly six miles to go on my run and I wasn’t feeling too great but I had that voice in my head telling me I should appreciate it. To think, to breathe, to feel are so automatic that we barely give them any consideration but they are finite. The people in Vale Cemetery don’t have that luxury anymore. For a period they walked and lived in a world that was theirs but then, one by one, they all ran out of time. Personally I plan on living a whole lot longer but I know that some day in the distant future everything I believed, everything I loved, and everything I stood for will too be represented by a stone block with my name and some numbers on it, maybe in a cemetery not unlike Vale.

Down the street I ran, only slowing when I had to make the turn onto State Street. The small metal arch leading to the park vanished out of sight behind me. The many thousands of people in Vale, sheltered in its calm leafy embrace, were still in eternal repose as I continued my run through the world of the living.

June 26, 2014

Deep thoughts, part 3

Another installment of the things I think about when I get bored. The previous post is here.

-Right now there are still six (verified) people alive who were born before the year 1900. Think about that. William McKinley was president. Queen Victoria was still alive. The second Boer War was starting in South Africa. Nearly all of the soldiers who’d go on to fight in World War II weren’t born yet. The Model T Ford was still almost a decade away - the sinking of the Titanic was more than a decade away. And there are people from this era who are still living. Granted, they were infants at the time, but still. Famous people born in 1898 and 1899 include C.S. Lewis, James Cagney, Ernest Hemingway, George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, and Humphrey Bogart. Of course none of those people are alive today but the fact that it’s theoretically possible one or more of them could be...I find that fascinating.

-When my face is slack apparently I have a perpetual expression that falls somewhere between worry and annoyance. I have, as Buzzfeed terms it, a “resting bitchface.” People are constantly asking me “What’s wrong?” regardless of my actual mood. I’ve had coworkers say to me, “Well, when I first started here I always assumed you were sort of...I don’t know...angry and mean.” And when I ask why they thought that I get, “Because you always look...angry and mean.” Even my wife asks me what’s bothering me at least twice a week, when most often the answer is nothing. At first I was self-conscious about this but I figure it’s probably for the best because I’m introverted and antisocial and if my presumed grumpiness cuts down on social interaction, I’m all for it. Plus when I make a deliberate attempt to look cheerful I always overcompensate and end up with a creepy smile. I’d rather my friends and coworkers assume I’m grumpy all the time instead of thinking I’m some sort of deranged serial killer who keeps a jar of human ears in his fridge.

-I had to do some calculations for someone at work regarding how much paper we throw out every month and I was stunned by the total. Over the course of a year my little office goes through at least eight tons of paper. That’s a huge number and hardly any of it gets recycled. But with that in mind now I don’t feel quite so bad about using so many paper towels to dry my hands after I use the restroom.

June 23, 2014

Being there

Three years ago today I showed up for work in Illinois, coffee cup from 7-11 in hand like always. The day started pretty much like any other - I checked my phone, replied to emails, chatted with my coworkers, and then we all piled into a car for our daily jaunt to McDonald’s for (more) coffee and egg mcmuffins. I was usually the driver for our McDonald’s trips but I couldn’t on this day because my car was absolutely packed with everything I owned. Clothes, boxes, and bags filled the trunk, back seat and most of the front passenger seat. I wasn’t going home after work that day. I was going to New York.

June 23rd, 2011 marked my last day as an Illinois resident. As the work day progressed it slowly started to sink in that I was leaving for good. My normal routine started to give way to an informal training of my coworkers, informing them about projects that were finished, projects that were underway, progress on those projects, and where they could find various files and directories so that work could continue on them after I was gone.

We ordered pizza for lunch, receiving special permission from our department head at the corporate office to charge it to the company account, and it became a small, informal going-away party for me. I smiled and joked with everyone about harsh New York winters, whether or not they had Italian beef in Albany (they don’t), and how the company would fare without me (in my coworker Steve’s words, “this place is already swirling down the toilet”) but I was scared. I was excited about the coming trip but I was also terrified. It was unlike anything I had ever done. Heading off to college had been a big step but I had family in the Chicago area - I'd been going there several times a year my whole whole life - so it already felt like a second home to me. I’d been to Albany a few times already to see Court but it still felt remote and unfamiliar.

After lunch I had my exit interview with an HR person from corporate and as the last minutes of the workday ticked away I surrendered my ID badge and shut down my computer for the last time. The colloquial term in the office for quitting time was to “punch it down.” It had been in use since long before I started working there but I believe it had something to do with punching in the code to activate the building alarm when we closed for the day. Before I left I made the rounds along the small row of cubicles in my department to say my goodbyes. Steve’s was the last. He’d been my best friend there and out of all the people I’d worked with he was probably the only one I would genuinely miss.

“Good luck in New York,” he said, shaking my hand. “Next time you’re out here let me know, we’ll hit up Rock Bottom.” (Rock Bottom was a local brewpub we often visited after work.) He started to say something else but then stopped and pointed at me.

“Don’t you cry on me!”

He was joking but I was fighting the urge to at that point. I took one last look around the office and my now empty workstation.

“Punch it down for me, guys,” I said with a wave as I walked out, and then safely inside my car I completely broke down. I cried, tears spattering the steering wheel, until I’d regained my composure enough to drive off, my car’s overloaded suspension creaking with every bump. I cried again when I drove past the “Welcome to Indiana” sign, watching my home recede in the rearview mirror, and a couple more times after that. But eventually I calmed and resigned myself to the long drive ahead.

Making it to New York in one trip would have meant driving straight through the night so instead I took a small detour into the Detroit suburbs where my dad lives, in the house where I grew up. After crashing a few hours on the couch I returned to the road. Ohio and Pennsylvania rolled by under my wheels. Toledo, Cleveland, Erie slid past as if on conveyor belts. I stopped only for gas and food, subsisting off of french fries and caffeine. The terrain grew hillier, the highway winding through the low mountains of western New York as the sun began to dip and turn the clouds to gold.

My thoughts swirled - memories of Chicago and college and friends and past lovers and old jobs and the cats that lived in the alley behind my old apartment churned along with thoughts of Court and our new apartment and Albany and the anticipation and misgivings of thinking about what lies ahead. My whole life I’d been a cool and calculating person. I didn’t like doing anything that involved risk. I always looked over the edge of every cliff, no matter how short, before jumping off. Now I felt like I’d charged blindfolded over the precipice, flailing around in the dark as I fell, unable to find the bottom. The miles ticked by.

I met Court at her grandmother’s house in Oneonta, killing the engine in the street and asking myself over and over again what I had just done. We’d been dating for over a year but the distance between Albany and Chicago had meant that we’d only actually met in person maybe a dozen times, and now we were moving in together. I’d signed a lease for an apartment in Troy, a city which I knew almost nothing about, and apart from an interview at a temp agency I had no job lined up. What had I just done?

The transition period was not easy. For the first six months I felt horribly homesick, lost and disoriented in Albany and its surrounding cities. To comfort myself I’d go to Google Maps and use the Streetview feature to “drive” around my old haunts. I’d follow the old routes I used to run in college, the walk from the Blue Line station in Chicago to where I parked my car, my old commute to work - nothing terribly interesting to anyone else, but somehow retracing the mundane jaunts I used to take every day in Illinois made me feel a little better when I started getting homesick. It was comforting in a way to know that the little daily world I created for myself on the shores of Lake Michigan didn’t necessarily end when I left it.

Adapting was a painfully slow process and it was measured in little steps. I found new food places and coffee shops and with time they began to supplant my old favorites from Chicago in my head. I learned the roads and local landmarks, colloquialisms, and punctuations (that the last syllable of “Colonie” has emphasis, like you’re hiccupping as you say it, so instead of “colony” it’s “colo-NEE”; how to both spell and pronounce “Schenectady,” “Schoharie,” and “Coeymans.”). Stewarts became my 7-11. 97.7 WEXT became my 93.1 XRT. Things that seemed strange and foreign gradually ingrained themselves in the folds of familiarity. I was becoming an Upstate New Yorker.

Three years later I am married, gainfully employed, and a homeowner. Upstate feels as much as home today as Chicago did in 2011, and I know that if I left I would pine for certain things here just as much as I missed certain things about Illinois. I didn’t know what I would find when I first came to New York but it dawned on me that I am product of everything I have seen and every place I have been. College, apartments, jobs, girlfriends, the cats in the alley - I left all of those behind and yet I brought pieces of all of them with me. These people, places, and things - moving didn’t take them away from me. Instead they’ve meshed and joined with the experiences lived through since, forming one unbroken thread. My life didn’t end when I left Chicago and a new one did not begin when I arrived in Albany. It’s a continuing narrative, an evolution. I’m not here because of someone I used to be; I’m here because of who I am.

June 20, 2014

Cheeseburger in paradise

I left the house this morning with a banana in my pocket (an actual banana, because there’s no one I’m particularly happy to see at 7:30 AM). At my old job in Illinois we could get to the office and work for an hour or so before heading out for breakfast - usually McDonald’s or a diner just down the road. And then after working some more we’d go out to lunch too. For someone who loves greasy food as much as I do you’d think eating an egg mcmuffin and a cheeseburger every day five days a week would be a dream come true, and it was up until I gained twenty pounds and passed my afternoons at work feeling like Rob Ford after a long night.

Nowadays I start my day with a banana or oatmeal. There are plenty of times when an egg mcmuffin sounds a lot better than either (especially oatmeal - I like the taste but I’ve never really gotten over the texture, yet I choke it down anyway) but I resist the urge to get one because I’m trying to eat better and I don’t want to have a heart attack. I’ve also traded the cheeseburgers for a bagged lunch I bring from home. Since moving to New York I’ve lost the twenty pounds and then some, I’ve been running more and generally feeling better about myself. Giving up McDonalds and cheeseburgers seems like a small price to pay for that.

June 19, 2014

After reviewing the play on the field

Looking back over my previous post I realize I was probably too hard on the people of Albany for getting excited about Whole Foods. Having lived in other places it’s hard to avoid making comparisons but there are lots of ways in which Albany and Chicago simply aren’t comparable. I try to avoid falling into the “person from a big city goes to a smaller city and points out all the ways in which the small city is not as good as the big one” trap but in this case I’ve done exactly that. It is nice to get new dining and grocery options, especially ones that make Albany feel more sophisticated and urbane, and as my wife pointed out last night, maybe the people waiting outside for the Whole Foods to open are also from other cities, cities where they shopped at Whole Foods regularly, and they’re just thrilled to be free from the clutches of Price Chopper and Walmart. As I said before, the location of our Trader Joe’s store makes it impractical for regular shopping but since I was a regular TJ’s shopper in Illinois it is nice to stop in every once in awhile to pick up things I can’t get anywhere else around here.

I don’t know why people lined up hours before Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods opened for the first time - I still think it’s absurd but I was wrong to pass them off as “bumblefuck hayseeds.” I referred to the locals disparagingly and yet after almost three years of living here I think I should accept that I am quickly becoming a local. I’ll never fit in with those born and raise here but I moved to the Albany area by choice and constantly pointing out ways in which Chicago is superior won’t do me any good. Please accept my most sincere apologies.

We now return to our regularly scheduled tomfoolery.

June 18, 2014

The biggest little city in New York

Albany is not a large city, although it does respectable job of trying to fool you into thinking it is. It has an appreciable number of tall buildings downtown, it’s poorly-designed highway network ensures that there’s more traffic than you’d expect for a city of its size, and the fact that Troy and Schenectady are so close means that it’s got a lot of suburban sprawl as well. In terms of population it’s only about as big as Peoria, Illinois (sticking with Illinois cities, as that’s my frame of reference, Schenectady is the size of Decatur and Troy is the size of Oak Park.) but because the three cities have sort of grown together the total metro population is nearly a million people, which gives it a bigger metro than more substantial cities like El Paso, Wichita, and Des Moines. It’s still not that big, but those factors plus all the media attention that comes from being the capital of an important state can lull you into sometimes thinking you’re in a major city.

Coming from Chicago there’s no way to escape the fact that Albany is not a large city but as a self-professed urbanite I don’t mind trying to pretend that it is. When a major retail or restaurant chain passes us by we act with a sort of offended indignation - how could they possibly not want to open a location in Albany? But when one does come the facade comes down and we act with an almost disturbing level of excitement. Our first Whole Foods is opening today and people started lining up more than two hours before it opened. When Trader Joe’s opened their first Albany store last year the reaction was so enthusiastic that local authorities declared a traffic advisory, warning people to avoid the road on which Trader Joe’s was located unless absolutely necessary. The same thing happened when Joe’s Crab Shack arrived - people started showing up the night before and the line stretched all the way around the building.*

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the bulk of my life around Detroit and Chicago but I just don’t remember this sort of thing happening. Stores and restaurants were certainly busy when they first opened but camping out overnight before opening day or standing in line hundreds deep at the door just seems absurd. The only comparable instance I can think of is when IKEA opened their first Michigan store and people acted as if it were the second coming of Christ. But it didn’t seem, to me at least, like every store opening attracted the same sort of attention that they do here.

Maybe it’s because I’m really not big on shopping but I don’t see the point - is it some sort of bragging right to say, “I was the FIRST PERSON inside the Albany Whole Foods!” The store will still be there tonight and it will still be there six months from now when all the hype has died down. There isn’t anything I can think of that any store sells that would convince me to wait outside for hours to buy. But then again I’m probably not the right person to offer opinions on this because I won’t shop at any of these stores anyway. The Whole Foods CEO’s reprehensible political opinions aside, their Albany store is attached to Colonie Center Mall, and the traffic on Wolf Road and Central Avenue is already so bad that the list of unanesthetized dental procedures I will endure to avoid that intersection is long and extensive. Trader Joe’s is in the same part of town and while I was a devoted shopper at their Glen Ellyn location when I lived in Illinois it just isn’t worth the time and traffic to drive there from Schenectady on a regular basis. If you’re the type of person who loves new shopping and dining experiences, that’s perfectly fine, I get that. But standing around in a parking lot for hours and hours for...a Joe’s Crab Shack? Come on, it’s only a small step above Red Lobster, it's the TGI Friday’s of seafood. It’s not bad but let’s all act like we’ve seen/visited a seafood restaurant once before in our lives and act accordingly. I’m happy in my delusion that Albany is a big, diverse, important city and you people going ape shit over a Whole Foods like a bunch of bumblefuck hayseeds ruins that.

*As I was finishing this post, Daniel over at Fussy Little Blog made some valid points via Twitter: for a long time Price Chopper and Hannaford were the only games in town as far as groceries went, so people here are right to be excited about more options (as he put it, “it’s like the wall coming down.”) and Joe’s Crab Shack offered free crab every month for the first hundred people at the door, which would explain the rabid reaction on opening day. Perhaps people here aren’t as easily excited as I assumed, but I still think that waiting for hours outside a grocery store is silly.