Sunday, October 26, 2008

Excerpt from House in the Attic

In Troy I learned about take, have and give and what a train can do. Train came easy because Aunt Jane walked me up to the end of Glen Avenue one night after a freight train hit a car at the crossing. The tracks shone sharp and steely in the spinning fire truck lights. Flashlights probed the twisted metal blown all over the crossing. Shadows of men moved in and out of the lights picking up pieces of flesh and putting them in bushel baskets. I smelled death. Not the stench of rotting death I'd smell years later. No, this was a dark, but not unpleasant odor that felt like an extra layer of air hovering just out of reach.

Have was giving my softball to a kid for a nickel thinking it was take and he wouldn't give it back.

Troy was the Flying Red Horse and where we got our eyes tested. Freihofer's Bread and Borden's Milk were delivered by horse and wagon. I went to Troy to hear about the Yankees instead of the Red Sox and to see how Uncle Mark umped semi-pro baseball. I went to hear Cousin Jay say Cohoes and Waterveliet like it was somewhere. It sure smelled like somewhere. I wanted to cross the Green Island Bridge. Was it green? Where was the island? I wanted to hear about Uncle Mark making big guns at the Waterveliet Arsenal and I wanted to grip the little white plastic counter with the tiny black numbers he used to record strikes and balls. And I wanted to be someplace where I didn't have to be afraid. I always felt safe at Aunt Jane's.

I know its BINGO at St. Pat's for Aunt Jane. I smell the church basement on Sundays. I smell scalloped potatoes and ham, macaroni and cheese. I hear three phones ringing in Cousin Jay's basement on Saturday, Sunday and Monday during football season. Bet the spread. I know the round-shouldered man, the snappy-eyed kid, the physics professor with the raspy voice and the Lucky Strikes in his shirt pocket that won't go to the doctor, the mechanic with the red rag hanging out of his coveralls pocket, the lady upstairs with the jangly earrings, the cop with the dead brown eye. Kids blat in their cup o noodles; the checks have stopped. Bet the over and under. The scrubbed-faced clerk in Jimmy's Variety at 6th and Glen smells like Clinique and candy bars. Bet a game, a race, bet three, four, five times the rent. Park the car out front.

No work has stripped Troy of heart and bone. The shirt factories and brickyards have gone to seed. The Waterveliet Arsenal used to make the big guns for World War II. Now it makes a few missiles, and what with the Gulf War maybe a few more. General Electric in Schenectady has been laying off and rehiring for years. As John Dos Passos said, "Steinmetz was the greatest piece of apparatus General Electric ever had until he wore out and died." RPI looms high above the Hudson; it's crumbling facade of brick and column, marks the fall of Troy behind the Police Station. Russell Sage College is co-ed now and a bagel shop across the street caters to properly improper students, septegenarian running shoes and a plethora of tweed. La Salle and Hudson Valley Junior College are a long time coming a short way and Emma Willard School stands stiff in her bones. Boarded up buildings sweep the edge of the river with the Troy Judo Club and KoKoro Karate hacked into the cracks. The old Wusterfield Candy Company hangs in at Congress and River Streets, a few hopeful antique shops have quaintly tucked themselves in, and up toward Fulton Street they've bricked the sidewalks and stick in some Please-Come-Back streetlamps.

Troy is pizza, grinders and submarines, blank counters; tired cooks in front of ovens, onions and extra cheese please. A half-frozen alley cat sniffs a bent trashcan. You can smell the cold grease from the bottom of a car on his fur. Small clusters of calf-length coats and down vests hover at bus stops. The Troy Pork Store has held court at Fourth and Perry beyond anyone's memory and up a block and around the corner, the price of a Troy Famous little hot dog, as long as your thumb has gone up a nickel. They're soft and dyed red and they are hot, oh yes.

All over February, uncertainty hangs in the dank air; all day, all night SCUD missiles tear into mad television sets full of star shells and sand.

At 6th and Congress, a skinny man, say twenty years old had spilled laundry all the way down the stoop. Now he stuffed the half-empty laundry basket in the back seat of his 74 Plymouth. He sat in the car that wouldn't start slamming his fists on the steering wheel. The smell of sour washcloths and dirty snow filled the air and his bleached blond wife, skinnier than the man, skinnier than a Time Out, stood on the stoop dangling a lit cigarette in one hand and holding a four year old girl in a yellow parka by the wrist with the other. She glared stone-eyed at the stream of laundry falling down in front of her. While we sat at the light, the little girl began crying and her green left mitten fell off. An old man straddled the curb and the street. His eyes were closed. I heard a radiator banging in the hallway behind the wife. The light changed.

Take turn right on Second Avenue to a strip of brownstones with names carved in brass by the doorways. It's a nice quiet street with white curtains and old venetian blinds on tall windows, with promises of Lavolier shades and Fax machines in every bathroom. Yellow ribbons flickered on dark tree trunks. Fallen leaves complimented hopeful pragmatism of sweet smelling, strident, optimistic men and woman on the way to meetings or lunch at the Clam Bar Broadway. Half a dozen blue points please, a glass of cabernet, expresso, and chocolat mousse please. Gentrification planned, honed, revised, touted for bonds, reworked, revoked, rescinded, re-ordered, re-voted, re-thought, re-framed, re-written, removed, re-invented. Great sets of teeth surrounded corned beef sandwiches and perfumed hair wafted carefully in the afternoon breeze turning icy cold.

Men and women sip coffee at Mc Donald's at 4th and Fulton. They smoke endless cigarettes and get rattled by the possibility of swarming kids who haven't even gotten out of school yet. They go up to the Post Office for checks, checks, checks, or poke through the Mall for something different when they get tired of sitting. A gray string of men peruse the tote boards at OTB arguing ten pounds on a $2500 allowance race. Buy Lotto, read the Morning Line. Next door, the cab dispatcher sits by his desk in the window sorting through little yellow slips. From time to time he strokes his smoky beard and lifts his weary eyelids to the radio mike in front of him, leans in to bark an order to Kenny up in the Berg, or glances at his straw-haired phone taker cranking down addresses on her yellow slips. Bowling balls echo ten pound salutes up by the Holiday Inn. Uncle Sam still points a finger at young men with basketballs, Ipods and lamb chop dreams.

The bus leaves for Bennington, Burlington, Boston. The bus goes to New York, Atlantic City, Waterveliet, Albany, Cohoes, Menands, Saratoga, Lake George, Glens Falls, Montreal.


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