Wednesday, December 30, 2009

O, Albany

From semi-regular contributor Sheridan Dupre, here's a wonderful piece on Albany and the current of his family history that runs through it. In Dupre's words: "Blood has a strange way of binding you to a place, even if its past seems somehow unreal and unknowable."

Dupre blogs at Guard the Guardians on cliches that need debunking, the missteps of the Town of Bedford Parking Authority and the 1970's.


O, Albany

In March of 1972, years before I was born, a plane carrying 47 people crashed into a house two blocks from my grandparents’ house in Albany, New York. Seventeen people died, but miraculously many more survived, including the family unlucky enough just to be safely at home on a Friday night, watching TV, doing the dishes, reading the paper, children playing. The mother was found bloodied but OK, lying in the splintered shards of their house, amidst the improbable remains of a small jet. Her husband was discovered wandering around dazedly asking for his two children, both already safely rescued. When we would visit our grandparents who lived in that same house just blocks away from an event that terrified and enthralled me, I would ask about that night. Where were you? What did it sound like? What did you do? Did you know the people?


My father grew up in Albany. He commuted to college from the house we would visit as children. We would drive up the winding Taconic to the New York Thruway where there was a magical moment when we would ascend a small hill, glimpse the city in the midst of the rolling hills by the wide Hudson River, before we dipped back down and out of view. And my father would ask the same three questions as we passed over the river: What river are we crossing? (The Hudson!) Who discovered it? (Henry Hudson!) What was the original name of Albany? (Fort Orange!)

This house and this city were my family’s, but the history, and spirit, seemed as distant to me as Hudson’s explorations and the early Dutch Fort that became the Capitol of New York. To go to Albany was to visit a past I did not know. Time and memory here included decades that didn’t include me, a striking realization when one is young. And this was complicated by the fact that their move to this house happened when my father was already going into college, his sister already in high school. We would sometimes drive by the apartment of his childhood where he was – remarkably – once a boy like me, but it was untouchable. And we’d return to a house whose history now seemed even more incomplete and partial.

This certain foreignness of family history seemed reflected in the city itself. In the 1950’s, Albany looked like this, almost medieval in its clustered downtown of Church spires and town houses:

In 1965, the city began construction on the Empire State Plaza, razing downtown neighborhoods and uprooting families:

Rockefeller’s folly, as my family referred to it. But of course people were leaving the city, and the region, anyway. Between 1950 and 1978, when the Plaza was completed, Albany’s population fell from 135,000 to 100,000 and it would continue to decline, decade by decade. The ghosts of this past were everywhere. Albany’s very vitality seemed somehow drained to me. It was almost odd to see the city in color, not only because a great deal of the evidence of my father’s youth was in black and white, but the city itself, stone and severe, my grandparent’s neighborhood of grey sidewalks and modest white houses, seemed unprepared for the advent of color. Driving into Albany on a snowy day – and when wasn’t it snowing? - felt like driving into an old photo album. And we would eat square pizza at The Orchard, a neighborhood pizzeria no longer part of a neighborhood, isolated now in a barren stretch of the city. And we’d go to Jack’s, the kind of oak-paneled downtown bar that seemed as though it should be smoke-filled and bustling with newspaper types and well-dressed people having drinks on their way home or their way out; except, it wasn’t.

But blood has a strange way of binding you to a place, even if its past seems somehow unreal and unknowable. Perhaps this is a common enough experience in visiting the places of one’s grandparents. Perhaps we assign their location the attributes we assign them. Like those black and white photos, I almost couldn’t believe that at one time the playground we’d play in off of Washington Avenue was filled with children; that their house was at one time filled by the commotion of my father and his sister; that downtown ever bustled; or that on one night a plane, for example, just fell out of the dark, snowy sky.


When my Grandmother died two years after my grandfather, a strikingly tall strange man appeared at her wake. It turned out he was an old neighborhood kid who my father hadn’t seen in some fifty years. He saw my grandmother’s obituary in the paper and came to pay his respects. He told me and my brother that he had always liked our grandmother because she didn’t punish him when she caught him shooting a BB gun off of a garage roof out back. He reminded my father that when he was injured when they were playing football as eleven year olds, and subsequently had to have a kidney removed, it was our grandmother who was his nurse and saw him back to health.

When I was young, I recall being impatient of a past which, because it didn’t include me, didn’t seem to matter. But as I got older I learned that things matter in surprising and lasting ways. The legacy of family and of place we all inherit - unwillingly, perhaps; without choice, certainly - has a way of lingering, linking to a history we might never fully know or understand but one that can be a deep and permanent part of who we are.

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