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Missing You

Eight ex-Metroland employees who left for greener pastures remember what they still love about life in the Capital Region

The idea for this feature arose from asking ourselves an obvious question: What are we taking for granted about this magical place we call home? What do we love about the Capital Region that we don’t properly appreciate?

And we realized that we may be too close to the issue. This, on reflection, seemed like a better question for people who lived here and left. So we contacted a number of ex-Metrolanders and asked what they missed most and/or loved most about the Capital Region. Setting aside the amusing response from the fellow who, since his favorite tavern had closed, didn’t miss anything, we offer essays humorous and serious on the subject.


This Is the Place

Nowhere is my home. Except here.

I have no hometown. I was born in Tennessee, grew up in L.A., moved to the East, and have generally shuffled around a lot. I lived in Saratoga Springs for five years along the way, and nowhere ever felt so much like home.

The longer I lived in the Capital Region, the more I felt like I was part of a community. I’d go to work at Last Vestige and chat with the regulars. I’d get a coffee at Uncommon Grounds or see a show at Valentine’s and know half of the faces in the room. It was at once comforting and oppressive, like a blanket that could keep you warm or smother you. Or both.

The more people, places or stories I knew the more they all became connected in the intricate webs that make up life in a small city. At times it felt as though there was no escaping it, but it was also special to know that I belonged in that tangled mess. Anonymity can be nice, but I miss the familiarity. It felt so satisfyingly intimate and knowable. Both times I left I felt restless, opportunities were to be had elsewhere. I cried when I moved away. It was my choice, and I still cried.

Yes, the feeling of intimacy was about the people I knew but also about the place itself. The day I first laid eyes on the Spa City it was late January 1997. I saw through the 6-foot-tall snowdrifts and my gut told me that this was the place I’d been looking for. I realized I loved living in the Capital Region one day in bleak midwinter looking up at the sign for Dugan’s (now demolished). It was 4 PM twilight and gray, I smiled and said aloud, “I love it here.” Then I laughed at my realization. I’d never lived in a place so real. The streets whispered my name, the Spirit of Life statue in Congress Park was my beacon. I embraced it.

I have lived in several cities since Saratoga Springs, yet it still feels like home. It is the standard to which others are compared: All jukeboxes are judged against the one at Desperate Annie’s. All real-estate prices are compared to what we paid for our last apartment in town. All local bands are rated against the Figgs. All summers are spent longing for a trip to Jumpin’ Jacks, and in winter wishing to go ice skating among the tall pines in Saratoga Spa State Park. All main streets are compared to Broadway. I even have a dream house in Saratoga that I look up every now and again to see if it’s for sale. And if I ever move back, I know who’s invited to the housewarming party.

Some say that the Captial Region is where dreams go to die, but it’s where my dream of a real hometown still lives.

—Ashley Hahn

Ashley Hahn lives in New York City.

Iced Gold

Since moving to New York about 12 years ago from Albany, I’ve often drawn this comparison between the two areas: While Albany may have one of something good—like a certain kind of quality restaurant or cultural institution—New York has multiple versions of that thing, if not dozens.

But no rule is absolute. So I’m here to report that the Capital Region has lots of something that New York has virtually none of. And it’s something I miss very much.

Soft ice cream.

I was visiting the Capital Region recently and got a chance to revisit one of my favorite soft ice creams there, at Lickety Split in East Greenbush. I was reminded of just how good it is, and just how many good places there are to get soft ice cream up there. Heck, there used to be a Lickety Split and a Lickety Splits in the Capital Region (until the name of the latter one, in Latham, changed). How great is an area’s soft-ice-cream riches when you can choose not only vanilla or chocolate but singular or plural?

I don’t get to sample it often or keep up with the soft ice cream scene as much as I used to, of course, but I’ve had great SIC from Columbia County to Lake George. I used to leave a trail of drippings all over the area during the course of a summer, from Kurver Kreme to Curry Freeze. It was mostly at least good, and often great.

Then I came down here. I don’t know how to say this delicately. The soft ice cream in New York sucks. The main source of it is the ice cream truck. Here, unlike most areas, the trucks just park in a spot and stay there all day. They dot the city during summer, plying their subpar trade, delivering chemically, watery soft ice cream to New Yorkers who don’t know any better. How often do you suppose they clean the machines that pump out this ice cream imposter? Oh, never. That’s how often.

Other than the trucks, there aren’t many places that sell soft ice cream. Certainly not as a featured product. Oh, there are abominations like Pinkberry and other places that specialize in soft ice cream’s crappy cousin, frozen yogurt. But I can’t say that I’ve ever had a decent cone in New York City. Not one in 12 years.

So the Capital Region can lament its lower standing when it comes to things like professional sports or Thai food or businesses that stay open past 6 PM. But remember soft ice cream. You’ll always have it all over New York when it comes to that.

—Mike Goudreau

Mike Goudreau lives in New York City.

Photo: Erin Sullivan

Water, Water Everywhere

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to live in a water-oriented city—preferably somewhere built around an old harbor and close enough to the coast that I could make day trips to the ocean. I loved the Hudson River and the cold mountain lakes of the Adirondacks, but for some reason, I had a real yearning for coastal living.

So when I got a job offer in Baltimore in 2002, I heartily accepted—I was going to go live on the Chesapeake Bay, home of briny rivers, blue crabs, watermen, oysters shucked in shacks on the Eastern Shore. I was going to leave the Hudson behind for rivers with such exotic names as the Patapsco, the Patuxent, the Middle, the Back, the Gwynns Falls. And they’d all be just out my back door.

I moved here in July. I know it’s cliché to talk about the heat, particularly if you decide to move south of the Mason Dixon line (and yes, Baltimore is south of it—and some people around town do still fly Confederate flags), but seriously: I was not really prepared for the slapped-in-the-face-with-a-wet-washcloth sensation I would encounter every time I walked out the front door. If it was hard for me to acclimate to, I can only imagine how much harder it must have been for poor, old Reba, my old-lady Labrador mutt who moved down here with me. I had somehow envisioned a life for her in which we would make regular trips to briny inlets and cool waters close to the city where surely a dog could eat mud and wade in shallow pools.

So our first free weekend that summer, I started doing a bit of research. I asked around, looked for information online, got a local dog-friendly guidebook. And I discovered, quickly, that despite the fact that there is indeed water everywhere, anything within half an hour of Baltimore was either not dog friendly, or was so badly polluted that it was really not suitable for swimming for man or beast. That doesn’t stop some people from getting in, of course, but I learned that seriously decrepit and neglected city infrastructure, combined with the very dense population of a city as big as Baltimore, resulted in serious raw-sewage leaks that have poisoned much of the easily accessible waterways here in the city. The Hudson has PCBs; the Patapsco and its tributaries have immense nutrient pollution that makes the water unsuitable for pretty much any recreation that would require you to get in it. So you have to settle for gazing—but even that’s not really all it’s cracked up to be. The rivers in and around this town are teeming with illegally dumped trash: plastic bottles, bags, cans, tires, old toys, vehicles, construction debris cast off by contractors in the dead of night. You name it, you will probably stumble across it if you wander the banks of some of our streams and rivers.

So all this is to say, the thing I miss most about the Capital Region is the absolute wealth of reasonably safe and clean bodies of water that are accessible to residents. Yes, I know, Albany and its environs suffer from plenty of pollution and the Hudson is contaminated with PCBs and acid rain is killing the fish in the beautiful Adirondack lakes. But your waters are downright pristine compared to the waterways we have down here.

I love the ocean, and I do enjoy the Chesapeake Bay vistas. But I seriously miss getting through with work in the summertime, putting the dog in the car, and going to Grafton till the sun goes down. Or driving to the little beaches at Thompson’s Lake, Lyons Lake, Saratoga Lake, or Crystal Lake on a Saturday afternoon to cool off in clean, fresh water. Heading down to the Corning Preserve, where of course I would never swim—but at least I could sit on the grass near the water’s edge without seeing floating islands made up of Vitamin Water bottles and fast-food cups.

Reba did get a lot of time in the water here, despite the immense pollution. We found a really nice hydrotherapy center for dogs halfway between Baltimore and Annapolis, and she spent a good amount of time diving in after her ball and swimming laps in water made safe and clean thanks to chemicals. But we did manage to get her to some real water, too—the year before she died, we took her with us to Ocean City, Md., on New Year’s Day, where she chased waves and fetched sticks from the Atlantic, and walked the boardwalk with us and, for a day, we lived the life I always imagined when I moved to a water-oriented city.

—Erin Sullivan

Erin Sullivan lives in Baltimore.

Drive My Car

Three years ago, I packed up my Jeep and left my apartment on Central Avenue for a job in New York City. I traded the old Jeep for a new set of wheels a while back, but didn’t go completely carless until just this month.

When people ask, “What took you so long?” I just tell them the truth: I missed going for a drive.

I know, I know . . . technically, I could’ve taken my car for a drive around the boroughs any time I liked, but that’s not going for a drive. Not the way I mean it, at least, and not what it meant when I was living around the Capital Region.

Growing up and working around the Albany-Schenectady area, a short drive in any direction generally offered escape from the malls and office buildings to rolling farmlands and forests. A few minutes behind the wheel promised a drastic change in surroundings from city streets to fields as far as the eye can see—and more often than not, a change in state of mind, too.

Here in New York City, though, driving is an exercise in getting from point A to point B via a maze of traffic lights, impatient drivers punctuating thoughts with their horns, and streets where slowing down for any reason whatsoever is regarded as a crime against humanity. And more often than not, Point B isn’t all that different from Point A.

Living around the Capital Region has always offered an entirely different driving experience. Sure, absence has probably made my heart grow fonder, but short trips around the outlying areas of the region have been my little piece of Zen since I first received my license.

One of my favorite things to do when I visit friends and family around Albany is to set aside a few hours to take a long, slow drive through Berne or West Sand Lake, winding my way through the local roads that alternate between forests, fields and developments. If I’m feeling ambitious, I might even pull off the road along a particularly pastoral stretch, recline the seat and lie there for a little while, taking in the scents and sounds.

Sure, there are some nice parks and nature preserves around the New York metro area, but whenever something like that is bordered by skyscrapers and subway stops, it always seems, well . . . manufactured.

In the end, that ability to leave your office behind for fields and farmland is one of the things I miss the most—and most often—now that I don’t live in the Capital Region. It’s what kept me from getting rid of my car all this time, even though I hate to drive in NYC.

In the back of my mind there’s that memory of escaping the city in short bursts, and by keeping the car around, I was keeping my options open—just in case I needed to go for a drive again.

—Rick Marshall

Rick Marshall lives in New York City.

A Cozy Diversity

If you can’t answer the following question in the affirmative, I encourage you to proceed to the nearest watering hole: Have you ever had a Utica Club?

Consider this a necessary life experience for anyone with access to the classic brew, as well as one that’ll properly prepare you to fraternize with the locals if you ever find yourself passing through “flyover country.”

Speaking from my own experience as a native of Wisconsin, people here love to debate worst beers. They’ll certainly name the usual suspects: Natural Ice, Milwaukee’s Best, Blatz, or Red Dog. This is when you lay the trump card onto the bar; “Folks, I’ve had Utica Club.” It’s an experience I’ve recounted during a handful of late evenings. And inevitably the memory of that fateful night at Bombers Burrito Bar, when I consumed my first—and admittedly last—swig of Utica Club leads to more reminiscing.

It’s not one thing, but the entire experience of living, working, and “playing” in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood that I enjoyed most. I’m still searching for a match to Center Square’s combination of history, diversity of small businesses, and community culture. The blocks of historic row houses and many cobblestoned streets are refreshing, especially in comparison to the oversaturated condo market in Milwaukee.

Equally refreshing is not finding an Applebee’s, Chipotle, or Starbucks on every other block. Not only is Center Square rich with independent businesses, but many of their owners are neighborhood fixtures in their own right. I’d regularly find them at work or out enjoying the neighborhood alongside myself.

I also miss the self-sustaining nature of the neighborhood. I could eat, drink, shop, and take my car in for repairs without going more than a few blocks. Add to that the variety of entertainment and recreation opportunities offered in and around Washington Park and the Plaza, particularly in the summer months.

You may choose to take this next statement with a grain of salt since I’m certainly biased, but it seemed to me that the community was equally inviting and welcoming to non-neighbors. Friends from around the Capital Region loved to meet for book club at Antica Enotica—though I hear it has changed owners and names—El Mariachi II for a pitcher of margaritas, or a run in Washington Park.

Although my time in the Capital Region was short, lasting only slightly longer than one year, I think I experienced some of the best Albany has to offer.

Plus, if that’s long enough for Eliot Spitzer, it’s long enough for me.

—Nicole Klaas

Nicole Klaas lives in Milwaukee.

Where I Became Me

I left Albany 10 years ago last month. I was moving to New York City to go to graduate school, and I remember loading the moving truck in front of my apartment on Jay Street, standing on the cobblestones in tears. I’d arrived eight years earlier as a SUNY Albany student. For two years I lived in the dorms and didn’t feel particularly connected to the Capital Region. But when I moved downtown, to a communal apartment above New Scotland Antiques on Washington Avenue, Albany became my town.

It’s where I had my first really good cup of coffee (the Daily Grind), my first bite of Indian food (Shalimar), it’s where I first got into foreign and indie films (the Spectrum Theatres), and where I came to love greasy spoon breakfasts at 2 AM. (The Plaza 23 truck stop near the river). And despite having lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and now Miami, certain things simply remain unparalleled: the vegetarian fare at the dearly-departed Shades of Green, the acoustics at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, the Honest Weight Food Co-op. I had what I remember as a pretty ideal life in Albany.

The biggest reason why was my friends, and the way I met them. Several of my closest friends today are people I met on the street in Albany. This has never happened before or since. When my ex-boyfriend Mike and I (we were a couple during the Albany years, and he’s still a close friend) were working at the same New York City radio station and people would ask us how we met, that’s what we’d always say: “We met on the street in Albany.” It was the same story with Jane and Marco and Tom. We were this pack of usual suspects hanging out around Lark Street. The whole neighborhood was like the old TV show, Cheers. We were surrounded by friends all the time.

About a year after my husband and I moved to Miami, we got a call from Marco. He was moving to Miami too. Having an old friend from Albany here has been a relief in a way. Just the other day Marco and I were lamenting the loss of that quintessential Albany attribute in our lives—how just walking down the street to get a cup of coffee, you’d pretty much always run into a friend.

—Alicia Zuckerman

Alicia Zuckerman lives in Miami, Fla.

The Perfect Politician

You can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the boy—and eventually, I had to go back.

I love Chicago. Love it. I love the “L,” love the eight-to-a-mile street grid, love the lakefront, all 26 miles of it. I love not having to own a car, love the city’s great bicycle culture, love Quimby’s Bookstore and Metropolis Coffee. I love Summerdance in Grant Park in July, watching my idiot friends do the Polar Bear Swim in January, and being able to dial 311 to make bike racks appear and graffiti disappear. I even love that death-proof Empire Carpet jingle. Never have I felt more at home than I feel in my North Side neighborhood, Ravenswood.

But even paradise has its snakes, and the price of living in a city so otherwise deserving of appreciation, if not envy, is the awareness of living in an autocracy. Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. Daley, owns the place. The Cook County Democratic machine is his personal staff. And we Chicagoans are merely his houseguests.

Why on earth, you may ask, would that make me nostalgic for Albany?

Because while I lived in Albany, I lived in the 7th Ward, and my representative on the Common Council was Shawn Morris.

In all my years as an active citizen, I’ve never felt as faithfully represented in local government as I did living in the Delaware Avenue neighborhood. I’ve never been treated with such genuine openness, never felt such sincerity from an elected official. I was able to walk up to her doorstep to talk with her, and if she ever minded, I couldn’t tell. She’s the real deal—a regular next-door neighbor with good intentions and ideas, who happens to know her way around the political system well enough to get a thing or two done on behalf of those of us without clout.

I’ve never exchanged words with my alderman in Chicago. I only recognize him around the neighborhood because he wears such an incongruously expensive suit.

From 800 miles away, I gave a fist-pump when I learned that Shawn Morris had been elected Common Council President. My heart leaped when I learned she was running for mayor and sank when I read that she’d dropped out of the race. I honestly can’t say that I’ve felt as personally vested in the outcome of any election campaign in Chicago. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but since trying to fight City Hall in Chicago is so thoroughly futile, I take vicarious satisfaction in every blow struck for open government and against cronyism in Albany as if it were happening right here.

—Keith Ammann

Keith Ammann lives in Chicago.

The Perfect Lunch

One sign of aging is that memory slips, so even though I recalled relishing lunch with a small group of friends at a diner near Albany Medical Center, I couldn’t remember the place’s name. So I called Joe Culver, one of the people I hung with during my Albany years, who reminded me I was searching for Quintessence. It seems my timing’s perfect: That snazzy, shiny diner on New Scotland Avenue, an area pioneer in offering fresh, local and distinctive food, just reopened.

In 1986, when I was the first news editor of Metroland, I, Joey, Tom Mottolese, then-Metroland publisher Peter Iselin and occasional others met at Quintessence for lunch. We called our gatherings the Little Chill. I never taped our conversations, but I bet the topics included music (a common passion), politics, the media, the city. Hanging at Quintessence made you feel as if you were on the cultural tip.

I also miss Coulson’s News Center at State and Broadway, which I used to frequent when I was a reporter in the Albany bureau of the Schenectady Gazette in the early ‘80s. (There’s no newsstand in Cleveland.) And I miss my old neighborhood near Albany Med, where Debbi and I owned an old stucco house on Morris Street. I vividly recall Dec. 8, 1980, when my neighbor, Larry Schell, ran over to tell me John Lennon had been shot. Metroland worked overtime to get my Lennon obit into the paper that week. I also remember the day Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out, Joey Culver came over and we listened and pronounced it a monster. Joey used to tape my LPs (remember vinyl?) onto cassettes (remember them?) for Quintessence.

I also recall—and miss—what the Capital Region felt like in the early to mid ’80s, before cell phones, the Internet, social networking. I was a newspaperman then, covering the rise of Crossgates Mall, the Albany Police Department, the vibrant rock scene J.B. Scott’s embodied, the environmental stink of NL Industries. It was an exciting time to be in Albany, especially to be in the media. There were record stores, too. Talking about it all was one of the best parts of the package, the icing on the cake. What better place to talk than Quintessence?

—Carlo Wolff

Carlo Wolff lives in Cleveland.

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