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Essay + Music: The Albany Project
Yes, Dear, They Are Playing Our Songs
By Katie Vermilyea
Editor's Note: This essay is centered around the narrator's relationship with Albany, New York, state capital and college town. Designed as a mixtape-style EP with four tracks of liner notes, the narrator provides a glimpse into her first year as upstate New York resident and the rights of passage of a woman concluding her late 20's—hitting her stride within her profession, establishing a personal space, and celebrating a life of "single blessedness."
“Local Girls” Graham Parker & The Rumour
I return to Albany after a 3-year attempt at domesticity in the Green Mountains. My “lost weekend” a failed experiment.
Albany is the city where I grew up. I came here at eighteen—a baby-faced, anxiety-ridden college freshman. I left at 21 with my Master’s degree and mixed feelings.
Now 28, I struggle to figure out where I fit in here—I am not a local and my academic days seem far behind me. I travel two to three weeks every month for work—Chicago. New York. Kansas City. Milwaukee. I’m that person who goes “let me check my schedule” before making commitments.
People stop inviting you after a while.
My apartment is an attempt to define the life of a working woman. An ecru couch and sisal rugs accent restored hardwood floors—only possible within a “no pets, no kids” lifestyle. Rich coffee-colored leather chairs designed for snow days with chai lattes served in hand-thrown pottery. Books stacked on every surface with my own particular logic ascribed their organization. A kitchen island for a desk, the butcher-block top spacious enough to accommodate the latest work assignment.
It is my sanctuary. My female answer to the bachelor pad or man cave. I try to invent the feminine term, but all my suggestions sound like slang for vagina.
“I’m Easy” Keith Carradine
I’m standing in the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, waiting for Ben to arrive on the 5:57 PM from New York. I’m wearing one of my Albany outfits—skinny jeans tucked into leather riding boots, a green cashmere sweater that brings out the dark of my eyes and the synthetic auburn of my hair. I want to give the chic impression of “upstate weekender.”
As if by wearing the right outfit I could define myself as someone besides the Other Woman.
* * *
We meet in New York on business and spend our nights running around Manhattan, chasing a fulfillment we crave through this simulacrum of a relationship. We have the effortless banter of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. We exist only on borrowed time.
When Ben proposed a weekend together, I suggested we could go about Albany with the same anonymity New York afforded us. He promised to cook me dinner and the domestic normalcy of the act struck me as romantic.
The hardest part about our arrangement is having strangers remark about “what a beautiful couple you make.” It prompts an exchange of sad eyes and bittersweet smiles.
* * *
The Empire Line crowd swells and my heart is leaping at the thought of seeing him striding down that glass-enclosed hallway. If you see something, say something. I balance on my toes, craning my neck to scan the scores of work-weary travelers for the wavy blonde hair, the dark wool of his jacket. My hand hiding my mouth, holding back the smile of recognition.
* * *
I’d score this moment with Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy” from Robert Altman’s film, Nashville. The acoustic version, not Carradine’s overproduced album version. The scene in the movie features his rakish musician character performing to woo Lily Tomlin, a married woman.
“When your eyes throw light at mine,” Carradine sings, “it’s enough to change my mind.”
It’s a song about cheating. But it’s a lovely song about cheating.
* * *
The crowd thins and still no sign. I check my phone. The screen lights up at my touch. A message is waiting. Has been, for the past 20 minutes. Four words:
I can’t. I’m sorry.
“You Wear It Well” Rod Stewart
It’s March in Chicago and I’m playing life-size Jenga at a local bar with one of our Midwest sales reps, Stephanie, recently divorced. We’re both trying to figure out how dating as women with demanding professions works. She swears by Match.com. I credit dumb luck.
As the only two, uncoupled women in a bar full of men, we attract the attention of two guys in marketing for Nestle. We pair off—Stephanie and Steve, Katie and Cooper.
Cooper is tall with a skier’s build and a pageboy cap—Chicago’s answer to Brooklyn’s hipsters. He is the adult version of the boys I dated in college. They were affecting cool with their sly grins and ironic print t-shirts. Cooper and I sit back with our beers and talk over the sound of Stephanie and Steve bickering as the wooden blocks tumble to the floor.
“So,” says Cooper, “before we do another round of Jameson I’m getting your number.”
I appreciate a man who loves his whiskey and gets to the point.
He texts me and the familiar 518 digits pop up. Turns out he’s originally from Albany, still has family there. We launch into the dialogue of mapping what we know about the place, seeing what’s still around and figuring out what else has changed besides ourselves.
With a last call at 12:30 AM on a Tuesday, we shepherd Stephanie and Steve into separate cabs and make our way to Mother’s, an institution of the Chicago bar scene. Between beer stories and dirty jokes, I hit upon the subject of Rod Stewart.
“He’s a model train enthusiast. Like Neil Young. Neil’s a Lionel train devotee.”
I’m so earnest when I say this, a genuine enthusiasm to share what I know under my alcoholic haze. I am a kind, gentle drunk.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had such an interesting conversation before,” he says, giving me The Look. “You take these awesome detours—and yet always manage to circle back. I was not expecting to meet you.”
Cooper leaves his number again on my corporate stationery. He draws hearts around the sentiment, “you are beautiful,” scrawled in lowercase print. He is another man who will never call, but that’s not the point of this exercise.
“Better Off Without a Wife” Tom Waits
I’ve tried to score the soundtrack to my single life a year in, but have found that once you get past the breakup songs, the love songs (and the breakup songs again), it’s challenging to find a song that’s about being content with one’s life as it is.
Tom Waits hits the closest in his ode to single blessedness. With the freedom to come and go about as one pleases. No one to answer to. No one to leave waiting. No one to inevitably disappoint.
One of my favorite pastimes in Albany is catching a movie at the Spectrum on Delaware Avenue. I used to go with my college friends, stopping at the Ultraviolet cafe to pick up sandwiches for the half-price student night on Tuesdays. I’ve never forgotten the taste of goat cheese and fig preserves on a toasted baguette.
These days, I fly solo. I’m partial to weekday matinees and the after 9 PM late shows—the near-empty theater, glorified in having an entire row to myself and no one in front to block my view. At first I missed the gentle hum of the projector, the steady clip of the film reel. Everything is digital now. The sounds of the cooling ducts provide sufficient white noise.
This is the only time I have completely to myself. Where for a space between 80 to 120 minutes I don’t have to talk or think about anything but the image on the screen and the fact that in this place, alone in a theatre, I feel at peace. It’s a tiny luxury more cost-effective than my previous therapy co-pay.
Albany is the one place where it’s safe to be myself, by myself. Without judgment.
Perhaps this is why, no matter what city I’m in, I always look forward to returning to Albany. For in my 28 years, it’s the nearest thing I have to home.
#Real #Albany #NewYork #Memories #RememberingThroughMusic #Multimedia #CreativeNonFiction #Adulthood #Growing
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10/1/2014 05:32:19 am
I happened upon this article and I was blown away. An ode to a town told with such sincerity, openness, wit, humor and vulnerability. I myself am from the Albany region but moved to work in NYC. I am sad to say I never thought of Albany from this writer’s perspective but after reading this can honestly say, I feel home sick. The writing was fantastic and a pleasant way to spend my mid-morning break.
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