I never was someone who knew everyone. For the longest time, I was an outsider: the child of Queens who settled in Connecticut, then the Connecticut kid who went to college in central New York, then the noisy American in Edinburgh, then the New York City J-school grad in St. Lawrence County, then the North Country reporter who moved to Boston, then the Beantown resident who married a fella in Albany.
But that was 1991. After all these years in the City of Insiders, I find that I’ve become one. I didn’t plan on it. It just happened. My late husband and I bought a house. We had kids. We put them through city schools. We stayed put. And, simply by virtue of not going anywhere, I find that I’m on a first-name basis with pretty much all 97,000 residents except for Andrew Cuomo, but he doesn’t count, because he doesn’t seem to spend any of his free time at any of my hang-outs. (Hey, Andy! You getting two scoops of Adirondack Bear Paw? Me, too!)
When I first arrived here, I used to laugh about it – this back-slapping, name-dropping, weirdly tribal interconnectedness that makes Albany feel less like a small city than a really big Elks Lodge. And the more I noticed it, the more the old Democratic political machine made sense to me; how else would politics play out in a place where everyone knows everyone and his brother, his mother, his mechanic and his cat, not to mention his mechanic’s brother, mother and cat, and did he tell you his mechanic’s uncle was married by a priest who grew up on your street? Also, he knows the mayor. But then, everyone knows the mayor.
I am now one of these people. I am an Elk. (No, not literally.) I know every last resident of this city, and if I don’t, it’s a safe bet that I know their mother’s cousin’s uncle’s dentist’s baby sitter. Or the priest that married her. Or the priest’s elementary school alto sax teacher, who, by the way, goes to church with the sister of my daughter’s high school buddy’s ex-boyfriend, whose pediatrician owns a bichon frise she bought from the mayor’s sister-in-law’s masseuse, and here I confess that I’ve completely lost track of possessives and pronouns.
In fact, I am now so much an Elk that, whenever some colleague of mine at the Times Union mentions an interview with people named Whoozits and Whingnutz, my response is: Oh, sure! I’ve known Whoozits and Whingnutz forever! Their priest’s cat baptized my goldfish!
I love Albany; I love its smallness, its Smalbany-ness, its tightness and sense of community. (Read Cailin Brown’s mighty fine piece on this very subject.) And yet living here means seeing the humor in it.
Many many moons ago, I made up bumper stickers for Chris’s birthday emblazoned with the legend “Albany. . . I Like It!” He’d always joked that no one would ever start an “I Love Albany” campaign, because no one would ever cop to it; that would go against the region’s woefully understated sense of its own worth. It’s too close to New York City to feel good about itself: imagine a 5’9″ guy living next door 7’6″ Yao Ming. No matter what you say to him (DUDE, YOU’RE SMART AND CUTE AND COOL, AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO DUNK TO BE A MAN!!), he’s always going to feel small.
I like small. I celebrate it. I’m part of it. Does this make me an Albanian? Probably not. Probably only if I’d been born here, and even then I’d have to trace some strand of my family back 14 generations to some pasty little circa-1614 Dutch fur trader with ruff around his neck. Or, short of that, I’d have to trace my lineage back to the Dutch fur trader’s rebel nephew Spike, who ran off with a hot French chick from Schenectady.
You know those two, right? I’m sure you do. They were married by a priest who grew up on your street.