Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Albany and the Ecstasy

I spent April Fool’s Day on Amtrak and I'm sure it wasn't a coincidence.

I managed to avoid joy buzzers, itching powder and whoopee cushions as I rode roundtrip from New York to Albany; I didn’t take any calls for Prince Albert in a can and no one tried to pull the old looking up in the air gag on me.

I had too much on my mind to even think about that stuff. I was going upstate to interview for a job I didn’t want in a place where I didn’t want to live. If you’re confused, join the club.

I had answered an ad from the Associated Press—let me say that again, the Associated Press—and to my horror the news editor there called me and expressed interest. I liked the idea of working for a huge outfit like AP.

But Albany? I'm having trouble with that. All I know about Albany is that it’s the state capital and it’s up north where it’s even colder than it is here. And, no slight against Albany, but after all these years as a reporter, I’ve had my fill of small towns and second rate cities.

Albany was also the headquarters of my father’s company when I was a kid. He'd say "Albany" as shorthand for the job, his supervisors, the jerks upstate who kept getting in his way.

Every two years he’d drive up there and come back with a new company car, so Albany was kind of a mythical place to me and I pictured it as a big granite block of buildings with smoke stacks and humming engines.

Then I blinked and now I'm an unemployed middle-aged man riding the train for my own rendezvous with the capital city. My father suffers from Alzheimer's now and some days he thinks he's still working for Albany.

I had this feeling of helplessness, like I was being sucked up the rail lines by some evil force. Why did I apply? What would I do if I got the job?

My shrink told me the night before I left that I looked like a man facing execution and I didn’t argue. When I arrived at Penn Station I had this insane urge to turn around and head straight back to Brooklyn. But I knew giving into panic is the worst thing to do, so I got on board the train.

There were two job openings at the AP Albany office. One was covering the New York State Legislature, a flaming red hot beat if ever there was one. Beats don’t come much hotter than this—if you like that kind of thing.

The other opening was a general assignment beat where you cover basically everything that happens between Westchester and the Yukon. I tried to keep the smile on my face as the news editor told me that his reporters keep a packed bag in their cars at all times, just in case all hell breaks loose on the Canadian border.

I sat there waiting for him to say "April Fool! We really don't ask our people to do that." But the words never came. If I wanted this kind of misery I would have joined the French Foreign Legion.

And then he asked me a question.

If you had your dream job what would it be?

I waited a few seconds before I answered. It wasn’t either job he was offering, but he seemed like a decent guy and I wanted to be straight with him.

I told him what I really wanted a good feature writing gig, where I talk with people, real people who don’t have press agents or hold news conferences.

I want to write about people who are struggling to make it, who can’t see their way around the next corner; the kind of invisible people who keep this world running and don’t get a lick of credit, sympathy or attention.

Before I left, I met the bureau chief and he was such a nice guy, saying all he cares about is the reporter’s career. Both he and the editor must have been reading my mind—or the dismayed look on my face—when they said they didn’t expect me to spend my life in Albany. I’d love to work for these guys, if only it could be some place else.

As I rode a cab back to the Albany-Rensselaer train station, I noticed my driver was a woman, and a rather mature one at that. I started talking with her and learned that she was a grandmother who had been a cab driver in Albany for 30 years.

She was the first woman cab driver in town and she had to put up with a lot of grief from the male drivers in those early days. She held up her cell phone and told me her regular customers from all over the country call her whenever they come to town.

In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person I want to write about.

I was too tired to sleep on the way back, too tired to read. I just looked at the river rolling by and tried to imagine myself living around there. When I reached Penn Station, I felt like I had been away for a week.

That night I crashed in front of the TV watching some version of “Law & Order.” I was really glad the day was over and I felt like I had accomplished something. But between the subway and the Empire Express I spent more time on the rails than Woody Guthrie.

I picked up the Daily News and turned to the horoscopes page to see what kind of day the stars said I was supposed to have. I thought it would be fun to catch the astrologer in a screw-up.

Today may be a bit strange, it read, your nerves might be a bit frayed, but you are up to the challenge.

April Fool, big guy.

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