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December 31, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

December 31, 2006

Wasting Gas For Christmas

Celebrating that nominally Christian pagan holiday by driving in the suburbs

If I could find some way to completely avoid Christmas, believe me, I would be there every year. Indeed, in distant years past, I have managed to almost completely block out this futile, horrid attempt to deny the darkness of winter.

But The Wife won’t let me forget about the “holiday season.” No amount of grumping or bah-humbugging on my part serves to cool her holiday spirit. “Well, listen to mister happy,” she says. “You’re supposed to enjoy the season. It’s a happy time. Can’t you be happy?”

“I’m so happy,” I tell her, “I can’t stand myself.” She makes a disgusted noise and rolls her eyes.

How to Find the Suburbs
How to Find the Suburbs

After twenty one years of cohabitation (mostly legally sanctioned by the government) I’ve managed to wear down her desire to erect a dying tree in the living room. She has also given up on buying gifts for people she doesn’t like because she is supposed to buy gifts for them. And, I can’t remember the last time we mailed holiday cards.

From my point of view, this is great progress. But getting her to give up these procedures was easy because she didn’t really want to do any of these things anyway. We have pared down the holiday like a rotten potato and we are left with the core vegetable. It is my job, as a loyal spouse, to indulge The Wife with what to her is The True Meaning Of Christmas.

Getting presents.

Okay, she also seems to really enjoy getting together with other people, you know, parties, house visits, that kind of social drudgery. Personally, I’m very antisocial and proud of it. I would just as soon not talk to anybody until at least April when it gets warm enough to talk. If not for The Wife, I would end up like that old song by Paul Simon, I Am A Rock. (“Don’t come closer! I’ve got poetry!”)

The happiest Christmases that I remember were many years ago when I worked as a night security guard, a job I recommend to anybody forced to work for bottom wages. I always volunteered for double shifts on Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving etc. Basically, I would spend sixteen hours completely isolated from the human race. Plus, they paid me time and a half. What could be better?

The Wife will have none of that. She loves to bake pies (very delicious) and bring them to whoever invites us to their homes. She likes to socialize. She likes to make wearable presents on her sewing machine. And she really, really likes to unwrap presents.

That’s where I come in. Since I would rather sleep in the house instead of tied up in the back yard, there are certain husbandly duties that I am required to perform. Some duties I enjoy, as you can imagine. Some simply must be performed whether I like it or not. One of those duties is to drive around the Capital District a few days before Christmas and find presents for her.

That’s means combining two things I really detest, Christmas, and sitting in suburban traffic wondering why suburbanites choose to live like this. (“They must like traffic,” is the only theory I’ve come up with.) So, I have developed a method for getting through the Holiday Season without committing any violent felonies.

People ask me all the time, “Dan, how do you know what to get The Wife for Xmas?” Here exclusively on albanyweblog I shall reveal my secret: I ask her. Starting in early December, I ask her several times a day, “So, whaddaya want for Christmas?” “Peace on Earth,” she replies at first. “The hell with that stuff,” is the cleaned-up version of my standard reply.

Eventually, little by little, she coughs up the details. Since I am not a recreational shopper it is essential that I have a precise list. I want to drive (walk would be better) to the appropriate place of business, enter, select the exact item that I am looking for, pay without waiting, pass through the security scanners without setting them off and go home to grump.

I understand that the ladies at Altomari Sewing Center inside Joanne’s Fabrics at the old Northway Mall out in Colonie still talk about me. Some years ago I walked in two days before Christmas to buy a sewing machine, the one on which The Wife makes scarves and aprons for certain lucky recipients.

I’d never bought a sewing machine in my life, but I was ready. Having quizzed The Wife, I knew exactly what I wanted. I looked around at what was available, asked three or four quick questions, and said, “That’s the one. I’ll take it.”

The elderly lady looked surprised. “It’s on sale. One third off.”

“Great,” I said. But something was wrong, the lady had a sad expression. “Um is there a problem with the machine?”

“Oh no,” she said. “Husqavarna is a very good machine. It’s just that... you bought it so fast that I didn’t have time to give you my spiel!”

So I stood there and smiled encouragingly while she told me all the reasons why I should consider buying this machine, and the advantages that would accrue to my account if I were to include this device in my life’s plans. When she was through I told her, “You’ve convinced me!” and she looked so happy. The ladies all saw me off, goodbying cheerfully. Total time: thirteen minutes. The Wife was thrilled with her new toy.

That’s the way I like to handle the painful parts of Christmas, fast and efficiently. Unfortunately it’s not always that easy. Take this year for example.

I thought I’d start Xmas shopping early, so on Wednesday December 20 I dropped in to The Chocolate Gecko on the far end of Delaware Avenue. Lissa D’Aquanni was visible in the back with a full crew working to keep turning out the homemade chocolate. “No special orders,” I was told. “We can hardly keep up with demand as it is.”

Sad to say, Lissa is sick and tired of working like a canine and worrying about bills, so she is throwing in the oven mitt. A while back she told me that she wanted to enjoy the days before holidays, like she used to. “I want to make chocolate when I want to. It’s that I’m working all the time to stay in one place. It’s supposed to be fun, but it’s not.”

Part of the problem is that Lissa and her partner had bought and renovated an abandoned monument shop on their own dime. Typically for small business owners in Albany, they got zero assistance from the City. The income from the shop and the rent from the two tenants have been barely covering the overhead and the renovation costs.

However, the City of Albany did harass Lissa over zoning and code issues. It took pressure from the Delaware Neighborhood Association to get the City off her back and let her open. Compare this behavior by the City to the Picotte Properties request to spot zone a parcel on Holland Avenue to highway commercial to accommodate a corporate marauder, Walgreens. The City is actually in court right now fighting for the unwanted applicant.

Delicious Chololate Gecko Lion
Delicious Chocolate Gecko Lion

Over the years, Lissa has always refused my standing request for a large, solid milk chocolate dinosaur for The Wife. What can I say, she likes dinosaurs. But a couple of Easters ago Lissa did make for me a large lion with mane, ears and tail decorated with dark chocolate (The Wife adores kitty cats.) Lissa said we couldn’t keep it as a keepsake. “You’d better eat it,” she said. And she checked on us to make sure we did.

That shopping trip wasn’t so bad. Next I went home and called Altomari Sewing Center to request a sewing machine accessory called a “walking foot.” They were all out, but they expected more in any day. With a hopeless sigh, I asked the lady on the phone to email me if the device arrives.

Wednesday morning, December 21, the darkest day of the year. I drove off midmorning in blazing low-slung sunshine into the horrid suburbs. It fills me with disgust that one can no longer buy many basic necessities inside the City of Albany, one has to drive a vehicle to the outer wastelands where people suffer in isolation.

The first quest was to Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland, location of one of the few kitchen stores in the region. Even though I do most of the cooking in our house, The Wife always wants kitchen utensils. I once bought her a frying pan for Xmas. I used it for years.

At the kitchen store I found that there were two choices of salad spinners, big and small. There in the front corner, a serious man was asking a young lady to explain the advantages of each spinner. “You can put a whole head of lettuce in that one,” she said, “but not in the small one.” I reached around the guy and grabbed a big one, and found a new thermos for The Wife’s coffee. The guy was still asking questions as I walked out the door.

I drove across the parking lot to Eastern Mountain Sports, and found out that they do not carry one piece women’s sport bathing suits. The lady did try to direct me to a place that did. “Where’s that?” I asked.

“Crossgates Mall,” she said. I shook my head. “No, I’m not going there.” “I completely understand,” she said.

Eastern Mountain used to be in Crossgates, but they got tired of hearing their customers complain about their location. And presumably, they got tired of shelling out for the high rents. So they packed up and moved to a bigger location at Stuyvesant. Now they can hold their heads high without shame.

The Wife would not tolerate me making purchases at Pyramid Crossgates, not after all the pristine Pine Bush that they have destroyed. Besides, as an avid reader of the police blotter in the Altamont Enterprise, I’m aware that gang fighting and robberies in the Crossgates parking lot are getting out of hand. I feel safer on Morton Avenue in the South End of Albany. Seriously.

I bought a headlamp for her nighttime bicycle rides, so Eastern Mountain wasn’t a total loss. So far so good, but now things got intolerable.

I-90 Going West to Hell
I-90 Going West to Hell

I drove. I drove through the godless automobile slums of Guilderland and Colonie, sitting in traffic and burning precious fossil fuel, making fumes that will not leave the air for 150 years. I drove up and down the strips which all look alike to me, routes five, seven and nine. I drove and I cursed. And I found none of the items for which I searched.

Everywhere I went, cops in cars were pulling over hapless motorists, raptors nailing helpless prey. In a car monopoly society like ours, everyone inside a vehicle is vulnerable to harassment. Drive fast, forget to change your tail light bulbs, or get a load on and you are a criminal. And don’t forget the biggest crime of all, allowing your insurance “to lapse.”

Eventually I made it to Castle Computer out on Route Seven, the small business Macintosh dealer so beloved of The Wife. I saved this for last because I knew that what I wanted would be there. The Wife had told me it would. So now she has a new radio attachment for her iPod.

I had to get back to town pronto or start screaming an incoherent string of obscenities. Amazingly, I found parking on Hudson Avenue near Lark Street, and strolled into Elisa Halloran Designs. Much better.

Elisa is the hardheaded proprietress with a sexy gap between her teeth, an artist who pays the bills making and selling a unique line of jewelry. Smart males know that Elisa’s shop is the place to find that affordable, attractive bangle that will make their hard-to-please female companions ooze liquid in all the right places.

Yes, the shop was crowded with males, and a fair number of females, too. Pianist, social worker and woman about town Millie DiBlasi, who was busy looking for a present for herself, volunteered to assist in my purchase. But Millie kept pointing me toward pearls, which The Wife does not care for. So Millie and I continued to search the glass cases.

Finally, I spotted a necklace, made by the proprietress herself. It had large jade beads about an inch apart, separated by many small rough cut bits of garnet. It looked classy, but somehow primitive. “Made by Elisa, approved by Millie, it’s got to be a winner,” I proclaimed. Later, The Wife was delighted.

Back home, the entire day almost shot, I checked my email. While I had been driving around out in the suburbs, the “walking foot” had arrived at Altomari. Out in the suburbs. Where I had just been. All day.

Thursday morning the 22nd, I burned a trail of vapor and carbon monoxide out to the Northway Mall (or whatever they call it now) in Colonie. It was worth the trouble. I may have poisoned our atmosphere a little more, but the walking foot made The Wife very, very happy. So did all the other presents.

So for one more winter, I get to sleep inside the house near the radiators. For me, that’s what counts.

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