TALK OF THE TOWN

by Ed Reilly

My first encounter with a Trojan horse

"Of one thing I am convinced - that there are on earth certain special places laden with possibility, where anything can happen, magic, supernal, where the laws of matter and electricity suspend their governance, and where a strange and sacred vacancy hovers just above the surface...

"I know of one such place. It is called Jacob Street. Fate must have worn her most enigmatic smile when she stood atop the highest hills of Troy and unrolled Jacob Street down to the banks of the Hudson River like an exquisite oriental carpet, and declared it hallowed ground."

-Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons

My native city has been much in the news lately, for all the wrong reasons. To cope with an enormous budget crunch, the Troy City Manager wants to sell City Hall, or perhaps even declare bankruptcy. How could things have gotten so bad during one budget year that no portents had been seen in the prior one?

Compared to Troy, the City of Schenectady is in great shape. Its credit rating just went up, not down; I haven't heard talk of selling the municipal golf course in some time, and never did anyone suggest selling City Hall. Perhaps the thought of Troy selling its headquarters bothers me so much because, perched on my father's shoulder, I watched its first City Hall bum down in 1938. The city then went decades before replacing it with a modem building on the banks of the Hudson.

It is 41 years since I last lived in Troy, but, despite its many changes, a panoramic view of a surprising amount of the Troy I knew unfolds before my eyes every time I drive the relatively new portion of Route 7 that takes me downhill from Latham to the bridge at Hoosick street. Unless you are also from Troy and quite a few Niskayuna residents are - you would probably need a helicopter for a comparable view of your own home town.

As I head down that hill, St. Mary's Hospital looms prominently to my left, seemingly in very good shape for a decades old building. My younger daughter Diane was born at St. Mary's, but I can't see the old Leonard Hospital further to the north where I and four of my children were born. I know it's still there, though, with a new role to play.

To the lower right of my field of view and extending up the hill are several quite visible landmarks. The old white Cluett Peabody building that helped give Troy its name "Collar City" is still there. On one of its floors - I don't know which - my grandfather once paced, supervising a crew of seamstresses for a few years before he left to start his confectionery on Hoosick Street.

Further up, I can see the steeples of both St. Peter's, my first parish, and St. Paul's, my second. Next to St. Peter's sits its old Lyceum where I played CYO basketball, contending with a basket at one end that was a foot too low and one at the other a foot too high. (Romeo Naples, a little Muggsy Bogues type guard who kept skittering around me, later became Supervisor of the Town of North Brunswick.)

In between the churches sits a building on Ninth Street that I knew as the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. I lived right across the street, and my friends and I spent hours playing a variety of games all of which depended in some way on bouncing a tennis ball off the institution's wall, a wall no longer there.

A bit further to the right, and on Eighth Street rather than Ninth, I see what was my high school, Catholic Central, where, 48 years ago, I met Jean Marie Sayers of Watervliet. She's puttering away elsewhere in the house as I write this (with my name appended to hers, of course). And, to complete the quartet of every Troy school I ever attended, the green roofs of RPI are to the top right of my picture. Right after my high school graduation, RPI bought the school and renamed it West Hall, sending me back to the same building for certain classes for four more years. (The sign on it still says "St.Mary's Hospital," which is what is was before CCHS.)
RPI with "West Hall" at lower left

The four rented homes I lived in over a 22-year period were all a couple of blocks away from the Jacob Street that Dr. Selzer wrote about, a street also well known to my favorite tuba player, Dr. Jim Strosberg, who hails from nearer by - Federal Street, I think. It was Dr. Jim and his children who gave me a cherished copy of the (local) best seller The Trial of Bat Shea, a historical novel by Jack Casey whose plot is faithful to an actual Troy murder trial of a hundred years ago.

One of the book's several interesting photos shows Troy's original City Hall as it looked before the fire. Another shows the Esek Bussey firehouse at Hoosick and Tenth Street which, apart from the gaudy decorations on its front, looks no different today than it did when the picture was taken in 1894. Just west of the firehouse on the same side of Hoosick were once a block of shops starting with Purcell's drug store at Ninth Street and extending to a fruit and vegetable store at Eighth, just beyond Reilly's Confectionery. All are gone now, sacrificed to the Hoosick Street bridge along with the movie theater at Fifth Avenue that used to show me three full length features, previews, a serial, and three cartoons for twelve cents.

On the south side of Hoosick near Eighth, Young's Monument Company still stands, a mere vestige of its once larger self. On the opposite side is the hole in the ground that once was "my" store, and seeing it creates a corresponding hole in my heart. Gone is the store's large display window in which once moved a genius with crepe paper whose decorative handiwork I yearned to emulate. Gone is the glass in the front door on which I watched a man paint "Loft's Candy" in a flowing script so artistic that I wanted to be a sign painter. Gone are the low brick steps at the entrance to my grandparents' upstairs flat over the store, steps with exquisitely rounded comers which I watched being assembled with such craftsmanship that I wanted to be a bricklayer. On many a 4th of July did I sit on those steps, waving my sparklers and watching the roman candles that my family and those of my cousins had pooled in order to extend the duration of the celebration. Oh how I wish that I could have salvaged just one brick of those steps on theday they were demolished.

Around the comer at 369 Eighth Street is my second Troy home and the one that left the most lasting impression on me. Why do I remember, after 56 years, that the name of my parents' landlord was Jimmy Crane? Why do I remember that, but not the name of the man whose horse came galloping down upon me one day as my six-year-old self was playing on the sidewalk, my first encounter with a Trojan Horse?

I saw him coming, thank goodness, and - setting a new world's record for my age bracket - was able to scale the railing of my porch just in time to avoid being trampled. Do I only imagine that I remember sensing his breath and feeling the breeze from his swishing tail as he brushed past me in a mad dash to avoid his pursuers from the glue factory? I had no hope of ever leaning the name of the horse's owner. Truth is, I had always thought that the nag belonged to Freihofer's Bakery. But now, wonder of wonders, I do know the owner's name.

Last December 28, 1 was sitting in a conference room at Fleet Bank in downtown Schenectady, there with our Town Attorney to close the sale on old Town Hall. Also at the table, of course, was Linda De Filippo, who was buying the building for use as a day care center. Something Linda said made me realize that she too was from Troy. "Where did you live?" I asked. "On Eighth Street," she answered. "Oh, where on Eighth Street?" At 357, it turned out, six doors from where I had moved out before she had moved in. But then she stunned me. "But my grandfather had lived there earlier, undoubtedly when you did," she. said. "Don't you remember the man who owned the horses?" And then she told me the name of the man who owned the horse who chased me, 57 years ago.

I suppose he locked the barn after the horse got away. But I sure hope the current City fathers and mothers don't let their City Hall get away.

 3/10/95

Postscript: They didn't. Troy's new Democratic administration led by Mark Pattison held on to City Hall and have made great strides in bringing Troy back to decent economic health.