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Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Mechanicville Beat

I HAVE A REVIEW in today’s Metroland of a terrific little eatery in Mechanicville, a place called the Ugly Rooster that will delight you when you stop by for breakfast or lunch.

Visiting the restaurant was a nostalgic return for me, but not one I can regard with unalloyed pleasure. It’s hard to hang on to any aspect of one’s innocence these days, but I guess I still had some to lose one afternoon in 1985.

Mechanicville is the smallest city in New York, a former manufacturing town clinging to a western bank of the Hudson River. In its heyday, it was a paper manufacturing center with busy railroad traffic and an early hydroelectric plant that’s now on the National Register.

By the time I got there, it had become a sluggish community of retirees, with little enough traffic on North Main Street that you didn’t need sound-baffling insulation in a radio-studio window that overlooked the thoroughfare. And, as I was soon to learn, you also couldn't hear shouting or fisticuffs.

I was hired to helm an afternoon jazz program on radio station WMVI, headquartered in Mechanicville’s wee downtown. The station was a daytimer, which meant that it was on the air only when the sun was up, and its format was big bands and jazz.

When I applied for the job, the station manager clearly doubted that a punk my age – I was a mere 28 – could know anything about the music, but he gave me a shot and was pleased with my work. And you can still hear Chris Martin and his radio archives on weekends over WABY (1160 kHz), which absorbed what remained of WMVI about a dozen years ago.

The Mechanicville studio was on the second floor of a building at 35 North Main. From the studio window I could see down Terminal Street to a river inlet, but most of the view was blocked by a municipal building that housed the city police department.

This was in the waning days of long-playing records. I had to keep two turntables loaded and segue back and forth from song to song, interrupting every few songs for outros and commercials. Whenever I had to pee, which required a down-the-hall excursion, I’d put on a special album with song medleys to cover my absence and hope the damn thing didn’t skip.

Late one afternoon, after starting the first of the three or four numbers that would be in the mix, I wandered to the window to survey the pleasant day and try to catch a glimpse of the river. I was just in time to see a man stagger out of the police station and onto Terminal Street. He was burly and wearing work clothes. I couldn’t make out his features. His exit was violent enough to suggest that he’d been pushed. I wondered if he’d spent the night there in the drunk tank.

I could hear nothing from the street. In my ear was only the music, playing over the studio monitor. But I watched as the burly man gestured and hollered into the doorway from which he’d emerged.

He must have hollered something compelling, because a huge, fat, uniformed cop swaggered out the door and placed himself nose to nose with the first guy. More silent yelling ensued.

Suddenly a stream of policemen swarmed out of the doorway. They formed a semicircle around the burly man, each end of it against the wall of the cop shop. From the street level, this would obscure the center. From my vantage, I had an excellent view as the huge, fat cop beat the shit out of the burly guy, hurling him against the wall and pummeling him. And pummeling him.

It was nauseous. I couldn’t stop watching. The burly man ended up crumpled in a heap against the wall and the Mechanicville police, having done their duty, streamed back inside.

Obviously, no amount of verbal assault on the part of the burly man justified the beating he’d received, but who could I complain to? It was like discovering that your own parents are the serial killers who’ve been ravaging the town. I’d grown up in the wealthy Connecticut suburbs where I easily could believe that policemen were my friends. The thuggishness I’d just witnessed, however, exploded any remnants of that delusion.

I left the job and that city not long afterward.

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