Sept. 5, Waterford, N.Y. – It was a weird night in Waterford.
The evening began with the mayor telling me about his Aunt Ted, a three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer.
It ended with me tossing a new potato into the Erie Canal.
In between, I learned to appreciate sea shanties, which might be the weirdest development of all.
When 9 o’clock rolled around, I sat on the sidewalk in front of the M.V. Grand Erie and listened to a mammoth group belt out, in a cappella fashion, an array of watery songs. This is what happens when you order salt potatoes at a tugboat festival.
Before I get too far into the Tugboat Potato Imbroglio, let me back up. When I returned to Waterford from Advance Auto Parts in Latham after another failed attempt to fix the Behemoth’s broken headlight, everything seemed good. I had a hunch the old road magic would happen.
No sooner had I arrived at the waterfront than I overheard a guy tell his friend, “There’s the guy who parked his camper across from our house.”
That’s how I met Al Zwack, my temporary neighbor, and his buddy, Jon Terpening. They couldn’t have been nicer. Then the mayor happened by, and my new friends made sure to introduce me to Hizzoner. His name is J. Bert Mahoney, but I call him Bert.
Bert amiably gave me a quick Waterford primer. For instance, he said the bridge to Peebles Island State Park, which at the moment hung approximately above our heads, was a vital crossing on the old colonial road. It was the original water ford that bequeathed the town its name.
American engineers, under the direction of Thaddeus Kosciusko, erected earth works on Peebles, then known as Haver Island, in anticipation of an attack from British forces under General John Burgoyne. That attack never came because the rebels, under the direction of pre-household-word-for-traitor Benedict Arnold, vanquished Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Mr. Mayor also mentioned the historical markers about town, which prompted me to drop the knowledge I’d accumulated on Waterford Olympic hero Ethelda Bleibtrey. You might just see the Ethelda Bleibtrey honorary plaque if you walk back and forth across the Hudson River bridge at midnight.
Well, I might have known that Bleibtrey was a backstroke specialist, but Bert knew her personally. She taught him how to swim. Or so he said. And him being His Honor and all, I’m sure he wouldn’t exaggerate or prevaricate.
She was such a good friend of the family he called her “Aunt Ted.”
Before we parted ways, Al said I should walk across Washington Avenue and holler if I needed anything.
Before long, I felt like I needed a drink. It seemed that a giant party was going on and I hadn’t received an invitation. I needed to loosen up and stop being such a mental case.
Unable to ingratiate my way onto anyone’s tugboat, I walked up on the Peebles Island bridge, leaned against the rail and admired the moonlight shimmying on the Mohawk River. Were I a poet, I would be golden. As it was, I was lost.
And hungry. Problem was, I couldn’t find anything that intrigued me. Finally I saw a menu that included salt potatoes. This was my first mistake.
I didn’t know what the hell a salt potato was, so I asked. I was informed they were boiled in salt water and quite delicious. I said I’d take one.
That’s when we all found out they weren’t quite ready yet. If this realization didn’t alarm me, it seemed to alarm a few of the folks under the tent. I won’t mention the name of the vendor, because I never was upset and I’m sure they’re entirely wonderful on most occasions.
And they were unfailingly nice. We’ll take care of you, I was promised. I wasn’t worried. I knew I should’ve asked for an estimated time of delivery, but I didn’t.
Instead I strolled into town and contemplated stopping into one of the taverns along Broad Street. I kept walking. About 20-25 minutes later, I approached the potato tent tentatively. Not yet, I was informed.
There was embarrassment and growing tension.
The whole night pivoted in an awkward direction. Obviously, salt potatoes don’t sell like hotcakes. Perhaps the potato-boiler was asleep on the job, or maybe he had many other jobs to do. I’m not going to throw him or anyone else into the boiler.
As it was, he was getting a serious dose of what-for from one of his associates. There was yelling. There was recrimination. There was anguish.
How I wished I’d kept my mouth shut and never ordered a fucking potato.
I might’ve just walked off stage and let them wrangle with the potato fallout. I had lost my taste for it anyway. Alas, I am too much of a coward.
I couldn’t leave, yet I was afraid to approach the stand for fear the potatoes would not be done and someone would catch hell.
But I had to come back. I had no choice. So I returned a third time. A woman wearing a vendor T-shirt and a world-class scowl was on the verge of blowing. She scolded her daughter, idly threatening to feed the poor girl to the Waterford fish.
I skulked away one more time. I checked the time on my phone. It was 8:56. Give them till 9, I counseled myself. Then I found myself fall under the sway of shanty singers.
Stuck in potato purgatory, having exhausted all other avenues of killing time, I was forced to listen to the lyrics and give the whole folk-art form a reappraisal.
When the last song, “The Soldier and the Sailor,” concluded, it was past 9. With trepidation peaking to nearly unbearable levels, I returned one last time. Every other vendor on the strand had closed up for the evening. These guys were still waiting for potatoes to boil.
Almost done! Really, this time. A flood of apologies fell upon me. I was so embarrassed for being the salt-potato rube who ignited the tension. I tried to turn my charm on the angry woman and defuse the situation.
“It’s OK, I assured. Please let’s have peace in the family.”
I guess I failed. Then I looked up and saw the beleaguered boiler turn over a large pot. A load of potatoes spilled out, sending a cloud steam into the Waterford night. In another minute, a courteous young man handed me not one but two orders of salt potatoes. He refused payment.
Again I was thanked me for my patience, which, in all modesty, is remarkable.
I walked away, hands full of steaming potatoes. When I reached the other end of the strand, nearby Lock No. 2, I sat down and ate.
I don’t want to pass judgment, and I’m no food critic, but I can’t shake the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the tension wrought by the Tugboat Potato Imbroglio brought the potatoes out of the pot before their time. I read they’re supposed to be creamy, and they tasted mostly like salty, boiled potatoes run through a butter bath.
I finished most of one order before flinging the final potato into the water. I wrapped the second order in a plastic bag.
Once more I made the solitary walk over the Hudson River to the Troy Hannaford, then doubled back on the 1.1-mile stroll to the parking lot adjacent to Lock No. 3.
It was still hot the time I returned to the Behemoth, my 5-pound bag of ice was four pounds ice and one pound water.
Then I started playing with the camera.