Looking down upon the city of Albany from the hills to the west, brought to mind a beehive that one season hung under the eaves of the barn at our farm. The incessant activity in Albany, the people, on foot and in carriages, flitting from one place to the next, purposeful but without conceivable motive, was so like that hive; constant motion, an incomprehensible pattern that one interrupted at his peril. In the end we knocked our hive down with a broomstick, into a barrel of water, killing all but the most restless of the bees. Albany did not fall so easily.
I was struck at how substantial the city felt. We walked through the downtown section down long straight streets with brick buildings on each side of the road, four and five stories tall. Jack was exuberant, talking without letup, revising her plans with every step.
“We’ve got the rhino, Pratt, let’s go straight to cider. We’ll go to New York and surely find people ready to buy cider. That’s where the big money is.”
But before we did anything else, Jack wanted to find the best hotel in the city, take their best room and sleep on a featherbed for three or four days.
As we walked through the streets of Albany, the respectable people kept a safe distance away, sometimes crossing to the other side of the road to keep from passing us on the sidewalk. They seldom saw woodland creatures, such as we had become, on the streets of their city, and prudently kept a fair distance. As we moved through the city, I’m sure our smell preceded us; the personal funk of sleeping in our clothes on the forest floor combined with the smoke of so many nights of cooking fires had rendered us somewhat rank. I believe a blind man would have known enough to keep his distance.
Our outcast status made it difficult to ask for directions. Most shied away from us all together and those who stayed to listen thought their legs were being pulled when Jack asked after the best hotel in the city. Jack was starting to get angry, and I knew no good would come of that. When we passed in front of the post office, I was sure that would be our answer; if we asked in there they couldn’t ignore us, and they had no place to run.
The post office was crowded with people doing their daily business. I counseled Jack on the virtue patience then left her waiting in line while I went to read the bills posted on the office wall. I scanned them quickly—horse for sale, temperance meeting, Mr. Johnson of Hamilton Street will no longer be responsible for debts incurred by his wife. Then one bill caught my eye, it was a wanted poster, offering a reward for the capture of the “Canal Pirates,” including a drawing, from the waist up, of the two outlaws in question. The faces were too plain to recognize, but they were dressed as trappers; from the details of the clothing, especially the hats, they had to be Jack and myself. The dress that had rendered us anonymous in the taverns along the canal would mark us as outlaws in the city. I quickly but discretely pulled the bill from the wall lest some current postal patron might make the connection.
Then Jack came over saying, “Benment’s American Hotel, on State Street, is what we want. And I also learned that Forrest is playing Macbeth at the Odeon.”
I had no idea what the second part meant, and there wasn’t time to ask. “Look at this,” I said, showing Jack the poster.
“Damn me, if that ain’t us,” she said. “We have to get out of here.”
The American Hotel was luxurious. The lobby had a high ceiling supported by Greek pillars; velvet drapes adorned the windows and around the room men in tailored suits sat in upholstered chairs reading newspapers or conversing with equally well-dressed ladies. In another room, I could see people pleasantly dining and men standing at the bar drinking. We somehow had to change our clothes and join them.
The clerk at the desk did not want to give us a room, for all the same reasons that no one on the street wanted to give us directions. He looked us up and down, and with his nose in the air flatly refused to serve us. But I have learned that in business transactions, money will trump nearly any prejudice. Though we only intended to stay one night, we offered to pay for one week’s stay in advance. He grudgingly gave us the key to a room on the second floor.
I thought our best course was to stay in the room all night, then leave before dawn and get out of Albany on the first steamboat. Jack had other ideas; she came back around to Forrest at the Odeon. Apparently the actor Edwin Forrest was performing at the Odeon Theatre in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. I had never seen a play in my life; theatres and theatrical people were not highly regarded in Salem. But Jack was quite enthusiastic about Shakespeare. She explained that when she was growing up, there were only two books in the house, The King James Bible and The Plays of William Shakespeare. That was how she learned to read.
“They both had good stories,” she said, “but the people in Shakespeare, good or bad, always had reasons for what they did. That wasn’t always true with the Bible. But both books use that high-tone English and if you can read that you can read anything. That’s why I read better than Jason and Caleb can’t read at all.”
She explained that Macbeth was her favorite play and Forrest was the greatest actor in America, and she was damned if she was going to miss this. I was against it, but Jack was unyielding. Finally, I agreed but stressed that we must put on different clothing.
Jack had only one outfit, but I still had my preacher’s suit and my work clothes from the cooperage in my carpetbag. My first thought was if I dressed the preacher and Jack the cooper, we could pass through the streets of Albany without being mistaken for canal pirates. But while Jack and I were both about the same size, her shape was considerably different. My clothes bound her so tightly in the hips and the breasts that she looked not like a man, but like what she was—a woman masquerading as a man. We could not go out on the street without drawing unwanted attention.
There seemed to be no solution; then I had a brilliant idea. “What if I go out and buy you a dress?”
“What?” she shouted, “You’re insane Pratt.”
“Think about it, Jack. What could be more natural than a man and a woman going to the theatre together? We can do whatever we want in Albany that way.”
Jack fumed a bit but in the end, had to agree it was the only way she could safely leave the room. And I think she may have been more than a little intrigued by the idea.
“Get one with flowers on it.” She said as I left to go shopping.
I wore my preacher’s suit, and though it was terribly wrinkled, I did look somewhat more respectable. Believing it safer, Jack and I had divided up the money equally so I had plenty of cash to get whatever was necessary. I went to the shops on Market Street and State Street to see what they had.
Buying clothes for Jack was not as easy as I had anticipated. It seems that women who do not make their own dresses have them tailor made which would not work for me. I found one shop with readymade dresses, but the selection was small. I told the sales clerk (a man) that I was buying a dress for my sister. He frowned and told me to bring her into the store. I said I couldn’t, but she was about my size. His frown grew deeper, and he told me there would be no refund if the dress did not fit. But in spite of it all, I found a dress I thought would work—striped but with flower trim.
I asked the clerk what a woman would wear under the dress, and he sent me to a store called the Temple of Fancy. It was huge, selling everything from furniture to soap. There I asked the same question of a female clerk who blushed but sold me a chemise, some petticoats, and a pair of drawers. I also bought a bonnet, a purse and a bottle of perfume. I was spending wads of money, but oddly enough, the strongest perfume cost the least, so I got a bargain there.
When I got back to the hotel, carrying an armful of parcels, I saw a policeman in uniform talking with the clerk. They were looking at a poster he had just hung behind the cigar counter—the Canal Pirates poster. It was not the same clerk who had checked us in, so I took a chance and went over to ask about it.
“Have you seen anyone who looks like this?” the policeman asked.
“Goodness, no,” I said, “who are they?”
“Canal pirates, they’ve been robbing boats all season. They were seen in town this morning.”
“Here in Albany?” I asked.
“Walking down State Street as if they owned the place. Post office said they were coming here.”
“To this hotel?”
The clerk said “I didn’t come on until this afternoon, so I don’t know if they are here or not. They will have to ask Wilson.”
Back at the room, I told Jack what I had heard and she conceded that we were doing the right thing. She looked with bewilderment at what I had bought then commenced to putting it all on. When she was fully dressed, it produced another profound transformation in her. To this point, I had only known Jack as a women when she was stark naked. What stood before me now was a fully dressed full grown woman, a stranger that I did not recognize until she spoke.
“This is the nonsense I’ve been working my whole life to avoid.” She said, adjusting her bodice in the mirror.
She doused herself with perfume and put on the bonnet. Then I put some perfume behind each ear. We walked arm-in-arm out of the hotel, and off to the theatre.