I'm a little confused PJ...it sounds like the controller thought he assigned you a VFR altitude for separation. The only reason I could see a controller assigning an IFR aircraft a non-cardinal altitude is to stay above a minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) or Minimum IFR altitude (MIA), and I'm not aware of any areas that high in NY State.
Hey, JD, good to see you - it's been awhile. Not being a controller I can only surmise about that rather secretive MVA number (secretive in that there is no published document that pilots can get their hands on to see what MVAs are around the country). This is what I learned by commuting west and south over NY state the last few years (the point follows):
Flying from Buffalo to Syracuse, NY, along a route below the NY State Thruway the MVA is 4,000 until about 20nm out. The trick I learned to get lower if needed is to have the controller vector north of the Thruway, where the MVA drops to 2,100 or so. Flying from Elmira, NY, (southern central NY) up to Syracuse the MVA is 5,000 until about 15nm out and then it drops to 3,600. The point here is that these are routes without any significant mountains, just hills and towers.
Flying from Syracuse down to White Plains the preferred lower IFR route takes one adjacent to the point of the Catskill Mountains where the peaks are around 4,100. Not mountains when compared to out west but toss in a tower and it is very conceivable that the MVA is at least 6,500. If there were an aircraft at that altitude and knowing I wanted to get as low as possible to avoid the ice the controller was thinking 7,500? I can only guess here.
Regarding Boston and NY Approach assigning non-cardinal altitudes, the airspace north and northwest of NY's class B is dedicated to the big jets arriving into Newark, La Guardia, and even JFK airports. From flying down there weekly since February I have concluded that there seem to be a different set of ATC strategies in that airspace than in others, and one is to use non-cardinal altitudes. For example, to fly a lower IFR route northwest out of White Plains an aircraft is always assigned 9,000 feet as an initial altitude (should be 8 or 10 for that direction), despite filing for 4, 6, or 8,000. All that airspace below 9,000 is used to step-down aircraft into the big airports, or as often the case, to hold aircraft.
Oh, and my aircraft's designator is a BE35 (V35), not BE36.
Canadian Eh - GA stands for General Aviation and typically it means a pilot who is not flying scheduled air carrier flight. It could be any aircraft from a Citation down to an open-cockpit Stearman. GA also implies a bit more flexibility since the rules are more flexible than the more rigid rules associated with Part 121 (scheduled service) and Part 135. I fly a Bonanza V35 out Monday and back Thursdays to commute between my customers' locations and home.
In terms of querying ATC, if my "Spidy sense" tingles I have no problem doing just that. But in this case, by the time the Spidy sense went off the controller soon thereafter demonstrated the reason for it. Perhaps next time, though, I will add that question to my altitude response upon a controller first asking me to say altitude. Like a lot of aspects of flying IFR, many are not learned until first experienced.