Monday, September 24, 2007

Day 50 - Please don't let us die at Lake Mead, alone.

The picture tells you all you need to know.

The most important additional information is that after a long day of driving and racing to get to the Hoover Dam in time for the last tour (yes, I'm that much of a nerd) Megan and I were beat. So we were pleased to be giving our money to the National Park Service--or, at least, their concessionaire--at the very nearby Lake Mead National Recreation Area lakeside lodge. We pulled in at sundown, just in time to catch the last rays of sun over the shrinking lake. The lodges were a series of 1940s-era single-story motor-lodge buildings. There were maybe a dozen of these scattered around the lakeside, each with four single rooms.

The place seemed deserted. There wasn't a single car in the place except for one maintenance van outside the lodge office. The office itself was closed. A scotch-taped piece of paper said to ring the bell. But before we could, Tom suddenly appeared from around the corner. Chuckling. To himself. His company nametag was prominently displayed.

"Got to ring the bell. Heh, heh, heh, heh. You ring that bell, now! Heh, heh, heh, heh. Someone's there, alright. Heh, heh, heh, heh." And with that, he began systematically trying the knobs of locked doors down the row just to our left.

Megan rang the bell.

An opaque Prohibition-era window slid open and a revealed the face and not much more of a kindly silver-haired woman who briskly but not unpleasantly asked us the necessary questions to give us a room and charge a credit card. According to her nametag, she was Tomina. Tom and Tomina. Hmm .

Tom shuffled a little closer and said "Evening Tomina! Heh, heh."

"Evening, Tom," she called back from window.

Tom seemed to be around 40 with thinning hair beneath a company ballcap and a bushy beard beneath. T-shirt revealing a bit of a paunch that jiggled as he continuously chuckled mostly to himself and walked around with a halting gait. He was a charmed fellow, having some clinical issue with which he grappled. But why he was trying all the doors was a bit of a mystery.

"Looks like we have a few guests tonight, hmmm, Tomina?" he asked. "Heh, heh, heh."

I shit you not.

"Yes, Tom, we sure do." She answered him not in any complicit, creepy way. Rather, it was as though she was used to his oddness and learned how to engage him minimally enough to avoid getting into a conversation.

Or minimally enough not to be hacked to pieces when she stepped out back for a smoke.

Tom tried some more doors and went back around the corner.

"Now here's your key," Tomina said to us, finally, struggling to get a plump arm through the window without blocking her face. "Now don't leave it in the room if you go outside because the door locks behind you automatically. And after 10pm I'm gone and the office is closed for the night. Security is here after that, of course." And with that she pointed her chin past us to Tom who was walking back toward his van. "But he doesn't have keys to the rooms." She seemed to offer this last bit as reassurance rather than as a scold.

Tom called from his cab window, "You folks have a good evening. Heh, heh, heh, heh."

Now, it's important to point out that I'm writing this with the benefit of retrospect, but I'm not embellishing anything. That said, this all happened so quickly that, while we found him odd and, well, touched, I don't think Megan nor I thought much about the whole encounter. In fact, we were probably more frustrated that we were being charged $90 for the room.

But as we were driving from the office, aaalllll the way to the last room in the last building at the edge of the lodge property--in the dark--a certain sense of apprehension began to build.

We parked and unloaded the car. The room, on the corner of the building, had hand-crank windows with leaded glass panes on two sides. They were set into brick walls that had barely a coat of paint on them. There was a bed and and TV and a little table and lamp. No dresser. And no phone.

We walked around the 10-foot square box opening the windows to let in some of the beautiful evening lake air. We cracked open a couple of beers and, when we realized they were pretty warm, I headed back to the office to get some ice. I took the car to make it quicker. Suddenly, the fact that we were literally the only folks in the place, aside from Tomina and our guardian angel, Tom, began to weigh on me. More to the point, my imagination began to churn through a series of plausibly gruesome possibilities.

I wince now at the lack of creativity, but one involved Tom breaking into our room at about 3am (a time, incidentally, just late enough to lull edgy, alert city folks into a sense of their own ridiculousness and allow them to drift off to sleep for a few hours) and hacking us to bits.

But the one that took strongest root in my psyche was the thought that Tom was, in fact, relatively harmless in his compromised mental state. Despite that, I began to convince myself that he had several friends back in his neighborhood who would routinely pay Tom off with cigarettes and JuJu Fruits so that they could maraud around the grounds after Tomina left for the night. And what if, on this one night, they were sufficiently ennobled on meth to realize that of all the things on their lives' to do lists they hadn't yet crossed off "Killin Humens". Heh, heh, heh, heh. Maybe they always wanted to see how far someone could run after having a few knives thrust through their their...


Ridiculous, utterly ridiculous, I reassured myself as I pulled back up in front of our room with a bucket of ice. If such goons existed, surely they would have plied their boredom and penchant for evisceration on some other unsuspecting uptight saps before us. That said, I backed the car into the parking space for a quicker getaway. Just in case.

I walked back into the room and immediately posted myself at the table by the windows, watching out through the blinds into the darkness. Megan asked what was wrong. I was embarrassed to say what I was thinking. More to the point, I was scared of what I was thinking. "You worried about Tom?" she asked me.

"No," I said curtly. I was worried about his friends.

I didn't keep the charade up for long. Within a few minutes, we were both cranking the windows closed on the comfortable 60 degree evening and turning the air conditioner on.

After a few minutes more, we killed the lights so it would be easier to see out than to see in. I punched out 9-1-1 on my cell phone and had it ready to hit SEND on the nightstand. Atop Gideon's bible. I crawled into bed with the car keys which, I thought I was clever for remembering, had a panic button for the car alarm. What the fuck I thought that was going to do, I'm not sure. Maybe the striped bass would come flailing up the shore from the lake, in the dark, cross the road and the parking lot and save us from whoever was trying our door.

After awhile I didn't even feel comfortable with the TV on since it was keeping me from seeing if headlights were approaching the front window. This was sick stuff.

Megan tried reason. "Are you really more freaked out about staying here than out in the open in Death Valley? With coyotes?" I appreciated her a approach, but YOU BETTER FUCKING BELIEVE I WAS.

I responded in kind, with analysis. The only reason I was unnerved, I explained, was because we had empirical evidence of a strange-acting fellow whose putative job it was to walk around yanking on doors that were supposed to be locked. And that's when I flipped out a bit. The lock had not been changed on our door since this place opened in the 40s, I was sure. If Tom yanked too hard, I'm not sure it wouldn't give. So I crawled out of bed for what turned the culmination of the stupidity that was unraveling our perfectly nice day into an evening of intense anxiety and ruefulness at deciding to stay at such a desolate place with a fellow named, heh heh heh, Tom.

I took the old captain's chair from beside the table and wedged it beneath an edge in the door as I double-checked the lock. I don't know why--especially since I knew that that splintering, termite infested door was likely to crumble to sawdust if anyone gave it even a moderately forceful shoulder. But, somehow, having the chair wedged behind the door gave us a sense of security that was as irrational as the fantastically fiendish stories we had made up in the first place.

And with that, inexplicably, we both fell asleep for several hours until sunrise (below), albeit with the key ring around my finger and the phone under my pillow. Here's the sunrise we awoke to:

Days 49-50 - Death Valley Days

We arrived in Death Valley at a propitious time for the lithospherically curious. Daytime highs had just dropped from the one-teens a few days before to the upper 90s. Associated with the cool front was a freak summertime storm that passed through the night before. It dropped a whopping six-tenths of one inch of rain-- 63/100 of an inch, to be precise. It doesn’t sound like a lot but in a place where the mean annual rainfall is just over two inches, you can do the math and see that they received one-third of their rain in an evening—and in the summertime instead of the usual wintertime.

In the desert, it doesn’t take a lot of water to create flash floods. The ground is so parched that it doesn’t readily absorb water quickly introduced through precipitation. So rain has a tendency to fall in the mountains that surround valleys, like Death Valley, and run straight down canyons, acting as sluices, to the valley floor. Improbably small amounts of rainwater accumulate momentum running down mountain faces in rivulets that grow immediately into rivers that didn’t exist 15 minutes earlier. These flash floods, in turn, wash tens of thousands of tons of boulders, gravel and sand along with it. Across the face of the mountain range, dozens of small canyons all direct this slurry into a single wall of water that rushes across the valley floor. Frightfully, rain falling 10 miles to the west can result in a flood that reaches your campground in minutes, even if a drop of rain never falls directly on your rainfly.

The storm that passed through the night before we arrived closed the roadways to the northern half of the park. Some were impassable just from being covered in the silt and dust washed in by the flood. The water, over hours, will soak into the ground or evaporate and leave behind the slurry that dries to a consistency not unlike cement. Other roads buckle and crack as the force of the wash erodes the roadbed. Anything sitting in the low-lying areas of the valley in the way of the bedload of the flood gets bulldozed along for hundreds of feet—tents, 4x4s, campers, buildings, hikers. I’m not sure that the whole scope of damage was known by the time we left a few days later. But there is a well-documented flood from a similar wildcat storm around the settlement of Furnace Creek in the valley from 2004 that may act as a guide.

Death Valley is a large depression that was once the site of a large inland water body—Lake Manly, long ago disappeared—which was hemmed in on the western side by the Panamint Mountains and on the east by the Amargosa Range. It is, as you all know, the lowest place in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. Through a fascinating set of geological forces that can be explained much better by John McPhee than by me, the floor of Death Valley is subsiding while the mountain ranges framing it continue to rise. It is just one example of hundreds in this part of the country that is, geologically, referred to as the Basin & Range Province for the north-south undulations across nearly 1000 miles that lead a traveler moving east-west to the impression that they’re on a continental-sized roller coaster: up a range, down a range into a basin, up another range; relentlessly. It is what creates the pulse-quickening vistas of a single road struck out across a vast expanse of nothingness heading straight for a monumentally size slab of rock.

Understanding how all of this works over millions of years makes it occasionally hard for green-minded, tree hugging neurotic obsessives like me who are conscientious about “saving the Earth” to wonder what impact, in fact, humans will ultimately have left on the planet 100,000 years on, even if our time here ends in environmental cataclysm. The most apocalyptic ending you or I or the most creative science fiction genius could imagine will be merely a blip on the timeline. It’s a little fucking depressing.

So, enjoy it while you can. And with that in mind, we hiked into Golden Canyon. Twice, in fact: once along the sheer western escarpment of the exceedingly phallic but definitely named Manly Beacon during the late afternoon setting sun; again the next morning from the opposite face as the sun rose. I won’t do the landscape’s tactile polychromatism justice. The pictures below will do only a little bit better.

In between we camped in Furnace Creek beneath the spindly needles of a tamarisk tree. As the sun finished setting silhouetted puffs of cumulus clouds faded to shadow in an inky sky. They had been approaching from the west for an hour or two. We saw a couple flashes of lightning in the way-off distance. We wondered if there’d be more rain tonight.

It took me awhile to fall asleep. Much as I love it, I always have a bit of trepidation about sleeping in a tent. It didn’t help that the dusk seems to always bring a stiff wind in the desert. As the sun sets and the air cools, the ground gives up a tremendous amount of absorbed heat from during the day. This radiant cooling creates temperature differences across the valley and, often, strong winds. I cringed a bit while lying away for hours, reading, and watching the top of my tent bend over almost 90 degrees and wondering when we’d go tumbling across the salt pan in it.

It took me awhile to realize the wind blowing through the tamarisk tree above our tent wasn't the whoosh of cars passing by on the road. We weren't even near enough to the road to hear cars as I thought about it.

After midnight, the wind died down and, finally, I drifted off.

At 1:00 A.M. what sounded like a gaggle of school children laughing and screaming at recess came from somewhere outside the tent. I awoke with a faint sense of startlement and disorientation. For a minute I thought I was back in my apartment with the sound of children drifting up and over the lip of my windowsill from the PS 125 schoolyard below at noon. (The moon was brightly lighting the tent now that the sky had been blown clear.) Then I remembered the tent and began to wonder what I could have been dreaming that reminded me of kids yelling and carrying on. But as the fog of sleep burned off a bit more I heard the sound again and realized I really was hearing something like baying children. My heart beat into my throat.

Now I have been to the desert only once before. And I’ve never heard a coyote before. But very quickly I settled on the notion that I was hearing baying coyotes. They didn't sound like the classic movie coyotes. (Do they ever? Cue the moon; cue the howl.) I listened closely and discerned two distinct sounds. One was a group of high-pitched whining and howling coyotes—truly like a crowd of children. And they were close by—certainly somewhere in the campground. Whenever they died down, a deeper, lone howl way off in the distance clear across the salt pan would wail. And the group nearby would respond. This went back and forth for a while. Was it a group of pups, wandered off, howling for their mother? Was she chastening them? After awhile, eerie, unnerving silence. I tell you—teeth chattering—I couldn’t stand it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Days 45-48 - L.A. Days

It took my second trip to California to finally see Los Angeles. And Santa Monica. Never really had any yearning to go there. It was easier, as an avowed urbanist, to just hate it unseen. As I found out (and, truthfully, as I suspected) there were aspects of the place that I was utterly fond of. Sure, there was eye-rolling audacity. And, in fairness, I was pretty jazzed when we had dinner sitting beside Jon Favreau (Queens kid; Bx HS of Sci class of '84) one night at an upscale sushi joint in Brentwood.

But there were also delightful enclaves of Arts and Crafts houses bracketed by rows of Indian laurel fig trees which are common, handsome street trees in LA. Palm trees may be more numerous, but the Indian laurel fig is more distinctive with its birch paper-colored bark and strong sinuous trunks and branches growing up in erratic directions, like a live oak--or Malcom Gladwell's hair. And the streetsigns in old LA are deco-era cobalt-blue porcelain and enamel-on-iron. The edges of municipalities are gerrymandered into irregular sawtooth patterns here, but you always know when you've drifted back into LA when these beautiful signs reappear on the poles for a block or two or seven.

Megan and I spent some time looking for the iconic, mid-century Stahl house, number 22 in the Case Study House project. We snaked our way up and down some compact car-width switchbacks up and down the road it was supposedly on in the Hollywood Hills. We could tell by the view across LA that we were close, but the house itself seems to now be behind gates to keep the likes of gawkers like us out.

And there isn't much I'll be able to say about the Getty that hasn't already been effused. If you have any interest in line or light, this is a place you must come to. Given one day, I was pleased to see it in sunlight. But I want to return in different seasons, at different times of day, to see how haze or night or a sun setting beyond the Santa Monica mountains plays with the color of the travertine, the curve of the banisters and the woody gardens.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Days 45-59: Days Afield

Writing in retrospect, the next two weeks that will be chronicled here are a trip that I should have taken sooner in my break, if only it were possible. Megan and I headed out west for a couple of weeks of visits with family and roadtripping through the desert. As I am quickly becoming accustomed to, the desert's great expanse and vast quiet have a way of focusing the mind for a bit. If you're lucky enough to be paying attention while it's happening, it can be instructive; I've been far more productive since being back than before I left.

And, of course, there are the wonderful moments on the trip itself that are fun to replay. I'll be adding posts from our time away over the next week or so. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Day 43 - Newtown Creek

As we nosed into the mouth and rounded the knob of land that is north Brooklyn, the Manhattan skyline drifted over the industryscape that lines both sides of the creek. I felt, for a moment, like I could be in the Meadowlands. Or Bayonne.

But it was New York. Old Newtown, in fact, on the creek that bears the erstwhile western Queens placename.

On September 16th, the Newtown Creek Alliance held a second boat tour of the creek (I missed the first one). While I've spent a good deal of time working and poking along both edges of the creek, I'd never been on it. So Megan and I headed over to the East 23rd St. marina, down the gangway past moored yachts and aboard M.V. Half Moon, the worn but reliable dinner cruise boat that NCA seems to get to use for a lot of its on-water programs.

The pictures below catalog a good deal of what we saw on this dynamic waterway. It has a very rich history in several respects. Part is economic. By 1910 the value of commerce along this 3.5 mile tidal estuary eclipsed that of the mighty, muddy 2,320 mile Mississippi River. It still abuts three of New York City's most productive industrial areas: Long Island City, East Williamsburg, and Maspeth, though its share of water-dependent uses has dwindled. It is, unfortunately, the receiver of millions of gallons of storm-water runoff each year during heavy rains. And because much of New York City's sewer system combines storm- and sanitary sewer pipes into one system, heavy rain often mean that tons of raw sewage wash into the creek. Then, of course, there is the huge plume of oil caused by years of leaking tanks at the former ExxonMobil site in Greenpoint which continues to send oil percolating up from the shallow water table to the skim of the creek.

The NCA's mission is to "revitalize, restore and reveal" Newtown Creek. The tour, if repeated, is a lovely way to spend and afternoon--malodorous though the upper reaches of it may be. Cotton puff clouds and a crisp late-summer breeze help to ease the smells a bit.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Day 38 - Worksman Bikes

I wish I had more pictures to share the experience visually with you, but I spent an hour or so this morning with Wayne Sossin of Worksman Business Cycles in Ozone Park, Queens.

I was interviewing Wayne to learn more about his 110 year old business building "business cycles". These are not Lance Armstrong's cycles, though if you want a bike that will live strong for a generation or two, these are the ones to buy. Worksman markets most of their products for industrial or work-related uses: moving small payloads around factory floors, letting mobile maintenance crews at a plant zip around as needed, delivering pizza or groceries to apartments in the neighborhood. They have also branched into similar lines of work, including heavier-duty recreation bikes that provide a sturdiness for older folks or special-needs riders.

Wayne quipped, “You’re not going to ride a century on a Worksman cycle, but if you need to get from here to there and need to have reliability that when you run into a curb there’s nothing at all is going to happen to your wheel, but the curb might break, that’s what we’re all about.”

Nothing like naming your business to clearly identify yourself, right?

Dumb luck, actually. Or an enterprising immigrant who recognized the power of changing one's name for the right business opportunity.

Morris Worksman was a Russian immigrant who came to New York and set up a sundries business in lower Manhattan near the turn of the 20th century. He saw an application for using the newly popular bicycle to help move goods around factories and, importantly, to make deliveries instead of the typical horse-and-cart. It was an apparent success. Fast-forward three decades and Worksman had its next big source of demand: mobile vending.

In the 1930s, an Ohio-based confectionery who had recently invented a sweet treat that froze sweetened cream on wooden sticks had just sold its invention--Good Humor ice cream bars--to a New York investor who subsequently expanded and franchised Good Humor routes across the country. In the suburbs, Good Humor Men may have rode around and sold their sweet wares out of their signature trucks. But in NYC and other urban areas, Good Humor Men often used bicycles—Morris Worksman’s bicycles. The basic need hasn't changed much: the need for a sturdy, dependable machine to carry a lot of weight easily and efficiently.

Seems a little anachronistic these days, no? Or, at least, not a growth industry.

Maybe not. But Wayne points to the fact that he has had sales that have held steady over the past several years while several other US-based bicycle manufacturers have either closed or moved their production off-shore. In fact, according to the National Bike Dealers Association, over 99% of bicycles sold in the US in 2006 were imported.

To grow his business he is working with several universities to use his bikes and trikes to set up bike-sharing programs like ones written about recently in Paris and Berlin and openly discussed in some circles in New York City by the New York Bike Share Project.

The other thing Wayne is doing--and almost all savvy New York City manufacturers know they have to do this--is to reduce his biggest costs. Wayne's lucky. He bought the building he's in now a number of years ago. While it required a large capital outlay (which he was lucky to be able to pull together--not all manufacturers can) it has insulated him from the market's recent overheating. He also has some of his fabrication completed overseas before receiving them here to do the bulk of the building and customizing work for customers. And he's working the the New York Industrial Retention Network to figure out how to use his factory building's large rooftop to generate some of the electricity he uses from solar energy to further reduce his ongoing costs. This and similar programs are offered by NYIRN through RenewableNY.

It's not easy doing business in New York, but Wayne says he couldn't imagine doing it anywhere else.

“Being born in NYC holds a special place in my heart," Wayne says. "Being able to have a business here where we employ a decent number of NY residents is a wonderful feeling and I’m committed to make sure that that continues. It would be really easy for us to pack it in in NYC and move to a more modern place where costs are lower. But the beautiful thing about being here is that there is a certain magic of the NYC resident."

Describing his 60 or so employees from a half-dozen countries, Wayne continues, "They’re resilient and hard working. There is a great pool of labor in NYC which I think is often overlooked. You can see the ethnicities based on what they’re eating for lunch. We definitely have some interesting aromas here around 12:30.”

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Day 36 - French Charley's

Today was the NYC Century. I had bold visions of biking most of it. But after a couple of longish rides in the week leading up to today I decided I was still too out-of-shape to do a long ride. And this important point: I never get to see the Bronx portion of the NYC Century, lacking the stamina to do the whole 100 miles with the Bronx always the last 25 or 30 miles of the route. So as to compromise this year I headed straight for the Bronx portion of the route to do my own quarter-century ride in the quiet of the South Bronx on a sunny Sunday morning.

I sneaked over the Willis Ave. Bridge before 7:00 AM to skim the top of Hunts Point along the Bruckner. Finally, I made it into the Bronx during my time off. (I had taken one other quick trip up here several weeks ago to have lunch at Mo Gridder's BBQ in Hunts Point, but this was my first real exploring.) The biggest treat was heading into Soundview Park for the first time. The Century's route took riders along the newly opened bike paths in the park which head toward Classons Point beneath the planes landing on Runway 22 at LaGuardia just across the Upper East River.

From there I headed north into the heart of the Bronx through Olinville, a neighborhood just east of Bronx Park centering on Burke & Allerton Avenues and including the erstwhile turf of The Wanderers, one of a number of gangs of the era that loosely monitored a number of neighborhoods throught the Bronx at the time. I learned all this from my good friend Wilfredo Lopez who, in part, grew up in Olinville--and was a Wanderer.

From there I headed north into the heart of the Bronx through Olinville, a neighborhood just east of Bronx Park centering on Burke & Allerton Avenues and including the erstwhile turf of The Wanderers, one of a number of gangs of the era that loosely monitored a number of neighborhoods throught the Bronx at the time. I learned all this from my good friend Wilfredo Lopez who, in part, grew up in Olinville--and was a Wanderer.

Olinville is largely West Indian these days. (One of my favorite roti shops, Feroza's, is on Burke just east of White Plains Road--thanks, Matt!) But in the 1960's it was almost uniformly Italian. And Wilfredo moved in as one of the only Puerto Rican teenagers at a time (and in an age group) when ethnic identity was all there was for a person.

I know Wilfredo from my time at the Health Department. He retired this year after a career as their general counsel during one of urban public health's most activist and contentious periods in the modern era. It included, only most recently: the smoking ban, an effort to post caloric content on fast food menus, and regulating better tracking of diabetes patients to help them find better care in managing their disease. There were more than 20 years of similar struggles to balance the health needs of the public with the civil rights of HIV and TB patients. He has also been re-writing the health code to consider the chronic illnesses that are killing people today as thoughtfully as the contagious diseases that were the public's bane a couple of generations ago. But when I found out that he grew up in the Bronx and was willing to show me around his old haunts, I was even more enamored of him. And it's when I learned about French Charley's.

Wilfredo was a smart kid who hung around with an assortment of characters growing up in the 1960s. And it being the Bronx, the assortment include some folks who messed around and got in some trouble--mostly as a gang called The Wanderers. And French Charley's was one of those places where those sorts of guys hung out. Well, it was where they hung out when they wanted to make a little trouble. With the Ducky Boys. With the Fordham Baldies.

In his classic Bronx voice, undulled by a couple of decades on Long Island at this point, he told me on one of our tours of the old neighborhood "When we had a beef with anudduh gang, we'd go to French Charley's over there in the duh park to seddle it."

"French Charley's? What was that?" This had to find its way into a story somewhere, I thought.

"It's in duh park over dere. It was a low spot where we'd go tuh rumble. I dunno why duh hell dey call it 'French Charley's' but dats what we called it and, man!, did we guys get into some trouble down dere."

And now, a few years later on my Sunday morning bike ride through this same park, I came upon this sign:

French Charley's, as I could now see plainly, was an ideal spot for a rumble--or for cutting up in a friendlier way with friends. It is a hollow at the base of a tall, winding stairwell of Fordham gneiss and schist, out of view of most passers by. I have no proof of this, but the play equipment and signage is almsot undoubtedly better today than it was forty years ago. Here's how John McNamara describes the place from
History In Asphalt: The origin of Bronx street & place names:

"A well-known ballfield and picnic grounds that were bounded by Webster Avenue, the Bronx River, and East 203rd Street was the former grounds of a French restaruant, of which "French Charley" Mangin was the proprietor in the 1890s. His daughter married a Philip Bianchi, stonemason, and lived her entire life not far from where her father's restarurant had stood."

So dats why dey call it dat.

Further along the ride, out of the idyllic gangland that was Burke Avenue, I rode into Van Cortlandt Park along bike paths that I had only ever hiked along. (Some great downhills to top out at 25mph on!) Around a few bends that weave over and under Mosholu Parkway I came across the NYC Century Bronx rest stop. Most century riders doing the full route weren't due through here for a couple more hours. So imagine their surprise when I rolled up as they were still quartering oranges and smearing peanut butter onto half-sandwiches. Sheepishly, I decided not to confirm their astonishment at my stamina and speed; I explained how I cheated.

The rest stop was set up beside the right-of-way for the old Putnam Division of the NY Central Railroad. I had known about this for years. My friend and Urban Park Ranger Matt Symons brought me here one fall afternoon to show me what had become a trackless hiking trail, knowing my love of history and trains. But what I hadn't noticed until chomping on a banana and refilling my water bottle here was the relic of the old Van Cortlandt station on the line. It's not much to speak of. The iron girders that held the canopy over the open-air station are all that stands beside the trail. The line, in different incarnations, ran from The Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan across the Harlem River and under High Bridge in the Bronx and then north in Westchester and Putnam counties. If it were still used today, it would have been roughly parallel and between Metro North's Hudson & Harlem divisions. From what I can gather from a few non-primary sources, passenger trains last ran over this line in the 1940s with gradual retrenchment along the ends of the line--as was common in the time of the automobile ascendant--until trains were completely gone in the late 1960s.

Back into northern Manhattan for my first ride down the Harlem River esplanade in over a year. On the river, students studying sculling in the morning shadows. Further down, one of the nicest treats for anyone who appreciates great structures and accomplishments of civil engineering:

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Day 33 - The Bayonne Bridge, Finally

So, occasionally, the effort to do new New York City things requires detours into, well, New Jersey.

I took the opportunity to visit a friend and her new 9-week-old in Hoboken today and used it to do a good pre-ride in anticipation of the NYC Century at the next weekend. I'd been to Hoboken before, but taking a bike there allowed for a few other firsts. I got to bike over the north path of the GWB. Typically the south path is the one bikers use as it's a pretty easy ride with no stairs and a single, gently graded ramp on the Manhattan side. The north path is, on the hand, a tangle of steep stairwells, cages and underpaths woven among vehicular ramps at either end, evoking a outsize game of chutes and ladders. They are dark in places (even during the day) with tight corners where folks who choose to linger on the path can secret themselves. Though I will say it's worthwhile to make it onto the span in between these seedy ends to get a gorgeous view of Inwood Hill and northward up the Hudson River canyon.

From the GW down to Hoboken is a pretty easy ride (I hit 30mph dropping down from the palisade at the bridge to the shore!) mostly along River Road through towns whose names I've always heard on traffic reports and had vague notions of where they were on a map somewhere west of me--Palisades Park, Guttenberg, Weehawken--but had never spent any time in. Particularly fun was biking underneath The Helix--the corkscrew of an approach that winds its way down from the Jersey palisade to the mouth of the tunnel and is how most people enter it from the Jersey side. It's such an impersonal behemoth when you drive up or down it that it's hard to imagine a community with people and houses down below, but they're there.

South of Hoboken I wended my way south and west through Jersey City toward Bayonne, into a steady headwind for 15 miles. I'll have to do the research, but my sense is that Bayonne is as old school a working class enclave as perhaps still exists in the New York City region. Homes, cheek-by-jowl in the best spirit of many spots in Queens, were all immaculate, if modest. It's impossible to be anywhere on the peninsula that doesn't overlook the lurking creatures of the port in Newark Bay and be reminded of how much is shipped into the region and handled by folks like those sitting on stoops up an down the streets here. Kids returning from school have only to look westward down the streets to see silhouetted reminders.

This place, among others nearby, was a primary beneficiary of the port trade that decamped from New York's Hudson and East River piers for more inexpensive and less encumbered space. A brisk business in the barging of rail cars across the Hudson River left gantries just north of here in Greenville. After the 1940s, though, there was less--and a lessening--need for the bulk commodities that rail shipping favors to enter--or leave--New York City. Robert Fitch's The Assassination of New York, recently updated, tells one version of these events. Sad for us. But bully for the working schnooks here.

Further on down the peninsula, the parabola of the Bayonne Bridge came into view. It was really the whole reason for this trip by bike: it's the only bridge in New York City that allows bikes and pedestrians over it that I hadn't yet traversed. The whole ride here I had been assuming--with no particular reason or evidence--that the bike path would be on the eastern face of the bridge. For several miles of tough biking into the wind I had imagined cresting the bridge, hopping of my bike for a few minutes, and sitting cross-legged to eat the rest of the sandwich I hadn't finished at lunch. And in the way that tough bike rides have a way of focusing one's mind on particular goals or scenes in one's mind, if only one was to make it, I had assumed that this would happen in the shade of the bridge with the sun setting at my back while I gazed eastward along the Kill Van Kull toward the Bay.

Except the pathway is on the other side.

I can't explain the strangest, if slight, sense of disappointment this created. It is a gorgeous, sun-glinted view from up there nonetheless. In fact, it was probably a far more dramatic view. The path launches up and curves around toward the handsome steel arch that is in its diamond jubilee year. Beneath the bridge's pier on the Bayonne side are a small sprawl of tidal mudflats with frogs and crickets chirping away in the late afternoon. The zenith offers faraway views of Staten Island's other three bridges as well as Lower Manhattan. Lumbering below in the Kill Van Kull was a sleepily groaning tugboat. I wanted to see a container ship pass beneath on its way to Newark Bay; I'm told the largest among them can't make it under the Bayonne's still-impressive 150 foot clearance at mid-span. And most of the rest have to fold down their antenna just to squeak under--at low tide.

Down the other side, the Bayonne Bridge lands in the Port Richmond neighborhood on Staten Island. The houses are similarly modest here and of a similar age as those in Bayonne. But unlike on the other side of the water, the bridge lands right in the middle of a neighborhood. From the bike path, I could see what some folks were preparing for dinner.

As a Staten Islander, I have always admired this bridge. As a kid, it was probably because there was hardly any reason to go over it and that made me curious about it. The Verrazano, Outerbridge and Goethals all took our family to places of greater import, I guess. (A lot of other people must feel that way, too. Respectively, their average daily vehicle counts are: 194,000, 84,000, and 76,500. The Bayonne? 23,400.) But as I've gotten older, I've fallen in love with its soaring, parsimonious steel arch. There is a deco, streamlined feel to it. And it reminds me of my most favorite bridge in New York: the stately, slightly older but equally anachronistic Hell Gate.

Of all the bridges I'm not supposed to cross but want to, that one's at the top of the list. :-)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Day 30 - Waning Days of Summer, at Sunset

More surprises where I expected least to find them.

I took this long circuitous bike ride (with thanks to MFS for introducing me to from my place in Morningside Heights through Downtown Brooklyn, Crown Heights, Ditmas Park, down Ocean Parkway, through Brighton Beach, along the Coney Island boardwalk (stopped to watch a Cyclones game), through Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge--all real estate that was well-trodden to me: Riding over the Manhattan Bridge always reminds me of a Bernice Abbott photo, no matter time of day nor weather; I was familiar with the Victorians in Ditmas Park and they're as gorgeous as ever; I used to be a Cyclones season ticket holder and it's still the coolest thing in the world to watch double plays in one direction and the surf beating the shore in the other; I used to live in Bay Ridge and the limestone rowhouses are the handsomest I know in the boroughs.

I was riding with Megan and showing her some of these places for the first time, which was just as fun for me. It's always a little bit new to see a place again by telling someone else about it from memories: first apartments, run-ins, trysts, favorite pizza. Heady stuff.

So imagine my surprise most of the way up 6th Avenue, climbing into Sunset Park, to realize I'd never been there. Never once. Thirty-five years in New York, minus a couple of inconsequential ones, and I had never stepped foot in the actual Sunset Park. Been to the neighborhood a hundred times. Even skirted the park itself a bunch of times. But never once inside. Ridiculous, it seems.

Even more awing when we wound our way through the hundreds--maybe a couple thousand--of neighborhood residents lounging, barbecuing, biking, dribbling soccer balls, batting at tennis balls or slicing salted mango with paprika and lime, is the view from the ridgeline in the center of the park. Off to the west, through a thin afternoon haze, was the evidence of a still-working waterfront on the Brooklyn shoreline, a procession of rooftop watertanks and, almost within reach if you tried, the skyline at the Battery. I suspect we accidentally and quite happily stumbled upon this special place on the best day of the year: a picture perfect final summer day at, well, sunset. The stats I read tell me that Flushing Meadows is the most intensively used park in NYC's system; I wouldn't believe it today.

Much of the weekend was like that: expecting the familiar and being grabbed by what we didnt' expect. Somehow we totally forgot that it was the West Indian Day parade until we tried biking across Eastern Parkway and got caught up for blocks in grills, coolers, jerk seasoning, steel drum bands and a surprising trail of paraders in fuchsia.

And L&B Spumoni Gardens has a mouth-watering Sicilian slice that we were sorry to arrive too full to try more of. We stopped in as we passed by en route home. I assumed I'd just be crossing another good slice off of my list of pizza to try in NYC, and I almost wept instead at the idiocy of showing up to a place like this after a big lunch at Gambrinus in Brighton. It seems silly to worry over it, but the true pizza aficionados in the audience will appreciate exactly what I mean by this.

A day later I'm still grinning at the fond memories of happening into Sunset Park for the first time. It's a wonderful feeling to find the new in the familiar; we should all have more if it in our lives.