Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 391 - Waiting for Gustav

Leg 7: 497 miles from Lockhart, TX, to New Orleans, LA
Leg 8: 1,377 miles from NOLA to NYC via Amtrak
(3,959 driving miles; 5,336 total miles)

I am writing this from a train I wished they called the City of New Orleans. Alas, it’s called the Crescent which, frankly, wants for an iconic folk song to match Arlo Guthrie’s paean to the former Illinois Central’s New Orleans-to-Chicago train.

We left New Orleans on time, just past 7am today, Friday, due in New York tomorrow afternoon. I arrived at the station 30 minutes before we were to depart to find there were already several hundred people queued up along three walls in the cavernous 1950s waiting hall. Someone mentioned that there were 200 more passengers than was usual for a Friday before Labor Day.

This is what the early stages of an evacuation look like in a major American city. And it’s worth noting that it’s the three-year anniversary, to the day, of Katrina.

Gustav is still days away from clarifying its intentions for the Gulf Coast. But that hasn’t kept a jittery quarter-million residents in New Orleans from engaging in a high-stakes guessing game as to where he might go.

Weather models envision landfall anywhere from eastern Texas to western Florida, a gapingly broad swath. New Orleans may be spared, or it may receive a glancing blow, or it may take a direct hit. The problem is no one knows, and no one will know more until late Monday or Tuesday when landfall is hours away. By then, if it is aiming for New Orleans, it will be too late for residents to safely make their way out of town, and hotels sufficiently inland will be booked anyhow. So they make plans now—and will likely begin to leave days before we will know exactly where Gustav will go—because that’s what you do when you live in a city that is largely below sea level with infrastructure inadequate to compensate for that fact during hurricane season.

The past several days have been a surreal combination of tense conversations in households (“You think we should go to Hattiesburg or Alexandria, honey?”); anxious calls to motels a few hours inland (imagine 100,000 people doing this simultaneously); and desultory conversation (overheard from grocery stockers the next aisle over: “So, you got a plan yet?” “Oh, I’ll probably just put a few things in my car and head up to my mom’s place in Hammond for a few days. I already got most of my stuff stacked on tables and shelves.” “I hear you.”). It reminded me more of idle chit-chat about sports scores than strategies for keeping appliances and keepsakes from being inundated.

Then again, my hosts and I were no less schizophrenic about it. We dutifully filled the gas tank in the car, another canister of “emergency gas” in the trunk, and reviewed maps for a departure route. In between we were drinking casually all afternoon, smoking a brisket in the backyard, and planning a dinner party for seven which we had taken to calling our big Fuck You to Gustav. Tension mixed with resignation. But tense about what, exactly? Resigned to what, precisely? No one was sure.

One radio show on the local talk station was interviewing callers about the best ways to secure your RV on the side of the road if you got stuck in traffic on the highway during the brunt of the storm. A DJ on a rock station further down the dial was playing tunes for a New Orleans citywide going away party. What else can you do but make a plan, compare notes with neighbors, and then engage in gallows humor to pass the stunning 72 to 96 hours until you implement, tweak or abandon your plans?

But, like I said, most people will just go because they won’t wait until the last minute and risk getting caught in town when it’s too late to leave. That’s whom I was lined up with in that waiting hall this morning, and who are on this train with me now. Phil and Daisy Mason are heading to Atlanta to stay with her daughter. How long I asked? Weren’t sure—a week, maybe, they guessed? Mike from Slidell was heading the same place. Jackie and Marion, further north to the Carolinas. This was just a sampling from the tables in the dining car.

Tulane has canceled classes until next Thursday already to allow students to evacuate. Loyola has done something similar. The University of New Orleans is sure to follow if it hasn’t already.

Even if Gustav never comes close to New Orleans—if not so much as a single drop of rain falls in the delta, and if no mandatory evacuation is ever called by officials—100,000 New Orleanians are likely to have left town this weekend. That means hundreds of thousands of person hours of work lost as businesses close down for a few days. The city, in addition to the direct costs of orchestrating this mass migration, will be out that sorely needed tax revenue. And think of all the out-of-pocket money about to be spent by residents holing up in hotels and motels in northern Louisiana for a few days, possibly for nothing.

Several friends and colleagues here have told me that if Gustav is a substantial storm that hits New Orleans directly, the city’s done—end of story. People who came back before won’t come back again. I guess that may be true. But as concerning should be that this sort of mass fleeing in advance of storms which may never actually make landfall is unsustainable. Residents won’t be able to afford or endure it--assuming they heed the call at all, next time. Businesses—especially major national and international businesses—won’t tolerate it. This collective wincing in the face of approaching storms will chase away the private investment that is essential to New Orleans’ resurrection over the long haul.

So pray for Gustav to pass New Orleans by. And then pray for another three years before another storm is even forecast to come close. We need it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 390 - Foggin On The Radio

This is pretty neat. Today, my first national radio piece was aired on the Marketplace Morning Report. (Thanks to all of you who alerted me that you heard it while I was away!) Not bad for a first attempt if I do say so myself, though (of course) I hate my voice. I have one more scheduled to air in the next few weeks.

This one is a short piece about New York businesses which use firewood.

I’d like to say a few quick but huge thank yous: to my friend Alex Poolos who encouraged me to pitch stories to Marketplace and is most directly responsible for this opportunity; and to a fantastic reporter named Linda Blake who, over the past year, has been immensely encouraging of my foray into journalism generally, and who—more to point—edited my clips (from California, no less) to get them into shape. Thanks, too, to John, Jim and Kevin at Marketplace for the generous amounts of time and guidance they provided while I’m still learning the ropes. It’s encouraging to know there are outlets as prominent as Marketplace that are as open as they are to freelancers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Days Afield: Day 383 - Coffee, Barbed Wire, Beer, and (shhh) Catholics in Kansas

Leg 5: 502 miles from Oberlin, KS to Guthrie, OK
(2,951 miles so far)

(Sorry for the dearth of photos. Camera battery was dead.)

I love regionalism, really I do. I love things that are slightly different from area to area in a country, or a state, or a city, reflecting the particular folkways or mores that a certain group has developed or adopted over time. In a world of homogenizing corporate and media influences, it’s getting harder and harder to find these differences.

All that said, I prefer my coffee dark and this part of the country simply doesn’t do dark coffee. It’s not necessarily bad or weak coffee. But they certainly don’t have a taste for French roasts. Theirs are termed “mild” or “medium blend”. Lannie Tauber of Hena coffee roasters taught me this almost a year ago, and it didn’t particularly click for me until the third cup of rust-colored hot water that I poured for myself at a roadside stop.

Driving south and east from Oberlin, KS, this morning, it became clear to me that this part of Kansas is actually what I always imagined Iowa to be like: nothing in any direction other than planted crops. Here, along KS-4, there was truly nothing but crops straight to the horizons, 10 or so miles away. At that point, grey outlines of grain elevators and water towers and the occasional oil derrick were barely visible in the morning haze. They are FAR away… miles and miles.

All the drivers out here seem to wave to passing cars, even at 65 mph in opposite directions. For an attention glutton like me, it’s a pretty cool thing. I moved up from waving to passing cars to sticking my whole arm out the window to wave to a guy in a tractor in the field off to the side of one road. He waved back. I was thrilled.

Thank god for Rand McNally maps. I mean, I love Google Maps as much as the next person. But when you’re touring and traveling, there’s something about a paper map rich with additional information that is just great. It’s how I found the Barbed Wire Museum of Kansas, which is where I was heading this morning.

I pulled of KS 4 in La Crosse and turned south down Main St. The map had it as just off to the right after the turn. I went the length of the strip of shops and back up to the state highway. How big could a museum devoted to barbed wire—just in Kansas—be, I thought, so it seemed to deserve a second, more careful pass. No dice. So I stopped in for some directions at the gas station on the highway. Back through town, I was told, and make a right immediately after going over the bridge.

The bridge? I been up and down this road twice and I saw no bridge.

“It’s there, just after the train tracks,” the kindly woman at the register told me.

And off I went again. The “bridge”, it turns out, is a car-length section of road that passes over a dry culvert not more than a foot or two deep. In Kansas, that apparently counts as elevation.

And there it was, set back along with the Kansas Historical Society’s local branch and the Post Rock Museum: the Barbed Wire Museum of Kansas. Truth be told, it was the largest of all the buildings there. A pre-fab job from the 1960s, the size of a small warehouse.

Raymond George, well into his 80s, greeted me at the door and pointed me toward a startlingly large—no, encyclopedic—array of barbed wire samples from the mid-19th Century through the late 20th Century. There is a ridiculous number of variations, some of them so slight as to be undetectable to the untrained eye. But each has a slight, differentiating nuance and its own patent number. And there are several bound books (all offered for sale) that chronicle the many variations in painstaking detail. The museum also provides pointers on starting your own collection. (I can't lie... I bought a few strands.)

Mr. George, who farmed a section near Great Bend, KS, for several decades, walked me through some of the more narrative sections of the exhibit: how the first barrier fence of wire was made and patented in the 1850s (which seemed rather late to me); to the different methods for stretching, stapling and connecting barbed wire, to the dozens of different post hole diggers and augers that were used to sink the posts. Along the way, he shared some tricks of the trade, like always posting in the spring when the ground is soft and wet and easy to dig and before the heat of summer expands the wire too much before it’s stapled.

There were two other highlights of the tour. One was the small room containing portraits of all the donors to the museum (which was launched, remarkably, in the 1940s) with representation from (equally remarkably) nearly every Kansas county, another dozen US States, and two from Australia. They’re all white men, yes. But that’s still some remarkable geographic diversity for the Barbed Wire Museum of Kansas. The other was a 72 lbs crows nest made from barbed wire snippings. Apparently, a pair of ravens (which is what they’re called out here) proceeded to construct their nest over several seasons. It was finally cut out en masse, part and parcel with the fence posts it was nestled between, and bequeathed to the museum.

I have to say, given how little overall variation there is among the thousand plus samples of barbed wire, and the dozens of post-hole diggers and augers (I used one just a few weeks ago that looked just like one of the first ones from the 1800s), it seems safe to say that all three have been little improved upon in nearly two centuries. Which doesn’t lend itself to a very, well, dynamic exhibit. (Crows nest notwithstanding.) That said, Mr. George was one of the warmest folks I’ve come to know on this trip and we shared a lot of conversation about where we were both from and how different the places and generations that we’re each a part of are. And I couldn’t have imagined a more lovely way to spend an hour. I hope to make it back again soon.

I was back on the road on a mission to find, in an unlikely place, a brewpub. It’s called Mo’s Place in the unincorporated community of Beaver, KS. When I mentioned this to Mr. George before I left, he said, “Beaver. That’s a Catholic community.” There was neither a trace of judgment nor derision in his voice. He simply stated it as though I ought to know that before setting out. A point of information.

I waited a moment to see if there was something else coming, like maybe “They eat their babies.” Then I ventured, “Do you mean as opposed to a Protestant community? Is that unusual around here?” Aside from not eating babies, I know almost nothing about religion, so this was shaky ground for me to be standing on, especially with post hole diggers nearby.

“Yes, as opposed to Lutheran or Methodist, which we mostly are here. I’m a Lutheran. And Beaver’s just always been a Catholic community—since I was a boy. We have a few Baptists, too, in other communities.”

This should not seem as strange to me as it did. I live in a city that still largely organizes itself based on ethnicity. And very often that ethnicity also corresponds to a religion. Perhaps in a place as exceedingly white as Kansas, I didn’t consider differences in religion—certainly not differences among Christian beliefs—as being different enough to organize communities around, or to represent diversity. But they are powerfully different, and they matter a great deal to folks. I mean, I try not to be naïve about these things. (I have, after all, read Garrison Keillor.) But this was really surprising me. And yet I loved discovering it and talking to Mr. George about it.

Duly warned, I dug around in my duffel bag for my rosary and set out to get me some locally brewed beer.

It's hard to even call Beaver, KS, a town. (Being unincorporated, technically it is not.) It's far out, truly, on farm roads miles from state highways. The railroad spur was pulled up long ago. There's little more than a grain elevator, a dozen houses (some boarded up) and almost nothing going on at midday in August. Not much else except for a smattering of activity around the grain elevator, and some more on the next block at Mo's Place.

I wandered in around 2:00pm, well after the lunch crowd—such as it might have been—was gone. The lunch special was gone, too. There wasn't anyone else in the place when I arrived except for me and the husband and wife that own it. Len Moeder grew up around here and Linda spent some time around her in school. But both had moved to upstate NY and Orange County, CA, for 35 years while they had corporate jobs. Then they decided they wanted to cash out and pursue their dream of opening a brewpub.

“We looked at property in California, but by the time you got investors—“ Len’s voice trailed off.

So the decided to return to rural Kansas.

We talked as I sat at the bar in the long, prefab building that, from north to south, houses the kitchen, dining area, bar and brewery. Stacked up in the brewery area are bags of grain. They keep the bar stocked with all seven of their brews by making a few 20-gallon batches each weekend. So far, they’re doing fine enough to live in town, walk to work, pursue their passion as their living, and only be open four days a week.

Len & Linda’s model is this is truly the embodiment of how beer used to be made: at the scale of the local proprietor selling to his or her clientele. Before Prohibition, most pubs brewed their own beer and didn’t distribute it any further than the reach of their bartenders' arms. (This is the way a restaurant prepares its food. Beer was considered as individual a product as prepared food was.) And, like restaurants, some pubs brewed beer that was great and some that were terrible, but most were just fine in between. Mo's Place's offerings trended on the fine side with room for some more body and maltiness (IMHO). But I loved about knowing that Len & Linda were making beer for their neighbors in Beaver and some of the surrounding communities. Now, they just need to wean all of straggling Coors drinkers off that swill.

I am pleased to say that I was their first New Yorker!

And I note another regionalism. Around here, a pint of beer served from the tap is called a “draw”. A quart would be a “large draw.” I love it!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Days Afield: Day 382 - Goodbye Grasshoppers

Leg 4: 397 miles from Badlands to Oberlin, KS
(2,449 miles so far)

A strong blow began the day before I left the Badlands. It whirred across my ears all afternoon, blew dust and gravel into my eyes, and bowed my tent downward most of the night. I slept on the windward side to keep the stakes from getting pulled up out of the ground. It was strong and sustained enough to be a conversation topic among locals at the filling station the next morning. It continued the next day and blew the car around as I headed south on undulating SD 73 toward Nebraska. Amber waves of grain were more of a grassland maelstrom. And millions of sunflowers, all facing eastward and reminding me of weary, regimented soldiers more than future lipids (this is big sunflower oil cropland) were holding up, but just barely. But then again, maybe soldiers and sunflowers all wind up becoming grist for the mill in some fashion.

Even with the wind, the noonday sun brought huge numbers of grasshoppers out to warm themselves on asphalt of this sleepy state road. Let me tell you, these were some mongo-sized jiminies. Fist-sized, maybe! It was impossible not to hit them. At least that’s what I told myself after the first dozen. They make this god-awful sound when they get kicked up under your floorboards like stones. And then there are the ones that scramble side to side as you approach. Do you steer gently with them to try to keep them between the wheels as you pass over at 65 mph? That’s what I tried to do until I realized the tractor-trailer coming at me in the other lane would—in my quick, self-serving karmic calculation—do more harm. And this wasn’t my car to fuck up.

At the border, SD 73 turns into Nebraska 61. A few miles on is the nearly abandoned town of Merriman. And then it’s 67 miles until you get to Hyannis. Not a café or gas station or phone booth in between. Every 10 or 15 miles through these rolling hills you’d pass a lonely ranch gate. But these just led to rutted roads that disappeared over the horizon. No buildings. No silos. No barns. Nothing. Ranches halfway down this stretch need to go 35 miles in either direction to do ANYTHING. I only passed 5 vehicles going north in 67 miles, three of them in the last 5 miles before Hyannis.

Nothing but the simple stuff here along NE 2.

At Hyannis, I turned east onto scenic NE 2. This is a road I was on, going west, 12 years before, nearly to the day I suspect, on my first cross country road trip. One of the best parts is the active rail line it parallels that is basically a highway for coal. Every half hour or so, a 100-car unit train of coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming—one of the largest sources of coal in the world—lumbers eastward toward power plants in the Midwest and Southeast US. Today was so windy that as I was pacing one train (54 mph) I noticed what looked like smoke blowing off of the tops of the open-hopper cars. It took me a minute to realize it was actually coal dust. Lots and lots of it. Glad I don’t live beside these tracks.

For much of this trip, I’ve been listening The Omnivore’s Dilemma on CD. It happened to be in the glove box and I’ve been thankful for it through some of the long stretches of highway. It’s been oddly like a narrative for the entire trip so far. I began listening in Iowa when the earlier chapters focused on an Iowa corn grower. I heard more while in South Dakota as I was being introduced to Pollan’s calf on a ranch in Sturgis, SD. Eventually, I wound up in Kansas about 50 miles from the feedlot that his calf wound up on and I kept passing transporter trucks for that feedlot operation—Poky—on all the roads I was on. I started to think of The Truman Show.

So Kansas was another of the states I haven’t been to yet and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t totally giddy when I passed over the border. Of the three (SD, KS and OK) this is the state I really, really wanted to visit.

I pulled into Oberlin, KS, after most of the shops closed up for the night. And the downtown was pretty much deserted, save for a few cars in front of the local watering hole. Its Main Street is a period piece from the late 1800s with some 1950s storefronts mixed in. It has the requisite covered sidewalks that I really love. There are competing local drug stores directly across the street from each other and I wondered if there was a Hatfield-McCoy sort of feud going on. (And, if so, which one was the real McCoy.) I pulled in here because I had seen a sign for the Landmark Inn on the highway about 30 miles north. I hoped that it wasn’t going to be too dear because the thought of staying here for the night really appealed to me. And given the quiet, lonely state of affairs, I couldn’t see how it could be anything but a bargain. More importantly, I wanted to support this town with some economic activity.

The Landmark Inn is the old Oberlin Savings Bank. The old bank lobby is now the Teller’s Room Restaurant. The sign on the door said dinner was served from 6-8pm, but at 7:15 it was bolted tight. There wasn’t a single car parked in front except for my own. I wandered around the corner looking for a way into the hotel proper. Finally I found a door along the side street that opened into a small hallway across from an empty room that said Managers Office. I called a hello. Not a soul. At the end of the hallway was the back entrance to the restaurant as well as the adjoining gift shop. Both doors ajar but each area dark. Both areas were outfitted with dozens of antique fixtures in a potpourri of styles. Someone, clearly, was trying to curate this space. And it was spotless. I did note that everything I saw was on offer, each having a small handwritten price tag visible.

I made my way back to the office and hollered once more.

Finally, as I was getting ready to leave, the proprietor walks down the stairs in his socks and seemed a little surprised to see me. I suddenly wondered what he did with the bodies and their vehicles. Nevertheless, we exchanged pleasantries and handshakes and I asked how much for a room.

He cleared off a pile of books and paper from the chair in his cramped office and hit a few keys on the computer, toggling through screens which he scrutinized through squinted eyes like he was poring over an ancient ledger.

“Looks like we have one of our basic rooms—queen sized bed.”

In a place that couldn’t have had more than 5 or 6 rooms, all of which were perfectly empty, I couldn’t quite imagine what he needed to consult the computer for. He stared at his screen while tapping some more keys and said more slowly, as if a premonition where slowly coming into focus, “Also… looks like we have… a slightly… larger one for… a little more.”

Just as he was making his way into the third option, I decided to put an end to the little charade and asked him how much the basic room was.


I suddenly felt less like I was sharing the wealth with this sleepy little town than I was being had. But I was tired and desperately needed a shower after 3 days of camping and so I signed on the dotted line. Upstairs, for my 69 bucks was one of the handsomest rooms I’ve stayed in. High ceilings with ceiling fans. Ten-foot windows with draw shades. A four-poster bed. Antique washstand. Not half bad.

And I was even more surprised when, at breakfast the next day in the famed Teller’s Room, there were indeed 4 or 5 other guests. From where they materialized overnight, I have no idea. But they were there and all knew the proprietor well and we all got on just fine as I shared my Kansas itinerary for the day and got earnest pointers from everyone.

Yes, I thought. Definitely Truman Show.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Days Afield: Day 381 - Good days in the Badlands

Legs 2 & 3: 1235 miles from Chicago to Interior, SD
via Strawberry Point, IA, and Mitchell, SD
(2,052 miles, so far)

So the stated reason for this trip is to cross off my list the last three states in the Lower 48 that I haven’t yet been to.

Yesterday: South Dakota… check.

It’s hard to say this credibly, but what song do you suppose was playing on the radio as I crossed over from Minnesota to South Dakota? By Springsteen? (Wait for it….) Badlands. Yes, I’m serious. Pretty neat, actually.

Despite my intention, I’m getting to take this trip mostly out of circumstance and kindness. I’m actually delivering the car I’m driving to friends in New Orleans. They were in NYC for the summer and are returning directly to New Orleans after doing some other traveling; I got to take the car back for them—by way of South Dakota. Well, I didn’t exactly ask about South Dakota in particular. Uhh…

Point is, I had the car at the end of August. And I had these three states to get through. It wasn’t like I got to plan the trip to these places at ideal times. I actually didn’t know when the ideal time to be in the Badlands is, but it’s apparently not usually at the end of August when the temperatures are typically 100-105 during the day, around 80 at night, and the height of the dry season assures you that all the prairie grasses are brown and dormant.

Except this wasn’t like any usual year. Temperatures had been running 15-20 degrees below normal and they received about one-third more rain than they normally do. My dumb luck and good fortune. Grasses were green and lush and made for some spectacular early morning hikes on top of the highly eroded buttes. Just as the sun was cresting their jagged tops, I crossed paths at some distance with breakfasting antelope, stepped over cacti, craned my head to follow darting swallows and swooping finches, and even heard a rattlesnake. The snake’s rattle was less what I was expecting from theatrical representations, but when you hear it in the tall grasses a few feet off to your side, you know exactly what it is and it freezes you in your tracks.

And then the bugs start biting, so you keep pressing on.

I got a quick primer in the heavens, too. I joined Ranger Larry and some fellow campers for an evening astronomy program at the Badlands Amphitheater. Apparently southwestern South Dakota, along with parts of Utah, are considered some of the darkest parts of the continental United States, ideal for stargazing. Except this was also the time of a full moon. So any gazing we did was confined to the first 45 minutes or so of darkness.

A group of about 30 of us had been gathered around Rangers Larry as they used these nifty high-powered laser pointers to show us Antares, how to find Polaris from the ladle of the big dipper, and (this was most exciting to me) how to pick out orbiting military and meteorological satellites as they glided by dozens of miles overhead. There were even a few shooting stars!

“Nah, probably just space junk coming home,” Ranger Larry said, tamping down enthusiasm.

There was even some shooting space junk!

Then the eastern sky began to brighten over the buttes’ edges and, a few minutes later, the sky was set ashine by a moon so bright that I had to wince to look at it.

We gave our eyes a moment to adjust. Some of the kids were already staring at the moon’s surface through binoculars. Ranger Larry explained how the tidal relationship between the Earth and moon has slowed its rotation so that we always see the same side of the moon from Earth.

“That’s the same side of the moon that Jesus saw,” Larry pointed out, to punctuate the point.

In our hour or so of discussion of the heavens, this was the first time any hint of the actual or imagined place Heaven crept in. And while it struck me as a bit tinny to the ear. I’ve sequestered myself with a relatively agnostic crowd in my life such that more-than-casual references to a god sound strange to me. But as I’d discover elsewhere on this trip, God is an ever-present force in most other folks' lives.

In the three days I spent in and around the Badlands, I wandered afield to visit the Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City, SD, which also led me to an obligatory visit to Mt. Rushmore--one of the more successful bald-faced boosterism projects ever executed. It was conceived by local historian (and, no doubt, property owner) Doane Robinson in the early 1920s as a way to attract tourists to the Black Hills at a time of almost uncontainable westward expansion and hubris. [Read: “Let’s swipe this sacred land from the Lakota, chisel some white guys’ faces into the side of the mountain, and bring more white folks here to gawk at them while we fleece them, too, for their Lincolns and Washingtons in exchange for commemorative spoons and presidential snow globes.”]

By last year, Doane’s vision had succeeded for the small town of Keystone, SD (population 311) to the tune of about 2,000,000 folks a year. (The number of spoons and snow globes was not available.) I am now one of them. And the damn concessionaire that runs the parking racket for the NPS also has $10 of my money that I’ll never get back.

One of the most interesting side trips was to see the old launch facility for Minuteman ICBM missiles, lately a National Historic Site complete with War Games myth debunking. More on that later.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Days Afield: Day 379 - All caught up at Hot Doug's

It's not hard to see why, when things are this much of a mess, you do the best that you can, trim away the rough spots, make it as clean as possible and then hope time takes care of the rest. There are parables here for the way we should lead our own lives. And, perhaps, for trauma surgeons with certain gunshot victims.

But I raise this not to be philosophical. Rather, only because it was the perfect Foggin urban view we had while sitting in the garden of Hot Doug's for owner Doug Sohn's take on the classic Chicago dog. I won't do much better than the review linked to here, so check it out if you're planning a visit soon. I will, however, share the photo below of the delicious table setting just before the carnage began. I had a classic Chicago dog and another made with blue cheese and topped with pear chutney. Also on table, according to my limited memory, was a jerk pork dog, a garlic dog, duck-fat fries and a few others I'm forgetting.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Days Afield: Day 378 - Chicago's Small Businesses

The first leg of my cross country road trip took me 817 miles from NYC to Chicago. It had been almost 3 years since I was in Chicago last, which is about two years too long for my liking. As provincial a New Yorker as I am, Chicago is a town I never get tired of visiting and which I think I could live for awhile, if only to document all of the incredible neon business signs. And places to drink. And industrial businesses. And public art. And…

And on this trip, my friend and Chicagoan Bekah Scheinfeld introduced me to a great strip of small, locally owned businesses along a stretch of N. Clark in the erstwhile Scandinavian enclave of Andersonville. The water tower off to the east of the strip and visible from the main intersection of Clark and Foster is still painted blue with the gold Swedish cross upon it. I understand that, until recently, it was also a Middle Eastern strip. It still has two Persian restaurants and a hookah & tea shop.

This 6-block stretch of N. Clark is a neighborhood shopping street that was a hive of industry and activity in the middle of a recent weekday afternoon—a sure sign of a healthy strip. There is a mix of neighborhood services including a jeweler, a barber, a couple salons, a couple banks. a sensible shoe shop, a smoke & news shop, a few local drinking joints and a range of restaurants. There were also shops that were destinations for a wider clientele like a bookshop, some fancier restaurants and cafes, furniture stores, antiques shops, and chic-chic home decorating stores. Two blocks south is an industrial laundry that was abuzz and ablaze well past 11:00 PM one night. In short, it’s a neighborhood strip with a range of uses active at different times of the day. And nearly every one of them was a locally owned business, not a national retailer. Always heartening since locally owned businesses tend to keep more of their revenues in the local economy, largely by purchasing their services locally. And it also creates a distinctly local flavor that sets one neighborhood’s strip apart from another. And that, in my mind, is one of the best parts of cities and especially a city of neighborhoods like Chicago is. If you want homogeneity, move to the suburbs. Cities distinguish themselves, or should, by encouraging a mix of interesting destinations.

Two quick plugs:

Tanoshii is one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in several years. Yes, it has super high quality sushi. But it’s the proprietor, Chef Mike, that really makes the experience. He basically treats the whole restaurants as one big chef’s table. Regulars, or anyone new willing to listen to the gentle entreaties of the staff, know to skip the menu and provide Chef Mike with just some basic guidance (“no shellfish, please”, “anything with tuna”) or inspiration (“something with fruit!”) and let him figure out the rest for you. It’s delicious, no question. But that kind of personal connection with clientele is what makes a restaurant—or any business—a neighborhood institution. It creates community capital.

Across the street and south a few blocks is Simon’s Tavern. This untouched relic from the 1930s is an Art Deco period piece. Opened as a speakeasy during prohibition by local Swede Simon Lumberg in 1929, it became a proper cocktail lounge with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933. Current owner Scott Martin took it over recently and, with the exception of a few additional flourishes (including a neon herring cantilevered as a marquis over the front of the place, as well as a hip beer list), hardly a thing has changed. The gorgeous, if ostentatious, mirrored deco wood bar has original portholes still lit from behind. Table seating is with blue and yellow upholstery, evoking a Swedish theme and likely added in the 1940s or 1950s. The point is, something like this in New York City would have been totally gutted and remodeled in an updated style. Scott (who, by the way, will take you on a tour of the old downstairs speakeasy for a nickel) decided to keep everything and celebrate it. And Chicagoans of all stripes (not just blue and gold ones) seem to have taken to it enthusiastically.

Oh, and did I mention that Scott, who owns a Swedish restaurant a few doors up, lives above that joint? It’s the classic arrangement that years ago in New York we called a “taxpayer property.” A proprietor would have bought a small building with a storefront on the ground floor and a living space for his or her family above. The income from the store was supposed to cover the annual taxes on the property (which was the only real cost since most property was bought cash on the barrel in those days).

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day 355 - City Workers' Art Show

You may remember Marvin Franklin as the name of the 55-year old subway track worker who tragically was killed by a passing train in April 2007 while on the job. What a lot of people may not know is that Franklin was an accomplished artist. In fact, he won best of show at the Salmagundi Art Club’s first ever City Worker Art show just a year before death. Last week, the Salmagundi mounted the second exhibition of city workers’ pieces, and dedicated this year’s award in Franklin’s name.

The exhibition spaces in the Salmagundi’s 5th Avenue brownstone in Greenwich Village looked a lot like a museum gallery. There were oils and watercolors, photographs, and occasional charcoals and pastels. A smattering of sculptures were distributed among the framed pieces. There was even one quilt. Subjects ranged from still lifes of flowers or fruit to portraits. The subway also featured prominently. But unlike most art exhibitions, the artists—-every single one of them—-is a working New York City employee.

Paul Thiesing is an educator with the City's Department of Environmental Protection. He used his daily travels through the upstate watershed to inspire an exquisitely rendered watercolor of a rainbow trout being taken from a creek. Every scale is discernible in a gently shifting spectrum of pinks, greens and yellows. Paul, who took home an honorable mention for the trout, was trained as an artist in school, but most exhibiting at the show were not.

A few paces away, Gary Sloman, with the city’s housing department, proudly stood in front a candid black-and-white photo. The 60-year old picked up a camera only a few years ago. His entry was a shot through a Soho restaurant’s porthole window of a couple gazing at each other as they finish dinner looks like it could have been posed for a fashion magazine.

“This is very upscale restaurant," he said. "You’re looking down into the restaurant and it looks like a first date. The woman looking very sexy and receptive. And the man looking like the guy in charge and also picking up the tab. And it looked like a very evocative photo.”

When Marvin Franklin won the top prize at the first City Workers Art Show in 2006 for his oil paintings of homeless people in the subway, he received a year’s membership to the nearly 140 year old Salmagundi Art Club. But the subway worker didn’t really come around. He worked the overnight shift on a gang of trackworkers based in Brooklyn, would commute to the Art Students League in midtown each morning to study for several hours, and then head home to eastern Queens to be with his wife during the day before sleeping for a few hours and starting again.

Ed Lynch is the curator who put together the show to celebrate artists who balance a life of working hard serving others while remaining dedicated to their art.

“The thought behind the first show," Lynch explained, "was these are going to be uncelebrated artists. They’re going to be people who decided to do art no matter what.”

And that certainly described Marvin Franklin’s discipline.

“If you can do what he could do," Lynch continued, "which is study-—really understand what you can do, what is your honed talent—-and then step away from the studio, reach out into the world in which you live and inform your work, then you can turn around and be like Marvin Franklin, And it would be a great compliment.”

And so this year’s best of show prize was given in Franklin’s name to honor that dedication to craft. Of nearly 300 submissions by city workers from all sorts of agencies, 123 were finally considered for the prize. It went to Pico Reinoso, an art teacher himself at P.S. 189 in East New York, for a piece entitled Afternoon Sonata.

“I teach the students, the elements--I emphasize the elements of design," Reinoso said. "The concepts of lines, the concepts of shadow, the concepts of perspective.”

Reinoso’s painting incorporates all of these elements. A soulful looking young woman about to blow into a recorder while contemplating the New York City skyline, distantly out her apartment window. Behind her, sitting on the couch in the sparsely furnished room is a woman with a similar likeness, maybe 20 years older. It’s meant to be unclear, Reinoso says, whether the older woman is the girl’s mother, or if it is the young girl as she imagines herself in the future.

All of the works that made it into the competition are serious art from a technical perspective. But not all are necessarily serious pieces. One certificate of merit went to Jennifer Sabino’s painting called, simply, Spam—-a Norman Rockwellesque portrait of a smiling pig seated at a table, a can of Spam placed before her. And then there was Duck Duck Goose, a satirical and unusual oil color of five police officers in full uniform seated in a circle on a highway, of all places, while two other officers ran around the outside in the way of the children’s game. Who, one wonders, could have pulled this off?

Alexandro Berrios is a 28-year old police officer in North Brooklyn. He may have chosen a fun subject, but Duck Duck Goose took him more than four months to complete, he says. In the spirit of Marvin Franklin, Berrios works hard to manage his city job and still find time for his art.

“I’m renting a studio in Long Island City," Berrios said. "I work the midnight tour. I hop in my car and I go to Long Island City, lock myself in an 11-by-18 room, paint for 4 or 5 hours, go home and take a shower, take a rest and then go back to work.”

For some the artists, their art is a way to tie different parts of their lives together. Nathanial Ladson is a city housing inspector with a portrait in the show. “You meet interesting people, you keep it in mind, and you put it on canvas. And sometimes it gets a little hectic, and I come home and I paint. That’s my peace.”

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Day 350 - Harlem Red & Green

Walking north from Morningside Heights into the valley of Manhattanville along Broadway or Amsterdam yields a dramatic perspective. It's about a mile, as the car drives, from the crest at 116th Street to the crest at 138th Street on the other side. It's an amazing view, day or night. But there's something that tickles me about seeing all the brakelights go dim and the traffic lights turn green all at once, only to be followed by a river of red again about 20 seconds later.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Day 333 - The Night Stripes

My friend Dave and I were walking home late one night after some carousing when we came across this great scene--a little hard to see in the dimness of the light. But if you're like me and ever spent any time at all wondering how stripes for cross walks and lanes get painted on the street, wonder no more. They're not really painted; they're applied. Actually, they're melted on. You'll see in video below that use a hand-pushed contraption that is part Zamboni, part lawn fertilizer spreader. On board is a bin that holds white or yellow thermoplastic pellets with minuscule glass beads mixed in for reflectivity. There is also a propane-fired burner which melts the plastic just as its being applied to the street. It seems to harden immediately.

The crew that applies the stripes and crosswalks--at least for routine maintenance--are contracted by the NYC Department of Transportation to do the work. (This one happened to be based out of New Jersey.) They work at night when traffic is lightest--which isn't to say that traffic is light. These folks were working on Amsterdam Avenue with a minimum of cones and blinking warning lights as cars, trucks and buses whizzed by. It was pretty neat and not a little courageous!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Day 331 - Bus Rapid Transit Arrives in the Bronx

Not that I ever need a reason to spend time in the Bronx. But I happened to be heading up there for a meeting at Fordham and realized that it was the first work day of the MTA's version of bus rapid transit--what the call "Select Service" on the Bx12 route, which runs along Fordham Road from Co-op City & City Island to Inwood.

While other transit systems have envision BRT as buses on dedicated rights of way, or with the ability to prioritize traffic signals for its vehicles, this introductory version is not quite that. That said, there are some innovations over current bus service that are great starts toward a more robust BRT system.
  • There are stops at only 15 major points along the route, instead of several dozen regular stops.
  • Riders swipe their card or pay their fare at the stop instead of queuing up at the farebox on board. This in turn allows...
  • ...riders to board at both the front and back doors and take their seats immediately. (A receipt is issued to the rider at the bus stop when she or he pays the fare. This must be presented to an MTA employee or cop who make random checks on board.)
  • There is some signal prioritization at certain intersections, meaning that if the light is about to turn red but the bus is about to pass through, the light will stay green for a few seconds longer.
  • There is a dedicated bus-only lane along the route, though it is not well enforced.
Other cities--especially in other countries--are so much further along with innovative transit than we are. That said, there has been a sea-change in New York City in the past 18 months with both the new DOT commissioner and MTA president--two transit advocates and thinkers.

Select Bus Service is due to be rolled out along at least one route in each of the other boroughs over the next couple of years.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Day 330 - ¡Viva España!

God, I love New York!

For today's final match in the Euro Cup 2008 between Germany and Spain, I could have watched it either at Gottscheer Hall in the dissolving German enclave of Ridgewood; or, as I did, with Spaniards at Casa Galicia in Astoria. Boy did I guess right!

Even though Germany was favored to win, there was something drawing me and a friend to crowd in with the Spaniards in the large eating-and-drinking hall of this members-only social club for natives of the northwestern Spanish community of Galicia. I'd been before for other events, but only with my Galician friend and member. But on a day like today, we didn't have to worry; the folks here seemed to be taking a liberal view of who was Galician. (There was a lot of English being spoken among a sea of Spanish.)

I won't pretend to be prepared to describe the match intelligently--I'm a fan of what soccer does to fans more than the sport itself. But I can say that Spain's upset victory (Fernando Torres scored the only goal in the 33rd minute) was made even more special by the fact that they kept the favored Germany from scoring a single goal. By the end of the match, Spain had won their first Euro Cup since 1964--the year of the second European Nations cup and, poetically, the year they hosted the tournament.

I'm sure Gottscheer Hall would have been a great place to watch the match--whether or not Germany won. But it's hard to imagine more heart than in these elated Spaniards.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Day 325 - A step back in time

I met a couple of friends at Cavalier in Jackson Heights and found myself in a time warp--about 45 years earlier. The place, while recently renovated with a (slightly) updated color scheme, is nearly unreconstructed 1960s nightlife. It has an undulating, kidney shaped bar up front and semi-circular booths on risers built along the walls. On the menu are traditional surf & turf selections: clams casino, shrimp cocktail, steaks, chops, French onion soup. The menu was classically displayed outside in a stainless steel and glass case. At any moment I expect to see Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta step through the door in a scene from Goodfellas.

I wish they had.

Instead, the bar was filled--such as it was--with a group of women well in their 70s having Mai Tais before catching the early bird special. (Yes, there really was one on offer.) And the satellite radio had neither Bobby Darin nor Johnny Mathis piped through the speakers recessed into the ceiling. But the bartender made one hell of a dirty gin martini. The glass however, was caught somewhere between the classical era and ours...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Day 317 - Recipe For Growth

Jessamyn Waldman grinds blue corn into flour for her socially conscious baking business--Hot Bread Kitchen--at Mi Kitchen es su Kitchen, a shared space for food entrepreneurs in Long Island City.

I just had the pleasure of having a commentary published the excellent Center for an Urban Future this month.

Recipe for Growth explains how entrepreneurs are clamoring for affordable space in one of NYC's growing manufacturing sectors--food production. More than 16,000 New Yorkers are employed baking bread, making chocolate, mixing spices, or brining pickles, just to name a few products. Another 2,500 New Yorkers operate independently as sole employee food businesses, suggesting that there is a large number of entrepreneurs trying to break into the industry and become the next group of full-fledged firms. Their biggest obstacle? Affordable space. To find what the City can do quickly to help seize this opportunity for home-grown economic development, read on here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Day 309 - Tour de Queens!

Today was the inaugural Tour de Queens bike ride. Queens now enters the pantheon of borough-centric, awareness-raising, advocacy-building bike rides following no lesser venerable rides than the Tour de Brooklyn and, the one that started it all, the Tour de Bronx which I rode back in October. Back in March, you may recall, I helped host a fundraiser which involved bike racing IN A BAR in order to make the Tour de Queens possible.

The TdQ had more than 400 riders particpate and signed up a bunch of new members for Transportation Alternatives in a borough with a growing awareness of the importance of pedestrian and bicycling issues, thanks to the Queens Committee of TA.

We were graciously hosted at the start and finish lines by the Queens Museum of Art who even marked the 20-mile route through central and western Queens on the legendary Panorama! (Pink tape below--it's hard to see in this light.)

Day 308 - The S.I. Railway Pub Crawl

Local ruffians. I used to be scared of these shirtless bastards.

Last night, I joined my friends and colleagues from the Bridge & Tunnel Club for perhaps the coolest pub crawl I've ever been on.

This once- or twice-a-year affair follows the same general itinerary. It starts just before sunset at the southern tip of the Island--in one of New York State's southernmost restaurants--a few minutes' walk from the one-car-long flag stop known as Atlantic on the SI Railway. Last night began with several courses of pasta and some wine at Rocky Toto's, a classic (and very good) red sauce joint in Tottenville.

From there, we headed back on the train and began the crawl in earnest, stopping in at a bar at each of several stations on the way back toward the ferry: Talk of the Town in Great Kills where we played some bar shuffleboard; the Night Gallery (which reminded me of a suburban finished basement with a wet bar installed) in New Dorp; and the classic Lee's Tavern in Dongan Hills for thin crust barroom pizza. I pealed off after that, but the rest of the crew hit a few more bars in Stapleton, Tompkinsville and St. George before, well, crawling back onto the ferry in the wee hours of the morning.

As a Staten Islander by birth and through adolescence, and a proud denizen of the outer boroughs, it was a little embarrassing to not have been to a single one of these bars growing up. To be perfectly honest, I was a pretty good kid who didn't begin dabbling with such things until well into high school and, by then, I was leading a decidedly non-Staten Island-centric life.

The whole evening was marked by turning heads (as our entourage basically barged into locals-only hangouts), quick drinking (as we were timing our stays and departures to meet the next train), and lots and lots of cheap beer. It was divine!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 298 - I ♥ Ridgewood!

Ridgewood, Queens (and for that matter, Ridgewood, Brooklyn) have been pre-occupations of mine this spring. A group of friends with whom I do informal walking tours of outer borough neighborhoods came here in April. I returned today. The neighborhood, which straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border, is an amazing mix of sold, handsome housing stock that manages not to be ostentatious. It is mostly rows of 3- and 4-story apartment buildings, uniformly constructed by the same builder around 1931. Blond and deep orange brick face dominate, giving sun dappled streets a warm glow in the late afternoon.

It began as an enclave of German refuges who arrived between the world wars. There is a smattering of Germans left, many of whom find camaraderie at Gottscheer Hall on Onderdonk Ave. This period place has been reinvigorated in the past several years by the general manager Will Osanitsch. On Friday nights there is live music--often of old German influence.

Today, the residents are much more mixed. Poles have moved in over the past few years as they have been priced out of gentrifying Greenpoint. Each street has a healthy share of Hispanic residents, too, though their proportion is greater on the Brooklyn side of Cypress Avenue.

The whole area retains an old-time feel. Stores are entirely locally owned with simple signs that provide basic neighborhood goods and services. Aside from uniformly beautiful brick buildings, the most dominating feature of the neighborhood is the elevated branch of the Jamaica El which passes through here on the way to Fresh Pond Road.

You can imagine this being the next cool place to become hippified. God help us.

Grover Cleveland Park, at the north end of the neighborhood, and nearly in the shadow of the imposing spires of St. Aloysious RC church, is a center of family activity after school hours during the week. Mothers gather in klatches at the edge of the playground while gaggles of kids clamber up slides and swing from monkey bars. If the trees aren't fully in leaf--and if the sun isn't setting in your eyes--you can gaze west, and catch the teeth of Manhattan's skyline beyond the low-lying plain near the mouth of Newtown Creek.

Wander a little east and south from Grover Cleveland and you'll come across the most bizarrely decorated house you're likely to see outside of Halloween. (See pics below.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Day 292 - The Smallest House in Brooklyn? Wrong Number!

A friend passed along an e-mail with one of the most titillating subjects an urban nerd could imagine: Brooklyn's Smallest House!

Before you read too far along, I might as well be clear: I was had. But the adventure and trip back and time were well worth it. Read on.

It's true, the note smacked of artifice. No, it didn't have thousands of e-mail addresses or endless historgrams of carats from being forwarded umpteen times. But one could tell by the language obsessive variety of text colors and animation that it wasn't something casually forwarded to a friend of a friend of mine.

One photo showed this breadbox of dormered A-frame, allegedly 300 square foot in total, at the head end of a walkway and nestled between two larger homes. On reflection, I (perhaps of all people!) should have realized that NYC's zoning was unlikely to allow something like this to be built.

But I was taken in!

With property values pressing ever upward, and there seeming to be no cranny of empty space in which a developer would not fill with new homes when it's legal (and occasionally when it's not), it almost seemed plausible.

The location information was also convincing, despite its lack of precision. "This house is in the vicinity of Avenue T and Van Sicklen Avenune." That would be the heart of Gravesend... hardly a popular place in the blogosphere for a hoax, and one in which a small-time developer just might try getting away with something like this.

So I happily played hooky one afternoon last week and went to have a look.

I got off the N train to the zed-end of Brooklyn, a few stops before Coney Island, and wandered along Avenue T through a low-slung residential neighborhood. Sidestreets were two- and three-story single family homes. There was local retail on the corners. A few blocks east of the station, I crossed Van Sicklen Avenue and saw the church of St. Simon & St. Jude. An omen? St. Jude is the patron of--that's right--lost causes.

But the area looked promising: cheek-by-jowl homes with car-wide margins between that I had seen in the e-mail.

I wandered in each direction from the intersection, methodically surveying each block "in the vicinity of Avenue T and Van Sicklen Avenune."

There was plenty of intriguing architecture. The homes were aged, handsome and modest. A few bore the apparent eccentricities of their residents. And if you were magically teleported here, you might not know if you landed eastern Brooklyn in the early 21st Century, or the mid-19th.

I looked and looked, but there was no sign of the smallest house in Brooklyn. One structure that might have passed for it turned out to be merely a converted garage. Judging by the satellite dishes on top, it something a husband likely used to hide out from his wife.

I headed back toward the train station and passed, for the second time, The Wrong Number Cocktail Lounge. I happily made a mental note earlier that the lighted Bud sign meant that this period piece of a bar (circa 1966) was still serving suds. Surely, if anyone in the neighborhood would know about a crazy tiny house shoe-horned between two others, it would be the crowd in a place like this. Such a structure was likely to be the derisive talk of old-timers in the neighborhood. And this place, I was confident, would be full of old timers.

Well, "full" would be a stretch. But, yes, there were old timers--at least in the sense that every one of them grew up in the neighborhood within a few blocks of the joint. The place was pure unreconstructed 1960s Brooklyn that could have passed for a Scorsese set: dark and long; low ceilings punctuated with Deco-style round air vents rimmed with dust; occasional incandescent lamps. But most of the light in the place crept in as wisps of cigarette-filtered sun through the front window at the narrow end of the bar. It silhouetted a wizened woman of perhaps 50 who wore a startling amount of lipstick, and her quiet companion. Toward the back were three gents in their 60s, and one bandanna-topped laborer in his 30s pacing along a row of barstools, exercised about something and grousing loudly to no one in particular. Behind the bar was a simple set of shelves that looked to come from a hardware store which carried a modest selection of spirits for the usual clientele. Yankees and Giants souvenirs hung from a mirrored wall beside signs describing the flouted no smoking policy. A hand-lettered, yellowing oak tag poster announced the results of the Superbowl pool from several months back.

I loved The Wrong Number immediately; I was brought to places like this by my parents when I was growing up. But despite it feeling familiar, I hate being the new guy anywhere--particularly in a place where regulars seemed wary of anyone new.

So I swallowed hard, sidled up to the bar and got the attention of the ancient bartender.

"Hi there. Wondering if you could help us find this house." I pulled out my BlackBerry (idiot!) and called up one of the photos as he shuffled over to where we were standing. He looked pained to have to learn a new customer's needs. "I hear it's the smallest house in Brooklyn and it's around here," I added trying to be helpful.

The bartender looked quizzically at my contraption and asked sharply, "You got an address?"

"No, but the e-mail it was attached to said it was near the corner of Avenue T and Van Sicklen."

"Well, that's just down this way a bit." He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder.

I explained that I had already been there, walked a half-dozen blocks around there looking for it, but no dice.

By now, the other folks in the bar were looking up from their beers and offering their help.

"It's for sale?" one asked.

"Well, it might be," I said. Then I quickly realized that this crowd probably couldn't understand why some dude would come to the neighborhood to see something like this if they weren't going to buy it. "I think so," I settled upon.

"Well, I never seen nuthin' like this kinda house around here and I lived here all my life. Show dis ta the guy overdere."

I walked down the bar to another old timer and offered my BlackBerry. But he quickly handed it back, pointing to his face. "Don't got my glasses. You got an address?"

My kingdom for an address.

"No," I said, and repeated that it was near Avenue T and Van Sicklen.

"Well, that's down that way," the old timer said as he pointed over the bar.

I was wandering deeper into an Abbot and Costello routine.

But I seemed to be getting into the good graces of the folks here and they were trying to be helpful. So I ordered a glass of Bud as a courtesy. This seemed to me like the old school kind of place where you could get a glass of beer--not a pint but an eight-ounce glass as was the custom in working men's bars a generation ago.

"A glass?"

"Yes, please."

A red plastic Solo cup full of foamy warm beer was eventually produced. An incredulous customer at the front of the bar hooted to the bartender. "John, you got tap beer? When was the last time you poured a tap beer? You're always sayin' the lines gotta be cleaned or sumthin!"

Oy. Bottoms up.

After a little bit, my nearest neighbor said, "You see that guy over there? Ask him. If that house is in this neighborhood--and I don't think it is--he'll know about it. Been here all his life. This place is his." His eyes moved toward the ceiling and I got what he meant.

Tony--"Baldy" as he said everyone has called him since he was a kid--came over in a rust-colored velour Puma jumpsuit and took my BlackBerry into hisi beefy hands. He was hovering around 70, I thought. But despite a sizable paunch and being a few inches shorter than me, could have flattened me without much effort.

Baldy bantered back and forth with the other folks at the bar, all of whom offered anew their opinions on where such a house could possibly be near Avenue T and Van Sicklen Avenue. But none satisfied him.

"C'mon," he said to me. "If dis place exists, I wanna see it myself."

We walked out into the shockingly bright afternoon sun to a parking meter halfway down the block and climbed into a white SUV. I fastened my seatbelt and became immediately conscious of the act as a minor slight; Baldy didn't wear his.

"Dis here is Gravesend. It's the oldest parta Brooklyn. I lived here all my life." With a little prodding, he offered that his parents arrived from Italy and lived on Thompson Street in Manhattan for awhile before coming out to Brooklyn. "I lived right on this block most of my life," he continued as he stuck the accelerator along an empty side street. "That house isn't here," he said with authority. "But if it was, this is where it would be." I pondered that for moment and wondered if he was channeling Yogi Berra.

Inside of five minutes, we had retraced every block that I had gone up and down on foot, along with a few more, and I wound up with a gruff and parsimonious nickel tour of old Gravesend. Unsuccessful, Baldy took drove back to the bar where I thanked him and said goodbye as he walked away back to the bar, barely acknowledging that a stranger had just joined him for a ride--at his invitation--around his neighborhood. It was so strange. I loved it!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Day 274 - Fairview Cemetery

I took a friend to Staten Island to show off Joe & Pat's--my favorite pizza in New York City. (This tends to change from time to time, but having grown up less than a block away, I find myself continually returning here. We can discuss separately, if you'd like.)

After scarfing down most of a pie, ordering it a slice at a time, I was left with needing to give a nickel tour of the old neighborhood. We wandered west along Victory Blvd. a few blocks from the pizzeria and stumbled, quite unexpectedly, on a cemetery I never really knew existed, tucked back behind a stand of trees and climbing a gentle incline. Fairview Cemetery, with a modest sized grounds, has apparently been accepting interments since 1876 and doesn't seem to be in danger of filling up anytime soon. (Though new plots are creeping closer to the front gate on Victory Blvd.) It does have a very eclectic collection of monuments and headstones which I thought worth sharing here. Look at each one closely--some are really intriguing.

I, of course, mean no disrespect in sharing these images.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Day 265 - Cherry Blossoms & Pantaloons at Conservatory Garden

I spent the afternoon with my friends from Metro Metro wandering around Conservatory Garden in Central Park. They were preparing for their annual Metropolitan Odyssey scavenger hunt. I was following along for a radio piece I am hoping to do on the hunt. But what a treat to see all the cherry trees in full bloom. Even better to find a couple in full bloom themselves. The only thing that fascinated me more than the decorated, sinewy cherry branches where the purple and lavender pants worn by a sweet old couple I spied. Take a peek. Click to begin the slideshow, again to enlarge.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 258 - TriBeCa Graffiti

From along a single stretch of Lispenard St., in TriBeCa. Some great details in here for those stopping to gaze long enough.

Click the slideshow above to play. Click again to enlarge.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Day 256 - Phylacteries In The Park

I was reminded this afternoon, as I often am, how incredibly spoiled I am, being a New Yorker. I was killing a few minutes in Washington Square Park late this afternoon before attending an event nearby, when I looked up from my book and saw the man above--a rabbi, I presume--roving around the benches, looking for Jews with whom to spend a few minutes praying. He approached the family a few seats down, suggested prayer to the young father, and proceeded to wrap his arms and head with traditional phylacteries, or tefillin, in an encounter that lasted last than three minutes before he moved on.

While I'm not a historian, nor a philosopher, I know there were ancient cities that were as or more open and multi-cultural than New York through the ages. But short of Paris, or perhaps London, I'd be hard pressed to want to be living anywhere else but a city in which the prayerful and the playful get to exist, side-by-side, in relative peace.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Day 252 - Ridgewood Reservoir Redux

A few of us walked up the terminal moraine that runs along the spine of Brooklyn and Queens to see Ridgewood Reservoir. It was the first time I had been back since October. But this time the leaves were off the trees and we wanted to see how much we could see from the tippy top without the canopies blocking our view.

Along the way, we saw some of Queens' many cemeteries, including a Jewish cemetery with lots of stone tree trunks as headstones (see above). Fascinating.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Day 245 - Elmhurst, of Noodles and Signs

Been spending a lot of time in Elmhurst lately. It's hard not to want to. There is a ridiculous amount of phenomenally tasty food that costs next to nothing. Among my latest pre-occupations has been a hand-drawn noodle place on 45th Ave, about a block away from the subway at Elmhurst Ave.

It took too long to get to this point, so cut to the chase (when they actually start getting drawn into noodle-looking things)...

My friend Grace, some of her friends, and I were wandering around there today though and taking in some of the market scenes and the really terrific hand-drawn signs that can be found around...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Day 220 - Queens Roller Derby

To promote (and raise money for) the first-annual Tour de Queens in June, the Transportation Alternatives Queens Committee (of which I am an at-large member) hosted a fundraiser tonight at The Creek & Cave in Long Island City.

There were the usual drink specials and auction items. But the highlight was probably the bike racing competitions we held--inside the bar.

Thanks to Dave Perry of Bike Works NYC, we were able to use several of his Barelli competition rollers to let supporters of the Tour de Queens race against the clock--and each other. We even held a face-off between representatives of the advocacy world and the Department of Transportation.

The event was a smashing success. Sadly, no one got video of me trying the rollers. I got the hang of it, but it's harder than it looks!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Day 214 - The NYC Civic Three-fer

I did it! On a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library today, I completed the civic trifecta and now possess a library card from each of New York City's three public library systems: Brooklyn, Queens and the New York Public Library serving The Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan. Brooklyn's and Queens's systems predate the consolidation of New York City in 1898 and remained as separate institutions afterward.

I accomplished this fun feat at the BPL's paean to early 1950s modernism--their main branch on Eastern Parkway. This is one of several civic edifices in Brooklyn built around this time and in this style, celebrating the public good. (I'm thinking much of Cadman Plaza, especially the Brooklyn Heights branch of the library and the criminal courts building there.

I took some time to poke around and appreciate some more of its architecture, including finding what is possibly New York City's most pristine telephone booth!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Day 213 - Williamsburg's Ethnic Arc

My friend Shelby and I took a wonderful stroll through an arc of ever-changing Williamsburg today.

We started out at Pratt in Fort Greene and wended our way north through the Hasidic neighborhoods in South Williamsburg. Incredibly, I don't think I'd ever really been through this area before on foot--at least not the eastern sections in Broadway Triangle that appeared more like a shtetl than a Brooklyn neighborhood. It was an incredible sight: every sign in Hebrew or Yiddish and every single person I passed a member of the Hasidim. I don't know why I was so naive about this, but it was exhilarating to walk through.

North of Broadway, we stopped in at the Moore St. Market which is one of the dozen or so public markets created during the LaGuardia administration in the 1930s to round up and put all of the pushcart peddlers under one roof. The goal was primarily to make streets less congested. But corralling the vendors also made it easier for inspectors to check their scales and ensure that they weren't shorting customers. The market is the source of some community consternation lately. Vendors, mostly of religious and cultural knick-knacks and a handful of purveyors of produce of questionable quality, feel pressured by the City's Economic Development Corporation to move out. EDC, at the same time, is working to improve the breadth of offerings at the market. Always in this neighborhood, change is viewed suspiciously as gentrification--as catering to a younger, whiter, more affluent group of newcomers at the expense of current residents.

After some malta, we set out on a route that took us north through old Italian Williamsburg along Manhattan, Grand and Metropolitan Avenues. These are areas like I grew up in--at least in terms of the demography. I was actually surprised to see as much as is still left. I assumed they were all hipsters at this point!

Here are some shots of old store signs and the odd architectural or street scene curiosity.