Thursday, January 31, 2008

Day 180 - End of the line?

Here we are. Day 180.

This will surprise, and likely chagrin, the more nerdy among you, but just today I rode the last of the subway system that I had not been on: the Franklin Avenue Shuttle. It seemed an appropriate way to celebrate Day 180, the putative end of this line I’ve been traveling for six months.

I've been taking stock of my gerund-rich time. Traipsing, tramping, rambling, writing, interviewing, broadcasting, cooking, cadging, googling, surveying, burnishing, divining, dallying, contemplating, resting, and becoming restless. I’ve spent time in every borough, in dozens of parks, in a score of library branches and in more cafes than I care to count. I have learned to roast coffee beans in East New York; treadled a letterpress in Gowanus; muffled my ears against the deafening chatter of a half-ton of Jordon almonds tumbling around the insides of a dozen century-old copper drums spun by pulleys and leather belts in Hunts Point; watched biscuits of vinyl pressed into records in Sunset Park; wandered a vineyard in Floral Park; and am preparing to leave Staten Island to spend a night in New York Harbor, on a pilot boat, as my grandfather did all of his adult life half a century ago.

I’ve wandered around sugar farms in Cajun Louisiana shucking cane stalks with a pocket knife to suck their juice right in the field; camped in Death Valley; and spent days lazing on a patio along the Santa Fe railroad in Arizona watching train after train after train lumber by over the high desert. Each seemed a little more like heaven than the last.

I’ve been generally unrushed. So, for instance, in waiting for the subway I have been able to let one train pass by in favor of the possibility that the next might be made up of older cars. Why is this important? Because on the newfangled trains it isn’t as easy to look out the front window and enjoy the tracks whizzing by beneath me; or to espy switches or branches off of the main line that I hadn't noticed before; or just to reminisce about high school days when I'd fight my way into the first car, no matter how crowded, and shoehorn myself in front of the window. What makes for a more comfortable, capacious cab for the train operator is depriving a new generation of nascent subway buffs this important experience to appreciate the infrastructure many of their ancestors may have helped to create. I have wanted to indulge in it at every opportunity I can before they all go away.

I have discovered that the so-called creative class really is an important part of our economy, at least if I’m typical. I am convinced that, alone, I am contributing at least 0.5% of the Gross City Product in terms of cafe expenditures. By my accounting, I've plunked down $350 in the past few months just on things that paid for my reading and writing time in cafes.

I have rediscovered public libraries, and in a big way. I hadn't checked a book out of the public library since I borrowed The Lord of the Rings from the Huguenot Park branch during the summer between 8th & 9th grades. But in the interest of economy, I now routinely reserve items from the NYPL that are delivered to my local branch when they're available. It's brilliant and I've turned others onto it. And when I’m out and about—and when I’m tired of stopping in at cafes—I have used libraries throughout the city as satellite workspaces. I've spent time in a library in every borough in the past six months. NYPL is the paragon, of course. But Queens is still my favorite system: so unprepossessing and utterly useful to its mostly immigrant clientele. It is so, well, Queens. No bells. No whistles. Strictly utilitarian. Filled with patrons as varied as the borough it serves—every one that I’ve been to. I love it.

I've been surprised at how important parks have factored into my wanderings, without my intending them to. I hesitate to say that I discovered how essential they are; I was, after all, a Parkie for a year, and I support the relevant parks advocacy groups and causes. But I think back now in wonder at how many hours I meandered through Pelham Bay Park, Soundview Park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park; along the boardwalk and on the beach at Coney Island and the Richmond Terrace Esplanade; in J. Hood Wright Park near the GW Bridge; in Alley Pond Park way out east; in Highland Park around the old Ridgewood Reservoir; at LaGuardia Landing Lights Park so close to the undersides of landing 737s that one can make out the rivets in the fuselage; and around Bethesda Fountain where I just paced back and forth for much of one glorious and ponderous afternoon. Sunset Park was a particular treat. I made my first visit to it on one of my summer bike trips and couldn't believe I hadn't been there before. By any measure, it was thronged, but especially for a weekday afternoon: soccer playing adults, scooter-skipping kids, skewer-selling vendors, and languid, chatty old men and women with wizened faces sitting shoulder to shoulder on every bench lining every walkway up and down the ridge from the flagpole to the bottom of the hill.

And, of course, I got published as a journalist. Technically. I had many goals and intentions for my time off—most of which have not been realized. I intended to become proficient at Spanish, to finally start harmonica lessons, to systematically make my way through Harold McGee's classic "On Food and Cooking," to cook at least 4 nights a week, and to try my hand journalism. I've dabbled in all, but the one thing I can say I really succeeded in was getting published. It was a gallant attempt with a modest result, but it was one of the most gratifying things I've done outside of pubic service.

After spending the first 60 or so days casting about rather aimlessly (though, in retrospect, appreciating the salubrious effects of catatonia), and finally getting up enough guts to pitch stories and interview strangers, and to overcome my biggest challenge—procrastination—I have finally hit a stride. I am working through story ideas, getting things down on paper, and making connections. In short, I feel like I'm finally getting warmed up. I have more to say and more I want to do in this regard, and I’m not quite ready to give it up. Not just yet.

Which brings me to Day 181 and beyond. I wish I had more concrete ideas about what the next chunk of time will bring. I need to begin making a living again. This has been a decadence that I have relished but which is not sustainable. I have begun exploring options, including consulting gigs that let me use my knowledge of government and my skills at navigating bureaucracy while allowing me to maintain some flexibility to pitch and pursue stories. I’m grateful to friends and colleagues who have made connections for me in this regard lately, and I look forward to hearing more.

In the meantime, check back when you can. The name of the blog won’t change; the sentiment is still the same. And I’m as tickled now as I was in August. Probably more so.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Day 176 - World's Biggest Road Map

For the 1964-1965 World's Fair, modernist marvel Philip Johnson was asked to design a pavilion to celebrate the host state: New York. You all know it, I'm sure, even if you don't realize it. Many of you have probably seen the most notable component--the flying saucer lollipop-looking contraptions--while driving by Flushing Meadows Corona Park on the Grand Central Parkway. The rest of you probably know it from Men in Black.

Less known today, since it's mostly gone, is the adjacent Tent of Tomorrow whose colored panels (think '60s) were suspended over the artistic piece-de-resistance of the pavilion: the world's biggest road map. The map is a terrazzo reproduction of the 1964 Texaco Roadmap for New York State and one of the most fabulous pieces of pop art you are likely to see--whether you're a map geek or not.

Most of the World's Fair structures were constructed just for the fair and did not last much beyond its two seasons. The NYS Pavilion as a whole has been in limbo since then. It was too grand and ostentatious to dismantle. And yet it was too operationally challenging to be used effectively after the fair. It hung on for a bit as a restaurant and viewing platform, as it was during the fair, but it could not hold its own financially. The futuristic heaven-pointing monument that the City--or, more correctly, the World's Fair Corporation--was willing to subsidize during the world-renowned event of the fair itself, was harder to justify for a city slipping into fiscal purgatory.

The towers remain (or, at least, have persisted); their external elevator now frozen in place partway up the side and their internal stairwell rusted out from four decades of rainwater pooling upon their treads. The spectral plexiglass panels of the Tent of Tomorrow fell in many, many yesterdays ago; the criss-crossing guy wires hold nothing in place today. And the gorgeous terrazzo map of the Empire State has been rent apart by mosses and ailanthus, succeeding in creating a rift in the Mohawk River valley in 40 years that the Earth's tectonic movement couldn't do in 40 million years. There have been several attempts--most half-hearted, a few zealous--to create a justification and a funding stream to stabilize and possibly renovate the pavilion. The most recent one I remember involved creating a space museum that would be sited there. Each has been done in by a combination of municipal malaise and the daunting
sums of money needed to make it happen.

Recognizing at least part of this vanishihing landscape, the NYC Parks Department, along with the University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program, recently began documenting and conserving parts of the Roadmap. With an eye toward telling a new generation of aficionados about the map, the Queens Museum of Art just opened an exhibit this weekend that explains and celebrates some of this work. Dave Jacoby and I attended. I was pleased to see such a variety of folks there and interested in this relic. All hopefully will be motivated to help develop a broader constituency for it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Day 176 - Bulls Eye!

Way back on Day 63 after visiting the Queen County Farm Museum to make wine, I was biking back through Auburndale, just east of downtown Flushing, along a road paralleling the LIRR. There were a couple of warehouses abutting the residential neighborhood--vestiges of the railroad's industrial linkages in the past. One had a banner hanging outside saying, simply enough, ARCHERY.


So I pulled over and peered in through the glass doors. Sure enough, along the far wall was a line of colored targets. And standing between me and each was an archer holding up bows--no two of which looked alike.

Taped up to the door were a few news articles from the local rags profiling the Queens Archery Range & Pro Shop and its owner, Al the bow doc. One mentioned that a basic lesson and an hour's time on the range was $17.

How neat! For less than $20, I was going to do something that never would have occurred to me to seek out and which I never would have even been presented with had I not been biking down this particular road. I loved it for the serendipity as much as for actually getting to use a bow and arrow.

This past weekend I returned and brought my friend Lorna who, growing content with the challenges of raising her daughter has, of late, been musing about taking up hunting.


Reasonable enough. And who's going to argue with a determined woman with a bow?

Drop-ins are welcomed at Queens Archery, but you might want to call ahead to make sure there aren't any tournaments going on. Brush up now on your cupidity in time for Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Day 172 - Foggin & Trix's Topographical Adventure

When an old friend from high school got in touch to tell me she was living in Teaneck, it only seemed right to arrange to get together (for the first time in 18 years!) uptown, near the GW Bridge. Besides, I've been fascinated of late with the dramatic topography of upper Manhattan--and the step streets that define some of the thoroughfares there as a result...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Day 171 - What I Love Best About Queens

I happened upon this on my way to make pickles. I don't know what made me happier--the flags or the pickles. God save Queens!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Day 170 - Number, please?

OK all you New York City nerds... here's a question about Manhattan geography I'd like an answer to:
On cross-streets below Houston Street, in which direction do address numbers ascend? To the east or to the west?

And, while we're at it:
On cross streets below Houston Street, on which side of the street are odd address numbers? On the north side or the south side?

Obviously, the answers aren't straightforward, or I wouldn't be asking. So when replying (which you can do by posting a comment below) be sure to give evidence--even just an example you're aware of. And if anyone (and I suspect there will be several of you) knows what I'm getting at and can shed some light on historical anomalies, the information will be welcome!

More to come on this topic as research continues, but post your comments for everyone to see in the meantime!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Day 159 - Our Montmarte(s): NYC's Step Streets

The picture above is a New York City street, maintained by the city as a public thoroughfare. It's just not for cars.

We're not San Francisco. Nor Seattle. But we have hills--even a few steep ones.

Perhaps readers of this blog won't naturally fall into the category I'm about to describe. But I think it's fair to say that many New Yorkers--certainly those with largely Manhattan-centric lives--may not notice that the city has topography; that in rectilinear, orthogonal Manhattan there are hills and dips and rises. It's hard for many people to imagine the that New York Public Library's main branch is at the crest of a long, gentle hill dipping southward along the axis of the Fifth Avenue. If, on a quiet Sunday morning, maybe in the summer when the city has decamped for the weekend, you were magically able to place a bowling ball in the center of avenue in front of the lions, and you gave it a slight nudge downtown, it might not stop until it passed under the arch in Washington Square Park. Who'da thunk?

The scenic heights of northern Manhattan and the western Bronx, variously named, are dramatic exceptions. Beginning at the northwest corner of Central Park and running along the neck of Manhattan into the western Bronx a ridge of hard schist juts skyward with spectacular views west toward New Jersey's palisade, and east across the Harlem River's basin (eroded through softer, weatherworn marble) to more highlands in the Bronx. This spine has been thrust up over many millions of years as a massive sheet of the Earth's crust just off the Atlantic coast slowly, inexorably crashes into New York and New Jersey. If you imagine this happening in your bedroom between, say, your dresser and your bed, the resulting bunching of the carpet in between would represent this ridge.

It presented a challenge for stateman Gouverneur Morris, the lawyer John Rutherfurd, and the surveyor Simeon De Witt. This triumvirate comprised the commission which suggested to the New York State legislature, in 1811, how Manhattan, north of 14th Street, should be sold and developed. Most essentially, it laid down the grid pattern of streets and avenues which is the epitome of Manhattan today. The ridge, running obliquely to the grid, required the occasional imposition of odd-angled streets along the upper and lower edges of the ridge. In between, the rocky outcroppings that were not easily developable by real estate interests laid fallow until, eventually, several were planned and landscaped as parks by, among others, Central Park's chief designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The line of parks along the ridge include Morningside Park, St. Nicholas Park, Jackie Robinson (nee Colonial) Park and Highbridge Park.

While parks were used as a natural alternative to building housing along stretches of the ridgeline through this area in the late 1800s, the arrival of the subway beginning in the early 20th Century, coupled with improvements in construction technology, created a synergy of demand and ability. Now buildings could and would be built along precipices, or straddling the change in grade. In some places, buildings are constructed into the sides of rock, creating the curious opportunity to enter the front door into the main lobby at the 7th floor from wher one can take an elevator down to the first floor at the back of the building.

Roadways could not easily navigate this steep change in grade. Where east-west streets crossed the ridge, they usually ended in cul-de-sacs at the top or bottom. The ridge was a natural barrier in many areas. But as development increased, this become more difficult to manage. Eventually, some streets were punched through--as step streets.

Not surprisingly, most are in northern Manhattan and the western Bronx. But there are some along the terminal moraine in Queens and Brooklyn and Staten Island--the points furthest south that glaciers pushed during earlier ice ages where they left all the soil and till that they had bulldozed along the way from Canada. I've been fascinated by them for awhile, now, and am beginning to catalog all of them. Most are elegant, appointed with balustrades and stonework at a time when public works had more elegance. Some are rickety and in disrepair. The tallest I've found so far is 130 steps. I also found one that was only 31.

The NYC Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over step streets. I'm working on getting a list and trying to visit each one, though it may not happen before Day 180! Stay tuned.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Day 156 - The Speakeasy Burger

Today was my turn to return the favor and treat my friend Dory to a birthday lunch in an out-of-the-way back room of a lunch joint. (And to celebrate her engagement!) Only instead of falafel in the back of a loading dock, we sneaked into the lobby of Le Parker Meridian to have a burger in the back of hallway off of the lobby.

To find The Burger Joint, head into the main entrance on W. 57th Street and into the atrium. To the left and up a flight of stairs you'll find their hotel restaurant. That's NOT where to go. Go the other way. Look for a dark hallway just to the right of Registration. If the heavy black velveteen drapes are pulled apart sufficiently (if another surreptitious diner is skulking in or coming out) you might catch the glow of the neon sign that tells you you're heading in the right direction.

Even though you swear you're not supposed to be there (I think of that scene from Goodfellas--ducking into the Copa through the back door) you'd be lucky if there wasn't thronged with folks from the neighborhood, ice-skaters-in-the-know from Wollman Rink, and hotel help. The faux-wood paneled walls are dimly lit to reveal a mix of entertainment world kitsch, apparent celeb graffiti, and totems of burgers.

Over the counter window is a magic-marker scrawled menu on brown cardboard and another sign with handwritten directions on how to order. (How many burgers? How do you want them cooked? What do you want on them? There was no instruction for the shake, so I just blurted it out at the end. The guy at the register furrowed his brow and looked up slowly at me, so clearly I didn't do something right, but I got the delicious shake anyhow.)

The crew behind the counter is engaged in a constant smile suffused banter that makes the orderer feel like he's interrupting someone's party. It's not entirely clear when you have their attention sufficiently to place an order, but somehow they convey annoyance if you've waited too long to break in. But as surly as the interactions are, I did get a "here you go Darlin'" when I was called back to the counter to pick up my order.

For $20 we got two deliciously broiled burgers with "the works", an order of fries and split one of the best chocolate shakes I've ever had.

The only trick is finding a free table in this tight spot. Go early (11:30a) or later (after 2p) to avoid that part of the adventure.

Thanks to urbanerd and nascent New York foodie Andrew Caddock for the tip!