Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ghosts of New York

Mourning the loss of old New York is practically a cottage industry in new New York.

Websites like Jeremiah's Vanishing New York document the domino fall of mom-and-pop stores and longtime watering holes, killed by $30,000-per-month rents and replaced with TD Bank branches and designer boutiques. (In the interests of full disclosure and blatant promotion, I should mention that Jeremiah covered My Beloved, whose Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies comic strip in the Village Voice Jeremiah describes as "...an invaluable time capsule of two decades when New York City was still a wild, weird, creative place filled with people who, at the very least, had something interesting to say.")

A niche site, ...and now it's a f***ing froyo place, hilariously specializes in the transformation of locals businesses into...you got it. Meanwhile the glorious Ephemeral New York celebrates the old city—before MetroCards replaced subway tokens, before froyo places replaced everything.

Boy Leaping Into Hudson River by Ruth Orkin, via Ephemeral New York

Even I, a relative newcomer at four-and-a-half years in, get snarly when I look out my window and see cranes on the old St. Vincent's Hospital site, now erecting a behemoth of "five unique addresses and five townhouses nestled together in the West Village"—for cozy nestling prices ranging from $2.195 million (for 892 square feet) up to $19.15 million. With, no doubt, proximity to a frozen yogurt place.

In the gloom of a storm, the cranes of "The Greenwich Lane" rise above the Village.

I know the rule of thumb: The Golden Age of New York was 20 years before whenever you got here. And I know that New York has never stood still. Still, it's feeling lately like the pace of change has gone to lightspeed—closures-building-closures-building-CLOSURES!-BUILDING!—with wads of new money greasing the skids.

But once in a while, you get to reach through a tear in the fabric and touch old New York. As on July 4, when we made a last-minute decision to have dinner at Fraunces Tavern before watching fireworks over the East River. Though it's been through many permutations through the years, the original building dates to pre-Revolutionary times, and it was here that George Washington bid farewell to his officers in 1783, as he prepared to resign his commission from the Continental Army.

Fraunces Tavern, where 1719 meets 2014.

Sure, the place was full of tourists, but it felt both appropriate and privileged to join George on the 4th of July. Even if he wouldn't have been drinking Abita beer during his last supper.

By the time we finished dinner, we couldn't get anywhere near the East River for fireworks, so we ended up in Battery Park behind the glassy new Staten Island Ferry building. As we watched the fireworks rise up over the roof, I was drawn to the quote on the wall inside the building—we could only see its final phrase:

It turns out to be two lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem Recuerdo:
We were very tired, we were very merry, 
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
On Sunday, we joined Ms. Millay and went back and forth on the ferry. It was hot and humid—no surprise in July—and as I often do during summer months here, I was trying to imagine exactly how unbearable it was in New York in the days before air conditioning.

The New Yorker recently re-posted on its website a piece by Arthur Miller that had appeared in a 1998 issue on this very topic. Writing about an "extraordinarily hot September" in the late 1920s, Miller said:
Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s...
...Broadway had open trolleys with no side walls, in which you at least caught the breeze, hot though it was, so that desperate people, unable to endure their apartments, would simply pay a nickel and ride around aimlessly for a couple of hours to cool off. 
Trolley at Broadway and Bleecker, 1917 (c) Culver Pictures

From 1897 until 1972, you could also ride the Staten Island Ferry for a nickel—crisscrossing New York harbor, hanging on the railings, just to feel fresh air on your face. Today, miracle of miracles, the Ferry is free for foot passengers, and on a muggy July afternoon, we were two of them.

The view from our outside bench on the middle deck of the Guy V. Molinari.

Some things never change:

Once docked on Staten Island, we disembarked from the Guy V. Molinari, circled through the ferry building, and immediately boarded the Spirit of America. There was a lot of competition for railing space on the side of the ferry with a view of the Statue of Liberty, but I muscled my 5'2" self into position on the top deck...and there she was.

Then, an hour after we'd started, we were back again—now a little cooled, a lot windswept—facing new-old New York, and greeting the ghosts of Arthur Miller and Edna St. Vincent Millay and generations of hot and sweaty New Yorkers.

On the Staten Island Ferry 1956 by David Moore

From the Staten Island Ferry, July 2014

** Click any photo to enlarge and see slideshow.

POSTSCRIPT: I was going to draw a line between the late St.Vincent's Hospital (now the site of The Greenwich Lane) and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but thought maybe I was going overboard...so to speak. Many thanks to Ephemeral New York for alerting me to the fact that Edna St. Vincent Millay was in fact named for the hospital, where her uncle had recently been treated and whom the family credited with saving his life.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Story About Ralph

Sometimes you wake up grumpy. You slept hot; or a disturbing dream hangs on you like a bad suit; or joints that did their job in compliant silence when you were 23 are now whiny and demanding. Whatever. Grumpy. Obviously, the answer is ducklings.

We went down to the river around 6:30 this morning, thankful for a mottled sky and a nice breeze off the water.

We sat on a bench and talked about work and advertising and Harvey Weinstein (briefly, that), and then a mother duck and nine fluffy-bottomed ducklings pulled up alongside us.

Most of the ducklings, eager and well-behaved, tended to cluster close to their mother's tail feathers. Ralph, the nonconformist, would drift to the outer reaches of her tolerance before she sent him the universal maternal signal for "Get back here."

Now we became the Jane Goodalls of the Hudson River duckling set: We followed the family's progress as they moved toward and around the pier, the implacable mama and her erratic toddlers, their tiny flippers whirring under the water to keep up. 

It's a big world out there.

They negotiated obstacles…

…and then she got them to toe the line.

Finally it became clear that they were heading to this little cul-de-sac...

…where they lined up and pecked at the slimy green stuff (scientific term) growing on the concrete containment walls. Periodically the sloshing tides would lift the family nearly a foot, and they'd crane their necks for another bite...

…but Ralph went in search of a cheeseburger.

It all reminded me of The Story About Ping, the "beautiful young duck" who lived on "a boat with two wise eyes on the Yangtze river," and who got separated from his "mother and father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins" for one scary and eye-opening day.

My stained and well-loved 1933 edition.
Rather, my mother's edition, which I stole.
At six or seven or eight, I read Ping's story as a "Whew" tale—as in, "Whew, he got back to his family safely and he'll never do THAT again."

Now I think, Isn't there some lingering token from his day of misadventure—the look of awe, maybe, in the wide, wide eyes of his forty-two cousins as he describes the "big boats and little boats, fishing boats and beggars' boats, house boats and raft boats" that he saw on "the yellow waters of the Yangtze river?"

Keep paddling, Ralph. Ride the tides.

** Click any photo to enlarge and see slideshow.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Look Up, Look Down

It’s important to look down in New York City. Cobblestone streets are waiting to break your ankle; sidewalks are cracked and uneven and too often smeared with dog poop or coated with ice. You literally have to watch your steps.

But you have to look up, too. Up to street level, to see who’s around you, who’s wearing what, whom you might be about to bump into, which bicycle messenger riding the wrong way down a one-way street is going to mow you down, which shaft of sunlight is turning the leaves a translucent yellow-green or setting an ordinary block on fire during the golden hour.
10th Street, West Village

Then look up further, to see the juxtapositions of water towers and capitalism…

Broadway and Houston Street, Soho

…and the intricate motifs carved into buildings all over this city, high above the street, where they can be enjoyed by—whom? Pigeons? I love that these exist, that so much care went into crafting ornamentation and detail nearly for its own sake.

14th floor, Central Park West

In answer to one of those ubiquitous what-makes-a-real-New-Yorker questionnaires that people here love so much, someone said, “Real New Yorkers never stop to look up at the tops of buildings.”

I thought, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. What a waste of a life.” But I realized recently that I, too, have been guilty of not looking up.

It’s been a complex few months, with two family health crises (one happily resolved; the other ongoing), The Child graduating from college and moving back to the West Coast, and a shifting work landscape that has left me, like one of My Beloved's cartoons, with question marks floating around my head.

Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies: "Fishy Story"

My response has been to keep my head down. I have a tendency, when things get emotionally complicated, to go inward; to let things roil around inside and to never speak of it for fear of letting the beast out of the cage. The problem with that is, the beast just gnaws away at the inside.

Then a young man with mental health issues and knives and semi-automatic weapons went on a rampage at UCSB, killing six people and himself, and I felt despair—again—at living in a society that places more value on an individual’s right to arm himself with weapons of mass destruction than on the right of first graders and college kids not to be shot to death.

So, what with internal forces meeting external forces, I spent more time than I cared to in a miasmic fog of negativity and self-doubt. I can’t swear that I’ve left it behind, but in the last few days, something changed. Spring sprung. There was a shift in the Force.

As my dear-friend-whom-I-haven’t-met-yet, J Clement Wall, said in a recent blog post, “I think it really may be just this simple: to get unstuck, say YES.”

Yesterday, My Beloved and I did some work together on a book project we’re cooking up. It’s a really, really good idea, and it’s on a topic close to my nerdy heart. We had fun with it. And then we went for a long walk up the river, from the West Village to our favorite riverside café at 70th Street.

Within the first five minutes of our walk, it started sprinkling. Then raining. Then hammering down like arrows against a medieval battlement. We hid under the eave of a warehouse to wait it out, and eventually the gray cracked open to reveal hope.
Hudson River Park bikeway, Chelsea

This is a trip we usually make by bike in 20 minutes. Walking it over the course of an hour and a half gave us the chance to see things in focus that are usually a peripheral blur—and gave me the opportunity to lurch to a stop every few feet to snap pictures. Of the aircraft carrier Intrepid:

The menace with an iPhone.

Of kayakers on the shimmering Hudson:

Hudson River Park, Chelsea

And, unexpectedly, of a giant wine bottle in Clinton—a sculpture by Malcolm Cochran called Private Passage, with portholes revealing an interior that looked like that of an Airstream trailer but is supposed to be a Queen Mary stateroom.
Private Passage, Pier 96, Clinton

We got to the café, mobbed with families and couples and bikers and dogs, many of whom—not the dogs—were threading their way among the tables with sloshing pitchers of beer and sangria. We scored seats under the shade of a sage-green umbrella and drank our beer while traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway overhead provided a vacuum-cleaner-in-the-apartment-upstairs ambience.
Pier i Café, Riverside Park, Upper West Side

Sitting and sipping, I thought to look up:
Umbrellas, Pier i Café 

Afterwards, we headed uphill away from the river, arriving in a forest of Trump towers:
Riverside Drive, Upper West Side
But by now, not even the garish hand of The Donald could spoil my mood. We walked east to the Lincoln Center subway stop…

66th Street/Lincoln Center stop, 1 train

…and rattled our way home. This morning, the first of June, before 7 a.m., I opened my eyes and looked up.

I whispered “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit,” with the hopeful little thought that it would bring me luck for the month. I think so. Things are looking up.

** Click any photo to enlarge and see slideshow.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sunday in the Park

It was 77 degrees and sunny in New York today.

My Los Angeles friends and family are politely stifling yawns and trying to look interested at this point.   But here in the east, we've just barely escaped a winter that was like one of those nightmares where you stumble around a maze-like space in total darkness, being tortured with brief glimpses of daylight but never quite managing to get there.

To me, the highest and best use of a 77-degree sunny day in New York is to spend it in Central Park.

We took the 1 train up to West 103rd Street. I've never approached the park from there before. I love the way the geology looms up at you—a startling mountain of schist exploding along Central Park West next to a street light and a Subaru.

The park is lush and woodsy up in those reaches, with lovely pockets of solitude—a gray-haired woman sat on a log reading peacefully, her German Shepherd at her feet—and a sylvan Children's Glade that provides a view almost reminiscent of the island hundreds of years ago (with a Narnia-like lamppost for intrigue).

A wood-chip path and a dogwood in full bloom led us out of the Glade and onto the Great Hill, where Frisbee players and picnickers and a great gaggle of guitarists were in full throttle.

Near the North Meadow, a patch of dandelions waited for wishes.


We tried to stay on the offbeat paths, but it's difficult to avoid veering toward the main drive that circles the park, where packs of cyclists will mow you down as soon as look at you. The crowds picked up. We heard Spanish, French, Turkish, German, a little English.

Along about 86th Street, it became clear that 70% of the universe had woken up this morning and said, "You know what would be a good idea? Walking slowly four abreast through Central Park!"

So we zig-zagged back to Central Park West and over to Columbus Avenue in search of a sidewalk cafe. Refreshed with one Negra Modelo (My Beloved) and a margarita that was 9 parts rum and 1 part ice cubes (me), plus a bowl of pozole (My Beloved) and three carnitas soft tacos (me), we wove toward the subway and caught the 1 train back home.

The park was gorgeous, but I'm not sure it was as gorgeous as this woman on the train. I asked permission to take her photograph, saying, "You look so beautiful!" The woman in the Yankees shirt sitting next to her slid one seat over and said, "I'll get out of the way since I'm not so beautiful."

"Are you dressed for an event?" I asked her.

"I went to church," she said. "Happy Mother's Day."

Or as I call it, Happy Day.

** Click any photo to enlarge and see slideshow.

Friday, May 9, 2014

From the ground up

The prompt for my college-application essay asked, "If you could write any kind of book you wanted, what would you write and how would you do the research for it?" I said that I would write a historical mystery set in England, and research it by reading headstones in village churchyards.

I’ve always had a thing for cemeteries and the stories they tell.

Yes, there’s always a ribbon of sadness that winds through cemeteries like a low-lying mist. But I’ve never found them creepy or frightening or dreary or morbid. The opposite: They’re like libraries of lives, the headstones compressed autobiographies, condensed as for Twitter.

I grew up in West Los Angeles, and drove past the Veteran’s Administration’s National Cemetery almost every day, its endless rows of precise white headstones stretching in every direction.

[Los Angeles National Cemetery]
It was awesome, a little overwhelming, a place of national pride shadowed with the realities of war.

There are impressive cemeteries everywhere we travel, from the fantastically gothic Agramonte cemetery in Porto, Portugal…

[Mausoleum at Agramonte, Porto, Portugal]

…to the dramatic, eclectic Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, where les bons temps no longer roulent…

[Lafayette Cemetery #2, New Orleans]

…to a lush and tranquil churchyard in South Africa, where a friend’s baby is buried. As we bumped down the dirt road toward the church, his two-year-old asked brightly, “See Sasha?”

[Cemetery, Limpopo Province, South Africa]

The grand Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is imposing…

...hosting Duke Ellington and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with monuments and mausoleums designed by McKim, Mead & White and Louis Comfort Tiffany. It struck me as a place almost devoid of grief—except when the human instinct spoke through the marble.

But the cemeteries that pull me in with an invisible hand are the smaller, rambling affairs with worn headstones listing to one side, where recurring family names pop up in widening arcs, and moss grows on old stone. A place where the local residents make themselves at home.

[Provincetown Cemetery, Cape Cod, MA]

In New Hampshire on a college visit, I left the teenager sleeping at the inn and wandered into the cemetery next door. The graves were tucked in up to their chins by a blanket of fresh snow. 

In one corner, lest anything go to waste, buckets hung on a tree gathering maple sap, flavored with…? I decided not to think about it.

I try to tread carefully between the graves, stooping to read the epigraphs. Of course most are simply names with birth and death dates. Sometimes a name is accompanied by another name, with just a birthdate and that predatory dash, waiting to pounce on a recalcitrant death.

But once in a while, in a few words, a headstone conjures a clear snapshot: maybe of a cheerfully cluttered study illuminated by the glow of a plump lamp, where an elderly husband and wife sit in two comfortable armchairs with a newspaper and a book, occasionally reading a passage aloud or calling out a crossword clue.

[Cemetery in Princeton, NJ: "…classmates at Bates, full partners in marriage,
careful parents, always devoted teachers"

Or of a sturdy 18th-century New England housewife, floury hands on a rolling pin and a few wisps of hair escaping from under her cap, dispensing no-nonsense advice in brisk tones.

[Mrs. Experience, Provincetown Cemetery]

And then there are the mysteries. A New Orleans tomb commemorates 22-year-old Mathilda Williams and 19-year-old Dorothy Williams, each “beloved” by their husbands but identified by their maiden names. Sisters. Who died on the same day, May 15, 1949.
[Lafayette Cemetery #2, New Orleans]

What. Happened? A car crash? A boating accident? Were they on a double-date—a picnic, maybe, with bottles of Jax beer and muffuletta sandwiches from Central Grocery—when the Packard took a corner too fast and…? I hate not knowing. I’ve Googled their names every which way, but haven’t found anything. I’ll just have to make up my own story, pieced together between the lines on a headstone.

A few years ago, My Beloved and I were in Boston doing the research for our historical graphic novel for kids, Road to Revolution!, which takes place in 1775. After climbing the worn wooden steps to the steeple of the Old North Church to see where the lanterns were lit (did I mention it was 104 degrees that day?), we walked up the road to Copp's Hill Burying Ground, which dates back to the 1600s. Sexton Robert Newman, who lit the lanterns at Old North that fateful night, is buried here, along with Cotton and Increase Mather, merchants, tradesmen, and free African-Americans.

We set a pivotal scene on Copp's Hill, when our heroes, Penny and Nick, meet to exchange information gathered by Penny, who has gone undercover as a servant girl to eavesdrop on a British general. 

And so my college application essay came, sort of, true. In the library of lives, we found a story to tell to young people just starting their lives. Not a circle of life, exactly; more like a spiral. I like it.