Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Visiting Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO

This past Sunday had ideal summer walking weather. For the most part, it wasn't too hot out; not too unrelentingly sunny. Lots of cool breezes. A great day to be outdoors. Granted, part of my trip to Brooklyn Heights was an indoor historical lecture/tour, a really good one, but after that I walked along the beautiful waterfront.

The visit began at the Clark Street subway stop in Brooklyn Heights. One of the first things I noticed is that a few of the streets have fruit names, apparently because lots of fruit used to be delivered to warehouses here. Here is Pineapple Street, with buildings of a suitable color.


A little bit north of that, between Orange and Cranberry Streets, was where the history lesson began. This was at Plymouth Church, where the famous 19th century abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, used to take to the pulpit to speak out against slavery.


That's his statue, and to the left of him, an engraving of Lincoln, who prayed a couple of times at the church. In addition to serving as a platform for abolitionist preaching, the church was also a station on the Underground Railroad, the series of homes and other potential hiding spots that runaway slaves used to escape north.

Even in NY they weren't safe. Although slavery was abolished in NY state by 1827 and other northern states had also struck down slavery, southern slaveowners still had a claim to the escaped slaves. Northerners were obligated by law to hand them back over or risk getting fine or going to jail. There were also bounty hunters or slave catchers who actively pursued escaped slaves (and sometimes, if they didn't find who they were looking for, would capture a freeborn person who fit the description more or less). Runaway slaves generally tried to make it to Canada.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hobson's Choice (1954): Biting humor and surprising warmth

Title: Hobson's Choice
Director: David Lean
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

Watching Hobson's Choice made me happy. It's British comedy at its best, with brilliant characters, a tender and hilarious romance, and a satisfying ending.

Set in the late 19th century in England, the movie features Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton), who runs a bootmaking business and who abandons his shop every day to go drinking. He lets himself do this because he's got three grown daughters running the shop for him for free; the younger two are a bit flighty, but the oldest, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), is smart and has a strong business acumen. He's counting on the fact that she'll remain a spinster and take care of him and his shop until he dies; he's also not too eager to marry off his younger daughters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales), as he's reluctant to spend money on a wedding. In this way the movie starts: Maggie overseeing the shop and the other daughters helping out, while a talented but extremely humble boothand, Will Mossop (John Mills), toils away in the cellar to make the high-quality footwear the shop is known for. Henry Hobson, in the meantime, drinks and jokes around.

The Hobson family in Hobson's Choice

Week in Seven Words #220 & 221


Buses wheezing in the heat, looking battered and ill.

They dwell on other people's failures, because they want to justify the lack of risk-taking in their own lives and distract themselves from their profound regrets.

Broken, brown ground and a river that smells like an ocean.

Judging, measuring, comparing. Never just listening. Never accepting.

It's a precious green lawn in a neighborhood full of industrial lots, billboards and old apartment houses. Bright flowers have sprung up on it, and people hover around, starved for the simple beauty.

"Nobody jumping out of it today," he says in an odd, cheerful voice after staring for a few minutes at the Freedom Tower.

She walks with the group because she wants to improve her fitness, but she gets winded too easily and has trouble keeping up. Discouraged, she settles on a bench and smokes a cigarette.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hopping over to Staten Island: Snug Harbor Gardens and Alice Austen House

Staten Island was the only New York City borough I'd never been to - until today.

The best way to get there is with the free ferry that leaves the southern tip of Manhattan. Some people just ride the ferry back and forth for the amazing views of the NYC harbor, Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor's Island, bridges connecting different islands… Like here, you see a bunch of helicopters against a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge:


And here's the Verrazano Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island (with a Manhattan-bound Staten Island ferry passing us by in the foreground):


You can't not take a photo of the Statue of Liberty too. It's a compulsion.


The ferry terminal on Staten Island conveniently has a bunch of bus terminals radiating off of it, with buses ready to take you to different parts of the island. This visit we stuck to the northeast part of the island, first taking the S40 bus to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Crossing the two-lane road from the S40 bus stop to the back entrance of Snug Harbor is a treat, because there are no traffic lights and crosswalk, and cars are zooming at you from both directions (in one direction hidden by a bend in the road). So you've got to time things just right and then hustle.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When You Go on a Date with Someone You've Met Online...

You look them up, don't you? And what do you find?

Meet in a Public Place from Mario Contreras on Vimeo.

Week in Seven Words #218 & 219


The park smells of dogs, horses and dirt. Flowers too, but faintly.

When she discovers a crack in a tree, she stuffs it with peanuts. Let no (peanut-eating) animal have to look too hard for its food.

He's hunched over on the bench with his pudding and apple sauce while she pokes fun at him. She's not that much younger than he is, and I wonder how much of her mean-spirited teasing stems from fear - that sooner than she knows it, soft food will be dribbling out of her mouth in public places.

The outdoor bookseller waves away the pigeons that clamber on his paperbacks.

Trees with whorls on their trunks like languid eyes.

When the wind skims the Reservoir, the water seems to flinch at the cold touch.

The birds melt into the evergreens. They would like to be heard but not seen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Four short stories about fathers

Title: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog
Author: Stephanie Vaughn
Where I read it: American Voices

The world's too small for some personalities. (Or maybe modern Western society is too small.) The main character in "Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog" has a father who's in the military. In ways both bright and dark, he's a compelling figure: Full of fascinating stories, quirky mannerisms, lessons he wants to impart, a personality that can't be contained in a military role or, later in his life, in the role of a hardware store owner. He also drinks sometimes and doesn't control his temper. Even as she loves him, how close can his daughter be to him? He is a monumental figure in her life, but there's also a distance, as if he's always receding from her even as he looms close by.

In one scene, he crosses a wide frozen river one night after he's been drinking, as his daughter watches from the shore; all at the same time, the scene is tense and humorous and poignant. He survives, but does something in him die, given that he settles in quietly to his chain of hardware stores, and his smoking and drinking and slow death? Would it have been more epic of him to disappear into or across the icy river?