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?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Walking in Washington Heights

Tourist maps of NYC that I've come across often don't include Northern Manhattan (starting from around Harlem and north of that). And yet, there are many gems in this part of the city. Last Sunday, with a group that organizes all kinds of walks in and around the city, I visited some places in the Washington Heights neighborhood that I hadn't known about or looked into before, even though I'd been to the Heights many times.




The first stop was the Trinity Church Cemetery of Upper Manhattan, which is associated with Trinity Church on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. In the mid-1800s, Trinity Church ran out of room to bury people in Lower Manhattan, so this Washington Heights cemetery became an extension.


Among the people interred there are Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man author), Clement Clarke Moore (who wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas"), Jerry Orbach (Law & Order just wasn't the same without him), Alfred Tennyson Dickens (one of Charles Dickens' sons, who died in NYC's Astor Hotel while participating as guest of honor in the Dickens Centennial), and John James Audubon, whose tombstone unsurprisingly features different kinds of birds.


Former NYC mayor Ed Koch, who didn't want to leave Manhattan after death, also secured a burial spot here; the cemetery is non-denominational and the only active one in Manhattan (though at this point, people can arrange to get interred only above ground in a mausoleum). Koch is buried near an entrance to the cemetery grounds called the Jewish Gate.


The stone has a verse of the Shema Prayer inscribed on it, "Shema Yisrael," which is of huge significance to Jews; even those who aren't particularly observant often know these words and recite them.

Also, Koch chose to inscribe the final words of journalist Daniel Pearl on the tombstone. It surprised me when I first saw it. Part of what it conveys to me is that Koch saw his Jewishness as central to who he was not only in times of peace but also in times of war and persecution (for instance, he had served as an infantryman in Europe during World War II). He had specified what he wanted on his tombstone before his death, and interestingly, he wound up dying exactly 11 years after Pearl - on the same date (February 1st).

Prior to seeing his tombstone, one of the people in the group jokingly wondered if it would have his slogan, "How'm I doin'?" inscribed on it.

Week in Seven Words #216 & 217


No one knows who he is, only that he's fallen to the pavement and is sobbing so hard he can't speak.

Garbage bags bulging with skirts, blouses and sweaters.

Footsteps echo in the atrium, and faint voices, but all the sounds arrive as from a distance. Birds skim the vaulting glass. There's no breeze, but the trees rustle.

He considers the model of masculinity people tried to make him live up to: No feelings, except for anger and physical appetites. No tenderness. An internal world made up of steel girders with huge blank spaces in between.

Knowledge is a treasure to them and a pleasure to all the senses. They taste new facts. They savor what they learn.

She looks perpetually stunned by the indifference and cruelty around her. The magnitude of it empties her eyes. She's left with a smile that creases her face but never reaches her eyes.

Actors try to banish their self-conscious impulses. They howl and prance in public. They pretend to be jaguars and squirrels.


I'm uncomfortable among people who are being cued to do the same thing at the same time: chant, scream, clap or stomp their feet. If they're a large crowd and look like they're really into it, this puts me on edge even more.

At her age, she's both exploring new opportunities and also warning younger people not to make the same mistakes she made. But they don't all agree with her on what is or isn't a mistake.

She usually likes it when other people are worse off than she is. At the same time, she doesn't want to be uncaring. So she offers comfort and advice. Only there's a bitter satisfaction in her tone that make people turn away from her anyway.

Branches spasm in the wind.

Her first impulse is to say it's too difficult and to back off. But then she weighs the disappointment that might come from a failed attempt against the greater regret of never trying.

The ground is trembling with the trains passing beneath it.

The vestibule is soaked in the heavy smell of wet coats.