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Depth

20 Dec

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“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time…” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

First light, and Hallie is coming down the stairs.  I hear her footsteps as she pads her way along the dark hallway and into to our room.

“Da?” she asks, standing expectantly at my side. I look up at her solemn face, then lift the covers and she crawls in.  “Da,” she whispers again, exhaling as she cuddles back down into sleep.

Raising the blinds, I see snow.  First of the year, more than expected and still falling.  Hallie supplants me, cuddling into Amy as I head upstairs into the hesitant glow of a stalled sunrise.

Showered and dressed, stepping outside is a release.  Everything a little brighter, a little fresher.  The snow is untouched and the garbage cans are frosted white.  The sky, however, broods.  A gunmetal, end-of-the-world gray, more twilight than dawn.  Even the snow is lifeless, finding too little light to sparkle.

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At Family Corner, Jen clocks me at the door, “What up Bell?”

“Nothing much.  How are you”

“Morning Derek,” shouts George, moving fast over the carry-out orders.

My spirits rise.

“Egg and cheese,” she asks?

“Yes please, and medium coffee, skim milk.”

“Sugar?”

“No, no sugar.”  But as she turns I reconsider, “I’m sorry, yeah, one sugar would be great.”

The cup is warm, and I bask in the flow – the gentle banter, and the comfort of having a place here.

“Egg and Cheese?”  George is looking at me, eyebrows raised.

“That’s mine.”

He tosses it over, rings me up and I’m on my way.

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The snow’s turning to rain.  Sipping my coffee, I move fast, making it to the train relatively dry.  Up the steps and onto the platform, I’m just in time to watch a train pull away.

I walk back to the farthest reaches of the roof, lean against the large metal storage bin and take in the view – my neighborhood from west to east.  The great arch of Hellgate Bridge, rising from the railroad tracks as they make their way over the river before bending north to Harlem, The Bronx and New England; the smoke stacks at Con Ed and their rising steam, cotton on slate.

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The tenements climb Crescent Street, and the steeple of Immaculate Conception stands over it all.  Buildings fall away to the east, and the sky grows large over the Steinway factory.  A jet takes off from LaGuardia and I follow it until, magically, it’s gone.  Vanished into the mist.

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The train arrives and the car is warm.  Stepping in, I take my favorite seat.  Lulled by the rain, I unwrap my sandwich and look out toward the city.  And suddenly I see myself swimming in a vast, unfathomable ocean, and realize that I need to go deeper.  More a feeling than a thought, I’m not sure what this means.

The train begins to move.

Making its way through Queens, small flocks of black parkas clamor for seats at every stop until, finally, we begin the slow turn toward Queensboro, arcing toward the city like the grande dame of all rollercoasters, sweeping into view the 59th Street bridge  and the skyline beyond.  Gravity takes hold and we plunge into the station, pausing briefly for the requisite running back and forth, before continuing on, down to the streets and further still, out of the rain and into the darkness.

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Tumbling through Brooklyn

30 Jan

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People say time flies when you’re having fun, but that’s bullshit.  Time just flies.                                                                     — Heath Bell

The plan had been to walk Brooklyn, Coney Island to Greenpoint.  An early start with a stop for breakfast in Red Hook, and then a beer in Greenpoint, at that little place on the corner.  In this way I would mark the day.  So come the morning, despite a sore head, a late start, and little desire for a beer at any point during the day, I head out the door.  Coffee in hand, I take my seat on the train, and as the wheels begin to turn the world blurs past.

 I don’t know how to reach him. 

The train takes forever.  The initial pleasure in skipping work fades as the commuters disappear,  leaving only the Brooklyn bound: tired mothers, complacent children, and one very large, angry leprechaun, whose headphones are not taking him to a calmer place.

Even though I see myself in him all the time.

Coney Island is a sad place on a winter’s day.  Bereft of people, the remaining attractions hug the boardwalk like so many dinosaurs, asleep at water’s edge.  Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase are long gone, replaced by housing projects, empty lots, and sky.  The few old buildings left along Surf Avenue continue to fade, making room for  an Applebee’s and other improvements reminiscent of a highway rest stop.  A runner passes me on the boardwalk, shirtless in the cold Atlantic wind.  Older guy.  Tough or just crazy?  I vote both, and head inland.

The difficulties in maintaining a friendship, and the inevitable sense of betrayal.  A process of years in my life; minutes in Heath’s.

Once known as the Road of Dreams, Stillwell Avenue is now a bleak strip of auto repair shops and the occasional decrepit house whose demeanor hints at more prosperous times.  A waterside inn perhaps, built along Coney Island Creek when it flowed all the way from Gravesend Bay to Sheepshead, creating an actual island.  Now gray and salt-stained from the spray of traffic, it looks barely inhabited.  I pass by, looking for hints of life, and then continue on, crossing a bridge over the creek’s stilled waters.

How many times has Amy said “Please don’t go away from me”?

Over the next several hours I chip away at the grid, zigzagging through the streets and avenues, progressing at a glacial pace on my journey of discovery.  What do I discover?  Brooklyn’s big.  And Bensonhurst goes on forever.  You heard it here first.

It’s what we do.

Toward the end, hours late for breakfast, legs leaden and feet blistered, having slogged past the auto shops and porn parlors beneath the roar of the BQE, I know I should quit; find a train and head home.  But I don’t.

Not caring.

And then, finally, turning left at the first opportunity, the startling quiet of Red Hook.

Buoyed by familiar landmarks, I head in the right direction, but, strangely, the community fails to materialize.  I see the projects, the parks, the silos, and even the damn Ikea, but the battered little houses where Brooklyn’s more adventurous denizens raise chickens and children in what feels for all the world like some dusty little prairie town are nowhere to be found.  Until suddenly they are, disrupting my sense of geography by appearing at a completely unexpected angle. Having arrived at my destination, I have no idea where I am.  

* * *

He appears as I take off my coat, standing awkwardly to one side, shifting slowly from foot to foot, lost in his own living room.  

“Hey, Heath.”  I toss the words gently, as if they don’t matter, and I wait, not sure if he’s heard me.

And I’m standing at a screen door as my dad tries to coax me into a game of catch.  Embarrassed, because I’m not good at catch, but torn because I know I’m disappointing him,  I cannot bring myself to step through that door.

After a moment, Heath looks up, walks over, and puts his arms around me, awkwardly, as if he’s afraid to complete the hug.

“Happy Birthday, Dad.”

I pull him close.

“Thanks, Heath.”

Looking over his shoulder, I see Amy shake her head.  This was not prompted.

I continue to hold him as long as I can

We feel more than we can show.

And then, without a word, he’s gone.

 

Heath and I Buddy Walk 2012

Photo of Coney Island from http://www.city-data.com 

A Christmas Walk

24 Dec

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“It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide…”
― Charles Dickens,  A Christmas Carol

Late in the afternoon, from the 61st floor, I stop to look out  over Manhattan, past the shoulders of the Empire State Building and the slowly rising World Trade Center, down into the late-afternoon gleam of the waters that bathe this archipelago, engulfing the Statue of Liberty and swirling quicksilver past Jersey City and Staten Island, before flowing beneath the Verrazano Bridge, and out into the Atlantic.  Returning to the city itself, my vision hovers over the streets I’ve wandered for the past thirteen years, especially those narrow pathways laid down by the Dutch West India Company at the southern tip of the island over three centuries ago, engulfed now in the buildings and people that followed them, and where, despite everything, late on a quiet afternoon, I can still feel the age of the place, catching the scent of wood smoke on the air before stepping off Pearl Street into a tavern to sip a beer one floor below the room where George Washington said farewell to his officers.

I grew up in Ohio, surrounded by cornfields.  Sometimes, I would wade into them, just for the hell of it, and then, feeling silly, push my way back, scratching through the dusty stalks, to stand for a moment on the side of the road, trying to make something of the experience.  I was looking for a deeper knowledge of the place, something less linear and road based than the world around me. I wanted more dimensions.

Cities are great for this. They just keep giving, every corner you turn, every face you see, every crack in the sidewalk is another dimension, another small accretion in your rapidly growing knowledge of a place. The older the street, the more intricate it’s development, the more there is to be found; more layers of people’s lives, painted one upon the other, and then worn away through the decades, a little bit of each showing through.

My grandmother left  home young, fleeing a small town in Indiana that is now little more than a name on a map; the homes, businesses and the tavern where she would wait for her father, alone in the snow, long faded to lonely roads and empty fields.  My father moved away from the home she created, and I from his, heading east, against the tide, retracing the steps of my immigrant forebears, back to this city they merely passed through as they traveled west in search of new lives.  I roam the streets that must have bewildered them, finding comfort in the knowledge they never had time to acquire.

Darkness falling, I cross the river to my quiet neighborhood, and walk its streets in the misty Christmas rain, marveling at how effortlessly I’ve traveled back in time.  Brought up in a swirl of pre-fab housing and six lanes to the shopping center, I live now in a world I thought lost to me.  A place of diners, bakeries, hardware stores and corner taverns, mixed right in with the houses.  A place where at certain times, when the light is right, I expect to see my grandfather among the men in their coveralls walking up the hill at end of the day. And a place where two young boys are playing ball on the sidewalk while their sister and mother watch from the porch, conversing in Spanish, their front door open and their Christmas lights blinking, enjoying the unusual warmth of the season.  A place of comfort, wrapped in a sense of wonder.  A home of sorts.  And a place that I, and so many others, continue to make our own.

Merry Christmas.

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