Tag Archives: Astoria

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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Proud

11 Dec

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It was already dark when Amy and Heath got home.  I had told Hallie we were going for a walk and she already had her shoes on, having struggled into her pink velvet boots, which weren’t the shoes I would have picked, but in Hallie’s world they worked.

When Heath got home, he was excited.  We had told him about the shopkeeper down the street who had been beaten a few days ago by a man shouting “I kill Muslims.”  The Giving Tree, our local yoga studio, had organized a meditation for peace, and we thought we should stop by.

On our way, Amy and I went over the meaning of meditation, leaning heavily on the fact that it would be quiet, and we should do our best to keep it that way.  Heath continued walking, happily bopping along, seemingly oblivious to all I had just said.

“Heath.  Heath.”

“What?”

“Did you hear what I just said?”

“Yeah.”

“What did I say.”

“We have to be quiet.  I got it, I got it.”

The crowd was small, forming a circle on the corner in front of the store.  Seven or eight people sat on the sidewalk meditating.  A few dozen others stood around quietly, some holding candles. Hallie was up on my shoulders and I rocked slowly from side to side as she took it all in.  Occasionally she would say, “Wow.”  One of the women on the ground smiled.

For about two minutes it was really nice.  Then Hallie wanted down.  So I ran her around a bit off to the side, where we wouldn’t disturb anyone, and we quietly took the kids inside for a treat.  Cookies, chips and crackers were gathered, and as we were digging around for our money, Heath stepped to the counter and said, “I’m sorry for what happened to you guys.  I hope you’re OK.”

The shopkeeper looked at Heath for a moment, then touched his heart, assured him they were OK, put his palms together and bowed.

Heath then said he couldn’t believe anyone would do something so horrible and started into a rant about the generally shoddy condition of humanity, which confused the man, and Amy had to step in.  But for a moment there, he had really nailed it.

Walking home, I told him I was proud.

“Why?”

“Because you spoke eloquently, and you spoke from the heart.”

He thought about that for a moment, and then said “Oh.  OK,”  before moving on, heading towards home, seemingly oblivious to all I had just said.

 

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Love Fatima Food Mart

Astoria Gathers to Support Fatima Owner After Anti-Muslim Attack

The Giving Tree

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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Crossing 9th Street

23 Feb

The air was cold when I stepped outside, but the sun was up, slowly revealing the quiet morning streets. 

I’m not good in the dark.  My vision’s not great, and the farthest reach of my run, south of the park, is a little sketchy.  So the light is welcome, and it combines with my new fleece hat to make the calm, seventeen degree air tolerable.  Stepping over a mound of crusted snow into the dry street, I start the timer on my watch, and slowly begin to lope, giving my stiff calves a chance to warm up as I head toward the corner.

Hallie’s white cell count is low.  Her pediatrician had us wait a month.  We redid the test.  Still low.  Children with Down’s Syndrome have an increased incidence of leukemia.  She has none of the symptoms and her pediatrician says it is not an immediate concern.  We have an appointment with a hematologist in a couple weeks.  Steps are being taken.  There is no need to worry.  Nevertheless, her white cell count is low.

The first stretch of the run down Ditmars Boulevard is the most tedious.  Narrow sidewalks, few businesses, no trees.  That’s the reason I head this way.  I like to do the hard part first.  I’ve been trying to teach this to Heath, but he’ll have none of it.  He much prefers to kick his troubles down the road.  I understand this, I used to be the same way.  But it’s so much better to save the best for last.  This hard won wisdom does nothing more than bounce off the wall that is my son.  But I keep trying.  Repetition is my friend.  That’s what  I tell myself.

I was hoping for a red sunrise, that rare gift of cold winter dawns.  A couple times a year I’ll catch one of these; the sanguine light silhouetting the trees and houses above the park.  But today was not my day.  Turning away, I followed the icy path down toward the East River.

The path had been clear the night before, but this morning small drifts, a few inches  deep, covered the asphalt.  I bounced through them, hare-like, moving quickly to keep the snow out of my shoes.  Fully warmed, the running came easy now, and, despite my lack of exercise over the past weeks, I moved through the shadow of the bridge with a grace I had not earned. 

Hallie was up late last night, climbing repeatedly out of our bed, scooting into the living room, planting herself in front of the T.V. and complaining loudly for more Elmo.  I awoke to find her there, having worn her mother out, all quiet innocence as it approached midnight.  I scooped her up and took her into bed, where  I turned off the lights and laid her on my chest.  She was still for a moment, but then lifted her head and tried once again to climb down. 

“No,” I said, pulling her back, “You need to sleep.” 

She rested for a moment, and then rolled over into the crook of my arm.  I pulled her close and began, softly, to sing.  Slowly, she relaxed, rolling onto her side.  I rolled too, gently patting her bottom in time to the song.  We watched each other.  Her eyes began to flutter, then close, and soon she was asleep.

I crossed 9th street, stepped up onto the sidewalk and turned left, running south along the river.  A battered DEP ship was riding low as it made it’s way upstream, and I thought, “That would be a good life, sitting inside a warm cabin, drinking coffee on a cold winter morning.”  Beyond I could see Manhattan, it’s buildings just beginning to warm. 

When life overwhelms me, my focus narrows.  It’s imperceptible at first, but then it dawns on me, as I hunch my way through the day, that I am seeing little more than pavement, feet, and whatever is going on inside my head.  Running is the antidote.  The cold air in my face, the deep, chest-expanding breaths, the alertness needed to move quickly through a slippery world; all combine until suddenly I can see it all: sun, water, and sky; the whole gorgeous 360 degree panorama that is my world.

At some point during the night Amy moved Hallie to her crib.  Shortly thereafter she was replaced by her brother, who, god love him, seems to be nothing but elbows and knees and is about as easy to cuddle as a cinder block.  So when 5:30 rolled around, it was remarkably easy to get up, put on my running clothes, and step out into the cold.  

I know where I’m going when I run; the route is set.  Thirty minutes takes me through varied terrain and at the end of that time a journey has been made.  It is both well defined and wholly unpredictable.  I never regret it.  And it always brings me home.

 

 

The Ascent

29 Jan

It’s bitter cold here in New York.  Seventeen degrees  and the wind howling down out of the north to shatter against the city’s land mass,  sending shards of atmosphere screaming along the East River and up into Queens where they relentlessly sliced into Heath and I as we made our way to school this morning.

P.S. 122, and it’s eastern approach along Ditmars Avenue,  most certainly rank with Everest and K2 as some the most treacherous terrain on earth.  Seductively flat and populous during warmer weather, amateurs are frequently lulled into a false sense of security on this traverse.  But when the weather turns, it can become deadly.  Heath and I passed several parents who had given up entirely, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk staring blankly into the distance as a thin layer of ice formed over their face and their children tried to prod them into life.  Poor bastards, there was nothing I could do.  To help them would have been to endanger my own mission, and that was unthinkable, the prospect of return far more daunting than the agony ahead.  For if Amy were to spend another day with Heath at home, her head would surely explode.  And after a week of stomach flu in our house, that’s one mess I just couldn’t face.

It’s the flu that kept Heath home these past two days.  Briefly ill, he rapidly returned to peak form, and though he is a smart, funny and completely adorable child, he is also, quite frequently, whiny, demanding and incredibly high maintenance.  As Amy and Hallie were recovering from the flu, and I was fighting it off, the last thing anyone wanted was to print a coloring page of every celestial body in the known Universe, one at a time, at an interval of roughly one every thirty-five seconds, from dawn until dusk, which is Heath’s current idea of heaven.  Nor did we want to read Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from cover to cover.  And we certainly did not want to spend the day either arguing or explaining about literally everything.  We wanted to rest.  We wanted Heath to go to school.

So we began our preparations before dawn.  Neither one of us spoke much, lost in our own thoughts, knowing what we were up against.  Shortly after the sun had cleared the horizon we kissed Amy and Hallie for luck and began our ascent.  Being purists, we used neither ropes nor oxygen.  However we did hold hands, especially when crossing streets.  We found a rhythm that worked for us and, with slow but steady progress,  we found ourselves, shortly after 8:00 am,  just below the summit.  We stood there quietly, as men will, savouring our achievement.  After a moment I simply handed Heath his lunch box, gave him a kiss and wished him a fun day.  And then, sensing it was the right thing to do, I let him travel the rest of the way on his own, up the steps and into the school.

My flush cheeked boy, starting another day.