Tag Archives: New York City

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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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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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.

September 11, 2009

11 Sep

It’s a rainy day here in New York City, and my neighbors are walking gently, as they always do on this day.

Eight years ago on a clear, blue sky morning I walked up Second Avenue toward Twenty Third Street.  At 19th street a loud crash made me turn around, thinking I’d heard a car accident.  Nothing was there.  As I approached 20th Street sirens sounded and cars began to pour out of the Police Academy.  At the 23rd Street post office I overheard a man saying that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.  I asked him to repeat this and he did, pointing to the smoke, now visible through the high windows .  By the time I got to work the first building had fallen, and before long the second had come down as well.  I left to look for my wife.

Heading west across Manhattan, the views down the Avenues abruptly vanished into a wall of floating debris.  The first survivor passed me, a man about my age, his thinning blond hair, eyelashes and the shoulders of his blue suit covered in dust.  Others soon followed, shaken and bleary in their dirty clothes.  “I ran down eighty flights,”  one said.  A woman who spoke little English asked me what was going on and I did my best to explain.

I found Amy, we made our way to a friend’s apartment, and from her 12th Street roof we watched as long lines of people made their way out of the cloud that now engulfed the tip of Manhattan.  A few hours later, when the L train returned to service, we made our way home.

To me September 11 will always be New York City’s day.  Most of the world watched it, while we, to wildly varying degrees, lived it.  And while, in the days following, the country seemed to slowly lose it’s mind in some misbegotten quest for retribution, my people were kind.  We dealt with each other gently and helped where we could.  For a short time we opened ourselves to the fragility of life, and it brought out the best in us.  Every year when this day rolls around I do my best to remember that.  The city often helps.

On the first anniversary Amy and I got up very early and walked to work, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge before making our way uptown.  Somewhere on the hushed morning streets of the Lower East Side we passed a young man quietly going about his business.  He just so happened to be dressed as the Statue of Liberty.  He was also painted blue from head to toe.

The following year I went for a drink in the East Village.  It was a sunny afternoon and to get into the bar I had to step over the ugliest bulldog I had ever seen.  He was warming himself in the doorway and, oblivious to my presence, was not inclined to move.  His name was Buckshot.  The neighborhood police had found him tied to a fence, shot and left for dead.  Outraged, they had nursed him back to health before entrusting him to the care of the woman sitting next to me.  As we talked, Buckshot swaggered his way back into the bar, leaving a generous trail of saliva in his wake.  I could see the scars that peppered his hide as he loudly snuffled and nudged his way beneath my stool, damn near tipping me over in the process.  In his mind he owned that bar.  After everything he’d been through, no one was arguing.

And this morning we took Heath to his first full day of  Kindergarten.  This little person whose existence I could not even imagine eight years ago is already starting school.  His equally unimaginable sister has built herself up to a solid three word vocabulary, the most recent addition being, of course, “Heath.”  They know little of that day eight years ago, and yet, for me, they embody its spirit.  Maddening, mercurial, and totally unpredictable, they are my daily, hour by hour, minute by minute reminder that I am always at my best when I slow down, open my eyes, and approach the world gently, helping out whenever I can.  A good lesson easily forgotten.

Luckily, the kids keep me honest.

 

 

Hallie’s First Year

12 Jun

In memory it seems a time of fire.  The blood red sun sinking into the darkness of the city, the brutal heatwave that arrived with Hallie’s birth, the heat-dusted Hell’s Kitchen pavements I walked the days following, and the track fire on the N Line that forced us all to find a different way home. 

This June has been different, the mornings wet and cool and the days pleasingly warm.  We celebrated Hallie’s birthday with our friends in Astoria Park, dappled with shade and cooled by an East River breeze.  We ate, we made ice cream, and, as Hallie was passed from arms to loving arms, my friend Ben talked of how amazing our neighborhood is.  And he’s right.  I have never in my adult life felt such a sense of community.  I would have to go back to my childhood in the suburbs of Detroit where almost every house had a pack of kids, our dad’s all worked for the car companies, and our mothers drank their coffee and chatted while watching us play, to find anything even close.  And yet here it is, not in some idyllic small town, as I always supposed, but smack dab in the middle of New York City, where the park, diners, library and bakeries of any thriving small town have combined with a diversity, density and immigrant spirit to create a place where the streets dance with friends and acquaintances and where, in this busiest of cities, I always have time to talk with my neighbors.

The secret ingredient in all this is,  of course, the kids.  Heath lives to introduce himself to people, often complete strangers, almost always winning a smile, if not a full blown converstaion.  Hallie is more subtle, drawing people in with her beauty, her wave, and her pale blue eyes.  For Hallie seems to have a great capacity for joy, and it’s a gift she freely shares with others.  Any sadness or regret I felt at the time of her birth is certainly gone,  seemingly burned away in those first few days, and the gentle happiness of having her in our lives has brushed away any remaining ashes.

Last night Hallie had a fever,  which brought neither joy nor sleep to anyone.  Amy and I took turns holding her until, finally,  she fell asleep.   Restless and warm, she kicked her way through the night, but when morning broke, gray and foggy, her fever had subsided.  We arose, showered, dressed, and after a quick breakfast I kissed her goodbye, testing for the heat that was no longer there.  Then I was out the door and into the mist, feeling the moisture on my clean morning face.

 

 

Mad Men

6 Feb

The Mad Men were out this clear, cold afternoon on Park Avenue.  They moved with a certain grace for ones so old, and in their trenchcoats and fedoras they maintained an air of courtly, no nonsense elegance that their younger colleagues cannot begin to match.

Any vestige of old New York is a joy to stumble upon.  So much so that I, never a fan of businessmen or their mode of dress, was warmed by the site of these guys.  In a city that buries it’s history with the glee of a child at the beach, any continuity, any connection to what came before is both a comfort and a balm.   

As was Monday’s warmth.  Granting an unexpected reprieve from the winter’s chill, the sun appeared and drove the temperature well into the fifties, creating a glorious day that drew everyone to Steinway Park.  Friends that Heath, Hallie and I had not seen in months reappeared, escaping their apartments to bask in the spring-like warmth.  Heath and his buddies, John Peter and Max, crashed into and piled on top of each other like the puppies they are and, despite all the little boy bumps and bangs, nobody cried, which may be a first.

Hallie sat in the sun and played with her brother’s trains, then rested in my arms and finally laid her head on my shoulder and went to sleep.  With one eye on Heath, I held my daughter and talked with Asja, Sonia and especially Jenny, who did so much for us during Hallie’s first days, and who never fails to make me laugh.  It was one of the nicest afternoons of my life.

I love my neighborhood.  I love the bakeries and the bars, the delis and the diners, the library and the parks.  But most of all I love the people,  the friends and acquaintances who share our little patch of Astoria, and whose paths cross ours every day.  This tightly woven tapestry of lives is another remnant of old New York, one that struggles on despite the TVs, computers and busy schedules that contrive to keep us isolated from one and other.  And never is the vibrance of this tapestry more evident than on those days when the weather, and the kids and everybody’s mood combines to create a gentle party, where we all slow down, love our kids and enjoy our friends.

With little warning the sun began to fade and after a short time it was gone.  Snow clouds arose in the west and their approach brought cooling air and a desire for home.  And so we all departed, pulling our reluctant offspring in various directions, making our way down the familiar streets, racing the cold.

As we crossed Steinway and headed down 23rd Avenue I spotted Jenny’s husband Pete crossing the street a block up.

“Look,”  I said, “It’s Pete.”

“Where?”  Heath said, looking at the sidewalk.

“There!” I said, getting down to his level so he could follow the direction of my finger.

“Where?” He asked again, looking up at the clouds.

“THERE!” I said, turning his head with both my hands.

“Where?” he replied, staring off into some vague middle distance.

As this was going on Pete, a tall thin man with very long arms, standing on a street corner, progressed from a mere wave to something akin to jumping jacks in an attempt to draw Heath’s attention. 

Heath never saw him, but I did, and it made me smile all the way home.

 

 

Land of Ghosts

21 Nov

Darkness comes early now and as cold winds beat against our thin windows the temperature drops, time seems to fall away, and my son and I watch trains cross the sky.    Less than 100 years ago our densely packed neighborhood was mostly farmland, and by traveling west down the hill upon which we live one came to Hellgate Field, a stretch of land where for thousands of years the Matinecock came to fish for giant sturgeon; where deep water, treacherous tides, and large obstructions with names such as Frying Pan Rock and Bald-Headed Billy claimed more than 1,000 ships; and where Heath now runs with his friends, plays on the swings, and comes to a complete stop whenever a train passes overhead.  During World War I the city spanned this most treacherous section of the East River with the Hellgate Bridge, building as well the massive arches that lead up to it, bisecting our streets and cutting a shallow diagonal across the sky. 

As evening approaches the trains glow warmly from within, and on icy nights their pantographs throw sparks from the overhead wire, thrilling my son.   For Heath loves trains.  In fact, he spends a fair part of his days being a train, barreling down Ditmars Boulevard, hugging the storefronts and hooting at anyone who dares to get in his way.  At four years old his imagination is strong and free and when he inhabits it he is joyous.  Hallie, on the other hand, has yet to find her passion, unless it be the joys of the raspberry.  From dawn to dusk, while Heath creates and enacts entire railroad empires before her, Hallie makes rude farting sounds and drools onto her chin.  She does this in her usual deadpan manner and is, seemingly, unimpressed with her brother’s efforts. 

I love to run on foggy mornings.  Early, just after the sun has risen, I’ll head west down Ditmars.  Coming to Astoria Park, I’ll follow the path beneath Hellgate Bridge and down to the river itself where the fog is often so thick I cannot discern water from sky.  Running along the river toward Hallet’s Cove, I almost always think of the General Slocum, a steamship that burned off these shores in June of 1904 killing more than 1,000 people.  I imagine the victims slowly climbing the retaining wall, hair wet, dresses dripping, waistcoats smoldering, trying, still trying, to escape the river.  And then they are gone, having failed yet again, and in the stillness I continue on, feeling slightly chilled.    Time is permeable here and the past seems very close.  A playground for my son, this park, for me, is a land of ghosts.  

We’ll both miss the park this winter, it’s frigid micro-climate making visits rare.  But it’s not going anywhere and we’ll all be back in the spring when Hallie, interacting with the world more every day, will begin to create her own relationship with this little piece of the world.  Until then there are cookies to be made, tracks to be built and stories to be told.  And of course there’s the trains, throwing sparks and illuminating the darkness as they travel across the river and into the night.

 

 

A Change of Seasons

19 Sep

The first frost warnings of the season came to the outlying suburbs last night.  The resulting surge of cool autumn air blew through the city as if to clear away the greed and folly of this past week, and remind us all how little nature cares about our problems.  Robert MacFarlane points out in his wonderful book, The Wild Places, that the great forests that once blanketed North America waited Seventy  million years for the arrival of man.  I have little doubt after this week that those trees will also watch us go, and that our time here will be seen in their collective memory as a flicker of sad comedy, a slapstick spasm of existence that faded almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving a world to undo the damage and then quickly forget our meager shot at grace.

Which is to say, funnily enough, that I find solace in this change of season.  Amy and I will celebrate our twelfth anniversary this weekend and though I don’t think we intentionally planned our wedding for the autumnal equinox, it makes so much sense.  The wistfulness of summer’s end meeting the fresh hope of a new beginning is marriage in a nutshell.  And as my  week moved toward this time of change and celebration, it grew so rich in moments of beauty and hope that it stood in stark contast to the frantic scurryings on Wall Street just a few short miles away. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much.

As I was turning off the light in Heath’s room last night he awoke and said “Dad, what are you doing? Is it Christmas tomorrow?”  Taken aback at this unexpected view into the my son’s heart, I was moved to learn that upon awaking from a dead sleep his first thought is of Christmas and that his greatest hope is that it’s tomorrow. 

Hallie, to the amazement of her therapists, burbles incessantly, emphatically making her points in a language all her own, and punctuating her few moments of silence with a solemn upraised fist.  Fight the power sister. 

And Amy, nursing a cold, a constantly hungry baby and a three year old boy who would happily crawl inside her skin if he could find a way, has graced me with some of the warmest, loveliest smiles I have ever seen.

New York is a crazy place.  Among it’s most widely accepted myths is that money bestows wisdom, happiness and importance. When you walk among the wealthy every day it’s a very easy belief to buy into.  But lately I’ve been thinking about Stonehenge, where, in the coming days, the sun will rise over Salisbury Plain, fall in perfect alignment with the ancient stones, and illuminate the heart of this solemn structure.  Such is the day I married Amy, and such are the moments we share with our children, when we look into their eyes, hold them close, and allow them to show us in so many ways that what we are doing is right and necessary and important.

They illuminate our lives.

 

 

Hurricane Season

10 Sep

The nights have been warm of late.  But as the darkness grows old and the stars fade, cool air that has spent the night crossing the Atlantic finally makes landfall at Rockaway and continues across Jamaica Bay, rustling down the streets of Queens, flowing around and through all the open windowed houses and apartments, gently stirring to life the sleeping families who have come here from all over the world to chase their dreams, until, finally, the early morning breeze rattles the blinds above my head and I open my eyes. 

And, sadly, the joy’s not there.  Like fresh peaches being slowly allowed to rot, I am incapable of enjoying summers last gifts. 

When Amy gets up, Heath cuddles against me, a physical closeness that’s just starting to become rare.  Hallie, peacefully sprawled across her bassinet wiggles and sighs, and I wish that I could sleep with her utter abandon. 

Like a sailor’s glass, my moods rise and fall with the changes in the air.  This weekend, as hurricanes filled the waters of the Atlantic and Hanna worked her way up the east coast, my emotional weather darkened and grew turbulent.  Exacerbated by lack of sleep, lack of exercise, caffeine addiction and a screaming need to have some time of my own, storms began to brew.   As always, my impulse is to grow quiet, hole up with a good book and ride it out.  But like any solitary endeavour, this was nigh on impossible with two small children and a wife who is more tired than I am.

And so I weathered the storm as best I could, reading and sleeping as much as possible while trying to be on best behaviour.  Doing the dishes, making food, feeding Hallie and answering Heath’s fifth iteration of “Why?” with as little impatience as possible.  Trying to accept the fact that I have, for the moment, lost hold of all the strands of my life.  As they blow frantically about, I do my best to grab them, but to no avail.  Until the wind dies down and fair weather returns, which it always does, I’ll just have to wait.

But Hallie is holding her head up more and more, although she still refuses to give me a smile.  Heath has started school and, despite daily stories of him hitting somebody or somebody hitting him, he seems to enjoy it.  Amy is as lovely as I’ve ever seen her, and for the most part, as patient.  And the storms are receding now.  The water is still rough, but no levees have been breached.  And tonight, I trust, the winds will once again make their immigrant journey across the sea to stir the dreams of my neighbors, to whisper the leaves of the trees and to to kiss my family with the fresh air of a receding darkness.