Losing our matriarch

At the start of April, some of my aunts and uncles mentioned to my Grandmother, Mary Sheahan, that her birthday was coming up, reminding her that her birthday is April 10.

“Oh,” she said as casually as if she were discussing the bus schedule. “I’m not going to make that.”

She passed away less than a week shy of her 95th birthday. Her death was not a shock, and we were as prepared, at least bureaucratically, as a family can be.

My Grandmother was born Mary Fogarty in 1924 in Roscrea, Tipperary, in what was then the Irish Free State. There were only 48 United States at that time, and Calvin Coolidge was President. Prohibition would last another nine years in America.

Her father had been in the British Army, enlisting in the early 20th century when all of Ireland was under British control. He had spent time in India and had fought in the First World War, including the fierce Battle of the Marne. When he came to the U.S. he worked as a janitor and had fought for the right to organize a union, winning a court battle to form a union. This sense of right and wrong, and fighting for your principles is one that runs strongly in our family to this day.

My Grandmother married my grandfather, John Sheahan, in 1948 and their first child was born in 1949. At one family barbecue, her oldest son, my uncle Tim, pointed out to her that his birthday was exactly nine months and one day past her wedding date. She giggled and, noticing me observing this conversation, instructed me not to comment. Tim smiled and said, “It was Bear Mountain,” referring to where my grandparents had honeymooned.

I doubt I will ever know anyone who embodies unconditional love and the joy of living the way my grandmother did. Her world centered around her family and with seven children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren, she had a lot of love to share and names to keep straight. Hers was always the voice of kindness and love, and her generosity of spirit never waned. Whether it was caring for my Grandfather through decades of debilitating health problems or facing her own mortality years later, she was always an example of great strength. It was she who went about my Grandfather’s wake comforting others who were weeping, even though it was her moment to mourn more than anyone’s. We would have easily forgiven her a moment or two of self pity, having lost a husband, a daughter, and son-in-law along the way and dealing with difficult health issues in her final years. But she was a rock of strength, sustained by a strong religious faith and a dedication to her family that went beyond what anyone could ever ask.

My Grandmother’s life was her family, and she showed us that the greatest joys are often the ones of simply being present and investing time and care into the lives of the people around you. Her power stretched far beyond her blood relatives and her wake and funeral saw visitors from every part of her life, including people she had worked with decades ago or knew her as a neighbor for only the last few years.

If there is any available measure of the amount of love my Grandmother brought into the world, it was reflected in the care and hard work her own children did during her final months and years. My Father and aunts and uncles worked around the clock taking care of her and navigating through our Byzantine and often inept healthcare system. When her final course was set, relatives flew to New York from all over the country to be with my Grandmother at the end.

When my Grandmother passed, our family became a team effort yet again. My Aunt Patty’s house became a central gathering place, my cousins gave readings at the funeral or served alongside me as pallbearers. My Aunt Peggy arranged for the Ridgefield Chorale to sing at church and they did beautifully. My Father delivered a beautiful eulogy that left not a dry eye in the house and had both humor and inspiration.

One thing that my older relatives taught me is that the work you have to do during a wake and funeral is helpful, in that it keeps your mind occupied on something else other than the loss of your loved one. I was honored to be a pall bearer, and focused on making sure things went smoothly at what is the most heart-wrenching part of the funeral.

In the years after my Grandfather died, my Grandmother described a dream she had. She sees my Grandfather, appearing as he had when younger, dressed sharply in a suit and hat. He strides through the lobby of a building and gets into an elevator. She goes to follow him in but he puts his hand up, signaling this was not her time. The elevator doors close and the car begins its climb without her. I hope this dream replayed again for my Grandmother, and she joins my Grandfather on the elevator this time. The doors now close on the rest of us.

We are without our matriarch, but she has left us with loving instructions in the way of her example. If we live our lives with a fraction of the love, dignity and grace that Mary Sheahan had, we will have earned our rest.

 

Congestion pricing will not fix our subways

New York is a city of many firsts. It was the first capital city of the United States; it had the first hot dog, first American public brewery, ATM, mobile phone call, and children’s museum.

It also promises to be the first American city to institute congestion pricing on cars driving into its busiest areas. Although these fees are not expected to take effect until 2021, it could cost motorists up to $10 to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street according to a plan expected to be passed April 1 as part of the New York State budget.

It could mean as much as $14 for a car and more than $20 for a truck going into Manhattan. That’s likely going to be on top of heavy tolls already paid to take the bridges and tunnels needed to get into Manhattan in the first place. Cities such as London and Stockholm have instituted congestion pricing and it’s considered a success there, but those cities have more viable public transportation.

New York City has one of the most comprehensive public transit systems in the country, and that’s more of a statement on how sorry the U.S.’s transit system is than a compliment to New York.

The politicians that are advocating for congestion pricing are doing so because they don’t want to do the hard work it would take to fully fund the M.T.A. It means possibly raising taxes and definitely raising fares. It means significantly reforming construction policies to reduce exorbitant costs. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who despise one another, agree 100% that this is a good idea, which is as good a reason as any to oppose it.

People are turning more to cars because public transit is so unreliable and unpleasant. I once worked with a man who had health issues and had to go to the Bronx every other day from work in order to have kidney dialysis done. He took a cab there because he couldn’t be late and his health issues meant he couldn’t be wedged into a subway car with a few hundred of his closes friends. He was able to get some of his cab fare subsidized, but that’s money that could have been spent elsewhere if we had a reliable transit system, and it’s on the backs of people like my former coworker that this new tax is going to be balanced.

I would rather not spend about three times the regular fare to get to work, but I know I need to be on time to work and not on the cattle car that passes for the 7 train these days, so I splurge for an express bus. It’s still a lot less than a cab but more expensive than a regular subway or bus fare.

Congestion pricing is going to cost the people who can afford it the least: cab drivers or people who have their spouses or friends drive them to work or who are carpooling like good citizens. There will be a significant portion of people who will avoid paying it using the same schemes that work with the now toll-booth-free tolls and red light cameras.

We will fight this out in the press and in the courts until congestion pricing becomes the law of the land or not. But all that will be time wasted building the political capital, civic will, and thoughtful plans needed to truly fix our transit system.

The mystery commuter on the QM20 bus

For about a year and a half, I have commuted to and from my job in Manhattan using an express bus, a more expensive but comfortable coach bus run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Most of the bus drivers who drive these buses hustle to get us through traffic and make good time getting into Manhattan from the Eastern reaches of Queens. A meek or extremely defensive driver is going to fail at driving and express bus, and fail hard.

And that’s been happening recently in the early morning on the QM20 line. One driver I have not seen but only heard about, an older gentlemen, is a slow-paced driver that is content to hang in the slow lane of early rush-hour traffic while his passengers fret about reaching work on time. I have spoken with people who have stopped riding the 6:45 bus because they cannot get to work on time if they ride it. In fact, the 7 a.m. bus routinely reaches Manhattan sooner.

Because the driver of the 6:45 a.m. bus is such a pathetic slowpoke, passengers that used to take that bus now flood to the 6:30 bus. There are now at least three times as many passengers waiting at the bus stop for the bus I take, which means the other stops are all more crowded as well. I used to be able to find a seat all to myself with regularity, now it’s nearly impossible.

Yet still people insist on putting their bags on seats, even knowing that they’ll have to move them at some point. It’s a gamble on their part, they’ll possibly get the seats to themselves if enough passengers decide not to ask them to move. I usually make it a point to make these rude people move their bags, though if they are an exceedingly large person then I will often pass them by because I’m a large person also and then we’re both crammed into our seats seething and miserable. There is one rude fat bastard on my bus line who does this without fail and sits in corpulent luxury every day.

Sometimes I’ll choose people who are polite and thin because I’ll have more room. There’s a man who uses his time on the bus to sketch drawings and I feel camaraderie sitting next to someone interested in the arts, even if I never talk to him.

This past Monday however, there was a mystery man and I felt I had to sit next to him. By mystery man I mean someone who had a black wool hat pulled down all the way over his face. This was not a ski mask (aka balaclava), but just a hat that normally sits on top of the head and over the ears. He had it pulled down all the way over his face, so that his head was just one monolithic orb of woolen darkness.

I was appreciative of the aesthetic and felt a kinship to it. I often wear a ski mask when I perform in bands, and have enough ski masks at home to clothe a paramilitary battalion for a decade. So I sat next to this man. He was a bit spread out but I managed to get comfortable enough and read the news on my work phone. I didn’t want to see the man’s face, wanting his mystery to be kept for all eternity or at least until the weather was warmer and one would have to be psychotic to wear a winter cap. But no, soon after we rolled into Manhattan the man woke up and pulled up his hat revealing the countenance of a middle-aged commuter.

I don’t know where the man departed the bus. I got off at my usual stop at Herald’s Square and made my way downtown, hoping to engage with more of life’s mysteries as the day wore on.

The gritty oasis of Liberty Place

The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.

Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.

There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.

Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.

An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.

Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.

Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.

I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.

And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.

Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.

The universal benevolence of a snow day

This winter has been a strange one for the Northeast and New York in particular. We’ve been absent the traditional snowstorms that usually blanket our area a few times each season. We had a slushy sleet in November that snarled traffic and quickly dissipated and a few snowfalls that failed to bring much snow volume.

This past Sunday night we had our most commonplace snowstorm yet, and the predictions were serious enough for New York City to cancel its public school classes that following Monday.

That Monday morning, with the full weight of a snowstorm having made its mark on our city, I decided to not have a snow day and went to work. The snowpocalyspe that had been predicted did not come to pass, at least not on the roads in Flushing. They were clear at 5:30 in the morning and I went through my normal routine and got to work in great time.

So many were taking a snow day, it served as extra motivation to make it into the office. I could have likely remained at home and few would have blamed me. The buses and subways were less crowded than they usually are.

Enjoying the relative quiet of the hushed urban snowscape, broken by the crunching of my office-appropriate rain/snow boots on the un-shoveled sidewalks, it was a harder walk to the bus stop through the crusted sludge.

A few years ago, a snowstorm that was raging through the night and into the commuting time of the morning meant that the office where I worked declared a “work from home” day. It was one of the most productive work days I have ever had. I managed to draft an 800-word op-ed that morning on top of all my usual work, and the lack of commuting hell made everyone generally happier.

The greatest snow day I ever had was in an April of my elementary school years, when there was a spring snow storm in the Northeastern U.S. and I got to take the day off from Catholic School. No more stifling white shirt and blue fake tie with the stenciled sEs (Saint Eugene’s School, Yonkers, New York) for the day. I waged war against my own blood kin and neighbors through snowball fights, barricaded into a snow fortress that numbed my hands and feet, and cherished respite in the warm caverns of our two-bedroom apartment.

Making it into work during a snow day is an easy way to prove dedication to your job without doing any extra work. There’s a saying attributed to Woody Allen that 80 percent of success in life is showing up. On a snow day that jumps to 95 percent. It feels good to be one of the few and the brave at the office when things are quiet. In a city as crowded as New York, you take your quieter times whenever you can.

With today’s technology, the central office as we know it is due for an overhaul. With public transportation unfortunately on the decline, people who live only a few miles from their job commute for more than an hour. That hour can be spent more productively at home, and employees will be happier. We can’t say the same for schools.

What I fear now is that a deep freeze coming later this week will create an icy menace on sidewalks and roads, including black ice that can be harder to see and prepare for.

But no matter what shape our school and office lives take, the allure of the snow day will not be completely gone. Whether you take it at home or elsewhere, enjoy the snow day.

Come to the Flushing Eco-Fest

Sustainability and the environment are not just for hippies anymore.

Although when you think about it, hippies were late to the game on wanting save the Earth. The greatest environmentalists in American history is most likely the 26th President of the United States and great New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt used the power of his Presidency to create national parks and other public lands. And when you think about it, accomplished hunters like Roosevelt are among the best environmentalists.

Ask yourself what would Theodore Roosevelt do? If he were still with us today, he would probably be bold enough to bicycle from Oyster Bay to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House (a trip of only 25 miles, an easy two hours for T.R.) and find common cause with the many diverse people working for the preservation of our natural world at the Flushing Eco-Fest on Saturday, March 23.

The festival is being organized by Flushing C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), a local farm share group (full disclosure: our family is a member of the Flushing C.S.A. and my wife is a core member and Eco-Fest organizer) and being cohosted by the Flushing Chamber of Commerce.

The Eco-Fest is free and offers free workshops, eco-friendly kids’ crafts sponsored by Macaroni Kid, and a host of vendors with locally grown and organic goods. There will be well over a dozen vendors and groups there, each one is in some way working towards making things on the planet more sustainable.

There is guaranteed to be something to appeal to everyone. My personal favorites are some of the local food businesses such as Spice Tree Organics and Astor Apiaries. You will be doing something good for the environment when you attend, even if you just stick around to learn something about watersheds or how to compost or get a few cycling or energy-saving tips. There will also be environmentally-friendly soaps, home décor, seedlings, and baked goods for sale. And a raffle. Nothing is too small to do to make a difference.

You will also meet an interesting group of people there. Events like this can give you a great cross-section of this part of Queens. The Flushing Quaker Meeting House is the oldest, continually-used house of worship in New York City, and Flushing has several important landmarks in the cause of religious freedom in the U.S. Inside the Meeting House, you will be surrounded by history older than the United States. And whatever you think of the current trajectory of the U.S. or its politics, there is no disputing that this is an interesting time to be alive.

And it is a perfect time to increase your civic and conservationist involvement. Don’t let cultural stereotypes about environmentalists dissuade you from joining with those who want to keep our nation’s land strong. Everyone has a part to play.

Teddy Roosevelt promoted national greatness, and he understood that a nation that depleted its natural resources and did not invest time in strengthening its land and future could not sustain itself. In Flushing, people will gather and, consciously or not, help build on Roosevelt’s vision of a great America that treasures its natural resources and strives to be a unified community.

 

Postcards to the future

An annual tradition in our family is to go to Mohonk Mountain House on President’s Day weekend. It’s a tradition started by my wife’s father and stepmother and we are happy to take part in it.

This year Mohonk Mountain House is celebrating its 150th anniversary (called a sesquicentennial if you want to use a big word and impress yourself). As part of its observation of this milestone, the historic resort plans to create a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. They invited all of their guests to fill out postcards to be sent 100 years into the future, presumably to be poured over by historians or glanced at by bemused guests in the next century.

One hundred years ago, much of the Western world was still recovering from the First World War, though no one would have called it that at the time because another 20 years would pass before the next World War would start. World War I was called simply “The Great War,” and Western civilization had not seen anything like it. Technology had helped nations create weapons that had not been used in large scale before and casualties were enormous. In fact, there are still areas of France off limits today because of the plethora of unexploded ordinance from the First World War.

Today our world is not in the after math of a great war but rather adjusting to the dissolution of the world order that was began after the Second World War. We have a new dominant world power in China and the world’s greatest superpower, the U.S., deeply divided. There is no shortage of conflict in the world that is taking a drastic human toll.

The world is still a scary, violent place, just in different ways than it was in 1919. We didn’t have mass school shootings in the U.S. in 1919, but we had a flu pandemic that killed more than 180,000 people. We didn’t have MS-13 gangs, but we still had anarchist bombings and labor and race riots. It’s not a bold statement to say that the world of 2119 will be frightening to the historical researchers who read our Mohonk postcards. Between now and then the world will change dramatically in ways we can’t predict, but human nature and the existence of conflict will remain.

But what is also constant, and what I tried to convey in the card, is that while conflict is never ending, so is hope and the human drive for improvement. As long as people have killed one another and destroyed past civilizations with sloth and greed, they have also constructed new communities and sought out the better angels of their natures.

In the postcard we left for the 100-year time capsule at Mohonk, I wrote to a future that would be as conflicted and fearful as our own. I conveyed to them that now, as will be the case then, people gathered to see the beauty of nature and share good times with the people they loved.

I added our postcard to the gathering mass of missives to the future, hopeful that maybe one of my great grandchildren will be enjoying some time at the Mohonk Mountain House and get to read our note from the past.

 

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