The essential conundrum of Times Square

News came out this past week that the company I work for will be moving all of its New York offices to Times Square, where we already have a flashy facility. It will be a big to-do with renovation and creating an office of the future and I’m sure the office will live up to the hype and it will be great for the company.

There’s everything to love about it but it means having to work in Times Square, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Times Square has undergone a complete 180-degree transformation over the last two decades. In the mid-1990s, it was still famous for its crime and pornography. I remember walking through as a kid and marveling at the graphic photos advertising the pornographic films, the barely-censored photos of naked women you tried to look at while pretending to ignore.

Times Square today is a tourist mecca that glows with the false light of a thousand larger-than-life screens and signs. It is a backdrop to television shows, a center showpiece of a city that crawled its way out of the financial and social gutter to become a well-regarded metropolis of the future. It’s found a way to personify the state of the five boroughs within its blocks. When New York was in a state of decay, Times Square reflected that. Now that economic interests have invested for the future here, Times Square reflects that also. Whether you love it or hate it, it is our city’s barometer.

Like much of the conversation today surrounding questions of the changing character of New York City, the gritty past tends to get sugar-coated. While I prefer watching pornography to shopping for Disney trinkets, the Times Square of today is no doubt better for New York City and a proud measure of our progress over crime. (Keep in mind that the tremendous makeover never completely washes out the criminal element or the sub-strata of sleaze or grit. There are still plenty of con artists, prostitutes and drug dealers making money in the Times Square area.)

Times Square’s success as an attraction for visitors makes it less appealing for local residents. Slow-moving foot traffic is maddening for someone trying to get to work. Long lines of people at overpriced tourist traps do not make for suitable lunch spots. Friends who have worked in Times Square report that some of the potential upsides, such as going to the office to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, are foiled by strict rules, often dictated by security concerns.

But as with the rest of life, working in Times Square will be an opportunity to adapt and overcome. I’ll find the good lunch spots to go to and I’ll figure out how to move in and out without being caught up in mobs of plodding tourists. Being a New Yorker means being able to find the right path through adversity and make inconvenience into something triumphant.

The midtown canyons of concrete and glass will be calling for me within a year’s time. It will be another chance to embrace the chaos of living in New York, and make a new path to life in the city.

Super Bowl Hype Has Run Aground

I had every intention of watching the Super Bowl this past Sunday but life got in the way.

Being a New York Jets fan, I have no real reason to watch the N.F.L., but believe it is a major current event that bears witnessing to be properly informed, not that one needs much of an excuse to sit and eat and watch TV. Also, in keeping with a tradition I had with my mother (RIP), my brother and I have decided to make a bet on the Super Bowl every year. My brother is a die-hard Patriots fan, so the bet was easy to make. I bet on the Philadelphia Eagles to win; the loser buys the other lunch.

As a New Yorker, I should despise both teams. The Patriots are cheating panty waists. They even cheated against my Jets, which is like cheating against people from the Special Olympics. Nonetheless, like the arrogant Dallas Cowboys of decades past, they have become the dominating franchise with numerous Super Bowl victories. The Philadelphia Eagles have been the hated rivals of New York football fans for decades. There’s something about Philadelphia fans absolute violent savagery and dedication that is endearing. They went into the game as underdogs.

Until I went to college, I could not see the use or interest in football. It is a slow game with rules that are not easy to comprehend (wait, they have to kick it again already, what happened?). Sports in general failed to arouse my interest as a kid. Why invest so much into a game when you could be out shooting bad guys or doing karate on people. I prowled around with toy guns, back when you were allowed to have realistic-looking toy guns, and pretended to hunt Russians or terrorists. I would rather practice being a bounty hunter or future warlord than try to remember a bunch of rules that made no sense. Sports seemed a poor substitute for real adventure in the world.

In college, sports made more sense. The athletes represented our school in the most primal, tribal way, and supporting the team was something that could bring even the most politically fractured college campus together.

So this Sunday came and I figured I would turn on the Super Bowl and it would be in the background while I had a regular Sunday with the family. The game was supposed to start at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, and we knew that Pink was going to be singing the national anthem.

At the appointed time, we told our children that “Pirate Pink” would be singing on television soon. Our children know the singer as “Pirate Pink” from her appearance as a pirate on “Sponge Bob Square Pants.” But something went wrong. We turned in to the Super Bowl when it was supposed to start and they were actually starting to play football? What happened to the 45 minutes of bullshit before the actual game? The coin toss, the national anthem, the endless displays of hype and patriotism? We only have one TV in our home and I was banking on Pink’s appearance to make the transition from “Doc McStuffins” to football; no easy task.

As the actual Super Bowl got under way, my older children began to cry over missing “Pirate Pink” sing on television. I was the worst Dad ever. I made my chicken dip and enjoyed dinner with the family while watching “The Simpsons,” which is the only TV show we allow to run during meal times regularly.

I was glad to miss the game because I tend to jinx many teams that I watch on television. When the New York Yankees were in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves in 1996, I watched the first two games and the Yankees were crushed. I quit watching entirely and the Yankees won the next four games and reclaimed the crown as world champions once again.

Since then my not watching sports has helped my preferred teams. This year was a year I missed more Georgia Bulldogs games on TV than in recent memory, and they had their best year since 1980, making it all the way to the national championship game. Go Dawgs!

It was social media that informed me that my not-watching mojo had helped the Eagles win their first Super Bowl.

Congratulations Philadelphia. Please don’t burn your city to the ground.

 

The Anti-Wanderlust of Wintertime New York

There is a habit of New Yorkers to head South for the winter once they’ve reached a certain age or level of financial security. I can understand why but will fight to stay north for the winter as long as I can.

The deep chill of a January and February in New York can be no fun. The outdoors is windblown and desolate, and the normal stroll through the city that is normally a joy is an appointment with wincing pain. The chill combined with the dry air of the indoor heat stresses and fractures the skin, our eyes tear with windy cold, and we fumble for our gloves and try to find the way to both be agile of hand and not feel frostbitten.

But give me the most frozen winter on record and it will still be preferable to the constantly warmer climate of regions south. I can say this with certainty as I’ve had to go to Florida twice in the past three weeks for work and don’t wish to live in a perpetual spring and summer all year.

My first trip to the Fort Lauderdale area earlier in January was a suitable introduction to the tourist-fueled aquamarine madness of South Florida. Just because your company sends you someplace nice for work doesn’t mean that the real word stops, and it’s hard to enjoy the seaside camaraderie when you know a thousand emails are piling up on your laptop.

One of the more interesting parts of the trip was talking to the Uber drivers that ferried me about. In one evening I met a woman from Costa Rica who was an animal rights activist and got caught up in some controversy in her home country around money she raised for abused animals. Later on that night I had a driver whose full-time job was inspecting airplanes that were manufactured; he had been burned in a recent divorce settlement but was working his way back to fiscal and emotional health and had no problem telling a perfect stranger that (well, Uber passengers aren’t perfect strangers – the drivers arrive knowing your first name and have the right to charge your credit card; this may count as intimacy in this day and age).

My second trip to Florida was to attend a financial conference, the biggest of its kind for the investing niche it represents. It was so popular that I could not get a room at the hotel where the conference was held, and instead found shelter a few minutes’ drive away at the Margaritaville of Hollywood Florida.

As it sounds the Margaritaville is a hotel chain based on Jimmy Buffet’s tropical music. And despite this it’s actually a nice place. The room I had was nice with a balcony that had an ocean view. When I arrived, I thought the woman ahead of me at the check-in desk was wearing a pair of beige pants that made her look crudely exposed. But I was mistaken: my fellow hotel guest was speaking to the hotel clerk wearing nothing below the waist except a flimsy G-string bikini bottom and a pair of flip flops. This is what Floridians refer to as “business casual.”

Again, it was the cab drivers that wind up giving you a better flavor for the place. On my final day in Florida, I got to speak with a driver who had moved to Florida from New Jersey in 1973 (you meet very few native-born Floridians in Florida) and had seen it change tremendously. He liked it when it was less populated and he was younger. He had the easygoing manner of someone who had escaped the rat race years ago and could enjoy whatever life threw at him. He was a moderate liberal Yankee who was at ease with the easygoing ways of South Florida and could drink all afternoon with more right-wing friends and still go home friends. He maneuvered around the traffic islands and stoplights with an ease that escapes many of the ride-share drivers of today’s generation. It was a good way to begin my final day in the Sunshine State.

As the conference wound down, people were finishing up their business and making arrangements to get out of town. I managed to book an earlier flight and quickly caught a cab to the airport.

It was 75 degrees when I flew out of Fort Lauderdale and 39 degrees when I landed in New York. It was a strong slap in the face of cold air, but it felt like home.

Snowpocalypse Now, Redux

The dire warnings swarmed throughout the media ahead of last week’s snowfall. A “Bomb Cyclone,” was going to smash the East Coast and wreak havoc on our lives. I left work on Wednesday prepared to work from home on Thursday amid a cataclysmic blizzard.

Early the next morning, I checked my work email on my work phone and looked out the window repeatedly for an indication that the ice age apocalypse was upon us and that I should stay home and enjoy a work-from-home day. It looked underwhelming. There was not even any snow sticking to the street and the collection of snow on the parked cars in my neighborhood looked relatively mild. I decided that the “Bomb Cyclone” had fizzled and that not showing up to work in person would be bad.

When I got outside, the snow was coming down at a healthy clip, and I regretted not bringing my umbrella. There were not as many commuters on the morning bus, as people saner than I were in their warm homes getting some extra sleep. The commute to work was uneventful, and I was at my desk at my normal time.

Things were uneasy though. The snow kept coming down at a faster pace. From a high floor of a high office building, where normally one can see all the way to Eastern Queens, the nearby buildings were barely visible through the snowy haze. Sure enough, this Bomb Cyclone was for real, at least in that it was dumping a ton of snow on our city at great speed. Snow was being blown sideways and windy updrafts made it appear that it was snowing from the ground up like some kind of winter flurry from the upside down.

Few people had made it into work. Most of them not even bothering with the commute in. There were so few of us in the office that one of the administrative assistants had lunch brought in for everyone. While enjoying my free sandwich, I started wondering how I would get home. My boss sent me a photo of Han Solo on a Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back.

The snow kept going into the afternoon, and I decided I would try to leave work early in order to get a head start on the commute home, which I assumed would be a journey of misery and anger lasing hours.

By the time I left work at 4 p.m., snow had stopped falling in downtown Manhattan and visibility had resumed. The streets did not look great but what little traffic there was appeared to be moving. Arriving in Herald Square for my commuter bus, 6th Avenue had been plowed during the day but not recently enough and several inches of snow had been pulverized into sickly slush by hours of traffic.

I stood on the sidewalk with the cold wind punching me in the face as some of my fellow commuters huddled for cover. Being cooped up on an office all day, it felt good to feel the real world, even when it feels like Old Man Winter is hitting you in the face with a cinderblock.

The ultimate irony of the Bomb Cyclone: it took me less time to get home from work than it normally does. This was because enough people had been scared away from the city and because I left a little bit before normal rush hour.

As our commuter bus headed over the 59th Street Bridge, I saw a line of inactive snowplows parked along the street on 1st or 2nd Avenue. The avenues of Flushing had been plowed but our bus struggled a bit up some sloping streets. By the next morning though, the streets were clear.

A hard, biting cold has gripped the East Coast recently, and New York City has taken its share of the brunt of it. But it is part of life here. We get all four seasons in the Big Apple, and we get all of them in a big way.

 

Early morning at the GoodFellas Diner

I came to know my friend Eric aka “Sleazy E” through his performances with a man known as Dirty Diamond, who sings raunchy parodies of Neil Diamond songs. Eric has since moved to Portland, Oregon after living in New Orleans and Philadelphia.

Eric was coming back East for the holidays and I agreed to pick him up from J.F.K. Airport at 5:30 in the morning because doing so was the kind of pre-dawn adventure I really didn’t need but would greatly regret not having. My friend needed to get from the airport to Penn Station very early on a weekend morning and that’s not a fun time even during normal waking hours, and it was rare to get an audience with the Sleazy One, since he’s on the West Coast now.

The roadways of J.F.K. Airport comprise a spaghetti bowl of shame and signage. I ran at least one red light I didn’t realize was there, and had to abandon my aided navigation for just reading signs, but I managed to get to the right passenger terminal and soon Eric and I were on our way to GoodFellas Diner.

GoodFellas Diner wasn’t always called that. It was named such because scenes from the movie ‘GoodFellas’ were filmed there. We drove through the quiet streets of Maspeth among warehouses, lumber yards, and loading docks. It’s a part of the city that still retains some of the industrial grit that made New York the engine of commerce that it is.

We were the only customers when we walked in, but not long after we sat down a young couple sat a few booths away and then a large, flatbed tow truck parked next to my van and the driver joined the small breakfast rush.

Catching up with Eric made it worth the early morning drive. He’s developed a biting yet healthy cynicism that informs his approach to enjoying life without excuses. Originally from Camden and raised in Philadelphia, he’s accustomed to more rough and tumble ways than are commonplace on the West Coast. He is constantly amazed by the soft-bellied practices of Portland denizens. His longtime dream is to open and run a pizza parlor; a slice of pizza is tattooed upon his arm among other things, and he apprenticed at one of Philadelphia’s most well-regarded pizza restaurants.

We discussed how the tourist traps of Philadelphia have promoted Cheese Whiz as an essential ingredient because tourists fall for it as “authentic” and it saves them the money they would have to spend on real cheese. The better, lesser-known cheese steak makers preferred by locals will use real cheese.

Our breakfast at GoodFellas was on-par diner fare and the atmosphere remained unpretentious and authentic. We made sure to take some photos before we left. We swung by a 7 Eleven so I could get more coffee and then made our way into Manhattan.

Our navigation took us through a midtown that was still waking up. Adorned for the holiday season, I was able to give Eric a quick rolling tour of some of the holiday season’s more notable city locales. Park Avenue offered a sweeping rear view of the Helmsley Building and many trees in midtown are lined with lights from trunk to bough. Going down Fifth Avenue, The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree was bright and glowing in the early morning light, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a silent sentry over the layered holiday décor of Saks Fifth Avenue.

But true to our mission, we soon found ourselves at the entrance to Penn Station. Penn Station was once a place of grandeur and the city is trying to make that happen again by turning the old Farley Post Office into the new Penn Station. Until then though, Penn Station is a confusing and squalid place, and as I dropped Eric off for the second part of his journey to Philly, the life forms of the old New York were milling about as a form of disorganized welcoming committee; a near perfect assembly to begin a sojourn to Philadelphia.

I bid farewell to my friend there on 8th Avenue, wishing him a happy holidays and safe travels, and hoping he would bring his surly ways to New York soon again.

Navigating the winter wonderland of the Queens Zoo

When the weather is bad, our family goes to the zoo. Our logic is this: Many of the indoor spaces will be overcrowded and the zoo will be sparsely populated. When you’ve lived in the city long enough, avoiding crowds is more important than avoiding pneumonia.

So this past weekend’s snowfall made our planned trip to Westchester unwise, but made a short drive to the zoo a piece of cake. The parking lot on 111th Street that is a chaotic mess and a graveyard of public parking dreams during the summer had plenty of spaces. I pulled into a space right near the ramp we would need for our youngest daughter’s stroller.

One of the goals for this weekend was to help give my wife time alone at home to prepare our home for Christmas. I was on my own for several hours with three children all under four years of age, and found myself pushing a stroller through a moderate snowfall in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on our way to the Queens Zoo. There was a small group of teenagers having a snowball fight when we got there, and one cyclist pedaled past us and shot me a strange look is if to be amazed he came across someone crazier than he was out in the snow.

While the children were equipped with proper hats and coats, one pair of mittens was inevitably quickly lost and our youngest got wet and hungry very fast. The snowfall was not bad. It was only one or two inches in the city and the snow did not stick to the streets very well. A few runs of a plow with some sand and salt made things OK. But cold kids make for cranky kids and herding three youngsters through the wet and cold is a chore with an additional distraction (snow) that is also a physical obstacle. The front wheels of the stroller would stop cutting through and spin in a sideways fashion, gathering reels of snow around themselves like some perverse cotton candy machine. Otherwise they would stop moving completely and I’d be essentially be operating the world’s most ineffective snow plow.

The Queens Zoo is a perfect place to bring kids because it’s relatively small compared with its larger and more famous counterpart The Bronx Zoo. It can be done thoroughly in a morning or afternoon. Arriving at the zoo after a snowfall revealed a hushed atmosphere covered in a gorgeous layer of fresh white powder that proved perfect for making snowballs. It was one of those days when you look around and can’t believe you are in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. A few times you would hear the rush of the highway or the sounds of people playing in the park outside the zoo’s fence, but it was desolate and beautiful and well worth the soggy feat and cold hands.

The zoo posts the times of the sea lion feeding and I had to hustle to get us there in time. When we got to the sea lions, there was one other couple there. This couple were the only other non-zoo employees we saw during our entire stay. They huddled under an umbrella while two of my daughters climbed a snow-covered rock and declared it their mountain and the other sat on the wet ground to have a better vantage point to scream her undefined infant rage at the world. That’s right, normal couple at the zoo: my children are many times tougher than you and earned the grudging respect of the animal kingdom.

We had an up-close view of the sea lion feeding up close but cut it short because we were all hungry. The Sea Lion Café offered a warm, dry refuge and sold hot coco and coffee among its souvenirs and snacks. We took our time eating before we bundled up again, only go head to a restroom where it was necessary to take coats off again. We easily killed 20 minutes in the restroom, making sure everyone either used the toilet or had a diaper change. Then back out into the snow.

The girls enjoyed looking at the animals but probably enjoyed handling the snow and stomping on puddles more. Even though my wife had packed more than adequate snacks for us, “snow burgers” became a much sought-after treat, and there was no keeping my young charges from indulging in them, only trying to police the color and source of the snow (only white snow, not from the ground).

We marveled at how close the sea lions and the bison came to us, and followed with a mad dash to get to a restroom again. By the time we finished there and thought about returning to glimpse more animals, security guards looked to be closing the zoo for the day. It was just as well, my girls were showing signs of fatigue and by the time I got them back to our van and buckled in, they slept soundly for two hours while I went on a coffee-fueled road trip from Corona to Flushing and Bayside.

I returned home with three tired children to a home in much better order. Mission accomplished.

Banana in the tailpipe

It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.

We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.

There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.

From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.

My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.

When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.

I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.

If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.

While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.

A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:

“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”

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