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The view from the express bus

Changing jobs means figuring out new benefits and pay scales, learning new things and figuring out how to get your email to work correctly at your new job. In New York we have the additional calculus of our daily commute.

My old job was in the Flatiron District, which from Flushing meant a bus to the 7 train at Main Street, the 7 train to Grand Central Terminal, and the 6 train from Grand Central to 23rd St. When things went well, this commute could be as little as an hour. When things went wrong, this commute could be grueling. The 7 train is a deceptive beast that is almost always overcrowded and miserable and picks the absolutely worse times to crap out on commuters. During my last week at my old job, the geniuses at the MTA decided to have our 7 train boot out all of its Manhattan-bound passengers out at the Hunter’s Point stop – a stop with no other connecting trains. The 6 train was often overcrowded or late, and construction on Main Street meant that taking a bus home took longer.

I decided to go with a completely different route to downtown Manhattan, where my new job is. At the recommendation of my wife, I began taking the express bus into Manhattan. The express bus is a like a coach bus, but it operates within the city on very specific routes. The QM20 picks up passengers right across the street from my building; it and the QM2 can take me home via 6th Avenue near 34th. An R or W train (which are still too slow) can take me downtown from there.

The express bus is more expensive—$6.50 each way—but if you’re able to do it you won’t look back. If you catch it early enough you will avoid the worst of rush hour traffic (not always though) and even though you’re in the thick of rush hour on the ride home, it’s a more pleasant ride where you see an interesting cross-section of the city.

There is still your average public transit douchery on the express bus. You can see riders put their belongings on the seat or put their seats back as if they are in business class on an airline. But these are pretty minor when compared to some of what you can see on the subways. I have yet to hear the telltale clicking of someone clipping their nails like I would hear on the subway or regular bus. I have never seen anyone forced to stand for a lack of seats.

The express bus engenders its own solemn fraternity. Like the rest of the city it is an odd cross-section of workers and even a few retirees. A few people greet each other as old regulars – they take the same bus and see each other frequently. I already recognize a few regular faces, which is not something that happened very often on the 7 train.

I find it hard to read on the bus because I’m still enjoying the new view. Going into Manhattan gives riders a long view of the skyline but then the bus winds its way through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and across 34th Street. It is interesting to have an above-ground view of Manhattan waking up in the morning and a Herald Square not quite buzzing to life, with homeless people camped out not too far from Macy’s. The ride home takes us up 6th Avenue which gives a view of Radio City Music Hall and across 59th Street past the Plaza Hotel. Then it goes over the 59th Street Bridge where a fleeting view of Manhattan is starting to glow with the approaching night, and the light of dusk overhead usually contrasts with the brackish hue of the East River. Then it spends most of the ride through Queens on Northern Boulevard, where the car dealerships of Long Island City and Astoria melt away to the Spanish-speaking businesses of Corona.

The new job is a new adventure and so far I haven’t been fired yet. I’ll continue to take the express bus to and from work, taking in the city in a new way.

The Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse Experience

I’ve recently changed jobs and on the last week of work my office had a social outing to wish me well. I had never been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and asked to go there.

Yes, it is shameful that I had lived this long and not gone to Sammy’s, being a New Yorker through and through. Sammy’s is a quintessential New York institution and a landmark for Jewish New York culture.

Our office took cabs to arrive on Christie Street while it was still light out. It looked like we were the first to arrive for the evening dinner rush (sadly Sammy’s is only open for dinner). The place is below street and adheres to its famous basement aesthetic except that finished basements usually have carpeting; Sammy’s looks dingier than your average suburban basement. There are photos and business cards stuck everywhere and the place is eerie when it’s a bit empty. That changed quickly though.

There is schmaltz (a viscous spread) in small maple syrup style pitchers on the tables rather than butter as Sammy’s is a kosher-style restaurant; the food is classic Jewish-American cuisine. I made sure to taste the schmaltz—it tasted like chicken fat, which is essentially what it is. A giant bowl of chopped chicken liver with onions was irresistible and I had as much of that as I could.

The place is also famous for its vodka. The first thing our table ordered was a bottle of vodka that is served inside a frozen block of ice (appearing to have been frozen in a milk container).

I knew that there was an entertainer who sang and played music at Sammy’s. I did not know the extent that Dani Luv was a dominant force who could turn a weekday work night into an evening of ribald fun. He really dominates the room and infuses it with an energy that defines the atmosphere and turns up the charm on the minimalist décor. He stands or sits on a stool behind a modest keyboard in the corner, a large tip jar and small disco ball nearby. A New York Times profile from 2013 notes that his name is Dani Lubnitzki and he is Israeli. The impact he has on the evening can’t be understated. If Joan Rivers had been in a three-way with Don Rickles and “Weird” Al Yankovic, she would have given birth to Dani Luv.

By the time Dani got started, another larger group occupied a nearby table and he asked both groups how many Jews there were among us. Invariably several people at each table raised their hands. “How about you, the ISIS guy,” he said, referring to a dark-skinned man who looked Middle Eastern and had a beard, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” The guy laughed and shook his head, ‘no.’ “Of course not…”

“Why are you guys here?” he asked our table.

“This guy is leaving the company,” our boss answered, pointing at me.

“That guy’s leaving the company because he doesn’t want to work with Jews anymore!” Dani joked. Our table had another good laugh.

The food is big. We had the family style meal and there was so much food that three of us took a lot home. I had the schmaltz on the rye bread, and the chicken liver, and the latkes, and something they called “Jewish ravioli” that was very dense and delicious, and chicken and even some salad. I couldn’t say no to the large steaks either. If you go to a place that is famous as a steak house, it feels somewhat like a crime to not have the steak. There was also stuffed cabbage and pickles and pickled peppers (not an entire peck of pickled peppers but enough for everyone).

The evening wound down quickly as people had long commutes home from Manhattan. Dani Luv begged a few to stay- at least our female coworkers anyway, but before the night got too late it was me and my boss.

My boss finished off the vodka and bought me a Sammy’s t-shirt. I gave Dani Luv a generous tip and took my photo with him. Soon after we headed home.

Sammy’s is a great New York tradition and I vow to make visiting there a tradition of my own. I was very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people and it was difficult to leave. Saying goodbye at such a fun place put a more cheerful lining on a sad event.

 

Following the footsteps…

 

I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.

My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.

One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.

This past Sunday I was among the more than 30,000 people who followed Siller’s footsteps in the Tunnel to Towers 5k.

The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.

The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.

First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.

Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.

The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.

The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.

A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:

“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”

A dispatch from the New Jersey shore

New York City is such an intense and captivating force that New Yorkers must all leave their beloved Gotham from time to time for areas more peaceful and serene, places where the air is cooler and the pace of things slower. City life is an immense trade-off. We have the greatest art and culture in the world but must endure great hardships, annoyances, and inconveniences. It’s this crucible that makes our standards so high and our quest for excellence so unforgiving.

These past few days have found me on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a beautiful beach community that is best visited after Labor Day, when the summer season is considered officially over. Plenty of other people have had this idea also. So the island is not a ghost town but can look that way at times if you turn down one of the quieter streets. The restaurants are starting to board up for the fall and winter or have at least cut down their summer hours.

Long Beach Island is one long excuse to sit and marvel at the beach and ocean. It is a thin, string-bean like island that is geared towards renting to or selling to people coming here for the summer. It floods easily and the oncoming series of hurricanes that are lined up to punch the United States now are on the top of everyone’s mind.

While this end-of-summer escape is welcome, the travails of life remain. This time of year especially, the days around September 11, are times when we are reminded about the fleeting nature of our very existence and the fact that life commands us to enjoy every moment.

This awareness does not all have to come in tragic form. I formed a habit of quickly taking photos of the sand castles I help my children build, because before long one of my daughters will crush them quickly without hesitation. She is not yet four years old yet she is a destroyer of worlds. She has not yet grasped the value of leaving something behind that is beautiful in part because of its vulnerability. It is more fun for her to feel that collapse of the cool, wet sand under her feet.

Long Beach Island is a place where you will miss out if you don’t take the time to walk along the beach at night and enjoy the light of the moon reflecting on the ocean. It is where the best thing to do is to sit on the sand under an umbrella and attempt to clear your mind of everything. The beauty of the landscape belies the chaotic, violent, and tragic nature of our lives, which is why we seek to surround ourselves with beauty as much as possible. The world will hand us enough ugly all our lives.

In a few days my family will return to New York City, which has now been rebuilding for more than 16 years since the September 11 attacks. A whole new generation of New Yorkers are alive who did not know life before that day. Our responsibility, among many, is to give this generation an appreciation of all that we have given them as family and all that we have built as a people, because it could very easily not be here tomorrow.

The U.S. Open is a cancer on New York City

I drove to the New York Hall of Science with my children and found the usual driveway to the parking lot barricaded. A woman wearing the uniform of a U.S. Open worker stood there. There was no reason for her to be there. The Hall of Science has no tennis courts.

She quickly waved through a hotel shuttle bus but then blocked our van.

“Do you have a membership here, sir?” she asked me. I informed her that I did.

“Then you’re technically behind this guy,” she motioned to a man with car by the curb. “We’re waiting for spaces to open up. We only have 25 spots today.” I’m not sure who the ‘we’ was in this equation. “You can wait behind this gentleman or you can try street parking.” She offered to hold my place in line if I wanted to try driving around to find street parking first. Knowing the area, I could tell that was a lost cause.

The woman was exceedingly polite, as polite as one can be while telling someone that you’re getting paid to help screw people out of a trip to the science museum so pampered jerks can pay to watch tennis. I told her we would be moving on and drove away, having to explain to my kids that the U.S. Open had just cost us a trip to the science museum.

I sent an inquiry to the Hall of Science asking how this could happen, but have so far received no response. The administration there may not have had a choice and had its hand forced by the city. Last year we discovered the city using public park land as paid parking lots for the tournament.

No New Yorker who comes in contact with the U.S. Open or its fans needs another reason to hate the U.S. open. Sure, it brings in lots of money to the city, but so does selling heroin. At least heroin eventually kills the people stupid enough to use it; U.S. Open fans don’t die off at a fast enough rate.

For 7 train commuters or neighbors of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, the Open is the most miserable time of the year. The train is filled with tennis fans that are clueless, without any sense of their being among others. Oblivious to the basic courtesies required of city dwellers, the subway is a big joke to them, other passengers who need the train to get home from work are lucky to be witness to their charming afternoon of slumming.

The tennis fans that clog our city are Exhibit A of the decline of Western civilization, the well-heeled and soft-minded excreta of a decadent and depraved society. These obnoxious Eloi offer nothing redeeming beyond commerce, and exude only ignorance and weakness in everything that they do.

Perhaps I am painting the Open and its fans with too broad a brush. I know several people who are great human beings who are true tennis fans and make it a tradition to attend the Open. The tennis center’s centerpiece stadium is named for Arthur Ashe, who set the gold standard for how professional athletes ought to be.

But most of the tennis fans who come to the open are not like the few good eggs that I know. It’s a time of year where rich jerks come to town and the city is more than happy to extend a big middle finger to the working people who actually live here. In short: the U.S. Open represents the antithesis of all that is good about our city and is potent refinement of the worst contemporary society has to offer.

Perhaps the answer is some good old fashion capitalism, such as selling tennis fans tickets to the VIP 7 train cars that don’t exist. I would like to adopt a temperamental Rottweiler so I can name it “Serena Williams” and charge people $100 dollars for a special VIP lounge meet and greet (the VIP lounge will be a cardboard box behind a White Castle—I shall feast like a king).

If the powers that be want to flood our city with the dregs of the pampered class, the rest of us can make a quick buck sheering these sheep. Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Either way, it will be over soon, but not soon enough.

 

Both sides in America’s great divide

I had promised myself I wasn’t going to spend money to see the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight. McGregor is a great mixed martial arts fighter and proud Irishman but a perpetual shit-talker who took the low road in promoting this fight. Floyd Mayweather is one of the best boxers the sport has ever produced but is a wife-beating jerk no sane person wants to make richer.

But some friends invited me to meet them for the fight and I enjoyed seeing Conor McGregor’s last fight with them, so I met up with them at Hooters of Farmingdale on Long Island.

There is no charming way you can tell your wife you are going to Hooters. I have disliked Hooters because I think if you want to go to a strip club you should man up and go to a strip club. Hooters wants to treat its waitresses like strippers but not pay them like strippers. But I wasn’t going to argue against a night out.

The great racial divide in America was easy to divine looking at the dining room of Hooters, which is a better place to take the pulse of the nation than The Palm Court at the Plaza. I think I saw two tables that were not racially homogenous. There was no bad blood that I saw. No one had any harsh words for anyone else, but the essential tribal nature of human life was on full display. Some of the white customers had t-shirts that read ‘Fook Mayweather,’ poking fun at McGregor’s Irish brogue while insulting the experienced boxer. When Mayweather won the fight, a black customer at a neighboring table stood on his chair to gloat.

America’s house is definitely divided, even the Hooters on Long Island. I was expecting there to be more quality fights in the parking lot than on the pay-per-view screen; likewise with the crowd at the fight in Las Vegas. It didn’t play out that way. There was no violence at the Hooters at the end of the night, just people settling their bills and going their separate ways.

We all like to think that we’re the open-minded exception to the pervasive divides of our time, but we all have an intrinsic need to draw our lines and take an accounting of our allies and enemies. You are forced to choose sides in life once fists start to fly, even if you are disgusted with the whole sham.

I certainly wanted McGregor to win. No self-respecting Irishman would root against him, no matter how obnoxious his pre-fight conduct was. But wanting him to win and expecting him to win are two different things, and the odds were such that I would happy if he lasted more than a few rounds.

After a long undercard and several helpings of wings and appetizers, it was time for the fight. McGregor went 10 rounds in his first ever professional boxing match with a fighter who is arguably one of the best ever. Mayweather came out of years of retirement to fight one of the best combat sports starts of today who is more than a decade younger. They both walked out of the ring with their heads held high, and rightfully so.

After the bout, both fighters were gracious and respectful. It was heartening to see these men be civil after spending months insulting one another. Then again, they had exploited America’s great racial divide to make millions of dollars on a fight that had no business taking place.

The crowd dispersed to either curse or celebrate the fortunes of their proxy combatants, but those fighters came away the big winners. And therein lies the more telling divide: the millionaires in that fight have more in common with each other than they do with anyone who shelled out for the pay-per-view. A foreigner who was on welfare five years ago and a black man who can barely read rode this race-baiting shit show all the way to the bank and had the last laugh on the rest of us. That’s the American way.

Being outside civilization is good for you

This August is a perfect time to be outside of civilization. I recently experienced this when I went camping with my family in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles north of New York City.

City dwellers take pride in being in the center of it all, in being connected to what is happening here and now. Our ability to navigate our asphalt jungle is another source of pride, the result of finding our way, learning the ins and outs of each place and its peculiarities, being able to surf upon this insider knowledge smoothly.

But it was vacation time and I took pains to be ready to unplug. My boss told me to enjoy my vacation, and that he didn’t want to hear from me unless I had video me wrestling a bear into submission or something equally sensationally bear-related.

On the way up to the mountains though, real life interfered and I got some work-related calls. I felt they could wait and I kept driving, vowing to look at my phone again only when we managed to get our tent set up and hot dogs on the grill.

It was raining when we pulled into the Woodland Valley Campground, which has plastered bear warnings on almost every single surface imaginable. It even has wooden bear silhouettes attached to its fence by the road as you enter; there is no missing these warnings unless you are blind. Even then, the woman at the campsite office reminded me to lock up all of our food in our car, noting that a young male black bear, recently made to live on his own by his mother, was known to frequent the area.

The heavy tree canopy allowed us to set up our tent and get a fire going before things got soaked. Once things were settled, I looked at my phone again, and realized that the emails and calls I had received could not wait. I tried to respond only to find that we had no signal. None. We were less than 100 miles away from the greatest metropolis in the history of the Earth and we could not connect to that great civilization.

I went to the campsite office to see if there was any information on getting a Wi-Fi connection. I’d even pay a little extra for it. They must have that, surely. ‘Need Wi-Fi?’ read a sign, it was followed by the address and the infrequent hours of operation of the Phoenicia, New York public library, which was about six miles away.

“I have to respond to these emails,” I told my wife. They were the result of a lot of work on my part and not doing so would let down a good friend I have known personally and professionally for a long time. I prepared an email on my phone asking people to email me back and schedule a call for a few days later, so I could drive back into town the next day to retrieve whatever emails they had sent me. A few hours later, after we had feasted on hot dogs and s’mores and put the children to bed, I made the drive into town through the dark mountain roads in the rain. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to go very far before I got reception, and kept my phone within sight.

I wound up driving all the way into town and parking at a gas station in Phoenicia that was across the street from several bars and restaurants and an antique store called The Mystery Spot. It was night and I didn’t even know if the gas station was open. I tried to get signal, and then tried again. Finally, after several tries, I had signal long enough to send my email. I was joyous. I celebrated by walking into the convenience store and buying some diet Pepsi and two cigarillos.

I drove back to the campsite and was the last one awake in our tent when the rain became a deluge. Moisture on the inside of the tent would occasionally rain down on my face, and I examined every sound outside the tent for its likeliness of being a black bear.

The next afternoon, I drove back into town and parked near the same gas station in order to get mobile phone reception. I got the emails I needed and learned I had a call scheduled in two days. I collected whatever other messages would register on my and my wife’s phones and then bought some supplies at the gas station convenience store.

Two days later it was time for my important work phone call and I had to drive to several different locations in town to get reception, even then the call dropped three times and I begged forgiveness of the person I was speaking with and his secretary.

I got through the call and after buying more ice at the gas station, drove back to the camp site, stopping here and there to take some photos along the way. We left later that day, as rain was forecast for our final day and we didn’t want to pack up during another downpour.

So in total my vacation saw me with only one full day completely unplugged. That’s not good. The trip was a success in every other way. My family got to experience nature, see interesting (non-bear) wildlife and get fresh air. My children spent four days with no television or tablet games, only family and books, and the weather was much cooler than in the city. I got to spend time playing with our children and take them to wade in the Esopus Creek. We hiked the trails of the campgrounds and ate lots of hot dogs, even for breakfast.

Arriving back, we found civilization had not improved much. Civic life continues to become more vile and violent, and to comment on events of the day has become a futile exercise.

Being outside civilization is a good thing. We cannot escape it but in short bursts, and we must learn to savor these.

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