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Meeting Farmers in Queens, New York

In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy created shipping delays in the New York area, gasoline shortages arose quickly. Within the span of a week, 1970s-era gas lines formed on city streets. A cab driver I spoke with in the weeks after the hurricane told me he had woken up early that day and driven to Stamford, Connecticut to buy gas.

Now imagine if our food supply was so adversely affected. For this reason alone, it is a good idea to get food that’s grown closer to your home whenever possible. You want to live close to your most vital supplies, especially since we can’t all plant vegetable gardens in our living rooms.

Luckily, entire networks of local farms serve many large cities, and New York City has its own ecosystem of networks that allow residents to get their food locally – locally in this case being within 100 miles of the city.

My wife is one of the founders of the local C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), Flushing C.S.A., and this Sunday they are holding a Meet the Farmer event at the Flushing Quaker Meeting House (the oldest continually used house of worship in the city – no joke, it dates back to the 1600s).

The central purpose of Meet the Farmer is to meet the farmer who grows the food for Flushing C.S.A. and other C.S.A.s in the city. But there will be a lot more. There will be local food vendors there and a free screening of Farmers for America, a documentary that explores the troubles facing our country’s local farms.

There is something for everyone at the Meet the Farmer event. You can peruse the historic site of the Meeting House between snacks provided by the local vendors. You can learn about the local farms that supply Organic produce and other goodies to networks within the five boroughs and beyond, and you can learn about larger issues facing agriculture in America today.

I often gave little thought to where food came from. I went to the grocery store when I needed and got whatever was the tastiest food that was easy to make. As a bachelor I lived off of egg sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and Chinese food. That was good living for a while, but that kind of thoughtless consumerism has its limits. My wife has had a much longer interest in agriculture and nutrition. When we met she was running a small health supplement store that had a lot of well-to-do clients. For a while she was a member of a C.S.A. that was not very close to her home, so she helped found the local one that we use to get our vegetables.

Living in New York, we are often far removed from rural life and agriculture is something alien, done in faraway places. But knowing where your food comes from and being part of a community that supports a stable foundation for supplying it is a good thing. In communities where there is dissipating cultural cohesion, people forge their own groups and find common ground where they can. It is helpful that they can do it to help other local communities and ensure their basic survival.

So come to Flushing and learn more about Flushing C.S.A., or find out what C.S.A.s serve your area. It is well worth the journey to Queens.

New York Becomes a Windy City

Years ago I was meeting with two men from Chicago for work. I noted that the downtown financial district of Manhattan can get very windy, as breezes come in off the harbor and are funneled down the streets by the tall buildings.

I asked how the downtown area of New York compared with Chicago. It didn’t. It could get windy here, they agreed, but in Chicago the wind had once dislodged a large window pane from a tall office building, and the loose piece of glass had cut a person in half. I haven’t been able to confirm this story anywhere, but it didn’t sound like these guys were trying to bullshit me.

This story came to mind recently as New York was hit with extreme winds amid a storm that couldn’t make up its mind. I set out to work in a rudimentary rain storm. A few hours later, I looked out the window of my building to see snow blowing sideways and obscuring much of my normally pleasant view.

The snow turned to rain when I stepped out of the office during lunch time. Large snowflakes flecked my umbrella as I made my way to my bus stop in Herald Square. None of the snow was really sticking in Manhattan. The wind was bothersome but I did not have an idea of the scope of the problem.

Arriving home from work on Friday via commuter bus, traffic to the Whitestone Bridge was backed up at least one mile, with the backup spilling onto service roads; we later learned that tractor trailers and busses were banned, and heavy restrictions on the number of cars crossing imposed. As cars turned right up a local street near my building to try to steer around the traffic, a felled tree forced them to make a U-turn and plunge back into the gridlock. A few days later, the tree was still blocking half of the road and felled tree branches still littered lawns, sidewalks and streets.

The video of a truck being blown onto its side on the Verrazano Bridge began circulating over the weekend. Upstate on the Tappan Zee Bridge (no one calls it the Mario Cuomo Bridge) at least two tractor trailers were blown onto their sides.

In New York, we live in such a large, man-made metropolis, we like to think that for the most part we have conquered nature, that natural disasters are things we see on the news happening in less fortunate places around the world. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 sobered some people up and forced building code changes to those neighborhoods most in danger.

Within the past decade, we’ve been bombarded with one hurricane that did damage that is still being repaired, endured at least one earthquake that sent people fleeing their office buildings, had tornadoes touch down within city limits, and faced heat waves and cold snaps that cost lives. Despite the powers that we wield over our environment, despite our ability to carve and crush bedrock to anchor our buildings and lay track for our subways, we are still at the mercy of what the Earth will do.

A Brooklyn Survivor Prepares to Exit

The stars were aligned the right way and we got the band back together. This past Saturday, the 2008 version of my band Blackout Shoppers played five songs at Hank’s Saloon. It was somewhat of a miracle that we managed to play a halfway-decent half set, given that we hadn’t played together in years and didn’t have time to rehearse.

It was good to be among friends again playing music. And it was fitting that we held this fleeting reunion at Hank’s Saloon.

Hank’s Saloon is a quintessential New York institution and it’s a miracle that it’s still standing. That being said, it will be closing down sometime after September, the latest music venue to close up shop.

Hank’s is both a dive bar, a music venue for every type of music imaginable, and a holdover from a past New York era that has managed to live on while its surrounding succumbed to the Brooklyn real estate juggernaut.

Characterized by the flames painted on the outside as well as the band stickers that some reckon are holding the building together, Hank’s is a small place with a concrete floor and a stage that is barely a foot off the ground. Tucked into the back, playing the Hank’s stage is a bit like playing in a cement box. It is hard to see the stage from most of the bar, and the sound can be wonky unless you are close to the stage, but some of the best shows I’ve ever seen or played have been at Hank’s. It is home to many genres of music and like any perfect dive bar, just about anyone can feel at home there.

Hank’s has an interesting history as well. Before it was Hank’s, it was called The Doray Tavern and was frequented by Mohawk Indian ironworkers who were regulars there up until the 1990s.

But late last year the inevitable news came out: Hank’s will be closing after this September. It stands to reason: in today’s Brooklyn anything remotely soulful or authentic is strangled to death by the high cost of doing business. Someone can make more money putting up an absurdly expensive apartment building there, so why don’t they? Good music, which is priceless, can’t often pay the rent.

There was a time not long ago when I would have railed to the uncaring sky about the injustice of it all. I would have felt rage instead of pity towards the naïve hipsters spending their parents’ money on overpriced apartments in the slums their grandparents worked hard to avoid. Instead I am grateful for the good times I have had at Hank’s and other places. I am thankful I was able to play at Hank’s one last time, to enjoy the music and the moment and take a lot of photos.

Hank’s can go out proudly, having outlived most of its competitors in a part of the city that is gentrifying at a dizzying pace. It has a special place in the hearts of New York music fans.

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.

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.

20 Years Back in New York

Twenty years ago this past week, I started the drive to move to New York City. I hadn’t lived here since I was a baby though I grew up visiting frequently. Both my parents were raised in the five boroughs and I felt that my life’s dreams were big and grandiose enough that it justified entering the crucible of the Big Apple.

My friend Matt helped me pack all of my worldly possessions into a small rental truck and I began the 900 mile journey from suburban Atlanta back to the city of my birth. I stopped in the Washington D.C. area that night at the home of my friends Ryan and Scott and set out early the next day to finish the trip. I remember being shocked at having to pay $8 for the honor of crossing the George Washington Bridge (a moving truck crossing the GWB today would pay a $34 toll off-peak) and drove up to Westchester to my mother’s house. The fall leaves were gorgeous and I felt like I was home.

My directions were mailed to me by AAA and included maps with highlighted sections on it. The moving truck didn’t have a tape deck so I brought along a boom box and listened to lots of cassette tapes on my way. I got off the highway in a rural part of North Carolina to tell my friends how far away I was and to get the score of the Georgia – Florida game (Georgia won in 1997: a promising omen).

I arrived here with dreams of being a famous writer. I have not achieved the literary fame and fortune I set out to make here in the city but I’m still here, still keeping that dream alive in some way. With this column I have one thing that every writer needs the most: a deadline.

I’ve had the honor to indulge other creative urges as well: I took up music and went farther with it than I ever thought I could and miss playing punk rock regularly. I’ve also had a hand in some comedy that has been well received. I can lead somewhat of a double or triple life sometimes. One hour of the day I may be laying out a media plan for promoting a financial product, hours later I may be playing bass while people careen into one another in an orgy of music, sweat and beer; it’s amazing.

I can honestly look back on the last two decades and be proud of where I am in life. I’ve got a great wife and children and lots of excellent friends. The biggest lie I could tell you would be that I got here completely on my own. If it weren’t for family and friends, I would not have anywhere near the good life I have today. I’m sure there are people in this city who arrived completely broke and alone and pulled themselves up with no one’s help; I’m not one of them.

The city and the world are much different places than when I came back to New York in 1997. Two decades from now they will be different still. We’re at a very volatile time in our history relative to where we were 20 years ago.

One thing that is also different is that I still have a tremendous amount to be thankful for. Moving to New York was a homecoming of a sort but also a very new beginning in a city that I had never known as a resident.

Thank you all for being part of this great adventure with me. I promise the next 20 years will be just as great.

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.”

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