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.

Hopeful lessons from the colder north

President’s Day weekend has developed into a great family tradition of going to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, which is about an hour and a half drive north of New York City. People who live north of Albany may not consider that upstate but city dwellers have the right to call it “upstate” if it’s one inch north of the Five Boroughs.

Hiking and enjoying the outdoors should be done in all seasons. While it may be tempting to be house-bound during the colder months, too much time in doors will lead to a stifling madness and rotting sloth.

Among the activities there are guided hikes around the large Mohonk Preserve that surround the sprawling yet still rustic resort. Mohonk is surrounded by beautiful wooded mountains. My Father-in-Law and I went on a hike designed to track white-tailed deer. I thought maybe I could pick up some hunting tips that would serve me well later in the year.

We did see some deer tracks and learned a good bit about the eating habits and other behaviors of delicious deer, but there was a lot more to see. Our group’s guide, who is the official naturalist of Mohonk, gave us a lot more information that was useful and some that caught me by surprise. The one piece of information that struck me as particularly hopeful was this one:

When Mohonk was founded in 1869, the founders could look for miles in each direction and not see any trees. Almost all of the surrounding countryside had been clear cut. In the early 1900s, Daniel Smiley, from the family that founded Mohonk, noted the sighting of a porcupine on the surrounding woods, meaning that after 50 years of recovering, the forest was now healthy enough to support porcupines living there.

To see the surrounding countryside now one would think that it has been left in pristine condition since European settlers first came to these shores. But not so. The demands of a growing country took its toll on the natural beauty that we take for granted today, and the beauty of upstate New York is the result of a concerted effort of many years ago.

People fought to rebuild and restore these woods, many of them did so knowing that they would not live long enough to see the full benefits of their work. Today in New York State Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, larger than Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, and the Everglades combined.

It is a sign that with effort and time, we can recover and rebuild. That with enough planning and care, even a ravaged and abused land will recover if allowed. The Earth may be very troubled, but the Earth is also very resilient.

At a time when the country and world around us appears in total conflagration with unending violence and dysfunction, evidence of our ability to renew and improve our surroundings may appear to be in short supply. But the verdant areas not far outside our teeming metropolis is a point of evidence that people living in divisive times can still unite and do great things that will pay off for future generations.

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.

 

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