How to Do Spring in New York
Even though the first day of spring was officially several weeks ago, we are only now beginning to get real spring-like weather in New York. That’s fine by me. I hate the heat and like to keep as much distance between myself and summer as possible.
Spring is a great season to be in New York. The blanket of cold is lifted and the blanket of overheated humidity has yet to descend. The hum of outdoor social life returns and the parks become alive again.
I know that summer is coming and that it will be several months of sweltering misery, so let’s enjoy the spring while we have it here. Here are some ideas of how you can best enjoy the springtime in New York City:
Go to Coney Island before it gets crowded. Coney Island is a fun place to go and enjoy the amusements and atmosphere. It gets choked with people during the official summer season (though if you walk far enough along the boardwalk you can find your way away from the worst of the crowds. Ride the Cyclone, visit the freak show at the Coney Island Circus Side Show and visit its freak museum. Get a hot dog at the original Nathan’s. There’s even the New York Aquarium there.
Go bird watching in Inwood Hill Park. Inwood in northern Manhattan is one of the city’s great treasures of a neighborhood and central to that is Inwood Hill Park. Where else in Manhattan can you see eagles and hawks and get lost in the woods? Bird watchers get to see a lot of interesting birds in the park, and not just eagles and hawks. Eagles were hatched in the park years ago to increase their likelihood of returning as adults. Hawks are long-time residents of Inwood (and other city spots). So go and enjoy watching nature’s predation at its most beautiful.
Visit a botanical garden. The city’s largest botanical garden is in the Bronx near the Bronx Zoo, but did you know that Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island all have their own botanical gardens also? Lots of abundant park land and plant life abound at the botanical gardens, plus they often have special exhibits.
Take a historic walking tour. No matter what your interests are, there is history in New York for you. Interested in learning about the American Revolution, gangsters, labor strikes, punk rock? There’s a walking tour for you. When you can walk past something and tell someone something interesting about it, that’s makes you a better traveling companion. You might learn something interesting and historic about spots you walk by every day.
Enjoy some free outdoor theater. There is free Shakespeare in many public parks throughout the city and it’s a shame not to take advantage of that. There is so much good theater, art and creativity to sample for free that you should never jones for your theater fix. The New York Public Theater, New York Classical Theatre and Hip to Hip Theater Company all do a great job bringing free theater to the people of New York.
New York Means Expected Excellence
A recent report from the New York City Comptroller found that New Yorkers work the longest weeks and have the longest average commutes in the U.S. What makes the report so disturbing is that the two top cities with the longest commute times: New York and San Francisco, are cities that have some of the most extensive public transportation infrastructures.
And not only do New Yorkers have long commute times for the many millions who live outside the five boroughs and commute in every day, New York City residents who live and work in the city have long commute times.
I am one of those New York City residents that have a long commute. I live 12 miles from where I work. Google Maps tells me it takes 24 minutes to drive that distance without traffic. It takes me over an hour to get to my office each day even when things are running properly (which is rarely).
New Yorkers tolerate these long commutes (which are getting worse and more expensive at the same time) not because we are suckers for punishment but because New York is worth it.
We expect a certain level of excellence in New York. Things that are acceptable or even considered excellent in other parts of the country just don’t make the cut here. That’s not being snobby or cruel, it’s just the cold hard truth. New York excels at smashing people in the face with cold hard truth at every opportunity.
I definitely notice that borderline New York snobbery creeping up on me in certain circumstances, especially at restaurants when I’m traveling. I’ve been to enough good restaurants in New York that when I go outside the city and stuff just isn’t right I notice right away. I know I wouldn’t have noticed if I had been living elsewhere.
The reputation for New Yorkers as being rude is tired and not entirely true. There are plenty of rude people in the city, absolutely, but what many people take for rudeness is actually just a brusque sense of not having time to waste. As the numbers show, New Yorkers are in a hurry and have less time to dawdle. That’s a testament to people being at the top of their game and playing for keeps.
There are reasons the city is teeming with people, many of whom were born elsewhere. It’s because New York is a symbol of the very top of everything: music, art, culture, dining, literature, you name it. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere—the adage holds as true today as it ever did. Our homeless are even better than other cities if for no other reason than they have to be smart enough to survive the cold weather and that weeds out the extremely feeble-minded.
And, while it certainly is not justified, city residents almost always feel a twinge of schadenfreude when a friend or acquaintance leaves the five boroughs. Just the act of staying and surviving in the city gives you a feeling of accomplishment all on its own, no matter how dreary the circumstances of your life might be. That can be a destructive attitude as well – staying in one place at all costs just to prove a point can be just as harmful as habitually moving all the time. No other city carries that same emotional baggage with it. No one pats themselves on the back for eking out a living in Jacksonville, Florida.
Which is why the public transit system is going to have to change. It has never run well and it has run with minimal competence for decades. This latest report by the New York City Comptroller illustrates in raw numbers the fact that New York’s transit system is operating far below New York standards.
The latest data is proof that New Yorkers are getting the shaft (again) from our own transit system. The silver lining is that New York is too good a city to let this slight go unchanged.
Kindness Isn’t Just for Women and Sissies
Most Januaries are for a plethora of resolutions that don’t normally survive the spring thaw. But here is one that might work and improve your life if no one else’s: do one kind thing every day this year.
I know, I know, imploring people to be kind to each other is for hippies, religious folk and other delusional softies. But hear me out. Doing your best to be kind to people will help you out and make your life better. You’ll be happier with yourself.
Of course you shouldn’t be overly deferential or fall into the trap of pathological altruism, the legions of self-flagellating bleeding hearts are giving kindness a bad name. But a little bit of human decency goes a long way in today’s world.
Don’t be afraid to be kind in fear of it rendering you soft or foolish. Real kindness won’t make you weak. Being kind and humane is in fact a sign of strength.
The truly hard people in the world don’t need to be mean to people, they live the hard life when it counts and don’t have anything to prove. I’ve met armed forces veterans who have killed people in battle, I’ve met former I.R.A. bombers and others who did hard time in prison and I’ve met drug dealers with visible bullet wound scars on their bodies. All of them were nice and pleasant to speak with. They knew who they were and didn’t need to put on a tough guy act.
The person who made the best case for showing kindness on a daily basis was a former Marine who had seen some of the most horrific famine and violence in Somalia. He suggested giving two compliments a day to people and have at least several acts of kindness or generosity in your recent memory when you go to bed at night. I’ve heard the spiel about being nice and paying compliments to people from a lot of sources, but his talk was the one that remains fresh in my mind. I knew he had seen some of the worst the world has to offer, and the Marine Corps is the only institution in the world where it’s a compliment to be called a “jarhead.”
This Marine understood something that is easily lost in our world of cyber communication and online anonymous hate. Human beings have an ingrained need to keep a check on their own humanity. We are social creatures. For all of our individualist motivation, the people who actually do live without connections to other human beings wind up living like a scrambled mess. Simple acts of kindness to other people reassure us that we are still able to function in the world.
In New York, citizens of the Big Apple relish the tough reputation of our city, but also cherish the opportunity to help tourists and strangers where appropriate. Our love of the city motivates us to help others enjoy it and navigate its many quirks.
Be kind this year. You’ll be better for it.
Our Rich Mafia Life
News from Long Island has come in that John A. Gotti son of the more famous Mafia boss and a one-time Mafia boss himself, was stabbed on Long Island. He survived the attack.
Gotti Jr. told the police he was stabbed while breaking up a fight between two strangers. Police find that about as believable as him being stabbed by a unicorn.
When I first moved back to New York, I worked at JFK airport and found a place in Ozone Park, on 101st Avenue near Woodhaven Boulevard. A few short blocks away was the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club, which had served as John Gotti’s Queens headquarters before he became head of the Gambino Crime Family.
The fact that we were close to a place of Mafia lore was a selling point.
“You’ve heard of John Gotti?” the real estate agent asked.
“Yes,” I said. Who hadn’t?
“Well his club is right down the street. People know not to mess around here.”
Gotti had been in prison for years by then, but there were still plenty of wise-guy types around. There were still old men playing cards in the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club when I would walk by. It is long gone now.
Gotti’s headquarters for the time he was the big boss was in Little Italy, the Ravenite Social Club, is now a shoe store. Only the tiled floor remains. John Gotti died in prison, ravaged by cancer, a shadow of the feared “Teflon Don” he was in the 1980s.
For better or worse, New York loves its Mafia heritage. There are tours in Little Italy featuring famous assassination sites. I love it too, no doubt. I was glad to walk by the Bergin Hunt & Fish club and gladly bragged to friends that I was in John Gotti’s neighborhood.
But really, when you get right down to it, the Mafia is bullshit.
We like to imagine the Mafia through the lens of “The Godfather,” the quintessential mob film that popularized the genre and made mobsters look good. It’s a great film. Anyone who doesn’t love “The Godfather” deserves to sleep with the fishes. But “The Godfather” is an accurate portrayal of Mafia life as much as “Star Wars” is an accurate portrayal of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
The real Mafia is not a collection of earnest Vito Corleones living the American dream, it’s a gaggle of the worst grease ball Goombahs you can imagine but with guns and money. The real Mafia isn’t keeping your neighborhood safe, it’s stealing your car and shaking you down for protection money.
A few years ago I read the book Underboss by Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who was John Gotti’s lieutenant who eventually turned on him and testified against him. Gravano’s memoir, like anything else told by a career criminal, can’t be taken at face value, but it describes a life not of dapper dons but of sleazy thieves and thugs, always looking for new ways to make money, usually by stealing from others in some way. A piece of shit thief in a tailored silk suit is still a piece of shit thief.