Back on the hunt
I have been hunting for about a dozen years and have three deer to show for it, but I don’t regret a minute of hunting. As my friend Steve reminds me, “A day in the woods is a good day.”
This past deer season was my first back in the woods since the pandemic, and in the past decade I had exactly two deer to my name, both button bucks (male deer with no antlers). These were great personal victories but small potatoes in the world of hunting. Some of these years of hunting consisted of only one day on a weekend; another year I went both bow hunting and several days of gun hunting and still came out of the woods empty handed.
The world and personal upheavals of the pandemic and post-pandemic life made it imperative I get out of town and spend time alone in nature. I took the days off from work and hoped beyond hope that I would be able to do it—past years and past jobs I’ve had to cut my hunting trips short and work on days I had planned to take off, an unpardonable sin in the real world if the real world worked right. But this year I managed to do it.
I go hunting in Connecticut. My Connecticut friends got me into hunting and it’s where I keep my shotgun (I don’t have a permit for a gun in New York City—getting a permit for a gun in the five boroughs is more expensive than buying a gun). There are also more plentiful woods in Connecticut.
Heading to Connecticut also means connecting with old friends. I remember when my friend Steve’s oldest daughter was still in utero; now she is acting in films and planning her first tattoo.
The night before your first day of hunting is a poor sleep; memories of past missed deer and the prospect of returning empty handed weigh on your conscious, preventing the restful night’s sleep you want. Alarms set for enough time to get into the wood before legal hunting time, which is one half hour before sunrise.
Hunting makes you get up at a crazy early hour of the morning on your day off from work when everyone else is asleep. I found it’s possible to forgo the morning coffee. The frigid air and the urge to get out hunting is an effective wake-up of its own, and the surge of adrenaline at seeing a deer (or what you think is a deer) is enough to keep you awake through the day.
After having some quick snacks for breakfast and drinking a can of soda for the caffeine, I dressed and forced my feet into hunting boots, gathered my gear, and headed out. I first had to defrost my truck—first frost of the season and I didn’t think I would be scraping my windshield that early into November but it was New England in the fall. Another pickup truck sailed by on the dark road as I was getting the truck ready—Are they going hunting also? Will they get a better spot by the side of the road, and do they know my favorite hunting spot? My fears were unfounded. I drove to the entrance to the Cockaponset State Forest and was the first one there. I walked into the woods alone, wondering how odd a spectacle my truck with New York license plates would be for local residents driving by or heading into these same woods to hunt.
Out in the woods, it’s sometimes hard to focus on finding deer so early in the morning and not marvel at the beauty of the forest in the early morning, pre-sunrise light. Human beings are not meant to be boxed in by glass and concrete. We are of the Earth, and we diminish ourselves the more we remove ourselves from it. Being surrounded by natural beauty is a human need; just being within view of a river can make sitting in a city office much more bearable.
Being in the woods is the drastic reset your body needs. But the marvel at the natural world wears off a bit as the sun comes up and the imperative to get a deer kicks in. This is why you are here: you don’t want to return empty-handed even if you are getting much-needed time in the woods.
When you hear gunshots going off around you—some closer and definitely in the same state forest, some farther away on private land—the urge of the hunt surges again, and you get more restless. This is where I have erred in hunting. Staying in one place for so long and not seeing any deer gets the wanderlust going, and powers up your self-doubt on how well you’ve selected your hunting spot. Did I pick the right spot? Why are other people finding deer so close by and none are coming here? Did I make too much noise? Are there better hunting grounds elsewhere I can get to?
On my second day of hunting, I caught this wander bug and decided to see if I could find better places to hunt. The upside is that I found a good spot; the downside is that I walked around too much and the one deer I saw that day was one I scared away by hauling myself through the leaf-crunching woods. I also discovered an old illegal hunting camp set up on public land, a big no-no. It looked like it hadn’t been used for a while, with man of the structured dilapidated or filled with water and leaves.
Finally settling in on a spot at the end of the second day, I heard the sound of running feet and saw a dog chasing a deer through the woods. A large white dog was barking and giving chase, and my heart raced as I aimed at the deer that was heading my way. As it got closer, I realized that this fast brown animal was in fact another dog; the sound of its collar jingled as it got closer. I lowered my shotgun and cursed whatever idiot owner let their dogs loose in the woods during deer hunting season. The rest of hunting that day was quiet save for the sound of those dogs, who likely chased away any deer that would have come my way. That day was another wash.
You realize how much of a city person you are when you go out into the country and do country things. What do you mean a supermarket closes at 9 p.m. on a Friday? Closed on Sundays? Are these people insane? I drove to Robert’s Food Center, a supermarket where I had my first on-the-books job for less than $4 an hour (not as horribly cheap in 1987) only to realize that they carried no Pepsi products at all, so I had to drive to downtown Madison’s Stop & Shop to stock up. I later messaged Robert’s to ask why they carried no Pepsi but have not yet heard back.
Every time I go hunting, I’m reminded of the sweat and grit and cold that goes into it, and how I quickly forget about this rough unpleasantness the rest of the year. Before I made hunting a regular event, I had a romanticized view of it. I dreamt of expansive adventures where I would collect large trophies and other relics from my travels in the wild. I fantasized about being some kind of contemporary Hemingway and shooting exotic game and then retiring to my tent to sip brandy and draft powerful novels. In reality I mostly return with sore muscles, cuts and scrapes from brambles and thorn bushes and a pile of muddy clothes.
On my last day I parked myself at a spot I had found earlier that I named Anunnaki Rock. “Anunnaki” is a name given to a race of extra-terrestrials that conspiracy theorists credit with helping build the pyramids or creating or cloning human life on our planet. This spot features a large boulder shaped like a large alien’s head. A tree has fallen on it, so it appears that the alien is being smacked in the face with a baseball bat; a sad but fitting metaphor for how we would treat intelligent life on our planet.
When I got there, I kicked leaves out of my way so I could pace back and forth soundlessly throughout the day. There was a natural ledge I could sit on and still get a nice, elevated view of a good swath of woods, but my area of coverage was greater standing and I stood and paced around most of the day.
The day remained cold and at certain times of the day I heard gunshots going on elsewhere in the woods; it sounded like everyone was having better luck than me. I paced relentlessly but quietly. Around 2 p.m. that afternoon, Steve texted me to ask if I’ve seen anything. I had not, and told him that I was considering coming out of the woods early and getting a head start on the drive home. Steve said he was going to go into the woods for the last few hours of hunting. I figured that if Steve was going to hunt until the end of the day (hunting ends at sunset, which is usually around 4:30 p.m.), then I would hunt also.
A half hour later I heard one of those blasted dogs again, I kept looking in the direction that the barking was coming from, on the chance that the barking was sending a deer my way, and if not then maybe to give its owner a piece of my mind if they were heading my way.
A deer bounded in my direction from the sound of the barking, and I raised my shotgun. It saw me and stopped short. I found it in my scope and pulled the trigger.
A shotgun blast is loud and unless you go shooting frequently you do not get accustomed to it. The deer took off and ran past me. I thought my race to get zeroed in on the deer again caused me to miss, I watched the deer head past me about 30 yards and then come to a stop. The buck stood there for a second and then fell over.
A sense of glory and relief washed over me. My hours of cold frustration in the woods had paid off; I had done it! I got a deer.
It’s customary to give the deer time to make sure it has died. That is both respectful and practical. Respectful in that you let the animal be alone in its last moments, surrounded by the woods rather than probing hands of our alien human race. Practical in that if you approach a deer that is dying, it will sometimes get up and run away for a bit in a panic fueled by a last rush of adrenaline, or, worse yet, gore you with its antlers. After at least 10 minutes of the deer not moving, I slowly made my way toward where he had fallen. Approaching it from the back (the customary practice to avoid startling a deer that may still be alive), I confirmed it had died. It was an antlered buck that would be a four-point deer but one of its antlers had been damaged. Nothing you would have mounted but it was another buck, and I was proud of getting it. I set about field dressing it.
Again, a reminder from my friend Steve about the post-shooting part of the hunt: “Everything from pulling the trigger to eating it on a plate is a pain in the ass.”
Field dressing a deer means removing its internal organs. It had been six years since I had shot my last deer, which was only the second one I ever got, so I still feel new to field dressing. But despite my confusion and frustration, I managed to get the deer field dressed and was ready for the worst part of hunting: the drag.
I was deep in the woods on the far side of a ravine split by a stream. The majority of my drag was uphill, and I also had to carry my shotgun and backpack out of the woods also. The drag started fine since I was going downhill, though there were brambles and prickers that could not be avoided. I had to drag farther than I thought in order to get to a part of the stream that was shallow enough. I carried over my gun and pack first—the backpack is blaze orange so easy to see—and then brought the deer. The deer got heavier since it now had water weighing down its coat. I was going uphill now. I took the gun and backpack and scouted ahead a bit, finding the path of least resistance, then walked back and dragged the buck to my gun and backpack. Through more brambles, scraped by a low-hanging tree branch, and over a stone wall, each more tiring and frustrating than the next. I kept this pace up and took my time so as not to throw out my back or trip and fall (dragging a deer out of the woods with a broken ankle or sprained back wasn’t going to happen) and feeling every one of my 50 years.
Throughout the drag I banked on things becoming much smoother once I finished the uphill portion and found the main path that I would take to get back to my truck. A deep sense of relief washed over me when I reached this path. There was still a long way to go. I changed methods again and put the backpack on my back, taking an antler in one hand and the shotgun in another and went faster that way. That became very tiring and then impossible to navigate around the ruts and puddles that dotted the path. I kept taking my time and taking frequent breaks. At one point while dragging the deer to the next stop I tripped over a small rock and fell backwards. It was past sundown now. It was 2:30 when I shot the deer, it was close to 5 p.m. by the time I got the deer to my truck, with my friend Steve helping me drag the deer the last 20 yards or so. We got the deer into my truck and headed back to Steve’s house.
Hunting has been the adventure I need more than the adventure I had envisioned as a younger person. I had dreamed of hunting as a manly affectation that I would indulge in on my way to being a literary icon, surrounded by dashing young flappers and a devilish halo of cigar smoke. I wound up downing Diet Pepsi in my friend’s shack, taking puffs of a store-bought cigarillo, but could not have felt better about life.
Here’s to the hunt.
The importance of city sunsets
This weekend was a typical blur for a person with an office job and small children. There was per usual a mountain of house chores to do, events to take the children to, and hours of each day dedicated to the day job, as our day jobs spread their tentacles into every aspect of our lives. On top of that add grocery shopping.
Sunday I took one of my daughters with me while we went grocery shopping. She helped me find things in the store and took pride in helping me load things into the cart. We navigated the crowded aisles and found everything on our list (with some extra popcorn and coffee thrown in for good measure).
We were running down the clock toward dinner time and I knew I had a full wagon of groceries to get upstairs and away before either I or my wife had to make dinner.
We made good time and were parked outside our building a few minutes after I had returned our shopping cart. I sat at the driver’s seat for a few minutes, trying to calculate in my head the things I needed to accomplish in the next few minutes: getting my daughter out of her car seat, loading up the groceries, cleaning out part of the car quickly between those two steps, getting the groceries away, making dinner, getting logged back in at work—
“Daddy, look at the sunset,” my daughter told me.
Through the trees and the power lines and shadows of nearby buildings, a patch of brilliant dusk sunset filled the sky with its pastel vision. It had been there the whole time, going unappreciated by me.
It was a testament to the excellence of children. They have not had years to become jaded or distracted with the compounded stresses of the mundane. It was a reminder of how grateful I ought to be for my family and my life.
When we think of New York’s beauty we usually picture its stunning skyline, its aged paving stones and its tributes to achievement wrought in stone or glass; the urban landscape is beautiful but almost always bears the mark of a human hand. Even the most gorgeous parts of our most popular parks were put there by design.
This outlook often neglects the natural beauty that surrounds, us, and the fiery sky of an autumn sunset has few rivals of natural scale in our Gotham’s vision.
And so often in the execution of our ambitious dreams, the wonder of life itself gets lost in the shuffle. Having kids won’t bring the same reward if we can’t pass on an appreciation of beautiful things. Without the ability to stop and look at the greatness around you, are we succeeding in life at all?
I opened the passenger door so my daughter could get a better look at the brilliant sky, and took a photo so I could remember this and show her later. I made a silent vow to remember our sunsets, and make the time to take in the natural beauty that surrounds us, even in the densest cityscape.
The gritty oasis of Liberty Place
The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.
Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.
There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.
Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.
An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.
Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.
Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.
I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.
And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.
Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.
Times Square Before and After Terror
Last week I found myself having to go to Times Square and I actually looked forward to doing so. It was for work—I work in public relations and there was a conference I needed to attend. I hustled through half the workday to get enough done since I’d be away from the office.
Times Square is where tourists go to drink in the grandeur of New York. It’s where our city wears its gaudy commerce on its sleeve without apology, where someone with a silly gimmick can strike it rich and inspire many imitators. It is in some ways the central square of Western Civilization today, as sad as that may seem at times.
I’m old enough to remember when Times Square was a foreboding place, though I always found it more alluring than scary. The pornographic theaters were what thrilled me when I would walk through as a kid, trying to look like I wasn’t gawking at the barely-censored photos of women in acts of glorious carnality. I would be entranced at the spectacle of what Times Square as I was feasting my eyes on this delightful glimpse into the ribald adult world. It did not appear to be the war zone that I had been led to believe. Its name carried more ominous insinuation than realized malice.
When I moved back to New York, nearly 20 years ago now, things were different and it became an embodiment of all that was wrong with a vastly improved yet quickly gentrifying city. It was where people would feed at the trough of major chain restaurants when they could dine on authentic culinary delights only a short journey away. It was where ignorant tourists got taken to the cleaners with overpriced goods. For many years I avoided Times Square, and with good reason. It was in a transitional period where it had become safe and was attracting lots of tourists but had not yet been renovated to include the wide pedestrian plazas it enjoys today. The sidewalks were nearly impassable and traffic still zoomed around.
In the years since, I’ve come to have a begrudging appreciation for visiting there. On a date with my wife several years ago, I wanted to avoid Times Square, but my wife insisted we walk through it. “You need to learn to enjoy being a tourist in your own city,” she told me. And she was right.
Last week I wasn’t there long and spent most of my time at a conference in the Thomson Reuters Building. I marveled at the view, and got the closest you can get to the large Times Square New Year’s Eve ball without being one of the workers in charge of its upkeep.
As night descended, I took breaks from the work conference to steal looks and take photos of the avenues leading from Times Square. As the sky darkened, the lights of the city came to life and the twilight glowed with a ready anticipation of what night would bring.
Stepping out into the night, I stopped for a minute to take a video of the scene before me. Two mounted policemen trotted by as I got my phone out so I only captured them from a distance as they passed, but even on a relatively uneventful weeknight, the scene in Times Square is both maddening and encouraging. It is a slice of Walt Whitman’s bustling and beautiful New York writ for modern times, coursing with strangers, each with a story we’ll never have time to learn or decipher.
Two days after my visit, a car drove onto the sidewalk and killed an 18-year-old woman, a visitor to the city there to take in the vibrancy of life. The police say the driver was under the influence of drugs. He didn’t stop until his car was upended by a stanchion. If there’s any functioning justice system in our city this killer will never be a free man again.
Another week later, and terror is rearing its head in another part of the world. But in New York we have known fear and breezed past it, the way New York commuters breeze past slower-moving tourists. We don’t respect fear in this city because it contributes nothing, it doesn’t earn its keep.
Even in the face of fear of death, Times Square will be full of life. It may be foolish and squalid life, but it glows with the unstoppable light of New York, and it will never be extinguished.
Drive time solitude amid the slumber
I was put in the terrifying position of watching over all three of my young children on my own for several hours. My wife does this every day as I commute to work in Manhattan and back. But she was doing food demonstrations for Flushing C.S.A. at an event at the historic John Bowne House recently and I was on my own with our three girls.
I had not planned what to do but my wife convinced me that taking them to the New York Hall of Science would be good. She was spot on. If you have young children and if it’s convenient to get to, the New York Hall of Science is a great place.
We stayed as long as we could but after about four and a half hours there, our three-year-olds had clothes that were wet from one of the water exhibits and it was time to start heading home. We had arrived before it was open but we left around 2:15 p.m. and I made a bee line straight for home and kept up conversation with the kids as best I could, hoping the motion of driving would not put the girls to sleep, but it did.
Kids napping in the car is a double-edged sword. On one hand the kids are guaranteed to take a nap at the same time. On the other hand that nap will not be that long and you will be stuck in your vehicle for an hour. Sometimes that’s fine but sometimes that doesn’t work at all. You can’t go on a long trip because the kids could wake up at any time and start crying and you’ll need to take them home quickly. If you have to go to the bathroom, you are out of luck and may have to improvise.
I realized less than a mile from home that I was now going to be spending at least the next hour or more in the minivan. I was at peace with that.
Drive time can be a time of much-appreciated solitude. Quiet solitude is remarkably achievable even when you’re living in a city of millions of people. The size of New York gives its citizens a certain degree of anonymity. During my drive I passed by thousands of people, had close encounters with maybe half dozen drivers down narrow two-way streets, and did business with one fast food worker. I could give you the basic pedigree information about the fast food worker but nothing else, and I doubt anyone I encountered during that hour and a half could tell you anything about me.
When you spend most of your days without any peace and quiet, you learn to appreciate any small moments of quiet solitude you can get, and these drive times with napping children can be very valuable. They are something that takes the edge off of the frantic pace of the city, that gives us a moment to enjoy the sights and sounds of our own corner of this metropolis without interruption. The same can be said of walks in the park or even walking anonymously down city streets.
Our teeming Gotham demands much of us and part of the thrill of living here is to embrace the breakneck pace of life. But when you get a chance for an hour of respite, no matter how diluted, grasp onto it and enjoy every minute.
Your guide to finding sane holiday spots
Among the many holiday traditions that we go through are finding the fine balance between indulging in all the requisite holiday traditions with children while not creating a burning hatred of the holidays within yourself.
Considering that I live in one of the largest urban centers of the known universe, I am very much averse to crowds and would rather not go where there is a crush of people. And it’s not that these are New York crowds that makes my hatred of crowds so strong, I’ve found that in places like Atlanta, where the crowds are often suburbanites with not concept of urban life or shared space, people are more likely to get on your nerves and not know how to move or act in a crowded space. New York has more than its share of clueless retards who don’t know how to ride an escalator or even walk down a hallway, but there is at least a baseline population of those that do that can make life here bearable.
So the holidays tend to bring the tourists and other urban amateurs within the five boroughs to see the sights and sounds. We need their tourist dollars to help keep this show afloat, but we can see a lot of beautiful holiday stuff without having to endure the hoard of vapid slow-walkers that make visiting our beautiful city a shit show.
When some of my family wanted to head to Times Square the day after Christmas a few years ago, I thought they were out of their minds. I still went along with them anyway because I didn’t want to miss out on spending some time with family. While I was trying to navigate my way out of the giant M&Ms World store, I vowed to no god that I would avoid crushing holiday crowds at all cost.
I am very lucky and in a rare position as a New York City dweller in that I have regular access to an automobile. Part of that is a function of where in the city I live. I’m in a more suburban part of Eastern Queens. I’m still in the thick of a crowded city, but I’m in an area where driving a car is not the abysmal insanity that it is in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn. That gives us options to get to places that are off limits to a lot of my family and friends, including people with kids, so take my advice with a grain of salt.
I had a day off of work and we managed to get our brood, along with the help of grandparents, to Hicks Nurseries on Long Island. It has a lot of beautiful holiday stuff there – really nice trees and ornaments that lend dignity and beauty to the holiday. They also have a lot of the schlocky crap you’d expect people from Long Island to love (sorry Long Island friends but it’s true).
Hicks Nurseries on a weekday is a good time, on the weekend it’s a madhouse. It’s a nice madhouse and a nice place to get Christmas stuff, but a madhouse nonetheless – their credit card readers are also ancient and it declined my credit card even though it wasn’t overdrawn or anything.
While I try not to simply phone it in for the holidays, I want to lead by example for the children. If your kids see you going apeshit over Christmas, they’re going to go apeshit over Christmas too. If you act like Santa is maybe no big deal, then your kids won’t ask to stand in line for an hour to meet a man in a Santa suit. So when I saw people lining up an hour ahead of time to meet “Santa” at Hicks, I knew I didn’t want to linger. We did buy a tree though despite their credit card malfeasance.
For a good Santa with little to no waiting, head to Old Westbury Gardens. It’s a worthwhile place to visit any time of the year. It’s the former estate of wealthy attorney and industrial heir John Shaffer Phipps that is now open to the public and well preserved. There are interesting events there all year round. We brought our kids there for an arts & crafts event and discovered that they have a Santa Claus there on the weekends. There was no waiting. It was free (with admission to the grounds) and the Santa was friendly. Our girls did not want to sit on Santa’s lap and even expressed some skepticism afterwards (“Santa didn’t say ‘Ho, ho ho,’” one of our girls observed).
I’m very much looking forward to the holidays this year, and not just because I’m going to be getting some nice gifts and eat delicious food, but because I’m going to be spending more time with family, including my smart and tough daughters. Our family has had a lot of down moments this year, with death and illnesses putting a damper on everything. But getting to take time away from the busy workday and put in time with family, where it counts, is something to be joyous about, even in the most jaded of times.
The never ending “Tetris” of city life
This past weekend my wife and I went to an obnoxious Scandinavian furniture store and purchased some sensible furniture we will need for our recently expanded brood. The heavy boxes of yet-to-be-assembled furniture is still sitting in the back of our van, not because we lack for strength or willpower to haul them up to our apartment, but because we have yet to make the necessary logistical calculations and plans needed to move furniture in a New York City apartment.
Perhaps I should call Mike Moosehead, a bandmate and New York City hardcore punk musical Renaissance man among whose many talents includes the ability to “Tetris” large amounts of musical equipment into seemingly impossible spaces. He can figure out how to fit an entire backline of drum kit parts, amplifiers and instruments into the back of a taxi cab and narrow storage areas.
In New York City, space is such a premium that every move has to be calculated and every inch must be justified. Few can afford spacious living. And even in Northern Queens where we live, where things are not as crowded as other parts of the city (grocery stores in our neighborhood have parking lots – a rare luxury if you are accustomed to Manhattan life), space is still a precious commodity.
In the furniture store we found dressers and book cases that would have been much better without the very common decorative overhangs and trimmings. We had to go to the store with very exact measurements of our daughters’ bedroom and then sit down and do a lot of math after collecting all the dimensions of the furniture we were considering buying. No doubt every homeowner has to do that, but New York City living means getting right down to the half inch.
At the office where I work, there was a pay parking lot next to our building when I first started working there two years ago. It is now a construction site for a hotel that is being built. Even in this age of Airbnb, hotels are being built in spaces that would normally seem too small. Every square foot of this city can be made into a money-making venture. If you aren’t getting the maximum use of your space, you are losing money somehow.
At home, we have a nice two-bedroom apartment that was spacious when it was only two of us. But we began creating new human beings and now our apartment shelters five. Three of those are under three but they grow fast and our space is already crowded. It is going to be a months-long effort to make our space more comfortable to live in, and we have to plan everything out meticulously.
All things considered, we are lucky to have the problems we have. There are plenty of people who are living in more crowded conditions and we have a stable living situation in a safe neighborhood and a roof over our heads. But the maddening “Tetris” of city life continues unabated and won’t slow down.
Exploring the Abandoned Rockaway Line
Because New York City is constantly being remade and revised, pieces of the city’s past can often linger around and become subsumed into the present, sometimes barely noticeable. These totems of city history are treasures often right in front of our faces.
Such is the case with the abandoned track of the Long Island Railroad’s Rockaway Line, which has been a tempting forbidden zone to Queens residents since the early 1960s when this part of the LIRR stopped operating.
Years ago, when I lived on 101st Avenue only a few blocks from the abandoned Ozone Park station, I would walk by the abandoned tracks, which are elevated for much of its stretch through Queens. The city rents out the space beneath the tracks to some businesses along the way. And one auto parts business near Rockaway Boulevard and Liberty Avenue welded a large spider sculpture together from used auto parts and suspended this from one of the trestles over the track. It has since fallen down. While I was living in Ozone Park, a motorcycle club rented out one of these spaces beneath the tracks, and would have parties in their clubhouse there.
The success of the High Line in Manhattan has encouraged communities in Queens to push to make a three and a half mile stretch of this abandoned LIRR line into a similar park. The QueensWay is a plan to turn the abandoned line into a “family-friendly linear park and cultural greenway.” Others would like to revive the tracks so they can be used for public transportation again. This plan would meet a lot of resistance from people who now live near the existing track, and face an uphill battle for funding. The prospect of a 20-minute commute to midtown is enticing and New York’s transportation system is in such a shambles that any stretch of track should be welcomed with open arms. Maybe some long-term compromise can be reached, whereas much of the railroad is revived and used for transportation again but some segments are made into a park.
But I have long wanted to walk along some of this abandoned track and this weekend I got my wish in Forest Park. Not far from Woodhaven Boulevard, there is a paved road that looks like a regular street but is closed off to regular traffic. This road traverses an overpass that runs over a segment of abandoned track. With a two-year-old girl in a carrying pack on my back, I walked down a steep drainage gutter that runs along the overpass.
There were some N.Y.U. students there filming what they described as an experimental film, and they looked more nervous about filming on off-limits abandoned property without a permit than about the critical success of their film. They had camera equipment and enough food and beverages there to be a proper film crew. I discreetly made my way around them and started walking on some of the abandoned track.
The tracks are overgrown and the rails are rusted. Trees both grow out of and in some cases lay across the tracks. There is a lot of graffiti on the concrete surrounding the tracks and even some on the trees. Rusted wire towers stood sentry along the line; some of them have topped over. The lush greenery is also dotted with signs of the tracks being a party place. There are empty beer cans, and sadly, traces of a poorly-tended campfire.
A second overpass is more remote to pedestrians and has more elaborate graffiti. A collection of discarded spray paint can tops sit together among the leaves and other detritus.
It feels like stepping into part of history, even poorly preserved history from 50 years ago feels significant. It is a feeling of pleasant quiet and secret entre among the bustle and grind of our five boroughs.
Someday the Rockaway Line will be busy again, either with park-goers, tourists, or even trains. Take some time to explore it before this piece of overgrown history goes away.
Judge the livability of your city using the White Castle Index
At a proud moment last year, I won the Literary Open Mic competition hosted by my comrade-in-arts and Renaissance man Filthy Phill Lentz at The Cobra Club. I decided to celebrate my victory with a late-night snack before heading home. I drove to where my navigation system indicated was the nearest White Castle, only to find a construction site in its place.
It is at least the second White Castle to be purged from the popular and overrated borough of Brooklyn. The much-valued Castle in Williamsburg on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Humboldt Street was closed nearly two years ago to make way for more overpriced apartments.
Before I got married, I made sure my bachelor party ended with a visit to White Castle to cap off an evening of Yankees baseball, strippers and punk rock. When my band plays shows near a White Castle we are sure to stop by for some sliders on the way home.
I wouldn’t advocate eating junk food regularly, and I limit my White Castle visits to special occasions and balance with attempts at a healthy diet and regular exercise. But after a night of victorious effort, whether that be in producing great art, achieving a career or personal victory, or otherwise exerting yourself above and beyond the call, it is suitable to indulge with some excellent excess, and you should be able to safely do that in multiple locations around any major American city.
New York City has fallen behind in its White Castle Index, meaning that low-cost good food at all hours is increasingly unavailable. Williamsburg was once a haven for artists; it’s now home to the $150 doughnut. Williamsburg managed to strike it rich and still slide into the sewer.
I prefer White Castle, and I’d be happy to expound on its excellence both culturally and calorically, but there are other options that are similarly convenient and meaningful. Regionally there are many differences and the White Castle chain does not ready many parts of the U.S. But every region should have its own version of White Castle. Waffle House often fits the bill in many parts of the country. It is open 24 hours a day and has plentiful offerings of quickly made indulgent food at a relatively low cost (it might be useful to call this the Waffle House Index in the Southern U.S. I don’t know any Waffle House restaurants north of Pennsylvania). And diners are a great American institution that are being priced out of existence as well.
Everyone should be able to have an all-night restaurant that they can go to relax among their own kind (leaving it up to each person who counts as “their own kind.”)
If the all-night party isn’t available at an affordable cost, then something is wrong, and we are getting to the point in New York City where only the extravagantly wealthy can afford to live life to the fullest. That leads to a decline in the character and long-term viability of the city. Without strong, vibrant, working and middle classes, the cultural and physical rot of its society becomes evident very quickly.
The world’s best artists do not emerge from the pampered class that looks down their noses at the common people. The arbiters of taste and culture should not be people who’ve never waited tables, washed dishes, or dug a ditch. With fewer and fewer working Americans able to find a rewarding life in our urban centers, cities will cease to be engines of creativity and genius.
As goes the working class, so goes our city. Luckily, there are still numerous White Castles to be found in the outer boroughs. I’ll see you at one.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his idea to put in a light rail that would connect Brooklyn and Queens. With the exception of Red Hook and Sunset Park, his light rail system would not be bringing public transit to places that need it but rather add additional tourist glut and uber-gentrifying cachet to areas already overpriced and tourist heavy.
The idea sounds great at first. The public transit system in New York is abysmal and the outer borough are woefully underserved. To get from Southern Brooklyn to Northern Queens would require a lengthy detour through Manhattan or an epic journey of Byzantine bus transfers that would see you grow old or give up on life before you were halfway there.
The proposed rail runs only along the East River waterfront of Brooklyn and Queens. Some of these areas, such as Astoria, Queens and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are already served by rail system and there are not too many people commuting between Sunset Park and Astoria.
With our subway dollar stretched thin and the MTA constantly cutting service while increasing fares, de Blasio says he’ll rake in the $2.5 billion he needs to build this light rail system from the increase in property tax that will result from the light rail being built. So he’ll wring money out of rich people who will somehow welcome this sorry trolley outside their homes and this will help the working class people of Red Hook and Sunset Park commute to Astoria where there are no good jobs waiting for them.
Whatever de Blasio’s motives or likelihood of the light rail system coming into being, the issue highlights two central problems of New York City transit: Our transit system is very Manhattan-centric to its own detriment and New York City does not have enough control over its own transit system.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, though it generally serves New York City, is controlled by New York State. Whatever we need to do here in the five boroughs has to pass through several gatekeepers in Albany. The bureaucracy is twice-removed from the systems it operates, and it shows in every step of the system’s operation. The New York City transit system is among the most extensive in the country and it runs 24 hours, but that’s more of a remark about how sad the state of public transit is in the U.S.A. rather than a statement about how good New York City’s transportation is.
Every weekday morning I give myself an hour and a half to travel 11 miles, and I’m sometimes late. My first day back at work this year after the holidays, it took me more than two hours to get to work, even after I left the subway in disgust in Jackson Heights and took a cab the rest of the way to work.
New York City is comprised of 304.6 square miles and Manhattan comprises only about 33 of them. I have nothing against Manhattan and it makes sense for it to have a large transit infrastructure to deal with commuters going to work every week, but this leaves the most of the city underserved. Even many parts of Manhattan are not well served by the subway system – the Second Avenue subway has been a running joke for decades. They expanded the terrible 7 line so that people can go to the Javitz Center with greater ease – well not with greater ease since it involves having to take the 7 train. That the 7 train is an overcrowded clusterfuck in every way imaginable doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar to fix.
This latest proposal from the mayor looks like it will go the way of so many well-intentioned and poorly planned transit fixes. When it gets built, if it gets built at all, it will be way over budget and of limited usefulness.
I wish I could be more hopeful, but the line as planned will not go into any of the parts of the outer boroughs that are not served by a rail system, so the people still not served by our subways will still be out in the cold, waiting for the bus.
(Temporary) Escape from New York
It is time to escape New York for a week as our beloved city continues to bake in the summer heat. We are headed to Cape Ann, Massachusetts to attend a friend’s wedding and then enjoy the New England coast.
Summers in New York City are marked in part by our efforts to go elsewhere as weekend getaways snarl traffic on Friday and Sunday nights and holiday weekends can send people away from the five boroughs in droves.
I find it more enjoyable to stay in the city during some of the more popular times to leave. Going around the city on Labor Day can make New York feel like a ghost town in parts.
But New Yorkers need to leave the city for long periods of time over the summer in order to maintain our sanity. New York is an intense and crowded place. It can get even more crowded and oppressive in the summertime as our transit system and the areas near where we work are flooded with slow-moving tourists who are often clueless about the way to behave in a big city and slow things down. We don’t hate tourists; we like and need tourists, but their increased presence intensifies an already strained existence.
And the often unrelenting humid heat of New York helps bring our regular misery stew to a high boil. The city traps the heat with its high buildings, blacktop and concrete, jacks it up a notch with the captured exhaust of car and bus traffic and tops it off with some extra hot blasts from air conditioning units. Too many weeks and months of New York City heat can drive you insane and long for someplace, anyplace, where you can enjoy looking at trees or relax with cool grass under your feet.
When I was growing up my family made Lake George in upstate New York our regular vacation spot. Lake George is far enough north that it is cool at night and not obscenely hot during the day. You can see lots of stars in the sky and the place is enough of a popular tourist destination that they have large amusement parks. There are also historic forts you can visit that are rich in history of the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars.
This is the first year my wife and I are taking our daughters on a vacation. We had a brief visit in Maine with family but we are about to embark on our first vacation of the four of us as a unit and we are heading to Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
My father’s family vacationed in Cape Ann when my Dad was growing up and he and my aunts and uncles were photographed in front of the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester. We plan to recreate these photos as best we can with our girls. Rockport is also going to be having its annual Lobster Fest while we are there and I have promised to attend.
I plan on eating seafood, visiting with friends and otherwise doing as little as possible. It’s not too late to plan your own summer escape from New York. Be sure it’s temporary.
Autumn is Coming: New York City Edition
Autumn officially begins on Monday, Sept. 22, and even though New York had a relatively mild summer this year, there are still plenty of reasons to feel good about the new season.
Fall is just better than summer, even a pleasant summer. Autumn is one of the best times of the year. It gives one a sense of renewal, of things starting over again. It is time to celebrate, dedicate oneself anew and see crisply the possibilities of the coming seasons. And this sense of renewal is one of the reasons autumn and New York go so well together. Starting things over again and exploring new frontiers, harvests and chapters of life is what New York City is all about as well.
Here are some ways you can celebrate the coming Fall season in New York that don’t involve fashion shows or raking leaves:
Corn Maze at the Queens County Farm Museum: You probably don’t expect to find too many working farms in the five boroughs of New York City, but there are. Chief among them is the Queens County Farm Museum, located in the Glen Oaks section of Queens. Its annual corn maze (“Maize Maze”) opens this coming Saturday, Sept. 20. A few years ago I entered the corn maze there and managed to find my way out. A few times it was tempting to just break through the walls of corn and thrash my way out of there as if pursued by the Children of the Corn. But we managed to get out without losing our minds, though we didn’t stop at every check point along the way (next time, maybe). Corn mazes are quite common in more rural parts of the country, even those not famous for corn. I’ve come across several while driving through New England.
Any chance to take part in the country life while within the boundaries of New York City is an adventure you should take.
Foliage watching in Inwood Hill Park: People from all over the country come to the Northeast in order to drive through upstate New York or parts of New England to see the trees change color. Save yourself the car rental and take the A train (or the 1 train) to the “upstate Manhattan” neighborhood of Inwood and Inwood Hill Park. I was fortunate enough to live across the street from Inwood Hill Park for more than 10 years. The brilliant array of colors that the trees of Inwood present are as grand as any you’ll find upstate. Inwood Hill Park contains the last natural forest in Manhattan. Even on a day when lots of people are in the park, it’s not hard to find yourself in a quiet and remote part of the woods. Also, because New York City is warmer than upstate and New England, the trees will take longer to change colors, so you have more time to make it uptown. While you’re in Inwood you may spot some eagles or hawks in the park. Nearby Fort Tryon Park is worth a visit too, but lacks the dense woods.
Learn some new skills: Want to be more of a capable person and less of a lazy spendthrift? Well the Fall is a good time to learn some new skills and there are chances to learn how to be a more useful person. For example, New York State is offering free disaster preparedness training courses both in person and online. And this weekend in Queens you can learn how to can your own vegetables thanks to the Flushing CSA (full disclosure: my wife is a member of Flushing CSA and is helping organize this event). So you have no excuse not to emerge from autumn a better and more prepared person.
New York Has Beach Bums and Boat People
The beach bum and boating life are usually the providence of Florida or California. We don’t normally think of the metropolises of the Northeast to be home to the sun culture of people who live on boats or spend all of their time on beaches. But you can find some interesting seaside life right here within the five boroughs.
You can find a beach bum type atmosphere at Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk of Coney Island, where you would swear you were at a seaside Florida town where everyone had overdosed on some combination of sunshine, sand, Jimmy Buffet and/or crystal meth. It is a haven of grizzled sea dogs and leathery skin but it is10 times better than most bars in Brooklyn today. Ruby’s has survived for 80 years, no small feat in our rapidly changing metropolis.
A few years ago, I had the honor of being present when the ashes of New York poet, lyricist and musical performer known as ZAK were spread at sea. The friends of the deceased chartered a special boat that took off from the Marine Basin Marina, a small marina in Brooklyn not far from Coney Island. The marina was near some industrial areas and not connected at all to any of the more celebrated boardwalks of Coney Island or neighboring areas. It was a small and relatively desolate area but even in October it was populated by a small number of people who were living on their boats and didn’t want to leave yet. It’s even possible that some of them lived on their boats permanently.
Living on a boat or having access to one is a form of freedom that no one else has. If you have a boat with access to the ocean, you can travel to anywhere in the world. If I get in my pickup truck I can drive pretty far in it if I had enough gas money but I couldn’t get to Spain, the Philippines or the Cape of Good Hope. Those people docked at the marina in Brooklyn could step on their boats and, with enough fuel and good weather, travel to any continent in the world they wanted. You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a sun-drenched boat culture to be alive and well within the boundaries of New York City, but it is.
Near where I live now in Flushing, Queens, one can find the Bayside Marina for a taste of marina life. The marina sits in Little Neck Bay, the bay that gave us Little Neck clams and serves the shores of both Queens and Nassau County. It is accessible by the Cross Island Parkway by car or by foot or bicycle via a path from nearby parkland. At the end of a long pier is a small nucleus of buildings and decks where a small restaurant will sell you fried food and also sell you flares for your boat. You can hear a loud radio in an adjoining place where boaters radio in as they approach their berths. Joggers, dog walkers and people out for a stroll wander onto the pier and mingle with the salty boating types and die-hard fisherman.
One can also find people fishing on all the shores of the five boroughs. You have to be a special kind of brave to eat fish that have come from the polluted waters of the city. But wherever there are docks and piers you can find people fishing or else find the slimy evidence of their presence. Plenty of piers throughout the city even have counters or sinks set up specifically for people to clear their fish.
Queens is also home to both the Rockaways, which has a large beach and boating culture of its own, as well as the small community of Broad Channel, which sits right in Jamaica Bay.
The city’s many coastal communities are still trying to recover from super storm Sandy that struck New York in October 2012. Before the summer is out, or even in the fall, go visit these places and enjoy, even for a minute, the beach bum or boating life.