A family tradition that began soon after we started our own family was to vacation with our in-laws on Long Beach Island. Traditionally we have gone after Labor Day when the crowds were smaller, but our kids starting pre-K in early September meant we had to brave the more crowded island during the height of the summer season.
Human beings have a need to feel the power of nature around them. Living in a big city has many advantages that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and I don’t regret making New York City my home for a minute. Where else in the world can you see Renoir’s By the Seashore, the New York Yankees, and No Redeeming Social Value all in the same day?
But a large city requires the conquest of nature on a large scale. Skyscrapers are their own majestic entity, they cannot compete for space with California Redwoods or the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean—my friends in the Rockaways do manage to surf in the Atlantic Ocean, miles away from these skyscrapers.
We lose something when we commit to living in a city, our awe is taken up by what mankind has achieved, and we lost the much-needed perspective of the power of the Earth itself. I believe that human beings need regular contact with nature in order to keep our minds right and in the general order of things. Being close to nature is the way human beings are supposed to be. We did not evolve from glass towers or produced in a sterile, state-of-the-art lab. We were born from the savages that evolved from organisms born of mud, shaped by our ancestors need to know and respect the murderously indifferent natural world around them. If we do not keep in contact with this primal truth in some consistent way, we lose our bearings and don’t function well. Though I have worked in Manhattan consistently for nearly two decades, I have always tried to walk through a park at least once a day in order to enjoy some greenery.
Long Beach Island is a tourist destination that does not put on airs of being otherwise. There are people who live there all year, but most of the people you seen between late May and mid-September aren’t from here. The island understands that it is a great destination that attracts people for its natural beauty and the accessibility of its beaches. There is a respectability that locals and tourists alike embrace their roles. There is a goodness and truth in that honesty. While you are here you can enjoy the arts at the Surflight Theatre and then enjoy singing waiters and waitresses at the Show Place Ice Cream Parlor.
But the miles of beach are what bring people here, and a trip here is not a success unless you spend some time on the beach.
While I try to stay out of the sun, I have learned to appreciate sitting on Long Beach Island and doing as little as possible. A few walks into the ocean though will give you an appreciation of the greatness and vastness of the ocean in front of you. An expanse of blue (that appears green when you’re up close) that stretches to the horizon.
Going deeper into the ocean, the current was more powerful and the water cooler. The power of this ocean, even at this calm period, was immense. You can’t help but be pushed and tossed around by the waves. A sting ray darted into my sight, close to a young boy on a body board but turned and was just as quickly out of sight. A tidal pool left behind dozens of tiny fish, numerous shells, and even a small live crab for children to marvel at.
Even when the heat is at its most punishing, the breeze from the ocean offers a cooling respite. Time moves quickly when you are away from the churning world of commerce and asphalt, and I must soon return to that savage expanse. I am grateful for the time I have here where the ocean calls the shots and people are united in their efforts to get away for a little while.
This weekend the East Village commemorated the three decade anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park Riots with two days of concerts and speeches in the once-notorious East Village park.
Protests over a 1 a.m. curfew of the park and eviction of homeless encampments there ended with multiple clashes with police and multiple instances of police brutality. It was among the first widely documented instances of police brutality caught on video and broadcast on the news. Angry protesters shouted dire warnings about gentrification, yelled “Die Yuppie Scum,” and vandalized a new apartment building. Police chased people down and clubbed them with night sticks. It was a low point in New York’s history but things would soon change.
I was an angry suburban punk rock high school kid in the late 1980s and I made it a point to go to New York and walk to Tompkins Square Park after the riot. While I made it there, I did not stay very long. The park was still a homeless encampment and drug-invested village of skels and squatters, even with the 1 a.m. curfew. I would walk along 8th Street and St. Mark’s after visiting a great record store called It’s Only Rock & Roll that did not survive to the late 1990s.
This year’s commemorative concerts included a reunion of Team Spider, a group I have long admired and followed that embody the best of the East Village punk rock ethos. For about a decade they had an elderly songwriter ZAK, join them for most of their performances. ZAK passed away in 2006. So I made it an imperative to get to the park to see Team Spider.
The fact that I felt safe enough to drive to the East Village in a minivan with my wife and three small children is testament to the radical changes that have affected the East Village in the interceding 30 years. Amazingly, I found a parking spot right alongside Avenue B. I parked right across the street from St. Brigid’s Church. The church has a storied history, including being used as a center for activists during the 1988 park protests. There is personal history there too. I was arrested for taping a flyer to a light post right on the corner outside the church in 2005.
We walked into the park between bands, and someone was on stage making a long-winded political speech. They had been there during the riots in 1988 and now the spirit of resistance was needed even more because Trump is a racist and in league with the Nazis and no borders and die yuppie scum and …I tuned out most of the rambling speech and instead said hello to friends that I saw there. Some of my friends that I know through music have not yet met my children, so it was good to introduce some of my punk rock family to may actual nuclear family.
Team Spider took the stage and rocked. Their brand of ska-infused, politically conscious punk rock is as relevant today as it was when they were performing regularly, and they even updated some of the lyrics to mention Donald Trump instead of George W. Bush. The concert was well attended – Choking Victim closed out the show after Team Spider – and evidence that the spirit of political protest has not been cleansed from our city streets entirely.
But by any measure of anti-gentrification politics, the yuppies have won in the East Village. There are only a few squatters left among the increasingly expensive real estate that have driven out much of the radical politics that fueled the protests. The 1 a.m. curfew on the park is still in effect and there’s a Starbucks where there was once a pizza place not long ago.
After we listed to Team Spider play, we brought our girls to a playground. I took a small detour to meet with old friends at the show, but soon it was time to go for ice cream. I am happy to report that Ray’s Candy Store is still on Avenue A and I and the family got to eat ice cream cones served by Ray himself. We found a bench in the park that was away from some of the homeless congregations that still take up a lot of space there and quickly ate the ice cream, though the summer heat made us all a mess. Soon it was time for home.
New York City has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and it wouldn’t be New York if it was any other way. We won’t always have the same punk rock bands to listen to in the decades ahead, but New York City will always be home to what is interesting.
Coney Island is an endless summer draw for New York. It has a large beach, world-famous amusement park rides, and a seedy underbelly that gives it character. Coney Island has kept its lowbrow edge despite waves of gentrification and upscaling happening throughout New York but with particular intensity in Brooklyn. Williamsburg used to be a dangerous place to be. Now it’s only dangerous if you live in a rent-controlled apartment.
One of the attractions that has been added over the last two decades of revitalization is MCU Park, which opened as KeySpan Park in 2001. The field hosts the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones.
My wife, who is much more adept at sourcing and planning family outings, discovered a good value in the Flock, a children’s club that includes tickets to several games for the entire family.
We got to Coney Island and found an expensive pay lot close to the stadium. With low clouds rolling in, fogging the tops of the nearby apartment buildings, we decided to get something to eat before submitting to the amoral monopoly of stadium snacks. In the short distance between MCU Park and the original Nathan’s, we started feeling raindrops. Nathan’s was mobbed, but close by was Pete’s Clam Stop, which had large plastic bench-style picnic tables in a small dining area. We ducked in, found a seat, and ordered food.
Pete’s Clam Stop was a good discovery. Its hot dogs were just as good as Nathan’s with the same traditional snappy flavor and they also had large fries that were a bit big and unwieldly but were in the crinkle-cut tradition (they even served them with a small French fry fork.) Pete’s also has fresh clams and oysters on ice, and hand-painted signs encouraging customers to eat clams to help to have a child and to eat oysters if one wanted to have twins. I had not heard this bit of old wives’ tale wisdom, and since we already have twins plus one, we did not feel the need to sample the oysters or clams.
The rain picked up heavily as we ate our food, watched World Cup Soccer on TV, and enjoyed the camaraderie of other Coney Island visitors making a lunch stop to duck out of the rain. The picnic tables became filled with people sharing the space. A woman with her kids at the table with us remarked on two of our daughters’ red hair.
Before long the rain was gone and the sun was out by the time we headed back to the ball park.
We got to meet two of the players and got them to sign our daughters’ t-shirts. They all became too shy to get their photo taken with the players. The highlight of the Flock benefits was getting to go on the field near second base for the national anthem. Unfortunately, the field at MCU Park is artificial turf, so it feels as if you are walking on a cheap shag carpet with some extra padding underneath.
With three small kids, I spent more time herding them and trying to quell their tantrums than I did actually watching baseball. If I were a baseball aficionado or cared about seeing a future baseball superstar in action I might be disappointed, but I don’t really follow baseball and I’m a Yankees fan anyway (the Brooklyn Cyclones are a Mets farm team), and time is better spent with family. It is more enjoyable to share ice cream with a four-year-old than to watch someone throw a fastball. The Cyclones won the game 1-0, beating the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team.
While our seats were in the last row of the stands, they were still field-level seats and comparable seats at a major-league ballpark would have been unaffordable for a family of five. Snacks were still overpriced, but the ticket deal that my wife found included some snack vouchers, so that allowed me to actually not spend money on overpriced stadium snacks.
Our seats were shaded so we escaped the worst of the sun. Still, it was an exhausting day. We drove home, buzzed from weariness, but also excited about having more Coney Island adventures.
Two years ago, when our youngest was a newborn still in the hospital, I had a Father’s Day with our older daughters and decided to take them to a carnival that was being held out on Long Island.
The drive out there gave the girls some nap time and allowed me to treat myself to some drive-through White Castle in an indulgent celebration of my continuing my bloodlines.
It was on the grounds of a community college not too far into Suffolk County (the part of Long Island farther away from New York City—technically both Brooklyn and Queens are on the Island of Long Island but whenever a New Yorker says “Long Island” they mean Nassau or Suffolk County, which constitute the larger mass of land outside of the New York City borders).
Because it was Father’s Day and extremely hot, or for whatever reason, the carnival was not well attended. There were a few rides where my girls were the only ones on at the time. One ride that was empty had a height requirement, and I told one of the twins to step up to the height measurement board by the entrance to see if she was tall enough. She misunderstood my instructions and began stepping up on the bottom run of the fence around the ride, which had the effect of both immediately proving she was not tall enough to ride the ride but making it look like I was telling my daughter to cheat. As I was trying to correct this, the man running the ride, who was wearing the requisite carny uniform of sun-leathered skin emblazoned with tattoos, quickly waved my girls onto the ride.
More recently, my wife and I took our girls to a local carnival held on the grounds of a Catholic school nearby. It was fairly well attended but our kids were only eligible to ride a few of the rides. Most of the rides were for older kids and grownups and some of them looked rickety and unsafe. The same carny types were running the rides, and the ones who were running the kids’ rides were happy to have the business. From a trailer-born midway, the typical games of change were running with giant stuffed animals to lure impressionable youth to beg for their parents’ money.
A few weeks later, another similar carnival, a larger one in Astoria, had a ride malfunction and injure a passenger who fell out of an open car on a rickety amusement park ride.
We hold the carnival folk in envy in some ways also: they travel and see the country in ways most of us wish we had the freedom to do. And we see their itinerant ways and employment in leisure as hinting at some greater, more liberated life, even though it is a much harder life that consists of working while other people have fun, for long hours in the hot sun for little pay.
Eight years ago, a Wisconsin writer traveled as a carny and wrote about it for the publication Isthmus in an article ‘My life as a carny.’ He summarized it this way:
“[W]here I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.”
One counterintuitive point that the article makes is that traveling carnival rides have a better chance of being safe than those at established amusement parks, because they are inspected more frequently.
From the interactions I’ve had, I have some away with the impression that because my wife and I have raised our girls to treat people with respect and be polite, especially to the people who work for a living and serve us, that the carnival workers pick up on that and treat us well in return.
We come away from these carnivals a little poorer financially, I like to think that our family is richer in experience. Carnies are part of the brilliant milieu of New York City; we appreciate the dark allure of the carnival, as it is illuminating when you approach it with the right attitude.
This past weekend I had several hours alone with my three children. Normally we have full family outings on the weekend but it helps keep our family healthy if my wife gets a break from being around children for at least a few hours each week.
There was a Twist & Sprout festival at the Queens Botanical Garden and I decided this would be a good place to take our three daughters. We had been there last year and it was a good time with plenty to offer the kids.
After getting my girls out of the van and dropping off some compost, we set off to explore the festival. Arriving at the Queens Botanical Garden with my daughters is like being a celebrity’s date at an award’s ceremony. Because they are there at least twice a week for the Forest Explorers program, my girls know a lot of the people who work there. One of the teachers at the program recently graduated college and gave my girls big hugs. Other employees waved hello to us from their zooming golf carts or from arts & crafts tables.
There was a puppet show and the puppeteer was the mother of another one of the students at the Forest Explorers program. Other parents stopped to chat with me; they recognized my daughters and asked where my wife was. It was all very friendly, but I was definitely a stranger among them. I was appreciated for bringing my girls there. No doubt they are the better life of the party.
While I pride myself on being a good Dad, the point was driven home that for most hours in the week, I am largely absent from my daughters’ lives. I am out the door to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus in the morning and with afternoon rush-hour traffic I am usually not home before 7 p.m. It is dinner time soon after I arrive home and time for bed soon after that. The weekends are when I try to catch up and cram a lot of living into two days before the cycle starts up again, at least on most weekends (sometimes I have to work on the weekends).
Since 2014 I have been my children’s +1. In theory I could show up at a family gathering without them, but I’d face an extremely disappointed crowd. There’s no substitute for adorable young children.
Case in point: my reception at the Queens Botanical Garden was warm and embracing, which would not have been the case if I had shown up on my own. No one would have treated me poorly, but no one would have known who I was or given me a second glance. When fantastic little girls are your posse, you are a 100% winner wherever you go.
Our children are better versions of ourselves, bright and new to the world with endless possibilities in front of them. When we’re well received based on being with them, it reflects their position in the world and how they’re being raised.
We’re doing something right.
It was the mid-1980s and my brother and I were visiting my mother in Yonkers and going to the Westchester County Fair. She lived within walking distance to Yonkers Raceway where the fair was held every year. But this particular Saturday night my mother and I left the fair early so I could watch the movie Beverly Hills Cop on cable television.
We ran through the crowds at the fair and down the quieter streets off of Central Avenue to get to the house where my mother’s apartment was. We made it just in time.
There’s a point in the film where Eddie Murphy’s character makes fun of the way someone says “banana in the tailpipe” that I found uproariously funny. I perhaps laughed harder than I had every laughed before.
From that time forward, if I was taking life too seriously or my mother wanted me to smile in a photograph she would whisper “banana in the tailpipe” and despite my efforts at serious, curmudgeonly dignity I would eventually smile. She had long ago decided that life, even at its most solemn moments, should be met with a certain levity. When I danced with her at my wedding and she looked as if she might be overcome with emotion, I got to tell her “banana in the tailpipe,” to keep the occasion’s needed levity.
My mother was a theater person and that’s how she and my father met. My brother and I are proud to be descended from theater folk on both sides of our family. My mother’s life was an extension of her love for life upon the stage. For her life was a grand performance where she relished every part she played and interpreted each role in her own unique way. She lived life with the expectation of celebration and a disdain for conventions that would get in the way.
When I learned my mother had ovarian cancer, I was hopeful. They were doing surgery, and that’s a sign of hope for ovarian cancer, which is often detected very late. I started planning the victory party early. We would do the T.E.A.L. 5k Run and Walk and have cool t-shirts made up about my mother making cancer her bitch. We’d enjoy a jack-o-lantern show every year from then on out to make up for the one she missed when she first became ill. Things would go back to normal, I was sure of it.
I made the mistake that is so common; I thought I had more time. I thought that my mother would be able to see her grandchildren at least once more, that I could say goodbye to her in some organized way that would leave me with no lingering regrets. I didn’t know that the last time I saw her or spoke with her would be the last time. I don’t really remember the conversation that well. She told me she didn’t have long to live and I believed her, but I left that conversation thinking we had a few more weeks or even months. Two days later I got a call from my stepfather informing me that my mother had passed away the night before.
If there is one moment in time with my mother that I could somehow freeze or replay forever, it would be the moment I went to the waiting room at the hospital after our first two girls were born, and seeing my Mom as a grandmother for the first time. I don’t know if I ever saw her happier than at that moment. I had made her dream of becoming a grandmother come true and she had years of happiness ahead of her as a Grandma.
While I mourn my mother’s loss and regret all that we have lost with her, I’m comforted by the fact that our older girls were gifted with very early memories of her and saw her almost every week of their lives until she was diagnosed.
A few weeks ago, we held a memorial service for my mother at Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain was a popular place for us to meet up and it was the last place I saw my mother. Friends and family from all over came to remember how my Mom had held a special place in their lives. I had a few prepared remarks that I kept brief, and signed off with this:
“My mother did not believe in funerals or being memorialized with an engraved stone. She left it up to us, her family and wider family of friends, with the lives we live and the love we share, to create her monument. We thank you for joining us in this.”
A pre-Thanksgiving “Tofurkey Trot” charity run on Randall’s Island was overcast and blustery, with high winds making logistics a difficulty. Opening the back door of the van sent various pieces of paper, old candy wrappers and other flotsam and jetsam of family life spraying across a parking area, prompting the awkward conscientious shuffle to step on and pick up every piece of litter before they could blow away and make us the city’s environmental villains of the day.
My wife and I arrived with our three children just as the event was getting off to a start. We got our numbers and soon were off, trailing most of the runners and walkers with our two strollers.
This particular Tofurkey Trot was cosponsored by My Dog is My Home, a charity that helps homeless people find shelter that will accommodate their pets and was vegan themed. The organizers were friends who had a fun vegan wedding at an upstate animal sanctuary earlier this year. It was an example of how life can be interesting and varied at all times: the day before the run I had spent in the woods hunting deer, now I was at a vegan event. I didn’t even see a deer—maybe I had been hexed by some vegan mojo—but free doughnuts from Cinnamon Snail makes for terrific comfort food.
My wife and I had our goal to make sure we were not last, and that meant we had to jog a bit now and again while pushing strollers. We were able to stop and chat with friends who were either running or manning the doughnut and water stations at the 5k. It was a chance to see Manhattan from Randall’s Island, a place we rarely get to visit. The run took us over a small footbridge called “Little Hell Gate Bridge” to part of Ward’s Island, which is now connected to Randall’s Island by landfill. The run went past the grounds of the Kirby Psychiatric Center, a state hospital for the criminally insane.
We feasted on doughnuts and got to visit with friends, and it was a great way to start the day. We even won a gift certificate for a Tofurkey meal in a raffle, which we sent to a vegan friend. It was a satisfying start the Thanksgiving season.
Gratitude is a helpful practice and it is good to keep a running list all through the year of things you are thankful for. Refer to that list when you are going through some dark times, and it will help you to see things through with a more balanced view.
Here are some things I am thankful for in 2017:
A wife who loves me and our children and who has infinitely more patience than I do. She signed us up for the Tofurkey Trot and has made me a better person.
Three great children who make me proud every day.
A wonderful extended family that has been there for me in the worst of times.
Great friends who represent the best of what friends have to offer.
The creative urge. Losing the will to create means losing the will to live, because life without literature, art, and music would not be worth living. No matter how burdened with work or other obligations I may be, that spark stays alive somehow. For that I remain grateful.
A roof over my head, a job, and my general health.
I’m thankful that I’ll spend this Thanksgiving having a meal with family and enjoying more time with my wife and children than I normally would get on a Thursday.