Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.
When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.
When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.
Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.
I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.
Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.
On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.
From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.
The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.
The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.
Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.
Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.
This past weekend saw the passing of The Countess, who had been my cat for more than 14 years. She was found on the street by a friend on Harlem and spent her life living in Inwood and Queens. She spent her entire 14 years as a resident of the five boroughs. I would contend that she represented New York City better than any living creature and was the most New York cat in all of New York.
I was unemployed and looking for work in early 2002 and spent a good bit of time playing music with my friend Christian, who at the time lived on West 135th Street in Manhattan. His roommate found a small kitten underneath a car and brought it home. When they had to vacate the apartment, Christian asked if I could take the cat. I had been considering getting a cat anyway, so I was happy to have a pet, the first of my very own.
I named her The Countess for Countess Constance Markievicz, an Irish revolutionary. An uncompromising and rebellious fighter for Irish freedom, she is believed to have fired some of the first shots of the 1916 Easter Rising. Spared the firing squad because of her gender, she told her jailers, “I wish you had the decency to shoot me.”
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the name would be perfect for my cat. The Countess was violent and uncompromising in every respect. She was a calico—a cat that is multicolored and splotchy in appearance. All calicos are female and are also known for not being very social or friendly. They typically only bond with one person. For The Countess, that was me and no one else.
While I always saw my cat behaving indifferently towards most of my guests, she became an outright terror for friends and neighbors that agreed to feed her while I was traveling. One Christmas while visiting family in California, a neighbor called to tell me she was afraid to go into my apartment again because my cat attacked her. Others were able to feed her but not allowed near her litter box. I sometimes wore unpleasant scars myself. I once tried to picker her up only have her curl into a ball around my arm and sink her claws into my forearm. I didn’t notice until later that I was bleeding through my shirt as I waited for a bus.
I took a certain pride in the fact that The Countess was mean and cold towards most of the world. That made her more exclusively mine and made me one of the elite few who was worthy of the cat’s love and affection. She was sit with me and purr when I pet her. She showed me great affection and would sometimes leave dead mice for me as tribute. A dead mouse once sat on the floor of my apartment for several hours, mistaken for one of her cat toys.
Some of my friends and family came to have at least a gainful coexistence with the cat. She warmed to some of them but not others. Sadly, she never became friendly with my children, and m two older kids were justifiably afraid of her.
It was hard to make the call when it was time for her to go, but my cat’s health took a steep turn for the worse after many vet visits to aid her declining health. The Countess, who once prowled my apartment striking fear into the hearts of even hardened combat veterans and experienced cat owners, was no longer able to stand or walk on her own. I thought she had more time and that things were on the path to improvement, but it was not to be.
I went to a 24-hour veterinary clinic with The Countess and came home with an empty cat carrier. The cluttered apartment I share with my wife and three kids feels a bit empty. Every time I got into our kitchen I see where the cat’s food bowl used to be and I’m reminded of her loss.
The Countess was the most senior family member of my own choosing in my life. She was mean and a terror to most but she was mine and I loved her. RIP Countess.
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.
Summer is a traditional time to go to the beach and be near the water, and New York City has 14 miles of public beaches where you can contract skin cancer while being eaten alive by horse flies. I never understood why people would want to go to a sunny place and let the sun burn them during the hottest time of the year.
But believe it or not, New York City also has woods and you would do well to spend some time in the shade this summer. There’s something immensely satisfying about going for a walk in the woods and knowing you are still within the five boroughs of New York City.
For more than 10 years I lived in Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. I was lucky enough to live right across one of the wooded sections of Inwood Hill Park, which contains the last piece of natural forest in Manhattan as well as Manhattan’s last surviving salt marsh. It is also the highest natural point of elevation in the city.
I moved into Inwood on a Saturday in the summer and the following Monday went on a jog in the park before going to work. Not familiar with the park and its paths yet, I became lost. I couldn’t believe it that I was lost in the woods in Manhattan, but I was. I eventually found my way home and wasn’t too late to work, but Inwood Hill Park remains a treasure with lots wooded paths to walk. Even on weekends in the spring and summer when the park is typically crowded, you can find some solitude in the woods.
Be careful though, there are no shortage of shady characters who know this as well, and while I was living in Inwood a young Julliard student named Sarah Fox was murdered in a wooded part of the park one afternoon while she was jogging.
Inwood Hill Park may be one of the best and most overlooked wooded parks in the city but it’s not the only place to cool off in the shade.
Now that I am in Queens, I live not far from several parks that have real woods and wooded trails.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I decided we would go to Alley Pond Park. My wife, who grew up in Queens, knew it as a place high school students would go to drink alcohol under the cover of darkness. The park is the second largest public park in Queens (Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which doesn’t have dense woodlands, is the largest).
Alley Pond Park would be difficult to reach via public transportation as it is not near any subway lines; you’d have to take the bus if you don’t have a car or can’t walk or bike there. We found a parking space in a small parking lot that looks like it overflows during busy times. We put our twin daughters in a jogging stroller and managed to navigate it through much of the wooded paths in the park. Of course, being in New York City, the paths in the park were sometimes paved and sometimes led to steep staircases that we dared not traverse with a stroller, but we were always able to turn around and find another suitable path that would let us enjoy the woods a little more.
We saw lots of birds and even a rabbit. There were plenty of mosquitoes as we got near swamp areas of the park. We came across other strollers in the woods but like Inwood Hill Park, one can achieve a certain solitude in the woods even on days that the park is crowded.
No matter what borough you reside in, there is no shortage of wooded parks in New York. It will be cooler and less crowded in the shade.
This past weekend the wife and I attended a co-ed baby shower for my friend and spiritual advisor Rabbi Jay Levitz and his wife Sarah. We were in Oceanside, Long Island, New York, a short drive outside the city for us, as we live in Eastern Queens. As we talked with Jay, the conversation turned to what constitutes the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
We all agreed that the term was more of a cultural construct than a geographic one, though we acknowledge that the two go hand in hand in many ways. Where I live now in Queens is not a trendy area at all and is too far from any of the celebrated night life to become popular among the moneyed classes or the upwardly mobile youth any time soon. That is actually a blessing. We happen to have decent access to public transportation, though getting into Manhattan always involves at least one bus and one train. My commute to work is at least one bus and two subways, and it is terrible, subject at all times to the fickle whims of the increasingly incompetent MTA.
The “bridge and tunnel” term may have been initially meant to denote people coming from outside of New York City—especially from New Jersey, considered by many to be a cultural leper colony filled with only guidos and hill people. But my current settings would qualify me as a bridge and tunnel crowd person when I venture into Manhattan for cultural events.
Manhattan was once the undisputed epicenter of New York City’s cultural life. Now that cultural life is much more diffuse and spread through the outer boroughs, most prominently in Brooklyn. New movie theaters, restaurants and music venues are more likely to be opening in Brooklyn or Queens today than in Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate prices in the outer boroughs are still going through the roof.
This shift has made use of the term “Bridge and Tunnel” a bit outdated, but the cultural chasm between whose who perceive themselves as cultured city residents and the people who travel to the city only on the weekends to party is not gone. Someone who takes the Long Island Rail Road from Mineola to see a concert in Brooklyn is considered part of the bridge and tunnel crowd, though they did not use a bridge or tunnel (yes, I understand that the LIRR in Brooklyn does use subway tunnels and uses overpasses on its way to the city; shut up).
And these social demarcations between what is city and what is not stretch to the outer boroughs as well. I mentioned that I drove to Long Island to attend a baby shower this weekend, but as I live in Queens, I already live on Long Island. When New Yorkers talk about “Long Island” they don’t mean the Island itself but Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the parts of the Island that lie outside of the border of New York City.
I could never justify the expense of living in a more trendy or celebrated area of Manhattan. I had a chance to move to the Upper East Side one time. I looked at an apartment in Yorkville and realized that I would be doubling my rent and would still not be able to fit the modest furniture from my small studio in Ozone Park, Queens into the new place. It wasn’t worth the money. I could have said I lived on the Upper East Side, but I’d be living like a hobbit.
So while proximity to Manhattan is become less and less of a cultural touchstone to judge a neighborhood, I propose a new measure of the value of where you live: proximity to live Shakespeare.
A good measure of the value of any place to live is how far away you are from some free Shakespeare. When I lived in Inwood in uptown Manhattan, it had yet to become a trendy place to live and people hadn’t heard of it. But I lived across the street from Inwood Hill Park which had free Shakespeare plays every summer. Score.
I can’t easily walk to free Shakespeare like that, but I am a very short trip from more than one of the venues of the free Shakespeare in the Park in Queens.
Some will argue that this Shakespeare standard is an unfair way to judge where you live, but I don’t think so. I don’t want my children to live in a world where they can’t easily see some free Shakespeare every summer. I’ll be dragging their soggy asses to Two Gentlemen of Verona this season; I won’t need a bridge or tunnel to get there.