There was shopping to do and we had to get the kids out of the house.
If you have a car in New York City you are one of a privileged few. You can blaze a trail of adventure and wanderlust across the land. Or, you can simply drive someplace where it is a little less crowded to do your shopping, avoiding the hordes that clog your local stores for the slightly less overstuffed shopping experiences of the suburbs.
Pro tip for current and future parents: IKEA stores have a free indoor play area called “Småland” where they will babysit your kids for free if you are in their store.
This past Sunday we headed to Hicksville for the chance to look again at a couch we may want to buy from IKEA and to do our bulk shopping where it was slightly less aggravating.
The drive had put our children to sleep and my wife and I enjoyed listening to Joan Jett’s greatest hits and catching up on adult conversation while our three blessed hellions slumped in their child seats. We decided to get some of our shopping done while they napped. I headed to BJs.
BJ’s is not as fun as it sounds. It’s not an emporium of fellatio but rather a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. Showing your BJ’s card only wins you the pleasure of buying in bulk.
The BJs in Westbury, Long Island, was a lot less crowded than the one we usually visit in College Point, Queens. I found the things I needed easily. I got in line at one of the self-checkout lanes as going to one of the other lines means an incredibly long wait behind people whose shopping carts are filled to the brim with bulk items.
The woman is taking too long looking over everyone’s cart and there is a line forming just to get out of the store.
The only question I’ve ever had facing this security check in the past is if one of my daughters asks me if this person is going to draw a Mickey Mouse on our receipt.
The woman looks at my cart for what seems like an extended period and then circles the number of items on my receipt. She says there is a problem, something about me having too many items in my cart. Her English is poor, and I ask what is the item that wasn’t scanned. She points to the checkout area, and I think she wants me to go back there but I want to understand this problem and solve it quickly. I’m not going to scan every item again or stand on another line if the store is bringing up the issue. I keep asking what the problem is and what’s not right, and I get no answer. The woman leaves me there and starts checking other customers’ receipts. A chubby woman mumbles something under her breath at me as she walks by, but not loud enough to hear.
The receipt women with broken English calls someone else over. He checks my receipt. He counts the items in my cart. He checks the receipt again; he counts the items in my cart again. People keep passing by and looking at me. I stay stoic.
The young man now checks the UPC numbers on every item against my receipt. He’s moving more things around in the cart and checking off each item on the receipt.
“The tomato sauce,” he says before scurrying off. “The tomato sauce.”
The receipt checking lady has forgotten about me. Her backup left me standing there with my marked-up receipt and no recommendations. I don’t bother to check his work; I just want out of there. I put the tomato sauce aside and walk out the door. No one stops me. I’m free but without the tomato sauce we wanted to buy and with precious time wasted.
Westbury BJ’s: 1, Polite New Yorker: 0.
I had traded the aggravation of weaving your way through crowds of clueless shoppers to being shaken down by store security and singled out as a potential shoplifter. While this was annoying it could have been so much worse. People who forget to scan the groceries on the bottom shelf of their shopping cart have been accused of shoplifting and had their careers ruined. The store employees could have called the police.
I made it back to my van without further delay. The children were awake. We moved on to our next adventure.
“Can we see the robot?” one of our daughters asked.
“Sure,” my wife answered.
We were finishing up lunch and I had mentioned I wanted to briefly visit the Stop & Shop to look for something. I had no idea this outlet near our home employed one of those grocery store robots I had seen mentioned online ubiquitously. These slim, monolith grey towers on wheels are outfitted with large googly-eyes as one would a child’s craft. I had heard they were being installed in more and more stores; friends had posted photos of them at their local supermarkets. I had yet to see one in action.
The shopping center at Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway in Flushing is a zone of cluttered chaos and the logical effluvium of the overcrowded eyesore of the streets nearby. Forgotten New York rightfully calls this part of Flushing “Queens’ Crappiest” for its lack of aesthetics, complete disrespect of historic buildings, and utter incompetence of the design of residential buildings. The shopping center was not long ago filled with crater-like potholes. It has a check cashing establishment and was for a time frequented prostitutes that served truck drivers. I try to avoid this shopping center because of the traffic alone—it’s either accessed by a busy highway service road or a two-lane street that is often busy. My kids love the McDonald’s that is there for some reason; perhaps I have already failed as a father.
The Stop & Shop there is a last refuge of desperation when we are looking for groceries that aren’t found elsewhere. Now I also wanted to see the grocery store robot. These robots are named “Marty.” Stop & Shop supermarkets have deployed them in more them in more than 200 stores to look for spills and hazards. According to Mashable, each robots costs $35,000 and weighs 140 pounds. Also, these robots don’t clean up anything, but just alert people nearby to the fact that there is a mess.
I went looking for the one item I hoped they had: a specific popular baby food pouch that serves as a healthy snack for our youngest daughter. I headed for the baby food aisle while the rest of my family made a bee line for the back of the store where they spotted the robot.
The baby food section was the same mess it was at my last visit and was without the food pouch I was looking for. I scoured again and looked behind every box and envelope to no avail. The robot had not spent enough time in this aisle.
My excited daughters came to get me to show me the robot, which was making its way across the back of the store from where they had first met it near the deli. They ran after it and my wife and I followed.
When my children ran up on the robot again, it seemed to pause to allow us all to gawk at it. Bored shoppers accustomed to the googly-eyed rolling cyborg went about their shopping.
“Hi Marty!” my children thought this thing was great. Maybe you could put googly eyes on a giant steaming people of crap and children will find it convincingly anthropomorphized into a cute friend and want to take it home. The robot slowly moved away from us, not interacting with anyone other than moving out of our way and appearing to look at us with its false, plastic, and unblinking eyes.
New York City seems like a poor choice to send Marty. Our supermarkets are too crowded, and our people in need of work is always plentiful. Also, New Yorkers are more skeptical of gimmicks like this. While little kids got a kick out of Marty the robot, most adults are put off by it.
The supermarket robot is not the coming incarnation of Skynet, the computer system that becomes self-aware and plunges the world into a nuclear holocaust in the Terminator films. It’s pretty underwhelming by itself.
The truly troubling issue with the increasing use of robots is not that technology is marching forward and machines are doing jobs people want to do. It’s that people no longer want to act like people as much anymore.
If society functioned well, customers would report a spill to an accessible employee, who would easily see to it that the spill was cleaned up, or the store would employ enough cleaning staff to make it a pleasurable experience. Instead we’ll gawk at a machine and be on our way.
We are spurning human contact in favor of technology-driven convenience because our human interactions have plunged in quality. That’s not the fault of the machines, that’s our fault.
Earlier this summer, I arrived home late on a Friday night—late these days meaning after 8 p.m.—and was taking things out of my pockets after a long day. When I reached into my right front picket, I came to the realization that I did not have my wallet. My stomach tied in knots and I cried out in frustrated desperation. I knew it had been in my pocket; there would be no deus ex machina miracle of finding it in my bag or in another pair of shorts.
I knew that it most likely fell out of my pocket on my commute home. I had just gotten off the express bus—this bus was still on the road and someone could radio the driver! I immediately picked up my smart phone and dialed 311 for citywide information. The 311 operator would be able to connect me to the right person. The 311 operator transferred me to 511, which is the information number for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
After a few more transfers, I spoke with someone I was told could help me. I gave them all the information I had. I was on a QM20 bus and was picked up from 6th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan at approximately 8:40 p.m. and was dropped off at Union Street and 26th Avenue in Flushing, Queens at approximately 9:30 p.m. This driver was probably still on their route and with the information I had given them someone should be able to get in touch with the driver ASAP!
But no such luck. The person on the other end of the line said they could not do anything unless I had the bus number. Without the bus number, they could not contact the driver. Seems a bit ridiculous. If this had been a more serious situation and people’s lives depended on finding the bus, there would have been a catastrophe.
I was asked to call back the next day after the bus had gone back to the depot and the driver may have turned in the wallet. It was a small wallet, one that held only cards. I was not out any cash, unless someone was going to town with my debit card.
I started to call credit card companies and my bank to have holds put on cards.
The next day I called the depot. Nothing.
I called back the next day, and called back later in the day again. Nothing still.
I went through with canceling and replacing my credit cards and ATM card and replacing my driver’s license.
By Monday, there was no funny business on my cards and new ones were on the way. I printed out a temporary driver’s license and ordered a new card wallet that came with a money clip. My card wallet needed replacing anyway, and this was a chance to pare down the stuff I carried with me everywhere.
A few weeks later, the same day my new driver’s license arrived in the mail, a notice from the MTA Lost & Found arrived in the mail.
“An article which contains your name and/or contact information was found and turned in to the MTA NYC Transit Lost Property Unit,” the notice began. It instructed me to report to the unit’s office at the 34th Street subway station at 8th Avenue in Manhattan. If I did not claim my property by Nov. 3, “it will be deemed to have been abandoned and you will have forfeited your right to claim it.”
The next day I brought that notice and my newly replaced driver’s license to a hidden-in-plan-sight pocket of the 34th Street subway station in Manhattan. It took some searching and asking to find the lost and found office, which is beneath the tracks of the A, C, E subway lines and without any signs leading you there except in the immediate vicinity. It’s within the subway system, so if you arrive by some other means or exit the subway before you find it, you’ll have to spend another subway fare to reach it or get a helpful MTA worker to let you in.
A small sign points the way to a set of double doors painted in celebration of the many objects found in our transit system. The office is open odd hours—and completely closed weekends and holidays, a travesty in a system that runs 24 hours—but luckily is open until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdays.
Inside is a small room with a very low ceiling. I’m five feet eleven inches with my shoes on, and if I had extended my arm fully above my head I would have punched a hole in the drop-down ceiling. There is a metal bench to sit on, a small counter to stand and fill out paperwork on, two old-looking computer terminals, and a thick window above a pass-through door through which one may conduct business with the MTA workers on duty.
I arrived as a worker emerged from another set of doors to hand someone some paperwork, and she took my notice and ID and disappeared in to the bowels of the lost and found. The woman who was there spoke to someone at the window and was told to check back about her property later. She left and another woman arrived to ask if a book she lost on the subway was found. She was told no and to check back later; she left. Another man arrived and looked through his paperwork to check on a claim, and while he was speaking with someone another woman arrived to check on some property she had reported missing.
A worker arrived at the thick window with my wallet. It was a different worker than I had given my notice to; it was a rotating staff of workers answering questions and handling forms. He told me to sign my name on another form and write my address the same way it appeared on the notice in the mail. He opened the door to the silver box under the window and placed a clip board inside, and when he closed his door I opened mine and filled out the form.
A minute later, the same exchange reunited me with my wallet. It looked a little worse for wear, but nothing was missing. Everything was there: my license, my ATM card, my MTA MetroCard, even the coupon for a t-shirt at the zoo. I excitedly took an inventory of my wallet while my fellow transit visitors looked on amazed.
“You give me hope,” said the young woman sitting on the bench, hoping her property would be returned.
I thanked the worker and wished the other people in the office good luck, and went back out into the bustling station. For me, lost and found had worked out well.
Thank you to the Good Samaritan on the bus who turned in my wallet, and the series of honest MTA workers that made it possible for me to get my property back. For me the stars aligned this time.
Despite the popularity of some parts of Brooklyn, our collective dialogue around New York City remains excessively Manhattan-centric. New Yorkers will still say “the city” when they mean Manhattan, even though the five borough boundaries of our city have been in place since 1898.
And New York City is so large that telling people what borough you are from will not cut it. No one actually from Manhattan would introduce themselves as being from Manhattan unless they were in a very borough-specific conversation. Each of New York City’s boroughs is a tapestry of neighborhoods, and it is these neighborhoods that are the lifeblood of life in NYC.
Queens is New York City’s largest borough and among its most well-known neighborhoods is Flushing. This weekend, local residents are showing off the neighborhood’s many attractions Saturday at FNO 2019: Flushing Fantastic.
FNO stands for “Flushing Night Out” as past events have been held at night, but this festival is going to run from 12 noon until 6 p.m. and is going to be at historic St. George’s Episcopal Church, right in the center of downtown Main Street a short walk from both the 7 train and the LIRR.
Flushing is known as a destination for Chinese cuisine, and people will come from all over to sample some of the great restaurants, food carts, or food court stalls that make this neighborhood unique. But there is much more than Chinese food, and the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce is promoting the neighborhood as an international melting pot, though admittedly one that is heavily Asian. I often point out to people that among the best dining attractions in Flushing are 24-hour Korean restaurants such as Kum Gang San and Noodle Flower, where you can barbecue an awesome assortment of meat right at your table at two o’clock in the morning if you are so inclined.
The Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce also notes that the event is designed to give a boost to local businesses and entrepreneurs that are competing with large franchises. Downtown Flushing has seen a boom in construction of high-rise condominiums and the rising price of real estate has made life harder for small businesses throughout Queens and five boroughs.
“Flushing, NY is the crossroads of the world — where you can find amazing culture and people from around the globe,” the chamber says in its event notice online. “We want to celebrate the unique food, fashion, and music found here as well as help the small businesses and entrepreneurs who are struggling to make ends meet. Over the past decade, rising rents and major development projects have threatened to displace the small mom-and-pop stores who invested their blood, sweat, and tears into making our neighborhood prosperous.”
Flushing Night Out has been held at various locations, centered on the downtown area. The first one I attended was on the campus of Flushing High School, and it was a memorable event, even for cynics like me that hate crowds.
It was at my first Flushing Night Out that I was introduced to Karl’s Balls, a food stand of traditional Japanese takoyaki balls—those are octopus balls inside a doughy sphere that are cooked on an egg-shell like grill. Go to Karl’s Balls because it’s an ingenious name and you may never stop joking about wanting to put Karl’s Balls in your mouth. But all joking aside, the takoyaki balls are extraordinarily delicious and Karl himself—Karl Palma—is a celebrated chef who has been featured on the Cooking Channel among other accomplishments.
While Karl’s Balls may not be at this FNO event, there is going to be a smorgasbord of amazing food, from Ecuadorian cuisine to Japanese ramen to craft beer and gourmet ice cream. You have no excuse to leave hungry. The organizers require all the vendors there to have items that start at $5 or less.
FNO also features live music, crafts, and other cultural interests. This Saturday will feature Harmonyc Movement, a city-based dance troupe steeped in K-pop and Korean culture.
And at the Flushing Queens Macaroni Kid booth, they will be giving away protein bars for free (full disclosure, my wife Emily Griffin Sheahan runs our local Macaroni Kid web site and will be manning the booth at the event – tell her I sent you!).
Last Wednesday thousands gathered in Fort Totten Park in Bayside, Queens for a fireworks display. The event had all the makings of potential disaster by modern metrics. Thousands of diverse people crammed into a limited area and jockeying for space to get a good view. A little league soccer team was wrapping up practice as people took their places in the expanse of green field between portable toilets and a row of food trucks. Bounce castles entertained children before the fireworks started and people took what they thought were the best positions to view the show as they waited for the sky to get dark enough.
The fireworks started promptly and a roaring whoop went up from the crowd as fireworks lit up the sky. New Yorkers cheered enthusiastically for this celebration of our War of Independence. When it was over, the crowd made its way out of Fort Totten without incident, or at least any major ones.
From parts of Fort Totten you can see the glitter of the Manhattan skyline and be inspired by the nighttime majesty of the Throgs Neck Bridge lit up. It is a marvel how New York holds itself together while the country seemingly tears itself apart. Gotham is as rife with division as everywhere else: New York City gave us both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The greatness of New York serves as a microcosm of America. We see all the same issues in New York first, and the city, rightly or wrongly, serves as a template for how the rest of the country can navigate its problems.
The Fourth of July brings us down to Earth, reminds us of how American we are. It is popular to look upon outward signs of patriotism as right-wing or quaint, but if you believe America is for everyone and that patriotism is expansive and great, then join the celebration. The freedom we have was purchased in a bloody war, several actually.
The land we are on we do not claim by divine right. Every inch of America was fought over. We waged war on France, Great Britain (twice), Mexico (twice), Spain and countless Native American nations to get the current borders of the United States. July 4th celebrates the birth of our nation, a hard-fought war for Independence that was in effect our first civil war. When the war started it was not a foregone conclusion that we would win. The patriots who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence knew that the document would serve as their death warrant if the war didn’t go their way.
The Battle of Brooklyn was one of the bloodiest fights in the history of the American Revolution, and the war would have ended had Washington not been able to retreat to Manhattan. The British held New York for most of the war, but the city has signs of the American Revolution everywhere. The first woman who took up arms for America, Margaret Corbin, fought at the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan.
Some are fatalistic and see America as it is headed now as intrinsically doomed. There is no cultural coherence to sustain us through these times, they say, and new communities and nations will rise out of what is now a crumbling empire. But New Yorkers have bridged these divides in the crucibles of ambition and creativity. We are strong when we demand truth and strength, and turn to leaders not afraid to speak honestly and make the right enemies. We can do that in America as a whole if we are willing.
Let the American Revolution be our call to action today.
For about a year and a half, I have commuted to and from my job in Manhattan using an express bus, a more expensive but comfortable coach bus run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Most of the bus drivers who drive these buses hustle to get us through traffic and make good time getting into Manhattan from the Eastern reaches of Queens. A meek or extremely defensive driver is going to fail at driving and express bus, and fail hard.
And that’s been happening recently in the early morning on the QM20 line. One driver I have not seen but only heard about, an older gentlemen, is a slow-paced driver that is content to hang in the slow lane of early rush-hour traffic while his passengers fret about reaching work on time. I have spoken with people who have stopped riding the 6:45 bus because they cannot get to work on time if they ride it. In fact, the 7 a.m. bus routinely reaches Manhattan sooner.
Because the driver of the 6:45 a.m. bus is such a pathetic slowpoke, passengers that used to take that bus now flood to the 6:30 bus. There are now at least three times as many passengers waiting at the bus stop for the bus I take, which means the other stops are all more crowded as well. I used to be able to find a seat all to myself with regularity, now it’s nearly impossible.
Yet still people insist on putting their bags on seats, even knowing that they’ll have to move them at some point. It’s a gamble on their part, they’ll possibly get the seats to themselves if enough passengers decide not to ask them to move. I usually make it a point to make these rude people move their bags, though if they are an exceedingly large person then I will often pass them by because I’m a large person also and then we’re both crammed into our seats seething and miserable. There is one rude fat bastard on my bus line who does this without fail and sits in corpulent luxury every day.
Sometimes I’ll choose people who are polite and thin because I’ll have more room. There’s a man who uses his time on the bus to sketch drawings and I feel camaraderie sitting next to someone interested in the arts, even if I never talk to him.
This past Monday however, there was a mystery man and I felt I had to sit next to him. By mystery man I mean someone who had a black wool hat pulled down all the way over his face. This was not a ski mask (aka balaclava), but just a hat that normally sits on top of the head and over the ears. He had it pulled down all the way over his face, so that his head was just one monolithic orb of woolen darkness.
I was appreciative of the aesthetic and felt a kinship to it. I often wear a ski mask when I perform in bands, and have enough ski masks at home to clothe a paramilitary battalion for a decade. So I sat next to this man. He was a bit spread out but I managed to get comfortable enough and read the news on my work phone. I didn’t want to see the man’s face, wanting his mystery to be kept for all eternity or at least until the weather was warmer and one would have to be psychotic to wear a winter cap. But no, soon after we rolled into Manhattan the man woke up and pulled up his hat revealing the countenance of a middle-aged commuter.
I don’t know where the man departed the bus. I got off at my usual stop at Herald’s Square and made my way downtown, hoping to engage with more of life’s mysteries as the day wore on.
Sustainability and the environment are not just for hippies anymore.
Although when you think about it, hippies were late to the game on wanting save the Earth. The greatest environmentalists in American history is most likely the 26th President of the United States and great New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt used the power of his Presidency to create national parks and other public lands. And when you think about it, accomplished hunters like Roosevelt are among the best environmentalists.
Ask yourself what would Theodore Roosevelt do? If he were still with us today, he would probably be bold enough to bicycle from Oyster Bay to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House (a trip of only 25 miles, an easy two hours for T.R.) and find common cause with the many diverse people working for the preservation of our natural world at the Flushing Eco-Fest on Saturday, March 23.
The festival is being organized by Flushing C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), a local farm share group (full disclosure: our family is a member of the Flushing C.S.A. and my wife is a core member and Eco-Fest organizer) and being cohosted by the Flushing Chamber of Commerce.
The Eco-Fest is free and offers free workshops, eco-friendly kids’ crafts sponsored by Macaroni Kid, and a host of vendors with locally grown and organic goods. There will be well over a dozen vendors and groups there, each one is in some way working towards making things on the planet more sustainable.
There is guaranteed to be something to appeal to everyone. My personal favorites are some of the local food businesses such as Spice Tree Organics and Astor Apiaries. You will be doing something good for the environment when you attend, even if you just stick around to learn something about watersheds or how to compost or get a few cycling or energy-saving tips. There will also be environmentally-friendly soaps, home décor, seedlings, and baked goods for sale. And a raffle. Nothing is too small to do to make a difference.
You will also meet an interesting group of people there. Events like this can give you a great cross-section of this part of Queens. The Flushing Quaker Meeting House is the oldest, continually-used house of worship in New York City, and Flushing has several important landmarks in the cause of religious freedom in the U.S. Inside the Meeting House, you will be surrounded by history older than the United States. And whatever you think of the current trajectory of the U.S. or its politics, there is no disputing that this is an interesting time to be alive.
And it is a perfect time to increase your civic and conservationist involvement. Don’t let cultural stereotypes about environmentalists dissuade you from joining with those who want to keep our nation’s land strong. Everyone has a part to play.
Teddy Roosevelt promoted national greatness, and he understood that a nation that depleted its natural resources and did not invest time in strengthening its land and future could not sustain itself. In Flushing, people will gather and, consciously or not, help build on Roosevelt’s vision of a great America that treasures its natural resources and strives to be a unified community.