En Verde Veritas

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by wally426

 

08-06-2009  Brooklyn, NY

As great as summer in NYC is, sometimes certain things can wear on you  during the warmer months. Shimmering walls close in around you, your shoes melt to the concrete, exhaust from city buses blows in your face, clothes drench through with sweat and relentlessly stick to your skin, horns blare, kids yell and dogs bark. You need someplace that is completely devoid of people. A place where there is a respite from the heat, where cool waters constantly flow. A place where strong breezes tickle the senses, carrying with them the sounds and smells of the natural mystic.

New York has plenty to offer in terms of amazing summer escapes. After a four hour drive up North, you can find yourself in the largest national park in the continental US. I first explored this place after graduating from Miami University in the spring of 2003. Rob (one of my best friends) and I charted a grand excursion through two sections of remote Adirondack wilderness. Being recent college graduates, we thought we had the world at our fingertips and could conquer any obstacle thrown our way. In reality, we had no clue what the heck we were doing. Our preparation was minimal, our food supplies were lacking, our maps were outdated and our cars were one pothole away from falling to pieces. After rendezvousing in Ithaca, we set out into the wilds of Adirondack Park for our week-long adventure.

Almost immediately, the trip began with a calamity. Rob and I had planned on making our first hike an easy one, so we set our sights on the Wolf Lake trail in the southwest sector of the park. In our respective hoopties (my 1992 Mercury Sable and Rob’s 1997 Hyundai Accent), we continued off-road towards the trail-head. The road went from mud to gravel to rocks to boulders and logs. Still, we prodded on into the woods, dodging rocks and sticks as the bottom of our cars scraped along. When we’d finally had enough and pulled into a clearing, we had gone eighteen miles into one of the deepest parts of Adirondack Park. As Rob and I exited our battered vehicles, we were bombarded with swarms of biting black flies. While dodging the swarms, we quickly set up our tents and cooked with the little bit of water we still had. It was at that time Rob looked at me quizzically and asked “What’s that hissing sound?“. The next morning, we would try and make it out of the woods to repair his ailing Hyundai Accent.

Miraculously, we managed to drive 40 miles in my Sable, bumping, scraping, and shimmying our way to Indian Lake and back to get some fix-a-flat. Not only did his tire hold up on the way out of Wolf Lake hell, but managed to last the remainder of the trip until we circled back to Burlington, Vermont, four days later!

After our failed attempt at hiking to Wolf lake, we took a stab at our second planned location – the Pharaoh Mountain wilderness. Here we planned on hiking the entire 19.2 mile loop over the course of three days. We had thought the first spot had tons of dreaded biting black flies, but this place was completely swarmed. Everywhere you turned they were buzzing in your ears, nose, mouth and eyes, biting every bit of skin that lay exposed. We trudged through the muddy trails and decided to go off-trail and make our camp on the banks of a pristine lake. Once the sun went down, we finally got respite from the evil flies. Bowls of steaming hot ramen warmed our bellies as the temperatures dropped. We finished up the meal with a cigar over a roaring fire and talked as the stars blew up the night sky. The haunting cry of loons in the lake lulled us into a fitful sleep. We didn’t know it yet, but we were on a completely different trail and were lost. Until this day we still don’t know where that lake was located.

Despite getting lost a few times and constantly battling the black fly menace, we completed the loop safely and made it out of the woods two days later. We crawled back to our cars, racked by fatigue, soreness, and bug bites, and continued on to Burlington. After finding a hotel with a fitting name (the Hobo), we took long hot showers and headed out to a local Irish pub for a few pints. It was paradise. We realized that most of our conversation during the hike was focused on the simple things we missed most. Pillows, clean clothes, subways, family, rocking chairs, steak, hot showers, cold beer, baseball games, soft beds and driving. One of the best things about being away from the things of man is appreciating the things you love most within the “civilized world”. That night, the beer was perfectly crisp, the steaks were succulent and perfectly charred and the sleep was blacker than an oil slick.

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Helter Swelter

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 28, 2009 by wally426

 

28-04-2009   Brooklyn, NY

Summer seemed to be back, if only for a few days.

Walking out into the unseasonable temperatures, a warm light bathed everything in a hazy yellow glow. The cars slowly passing by on 8th avenue spewed their endless exhaust, bumping the waves of heat to another level. Every memory from past heat waves collectively flooded my mind. It was almost as if summer had never left. I began to run up Mongomery Place towards the park to escape the gasoline fumes.

In the park, maple trees had exploded in a large green swath. The leaves seemed to have come in over night, yawning through fuzzy pods and stretching their fingers wide to embrace the weather. Their memory was long too, this was second nature to them. You burrow in for the winter, toughening up your bark. When the coast is clear and the last frost has dusted the city streets, you let fly the life within you. I tried keeping to the shaded sides of the path, but it provided little respite from the pulsing sun. People flooded every inch of the meadows and paths, floating along as if they were in a dream. We were all waking up again, shedding our thick layer of winter bark and letting our warm skin breathe life.

The memories became clearer now with each passing smell.

The smell of wet pavement took me back to my Nana’s backyard. During the dog days, she would fill up an inflatable pool she had tucked into the garage during the winter months. As she filled it the water would steam off hot cracked concrete and float over the green philodendrons. I could see her smile and perfect white teeth, her shining mahogany hair as the smell lingered for a moment, then faded as I ran on.

People were bar-b-queuing in the meadow, the smell of charred meat and cooked corn was everywhere, enveloping the runners and bikers in a lingering trail of smoke. I remembered my stepfather’s place in Queens. Steve had this hibachi that he and my brother used every weekend. Once a month during the summer I would go out there with my mother and we’d sit on his stoop and cook out all day. We would sit on cheap folding chairs, talk and laugh. Bob Murphy’s grainy voice filled in the gaps of silence as the Mets games blared on the radio. When it got dark, I would throw ants into the smoldering coals. They would sizzle and pop the instant their crumpled bodies hit the pile of hot ash. I didn’t think about what I was doing at the time, but years later I remember feeling terrible about doing that. As I approached the lake, the smell drifted and the memory gradually faded back through the rays of sunlight flooding the new Prospect Park canopy.

Then came the freshly cut grass on the hill overlooking the nethermead. Out of nowhere, the image of a long fairway came from the depths of my memory bank. I lived with my father out on Long Island during the summers in high school. My first job was as a golf caddy at the Hillcrest Country Club. I’m not sure how most country clubs are, but this one was full of snobby awful human beings who would yell at you any chance they got. The physical strain of carrying their heavy bags and keeping your eyes trained on their shanked balls wasn’t nearly as bad as the mental toughness caddies needed to maintain during constant barrages of insults and gripes. If the person you caddied for hit the ball in the water, it was your fault. If they missed a putt, it was your fault. If they hit a tree and you couldn’t find the ball, you didn’t get tipped. There was a great upside though… Mondays. Not only was the course closed, but caddies got to hit the links for free. Most times it felt as if I had the whole course to myself. There was no yelling, no pressure, just peaceful green all around. Even if I played lousy golf, it didn’t matter. After each shot, I would wipe the club face and rub the wet blades of grass between my fingers. It was the best smell… shredded grass, metal, and lingering leather from the club grips. I saw the ball hit crisply down the long verdant fairway, cutting through the morning mist towards the green.

I was at the top of lookout hill and the run was almost over. It was as if I had missed out on the grueling pain of the eight miles my legs had just covered. Those thoughts of summers past had whisked the aches and stitches away. I passed into the farmers market, past the smell of freshly baked bread. I was taken back to another place, my family’s restaurant on Remsen Street… to the summer mornings I would head into school with my uncle Arthur. There was always a sharp smell of freshly baked rolls and blueberry muffins coming from the restaurant in those early hours. I saw my Boopa standing in the kitchen wearing his red t-shirt, a white apron around his waist, thick tortoise-shell glasses hanging firmly on the bridge of his nose. He was smiling at me. I smiled back as I came back through the door of my building, happy that another summer would soon be here…

¡Jugo de Piña!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 23, 2009 by wally426

22-04-2009  Brooklyn, NY

I enjoy a nice stiff drink every so often. Whether it’s the taste of fine peaty scotch or the maple aroma of distilled bourbon, it’s tough to beat a tumbler of neat liquor after a long day at work. As drinking has been cut out of my diet since the marathon training has started, the simple act of having a glass of a choice spirit is one thing I’ve been missing since the ‘drought’ began. A few weeks back, I was over at Victor’s place playing Scrabble with some close friends (yeah, we act like 70 year-olds most of the time). At some point during the night, Victor brought out a bottle of (what looked like) tequila. I recoiled in disgust at the sight of the bottle, remembering nights where the vile nectar had thrown me into a completely unrecoverable stupor. Vic assured me that the bottle’s contents were nothing like Cuervo or Patrón, that it was Mezcal.

In researching the art of making Mezcal, I was taken back when I learned how labor intensive and intricate it was. First, the roots of the blue agave plant are dug up. Mezcaleros (farmers who make the Mezcal) call the roots “Piñas” after their likeness to pineapples. The roots are then buried under a pile of hot rocks and straw mats made of palm. As the mats burn, the smoke flavors the piñas which grow soft and absorbent under the hot rocks. After a day or so, they are dug up and crushed with a stone wheel (usually drawn by a horse). The resulting mash is put into wooden vats with water to ferment. In yet another step to the process, the mash is then cooked in round stills made of clay or copper and all alcoholic vapors are burned off. This last step is often repeated twice. To me, it seemed like the ultimate organic spirit.

 Vic handed over the open bottle to nose it out, and it proved to be unlike anything I had smelled previously. A smoky, delicate, agave-like aroma with a hint of spice which took my senses south of the border. The taste proved equally as magnificent, so smooth and balanced with very little fire. Needless to say, I’ll have to add a bottle of Gusano Rojo to the old liquor cabinet for those cold winter nights.

Abandoned

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 13, 2009 by wally426

13-04-2009   Brooklyn, NY

The wind blew hard from the north and made an odd whistling sound through the bars in the decaying fire escape. I took another step and felt my feet give weigh beneath me. My hands held fast to the railing and eventually I swung myself up onto the stairs above. The fragile rusty step couldn’t bear the weight and had broken off, clanging noisily along the crumbling framework three stories below. Luckily, there hadn’t been any people passing by and my presence had gone unnoticed. I jimmied one of the dusty windows open and tried to push open the wooden board which had been nailed over it. The thing wouldn’t budge. I would need to kick it open to get inside the abandoned building. That would make a ton of noise however, so I needed a distraction down below in order to complete the break-in. Less than a minute later, an old bag man came rumbling down the avenue with an overflowing shopping cart. He stopped at the corner and began rummaging through the garbage can, bottles clinking and clanking together as he emptied it. The stars were aligned! With three swift kicks, the wooden board pried loose with a loud squeak and I was able to squeeze into the darkness.

After shimmying through the narrow opening, I fell into a billowing pile, something soft. The smell inside the place was intense, an odd mixture of old books, dust, and bird droppings. Using the LCD light on my camera screen, I saw that I was laying on a huge mess of clothes. The whole room was filled waist-high with them! I walked toward the doorway on this layer of old cloth, it was like walking on a cloud. The low grey light from the LCD cast an eerie glow on everything in the room, shadows danced along the peeling walls as I moved towards the hallway. After walking from room to room, I noticed the place was filled with furniture, books, old records, toys, posters and boxes. Clothes were still neatly hung in the closets, toiletries still stocked the bathroom shelves, dried flower stems hung listlessly in dry vases, even beds were still made. It was as if whoever owned the place had just vanished one day and never returned. Signs of decay were pervasive. Paint peeled off the walls in large uneven swaths, water damage revealed piping in the ceilings and walls, tiles were ripped up and scattered all over the bathrooms, and staircases had splintered after years of neglect.

I wondered if the place was haunted. At various points during my journey through the house, I listened and closed my eyes, trying to feel some sort of presence. Sounds of the house settling and the occasional scurrying of rats was all I heard. If there were any wayward spirits, their intentions seemed to be benign. I imagined for a moment being a spirit trapped in that house, cowering in the darkness of one of the decrepit rooms, sick from the stench of bird shit and fading newspapers, looking out onto the avenue on a sunny day and watching the people pass by below, knowing all the while that I would never be noticed again.

After poking around the rooms, I eventually found my way onto the roof. The absolute stillness up there was incredible. Before my eyes, a beautiful sweeping view of Brooklyn and Manhattan spread out into an infinite matrix. When walking in the canyon between the buildings at street level, it’s hard to notice how residential Brooklyn is. From this vantage point, you see how few buildings rise above four stories. The Manhattan skyline looms like Mount Olympus over Thessaloniki. People once called Brooklyn ‘the bedroom of the city’, and from the roof it was easy to see why. The glow from all of the light pollution cast an orange aura over the buildings, bathing them in a soft haze. The distant street lights hummed and twinkled like stars. City dwellers have a virtual galaxy at our fingertips, we just need to get up above the lights to notice it.

The house moans beneath me, and it’s quite clear that I have overstayed my welcome. I am a flea on the back of a dying dog. I make my way back down from the roof, through the cracking hallways and crumbling staircases, through the room piled high with clothes and back out through the broken wooden plank. With my eyes fixed tight to the ground, I slowly creep down the old fire escape, careful not to step into the abyss my feet created on the way up.

Golden Gotham

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 25, 2009 by wally426

25-03-2009   Brooklyn, NY

The walk began before dawn. My legs stretched down Flatbush avenue as the wind kicked up plastic cups and bales of crumpled newspaper. The pieces of garbage danced in an odd waltz near one of the subway grates. It was cold, but not that biting cold that eats through your marrow in January. This fine March morning, my nose detected the faint smell of spring – a mix of budding crocuses, rain clouds, and frayed grass fighting its way through the half-frozen earth. Soon the city would emerge from its wintry cocoon and come to life again.

I looked up and saw the long shadow of Brooklyn’s tallest building – the old Williamsburg Savings Bank – peering over the borough like a once proud Eagle watching over a sordid nest of brick and smoke. The lights had gone out in the clocktower again, which meant another day had officially begun. It was an odd time of the day. One when the night urchins and early risers passed each other in a complete haze, both parties looking half dead as they tiptoed through the early morning. After walking past the blinking bulbs of Junior’s restaurant, I saw the Manhattan bridge poking its majestic head above the Avenue’s final ridge.

It wasn’t until recently that I developed an appreciation for one of New York’s most forgotten (and most magnificent) structures. The Manhattan bridge will celebrate its centennial on New Year’s eve this year, but I doubt much fuss will be made. The peeling baby blue paint will simply endure another day in its history as one of the city’s finest work horses. This diligent span carries two car lanes, a walkway, a bikeway, and four train lines over it. Through the past century, it hasn’t commanded an inch of respect from the ants that crawl past on a daily basis.

As I entered the span through a slit in the fence on Jay street, the fading blue beauty stretched into the distance. A homeless man lay bundled near the train tracks, looking like a large paisley mummy on a cold concrete slab. He must have had enough to drink last night… The two small empty flasks of Hennessy laying nearby undoubtedly drowned out the constant rumbling of trains all night. I wondered what kind of dreams he was having. Perhaps a picture would capture them? I snapped a shot and walked on.

The walkway along the bridge is much slimmer than that of the Brooklyn bridge’s expansive boardwalk, only stretching 10 feet across. The bridge also isn’t for the acrophobic as there is no ‘safety net’ below the warped concrete walkway. The Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges both have roadways below their walkways so that, in an unfortunate incident of collapse, there’s at least something to break your fall. With this span, there’s only the cold green waters of the East River to break your fall. One gets the feeling of playing Russian roulette with every crossing. It’s quite an exciting trip, even if the fear is unfounded. The view that day was beautiful, with the sun gently rising above the clouds to the Northeast, painting the buildings of lower Manhattan a deep orange. Before reaching the bridge’s terminus on Canal Street in Chinatown, I saw something that made me take a second look – A half eaten pig’s head lay alongside the walkway. Its pink snout was all that was distinguishable in the mess of bone and tendon. I briefly thought of when I was a child. My cousins and I used to pick at the face of the roasted suckling pig my grandfather would make once a year. Remembering how good it tasted then, I couldn’t really blame whoever had indulged in the same savage act.

As I passed over the Bowery onto Canal Street, a young black girl approached me. It was quite windy that day and tears streamed down her cheeks. “Can I ask you a question, sir?”. I nodded yes. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior?”. I shook my head no. Even though I was still walking, she kept on about how she had been “saved” by the Jehovah’s witnesses and that the opportunity was there for me as well. Even though I told her that I had no interest, she kept following me to the train station, tears streaming down her cheeks onto her nice black dress. I wanted to wipe them off, but she didn’t seem to mind. “Oh my!” she gasped as we entered the stairwell on Broadway, “I didn’t realize how far I’d gone from my post!”. I told her that I was late for work, shook her hand, took one of her brochures and headed down the steps. It never ceases to amaze me how taking a simple walk through the city (at any hour) can be an adventure. The rest of the day, I was accompanied with beautiful visions of golden sunshine and glistening tears as I crunched numbers. Needless to say, walking to work will be a larger part of the routine as the weather warms up.

Lavender Lake

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on February 24, 2009 by wally426

24-02-2009   Brooklyn, NY

If a person has lived within the confines of New York for some time, he or she could easily attest to the dynamic nature of the city’s many neighborhoods. One of the few exceptions might be Brooklyn’s little enclave called Gowanus. The name comes from the Delaware Indian language meaning “Small Pine” (which is ironic considering the complete lack of vegetation there now). It was one of the first areas of Breukelen settled by the Dutch as its marshland and brackish water provided the most fertile grounds for farming. In the 1850’s, the lake was dredged and a canal was formed to transport goods from nearby ports to serve Brooklyn’s exploding population. With increased commerce came a huge amount of pollution to the canal and the neighborhood surrounding it. By the turn of the 20th century, Gowanus became known as a fetid cesspool of raw sewage and chemical byproducts. Locals joked and called it the “Lavender Lake” after the brownish-purple color swirling around the ships and barges. The surrounding neighborhood remained as gritty as the water in the canal, with people routinely dumping guns and bodies into the rank depths where no detective would dare look. One character in Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn refered to the canal as “the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns”.

In one of my posts awhile back (West Side Glory?), I mentioned my irrational fear of murky, cold, polluted water. While I’m not sure of the phobia’s origins, the Gowanus canal might be the Everest of fright when it comes to dealing with this problem. As a child, I would stare out the window of the F or GG train (yes, there was one of those back then) at the remaining old cement factories, half sunken barges, crumbling docks and stagnant vomit-colored water. For whatever reason, I couldn’t help rid my mind of thoughts of falling into the canal and floundering helplessly amongst the detritus without anything to grab onto. The harrowing daydream always played out as follows –

While walking along the canal’s edge, I look up to see the graffiti covered shacks and seagulls with matted brown feathers. A slight layer of frost covers the old plastic bottles and condom wrappers underfoot. Ancient wood lining the sides of  the canal has been stained black. It reeks overwhelmingly of tar and rusting metal. While walking the slick planks, I slip and try to gain my balance, but it’s too late.. The fall into lavender lake only takes a second, even though it seems like an eternity. I scream but only a raspy whisper escapes my mouth as it fills with salty muckwater. I can feel the grains of sediment and three centuries of decomposing metal gritting between my teeth. My eyes are open, but all they see is a light brown swirl of stinging bubbles, they become darker, I’m sinking. Fighting the weight of my clothes, I reach the surface and see an enormous barge slinking along next to me, chains and old tires banging against its rusty metal hulk. Gravel spills over the sides into my eyes. Every time I open my mouth to scream, the rank water fills my mouth, leaving me to choke on the grainy waves of freezing liquid. Eventually I succumb to the freezing temperatures and fall to the bottom, never to be heard from again.

The past few years have been relatively good to the old canal. Ten years ago, the city put some money into restoring the filtering pump at the far end of the Gowanus (near Douglass Street). For the first time in almost sixty years, the canal had clean water from the Atlantic flowing through its rusty veins. Since then, rock crabs, blue crabs, shrimp, three types of jellyfish and minnows have returned. There are new developments underway to put a scenic walkway on the edge of the canal to spur (no joking here) tourism. Despite all of these efforts, I was still scared to death of the place. 

After getting my new camera equipment, I wanted to test it out on some long-range cityscape shots. As the 87 foot Smith & 9th St station above the canal is the tallest in the subway system, a walk down to Gowanus seemed inevitable. I throw the gear over my shoulder and head out reluctantly into the frigid swirling winds. After crossing over fourth avenue into Gowanus, the stillness is unmistakable. The warm life of Park Slope becomes completely devoid in this place. All that remains on the streets are dark factories, rusting shopping carts, the occasional homeless person cowering in the stiff winter breeze, and the lingering stench of the canal. I walk along the empty streets, catching good shots here and there. Eventually, after walking through the seemingly endless industrial maze, I come upon the banks of the canal. My hands shake with nervousness and I forget about the cold as beads of sweat form on my forehead. The water looks just like it did in that awful childhood daydream, cold, brown and swirling. The barges clink as small waves undulate gently beneath them. Gathering my wits, I lean over the edge and look into the water, all it takes is one little slip and the dream could become an actual nightmare. After leaning back, I steady my hands and take a few pictures. An air of calmness envelops me as I look at the reflections of the factories in the grimy waters. A small part of my irrational fear has subsided. In that instant, the boogie man in the closet of my borough has turned into a pesky little fly. I shoo-off the irrational fears and head up the endless staircase of Smith & 9th street to finish off the shoot.

An air of braggadocia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2009 by wally426

12-02-2009   Brooklyn, NY

Has the pertinence of getting news out to the public destroyed the quality of how it’s presented? Has attention to certain details (like clothing and setting) vanished as time passed? Perhaps it has something to do with the level of closeness the press and public had with crime scenes back then? 

One thing I enjoy doing with my free time is going to the library and reading through old newspapers. Looking at old microfische always has a certain 1960’s sleuth-like feeling that accompanies it. There was something about the way beat writers presented their pieces back then, it seemed to bring the reader directly to the scene of whatever incident had taken place. The papers today don’t seem to capture the same essence. For instance, there was an article in the papers today about a man who had been hit by one car, hooked by another passing car and dragged through the city for twenty miles. The driver of the second car thought he had hit a pothole and kept driving, all the while dragging this poor bedraggled corpse underneath. The articles on this event weren’t remarkable and were written rather blandly. Compare that to the article below about a crime that had been committed almost 120 years-ago. The people have long been forgotten, but in reading the article you get a more personal feel for those involved.

 

In the end, it turned out that McElvaine was after only $200 of Luca’s money that he intended to take to market that day to purchase goods for his store. I suppose people have been murdered for less since then. The perpetrator also had two accomplices who were summarily caught. All three were executed. In looking at further snippets related to the incident, this appeared to be the desired outcome of many of the residents who knew Mr. Luca. One doctor’s feelings seemed to have summed up the view of the whole city:

“When in front of Mr. Luca’s residence I saw his wife with her head out the window and she was begging some one to bring me to the house. I entered in the company of Dr. John E. Ensell, of 125 High Street, and we commenced giving the dying man whisky, but he expired in two minutes. It was the most diabolical murder I ever heard of, as poor Luca was literally cut to pieces about the arms and body, and there was not a gill of blood left in his frame after his death. He lost it all from the wound in his left arm, and I think that this particular case requires a little Southern justice. Those three murderers ought to be strung up to the nearest lamp post, and it would be a relief of Brooklyn to do so.”