Road Blog: Late Starts, and Walking New York

Advantage to flying east from the western edge of the continent late in the morning: One can enjoy a leisurely morning. Coffee. Walking the dog. Getting the house a little ready for the neighbors (hi, Marie and Steve) who will be looking after things (and the dog) while we’re gone. Finishing packing.

Disadvantage to the late start: You reach your destination pretty late. And even later if your plane is delayed, the way ours was yesterday. We climbed off the jet around 11:45 or so and reached my brother’s place a little after 1 in the morning. The fatigue of the late hour was offset by the exhilaration of finding a parking space within a block of his apartment building near the Brooklyn Bridge.

The late arrival meant we were up until all hours talking with John, my sister-in-law Dawn, nephew Sean, and niece Leah. Then we had a late start this morning (or some of us did–John and Dawn were up pretty early). Eventually, Kate and I went out with Eamon and Sakura (our son and daughter-in-law) and Sean and Leah for lunch, a hike across the Brooklyn Bridge, a visit to the World Trade Center memorial, another hike up to Chinatown for dinner (with John and Dawn), then the eight of us finished with a stroll back to Brooklyn by way of the Manhattan Bridge.

Weather: beautiful. Warm and just enough humidity to remind us what that is without beating us over the head with it. Experiences: wow, were the streets crowded. I need more time to absorb the World Trade Center site. All I can say now is that the site is somber and restrained; that was a pleasant surprise.

Here’s a clutch of pictures from the day:

Road Blog: Home to Brooklyn

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We flew out to New York from the Bay Area on Sunday. It may be the last 6 a.m. flight I ever take, because I have so poorly mastered the logistics of an early morning departure that I wind up getting almost no sleep the night before I leave. In the current instance, I wasted much of the eve of the trip screwing around with entirely gratuitous family history stuff; task avoidance if I’ve ever seen it, and believe me I have. The net effect was I was up until after two in the morning doing all manner of stuff I had planned on doing earlier and which I was convinced had to be done. I got about an hour of real sleep (Kate got a bit less), then got up for our cab ride to the airport. We did manage to sleep some on the plane.

Then we landed at Newark. Eamon and Sakura drove bravely through the rain from Brooklyn to pick us up and take us back to their place in Brooklyn (Cobble Hill, just down Court Street from the Borough Hall). We walked out into the storm to eat at a place on Atlantic Avenue, splashed back to the apartment, where I napped for an hour. Then, since the rain was still pounding down, we all took the subway to my brother John’s new place next to the Brooklyn Bridge. He and his wife, Dawn, had lived in the same apartment in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood for 20 years but just this past year landed a spot in a big co-op-type apartment building. We all hung out for a couple hours and checked out the new digs. Outside it had finally stopped raining. the Cobble Hill contingent walked home.

Next morning: No rain. We met John and his kids (Sean and Leah) for coffee and a post-breakfast bagel, then walked to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and up to the new park at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Kate and I later cleared out and came down to visit her family in friends in what I describe as the northern Jersey shore area–Holmdel and Hazlet townships in Monmouth County. But let’s stay in New York for a minute: The strangest thing for me about our arrival wasn’t the sleepless haze that enveloped parts of the first day but the feeling that I’m visiting a place where my family, through John and Eamon, has put down roots. It feels like home territory, though my zip code still begins with a 9.

(Photo: east tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, shot from Evert Street outside the headquarters of the Watchtower Society (a.k.a. Jehovah’s Witnesses.) You think of the Witnesses as quaint fringe Bible thumpers? You probably won’t after reading about their immense and hugely valuable Brooklyn real-estate holdings and the part they’re playing in local property wheeling and dealing (involving that same new park I mentioned above.))

Guest Observation: E.B. White

From a collection we have, “E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976”:

Crossing the Street

July 16. 1932

Possibly you have noticed this about New Yorkers: instinctively, crossing a one-way street, they glance in the proper direction to detect approaching cars. They always know, without thinking, which way the traffic flows. They glance in the right direction as naturally as a deer sniffs upwind. Yet after that one glance in the direction from which the cars are coming, they always, just before stepping out into the street, also cast one small, quick, furtive look in the opposite direction–from which no cars could possibly come. That tiny glance (which we have noticed over and over again) is the last sacrifice on the altar of human fallibility; it is an indication that people can never quite trust the self-inflicted cosmos, and that they dimly suspect that some day, in the maze of well-regulated vehicles and strong, straight buildings, something will go completely crazy–something big and red and awful will come tearing through town going the wrong way on the one-ways, mowing down all the faithful and the meek. Even if it’s only a fire engine.

Court of Special Sessions

In connection with my ongoing Irish-American research project, I’ve had occasion to peruse The New York Times archives at length. Looking for information on one case in an 1860s version of a police blotter column, I started reading accounts of cases brought on September 7, 1867, to the city’s Court of Special Sessions. The tribunal apparently tried petty crimes. But it didn’t regard them lightly. If someone made a credible enough accusation to get a police officer take you in, you’d have your hands full at the very least and stood a good chance of being sent to prison. On the other hand, looking respectable counted for something if you were a shoplifter. From the Times:

Court of Special Sessions.

Before Justice Dowling.

There were sixty-one cases tried yesterday at the Court of Special Sessions. The charges, in but very few of the cases, were of more than ordinary gravity. These we give:

A VICTIM TO SCIENCE.

John Shay was charged by Mr. Geo. W. Shaw with attempting to steal his watch on Broadway Bridge. The prisoner was leaning over the balustrade of the bridge, looking down the street. He turned when complainant was passing and made the effort with which he is charged. Counsel for the prisoner denied the direct statement of the complainant, saying that his client was on an errand connected with his employment, and that he merely stopped upon the bridge to see the operations of a photographer, shortly after which he was arrested and charged as complained. The complainant was so positive in his evidence, and as there was no rebutting testimony, the prisoner was found guilty and sentenced to three months in the Penitentiary.

A TALE OF A TUB.

Ellen Gallagher was found guilty of stealing a wash-tub from Thomas Mulholland. After gathering the tub from the door of the complainant while his back was turned, she endeavored to effect a sale to the daughter of Mulholland, whom she met on the next floor. Mrs. Mulholland recognized the tub, and the prisoner was arrested. Officer Cornelius Read was called, but stated that he knew very little of the case, only that the prisoner had confessed to him that she stole the tub. This “only” of the officer’s was sufficient to send the prisoner one month to the Penitentiary.

Under “Miscellaneous,” we find among other reports, this:

Mary Burke, a respectable looking lady, was charged with entering the store of Bertha Rosenberg, and stealing therefrom a roll of muslin containing five yards. Mrs. Burke entered the store and examined different articles but bought nothing. Mrs. Rosenberg suspected that something was wrong and stopped her on the way out, discovering the parcel. In consideration that it was her first offence, and that her connections were otherwise respectable, the prisoner was permitted to pay a fine of $50 and go.

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Food Moment

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Sunday night at Jan and Christian’s in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. In our trip across country, Kate and I just once stayed two nights in the same place. So we blew through Jan and Chris’s place, too. But in the afternoon and evening and morning we *were* there, there was lunch at a tacqueria, dessert, a bike ride, a dog walk, a great dinner (above, grilled red onions on a plate with grilled chicken), dessert, a meteor-viewing party (the Perseids, disappointing except for lying down on my back watching the sky, an op-ed published in the Washington Post (Chris’s, on the ongoing threat of lead poisoning), a meeting with a guidance counselor (Jan, at the local high school), breakfast, and that’s about it.

Nice Ride Anyway

A friend asks: Have I been on the bike at all during our trip east? Yeah, I have. But it has been strange. After months of riding hard and getting neurotic about whether I was riding hard enough, now I’m deliberately trying to ride just a little — enough so that when I get to France and this 750-mile ride kicks off, in eight days, I will have maintained the fitness I built up over the spring and summer while not having exhausted myself. (In other words, it’s something else to get neurotic about.) So the riding I’ve done since leaving Berkeley has been a little sporadic and mostly not very intense: half a dozen rides, five states*, only once more than an hour; that’s just enough to remind my legs what they need to do.

Tonight, we’re staying with friends in a little town in Westchester County, on the Hudson just north of New York City. This afternoon, looking for a ride to do, I headed up the South and North County Trailways; they’re paved paths on the right-of-way of an old commuter railroad that used to run up to Putnam County, the next one north of Westchester.

The paths were mostly great,, even though they run close to a couple busy roads most of the 16 or 17 miles north that I rode. The paving was a little rough in places, but there weren’t many other users, the strip of land the path runs along was beautiful, and given how hilly the country is, the route was very flat (that figures, having been a railroad grade).

One thing I discovered is that folks using this trail apparently shun all contact with strangers. I probably passed a couple hundred people in 33 miles — mostly other cyclists, but also a few shaky looking in-line skaters and a handful of runners and very determined-looking walkers. Only one guy I passed acknowledged my wave as I passed; a couple people responded when I told them I was passing them. Mostly I got blank looks — sometimes because people were wearing headphones and listening to iPods, mostly from people who were just disinclined to respond in kind. Strange and oppressive and off-putting, this isolation people take with them out into the world.

Nice ride anyway, though.

*The five states: Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York.

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Pedestrian Matters

7th Avenue and W. 34th Street

Early last week, we were in New York. I spent most of one hot afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History, on the Upper West Side, and afterward decided to walk down to Penn Station — nearly three miles on the wandering out-of-towner’s course I took — to meet Kate, who was coming in on a commuter train from New Jersey.

Always striking about New York: the number of people on the street, at all hours; and of course, the effect is magnified at the end of the work day as you go from the placid precincts of Central Park West toward Midtown. A commuter crowd mobbed the area around 7th Avenue and West 34th Street, a block up from the station, all going home to the suburbs.

Standing at that corner (above), I was conscious of something I’d been seeing all along my walk: The New York pedestrian’s habit of stepping off the curb when waiting for the lights to change, crowding right up to the traffic lane in some cases getting ready to hustle across against the light if there was an opening in traffic — unlikely on 7th Avenue, not so unusual on less-busy side streets. For a visitor, the New York walking style seems aggressive, disorderly and even dangerous. But it is fast: The only places I got stopped along the way were major intersections. The key is keeping your eyes open and remembering that the drivers you’re looking at are aggressive, too, and that the laws of physics are against you in a collision, even if you think you have the right of way.

It’s a fundamentally different way of street thinking from the prevalent attitude in the Bay Area. In California, state law gives pedestrians virtually universal right of way (with the obvious exceptions: against red lights, for instance). The law aims to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street, but its effect actually goes well beyond that: It has created a sense of righteous entitlement among pedestrians, who by their behavior apparently believe that all considerations — courtesy, common sense, drivers’ reaction times, night-time visibility, the aforementioned laws of physics — have been suspended by statute.

Yeah, a less car-centric world would be a much better place in many ways. And we ought to make the streets safe for everyone who uses them. But planting the idea in people’s heads that they can step off the curb into the path of a speeding car — and that the car will stop, damn it — promotes naivete and selfishness more than safety.

Some suggestive stats: According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration numbers, in eight of the 10 years between 1995 and 2004, the most recent statistical year available, New York state had a lower pedestrian fatality rate than California. On the other hand, New York appears to have a much higher percentage of pedestrians killed at intersections — consistently on the order of 40 to 50 percent of the state total compared to California’s 25 percent or so. For the past several reported years, “improper crossing of roadway or intersection” is the top listed factor in pedestrian fatalities in New York; in California, that factor is in a dead heat for No. 1 with “failure to yield right of way” (which I take to mean pedestrians’ failure to yield).

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Heat, a Re-examination

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The last day of July, the first of August, it’s supposed to be hot. Today, it’s an unremarkable 90 or so here in Brooklyn. I’m sitting in my brother and sister-in-law’s unairconditioned kitchen about a mile south and east of the Brooklyn Bridge. Not suffering. But tomorrow we’ll be getting what folks to the west have been dealing with for the last couple of days (112 in Bismarck?!). The National Weather Service is warning it will get up to about 100 Tuesday and Wednesday, that it will be plenty humid, and that we’ll have high ozone levels as the air in the region stagnates. (Add rum and guns, then stir for a swell party!)

The last few days, Kate and I have been staying in a friend’s house  near the northern New Jersey shore. It’s got central air conditioning, and the system has been running ever since we arrived there last Thursday. It struck me this morning as I walked outside for the first time and shut the sliding glass door behind me that around here, the ability to cool the air in homes and cars and public places of all kinds is just as vital as the ability to heat it in the winter. In the suburbs, anyway, you don’t see homes open to the elements on a hot day any more than you’d see a place with its windows flung open when it’s zero outside. Yet, the weather’s the weather. It may be incrementally hotter on average than it was a generation or two or three ago, but everyone here endured long, stifling stretches of heat then without refrigerating every living space, just as most of the world’s people do today. (We went to France in August 2003 at the tail end of the country’s extended heat wave; I knew air conditioning was uncommon there, but I hoped against hope that somehow our little hotel would be an exception; instead, when we got to our room, we found that the windows hadn’t been opened for days and the place was like an oven — and what was worse was that for several days afterward, there wasn’t enough of a breeze to cool anything off.)

I’m not arguing for some kind of sweaty, hair-shirt virtue in living without air conditioning. Just makes me wonder sometimes what would happen if we all suddenly had to do without (which ties into my fear for the next couple of days; I’m concerned that the power demand here will cause a blackout and shut down the air-traffic-control system and keep us from flying back Wednesday to our effete little climate back in Berkeley). I do remember that before we had our first air conditioners, in 1966, the remedy for hot nights was staying up late watching movies with our mom and taking cool showers before we headed off to bed. Somehow, we slept.

(Picture: Hamilton Avenue and West 9th Street, Brooklyn. It wasn’t really 99 degrees.)