Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Singing for My Survival

I had a hard day yesterday, one that made me not want to come into work today. But unfortunately I had to, today at least, so to get me through the afternoon, I popped in some volumes of A.M. Gold and sang along to songs like "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "Never My Love" and "Like to Get to Know You" which I remember listening to on WEZG in Syracuse before falling asleep as a little kid.

I couldn't listen to anything happy, but regardless, I wanted to sing. It was therapeutic. But as I thought about how sad I felt, and how the singing made me feel better, I remembered a time as a child when things got really bad with my parents, and they caught me singing along to the radio. They became accusatory, telling me, "Obviously you don't feel bad and don't feel sorry, because if you did, you wouldn't be singing. Only happy people sing. Clearly you're not as depressed as you say you are."

Of course, they must've never listened to The Cure or even Dusty Springfield to make a statement like that.

I've lost my voice quite a bit over the last few months. Not physically per se, but one could say I've lost the will to sing, the will to try to make things feel better. I've just accepted them for what they are. Which has been terrible. And I assumed no one wanted to listen to my singing, or would hear me if I did. So I stopped. Even when I sang two songs at James' birthday karaoke party, I didn't use my own voice, instead putting on a fake karaoke voice which is as much talking in tune as anything else.

But today, I kept my frosted glass office door open, cranked the computer speakers, and sang, hoping someone would hear me finally.

I'm sure the coworkers who sit outside of my office did, but nobody said anything. At least no one asked me to stop.

Monday, October 27, 2008

One Less Bell to Answer

I bought a new phone this weekend. I'm usually ready for one every two years when my T-Mobile contract expires anyway, not only to take advantage of technological advances, but also to do a little soul-cleansing.

I always have strong visceral attachments to my cell phones, either because of the text messages I've received or the phone calls I didn't receive, constantly pressing my purse against me to feel it vibrate when it never does. Getting rid of my first Samsung four years ago was an important part of excising Freddy from my life and my heart.

After stints with a Motorola and another Samsung, no one really calls me anymore and I've stopped waiting for it to ring. My most recent Samsung has been good to me, with a freakishly good camera that got me interested in digital photography and gave birth to my photo blog, but these days my phone has to do more than conduct calls or it's just not worth having at all.

So I upgraded to the Nokia Xpress Music, which will be serviceable for txting and the occasional phone call (which I'll actually be able to hear thanks to an improved earpiece), but will also ultimately replace my ancient iPod shuffle which has been small and convenient but a total mystery in terms of actually knowing what I'm listening to.

I'm not much of a tech geek unless it involves lasers or something sparkly, but this new phone is a cute little guy. I hope he keeps me company for the next two years.

The camera on it is crap but fortunately I'd already upgraded to a Panasonic Lumix which makes me look like a photographic genius.

Besides, I needed a fresh start in my life. Some people cut or dye their hair, buy a new wardrobe, or grow a beard. I swap out my phones.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Hudson River's Only Castle on an Island



I guess I always assumed the castle I saw on a tiny, rocky island in the middle of the Hudson River - usually from the Amtrak or the Metro-North - was as unreachable as the typhoid hospital on North Brother Island. Crumbling, forbidding, mysterious.

But earlier this year, Edith discovered that the castle - in fact, Bannerman Castle - was indeed accessible via Hudson Valley Outfitters' kayak trips to Pollepel Island! It was an explorer's dream come true, but in September when we were scheduled to go, our trip was cancelled because of danger of land mines. Or so they told us.



I was devastated, but relieved that I wouldn't have to haul my overweight body three miles in a kayak to get to the island from Cold Spring, and again three miles to return.

Somehow by chance, last week we found out that Hudson River Adventures had one remaining boat cruise to Pollepel for the year, replete with hard hat tour of the castle grounds, just like we had missed out on a month prior. That last tour was today.

We took the Metro-North to Beacon, followed by a half hour boat ride to the island. I recalled the ferry we took to Alcatraz, the way the forboding structure loomed against the skyline, and I couldn't quite believe I was getting this close to the castle I'd previously only seen from the train tracks along the water.

The castle, of course, isn't really a castle, but it was built to look like one. Not unlike Eastern State Penitentiary, even in the early 20th century the image of the castle was one that Americans were both fascinated with and terrified by. Bannerman Castle was built in the style of a Scottish castle, except with bricks and only a concrete overlay, and with wooden floorboards that ultimately made it tragically susceptible to a fire in 1969. And instead of being used to protect the waterways of New York State, it was used as a warehouse for military surplus items to be sold - any items, from hats to musical instruments to cannons to unexploded ordnances (hence the land mine danger which closed the island for months).

The lodgeThe island must've been a beautiful place when the Bannerman family actually lived there, in the "lodge" residence that once housed a fireplace and a sun porch. There are gardens that are being restored, with a labyrinth of paths leading around the massive grounds, most of which have been cleared of the forsythia and lilac overgrowth that covered them for the last several decades. We followed one treacherous path down to the castle which felt unsafe not only for us, but for the retiree behind us walking with a cane. In fact, we got a lot closer to the buildings than I thought we would, though still not inside because of the imminent danger of collapse or of random pieces of rusted metal falling on our heads.

At one point early on in our tour, we stumbled on some young guys not wearing hard hats, and immediately I knew they weren't part of any official group. Our tour guide asked them, "How did you get here?" and they answered, "On a boat." After our guide scoffed and sized them up as quickly as I did, he tried to shoo them off the island, but he didn't seem that intimidating to me. They should have feared fines or imprisonment, but instead they basically got a "scram" and made it out without a scratch.

Don't get me wrong, I love urban exploration, and I love to read about explorers' illicit visits to ruins and see their incredible photographs. But unfortunately, a lot of the people who do that contribute to the accelerated disintegration of these structures, and, sadly, often steal some of the historic relics from the sites (like Scottish emblems and prismatic glass, in the case of Bannerman).



Pollepel Island, once just a lump of rocks in the middle of the river, actually became quite whimsical under Bannerman's influence, with every sloping hill and staircase receiving its own cute name and making sure there's always a stone seat when you need to take a rest. Sure, lots of the compound was utilitarian as well - an outhouse, cisterns, warehouses - but the island has somehow managed to retain its character, or perhaps the character of Frank Bannerman, its owner, who could never get the name of the island officially changed to Bannerman but labelled everything with his name including the castle, which still reads "Bannerman Island Arsenal." He did such a good job self-marketing that no one really knows that "Bannerman Island" isn't the name of that piece of land.

Like many of the sites I visit, there has been a trust formed to preserve and educate, and most importantly to raise money for stabilization and restoration. The tour I took today was inexpensive for the amount of regret it swept out of my soul, and at only $30 makes a great bizarre day trip from NYC for anybody who's feeling a bit bored. But unfortunately people will have to wait til spring in order to see it first-hand like we did today. Let's hope the winter isn't too hard on the buildings and doesn't cause more collapse.



Further Reading/Photos:
Hudson Valley Ruins: Rob Yasinsac's photos
The New York Times: Kayakers Among the Ruins
Suckapants Blog

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fort Totten, Finally

People are always surprised to find out how much war history there is in New York City, but there are forts all over the place. Castle Clinton, Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, the former "numbered" forts by the Old Croton Aqueduct in the Bronx (as well as Fort Schuyler), and of course Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens.

I first discovered Fort Totten on the Open House New York schedule two years ago, but after having visited Floyd Bennett Field and Flushing Meadows Corona Park, I was too pooped to find my way to Bayside. After Edith and Eric ended up taking a tour this year and reported back, I became desperate to go.

Lucky for me, the NYC Parks were having a Halloween lantern tour of it this weekend. Right up my alley.

When we arrived we were a little confused, because we were surrounded by really little kids who'd brought their own glowsticks and flashlights. We kind of thought those would be provided, as they were at the Queens County Farm Museum corn maze, and that we would just be experiencing a nighttime tour of the fort. Instead, we got a strange little haunted house.

In a way, this one was actually better than Eastern State, because it was so dark, and the ghosts and goblins were so few and far between, we were almost always startled by them. Unfortunately for the kids, they were terrified, and their parents only encouraged the terror by pretending to be eaten by spiders and getting caught in webs and other unnecessary fake perils that the kids really believed.



I couldn't really see the layout of Fort Totten because it was so dark, but boy was it spooky. Lots of long, dark tunnels, with a red sky looming over us as the trees rustled and it let out a quietly dripping rain that made the floors beneath us slick and dank.

The tour was brief and the urban park ranger was sure to ease the fears of the kiddies by telling them it was all pretend, but I tried to suspend my disbelief as much as possible. Surely there was something ghoulish about this place, even if only the hauntings of the members of the Willets family....

Fort Totten is actually in good shape, not in ruins the way I normally like my historic buildings. But there are lots of abandoned barracks that are being torn down and that make the entire park kind of feel like a ghost town, including some spooky brick houses with chipped paint and gravestones in the front yard. And yet you can still see the Whitestone Bridge in the distance, a mere stone's throw away with the Bronx's city lights twinkling, reminding you of the present day, 200 years in the future from Fort Totten's origins.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dirty Dancing in Chicago

I couldn't be in Chicago and not see the pre-Broadway, U.S. premiere stage adaptation of Dirty Dancing. It was incomprehensible. Besides, having that ticket in my purse was the only thing that made this Chicago trip worthwhile, as I've had to suffer through another work-related conference surrounded by parents.

Some might say I only came to Chicago for Dirty Dancing.

I'd heard horrible things about it. It was critically panned on the West End but an audience favorite, and even Michelle's parents were disappointed with it. But I'm a sucker for anything related to the film - t-shirts, keychains, talking pens, calendars - and I figured it had to be better than the TV special I watched as part of the bonus features of the anniversary DVD.

Besides, I was used to sharing my love for Dirty Dancing with no one. And at least I knew tonight, I would be alone in a crowd (unlike when I was alone in an empty Ziegfeld Theater for a screening of it).

The stage production is basically the movie. There are lots of soundtrack songs played in their original form in the background, with the addition of some other 1960s period hits. Occasionally some of the cast members sing the songs instead, but kind of in the background too, standing off to the side or on an upper platform, trading the leads often enough that it forms somewhat of a Greek chorus. I guess that might seem strange to some (including this Chicago Tribune writer), but come on, let's be honest. Nobody wants to see Johnny Castle sing.

And boy can this Johnny dance. His portrayer, Josef Brown, has been with the production since his native Australia and although he has a really strange forced American accent and isn't the greatest actor (neither was Patrick Swayze really), the choreography slides off his chiseled body to slither around the stage, leap in the air and crouch to the earth. This production's Baby is also a dead-ringer for Jennifer Grey, making you forget sometimes you're not watching the movie.

So why not just stay home and watch the movie? Surely it must be showing on the We network or VH1's "Movies That Rock."

I guess there's just something about the live experience, the disco balls that start spinning in the house during the finale, Johnny busting into "Kellerman's Anthem" as he walks through the audience down the aisle and hops up onto the stage from the front. And when they finally do the lift, that silly f-ing lift, it just takes your breath away. Johnny spins her around 360 degrees for the whole audience to see, so nobody can miss it.

There are some unnecessary musical numbers added to the show, mostly for expository purposes I think, and there's been some dialogue added to fill the gaps that the movie leaves to your imagination. Those parts are mostly just annoying, as is the civil rights subplot which I think is supposed to give the story more meaning but actually just makes it more trite. But overall, it's like you can almost reach out and touch the movie, and although it looks and sounds a little different, if you've seen the movie as many times as I have, it just never gets old. You find yourself wishing the stage adaptation was more like the movie. Exactly like it.

(The casting of John Bolger as the father was an odd one, but since I am a fan from the 80s when he briefly portrayed Phillip Spaulding on Guiding Light, it was thrilling to see him perform something besides the TV commercials I occasionally spot him in. After all, he is the great-nephew of Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz!)

This stage production is supposed to be coming to Broadway, but the theater tonight wasn't that full so I wonder if it will make it. Will I see it again if it hits New York? Maybe, if only to avoid the regret of not going.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Satisfyingly Spooked for the Year

No matter how many places I visit or events I attend, I'm always left with the sense that I could be doing more. Last Halloween, we went to the Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, the Great Jack o Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, and The Trail of Terror in Minneapolis, and yet I still was bummed that we missed out on some of our other Halloweentime options.

This year, I am making up for last year, with visits to the Queens County Farm Museum's annual corn maze, and to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary.

It's weird to think that there's still a working farm in the city, with livestock not residing in a petting zoo, but in Floral Park, Queens - deep, deep Queens. But families seem to travel from afar for their autumn hayrides and Amaizing Maize Maze, which Edith and I braved a moonlight tour of, wielding one small flashlight and a big flag so they could find us if we got hopelessly lost.

It wasn't as spooky as the one at the Headless Horseman, which was terrifyingly quiet and pitch black, with ghouls jumping out of the stalks at us. Instead, it was pretty loud and crowded, with an olde time announcer interviewing guests as they made it across the finish line, applauding their finish times whether it was 20 minutes or an hour and a half. With a little help from the announcer, who saw us walking in circles under the bridge where he was perched, we made it far enough into the rooster-shaped maze to find another staff member willing to give us a long look at her map, helping us escape from the labyrinth in about 38 minutes.

I think by then we were a little tired of walking anyway, after taking a trip this weekend to Philadelphia for two tours of their historic prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, which stands in preserved ruins in a hill in a residential area of the city. We'd been talking about visiting their Halloween haunted house event, "Terror Behind the Walls," for a year or two now, so we had to finally go.

It was built in the 19th Century to look like an old, imposing English castle, which at the time was placed in the middle of nowhere and terrified the city's residents over whom it loomed. But the city grew and built up around it, so now it really sticks out. Its outer castle wall and cell block spokes coming out from the central hub looks like this from above:

View from One Comcast Center, 54th fl Bottom left: ESP's hub-and-spoke structure

At night, they transform it into a haunted house replete with gargoyles and costumed actors who breathe Pop Rocks into your ear and jump out of the walls - literally - towards you. But, like the Queens corn maze, it's kind of so crowded and noisy (with long waits) that it's tough to actually get scared or be surprised at what's coming, and even if you think you might encounter a real ghost there (as people have described the locale as being home to a "stew of spirits"), I doubt any of them would come out to such a crowd. It has to be abandoned and still, like on Most Haunted Live.

My camera battery didn't drain like those of the ghosthunters have, but I did catch a lot of debris in the air whilst taking pictures. Was it the presence of ghosts? Or just crap from the smoke machines?

Corner Tower on outer wall

So we weren't that scared, but my appetite was whet for some daytime exploration of the ruins, when it would be quieter and I'd actually get to see the prison better without all the distractions of 3D glasses (as cool as that room was, way trippy) and animatronic cadavers and such.

We went to sleep early without nightmares at the new Independent Hotel (probably the best, reasonably-priced boutique hotel option in Philly right now), and had a fantastic French breakfast at the sprawling Parc brasserie on Rittenhouse Square before heading back to prison where we could take some more pictures and wander the grounds freely without any living beings jumping out at us.

Cell Block OneOne of the first things you notice at Eastern State in the daytime is what seems like miles of long hallways that you can look straight down, all leading to a central rotunda. It's dizzying and beautifully symmetric all at once. The early cell blocks, all solitary confinement, are lined on either side with wooden cell doors that slide on a metal track for access, peeling white paint everywhere except the one strip they've restored to show what it would have looked like when it was new. In fact, the audio tour (hilariously narrated by Steve Buscemi) takes you through some of the least-spooky areas of the grounds, where plenty of signs and photographs and even art installations abound. And lots of people. This place was even really busy during the day.

Of course I prefer solitary exploration myself, with only the rustle of the wind in the trees and some animals that may have built a nest nearby. With other people there, it feels more like a replica than the truly creepy structure it actually is.

Fortunately, the audio tour is pretty short, and then you can really go exploring on your own. Edith had already been there once earlier this year so she knew some of the cool places, but we also found some creepy nooks and crannies of our own, pulling on rusty doors to see if they would open, dipping our heads into empty, disintegrating cells, and flashing our cameras into holes to see what was on the other side. We climbed up to the observation tower and peeked in the peephole to see an old rotting spiral staircase inside, and even got to see the only cell block that you couldn't see all the way down, the last one built that had to be crammed into the only remaining space around the rotunda, forcing it to actually curve. It looks like nobody's walked through there in a long time. This was the good stuff.

Cell Block 14

One of the creepiest parts of the prison is of course Death Row, where no one was actually executed but where the most dangerous criminals were kept until the very end. This cell block is small but imposing, with the remnants of a wall that would separate the prison guards from the actual cells - for their safety. Some of the guards reputedly refused to walk in their "safe" hallway for fear of losing the respect of the inmates, so they would risk walking directly outside the metal bars that separated them from those biding their time in Death Row.

Death Row Death Row

Even now, Death Row is cut off from civilian access by a floor-to-ceiling chainlink fence. I feel like I spend my entire life hooking my fingers around that metal chain link, pressing one eyeball against a hole to see what it's like on the other side. I've got a permanent waffle pattern on my face.

ESP is historic not only because of its unusual construction and its most famous inmate Al Capone, but also because of its influence on prison systems throughout the world. Unlike Alcatraz, ESP was known for a more "correctional" method of treating and rehabilitating prisoners, though attempts at escape or attack on guards were punished severely. And later on, the maddening effects of solitary confinement came to light, revealing that it's a more terrible punishment and not the quiet, restorative environment they were trying to create (as they imagined, much like church). You can imagine the anguish the spirits in the stew experienced there.

There are still lots of areas of the grounds that you can't explore without a tour guide - the kitchen, hospital, operating room - and some you can't explore at all. Is it because they're too unstable? Maybe? Too much paranormal activity? Could be. But any uncharted territory makes me want to go back and see more.

Fortunately, a lot of what you get to see appears to be falling down even if it has been stabilized. The layers of paint that are peeling off the pipes and staircases and casting strange, spooky shadows on the walls are an essential narrative element of the overall tableau, allowing you to imagine a virtual time lapse of the changes the building went to while in operation through the early 1970s, and how those manmade changes are slowly being rejected by the building itself, which is shedding its skin and allowing plant life to literally burst through its walls.

I've been spending quite a bit of time in ghost towns and ruins lately. It's no wonder I think my apartment is haunted. But that won't keep me from Sing Sing if they ever open it up as a museum...

As for the timebeing, I feel pretty satisfied with my Halloween festivities, and with the addition of next weekend's Fort Totten lantern tour, I think I will have no regrets leading into next year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Cable Guy

When I moved into my first studio, in Greenpoint in 2001, my Brooklyn Union (or was it Keyspan by then?) gas man asked me out and gave me his number. I never called him, but now that I've been officially single since December 2004 and haven't been kissed since May, I'm wondering whether I should have. I'm very solitary these days.

I had to work from home this morning to wait for Time Warner Cable's Roadrunner technician to come and fix my internet connection, which crapped out Tuesday night. I felt a sense of panic, like when you're in the middle of a field alone and realize you have no cell phone service, only worse. In Death Valley I had no cell or Blackberry signal but I was able to get a satellite internet connection and ultimately felt reachable and connected to humanity. But as soon as my internet went out at home, knowing that no one hardly calls me anyway and Edith and Maria are the only ones to txt, I suddenly felt more isolated than if I was out in the desert.

My technician quickly introduced himself as "Tony," a good-looking black man with a slight (Jamaican?) accent and a tiny pointy yet curly beard. He looked comfortable and handsome in his sky blue Time Warner Cable workman's shirt, athletic, confident. I, on the other hand, was wearing the same outfit I wore on both Sunday and Monday this week: black pajama bottoms and my Gotham Girls Roller Derby t-shirt, this time with no bra, hair in a bun.

It's not that I wanted him to ask me out the way that the Brooklyn Union guy had nearly 7 years ago, but it kind of seemed like he was going to. He asked me for a pair of pliers, and when I pointed him to the green toolbox that I keep wedged between my TV stand and my CD racks, he asked me if I was handy or something. Why did I have a toolbox in my apartment? My response, of course, was that sometimes as a single lady living alone, you've got to hammer something. He couldn't figure out why I didn't have a guy I could ask to come over and help me, but in truth even when there was a guy coming over pretty regularly, he caused more destruction (tearing down my curtain rod in his sleep, leaning too hard on a precarious towel rack) than repair while here.

This launched Tony into a whole line of questioning as to why I'm 33 and single, what was wrong with me, what did guys complain about, where was I meeting guys, how could I possibly not meet anyone in Murray Hill, etc. At first I thought it was kind of flattering, but then it seemed like he had a vendetta against single women, telling me about all the other apartments he visits, in which broken-hearted, bitter women reside alone, complaining about men.

Here is what Tony told me women must do in order to attract a man for a relationship:
  • smile
  • be intelligent
  • make the man listen to her
  • don't try to change the things you can't change

It was all pretty smart, though a bit obvious I guess, and I felt like he'd given this speech before and that it wasn't necessarily just intended for me. Besides, I've got no problem with the first two, and I never really have gotten a chance at bat for the second two.

I nodded and smiled at Tony for about as long as I could stand til I realized I really had to get into work, and then he collected my old cable box and the rest of his things and wished me luck and said goodbye unceremoniously, unromantically, with no ulterior motive. I guess I was kind of surprised. I mean, even my exterminator asked me out so many times that I stopped answering the door when he rang the bell on the last Saturday of the month.

Maybe I should start answering again...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Early Retirement

I was out on the Lower East Side last night, and walking down E. Houston Street, I felt very old. Every young partier I passed was a mess, relatively early in the evening, and I got slammed into by a drunk girl who then said, "Watch where you're going!" And I thought, "When did I become civilized?"

I was at a Vic Thrill show at Mercury Lounge, a place I don't really frequent anymore, and as I looked around at all the light blue dress shirt- and khaki-wearing bro's carrying four cups of beer at a time, I again felt young. Somehow these guys - who I think must be somewhat near my age since we all listened to Vic's former band The Bogmen at the same time, in college - grew up and became adults, dressed like their fathers, and had one big night out.

But working in the music industry has kept me young I guess, especially working in children's entertainment, where I don't have to dress for meetings and where I can refer to boys as "hotties" and it's perfectly appropriate.

I guess even after having turned 33 last week, I still feel pretty young. I went to a wedding a couple weeks ago and I fit right in with "the kids" because there were enough parents and grandparents there to be the adults. But as much as the other attendees and I drank and danced it up like it was a high school prom (which it might as well have been at Riccardo's in Astoria), we were reminded that we're not that young by the little flower girl who scooped confetti off the floor and threw it up into the air above her. Then again, I'd been doing the same thing.

When I travel, or even when I explore around New York City, I still feel like a kid because I'm always surrounded by retired people. On our Morocco group tour, nearly every other traveller was part of an older British couple, many of whom were former teachers and professors. Out in any stateside desert, all you see are people who have given their lives over to the RV. And then again, there's my fascination with trains.

Edith and I took the historic train to Tecate back in the spring, and it dawned on me that I was carving out my niche as living life in retirement under the age of 40. Everything I liked to do was somehow on everybody else's Bucket List, but they just didn't get around to doing it until after the age of 65. So as I tick off each state and national park from my list, take lantern tours of old forts and watch retired guys fix up old planes, what will there be left for me to do when I'm retired?

In truth, I've been kind of hoping to retire 30 years early. But without any rich relatives to bequeath an inheritance which would make me independently weathly, and without any desire to play scratch-off games, I can't imagine how it's feasible. So I squeeze life in retirement in the space in between work wherever I can, and try to leverage work to scratch even more items off my own personal Bucket List. Besides, I never thought I would live til retirement anyway, so why not do it now?

I don't know when my fascination with trains started exactly but I think it's in my blood. My favorite uncle worked on freight trains for most of his life, getting calls in the middle of the night after a derailment, and then lived his life in retirement as a crew member for various community theatrical productions in the Syracuse area. My father used to take us to the State Fair, where there's a historic train exhibit that seems to be parked there permanently, and which you can walk through. We always treasured any time spent with our father, and maybe he was the one who was really interested in trains, but like any good date, my sister and I feigned interest too just to spend more time with him.

When I brought Edith and Eric to the State Fair this year, I made it a point to revisit that old train exhibit, which doesn't seem to have changed in 20 years.

State Fair Cooperstown

On our way back to New York City from Syracuse on that trip, we took a detour into Cooperstown to visit the Ommegang Brewery and found ourselves on the Cooperstown Beverage Trail, which also led us to the Bear Pond Winery and Cooperstown Brewing Company. We'd gotten diverted a bit too much and had to rush to dinner to get back to the city in time, but Edith and I wandered out back to buzz around the old parked train from the Delaware & Hudson line, whose sign prohibited us from crossing the tracks to explore, which we did anyway.

I'm one of the few people I know who loves to take trains, whether it's the Empire Service that teeters alongside the Hudson River to New York, or the Pacific Surfliner that towers over the rock-crashing waves of the Pacific to San Diego. I find most of my future vacation plans revolve around some kind of train, perhaps taking Amtrak to Palm Springs from LA instead of driving, or the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, AZ. But in New York City itself, you're pretty limited to either the subway or one of the commuter rails, unless you can catch one of the nostalgic subway rides hosted by the Transit Museum.

There is, however, a freight railway right in Manhattan: The High Line.

Up until the 1980s, the High Line was used to deliver meat and produce to factories and other commercial buildings on Manhattan's West Side, sometimes passing right through those buildings as seen in Chelsea Market (the old Nabisco factory) and several buildings in the Meatpacking District. This elevated railway has gorgeous Art Deco railings and looms over the city in some formerly seedy areas, but as gentrification moves farther west, development ensues and now the big lummox is being turned into a public elevated park.

When I first visited the High Line several years ago, it was overgrown and unstable and we couldn't walk on it. Construction on the park hadn't started. We peered at it from the second floor of an old meatpacking building that had been abandoned. But at the time, it was almost already a park: beautiful and green, with birds and insects hopping from flower to flower.

I've kept track of the High Line over the years and even participated in their Portrait Project, getting my photo taken in front of a High Line backdrop.



This has remained one of my favorite pictures of myself and last weekend, I got to actually stand on that very same stretch of the High Line, with the Empire State Building looming in the skyline.



It's not as green as in my portrait, resembling more a dried-up prairie than an urban garden, but there were lots of wildflowers growing up there among the rubble and we even spotted a butterfly.

Once again I was surrounded by retirees, whose tiptoeing amongst the old rails and rusty debris made me nervous for their safety. But getting access to something so forbidding, past more padlocks and chainlink fences, made me feel like a little kid again, like a young explorer getting away with something naughty. Sure, Friends of the High Line let me in, and I'd won a lottery to get my place on the tour anyway, but treading the train tracks less travelled was just transgressive enough to make me giddy.

And since that section of the High Line from 30th-34th Sts is still owned by the railway company and has gotten tied up in the West Side Railyards project, that may have been my last chance to get up there before it's either destroyed or turned into something else.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Feeling a Little Unstable


After all the travelling I've been doing lately, I decided to be a tourist in my own town this weekend by diving head-first into Open House NY, an annual event that gives public, free access to areas of the city that are seldom visited or even open at all. With a focus on architecture and history, OHNY often features tours of NYC's hidden treasures that excite my inner urban explorer.

This year I decided to take a tour of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a manmade gravity-fed pipeline that's out of commission now but once was the only way that the city could get fresh water. I'd visited the High Bridge Water Tower in the pouring rain with James and Dan a couple years ago, and looking out over the Harlem River which I guess I didn't even really realized existed, I made a mental note to check out the rest of the system.

You wouldn't even really know it's there. I'd taken the 4 train to the Bedford Park Blvd station in the Bronx and wandered past the Grand Concourse rail yards to the Jerome Reservoir to meet my group, and we quickly headed down to the Aqueduct Walk (technically a city park), through Kingsbridge and its armory which anachronistically looks like a big French castle. But after crossing some big intersections and getting some weird looks from the locals, you reach a tree-lined ridge marked by a sign, and suddenly you're walking six feet above a brick underground tunnel, created by a cut-and-cover method. It's maintained by the City Parks department but only in terms of cleaning up trash, collected by young Latina girls in tight jeans and short jackets. The rest of it is falling down, the side walls that hold up the ridge crumbling from the overgrown tree roots bursting through them.

It was 19th Century New York and present day Bronx all at once.


They're trying to redo a bunch of the parks and playgrounds up there and draw attention to the historical water line, but there are still sections you can't get to, which were of course the most interesting to me. As we proceeded further to the Bronx / Manhattan border, we came upon the Holy Grail of the Aqueduct Walk: High Bridge, the city's oldest bridge, likely unstable, with rusted railings, both entrances padlocked and barbed wired.

High Bridge used to be the crossroads of a major resort area in New York, where kids would descend an oramental staircase down to a reservoir and a nearby racetrack, and spectators would stand on the bridge and watch all the activity below. But the Navy had to replace a couple of the bridge's arches so their boats could get through, and with the coming of the highway and the railyards below, the area began to take on its current character. The ornamental staircase is still there but barely holding up, with lots of graffiti and big holes in the sidewalk that your foot could go right through.

But you can look up at that big old bridge and imagine the Harlem River as a gateway to a very green Bronx.

We crossed the river on the Washington Bridge, whose ornamental stone railings are now covered with several feet high of chainlink fence to prevent the jumpers from meeting their fate off the side, all the while keeping High Bridge Water Tower's summit in view in the distance.

Reaching the end of our tour but not the end of the Aqueduct (which actually reaches its conclusion under what's now the New York Public Library), I apparently hadn't had enough walking because I took the tram to Roosevelt Island for one more walking tour. Once again I was treading familiar ground, having first visited the strange island in the pouring rain to see the old lunatic asylum The Octagon, which at the time was under construction to be converted into luxury housing. Now it's open and fully operational, occupied by rich kid after rich kid, all young professionals whose parents can apparently afford to pay $2000/month for a studio apartment that's very likely haunted.

I also got to see Lighthouse Park at the northern tip of the island, but I had to come back the next day to see my #1 must-see locale for the weekend: the old abandoned smallpox hospital.

You can see the smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island's Southpoint at night from the FDR, all lit up and spooky and inviting. But it's actually under pretty strict security, the grounds having been closed to the public altogether in 2002 and then recently reopened with limited access, often prohibited because of events directly across the East River like the UN General Assembly.

I was hoping for roofless ruins rising up against a blue sky, solitary and abandoned, but what I found was an active construction site, with trucks and scaffolding and plenty of recent work towards stabilizing the structure (though still apparently in imminent danger of collapse). I guess I would have relished it more without the construction, but the stabilization means that maybe one day I'll actually be able to walk among the overgrowth, through the gneiss-lined outer doorways into the crumbly brick interior (which people were able to do as recently as 2006, as seen in some of their YouTube videos).

As I peered through the fence that surrounds the entire ruins, trying to get shots from every angle, I heard lots of sounds from inside, imagining flocks of birds and various nests of other animals who will be driven out by the construction. Or was it a ghost or two I heard, still wandering the hallways, looking for a way out, denying their ultimate fate?

I've been wanting to visit the smallpox hospital for a long time now and it looks like I may have waited a little too long, but at least I got there. Now I've just got to figure out how to get to the typhoid hospital on North Brother Island.

For more OHNY '08 pics, click here.