December 30, 2008

Time On My Side

I love not working. It freaks some people out, but I thrive on the free time.

When I was laid off in November 2001, I spent 10 months looking for a job, and everybody said I was the busiest unemployed person they ever met.

The thing is, there's just so much in life I want to do. So much I didn't get to do while growing up. And although I get to do some pretty cool stuff via my job sometimes (see: QVC), I miss out on a lot because of work, too.

So the stars aligned this year and, between paid time off and the last of my vacation days, I've got two weeks off. And I'm not just lying around.

Highlights so far:

And that's just the beginning. I've got three more weekdays off from work and then the weekend. Next up? An afternoon marathon at OTTO, a visit to my sexy eye doctor, a Knicks game, a new kitchen table, and much much more!

December 28, 2008

Long Train Runnin'

freight train passing through the Syracuse train station, across snowy tracks

"Indy is waiting for you outside your door," read the text message from Maria, and I burst into tears on the Amtrak back to New York City. Indy was as much my dog as any dog had ever been, though I had only seen him four times since we first brought him home from the breeder's in May. But somehow when I came home to Mike and Maria's house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Indy still remembered our initial bond, and has started waiting for me outside the attic door when I get up in the morning, and outside the bathroom door when I get out of the shower.

But this time, I wouldn't be coming out. Not for a few months. I don't even know when I'll be back.

I tried to say goodbye to Indy, suitcase in tow, on Saturday morning when I was leaving for the train station, but he was jumping around and playing like a puppy is apt to do. Maria said, "He doesn't know you're not coming back," and I grabbed his face and gave him a quick kiss on the forehead, a good squeeze, and didn't look back.

But sitting on that train, with a stranger next to me cackling on her cell phone, staring out of a dirty window, I allowed my eyes to well up, mourning the piece of myself I'd left behind.

I've taken lots of trains lately, to Philly, West Chester PA, San Diego, Long Island, the Hudson Valley...That trip up and down the Hudson River is so familiar to me now, but this time, the fog started to settle in sometime after Croton-on-Hudson, and as I kept peering out the window to look for Bannerman Castle, conditions outside the train became increasingly white-out. The chunky, icy surface of the Hudson River soon gave way to a more watery surface, through which flocks of geese cut their way and disappeared into the low-hanging haze. I even saw some kayakers struggling upstream, and I wondered if they could see where they were going, because I could barely see them, not to mention the invisible other side of the river.

It was getting warmer as I got closer to the city (and was downright balmy today), but the thick fog was nevertheless a continuation of a White Christmas, which started when I woke up as my USAirways flight started its descent into the Syracuse area, hovering above the city that looked like a snowy white checkerboard. I was prepared for the snow and cold this time, with all the winter weather accoutrements necessary for surviving sleet, snow, rain, and everything in between. And we pretty much got all of those while I was home.

That kind of weather has a funny effect on the human eye, making everything look greyscale, the color draining out of the wintry palette. And somehow my thoughts felt a little more black-and-white too, bringing some clarity to a life that has been way too muddled lately.

And sometimes you need a little white-washing, a little fresh dusting over that which has become murky and messed up.

Besides, the snow didn't stop us from doing any of the things we wanted to do, including a pilgrimage to Texas Roadhouse (delayed only by the fact that they don't open til 4 on weekdays, not by the snow). Sure, it's a chain restaurant and a lot like Rodeo Bar in my own neighborhood in NYC, but somehow me, Mike, Maria and her brother Pete are a magical combination that results in constant giggling and perma-grin, and not just because of the size of the enormous margaritas.

It's nice to have a family to come home to. Even if you're just being silly together.

Santa was good to me, but in many ways it doesn't even really matter what I got, because the best gift I have been given is love, not just expressed through gift exchange. And it's nice to know they're all waiting for me to come back home.

The next time I do go up to Syracuse, the snow will probably be gone, but I hope my clarity remains. And as for the dog? I can't wait to see how much bigger he gets. He's already tall enough to put his paws on my shoulders and give me a hug standing up.

In the meantime, I'm sure there are more trains in my future, though the next one won't necessarily take me home.

December 14, 2008

Worth Losing Sleep Over?

I find the weirdest ways to weasel my way onto television.

In fact, I've been on TV a bunch of times before, but nothing is like QVC. I can't say I ever aspired to appear live on a home shopping channel - especially because I don't think it'll help me get cast in something legit - but once I did it, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Live TV ain't easy. Heck, taped TV ain't easy. But I focused on being comfortable instead of nervous. I channeled my energy into being relaxed.

Relaxing was perhaps my greatest challenge. I'd had a harrowing trip down to West Chester, PA from the Hudson Valley, which had been hit by a bad ice storm Thursday night that cancelled or severely delayed all the Amtrak trains coming from the north. On Saturday morning at the Rhinecliff station, still full from Mike's wedding brunch and still a little tired from the reception the night before, I had to jump into a local cab headed for Poughkeepsie so I could instead take the Metro-North to NYC and continue my trip to the Philly area from there.

Fortunately, I've taken that Amtrak to Philly a lot lately (including our Eastern State Penitentiary trip), so the trip didn't seem so long or arduous. In my past excursions to QVC, I've either driven from New York or taken a limo from Philly (with the divos The Irish Tenors), but this time I decided to take the regional rail service all the way out to Exton and let the Sheraton Great Valley shuttle come pick me up and drive me around for the duration of my trip. I needed to focus on QVC and not exhaust myself by dealing with traffic.

I've always liked that Sheraton, but mostly because of the Outback Steakhouse in the parking lot. A business dinner there one night in the late 90s marked my first QVC visit as well as my first Outback experience. I think of it fondly.

With the discovery of the shuttle - which brought me to/from the Exton Amtrak station as well as to/from QVC - and of the Bliss body products in the bathroom, my opinion of this Sheraton improved exponentially, especially after our mediocre experience at the Four Points for James and Nany's wedding last month.

I managed to get to the hotel early enough for a Queensland salad at Outback, an attempt at blowing out my own hair, and getting to bed by 10 p.m. for seven hours' of sleep before getting up at 5 a.m. for my early morning cable TV appearance. Unfortunately, the heater in my room kept turning on and off all night, waking me up every 15 minutes from an already-fitful sleep replete with work-related nightmares.

And I kept worrying about my hair.

In fact, the whole time I wasn't worried at all about my demeanor, composure, or intelligence on live television. I was worried how I was going to look.

But I guess nobody every really likes the way they look on camera so I don't know what I thought could possibly make me happy with my physical appearance.

In the end, all that really matters is that the product I was hawking is a good product, and it sold well, meeting our expectations and probably getting us an invitation back. I can watch the clip over and over again and think what I would have done differently, but the truth is, I did a good job, even if I could have done better.

And it was fun! I'd never been on live TV before; I'd never had makeup airbrushed onto my face; I'd never been wired for an in-ear monitor. All that, and to be able to talk about Little River Band and Air Supply for work.

I wonder if my QVC-addicted mother, who has disappeared for two years, saw me?

The Easy Rock Collection on

December 13, 2008

The New Yorker Part II

I've been on a kick of helping people lately. Recently I was walking down Third Avenue by Rodeo Bar and I saw some women with big shopping bags lamely try to hail a cab, but not really TRY, so I hailed it and pointed to them and said, "That's for you."

New Yorkers get a bad rap. The other morning I saw some tourists with a big unfolded map on the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, and I asked, "Do you need help?" Turns out they were looking for a breakfast place, and were flabbergasted when I suggested the one they were standing outside of, Noho Star. A week or two before, on that same street but after work, I heard a couple of teens say, "I know there's a train down here somewhere..." When I directed them to the 6 down the street, one of them said, "Thaaank you, you're the nicest New Yorker we've ever met..."

Of course that may be true, but I'm not the nicest New Yorker there is. I can't be!

Don't mistake my kindness for goodness. I'm selfish and greedy. I like feeling good and showing off how much I know and how much better I can navigate the city than you. If, in the process, you learn something and are helped or convenienced, all the better.

Today I had some business-related travel trauma which forced me to return to NYC via Grand Central and take a cab to Penn Station to continue my trip down to Philly. As I waited in the taxi stand line, and nearly attacked a bunch of kids trying to steal a cab without waiting in line, I grabbed a woman also going to Penn, threw her bag in the back with mine, and shoved her into the backseat. After finding out she was a visitor and had experienced the same Amtrak-induced trauma I had, I paid for her cab ride and dumped her off at the LIRR, as she rushed to the ticket machines shocked and impressed.I ran off to find a bathroom and a slice of pizza before my next train.

Maybe a New Yorker is someone who helps you and doesn't wait for a "thank you." Who helps you because that's the way it's supposed to be done and we can't bear to see it done wrong.

In any case, all in a day's work.

Further reading:
The New Yorker (Part I)

December 10, 2008

Country Carolling

Theatre at Westbury, December 2008

Last year around this time, I asked Anthony at work if he wanted to go see Kenny Rogers with me at Westbury Music Fair. He declined, which surprised me because he had previously established himself as a big fan. I took it personally, and worst of all, I never ended up going.

I regretted it for nearly a year until I remembered that it was an annual concert, and promised myself I'd go alone if I couldn't find a companion again this year. Fortunately I was able to wrangle up Edith, Eric and Dan without much convincing.

Eric and I had similar childhoods growing up Upstate, three hours apart but often experiencing the same things at the same time. Kenny Rogers' voice was as familiar to us as our own mothers'. And as much as I've tried to shed/forget/run away from my childhood, certain visceral experiences draw me back to it - Christmas trees, Heluva Good French Onion dip, and cosmopolitan country music, just to name a few.

Apparently every year, this concert is normally all Christmas repertoire, but we got lucky this year, hearing hit after hit in the first half and then nothing but Christmas songs in the second.

Kenny looked OK. He famously got some bad plastic surgery a few years ago that reduced his eyes to tiny slits, and earlier this year had knee replacement surgery that left him hobbling up and down the steep aisles to and from the in-the-round stage (which rotates!). But a real highlight was getting to see what he looked like back in the late 60s, performing with his first band The First Edition, in a performance video projected on a huge screen that showed a hot and hunky young Kenny Rogers singing very seriously "I Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In" with present-day Kenny providing live vocals. Though released before my birth, I know that song well - the only Kenny Rogers one my father ever played. Most other people know it from the dream sequence in The Big Lebowski. (I wonder if Anthony, also a big fan of that movie, ever made that connection?) Sharon Jones does a great cover version of it.

Kenny played plenty of other big hits - "The Gambler," "Coward of the County," "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," "Lady," even a solo version of "Islands in the Stream," but I was left wanting more. The Christmas-themed second act was a bit too schlocky and gimmicky for me, featuring red-clad children chiming in on the choruses of songs, and an audience participation version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" which just dragged. Fortunately the rest of Kenny's repartee with the audience was was so entertaining that I'd probably be willing to go back and see him at another show (maybe without the Christmas part) to hear more hits.

If you could get through weird religious talk about how Christmas is a celebration of "Christ the Child," Kenny's renditions of Christmas carols were quite nice, especially when he was joined onstage by a gospel choir draped in red gowns. There's something in me that really loves religious songs, be they carols or just gospel hits. Somehow I can separate the message (which I could really care less about) from the sound. Oh, the sound! And in that little round room, that in-the-round theater, everything sounds great.

Kenny's beard is a lot whiter than it used to be, and it's more of a goatee now, but that voice still brushes against me like a corduroy coat or a wooly blanket - a little rough, but soft and warm, comforting and familiar.

December 06, 2008

Green for the Holidays

I like to think of myself as pretty eco-conscious. I unplug my chargers. I obsessively turn off lights at home and in the office. In fact, I sit in the dark a lot. I use Seventh Generation paper towels and I don't take shopping bags from retailers unless I need them. I sort and recycle my glass, plastics, papers and cardboards. I rarely prefer a printout to a digital copy of a document.

I even researched the carbon impact of burial vs. cremation so I could decide how I wanted to spend eternity. (Answer: a biodegradable casket is better than having my ashes spread across the desert.)

But once a year, I do something that's questionable for the environment: I buy a real Christmas tree.

Of course, I know that deforestation is rampant. And God knows what tinsel does to the environment. But every year, no matter how much I consider not getting a tree, I end up buying one off the street somewhere in Murray Hill, and dragging it up my narrow staircase, leaving a trail of pine needles behind me and of oozy sap on my winter gloves. I just can't imagine that that's worse than the plastics used in artificial trees, not to mention their transport from China.

This year, I really considered skipping the real tree ritual, especially after I found a light-up ceramic tree like the one I grew up with from The Mud Pit at the Union Square holiday market. After years of refereeing fights between me and my sister over who would get the decoration, our father decided to keep it, and probably will til he dies. I got tired of waiting for it, and after seeing one in an antique store a couple years ago for over $100, I jumped at the chance to get this one for $45.

As I slept with the ceramic tree on every night for the last couple of weeks, my desire for a real pine tree hasn't been satiated, but rather ignited.

The ridiculous part is, I'm actually allergic to Christmas trees. I get itchy, stuffy, and if I touch my eyes with unwashed hands, they swell shut. But with some Claritin, a lot of hand-washing, and an open window to air out the fumes, I can manage.

This year I bought a Fraser fir from North Carolina from the guy across the street in front of the Duane Reade. It's probably the tallest tree I've managed in this studio apartment, and although I was looking for something skinny given my space limitations, it turned out to be pretty healthy once the branches warmed up and settled overnight.

I'm sure this one will dry out and become a horrible fire hazard after three weeks like they all do, but for now, it's fresh, moist, and pliable. It takes up most of my apartment but it's just me here anyway...At least now I've got something to keep me company.

I guess as my bulbs slowly blow out I should consider replacing my old strings of lights with more eco-friendly LED ones. Maybe next year....

Further reading:
Green Christmas - National Geographic
An Eco-Friendlier Christmas -
Your Top 20 Econundrums - Solved! - Mother Jones

December 04, 2008

Lovin' It

There are a few things about my job I really enjoy. As of this week, I've been able to visit the trifecta of big fast food chains, which are part of the fabric of American culture and which served as a major dietary source for much of my childhood.

This week I had a meeting with the final of the Big Three, McDonald's. I was somehow most excited about this one, partially because it seemed like our pitch was actually going to be successful. I'd already met with Burger King in Miami, who served us ICEES and cookies and gave us kids' meal toys, as well as Wendy's in Dublin, OH, where the office restrooms looked exactly like the restaurant restrooms, right down to the soap dispensers.

As we approached McDonald's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, IL, about 15 minutes from the Chicago O'Hare airport, I felt right at home. The concrete tower - probably constructed in the late 60s or early 70s - is situated in the middle of an industrial park, right next to a mall that houses a gigantic McDonald's restaurant in their parking lot. There's nothing outside of the McDonald's tower that indicates what's inside: it's dark and gray, cold, with an iced-over patio that's chained-off for the winter. But when we entered the lobby, we were greeted with the mysterious smells from the McCafe and a sign for the McStylist salon, where I was half-tempted to get a shave-and-a-haircut.

Upstairs, the elevator bank was glowing with a lit-up menu board like the ones you find behind the counter in the restaurants, as well as gigantic reproductions of Happy Meal boxes and other signage and memorabilia.

We were invited to get a McDonald's coffee from the beverage bar, which helped calm my nerves during our actual presentation.

Ronald McDonald didn't stop by our meeting, nor did the Hamburglar, but despite their absence, it went well. I was also hoping for a big basket of fries in the middle of the conference table, but I guess their employees can't just pig out all day while running that huge corporation. And with that in mind, thank God they didn't give us any Apple Dippers.

To be honest, I'd love to work for a company like that, but maybe the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. And since I was the person that craved fries after watching Super Size Me, I don't know if I could handle the constant temptation...

November 30, 2008

A First Time for Everything

It's nice to know that there's still room in my life for plenty of firsts. With as much crap as I've gone through, as many subjects as I've studied, places I've travelled, I can still find new experiences, new things to see and do.

I think I had my first real non-dysfunctional Thanksgiving this year, without being a "guest." Maria's family has embraced me to the point of making me one of their own, and although I still struggle with calling her parents "Mom" and "Dad," they have absolutely no problem giving me birthday cards addressed to their daughter and telling me to cover up and drive safely.

Of course, like every family, they have their problems. People get sick, disagree, forget things, whatever, but all the while, there is love.

I'm lucky to be receiving some of it.

To officially kick off the holiday season, with Christmas and my next trip home less than a month away, Maria took me to my first drive through Lights on the Lake, a Syracuse holiday tradition in Onondaga Lake Park. I'd driven through something similar in Springfield, MA while spending Thanksgiving with Jon in college, but even after having grown up in Syracuse, somehow I'd missed this annual ritual in my own hometown.

Big costumed characters greeted us at the entryway, including a big penguin. I think Eric would like this.

All the themes were pretty fantastical, and they kept getting more and more elaborate as we drove farther through.

If only that damn car wasn't always so close in front of us. We kept trying to stop to take pictures to give some space ahead but the car behind us kept getting antsy.

Watching all those reindeer and gingerbread men fly over our heads, while we listened to the Christmas radio station, really put me in the holiday spirit.

Or was I already in the spirit once Maria and I put the turkey in the oven and we all sat down around a table stuffing our faces with stuffing and actually talking to each other?

November 20, 2008

The New Yorker

I travel a lot, so I get to experience all kinds of folks. And sometimes in my job, I end up on the phone with parents from around the country, and I'm astounded and terrified by them.

But thank God I get to experience something outside of my relatively tiny, homogeneous New York circle.

But come on, this is New York, the promised land for people all over the world. Most of us, however, don't encounter much ethnic diversity at all unless we go to Harlem to be hip and celebrate Obama's election, or we take a cab with a driver from Haiti or something.

My New York crew is comprised mostly of non-New Yorkers, graduates from Colgate who I've known since I was a teenager and who come from all over the States. The rest of them are pretty much across the board white, accentless, and either Jewish or Christian or, most commonly, at least agnostic or atheist.

So who is the New Yorker? If you watch Top Chef like I did last night, you think that New Yorkers are poorly dressed, inarticulate, bitter, bitter people with a bad attitude and a thirst for criticism. If you watch most Hollywood films and TV productions like the yet-to-be-aired Showtime series that was being filmed at Baruch College in my neighborhood the other night, you think that New York cabbies are crabby old white men who smell of cigars and pizza sauce.

How can the stereotype of the New Yorker not have changed since the seventies, an era of television which largely informed my knowledge of the city through sitcoms like The Odd Couple? How is it possible that Hollywood is still perpetuating that appalling iconography?

Sure, some of those guys do exist, the Queens College graduates who pronounce "toilet" like "terlet" and the girls in Bensonhurst who don't move out of their parents' house until they absolutely have to, and often they're extremely charming (or is it just me?). But New York has become such a hodgepodge of cultures and accents and beliefs, it's hard to characterize who exactly a "New Yorker" is anymore.

Am I a New Yorker?

After 11 years of living here, I'm realizing more and more that I'm not. I don't want the stress anymore. I don't want a Valentine's Day full of couples, a New Year's that costs me $150 without even a single kiss, and a Thanksgiving with absolutely no one to hang out with. I don't want to be identified with a city that steals your wallet, punches you on the subway, calls you a dog and barks at you, and threatens to stalk you. Worse yet, a city that promises to call and never does. And takes all your love and money and never gives anything back.

The city is changing - it's a lot safer than it was in 1997 when I first moved here - but I'm not sure I can wait for it to change enough until it's the right fit for me. And the more people keep perpetuating the stereotype of this city being filled with people behaving badly, the more people will think it's a license to behave badly.

Sometimes I just want to put myself on a little higher ground.

November 13, 2008

City of Brotherly Love

I was suspended 54 stories high in the Philadelphia sky today, when the rain came in and the fog settled. A white, billowy blanket draped itself across the skyline, covering the picture window of the Comcast tower like we were flying in an airplane through the cloud line. I couldn't see past myself.

On our way out of the Comcast headquarters, we decided to try to take public transportation to the Amtrak station, but became hopelessly confused by the regional rail, trolley, and subway options that irrationally intertwined before us. I couldn't see past my confusion.

Suddenly, Kevin beckoned me, and we started following a local man - was he Indian? Pakistani? - who took us all the way to the right train, stopping periodically along the way to try to leave, thinking we'd figure out where we're going earlier than we did. But as confused as we were, baffled by a metro system that wasn't run by the MTA, this Philadelphia stranger dropped us off at the information booth and turnstiles just steps away from the right train. And then he turned, waving, and went in the opposite direction, wherever he was headed in the first place.

I can't always see the good in things. I can barely ever see the good in people. But in a low-hanging, white-out fog today, I could see clearly, even for just a moment.

November 09, 2008

Come On, Get Happy

I didn't do much this weekend, at least nothing as splashy as my last several weekends, full of travel and exploration.

So it gave me a chance to appreciate the small things, to take note that some things do go right in life.

In no particular order, these are the things that made me happy this weekend:
  • losing another 1.5 lbs
  • fixing my desk drawer with some packing tape and nails
  • discovering that my crap camera on my new phone actually takes gorgeous lo-fi grayscale photos
  • swimming
  • brussel sprouts, at home and at Bar Milano
  • free underwear coupons from Victoria's Secret, which just keep coming even though I refuse to sign up for an Angels credit card
  • the annual Christmas explosion at Rolf's

The last year has been the slowest year of my life, and now that the days are shorter and sure to get colder, there will be less and less for me to do to entertain myself when alone on weekends except Christmas shopping. So I have to make the most of every small joyful event, otherwise I just won't last the year.

November 02, 2008

Falling In Queens

Last weekend when we took the train upstate to Beacon for our Bannerman Castle tour, I noted the gorgeous Hudson Valley foliage and bemoaned the lack of it in New York City. Edith had assured me that there were, in fact, turning leaves on the trees in Queens, but I didn't quite believe her til I took a trip myself this weekend.

It's a little past peak this time of year, just after Halloween when wearing flip flops is no longer quite possible, but in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the trees intermingle greens and reds and yellows and of course the requisite brown.

I headed to the park this weekend not for a colorful autumnal stroll, but to snoop around some of the buildings from the 1964 World's Fair that I had seen on a walking tour two years ago. Since I first spotted it, I've become a little obsessed with the New York State Pavilion and its three observation towers, whose blinking red lights are clearly visible from the Grand Central Parkway, the Van Wyck, and the LIE, and therefore a regular sight on my way home from the airport. It's a living relic of a time not too long ago, a ruin that was built to be futuristic and now stands useless, decaying.

New York State PavilionTower entrance
With all of the proposals to turn the thing into something fantastic - most recently, a proposed space museum - the towers stand there, waiting, blinking, slowly falling apart, unpreserved, unstabilized. I keep waiting for that red light to go out.

Adjacent to the towers is the "Tent of Tomorrow," which was built basically as a big advertisement for Texaco but also hosted art shows for the likes of Warhol, and even provided the setting for a music video by They Might Be Giants. The red and white paint is peeling and there are huge shifts in the cinder block walls on the outer facade. The interior is overgrown with weeds (pretty much destroying the mosaic tile map that used to form the floor of the place), and looks like it's become a storage facility for the Parks Department. Why are there always barbeque grills sitting in abandoned buildings?

I pressed my face in the gate opening to see inside, to catch a glimpse of the original splendor, despite the rusty, overgrown mess it's become. Curiously, there's still a light on inside the tent, a singular lit bulb, on even during the day.

Some of the structures around the old World's Fair grounds are still standing, and even in use: the restored Unisphere, the Hall of Science, the Queens Museum of Art (formerly the New York City Pavilion), and Terrace on the Park, a former heliport that looks like a big table looming over the park, currently used as a banquet hall / catering space available for rent. It looks like there's an observation deck on the roof where helicopters used to land, but of course when I was skulking on the grounds, everything was locked up. I really want to call and tell them I'm getting married just so I can get a tour of the place and take some pictures.

Although normally open, the Queens Museum was closed on Saturday too because of an elevator accident the day before. Which is just another reason I have to go back, again.

How many more ruins can I really visit? And how do you choose between Bannerman Castle and High Bridge and the smallpox hospital and the High Line and the typhoid hospital and Ellis Island's hospital and Castle Clinton and all the forts and other historic buildings around New York City - around the country - around the world? Can you preserve them all? I suppose some get stabilized as a historic ruin, like Eastern State Penitentiary, and others get fully restored to a usable attraction if enough money is raised. And I suppose some buildings just fall down before they can earn historic status. I don't think you can save them all.

But in the meantime, I'll try to visit as many as I can.

Further Reading: New York State Pavilion
NY Daily News: Are Web pics of damage to restored New York State Pavilion map real?

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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...

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.

October 09, 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.

September 29, 2008

The Next Toronto Star?

CN Tower A gray Canadian day.

I haven't had much reason to want to go to work lately, but I actually wanted to take this business trip to Toronto, despite it falling on a weekend. We were scheduled to go to an event at Canada's Wonderland, an amusement park north of the city, and although my travelling companions hate rides and wouldn't go on any with me, I did get to eat a waffle ice cream sandwich and some tiny, freshly-fried doughnuts.

I'd never been to Toronto itself, though I was in its suburbs for the Eden Music Fest back in 1996, when Bush, Live, and Everclear were among the headlining acts.

I also recall being on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as a five year old and visiting another Canadian amusement park, Marineland, where I was too short for most of the rides. I think that trip also marked my first Dairy Queen experience, where I got a can of Diet Coke that had French writing on it. As a small child, I was amazed.

Growing up in Central New York, you get pretty used to Canadian accents, Canadian coins, and Canadian delicacies like pizza and wings. So when I got to Toronto on Sunday, nothing seemed too terribly foreign to me. Except the fact that I had to use my passport to get into the country, and stand in a customs line for almost an hour.

Like Syracuse, Toronto is a pretty industrial city, with lots of warehouses and factories and smokestacks. They've made lots of attempts at converting those buildings, many of which are from the early 20th century. We actually got to take a meeting and have lunch in the really cool warehouse campus of the old Toronto Carpet Factory in Liberty Village, whose conversion includes not only hip office buildings but also the ristorante CaFfinO.

In the narrow driveways between buildings, you can see old streetcar tracks that they've preserved - in fact, showcased - as part of the conversion.

But not all parts of Toronto are beautiful and historic like the carpet factory. Most of it is ugly and beige or gray, and not just because of the cloudy, cold weather we encountered upon our arrival. Train tracks and railyards cut the city off from harbour access, and even the CN Tower - which we didn't pay the $21 to go up into - is horribly forboding and cold in design, looming over the city like a huge push pin, less sci-fi than Seattle's Space Needle and much less utilitarian than any of NYC's lofty observation deck office buildings like the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock.

There's something very San Franciscan about it's public transportation, though, with many streetcars still in use - and looking like they haven't been replaced since maybe the '60s. They share the traffic lanes with cars, often causing bottlenecks while collecting and depositing passengers on busy, narrow streets with parked cars on both sides. The subway station entrances also really reminded me of BART, but since we were there on business and relying on rental cars, I didn't get the chance to explore.

The main exploring I did was upon my arrival, when I was starved for lunch and Kevin was nursing a migraine. Of course, the front desk at our hotel refused to recommend any place to eat besides their own restaurant, so I was on my own to find something authentic and local. And what better than a local chain restaurant called The Pickle Barrel, where I drank Nova Scotian beer (Alexander Keith's Red Ale) and ate Albertan steak in possibly the best caesar salad I've ever had. It didn't matter that my meal has had pretty much in the mall. It was delicious and I am no stranger to suburbia.

During our meetings today I lightheartedly said that I would move to Canada for the right opportunity, and I think I meant it. But I hope there's a side of Toronto beyond my visitor's experience today, because if there isn't, I'm not sure how long I would last.

But I'm glad I went on the trip, if only for the chance to take advantage of Sebouh's companion upgrade and fly in Business Class on the way home. I really don't belong with the "luxury travellers," but where do I belong? I felt like a schmuck amongst the elite in the front of the plane, where they give you as much Cabernet as you want, and I don't know when to stop. The flight attendant kept telling me I could take more bags of snack mix, like I was a little kid flying for the first time. I think she sensed my glee, which I wore on my cheeks in a red that matched the wine that constantly filled my (real!) glass.

And now in New York for a couple of weeks before the next business trip.

September 27, 2008

Leave No Trace

Photo: Edith Bellinghausen

Not all of our trip last weekend was gorgeous landscapes and breathtaking sunrises. Though we had plenty of that, we encountered a lot of really disturbing images of nature's attack on man, and, frankly, man's attack on nature.

On the drive from San Diego to Julian, through winding roads that reminded us of the "scenic route" to Campo on our way to the Train to Tecate, we witnessed the remainders of what we could only imagine had been the natural deforestation of the landscape by summer wildfires. Everywhere around us, on both sides of the road, we saw terrifyingly gnarled trees, blackened branches, and charred trunks, as close to us as the side of the road, and extending way up into the mountains. It was a startling sight, but with nowhere to pull over and sparing Edith the anxiety of watching me photograph the landscape while driving (which I have done while driving alone), I didn't get any pictures of it. If you could imagine the scariest forest in The Wizard of Oz (including during the deleted "Jitterbug" scene), what we saw looked like escapees from there, stopped dead in their tracks. As much as I dream about buying an RV and parking it permanently out in the desert, I can't imagine being so close to nature's wrath, especially in all those houses we passed...

Nature takes its toll on the desert, too. Made mostly of rock instead of dune, it appears to be stable, steady, unmovable, but it lies on the San Jacinto Fault, and like Death Valley, the earth's subterranean plates are shifting so much that their movements have isolated Coyote Mountain from the Santa Rosa Mountain range, so that it now stands alone. We drove east on S-22, stopping occasionally along the 21-mile stretch known as "Erosion Road," which gives spectacular views of geologic forces at work, creating arroyos, playas, bajadas, canyons and erosion-induced cone-shaped piles of rubble called alluvial fans. We were heading east out of Anza-Borrego, crossing county lines into Imperial County to reach the Salton Sea. We could see it on the horizon from the desert, looking as blue as the sky, but when we arrived we realized it wasn't blue at all, rather reflecting the blue sky from a distance. In reality, this inland sea's dark and mucky surface is just a small indication of its distastrous history.

The Salton Sea started as a dry lake, of which there are many in Southern California, and as an empty basin it seemed like a good place to collect the runoff of an overflowing Colorado River. After a series of man-made historic events - canal-digging, reservoir-building, irrigation and other agricultural developments - the sea kept getting saltier and its shores kept fluctuating. It was meant to be a temporary body of water that would eventually evaporate, but it never did. By the 1950s, people realized the salinity of the water caused it to be more buoyant, making it one of the fastest bodies of water to go boating on. Hollywood celebrities flocked here, too - to its shores, for boating, camping, and even fishing (thanks to some ocean-dwelling fish being introduced to the sea).

In the end, The Salton Sea turned out to be an engineering disaster, and everything went horribly wrong. The sea became too salty and people were advised against eating the fish they caught. The birds started dying off, slowly and then en masse as a result of an avian botulism outbreak. Millions of fish died off from oxygen depletion as a result of too much algae. Now, nearly 10 years later, it is one big, smelly graveyard for wildlife, its sulfuric, rotten fumes choking the local Salton City residents and visitors like Edith and myself. Of course, our interest in the dilapidated and the macabre brought us there, so we didn't mind crunching through all the fish carcasses, nestled in a silty ground made mostly of shell fragments (which apparently can get pretty kicked up in a windstorm).

The water surface is still pretty active, but it washes a gunk ashore that's pretty disgusting. Staring at all of the death and destruction, it's surprising to see that a good number of seabirds are still surviving, in fact, thriving there. It's actually a key stop in many of these birds' migratory patterns, especially so surrounded by desert. The local wildlife refuge is one of the many reasons why there's a movement to restore the Salton Sea, but it makes you wonder: hasn't man done enough? Should they just leave it and let nature take its course with it? Or is it so far gone that nature will only induce more destruction there?

Out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by abandonment, I didn't feel as lonely or as small as I did standing in the middle of Badwater, Death Valley's salt basin which is only slightly more under sea level than the Salton Sea. The air was too humid for our desert-adjusted bodies, and we really felt the 100+ depgree heat, escaping to our air conditioned rental car for relief. However, we had one more stop to make while we were in the area: boiling mud pots.

It took a while to actually find them, and we had to drive long down a canal-flanked dirt road to get there. When we arrived, we saw a long, white-encrusted stretch of nothingness, and an empty brown field - empty except for cone-shaped deposits created by tiny volcanic eruptions. Underneath them? Bubbling mud.

If we listened closely, making sure we didn't walk too closely towards them, our feet already sinking into the white-dusted ground that looked dry and cracked on the surface but was wet and soft under some pressure, we could hear the blup-blup-blup that signified an impending eruption. It was surreal and alien. The site was somehow so "out there" that we were surprised it was even listed on a map.

We made it back to Borrego Springs for dinner at The Red Ocotillo that night. Before returning to our room at the Palms, we looked up at the stars, remarking how you can't see any of them in New York. There are so many of them, and they were all so close and bright. Somehow I think we felt safe and protected under that starlit sky, a feeling unfamiliar to me in New York as well, and even in Death Valley, when I was terrified to drive in the dark, listened to animals scratching at my door and awoke to ghost sightings. Maybe it was the companionship of Edith. Or maybe I'm just getting used to visiting these bizarre sites with the deafening cries of lost souls all around me.