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.

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