September 30, 2010

These Gifts I Give Myself

There was only one thing I knew for certain that I wanted to do on my birthday: go out to breakfast.

It's my favorite meal of the day, and somehow I rarely get to eat it, my homemade morning meals leaning more towards later-day, lower calorie, unsweetened, ungreasy foods ever since I joined Weight Watchers in January. In the past, I've treated myself to a favorite sugary cereal (say, Peanut Butter Crunch) or basically an entire tube of Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls to kick off my birthday. But this year, attempting to stay on track, and although it would mean setting my alarm and getting up early on my birthday, I took myself out.

I ordered French toast, recalling the many birthdays of my childhood when my mother would cook whatever breakfast I wanted rather than pouring a bowl of cold cereal. I always had a hard time getting up then, too, and on the mornings of a hot birthday breakfast, I would get hollered at for dawdling in bed while the egg yolks hardened and the French toast overcooked or simply got cold.

Today, I dawdled in bed for as long as I could, arriving to Sanford's in Astoria a mere 15 minutes before their official breakfast hours ended. Instead of Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice, I drank decaf brewed coffee with a splash of skim milk and one Sweet and Low. Instead of struggling to cut crispy fried eggs with semi-solidified centers with a fork, I scooped runny poached eggs (liberally dosed with salt and pepper) with a spoon. And my French toast arrived hot and thick, splayed across a huge platter and topped with toasty turkey bacon.

And I ate it slowly, alone, checking my phone as the emails and text messages started to roll in, notifying me of Facebook wall posts from high school friends, former lovers, and guys who haven't bothered to call me back.

I lingered as long as I could there, in that booth built for four that I requested to sit in alone. A booth of three Greek men, meticulously ordering their espressos "thick," studied me from across the way, and appeared to be discussing me. I smiled and shrugged as I gestured for the check.

The rest of the day was as wide open and as shut tightly as it could be for me. There was nothing else I wanted to do, and yet there were a world of things I wished I could do. With the coming storm, a lack of funds, and nearly all of my friends at work, in school, or out of town, I faced the day ahead alone.

How would today be any different than any other day since I've moved to Queens? Or since I returned from my last trip to California?

I wished I could get my hair done in a salon today, but it would be unwise considering the high winds and humidity and the forecast's impending doom.

I wished I could get a manicure and pedicure at a nail salon today, but my toes still have not recovered from this summer's various hiking accidents, and I've had to sacrifice a fair amount of vanity in favor of buying groceries and paying the rent.

I wished I could get a job today.

I wished people would apologize today.

I wished my ex would pay me back the $1500 he borrowed from me six years ago today.

I wished for the people I care about who are far away today, so that I could hold them close, their love and affection being greater than any gift wrapped in shiny paper under a sticky bow.

But none of these wishes will come true. Not today anyway, not on my birthday.

Last year, I would have wished to lose the weight I'd gained during my painful departure from my last job. It's taken me nine months, but at the very least, that's the gift I've given myself this year.

So although I'm inclined to make today all about food - get drunk in the afternoon, eat pizza til I burst, lick frosting from my fingers and fall asleep with a half-chewed donut hanging out of my mouth - I don't want to undermine all the work I've done. Such a great sense of accomplishment is not only priceless but rare, and it's something I can really hold onto when I feel like a failure in love, labor, life.

I only hate half of my French toast this morning, bringing the rest home, where I sit now with pale wet toenails from a pedicure given to myself, waiting for the storm to come, waiting for my friends to shed their daily responsibilities and celebrate with a little dinner, a few drinks, and a lot of love.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

September 26, 2010

Photo Essay: Abandoned Greenpoint Hospital

Past the glow of the White Castle sign, near the third stop on the L train at the beginning of Kingsland Avenue lies a foreboding campus of miscellaneous old, dark, abandoned buildings: namely, the old Greenpoint Hospital, built in 1914 and closed in 1982, later a homeless men's shelter, and now the subject of community debate and (somewhat stalled?) developer bids to create affordable and senior housing. Most of it is cordoned off with rusty fencing that has become intertwined with tree trunks and tall weeds.

Despite the nearby housing projects, desolate park and darkening sky, we went skulking around outside on Friday night.

We didn't have to break in to see the inside of the Greenpoint Hospital Outpatient Department - the former clinic has been taken over by the community organization St. Nick's Alliance, who have devoted the entire Garden Level of the building to gallery space, retaining much of the original character of the hospital facilities...

...and, in some cases, a liberal coat of new white paint.

In other cases, you could count the multicolored layers of paint like rings in a tree trunk.

Although the night we visited, the space was crawling with artists and North Brooklyn hipsters swigging beer and swilling wine as they nibbled on cheese and ham cubes, there were still plenty of dark corners to explore...

...and the subtle remnants of humanity amidst the institutional vestiges.

I can't think of a better place to hang your art than in the green-tiled shower stall of an abandoned hospital. Of course, for me, the shower stall is the art.

Check out Forgotten NY's post on East Williamsburg and the Greenpoint Hospital complex.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

September 24, 2010

Photo Essay: Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

In my exploration of my new neighborhood, which I've been documenting with a series of photographs, I've found myself on Northern Boulevard a couple of times, mostly to stock up on cheap groceries at Pathmark or Super Stop and Shop. It's the kind of boulevard you don't want to walk on, trucks whizzing by, lowriders seemingly aiming right for you as you cross the intersection. It marks a kind of boundary for the Astoria and Long Island City neighborhoods, a stark contrast to the pedestrian malls of Broadway or Steinway Street with a distinctly vehicular culture, lined with auto shops and parking lots.

And then there's the Standard Motor Products Building.

The hulking building that once housed a preeminent manufacturer of automotive parts occupies a couple of city blocks and looms over Northern Boulevard, its huge water tank blocking the afternoon sun. But if you squint really hard, and look over the roof line and under the American flag, you see the slightest indication of what now makes this building special: New York City's largest rooftop farm, Brooklyn Grange.

People have developed New York City so densely that when they ran out of horizontal space, they had no option but to build up, creating bafflingly tall buildings, added-on floors on top of shorter buildings, and sometimes buildings on top of other buildings (or built over things like bridges). But with no land left, and an increasing demand for locally-grown ingredients (the Greenmarket's visiting farmers from New Jersey, Long Island and the Hudson Valley not being local enough), would-be city farmers have gone to their roofs to grow whatever can survive the wind, lack of shade, air pollution, and shallow soil that NYC roofs have to offer.

I first encountered Brooklyn Grange's ingredients at a special event hosted by Cabrito, which featured the rooftop farm's tomatoes and peppers in a salsa trio, eggplant, and various other greens and veggies paired with the kinds of protein for which Cabrito is notorious.

When I heard that they sell their crops (and hot sauce!) in the lobby of the Standard Motor Products building, and that some days you can actually go up to the roof to check it out, I made a beeline back to Northern Boulevard.

And lucky for me, in my sometimes charmed life, I arrived coincidentally simultaneously with a group from GrowNYC (responsible for the greenmarkets) and the USDA, who were eager to meet farmer Ben Flanner and receive an extended, VIP tour of the farm.

Giddy, I tagged along, introducing myself as a neighbor when I met all their curious gazes with a shrug.

To my delight, there are still plenty of remnants of the building's industrial past...

...including the sprawling fifth floor where the elevator deposits you, a couple of flights down from the roof.

The roof itself is the perfect combination of classic New York rooftop scenery - water tank, skyline, pipes, equipment, metal boxes labelled "Carrier" whirring - and completely anachronistic greenery, a dream garden by anyone's standards.

Up there, you cannot forget that you are in New York City, with the LIRR rumbling by, the billboards looming, the scent of motor oil intermingling with the blossoming cilantro. Everything is even planted in a material that reflects the same confluence of nature and industry: a composite of soil and lightweight, porous gravel (clay, lava, pumice and the like).

Right now the Brooklyn Grange's crops are about 25% tomatoes (50-60 varieties of them!), but you also find peppers, greens, herbs, sugar snap peas, and a variety of other vegetables - some experiments, some planted too late, some sprouting from seeds gifted to the farm.

What they've accomplished up there is impressive, and very much still a work in progress. Brooklyn Grange only just started up in May of this year, and Ben Flanner wasn't raised to be a farmer. He's taken his business acumen from working in finance and combined that with what he's learned from reading a bunch of books and talking to other farmers. (!)

I love this city's trend of people leaving their white collar careers to go pursue some other passion, be it distilling gin or opening bars or growing vegetables. Imagine the industriousness it must take to build a farm on the roof of a factory!

Plus, my neverending search for nature in New York City was satisfied a bit when I found it in the least likely, and the most industrial, space possible. And only a 20-minute walk from my new apartment.

Thanks to Ben for giving me the VIP treatment even though I couldn't help him identify the beetles eating his kale or suggest equipment for cutting his greens.

Brooklyn Grange can be spotted at a variety of restaurants and markets throughout the city throughout the week. Visitors are welcome in the lobby Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and if you're lucky, maybe someone will take you upstairs...

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

September 22, 2010

Triborough State of Mind

I've got the Triborough Bridge on my mind.

I'd driven across it plenty of times on my way back from Upstate, until I discovered the magical, toll-less Third Avenue Bridge which circumvents the traffic and dumps you out right at the FDR.

I planned to walk across it from Randall's Island once, but the walk across the 103rd St. Bridge and the subsequent mini golf game and feeble attempt in the batting cages exhausted my adventurous spirit.

I'd always kind of liked it, the way it connects the three NYC boroughs of the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan (and Randall's Island!), and have directed taxis to take me home from LaGuardia Airport to Manhattan across it.

And now, after seven years in Brooklyn and Manhattan each, I'm living in my third borough of New York City, in Astoria, where the Triborough Bridge releases travelers into the middle of the Queens borough.

I could walk across the Triborough Bridge now, but where would I be going?

The bridge was recently renamed the RFK Memorial Bridge, after the fallen hero Bobby Kennedy, and all the street signs have been changed. But I refuse to call it that. It will always be the Triborough Bridge to me.

Friday night I ambled down to Astoria Park from 30th Avenue to check out the pool (which I never got to before it closed for the season) and photograph the sunset, and I found myself right underneath the Triborough Bridge, rattling its street-level doors, inspecting the scaffolding that prevents climbers from getting too high. I stood beneath the bridge, stepping left to its south and right to its north, watching as the setting sun peeked out from and hid behind the Manhattan skyline, its golden rays ribboning the darkening, cloud-streaked sky.

Others - presumably locals, my neighbors - jogged by, walked their dogs, waited in parked cars for their kids to return from the playground, their downturned gazes accustomed to the view. But my eyes were cast upward, outward, into Manhattan, which I now must call "the city." I tried to squint past the skyscrapers, past New Jersey, past the entire country to where I imagined the sun was setting into the earth, into the Pacific Ocean.

I suppose bridges began to mean less in the advent of subway tunnels - just as much of the once-necessary ferry service cross both rivers has been decommissioned - but when you're above ground, you know where you're going. And you can stand at one end of the bridge, and see how to get to the other side, if you only had somewhere to go, something to do there. Some reason to go and never come back.

In Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero sits on a bench on the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, dreaming about how to get out of his native Bay Ridge, bringing dates to that bench so he can tell them all the trivia he knows about the bridge. Part of the tragedy is, that bridge connects Brooklyn with nothing but...Staten Island. Which is just as nowhere as where Tony's coming from. But, for him, it's a way out, a conduit to something else, anywhere else - and a physical representation of his dream.

Of course, when he actually does get out, it's by riding the subway all night long...He spends a lot of time goofing around on the bridge with his friends, but he never actually crosses it. But without that bridge to attach to, he might have never gotten on that subway at all.

I'm left to wonder whether putting my dreams onto the Triborough Bridge will take me out of Queens, where I really don't want to be, or just lead me in circles throughout New York City, perhaps depositing me into a fourth borough (the Bronx)?

I drove a rental van across the Queensborough Bridge - a bridge I have walked across - to move to Queens. What conduit will be my way out?

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

September 21, 2010

Photo Essay: Inside Governors Island: Fort Jay Movie Theater

Part II of III

For me, the pièce de résistance of my most recent visit to Governors Island was the opportunity to get inside its movie theater, whose exterior façade, despite looking relatively institutional, always piqued my interest. 

Like our tour leader, photographer Lisa Kereszi, I'm particularly interested in vacant—if not abandoned—recreational locales, like amusement parks, theme parksswimming pools, boardwalksyacht clubs and World's Fair pavilions

And after skulking around the outside of the RKO Keith theater in Flushing, Queens, I was ready to get access to the inside of a movie theater.


September 20, 2010

Photo Essay: Inside Governors Island: Officer's Club

Part II of III

This weekend, photographer Lisa Kereszi took a small group of us inside a couple of the buildings that were her local haunts when the Public Art Fund commissioned her in 2004 to document Governors Island, ten years after its closure.

These buildings are never open to the public now, and may never be again, as the fates of the various abandoned structures around the island are determined one by one - some resulting in adaptive reuse, others (like the school) in demolishment.

By the time the Coast Guard occupied the island in the 20th century, some of the buildings, like the South Battery fortress, were no longer needed for their original purpose, so they already have been reused for a different purpose. The South Battery was originally erected during the War of 1812 to guard Buttermilk Channel (the waterway between Governors Island and Brooklyn) and was later used to house the Army Music School's fife and drum corps through the 1870s. Between the 1880s and the 1930s, it was slowly transformed into an Officer's Club, known for Corbin Hall, its grandiose ballroom.

As in the barracks of Building 12 and its various sections, these abandoned buildings have a way of getting dirty even if no one is using them. Paint peels unprovoked. Roofs leak, causing ceilings to shed onto floors and seats below. Mold prospers. Wires unravel. Metal rusts. Gravity takes hold. And, in the case of the Officer's Club, dried leaves find their way inside and litter the floor.

Club room

Club room

Second floor hallway

Second floor bathroom

Second floor kitchen

Second floor kitchen

Second floor hallway

Second floor, outside Parapet Room

Second floor hallway

Second floor ballroom

On a sunny day, there's an incredible amount of light streaming through the windows of these buildings, many of which have a LOT of windows. Still, the electricity is still ON in many of these buildings, which makes you wonder, what for? Simply for fire inspectors and maintenance crews to maintain the safety and security of the island? Or in hopes that someday - soon - there will be a reason to occupy these spaces which once supported a prospering community?

Stay tuned for the third part in this photo essay series, which examines the Governors Island movie theater.

For Part I in the series, click here.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Photo Essay: Breuckelen Distilling Co.

Breuckelen Distilling Co. is part of a small outcropping of new micro-distilleries in the New York City area (and New York State). Nestled in a warehouse district in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, near the Gowanus Canal, it's a tiny craft operation whose output so far is a unique, custom gin worthy of - if you can believe it - sipping straight.

Tasting Room jars of botanical ingredients: lemon, rosemary, ginger, juniper

whole wheat (from Upstate NY) to be turned into alcohol

wheat dust on the mill

inside the fermenter

juniper berries, the one ingredient all gins share in common

dried lemon rind

dried ginger 

wax seal drips

Thanks to Ryan for the tour and letting us sniff the inside of their charred white virgin oak barrels, which they're going to start experimenting with in making some brown liquors.

The distillery is open for tours Saturdays and Sundays, or click here for a sneak preview.

To become a fan on Facebook, click here.