Thursday, August 30, 2007

Maiden Voyage

Am I wrong or is boating just an exercise in frustration? As of August 4th the boat was in the water, but it had neither motor nor registration. I could row around in the marina (if I could row), but I couldn’t take a motorboat out into the bay without risk of getting a ticket. “And they’re out there,” the boss growled as he lowered the boat into the water with the big forklift and canvas slings. Meanwhile, my man in the boat business—we’ll call him Pete—dragged out the little three-horsepower motor he let me use last year, after I ruined his old fifteen-horsepower motor, and dug up a plastic gas can. “This is MINE,” he said with emphasis, handing me the can. I felt guilty all week for not returning it.

The first chance I got, I went to the gas station and put six dollars’ worth of high-test in Pete’s gas can. While holstering the gas pump, I noticed a puddle spreading beneath the can. It had a leak: two thin streams were squirting out of it. I found my duct tape, but then decided that rather than repair the gas can I should just put the gas in my car—in my car’s gas tank, that is—and I spilt some more gas trying to do that. I set the can on a plastic bag in the trunk and drove to the boatyard, seething. It’s not bad enough that Pete sends me out into the bay with a motor that conks out if you look at it funny (though, to be fair, I’m the one who ruined the original motor by repeatedly trying to re-start it when it was already overcooked); now he sends me out with a leaky gas can. I thanked Pete, with what sarcasm I could muster, for lending me a leaky gas can and told him I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He laughed.

Too many of my boating stories end with getting towed. Early in the season, Pete told me that he had sent my old motor to a mechanic named Abdul for repair. That motor had first conked out on me three years ago, and Pete had tried to fix, and the boss had had a look at it, and I kept going out on the bay to test it, and it kept crapping out on me, forcing an ignominious return under tow. Even the little air-cooled three-horsepower, the eggbeater, that I fell back on and that Pete swore was “foolproof” made a fool out of me. How was I to know it held only a half a cup of gas? I went for a short trip, neglecting to carry an extra gallon, ran out of gas, and was struggling to row across the channel when the boss took pity on me, mounted his jet ski, rode to my rescue, and towed me in. It felt like a scene out of a Western.

Seeing me in the boatyard with the leaky gas can, Pete was reminded of Abdul and the old outboard motor. He called, and Abdul was there, at his mysterious operation in Meadowmere. “It’s right behind the Bay House,” Pete said. The Bay House is a bar and restaurant tucked behind Kennedy Airport, at the head of Jamaica Bay, beyond Far Rockaway. “The second house on the left. There are two cranes in the yard.”

So suddenly, instead of going to Buster’s or Pep Boys to price a new outboard motor, which had been my hidden agenda for the day, I found myself on the way to Meadowmere to meet Abdul. On my way, I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts and decided to indulge my weakness for a cup of coffee. Even that wasn’t easy. The parking lot had only blue-painted handicapped spots or spots paved with crushed glass. Eventually—after driving the wrong way through the drive-through and trying to get back onto the street where there was no curb cut—I realized that the blue-painted handicapped spots were obsolete, and only one spot, with a sign, was for the handicapped. Inside the Dunkin’ Donuts, I thought, Maybe a cinnamon doughnut . . . The girl said they had no cinnamon doughnuts, only munchkins. What I thought was: I don’t want no stupid munchkins, bitch! What I said was “OK, then I won’t have a doughnut.” My eye fell on a tray of chocolate-glazed, but at that point I was highly conscious of (1) my habit of eating in response to frustration and (2) the ever-increasing level of that frustration, which would take a doughnut the size of an innertube for a semi to assuage. In the car, the shoulder restraint of my seat belt, which is designed to automatically strangle me when I turn the key in the ignition, pushed the cup of coffee, which I was holding in my left hand, into my face. Even that little plastic bit on the lid I could not get to stick in the indentation.

The road to the Bay House was closed to all but local traffic—they were doing some kind of work on it. It seemed unlikely that there was anyplace to go down that road, but the Bay House was open. Because of the new moon, the tide had been extra high and the road was muddy. I parked at the restaurant and walked back to the junkyard (that is, the industrial park). No sign of Abdul. I had to call Pete, who called Abdul, who met me in the road. Mud swamped my sandals and squidged between my toes.

I expected Abdul to have dreadlocks, but he had fluffy black hair in a brush cut. He explained that the motor, tucked under a blue tarp, runs, but it needs a new head: you have to go slowly, and only for about an hour. In other words, the same thing was wrong with it as before: it goes for a while, but the head is warped, so the coolant doesn’t circulate, and it overheats. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea massima culpa. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault—all right, already, I ruined the motor, but must I pay for it forever? I was supposed to go slow for a half hour and then turn around and try to make it home? That was my future on Jamaica Bay? Abdul showed me some other ancient motors he was working on, including a seven-horsepower Johnson, which he said he’d give me when it was fixed. I squidged back through the mud to the car, pulled up to the junkyard fence, and Abdul wedged the old fifteen-horsepower albatross in my trunk.

I returned to the marina in a spasm of resignation. It seemed as if some higher power just did not want me out on the bay. Either that or the marina wanted a new scapegoat. Before I showed up, they had Francis of Assisi. His boat spent whole seasons out of the water with engine trouble, and when he finally got it into the bay, he’d hit a floating tree trunk or something. Now he has a jet ski, and when he sees me coming he’s the first one to say, “Uh-oh. Call out the Coast Guard!”

Pete, to his credit, was mad at Abdul for giving me the motor. He said that Abdul was supposed to have found a new head and installed it before giving the motor back to me. While Pete was tinkering with the little three-horsepower, I quizzed some of the regulars: Shouldn’t I just buy a new motor? Francis of Assisi nodded sagely. Why was Pete against it? “I love Pete to death, but he’s Mr. Flimflam,” the boss said. “He wouldn’t spend a dime to see the Statue of Liberty piss.”

Pete handed the little three-horsepower to me, expecting me to hump it down to the boat and mount it myself, but I was afraid I’d drop it overboard, so I offered him twenty dollars to help. He refused the money, but got a hand truck and wheeled the motor down the gangplank and over to the slip, and I got in the boat and he coached me where to set the motor on the transom. Then he said, “Let’s see if you still know how it works.” You can start it cold, but it was already hot, and you have to remember to open the little vent on top so air can go in, and set the little lever on the gas filter (or whatever) so gas can go in. I had forgotten both those things. And, oh yeah, you have to push the propeller down into the water. And set the throttle on start or slow. And pull the cord.

So I was set. But first I had to get gas. And wash the mud off my feet. At one of those gas-station minimarts I bought a red plastic two-gallon gas can for twelve dollars (Pete thought me extravagant) and filled it with high-test. Then I went back into the store and bought a six-pack of Amstel Light. Now I was ready for my maiden voyage.

* * *

I am still sort of pitching from it. I feel like I’m still on the water. The table is going back and forth. The house is pitching.

I get in the boat. I array my things. I’d baled it out earlier: about six inches of rainwater. I try the motor, just to see if it starts, and it does, but I let it idle as I go about my business, trying to figure out which end of the boat to untie first, and it stalls. OK, I’ll re-start it once I’m out of the slip. I shove off, but I can’t re-start the motor and I’m drifting into this big rusty barge. I tie up to a piling, and when I get the motor started I’m heading directly into the barge. Pete yells from the dock, “There’s something in front of you!” I know that. “Do you remember reverse?” What I remember is that on this dinky little excuse for a motor there is no reverse. “Turn the motor around!” he yells.

Finally I get out of the marina under power. My intention is to go west, but the tide is coming in, and my three horses are no match for it. Also, whenever I try to give the engine more power, or less power, or make any adjustment, it cuts out on me. So I’m trying to start the motor as the current is taking me under the trestle bridge, backwards. I grab an oar just in time to fend off the bridge, and decide I’ll go east after all. On the other side of the bridge, there’s a whirlpool. (Pete scoffs when I tell him this later. “That’s an eddy,” he says, and explains how the current separates at the bridge pilings and then comes back together.) I’m desperately out of control. This demonstration of woeful, woeful seamanship has lasted less than five minutes—all I can do is try to row back to the marina. Suddenly I notice that I have only one oar. Well, at least now I have a mission: I’ve got to get that other oar back. I’m not exactly rowing (I hate that in rowing you face away from where you’re going), but trying my best, with one oar, to propel myself toward the other oar, floating at a tantalizing distance. Whenever I get near enough to try to snag it, I have to ship my remaining oar, the boat loses momentum, and the errant oar drifts out of reach. Round and round and round I go, approaching it from clockwise and counterclockwise. I know I can’t row back with only one oar, so I just keep trying, and in the effort I let go of my despair, because I'm busy chasing the oar . . . Finally I haul it aboard by its big flat white working blade.

Now that I’m out here and have nothing to bump into (and no audience) and am being carried up the bay, and can’t row home against the tide even with two oars, I decide I may as well try once again to master the intricacies of the goddam internal-combustion engine. I get it started, but it sputters out. I do not panic. I try to be systematic and make sure I’m doing the simple things right. I touch the part where Pete made sure the sparkplug worked. It’s in there snug. Then I remember that to row I had shut the gas valve and closed the air cap so that I could angle the motor up and thereby reduce drag (I thought). So I give it air, I give it gas: it coughs into life like a victim of drowning resuscitated. I aim for the big rusty barge that marks the marina, on the far side of the bridge and the other side of the channel, and go for it.

But it is very slow going. And I am feeling very foolish. The only object of this voyage is to end it. I seem never to get past the mouth of the marina two basins down from mine. I’m tempted to row along with the motor. But again I’m safe here, I have hours before sunset, and I can play with the motor a little. Giddyup. The third horse starts to pull his weight. The land goes by a little faster. I aim for one of the passages under the bridge. I weave back and forth a lot, negotiating the wakes of other boats. I make it under the bridge and head into the marina. If I pass it up, it is going to be hard to make the turn once the current is pushing me again. But I make it. I twist the throttle to slow down approaching my slip, but now it won’t slow down. I don’t want to stop by crashing into the dock or into somebody’s forty-five-thousand-dollar vessel. Turning, I cut the engine and drift into my slip and grab the dock. Now I can’t find the line that it would be so easy to slip over the cleat on the dock, but I hold on with the spring line. Turns out I’m sitting on the loop I’m looking for. I slip it over the cleat and try to pull it tight, and now the bow splays out. I’m holding two lines at once, which means I’ve got no hand left to tie a knot. So I hold one line down with my foot and tie three big knots in the other. Then I climb out and grab the fancy hook on the line at the bow and secure it. I gauge the length of the spring line and wrap it around the cleat inside the boat. I close the cap on the gas tank and adjust the lever of the gas filter and tilt the motor up. Whew. I made it.

I’m carrying my bag and my new gas can and my backpack up the gangplank to the trailer-office. They’re all there, sitting outside: Pete, Francis of Assisi, the boss, his buddy the cop. “She made it!” someone shouts. They applaud. I bow, feeling the first tiny surge of pleasure in this outing, the first return on a large deposit of frustration.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yellow Curb Fever

The Wave this summer has been brimming with stories on the parking controversies of Rockaway. I missed the meeting last Sunday about raising the parking fee at Riis Park. It now costs five dollars a day to park there, and the proposal is to raise the fee to ten dollars, effective the summer of 2009. The Wave had an article on the proposed hike, complete with photos of parked cars, and of cars arriving in order to park, in this historic facility. (You will remember that the parking lot at Riis Park Beach was, when it was built, the largest parking lot in the world. Still, it is not very photogenic.) Many of the people who use the parking lot at Riis are families who make a day of it, setting up tents and hammocks and grills under the scrubby little pines, and fishing in the bay or swimming or picnicking. The only locals who park at Riis, as far as I can tell from the Letters to the Editor (of which there are plenty), are golfers.

The National Park Service wants to raise the parking fee to keep the cost of parking at Riis in line with parking fees at other lots in the Gateway system—in other words, because they can. Most of the revenue would go back into the park—paying parking attendants and making improvements—but some twenty per cent of it would go toward improvements at other parks. Besides the golfers, who demand a safer parking lot (cars get broken into), letter writers included a local politician and a civic-minded elder. Naturally, no one came out in support of the price hike. I suppose what will happen is that they’ll reduce the hike by approximately the amount they proposed to give away to other parks and raise the price to eight dollars.

The other big flap in the parking arena began in a Letter to the Editor. A man who lives on Beach 118th Street had recently learned that a friend received a ticket for parking in front of the house of neighbors who had painted their curb yellow. It’s true: anyone can paint his curb yellow. Because of the severe restrictions on parking in the West End (where, incidentally, it is clear that the editor of the Wave lives and parks), homeowners have all kinds of strategies to save the spaces in front of their houses for themselves and their guests. They put up bogus signs (“No Parking, 24 Hour Drive,” “Authorized Personnel Only,” “Parking for Irish Only”) or set out orange traffic cones that they picked up somewhere. The letter, published on July 27th, included the address of the house of the yellow curb and stated that there is no driveway or garage at that house, and that, furthermore, the people next door had also painted their curb yellow and erected one of those portable basketball hoops to keep people from parking there.

The next week, the man with the yellow curb wrote a letter in his own defense: wounded by the Wave’s publication of the first letter, which made his home and family the subject of scandal, he enclosed proof that his curb cut is legal and demanded an apology. The Wave responded with a separate article on the controversy: the letter they printed had ignited a feud on 118th Street. Mostly the article quoted the letter, but it also pointed out that it is illegal to paint your curb yellow. The family in question did not know this. Also, the family acknowledged that their curb cut is not as high as the standard curb cut, but explain that there is a valve poking up in middle (possibly a cap for the water main). The article was accompanied by a photograph of the yellow curb, in black-and-white.

The house next door to the house with the substandard yellow-painted curb cut—the one with the basketball hoop—also occasioned a letter to the editor, this one from an extremely jaded resident. “How long have you been living on this block?” she asks. “You said you called the police and 311 and no change? Hello, obviously these people know someone!”

This week (August 17th) the Wave reported that a resident got a ticket for parking in her own driveway. It’s really more of a photo essay, with a shot of the car, overhanging the sidewalk a bit, and the Traffic Enforcement Police vehicle in the background (and an “Open House” sign with balloons, which kind of confuses the issue), and a long caption: “It is illegal to park on the beach blocks west of Beach 126 Street at any time and it is illegal to park on most west end streets during summer weekends. So where do people park? In their driveway (if they have one), of course. Because of the restrictive parking regulations, there has always been an understanding that overstuffed driveways were all right on summer weekends. A car parked up the curb cut, even blocking the sidewalk a bit, was usually ignored by local police. Last Sunday, however, a local parked in her own driveway was ticketed by a traffic enforcement agent for just that.”

Tucked away in a section called Beachcomber (one of my favorite sections) is a tiny item stating that you if you park at Fort Tilden, at the western end of (and very convenient to) Riis Park, you will get a ticket from the National Parks Service (but payable to the city) unless you have a sticker. To get a sticker, you have to show car registration and driver’s license, but the sticker itself is free. I’m not sure this isn’t misinformation, but if it’s true, it’s awfully good news. Shouldn’t it be on page one?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

For the Birds–II

Forget everything I said about birds. I went to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge with some serious birders out of Connecticut over the weekend. They toted the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and gigantic binoculars and huge monocular spotting scopes on tripods, and wore floppy hats and spray-on Off!, and at least one of them had a special vest with net pockets over the buttocks for her water bottle and field guide. It is certain that what I thought all along was a skimmer (because of the way it flies low over the water with its beak open, skimming the tiny foodstuffs off the surface) is an oystercatcher (its beak is orange right to the tip; the skimmer’s beak has a black tip), and what I have taken for piping plovers, those little birds that run back and forth on the beach, are most likely sanderlings (the plovers are plumper and have a ring around the neck). So I am still on the lookout for the piping plover, but I like sanderlings and am glad they're not endangered.

At the last minute, I was joined on this excursion by my evil twin, and so, though I tried to behave, the avidity of the type of birder who keeps a life list struck me forcibly as absurd. Here is what my life list looks like: Birds–check. My evil twin’s life list is more extensive: Big ducks, Little ducks–check, check. The leader never spoke directly to anyone: he was always scanning the treetops, his attention snapping away as if he were afflicted by some birder’s version of attention-deficit disorder, and saying things like “Cedar waxwing at two o’clock” and “That was a yellow-tailed warbler—actually, it was a tail-less yellow-tailed warbler.” At one point, in a blind from which voyeurs had spotted a pair of doves and a muskrat, the leader was making an expert birdcall to attract something, and my evil twin almost split her sides because she wanted so badly to say, "I hear it, but I don't see it."

I saw a green heron, and a soro, and a semipalmated plover, and I learned that a passerine bird is not, as I thought, a bird that is just passing through but a sparrow (it’s from the Latin). The birders got excited about birds I see all the time: There were snowy egrets, of course, roosting, fishing, flapping their big sail-like wings in flight; and cormorants; and ducks and geese (which my mother used to call “long-necked ducks”). There were terns wheeling, their wings sharply angular (though I cannot distinguish the least tern), and laughing gulls, with their distinct black heads and heartless cry: Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah! Later, on the beach, we noticed one rather aristocratic-looking gull slumming among a flock of herring gulls competing for Cheetos—a Bonaparte?

So I have made fun of the bird-lovers and the bird-haters. I’m sure that somewhere in the great pecking order of the universe, some big bird is making fun of me. Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah Hah!

Friday, August 17, 2007


“How was the waugh-da?” the girl at the deli asked, from behind the salad counter. I stopped this morning on my way home from the beach to see if the Wave had come in.
“It was great,” I said.
“What the hell?” said the cashier, registering my wet hair and towel. I think this is the girl I once lost patience with. I told her to concentrate on what she was doing.
“She goes there every day,” the first girl said.
“Not every day,” I said.

She’s seen me twice now this week. As long as I'm staying in Rockaway, I try to go for a dip before work at least three out of five mornings a week. Otherwise, what am I out there for? This morning it was overcast, and I might have used that as an excuse not to go in the water, but I knew I would regret it, so I went. Clean, not too cold, with good, regular, long-breaking waves, maybe a suggestion of a rip tide.

After my swim, sitting on a towel with a cup of coffee, I noticed down the beach lots of surfers hanging on the water in their black wetsuits. They don’t mind if it’s overcast. Gulls were dropping clams from on high to break them open. I had piping plovers in stereo: cheep-cheep cheep-cheep cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep-cheep. I wonder if they have only one pitch, and if I will ever be organized enough to take a pitch pipe with me to the beach to find out.

And the Wave had come in—the local paper, that is. I'm saving it till I get home tonight and can read about the latest parking controversy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Cure

I was running late this morning, after a bad night—plague of planes from JFK, the roar of a neighbor’s ancient air-conditioner (on a cool night yet), and Norbert up to his old tricks, knocking the phone off the desk and overturning the kitchen garbage, looking for pepperoni—but still, there was no conflict about whether or not to go down to the beach for a swim before boarding the A train. Today is the Feast of the Assumption, or Ferragosto, the name day (in Europe) of all people named Mary, and the occasion of a pleasing superstition: if you go into the water today, you will have good health all year. Also, lest we forget, alternate-side parking is suspended on this day, commemorating the Assumption into Heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In parking terms, the Assumption is really the only thing August has going for it, though, like Fourth of July, this year it falls on a Wednesday and doesn’t do anyone much good.

I had time for only a quick dip. There was a calm sea, a negligible amount of seaweed, clams at the high-tide line, and a few piping plovers ranging and cheeping on the beach. I caught a wave of just the right soft exuberance, towelled off, clapped my cap on my head, and was almost on the boardwalk before I realized that I wasn’t wearing my glasses and remembered that I’d stored them in said cap and had felt some obstacle while putting it on . . . I went back to look for them. They are very lightweight glasses, and I was afraid the breeze or a gull might have carried them away, but before I had time to panic I spotted them on the sand. At the deli, where I stopped for takeout coffee, the woman behind the counter said, “Have you been swimming already?” I told her about the traditional August 15th dip, and another customer said, “Oh yeah—the cure.” I felt like an evangelist.

I had to hustle to get the train, but my luck held. “You’ve got time,” said a man at the turnstile. I recognized him from the neighborhood: he has brown dreadlocks gathered into a thick tangled ponytail. “You’ve got two minutes. It comes in at 9:06, this train.” It was 9:04. The A train was late at Broad Channel, however. A storklike black woman did yoga on the platform, balancing on one leg. I finished my coffee and ate a banana.

I was in for a really rich meal on the train: I have reached those chapters in “Decline and Fall” where Gibbon treats the rise of Christianity. Some months ago, I was at the train station at Saxa Rubra, nine miles north of Rome, which, I wrote (rather glibly), was where Constantine defeated Diocletian. Well, it turns out that Diocletian was that rare emperor who abdicated before being murdered (he retired to Dalmatia to plant cabbages), and it was the army of Maxentius that Constantine defeated at Saxa Rubra. “The emperor himself attempted to escape back into the city over the Milvian bridge, [1] but the crowds which pressed together through that narrow passage forced him into the river, where he was immediately drowned by the weight of his armour. His body, which had sunk very deep into the mud, was found with some difficulty the next day. The sight of his head, when it was exposed to the eyes of the people, convinced them of their deliverance, and admonished them to receive with acclamations of loyalty and gratitude the fortunate Constantine, who thus achieved by his valour and ability the most splendid enterprise of his life.” [Footnote No. 1 (mine, not Gibbon’s or Oliphant Smeaton’s): This is that very same bridge, the Ponte Milvio, where lovers write their names on padlocks, attach them to posts on the bridge, and throw away the key; and where sellers of padlocks are doing a land-office business. There was an article in the Times about it.]

In the thrill of battle, Gibbon failed to mention Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, but that is no doubt because he wanted to give himself a running start. So far, I have read only the early parts about Jews, pagans, and early Christian proselytizers. This morning, I got to a section on the immortality of the soul, in which Gibbon backs up all the way to Moses. Smeaton, too, is pretty excited, and contributes a footnote that takes up an entire page.

While I have been reading these chapters, I have noticed around me on the train people who are reading Hebrew. Sometimes they move their lips while they read. Stealing a look at the pages open in front of them, I am dazzled by the typography and layout. I knew that Hebrew read from right to left and that the books opened from back to front, but I didn’t know that the text was laid out in dipperfuls of prose surrounded by text in columns of varying width, with sidebars and marginalia and footnotes. Gad!

Meanwhile, a woman next to me was carrying a small paperback called "The Art of Lying." She didn’t open it for the whole ride.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


A discussion of traffic tickets among the crew at the marina over the weekend veered off suddenly onto the piping plover, and so I can say with certainty that in Rockaway, at least, “plover” rhymes not with “lover” but with “Dover” (or, rather, since this is Queens, “ova,” as in eggs). A cop brought up the subject, speaking on the understanding that everyone present loathed the plovers. And they do. Even the one woman present (besides me), a mild creature whom everyone loves, and whom I’ve heard singing the praises of the swallows, said that when she sees plovers in the marina she throws pebbles at them. The cop, who had just been talking about driving a car on the boardwalk (cops do it all the time), said he ran into a friend who spends August fishing off Cape Cod. “Why aren’t you at the Cape?” the cop asks. The friend goes rigid. “He thinks I’m kidding him. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ he says. 'You can’t go anywhere up there now. The plovers built their nests all over the beach, and everywhere you go’”—meaning on the beach in your truck—“‘there’s someone from the Audubon Society, pointing and saying, "There’s one!"’ He went on for a half hour. He says the economy up there is tanking because of the plovers.”

They all shake their heads. One of them quotes the bumper sticker “Piping Plover—Tastes Like Chicken” and laughs. “I wouldn’t wear one of those,” someone else says—not, I think, because it’s in bad taste but because the birders would be all over him. They have such a sense of entitlement—they're not going to let some little birds push them around—that if anyone spoke in the plovers' defense, one of them might start quoting Genesis: "And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and OVER THE FOWL OF THE AIR." The resident Francis of Assisi—he puts out pans of water for the pigeons—claims he doesn’t know what a piping plover is. “You know, those little birds that run back and forth on the beach.” He knows. He is just not going to admit it in this crowd. "I thought those were sandpipers," he says. I pipe down.

Friday, August 10, 2007

For the Birds

Of all the complaints you hear in Rockaway in the summer—not enough lifeguards (so that beaches are closed); not enough parking spots (because of nonresidents parking on the street); cops giving people tickets for drinking beer on the beach or for swimming after hours or for surfing at a nonsurfing beach or for not surfing at the surfing beach; that Coney Island gets all the attention while Rockaway gets the drug-crazed and the mentally ill; that there isn’t a movie theatre or a mall or a swimming pool or a ferry or (my personal pet peeve) an Internet cafĂ©—from one quarter there has been silence: no complaints about piping plovers.

My friend G., having invited herself to the beach, noticed it first. “Where are those little birds that run back and forth?” she asked. It’s true that there weren’t any on the beach that afternoon, but I figured it was just because the beach was crowded and the tide was in and the birds were elsewhere, in Arverne or at Breezy Point. Then there was an article in the Wave about the perennial battle between the piping plovers and the volleyball players (“On the Peninsula It’s a Battle for the Beaches,” by Michelle Romano). The Rockaway Beach Volleyball League, whose members play at Riis Park, have in the past had to move their nets every week to accommodate the piping plovers (rhymes with lovers), which are listed as a “threatened” species; by law, the places where the birds nest and raise their chicks have to be protected. This year, it seemed as if the volleyball players had triumphed: the birds had (in the irresistible idiom) “flown the coop.”

In Rockaway, people take it very personally when a section—their section—of the beach is closed, for whatever reason, but when the reason is those little birds that run back and forth, the most enlightened Rockawayites get all bent out of shape. There are people who hate dunes, in the belief that dunes attract plovers. There is even a bumper sticker: “Piping Plover—Tastes Like Chicken.” The New York Post ran a piece last month about a fragrance launch in Amagansett which featured Land Rovers on the beach and ended with accusations against fashion editors for upsetting the plovers; the article also reported that in East Hampton, for the second year in a row, the Fourth of July fireworks display was cancelled on account of the birds, pitting patriotism against plovers.

The Wave article was admirably balanced and well written, giving lots of space to a cute ranger at Gateway National Park named Dave Taft (I once went on a walking tour led by him). “Not everyone gets to see a piping plover,” he said, in their defense. But it got me worried. I started missing the birds whenever I went to the beach. In the same week’s Wave, I noticed an announcement for Piping Plover Day, sponsored by the Parks Department, at Beach 59th Street, so I rode my bike down there one morning. You hear them before you see them, piping away. I locked up my bike on the boardwalk and was relieved to see a handful of plovers racing along the beach with a pair of skimmers—wonderful black birds with long pointy orange beaks and yellow legs, who whistle at each other out over the water.

A few days later, at sunset, low tide, I went to Fort Tilden to look for plovers. This time, I was overjoyed to have a little flock fly over me while I was in the water. Then last Saturday I went down to my neighborhood beach to take a dip and watch the sunset. Beachgoers and surf were lit up golden; the ocean was full of seaweed, and the waves sloshed in, as green as spinach. And then, there they came: piping plovers on my beach—yes! Their underbellies lit up white as they flew toward the sun, and when they banked and doubled back they disappeared.

Maybe you have to be a native of Rockaway to resent the piping plovers. (There is no danger of my driving an ATV or playing volleyball.) I’ve asked myself how I’d feel if my beach was closed on account of the birds: I came five hundred miles to be by the ocean—I’m not going to mind a couple of extra blocks. When I thought there were no plovers in Rockaway, I felt deprived, as if the summer were ruined—the beach just isn’t the same without them. They are like tiny slapstick comedians, zipping back and forth on their rapid little legs, chasing the waves out, rushing back in, lifting off all at once, at some mysterious signal, and circling out over the water to fly back up the beach and begin again, their flight smooth yet unpredictable, like a ride at Coney Island that makes you slightly dizzy.

When I got home, a neighbor stopped me to say, “Hey, that chick got arrested—you know, the crack whore? The police handcuffed her and took her away.” All day, our local crack whore had sat outside her bungalow with her mother, presiding over a somewhat pathetic yard sale. And now she was in jail, or at least in night court, and her mother would have to bail her out. I was kind of sorry. But I was glad I'd seen the plovers.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

L Train

I love a good thunderstorm, and the one that came through the city yesterday morning was dramatic enough to make me wish I’d made my will. I thought lightning was going to strike the tree that shades the house, and I would be crushed in my bed and then incinerated. My imagination was all inflamed by the untimely death of Carus, on the banks of the Tigris in 283 A.D., just as he was poised to conquer Persia. Gibbon quotes a letter from the imperial secretary: “Carus, our dearest emperor, was confined by sickness to his bed, when a furious tempest arose in the camp. The darkness which overspread the sky was so thick that we could no longer distinguish each other; and the incessant flashes of lightning took from us the knowledge of all that passed in the general confusion. Immediately after the most violent clap of thunder we heard a sudden cry that the emperor was dead; and it soon appeared that his chamberlains, in a rage of grief, had set fire to the royal pavilion, a circumstance which gave rise to the report that Carus was killed by lightning." Carus had two sons, Carinus and Numerian, to carry on when he was gone (though the Romans were too superstitious to pursue the invasion of Persia). If lightning struck in Rockaway, who would carry on for me?

The storm passed, and with it all thoughts of mortality. I was on the A train platform in time to score that elusive one-seat ride into Manhattan on the second-last express, at 7:39, but the train never came. Just before eight, the shuttle to Broad Channel hove into view, and we passengers, who had been left standing on the platform like fools, had to gamble on whether to hop aboard or wait now for the last express, at 7:59. “It’s not worth the risk,” I said to a woman who couldn’t make up her mind, and I hopped on the shuttle. The announcements were ominous: “There are no A trains going into Manhattan. Be prepared for a crowd at Broad Channel.” The station was not that crowded, but the A train was. Its windows were all steamed up. The conductor announced that this was a shuttle to Rockaway Boulevard. At Rockaway Boulevard, he said, “This train is going as far as Broadway Junction due to flood conditions." The flood seemed to be at Hoyt-Schermerhorn (pronounced Skimmerhorn), the antepenultimate stop before Manhattan. "If you have any other way of getting into Manhattan, get off the train,” the conductor said. Some people followed his advice, and their seats were immediately taken by those who didn’t. The spirit of adventure was upon us. There is a connection at Broadway Junction with the J and L lines, and we wanted to see what would happen. At Euclid, the conductor announced, “There is no J or L service at Broadway Junction. In other words, you will be stuck at Broadway Junction.” More commuters bailed out, freeing up more seats for the intrepid.

Broadway Junction was a classic bottleneck. A trains and C trains had emptied out there, and commuters thronged the platform and squeezed up the stairs, trying to get information (nobody knew anything) or get out on the street and catch a bus. I followed the signs for the L train, up a long ramp and a nonworking escalator. It was steaming hot out. This station, which is partly aboveground, is decorated with stained glass windows, and has digital signs, like the ones in Barcelona, announcing how many minutes before the next train. An L train was supposed to arrive in one minute. I didn’t believe it, but even misinformation was something to go on, so I crossed over to the Manhattan-bound side of the tracks and, incredibly, got a seat in an air-conditioned car on the Canarsie line. Two hours after the storm, I was in Union Square, late for my Pilates class but early enough to walk the rest of the way to work.

And so it came to pass that on the L train, in 285 A.D., Diocletian was invested with the purple. The son of slaves, he was probably originally called Docles, for his mother’s home town of Doclia, in Dalmatia. The name looks like a typographical error before its time. (It sounds like something Ned Flanders would say to Homer Simpson: “Oakley-doaklies!”) “He first lengthened it to the Grecian harmony of Diocles, and at length to the Roman majesty of Diocletianus,” Gibbon writes, in a footnote. Elsewhere, he calls Diocletian “the artful Dalmatian.”

Emperors come and go pretty fast on the subway. “Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors, that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same. A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder.” Just the other day, Carus's predecessor Probus had his troops draining marshes in Pannonia—which seems to correspond mostly with Hungary—on one of the hottest days of summer, when he was forced to climb a tower to escape a mutiny: "The tower was instantly forced, and a thousand swords were plunged at once into the bosom of the unfortunate Probus." But Diocletian, who reigned for twenty years, was still going strong last night on my way home, late, with the A train making all local stops and the shuttle sitting at Broad Channel, for six full minutes, because the bridge was up. It was a long, hot day for a stubborn commuter.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Zenobia on the A Train

This morning was perfect: a quick dip in the Atlantic, which was the ideal temperature—and from which I made a perfect exit, catching a not-too-wild wave onto shore, just me and the clams—then a shower to get the sand off, and enough time to eat a banana before rushing off to catch the A train. I got a window seat on the 7:59, the last express out of Rockaway Park. I saw lots of gulls and geese in the bay, and two egrets in flight, and got a glimpse of the swans in their preferred pond. I was right on schedule for a 9:30 appointment on the Upper West Side when the train came to a halt after leaving the Jay Street station in Brooklyn. The announcement, by a well-spoken woman, was polite: “Ladies and Gentlemen, due to a brake emergency on the train directly ahead of us at High Street, we are being held. As soon as the track is clear, we shall be moving. We apologize for the inconvenience.” Thank God I had Gibbon.

I set the bevel on my diver’s watch. I haven’t been diving in years, but I find it helps, when you’re afraid you’re in for a long haul, to set a stopwatch. Sometimes—as when a friend who stammers and has overcomplicated thoughts is going on about something (but what?), and impatience is rankling your vital organs but you’re determined to let her spit it out—what feels like an eternity is really only two or three torturously long minutes. It was 8:52, and I was on page 255, in 268 A.D., during the reign of Claudius. This was not the Claudius of Robert Graves’s “I, Claudius” (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, Emperor 41-54 A.D.) but the Gothic Claudius (Marcus Aurelius Claudius), who, somewhat to his own surprise, defeated the Goths at the battle of Naissus (wherever that is), in 269. “The virtues of Claudius, his valour, affability, justice, and temperance, his love of fame and of his country, place him in that short list of emperors who added lustre to the Roman purple.” Claudius was succeeded by his general Aurelian, who struck a mutually beneficial deal with the Goths (they wanted to stay) and then beat the shit out of the Alemanni (the Germans), who got so close to the gates of Rome that the senate panicked and fell back on religion, consulting “the Sibylline books.” Aurelian, far from being insulted at their lack of confidence in him, asked what had taken them so long and told them to spare no expense. Gibbon: “However puerile in themselves, these superstitious arts were subservient to the success of the war; and if, in the decisive battle of Fano, the Alemanni fancied they saw an army of spectres combating on the side of Aurelian, he received a real and effectual aid from this imaginary reinforcement.” And so the superiority of Rome was restored, but my train was still sitting between Jay and High Streets.

We finally moved again at 9:16, after twenty-two minutes. I was going to be at least twenty minutes late for my appointment. But instead of agonizing, I moved on: There were rebel emperors in the West and the East. Some really bad stuff was going down in Gaul. One Tetricus, puppet of his mother Victoria, was on the throne, but he was so afraid of his own army that he conspired with Aurelian to fake a civil war and then deserted; his soldiers “were cut in pieces almost to a man.”

I thought about hopping off the A train at Broadway/Nassau and switching to the Broadway line, but it is a long subterranean passage from the IND to the IRT, and it would be worth it only if the A train continued to be balky on its way uptown, something I had no way of predicting and no oracle to consult. So I stayed in my seat, hoping the obstruction had been cleared, and read about Zenobia, “the celebrated queen of Palmyra and the East.” Zenobia had been the wife (and hunting companion) of Odenathus, and took an interest in military campaigns. When Odenathus was assassinated by a nephew, his widow assumed the throne (and sacrificed the nephew). Gibbon goes on and on about her: “Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely as well as the most heroic of her sex. She was of a dark complexion (for in speaking of a lady these trifles become important). Her teeth were of a pearly whiteness, and her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness.” In his enthusiasm, he resorts to italics IN HIS FOOTNOTES for the first time. (I have to represent italics with capitals.) “She claimed her descent from the Macedonian kings of Egypt, equalled in beauty her ancestor Cleopatra, and far surpassed that princess in chastity [55] and valour.” (Footnote 55: “She never admitted her husband’s embraces but for the sake of posterity. If her hopes were baffled, in the ensuing MONTH she reiterated the experiment.”)

“Instead of the little passions which so frequently perplex a female reign, the steady administration of Zenobia was guided by the most judicious maxims of policy,” Gibbon writes. (I think this is a reference to PMS.) Still, it was unusual for a woman to be on any Roman throne, and though Claudius put up with it, Aurelian did not. The Roman army laid siege to Zenobia at Palmyra, or Tadmor—an oasis in the Arabian desert which, Oliphant Smeaton tells us, was built by Solomon—and she held out until all hope of reinforcements was gone. “It was then that Zenobia resolved to fly. She mounted the fleetest of her dromedaries,[72] and had already reached the banks of the Euphrates, about sixty miles from Palmyra, when she was overtaken by the pursuit of Aurelean’s light horse, seized and brought back a captive to the feet of the emperor.” (Footnote 72: “Though the camel is a heavy beast of burden, the dromedary, which is either of the same or of a kindred species, is used by the natives of Asia and Africa on all occasions which require celerity.”)

At this point, I finally got to Columbus Circle and switched from the A train to the No. 1. If trains were livestock, the A would be a camel; I should have switched to the dromedary.

Zenobia, meanwhile, sucked up to Aurelian, betrayed her Greek teacher—“the sublime Longinus”—and got a free trip to Rome, where she was paraded before the public in “fetters of gold.” (Gibbon credits Vopiscus, his source for the details of this pageantry, in a footnote, adding, “He relates the particulars with his usual minuteness; and on this occasion they HAPPEN to be interesting.”) Tetricus of Gaul was also part of the parade, and he was wearing pants. (Footnote 79: “The use of BRACCAE, breeches, or trousers, was still considered in Italy as a Gallic and barbarian fashion.”)

I got off the train on page 270, exactly twenty-two minutes late for my appointment. Zenobia set up housekeeping in Tivoli, lucky queen. The parade celebrating the triumph of Aurelian was still going on.