Friday, July 25, 2008

Illicit Acts

No question that the ferry is playing havoc with my schedule. Wednesday night I came home by ferry to no vehicle in the parking lot; I had left the Eclair at the garage that morning for its annual checkup and taken the Q22 bus to the ferry. Before leaving work to get the ferry home, I called the garage. “You’re all set,” they said. The cost, for inspection and oil change, was $72, the cheapest I’ve gotten away with in a long time. But the garage closed at six, and the ferry wouldn’t get back to Rockaway till almost seven. What to do?

Of all the options—walk home; take the Q22 home; take the Q22 halfway, as far as the garage, steal my car, and drive home—I chose the last, as the most direct. For one thing, I’d have my car in the morning, when I needed it, and wouldn’t have to ride my bike to the garage and end up with both vehicles at the ferry dock again. And I thought I could get away with it. “We know where to find you,” the patriarch, Big Bulloch, once said to me when we were joking about my bill. (I thought, You do?)

It poured down rain all night, and was still raining in the morning when I stopped at the garage on my way to the ferry, explained that I’d picked up my car the night before, when no one was there, and paid Big Bulloch, who made change out of his pocket. I sat inside on the ferry, with a cup of coffee and a book, and it was cozy—too cozy. It felt like a bus. I had to take the A train home, stranding my car at the dock again.

Sadly, today I am on the night shift, and will miss by several hours the party boat—I mean, the evening ferry—home. The tradeoff is that this morning I got to walk the three and a half miles to my car along the beach. I used to walk this stretch of beach all the time—from 101st Street to Fort Tilden—but I don’t believe I’d ever before set off deliberately to go to the far end of Riis Park.

I stopped for a swim about a third of the way. The current was running strongly westward, and I couldn't get past the waves to swim; it was all I could do to stay in the vicinity of my beach towel. About two-thirds of the way, at 149th Street, a jetty and a chain-link fence divide the city beach, in beautiful Neponsit, from Riis Park, which is run by the National Park Service. Ever since I’ve been going to Rockaway, there has been a way through or around this fence: you could slip through a hole in the fence at the landward end or, at low tide, walk out the stone jetty; some years, the sand drifted up so high that you could step right over the fence. Just a few weeks ago, I noticed that someone had cut a full-size door in the fence, halfway out the jetty. It was very convenient.

But now, I couldn’t believe it—the hole had been closed up. Someone had diabolically folded the chain link back over the rocks at the ocean end, so that you couldn’t go around the jetty without risking your life. The sand by the sea wall was low, so there was no climbing over, and the gap between the fence and the sea wall was only about five inches wide—too narrow for me. I was outraged.

I examined the fence more closely, and saw where it had been mended with industrial-strength twist-ties. This was as good a place as any to lay down my towel and take a break. This fence had not been mended in order to keep me from going to Riis Park; it had been mended to keep Riis Park from coming to Neponsit. I groped in my backpack for my trusty Swiss Army knife—really, I didn’t have time to walk all the way up to the boulevard and then back down to the beach, and I certainly didn’t want to walk through the monumental Riis Park Beach parking lot—and when no one was looking I sawed through a tough white plastic twist-tie, then sliced a more delicate one made out of what looked like magnetic tape unspooled from a tape recorder. I bent back a flap near the ground. Then I got up, casually shook out my towel and rearranged it, half on one side of the fence and half on the other, shoved my backpack and sandals through there, put my feet through, then my butt, and slithered under the fence.

The people at Riis Park Beach looked pretty much the same as the ones in Neponsit, although in Neponsit there were Orthodox Jewish women with their hair covered, their daughters bathing in full-length loose black dresses. Riis Park had more large groups of small children, and the crowd was thicker and noisier near the parking lot and bathrooms, as usual. I walked pretty fast, hoping no one had come to examine the fence as soon as I went through it. Over my shoulder I could see that I'd left a rift in the shape of the Eiffel Tower.

At the far end of Riis Park, I turned north and crossed the boulevard to the bay, where I was once again reunited with the Eclair. The mechanics had put fresh duct tape on her sprung right headlight, and I have temporarily solved the mildew problem by dowsing the interior with Arm & Hammer Carpet and Room Deodorizer. I drove home, showered, and took the A train to work.

I saw in the Times that the body of that sixteen-year-old girl who drowned last Friday was found under the Marine Parkway Bridge, right near where the ferry leaves from. The girl's name was Tiara Coaxum, and she was a high-school athlete from Jamaica, Queens. Her body had been borne some three miles west, around Rockaway Point, and back down the other side of the peninsula. The current that took her under must have been ferocious.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On the Water

What’s that sound? I asked myself at five o’clock this morning, while puttering around in the kitchen, getting my coffee started and the cats’ breakfast. Plock. Plock. It was rain. And it was solving all my problems.

I had to take my car in for inspection this morning, so instead of leaving the car at the ferry-dock parking lot last night and worrying about it today, I took an unaccustomed route home: the No. 4 train (I had wound up on the Upper East Side) to Nevins, in Brooklyn, where I switched to the No. 2 train (I lost my balance getting up before the train had stopped and tripped sideways in about eighteen tiny thudding steps, like a nightmare ballerina, holding onto a furled umbrella and a full backpack, and threatening for the length of half a subway car to slam into a straphanger and send us both crashing onto the floor before I could reach a pole to hang onto—it was quite a performance) to Flatbush, where I caught the Q35 bus, which has a stop at the Rockaway end of the Marine Parkway Bridge, a short walk from the ferry dock. I intended this morning to stick the bike in the trunk and drive to the mechanic’s, leaving the car with a note (Inspection, Oil Change, Transmission Fluid, Headlight—Fix or Retape?) and riding my bike the rest of the way to the ferry. But I don’t ride the bike in the rain (no brakes), and it made my morning so much easier to skip watering the garden, drive to the garage, and take the bus to the ferry.

I had to stop for gas, though, because I was afraid I might not have enough gas to make it to the mechanic's, or, if I did, that the car would run out of gas during its emissions test. My bright idea of holding down the price of gas by filling up when I still have half a tank has, obviously, failed, but, up against it at the pump this morning, I had another brainstorm: fill it just to half full. This kept the cost to twenty dollars. At Bulloch’s (the mechanic’s), gas is always extra expensive, because Bulloch's is an independent gas station. When I left my keys in the office, I noticed that the owner had been altering his gas-price signs with hand-drawn 5s, as in $5.19 per gallon.

The bus came right away, and though it made every stop, it still got me to the ferry dock fifteen minutes early. I have a new favorite seat on the morning ferry: the picnic table on the upper deck nearest the stern, facing front. I can set my coffee cup down and spread open a book. It’s like having a desk on a porch in New York Harbor: utterly luxurious. There were lots of container ships in the harbor—UASC, MOL, Baltic Monarch—and an excursion boat called the Golden Sunshine. When it’s socked in like this, things in the foreground stick out more. The sign at the new IKEA store in Brooklyn looked huge. On Governors Island, there was a parked car with “NUTS” painted on its side in big white letters. The air smelled like fish and yeast.

Today was a good day for the waterfalls—the four artificial waterfalls by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson—because there was not much wind, and the water dropped straight down over the scaffoldings. Some mornings they have not been turned on yet. The New York Waterfalls are growing on me. I think I read that the artist said the idea is to be able to see all four of them at once. As we approach Manhattan, three of them are off to the right—one pouring off the BQE in Red Hook, one under the Brooklyn tower of the Brooklyn Bridge, one on the Lower East Side—and one over my left shoulder, at Governors Island.

There was a couple on the ferry today, tourists, who were killed taking pictures of everything: the Marine Parkway Bridge, Coney Island, the Verrazano, the skyline of Jersey City. As they are, so once was I. As we approached the pier at Wall Street, they were so busy taking pictures of the skyline that they missed the waterfalls completely.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Moon Tide

Last Friday, I took the ferry home and enjoyed a hazy view of the Verrazano, the light almost Aegean in its quality, transforming the hills of Staten Island into the Dodecanese. Maybe it was the Budweiser. The boat was more festive than ever, and when it pulled into Riis Landing, the big plastic garbage can behind the wheelhouse was overflowing with empties. On board, there was a table of people that seemed like royalty. They shared a pack of wine coolers and a bag of Milano cookies and were given a very attentive sendoff from the crew. I think it was their car that I was stuck behind in the parking lot, waiting for the light to turn: a retired Coast Guard with a home in Breezy Point.

Zodiacs were flashing their lights at the dock and sirens were wailing on land when the ferry came in. Several fire engines and emergency vehicles, one hauling a dinghy, came over the bridge from Brooklyn and up from Far Rockaway, heading in the direction of Breezy Point.

I came home to a call from the Catwoman, saying she and the Master Plumber were walking to Connolly’s and did I want to join them. I am way behind in my revels this year, what with traipsing around in the Azores and all, so I said I’d meet them there. But first I wanted to go down to the deli and buy a copy of the Wave, so it would be there to enjoy when I got home. And I remembered that it was my last chance to set my tide clock if it was going to be any use this summer.

You have to set the tide clock, with a fresh battery, at high tide during the full moon. The full moon was on Friday, July 18, at 3 A.M. High tide on Friday morning was at 10:50 A.M. in the Verrazano Narrows, according to the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book for 2008. I buy this book every year, and every year I have to start over again, learning about the tide, and see if anything has stuck from the year before and if I can absorb anything new. People who have spent their lives in Rockaway know things like: High tide occurs in midday at the full moon in August. How do they know that? How does it work? It doesn’t make sense that high tide arrives at the head of the bay before it arrives at the Rockway Inlet, but I guess the basin fills and starts to go out … I don’t know. I did determine that to find the time of Current Change (not to be confused with High Water) at the Rockway Inlet you have to subtract one hour and forty-five minutes from the time at the Verrazano Narrows.

To set the clock in the morning would have required carrying the clock in a canvas bag with a solid bottom, so as not to interfere with its hands. This was inconvenient, and besides, I forgot. On Friday evening, high tide, or, rather, change of current, occurred at the Verrazano Narrows at 11 PM. So I did the math: 11:00 minus 1:45 is 9:15, right? That seemed awfully late for me to be arriving at Connolly’s. So I checked another source.

The Rockaway Point News has a column headed Local Tides, with all kinds of excellent information about sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, and percentage of the moon visible (it’s never a hundred). On Friday night, it gave high tide as 8:52. That was a little better. Perhaps it is earlier because they are farther out the peninsula and are measuring on the ocean side, or from the Breezy Point Surf Club or the boccie court.

The Wave gave high tide at 8:49 P.M. at Rockaway Inlet. That was the most convenient. I lined the battery up with the clock on the table, found things to do until 8:49, put the battery in the tide clock, and went to Connolly’s.

My friends were having a friendly game of darts when I arrived, and I was shanghaied into action as teammate of our neighbor D., known as Skid Row. I’m no good at darts, but the Master Plumber said, “Don’t worry, he’ll carry you.” Skid Row taught me to put my right foot forward (I'm right-handed), and the Catwoman told me to keep my eye on the wedge of the board that I needed to hit. I learned how to keep score (it’s not all about bull’s-eyes, though it does come down to that). It turned out I play better without my glasses. Some of my darts actually hit the dartboard. I learned to put my back into it, to hurl those suckers like I was mad at someone, though it was through sheer luck that I scored any points. And I did not build any muscle memory in my arm. We won, thanks to the Master Plumber's not examining more closely my partner's near-bull's-eye. By the time he confessed, the Catwoman had erased the scoreboard.

At one point, after our game, the Catwoman and I were both in the ladies’ room when the flush on one of the toilets broke. While the Catwoman fiddled with it, I ran out and got the Master Plumber. He rose to the occasion. He is Connolly’s official plumber, and has fixed the toilet in the ladies’ room on crowded nights with girls peeing in the stall next to him. “Hi, Ed,” they’d say when they came to the john and saw him in there. “Haven’t seen you in a long time.” Tonight it was just his wife and I who were in there while he fixed the toilet. Then Skid Row, tired of sitting alone in the booth, stuck his head in, too. “It’s stifling in here,” he said, and found a window at the back of the other stall and opened it. The Master Plumber grumbled about the age of the little chain he had to reattach, and pointed out the black residue on the inside of the lid, which he said was ancient mold. Then we went back to the booth and had another round.

We walked home along the boardwalk. The moon was still full. I read most of the Wave before going to bed, at around midnight.

The next day, I mentioned the emergency in Breezy Point and heard that a teenager had drowned: she and a friend were in the ocean at 116th Street, and they got caught in a rip tide. One girl was saved. She had tried to save her friend, but by the time the lifeguards rescued the one girl the other was gone, carried under and out. At first I didn't understand: the drowning was at 116th Street at three or four in the afternoon, I heard. So why were the ambulances going out to Breezy Point at seven? But it had to be the same incident; it would have been at low tide, and the current must have been running west.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

This Bud

Provisions at Riis Landing, in Rockaway, waiting to be loaded onto the next party boat home.

Sea Legs

I infiltrated the men's table on the five-thirty ferry last night, and was a little disappointed. They talked about golf, a violent movie that I didn't catch the name of, the market (one guy said the market is going to crash on Friday—that's tomorrow—yet he didn't seem terribly concerned and was even about to go on vacation), real estate, and a Chinese restaurant in Flatlands, Brooklyn, called Tasty Tavern. One drank a Bud, one a Bud Lite, and one a Heineken. They kidded each other about an article in Tuesday's Times which reported that Breezy Point, in Rockaway, is the zip code with the highest consumption of Budweiser in the country. The occasion for the article (here's the link) was the news that Budweiser is being bought by the Belgian brewers of Stella Artois. This can only be good news for Budweiser, and bad news for the fabled beers of Belgium.

I believe it about Breezy Point, by the way. Drinking alcohol in public is a crime in New York City, thanks to Rudy Giuliani. In Rockaway, the cops patrol the beach from the boardwalk, using binoculars to peak inside people's coolers and then descending on them if their coolers contain beer, and making them pour out the beer in the sand. Of course, Rockawegians know enough to drink out of opaque plastic cups and avoid this tragedy. In Breezy Point, it's just the opposite. You feel conspicuous walking around WITHOUT a beer in your hand. I went to a party there one Labor Day and saw people pulling big plastic wagons piled high with cases of beer. Of course, drinking in public is not an issue in Breezy Point because it is private property, a co-op, populated, incidentally, largely by police officers.

The men noted that we were way out in the water (usually the ferry hugs the shore), and we all gloated at the sight of a massive traffic jam heading east on the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge. I am always one of the last to get off the ferry at Riis Landing. There were three skimmers, whistling black birds with extra-long orange beaks that they use, in flight, to skim bugs (or whatever) off the surface of the water. They were leaving little short-lived threads of wakes.

This morning, to keep an appointment, I caught the early ferry, at 5:45, a feat worth recording because I may not be able to accomplish it again this year. A heron was hunched on the dock, fishing. The sun was two inches above the horizon, and as we turned out of the dock and pulled away, at 5:49, it looked like a big orange ball rolling north over the Marine Parkway Bridge. At the Wall Street Pier, I transferred to the East River line, which, I learned, costs only a dollar if you tell them you just got off the American Princess. (Both boats are operated by New York Water Taxi.) This is a speedy yellow catamaran that zips over to Schaefer Landing, in Williamsburg, which is new, and then up to Hunters Point, in Long Island City, before crossing back to East 35th Street, where I got off.

What with all this boating, when I finally get to work, I find myself wanting to grip the edges of my desk as if I were still on the boat and it was pitching.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

So Far

What I did on my summer vacation, so far.

This is exactly the sort of thing I would have made up about my summer vacation when I was in third or fourth grade and never did anything except play jacks and watch quiz shows on daytime TV. It was stultifying. I had to lie every year on my Summer Vacation essay and say I'd been to a farm in Canada, or to Amsterdam, where I saw people in wooden shoes, or that I lived in a trailer (this seemed to me the height of exoticism), or went to New York, where I rode the subway, which I imagined was like a roller coaster, and ate in an automat. I liked the idea of those little windows full of food.

All last week I commuted to work by ferry from Rockaway. Monday, I drove to the ferry dock, which is about three and a half miles from home and takes about seven minutes. I took the A train home. Tuesday, I rode my bike to the ferry, which took a solid half hour. I arrived parched, and the man who I think is the first mate gave me a bottle of cool water. I have my favorite seat on the ferry: top deck, along the portside rail, as close to the wheelhouse as possible. I brought my chart of New York Harbor along and successfully identified such sights as a water-treatment plant in Brooklyn ("Sewer" on the chart). I got sprung from work in time to catch the last ferry home, at 5:30, and was reunited with both my vehicles. I stuck the bike (or half of it) in the car and drove home.

Wednesday I drove to the ferry dock again. It was a gorgeous day. The beach at Coney Island is Felliniesque in the morning: locals carrying parasols, plump old ladies in bathing caps and one-piece suits dipping a toe in the water. Just west of the amusement park is Seagate, the gated community, set off by a jetty and a group of pink and yellow and baby-blue cabanas. Then come big Victorian houses and a lighthouse. The next landmark is the Verrazano Bridge. The boat stops at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and among the regulars who get on here are a hardboiled blonde and two guys who look like undertakers or railroad executives. They come directly up to the top deck and put their briefcases and Duane-Reade shopping bags on the chests containing the life jackets, behind the wheelhouse.

The Queen Mary 2 was docked in Red Hook. It is HUGE. The Statue of Liberty is tiny and green. The ferry offers a great view of the synthetic waterfalls of the Danish artist. A guy in a yellow golf shirt got up and came over to the rail to look at them. "I don't get the waterfalls," he said.

Thursday I rode my bike to the ferry again, shaving almost ten minutes off my time by taking the direct route instead of cruising the boardwalk. It was another gorgeous day. "And not humid," said the guy who marked my ticket on the ferry. (He pronounced it the way my father did: "you-mid.") I stayed in the city late and took the A train home again, so on Friday morning I would either have to walk or take the bus to the ferry. I fell back on the A train, crossing Jamaica Bay at slack tide. There was a pattern of chevrons on the water, like a wake, but no boat had made one.

Friday night I got to take the ferry home. The Wave, Rockaway's weekly paper, reported that the Friday night ferry has turned into a party boat. Actually, every night the ferry is a party boat. I found myself longing to be a man and sit with other men at a long table, wearing shoes and no socks (the Mediterranean look) and a shirt with a subtle stripe, drinking beer and laughing, having sandy hair and blue eyes. I purchased a can of Budweiser for the trip home. Oh, all right, two cans of Budweiser (it's a two-beer trip). The finances of the ferry are fairly ruinous: Six dollars a trip (I bought a forty-trip ticket for $216, which gives me four free trips or a ten-cent per trip discount), plus $2 to get the subway up to midtown, and another $6 for beer if I get the ferry home—that's $14, or seven times the price of the A train. But it's heaven, and a small price to pay for it. Also, Friday, though I didn't morph into a man and get to sit at their table, a neighbor whom I know from Connolly's, the best bar in Rockaway, recognized me, and so I had all of New York Harbor and a drinking buddy, too. He helped me put the bike in the car and I gave him a ride home.