Friday, August 29, 2008

Three, Two …

If all goes as planned, tonight I will use the second-last trip on my forty-trip ferry ticket to get back to Rockaway, on the Friday of Labor Day Weekend. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent me from buying another ticket and extending the season—in fact, I fully intend to. But it’s hard not to feel a little wistful as the last week of August and my ferry trips run out.

I have been able to take the ferry home in the evening this summer more often than I would have thought possible. On Tuesday, instead of going straight home from the ferry, I drove to my favorite beach. A bride and groom were running along the sand, being filmed. They probably were not a real bride and groom but models. (I forget that Rockaway is often used as a location. Last week on the boardwalk I walked past a rack of ratty-looking clothes and shoes and asked the guy who was tending them, “A sale?” “No,” he said. “A shoot.” Then he laughed. Lucky I didn’t automatically start riffling through the wardrobe department, looking for bargains.) Farther down the beach, someone had built a little fire out of driftwood. At the surf line two men were talking, and one of them, I could not help but notice, was completely nude. Now, I don’t care if someone wants to disrobe in public, but where am I supposed to rest my eyes? A fisherman had just pulled an undersized fish out of the water, so there was that. He threw it back.

On Wednesday morning, the captain of the ferry boat arrived carrying four shopping bags from Dunkin’ Donuts. I held off on my granola bars in case he was going to distribute doughnuts to the passengers, but they must have been for the crew. I transferred to the East River boat and walked to work from East Thirty-fourth, up streets I've never been on before. (Did you know there is a little park at Thirty-ninth and Tunnel Exit Street?) I haven’t warmed to the crew or passengers on the East River boat. On the Rockaway ferry, you recognize people from day to day, notice, say, when someone’s hair is getting longer, or who drinks the most Budweiser. (Not me.) If there’s a couple you haven’t seen before and they are both wearing yellow, they are most likely tourists, probably from Florida.

Wednesday night, I finally got to sit on one of the best seats, at the rear of the top deck, when one of the regulars—a man who dresses in conservative suits and splashy ties and wears black Reeboks and his hair in a ponytail—told a guy who had been sitting there smoking a cigarette that smoking was prohibited (“This is public transportation”) and, after an obligatory show of defiance, the guy moved. It was a beautiful evening. There were three crazy kayakers paddling up the Verrazano Narrows, and several sailboats in the bay. Curving into Riis Landing, the ferry left a graceful arc spreading in the water. I thought I heard a cell phone ring, but it rang and rang, and nobody answered, and finally I realized it was bagpipes: a man was standing behind a pickup truck in back of the old Coast Guard station practicing. And so that night we were piped ashore.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Motorboating for Dummies

The first signs of trouble with my new outboard motor appeared last Saturday. I bought gas, having gotten about ten hours of boating pleasure from my three-gallon tank, and went down to the marina, but for some reason I disdained to consult my crib sheet—shouldn’t I know what I’m doing by now? First, I forgot to slip the lanyard over the stop button, which is like forgetting to put the key in the ignition, and then I forgot to close the choke, so that the motor smoked and knocked and sputtered out.

I recomposed myself and began again. I started up properly, cast off, backed out of the slip, and shifted into forward: it stalled. Rather than re-start while adrift in the marina, I rowed back into my slip, tied up, and tried again, with the exact same results. The third time I tried to re-start, I got no response when I pulled the cord. I checked all systems: lanyard, yes; gas line attached; choke open; gear in neutral; throttle at the start notch, halfway between the rabbit and the turtle. I pulled the cord: Nothing. I gave up. Apparently I was just not meant to go boating that day.

Pete was in the boatyard, rigging an old boat trailer into a “Beverly Hillbillies”-style wagon to tow furniture upstate. He took a break, and we had a beer in the shade and I told him my troubles. The cop was there, and the Boss came over and sat down. He was having a run-in with the DEP. “They’re killin’ me,” he said. We watched someone named JJ get towed in. I always get a huge kick out of it when someone gets towed in and it isn’t me.

Of course, nobody at the marina will have anything to do with my motor because I bought it from Buster, and any unauthorized work would compromise its warranty. All they say is “Call Buster.” On Sunday, I got on the phone to Buster, having made careful notes of exactly what to tell him about my 6-horsepower Mercury 4-stroke. He told me that one thing I could do was dump the gas. Everyone is always complaining about ethanol in gasoline and how, if it sits for a while and moisture gets in, it gets contaminated. I’m not crystal clear on the chemistry of it. Basically, as I understand it, when ethanol, which is made from corn, is added to gas, and the gas is left to sit, it turns back into corn.

I knew Buster was handing me a crock, just giving me something to do to keep me busy until he closed. But I was not about to dump three gallons of gasoline that I had no reason to believe was contaminated: it was straight from the pump, and I’d even remembered to buy high-test. I went down to the marina, hoping wanly that the motor had healed itself overnight. I yanked on the starter cord: nothing. I called Buster from the boat, but there was nothing he could do over the phone. I would have to remove the motor and haul it in the car to Broad Channel. I called Pete—poor guy, his cell-phone number is programmed into mine under SOS.

So Pete came down to take a look. First, he fiddled with the lanyard. It turns out to need some jiggling to engage properly. We got the motor started, but it stalled when he turned the throttle all the way to low. (I love the vocabulary of the internal combustion engine: choke, throttle. No wonder it’s intimidating.) Pete removed the cowl, and there, dangling off the carburetor, was a little piece of plastic, which he handed to me—a black plastic lever with a screw through it and a steel coil wrapped around the screw. It was the idle-speed control lever. “Show that to Bustah,” he said.

The question now was did I trot over to Buster’s with the idle-speed control gizmo, to find out whether it was a separate part that could easily be replaced or whether it was built into the carburetor, which would mean hauling the motor over there and getting a whole new carburetor; or did I go out on the bay? “Why waste a day?” Pete said. All I had to do in order to keep the motor running was not idle, and shift at a higher speed than I was used to. Pete showed me how far I could turn the throttle before the engine would cut out. “Keep the throttle at the turtle’s front legs,” he said. He scratched a new notch on the throttle with the blade of a screwdriver to show me.

So I went out on the bay. I am trying to learn my way via nuns and cans through the pols of Jamaica Bay (those grassy islands that you see more or less of, depending on the tide), and despite some major landmarks—the control tower at Kennedy airport, the high-rises of Rockaway, the Marine Parkway Bridge, and the Empire State Building, at east, south, west, and north—I got lost. When I got back, I took the part over to Buster. He spent several minutes with his back to me, looking at a computer. It turns out that the plastic bit is not a separate part that can be replaced but a chunk of the carburetor, which costs $190. I invoked the warranty, but it remains to be seen whether the damage will be covered by the warranty. Buster has to take a picture of the part and the carburetor, and send it to Mercury, where someone will decide if the part was defective. This could consume the rest of the boating season. Fortunately, while I was out on the bay I realized what Pete had been trying to tell me: I can live without this gizmo. I can wait and take the motor to Buster’s at the end of the season for winterizing, as usual. I just have to remember not to turn the throttle past the turtle’s front legs.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The Mayor's latest initiative is taking shape on Broadway between Times Square and Herald Square. Two lanes have been cordoned off on the east side of the street and paved with what looks like birdseed; a green lane along the curb is supposed to be for bicycles. Yesterday the orange cones and barrels that temporarily separated vehicular traffic from this pedestrian sanctuary were being herded onto corners and replaced along the Great White Way with giant planters. A man with a hose hooked up to a fire hydrant was soaking the new plantings, and other men were busy securing shiny new blue benches to the pavement. A few people perched on the benches, their backs to traffic, pecking on sandwiches. A woman sat on the curb, painting her toenails.

I confess, I am dubious about this project. The other night, I had to take a cab to get downtown fast from the office and was irritated when my cab was stuck in the two narrow lanes of traffic remaining on Broadway. It was hot yesterday, the sun beating down on the bottom of the canyon, and you would not have caught me sitting out there, even under an umbrella, unless they were serving free beer. The Mayor's path leads directly to Macy's. I had a coupon for fifteen percent off anything I wanted at Macy's, but I couldn't think of anything I wanted. If the Mayor has visions of changing New York on the scale of Robert Moses, this is a very small start. He has cut a wider swath for jaywalkers.

But the Mayor's Broadway Promenade was upstaged by the Mayor himself yesterday when he described, in Las Vegas, his vision of windmills on top of skyscrapers and out at sea, generating power for the city. There is a tendency to think the Mayor is nuts. Doesn't windpower depend on wind? And isn't wind inconstant? Then again windmills would bring New Amsterdam back to its Dutch origins. The wind farms would be off the coast of Brooklyn and Queens—Breezy Point will be up in arms—but supposedly they could be far enough offshore to be invisible to a person who is near-sighted.

Let us be kind and say that this new scheme of the Mayor's is nothing if not quixotic and wish him luck.

Monday, August 18, 2008

No “No Standing”

The “No Standing Anytime” sign on the corner of my street in Rockaway remained in place for less than a week. No one will say who took it down (Omertà!), but now people have started complaining about the lack of signs for alternate-side parking on our side of the street, saying it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks.

Parking has been noticeably scarcer on our block this summer. More and more, the locals are reluctant to give up their spots on a good beach day, when Rockaway is overrun with DFDs (people Down for the Day). Often, we have to go around the block or continue (illegally) under the El to find a spot. The trouble with the block beyond the El is that nobody lives on it—there’s a warehouse, a senior day-care facility that looks like a penitentiary, and two vacant lots. It’s O.K. during the day, but at night it might as well have a sign on it that says “Park at your own risk.”

Walking to the beach last Saturday, I spotted one of my neighbors standing outside a black S.U.V. on that block, wailing into her cell phone. “My boyfriend’s car got broken into,” she said. The driver’s window was shattered and there were pellets of glass all over the curb and the front seat. She was inconsolable. Her boyfriend’s tools had been in the car, hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars’ worth of tools, some of which had sentimental value (“I gave them to him for Christmas,” she sobbed). This neighbor has had a run of bad luck (bike accident, car accident), and for some reason has recently shaved her head. I wanted to help, but I found myself backing off, as though she were contagious. When the police came, and it turned into a three-way with her, the cops, and the boyfriend on the cell phone, I slunk off and went to the beach.

There were little bitty jellyfish all over—a tapioca sea—but the ocean was so warm in spots that it felt like a thermal spring.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No Standing

“How long has that been there?” I asked a neighbor last night on the street after parking my car. A new sign had appeared on the telephone pole two car-lengths from the corner:

“Since yesterday,” she said.

“But that means we can’t park here,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “You’ll get a ticket. We’re losing two spots.”

The whole block was up in arms. Someone had called 311, someone else had the name of the person we should write to. My neighbor, P., said that first we had to find out why they’d put the sign up there and then we had to prove it was “inappropriate.” What we really need, P. said, is a sign at the head of the street saying “No Trucks.”

Apparently they want to keep this stretch of the street free for turning semis. I have seen semis turning here, at the intersection with the Rockaway Freeway, under the El, and feared for the car in the spot across the street, nearest the corner. I never park there.

Our street does not end at the El—you don’t have to turn. There are three poles with arrows pointing right, strongly suggesting that you turn, but if your car can fit between the poles, well, sail on through. Locals do it all the time—after checking to make sure nothing is coming, of course (especially not a police car). I do it regularly. Even Mister Softee drives between the poles—I saw him do it the other night, playing his jingle, even.

It turns out that the alternate-side signs on our side of the street (No Parking Tuesday, 11:30-1 P.M.) have been down for about a month—and I didn’t even notice! “Oh, yeah,” P. said. “You won’t get a ticket for not moving now.”

Since spring, the D.O.T. has surprised and thrilled the alternate-side parking community with e-mails announcing that alternate side has been suspended indefinitely in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, while it changes the signs to reflect new, less onerous street-cleaning hours. There was recently a census of street signs in Rockaway, reported in the Wave, but the idea was only to replace signs that had faded beyond legibility.

This morning my neighbor Skid Row was heading down the street on his bicycle as I was leaving. “You gonna write a letter?” he asked, indicating the No Standing sign. I said I remembered that when I first started coming here, eight years ago, there was a No Parking sign here. He didn't remember that. In any case, his solution to the problem is a pragmatic one. Studying the bolts, he said, “I’ll just take it down.”

Monday, August 11, 2008


My friend Frank of Assisi quit the boatyard at the end of last season. Pete, my man in the boat business, said Frank was fed up. I ran into Frank on the beach at Fort Tilden last winter—the first nice day in February. He was just out for a walk, the same as me. I miss him at the marina, because he helped out and was very generous, and also because he was the low man on the totem pole, a position that, in his absence, is filled by me.

When I asked Pete what Frank was doing, he said, "You know those guys who walk along the beach with metal detectors?" Sure enough, the other week on my way home from the library, via Connolly's (can I help it if my favorite bar is on the way home from the library?), I spotted Frank heading through the parking lot toward the beach with his prospecting equipment. "Frank!" I hollered, catching up to him just before he climbed the stairs to the boardwalk. "How ya doin'?"

He had his metal detector in one hand and in the other a long-handled tool with a scoop-sieve-shovel for digging things out of the sand; he had customized it with a serious small shovel on the other end. He tied on a carpenter's apron and put on his headphones. I walked along the beach with him, but because of the headphones we couldn't have much of a conversation. Prospecting is an independent sport.

The metal detector, he showed me, not only ticks to let him know there's something down there but has a special digital readout that tells him what it thinks the item is. I held out my watch: "RING," it said. Close enough. He said he'd found something like eighty-four dollars up at Fort Tilden over the winter. While I was with him, he dug up a crushed beer can and a ball of tinfoil and a little piece of junk jewelry, which he put in his apron pocket. "Of course, it's better at low tide," he said.

Frank of Assisi was the only guy at the marina with a streak of the environmentalist. The first time I saw the Boss this season, he was coming up from the slips with an empty Heineken bottle, which he tossed into the bay. "What's wrong?" he said, when I reacted. Great, I thought—now I've offended him and he won't put my boat in the water. When Pete offered me a beer and I asked what I should do with the empty, meaning should I rinse it out before I recycled it, he pointed to the garbage can. "You don't recycle?" I said. "You can take it with you," he said.

I tried not to agonize over the Boss's delays this season. First you have to get him to give you a straight answer about how much a slip costs for the season. Then you have to come back with the money. Then, if you fail to catch him, you have to not spend the money until you have a chance to come back. Then you have to get more money out of the bank because you spent the first wad, and the Boss has to have a pocket to put the money in. Then he has to move a couple of huge boats on trailers and drag your little boat out into the open, and Pete says you have to ask him to bottom-paint it. Then he disappears for a week or two (his son gets married, his sister dies). You bring flowers. You wait. And then one glorious day the boat is in the water. But the motor is still propped up in your living room.

Now I had to refamiliarize myself with the workings of the internal-combustion engine. I also hunted down my knot book, intimidated by the knot the Boss had tied in my anchor line. Pete was away, so for help in dropping the motor onto the boat (as opposed to into the bay) I called on Frank of Assisi. I pictured him not answering his cell phone because he was on the beach, prospecting, with his headphones on. I left a message, but for whatever reason (was it me? the heavy lifting? or the marina?) he didn't call back. Pete returned, and I hauled the motor to the boatyard in the back seat of my car, and together we carried it down the gangplank and carefully set it in the boat. He lowered it onto the transom and tightened the screws, then stood by as I demonstrated what I had retained (with the help of my crib sheet) about attaching the gas line and opening and closing the choke. I've been out and back twice now, with no incidents (I found a piece of flotsam that looks like a small flexible cooler, and brought it home and rinsed it out, but it smells of bait), and my new maritime ambition is to take the boat to the ferry dock, catch the ferry to Wall Street, and transfer to the water taxi to East Thirty-fourth Street, commuting to work solely by water.

Friday, August 8, 2008

State of the Eclair

Tomorrow is the first of three Saturdays in August when a strip of Manhattan including Park Avenue as far up as Seventy-second Street will be closed to cars. There is nothing a New Yorker loves more than walking down the middle of a street that is usually thronged with traffic (unless it’s walking the wrong way down a one-way street that’s usually thronged with traffic), so I felt sorry for the Mayor when the story broke and the New York Sun slanted the announcement toward the response of the merchants who will be put out by the Saturday road closures. “I knew they’d find something wrong with it,” the Mayor grumbled, or words to that effect.

The idea of giving an area over to pedestrians has been a big hit in European cites. I was in Naples once, where the traffic makes Manhattan look like Sesame Street. On my first day there, staying in an area called Santa Lucia, I was trying to get across the street to walk along the Bay of Naples. There was a steady stream of little Italian cars along the sea road, and when the light turned red the cars proceeded through it as if it were a joke: the light could turn any color it wanted, but it had absolutely no effect on passing traffic. It was total traffic anarchy.

But when I returned to that area on a Sunday morning, I found it closed to traffic. The Napolitani were out strolling with their families and their baby buggies on a soft spring morning, and Napoli was the sweetest place on earth. (This was long before the garbage crisis.)

In Rockaway right now there is a kind of equivalent of August Saturday traffic-on-Park Avenue closings: August Saturday library openings. The two local branches of the Queens Library have started opening on Saturdays. The library is the only place I’ve found in Rockaway with free wifi, making the peninsula every bit as much a part of the twenty-first century as the pastoral island of Flores in the Azores.

Last Saturday, I was racing a storm up the boardwalk. There was lightning in the west, coming from New Jersey, and the lifeguards had cleared the beach. Ahead I saw a tall police tower on a crane: a cubicle, like a command station, raised on high, as on cherry picker, with a blue blinking light and a surveillance camera on top. At first I took it for a weather station, but just as I was having that thought, the elevated cubicle, an obvious target for lightning, began to descend.

I took cover in the library, on its first August Saturday. Libraries are not what they used to be. A girl was yacking on her cell phone, there was a baby crying, and teenage boys were mouthing off at the librarian. They have self-checkout now. You put your card on the scanner and then pile the books up, pressing “Continue” on the monitor, and it prints out a receipt for you. I always end up having overdue books at the library, and am hoping that, with the Saturday opening, I can manage to return them on time.

When the storm was over, I asked the cop who was manning the cherry-picker police station what exactly it was for. He told me it is to catch thieves. There has been a rash of thefts of surfers’ gear off the beach while the surfers are in the water—a heinous violation of the code of the beach. Now, if someone tells a lifeguard that her bag, say, got stolen, by the time the thief gets this far down the beach it might be possible to catch him.

Of course, it occurs to me that the police will also be spying on me. My illegal activities include sometimes swimming before the lifeguards start work in the morning, and sneaking a beer on the beach in the late afternoon.

But the crime that is the talk of Rockaway I heard about first from the Master Plumber. I had been telling him that while I was on my back porch I saw a summons deliverer post an eviction notice on my neighbor’s door. I had seen the new neighbor, a mild-looking fellow who moved in after the landlady evicted a boy who had lived there forever and whose father died and left him to pay the rent (or not), only a few times last fall—he introduced himself and offered to paint my porch (“That’s what I do—I’m a painter," he said). It turns out that he does not have to worry about being evicted because he’s in jail. He held up McDonald’s at gunpoint. He and his accomplice-brother also held up the 101 Deli. He was a regular customer at the 101, and though he wore dark glasses and a false mustache (drawn on with eyebrow pencil), the girls who worked at the deli recognized him and chased him; McDonald’s had him on surveillance video. His bunaglow is for rent now. The landlady has not removed the little crosses made of palm, from Palm Sunday, that the brothers in crime had tacked on each side of their front door to disarm suspicion.


Maybe one of the reasons I'm so happy about the Park Avenue closure is that the Eclair is safely parked in Rockaway. Well, not entirely safely. Yesterday four or five teenage girls chose it, of all the vehicles parked on the street, to sit on and lean against as they gossiped and applied their makeup. One of them had actually spread a sheet of newspaper (plucked from the paper recyclables) on the trunk lid. I thought, at least she's protecting the car. But of course she was protecting her pink shorts and the backs of her thighs. She needn't have: I had just had the car washed, because for the first time in more than a year it was in good enough shape for me to get together with its former owner, MQ. The Eclair has fresh tape over her gouged-out right headlight, a fully intact sideview mirror on the passenger side, and no crumbs from granola bars, even, because I’ve vacuumed three times recently, to get rid of the mildew. I can still detect a lingering odor and am shopping for Magic Odor-Eating Crystals, but MQ thought the car looked good and didn't notice that it smelled funny. She did notice, just when I offered to turn on the air-conditioning for her, that suddenly it has stopped working.