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.

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