Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wish List: Update

Item No. 3—No. 1 pencils—was my big score. An entire gross of the pencils arrived anonymously from some warehouse in New Jersey. Thank you, pencil lover, whoever you are. The reason I put them on my wish list is that the office-supply company that furnishes our needs at work doesn’t carry No. 1 pencils. They have the nerve, when I order, to send me No. 2s! So I buy my own (they're deductible), but they are getting harder to find. The stationery superstores don't carry them—art-supply stores are the only reliable source—and I live in fear that the No. 1 pencil will go the way of the incandescent light bulb, and two qualities that make life more worth living—of light and lead—will be unobtainable.

My exacting taste in pencils was formed when I worked in a job where my handwriting, in pencil, on galleys and page proofs, had to be transmitted by fax to a printing plant in Chicago. Actually, it wasn’t my handwriting that was the problem: it was my boss’s. He wrote in a very faint hand, which did not take well to facsimile transmission. The solution was to supply him with No. 1 pencils, which have a soft lead, and therefore require less force to make a darker impression. I got used to how they feel. I can always tell when I accidentally pick up a No. 2 pencil: the point feels hard and scratchy on the paper. With a softer lead, you can bear down when you’re sure of something and lighten up when you’re in doubt. No. 1 pencils are more expressive.

As for the rest of the wish list, until about an hour ago I'd have said it was a bust. No. 1, the iPhone, was actually taken off the market in New York City, because AT&T cannot supply a reliable signal for the masses. No. 2, the Smart Car, was perhaps a politically incorrect request: I should be asking Santa for a hybrid. As for No. 5, Congress is still working on an amendment to the new health-care bill guaranteeing every American the right to Hair Insurance. Surprisingly, there was action this morning on No 4, the Ciborium. When I came back from tending my parking spot—before the Mayor finally made up his mind to suspend alternate-side parking on the snowy eve of his inauguration for a third term, during which he apparently is not going to give anyone a break—the porter of my building said he had a package for me. The label said "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam" and the return address was Aquinas and More Catholic Goods, in Colorado Springs. Could it be? Had I downgraded No. 4 prematurely from ciborium to toothbrush cup? The box looked too flat to contain a ciborium, and it did not, but it did hold the next best thing: Cavanagh Altar Bread, a thousand wafers. It solved the mystery of a companion package, from Brewhaus, in Texas (no motto), that arrived two days ago: a bottle of Droolin' Devil gourmet hot sauce.

Amen and Happy New Year.


NOW he cancels. I sat in my car in its spot in the Sanctuary this morning, cursing Mayor Bloomberg for not suspending alternate-side parking on a day that began with a snow shower and just happens to be New Year’s Eve. I had to be at my car at 8:30. I called 311 last night, checked my e-mail for an update this morning, called 311 again, and yet again from the car, but it was not till I got home, and Prokofieff’s “Romeo and Juliet” had spun to an end on WQXR, that I heard, at 10:15, that alternate-side parking was suspended today for snow removal. Quoth the city, in its memo of 9:42 A.M.:

Thursday, December 31, 2009
Alternate Side Parking Rules are Suspended on Thursday, December 31
The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) in conjunction with the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) today announced the suspension of Alternate Side Parking (ASP) regulations Citywide for Thursday, December 31 to facilitate snow removal. However, parking meters will remain in effect throughout the City.
The 2010 alternate side parking (street cleaning) rules suspension calendar is available on the DOT Web site, along with other alternate side parking information, at The calendar is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, or Russian.

Grrrr. This does not bode well for the third term of Mayor Bloomberg. I could have stayed home. What did I gain by my morning excursion? I retrieved from the trunk my new Jesus Overnight Bag, a lovely, thoughtful gift from my friend L.; stopped at the bank; refilled a prescription; and bought the ingredients for chili. Now I am home, and it has stopped snowing, and the one thing I am grateful for is that I don’t have to feel guilty if I don’t go out again all day.

I was going to write about how I ran out of gas last week in Rhode Island, northbound on I-95 for Cape Cod. I was so distracted by my desire to get someplace fast that I forgot to look at the gas gauge. I had that awful sensation of the gas pedal, when you step on it, acting like the brake, and I looked at the needle hovering over Empty and wondered “How long has that been there?” The answer was "About sixty miles." I had just enough momentum to get from the fast lane to the shoulder before the car passed out. It was very humbling, like getting a sunburn in middle-age, though you haven't got burnt in decades, not because your skin has become less sensitive but because (duh) you've been applying sunscreen religiously. I spent about twenty minutes on hold with AAA (the phone battery, of course, draining, draining) before finally reaching an actual person, who said, cheerfully, “We’ll make this a priority—you’re in a dangerous spot!”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I made it out to Rockaway yesterday to retrieve the Éclair, which I’ll need for gallivanting around over the holidays. My original plan was to get the car on Saturday, but even if I had been on the road before it started snowing and got back into town before the snow started accumulating, and Mayor Bloomberg suspended alternate-side parking, as expected after a snowstorm, so that, if I found a spot, I wouldn’t have to move until I wanted to … it still seemed dim to choose that particular moment—in the eye of the blizzard—to drive into Manhattan.

So I waited, and yesterday, with a sensation compounded of equal parts hunger and happiness, I took the A train to Rockaway. My car was nowhere in sight, but Mrs. T. had said she would make sure it was dug out, and I figured that once it had been dug out there was no reason for Mr. T. not to use it. So I called him on my cell phone, its battery rapidly dying, and we connected. I had time to finish a few little tasks in the bungalow before he came with the car. For instance, although the bungalow itself is like an icebox in winter, I had not yet turned off the refrigerator, which means that I was using it to keep things warm, for which perverted use of refrigeration may Gore forgive me. When T. came, he helped me pack the car (I had enough raisins and walnuts and parmesan-cheese crusts in the refrigerator to sustain the Donner Party for a week), and I gave him a ride back to work.

In Manhattan, I started praying that the city would give me a Christmas gift in the form of a humble parking spot, a prize rarer than usual with snow barricading the curbs. It was about four o’clock, and I was meeting someone at five, so my plan was to trace my route and, if I found nothing, park at a meter for two hours and worry about it in the morning. At a light a block from K Street, I set the trip meter and my diver’s watch: there is nothing like taking a scientific interest to distract one from overwhelming feelings of despair.

Nothing on K Street, nothing on Penny Lane, nothing on the street with the independent coffee shop that is now a fishmarket … I was about to embark on the next long leg of my territory—let’s call it the Circus Maximus—but I decided first to buzz the Sanctuary, just in case, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the most beautiful parking spot ever beheld by man: spacious, outlined by a modest snow bank—nothing I could not hump the car over—and carpeted in slush, allowing me to maneuver closer to the curb. It was a spot worthy of a car owned by a dentist.

Before locking the car, I poked my head back in to look at the trip meter: nine-tenths of a mile. According to my diver’s watch, I had been submerged in the search for seven minutes. Not bad—far less energy consumed therein than in, say, heating with refrigeration for a month. Now, if the Mayor will give us a break tomorrow, and I don't have to shiver in the car for a half hour, I will consider it a very merry alternate-side-parking Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wish List

1. iPhone
2. Smart Car
3. No. 1 pencils (twelve gross or lifetime supply)
4. Ciborium
5. Hair insurance

December is a momentous time of year for many reasons, among them the need to renew my car insurance. I switched insurers last year, and saved enough money to see a Broadway show. Because I stuck my head up, all year I got junk mail from insurance companies. Earlier this month, I went online to see if I could get a better deal. I had barely finished filling out the form when my phone rang: it was a guy from Allstate.

It turns out that the secret of saving money on car insurance is to fill in the blanks right. This time, I gave my Rockaway address for the place where the car is “garaged.” I do keep the car out there most of the time now—in fact, it has been exactly one month since I entrusted its safe parking to my neighbors in exchange for letting them drive it. The Allstate agent has his office in nearby Howard Beach, and he recognized my zip code, which turns out to be a little pocket of safety in New York. He said he could insure me for six months for $329.20.

That was almost half the cost of my current insurer, Liberty Mutual, at $1,214 a year.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s going to charge me for the second half of the year, and I am wary by nature: I always try to follow my father’s advice when I’m pricing something, and go to three different places. So I called Geico, which I dumped last year; Geico has been pestering me with junk mail to lure me back. Their price was higher than Liberty Mutual's. An outfit called 21st Century gave me an estimate of $1,861.93 for six months, six times as much as Allstate. What do they take me for?

Meanwhile, the Early Bird of Howard Beach kept calling back, and I asked him why he was so much cheaper. He went over the old premium statement with me, and what kept the other estimates so high, besides the Manhattan zip code, was that I was insured for theft and collision. For a 1990 car, he said, it doesn’t make sense—unless it’s a Mercedes or something. The Éclair is the only car I’ve ever had collision insurance on, because it was in mint condition when I acquired it. By now, it’s a little banged up. There comes a time, the insurance man said, when you have to admit that your car is old. None of the other insurance companies even bothered to ask if I wanted to keep that coverage. So I went with Allstate, though it pains me to let go of my car's youth.

Now, about that hair insurance. Lately I’ve noticed that my hair looks more and more like the hair of the person who cuts it, which would be O.K., except that he is a middle-aged Frenchman. His hair looks fine on him, but he has been creating me more and more in his image. The last French hairdresser I had did that, too, and he had terrible scraggly hair. I think hair salons should offer some kind of insurance: (1) that your hair will not form wings over your ears as soon as you leave the salon; (2) that your hair will grow out gracefully; and (3) that you will not look like a middle-aged Frenchman unless that is what you are. Is that too much to ask?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Baby Dee & the Archbishop

For parking purposes, the four-day Thanksgiving weekend lasted two weeks. If you were industrious enough to find a Friday-only spot on November 20th, today was the first day you would have had to move. This is because, as the Times noted last Saturday, the Muslim holiday Idul-Adah (commemorating Abraham’s not having to sacrifice Isaac) overlapped with Thanksgiving, giving alternate-side parkers a break on the Friday after Thanksgiving, traditionally a day of great ticket-giving by New York’s finest.

Of course, this schedule of parking meant not using the car at all over the holiday, but that need not keep one from travelling. For the holiday itself, I took the train to Hartsdale. On Monday, I took a bus to Newark airport for a nonstop flight to Madison, Wisconsin, to see Baby Dee perform, and flew back into LaGuardia via Milwaukee, where Archbishop Timothy Dolan operated before moving to New York. I treated myself to a taxi home from the airport.

It was all a bit of a whirl. For one thing, the night before Baby Dee played Madison, the Archbishop played—I mean, celebrated Mass at—St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. It was the First Sunday of Advent. A friend had invited me, and I was excited—I don’t think I’d seen a bishop in person since my confirmation (plus we were going out afterward for fried artichokes). The Archbishop wore a high purple cone-shaped hat and deep-purple vestments. His crosier was immense and shiny. His face was pink, with a sweet perplexedness in the brow, and a glow, when he worked the crowd, that can only be described as, yes, beatific. Archbishop Dolan is a man of the people. Like Sarah Palin, he drops his “g”s: “I hope you know I love doin’ this.” The proper form of address for an archbishop, incidentally, is “Your Grace.”

I hope His Grace knows that I didn’t mean to be rude by taking notes in church and will forgive me if I mix them up with the notes I took at the Majestic Theatre, in Madison, where Baby Dee was opening for a duo called The Books. The Majestic was not as majestic as St. Joseph’s, which has a painting of the Transfiguration instead of the traditional Crucifix at the front, and crystal chandeliers hanging by chains wrapped in ice-blue crushed velvet from a Wedgwood-blue coffered ceiling. Still, the old movie theatre, which has been reconfigured into a performance space with folding chairs, a few tall tables, and a bar, was just as crowded as St. Joseph’s. The décor consisted of a single banner advertising a radio station with the call letters WORT. Both venues had balconies, and the Archbishop did not fail to play to the upper tiers. The Majestic had royal boxes on both sides. St. Joseph’s had a good piano; the Majestic had none.

Baby Dee took the stage bare-headed in a Dalmation-spotted hoodie. She started on the harp, with some of her inimitable dirges. After the second song, a few girls in the second row got up and left. “They realized they were in the wrong place,” Dee said later, more in pity than in condemnation. Anyway, their seats were soon filled. Dee did one of her most popular songs, “So Bad,” which includes the refrain “Jesus got my mom in there, and beat her up so bad.”

Then he took the bread into his hands and he broke it and said—no, that’s not right, though it reminds me that Communion provided the most awkward moment at St. Joseph’s. Of course, I don’t receive Communion—not that I have been excommunicated, like that Kennedy boy in Rhode Island; I am just too full of sin to participate. Everyone else in the church, however, rushed the communion rail; seated at mid-pew, I was like a boulder that the river of communicants had to flow around. But at the Majestic we all drank freely of the local beer (the Archbishop, I understand, enjoys a beer now and then) and cheered when Baby Dee moved from harp to accordion.

The Archbishop’s homily was, appropriately, about St. Joseph, and the value of silence and action and grace under pressure. Dee’s text was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which we first sang as tykes beside our grandmother’s piano. Dee’s version is called “Rudolph the Disgruntled Reindeer,” and Dee told the story of how she once sang it, inappropriately, to a group of children caroling in the Village, and as their horrified chaperones hustled them away, Satan himself turned to Dee and said, “What were you thinking?”

The more I think about it, the more I see the influence of religion on Dee’s material. She did a song about Mormon underwear, and one about “God’s Great Plan,” and finished up with “The Song of Self Acceptance” (these last two are from “The Baby Dee Hymnal”; the words can be found online at Baby Dee’s Song Lyrics). Everyone sang along on the last verse: “I’m not the only pisspot in the house.” I would say that Baby Dee was for the most part well received. She did not overstay her time onstage. The Books proved to be clean-cut guys with a guitar and a minimalist electric cello, who accompanied videos they had made from old tapes found at thrift shops. This stuff is not for everybody.

At home, there was more parking news: the advent of an app for parking. The application, using something called “crowdsourcing,” was devised by Bryan Choi, an alternate-side parker in Inwood, who very sweetly hopes that people will use it “to build a sense of community.” For Christmas I will have to ask Santa for an iphone.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Son of Plumber

“The mayor and his aides are extremely sensitive about his luxury lifestyle.” Quoth the Times on Mayor Bloomberg’s victory celebration, at an exclusive restaurant in Paris.

I don’t think the Mayor will be getting a lot of sympathy on this issue from the hoi polloi, especially since he came out against a bill, before the City Council, that would give the little people who park at meters and observe alternate-side parking a five-minute grace period before getting ticketed. Now that he is in his last and final terminal term, Mayor Bloomberg has no reason to court us wee voters anymore, and it’ll be No more Mr. Nice Guy. Our days of sleeping in when it snows are over.

The parking has been easy for me lately. I came back from Rockaway last Friday evening, having seen the ocean under the influence of a nor’easter, and slid into a Tuesday-Friday spot. Returning to the car on Tuesday morning—at eight-thirty sharp—instead of double-parking and sitting in the car for an hour and a half, I adjusted my attitude and went hunting for a Monday-Thursday spot. I found a beauty, on a street I haven’t parked on in ages.

On Thursday I had an appointment with the plumber in Rockaway, to turn off the water in the bungalow for the season. It always makes me sad to turn off the water. For one thing, I know that as soon as I turn off the water, the temperature will go up to sixty degrees. But the longer I wait, the more likely it is that a routine procedure will turn into an emergency, and the plumber and I will be out there between the bungalows in icy sleet and gale winds, our fingers frozen around frigid wrenches. Brrrrrr.

As it is, this year I waited so long to call that when the plumber called me back he was already in Florida. But at least he called back. He said his son Gary would turn off the water for me. Jimmy the plumber is bound to retire one of these years, so I figured it was just as well to begin the transition. I got everything prepared for Gary, and even started the job myself, cutting off the gas to the hot-water heater and fitting the key over the underground valve to turn the water off, a feat that, to my utter amazement, I accomplished in one swift try. (I used to allow three hours for this blind maneuver alone.) I was trying to connect a hose to the hot-water heater to drain it when Gary showed up, with a pump and a better hose. We went about our business, flushing toilets and opening valves and removing plugs.

It had started to mist a little. “I told my father, ‘It always rains when we turn Mary’s water off,’” Gary said. I loved the way he talked about his father. He said his father has earned those winters in Florida.

Gary went back to the truck for the compressor that he uses to pump any standing water out of the pipes. “Feel this,” he said, letting me heft the vintage gizmo. It was heavy, all right. “It’s copper and brass.”

“A family heirloom,” I said. “So are you in business with your father?”

“I take his calls in the winter,” he said. “I’m an accountant. My business is accountancy.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, you’ll never starve.”

Gary saw that I had been working from notes, and before he left he told me to check my list. Let’s see, red plug in waste pipe, check. Antifreeze in traps, check. Antifreeze in toilets, tanks. “Did you put antifreeze in the tanks?” I asked. He said it wasn’t necessary, and I could see that he’d scooped every last drop of water out of the tanks. “You want me to pour some in?” he said, taking the jug of antifreeze from me. “Will it make you feel warm and fuzzy?”

I had filled a bucket with hot soapy water, like a proper cleaning lady, and after Gary left I mopped my way out the door. Both of us had left muddy footprints. I emptied the bucket in the storm drain on the street. Then I moved the car to the next block, into a Thursday 8:30-10 spot, where it will be good for two weeks. I seem to have decided to stay in town or take trains over the holiday. Then, instead of getting on the train, I walked up the boardwalk to the next station up. The iffy weather was getting worse. A few bouquets were tied around a pole, a tribute to a surfer who drowned last week. It had been a horrible story: the leash on his board got wrapped around some underwater pilings and trapped him underwater. There was a hand-printed sign on a pole that said “Memorial Services for Alessandro Will Be Held at Cassese Funeral Home at 101-07 101 Avenue, Ozone Park, 6 PM-9PM. All Are Welcome.” There were a few surfers in the water.

At the train station, I found out that the shuttle wasn’t stopping there—they are reconstructing the 90th Street station—and I had to ride back in the direction I’d come from, cross over, and ride back up again. The weather got worse and worse. It took forever to get home.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Plan C (continued)

When I woke up this morning, the Éclair was still way across town in a spot that was good till nine. I wanted to get over there early so I could get back to my side of town in time to snare an 8:30-10 spot. I left the house at about 8:20, and, I must say, my timing was perfect. I got to Penny Lane just in time to pull in behind a white S.U.V., in the first spot on the block. I had to ask the driver, a woman (a skier, judging by her vanity plates), if she would mind pulling up a foot—my rear end was sticking out a little too far beyond the pole with the sign for metered parking. “I don’t want to get you in trouble,” I said. “I know the parking lot is right there.” (Someone has put a splotch of yellow paint on the curb to communicate the need for clearance at the parking-lot entrance.) The woman was very nice: without interrupting her cell-phone conversation, she started her car and pulled up two feet.

A Mack truck turned the corner and I watched in my sideview mirror as it stopped and the driver got out and moved two garbage cans into the crosswalk, blocking the street. This was not anarchy but a thoughtful (if wasted) civic gesture: the truck was delivering oil to an apartment building, and the street would be impassable for a good half hour. A delivery truck went around the garbage-can barriers and parked behind me. The stuffed animal strapped to its grille was a camel, I decided. Then a U-Haul went around the barriers, followed by an off-duty cab, the silver truck that picks up dry-cleaning from the Chinese laundry, and several cars, a few of which squeezed into the parking lot. Soon cars were lined up all along the street, honking. Finally, the cabdriver got out and motioned for everyone to back up and the street cleared—until a garbage truck turned onto the block, and the whole exercise began again.

The skier left her car at 9:20; I noticed that she had a parking permit. It occurred to me to pick up a few shirts that I had left at the Chinese laundry weeks ago. And then there was nothing to do but sit in the car. I haven’t sat on this street for a long time. I meant to try to notice whether the Mack truck circled around and the driver moved the garbage cans back to their respective curbs. But I got absorbed in the jacket of an audio version of “Crime and Punishment” that I found last weekend in a funky little store attached to an orchard in Massachusetts. Books on cassette are almost obsolete now, and my technology for playing CDs with a converter on my car’s tape player has broken down, so I was delighted to come across this used two-dollar Dostoevsky. When I ran out of radio stations in Connecticut, around Hartford, I slipped Raskolnikov into the tape player. He is a strangely compelling travel companion.

The book, in a translation by David McDuff, is abridged, a literary act that I usually don’t hold with, but in the case of a Russian novel on a short trip it was a good idea. Raskolnikov commits his crime right away—none of this sitting around gassing till page 400, as in “The Brothers K.” There is a riff on the difference between being poor and being destitute (Raskolnikov is destitute), and a long letter from Mom. When the reader, a British actor named Alex Jennings, who is excellent, does a woman’s voice, he sounds hilariously like one of the “Monty Python” troupe playing an old frump. I broke off on Tape 2, Side B, in which R., who has been ill and delirious (uh-oh), is taken by a friend to a party and overhears gossip about the murder of the old pawnbroker and her sister …

I will have to plan another trip to resume my adventures with Raskolnikov. Meanwhile, here is his garage.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Wit’s End

My Friday-morning strategy went all to hell this morning when I made the mistake of sleeping in. I got to my car at eighty-thirty and found it surrounded by orange cones; notices posted on both sides of the street announced that they would be shooting an episode of “Nurse Jackie” today. O.K., no problem, I’ll drive around. Jeff Spurgeon was playing excellent music on WQXR—something Spanish, a Mozart Horn Concerto, a souped-up version of Vivaldi’s Autumn . . . As it turned out, I got to hear quite a lot of music.

I made my usual rounds, even visiting the Sanctuary, though I had little hope of finding solace there, and after a half hour I gave up and headed for the parking lot by the river. A woman there said she had nothing for me and directed me down the road to a section of the lot that has to be entered through a toll gate. She said it was the same price—fifteen dollars if you get there before ten-thirty. I have never liked this lot, so when the attendant said it was full and I would have to double park and leave my keys, I said no thanks and headed out again.

It was necessary to stop at a deli for coffee and a muffin before implementing Plan C: Drive across town and poach a spot in someone else’s territory. By the time I got over there, the street sweeper had passed, and I pulled into a very luxurious spot, all town houses, playgrounds, and yellow leaves. At ten, I got out of the car, and the man in front of me also got out of his car, a black Lexus. “Is it ten or ten-thirty?” he asked me. “Ten,” I said, looking at my watch. “I mean the sign,” he said. Oh my God, he was right: the sign said “No Parking Tuesday & Friday 9-10:30 A.M.” I certainly was in foreign territory. “I wish it WAS ten,” he said. “I’m tired of sitting here. But you just know as soon as we leave the meter maid will come along.”

As long as I was out of the car, I went to a diner on the corner and got another cup of coffee. Then I resumed my vigil. Fortunately, I had bought a copy of the Times and it had this great article on lobstering by Charles McGrath.

Otherwise, it was the kind of morning that makes a car owner's thoughts turn fondly toward garages.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Alternative Candidate

I drove into the city from Rockaway just before sunset on Halloween, determined to find a Tuesday-Friday spot, to take advantage of the suspension of alternate-side parking for Election Day. I felt out of practice, almost as if I were in a foreign country; my strategies are all geared to Monday-Thursday. I went all the way to the outer limits of my cruising range, and saw a band of Mexicans in sombreros walking up the street—and Marie-Antoinette in the crosswalk—before I gave up. Luckily, I had a plan in place: enough quarters to buy an hour at a meter, after which parking was free. A woman wearing a painted paper cat mask and a kimono stood on the corner, waving one white paw up and down. In downtown Manhattan, Halloween is for grownups.

We set our clocks back, and on Sunday morning I spent my extra hour cruising for a parking place. Actually, I spent less than ten minutes. Down the street, a left on the avenue, a decision not to turn right at the first block with Tuesday-Friday street-cleaning hours, because the car in front of me turned right, and I knew it would beat me to any spot on that street. Instead I took the next right, watching on the south side of the street: hydrant, driveway, hydrant, driveway, metered parking only . . . nothing. I went around the corner and up the next block, watching on the left: double-parked van, hydrant—there were a couple of spots on the Monday-Thursday side, but I was holding out for Tuesday-Friday—another hydrant, and, finally, up ahead a van pulling out of the last legal spot on the block. Yes! I nosed in to claim the spot while through traffic flowed past, then pulled out and did a proper job of parallel parking. All set for Election Day.

Mayor Bloomberg has been pretty friendly to the parking lobby, ever since he riled up so many car owners in Queens by implying that they were too lazy to get up in the morning and chip out their cars, which were embedded in the ice like mastodons in the Swiss Alps. Over the weekend, a friend was trying to talk me into voting for Bloomberg's Democratic rival Bill Thompson. What Thompson has going for him, according to my friend, is that he has two cats. (She seemed pretty desperate to find common ground between us.) I have to admit that there are a couple of reasons to stick it to Bloomberg: the term-limits thing (he was very much against an exception to term limits when Giuliani was so popular, in the wake of 9/11), and the cynical assumption that with his vast wealth he can simply buy New York City. Also, I am tired of getting junk mail from him—there’s another pamphlet every day—and his telephone campaign stepped over the line by calling me on Sunday.

So I ask myself the eternal question: What would Dennis Kucinich do? And I remember that Bloomberg and Thompson are not my only choices: I can vote for Reverend Billy, of the Church of Not Shopping. Actually, now it’s called the Church of Life After Shopping, but Reverend Billy really is on the ballot, as the candidate for the Green Party. He has about as much chance of being elected mayor as my cousin Dennis had of being elected President, but it will still be fun to vote for him (check out this video of him dissing Bloomberg), and better than not voting at all—a truer expression of patriotism.

Some flowers for All Souls' Day:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Last Friday

Last Friday, not relishing the idea of sitting out in the car for an hour and a half, I left the house early, strongly motivated by the need for caffeine (it seems I accidentally tossed the basket component of my espresso pot in with the recyclables). Friday mornings one can sometimes find a spot that is good right away, because people give up prime spaces to get an early start on the weekend. Sure enough, there was a man with dress shirts on hangers draped over his shoulder, opening the back of an S.U.V. “Are you pulling out?” He nodded yes. “Great. Thanks.” We were on a marginal road, with cars parked on both sides, and I shamelessly blocked traffic until he moved.

Come Saturday, Diwali, I was off to Rockaway to begin the great experiment: lending my neighbors T. & T. my car in exchange for their parking it. I am hoping this will be a win-win proposition. So far, so good. They get to use the car to take Little T. to the doctor. Little T. is fine and healthy, and looks contented enough in the Éclair, though I hope they take him someplace fun in it, too, so that he doesn’t associate it solely with doctors. I am going to move the moose bobblehead so he can see it from his backward-facing car seat.

Then T. the Dad put me onto a whole new parking scene in our neighborhood: just two blocks away is a street with a Thursday-Friday street-cleaning schedule, which nicely complements the Monday-Tuesday schedule on our block. Furthermore, this block has a median strip, which doubles the number of spaces available. I already knew about the street around the block, where the city has not yet put up signs; if you can find a space there, theoretically, it’s good forever. T. the Mom assures me that the car is fine, but I don’t think she understands the alternate-side-parking ethos. I am not content to know the car is fine—I want to know exactly where it is and how long it can stay there.

If I had had to sit in the car this week, I would have enjoyed reading about the Vatican’s reaching out to disaffected Anglicans. Good luck with that, Your Holiness. Why do you think they formed the Church of England, anyway?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Perfect Plan

My plan was to get to my car by nine this morning—I had parked in a Tuesday-Friday 9:30-11 A.M. spot, having buzzed with no success my two favorite spots when I got home last night at eight. I made a brilliant U-turn on a major crosstown thoroughfare (saving precious minutes), and peeked into the Sanctuary, where an S.U.V. had just scored a spot, and a van was trying to squeeze into a space in front of two motorcycles (I could see that no good was going to come of that). When I turned down the street that was my main chance, on the block ahead I recognized the flashing lights of the street sweeper. So far, so good. Traffic was blocked ahead, in part, no doubt, because of my fellow-parkers, and I sat through two red lights before traffic started to flow again. I might have had to slow things down by creeping along on the Tuesday-Friday side, hoping there was still room for me, but, joy of joys, the first car on the left had generous space behind it, and I was able to coast into place, right in front of a doorman building. Perfect.

Strangely, while I was sitting in the car I got a call on my cell phone from a man I talked to last summer at the ferry meeting in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach. He kept apologizing for taking my time, but he couldn’t have called at a better moment: for the next hour, I had nothing but time. It seems he will be offering an alternative ferry ride at some point. I told him I was definitely interested, and I am (even though I am not commuting from Rockaway right now). When we were through talking, I turned to the Times and read about the big sticker crisis: apparently the glue was defective on two million registration stickers that the Department of Motor Vehicles sent out, and on another two and a half million inspection stickers, and people are getting ticketed for not displaying their stickers properly, and complaining bitterly.

Later, walking up the block, I noticed that more than half of the vehicles with New York State license plates did indeed show, as the Times reporter Danny Hakim put it, “signs of profound registration sticker distress.” I recommend transparent packing tape, the same kind I used for holding my right headlight in place, until my new mechanic refitted it with a judicious screw. It never occurred to me that the glue was defective. I thought it was my windshield.

I hope it is not against the law to have a moose bobblehead (upstaged in this picture by the street art in the background; I'll have to remember to take a picture of that when I go back to move the car on Friday). The moose is good company on a long trip. He bobs his head in time to the music and agrees with everything I say.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Morning

This morning I went off to the car with my new bobblehead moose (a souvenir of Maine from my friend T.) and gave up my spot for a trip to the mechanic’s, to get a new headlight and an oil change, and maybe to see about fixing that shudder over 60 m.p.h. (wheel alignment? tire balancing? one bad tire?). The radio was tuned to 105.9, and I was about to change it to 96.3, but it was playing such nice music that I left it alone. Then I remembered: WQXR moved last night, and the familiar Nebraska voice of Jeff Spurgeon moved with it. This was his first day on the new job.

So I get to the mechanic’s, leave the car, and decide to explore the High Line, the park built on the old railroad elevated over Ninth and Tenth Avenues in Chelsea. It’s spectacular! The landscapers have retained a lot of the weedy effect, and the views are great: segments of the Hudson River, Chelsea Piers, monstrous modern glass buildings in the swooping Frank Gehry style, New Jersey, parking lots . . . I ran into an Australian tourist up there—she sounded like Nona Appleby. (Nona should visit the High Line.) I got her to take a picture of cars parked on elevated risers in front of the back of a billboard. “Is that aesthetically pleasing to you?” she asked. I swore it was.

Then, on my way across town, I saw a black dog being pushed down the street in a stroller. The street cleaner was just coming along, and cars were shifting to claim spots. (It looked like there was a fair amount of space over there, on a 9-10:30 A.M. block; I’ll have to remember that if I get desperate in my neighborhood.) Finally, just before getting on the subway, I heard music and saw a woman sitting on a stoop practicing the banjo. At least, I think it was a woman. It was definitely a banjo.

I wish I had thought to stop in the flower district for potting soil. Just now I asked around the office, where there are lots of gardeners, and got enough soil to pot my alternate-side-parking aloe in a styrofoam cup. I hope it survives. It’s on my desk with the bobblehead moose, which I forgot to leave in the car and carried to work, where it has been greatly admired.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Unexpected Gift

I could not be fussy when I got back into town last night, after driving the five hundred miles from Cleveland. I took the first spot I found, a Tuesday-Friday 8:30-10 A.M. spot, which meant sitting in the car for an hour and a half this morning. It was not an entirely unpleasant interlude. I was outside a building with a beautiful old wooden door and a wrought-iron gate, daisies and vines, and a stone lion. I’d had a passenger on the trip, a twenty-year-old cellist who works in one of those fancy soap shops in SoHo. The car was still fragrant from his clothing.

Soon after eight-thirty, all the cars shifted to the other side of the street and double parked. A white Maxima backed in ahead of me. It was the first time I ever saw anyone parallel double park. The broom came at around nine, and there was the usual back-and-forthing, with the Maxima humping up onto the curb, to get in position. When we were all settled in, a legal spot unexpectedly opened up on the other side of the street, and the Maxima moved again. The spot in front of me was vacant for thirty seconds.

I could have taken the Eclair to the mechanic’s this morning instead of just sitting there. My left headlight blinked out on this trip. The other big event was that the odometer turned over to 65,000. When I pointed this out to my passenger, I could feel him doing the math: the car was as old as he was—didn’t I mean 165,000 miles? I explained that the car had less than 30,000 miles on it when I bought it. It had belonged to a woman who drove it only to Dunkin' Donuts on Saturday afternoons. Its next owner may have to explain that I used it only to chauffeur my cats to the beach and drive to Cleveland twice a year.

At 9:40, a black Jeep with New Jersey plates stopped across the street, and a man jumped out and looked around. Finally he came to me and said what sounded like “Veel o stop dat? Na veel in cruising?” I said no. (I was pretty sure he was asking if I was going to pull out.)

At ten to ten, the guy behind me, a healthy, public-spirited sort who drove a Subaru Forester with a Bowdoin decal, suggested that if he moved back and I moved back, there would be room for another car. I was willing to go along with that, although I didn’t want to have to watch as whoever parallel parked in front of me crushed my license plate. Two cars tried and couldn’t get in. Just as it was time to leave, Bowdoin said that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. “You move up and I’ll move up.” He had been talking to a guy on the street who looked like a cook, probably because he was wearing white and clutching a thick bunch of greens. This guy now approached and said he’d seen it many times: a truck comes along, determined to fit in the space, and pushes the little car to make room. “It ruins your transmission,” he said. The greens he was holding turned out to be an aloe plant.

“Would you like an aloe plant?” Bowdoin asked. “I have some extras.” And he reached in a black tote bag and gave me an aloe. I could pot it in the car on Friday.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stet, Baby

At last an image that combines two of my professional interests: parking (or having a freshly paved road, preferably with a view, to do it on) and copy editing. "Stet" is something copy editors scribble on a proof when they wish to make sure no one messes with what is printed. It's from the Latin "stare," and means "Leave it alone!" or, more mildly, "Let it stand." "Stet" might be the answer to those signs that say "No Standing" or something you say as you leave your car in a beautiful spot. I took this picture in Flores, in the Azores, in the spring of 2008, just before having to walk down a freshly oiled road with my wheeled suitcase.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I was wrong last week about Sunday morning at ten-fifteen being the optimal time to find a parking spot in Manhattan. I got an earlier start this Sunday, coming in from Rockaway in torrential rain (“light rain,” it said on the radio; the truth was somewhere in between), and looking for a spot at closer to nine-fifteen. I figured that the folks who park in the sanctuary would still be lingering over their bagels at that hour, waiting out the rain, but I drove there anyway, not daring to hope, planning my strategy in case there wasn't a spot, and reassuring myself that any Monday-Thursday spot would do, because today, Monday, is Yom Kippur, and alternate-side is suspended, and Thursday I am leaving the city at dawn. And behold, when I turned the corner, there were only two cars parked in the sacred seven-car precinct!

I pulled into the very same spot I had vacated on Saturday, behind the red Honda Prelude, with its front wheels cocked into the street, as if parked in a hurry by someone who really had to pee. Its owner is a sort of crusty older woman who reminds me of a retired proofreader. One of her headlights is taped into place. I watched last Thursday morning as she approached her car, removed a flyer from the windshield, went blindly to the nearest litter box to throw it away, and then ambled across the street to put something in the mail before settling into her car, leaving the door slightly ajar. It surprised me that she didn’t start the engine and straighten her car out in the space—I had left enough room for her to maneuver. But I guess I’m just a perfectionist.

Last week a friend put me onto this site:, another new link. At first, it scared me: it makes a lot of information available, and it could increase the competition for a spot. But though it showcases a lot of lovely parking spots, it doesn’t yet have the technology to tell you whether they’re available or not. And as for piecing together a parking strategy that will minimize time spent sipping coffee in the car and watching for the broom in the rearview mirror, anguishing over whether the S.U.V. behind you is going to move in on your spot and crowd you off the block, ruining your week—well, I think I am pretty good at that already.

But it would make sense to have some kind of network of like-minded people you could notify if you happen to see four lovely spots open on a prime block. I don't have a Twitter account, or an iPhone, but it may be time for me to upgrade (my cell phone is ancient—almost as big as a ladies' size-7 shoe). I could start with the retired proofreader.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Link

Which sounds like the harder sell: a book about parking by a copy editor or a book about copy editing by a parker? See Andy Ross's blog Ask the Agent: Night Thoughts About Books and Publishing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Working on the Railroad

Ten-fifteen on Sunday morning is the optimal time for finding a parking spot, or it was for me yesterday. I’d spent Saturday night in Rockaway, where a crew is laying new track on the elevated A train (see below, where I took a major detour on a Friday night). In addition to all their trucks and cranes, there was another piece of heavy equipment parked on our block when I arrived on Saturday morning: a thing they use for “milling” the pavement, which is like plowing asphalt. Opinion was divided as to the desirability of having our block milled. My neighbor T. said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they did some actual work on our little street?” The Catwoman said, “Wheah are we gonna park?”

The road miller disappeared, but I found it later, in the church parking lot. (Seriously, look at this thing.) The train operation went on all night. On the street there was a stack of new sections of track, which comes preassembled, as for a model railway. There was a crane that was hoisting the sections up onto the elevated.

On the elevated was a whole string of yellow cars, the kind you dread seeing because it means there is a free shuttle bus in your future. One of these cars had a crane mounted on it to lift the section of track, move it down the track, and drop it into position. I stood below, taking pictures for a while. It can’t be often that they lay new track for the Iron Horse. One of the men, who I took for a supervisor, told me that they would be there for three weekends in a row, working around the clock, and planned to replace the track at both the Beach 98th Street and the Beach 90th Street stations. Next year, they will lay new track between the stations. Then, he said, from Far Rockaway to Beach 116th St., we’ll have a whole new railroad.

I watched as the men on the ground prepared these PVC joints and pounded them into the track sections. It was hard to get a good picture of the yellow car as it moved along the tracks, but I kept trying, until the man at the rear of the car yelled down, “Hey, Bobby, what is this?” and pointed at me. I guess he thought I was a terrorist or was somehow a threat to the future of the railroad. “I’m just having some fun,” I said. The supervisor said, “You can take all the pictures you want.” By then, my battery was beginning to flicker and the light was waning. Here is the crew, moving out, as I went home.

The next morning, the pile of new track was gone and there was a stack of old track, waiting to be trucked away. I took a quick walk to the beach, packed the car, and got back to the city just in time to snag the most beautiful parking spot in the world, one of only seven in what I like to call the Sanctuary (though it has no official recognition from the Vatican). There were actually two spots on this exquisite Monday-Thursday, 8:30-9 A.M. block, as somebody was leaving just as I arrived. I wished I could think of a friend to call who could use the other spot. Alternate side is suspended today, for Idul Fitr, so the Eclair is golden until Thursday, when I have to sit in it for only a half hour, and a civilized half hour at that.

Thanks to the railroad for all the heavy lifting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Morning Guy

The broom made us move today, and what a mess. The four cars parked between the curb cut and the crosswalk pulled diagonally across the street, and an S.U.V. that had been lurking behind me, at the curb cut, sat in the middle of the road, blocking traffic, as the street sweeper honked. “You’d better not try to steal my spot, buddy,” I grumbled over my shoulder at the S.U.V. as we all reversed into place.

But he was good—he even backed up a little to give me room to maneuver. I couldn’t understand why he was content to remain in an illegal spot, though. Maybe he had business in the neighborhood, or was waiting for someone.

Then, just before eight, he came to my window and asked me to move up. He was a black guy with a foreign accent. I had a few inches to work with, so I agreed. But after I had moved I got out of the car to see what he was up to. “You don’t actually think you’re going to fit in there, do you?” I said. He was right up against my bumper, and the rear third of his car was over the yellow line, leaving barely enough room for a car to turn into the driveway behind him. He was planning to park an entire S.U.V. in the space formerly occupied by a motorcycle (a Ducati—today it was parked across the street).

My watch said eight o’clock, but the woman in front of me, in the blue Subaru, had not gotten out of her car yet, so I turned on the radio. Folk music poured out of it, and I did a double take: yes, the radio was set to WQXR, the classical station, at 96.3 FM, soon to move up the dial to 105.9 and become a public radio station. I am looking forward to that, because the public station will have fewer commercials, and often when I'm listening to WQXR I have to jump up and turn the radio off, because the commercials are always about cancer. Then I recognized the folk music as Peter, Paul and Mary; I had just read the obituary of Mary Travers in the Times. When the song was over, Jeff Spurgeon, the morning guy at WQXR (he used to belong to my singing group), identified it as Bach—modern lyrics to a chorale from the St. Matthew Passion. He had found the perfect thing to play in memory of Mary Travers.

The guy in the S.U.V. thanked me before he left. Afraid he might not be familiar with our customs, I pointed to the yellow curb and asked, “Are you sure you can get away with this?”

“I come back after two hours,” he said, and rushed off. Then I remembered my own sometime mantra: Anyone can paint a curb yellow.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Season Opener

I had to consult the parking calendar yesterday for the first time in almost a year, and was disappointed to see that, with the exception of Yom Kippur, all the Jewish holidays—Rosh Hashana, Succoth, Shemini Atzereth, Simchas Torah—which usually make this such a joyous parking time of year, fall on Saturday and Sunday in 2009 (5769-70). I was lucky last night when I came in from Rockaway to find a Monday-Thursday 7:30-8 A.M. spot. I had to squeeze behind a blue Subaru Outback and be careful not to knock over an Italian motorcycle, a Pugaci (is there really such a thing as a Pugaci? Or am I thinking of Bugati? Or Ducati? I was reading it in my rearview mirror). This morning, I was relieved when the motorcyclist moved, giving me access to the curb cut behind him. There were traffic cones set up across the street—No Parking on the Tuesday-Friday side—and I was tempted to cross the street and shift the barriers, to have more room to maneuver—I am out of practice. But, for whatever reason, when the broom came, at 7:40, it swept by without making us move at all.

So I sipped my coffee and paged through the Times, which contained this useless nugget: “Because of Rosh Hashana and Id al-Fitr, alternate-side street cleaning rules are suspended Saturday and Sunday.” It failed to mention that Id al-Fitr runs through Monday (Allah be praised).

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I worked late last night and took the A train home to Rockaway, probably for the last time this season. There had been signs posted all week that the Rockaway Park shuttle would be out of service beginning at 10:30 P.M. on Friday, September 11th. After ten-thirty, riders were directed to stay on the train to Far Rockaway, get off at Beach 60th Street, and take a “free” (whoopee) shuttle bus back in the other direction.

Somehow I got it in my head that if I just caught the train in midtown before ten-thirty, I would be O.K. My train got into Broad Channel at about ten-forty, and the conductor didn’t say anything about the shuttle being out of service, so a bunch of us detrained, as usual, to switch to the shuttle. There was no S train lurking on the siding beyond the station, but soon one came along from the other direction, and after sitting for a while on the siding it reversed direction and slid down the tracks toward us. It looked as if we were in luck: the M.T.A. was going to provide one last ride.

The train started sounding its horn—not a good sign—and as it got closer we could make out its destination: “Not in Service.” It stopped anyway, the big tease, and sat there for a few minutes, while we hoped it would open its doors, and then slithered away.

Hmm. What to do? Clearly no more shuttles were running. I have a friend in the bungalow courts who works for a car service, but I couldn’t find his number, and it was just late enough (going on 11 P.M.) to be too rude to call anyone else. I could walk from Broad Channel. But it had been a long day, and if I wasn’t going to get home till midnight anyway, I might as well wait for the next A train and let myself be herded along to Far Rockaway and the stupid free bus with everyone else.

It drives Rockawegians crazy when people assume that all of Rockaway is Far Rockaway. Far Rockaway is the easternmost part of the peninsula, the armpit, and the rest of the Rockaway Peninsula is the arm, forming the southern rim of Jamaica Bay and a ten-mile barrier beach along the Atlantic: Rockaway Beach. A whole spectrum of neighborhoods stretches along the peninsula from east to west: Arverne, Seaside, Rockaway Park, Belle Harbor, Neponsit, Riis Park, Roxbury, Breezy Point. The A train crosses the bay at the longitude of approximately Beach 84th Street. If you live on, say, Beach 101st Street, it is a gigantic bore, on a Friday night, after you've already been on the train for an hour, to take a four-mile detour to Far Rockaway. Grrrr.

When the next A train came, the conductor made the announcement about the change in service, and we all trudged aboard, but the M.T.A. had a little more fun with us before the night was out: as the train pulled into the Beach 60th Street Station, we let out a collective groan, watching from the windows, as the shuttle bus pulled away. There was nothing for it but to follow the signs down to the street and wait. At least it had stopped raining, and the breeze was mild. A bus came: “Out of Service.” Another bus came: also “Out of Service,” but this one stopped and picked us up anyway. It took a strange route down Rockaway Beach Boulevard to Beach Channel Drive and then along the Rockaway Freeway, under the El. (Note the many applications of the name Rockaway: there is no Near Rockaway, or Close Rockaway, but there is a Rockaway Boulevard and a Rockaway Turnpike and a Rockaway Avenue and a Rockaway Point and a Rockaway Point Boulevard and an East Rockaway—and a Rockaway, New Jersey, but let's not go there.) Nobody on the bus knew what the deal was, whether the shuttle bus would automatically stop at all the train stations or whether we had to request a stop, as on a regular bus. So the bus zipped past Beach 90h Street, where I was planning to get off, to see if I could find an open deli on the way home. Then someone lit up the “Stop Requested” signal, and the driver stopped at 94th Street. Nothing was open except the bars and a pizza joint and a Chinese restaurant.

This morning, after I complained at length to my neighbor T. about getting stranded in Broad Channel and not getting home till midnight, she said, “You coulda walked one block and got the 53.” Or, her husband said, "you coulda got the 21." Of course! Both those buses come straight out Cross Bay Boulevard, through Broad Channel, and turn west, toward Rockaway Park, stopping a block from my home. What was I thinking?

Well, at least I got to complain. And the journey home gave me a strong incentive to pack up the cats and move back to Manhattan.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The End (Again)

This picture was taken on the Thursday before Labor Day as the Rockaway ferry pulled into the dock at Riis Landing. I have one ride left on my forty-ride season ticket, and I meant to take it this morning but I overslept. Alternate-side parking rules were in effect, so, for the first time in months, I had to get dressed and dash out to move my car. I found a spot across the street, the last spot before the Stop sign, where the Eclair will be perilously vulnerable to large turning vehicles. I hope she will be O.K.

I have been resisting nostalgia over the passing of summer—resisting, in fact, the passing of summer. Why must it end? The ocean is warmer than it's been all season (though there are some jellyfish floating in it). The cats have completely settled in, and forgotten all about their city life. Norbert was on the Greek porch this morning, among the morning glories. Eventually it will get too cold to stay in the bungalow, which is unheated. Until then, the main reason to decamp to Manhattan is the brutal commute.

On the A train today, I had ample time to consider what to do about the car when I move back. I could park it on the street again. Or I could call the garage and ask if they can still give me the good deal they gave me last year. (It's hard to go back to the street once you've parked in a garage. It may be impossible.) Or I can work something out with my neighbors in Rockaway, who borrowed my car a few times over the summer: maybe they would park it in exchange for getting to use it occasionally. This seems like a good idea, but I run the risk of having them begin to think it is their car. Or of getting tickets.

Friday, August 28, 2009

First Family Reunion

I missed the hurricane that shut down the beach last weekend, though I drove through a blinding thunderstorm on I-80 in Pennsylvania, on my way to the family reunion in Cleveland. I had seen the sky all black up ahead, but still it came as a surprise to be in that blackness. I pulled over and waited out the storm, with my flashers on. When it calmed down enough to see the lights of a truck ahead of me, I ventured back onto the road. What a dilemma: on the one hand, if you can keep up with the truck, you have a guide; on the other hand, the truck is going awfully fast.

At a gas station, I called my friend the Catwoman in Rockaway, who said that that line of thunderstorms was purple on the radar. It hadn’t reached New York yet. The rest of my trip was calmer. The climax, as I rolled through the wilds of Pennsylvania, was passing a Tootsie Roll truck while listening to Prokofiev. It was a semi, painted to look like a Tootsie Roll—not exactly the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, but with a bombastic Russian accompaniment it was monumental.

As for the family reunion, either it was the only serious family reunion to take place during my lifetime or my branch of the family was never invited to any of the other reunions. (Or—and this is entirely possible—our parents were too antisocial to attend.) There are a lot of mysteries in the family: Why did Grandma’s family leave Canada when she was a small girl? How did our grandfather’s family lose the farm in Parma, a prosperous suburb of Cleveland, full of subdivisions that used to be farms? Why aren't we rich? What exactly is the relationship between the fabulous Baby Dee (my sibling) and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (our father's cousin's son)? I think they’re third cousins. Anyway, here they are:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Found and Lost

I was walking along the boardwalk on a Sunday afternoon with my friend Cynthony when I spotted a tiny ziploc baggy with about a joint’s worth of marijuana in it. I bent down and picked it up, and as I put it in my pocket I thought, “I’m being framed” (no doubt because the first thing I saw when I looked up was a police car—not that I’m paranoid or anything). But nothing happened—I was not handcuffed and carted off to jail—and in fact I succeeded in getting to the hardware store before it closed, to buy boric acid (for use in my war against ants), and then I took Cynthony to the Wharf, my favorite place in the world, where we sat out on the deck overlooking Jamaica Bay.

We ordered drinks and appetizers, and then the skies opened and it began to pour down rain. We had a roof over our heads: what could we do but order another round? At one point, I escorted the waitress to the door holding my umbrella over her. But finally the rain was coming down so hard that the head waitress wouldn’t let her staff out on the deck anymore. Just when it looked as if we would be cut off, a bus girl offered to convey our order to the bar. When it was ready, she hollered to us from the door to come and pick it up.

Finally, the rain died down, and we decided to hit the boardwalk. I had my money—a five-dollar bill and three singles—in my right-hand pocket, and my keys and the little baggie in my left. In a gesture of drunken largesse, I decided to give the bus girl a big tip—after all, she had risked getting struck by lightning to bus our table and take our order, and she wasn’t even our waitress. I separated out the five-dollar bill, folded it, and kept my hand on it, in my left-hand pocket, so that when I found the girl, on our way out, I could give it to her and thank her personally.

We get home, I reach in my pocket, and . . . no tiny postage-stamp-size plastic ziploc bag of marijuana. Easy come, easy go, I think. I don’t say anything to Cynthony—I don’t want her to know what a ditz I am. I act like I forgot we had any plans for our little windfall. But it’s driving me crazy—it has to be somewhere. I search my pockets over and over, and look in all kinds of places where I might have systematically, if absent-mindedly, emptied their contents—a purse flap, the desktop, my knapsack. Can it have fallen out of my pocket when I used the ladies’ room at the Wharf? Did I accidentally hand it to the bus girl, wrapped in the five-dollar bill? I picture an aerial shot of the bungalow, as if this were a movie: the camera pans from bedroom to kitchen to living room and zooms in on the tiny, plasticated thatch of dry grass lying innocently . . . where?

A week later, I’m sitting around with another friend, whom I’ve told this story, and my neighbor T. calls out from across the walk, “Ladies, would you like some pot?” We’re not sure we heard her right, but, just in case, we fall all over ourselves to get out the door and over to the fence. “What?” I say. “Marijuana,” T. says. "My husband found a dime bag out on the sidewalk and left it on the deck table. 'What’s this?’ I said. He said, ‘I found it.’”

“I wonder if it’s the one I lost,” I say, and tell her how I found a little baggie on the boardwalk and got paranoid and then lost it and thought I gave it to the bus girl at the Wharf wrapped in a five-dollar bill. She shows it to me. “That’s it, all right,” I say. We all giggle maniacally. Now at last I can compose the last shot in the movie: I am carrying my keys on a long yellow lanyard that I draw out of my pocket as we approach the door, flipping the little baggie out onto the walk.

So that’s what a dime bag is.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Summertime ...

... and the livin' is easy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009

Below Deck

Having rhapsodized and apostrophized and otherwise sung the praises of the Rockaway Ferry yesterday (see below), in my loyalty I rushed down to Wall Street in torrential rain to get on the 5:30 boat. It was the first time ever that I sat inside. I am exaggerating when I say there was “torrential rain,” but only because inside the boat there was a TV tuned to the news and they were giving the weather, which we could see perfectly well for ourselves out the ferry windows, and the weatherman was saying (according to the captions) that there was now or would be later “torrential rain” somewhere. The boat sped through the harbor, lurching over the waves, and water sloshed up against the windows and I felt ever so slightly as if I just might be seasick . . . I didn’t dare go up top for my customary beer, choosing instead to cling to my tabletop, turning my eyes occasionally onto the horizon (still visible) for stability.

Probably my choice of reading matter didn’t help any. I had forgotten my current book yesterday morning—I am on a Jonathan Ames kick, and he can be so perverted and scatological (yet hilarious) in his personal essays that they might have helped distract me—so on the way out of the office I grabbed a review copy of “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,” by Glenn Stout. The book begins, for reasons that will become clear, with a description of the Slocum disaster, the worst maritime disaster in New York history. On June 15, 1904, more than a thousand women and children drowned when the General Slocum, an excursion boat that was carrying a party of German Lutherans up the East River, caught fire. The captain and crew made all the wrong decisions, and none of the lifesaving equipment worked—it was ancient or inaccessible, and hadn’t been inspected in years. Women were not taught to swim in those days. Most of them drowned in shallow water off North Brother Island. Two chapters later, in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Trudy Ederle (born October 23, 1905) learns to swim.

The ferry arrived safely and not a moment too soon at Riis Landing, and rain fell well into the night, though once we were on land it did not seem quite so torrential. I went to bed haunted by visions of maritime disaster. If it got really bad out there in the harbor, it would be so much worse to be on (or under) water than it would to be in a subway.

This morning, I reverted to the A train. Rather than continue with “Young Woman and the Sea,” I read this week's Wave. In a letter-to-the-editor, the paper’s historical columnist, Emil Lucev, wrote eloquently about, of all things, the Slocum disaster. The letter ends, “In nautical circles, the General Slocum is known as the ‘Poor Man’s Titanic’! The captain, William H. Van Schaick, was sent to prison at Sing Sing, New York … and was pardoned by President William Howard Taft in 1912. Shortly thereafter, the real Titanic went down with another great loss of life. The cause was ice, not fire, but the reasons were similar.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ferry Tales

I have been commuting from Rockaway to Manhattan by ferry for the past few weeks, and between getting up early to catch the 7:45 in the morning and rushing downtown to get the 5:30 at night, lately I’ve been feeling as if I lived on this boat. My desk in Times Square sways back and forth like a ship's deck all day. The commute costs almost four times as much as the A train—the ferry is six dollars, plus another $2.25 for the subway from Wall Street to Times Square (not counting any celebratory beverages)—but to me it’s worth it, this twice-daily eyeful of New York Harbor.

Last week, the skipper of the American Princess announced two public meetings that might help New York Water Taxi get another boat put on the run—maybe one that left a little later in the morning and returned a little later at the end of the day. Last night, I went to the meeting at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn. The college is at the eastern tip of a peninsula that forms the southern shore of Sheepshead Bay. Its major landmark, conspicuous from the water, is a rotunda, like an extra-thick silo, topped with a squat cone of green beams. It doubles as a lighthouse. The campus has its own tiny beach, Oriental Beach, an extension of Manhattan Beach, to the west. Manhattan Beach itself is a sweet little enclave, with a footbridge over Sheepshead Bay to Emmons Avenue, which is lined with restaurants and party boats for fishermen. I had been worried about where to park, but a guard at the campus gate told me I could park anywhere that wasn’t restricted.

The meeting was part of a Comprehensive Citywide Ferry Study to identify locations in Brooklyn that could be developed for ferry service. Although politicians from Rockaway were there to praise the ferry, and suggest that more runs be added and that passengers ought to be able to transfer for free to a bus or train, the agenda was soon hijacked by locals.

“Why would I pay six dollars on a freezing December morning when I can walk one block and get a train for two-twenty-five?” one woman said. (“You’re not riding a raft,” someone behind me muttered.) A woman from Coney Island seconded her, bragging that from Coney Island “we’ve got a one-seat ride.”

Mostly, locals were worried that a ferry landing in Manhattan Beach or Sheepshead Bay would mean more cars parked on their streets. “People who live in Manhattan Beach have a major problem with parking,” a well-groomed woman said. “This is a very small peninsula. . . . We have to preserve this wonderful community.”

Taking the other side, an administrator from Kingsborough said that his college is surrounded on three sides by water, and to get from Far Rockaway to Manhattan Beach by public transportation can take more than two hours. He joked that students not only get a diploma when they graduate but a certificate of survival. He would like a ferry landing at the college for students. The local ladies jumped all over him. “We have people with houses on the beach that need parking!” one woman exclaimed.

There were only a handful of people at the meeting who actually rode the ferry. A regular on the 5:30 Rockaway-bound who lives in Breezy Point had left his car that morning at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where the ferry makes a stop, and driven from there to Manhattan Beach. “The schedule is always a problem,” he told the public. A ferry can’t run every fifteen minutes, like a subway. But he conceded that there does need to be “plenty of parking—that’s a key factor. If you don’t have it, you might as well forget it.” And he added, “If the trip is longer than an hour, it’s not worth it.”

The length of the trip was another hot-button issue. A young businessman acknowledged the need for alternatives to the Belt Parkway (which, incidentally, is sinking), but he said the ferry was too slow and that he was going to drive. A guy named Joe Hartigan, in cap, shorts, and sneakers, began his spiel by saying, “I’m not a big fan of Weiner,” meaning Anthony Weiner, the congressman who gets most of the credit for bringing ferry service to Rockaway (and who will never be mayor because of his funny name). Joe had hoped that a high-speed boat would be put on the route. He had made test runs in high-speed boats that got to Manhattan in twenty-eight minutes. He was outraged that New York Water Taxi had assigned a brand-new boat to the Yonkers run—Yonkers!—and given to Rockaway a boat that was used for whale-watching.

A well-spoken, well-prepared woman from Red Hook named Carolina Salguero was especially exercised about the fact that there was no ferry service between Red Hook and Governors Island. A ferry has been taking people from Manhattan to Governors Island for free, but they’ve done nothing for Red Hook, which is desperate for parks and ferry service and is right across Buttermilk Channel from Governors Island. When the moderator started to respond, Carolina said, “Enough already, Phoenicia, enough already.”

I found myself wanting to defend the ferry. The crew of the American Princess is friendly, and service has been remarkably reliable. Only once, in my experience, has it been late, and that was last Thursday, when Obama was in town to give his speech at the NAACP. In the afternoon, he flew from the downtown heliport to a fund-raiser for Governor Corzine in New Jersey, and the harbor was closed, so the boat could not come through. The man in front of me in line had a pinched nerve, and was extremely annoyed at Obama. But my feeling, as I waited, was that our lives were being touched by greatness—or at least delayed by greatness for twenty minutes.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dinosaur (with Flowers)

It is not so easy anymore to find a place that develops film (outside of the drugstore chains), everyone but us dinosaurs having converted to digital. Actually, I have a digital camera, but it is already obsolete. The battery fails, I can’t see the viewfinder outside in sunlight, and the color isn’t true. So I tend to fall back on my trusty Olympus point-and-shoot.

A few months ago, I tried to drop a roll of film off at the usual place, near Times Square: two Korean ladies sent out film to be developed and sold lottery tickets. But they and their store were gone—split, absconded, departed, extinct. I hadn’t even liked the Korean ladies—they insisted on taking a deposit, and chatted among themselves while waiting on me, as if I weren’t there—but now that they were gone I realized what a good deal they’d been giving me: double prints, a disk with digital images, and a free roll of film for every roll I dropped off. Of course, this last just made me keep taking pictures and held me in their thrall.

So I fell back on Walgreens, which has a branch smack in the middle of Times Square. I had to ride the escalator to the third floor and wait in line at the cash register, and when it was my turn the cashier made a phone call and then reported to me that the photo person was on break and would be back in ten minutes. I instantly morphed into crabby-middle-aged-lady mode and flounced off, the best you can when you’re a crabby middle-aged lady on the down escalator. On my way out, I tried to keep the virtual blinders on and not buy anything (did you know you can buy lunchmeat, like prepackaged bologna, in Times Square?) but succumbed to a four-pack of granola bars.

A few days later, I happened to pass a photo lab on Seventeenth Street near Union Square and left my film there. That place did a nice job, though it cost almost twice as much as the Korean ladies. There was an extra charge for the disk, and no free duplicates. Or film.

Then, last month, between trips, I left a roll of film from one trip with the folks on Seventeenth Street, and returned from the second trip to a message that my new photo lab was closed. The guy gave a phone number and said I could pick up my prints across the street from where the shop had been. I did not call back instantly, but at the first opportunity I went to where he said the prints would be and found nothing. I called the number, got transferred to a cell phone, and left a message; no one called back. Now the number is no longer forwarding calls. And I had two more rolls of film to develop.

Back in midtown, I noticed a photo lab in the vicinity of Grand Central, so I dropped my film off there earlier this week. I went back to pick up the prints the next day, and as I waited my turn I took out a twenty-dollar bill and a few singles. They had asked if I wanted double prints, and I had shrewdly asked if the second set was free, and they had even more shrewdly said no. I declined the second set, but I did ask for a disk. I knew it was going to cost more than the Korean ladies, and suspected it would cost more than the recently defunct place near Union Square, but still I was unprepared. The total was a whopping $39.50. No free film, either.

Now, I take a lot of pictures, on the principle that if you take enough pictures, some of them are bound to come out O.K. (Isn’t that one of the secrets of successful photographers?) And since I was in Amsterdam, taking full advantage of the amenities (coffee shop, garden, café; repeat), I took a lot of stupid pictures. For some reason I have a whole series of shots of gigantic eyeglasses outside optical shops. Of more than fifty exposures, only four pictures were any good, meaning that those four cost ten dollars apiece.

Anyway, here are a few of the keepers: Amsterdam, cosmos, passionflower. And a fond farewell to film.

Next: incandescent light.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Homage to Amsterdam

They take everything horticultural to a higher level in Amsterdam. For instance, these artichokes were for sale at the flower market.

Pure thistle!

There were also artichokes of stone. This fountain was in a canal garden.

Before going to Amsterdam, I thought I would be satisfied with my hydrangea in Rockaway if it flowered blue. The plant is doing nicely, but it's nowhere near as photogenic as this:

Who knew that hydrangeas even came in red velvet? With ravishing blue centers?

Well, at least the wisteria is thriving. I gave it a summer trim, hauling the vines off the roof of the guy next door before they overcame his cable, and cutting back the whips to about one foot or six buds (as per the YouTube wisteria-pruning video recommended by Roy in his Comment, below, under "Pergola Emergency").

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ik Ook

The big weekend in Amsterdam is over: it’s Monday and wash day and recovery day. Baby Dee is on her way home.

Bimhuis was full for Dee’s show last Saturday, with a few people even sitting in the aisles. The name Bimhuis is apparently associated with legendary jazz musicians in Amsterdam, but the original venue is no longer. Bim is now housed in a box sticking out the side of a theater-arts complex reached by pedestrian ramps behind the train station.

The stage was big and arched out into the audience. There was a grand piano and a concert harp on it. Before the show, a stagehand laid a sheet of paper at each musician’s place. Good—Dee had a set list. She and the band played a radio show in the afternoon, and Dee had been worried that it would deplete them for the evening. She entered alone (as I remember) and went straight to the harp, doing one of her early songs, the one about asking the bird why it sings (“The Robin’s Tiny Throat”?). The musicians joined her gradually: John Contreras, the cellist; Alex Nielson, a ginger-haired Scot; and Joe Carvel, a bassist. I would not have thought that percussion would lend itself to Dee’s music, but Alex does some special little martial thing on “Early King,” and he has a feathery touch with the cymbals that is very effective. Plus he’s fun to watch.

This was the best-choreographed of any of Dee’s shows that I have been to. Often, with a harp, a piano, and backup musicians, it can be crowded onstage, and clumsy for Dee to move between the piano and the harp, but she swanned across the stage (insofar as one CAN swan in flipflops), soaking up the applause. She did a combination of early songs from her first album (“He’s Gonna Kill Me When I Get Home” and “So Bad” ended the first set), some of the great, driving songs from “Safe Inside the Day" (“Teeth Are the Only Bones That Show,” “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities”), and love songs from the new album that will be out this winter (“A Book of Songs for Anne Marie”). Dee also did “April Day,” a beautiful song that makes people in the audience sigh with pleasure. (She doesn’t do it often.) She was in good voice.

Between songs, Dee gave us a Dutch lesson. Her favorite expression in Dutch is “ik ook,” which means “me too.” She also taught us “lekker” (“delicious”). A person can get pretty far in Holland with lekker and ik ook.

On my way to the bar at the break, I was accosted by Alexander and Andre, a Dutch artist-manager duo, dressed to the nines (or even to the twelves), who been sent as emissaries by my friend Ella Arps (she couldn’t make it). Alex and Andre bore gifts for Dee and me. I opened mine: it was an exquisite print, from a series called “Aladdin’s Dreams,” of a well-hung contortionist. (Dee will have gotten something in the same vein.) There were some other people there I knew, too, who congratulated me on my wisteria.

Dee did “Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town)” and, thrill of thrills, as an encore she did “Pisspot,” the song she wrote with my mother. You can never tell, with Dee, whether she will leave the audience laughing or crying. I was glad that this night she left us happy.

When the show was over, the stagehands drew back a curtain at the back to reveal the port of Amsterdam.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Baby Dee in Amsterdam

Baby Dee played a terrific concert last night in Amsterdam, as part of the Holland Festival.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Fessing Up

The trouble with hoaxes is that once you've posted a picture of someone else's wisteria and claimed it as your own, who will ever believe that you grew this lovely yellow iris?

Now I'm waiting for the hydrangeas, and while they are making up their minds what shade of blue to be, I'm off to Amsterdam, where Baby Dee is playing the Holland Festival.

A few weeks ago, I was passing the Giant Virgin store, or whatever it's called, in Union Square and noticed that it was closing and they were selling the fixtures. So I went in and got the bin divider with Baby Dee's name on it. I was going to buy it, along with the last copy in stock of Baby Dee's compilation disk, but they refused to sell it. The divider was part of the fixtures, and only a manager could determine its price. What's a sister to do? I trudged back to the "B" section of Rock & Pop and returned Dee's album to the shelf, put the divider in my bag, and walked out disconsolately. Yes, not only do I perpetrate wisteria hoaxes on the World Wide Web and sneak into movies as a senior citizen but I am guilty of petty larceny.

I'd post a picture of my trophy, but it's not very photogenic. It's just a cheap piece of black plastic with the name "Baby Dee" on one side and the words "Hunky Dory" on the other. But who knows? When Dee is famous, it may be worth something.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Garden Angel

When last I wrote, I was pleased to have such a lush display of wisteria blossoms, but secretly worried that the flowers were too heavy for the branch, or the bungalow, to bear. I've gotten a lot of suggestions for pruning and pergolas (thanks!), but there was nothing I could do until I got back to the beach for Memorial Day Weekend. Fortunately, my neighbor ACE had taken it upon himself to train the vine. Doesn't it look fantastic?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pergola Emergency

Can you almost smell it? I was trying to describe the smell of wisteria to someone last weekend . . . and all I could come up with was "floral." Later I thought, Candy? It's light, sweet, with just a whiff of decadence. My bumper crop is desperately in need of a little support—I had no idea that flowers could be so heavy.

The rosebush is a simple beach rose, kind of blowsy-looking (as well as out of focus), but pure in scent. The bush is covered with buds for the first time—I don't know what I did right.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I think it is permissible for even a modest gardener to boast when her wisteria blooms, after eight long years of vines vines vines. I'm not really taking credit for it, though I did prune this year. I made several people walk up the path to the outdoor shower and look back so that they could see the wisteria at its best. My neighbors and I are hoping that its perfume will be enough to overcome some less pleasant odors that are a feature of bungalow living.

It was Mother's Day, traditionally the day I turn the water on in Rockaway. I have it down to a science now. First, I lay out the tools. Then I go to the deli for beer. I clean up the area where you have to crawl under the house to screw the plugs into the pipes, and remove the cap from the pipe that gives access to the water line, and then—voilà!—my wonderful neighbor T. comes over and does all the work, assisted by me and a bottle or two of Budweiser. We were in luck: no leaks. I cleaned, put a fresh battery in the tide clock, which was still accurate for high tide during the full moon, and stayed to see the full moon rise over the ocean, yellow-orange, between clouds.

Next: the rosebush.