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, cafĂ©; 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").