Monday, March 29, 2010

Return of the Eclair

The moon is in the seventh house (or something) and Passover aligns with Easter (both Western and Orthodox), so the D.O.T. sent out a long-winded but welcome statement to its people: “Alternate side parking (street cleaning) regulations will be suspended Tuesday and Wednesday, March 30-31, for the first and second days of Passover, Thursday and Friday, April 1-2, for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and Monday and Tuesday, April 5-6, for the seventh and eighth days of Passover.”

Surely this was a sign that I should bring the car in from Rockaway, where I left it for the winter. I could have brought it in last week, but I didn’t, and this turned out to be a mistake, because in that extra week the car languished … or at least its battery did. I ran into my neighbor and long-distance valet Mr. T., carrying his baby’s car seat in, and he said he’d had to jump the car the day before. He wasn’t sure whether he’d left something on, or if it got too cold, or if the battery was just old. (I have had the car almost six years, and have never worried about the battery, but I know it was a problem for the previous owner, who left the car in Rockaway all year round and drove it only to Dunkin' Donuts on Saturdays.) Mr. T. offered to go with me to see if it would start up.

The Eclair was parked in a Friday spot, and looked quite lovable to me, although it is true that it had grown despondent over the winter; the coffee residue in the bottom of the styrofoam cup next to the driver’s seat was green. And when I turned the key in the ignition, the car showed no vital signs. Mr. T. got his truck and jump-started me, and then led me to a place that he said carried my brand of batteries, to see if I needed a new one.

A mechanic named Julio (according to his shirt) stood by with a battery tester. Julio had a thick accent, so that even if I had known what he was talking about, I couldn’t have understood what he was saying. (He couldn’t pronounce the essential word “charge.”) He said the problem was both the battery and the alternator—“It can’t be both!” T. said—and he’d have to order the part and he couldn’t start the job till Monday. All that was clear was that it was already one o'clock on Saturday afternoon and Julio was eager to be gone for the weekend, and who could blame him.

I was all for driving—that recharges the battery, and I hadn’t been behind the wheel since New Year’s Eve. So I drove first west, to Breezy Point, and then east, over the Atlantic Bridge ($2 toll each way), through Long Beach and back, racking up about thirty-five miles before daring to park and cut the engine. She started up fine when I was ready to come back to Manhattan, although I think the muffler needs work.

Saturday at around six seemed like a reasonable time to look for a spot. The first block I went up offered nothing, but then I turned onto one of my old reliable blocks, K Street, and on the right was a Tuesday-Friday spot with a large piece of furniture parked in it. I double-parked to check it out: it was some kind of wooden wardrobe or bureau, as tall as me and as wide as a double bed, with an inset (broken) mirror. I dragged it up onto the sidewalk. The spot had looked more than ample, but either I lost my depth perception over the winter or the car got bigger, because I had to jockey back and forth three or four times to squeeze in. It was worth it, though: thank you, Jesus, Moses, God of the Old Testament (but not the current Pope!), my car will be safe in that spot for twelve days, until Friday, April 9th. Which is not to say that it will start up again when I need it, but I can always have it resurrected by AAA.

There is a new parking blog, called Parallel Spaces (, whose writer has developed a Manhattan Parking Map. I will add it to my links, along with the Parking Ticket Pundit.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I took the ferry out to Rockaway on Friday for the last time—or so I thought. It was reported in the press that ferry service to Rockaway was stopping as of March 19th. What would keep this ride from being melancholy—if there’s no ferry, I’m back on the A train with Volume II of “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”—was that it was my maiden voyage of the season. I persuaded my neighbor T. to come along—we could take the bus the rest of the way home, if her husband couldn’t pick us up in my long-lost car.

We met at Pier 11, Slip C, where regular riders were waving signs that said “Save the Rockaway Ferry” and “Save Our Boat, Keep her Afloat“ and “No Boat? No Vote!“ At boarding, the demonstrators all rushed for the prow to wave their signs at a TV camera. That left some great seats for us up on the top deck, in the stern.

The American Princess gave three long blasts of her horn and we hove to. Naw, we didn’t hove, or heave … I just like nautical language. What we did was we opened our brewskis and went to town, getting a jump-start on the weekend. One of the problems with this campaign to keep the ferry running is that its most vocal champions are likely to be the guys who drink to excess on the boat. One of them did get hold of the microphone as we approached the Brooklyn Army Terminal. “Brook-LYN, Brook-LYN!” The passengers who disembarked at B.A.T. were told that there would be an announcement at Riis Park Landing, and [wink, wink] “we will see you soon!” Later someone announced, “Look at that traffic on the Belt Parkway. Do you wanna be out there?” “Noooo!” bellowed the crowd.

On land, it was the first intensely warm, inviting day of the season. My feet had been so oppressed earlier, in their black shoes and socks, that I stopped at Paragon and bought a pair of purple Tevas. But it got nippy in the open ocean. A regular commuter, a businessman in a suit whom I recognized from a ferry meeting last fall, pointed to me, chillin' (literally) in my sweatshirt and sandals. “I’m tough,” I told him. I was cold but happy: T. had brought me a big bottle of Guinness. She lives in Rockaway all year round and knows that it stays colder out there well into June, so she was wearing a hooded parka. The regulars actually went below to get out of the cold. At least we didn’t get splashed, though the deck in front of us got wetted down. A parasailer—a surfer in a wetsuit holding on to a huge kite—raced over the waves toward the Verrazano Bridge.

In Jamaica Bay, the American Princess curved gracefully past the sweet houses of Roxbury and entered the harbor. A crowd had gathered to greet the ferry, with more signs, and not thirty seconds after I had bade a warm farewell to my favorite crew member, into my hand was pressed this notice: “Rockaway Ferry Service EXTENDED!”

The ferry, which first sailed in May of 2008, was originally funded for two years. Eric Ulrich, a councilman, was handing out the flyers and taking credit for the reprieve: the ferry service will run until July 1st. Lew Simon was on a podium with a megaphone, working the crowd. Lew Simon is all over the place in Rockaway: he is a Democratic District Leader, writes a column for the Wave, accosts people at the supermarket, schmoozes the ladies at their annual card party at St. Camillus (T. said she’d given him a hug the day she won a flat-screen TV; he’s good luck).

Ever since I’ve been going to Rockaway, there has been controversy about the ferry. The editor of the Wave is sour on the subject. For years, whenever there was talk of a ferry, he’d wager in print that it would never happen, which outraged me, because that kind of behavior, betting against yourself, is exactly what makes things not happen. Even people who wanted a ferry complained, when they got it, that this wasn’t the ferry they wanted. They deride the American Princess as a refitted fishing/party boat, and say the trip takes too long. The riders don’t mind that: it’s a spectacular harbor—why torpedo through it? The schedule doesn’t suit everyone—how could it? T. agreed that taking the ferry home on Friday is a swell way to launch the weekend, but leave in the morning at five-forty-five in order to be an hour early for work? No, thanks. In summer, I leave at seven-forty-five in order to be an hour early for work, but the flip side is how highly motivated I am to get out of work early in order to catch that last ferry home, at five-thirty. And they're doing the best they can with one boat. The only way to offer more crossings would be to add a boat.

Which brings us to the inevitable: the cost. At $6 one way, it’s controversial to everybody except the people who pay it. I think it’s a steal. The operating cost per passenger, I read, is more than three times that, at current ridership. Yet there are also complaints that $6 is too much. The Staten Island Ferry is free.

Is it elitist? It is. Is it impractical? It is and it isn’t. Is it fun? Oh, yeah. Is it beautiful and bracing? God, yes. I will be on it as often as possible for as long as it lasts.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Fish Story

My crazy brother thought I would enjoy riding down the Sandy River, in Oregon, on a raft with a fishing guide, clad in waders and a life jacket, looking not at all like Meryl Streep in "The River Wild." Steelhead trout are in season. Before leaving town, Miles plunked two jars of “egg cure” and a Mason jar on the counter, and said that if I got a “hen” I should prepare the eggs for him, so he could use them as bait. Yeah, right … Didn't he know that I have always been on the side of the fishes?

The guide’s name was Ed Fast. I think of him as Steadfast Ed Fast. Ed Fast endeared himself to me right away by calling to say he was going to be a little late because he was stopping for doughnuts and what kind did I like? (Cinnamon and chocolate.) Maybe fishing wouldn’t be so bad ...

He arrived at six-thirty in the morning with a catamaraft—a pontoon raft—on a trailer. All the other guides had been out on the river for hours, taking their clients to their favorite spots and fishing them out. It is bad etiquette to pull in where other guides have already staked a claim, so we leapfrogged them down the river: a big bald guy named Bob in a beautiful wooden boat, with three fishermen sitting athwart (how often do I get to say “athwart”?), and Dave Maroon, in an aluminum boat. (I would never go out in a boat with a guy named “Maroon.”) Ed knew a lot about the natural history of the area, and told me to get out my brand-new non-waterproof camera to get a shot of the canyon walls as we slid sideways over the rocks. (Agh!) On a beach, he pointed out cougar tracks, and what he thought was the track of a mink, and a single elegant elk print, and took my picture with a waterfall. He showed me how to cast—Ed casts beautifully, his line making a lazy loop in the air—and told me to try to place the line in the “seam,” so the bait would travel along the bottom, where the fish like to swim. He kept saying “Mend,” which I think means raising your pole to get control of your line, without jerking the bobber, which would make the fish suspicious. And "Open your bail."

At a spot called the Gauge Hole, Ed baited my line with a fake pink worm. The Gauge Hole has unsightly equipment along the bank that registers the depth of the river and that rangers can read from some remote outpost. I stood on a rock and cast a few times, and then felt something take my line and started reeling it in as we both saw, out in the water, a fish leap twirling in the air, like something right off the cover of Field & Stream. “You got a fish!” Ed said, incredulously. He was by my side in an instant, coaching me to give it line, to “pump and play,” never to point the rod directly at the fish (is that why it’s called angling?). I was all for reeling the fish in, though it was very strong. Finally, Ed said, “I’m gonna have to go after him,” and took the pole out of my hands and ran over the rocks along the bank and climbed over the gauge equipment. It seemed like it took forever to land the fish. He explained afterward that you have to be careful or you’ll rip the hook out of the fish’s mouth—the hook was just barely in the fish’s lip; it fell out as soon as he landed it. But if you let the fish fight, it gets exhausted and flops into your hands.

There was much documentation of the fish, after Ed had bled it out in the river and demonstrated how to hold it through the gill, without letting my fingers show through its mouth, and adjusted the flash on my camera so the trophy fish would shine. It had three rows of sharp little teeth in there! Ed estimated that it was thirty-two inches long and about twelve pounds. It was a female. Miles would be pleased. I was, of course, hoping that Ed would prepare the eggs.

I would have been content to just ride down the river, but Steadfast Ed Fast was getting paid to make me fish all day long. He would stand in the water, changing the bait, tying on a spinner or mashing fish eggs on the line, adjusting the amount of lead in a tiny mesh bag. That's another reason I don’t like fishing: it's like sewing, except that you have to thread the needle while balancing on a rock in a rushing stream. We changed spots again, negotiating some more white water. The sun came out, and on a calm, quiet place in the river we munched our sandwiches and drank hot coffee straight from the thermos. A bald eagle flew upstream.

At a spot that Ed said was a favorite of his, with the raft perched on some rocks and the water running over them, he hooked a fish and tried to hand the pole to me. “No, you land it,” I said. “I want to watch.” He was puzzled. As a guide, he was used to letting his clients bring the fish in—that is what people are out there for, that sensation of matching wits with the wily trout in its own element, blah blah blah. This time, Ed really did practically walk that fish ashore. It was a male, what he called a “chromer.”

At the landing, I peeled off my waders. I was surprised that my feet were dry inside of there. Ed addressed the fish. He showed me the scar on the side of the chromer, where a seal had tried to eat it. He slit open the female and uncovered two “skeins” of bright-orange eggs. “Do you want to eat a fish egg?” he asked. I declined. He put the eggs in a baggy and the two fish in a Hefty bag, loaded the raft on the trailer, and we headed home.

Ed stayed and prepared the fish eggs for me—or, rather, for my brother. He put on latex gloves and sprinkled the powder on them and instructed me to turn the jar over regularly until they puffed up. He filleted the chromer, which, though it had been caught by him, apparently belonged to me. Its flesh was red, like salmon. He started to fillet the female, but her flesh was pale, almost gray, and he said it would be no good to eat. So we walked down to the riverbank and he tossed her in, saying she would now be food for other fishes. He really believed that. He said she was a hatchery fish, after all, and just put in there for us to sport with. But I kept thinking she had put her whole being into making those eggs, and now they would be used against her, used to lure her own kind into being hauled ashore. It made me sad. You should have seen her when she was alive and leaping.