Monthly Archives: April 2010

The City Island Conspiracy Continues

Uncovering the City Island Freemason Conspiracy (three picture deal currently in negotiation) really gave me an appetite. So, I headed back onto the main drag, known for its mediocre yet proliferous seafood joints. However, on the way to the south end of the island, where you can’t throw a cat without hitting a restaurant, I found myself waylaid by a rather uncommon sign.

Maybe the word, “Nautical,” which is such a great and underused word, drew me in. Or perhaps the excellently painted sail boat was to blame. Either way,  around the corner  I found a single room store chalk-a-block with all things maritime.

Antique Barometer

Model Santa Maria

Is he suposed to be Italian?

The purveyor of this most curious store? Trader Joe. (John really, but everyone seemed to call him by his nickname.) He lived up to his nomenclature,  in my opinion, when one customer walked in with an anchor, and Trader Joe said, “You’ve got good taste in anchors.”  Indeed.

While full of verve, Joe looked like this was not his first trip off the dock and I asked him if the island had changed much over his lifetime (almost all of which was spent here). Definitely, he replied. Once a thriving seaport, City Island now relies on the tourist industry for economic sustenance. It’s a “restaurant island” were Trader Joe’s words.  I for one would have preferred an isle full of swarthy seagoers, like the ones that must have once supplied our dear Trader with his wares. Life isn’t always fair, as they say, but you can still get popcorn shrimp. Right?

Walking south, my stomach growled, expectant of the  aforepromised battered decapods. However, my wallet demurred. Sammy’s Shrimp Box wanted $15.97 for a basket with fries. What are they trying to pull?  I wondered and stepped back outside to sample one of the many other eateries. But then I noticed something disturbing. Something perhaps even more chilling than the Freemasons. Just look!

Sammy, whoever he is, has not 1, not 2, but 3 restaurants AND a parking lot for each location. So who is behind this fishy monopoly? (Sorry about the pun. I can’t help myself sometimes.) I asked one of the waitresses in le shrimp box, who referred me to the manager, who shall remain nameless because of the following statement. Mr. Manager was having a meeting at the main branch with a man I imagined to be the assistant manager. He said, and I quoth, “You have to get your own crayons and balloons! You’re own your own now.” He then stormed out, leaving his clipboard behind, leaving me to think he would be returning soon. Not so. In the meantime, I became distracted by an acne medication info-commercial they had playing on the bar TV.

“Are you watching this?” asked the bartender.

“Not really.”

“I miss the good old days,” he said, switching it off. “Before they had TVs. People used to talk to one another.”

Now this barkeep philosopher was not some weathered old man just come in from the sea, as it were. Rather fresh faced (I’ll end my description there in case Mr. Manager should ever read this) he went on to describe how technology was tearing our social fabric apart. I concurred and neglected to mention this blog.

After this exchange, I didn’t really care who Sammy was anymore. A Grand Master Freemason no doubt. Better to leave these sorts of things alone. I just wanted my fried shrimp! And I found it at the very end of the island at Johnny’s, a cafeteria-like establishment where my order took all of two seconds.

A little rubbery, but totally passable, I took my lunch  outside to enjoy the view.

Not bad for New York City’s littlest island.

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Thanks Everyone!

A quick thanks to everyone who’s checked out my blog this month. 300 views in 30 days, not bad for my first time out. Thanks again and stay tuned!

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City Island: The Bronx Riviera

Recently, people have been asking if I do any research before visiting these various and varied neighborhoods. The short answer: No.  I find it far  more interesting to enter a place without any foreknowledge. And so, ignorant with open eyes, I disembarked the bus, you know, wherever on City Island.

In the time that it took to solve the algebraic equation of public transportation necessary to get to this little isle off the Bronx coast (F to the L to the  4 to the  BX-29 = 2.5 hours), I could have flown to Florida. That being said, City Island somewhat resembles the sunshine state and I headed down to the beach, a mere 2 blocks away. In fact , where I got off, the island was a whole 3 blocks wide, which makes one wonder if the inhabitants are at all worried about rising sea levels. But we’ll save that conversation for another day and just enjoy the view for now.

Just look at those condos...

To be honest, I don’t really like the beach. Besides the sand factor, there’s a lot of pressure to “enjoy” oneself and to “relax.” Trying to relax stresses me out, so I spent only enough time there to really start yearning for pavement, all of about 3 minutes.

Walking the streets of City Island a single word came to mind : Cute. Everything is cute and/or cute-cute, sometimes even, regrettably, cutesy. Take for instance, this house:

Cute, no? But with this next house, we’re moving in to cute-cuteville, as in, doesn’t this house look just like a house in Nantucket?

Finally we have cutesy:

hmm… lawn ornament deer reclining beneath a flowery tree. But wait, what’s that behind it? Pink Flamingos. Right. However, we should at least be a little thankful to City Island. After all, how many times do you get the opportunity to say, “Aw, isn’t that cute?” in New York City? NEVER. Except for on City Island, and sometimes, even cutesy is kind of nice.

Still, a little bit goes a long way, so thankfully, I happened upon a graveyard before my eyes glazed over with honey.

eternity with a view

Now, while all these people may be dead, there’s nothing like seeing the span of a lifetime in two numbers and a dash to remind you of how long life can be. This couple for example

lived through both World Wars, the majority of the Cold War, Vaudeville, Elvis, the 60s, and Depeche Mode. That is a lot of life, to say the least.

But reveling in the strange beauty of life and death as we know them was not the only point of interest in this place of rest. Like any halfway decent graveyard, this one had its mysteries and many of its headstones bore the ominous sign of the Freemasons:

Not just for gravestones, later on I saw this famously infamous sign on the sides of buildings and on the lapel of a jacket I almost bought at a yard sale. (It was a little too big.) I had to uncover this clandestine mystery so close to the shores of the center of American finance and culture. What scandalous plan could they be hatching? Is our very way of life at stake, held in the hands of this uber-secret society? For answers, I went straight to the source –  www.bronxmasons.com, their website and clicked on the “Got Questions?” link. As if to beguile the viewer, their website is pretty poorly designed and hard to read. Also, the writing isn’t that good, I mean, the writing is cryptic! But as far as I can tell, some fishermen and sailors got together in 1918 and started a Lodge to take care of member’s widows, orphans, and business interests. But when I clicked on “Famous Masons part 1” I received the enigmatic message: “404 Not Found, sorry but the content you request could not be found.” I suppose it should have come as no surprise that these cloak-and-dagger cultists should keep their hand close. Well, score one for the City Island Freemason’s – but I’ll be back!

Later this week: the original Trader Joe. Rest assured, he doesn’t sell organic snacks and moderately priced hormone free meats.

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And now for a New York Moment

This morning, as most mornings, I stopped at my usual coffee shop on my way to work. While my favorite surly barista was not in attendance, I persevered. Coffee. Large. And went outside to enjoy a moment of sunshine before heading into the office.

Over the winter, a bakery had opened next store, staffed entirely by women ages 25-45 who all look like they belong in a really good movie about women who started a successful bakery. One of them, in a white apron and green bandanna covering her hair, was eating pancakes off a square red plate on the stoop.

“I’m jealous,” I said. “That looks delicious.”

“Want one?” she asked.

I refused, she insisted and a moment later, I too was enjoying these most amazing pancakes. The secret ingredient? Walnuts. To die for.

Thanks New York.

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Robot Art and Soccer

For those of you just tuning in, I am currently lost in the great industrial hallways of Long Island City. Though, after two hours of meandering, I was starting to get a little tired and  asked directions from one of the few human beings I had seen thus far. 21st Street (where I got off the train), he informed me, was about a mile away, exactly back in the direction I came. But did I follow these directions? Or did I get distracted by, say, the Guatemalan National Anthem emanating from a public park with a Caterpillar backhoe in the center?

When I got there (obviously I didn’t follow direction people, come-on) I found these guys :

About a hundred in all, they waited impatiently for their soccer season to start while the MC went through all the people to thank and all national anthems of the players. Mothers handed off babies to the uniformed husbands for snack runs. Stray soccer balls from the next generation of players veered between the lines. Nevertheless, the MC was adamant in his duties and in about twenty minutes I was getting a little antsy myself. But there was a novelty to consider: the “field” was a disused concrete basketball court. Besides, I had started chatting with the only other English speaker in the crowd – Doug, from Canada (he came up with the nomenclature). Apropos of last post about LIC re: yet more gentrification, Doug  had a home renovation business and had just been with clients looking to upgrade their condo. Despite going through our abbreviated life stories, a few jokes, and wonderment at the soccer players’ dedication to the game given their playing surface, the MC was still going. Wait!  He’s handing the mic off….no. More speeches. Doug and I went our separate ways with promises of FaceBook friendship. One thing I will mention before leaving this scene however – given the skill of the kids practicing while they waited for their fathers to start, in about ten years American soccer won’t be so import dependent. So keep practicing! There’s only 3 World Cups before you have to be ready!

Now, from my last visit a few years ago, I had a vague memory of what P.S. 1 looked like. Yes, yes I know. That structure and all the art that it holdeth should be emblazoned on my brain. However, not so much. But I was pretty sure this was it as I approached a enormous red-brick building in a sea of cement. The diligent security guard informed me, kind of – I had to go around to the front. This last hurdle jumped, I entered the rather prison-like  courtyard,

one of my favorite parts of the museum. No really. It’s a mostly blank space void of visual stimulus before entering the world of over-stimulus. Moreover, you have a choice to walk on the gravel, or the sidewalk. The sidewalk may have been placed their for handicap access – but it still gives you the choice to interact with the gravel – which creates both texture and sound – or walk dolefully on the concrete.  Brilliant.

Less brilliant was the sign in the front lobby informing me I couldn’t take pictures of the artwork. No matter. I decided to take pictures of things that were not art like this:

and this:

hoping to get in trouble so as to have more to write about. No such luck. The one security guard who did catch me, who shall remain nameless, gave me a momentary scolding and told me I’d have to get a press pass if I wanted to take photographs. But then, without my protesting even a little, he said, “Go ahead. Whatever.” But, I had already told him I was doing an “art project” about things in museums that were not art and didn’t want to blow my cover.

Unfortunately, about 75% of the museum was closed due to installation. So, I spent a lot of quality time in the video art room – a medium I wasn’t  particularly keen on – until now – thanks to Rosum’s Universal Robots.

This guy is from a 1930s film adaptation of Czech science fiction writer,  Karel Capek’s play about robots taking over the earth (among other things, like um, socialism). That, I assure you, has nothing on the video at PS 1. First of all, it’s not a play – it’s a ballet. A robot ballet with amazing robot costumes – think robot tutu – and  sets built by the incredible Frederick Kiesler. I was mesmerized throughout. If anyone out there in cyberland knows were to get a copy of this cultural gem – let me know!

To conclude, I will just mention that I passed by the soccer game on my way back. They were just getting started.

Next New York City neighborhood: City Island. Where’s that?

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Long Island City, yo

The main advantage I have as an urban spelunker is that I have absolutely no sense of direction. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I assure you, it is not. When I disembarked again from the trusty G train in Long Island City, I had every intention of going to P.S. 1 – the famed contemporary art center housed, as the name suggests, in New York City’s fist public school.

According to the map I had drawn before hand, I was just a block from there and so headed in what I supposed to be the right direction. I went the exact wrong way. However, this, shall we say, detour, took me to streets I otherwise wouldn’t  have ventured down.

Long Island City is neither a city, nor is it on Long Island. However, at one time it was a city with a mayor by the name of Patrick Jerome “Battle-Axe” Gleason. Take that Jackie. Now, Long Island City is a neighborhood in Queens, just north of Brooklyn on the East River. Originally an industrial area with warehouses galore, it seems destiny that it should find its next form as home for artists and tag-along yuppies who like their luxury condo balconies with a view of the Manhattan skyline. To be fair, it is quite a view, and one that’s often bettered by what lies in the foreground.

But, there is something to be said for the aesthetics of industrialism. Take for instance this water tower and smoke stack.

or this fire escape

Neither would one call pretty. But they are interesting, beautiful even almost in their lines, in the unexpected dash of yellow in the latter, in the lack of color and rigid form juxtaposed with the blue sky in the former. More than this the aesthetics of industrialism allows, if not creates, a healthy sense of solipsism (healthy, at least, for artists). Walking around the industrialized zone of LIC it’s easy to get the idea that the world is blank, empty and waiting desperately to be filled. Don’t believe me? Check out the courtyard in front of P.S. 1:

Yes, I finally found it

Soccer on Concrete

If that’s not an industrial space, I don’t know what is. More on what’s inside later this week along with these guys:

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The 99¢ Store

Have you noticed there’s no “cents” sign on the keyboard anymore? You have to insert a symbol and even there it’s hard to find.  In the April issue of Harper’s, there’s an article by Joachim Kalka about the slow but eminent disappearance of coinage, and with it, the extinction of the rituals surrounding these metallic objects. Heads or tails? Flicking pennies at elementary school crushes. The pleasure of having exact change at the counter of your local bodega. So, it was with profound enjoyment that I visited the last and greatest defense of the coin: the 99¢ store.

Of course, as any soured skeptic will immediately point out, not everything in a 99¢ store costs 99¢. But, that, my dear nay-sayer, is not the point. The point is that some things, indeed many things, in a 99¢ store cost 99¢. If you hand the cashier a dollar, he will hand you a penny. If you give them your credit card, he will charge you tax and then it’s not 99¢ anymore. Take for instance this bag of rubber bands. 99¢! And it will last you a life time.

It is entirely possible to find your every need, if not desire, in the crammed aisles of Bushwick 99¢ stores.

From food to toys, from brooms to toilet seat covers (who doesn’t need one of those – especially in lovely pastel), they’ve got it all and cheap.

But choice! you say. I want selection. Have no fear! The name and description might be in a language other than English, and you might not know exactly what you’re buying, but your options are nearly unlimited. Just like going out to dinner in Paris. Heading off to the laundromat? Just try to choose from this epic shelf.

You’ll be lingering for hours.

What’s that? You wanted tape? Well.

With an average of 2 per block on the main drag, Knickerbocker Avenue is the absolute Mecca of 99¢ stores. For those on a budget, or just in the market for authentic kitsch, it’s well worth the subway trip. So come-on. Roll up your pennies and enjoy it while you can.

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