Category Archives: NYC

Borden Avenue, 7:18pm

hurlPost-work run down Borden Avenue. Almost done, tiring. I slow down near the ballfields across the street from the Hess station and Mt. Zion. On the field stand two off-the-boat Irish. They’re flaked with sheetrock dust from their day’s work. One stands near home plate, the other near the mound. Both of them have a hurling stick gripped in their hands, and they’re using them to lob a racquetball-sized sphere back and forth.

We had a hurling stick in our house when I was a kid. My dad brought it back from Ardee after he buried my grandfather. Hurling is Irish field hockey, basically. According to my dad, it was a deadly game, much like the brutish Gaelic football my grandfather used to play. Players would line the bottoms of their sticks with blunt metal strips held in place with nails, both to keep the wood from chipping against the turf and so the stick would do maximum damage in close-quarter scrums.

The hurling stick sat in a toy chest in the garage along with a Keith Hernandez Louisville slugger, cracked Wiffle Ball bats, and other blunt instruments, waiting to be unsheathed whenever me and my brothers made up some new game. These games would inevitably break down as we debated the rules, and the hurling stick would be used to avenge some slight, real or imagined. Crying and punishment would ensue, followed by parental threats to take that damn hurling stick away from us, resulting in more crying. No, mom, no, don’t take it away, we’ll be good.

I blamed the stick. It was such a perfectly designed implement of mayhem, it practically begged to be slammed against your brother’s calf. It surely was infused with some dark magic, the spirit that pervaded the sport for which it was intended.

And yet here I see these two men, surely exhausted from a day of work yet using their hurleys to relax, to lightly toss a little ball back and forth, back and forth, violence nowhere to be seen. I stop and look on for a moment while the sun sets behind me, and I feel I’m seeing some spell being snapped, some war being won.

Niches

Fresh Pond Crematory

Death is never far in Queens, the borough of graves, but it creeps closer in certain places than others. One such place is Mount Olivet Crescent, a slip of a street that wends its way up a hill in Maspeth and down another in Middle Village. The Crescent is bordered on one side by its namesake cemetery, a lush expanse of granite mausoleums, angels, and obelisks cut in half by the busy thoroughfare of Eliot Avenue. A few ramshackle flower shops hang on for dear life, squeezed on all sides by vinyl-sided one-family houses and a sore thumb of a chrome-plated apartment complex. The Crescent comes to rest near an enormous sign pointing the way to the parking lot for the Hess-Miller Funeral Home, host to more than a few wakes for family members of mine.

At the Crescent’s summit, the Fresh Pond Crematory looms over it all, a cream-colored slab with a circular driveway paved in brick, ideal for the approach of hearses. Built in 1884, the exterior resembles a crossbreed between federal mint and Gilded Age prison. Cremation was rare enough in those days that a Brooklyn Eagle reporter made the long trip to Fresh Pond after hearing the mere rumor a wealthy German businessman was to be cremated there. The reporter soon found himself in an Abbott and Costello-esque exchange with one of the attendants, who impatiently explained he could cremate no one until the oven was complete.

The reporter eventually got what he wanted: a graphic description of exactly what cremation does to the human body. (“The total weight of the ashes of a full grown man would only be six or seven pounds.”) He also received a defense of the practice from the attendant, based largely on the overcrowded state of the city’s cemeteries and some other concerns about corpses that haunted the Victorian mind.

Oh, cremation is what we must all come to, and it has a great many advantages when you look at it in the right light. You can’t wake up after burial and find yourself choking to death with six feet of earth over you and your coffin nailed down, and medical students can’t snatch your bones and monkey with them in their dissecting rooms. You can have your cemeteries all the same, and set these urns in them and plant flowers about the urns; that will be all right and nobody will be hurt. This thing has to come.

The crematory has grown considerably since those days, when nearby residents were worried about the smell such a facility might produce. A towering smokestack now announces its true purpose, as do the large copper letters over the main entrance, dripping green with its name. Beneath, in smaller, more polished type, is the announcement AMERICAN COLUMBARIUM CO., INC.

Continue reading Niches

Seizures

As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.

When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.

“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.

The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.

Continue reading Seizures

The Lost Art of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

It’s always okay to say nothing. That’s a concept we’ve lost in the internet age, where we rush to project our thoughts as soon as they flit across our brains. But really, it’s perfectly acceptable to keep your mouth shut once in a while.

I say this because last night, while Hurricane Sandy was unleashing its worst on the tri-state area, Jack Shafer of Slate saw fit to take to Twitter and unleash this (reverse chronology from top to bottom):

Normally, I assume most people outside the tri-state area don’t like New Yorkers, and I could care less. Provincial hatred of other cities might be the saddest, most ineffectual prejudice there is (think Springfield vs. Shelbyville) and it says more about the practitioner than his target.

However, I truly don’t understand the psyche of a person who would see what was happening to New York and choose that moment to express snide, impotent rage against the people living there. And not specific people, either, but a vague idea of those people crafted in a badly compartmentalized brain.

Fine, Shafer, you hate some mental image of New Yorkers. Congratulations. I have zero interest in changing your mind, but is it too much to ask that you wait a day to express this thought? At the exact same moment I read his first dismissive tweet, I saw a news report about two children who were killed by a falling tree up in Westchester. Excellent timing, professional journalist.

As I write this, houses are still burning out in Breezy Point. Neighborhoods in southern Queens and Brooklyn are still under 6 feet of water. Parts of Staten Island and the Bronx were hit just as bad. People have lost homes, and for the most part they’re not the kind of people who have the means to just shrug and rebuild. If that does nothing for Shafer, I can assure him the storm also hit New Jersey and Connecticut hard. Houses destroyed, whole towns flooded and possibly more if levees don’t hold out, power out for who knows how long. I don’t know if those states have been too polluted by their proximity to New York to earn his sympathy.

Tragedy isn’t a contest. When something bad happens, there’s zero point in trying to determine if this Bad Thing is better or worse than the last Bad Thing. There’s no award given out for Best Reaction to Horror to the people involved. In any disaster, there are heroes and there are crappy people, because there are humans. Actual humans. Try to remember that when you’re sitting at a keyboard.

A tweet Shafer wrote later (the last one he wrote, at this moment) indicated he was without power in the DC suburbs. So maybe he didn’t see all the images of destruction that I’ve seen in the last 24 hours. That’s still no excuse for his reaction. As a journalist, Shafer should know that if you don’t have all the facts, you can always keep your stupid mouth shut. The internet will manage to go on without your uninformed, hateful garbage, I promise you.

Different people react to tragedy differently. Some feel compelled to help, others joke to deal with their terror. If your reaction is to sneer at the people who are in harm’s way, I feel sorry for you, and anyone who may be in your life.

Respect the Baritone

I live in a Bus Neighborhood. All subway lines are too far away to make walking an option, so if you want to get anywhere and you don’t want the trip to last 3 hours, the bus is mandatory. The buses that serve the neighborhood are always overcrowded at rush hour, because they’re the only ticket in and out. When a bus arrives at a stop, no matter how packed it is already, people claw their way on as if it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, because there’s something both terrifying and humiliating about getting left behind by a bus. Watching it chug away from the curb, engulfing you in its exhaust, telling you that you’re not good enough for the bus.

Last week, on one brutally hot afternoon, I emerged from a subway station and jogged toward my usual bus stop. The bus stop isn’t immediately visible when I get above ground, and it’s also on the other side of a very busy street, which always presents the infuriating possibility of arriving just in time to see my bus leaving me behind. That did not happen this time, but what did happen was almost as enraging. As I neared the queue for the bus, a guy chugging toward it in the opposite direction cut into the line a split second before I could assert my I-Am-Here-ness.

Of course, I had the fear that this guy would be The Cutoff, that one last passenger after which the bus driver slams the door shut and moves on. How many passengers can get onto a bus is left to the driver’s discretion. Some drivers let people occupy every molecule of available space, while others rigidly enforce the “stay behind the white line rule,” and this guy arriving just ahead of me made me worry the next bus to arrive would fall into the latter category. But getting beaten to the punch in the bus line was more galling because the man who did it to me was lugging a baritone.

You’re probably familiar with the baritone if you ever played in school band. They’re like tubas that were blasted with a shrink ray. They’re made primarily for marching bands or kids who can’t make the full tuba commitment. Baritones are technically portable, but this man was planning on bringing this thing onto a crowded bus, where sardine-can conditions make handbags deadly weapons. Adding further desperation to his overall mien, the baritone was beaten up, dinged and tarnished, with several sizable dents in the bell. This was a baritone that had been down a few dirt roads.

Initially, I was furious. How inconsiderate was this guy? He didn’t even have a case for the thing, just cradled it against his chest like a huge, brassy child, the enormous, injured bell barely clearing his head. Given a jam-packed bus, crappy road conditions, and the typical skills and safety of an MTA bus driver, he could actually kill someone with this thing.

But then, I began to soften a little, because it occurred to me that no one in their right mind would bring a baritone onto a bus if they had any choice in the matter. I realized that I probably hadn’t seen a baritone since high school, and had a wave of Band Geek nostalgia. And I wondered, where had he been playing this thing, and why? It’s gotta be rough trying to make a living as a working baritone player these days.

The bus pulled up and was, of course, already well full. The line slowly pushed its way inside. The Baritone Man somehow managed to fish a Metrocard out of a pocket, then turned to see the bus’s standing room already completely occupied. By now, I’d done a complete 180 with my feelings. I pitied him. Here it was, a scorching, muggy summer day, and this man was trying to bring an enormous blunt brass instrument onto a jam-packed bus where the AC is being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of sweaty, angry humanity on it. This, I figured, will not end well.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The aisle between the seats is usually an impenetrable thicket of shopping bags and hate, but for Baritone Man, it parted like the Red Sea. The passengers willingly–gladly, even–moved to allow him to move toward the back. Not only that, but once he reached the back of the bus, someone offered him a seat. And there he sat, comfortable and unperturbed, for at least the duration of my trip. When my stop arrived, there he still was, baritone nestled in his lap, happy as a clam. It was one of the most endearing, yet weird, things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In all my years living in New York, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone offer a bus seat to anyone else, no matter how elderly, infirm, or feeble they were. When my wife was pregnant, you couldn’t have made someone give up their seat for her with a million dollars and a shotgun. There is a certain mentality that takes over when you ride the bus, which essentially boils down to This is horrible, so we’re all gonna be horrible to each other here.

I used to think nothing could pierce the flinty Darwinian shell of the New York bus passenger. Now I know better. If you want to melt the collective heart of an angry, sweaty MTA bus, bring your baritone.