The Farm on Staten Island — Nonfiction by Robert Iulo

  On their first Easter on Staten Island, my grandmother insisted her brother and his new wife come to Manhattan for dinner. She didn’t want them to be alone for the holiday on what she consid…

Source: The Farm on Staten Island — Nonfiction by Robert Iulo

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The Caring Internet

Yes!, despite all recent evidence to the contrary, there is a caring Internet, an Internet “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” as John Barlow Perry long ago declared in his, uh, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” There indeed yet remains an Internet that reminds us more of the promise(s) foretold during those dark days of the mid-90s — yep, they, too, were dark days — by Chris Locke and his collaborators in the Cluetrain Manifesto, than the Internet portrayed, neither inaccurately nor spitefully, by Farhad Manjoo in his recent NYT column:

Wouldn’t it have been kind of a pleasant dream world, in these overheated last few weeks, to have lived free of social media?…. Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11. The Islamic State’s use of the Internet is perhaps only the most dangerous manifestation of what, this year, became an inescapable fact of online life: The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, much of the Internet is terrible.

Yeah, so indeed we face the hilarity of Hillary and The Donald suggesting that it might be kind of a good thing if we could just sort of, you know, shut down the Internet, or at least the bad parts of it — neither of course able or even attempting to articulate just how we might intelligently discriminate between the bad and the good parts or exactly how we would go about doing the shutting down.

Well, Farhad, I feel your pain — and your exasperation, at both the real world events — “Terrorism, intractable warfare, mass shootings, a hyperpartisan presidential race, police brutality, institutional racism and the protests over it” — and the Internet’s “escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction.” Yeah, just like reading the NYT every morning, it really does seem lately that “much of the Internet is terrible” and much of the world is fucking terrible.

Much of the Internet is terrible, though? How exactly do we quantify this, since we are talking about the Internet, after all, which is figuratively, if not literally, unquantifiable? (Maybe the Internet is literally quantifiable by, say, IBM Watson, at particular microseconds, but who really cares about such an academic exercise?) I maintain there is still very much alive and kicking a Caring Internet, and I give you here its (or her) picture:

Aged Hippie.jpg

Okay, it’s not an official portrait of the Caring Internet, nor even of that (relatively) teeny-tiny 33 million+ member part of the Internet that goes by Care2.com. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait/caricature (My Page Billboard) of one of those 33MM+ members and one of the couple hundred or so people that I interact with daily on the Internet on the Care2 site. She’s one of my “friends” or what I choose to call my social friends; we’ll talk later about this admittedly ungainly construction. Let’s call her Roxy, a name I’ve made up just this moment, for the purpose of this post, since I have no right to call her by her real name, if indeed the name she uses on Care2 is her real name at all. Some people don’t use real (people) names at all, and some don’t even bother with an avatar. I, for one, do use my real name on the site, though you can also find me there by my avatar, Spike of Broadway, may he RIP.

I’m not a real sociologist of the Care2 community, nor even a pretend one, but I assure you that Roxy is representative of much of the population I encounter on the site, over which I range rather freely (and, as I’ve said, daily. First, Roxy is female, which seems to be true of all social networks. (A real sociologist told me that.) But Roxy is also let’s say in her 60s and is or was or still somehow strives to be a Sixties’ Hippy. She loves Peace and music and animals.

So Care2 skews female, Boomer, and sorta-kinda lefty. Of course, there are plenty of guys on Care2, and guys and gals in their 20s, 30s, and so on. (A noticeable minority says they are 115 years old, and those who do so invariably identify themselves as female, for what that’s worth.) And while (based on server names) the site seems to have originated and operates in Australia, it also skews North American. Still, I have Care2 friends of all ages from the EU, Nordic countries, the Balkans, South and Central American, South East Asia, etc., etc., too many countries (and even counties) to name. Care2 is as global and stubbornly local as Facebook.

Of course, you don’t need to have “friends”or socialize in any way on Care2. Care2 is a click-to-donate site, transparently and unapologetically “supported” by advertising, lots and lots of relevant and irrelevant advertising: Click to donate to a cause — Rainforest, Big Cats, Animal Rescue, Stop Violence (Against Women), Oceans, Children, etc. — and the identified advertisers promise a micropayment for that click. A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause(s)? Sure, that’s one way to look at it, not exactly inaccurate but, oh, somewhat cynical and decidedly judgmental. Maybe you actually do other things for your causes besides click-to-donate…

Hey, and as you click-to-donate, you earn Butterfly Rewards, or credits, which you can then redeem for: humanely raising animals, planting trees, feeding kittens, saving turtle-hatchlings, all kinds of do-good feel-good things. (A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause[s]? Sure, that’s one way to look at it…) You can also earn Butterfly Rewards by reading articles (“We write over 50 stories a day ranging from animal issues to human rights to healthy living tips and so much more”); sending birthday greetings to your friends on the site (Because “You’ve brightened someone’s day and made the world a better place” — okay, hippy-dippy, but would you say inaccurate?); and of course signing (and creating) Petitions. So you do stuff on the site, which is satisfying in and of itself, and you earn rewards which you can the “turn into meaningful gifts” to the causes you care about. More on this later.

But to me the most interesting, and satisfying, thing about Care2 is the befriending business. I actually came late to this part of the community — for years I just did the click-to-donate and petition-signing, same as with other similar sites, but eventually I began getting “friend” requests — indeed, like Facebook, and I was equally suspicious — but, as with Facebook, I was too much the gentleman to turn them down. And, unlike with Facebook, I didn’t even remotely “know” any of these people, which was actually a big plus. As I accumulated Care2 friends, I also began receiving Green Stars:

What is a Green Star? It’s a simple “Thank You” from a Care2 member. There’s no need to respond. The sender is simply acknowledging that you’ve made a contribution to the community. Green Stars may be sent because you made a good post in a discussion forum, or because you took the time to make your personal profile interesting, or for a thousand other good reasons.

Unlike Butterfly Rewards, you can’t do anything with Green Stars, except just count ’em up, I guess, although the site already does that for you. But I found that once you start getting Green Stars, you want to give them as well, and I now freely, but with discrimination, do. There’s a virtuous reciprocity here that is functionally similar to but emotionally wholly different from the cluster-fuck vituperation that Farhad finds characteristic of our loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly social feed that’s making so much of the Internet terrible. I don’t want to sound like Johnnie Sunshine here, but “much of the Internet” is not terrible. Depending on where you go and what you do and with whom you associate, “the Internet” can indeed be terrible, but it can also be thoughtful and caring and impactful. Care2 is just one small but not inconsequential example of the latter.

But back to the friend thing on Care2. I get “friends” on Facebook; these are people who know you, or once did, in some manner, and whom you know or knew, even if much of the time you might struggle to remember exactly who, what, when, where, or why you knew this now friend-seeking person. It might even be that the only thing you do remember about this person is the single simple fact that you’ve always avoided them. But at least you know that. I don’t know any of my friends on Care2; I might like to, but I don’t ever expect, unless by sheer felicitous accident, to encounter them anywhere or anytime except on Care2.

When you send a friend request on Care2, you’re asked to identify your “primary connection” to this person as either Personal; Professional; Family; Other. Well, Other is a pretty forgiving category so that’s what I always choose, but I feel a little defeated every time I do so. Personal? Not really; I have no truly personal knowledge of this person: She seems like an un-celebrated but equally admirable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and with a silly sense of humor, but for all I know she’s an ISIS operative awaiting orders to strike. There needs to be another category option here, some more apposite and pleasing version of social (network) friend.

Whatever that may be, and I’m certainly open to suggestions, I will say that while I don’t feel I really know any of these people, they are one hell of a lot more important to me than many of my Facebook friends. (As are, for instance, just to name a few other people I never knew, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, John Lennon.) My Care2 friends are active members of a caring community, which comprises me as well.

And they are active. It’s easy to underestimate such activism, and to condescend to it as armchair activism or Slacktivism. I think this is not only ungenerous but wrong. We can’t all be manning the barricades all the time and even those who do man the barricades are dependent on a network of pitch-in supporters. No, it doesn’t take much to sign a petition online but, when you do, you are sending a message, staking out a position, lending hope, supporting others, you are caring, publicly. And guess what? More often than you’d imagine, the petition actually works, especially the local and hyper-local ones. (Okay, the 20 or so I’ve signed over the years against automatic weapons haven’t made a dent.)

Oh, and as for Twitter — where I actually spend much more time than on Care2 — let me just say that you get there what you deserve. If your Twitter feed is loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, you have only yourself to blame. You picked these people, you know. (Okay, you didn’t pick the mindless ads.) Unfollow the vituperative cluster-fuck and don’t be vituperative yourself and your Internet won’t be terrible.

 

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Walking Up (and Down) (and Up and Down) Amsterdam Avenue

Up from 90th St. to (usually) 116th St. — down from there to 86th, 79th, sometimes 72nd St. — this is a walk I take two or three times every week. Sometimes I’ll head west over to (and then down) Riverside Drive or into the Park itself; sometimes I’ll head east over to (and then down Central Park West); but more often it’s just straight back down Amsterdam. It’s not a lovely avenue — actually, it’s probably the un-loveliest avenue on the Upper West Side of NYC (although parts of Columbus Avenue are even less lovely). But in certain ways it’s my favorite uptown/downtown walking route.

Here’s one: I’m heading downtown at the corner of 101st St. — just picked up some bagels at Absolute Bagels on 107th and Broadway, best bagels by far on the UWS — and I’ve got the light at 101st but I slow down and stop abruptly at the corner because a van is barreling in, having turned off the Avenue and headed straight west — but now he stops on a dime, hitting his brakes to allow a young girl with a baby carriage who’s smack in the middle of the street, frozen there, to finish crossing to 100 (13 steps; I’ve counted; street crossing are always 13 steps, except when they aren’t). So I’m stopped at the corner — he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him — I nod, he nods back and gives me additionally a barely perceptible wave while the girl finishes her crossing, he heads on west, and I proceed across the street.

What happened here is a curious and delicate little demonstration of three-way courtesy that seems to happen to me often on Amsterdam and seldom on other UWS avenues — just because, I’m guessing, or employing Occam’s Razor, they’re all so much busier. (Well, that’s clearly not true of West End Avenue, which has a wholly different and stricter driver/pedestrian etiquette, and of Riverside Drive, which has no driver/pedestrian etiquette of any kind, especially when the driver is a bicycler, which so often, and woefully, it is). He has deliberately halted his hell-bent hurry across town and extended courtesy to the girl, letting her finish her interrupted (and now spooked) crossing; he nods to me to recognize my recognition of that courtesy. He nods, that is, to acknowledge that I have recognized his courtesy and that I will not take advantage of it to cross in front of him, so he can then continue on as he was doing before he noticed the semi-paralyzed girl and her baby carriage in the middle of the street, not to mention the gray-haired old coot (me) waiting to see if he was about to run her over.

I don’t want to make too much of this delicate (and, I think, macho) courtesy — I’ve also witnessed a young woman just two blocks from here get cold-cocked by another guy in another van — she wasn’t paying any attention crossing the street, he wasn’t paying any attention turning the corner, but boy did he jump out quickly once he had flattened her. Phones popped out calling 911 instantaneously, she came to in a minute or so, picked herself up and walked on ignoring all the commotion, hey Chica, Chica, c’mon back, you okay? — undoubtedly on the phone herself with Cellino & Barnes — call 1-800 -888-8888 — as soon as she got home and plotting with them to sue that sucker for all he’s worth, which is approximately zero dinero, although his company probably had some insurance that will pay off.

No, I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do see it as a very Amsterdam Avenue kind of thing. And I guess what I mean by that is that Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side is a really pedestrian kind of place; it’s “sense of place” is lots of pedestrians and lots of pedestrian activity (which includes inactivity):

pe·des·tri·an     pəˈdestrēən    noun 
1. a person walking along a road or in a developed area.
synonyms: walker, person on foot; foot traffic
“accidents involving pedestrians”
adjective
2. lacking inspiration or excitement; dull.
“disenchantment with their present, pedestrian lives”
synonyms: dull, boring, tedious, monotonous, uneventful, unremarkable, tiresome, wearisome, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting, uninvolving

Amsterdam Avenue, uptown at least, is, indeed, “monotonous, unremarkable,” and, yes, at times even “tiresome.” The stretch I’m talking about here is undeniably an “uninspired” collection of: 1) bodegas and pizza joints; 2) hardware stores; 3) cheap chinese/thai/”asian fusion”/mexican/italian restaurants; 4) pawn shops (including “jewelry” shops that are actually “Buy your Gold!” pawn shops); 5) social service agencies; and 6) pharmacies. That’s really about it — there are exceptions and they are exceptions that prove the rule. What is interesting, and wholly characteristic of these blocks, is that with only a handful of exceptions (one Dunkin’ Donuts, one Duane Read, one True Value Hardware), these uninspiring, pedestrian joints are all Mom & Pop shops, remnants of Small Business in the city. And there is indeed, I think, something very inspiring about that.

If there is still something worthy of being called Working Class on the UWS, this would be a good example of it. So you could call it that, but I think what we’re really talking about here is the Working Poor. This is a stretch of street that is simultaneously bustling with activity — lots of workers bringing in or taking out stuff out of the hardware stores, concrete mix, drywall, pegboard and all kinds of tools and mechanical stuff that I have no idea what it is — and neighborhood folks buying stuff from the “pharmacies” and bodegas, stores that sell just tons of stuff that you need for everday living: eyeliner, Robitussin, hair coloring, bananas, brooms, condoms, cigarettes, doggy (poop) bags, cell phone covers, hookahs — there’s one bodega that by its display is first and foremost a hookah store — actual medicine, picture frames, “paintings,” — you can buy velvet Elvis or Jesus “paintings” here — Coke and, uh, Coke — I could go on. You can shop for all kinds of things a block over on Broadway, but on this stretch of Amsterdam I don’t think there’s anything you can’t buy.

I remember a line from one of John O’Hara’s Gibbsville stories about a hardware store — If you can eat it, you can’t buy it here. On Amsterdam Avenue, you can eat it at a hardware store, or buy drywall at a pharmacy

I said “simultaneously” — yeah, there’s lots of activity but there’s lots of indolence as well, people just hanging around the street doing nothing, really, just biding their time (for what?) , shooting the breeze with other folks who’re also doing nothing but shooting the breeze. There’s the lady who seemingly lives on the edge (I mean the literal edge) of the school next to the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on 96th St., watching over her two carts of possessions and who neither looks at nor talks to anyone; there’re one or two — never more than one or two, in my experience — homeless guys who most of the time don’t even bother panhandling but who customarily greet you as “Chief” (at least if you’re an old white guy like me) — I guess they’ve learned over time that “Sir” is really off-putting but “Chief” earns at least a smile from old white guys; and there are the older and often infirm residents of small housing projects who just want to be outside if the weather is at all bearable and who will take their chances socializing or not with whomever else is outside or walking by.

In sum, lots of hustle and bustle, lots of meh. So, what else? Architecture-wise? Given my ignorance in this respect I suppose I could simply be blind to Wonders before my eyes, but here I don’t think so. There are some nice apartment buildings on Amsterdam, a couple as nice as some on Broadway that are as nice as some on West End and Riverside — a couple, but further down the avenue, not above 96th. What’s of architectural interest are the churches: the afore-mentioned Church of the Holy Name on 96th (as my wife calls it, the red door church), St. Michael’s on 99th (as she says, the blue door church), the West End Presbyterian Church on 105 (rusty red door), the Central Baptist Church on 92 (brown door and home of “Share Jesus Now. Time is Short. Lives are at Stake.”) Best of all might be the Trinity Lutheran Church off the corner at 100th St., largely obscured  in street view by its scaffolding but featuring a weirdly out-of-place Gaudiesque spire. Here’s a view of the spire from across the street and looking from Columbus Ave.

Given the generally, uh, undistinguished nature of the neighborhood’s architecture, these are all quite imposing structures, and they certainly hark back to a time when churches really were integral parts not simply of the aesthetic surroundings but of the lives of people in the neighborhood. Maybe that is the case even today: The services offered by all these churches are as much “social” — alcohol, drug, gambling, and family counseling, and ESL and “career services” — as they are ecclesiastical, and they are alternatives or complementaries to the city’s social services, such as The Bridge or Grosvenor Neighborhood House YMCA, which are also ubiquitous in this neighborhood.

Other than the churches, however, the only architecture of note here is the old bank building opposite Holy Name, repurposed — as poorly as possible — as a CVS; what a lost opportunity! — and the Victorian Gothic American Youth Hostels between 103rd and 104th sts., formerly the Residence for Respectable, Aged and Indigent Females (I’m not kidding). It’s a gorgeous building, striking no matter how many times you pass by it, and it’s nice to think that, while it may no longer serve respectable/aged/indigent females — the RAI market is apparently dried up — it seems to be doing well by bunches of young kids from around the world and the country who’re seeing the city and maybe the country for the first time.

NYC_Hostel_104th

Other, non-architectural attractions? Yes, there are several, although it may be that they stand out to some degree precisely because they are such obvious exceptions to the sameness and drabness of so much that surrounds them. In fact, the main reason I began taking this particular walk was to pick up the excellent, varied pastries at La Toulousaine (between 106/107): Brioche, croissants, and turnovers as good or better than any on the UWS. The patisserie was shut down for a couple-three weeks this past summer because of a one-day — the day the inspectors came! — weird infestation of fruit flies. This occasioned quite a scandal in the neighborhood, which was shocked by the news and which had happily supported the recherche establishment for years. La Toulousaine quickly cleaned things up and brought the place back to pristine condition, although the complaints about the grumpy and rude proprietress continue to this day. But, as I’ve said to others, she’s not grumpy and she’s not rude; she’s French.

Truth be told, I also started heading uptown this way because of the excellent burger at The Ellington (corner of 106). I’m not a burger fan as such, but I like one every once in awhile, and Ellington’s burger is as good I’ve had anywhere. (Well, okay, it doesn’t exactly approach the burger at Boulud’s db bistro moderne.) Aside from the casual nod to Duke, Ellington’s is basically a well-run, Irish-owned-and-operated bar with better than average Irish bar food.

Chico Julio, between 97th & 98th streets — Yelp pretentiously locates it in “Manhattan Valley,” a designation perhaps meaningful to hopeful real estate agents, but having exactly zero currency in this neighborhood — is a self-styled “Local Pub” and/or “A CASUAL CANTINA-STYLE RESTAURANT SERVING TRADITIONAL SEAFOOD DISHES FROM THE COASTS OF MEXICO.” The other day when I passed by they had a chalkboard A-frame sign outside, with the hand-lettered message:

Forecast Tonight:
Alcohol
Low Standards
Precipitous Decisions

Which I interpreted, not too uncharitably, I think, as “Wanna get laid (by a skank) tonight?”

Further down, on 95th off Amsterdam, is Buceo 95. That’s the official name but you can find it in bright red under the hanging white black-lettered Vin’s Tapas sign. This is the kind of local place that locals, infamously, won’t tell anybody about, because they don’t want it to get any more popular and crowded than it already is. Great tapas, some interesting and scarce (volcanic) Spanish wines, but please don’t let anyone know that I told you about it.

A really nice Italian? Yes, there’s one: Gennaro, between 93rd and 92nd: Another local place that in this case has probably received enough publicity (Zagat: Food: 25; Ambiance: 0) that I won’t be accused of betraying neighborhood secrets. The stinco di agnello is primo in any neighborhood; Daniel Boulud would be proud to serve this.

Buy a tee-shirt at BNC General Merchandise — seriously, do so. BNC is what used to be called a “notions” store — it’s another (tiny) Amsterdam stuff store, previously presided over by Bubacar Camara until he was beaten to death by three no-accounts (now upstate) for cash register money (wild-ass guess? 20 bucks). Bubacar was a guy who mostly hung outside his store, waiting and hoping for customers. We nodded a few times to one another, just because faces eventually begin to recognize one another. Word has it that he gave away as much as he sold, or sold for half whatever he wanted to charge: It’s okay, you pay me next time.

Okay, I guess I have to address the elephant in the room on this route, which gives the lie to the purely personal categorization of (my) upper Amsterdam, little impressive architecture, lots of blah: And then there’s the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s the architectural masterpiece of Amsterdam and of the UWS and one of the wonders — I mean this literally, where literally means literally — of NYC. I used to tease my Catholic Long Island friends that you could fit three St. Patrick’s into St. John with room left over for Christmas services and a bunch of characteristically esoteric art exhibits — they knew I was nuts because of course Saint Pats is the biggest cathedral in the world, everybody knows that. I won’t dare discourse on St. John — although you could indeed fit a couple St. Pats inside — except to say that it’s unfinished and will remain so for, like, forever, until, per impossibile, some robber baron like Paulson (or maybe Mayor Mike?) decides to leave it billions.  Until then, however, you can enjoy it as is, and roam the gardens, where you may (in the spring, summer, and fall) encounter either Jim, Harry, or Phil, the church peacocks — Phil is the albino, leucistic, pure white (and major showoff) peacock. He has his own Twitter account, @CathedralPhil, far and away the best of St. John’s Twitter streams.

I’ve hesitated to cross 110th St. because now we’re entering another world from the one I set out to describe — it’s now the world of St. John’s and, a few blocks north, Columbia University and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s — talk about ecclesiastical reconciliation! — and they kind of own everything and everyone around and it’s all very different from 90th to 110. We’re leaving behind the working poor of Amsterdam Avenue (even if St. John may administer to some of them) — a largely brown and black world — and entering a new world of middle class and upper middle class strivers — a largely White (and Asian) world. Cut through the central campus of Columbia where, if you’re of my generation, you can mentally nod to Mark Rudd exhorting the faithful to occupy the campus in ’68, or, if you’re of my educational classicist background, you can marvel at a whole building dedicated to Homer | Herodotus | Sophocles | Plato | Aristotle | Demosthenes | Cicero | Vergil; they probably use it for computer science nowadays, but still…

So walk on, cross Broadway, pass Barnard, enter Riverside Park: two blocks and worlds away from Amsterdam Avenue.

Addendum (but think of it instead as a Bonus!): A few days after first posting this I took another walk up to La Toulousaine — apple turnovers today, I think — and surprised myself by a couple of things I had intended to mention but didn’t. First, Tatz Gourmet Sweetz — well, I can’t blame myself for missing this because, while the Web site lives on, the shop itself is now gone. (In a very Heideggerian fashion, I noticed it by its absence.) But how could I have forgotten Mary’s Garden? On the northwest corner of 100th and Amsterdam, “Mary” has constructed a tiny village from found and no doubt donated objects, kind of like what Joseph Cornell might have made of a “village garden” if he had done gardens rather than boxes. Mary’s Garden brings some frivolousness and liveliness to the Amsterdam Houses, a smallish part of the Frederick Douglass Houses, stretching from 100th to 104th, Amsterdam to Columbus.

On the southwest corner of 100th is another kind of “garden” — a well-manicured but completely fenced-off and barely noticeable plot of grass abutting St. Michael’s Church. It’s remarkable only in the summertime when the grass has just been cut: For what could be more remarkable on a late summer afternoon on Amsterdam Avenue than the smell of freshly-mown grass?

Whatever-it-is-that-you-add-to-an-Addendum, is what this is, as of 1/19/16:

Mary’s Garden is no more, or rather Mary’s ownership of it has been quite literally wiped out: Presumably there is new ownership (as yet unnamed) as the assemblage of objets trouve has been noticeably altered, although it’s just as trouve as under Mary’s reign.

Also, noticed for the first time, just off the corner of 100th, a branch of the one-time New York Free Circulating Library, here in a photo circa 1898: the Bloomingdale branch:

NYFCL_Bloomingdale_Branch.jpg

That’s it, except for the fenced-in grass plot belonging to St. Michael’s on the east side and a nondescript apartment building on the other side. The building itself is in remarkably fine condition although what if anything it is being used for at this point is not obvious: There is a little notice to the effect that the library is “on the next block” and you can ring the bell “and wait” — which I will do one day in the spring, not now in the winter.

One more really neat thing: On the wall of the north side of the above-mentioned La Toulousienne, appearing a couple weeks ago, is the very Banksy-like:

Yankees!.jpg

Is it in fact a Banksy production unnoted from his previous NYC incursion and hidden until just recently? A nifty recent homage? Is the graffito above the artist’s tag? I don’t know but will add whatever I can find out when I find it out. Either way, it’s a perfectly appropriate upper Amsterdam Avenue kind of thing, just like, in its own way, the Bloomingdale branch of the NYFCL.

Okay, one more nifty thing (obviously been there for a while, don’t know how I could have missed it): Sign over the postage-stamp plot of dirt in front of the Douglass Houses at 102: Positively No Picknicking or Barbecuing Allowed. I think it’s the “Positively” that does it.

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An Afternoon’s UWS Walk

Wrote this back in May in a kind of stream-of-conscious style, okay, stop laughing, and posted on Google + and got exactly what I deserved in that venue, which is to say, crickets. So I’m resurrecting it here, in hopes that some of you might enjoy it — since at least a few of you hardy souls enjoyed the 71st St. thing — and because I really enjoyed writing it (which at least hints at a sort of validation that it’s worth reading):

So, 11 days now past my last birthday — six years older than my grandfather when he collapsed & died less than a year after HIS retirement — and I’m slowly idling up Broadway to one of my French cafes for lunch, yes, discreetly following a nice behind or two, en route to 104th St. I’m a flaneur nowadays, I guess, an unofficial flaneur, though, since I’m sure there must be an official Flaneur group here in NYC that I’m unaware of & of which I am not, therefore, a member.

The diners here are typically atypical for an afternoon in the UWS — typically-atypical being one of the reasons you end up loving the UWS. There’re two groups of three: three “ladies who lunch” but who, unlike their counterparts on the UES, order LARGE meals, all w/ fries, and who eat only the fries, and drink them down with wine, and then dessert, & then more wine, no coffee or espresso, and take their steaks & sandwiches home in doggy bags (for their husbands?). They talk theater & graduations — this is Columbia & Barnard grad time.

The second threesome is two middle-aged ladies & a middle-aged male companion; they actually EAT their appetizer lunches while conversing about MOTHER, who donated to this, & MOTHER who gave money that, & how abysmal the Republican field is turning out to be, how Jeb is just embarrassing, worse in his own flabby way than Dubya, & Marco is beyond the pale. I must admit I kind of admire them –[this is pre-Trump, and I wonder now what they’d be saying about THAT] — old NYC-style Republicans, disparagingly contrasting their alternatives w/ the long-dead Rockefeller, Javits, & Lindsey — & Bloomberg, too, for that matter. But, God love ’em, they will hold their noses & vote for Jeb or Marco or Scott nonetheless, much like the faithful American Communists of the 50s & 60s who held on & continued to canvass despite all the proof that their dream had become a miserable & embarrassing &, worse, irrelevant posture. (Not to mention, dangerous.)

There’s also a very strange bird, a white-haired old Hippie girl — or a Mennonite transported unawares to the UWS? She’s dressed in a flowered blouse tightly tied at the neck, under a light brown sweater buttoned-up just under the blouse-tie, & a long, & I mean long, down to the tips of her LL Bean boots, dark brown leather skirt. After examining her menu for a good 10 minutes or so — not exaggerating, the waitress had to come by at least two or three times before finally getting an order — she ordered a couple of dishes, & sat & stared at them for another few minutes, before ever-so tentatively tasting a few bites of her pate & cornichons & smoked salmon (i think it was?). Staring uncomprehendingly at her food, moving almost robotically, she reminded me of Jeff Bridges, the alien in what was it, Starchild,  Starman? — the confusion, wonder, of life here in the strange new world. I could have watched her for another hour, I think, but I had reached the end of a long chapter in the latest Knausgaard & also the last dregs of my espresso, so it was time for me to go. I wonder if I appear anywhere near as interesting or curious to my companion diners as they are to me, an old white-bearded guy w/ the iconoclastic choice of Merquez & Couscous, sweat-stained Google cap, eyes (mostly) buried in his, what, Kindle, every once in a while a smirk or smile on his face? (With Knausgaard you inevitably smirk and smile, alternatively.) But, no, I’m pretty sure I sat unnoticed, unremarkable, all the while. Which is okay.

Okay, let’s go flaneur-ing, up to 106th & across to the CPW old Cancer Hospital, now an elegant carve-up of apartments for, I’m assuming, I’m guessing, the children of the UES rich who’re too cool to live anywhere on the UES but for whom the UWS — above 100th St.! — & in an old Cancer Hospital, for God’s sake, maybe where Grandma met her Maker, is just cool enough. What an irony: What had once been the last place on earth any old rich Mummy or Dad-Dad wanted to end up is now a collection of unique ritzy apartments for their grandchildren.

Hey, I’d give my eyeteeth to live there.

Or at the truly idiosyncratic Level Club, oh yeah, go 73rd St.

Strolling south, 414 Central Park West, home to all kinds of jazz musicians (Teddy Wilson) & lyricists (Yip Harburg) & proudly advertising that w/ a corner plaque. Then, all of a sudden, it’s black cars all over the place, Chevy Suburbans, Cadillac Escalades, Ford Explorers (I think that’s right, the Ford model, I’m long past up on car makes), yep, it’s 3:15, time for the kids from Columbia Grammar & Prep (or Prep & Grammar), & Dwight, & Trevor Day (formerly Walden, then Walden Lincoln, then the Day School, now the current incarnation, Trevor Day School, my son’s Alma Mater) to be picked up & driven safely home. They didn’t have black cars or Ubers when my kid went to Walden & its several incarnations. Sure, there were rich kids there (at least one Rockefeller) & kids of famous parents (a Harrison Ford kid, for instance, & a niece or nephew or some relation to Julia Roberts) but if there were pick-ups then, when it was one hell of a lot more dicey than it is now, it was much more discreet. (I remember my son explaining to me, one rare morning when I walked him to school, that all these tiny glass things all over the ground were crack vials — Oh. Oh, and see NOTE below.)

But the Columbians & the Dwights & the Trevors have nothing to be afeared-of nowadays, for the dark kids, the African-Americans & Hispanic public school kids, they’re a world away, one & two & three blocks away, over on Columbus & Amsterdam & Broadway, congregating both inside & outside Mickey D’s & a multitude of pizza places, & too engaged w/ junk food & one another to even be aware that their privileged counterparts, just blocks down the street, are being silently motored home.

Well, got to get back home myself, the kids are in fact getting a little bit too noisy & rambunctious & bothersome for me, & puppy Sadie is waiting patiently in her crate — can’t get used to crating a dog even though everyone assures us that the crate is a dog’s home, a safe & homey & happy place (a den!) for her & NOTTATALL (to use an O’Hara-ism, actually a Maryland-ism, too) — rather than the backyard exile of MY childhood remembrance. Yeah, right.

NOTE: My son reminds me that the Day School kids said that Dwight stood for Dumb White Idiots Getting High Together… Such is wit and rivalry among prep school kids.

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A Stroll Down a Side Street (West 71st Street)

Rounding the corner of 71st St. from Central Park West, after having just passed by the Kenilworth, San Remo, the Dakota — hey, shout out to Yoko, haven’t seen you out on the streets for months! — and lastly the Majestic, I go in search on this sunshiney, temperate late-summer’s day, for 24 West 71st St.: A brownstone “on the market” for some $29 million smackers, a record, says the Times, for an Upper West Side townhouse. (That piece describes the interior; this is a picture of the exterior; and the ever-excellent Daytonian in Manhattan, Tom Miller, provides a history of the place in his John D. Barrett House.)

All in all, a pretty impressive building, mostly because it’s just obviously so much “prettier” than its neighbors. As an architectural layman (i.e., as an architecturally-ignorant stroller), I can’t say, that it’s, ah, overtly amazing. Once you finally come upon no. 24, you’ve already seen some strikingly well-preserved brownstones on the south (even-numbered) side of the street, including no. 10, a really fine specimen belonging to the Catholic Daughters of America; whoever, whatever they are, they keep a fine townhouse. At no. 24, you stop, look up, look around, and say to yourself, Yeah, this is it, pretty cool. But nothing screams $29 million, roughly triple the price of the average well-preserved UWS brownstone. (Of course, you can’t see what’s inside, either; you, if you’re me, have to rely on the Times for that.) But I’ve seen dozens of brownstones and single family mansions on the UWS that have more forcibly caught my eye and made me wonder, My God, what must this place be like on the inside? Absent the Times story, I don’t know that this would have been, for me, one of those particularly striking places. Many of these must also be of “museum-grade” quality, as the Times has it, and I’m sure their owners are eagerly awaiting news of a 24 W 71st sale for anything approaching $29MM and thinking, What can I get for my museum-grade mansion?

The block itself, 71st from CPW to Columbus is chock full of beautiful old “mansions,” many, of course, long since converted from single-family mansions to two or more apartments per floor — including, in fact, some of the next-door neighbors at nos. 26, 28, and 30 designed by the same architects (Lamb & Rich). There is no question that the new owner of  no. 24 will be moving into a delightful and dignified neighborhood — although they’ll also be gazing (slightly west) out of their front windows at, incongruously, a Comfort Inn! Ah, well, an eccentricity of the UWS, to be sure — this could never have been allowed on a comparable Upper East Side block — but one wonders if that’s the view that someone who plunks down $29MM on this side of Fifth Avenue expects to see out his front window.

But, then, this is UWS, not UES.  The UWS charm and its eccentricities are quite distinct from those of the UES. UWS is (or was) Barbra and Madonna and John and Yoko; UES is Mayor Mike (billionaire/townhouse) — where’s the fault line between townhouse and apartment owner? — and Fifth Avenue climbers such as Joan Rivers and hedge fund zillionaires (no disrespect to their neighboring legitimate no-name aristocrats and characters in Louis Begley novels). My wild guess: No. 24 will be scooped up by a 29 year-old Silicon Valley “veteran,” having recently sold his mobile start-up, the name of which is (was) known only by the cognoscenti — which is to say, even I, who follow this stuff religiously, never heard of it — to, say, Viacom. He’s long bored by his successes in the Valley and now enchanted with the east coast and a “museum-quality townhouse” even though it faces a patent incongruity like the Comfort Inn. Look, honey, a Comfort Inn; can you believe it? Satnav will shit when he sees that.

One of the things that really catches the eye as you stroll down 71st is how many of these beautiful and imposing buildings are chock-a-block with decoration, planters and plants and bushes and flowers and flower boxes, all in bloom, given the season, and all seemingly  safe and secure. There was a time, not all that long ago, when only the foolhardy bothered with such, even in enclaves off CPW. You could put it there, maybe safely out on your upper floor windows, but anything at street level was likely to be uprooted, stolen, or defaced in some way, overnight. (It used to be even worse further uptown: Across the street from my own place off Broadway on 90th St., the decoration was two prostitutes sitting on cars in front of the then and still-beautiful wedding cake Cornwall apartments, prospecting for customers.) By and large, nowadays, plants are safe!

You also can’t help but notice that there are no bags on the street, not a single garbage or recycling bag in sight. Did I just happen to hit one of those lucky days when there’s no garbage or recycling collection? Or has this privileged enclave discovered some unique solution to this aesthetic nightmare of bag-cluttered Manhattan streets — a private set of pneumatic tubes under the street, like the buildings on Roosevelt Island? Doubtful — nontheless, pristinely clean sidewalks, and clean streets to boot. Of course, it’s summer and the old-growth trees are holding on to their leaves, but it’s fun to think of scrunching down this sidewalk in the Fall when it’s thick with leaves.

Mint-condition brownstones, “natural” decoration, clean, clear streetwalks aside — and I forgot birdsong — you want charm? How about Grace and St. Paul Church on the opposite side of the street. If ever such a tiny building — three stories high but now dwarfed and muscled-in by its neighbors — deserves the adjective magnificent, this is it, although it’s a decidely modest High-German style. This is the kind of thing — often churches and, praise New York City, public schools — you seem to encounter on every several or so side streets of the UWS, and you stop and wonder, Whoa, how did that get here?

And then just as you keep walking west, within a few steps you’re now face-to-face with an imposing Catholic Church — I mean, if you have any sensitivities to this stuff, you just know that Grace &… is Lutheran, and this one is Catholic — in fact, if you peer up through the unfortunate scaffolding, you can make out that it’s the Blessed Sacrament. All its doors are wide open and you can see the nave clear to the chancel and the altar, as inviting as you will ever see a church on the UWS. Take in what you can through the doors but then cross the street to stare up at the grandiose structure.

A few steps further west — we’re almost at Columbus now — it’s easily missed, it’s so tiny and after all you’re still looking up at the Blessed Sacrament — there’s the Bella Giardino, as pretty a little “garden”of a sliver restaurant as you’re likely to find in NYC. I can’t stop now — we still have a few blocks to go — but I’ll definitely give this a try for lunch one day: After all, it’s “by Nicky Meatballs” and the “Winner of the Five-Borough Meatball Competition.” And then what do we see just across the street, right around the corner from from Columbus? Now that’s a shocker: Big Nick’s Burger & Pizza Joint!

Big Nick’s — owned by a different Nick than Nicky Meatballs — was an institution on Broadway for 51 years and a singularly cohesive force for generations of culturally contentious UWSers. Its closing — due to an abusive rent hike, of course — was bemoaned by all, even by the New Yorker for goodness sake. By the looks of it, today’s reincarnation is more like the McDonald’s we’re about to encounter a block further west — metaphorically miles and years away from the seedy “authentic” joint on Broadway. But Big Nick’s menu — twenty-five pages long and including every conceivable type of diner food known to man — remains unchanged. Can this down-home, démodé Broadway joint survive on ever-upscale-striving Columbus Avenue? Talk about cognitive dissonance… This is like meeting Mom at an orgy.

So, now we’re across Columbus — across the bike lane and its accompanying little plot of bright purple and red pansies (I almost said playful plot…) — and we’re once again in the land of Brownstone. Past the pansies, as we head toward Broadway, we’re leaving charming behind: With only a couple exceptions these are carved-up apartment buildings rather than single-family mansions, slightly but noticeably less formidable, less lovingly-maintained than those we’ve left behind. However, as we used to say in our uncouth unaware youth, I wouldn’t kick her out of bed. This would be a nice street to live on.

If CPW to Columbus can be summed in one word — elegant — Columbus to Broadway would be shabby chic, which indeed befits this micro-neighborhood. And here we do see another of the eccentricities of the UWS: More than a handful of these brownstones house small businesses, which off the bat really doesn’t make much economic sense unless the owner of the brownstone and the owner of the business are the same person, which I suspect is the case. There is one verifiable jewel here that’s impossible to miss: The Dorilton, an over-the-top, even flamboyant, Beaux Arts building — hey, I may be an architectural dilettante, but I know Beaux Arts, and flamboyance, when I see them. As its Wikipedia entry notes, the Dorilton has a “limestone and brick exterior, featuring monumental sculptures, richly balustraded balconies, and a three-story, copper and slate mansard roof.” That’s flamboyance.

We’ve actually come a good long way now, a couple thousand FitBit steps — this happens when you’re drifting down a side street — and we’re already at Broadway. Immediately in sight, catercorner (yes, correct spelling: but let’s say catty-corner) to the Dorilton, is a — McDonald’s. Don’t let that deter you, cross Broadway and keep walking; trust me, it’s worth it. BTW, during the school year after, say, 3:15pm, this corner of Broadway is the gathering spot for scores of kids from the nearby MLK and LaGuardia schools — mostly black and hispanic with a smattering of white faces — who, just released from school, are pumped-up, raucous, jumping around and onto one another, shrieking, faux fighting, generally doing what bunches of kids do when they’re lumped together like this, and generally just scaring the crap out of nearby adults. I always get a kick out of watching the grownups migrating to safety on the east side of Broadway.

Heading west, we are of course on route to West End Avenue, away from the lively if downscale commercialism of Broadway and toward WEA and Riverside opulence. Now we start to see brownstones rather more like those of CPW-to-Columbus than of Columbus-to-Broadway: There’s no. 212, an “ornate” townhouse owned (and oft-partied in) by one-time Mayor Jimmy Walker — or was it Caruso, or Houdini, or just an old speakeasy? However that may be, its neighbors at 214 and across the street at 213, are every bit as attractive. More to come: More brownstones, of course, and quite attractive ones, but also an obviously understated luxe apartment building at 251 and, just before that, the Parc Coliseum, at 228, trying a little too hard to seem luxe and so probably isn’t. There’s the West End Day School at 255, a kind of classic Little Red School House that’s totally out of character on this (or most any UWS) block — red-brick-rounded-corner-in-the-middle-of-the-block? — but seems to fit right in anyway, like your genial buck-toothed cousin fits in the family. Equally odd but oh so right is 251: an apartment building richly detailed at street level but featuring a Brutalist flat cement exterior above with extra-wide, extra-high windows — which today are flung wide open, as if the building, like an Italian palazzo, was giving itself an airing out.

Remember Bella Giardino? How about a real Bella Giardino, a beautiful garden? Here is one, four-tenths of an acre, even tinier than that sounds — purportedly the tiniest of the city’s (by definition) tiny “vest pocket” parks. There’s not a lot to it — ba dum bum — just a nook between two brownstones, a couple of benches in front of some greenery — one bench with a taped-on sign stating that greenery loves water and, oh, there’s a store around the corner where you can buy a jug of water if you’d like. (Truth be told, the garden could use a bit of water and loving care.) True serendipity for me to have stumbled upon this little miracle of a place, and though I’ve now ruled out serendipity for you, you shouldn’t for that reason fail to seek out Septuagesimo Uno (meaning Seventy-One in Latin, or at least that’s what former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern audaciously christened it). It’s the perfect place to finally take a break on this stroll and stop for a smoke, but of course it’s a public park so, no, non fumare. There’s also a nifty tall bear claw gate, open all day and evening, and then closed late night — by whom? — a neighbor, or is this on the duty-round of some Parks employee? (There’s a nice picture here, along with some other vest pocket parks.) One does wonder how the neighbors view their responsibility for this gem of a park: Of course, one must first “do no harm,” but can (should) one proactively garden there? You wouldn’t do that in Central or in Riverside Park (although one can “own” a Volunteer spot of land in the latter). But here in this so-easily forgotten bit of space, activism almost seems called-for. In any case, I think I’ll bring a bottle of water next time I head this way.

I suppose SEPTUAGESIMO UNO is our crescendo and we should quickly wind things down now, but I’m a literal sort of guy and, after all, if we’re going to stroll West 71st St., we still have a block to go — from WEA to Riverside. But, hey, we’ve seen plenty of brownstones and while there’re even more to see — in fact some very handsome specimens on the even- or south-side of the street — let’s end with what I think what must be one of the most impressive rows of townhouses, on the north-side of the street, you’ll ever find in the city. The eight rowhouses from no. 329 to 343 — for that is what they are, rowhouses, although for a boy from Baltimore, for that is what I am, the term seems incongruous — are in fact every bit as unexpected and striking as our little Septuagesimo Uno. From an old Landmarks Preservation Committee document that I dug up later, one learns that these rowhouses are Renaissance Revival, clad in “brick, stone and terracotta,” with “classically-inspired details, uniform cornice heights, and the use of such elements as stoops, bows, and oriels which [sic., that] create a sense of depth on the facades.” Or you could say that they are just drop-dead stunning, especially in the context of this cul-de-sac block; yes, as the doc cited above states, this block sports a true “sense of place.”

In fact, you really don’t want to walk any further than the last rowhouse — if you do, you just end up at so-called Riverside Boulevard, which is about the last thing the word Boulevard conjures up and okay if you’re a car but a wasteland if you’re human — so my advice is simply to turn around at no. 349, head back east to WEA and take in some more rowhouse details, such as the (I think) ceramic baby doll lolling in the oriel window of no. 329. There, the side-street stroll done, you could catch a cab, call for an Uber, proceed over to Broadway for the 72nd St. subway, or maybe, just maybe, enter Riverside Side Park at 72nd and WEA and start a whole new stroll…

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