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Monthly Archives: July 2014

Not The Nostalgia I Wanted

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I’m officially a member of Generation X – born in the 70’s, high school in the 80’s (with the pastel to prove it).  And as such, the growing unrest in Ukraine – prompting a recent round of sanctions against Russia – are starting to feel uncomfortably familiar.

Essayist Tim Kreider recently wrote about this same sort of bizarre deja-vu those of us who came of age during the last years of the Cold War are feeling now – first the music started coming back, then some of the fashion, then they started making big-budget movie versions of 80’s cartoons like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teen Wolf is on television, Molly Ringwald is back on the screen too, and now here’s a tense standoff with Moscow to really bring it all home.  Just in time for our high school reunions!

Except this was the shadow side of the 80’s, one which up to now, no one has reminisced about.  I learned about the Arms Race in the 70’s, actually – at age nine, when I secretly stayed up late during a family vacation to watch Johnny Carson, and was thus still awake to see a news magazine show discussing the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks then underway. I didn’t understand the nuances of what they were saying, but I understood the charts they were showing – comparisons of the destructive power of each kind of missile, comparisons of our arsenal versus the Soviets’ arsenal, projections of the rates of growth of each arsenal, projections of the total destructive power each nation had…

I was too childishly afraid to wake my parents up and talk to them because I thought I’d get in trouble for being awake, but I was too afraid of what I was seeing to ignore it.  I watched in terrified silence for about fifteen minutes and then switched off the TV and scrambled into the bed, the fear of nukes mixing up in my head with my already-existing fear of the dark.  I lay there a long time before falling asleep. “The Bomb” was my own personal Boogeyman for the next couple years; whereas every other kid was afraid of opening the closet door because Dracula or a werewolf might be inside, I was afraid I’d open a darkened closet and see a mushroom cloud sitting there next to my shoes.

I had a better understanding of things in my teens; but the fear never went away. Outwardly I was frustrated that so few other kids in school seemed to care about the Cold War; what the hell difference did a Members Only jacket make if they dropped the bomb? I did find some like-minded friends, all of us prone to scoffing at Reagan and doodling peace signs on our notebooks and discussing nuclear protests in between discussions about schoolwork.

We even made an anti-nuke movie my senior year in high school – my friend Krishna and I wrote the script, and she directed and shot the thing in a corner of our cafeteria after school each day for a month.  As hyper-aware of the arms race as we already were, this really pushed us into some obsessive territory.  Krishna and I both had moments of blind panic and outright despair while working on it – one afternoon while she was editing the film, the school had its main power and its backup generator fail, and Krishna emerged from the dark editing room to overhear the principal and secretaries yelling about “why the power wasn’t on”, and said she instantly thought “it’s an E.M.P. from a Soviet missile and this is the end”.  She later told us the only reason she hadn’t come around to tell each of us goodbye was that she was too panicked to remember what classes any of us were in, and so she crumpled to the floor in the hallway and just sat there the whole five minutes it took the power to come back on.

My own freakout had come much earlier, during the writing; Sting’s second solo album had just come out then, and I played that obsessively as I wrote – and halfway during his song “They Dance Alone”, I suddenly realized that in the world I was writing about, no one would ever be able to hear that song again.  I put down the pencil, sat on the floor between my stereo speakers and turned them both in towards me; then put the needle back to the beginning of the song and turned the volume up, and just sat, listening and wrapping myself in it.  By the end of the song I was curled up on the floor and wailing in grief; I was convinced the bomb was going to drop someday, and there was no hope left for the world, and I was already in mourning.

That’s when the dreams started.  For the next five or six years or so, I would have horrifically detailed nightmares about nuclear attacks every month or two. They’d usually begin innocuously – maybe they were about something completely different.  But by the end, I’d be either part of a screaming horde trying to scramble for space in a civic shelter, knowing all the while that we weren’t going to survive anyway; or I’d be standing somewhere and watching the legions of Soviet planes overhead, watching the bomb bay doors opening on each one and the bombs all drop straight down towards me.  Or sometimes they’d be really subtle – like the time I dreamed I was watching television and suddenly Diane Sawyer interrupted with a breaking report that NORAD had just picked up a series of missile tracks on radar, all of them headed for the United States, and watching her pause mid-sentence and blink away terrified tears.

I would always start up out of these dreams with a pounding heart, sometimes with a shout.  Usually it was the middle of the night, and very dark outside; the old childhood fear of the dark that stayed tied to nuclear fear waking back up a bit each time.  I’d usually get myself a glass of water, or sometimes tea, and would sip it, sitting curled up on my bed and anxiously looking out the window, too afraid to fall back asleep and waiting for dawn to come so I could begin a normal day and try to forget.

Those dreams followed me through my last year of high school, on into my first year of college.  I took a couple political science courses to teach myself more about war, even as I was trying to find a way to balance my fears with my need to have hope and live a life.  I was still having them in 1989, when suddenly talk of the Cold War switched over to talk of Glasnost and Perestroika – and watched, in amazement, as the Iron Curtain fell, and Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union, and then the Cold War ended – and both sides started disassembling their nuclear arsenals.

I didn’t stop having the nightmares right away – but they came less and less often, with months and sometimes a year in between each one.  I think the last one I had was sometime in 1998. Also, the first time I saw Terminator 2, I had to leave the theater during Sarah Connor’s nightmare about the bomb hitting Los Angeles because it looked astonishingly like my own nightmares – but within a few years, I could watch it without having to cover my eyes (sort of).  Then in 2001 I was witness to a much smaller-scale attack on the country, and was distracted by coping with that – but I recovered, and gradually let go of both that and my Cold War fears, and got caught up in just living my own life.

And suddenly we now have the sabre-rattling of a Russian prime minister in the news again, and the United States President is again joining with European allies – many of them former members of NATO – to levy sanctions against Russia in retaliation for an aggressive action against another nation.

I would not be surprised in the least to have another nuclear nightmare soon.

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Get Drunk

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I came across this recently, and this may very well become my next damn mantra.

One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters; That’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows You own, you must get drunk without ceasing.

But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.

And if, at some time, on the steps of a palace, in the green grass of a ditch, in the bleak solitude of your room, you are waking up when the drunkenness has already abated, ask the wind, the wave, a star, the clock, all that which flees, all that which groans, all that which rolls, all that which sings, all that which speaks, ask them What time it is; and the wind the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will reply: ‘It is time to get drunk! So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk and never pause for rest! With wine, with Poetry, or with virtue, as you choose! ‘

– Charles Baudelaire

Neighborhoods New York: Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

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In the 1990’s, I remember there being one reason people moved to Prospect Heights –they’d really wanted to live in Park Slope, the neighborhood next door, but were too broke.  

The eastern half of Prospect Heights definitely feels the same.  It’s all graceful brownstones, the kind that you’d have walked through for blocks if you were walking over from Park Slope; leafy, shady blocks, well-tended buildings, the occasional stoop sale.  Not that many people outside – on my last visit, I barely ran into anyone in the eastern half of the neighborhood. Maybe two women running a stoop sale and one older guy sitting on his stoop talking on a cell phone; otherwise the blocks were quiet, and I could study the buildings instead.  And their small lawns – one building boasted a sign proclaiming it had been awarded the “Most Creative” garden from a 2010 Brooklyn Botanic Garden “Greenest Block” contest. The creative element, though, seemed to be a whole lot of lawn ornaments and figurines huddled around the trees – a profusion of ceramic sheep and deer, creepy rubber dolls, and even an old plastic fish.  Another building’s landscaping included the stoop itself – the owners had lined the left half of their building’s stoop with piles of big rocks.  I can only assume they were trying to make it look…rustic? 

Towards the middle of the neighborhood I came upon another collection of trees – but these were street trees, adopted by the students at a Montessori school on the block. They’d been planted on that block as part of a citywide campaign to increase street trees, and the kids had not only adopted five of them – they’d named them, and made a sign for each one, proudly proclaiming each one’s name and posting a poem exhorting passersby not to litter or let their dogs pee in the surrounding dirt.  A different group of about five kids each had signed each poem, and most bore names like “Chloe” or “Princess” or “Precious”; I suspect that each group of kids teamed up to name each tree.  So I had to laugh when I saw one had been named “Superhero Batman”.  

Now, those are kids I wanna hang with. 

The quiet residential section only lasts a couple blocks – then you hit Vanderbilt Avenue, the go-go main strip of Prospect Heights.  Vanderbilt is a fairly busy thoroughfare, with Atlantic Avenue – a huge cross-borough road – at one end, and Prospect Park at the other. At least one bus line runs up Vanderbilt, as does a major bike path, and so it’s row after row of shops and restaurants and bars –some older shops, bodegas and hair salons that have easily been there 20 years or more, but most are fairly new; vintage shops, wine and oyster bars, high-end food shops.  I’ve even seen a store that sells nothing but varieties of artisanal mayonnaise. 

There’s a couple places I hit up on the regular, though – one is Unnameable Books, one of the last used bookstores I’ve seen standing in the city.  They always have a couple of carts of deep-sale items on the sidewalk – everything for a dollar or two – and I always look, even though I’ve not yet once found anything I’d want.  But maybe that’s not the point, because about half the time I still shrug and say “well, I’m here anyway” and step in to check out the latest arrivals, squeezing through the impossibly narrow aisles and swiping the one easy chair in the kids’ section to read through things quick before I decide to make a purchase.  Sometimes I do.  Sometimes not. 

And then across Vanderbilt….there is Ample Hills Creamery

I’m pretty much an ice cream junkie – and these people are my dealers.  It is easily the best ice cream in the city – the flavors are all intense, the ice cream itself is all fresh-made, the portions generous (even a small dish comes with two scoops) and every time I’ve been there, the staff is always sunny and friendly and cheerful, even when they’re coping with huge lines of customers stretching double in the tiny shop and then out the door and down the block.  No matter – they happily pass out samples to help uncertain guests decide on a flavor, they patiently answer questions about each flavor, they kid around with each other while they work.  

They have a lot of fun developing flavors as well – I usually go for peppermint pattie, which is a mint-chip sort of thing only with chopped-up Junior-Mint type of candies in it as well, but they also have something called “Breakfast Trash”, which is made using milk infused with breakfast cereal flavors and with bits of crushed-up Froot Loops and such mixed in; Cotton Candy, a lurid blue concoction which may look like Smurf but really does apparently taste of cotton candy; and “Salted Crack Caramel”, a caramel ice cream with bits of a chocolate-and-caramel-covered-cracker confection shot through.  One time they were out of my usual and I chose a new flavor, “There’s Always Money In the Banana Stand”- a banana ice cream with chocolate flakes and peanut brittle stirred in.  I’m not a huge banana fan, but the chocolate and peanut made for a nice contrast, and I was already sneaking a couple spoons as I approached the register.  They handed me my change after I paid for it, but the clerk stopped me before I walked away.  “Don’t forget,” he said, reaching under the counter and quoting Arrested Development, “There’s always money in the banana stand.”  And then he handed me a small foil-wrapped chocolate coin – they’d been handing one out to everyone who got “Banana Stand”, just for the fun of it. 

West of Vanderbilt things are a tiny bit scruffier.  Still more brownstones, but the shops up and down Washington Avenue, on the western edge, are a little older, a little less polished – and a little more relaxed.  More dive bars than wine bars, more mom-and-pop hardware shops and 99-cent stores than artisanal mustard shops.  A few fancy-pants things have cropped up – a couple coffee bars, a couple organic bakeries.  And one gloriously goofy bar – Way Station, which very quickly found a following among New York’s geek community for its steampunk aesthetic and for a Doctor Who cocktail list.  Their signature cocktails, the “sonic screwdrivers”, are each named after the most recent three Doctors, with  a fourth named after Jack Harkness and a fifth, the “Red Setting”, after River Song.  But the big draw is the door to the bathroom, which has been kitted out to look like the door to the TARDIS, leading a lot of visitors to pose for pictures in front of it on their way back from the loo.  Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, stopped by once while on a press visit to New York and autographed the bathroom wall, exhorting all future micturaters to “Pee happily!” 

The lines for Way Station can get long on Doctor Who screening events; the lines for Ample Hills get long on weekends.  But they are nothing compared to the lines for Tom’s, an old-school diner from 1938.  I’ve walked past the place on weekends for years, seeing enormous lines stretched out and down the block from would-be brunchgoers; apparently the staff takes pity on them and brings free coffee, water, and orange slices to people while they’re waiting.  Still, I made a point of visiting on a weekday instead. 

And….it’s a diner.  Just a good, honest diner, with the old-school autographed celebrity headshots and newspaper clippings on the walls, fake flowers, a bowl of mints by the register and a woman in a polyester vest waiting to take your bill when you check out.  They’ve got some fancy-pants offerings to appeal to the foodie hipsters – pumpkin-walnut waffles, cornmeal pancakes with cranberries, exotic flavored butters. But the one time I’ve been, I went for the classic Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream; as it was breakfast, I stopped just short of ordering an egg cream as well, going instead for the coffee with the free refills.  Because of course it’s the kind of place that does free refills on the coffee, and where the polyester-vest lady tells you to “have a nice day, dahlink” in some thick and unidentifiable accent when you leave afterward. 

And God bless Tom’s– it’s been there since before Way Station, before Ample Hills and the artisanal mustard places, before the 90’s would-be Slopers and their kids; and you can tell it hasn’t changed one bit.

Front Row

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I don’t remember being afraid of thunderstorms when I was small.  Instead, my family would often gather on the front porch to watch them, like we were watching a movie.  Dad pointed out to me that one sure sign of rain was if the leaves on trees flipped over, and to this day if I see a tree with the pale dusky undersides of the leaves all showing, I tend to hurry home and shut the windows. Summer storms still fascinate me – the swirling clouds overhead preceding them, the rising winds, the growing sense and tension that something’s gonna happen, and then finally the first clap of thunder and the burst of rain, the wind coming in gusts, rain ebbing and flowing and coming in waves, counting the seconds after a lightning flash to gauge its distance.  A couple times I’ve been very near a spot where the lightning hit, the crack of thunder coming right overhead and making me jump; once while in Chicago, I saw a lightning bolt hit the Sears Tower during a storm and stood there gaping for a good ten seconds after, not noticing I was getting drenched by rain.

Just this moment in New York, there’s a storm that’s broken out; it was building through most of the afternoon since noon, and the first lightning finally crashed and broke at 2.  The blinds were drawn on the window near my desk, and I couldn’t resist – I had to pull the blinds up, and stood by the window a moment, peering out onto the city; down to the street at the people running to get out of the storm (whether they had umbrellas or not); then up at the sky to watch the clouds lit by lighting, watching them thin and pale out as the storm shed its strength.

But then I glanced at the building across the street and laughed – because I saw people huddled in three different windows across the street, all of them with their faces pressed against the glass, all of them doing exactly the same thing.

We all watched the storm a few moments, and then gradually all drifted back to work.

More Of A Turn-On Than The Original

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There are a couple things about me you should understand before I give you my reaction to the latest Weird Al Yankovic video.

1. I have known how to read since the age of two, and thus the rules of proper writing and style have always been something with which I’ve surrounded myself. I don’t always follow them all perfectly, but I at least know how to avoid the most aggregious mistakes of spelling and grammar, because I’ve been growing up with them always in my consciousness.

2. My seventh-grade English teacher was also sort of a Teacher On Steroids.  We never got into diagramming sentences or anything like that, but Mr. A insisted on scrupulously correct grammar and meticulously chosen words; the vocabulary lists he would give us for our spelling tests were real ten-dollar words, assigned to us not just to stretch us but to just plain teach a bunch of rural Connecticut twelve-year-olds that such words existed, so that if we needed to say exactly that, we could.  “To be terrific, you must be specific,” he would often say in class.

3. Over 30 years of reading and writing, and being so anal about my own grammar and spelling and punctuation, have left me with a knee-jerk grudge against persistent communications failings in others. I may not say anything about it, but trust me, if you use l33t-speak or abbreviations or use the wrong word, I am most likely biting my tongue because it’s not hard to pick the right word don’t you know that “i could care less” means you care a lot come on THINK about it what the hell you went through the same school system i did do you not want to have people know what you’re talking about….

So all of that may explain why, after watching Weird Al’s latest video, I actually felt like I needed a cigarette.

 

Sixth Senses

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About ten years ago I met someone who had synesthesia, and have been idly fascinated about it ever since. Synesthesia is a quirk of sensory processing – for whatever reason, in synesthetes, one kind of sensory input also triggers a second sensory response as a sort of back-up. Sound or taste may have a “color” for them, for instance, or touch may also trigger a sound. I’ve heard of people who’ve had taste/color connections, where they would get flashes of orange blobs in the periphery of their vision whenever they had shrimp scampi, or people who had sound/touch connections, where going to concerts would make them feel like they were getting Shiatsu massage.

Synesthetes don’t always know that it’s a “thing” – it’s not a disability and doesn’t impact how they function in the world, usually, it’s just how vision or touch or sound “work”. Usually the only way they find out that something’s different about them is if they say something in passing to someone else, who asks them what on earth they’re talking about.  One of my favorite stories was of a woman who had applied for a nebulous-sounding office manager job at a psychology lab, and it wasn’t until the interview when they told her they were doing synesthesia research. She asked what that was, and the interviewer gave her a brief explanation, concluding with “so, it’s about those people who see the number seven as green all the time or something.”

The woman frowned. “But…the number seven is ochre.”

“….You’re hired,” said the interviewer.

No one really knows what causes this, but one theory – which makes a bit of sense to me – is that it’s a holdover from very early infancy.  The theory goes that when we’re newborns, any sensory input triggers every sensory reaction – sound, taste, smell, touch, everything.  During the first few months of life, the brain gradually learns to differentiate between sound and taste and such, severing the connections between each of those neural pathways.  But in synesthetes, one or two of those pathways might still be connected a bit.

In fact, this can explain why we all may have a very faint touch of synesthesia ourselves. One experiment psychologists have done involves showing people a pair of random shapes – one that’s curvy and blobby, and one that’s pointy and spiky. They told test subjects that the shapes were named “kiki” and “boubo”, and asked subjects to pick which one they thought was “kiki”.  Overwhelmingly, people picked the spiky shape as “kiki”.  The experiment was done to explore theories on the evolution of language and how random speech sounds could get assigned meanings; but people investigating synethesia have also theorized that people think the sound “kiki” just sort of…feels sharp and spiky.

The synesthete I met had an unusual manifestation – it was color/person synesthesia. If he met you, as he gradually got to know you he started to see a faint color glow around you, kind of like an aura.  In fact, for a long time he thought maybe that’s what was going on, that he was seeing people’s auras; except that every New Age book he read generalized the colors way too much. They only spoke about “blue” or “purple” auras – and he wasn’t just seeing a given person as “blue”, he was seeing “Panetone 2181 C”.  “Synesthesia is really, really specific,” he said.  “Whatever color a given thing is, it is exactly that color, it never changes.  And nothing else is that same color.”

We met through a theater project, and he shared this during a break from rehearsal; so of course immediately everyone in the room pestered him with “what color am I?” types of questions (I am a very deep slate gray-blue, apparently), and then we had a good laugh when he said the most boisterous member of the cast was a firey red.  We all pumped him with questions – but kept running into the kind of problems anyone runs into when discussing perception.  It’s hard to describe any sense to someone that has no concept of it – how would you describe sight to someone who’s been blind since birth? For that matter, how would someone who is sighted conceptualize what it would be like to not have sight?  It’s fascinating to think about, but thinking too long leads you towards having the kinds of conversations you had at 2 am in college – “when I see something blue and you see something blue, how do we really know whether my blue and your blue are, like, the same thing?”

He took our questions in stride, though.  He also said it came in handy in theater – when reading a script, he would start to see each characters’ lines in the script show up in “their” color, which made finding his place in a script that much easier for him.

There was also an interesting moment a week later, which I think may have been a synesthesia thing – I was running late to rehearsal and was stuck in a hideous traffic jam, and called ahead to tell him I was late, then called again a few times as I got later and later.  He took it in stride, but I was getting more and more frustrated. Then when I got to the rehearsal hall, I forgot what room we were in; I called him to ask, and he cracked up and said he’d meet me in the lobby.  I was furious with myself, though, and when I got into the lobby I started digging in a bag, looking for my notes.

I heard him laughing as he came down the hallway towards me.  But the second he saw me, he immediately stopped laughing and said “Whoa. Are you okay?”  The thing was, my back was still to him – so he was not reacting to the look on my face.  The only thing I can think was that my “color” had shifted in some way, which only he was able to detect.

It’s probably not surprising that there are synesthetes in the arts – Nabokov is supposed to have been a synesthete, and even wrote about it. Kandinsky also was supposed to have been a synesthete, as was Nicolai Tesla and (apparently) Billy Joel.  Pharrell Williams is a synesthete as well, and it came up in an interview on NPR –

Now, to some people, it’s like, “Oh, that’s crazy.” But let me explain something to you. You have no idea what you’re seeing in your mind if you don’t really take the time to talk about it.

If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind.

In another interview, someone asks him what color his song Happy is. I’m not a synesthete myself, but I was still completely unsurprised when he said that it is all sunny yellows and reds.

Neighborhoods New York: Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

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Vinegar Hill is one of those neighborhoods that isn’t.

Lots of people probably think that this neighborhood is part of DUMBO, in fact – or that it doesn’t really register as having a name at all. It’s no more than nine square blocks, tucked onto a bump of land just to the north of the old Navy Yard and the east of the trendoid neighborhood surrounding the base of the Manhattan Bridge.

And there isn’t much to look at either, at first blush. It’d have a great view of the East River, except for the huge Con Ed power plant sitting right bang to the north along the edge of the water. No real hub to speak of. No businesses really – and the ones that are there are irretrievably quirky. A pita bakery. Five art galleries. A Japanese antique store. A guy designing custom children’s furniture. An Asian foods importer. One restaurant, which I’ve never seen actually open.

But even so – there is a weird sort of charm to the place. I first found it during walks home from the subway – my typical commute requires taking a bus to the subway, and on the way home in summer, I skip the final leg on the bus and walk instead, walking right through Vinegar Hill.

And that’s how I saw the townhouse with the Bible messages posted in the windows; two different verses, each written on paper in childlike bubble-block script with crayon and exhorting me to “pray every day”. Two blocks away there’s the storefront with a whole other viewpoint – someone’s loaded the front window with a collection of left-wing bumper stickers, with slogans like “I give evolution two opposable thumbs up” or “Give Bush an inch and he thinks he’s a ruler”.  A huge poster of Jim Morrison, with the caption “AMERICAN POET”, fills one side window, beside a sign reading “Hippies Use Back Door”.  There’s an entire Buddhist temple lurking on one block, a huge yellow cement wall surrounding the lot – but gaps in the wall give you glimpses of a smaller yellow building with blocky red trim, and garlands of wildly-colored prayer flags strung all around.

And then there’s the murkier corners.  You’d hardly think a neighborhood so small would have hidden bits, but…there’s one lot, surrounded by a fence and overrun with thick woods, old car parts littering the yard, and a dirt driveway leading about 20 yards into the trees – a glimpse of a French window at the end of it.  The only indication that anyone lives there at all is a mailbox with a fancy artsy sign mounted around it, and a profusion of “no dumping” signs.

And then there is The Commander’s House.  When the Navy Yard in north Brooklyn was an active Navy post, it was the commanders’ quarters; a huge white three-story house, widow’s walk at the top, perched on the hill overlooking the whole Navy Yard to the east. The lawn is still meticulously maintained, and a thick row of trees obscures the view of the blocky Navy Yard buildings.  There’s a huge wrought-iron fence surrounding the property, and a thick gate over the driveway locking anyone out.  

The Commander’s House is privately owned today, and whoever owns it is very protective.  They’ve let a couple of television productions use it (it’s been used for exterior shots of “Nucky’s” house on Boardwalk Empire), but that’s it.  One time when I happened to pass by, the gate was actually open, and I started walking towards it, fascinated – would I actually get to maybe go in? – but before I got within ten feet of the gate, a man sitting in a car I hadn’t noticed opened the door and got out, looking at me in alarm.  He started walking over, but when I waved an apology and backed off, he just got back in the car, going back to his watch.

I don’t pass by every time I walk home through Vinegar Hill, but once in a while I stop by and peer through the gate, trying to see what I can see.