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Monthly Archives: October 2015

Benched

So, I was actually going to try checking out Fort Totten again this weekend.  Or maybe Flushing, and the rumored foodie nirvana that is its food courts.

But that was to come after picking things up at my CSA early Saturday morning.  It’s a nice walk, actually – about 20 minutes from my house.  I sometimes get up early enough on Saturday to jog first (and that is a very infrequent sometimes), but this Saturday I took my time, and was going to maybe try that Sunday instead.  I felt more leisurely this Saturday.  I was even listening to a fairly mellow Cat Stevens song as I walked through the park on my way there.

And at some point I actually managed to trip on absolutely nothing at all, and stumbled bad enough that I sprained my ankle.

At first I leaned against someone’s car and swore a lot.  Then took a few steps to see how bad it hurt.  I’ve actually broken my foot the same way, and knew that if the pain didn’t start abating, then it was another break.  But after about ten limping steps, the pain started to ease, and I took it as just a stubbornly twisted ankle; something I could walk off.  So I walked the remaining three blocks to pick things up.

It wasn’t until I actually got to the pickup point and sat down for a minute that I saw that my ankle had swollen about twice its size, and I realized that yeah, maybe walking wasn’t such a good idea.

Someone else took pity on me and fetched my vegetables for me, and I limped to get a cab home.  Then limped up the four flights of stairs (ow), warned my roommate that I was injured, and sat down with an ice pack and….realized that this meant I was pretty much stuck inside for the next 48 hours.

Now, it’s not the first time I’ve spent a day without leaving the house.  But this weekend I didn’t want to.  That made all the difference.  I tried distracting myself with knitting, but got bored; I tried reading a couple books, but got distracted.  I’d been all geared up to do something but couldn’t.

Finally, out of sheer desperation I picked over some of the vegetables I’d gotten, suited up one last time, carefully wrapped my ankle in an Ace bandage and limped to a food shop nearby to buy some chicken scraps off their butcher counter.  If I was going to have to be around the house all day, I was going to have some kind of productive activity come out of it.

…It’s been 48 hours and the walk to the food market probably delayed my healing somewhat.  But I have a gallon of really good soup stock out of it, and I’m a lot saner, dammit.

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Neighborhoods New York: Fort Totten Halloween Special

I really should come back and do Fort Totten properly another time.  But this was too goofy to miss.

Fort Totten is one of the loads of forts scattered along New York’s harbor – built during one war or another, rendered obsolete, and consigned to a landmark or park status.  Fort Totten was built during the Civil War, and the original design for the battlements was far grander than what stands there today; but halfway through construction, it was becoming apparent that the Confederate Army probably wasn’t going to come quite so far north after all, so they scaled back a bit, and the “fort” ruins now occupy a small part of the shore overlooking Little Neck, on the northeast shore of Queens.

But that’s just the fort proper.  The area around it was a military base for a good while as well, complete with officers’ houses, a chapel, rec buildings, a workshop, an infirmary, an armory, and an officers’ club that ironically was designed by Robert E. Lee.  Most of it is now a city park, with some of the buildings used as training centers for city police, and a couple museums in some of the old buildings.  Rangers give tours of the fortification and battery itself.

But the weekend before Halloween, the rangers have a little fun and throw a different kind of tour.

The ads I’d seen said that the tour ran from 6:30 to 8:30; I thought I was doing well getting there just before 7.  But the line for the tour was already long and loud and boisterous, about fifty people huddled on the path down to the battery’s gate.  Four rangers kept order, waving us all into line and counting us off into groups, warning us not to use flashlights inside, and working the crowd.  One ranger was actually dressed in a full werewolf costume, and was asking kids in the line if they wanted him as a guardian.

I was in line a good 15 minutes, admiring the view of Bronx across the harbor as the line gradually shuffled down to the gate.  The rangers were all taking turns leading groups of about 20 of us through at a time, and our guide reminded us all one last time to not use flashlights, to stick together, and when a couple of kids said they’d been there before, he asked them not to spoil any surprises for the rest of us.  After winding us all up a bit, he led us in, giving us a potted history of the battlement during the five-minute walk to the fort itself.  He also wove in stories of a construction accident while they were building the fort, “and so that’s why we always see spooky things every year about this time…”  We all paused at a second gate.  “Okay!  Everyone ready to go in?”  All the kids shouted “yeah,” the adults laughed, and in we went.

To be honest, it was your typical “haunted house”, with lots of fake cobwebbing and spooky lights and costumed people jumping out and shouting “boo”.  But the path lead us through the creepy ruins of the granite fort, complete with iron-barred windows and dark winding passages and dim alcoves, which gave everything a genuinely creepy feel.  Midway through the tour I realized that I was outpacing everyone else in the group by about five feet, and turned around to see they were all cowering.  “What, you’re sending me out to die alone??” I teased them.

Except then a guy dressed as a zombie jumped out beside me and I screeched and hid behind the ranger.

The whole tour was more of a startle-then-laugh thing, though.  The rangers were clearly into it, hamming it up for all they were worth; a few other rangers scattered throughout were dressed as Ghostbusters and were there to keep order and calm down any genuinely-scared kids, and the path was strewn with loads more people dressed as mad scientists and witches and zombies and ghouls cavorting through the fort and jumping towards us and grabbing us and making spooky noises and generally having immense fun.  Our trip through the fort was short, but it was goofy.

There was one sincerely creepy moment, though – at the very end of the tour, we had to walk through a long tunnel, which they had pitch black except for a small pin light every ten feet or so.  “Just follow me through,” our ranger told us all, “just follow the sound of my voice!  There will be a light at the end of this tunnel, I promise, and then we’ll be safe!”  I was more worried about stumbling in the near-darkness, and was moving slowly, trying to feel for a handhold along the wall.  And soon I did see a light – or, at least, a lightish patch of something in the tunnel.   And then it got closer and I saw it was a glowing face, hovering in the air and coming towards us.   Once it got close enough I could see it was a glow-in-the-dark mask, slung against someone’s chest; still, it was spooky enough that I edged away from it, and a couple people behind me also squealed at the sight.

But then a teenage voice scoffed out of the dark just above the face.  “Really?” it said.  “Really?  People, I’m on my break.”

 The tunnel opened up beside the fort’s visitor’s center – closed for the night – and the ranger lead us all up the driveway and out, shouting out quick directions to where to catch the city bus home.  “Thanks for coming, and have a happy Halloween!” he chirped.   I asked him a couple questions before I left myself; was this an annual event?  “Oh, yeah, I think they do this every year, always the weekend before Halloween.  I wouldn’t know for sure, though, I’m from a Manhattan park – they just needed extra help this year!”  He told me that usually they saw about 400 people a night – but so far this year, they’d had a turnout nearly three times as high.

“You look like you’re having a blast, though,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.  They always get people to come help – from Manhattan like me, or Staten Island…even the people inside, those are mostly local kids who volunteered with our nature program.  Well,” he laughed, “we couldn’t get them too interested in nature for these past couple weeks, though.”

I was actually halfway to the main gate and on my way off the grounds when someone stopped me to ask where the “haunted castle” was.  “You mean the fort? I think it’s back that way…”

“No, I did that,” they said.  “I’m talking about the castle thing. You know, the mansion?”

I had no idea what they meant, but another passerby did, and gave them directions; I followed them a few paces behind.  We ended up at the old officers’ club, current home to the Bayside Historical Society, which was running its own haunted house.  Except this one was charging admission.  “Five dollars, please,” he woman by the door asked me.

“Oh….I only have two.”  The woman just eyed me.  “Um…you don’t take a check, do you?”

“No, afraid not.”

“oh….”  I turned to go; I hadn’t planned on visiting anyway.  “Well, thanks anyway.”

But a young couple behind me stopped me. “You don’t have cash?” the guy said.  “Don’t worry, we got ya.”  He handed money to the woman, saying “party of three.”  Grateful, I tagged along with them.

It was a similar case of costumed-people-jumping-out, but the museum’s rooms let them set up a few tableaus as well – a “funeral” room where a woman in a mantilla urged us closer to a coffin, so a guy in a zombie mask could sit up and roar at us, or a closed-off “autopsy room” we could peer at through a window only to see the “cadaver” was alive and begging our help.  A team of kids were the costumed zombies chasing us on the porch, but as soon as we were safely through the door they all dropped the act and went back to being kids just hanging out.  Still, it was all too much for some of the little kids;  we were going through the house just behind a young family, with a kid of about seven; when they got to the funeral room, I saw the kid take one look at the woman in the mantilla and beeline right over to the next door, passing by the whole room completely.  “Come see the dead guy!” she implored to his back, as he totally ignored her.

The house tour ended in a hall where witch-hatted women sold snacks and small toys like glow-sticks and light-up rings, and encouraged people to “take a selfie with the zombie” – a mannequin dressed in raggedy tuxedo and a zombie mask.  My new friends were heading over to the zombie, but I stopped them – “I got just enough for two candy bars,” I said.  “Can I get you guys some?”

“Really?” the guy gushed.

“Dude, you got my admission,” I said, fishing my money out.  In the end they only got one Hershey bar , and all three of us helped ourselves to a free “Halloween treat bag,” a plastic bag festooned with a toy skeleton keychain.  After taking turns taking each others’ pictures with the zombie, we bade each other goodnight and I wandered out to find my way back to the bus home.

Neighborhoods New York: Floral Park and Glen Oaks, Queens

Apparently New York City’s easternmost border is very porous.  So much so that even after a full forty-five minutes of Googling this morning, I could not say with any certainty where exactly its border with Nassau County even is.  Floral Park is the easternmost neighborhood, sure, but the neighborhood actually straddles the county line.  So visiting the neighborhood would put me over the city line if I took a step too far.  …At some point.  Hard to say where.

I’m pretty sure I was in Nassau County when I got off the Long Island Railroad – oh, yeah, that’s another thing, it is so far east it made more sense to take the LIRR train there from Brooklyn.  The only other option was 90 minutes on a subway followed by another 45 on a bus.  Seven stops on a Hempstead-bound train was much  more appealing, even though I was reasonably certain that at some point the train had brought me just outside the city limits – although within only a couple blocks’ walk, I was at the Little Neck Parkway, which according to most maps was well and truly in Queens.

To be honest, though, the exact location of the border may be just a technicality.  Even when I was meandering around the train station, all the houses had the same look of suburbia; small yards, rows of identical houses, lots of minivans in driveways, kids’ bikes dumped in front of garages and political signs next to sidewalks.  At the southern end of Little Neck Parkway, almost all the lawns had been clipped with the precision of crew cuts.  Many of the houses had already started decking themselves out for Halloween – plywood pumpkins or scarecrows set up by doorways, fake cobwebbing draped over hedges or flags over doors depicting Linus watching for The Great Pumpkin.  I counted about a dozen houses that all had the same “Enter if you dare!” sign on the front door in fake “dripping” red paint.

The weird thing, though, is that my usual reaction to suburbia – usually a full-body shudder and a flashback to a small-town childhood – wasn’t happening.  I had a sense of the history of the place – there were one or two folks who’d turned their houses into larger ornate things, but most houses were the same modest single-story bungalows that were probably original to the neighborhood.  Just off Little Neck the streets were nearly deserted; I jaywalked regularly on my walk north simply because there were no cars coming, anywhere.  One of the busiest streets I crossed, Hillside Avenue, was still fairly sleepy – no more than five or six cars lined up at the stoplight waiting for me to scurry across.

I lingered a bit where I crossed Hillside, studying the businesses.  There were a couple chains – Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut – but most were locally-owned, and catered to the neighborhood’s Indian population.  I counted three different shops offering sweets like burfi and jellebi all within two blocks of each other, with the Patel Brothers supermarket nestled between them all; its shop window promising a sale on jackfruit.  The bridal shop I passed had a row of mannequins in the windows, all wearing brilliantly colored and bejeweled saris and sherwanis.  And last on the block was a bar and smoke shop with the delightful name “Off The Hookah”.

But mostly it was houses – house upon house upon house, in the long quiet walk north.  I didn’t even finally see many people until I’d crossed Union Turnpike and got into Glen Oaks, and ran into a group of friends having four-way garage sale at one of their houses; four different card tables all strategically set up alongside each other, four people flitting back and forth between them.  They seemed to be doing brisk business – one man was showing a woman a turntable as I walked up, and another was taking money from another woman for an old lamp.  A couple people were picking through their big rack of clothes.  Despite myself, I glanced at the tables – and saw some very well-kept scarves and a couple glasses cases, all folded and tucked neatly into a box labelled “most $1 each”.  One of the salespeople wandered over just as I was pulling out a richly-patterned silk scarf.  “That’s beautiful!” he gushed.

I happened to have been thinking the very same thing.  “I’ll take it, how much?” I asked, as another man wandered over.  The first man called to a woman across the yard, but the second man saw I was also holding an eyeglass case and offered two dollars for the both of them.  “Sold,” I said, digging out my wallet.

The woman came bustling over, jumping over old toys strewn on the grass.  “What is it?  Did you need something?”

“Nah, we did your work for you, Dot,” the men laughed.

“Oh, okay!” she laughed too as I handed her the money.  “Works for me!”  And then she jumped back over the toys and ran to the far side of the yard again as I walked off, stuffing the scarf in my bag.

I’d noticed a steady stream of people on the sidewalk, but didn’t see what was drawing them all until the next block.  The Queens County Farm Museum was just up ahead, and had a whole roster of extra family-friendly events.  I’d been to the farm once before, on a quiet spring day when I was able to wander past the various vegetable gardens and peek in at the pigs and cows; this time, the farm was packed with a solid wall of people, all of them clamoring to get in line for the cornfield maze and the petting zoo and the hay rides and huddling around the booths and trucks selling roast corn and soda and hot dogs and grilled cheese and crepes.  The ponies were all down by the petting zoo, where some were shanghaied into offering rides to kids.  The alpacas were all huddled at the very far end of their pen, as far as they could get from the crowd.  The hens were all hiding under the eaves of their coop.  I didn’t even see the pigs.

The “pumpkin patch” was comparatively calm; it was about a half-acre patch of land, covered with pumpkins of various sizes and filled with families, all of the kids eagerly grabbing pumpkins and dragging them to their parents.  Most kids went for the biggest ones they could find and carry.  One kid, though, was going for quantity – he was concentrating on the smaller, softball-sized ones, but he was trying to pick up about seven of them at the same time. I watched him try again and again to pile as many as he could in his arms and under his chin, reaching down again and again to get the ones that toppled off.  There were a few parents posing their babies for pictures, balancing their costumed kids against the big pumpkins or in piles of smaller ones.

….I actually ended up with three small ones myself.

The noise and chaos drove me out of the farm soon after.  Just a block away was the Glen Oaks Village apartment complex, which somehow managed to be more bucolic than the neighborhood I’d walked through already – rows of neat brick apartment buildings and clipped lawns, and knots of people strolling between them.  The path I was on lead to a traffic circle at the complex’s center, with a park at the very center – complete with a Little League ball field, a knot of kids playing a lively pickup game on it.  Here and there some older folks kept watch from chairs on their front porches or balconies.  I found myself wanting to watch, but it was nearly time for the next train back to Brookyn.  So I wandered the full way around the traffic circle, watching the autumn light filter through the leaves just starting to turn gold and listening to the laughter and shouts of the boys, before I turned to head out towards the turnpike and the walk back to the train station and home.

Neighborhoods New York: West Farms, Bronx

This isn’t really a neighborhood people visit.

West Farms is just a handful of blocks tucked up inside the South Bronx; housing projects and a couple churches, mostly.  A scruffy supermarket, a nondescript “childrens’ center” in a bland brick building.  Wikipedia’s article about the neighborhood has an entire section devoted to its “social problems”, such as a high poverty rate, high crime, and a high incarceration rate.  For most New Yorkers, the only parts of West Farms they see are three blocks on Boston Avenue which they pass through at a quick march if they’ve taken the 5 train to get to the Bronx Zoo.

That’s exactly why I was there today. But it was a small enough neighborhood that I detoured a bit, ignoring what Wikipedia said about the “social problems”.  And to be honest, they were pretty easy to ignore.  Not that there’s much else to West Farms other than “the neighborhood you walk through to get to the Zoo”, honestly; but it’s also not a hotbed of danger either. It’s just people, living their lives.  Sitting outside on a stoop and listening to the football game. Mothers pushing little kids in toy cars. Middle-aged men getting off their shift at work saying hello to their neighbors.  Fathers scolding kids for whining about wanting a toy from the cheap five-and-dime.  A cluster of men sitting on lawn chairs and trying to sell day-old flowers arranged into bouquets.  Three teenagers walking together to the local deli, one of them sporting a glorious afro in a five-inch nimbus around his head.  Two women perched on the bridge overlooking the Bronx River, watching the water and talking about an upcoming picnic.

And there’s a lot of green.  The neighborhood is small enough that everyone could walk up to Bronx Park, home to both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanic Garden. But I also saw a small community garden tucked away beside a playground, an enormous dreamcatcher bobbing in a tree at its center. And just before the Bronx Zoo was the Bronx River Park, two blocks of green and benches along one bank of the Bronx River.  I wandered to the promenade overlooking the water, startling two turtles into diving off a log and swimming away.  Just at the park’s north edge, a waterfall drowned out any of the traffic noise around me.  And every one of the windows in every one of the apartment buildings was filled with plants, most of them huge tropical-leafed things.

This isn’t a neighborhood people visit, but it’s a place people live, and that bit of Wikipedia’s article isn’t all there is to it.

Left Handed Brain

It is such a tease the way that airline ticketing works.  Especially if you’re flying internationally – the only way you can get a good deal is to buy your ticket about three and a half months in advance.  Which I’ve just done – Christmas is going to be a small event in my family this year, so I’m giving myself a big splurge and flying to Paris for the first time ever, for the last week of December into New Year.  I’ve bought my plane ticket, and I found an AirBnB place with a fantastic view five minutes’ walk from the Jardin du Luxembourg.  That leaves plenty of time to browse travel guides and daydream.

Two and a half months’ worth of time.

See, I’ve never always been that great with simply waiting for time to elapse.  When I was still doing theater, there was always this fifteen-minute stretch of time between the moment we opened the doors for the audience and the moment the show could start, and there literally was nothing for me to do but wait for that fifteen minutes to go by and the lack of anything to do always drove me slowly mad.  I would check and re-check the props and the set, quiz the house manager every two minutes about how many people had yet to claim their reservations, stare at my watch, pace, fidget and twitch until the show was due to start and I could finally do something.

And that same kind of nervous eager energy is now being channeled into studying every single last thing about what there is to do in Paris.  I have surveyed blogs for “New Year’s Eve Ideas”, I have made spreadsheets tracking the shifting schedules for all the big museums, I have done cost analysis of the different Metro ticket packages, and I’m considering making a Googlemap for three of the different arrondisments where I flag each of the different cafes, shops, markets, bars, bistros, cute parks and stores and such that I’ve spotted in my guidebooks.  I have even figured out what I am going to pack.

This kind of granular planning would make sense if I was preparing a dossier for myself and only taking that with me.  But these same guidebooks I’m studying so intently, I will be bringing with me.  But it is too soon to take those books and shove them in a bag with the two sweaters and three scarves and two shirts and two pair of pants and putting on the pants which I’ve deemed comfortable enough for the plane and flying to Charles de Gaulle and taking the exact right Metro that will put me two blocks from the pied a terre and climbing to the top floor and unpacking it all into the little bookshelf I saw under that attic skylight before deciding whether I want to try to go check out Saint Sulpice that afternoon or just get a cafe au lait and peoplewatch.

And even worse, too much planning is going to keep me from exactly the kind of diving-in spontaneity that makes me want to travel in the first place.  I’ve learned from other trips that these kinds of lists end up feeling like iron-clad rules, and I race through the whole thing feeling like I’m checking off a list.  I hit a mental wall halfway through a trip to London after having sped through St. Paul’s, the Tate, the Globe, the British Museum, the London Zoo, the…. and then on an afternoon when I was supposed to be going to the Tower of London because “it’s there and so I should see it, right”, I suddenly realized “but…I don’t want to.” I never really wanted to, anyway, it was just something that made it onto the list when I was obsessively planning the trip.

Fortunately I had the presence of mind then to completely chuck the day’s plans, and spent a very lazy afternoon riding a ferry back and forth along Regent Canal and striking up a conversation with a little cafe owner.  Some moments of that London trip are a blur, but I remember that afternoon perfectly – the shimmer of the canal water, watching the ducks circle an island near Little Venice, the free cupcake from the cafe “because I’m in a good mood”.  That’s the kind of thing I travel for; and too many plans weighing me down keep me from finding that.  But not being able to go yet just leads to these plans as a sort of active daydreaming.