Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Graffiti Benediction

Queens-bound cyclists on the 59th Street Bridge bike path see this message as they reach the first tower of the span. It says "Welcome to Peace."

Even allowing for the haphazard nature of spray paint and the people who use it to share their thoughts, somebody went to some trouble to reach this fairly remote spot and put those words up. They even pimped them out by turning the "o" of "To" into a peace symbol.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Long Island City chamber of commerce. So who, and why here, and most of all what's it supposed to mean?

Were they saying Queens is more peaceful than Manhattan? Is the bridge more peaceful than either one? Or were they inviting us to give peace a chance, incorporate peaceful intentions in our own lives, open our hearts to inner peace?

Probably it's just another random act of petty vandalism. But defacing a public structure is a pretty aggressive act. In this case the conduct doesn't seem to match up with the content.

Hard to picture somebody lugging paint and a stepladder up a steel bridge path in the dark to do some mischief, then remembering that their mother always told them, "If you can't spray something nice, don't spray anything at all."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy Herald Square

When it comes to the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, people think first of the elites -- the Matt Lauers and Al Rokers who "anchor" the event. Well, I belong to the 99 percent, the people without whom Lauer and the other flightless gasbags sitting in cozy splendor in their broadcast booth would have had nothing to talk about.

We rose in our multitudes at 5 a.m. and joined the interminable line along 35th Street next to the loading docks, service entrances and dumpsters behind the New Yorker Hotel where the parade is staged every year.

We shivered and drank lukewarm coffee waiting for our turn to undergo a humiliating ID check by Macys functionaries, then hurried off to don our coveralls in a drab space so cramped there was no room to sit down and we balanced first on one leg, then the other, to get our feet into the pants. Some of us fell over.

After that, it was off to the buses that took us uptown to the staging area alongside the Natural History Museum. Pirates, clowns, fairy godmothers, pilgrims and elves wedged into these cattle cars with people dressed up as turkeys, ears of corn, billiard balls, snowmen and so forth. We looked like extras in one of those old Fellini movies.

As a lowly balloon handler, I was dressed like a sanitation worker, but we were told to look cheerful and upbeat, as I am attempting to do in this picture, even though I am standing 
next to the balloon "pilot," a smallish man named Elias who chastised and corrected me nonstop from 81st Street to 34th Street. "Let out more rope." "Pull in more rope." "You're supposed to be lined up with that guy." "I told you to walk slightly behind that guy." "Pay attention, hey, look at me".  "Pick up the pace." "I said slow down." "Hey, don't start until my signal." None of these infractions was my fault. We were in a holiday parade, and every single thing within my field of vision was more interesting to look at than Elias with his hand signals and his whistle. It also annoyed me that every time he publicly identified one of my alleged shortcomings, he patronized me by adding, "I'm not picking on you, but hey, I'm just saying, okay?" I wished I had brought one of those cans of pepper spray that Walmart shoppers carry.
But I now understand that Elias is just as oppressed as I am. At Times Square, a cop told him to lower our balloon and he had to do it even though we all could tell he didn't want to. Then when we were getting ready to approach the reviewing stand, some guy with an earphone mike -- who Elias told us sotto voce was "the big boss" -- micromanaged the careful adjustments Elias had already made to get us camera-ready. I almost felt sorry for him. He was suffering too.

But finally it was all over, and the moment arrived that made the whole thing worthwhile for some of us -- the air rippling release of industrial quantities of helium where we could inhale till we were dizzy and then talk through our adenoids. Quack-a-licious! But then I realized this is just another trick The Man uses to keep us down.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To the Dogs

This was my first look at the big AKC "Meet the Breeds" dog show at the Javits Center last weekend. The floor was so thick with people, I couldn't see a single pooch.

What was more conspicuously on display than the dogs themselves was passion for dogs, starting with the throngs who paid the $15 admission, jammed the aisles of the show floor, and clustered three or four deep around the most popular breeds.

But naturally it was the owners and breeders who were really wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Many wore their enthusiasm all over their bodies. These folks are devoted, sometimes to a fault. The day this post went up the Times was fronting a story about how bulldog fanciers have bred the object of their affection into flat-faced asphyxiation. But they surely didn't mean any harm. At "Meet the Breeds," it was all in innocent fun.

The lady  at left was building excitement for Corgis, said to be the dog of choice at Windsor Castle and other places where Queen Elizabeth hangs her hat.

She was doing a carefully rehearsed princess wave when I snapped this, turning her wrist the way you do when you're putting in a lightbulb. If you have to put in your own lightbulbs.

Anglophiles had other choices. The man in charge of the English Foxhound booth dressed himself up for a cross-country hunt and reclined on some haystacks.

I always thought it was beagles they sicked on the foxes, but these dogs were tall and deep chested, with legs like tree trunks. I'm not surprised some people think that as sports go, fox hunting isn't very sporting.

Not all the breeds had this kind of parade float support, but plenty did. The Newfoundlanders had what may have been the most eye-catching, a bunch of breeders in bright yellow foul weather gear.  Their act was one of the biggest crowd pleasers.

But my favorite was the Samoyed booth, where I learned you can make clothing out of dog fur and still keep the dog.  Dog hair from some breeds spins up nicely into yarn. This is Peggy Gaffney, whose website is at kanineknits.com.

The piece she was working on was lovely, but it was a letdown to learn she was wearing a sweater made of ordinary lamb's wool.

"Samoyed is eight times warmer than regular wool," told me. "If I was wearing it now, I'd be sweating."

I didn't try very hard to fact check that claim, but Wikipedia says Samoyeds shed their warmest undercoats twice a year. No sheering; all you have to do is collect it and go to work on your wearable sweat lodge.

Man's best friend for sure.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The Marriage of Money and Real Estate"

One of the great things about New York is that you've got a good chance of running into an installation of what they call "public art" almost anywhere. This one sticks up out of the East River, a few yards off the Manhattan side of Roosevent Island. It's called "The Marriage of Money and Real Estate."

I put the "public art" in quotes because I don't think there's much about art that's really public, whether the art is cloistered behind a ticket kiosk in a gallery or sitting out where anybody can inspect it for free. Why people make art, buy it, open public spaces to it, and admire it is an everlasting mystery to me, even though I'm an admirer and occasional buyer, and don't object at all to the use of my tax money on it.

Here's another example, currently on display at the southeast corner of Central Park at 5th Ave. and 60th Street.

It's an angled concrete pedestal supporting scores of semi-inflated truck tires suspended in bundles from steel armitures. The artist who dreamed this up, a German named Michael Sailstorfer, must have had a lot of skilled help figuring out how to make it happen. But now that it's there, the question for the rest of us is why.

According to a nearby sign, Sailstorfer intended his 30-foot tower of rubber and steel to evoke "a tornado, which is violently powerful but also literally made of air," and provide "a visceral experience of sculptural form and materials in tension, massive but also vulnerable."

Well, okay, if you say so. But I am sure I'm not alone in finding earnest curatorial word salads of this kind unsatisfying. They don't really explain physical manifestations of artistic vision that may be as modest as a picture on a wall but can sometimes be far bigger and more puzzling than this one.

I have heard artists say their work is an expression of things that can't be expressed any other way. Fair enough. But if we don't happen to understand that language, what motivation of our own are we responding to when we accept the presence of these things as a normal part of urban life, pause to look at them, and scratch our heads? Mere curiosity, or something deeper?

One answer artists sometimes give to questions like these is that once they're done with a work, it takes on a life of its own whose meaning lies in the perception of anyone who looks at it. That seems like nonsense to me, and I also think it sells real artists short. Works of art are deeply personal tokens of the inner lives of their creators. We can make inferences about an artist from his work, and conversely our appreciation of the work will change as we know more about the artist.

That's certainly been the experience of Tom Otterness, the guy who gave us "The Marriage of Money and Real Estate." Back in the '70s, he made a movie called "Shot Dog Film" in which he adopted a shelter dog and killed it on camera. He has since deplored and disavowed his snuff film as the product of "profound emotional turmoil and despair" in his youth. But he's been excoriated for it, and as recently as a few months ago the mayor of San Francisco wanted to rescind a transit commission Otterness had won.

 The mature Otterness is known for his cute, whimsical figures, but he's definitely a guy with a hard, sharp edge. Look here, the "marriage of money and real estate" ends badly. Money is now a murderous lobster dragging poor little real estate under, and in the third figure, which I didn't get but you can see at http://www.tomostudio.com/exhibitions_roosevelt.html,
 things get even crazier.
What's this alarming three-panel strip about? Otterness wasn't just "exploring the relationship between real estate and money," as the Roosevelt Island tourist brochures palm it off. He certainly knew that anyone looking at these pieces would see them against the backdrop of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where money and real estate have been having a steamy honeymoon for more than a century.

Is this an editorial? A critique? An insult? A prophesy? Did Otterness actually see the mortgage crisis coming in 1996? Or does he think there's something fundamentally evil and deadly about New Yorkers' lust for location?

If so, who asked him?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Different Approach

Pam snapped this picture for me as we stood on the corner of Madison and 59th, looking up at the second floor of the GM building. It wasn't quite 8 a.m., but the guy you can dimly see under all those big notes was bouncing rhythmically up and down, gliding back and forth. I asked myself who dances alone in an office building before breakfast?

Then I realized that if you go around the block to the opposite corner of that building, you're at the entrance to F.A.O. Schwartz, the toy fantasia. It was closed of course, but if we could have gotten in, gone up the escalator to the second floor and worked our way back to the far corner, we'd have gotten a much better photo of our dancer.

He was in the room where they keep the Big Piano that Tom Hanks made famous in the movie "Big." The black and white keys are laid out on the floor, and you play the instrument by stepping on it. If you want to play it well, you have to dance.

Mystery solved, but it wasn't much of a mystery. We were in that room a couple of weeks ago with our granddaughter and stood in line for a short turn on the big keys ourselves. We couldn't even manage chopsticks, but we saw a demonstration by a pair of F.A.O. Schwartzers who played several dazzling duets without missing a note or running into each other. Maybe the guy above was auditioning for one of those jobs.

But whatever he was doing, I enjoyed spotting him because it reminded me that one of the unique pleasures the city offers is the sensation you get from stumbling on a familiar place from an unfamiliar direction.

I return a rental car on East 43rd and realize I'm outside the office of a lawyer I usually traveled to from work. I ride my bike up Hudson Street and find myself sailing past the Cowgirl Museum, which I walked to a couple of times from the 1 train. I come off the East River bike trail heading west toward 1st Avenue, and I'm outside our pediatrician's office which I normally approach heading east.

For a nanosecond, it feels like these places must have moved, maybe by magic, or a tectonic shift, or special relativity. I think to myself how I love this town. Then somebody behind me honks their horn, because it doesn't love me back.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Trip to Beautiful

Roosevelt Island is an anchovy-shaped strip of land in the East River next to midtown Manhattan. You can go there with tourists on an overhead cable tramway, and the F Train stops there now too. But this vertical lift bridge from Queens is the only way to drive onto the island. Or ride a bicycle, which is what I was doing when I took this picture.

I only snapped it because I was bored. They're painting the bridge, which means they raise it every half hour or so to daub hard-to-reach surfaces while the traffic stacks up. The bridge always struck me as just another example of the ugly infrastructure every rust-belt city depends on but ignores unless it fails to work or goes down for maintenance. Girders, gears and grime, not worth a first look, let alone a second.

That just shows what I know. Before I could make my return trip, the painters stopped me again on the other side. Bored again, I read the oxidized dedication plaque and learned that when this bridge was built in 1955, a national society of steel engineers named it the "most beautiful" in its class.

I had to ride another bridge from Manhattan just to get to this one, the Queensboro, a.k.a. the 59th Street Bridge. Everybody who ever watched a movie in which somebody leaves the city for LaGuardia has seen that bridge. I think it's even uglier than the Roosevelt Island bridge, but Paul Simon wrote a song about it, so I lose that argument too. And anyway why would I disrespect any bridge that has a bike path.

Roosevelt Island has a bike path too. It goes all the way around the island from the lighthouse on the north end to the remains of the Civil War era hospital at the south.

The lighthouse overlooks Hell's Gate, where the East and Harlem rivers meet the waters of Long Island Sound. The water heaves and bulges as if it were seething. Years ago, we were returning with friends from a sailing cruise and lost power right in the grip of these currents. A reeking garbage barge was bearing down on us with no time to stop or turn. Our friend put out a panicky distress call on his radio. Out of nowhere, two guys in an inflatable dinghy with a big Evenrude and a hand-held radio roared up, tossed us a line and towed us to safety. I have no idea who they were or why they were loitering there, but we never got to ask. The Coast Guard showed up a quarter hour later to tow us the rest of the way to the 23rd Street Marina and give my friend a summons for not having enough fire extinguishers and personal flotation devices aboard. Only time I ever went home from a yachting excursion on a subway.

Here's what you see at the other end of the island:

It's part of the old hospital, an amazing pile of masonry from different eras, some brick, some stone and not much more than gravity holding it together. All of it is now braced with new steel girders inside, because it will be the centerpiece of a park dedicated in FDR's name to the suffering and courage of the disabled. The park opens in 2013, but it's open enough now to approach these ruins and marvel that they stayed vertical long enough to be saved.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Long Kiss Goodbye

This is the Little Red Lighthouse, made famous in the 1942 childrens' book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Grey Bridge.

The lighthouse has been here, next to the Manhattan footing of the George Washington Bridge, since the 1920s, but it was a chore to visit until the city began creating its wonderful network of bike paths and lanes. One of the most spectacular routes follows the Hudson River almost the length of the island, from Battery Park at the southern tip to Dyckman Street just a few hundred hards short of the Henry Hudson Bridge which takes you off the north end of Manhattan into Riverdale.

I've started taking almost daily bike trips around town, as a way of saying goodbye to the city where we've lived now for nearly a quarter century. On my first one, I rode from home on East 56th Street to Central Park, headed north and then west around the oval drive, exiting on West 100th and then riding west on 97th Street to Broadway where I picked up a sandwich to carry along, then to the river.

Usually I ride south for breakfast at a greasy spoon I like in Tribeca called the Square Diner. But on this day I went north for the first time in years. I stopped at the bridge to eat the sandwich and take this picture. The Coast Guard wanted to take the lighthouse away in the 1950s because its old job of alerting boats to the outcropping of the river bank at Jeffreys Hook was eliminated by the bridge. But toddlers who had read the book began an orchestrated wailing and sent in their pennies to save it.

After lunch I continued on to Dyckman and crossed the island east to the Harlem River side for the trip home. For a few miles there's a nice paved path along the water, but it runs afoul of the Harlem River Drive, and cyclists are forced to join city traffic at around 155th Street. From there you plunge south into Harlem, but it wasn't the Harlem I remembered from our early days in the city.

We used to ride a commuter bus from Riverdale that took us through Harlem when the neighborhoods were an alarming wasteland of empty storefronts, abandoned houses, scrap fires in oil drums, derelict commercial buildings and forlorn, debris strewn sidewalks. Feeling vulnerable behind our windows, we avoided eye contact with anybody on those streets.

Today, the same streets are tidied up nicely, and many of the empty storefronts are occupied by new businesses. The people on the sidewalks look like they have somewhere to go. There are new office and condo buildings here and there. Cars respected the well-marked bike path, and I rode pleasantly south into the uptown end of Central Park, then around the west side of the oval to home.

This Isn't My First Time

I published my first blog post yesterday on tumblr. But tumblr was weird, and I couldn't get it to send notices of my new posts to my facebook newsfeed. Also, the URL for my blog was unreachable by anybody without a tumblr account.

Trying to understand and fix these problems, I accidentally deleted my post, which I had worked very hard on. I felt despair and deleted my account. Before letting me go, tumblr offered me a link to tell them how I thought they had messed up. I hit the link and it took me to a page for creating a new account. Q-E-D.

I have a fairly low level of confidence that Google will be any better, but there seem to be plenty of free blog hosts, so I'll just keep trying them until I find one for which the design and instructions have not been written for people who already know how to do it.