Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Two ways of looking at a city

The first: city as museum, architecture and trees and light the ever-changing exhibits in a familiar gallery space. The second: city as connect-the-dots, filling in the gaps between the places I have been before, learning the picture they make together. My Saturday walk was a bit of each; I had planned on more of a museum tour but found myself forging a new understanding of the space between the parts of Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill I am familiar with and Bushwick to the northeast. I did not quite bridge the gap but was astonished to look at a map yesterday and realize how close I had been.

I started at Bedford Hill, a new coffeeshop on Franklin that I like. Cinnamon chocolate chip cookie taste lingering, I walked up Greene a while and discovered Stuyvesant Heights, gorgeous, historic, full of streets puzzlingly Georgian (Decatur, Macon, and of course Dekalb not far off). It also had one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen...though I was disheartened, to say the least, by the gravestonelike memorial commemorating "all the unborn babies murdered by abortion" which listed the decision date of Roe v. Wade.

I moved south toward Crown Heights, my original destination, and was enveloped by religiosity of a different form, as all the Orthodox Jewish members of the community left temple and poured into the streets. There are a couple of truly extraordinary blocks here, with absolutely enormous houses and green space. The structures aren't housey like the Victorians in my neighborhood. There's something epic about them--not skyscrapery, but solid. Other streets, while less sheerly impressive, were also beautiful, with curving Greek-looking facades and towering front yards and, yup, more temples and churches.

I'll mention here that over the course of Saturday I read Sarah Glidden's excellent How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, a comic book about the author's experience on a Birthright tour. It reminded me of a whole different set of beauty and problems beyond the church and gentrification I witnessed in Stuyvesant Heights. I am not planning to go on a Birthright tour and Glidden's book was the perfect substitute, since her politics and her initial expectations of the trip are pretty similar to what mine would be. The book seemed an appropriate companion for what turned out to be a walk fueled by religious sites.

Crown Heights seen, I walked back to more familiar neighborhoods down Eastern Parkway, which I would love to bike the way I did on Ocean early Thanksgiving morning. Its stately buildings put the idea of city-as-museum in my head. The passing blocks gave me a wintry feeling, and I imagined what it would be like to walk down them in the snow. Soon, I hope.

Postscript: Yesterday, I walked down Willoughby from Little Skips, waaaay down Willoughby, from up by the Myrtle Avenue Z stop to Franklin Avenue. I waited for the B48 for close to half an hour and boarded...only to find myself flying by Bedford Hill in a matter of moments. Ah, geography.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hi-yo, Silver!

Bringing my bicycle up to the second floor landing where my downstairs neighbors have generously allowed me to stow it, I'm reminded of Claremont. The stable by Central Park isn't operational anymore, but I was fascinated by it as a horsey child. Though my own rides occurred out on Long Island, Claremont always had a sort of mystique for me, with its winning combination of stealthy location in a townhouse block and glorious horses roaming the park. (Now that I'm older, if not bigger, the stable on Caton Avenue near my current apartment exerts a similar pull; maybe one day I will join the riders in Prospect Park.) Inside the stable, as I recall from pictures, the horses walked up and down ramps to get to their quarters (inhumane ones, according to some, though I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt). Slowturning my bike to angle up several sets of stairs, far too narrow for its comfort, I think of these ramps, and spare a moment to acknowledge the occasional difficulties of city life.

But all is not lost. Like the horses, my bike does get to go outside. We circle the loop of Prospect Park alongside the bridle path, gallop half-braked down 9th Street (they call it Park Slope for a reason), ride up and down stately slow Rugby and Argyle, as often as we can. I am going to use this bike to have adventures, I decided while talking to one of my friends; I'm not sure I'm up to riding across mountains and deserts and marathons but we'll see.

Now's a good time to have a bike, since the city is putting down so many lanes. (Home early from work today I walked down new-to-me Clarendon and was heartened to see a pair there, as well as on Bedford--perhaps a Bedford ride is in the works?) As you may know, I am ambivalent about bicycles and the concerns I have about them still stand. I won't defend my purchase here other than to say thank you to my friend R.--. I wouldn't meet her to go biking on Governor's Island a few months back, since I'd forgotten how to ride. I did say I would kayak but, alas, the boat basin had a huge line and R.-- appeared with a pretty blue bicycle in tow and asked if she could teach me. Clad in the helmet she passed to me, I listened to about two words of her instructions...and I was off into the sunset. Man, it feels good to bike again. Like a childhood dream of horses.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Monday Morning: A User's Manual

Wake up and think it's trite but true that it's nice to get up with the sun.
Look out the window and realize it's overcast. Grumble.
Dream of how great one of those Blue Sky muffins would taste.
Get out of the house and walk to the train, listening to Fences.
Read about urban planning on the train.
Wonder why every book seems to have a chapter called "On the Waterfront."
Breathe in the comforting scent of Blue Sky Bakery and pick up mango coconut zucchini muffin.
Muse about how Fences has a sound reminiscent of Beach House--that dreamy atmospheric tone. Remember listening to Beach House in the enchanted hibernation of wintry Carroll Gardens earlier in the year. Remember listening to "Walk in the Park," walking through snowy Brooklyn Heights streets on the way to curl up at Iris Cafe. Remember waking up before the alarm, feeling satisfied, picking up a chocolate croissant and walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to work.
Realize this remembering has lasted all the way from Park Slope to Chambers Street and it is only 8:30.
Wonder how this happened.
Get to work and start consuming mango coconut zucchini muffin.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes

There are delicious restaurants in my neighborhood (Purple Yam, anyone?) but it's coffee shops that are nearest and dearest to my heart. And so imagine my joy at having three classy new options within a few blocks of my house. (One other option, an outpost of the bizarrely-named Connecticut Muffin chain, predates my move to the neighborhood, but for various reasons it hasn't proved quite right.)

First to arrive on the ever-busying Cortelyou scene was the aptly-named Market, which sells, among other things, serrano ham sandwiches to die for, my very favorite goat cheese studded with cranberries, and, of course, cupcakes. It is always exciting to see what new flavors have come in--guava? pumpkin cheesecake? pear brandy?--and in fact we are ordering some for Thanksgiving this year in addition to the usual pie. There are also espresso-based drinks which I have been known to sip on the way to work (damn, did I feel comical drinking a tiny espresso on my walk to the Q).

Though Market is great, I refer to it as "the tiny market" for a reason. So I was very excited to hear that not one but two new coffee shops were opening in my neighborhood, after the close of Vox Pop. (They're totally different from Vox, that is a subject for another post.)

The first of these is Qathra, which most embodies what I look for in a coffee shop. Spacious and full of tables, it's a great place to proofread. (I jokingly told the owner I should give him a cut of my proceeds since I spent so much time there.) The coffee and espresso-based drinks are good; there's also a gingery chai, hot apple cider, some unusual cold drinks (lemonade with rosewater, anyone?) and an ever-expanding array of food options. This includes, yes, cupcakes, and also breakfast pastries and some more savory options I've yet to try.

Cafe Madeline, just a few blocks away, wins the contest for best latte. They also have a nice buy-ten-get-one-free system (when I brought in my thermos on one of their first days, they happily gave me extra stamps). And sandwiches like ficelle with prosciutto and fig jam. To say nothing of the adorable puppydog logo that graces their door and business cards. They're just down the block from the Q, which couldn't be more convenient. And delicious!

So, next time you feel like venturing to the south of Brooklyn, give me a call. We'll go get some coffee, yeah?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which dreamed it?

Recently I read two strange detective stories, Flann O'Brien's classic The Third Policeman and Jedediah Berry's newer The Manual of Detection. These were books I expected to love--since starting my job I've been more into crime fiction, and I've always loved modernist and surreal novels. The pedigree of each is impressive--Policeman has garnered comparisons to Ulysses and Alice in Wonderland, as well as being a favorite of a good friend of mine; Jedediah Berry is an editor at the wonderful Small Beer Press, and I attended and enjoyed his reading of Manual, where I bought a copy of the book about...a year and a half ago? I was saving it for a the right time, I suppose.

In short (since I am pretty overworked at the moment), I enjoyed the books, though not as much as I'd expected to. Policeman contains a sort of twist that made it disappointing to me, and way more descriptions of ominous scenery than I really needed. I did love the portrayals of the mysterious policemen the murderer-narrator takes up with, though, in particular the description of the perfectly beautiful small chest one of them created...what could he possibly put inside but another, smaller chest, and another, and another, on down into invisibility and beyond. I also suspect I must credit the book as an inspiration for my purchase of a bicycle last week (more on that later). Bicycles are characters in the story, or characters are bicycles--the policemen have a hypothesis that if people ride their bicycles for too long, they eventually begin to trade characteristics with each other. So one of the policemen locks up his bike so it can't escape and reveal his baser nature; the narrator is seduced, after a fashion, by a getaway vehicle. Alas, my bike is not a femme fatale, but more of the pony persuasion (small and silver, it reminds me of a small Silver I used to know).

Manual takes place not in ominous countryside but in a large city (with its Central Station, museum along the park, and mysterious eight train, surely I can be forgiven for mapping it onto New York). Clerk Unwin is promoted, under mysterious circumstances, to the rank of detective, and tries to figure out just what's going on in the city, as well as uncovering what really happened in the cases he so dutifully recorded while he was a clerk. Who are the sleepwalkers converging on the abandoned estate? Was the Oldest Murdered Man a hoax? And what does the woman in the train station have to do with it all? I liked this one as it gained momentum, but was a bit disappointed since I'd come in expecting a whodunnit and found more atmosphere than plot.

In both books, there's an epic battle between two sides--most broadly, order and chaos, but also heaven and hell, fact and interpretation. And dreaming plays a large role, enmeshing both character and reader in a nebulous third option. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a sequence is part of the reality of the novel's world, or a fantasy inhabited by a character. Reading only this kind of stuff for a week can be disorienting, and so I was relieved to emerge from these nightmare worlds back into normal life... Well, sort of. The next day I attended 826's pingpong tournament,* featuring, among others, The Strand's Nancy Bass playing Jonathan Safran Foer, and it put me square in the middle of Alice in Wonderland territory.

*It would appear that I'm in some of the photos here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cold shoulder

No real post today (or quite possibly this week) since my #$%! shoulder hurts and typing seems to exacerbate it. Tune in next time for, most likely, a consideration of surreal detective stories!

Monday, November 8, 2010

All in the timing

As those of you who know me know, mornings are not my favorite. From the time I yelled at my friends when they gave me wake-up happy birthday call in high school to my menacing grumbles at college roommates to a thousand other groanings and moanings, I have never been the sort of person who rises eagerly to welcome the day. Historically, I've risen at the last moment possible, stumbled blearily to the shower if I was in a morning-shower phase, checked my email with watery eyes, and ran to catch the train. My most favorite/most dreaded moments were when I'd wake up, see that the alarm wasn't set to go off for another hour/fifteen minutes/three minutes, and gratefully go back to sleep.

But what if life didn't have to be this way? What if I actually got up when I woke up? For the last, oh, month or so, I've been trying this. And I've discovered that consistency is in fact a hobgoblin, that random unpredictable wanderings are infinitely more satisfying. Though I still groan at waking up, I wonder: what can I do before work today? Walking across the bridge to work is a frequent favorite (though I want to make sure not to overdo it and take away the specialness). I have also walked my beautiful fall neighborhood, made friends with my new local coffee bars, gone to Penn Station to pick up train tickets (amazing how there's no line when all the commuters are streaming the other way), hit up Blue Sky Bakery for delicious muffins (pumpkin cranberry cream cheese springs to mind)...the list goes on. Today I went to Bean & Bean way down at the tip of Manhattan for a caramel apple latte, which is delicious. I got a seat on the Q train for most of my ride, switched smoothly to the R at Dekalb, and over the course of half an hour picked up my beverage and walked leisurely to work. Where it's still not even 9 yet.

And so I think mornings may function best as a sort of walking adventure, maybe a treasure hunt. There are more drinks I want to try; there are more streets I will wander when the same two blocks to the subway get me down.

How about you, dear readers? How do you deal with early times, if you do? I wish you good morning.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

We'll ride the subways to their final stops

Though I don't have much good to say about the election results, I do have good things to say about my Tuesday off (!) granted me by my job. So I will buck my own grumpy trend and tell you about that.

It's great to have a day off in the middle of the week. You can catch up on all sorts of business that is difficult to accomplish on weekends: eating a delicious breakfast with your mother (including a pastry called, um, a "fat baby"); tending to various household tasks; and, of course, voting. I like the new machines they have (scanners which eat a paper ballot; the ballots are saved in case of dispute), even though one of the poll workers grumblingly informed me and my mom that it involves 26 new steps for them. I also like voting with my mom; we run into neighbors sometimes, and it is nice to see my family all together in the list of voters. Man, my signature was much nicer before I started writing letters for a living...

Votes securely scanned, there was more business to take care of (and by "business" I mean "adventure"). I had read that Peter Pan in Greenpoint has red velvet doughnuts; unfortunately, I had also read (and witnessed firsthand) that these sell out early in the day. And since the bakery opens at 9, going on a workday would not be an option. So off I L-ed, and picked up both a standard doughnut and a cruller. Nothing to write home about, but I'm happy I got to try. Then I stopped by the always-inviting Word bookstore, and then took the G to Fort Hamilton for my magnum opus of the day, a walk down Dahill Road.

I have been curious about Dahill because it is basically the dividing line between two grid systems. One time a few years ago I found myself on the corner of Dahill, 59th Street, 23rd Avenue, and Avenue M--home of a nice little library, by the way--which totally blew my mind. (Your mileage, non-New Yorkers, may vary, but it was exciting to me.) And Dahill is like this the whole way down. Well, except when it's not there at all.

So, turns out I only gave googlemaps a cursory glance and though Dahill runs most of the way from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Kings Highway, it doesn't quite seal the deal. Instead, there are a variety of pitfalls--though this walk was shorter than my Bedford one, it featured more hazards. I should've known something was up when there wasn't even a crosswalk at the road's start--cue me, ducking across two lanes of traffic. And things got more puzzling as Dahill periodically disappeared. At the mysteriously street-gobbling 18th Avenue. (Why does it have no intersections? Is it because of the abandoned Bay Ridge freight line?) I had to walk several blocks west before finding Dahill again--all half-a-block of it before it vanished. Then I picked up the scent again for a while, only to dead end in an enormous cemetery. Eventually, it ran regular residential to Kings Highway, where I picked up pretty Van Sicklen Street and made my way to a pizza shop I'd read about. Again, nothing to write home about. But breakfast was so delicious, and the air so crisp and walkable, that I didn't care.

I should also mention that I took the opportunity to catch up on my recent music purchases: a CD by Lucy Wainwright Roche (source of this post's title) and a collaboration between Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, the latter of which I picked up at Manayunk's lovely Main Street Music. I wish I knew of anyplace good to buy CDs around here...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Boo in review

I don't really like Halloween. I usually admit this quietly, afraid to wake a sleeping baby or tell a child that there's no Santa Claus. So many people seem to get wrapped up in the revelry in a way I rarely do. Once, a few years ago, I got a set of my friends to dress up as the Gashlycrumb Tinies and by all accounts it was a success. I say, not really joking, that I should be exempt from coming up with a costume idea for the next twenty-plus years because I came up with all of those.

The excesses of Halloween veer from the absurdly cutesy (a little dog in fairy wings, gleefully trampling her skirt underfoot) to the creepy (children in Scream masks) to the extra-creepy (adults on the subway wearing hardly any clothes, or clothes best not spoken of). And I just can't deal with the crowds. Even passing through Union Square station underground was enough to ensure that I'd stay far far away from the Halloween parade.

There are, to be sure, a few fun moments. Maybe I was just meant to be an adult all these years, since I had more fun handing out candy (at 826) than I ever did dressing up. Children were big-eyed afraid to come into the store; we coaxed tiny pirates and elephants in so we could give them ring pops. My favorite was the girl who wasn't dressed up for Halloween but gleefully helped us old folks hand out candy, often rushing to the door so quickly that we didn't even get a glimpse of the trick-or-treaters ourselves. It's funny: at both places I went on Halloween night, 826 and Alice's Teacup, dressing up is commonplace, superheroes and winged rabbit-hole-goers every day of the year. In a way this mitigated the (to me, negative) effects of Halloween; Alice's in particular was strangely underpopulated, as its fairies and such left the enchanted realm on the one night of the year their costumes made sense in the wider world.

On the way home I did find one costume that won my heart--a man dressed so perfectly as this fellow that I wanted to applaud. And the spooky strains of Sweeney Todd in the tiny market as I picked up a sandwich made me go home and curl up with my own holiday-appropriate songs. Stars and Jeremy Messersmith and I did not have as raucous an evening as some, I suppose, but I really can't complain.