Part 7– (There’s No Place Like) Back Home

"There's no place like home... now get this dog outta my room!"

I delayed writing this post. To paraphrase something I read somewhere, the drive back home from somewhere is like January 2, December 26, or the day after your birthday. But I received a few requests as to whether or not I arrived home safely, so I figure I’d better let my readers know that I and my Ford Focus are not wrapped around a telephone pole somewhere.

On a beautiful Sunday morning I headed home to Florida almost the same way I drove up to Brooklyn, but crossed into Delaware via the Delaware Memorial Bridge because I was bypassing Philadelphia. The DMB is like looking at the Verrazano cross-eyed, because there are TWO suspension spans; though it’s not as long as that Brooklyn-Staten Island monstrosity, it arches higher and so there were a few seconds’ breathless travel for me as I convinced myself that a car can’t just fall off the bridge– that would take some work on the part of the driver and, besides, there are guard rails. I almost stuck my hand out the window to photograph something dramatic, but I really had both hands Crazy Glued to the steering wheel.

Once again, you blink, and Delaware flashes by. You cross the Susquehanna on the Millard E. Tydings Memorial Bridge, which raises a question: what’s with all these memorial bridges? Maybe I don’t want to know. According to Wikipedia, Millard Evelyn Tydings (1890-1961) was “an attorney, author, soldier, state legislator, and served as a Democratic Representative and Senator in the United States Congress from Maryland.” And he is also the grandfather of actress Alexandra Tydings. (She played Aphrodite in Xena.)

I wanted to stop in Baltimore to breathe in some of John Waters’ ambience– you know, maybe stop in and see Hilda up Conkling Street?– and I also wanted to see the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Built from 1806-1821, America’s first Roman Catholic cathedral is classic and gorgeous.

While I was carousing up by the main altar, a docent asked if I had any questions. Soon she was leading me downstairs and into the depths of the building, to show me the underpinnings that I pictured previously:

The giant brick arches up top were so heavy that they began to sink into the sand, taking the building along with them; they had to reinforce those arches with reverse arches– see the curved area? It was a major feat of engineering…

Since all those little states and big cities in the Boston-Washington, DC corridor are so close to one another, it was easy enough to drive into the Capital for a look around. I wanted to see the Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal, begun in 1907) and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Roman Catholic, begun in the 1920s). Both are immense,and situated at opposite ends of northern DC. The original plans for the Roman Catholic church featured a Gothic cathedral-style design, but the Anglo-Catholics beat them to it, so we have two strikingly different edifices to appreciate. The Episcopal building is traditional-looking and familiar; once inside, you feel like maybe you’ve been here before. The precincts around it are leafy and green– very English– thereby rendering the whole scene rather intimate and cozy,even though this stone monolith is towering above you for many hundreds of feet. And though we decree as a nation separation between church and state, this beautiful structure hosts many religious ceremonies for political figures and ceremonies of state.

The Roman Catholic shrine is dedicated to Mary, and features a lot of chapels inside, and a really fabulous gift shop and cafeteria. You could spend an entire week in here, wandering from one alcove to another. Climbing up to it is like approaching the Wizard’s castle, it’s that big.

Here’s one of the chapels, this one dedicated to the Miraculous Medal (a tradition that sets many Protestant teeth on edge).

Tootling through DC on a Sunday afternoon was nice, and I decided I’d have to go back. There’s so much to SEE, though I’d like to see it without ten million other people breathing down my neck. Whenever I find myself having to take a tour of something with a whole lot of other people, I soon detach myself from the throng and go wandering off on my own. You see so much more that way– you open doors onto collections of vintage vacuum cleaners, or docents looking up in surprise because you’ve interrupted their love affair with a meatball hero. Whatever happens is always much more interesting than the guided tour; I did this at John Deering’s Vizcaya in Miami and got yelled at, sort of.

I like to drive until 5 PM or so, which is a good time to find a motel and restaurant. I got as far as Fredericksburg, Virginia, and it occurred to me that this was where one of my favorite authors lived– Florence King, who wrote the classic Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. So I stayed overnight; not with her, of course, but I did breathe the same air because apparently she is living there again. I did ask one old gentlemen if he had heard of her– he had– but he wasn’t sure of her whereabouts. And a young guy in a bookstore didn’t know much about her at all, but he should have. I wandered around in beautiful, historic Fredericksburg after the desk clerk at the motel suggested that it might be interesting, but I’m afraid he underestimated it. It’s full of independent bookstores, and local shops, and tiny, cool restaurants. The University of Mary Washington is right outside town, so the town has a young, college-y feel about it. Mary was George’s sister, and she used to lend him her wigs. Kidding! Actually, Mary was Mom.

This is the perfume Mary Haines is so keen about in The Women.

St.George’s Episcopal Church. Inside are some really gorgeous Tiffany stained glass windows. I was the only one in here that morning,and the church creaks as you walk around, kind of like Old North Church in Boston (which is where I tell everyone that we saw Rose Kennedy’s personal pew).

This was originally the court house, from 1852. It’s a long building on Princess Anne Street, yellower than what shows here. It was a bright, very warm morning and color were washed out by the blazing sun. Lazy, fat flies flickered across my sweating face… people wandered slowly along the sidewalks, possibly dreaming of empurpled yesteryears when it was cooler, or maybe not as warm. Chickens roosted in the oak trees and, somewhere, a dog barked.

Kenmore Plantation, right there in downtown Fredericksburg. It was built by George Washington’s sister Betty. Betty! I chuckled and chuckled…BETTY! And then I knew it was time to end this trip, so on through Virginia and North Carolina and South Carolina I went, overnighting near Florence, SC. And then the miles and miles of that state, and then through Georgia on endless Interstate 95… and then I still had to get through Florida on 95, only to hook up with Interstate 4 at Daytona Beach… which was still an hour from home. And I determined, as I re-entered the Orlando area after two thousand miles, that the worst drivers– bar none– are all right here at home.

Which, after all, there is no place like.

 

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PhotoBike Tour 6: Winter Park in Black and White

Today was SO hot that I knew I should have started biking way earlier than I did. But I left the house at 11:45 and it was like walking into a wall of soup– and not gazpacho. More like boiling pea soup. So you go slow– two-wheeled ambling rather than racing, which is impossible to do in this town anyway what with the traffic and the thousands of parked landscaping and delivery trucks crowding the streets during the day. “How nice and quiet it must be when you bike ride,” people say to me. Wrong. I am serenaded by an orchestra composed of lawnmowers and those damned exhaust-belching, shrieking leaf blowers.

Today wasn’t so bad. I went west into Winter Park, mostly along the Aloma-Osceloa-Brewer-Fairbanks route, and then the little streets over in Hannibal Square. Here are some shots which I decided to post in black and white, just to see what some of my the sites look like when the hot sun bleaches all the color out of them. And then, some things still with us from the past are made to be seen in black and white…

This very old house is on Aloma Avenue, built in 1901. I hope I don’t jinx it by showing it because it seems like the sort of house that the town likes to tear down to replace with a little cement palazzo. (There are no historic districts in Winter Park.)

 

 I’ve always loved this house on the Aloma-Brewer curve. Built in 1926, it’s being gutted by the current owners; only a few exterior walls are standing.

 

 Here’s another ancient beauty. It’s at the south end of Bonita Drive. Originally called Eastbank, it was built in 1883– one of the oldest homes in town.

The central areas of Winter Park are laced with canals connecting the big lakes. The boat tour takes you along some of them.

A tiny gem from 1935 on Osceola Court.

All Saints Episcopal (1925).

A church in Hannibal Square, the traditionallyAfrican-American west side of Winter Park.

A house in Hannibal Square, from 1902.

Looking out across Lake Virginia from Dinky Dock at the south end of Ollie Avenue.

On Osceola Avenue, just near the end of the bike ramp that plunges off Brewer hill. From 1935.

Much more respectable these days, this beauty from 1899 was owned by a tax evader / drug smuggler sometime in the 1970s. To get this photo, one has to bike down a short stretch now marked “Private Drive.” One of these days I am going to be set upon by the hounds!

A view toward the chapel at Rollins College, from Lake Virginia.

When I returned home and started looking up the facts on some of these houses, I found a lot of brochures I’d been saving. A little booklet that the Junior League produced in 1980 features a lot of historical buildings that are no longer around. While I realize that the bulldozers of progress roll inexorably on, I also lament the permanent, irretrievable loss of those beautiful structures.

Part 6– Trekking Manhattan with Carol!

We didn't go here.

“We can do anything you want when you get here,” Carol said. “Anything! We can knit in my house… we can decouppage… we can watercolor… or we can sit on the couch and not talk.”     

That last thing is exactly what we did when I visited one time– her husband Matt came home from work to find us seated at opposite ends of the couch, reading magazines. We had been so used to talking on the phone and writing voluminous letters– this was YEARS before the Internet– that we didn’t know what to say to one another in person anymore. Not that we had anything NEW to say; we long ago grew accustomed to repeating the same stories that convulsed us the FIRST time we told them. Why not stick with what you know? And now that we’re older, we often forget that we’ve told one another these stories already, so everything seems fresh and new again… and we laugh and laugh !     

For our trek into Manhattan, we arranged to meet on the De Kalb Avenue platform in downtown Brooklyn, which is the subway stop generations of friends have used as a meeting place since the first steam train plowed its way beneath Brooklyn. When they reconfigured this junction, they closed the Myrtle Avenue stop nearby; I’m not sure about these days, but when we were younger you could see that ghostly, shuttered station in the gloom as your subway car passed it by. (And, by the way, the transit authority has switched some train numbers / letters; eliminated others; and severely reduced service on a lot of lines. Everyone is in an uproar. The suits and skirts in charge don’t have anything better to do, nor do they care. Why should they? THEY don’t depend on the buses and subways for THEIR means of transportation, I am quite sure. And don’t get me started about Mayor Bloomberg being a subway rider)     

We didn't go here either.

Carol had never been to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopalian monolith up in Morningside Heights, so we got on the 2 (or was it the 3?) and took it to 110th. Street. Then we walked and walked, because we were lost and confused. We even walked in a circle! It’s one of the biggest Cathedrals in the world, we cried; how can we miss it? But then we collared someone who gave us explicit instructions, and we found it eventually. How could anyone miss this? And this is only part of the front door!      

     

     

It’s practically impossible to get a complete photo of the entire giant edifice without getting back on the subway and then emerging at the next stop to try and take a photograph from that distant vantage point, and so I think there are a lot of photos of the front door in people’s collections.     

We then went to the Museum of Arts and Design  to see an exhibit called Dead or Alive: Nature Becomes Art. It was fascinating. The artists had gathered all these dead things– insects, flora, and fauna– and then recreated them as mesmerizing and creepy art pieces. My favorite installation was the gray fabric that Alastair Mackie fashioned from mouse fur which he gleaned from owl droppings, along with the bones of the ingested and digested mice. He arranged the bones in a neat, white pile, and then wove the fur on a full-sized loom into fabric. I asked the docent what it felt like– I was dying to touch it– but he said he hadn’t been allowed to feel the finished product, but that he had heard it felt like cashmere. Needless to say, there was no picture-taking allowed. And you know what else fascinated me about this museum? Translucent inserts built into the floors allowed you to look UP or DOWN at people walking on the floors above or below; I’d suggest that ladies leave their hoop skirts at home if they’re planning on strolling through this intriguing place. And surrounded as I thought I was by sophisticated, arty New York gallery types, I did overhear one woman say “looks like a friend of mine” when she passed an armature of a horse covered completely in long, frizzy, black hair.     

Being seasoned New Yorkers for many years, we didn’t re-visit any of the things that we’d grown up with; we wanted new and quirky, and so that led us to the Manhattan Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… aka the Mormons.     

     

You can see the Angel Moroni overlooking everything as he wields his golden trumpet. Suggestion: this being Manhattan, why not have Moroni play well-known selections while he’s standing up there with his horn? String of Pearls, maybe, or something jazzy by Louis Armstrong; and maybe when the sun goes down he can play Taps. Bwaa-bwaa- bwaaaaaaaaaaaa. MUCH nicer to fall asleep to than the din of a million voices screaming  “CAN’T YOU FRIKKING DRIVE?!?!”  in a thousand tongues. We did go inside the temple building, but– as non-Mormons– we were not allowed onto the elevator which brings the devout into the temple precinct itself. We were not worthy!! But the manager guy did greet us and ask if we had any questions– “Nope!” I replied, even though I had a hundred– and then he gave us a little card with a picture of the Salt Lake City temple pictured on it, along with a phone number: we could call and request a copy of the Book of Mormon OR have a missionary stop by the house for cocktails if we so desired. And then he said “well, at least it’s much cooler in here,” and I said “yes, it’ s wicked hot outside… I mean, extremely hot.” And he and the lady peering at us from an office laughed, and that ended our visit to the Mormons. But I’m still dying to get on that elevator, just to go upstairs and see… I wonder if they have a gift shop? St. Patrick’s does!   

We then went to St. Bartholomew’s, another huge Episcopalian church, this time on Park Avenue. I’d wanted to see its architecture for years, and I finally had my chance. And Carol is so game; she was just as curious as I and so, sated with coffee, soda, and soft pretzels, we found St. Bart’s– and the dome crossing was sheathed in scaffolding! Oy. It was like when I visited the Sistine Chapel in 1984– I flew four hundred thousand miles to see art, and it was covered in scaffolding. They’re very chatty inside St. Bart’s; I notice that about Episcopalian structures. They want you to come inside and get acquainted with all their programs and social services, as they are very dedicated to their surrounding neighborhoods. And St. Bart’s sold ball caps emblazoned with the Episcopalian logo– we were tempted because they looked so preppy and sporty.   

St. Bart, Wearing A Black Mesh Bra

 It was very ornate inside– sometimes those Anglicans are more Catholic than the Romans!–but none of my photos of the fabulous stained glass windows came out. And it’s interesting that it’s plopped onto Park Avenue like that, its Romanesque-ness surrounded by bland glass and steel. I mean, you know it’s St. Bart’s, but I couldn’t tell you what the surrounding buildings were!    

    

 Here are some other buildings that caught my eye, any of which I would move into if they would have me:     

            I love these green fire escapes! There’s something soothing about them.  I wonder if they were originally made of copper which has now acquired that marvelous patina?   

           

Some nice French Empire going on here.  I’m not a particular fan of mansard roofs, but I liked this design.   

       

It may say Met Life, but I still call this the Pan Am Building. Fittingly and emphatically.     

       

Something marvelous down near the Strand Bookstore. I stared and stared at this building.     

I don’t remember ever being to the Strand, but Carol and I disappeared inside for quite some time. The way we enter bookstores is that we go in as a couple and then immediately separate and head to different sections. I like obscure things like ancient languages– the Reader’s Digest printed in Albanian, e.g.– and so I am always sent to the basements of these stores, which is where they keep the obscure stuff. This time, when I asked for Foreign Languages, I was told “down in the basement under the staircase.” And there I headed, perfectly happy to immerse myself in the dust and gloom, where I found an ancient copy of Candide… in Swedish! Carol was somewhere upstairs, in the light and fresh air, and I eventually met her so that we could touch and remark upon every item they were selling in their little gift area. We almost bought canvas totes, but demurred for some strange reason, considering our track record: years ago we went to EPCOT in Florida and spent $40 on incense at the Japanese pavillion… which Carol ended up throwing away twenty years later.    

Nor here, which is a good thing as I would have stood up in front of the General Assembly and YELLED.

We didn’t have a sit-down meal– too many pretzels– but Carol and her husband had already taken me to dinner the week before at an Italian restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn, called Scotto Ditto. NICE! I had a Manhattan– maybe two?– and a very good meal. I spoke Italian to the non-Italian waitress, who looked at me with that polite New York face that says “I have no idea who you are or what you said, but I’m a professional and so I have to put up with you anyway.” But she was a lot of fun, and we had a memorable meal. (Why do we always say “memorable meal?” I have no recall of what we ordered and consumed, only that it was excellent.)  Carol never knows what to have in restaurants, and I usually don’t either, and then I forget what it is that I did finally order… so it’s always a surprise when it shows up.  “Oh, look! Scampi! How nice!” Matt, of course, is efficient and well-prepared, but still loses precious minutes of his life due to our indecision and inability to come to conclusions.  

Afterwards we had complex coffee drinks at a non-Starbucky local bistro staffed and patronized by local hipsters, among whom WE looked like Edna, Stan, and Joe from Indiana. But WE were comfortable and un-self conscious, and whiled away the time wondering where their hair ended and their wool hats began. Query: why wear a wool hat when it’s six thousand degrees outside? 

They saw me off on the subway to Bay Ridge late that night, and I wasn’t even nervous; the trains are busy at all hours now, often with people playing tambourines, tubas, or three-card-monty. You can choose to either ignore them all… or dance!    

I dozed.    

      

       

 

PhotoBike Tour 5: Deeper Inside Brooklyn

 

 

The Sunset Park Neighborhood-- 43rd. Street, 400 Block

The borough of Brooklyn opens up like a lotus flower when you rent a bike. When I arrived, I contacted a bicycle store in Bay Ridge that featured hourly and daily rentals, though there was no indication about longer-term rentals; I was interested in at least a week, with the possibility of extensions.       

My Florida-honed sense of decorum and politeness evaporated as I marched the three avenues and one street to the bike shop, and soon I was negotiating a weekly rate with the owner. Times are hard, I know, and so we both decided they were very appreciative of my business– and I was proud to have negotiated the final rate with my Florida-honed sense of decorum and politeness; I should be running BP.       

The first journey I made on my bicycle was to see my friends Carol and Matt on Carroll Street. I was always charmed that Carol lived on Carroll Street; she is an accomplished artist and very humoresque blogger (see at right) and the woman I bonded with in art class back in Brooklyn College circa 1976.  (I was taken with the fact that her art supplies locker in Boylan Hall was boldly labeled CAROL’S LOCKER!!!!!!! ) She also had braids and an attitude. Soon we were disco-ing in Manhattan with abandon, and then I moved to Florida; she still hasn’t forgiven me.       

When I was a kid living on 72nd. Street in Bay Ridge, anything below about 39th. Street was considered off-limits. There were myriad reasons why, some legit, some not so much; the fact that there were really ancient neighborhoods out there always intrigued me, and I would bike right to the edge of the perceived danger in those days, with my little Instamatic, and i’m glad I did because I still have all those shots of 1960s-1970s Brooklyn.       

Early on a Saturday morning I biked to Carol and Matt’s in time for their stoop sale, which is a garage sale for people who don’t have a garage. Carol’s sister Alice arrived with her son Jimmy and THEIR wares, and can I tell you that Alice got a parking space right in front of their building?  This is virtually impossible; later on, the neighborhood association presented her with a plaque. I assisted with the sale under Carol’s orders, depending as she did on my years in retail merchandising. I enjoyed the cajoling and kibbitzing with the locals– what’s so cool about Brooklyn is that everyone on the block knows just about everyone else– and talks to them !    

   

Brooklyn is riddled with architecture, unique among American cities. I myself am a frustrated architect– I wanted desperately to attend Cooper Union after high school, but my marks weren’t good enough. So I live vicariously through the designs of the men and women who preceded me. Here are some of their creations:       

The Parachute Jump at Coney Island

 The Parachute Jump terrorized a couple of generations of daring beachgoers when it was installed here after its tenure at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. You’d sit in a canvas seat, rise a few hundred feet into the air, be brought to the outer  edge, and then you’d plummet to the bottom; presumably, the chute would open, preventing you from spending the rest of your life looking like a pizza. I never went on it– I was too young– but plenty of people did, and lived to tell about it. But we always watched the greasers and their screaming, beehived girlfriends from the safety of the hot sand when we visited the beach.       

 Here is Regina Pacis Catholic Church, also affiliated with St. Rosalia Parish. It’s on 65th. Street, a major thoroughfare, and so it’s riddled and crossed with wires. The church features a statue of the Virgin Mary whose double crown was stolen in the 1960s; the neighborhood Italians held prayer vigils around the clock for its safe return, but it was only until an anonymous, veiled threat was posted in the newspaper that they were returned. It’s a beautiful church; if you are over fifty and your first name is Bernadette or Filomena, chances are good that you were either confirmed or married or waked in Regina Pacis:  

 
 

Regina Pacis-- Queen of Peace

Here’s another Catholic church– the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which is the centerpiece of what was originally a heavily Irish parish. My friend Donald was sent to his final rest from here, and the organist played overwrought and sentimental hymns during the funeral Mass; all I could think of was that dear Donald would have preferred Donna Summer and the Hughes Corporation, or even Giorgio Moroder (“From Here to Eternity”) but I didn’t have anything to do with the musical arrangements.       

OLPH

 Bay Ridge, once home to a huge Norwegian population, has like one shop dedicated to the presence, and of course I went inside. Nordic Delicacies carries all sorts of things Norwegian, and I bought Nordic Kirk a teacup, some powdered soups, and napkins festooned with the colorful flag. There was a magazine on display, whose headline I voluntarily translated for the lady behind the counter– a large-font bevy of twenty-somethings bleating “WE LIKE OLDER MEN!”  And the elderly lady responded “yah, especially ven dey have money!”       

Nordic Delicacies

I spent a couple of days in Staten Island with my sister, and Mom came with me one day to use the pool. Here are Gina and Mom:       

       

And here’s a shot of Gina being VERY gorgeous and happy:       

        

 Gina indulged me one day when I asked her to drive with me to Rossville, an area of Staten Island that features a ships’ graveyard as well as an ancient cemetery. While I was clambering among the weeds, she called Mom: “Now he’s rummaging through a cemetery!” And Mom told her, very seriously, “that’s what he likes to do.”      

The Dead Boats of Rossville

And here’s the Blazing Star Cemetery at Rossville, with this grave marker dated 1789:     

The Dead People of Rossville

 One day I biked to Gravesend, an area of southern Brooklyn that was settled by the Dutch in the 1600s. A house owned by Lady Moody, who established the colony, still survives, though the elevated subway runs directly through the center of the ancient Gravesend grid:     

Lady Moody's House (circa 1643)

And here is something rather fabulous, nearby:     

     

 Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway now features a bike path, though you have to cross many heavily-trafficked streets while biking. Here is one of the more monumental synagogues built along this major boulevard:     

     

Ocean Parkway goes all the way south to the Coney Island area, though I diverged and took Ocean Avenue which led me east of Coney, into the neighborhoods of Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach. Here’s a view across Sheepshead Bay looking out towards the Island. I went with Mom one day to Jordan’s restaurant and seafood store; we had lunch and then brought home lobster tails for supper. That’s what we do: while having a meal, we discuss the meals-to-come.  

     

 Back in Bay Ridge, here are a couple of very old houses typical of the neighborhood:     

     

 Nearby Stewart Avenue features another vista of old Bay Ridge:     

     

  An ancient (1892) warehouse along the old Bay Ridge waterfront, actually considered Sunset Park these days; I wonder what they did here? I love neighborhoods like this; I was the only one around, just me on my bike, but felt strangely secure.     

At the right you can click on earlier posts regarding my Brooklyn visit, with lots more pictures.      

  Next… Manhattan with Carol !     

 

    

Part 4– Beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

The Block! My great-grandmother's family saw these houses being built in 1912.

  

Finally! I sailed into the neighborhood at 3:30 PM on a Tuesday, and parked in front of Sylvia’s garage as instructed by Mom. “She said you can use her space but she’ll call for you to move it if she has to get her car out of the garage, like to go to the store or the doctor or something.”  

There was more.  

“And don’t forget that you’ll have to move your car on Wednesdays and Thursdays because of alternate side of the street parking to make room for the street sweepers. You can find spaces on 71st. Street, 73rd. by the Park, and  even 74th. … ” (Mom’s house is on 72nd.; I did a LOT of walking and driving over three weeks because it became clearer that I shouldn’t park in front of Sylvia’s garage unless I couldn’t find anything else.)  

And so I settled into Bay Ridge life. The first drama started the next day, when Rosemarie called Mom to start fomenting excitement about whether the Friendship Club was having its last meeting THIS Thursday, or NEXT. The wires grew red with heated inquiries as the neighborhood seniors went into action, unable to determine if there was going to be pizza served on the last day… or not! “And our table leader isn’t too healthy, so she talks loud and slow, and she’s a doll but still,” Mom told me. “You know what I mean?” I knew.  

I decided the next day to rent a bicycle.  

Bay Ridge is an old Brooklyn neighborhood that grew as part of the Dutch Nieuw Utrecht colony in the 1600s. It was originally known as Yellow Hook, and Yellow Ridge, due to its yellow soil, but that was changed to Bay Ridge after yellow fever epidemics cast a disturbing feeling on the term “yellow.” It was pastoral and bucolic for many years: farms and estates and dirt roads characterized the area overlooking New York Bay. It eventually developed into a suburb of sorts for New Yorkers living in Manhattan, grew rapidly after the local subway was built in 1915, and eventually melded with Brooklyn proper when the surrounding neighborhoods grew and the street grid was completed.  

Biking the neighborhood is one of the best ways to discover Bay Ridge’s soul, so here are some shots for you to enjoy…  

Atop the 76th. Street steps, where the ridge is too steep for the road to be cut through.

  

Typical row houses.

  

Visitation Academy, a Catholic Girls' School. Some of the buildings were once treatment housing for inebriates.

  

"The Gingerbread House" on Narrows Avenue. (1916)

  

I used to want to live in this house and smoke cigars while playing the piano.

The Greek Revival James F. Farrell residence. (1849)

  

The sacred and the profane on Shore Road.

Some REALLY beautiful apartment houses in the neighborhood:  

  

Original Salem Lutheran Church (1940)

  

Bay Ridge High School, now a school featuring technological studies. Brielle, my second cousin once removed, is a student here. Maybe she will design a rocket ship that will go to Mars. They used to teach Norwegian classes here when the neighborhood was heavily Scandinavian.

  

The first thing Mom had me do was to re-paint her statue of the Virgin Mary, who stands guard over the backyard. We think my grandmother got it from a paisano who used to manufacture and sell these items, linking back to the tradition of figuristi makers in their villages in Northern Italy. (My grandfather and uncle managed a mannequin factory in nearby Sunset Park; go figure.) We went to a hardware store in adjacent heavily-Italian Dyker Heights and had a detailed discussion with the man about exactly WHICH kinds of blue should be used to revitalize Mary… we didn’t go with his recommendations, but I think we made the right choices.  

Here is Mary Before, and Mary After:  

  

I figured after all that attention that she would watch over me, because I planned to bike even further afield…  

Next:  Biking Deeper into Brooklyn !  

   

Part 3– A Drive to Brooklyn and Beyond: Philadelphia, the N.J. Turnpike… and Brooklyn’s Doorstep !

So much for encountering hospitality at the gas station– what a nice welcome to the Philadelphia area, the city that so heavily promotes its brotherly love!  How NICE it was to be able to leave that unpleasant experience behind in Chester. I found a McDonald’s on my own in the Pilgrim Gardens neighborhood, where I freshened up and dined on shoestring potatoes before heading over to my friend’s apartment in nearby Germantown.

After a wrong turn off Lincoln Road, which incidentally is fraught with crazy drivers doing at least DOUBLE the posted 25 mph speed limit, I arrived at Tyson’s. What a gracious host! His compact apartment became mine as well as his, and it was fun seeing all his paintings and things that I’d remembered from his time living in Florida. It’s in an old building on a residential street, filled with everything he loves looking at. He’s got the right idea: display it, don’t store it! And then dust it!

After a dinner at a favorite local restaurant, which was just a couple of blocks past the neighborhood mental institution, we settled in for a long chat. Tyson is a tour operator and docent in Philadelphia, and knows the area’s history inside out. What’s great is that he relates it to you in his Georgia drawl, tempered with the vocal resonaces of his Virginia Eastern Shore ancestors. Tourists love it.

The next morning, after breakfast at a little restaurant built into a local train station, Tyson gave me an impromptu tour of the Tulpehocken Station Historic District in Germantown, which reinforced my faith in brick buildings: those things have been standing for over a hundred years in many cases, and it’s no wonder. Look at the way they’re built!

The Lister Townsend House (1887)– “The Castle”
The Atonement Reformed Episcopal Church
The Queen’s house, built in 1851 for Maria Christine, Queen of Spain. Architect John Fallon directed the construction of this Gothic Revival structure in the event the Queen had to seek refuge in another country.

An ancient wrought iron fence.

The Ebenezer Maxwell House (1859)-- one of the homes Tyson works at.

Me, in front of Benedict Arnold's House (1762). He was the second owner.

Tyson in front of Laurel Hill Mansion, where he is a guide and historian. East Fairmount Park.

This is where actress Grace Kelly grew up at 3901 Henry Avenue in the Mt. Airy neighborhood.

I loved Philadelphia, and I didn’t even have to stand in line to see the Liberty Bell. Besides, I saw it with the Cub Scouts back in the 1960s, and I hear that it hasn’t changed much since. And I had to get back on the road… Brooklyn was over two hours away yet.

… actually, Brooklyn was closer if you drove like I did on the New Jersey Turnpike. Amazing! I had been aware of the fact that I would be subject to its multi-lane craziness, and I was well-prepared with change for the toll fees. I wondered if I’d be on a race course, and I wasn’t disappointed– everyone was going beyond the speed limit, and everyone was on their cell phones. It was like being in the road show version of Jersey Shore, surrounded as I was by sporty little cars filled with big hair, sunglasses, and attitude. (You can tell, really.) It was fun– I raced along with them all, my ball cap pulled firmly down over my ears, sunglasses in place, chewing gum going a mile a minute… and it was thrilling speeding UP and off the highway into a rest stop at one point. And then you speed back onto the turnpike and before you know it you’re at Exit 13 for the Goethals Bridge into Staten Island.

You can’t easily see through the guard rails along this bridge, I think because they don’t want you to know what lies on either side of the road through here: serious industrial New Jersey. Factories and refineries and smokestacks blanket the land, and New Yorkers’ wisecracks about “Cancer Alley” come to mind. It didn’t seem as smoky as it did back when I was a kid, when we rode the ferry to Staten Island from Brooklyn, and then drive a few country miles to New Jersey. Back then, Better Living Through Chemistry was a mantra that everyone adhered to religiously…

After a few curves through Staten Island, the western tower of the Verrazano Bridge appeared over the hills, and in just a few minutes and I would be in Brooklyn. Even though everyone cursed Robert Moses when he rammed the bridge and its approaches through pristine Bay Ridge, we still feel a grudging bit of civic pride in that monstrosity. It’s overkill, definitely; it didn’t have to be so grandiose, but there it was… with Mom waiting at its Eastern end.

Next stop: Brooklyn !

Part 2– A Drive to Brooklyn and Beyond: NC, VA, MD, DE, PA

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel... yagggghhhhhh !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A cool little diner-y dinner at the Huddle House restaurant in Dillon, which roped me in due to constant advertising. I read the local paper while dining, and paused for a few minutes’ reflection on the Obituaries page: among others, Gertrude Cabbagestalk Stanton had been called to eternal rest. Why couldn’t MY last name be Cabbagestalk?!?!     

After 475 miles, I slept… after looking at maps. When you have a destination in mind, things like great swatches of the Carolinas and Virginia seem to be standing in the way. I perused alternate routes, but most of them would take me through Utah. So I-95 it would be.     

I had no complaints about the Hampton Inn in Dillon, though I DID suggest nicely– everyone was nice in Dillon– that they install a rubber mat in the bathtub. I almost fell, and I could imagine myself screaming that I’d fallen and couldn’t get up. Nobody would have heard me, but my desiccated corpse would be discovered three weeks later after someone complained about the aroma, and my descendents would receive a HELL of a hotel bill for three weeks lodging… or storage!     

North Carolina seemed to blossom after the green hell of its southern sister. The interstate widened, and massed plantings of flowers and crape myrtle lined the highway for quite a few miles. Still, it was long. I’d originally had planned to stay at an abbey overnight in either NC or SC, with a visit to friends Jim and Matt in Charlotte if I had managed to secure lodging at the abbey near them… but there was no room at the inn (either of them). Those places, which in my mind exist as silent sanctuaries, actually host a lot of retreat groups; they both tried, but there wasn’t a single room available for one lone traveler wending his way north. These are generally silent visits– you eat and pray with the monks, and I think you can even help in the fields (silently), but it was not to be.     

So, I stayed on I-95, with rest stops in Fayetteville and Rocky Mount, and eventually crossed over into Virginia. This is still the South, but no longer the Deep South; Dolly Madison replaces Scarlett O’Hara at the Virginia line, and you can stop imitating a Carolina twang in favor of the more discreet Tidewater drawl. (Though Dolly was born in NC, her parents were Virginians, and everybody down south knows that what your ancestors did counts for more than what you did.)     

When I was talking with the people at AAA, I specified that I was hoping to avoid the traffic through and near Richmond, DC, and Baltimore, and so the lady suggested that I go east through Virginia and then take the Chesapeake Bay Bridge up into the Delmarva peninsula and through those three states to Philadelphia, the site of my next overnight stop.     

I have enough trouble climbing ladders, and these people wanted me to cross a bridge that disappeared underwater at intervals? Now, I’d always heard about this huge bridge, but it didn’t seem possible that it actually existed– at least in MY fabled mind. But there it was, after a beautiful ride east along US 58 into the Norfolk area. I had hot dogs and Diet Coke at a 7-11 in tiny Franklin; I love sampling the local cuisine!     

You are flung around the Norfolk area on beltways, so I didn’t pick up any sailors along the highway, and soon found myself approaching the Bridge. My hands were sweating, but the $12.00 fee was sobering. I told myself: if that carload of old women can drive this bridge, then so can I ! And it was an experience; you don’t see land while your eyes are glued to the endless road ahead of you, and disappearing into the first tunnel is freaky; when you pop out again, the world appears again for a few miles until you have to disappear into the second tunnel. It was like being on the Cyclone. I missed the first scenic overlook because I was concentrating too hard on keeping the car from leaping over the guard rail, but I did manage to pull off the road at the Virginia overlook at the end of the bridge. I think a lot of people feel the need to do that; and there we all were, catching our breath and taking pictures.     

Looking back from whence I came.

Looking forward.

They cram three states onto the Delmarva peninsula– Delaware, Maryland,and Virginia. (Since I was driving from the south, shouldn’t it be called the Vamardel peninsula?) In any event, it’s peaceful and beautiful: lined with sleepy small towns and fishing villages, I definitely want to return one day to the storied Eastern Shore. My Philadelphia friend’s people on both sides helped settle the area, and had I known this before I made the drive, I would have looked them up and dropped in for coffee and ladyfingers.     

A home on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

An AME church in minuscule Eastville, VA

Just off the road in Wachapreague, VA

At 868 miles I crossed the Maryland line. I decided, after reading the suggestion on a map, to go up through Maryland and Delaware via US 113, which veers east, rather than the more-northern course along US 13. You save a lot of traffic lights, and it’s much quieter. BOY was it quiet– and scenic! Lonely landscapes flashed by, with no traffic: fields of crops, isolated farmhouses, the occasional naked lady running along the road… a fast hour later I entered Delaware. Coffee and danish at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Georgetowne, because I was beginning to flag and I wanted to make Philadelphia by 6 PM– two hours to go. 

You know when you HAVE to get off the road to use the facilities?  I knew after a while that I wasn’t going to make it to Tyson’s in Philadelphia for 6 PM, but I still needed a rest stop and so I stopped in Chester, Pennsylvania, to gas up as well. After all the niceties and pleasant people down south, I had my first encounter with the guy who managed the filling station I stopped at. “No public restrooms,” he told me flat out after I asked– nicely– where the facilities were. I told him it was sort of an emergency, but that didn’t sway him either. I still needed fuel, so I went back outside and gassed up, and then– like an idiot– went back inside and flashed my receipt and asked if NOW I could use the restroom? “No public restrooms… we do not have the key!” he lied, because when I next asked him how the employees found relief, he spluttered at me. Smarmily, he gave me directions to a nearby McDonald’s which I never found because “”two lights down” and “two rights down” sound alike in his language. I hope the oil spill finds its way into his private executive toilet! 

I found relief just a few miles later in civilized Philadelphia, and Tyson’s house was just a few minutes away. Chester notwithstanding, so far the drive had been a dream. 

Beautiful, civilized Philadelphia.

Next installment: Philadelphia, the New Jersey Turnpike… and Brooklyn !

Part 1– A Drive to Brooklyn and Beyond: FL, GA, SC

During a phone call with Mom, I found myself agreeing with her suggestion that a drive to Brooklyn would be a good thing.   

Prior to that, I had been trying to get my sister in Staten Island to FedEx me a beautiful mid-century modern coffee table that had been in our family since our uncle bought it in the late 1940s; now it languished in Gina’s basement, waiting for my slumbering sensibilities to awaken and decide that I NEEDED that table in my OWN house, displayed proudly and prominently.   

We children used to crawl through the dividers... and this table only measures 12" high at the opening.

“You can pick up that table if you drive,” Mom said. “And I have a painting by your father that you like, and then there’s that mirror-framed flamingo print that your grandmother had that you wanted…”   

Soon I was haunting the people at AAA for maps and Travel Guides and Trip Tiks. I mean, I knew how to get up to Brooklyn (go to I-95 and make a left), but I wanted to know if there were any road hazards and perennial snarls to avoid. They printed me out a massive Trip Tik in booklet form that I could refer to while driving, thereby precluding any mishaps like jumps off clips, crashes through median barriers, or unplanned detours through abandoned car washes.   

After a full-point inspection at the auto shop, I got myself a new car CD player / radio, because I was unwilling to drive 1100 miles without being serenaded by Enya, Sarah Brightman, the Crystals, Darlene Love, Tracey Ullmann, and the soundtrack to Blue Velvet. Would you be?   

People’s eyes grew wide when I told them I was driving solo, but those that know me better were unsurprised: I am still the little boy who gets on his bicycle and disappears into distant neighborhoods and down unfamiliar alleyways. I see things that way, and I smell things; my brain is constantly taking indelible snapshots of what I see, and having an actual camera along is like relying on a backup device.   

And so I was ready: books, CDs, maps, clothes, cosmetics were loaded neatly into the Ford and I was off. I left on a quiet Sunday morning and headed along I-4 to I-95 as planned, thinking that I had been this way many times in order to get to the beach, but now I was going beyond. My goal was Dillon, South Carolina, where I’d hoped to overnight. I’d driven as far north as the Altamaha River in Georgia before, so this would be all new to me. I loved the idea of crossing state lines and seeing how the surface of the road changed!   

Well, I-95 through Florida is great; it’s even been improved in most of Georgia, though the highway features THE shortest exit roads you ever saw, by the way. And Georgia was short; I was tempted to detour to Savannah, but I wanted to hit Dillon by suppertime, so on I continued.   

I-95, after a tiny bump at the state line, sort of becomes rudimentary in South Carolina. It’s like they said “oh yeah, we need to build the interstate through here, don’t we?” It’s two lanes in both directions, and north and south are divided most of the way by forest. Thick green, encroaching forests. There’s not much to see in South Carolina along the interstate, and you feel like you’re driving through the Guatemalan jungle. Interesting! And a bit unsettling.   

Billboard for The Old House Cafe: COUNTRY COOKIN’ MAKES YOU GOOD LOOKIN’

Dillon, as everyone knows, is where you find the infamous South of the Border resort complex, where I stayed with an aunt and uncle in 1970. It’s basically an amusement park with motel rooms, and you have to do it once– we did it twice, back and forth– and so I didn’t need to do it again. Instead, I stayed at a very quiet little Hampton Inn in Dillon, close to a Huddle House restaurant. And, after all that driving– nine hours– I jumped into the car again to do some exploring.   

A home in beautiful, peaceful Dillon, SC

St. Louis church in Dillon; we were here for Mass in 1970. Aunt Joanne wore curlers, and the locals stared.

After touring downtown Dillon on that bright Sunday evening, I drove west until I arrived in tiny, sleepy Little Rock, where I came across St. Paul Methodist church… right next to a corn field:   

   

Church architecture fascinates me. Often, churches are the most significant buildings in a lot of small towns, and out comes the camera. Sometimes doors are open and I go inside, but that’s rare.   

Nighttime in South Carolina: sultry, humid, and VERY dark. It conjures up all sorts of associations from reading Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, but I fell into a deep sleep and didn’t even dream.   

Next installment: Northward to Delaware!