Christmas 2012 in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights

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Well, the Mayans didn’t get me, but some sort of flu-like ague that settled into my chest and sinuses on the 15th. of December decided to stick around (literally) through the week that I was in Brooklyn. It hadn’t been debilitating; my energy never flagged, the worst of the attack usually only lasting a day or so, but then I get to slog through a couple of weeks with a stuffed head, ears and chest. It could be worse, so I’m not complaining.

It was cold in Brooklyn, like in the 30s– just this side of freezing, but cold enough to erase all the green from the Bay Ridge / Dyker Heights landscape, rendering everything bleak. You know it’s temporary, though, and soon the gardens on the block (that haven’t yet been replaced with garages or parking slabs) will erupt again with bushes and flowers, the trees leafy and full.

Cold weather used to send me into asthmatic paroxysms, but that didn’t happen this Christmas. Mom and I took a walk over to Fifth Avenue to have burgers and fries at a little diner-y place, and I felt good enough to go for yet another walk after we got back home. I didn’t have to use my puffer at all, though a shot of generic Dayquil every few hours was keeping me feeling pretty good. The puffer, incidentally, has been taken off the market because it employs fluorocarbons to blast the life-saving medicine into my lungs. And we have learned that fluorocarbons erode the atmosphere. My position is: the fluorocarbons don’t leave my body– I can FEEL them– so what’s the nag? The nag is that the drug companies want asthmatics to have to troop to their doctors for (expensive) consultations and (expensive) prescriptions. The screwing of the wheezing public continues, step by step. Anyway.

I walked southeast of our neighborhood, which is situated at the very edge of Bay Ridge, and into Dyker Heights. (If you go slightly more east, into the 60s near 7th. and 8th. Avenues, skirting the interstate which raped and defaced this section of Brooklyn, you’re in an area that’s not Bay Ridge or Sunset Park or Dyker Heights. Years ago my friend Donald decided to name this no-man’s-land Peacrest.)

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Dyker Heights is still very Italian, and, except for a couple of shopping streets, composed mainly of single or duplex houses. Some of the single homes are very, very grand. This is because the owners of these houses, who are now mostly well-to-do but still desiring to live near their business interests, have invested their money in their immediate property. Italians being Italians, the more grand a home is, the better chance you have of showing the world that you’ve Made It Big. Corinthian columns, gardens, statues, fountains, pergolas, ornate dentilled cornices and elaborate porticos can often ALL be found gracing ONE dwelling, often half of a duplex. The Puttanescas may be content with their gray shingled two-story, but the attached Cazzolungho home will be seen erupting with the stylistic architectural excesses of at least seven historic periods.

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I got to see these homes up close because I had to go to “the Italian store” for Christmas Day comestibles. As the plans stood at the time, Christmas Eve was going to be me, Mom and my brother Tony at Colandrea’s New Corner Restaurant (just down the block from Mom’s house), while Christmas Day was going to be spent at my sister Gina’s house in Staten Island. We were going to bring our end of the bargain– pastries, and a stuffed escarole.

Do you know what a stuffed escarole is? You buy a bunch of escarole; you separate each leaf and wash it because dirt collects down near the base of the leaves; you arrange the leaves in an overlapping sunburst form in a pan; and then you place a large chunk of stuffing in the center of these leaves. Then you draw up all the leaves, creating a ball shape, and then, finally, you bind the whole thing with thread so that it can be cooked in its pan. Then you load it in your brother Tony’s car and bring it to Gina’s house on Staten Island.

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To Scaturro’s Italian grocery store I went, walking all the way in the bracing cold air, thanking God that it wasn’t windy. Mom lives between 8th. Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, a long block; Scaturro’s is on 11th. Avenue, and from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Eleventh Avenue is two long blocks, and then I had to turn left and go nine short blocks to 63rd. Street. It wasn’t bad. Walking gave me up-close glimpses of the neighborhood, and I realized that our latest crop of immigrants has decided that their front porches and area ways can be used as storage for all manner of plastic pails, cardboard boxes, hanks of rope, unidentifiable things made of metal, dead plants, and garbage pails. Incredible! All of these things used to be kept in the basement, but now Grandma is living in the basement. Hence the scenery.

Scaturro’s is great. It’s like an A&P of old, yet run and patronized exclusively by Italians, a few Asians, and the occasional Yuppie interloper. With ears poised like a lynx, you hear all sorts of things:

“When is the bread man getting here? I ain’t got all day and I want a bag of FRESH sandwich rolls, not stale from an hour ago”

“Now I gotta make a plate of sfingi to bring to her house, not that she always appears at mine man’ d’a bocc’… with the hands out expecting to be fed. ”

“You can’t find a jar of pignoli nuts in this town if you don’t buy it six months before you need them. And then they’re stale.”

I found the produce section and noticed someone examining the offerings: tall, sandy-haired, be-scarved, WASPy. What was he doing in this neighborhood?

“Which ones are escarole?” I asked the Yuppie interloper, because really, I had no idea; all that greenery looked the same to me. And he shrugged because he hadn’t yet seen Martha Stewart’s episode about Italian vegetables, and then we both realized that wide rubber bands twisted around the bases of the greens happened to identify them. ESCAROLE. PARSLEY. BASIL. I took the largest bunch of ESCAROLE I could find and placed it in my basket. I also had a few other things to get, like the aforementioned rolls. “How long you staying with me? Seven days? Okay, get seven sandwich rolls with the seeds for lunch, but not sesame. And don’t get the long rolls, get the short ones” When I’m out of rolls, I guess I have to get back on the plane.

I got back home with my groceries, passing the same plastic pails and the same cardboard boxes. I loaded everything onto the butcher block table, scarred with the knife dents that my Dad made when he demanded order from us rotten children by banging his cutlery along its edge. Mom inspected the escarole minutely.

“Look at this, it’s so small. Didn’t they have bigger?”

“I got the biggest.”

“And it’s full of dirt. Look at this! It’s not your fault, I’m just saying.”

“I didn’t check. Already I was causing concern by rummaging for the biggest. Can I take a hot shower?”

“Hmm. I don’t know if I can serve this. Well… we’ll see. I shoulda sent you to C-Town. They always have big escarole. I’m not blaming YOU, of course, but I shoulda sent you to C-Town.””

Also on my list was an injunction to buy PASTRIES, but NOT NOW; GET THEM LATER WHEN TONY CAN DRIVE YOU. It so happens that there are no longer any Italian pastry shops on Fort Hamilton Parkway where you can buy large pastries. So, on Christmas Eve, as soon as Tony got to the house, we got back in his car and drove to the Mona Lisa bakery on 86th. street, just south of Dyker Beach Park and next to Mezcal’s Mexican Restaurant. We lined up with all the other Italians buying emergency Christmas Eve pastry. I listened in on the buyers’ conversations; mainly they were speaking in Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects, and so the Tuscan half of my being quivered and snickered with derision.

“So whaddya think? Six zhvoolyadell [sfogliatelle] and six ganool [cannoli] , and maybe some cream horns?”

“I told her I would bring some zeppole but not if she’s gonna have that attitude she has. With that attitude she has I’m gonna bring her an empty box filled with my best wishes.”

“Did you put extra change in the parking meter? I ain’t got all day and I don’t need a ticket on Christmas Eve, Christ child or NO Christ child.”

Tony and I went to Mezcal’s after buying pastries, rebonding over a few straight shots of Sambuca. My brother is very funny; I love that guy. And then we drove back home.

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Tony and Mom and I celebrated our traditional Christmas Eve at Colandrea’s New Corner Italian Restaurant, conveniently located down the block from us; we didn’t even have to find a parking space, always a celebration in my house. We had the five o’clock seating, which is a good thing, believe me; by eight o’clock all the waiters are exhausted from having to deal with beehived aunts from Bensonhurst and Long Island. We chose from their very nice menu and then waited for my father’s cousins to appear. Like the Magi, they appear at New Corner annually, just after we do. Actually, they’re cousins-in-law: two of my father’s departed cousins’ husbands, a son of one of them, and one of the husband’s sisters. We’re very close; we see them once a year as long as we eat at New Corner.

At one point during our meal we noticed bright lights shining from their table. It turned out that Joe’s sister, who has big, beautiful, blue owl eyes like her brother Joe, was reading her menu with the aid of magnifying eyeglasses AND an LED flashlight. How dark could it be?! I had to go over and tell them that the resultant reflection was burning out my retinas– and what exactly were they doing, spotting planes?

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~ ~ ~

Christmas Day wasn’t spent with my sister Gina according to plan, as she had an emergency and spent a few days in the hospital. (She’s fine; she’s tough as nails and thick as oak.) And there we were, loaded down with a box of pastries AND a stuffed escarole. What to do? We decided we would await instructions from her family, but God forbid we miss a meal, so we ended up having Christmas dinner at– did you guess it?– Mezcal’s Mexican Restaurant. It was just about the only place open in that section of Brooklyn, and they made us reserve a table for two p.m. They were very nice. They played Christmas music over the speakers for us, delighting in repeating “Feliz Navidad”  until we memorized it. We were the only three people in the place until three p.m., when two more people showed up. “They must be the three o’clock seating!” I exclaimed, because I had had two Coronas already. We made fun of the travel posters– “See Puerta Vallarta and die!”– and the holiday lights strung with plastic green and red peppers, and finally headed back home in the quiet cold of Tony’s car.

The rest of the week, I ran errands, walked a bit in the cold, and kept tabs on Gina’s progress. I also watched a lot of TV that I normally wouldn’t watch, let alone know what it was that I was watching. I just don’t watch a lot of TV, but there I’d be in Mom’s living room, listening to her change channels with the clicker.

“Whaddyou wanna watch?”

“I don’t know what’s on. I don’t watch much TV.”

“You’re such a snob. Why can’t you just relax? Here, pick something.” And she would start clicking through the ten thousand cable stations she has on her state-of-the-art system.

“That looks good,” I would say when Bea Arthur or Norma Shearer ghosted across the screen.

“Nah. I saw those a hundred years ago.”

“Oh look, Lucy!”

“Nah. I saw them all a million times.”

She’d eventually settle on a gory movie or show which usually involved severed limbs, decapitated teenagers, Nazi zombies, exhumations of murder victims, or nature films with names like “Survival In the Wild” featuring close-ups of ants devouring one another. “I just like to figure out the special effects in the slasher movies,” she’d admit, “but those ants are pretty damned real, right?” In another life she would have made an excellent forensics expert or movie make-up artist.

I walked one day far afield, thirty-six blocks east and four avenues north to Green-Wood cemetery where my father is. He’s not in the hilly area where the big mausoleums and monuments are; he’s in an area that I refer to as “the Flats,” close to the landscapers’ buildings, in view of the side street brownstones and the traffic along Fourth Avenue. He probably loves it. I called Mom from the gravesite and told her that I was visiting Dad, and that he said hello. (You never know.) I brushed away some of the scattered leaves and bits of plastic shrubbery that had blown onto his stone from other sites, thinking, as always, how much he would have appreciated the Mexican restaurant, Joe’s sister’s flashlight, and the determined  people lined up for pastries. I thought of him the day I stopped in Regina Pacis on the way back from Scaturro’s, just to marvel at that mini-Vatican and say a small prayer. I know how much he would have appreciated all of this craziness, especially because he loved Christmas so much and everything that went along with it. Especially the stuffed escarole. And he helps me appreciate it all even more.

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The small Marian chapel at Regina Pacis (“Queen of Peace.”)

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The Manhattan skyline from Sunset park, just east of Green-Wood Cemetery.

Sara and Matt’s Traditional Wiccan Wedding on Cocoa Beach

One thing about being Catholic is that we’re not allowed to rag on anyone else’s religion; gone are the days when dire consequences would accompany any religious act not taking place within the hallowed precincts of a Catholic Church. Eating meat on a Friday was bad enough, but attending a Protestant service– and participating!!– was like riding a leaky rubber raft down the river to Perdition City.

Not that most people paid attention to all that, really. Divorce? We divorced. Birth control? Over 90% of the faithful continued using birth control even after Paul VI’s famous veto of the decisions of the majority of the bishops during Vatican II. So there ya go. Wiccans? There weren’t any Wiccan families on my Brooklyn block that I know of, so this was a nice opportunity to partake of yet another religious tradition.

Our friend Sara married her beloved Matthew at a touching Wiccan ceremony out on Cocoa Beach yesterday, and a good time was had by all. Yes, there were some raised eyebrows as well as a tiny bit of amazed tittering during the pronouncements, but eventually everyone got it: it wasn’t about black magic or the devil, and nobody ever mentioned Rosemary’s baby, not even once. The shaman shared words of encouragement and love, had them plight their troths to one another, swept away evil by using a broom while circling the groom and then the bride, and then had them stand on a raised platform where they drank and ate symbolic food. He bound their hands together with a rope and that’s how they exited: linked together with love.

The color theme was black and violet and green, though the bride was in traditional white and the groom was kilted. The colors were carried over into the reception hall at the Tides Club, where bunting draped the utilitarian banisters and floated down from the ceiling in airy arcs. And in that space you had all the wedding traditions as practiced during the late twentieth / early twenty-first centuries.

My Manhattans came in a proper vessel  rather than in the current martini glass that seems to be wrapped around every cocktail of choice these days. I paid, and we got ready to leave, but intrepid Yesun chased me down because she had made a mistake on my tab; I thought I’d been getting a hefty discount (which I’d mentioned when paying) because I’m so charming, but that wasn’t the case.

The whole experience was a wonderful mix of traditions and people, and I even ran into a family of former upstaters (New York) now living in Central Florida. It’s great hearing their reactions to their New Land; even after many years here we still get the occasional urge to smack heads, but by now– at least in my case– it’s a sweeter sort of smacking… fageddaboutit!

Some Favorite Movies

Okay. It’s hot , it’s wet, I’ve biked enough, and so now I get to stay in and watch movies.

It’s the eternal question– you could be sitting in a hot tub, or on line at Publix, or coming out of the Confessional, or vacuuming the living room. No matter what or where, the query arises: “What’s your favorite movie??”

We’ve all been there, right? And how many of us have had the wherewithal to be able to instantly come up with a list of  favorites? Certainly not I; when asked that question, I feel as if someone has just said “Jim is so funny, aren’t you? Say something funny!!” In both instances, words fail me and my lips sew themselves together as if I’m about to be laid out: stuff cotton in my nostrils and place a pillow under my head– I’m doomed.

However, when you have some time to actually think about it, THEN the favorites come to mind easily. And they should really be favorites, not just a parroting of “best of” lists in order to impress everyone with the fact that you, too, adore The Bicycle Thief, City Lights, and Citizen Kane. Real favorites are films that you watch over and over again, whether or not they are intellectually uplifting, send a message, or solve the ills of the world. Favorites encourage you to let loose the hot and cold spigots of your emotions.

Here are some of mine, in no particular order…

Night of the Hunter— 1955. Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. And a lot of kids, including the excellent and moody Billy Chapin as John Harper and Sally Jane Bruce as his sister Pearl. This is my kind of movie: atmospheric, fantastic in its original sense, and searing. It’s also truly terrifying. Directed by Charles Laughton, it’s fraught with his psychological sensibilities (he was married to the bride of Frankenstein, after all, yet had a yen for the lads). Much of the film is concerned with Mitchum’s pursuit of orphans John and Pearl as they try and stay steps ahead of him: $10,000 had been hidden in Pearl’s doll by their murdered Daddy, and Mitchum– a lying, murdering preacher– is intent on getting it. Gish, with all her Bible-quoting, still needs a gun to shore up her religious convictions, and it comes in handy when Mitchum manages to find the children living with her. (Their widowed Mom, played as mush-mouthed and naive by Shelley Winters, is dispatched early in the film by Mitchum soon after he marries her.) This movie makes you sit up on the couch and really take notice.

The Birds— 1963. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy and Veronica Cartwright. It’s all well and good watching this movie as a horror film about birds attacking people for no apparent reason, but when you grow up and watch it again, you realize it’s a film about women and the intricate relationships they form around one man: Taylor. Tippi, Suzanne, Jessica and Veronica dance around him and spin the plot as, respectively, new girl, old girl, mother, and sister. They intently watch one another’s every move and, with arched eyebrows or barbed comments, let you know just what they think of Rod. Granted, the young sister has no real stake other than as a catalyst to drive Rod and Tippi together, but still– she’s oddly involved, what with her lovebirds and insistence on having Tippi become a working member of the family. This movie is He Man as center of the caveman universe, and may the strongest woman come out on top. Is it resolved? Nope– those damned birds keep appearing in order to spatter droppings all over the plot, as guilt and conscience always do…

To Kill A Mockingbird— 1962. I read the book in eighth grade about nine thousand times, over and over, practically memorizing long passages, and when I was able to watch the film on television, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This is a perfect movie– 99% true to the book, with the other 1% not really mattering at all. It’s photographed in black and white: detailed, mesmerizing and nuanced. The characters come to life as portrayed by Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Philip Alford. It takes you along and sweeps you quietly into the story until you’re sobbing through the scene where Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up… your father’s passin’.”  Every minute of this movie is perfection.

Gone with the Wind— 1939. I used to wait anxiously for revivals of this movie so that I could run out to see it. I got to enjoy it at radio City Music Hall, the Alpine Theatre in Bay Ridge, and a couple of other places until it became available on VHS– a special edition from Reader’s Digest, boxed! There was something wrong with the synch, though: sound and scene were about a second out of whack, making for an annoying home theatrical experience because the glitch made all the film’s overdubbing doubly annoying. (Producer Selznick constantly tinkered.) Now I’ve got in on DVD– pristine and restored, which means I can watch GWTW every night of the week if I want, which I don’t. The first time I saw it, at the Alpine, I cried when the giant title letters rolled across the screen, and when Melanie died, and when Scarlett treated Rhett mean. having it wash over you like that elicits an emotional response you don’t feel at home, but that’s okay. You can stop and start the action at will, play things slowly, and scan for details you might miss otherwise. It’s a great film, though the end does seem rushed when everyone starts dying like flies: Mammy complains about miseries in her back; Bonnie Blue Butler breaks her neck jumping a fence with her pony; and Melanie dies after giving her last ounces of love and energy to a woman (Scarlett O’Hara) who doesn’t realize how much she cares about her until it’s too late. Tragedy! Vivien Leigh as Scarlett is unbeatable and perfect, considering how many actresses were considered for the role. She flounces and slaps and bridles and lies until she gets her way, a tour de force of a performance which rarely has her off the screen for almost all four hours of running time. I think everyone over the age of forty has seen this, and I thought it would remain an icon forever, but are younger folks aware of it?

The Women— 1939. This picture has become part of the lore and fabric in certain circles, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s a major ego trip for MGM and its reigning female stars, many of whom were seriously (or not) considered for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. And do they ever shine! Each actress (there are no men in the entire film) gets her share of close-ups, clever lines, and costumery– even the peripheral figures manage to steal scenes. As a result, while many chapters impart very little information regarding the plot, these exist purely to showcase  the charms of these favorites: among many memorable moments, Norma romps with her daughter, Roz exercises, brawls, and bitches, and Joan takes a bath. And the crackling script carries it all along effortlessly. Especially memorable is the dressing room scene between Norma and Joan. Legend tells us that they couldn’t stand one another, but it was mainly Joan who resented Norma for the latter’s lofty position at MGM. (Norma helped build the studio with a series of popular box-office hits starting in the early 1920s, well before Joan arrived.) There’s something bitingly real about the way Joan directs her lines at Norma… when you know the history between them, you can sense that they’re based in her personal feelings. Joan made lots of wisecracks about Norma, yet Norma never retaliated. When she was once asked to respond, she decorously replied “I don’t think I have anything to add… Joan’s said it all.” Class! The movie is long– over two hours– and has that color fashion show insert that can be really annoying when you’re not in the mood for it. There’s lots of vocal overdubbing, and some of the sets look cheap, but hey– you’re watching it to see the girls!

The Thrill of It All— 1963. I first saw this in the Fortway Theater in Brooklyn the year it came out, and the whole block was talking about it. Doris Day was BIG in those days. Entire families made excursions to radio City Music Hall every time one of her movies came out, and she was just about the biggest star around. The Thrill Of It All captures and preserves the innocence that was 1963– America’s last whiff of it, actually– with Doris playing a doctor’s wife who becomes the TV spokeswoman for Happy Soap. She’s zany and appealing and very funny, the perfect foil to hunky husband James Garner. In fact, the chemistry between them is smoking; they spend most of the movie trying to jump into bed, but her budding new career thwarts their efforts. There’s a great cameo by Lucy landau as Mrs. Goethe the hefty German housekeeper– “doctor nicht IN!” Adding to the lunacy is Arlene Francis who, as an older wife, is expecting a baby. She’s 56 in real life and gives birth in a limousine stalled in traffic as James Garner races on horseback to help attend the birth. Doris pitches in and realizes, weepily, that she doesn’t want to be a TV star– she wants to be a doctor’s wife. (Very 1963.) All ends happily, with Doris and Jim strolling upstairs to the bedroom to create Child Number Three.

Other favorites:

The Stepford Wives (the original, 1975)– Horrifying: wives and mommies Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss as Connecticut housewives who have no idea what their husband shave in store for them.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Bette Davis and Joan Crawford eat the scenery and all their co-stars in this camp melodrama that you can’t tear your eyes from. Also fun is Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, from 1964, this time with Olivia de Havilland giving Bette tit for tat. Adding to the craziness are Mary Astor– MARY ASTOR!!– and Agnes Moorehead.

Stage Door (1937) Kate Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Constance Collier, Andrea Leeds, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, Ann Miller… .they’re all hear, talking a mile a minute and cracking wise in the Footlights Club, a residence for aspiring actresses. Excellent!

Three Women (1977) Robert Altman weaves the stories of his three leads– Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule– into a strange, disturbing film resembling a dream. there’s no real plot, just a trio of personalities feeding off of and then ultimately mirroring one another. Shelley Duvall is especially affecting.

Cinema Paradiso (1988) An Italian filmmaker looks back on his childhood, most of it spent assisting (and antagonizing) his little village’s projectionist. Lots of scenes of excited moviegoers causing riots in the theatre when the film breaks; smoking; eating; talking; making out… just like Brooklyn! A really beautiful picture.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) Yes, a favorite. Conditions for the Italian population after the war were appalling, thank sto a number of factors. People did anything for work, including sacrificing their honor and dignity, and this film portrays it all. The scene with the bed sheets is especially devastating.

And so many, many more… but these are the ones that spring directly to mind. Enjoy… that’s what Netflix is for!

The Back Roads of Sorrento, Bay Ridge, and Mount Dora

The high N-R-G intersection of Brooklyn and Vine in downtown Sorrento.

Our friend Tyson is here on his annual visit from Philadelphia, and today we did some touring up through the more remote, rural areas of Orange and Lake Counties.

Why, you ask, did I not take him to Disney, Sea World, EPCOT, the Holy Land Experience? Been there, done that, and we have already memorized all sixty-three verses to It’s A Small World. And we won’t be going back to EPCOT until they come up with another country– Kreplachia deserves a pavilion, doesn’t it? The traditional nude folk dancing alone would draw crowds!

So, we set out for distant environs, mainly because I had to pick up the bag of clothes that we’d left in Jon and John’s car after our drive back from Key West this past Wednesday. They live up in Sorrento with horses, cats and a dog.

These are the horses:

We didn’t tarry long; we had places to go, and (dead) people to see. Who, you ask? Well, since Tyson is an expert on the Victorian-style cemetery embodied by such grandeur as The Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, he was open to traipsing with me through sand spurs, brush, thorn vines, and the like. Crumbling ruins, abandoned mental institutions, rusting industrial areas? He’s there! I like people who are game; I’m so often solo while making these jaunts that it was a nice change to have someone in the car who is as interested in the rotting and obscure as I am.

The Suttons– friends and lovers through all eternity, though she’s been waiting on him for over fifteen years so far. I picture her waiting at the Celestial Malt Shop, cradling an ice cream soda with two straws. The Sorrento Cemetery is nice: well kept, it contains a lot of the area’s early settlers. A lot of people think it’s morbid to have such a pleasant time in cemeteries, but people of Italian extraction think of them as way stations, a way to keep our departed loved ones in sight until we join them on the A Train to glory. Or Cleveland, if something goes awry.

“Let’s go down this road,” I would say to Tyson, and he would agree. As long as there’s no sign telling me NO TRESPASSING, or GUARD DOG ON DUTY, I march forward, thankful however for the safety of my car’s interior. The more rutted a road is, the more curious I grow. And this is what we saw around a bend. I believe this is situated in the John Puder Yard, but I have no idea what these buildings contain. Oats? Soylent Green? Taffeta? It’s very silent here and, it being a Saturday, there was nobody to chase us away. Still, there were no GET OUT NOW signs, so I went. This reminds me of First Avenue in Brooklyn, near Lutheran Medical Center; when visiting an uncle in that hospital in 2010, I became fascinated with the rusting infrastructure hugging the  waterfront.

As we continued through the back roads of Sorrento, Tyson spotted a railroad crossing sign on the south side of State Road 46, and his pulse raced; he’s a railroad man, having worked for Amtrak and Auto Train in the past, as well as working as a consultant regarding the restoration of old train cars.  So down the street we go, and we see this rusted set of cars parked along the tracks, practically hidden in the woods.

The string of cars spilts here; turning west, we found a path running alongside the rest of the train. Here there were chickens, and all sorts of flying bugs and, I figured, chiggers. (We were lucky.)

When I see a sign that says Church Street, I assume that, at one time or another, it led to a church; taking Church Street in Sorrento south took us to this little wooden gem…

On to Mount Dora. If you’ll recall, I blogged a day here with my sister and brother-in-law when they came up here from Port St. Lucie to look at wedding venues for his daughter. Today we made a quick tour of this little village, and it was rife with tourists buying things like calico cats stuffed with potpourri. That’s all good for the economy, but we did sniff around for some local history. We walked the mournful railroad tracks, sadly deteriorating since the little dinner tarin was discontinued; what a boon to light rail this line could be… but here’s Tyson, tracing a path back to the past.

We couldn’t decide if this house was a ruin or if was occupied; if it was occupied, it was occupied no doubt by a lot of cats.

On a hill outside of Mount Dora, just before you get back on U.S. Highway 441, is the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, established in 1896. Apparently they still hold services, though we were at a loss as to exactly what it is that Primitive Baptists believe in. Today they had some screen doors lined up for sale, I know not why, and I can’t tell you what all the rocks are for either. Is the Bible set in stone? On this rock I will build My church? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone? Who can say?

Our next stop was the Bay Ridge Cemetery, east of Mount Dora and south of Sorrento. As most of you know, I grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, though my block is considered part of Dyker Heights since they rammed the Interstate 278 expressway through the neighborhood. I was surprised, years ago, to discover Bay Ridge, Florida, which consists of a few concrete block homes and this cemetery. Overgrown and forgotten, it’s hidden from the road and bordered by properties containing rusted barns and barking dogs (thankfully behind fences).

This is the Goding plot:

This is a steel headstone from 1937, its legend formed with solder… W. T. Gunn was two days old.

Flush with history, nettles, and all manner of dust, we returned home as an approaching storm settled in over Lake Ola; this is a view from Tangerine.

There were hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles converging on nearby Zellwood as we drove past; was there some kind of Harley confab that I wasn’t aware of? And why wasn’t I contacted? I can ride with the best of them, after all.

Dad: A Closet Case of Cool

Dad in 1949 – Age 18

If I had been older, smarter, and more enlightened, the obvious signs might have tipped me off right away. As it was, many years had to pass before it dawned on me.

Dad was a closet beatnik.

Probably the bongos should have tipped me off but, like I said, I was young. Displayed prominently in the living room of our basement apartment in Brooklyn, they presented not always mute testimony of my father’s musical aptitude– an ability which would no doubt have been nurtured in the dark, smoky depths of some unlicensed club in 1950s Greenwich Village. Once in a while he’d set them on his lap and whack out some rhythm, or whatever it is you do with bongos. They came in a pair, linked by a little wooden bridge, and one was slightly larger than the other so that two tones would be produced when he banged on them. I’d like to report that his heated rhythms enticed my mother into hedonistic, sweaty dancing, requiring her to throw her arms about in abandon, sweat flying from the tresses of her raven locks as she lurched through our tiny, four room apartment (with the bathroom out in the hall), but Mom had short hair like Audrey Hepburn and Tuscan women don’t fling themselves about for anything, or anybody.

And the bongos were only one of the signs. Looking back at pictures of us in Maine in July, 1960, Dad is dressed in white clam diggers, a blue-and-white striped French sailor’s tee shirt, and a week’s growth of beard. Barefoot, he poses casually at the lake, by the side of the cabin, or in a chair, his legs draped over the arms as if he doesn’t have a care in the world (besides Mom, my sister Lois, and me).

The most visible, lasting sign (who knows where the bongos are, or the clothes?) were the paintings. Didn’t all beatniks descend upon the Village after the War so that they could paint? And didn’t they all live in attics and cellars, starving for their art? Dad didn’t exactly starve, and we lived in Brooklyn, and he was in Korea, not Belgium, but he did paint. His work hung on the walls of our apartment for years, and went upstairs with us when we moved up a flight, and then new paintings were added over the years. He loved painting with putty knives and large brushes, giving him, I think, the sense that he was commanding the white space of the canvas. His landscapes and seascapes are textured and seem to jump out at you, making you feel as if you can walk into his forests and swim in his oceans. Even today I have hanging above my bed a landscape composed of nothing but churches in different styles and colors. As many times as I’ve looked at it, I don’t think I’ll ever know it completely.

He taught me to paint, though I was always too exacting, unable to sweep my brush across the blank fields: what if I made a mess? I made myself stay in the lines and bit my lips and squinted so that my trees and houses and flowers were rendered precisely. Dad painted sweeping visions of earth and sky, while I created perfect houses with curtains and chimneys and fences. Once in a while we’d go to the art fairs that would be staged all over Greenwich Village, when artists displayed their work on chain link fences, propped up against fire hydrants, or leaning against benches in tiny parks. I could feel him becoming inspired, and he would tell me how free and loose their techniques were.

I don’t remember if Dad spoke hep; his language abilities were limited to Brooklynese and occasional exasperated outbursts of Neapolitan, and the occasional mangling of somebody’s name. He never said too much, or too little, and most of what he said to me involved encouragement and compliments– and that’s cool.

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 !