Friday, August 1, 2014

New York missive no 133 - A tower rises on 30th Street

There is a skyscraper going up on the North East corner of Sixth Avenue and 30th Street. A notice says that the planned completion date is April 2016. One would have thought that conveys time's sprawl. So many months! Instead, the construction seems to have the opposite effect, when I walk past each day on my way to work. It contracts time.

I can’t remember what was there before the building site, what was torn down. But I do remember when the foundation pit was a gaping square hole in the ground (reminiscent of others). I remember when hoardings went up around it, so you could only see the site by peering through diamond-shaped holes cut out of the splintery timber, when the cranes arrived (“New York Crane & Equipment Corp”), then when the second floor rose up above the hoardings bringing workers with their yellow hats up into view from the sidewalk.

So many phases, so much time, but I know that one day I will be walking by the completed tower, observing the stores that occupy the ground floor, then craning my neck up, up, to its top, surrounded by all the other skyscrapers it has joined there. The whole thing may as well have happened in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

New York missive no 132 - Rainey Park and "The Father of the Bridge"

The Sunday after 4th July I took the boys to Rainey Park. Two things meant the Summer heat was delightful instead of oppressive. There was a breeze, and we were there in the late afternoon when the Sun was low in the sky. The breeze was intensified because the park is by East River.

A couple of weeks previously we’d been here in the morning to celebrate CMH’s second birthday with friends. Now, there were parties going on everywhere, this being 4th of July weekend. Groups of folding chairs were circled around portable barbeques that released the smell of lighter fluid and burgers into the wind. The parties merged into one another because the park is only small and the children created a constant stream weaving between them, across each other, over the play area with its soft tarmac hills and slides that were too hot to slide down, unless, that is, you tipped buckets of water down which made them thrillingly fast, too fast for the little ones.

Most of the people in the park were Latino, presumably because many of Astoria’s whites headed out of town over the holiday weekend. The whole neighborhood had had a dropped-shoulders feel from Friday 4th because of the reduced population and changed demographic.

CMH headed straight for the water fountains. For an hour he ran in and out of the jets, putting his foot on them at times to block them, or observing groups of older kids with their water games, sticking out his belly to assert his toddler-confidence. JNH gravitated to the other side of the play area, a slope of unkempt grass tilting down to the river. He chased dragonflies. Huge ones swung about in the air above him. At one point he asked for a pot or a net to catch them, but when that didn’t come through he just ran beneath them, waving his arms excitedly but clearly with no real intent to catch them.

I later learned that Rainey Park is named after Dr. Thomas Rainey, who had dreamed of building a bridge from that same place across what is now Roosevelt Island (then Blackwell Island), to Manhattan. A group of Long Island City-dwellers incorporated the “New York and Queens Country Bridge Company” in 1871. Rainey became its treasurer and traveled the country to raise funds. But the War Department was worried a bridge could weaken the defense of New York and access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and didn’t approve it. Anyway, most of the interest was for a bridge project linking Brooklyn and Manhattan. By 1892 the project was on hold. But a community group called the Committee of Forty kept the idea alive. It gained momentum after the consolidation of the three boroughs into New York City in 1898, and finally the bridge was built a few blocks South of the original location. It was called Queensboro bridge.

Dr Rainey walked across the bridge on opening day in 1909, and received a gold medal with “The Father of the Bridge” inscribed on it. He said to the New York Times:

“This is my bridge. At least it is the child of my thought, of my long years of arduous toil and sacrifice. Just over there, are the old towers of my bridge, which I began to build many years ago. I spent all I owned on the project...It is a grand bridge, much greater than the one I had in mind. It will be in service to thousands in the years to come, when Dr. Rainey and his bridge projects will long have been gathered into the archives of the past.”

In 1912, after Rainey had died, the area which he had planned for the bridge was named after him and then turned into a park.

So there we were. In a park that commemorates a man’s dream for a bridge. The air contained children’s yet-to-be-formed dreams for their future, teenagers’ emerging dreams, adults’ abandoned, lingering or realized dreams, but just contained them. All were suspended on a Summer afternoon when attention was occupied in the present, with barbeques, water-jets or dragonflies.


Two phrases I’ve been encountering recently with implications that outstretch their mundane context:

1. The way that yoga teachers describe crossing your arms in the direction that you’re not used to:

“A non-habitual interlace.”

2. And what New York subway drivers say to their passengers, after warning them to keep a close eye on their possessions (or to report instances of sexual harassment):

“Remain alert, and have a nice day.” (They give a big emphasis to aLERT - the ER sounding the same as in "jerk").

Which of course means "keep alert – oh, and have a nice day too". But it could be understood to mean that if you remain alert, you will have a nice day.

Monday, February 3, 2014

New York missive no 131 - Two taxi rides

Astoria in the snow, not on the same evening described below, but another one some weeks later

Aquí y allá.

On 2 January we arrive back at JFK in a snowstorm. It is around 8pm. For the swirling flakes and the dark we can’t see the ground until we are about two feet (so it seems) above it, then after landing the wheels spin and slide and other jets loom beside us as the pilot navigates to the terminal. Then there's the taxi ride back home to Astoria along the Grand Central Parkway, driving at 10mph (so it seems) on the icy roads. CMH on knee and sleepy JNH beside me, I am full of that travelling-mother-near-end-of-journey feeling that I always have on that taxi ride even in normal weather, heart in throat just in case now, as a trip is almost over, something happens. Imagination heightened by tiredness. C will tell me afterwards that he loved that particular ride. The driver has “1010 wins” playing. That’s the radio station C’s Dad always listened to in his taxi. No doubt there is the familiarity too of New York in the snow, of blizzards past.

Such a different ride to the one a week earlier from the airport in Santo Domingo. It is my parents’ first visit there. We emerge out of customs into an airport hall brimming with people waiting for relatives, among them tía D who JNH leaps up to hug, to my relief given that despite many skype-calls he hasn’t seen her in person for over a year. The seven of us – three generations – cram with too much luggage into a taxi that seems it might collapse, windows down to catch a breeze as we drive along the sea to the city, merengue blasting, and stopping for a minute to dig out the cooler that has got buried at our feet and crack open beers, “No really, beer right now?” says Mum, then “Oh alright, go on then.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

New York missive no 130 - A cat dies on an Astoria sidewalk

I did not realize until afterwards, that I had put my foot probably on the exact place on the sidewalk where that morning a cat lay dying.

I had seen the cat after dropping JNH off at his daycare. A furry huddle among fallen leaves, a cat in the morning light, yes a cat, it became clear when I was a few feet away, stretched out on its side, eyes facing but not seeing me and head, I think, making barely perceptible movements and me in a ruthless rush for the subway walking on by, slowing a tiny bit only, then telling myself well what could I have done, bring her back to life?

End it? Someone had probably already moved her off the center of the road to this unforeseen resting place (like any other) and the flickering life in her was still life after all.

Now, fetching JNH at the end of the day, I walk right over the place where she no longer is, and I only realize afterwards. This dying cat is lingering in my mind, which is why I am writing about her. Is my seeing her unique? Or is this just a rearrangement? Of other cats among fallen leaves. Of other children collected at the end of the day, other footsteps.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

New York missive no 129 - Avonte Oquendo

You rarely hear the word “person” unless one is missing.

There are flyers all over New York at the moment for the missing person Avonte Oquendo. He is 14 and disappeared after leaving his Long Island City school on 4 October. He’s particularly vulnerable because he is autistic and mute. Seeing his face floating on those flyers is a reminder of the tragedy of his and his family’s situation, and also of the terribly thin line between being with those you love and losing them. Inevitably parents everywhere are imagining this happening to them.


JNH usually asks for water soon after he has gone to bed. The other night I went in to his room to give it to him and he told me, sounding intrigued, “Mummy, someone’s having a bath. I can hear someone having a bath.” I had been running water for a bath. For a moment I thought how wonderful to be a child and fill your mind as you are falling asleep by the fact that you can hear someone running a bath. So little thought-clutter! Then I realized that it shouldn’t be difficult to pay attention to the sound of running water for a bath, or any other everyday sound. We’re perfectly free to do so if we choose.

On another night when I took him the water to drink, a wonderful phrase – more like a pronouncement: “Mummy, water and agua are not the same.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Thank you Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - Part 7 - DUMBO to Red Hook: Destination

This is the seventh and last part of my essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two. Part three. Part four. Part five. Part six.

The Monday before I go back to work is a clear blue-skied day. The rest of the week is gray and wet, so this turns out to be the last of our September excursions together through the city. Conrad and I take the newly-reopened East River ferry from Long Island City to DUMBO. Another acronym; this one stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It was once an area where sailors, prostitutes, street gangs and writers who thrive off such environments or financially have no choice but to live there crammed into late-night bars.

Now it is the scene of arty brunch venues and the expensive River Café. A restored carousel by the water’s edge transports exited children on painted horses as their parents watch them come around, trying to catch their passing smiles on camera. There is the clanking of Cat diggers and thud of trucks behind a placard promising “Pier 5 – Picnic Peninsula.”

We climb up to Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The stately townhouses look just as they did when they were built in the nineteenth century. It was at 110 Columbia Heights, backing onto the promenade, that Hart Crane worked on his poem The Bridge. He wrote a letter to his grandmother describing the neighborhood as a “magnificent place to live”, with its sweeping views of Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan’s new skyscrapers and the endless to-and-fro of boats. A world apart from the slums of the Lower East Side just the other side of the river.

“I dated her for a couple of years…she wrote this great memoir,” says a well-dressed man to his female companion as we pass them in nearby Cobble Hill. Lived Brooklyn is infused with literary Brooklyn. Along Court Street I browse briefly in the Court Bookshop, where flyers announce upcoming readings. I buy a ham and cheese sandwich at D’Amico, an Italian deli where hessian sacks of coffee beans line one wall, filling the air with their aroma. I stuff the sandwich into my bag for later and keep on walking South. I am thinking that Conrad might wake up soon, that I should find a place to feed him then hop on the subway home, but he keeps on sleeping and I keep on walking, and resolve to make it down to Red Hook. We navigate a noisy narrow overpass across the traffic of the Gowanus Expressway, named after the canal renowned for its fetid contents. Through Coffey Park, where groups of people huddle talking, down Van Brunt Street with its crop of new cafés, around past Sunny’s Bar that teeters in its isolation, and to the sea. Not long after this walk hurricane Sandy will rip through the area.

I find a bench in a small park overlooking the water. It is surrounded by plants, and while I am aware of two men on another bench further along the path from us it feels as if we are alone. Somewhere nearby, shrouds clang against masts. Seagulls cry, a factory hums. A huge cargo ship – Saudi Diriyah says the name on the side – is reversing towards the shore, towards us. Its loading ramp is raised at the back, a vast rectangle of metal slanting up towards the sky. The ship seems to come dangerously close. The water must be deep here, where the East River fills into the expanse of the sea. The ship stalls. Then it gradually pulls away and embarks on its course to its next destination, bearing its cargo and invisible crew.

Conrad wakes up. I have my sandwich, he has his milk. I respect him for waiting, as if he wanted us to reach this point for our stop.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thank you Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 6 - Chinatown and the Lower East Side: People

This is part six of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." Introduction and part one. Part two. Part three. Part four. Part five.

“He has so much of you in his face,” says the elderly woman opposite us in the Q train carriage. “And he seems very calm.” Conrad is perched on my knee observing the occupants of the train. The lady has been looking at us. I appreciate her two comments. Jack’s facial expressions are so much Carlos’s that now I am beginning to know how he feels, seeing his traits echoed in his child.

Family resemblances fade in and out over generations. When I was about ten I went to a birthday party dressed as Dame Edna Everage. God knows why I decided to be her. Looking at a photograph of me in that costume, feather bower, long gloves and all, my parents immediately said, “there’s your great aunt Eileen.” She was one of my paternal grandmother’s five sisters, many of whose stories have disappeared with their passing. (When the sixth was about to be born, their father apparently said that if the baby was another girl he would leave the family. He did).

I appreciate the comment that Conrad is calm too. The lady is right. From day one he has had a peaceful way of watching the world.

We get out of the train at Canal Street and go straight to Columbus Park. The park flickers with morning rituals. Chinese men sit on benches reading newspapers or at tables playing mah-jongg. The chips clink beneath the trees which are not yet turning autumnal but soon will be. Women and men do their exercises (separately – the genders don’t mix here), gentle thai-chi on an asphalted surface, or slow pull-ups using the park fences and playground equipment.

That asphalted surface has been a space of contention. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would use a large chunk of a bequest by Polish immigrant Joe Temeczko to resurface the sports field in Columbus Park with artificial grass. The mayor had made a campaign promise to replace asphalt play areas throughout the city with artificial turf, on the basis it was safer and easier to maintain. But a group of park users campaigned against the change. They were worried the new surface might be unstable for elderly exercisers, and would not last a long time. In the end the area was split in two. Half turf, half asphalt.

The park is next to the site of the former slums “Five Points” and “The Bend,” where newly-arrived immigrants made their lives in over-crowded tenements. Dickens described the area as “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” while Walt Whitman pointed out that the inhabitants were “not paupers and criminals, but the Republic's most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work."

We sit on a bench in front of some bamboo that keeps Conrad entertained as he waits to poop (it can be a long process). When the park was re-developed, botanists advised on plants that are common in East Asian parks. They got it mostly right, except for planting a few bushes with white flowers. Some Chinese believe that white symbolizes death.

As it happens, Mulberry Street, which runs down the East flank of the park, is lined with funeral homes. A funeral procession is gathering outside one of them while we are there. A band wearing olive green uniforms plays on pipes, accordions and cymbals as the mourners and limousines gather. One of the cars has a photograph of the deceased on its roof, with his name: Yi Xing Chen. Relatives huddle as his coffin is slid into the car, some of them circulating with video cameras.

A man wearing a bright yellow t-shirt comes to sit on the bench adjacent to ours. “75 Years – Goya” it says on the front. On the back: “If it’s Goya it has to be good.” I am tempted to tell him that I agree. Carlos uses a lot of Goya products in his Dominican cooking, like their black bean soup (which we have with rice and pork chops), small red beans (in salads), and adobo spice-mix (on pretty much everything).

Conrad and I get on our way, working East. Opposite the Transfiguration Church on Mott Street we find ourselves passing through the funeral cars as they drive around the block from the park. Their tinted windows have labels in English and Chinese according to who is inside: “friend,” “relative,” “daughter.” The street is lined with shops whose owners are setting produce out on the sidewalk for the day. Among them are pharmacies – in one a pair of businessmen skims the shark cartilage shelf. I take a photograph of the two street signs at the intersection of Henry and Catherine Streets. I will send it to my friends Henry and Katharine. The three of us lived for a few years in a house in Camberwell, London soon after we had left college, and despite the different spelling of her name the signs prompt me to get in touch with them.

At a point between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, with the FDR Expressway roaring above our heads we reach the river. I do not intend for most of these walks to feature the East River but they do, as if it has me on an extendable leash. This river and its sister the Hudson on the West side of Manhattan are the margins down the side of the city’s page. They are taken for granted but without them the city would make no sense. They are a continuum as the city and people between them change. As we stand there an occasional solitary person stops to admire the view of glinting water beneath the bridges, or jogger pounds the sidewalk. I close my eyes and imagine the crowd that used to fill this place, when it was a tangle of docks and markets and counting houses.

Our next stop is back inland. We rest by Little Flower Playground. The playground is perched on the edge of the LaGuardia Houses project, built in the 1950s – “Little Flower” was mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s nickname. Alongside it is a concrete space with picnic tables and we sit at one of them. This park does not have the varied botany of Columbus Park, just some dusty plane trees. But it too has its rhythm and clearly is an important fixture in the neighborhood. Doctors and nurses from the adjacent hospital come here to grab their lunch, let off steam or to give elderly patients a walk.

I read as Conrad nurses. I am reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Its narrator, a Nigerian psychiatrist called Julius, goes on walks in New York City that become a prominent part of the book. I read a section in which he is headed for a party on the posh Western edge of Washington Heights. He is a bit early so walks up there from his apartment near Columbia University. I can trace the path he takes in my mind and have flashes of recognition with the landmarks: I explored Washington Heights a couple of times when I first arrived in New York, then it became more familiar after meeting Carlos who was brought up there. Julius mentions El Mundo Department Store, the perennially busy restaurant El Malecón, the United Palace Theatre, and the narrow steps reminiscent of a funicular railway (that is how they look, I think as I write this later, then realize that is the word Cole used as well), with their steep slope and railings that connect 181st Street with the sedate environment of Pinehurst Avenue. Here I am in that comforting world where writer, reader and place meet.

From Little Flower Playground we walk up Clinton Street into the Lower East Side. Gentrification has been sliding Southwards, with realtors dressing sub-neighborhoods up in new acronyms like BELDEL for “Below Delancey.” Evidence of the creep is in two establishments tucked at the corner of Clinton Street and East Broadway, a craft beer and cheese place called “Malt and Mould,” and Pushcart Coffee with its little benches outside for people to sip their lattes, and t-shirts on sale saying “Pushcart Coffee – est. 2011.” As we walk North those kinds of places are everywhere of course. The streets are filled with memories of my first two years in New York, so nocturnal compared with the predominantly diurnal habits of my life now with children, a procession of nights of music and dancing in places like Nublu, Drom, Nuyorican Poets Café, National Underground, 555 and Macondo, where Carlos and I first met. These are interspersed with memories of coffee and laughter with a girlfriend, Mia, before she died of ocular melanoma at the age of 33. She loved this part of the city.

We pass Cooper Union. It is the site of many moments of social change, including a speech by Abraham Lincoln soon before he stood for the presidency. In it he unraveled a statement by Senator Douglas, which suggested the founding fathers would have considered the federal government forbidden from controlling the use of slavery in the federal territories. He meticulously built his evidence to show the opposite. He focused on setting out facts but pulled back a little at times to make points that seem equally relevant today. If any man sincerely shared Douglas’ belief, Lincoln said, “he is right to say so, and to enforce his position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can. But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that ‘our fathers who framed the Government under which we live’ were of the same opinion – thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”

Just above Cooper Union we reach Astor Place. Huge billboards wrap around a building site and announce the pending arrival of “51 Astor Place,” a thrusting glass office development. Commercial Observer, a real estate magazine, celebrates its arrival on the scene with the declaration that “Noho is finally turning into a swan.” It quotes a leasing agent for the building: “Whatever tenant moves into this building can brand the Astor Place area, like Google branded its neighborhood and AOL branded Columbus Circle. It goes way beyond just having a name on a building.”

Part 7: "DUMBO to Red Hook: Destination"