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A Different View of Manhattan

Bodega by the 207th St. Subway Station- Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor grew up on nearby Dykman Street

Spent an interesting weekend in Inwood, at the very northern tip of Manhattan, immersed between two wildly different but compatible cultures; Dominicans and their busy, colorful, music-pounding, flea-market sprinkled streets right next to gentrified urban white neighborhoods dotted with Art Deco buildings circa 1920.

It’s truly the best thing about New York- the mixing. Here are some of the sights in a mere three-block walk:

First off, the weather was great so everybody and their hermano were out on the streets. The thumping rhythms of Latin music emanate from cars and boom boxes. On weekends, the Dominican part of Inwood, like Washington Heights, is somewhat like being transported to another country.

In front of the pawn shops, bodegas, hardware stores, tattoo parlors and Latin restaurants are dozens of flea market stands selling the strangest stuff ever. There are normal goods like cheap clothes, purses, boot-leg movies, 1989 Topps baseball cards- but also a highly unique collection of electronics. Pretty much everything you throw out when you move- like battered extension cords and old remotes.

Then there’s like a buffer block right where the A train stops at the 207th street subway station. Here, the transition begins. The first Art Deco apartment building looms on the left as you head north. It’s a very hilly area and the building sits atop some very steep and intimidating-looking stone stairs.

Harry Houdini's widow lived on Payson Street after his death

About 500 more feet and you officially enter yet another world; quiet and residential with a mix of housing including 7 and 8 story pre-WWII buildings, detached homes, and those great deco apartments- but still packing plenty of character. Like the two old, presumably Dominican men, who open their apartment window along Seamen Street performing old-time Latin karaoke as the urban white crowd strolls by below, every one of them, seemingly, with a dog on a leash.

Saturdays, there’s a small but diverse weekly farmer’s market that operates year-round with all kinds of great goodies from breads and fruits and veggies to cheeses and wine. And across the street is Inwood Park with tons of woods and paths, softball fields and dog-runs, leading east toward the Harlem River. That’s where Columbia University has its crew team. The school has painted a gigantic blue “C” on a cliff overlooking the river and word is the locals think it’s tacky and an eyesore. The University has it regularly repainted but no one’s figured out where they got the authority to take over that particular cliff. Supposedly there’s a lawsuit coming.

And the park is where the cultures meld. The dog-walking white urbanites populate the paths. Everybody shares the meadows. The Dominicans own the baseball diamonds.

Beisbol everywhere!

Baseball and Softball rule in Inwood. The Dominican Republic, after all, stocks the Major Leagues with some of the best players the game has ever seen; Juan Marichal, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, the Alou brothers, Felipe, Jesus and Matty. It’s in the DNA.

Having attended many a Little League game in the white-bread Atlanta suburbs when my son was growing up it was kind of refreshing to take in a bit of an Inwood Little League contest. Not a single Anglo name in the lineups but plenty of Bautista’s and even one Valenzuela. The fast-pitch softball fields are where the big boys play. And they’re good- really, really good. Some of the slickest fielding and power hitting I’ve ever seen on a softball diamond.

An Inwood Park trail in the Fall

It’s Manhattan. From Wall Street and the Chrysler building to Madison Avenue; from Central Park and Lincoln Center to the parks, softball fields, markets and bodegas of Inwood; it is, truly, one of the neatest and unique islands in the world.

An Incomplete List: 20 Things I’m Grateful For

December 22, 2009 5 comments

Hudson River sunset; Bernstein; Suki; Charlie; The I-Pod; Washington; Cami McCormick in Afghanistan; Millie; Late night cookies and milk

Yesterday, I complained about the NFL and Microsoft. Today, working up to the Christmas spirit- nothing but appreciation for the wonderful things in life (in no particular order):

◊ Sunset over the Hudson River.

◊ Strawberry Fields in Central Park; the sweet innocence of the flowers and notes left by people from all over the world honoring the greatest dreamer of our time.

◊ Watching my cats sleep, deep into pillows and blankets, looking cozy with their limbs draped all over each other.

◊ The puppy; how anything can be so bad, sneaky and cute all at the same time.

◊ My soon-to-be 18-year-old son, Charlie, proof that every generation gets better than the last; writing and producing all kinds of music with meticulousness, dedication and passion.

◊ The I-Pod; the Steve Jobs’ invention that has become life’s customized sound-track.

◊ High school friends who all at once discovered Facebook and rediscovered each other and have turned out to be kind, gracious and the sweetest people on earth.

◊ Friends from all the iterations of my past who, thankfully, remain along for the ride through every twist and turn, every failure, every success, every tragedy and every recovery.

◊ Butter; the secret ingredient to all food that tastes good and evil and French.

◊ Hot showers; you don’t appreciate them until you can’t get one.

◊ The Lincoln Memorial at night.

◊ Sitting on the left side of the plane on the Potomac river approach into National Airport and watching the monuments just before the pilot takes a sharp right bank on final approach toward the runway at an altitude of 500 feet.

◊ Cabbies everywhere- the salt-of-the-earth; with great stories about their customers, their dreams and their often amazing lives. 

◊ The sound of the clanging bell as a train pulls alongside a platform.

◊ U.S. servicemen and women who salute and deliver, making sacrifices most of us would find unimaginable.

◊ War correspondents who risk life and limb to bring us the truth.
 
◊ Parents, who despite their imperfections, give everything they have for their children.
 
◊ Aaron Copeland music as you gaze in awe at the rolling fields of Pennsylvania Amish country.

◊ All the women in my life who have ever put up with me, including the current and last one who has made me promise I will never write about her on my web-blog.

◊ The twinkling lights of a Christmas tree in an otherwise dark living room at 2 in the morning when you get up with a sudden urge for butter cookies and a cold, fresh glass of milk.

So Many Santa’s- So Little Time

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Photo courtesy of nycsantacon.com

So I was riding the subway from Penn station to Columbus Circle Saturday night, when I noticed an inordinate number of Santa Clauses on the train.  The ratio was truly outrageous.  I mean one Santa for every two people in the car?  And there were Mrs. Santa’s too.  Rather attractive ones that would make the North Pole a more pleasant home address than you might ordinarily expect.   What the?

Silly me.  I had just run into Santacon 2009 in New York City; combination flash-mob, good-cheer, pub crawl that had started at 10am at five different points in the city.  I ran into my Santas at about 9pm and they didn’t look that bad having been 11 hours into the celebration.

NYCSantaConn can explain it much better than I.  If you’re at all prudish, don’t go there.  This Santa stuff is profane and serious business.

Santa’s Rules:  

 Santa looks like Santa. HOLIDAY APPAREL IS MANDATORY. A Santa hat is not enough. Get a Santa suit. Buy a Santa suit. Make a Santa suit. Steal a Santa suit. Get creative: be a Secret Santa, a Santasaurus, Candy-cane, a Reindeer, a Chanukah Chicken, a goddamn latke, Stewardess Santa, Knight Rider Santa, Crusty Peace Punk Santa, the occasional Legless Reindeer, Chanukah Squirrel, Emo-Elf, or the Santichrist.
Just don’t wear your f——g jeans.

Santa acts like Santa. Be jolly. Belly-laugh. Let people sit on your lap. Give out gifts.
Santa loves reindeer games, stripper poles and creatively concealed guzzle-ables.

Santa doesn’t seek media attention. “Ho-ho-ho” is good. “Publicity ho” is lame.

Santa doesn’t get arrested. 

Helpful guidelines include making sure to eat something, stay hydrated, exercise intelligent pacing, bring a metro card, pay the bar tab, tip the bartenders, stay with your group and don’t make children cry.  And my personal favorite:

 Don’t be “that” Santa.  

 Your friends want to have fun, not scrape the puke outta your beard or prevent your wasted ass from wandering into traffic.

The origins trace back to 1994 in San Francisco.  The Santa bender that was most crazily out of control occurred four years ago in Aukland, New Zealand.  Looting, bottle-throwing and several assaults ensued.

There were no such incidents in New York Saturday night.  In fact, organizers were encouraging folks to bring a couple of cans of food to donate to homeless shelters.  They got a thousand pounds worth of food last year and were shooting for an even ton this year.

Other than the ones hanging out at the Salvation Army kettles, I expect to see my next Santa around midnight, December 25th.   Just in case the old Santa is gone and has been replaced by the new Santa, along with the milk and cookies, I’m also leaving several shots of Grey Goose.

Categories: Culture Tags: , ,

Amtrak- Riding the Rails

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

I know this is a bit of an esoteric area for discussion, but I traveled between New York and Washington yesterday for a series of meetings and took the high-speed Acela down and the Regional train back up. The experience has confirmed that I am, most definitely, a first class, or rather, business class- snob. But more importantly, why is this country and our government so loathe to support rail travel? Anybody heard of Europe? It’s a region of the world that is dependent on rail and it works wonderfully.

The distinction between travel on the Acela and the Regional is like the difference between savoring caviar and wolfing down a hot dog. And at least judging by my particular one-way fares, it was only a $26 difference. On the Acela you get air conditioning (perhaps too much of it). On the Regional, you get a packed train and it feels like something approaching body temperature. Suggestion to Amtrak: Add the temperature on the Acela to the temperature on the Regional, divide by two and disperse equally between the two services.

I will say this though (and I’ve been doing it for years); either experience beats the hell out of taking the air shuttles. On the rails, you line up and board. Initially, you’ll see a cute dog sniffing around the aisles on the leash of a heavily armed, uniformed individual. By air, you’re treated like a terrorist, have to take off your shoes, and get busted for carrying too much tooth paste or shampoo. On the trains, you get leg room, don’t even have to buckle up, can stand up and move around, hit the café car and get micro-waved cheeseburgers and a bottle of wine if you want. On the plane, you’re lucky to get a stale bag of pretzels served with a snarl. Ok, on the shuttle service you do get complimentary alcoholic beverages and coffee. But for a round-trip it’s also about $70 or so more expensive. That’s a lot to pay for a Sam Adams.

At least for travel between NY and DC, time is not a factor. Door-to-door it’s about the same. In regard to usage, A LOT of people use Amtrak. New York’s Penn station is, by far, the busiest counting 6.4 million arrivals and departures in 2008. Washington’s Union station handles 4 million.

Plus trains offer alternately dramatic or serene scenery along the way. It is very cool to be chugging (on the Regional) or gliding along (on the Acela) and see Philadelphia’s One Liberty Place, the Mellon Bank Center, and the Verizon Tower suddenly come in to view as you round the bend. Wilmington looks like a comfortable and pleasant little town. Baltimore is a little freaky, especially the burned out row houses as you approach the other Penn Station. And, of course, there’s Union station in Washington which is a superb and breathtaking piece of architecture. The other way, the New Jersey approach to Manhattan is like a scene right out of the Soprano’s. And there’s a moment when out of nowhere, you spot the Empire State building in the distance and realize, wow, man- that’s friggin’ New York!

I know flight attendants and the airline industry at large will hate me for saying this (but then again it feels like they’ve always hated me anyway) – but when traveling the mighty Northeast corridor, nothing beats Amtrak.

Ode to New York

November 19, 2009 2 comments

New York City 1932

Apologies to those of you who could care less about Gotham, but I feel the need to wax poetic about the sights and sounds and stories of one of the most fascinating cities on earth.  There have been so many films, TV shows, songs, poems, and books written with New York City as a backdrop that it’s nearly impossible to not feel like you’re walking around on some kind of a movie set when you make your way around this town.

Today for example, I grabbed the B train to Rockefeller Center.  The first thing you see as you emerge from the subway station is Radio City Music Hall.  The history and tradition of that place; the precision dance-kicking, the famous Christmas shows, the myriad events that occur in there that people don’t even know about, from political debates and movie debuts to big awards shows.

Then you turn the corner and there’s Rockefeller Center.  They’ve put up the skating rink already but the floods of Christmas tourists aren’t here yet so you can actually see the first folks to strap on the skates and go for a spin on the ice.   I walked a few more blocks and hit the intersection of 49th and Lexington, hung a right, and there, on display in all its architectural majesty was the looming presence of the Chrysler building, once the tallest skyscraper in the city until the Empire State building was constructed.  And here’s a real weird fact I bet you never knew.  That building was once owned by former Washington Redskins owner, Jack Kent Cooke.  Most of you wouldn’t care, but as a former Washingtonian and as a current long-suffering ‘Skins fan, I think that’s kind of cool.  Maybe Daniel Snyder should buy it for luck.

A couple more blocks and I passed the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.  How many Presidents and Kings and Queens have slept in that storied establishment?  Another block down and you’re on Madison Avenue.  You look north and see the canyons of high-rise buildings that stand tall like monuments to the nation’s advertising industry.  How many familiar jingles, TV ads and marketing campaigns were born on that street?

But New York is more than physical, iconic locales.  It’s also about people.  If you look for them, or sometimes just flat run into them, there are thousands of tender moments that take place here on a daily basis.

I’ll never forget crossing a street on the Upper West Side about a year ago and seeing what must have been a 95-year-old woman with a shock of white hair struggling to get her grocery cart up the curb.  I bent down and lifted it up for her and put it onto the sidewalk.  She said nothing but did give me the warmest smile I think I have ever seen.  I noticed her incredibly deep blue eyes and for a second, I saw 60 years drop off her face and imagined what a beautiful young woman she had probably been at one time.

This week, while rushing to an appointment, I passed a black nanny pushing a cute little white boy in a stroller.  She stopped in front of an apartment building that had a beautiful flower-bed growing around a tree.  She picked one of those bright, purple flowers and held it in front of the little boy’s gleaming eyes.  And he smiled.  Kind of like the 95 year old lady did on the Upper West side a year before.

My mother and father once lived in New York City.  They’re gone now but I think of their time spent here and that I am walking the same streets they walked and seeing many of the same sights they saw.  I am certain they also experienced many of the same moments of tenderness and acts of human kindness.  They probably felt the same awe at the bigness and power of the skyscrapers and the famous streets.  They probably marveled as do I, that this place is home to so many rich and poor and black and brown and white; that you can hear five different languages being spoken as you walk down one city block.

When I look at this place through their eyes and think of the smiles of babies and old ladies, I realize that this is the real magic of New York City-  it is completely and utterly eternal.

The Trial of KSM- Why it’s the Right Thing to Do

November 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Khalid-Sheikh-Mohammed-frontI really do respect both the logic and the motives of those who question the Justice Department’s decision to bring admitted 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial in the federal courts and in the city where his evil took such a terrible toll more than eight years ago.  In the end, I can’t help but think it is the right course of action for it is more than just symbolism; it is the embodiment of this country standing for the principles on which it was founded.

The arguments for keeping his case in the military tribunal framework and off the U.S. mainland are many.  There is the very real security risk of such a high-profile trial taking place in New York City.   But the fact is New York has never stopped being a target.  Only now it is a hardened target.  When Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly say they can handle it- I believe them.

There’s the view that by prosecuting his case in civilian courts, KSM is being treated as no more than a shoplifter; that surely there are special national security circumstances that merit the use of a system that is specifically in place for dealing with enemy combatants who have declared war against us.   But KSM is not being treated as a shoplifter.  The government is seeking the death sentence.  It has a 94% conviction rate in terrorism cases; KSM is not the first terrorist to go on trial in the federal courts.  And while there is ample precedent for use of military tribunals in times of war, this has always been a different kind of war, one that will never be ended by a sovereign government signing surrender documents aboard a U.S. Navy vessel.

Whatever precedents are set in how we treat this particular kind of enemy are especially important and carry an irretrievable and permanent effect because this is a war without end, one that is being waged by shadowy groups and individuals and not nations.   I believe in our system of justice and the basic tenants that we do not hold individuals indefinitely and without charges, and that we have a high burden for conviction because once it has been satisfied, the punishment is certain and because of those high standards of proof, morally without question.

There are many who fear the trial will turn into a circus featuring an egomaniac who will be given a platform to spew his spiteful venom and in essence, add insult to the tragic injury he has already caused.  But we have been down this road before.  The trial of Al Qaeda terrorist, Zacarias Moussaoui in federal court in Alexandria three years ago was rife with this very kind of behavior.  We saw him for what he was, we collectively dismissed his rantings, we convicted him and he is now imprisoned for the rest of his life.   Democracy is messy and so, occasionally, is our system of justice but in the end, it works.

There are legitimate concerns that since he has admitted guilt and wants to be put to death, the only defense that can be waged on KSM’s behalf will involve showcasing and detailing the interrogation methods that were used to extract his confessions.  But we don’t know the government’s precise case against this man.  We don’t know what he confessed and when or in what relation to the methods that were used on him.   And we don’t know the type of judge who will be assigned to this case.  That judge will have the latitude to limit certain disclosures on national security grounds.  I am not convinced the interrogation techniques used on KSM will either be much of a factor or for that matter, even come to that much public light beyond what is already known.

Finally, it has been argued that a public trial for the whole world to see will go a long way toward improving America’s image and some counter- well, who cares what the world thinks about us?   Frankly, I don’t care much for winning a popularity contest in the court of world opinion either.   But I do know this.  Every time an American citizen is imprisoned and accused and held without trial abroad; every time a U.S. soldier is captured and interrogated- our own behavior and standards form the moral foundation upon which we base our arguments for their release and humane treatment.  It is not a theoretical point.  A clear moral foundation rallies international sentiment and creates the public pressure that often leads to positive resolutions in cases in which our own are being unjustifiably treated.

Ultimately, the outcome of the trial and the way it is conducted will determine whether this was or was not a wise course to take.  I, for one, have faith in our system and that the process will result in conviction, a sentence of death, and for so many who were permanently scarred by the atrocious events of 9/11- finally- justice.

Categories: Politics Tags: , ,

Conversation with a Cabbie

November 11, 2009 1 comment


Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry used to use a clever literary device in his pieces in which he would simulate conversations on the great issues of the day with…cab drivers. These blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth folks would always ask the pertinent questions the punditry class would somehow miss. Mr. Raspberry was on to something. I will now borrow that device, only this was an actual conversation with a cabbie recently.

We’ll call him Johnny. Interesting gentleman; African-American, 54 years old, graying hair and glasses, Vietnam veteran. As we’re stuck at a traffic light at 46th and Broadway, a Rastafarian fellow with flowing dreadlocks walks past us. Johnny’s window is rolled down. He looks toward the guy, “’Sup dred?” he asks. “Ok, mon,” responds dred. That was kind of charming, I thought to myself.

A block later Johnny spots a small storefront advertising stress-curing massage services. We’re not talking “special” massage services; this is the real thing. So as he pulls away he calls them right up on his cell phone. “Hey, I just saw the sign in your window. The one offering the $30 services for 61 minutes? That’s for stress relief, right? Because my back hurts all the time and I’m not really sleeping that well. You guys open on Saturdays?” A man of action, Johnny.

“Hey, I hope it helps,” I told him. That was all he needed to launch into a lengthy riff on life and retirement. “I like this job,” he started. “Been doing it a long time, 14 hours a day, six days a week. It’s tough on your back. Got a house in Pennsylvania- that’s where I’m going to retire. I’ll have it paid off in about five years. And I got this medallion. I’m an independent driver, you know I can lease the medallion out. That could be my form of income, because, you know, social security, there ain’t gonna be any when it’s our time,” he explained. Medallions are the metal discs that are affixed to the hoods of New York City taxi cabs. They sell these days at auction for between 600 and 700K. The guy has a better retirement action plan than I do, that’s for sure. Honestly, I was kind of counting on the social security.

“Because if you got your house paid for, you know, you’re pretty much set. I worry all the time about not having a roof over my head.” You and me both, Johnny. “You know what gets me? Seeing these retired people out on the streets collecting cans. Breaks my heart. You know they’re the type of people that would never beg a nickel off anyone. So there they are, collecting cans.” He sighs. I think about this for a second. Wow, that would really suck.

As we near my destination, he turns off the meter and pulls around the corner to put me right in front of the door of the Conde Nast building, which was very nice. The meter reads $9.50 plus the new 50-cent surcharge. I reach in my pocket for cash. “I’ll give you $12,” and hand him a twenty. He thanks me heartily for the conversation and hands me back a five and two one’s. Hmmmm, that would be $13 I just paid him. But as I put the change in my pocket I remember the whole thing about his bad back and having trouble sleeping, the worry over not having a roof over his head, the sad image of elderly people stooping down to collect recyclable aluminum cans.

“Thanks, Johnny, you take care of yourself,” I say as I step onto the sidewalk. And my inner voice says, “Let him keep the buck Robert, let him keep the buck.” Building good karma one cab ride at a time.