Grand Central Station

“Say you’re in the Grand Central Station in New York City….you buy a ticket…..where are you going?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“What are you doing in the station then?”

“I don’t know….you just put me there.”

            -Abbott and Costello

Grand Central Station

It is certainly aptly named; it is indeed grand. It is the busiest train station depot in the country, spanning 48 acres of prime Midtown Manhattan land and boasting over 44 train platforms.  It is located on 42nd Street on the East Side, a spot that had been a train station since 1871, but the present structure had its opening in 1913, ten years after construction had begun. It was built for the New York Central Railroad, thus its name. It was a competitor to the other less grand station on the West Side, named for the rival Pennsylvania Railroad.  Over the years it became so famous, so grand that its very name part of our shared language- how many times have you heard a version of “This place is so crowded…it’s like Grand Central Station for Pete’s sake!!”. And indeed it made it into that famous comedy routine by Abbott and Costello (see the Mustard Routine-pure genius!) as well as countless movies from Twentieth Century filmed there in 1934 to John Wick in 2019.

The bars and restaurants that called the station home became destination spots both for the thousands of travelers passing through as well as native New Yorkers who knew nothing could beat the fresh seafood at the renown Oyster Bar. Its Grand Concourse was stunning in both it’s intricacies and it’s design; the Whispering Gallery allowed you to hear conversations on the other side of the huge space, It’s interior was a stage of human activity.

I loved to go and let my imagination run wild. I would wander into the Concourse, drinking it all in….there a man in a trench coat running to catch his train, a couple looking nervous, a group of suits huddled together.. spies on missions, lovers on a secret rendezvous, businessmen planning a big deal, politicians discussing the coming war’  their specters flitted about through the marble hallways on the sunbeams that pierced the huge skylights above. It was the center of Manhattan and it encompassed all the passion, excitement, and fear that made the city great. I felt dwarfed by it’s magnificence. I melted into the throngs around me, the hustle became my heart beat, the low rumble of the trains on the tracks below, the back beat of a world much bigger than my mundane everyday existence. There I was in the midst of things happening as I stood alone on that Concourse looking up at the painting of the constellations on the vaulted ceilings and I imagined I was one of those spies, lovers, businessmen, politicians, on my way to Chicago, or Boston or the West Coast. 

 It was like taking a vacation in my mind. The place itself provided the stage and all its props, my imagination provided the plot, whichever one I chose that day. And all I had to do was look around me, the activity swirled day and night, It was theater without Broadway, and each time I would go, there would be a new set of characters, a new cast to entertain me, a new adventure to play out for an audience of one. 

The sounds were special too. Besides the underlying backbeat of thousands of shoes hitting the floor, suitcases being rolled,  people shouting to each other….”I’m over here!”….”Quick….the train is boarding!”, to the rumble underfoot of another engine firing up, to the loud speakers giving boarding info, to that iconic sound of the departure board flip flopping numbers every time a train left the station (sadly it has been replaced by a digital board). They were the sounds of a Metropolis on the move. 

By the Sixties of course things started to change; air travel and an extensive highway system took their toll, and train travel suffered. I always thought there was something very special about train travel; the countryside passing by as you sat snuggled in your seat, the ease of leaving the driving to someone else, the power of your passage as the engine and cars roared through small towns, cities, and rural communities. I always wanted to take a trip across country and get a Sleeper car and experience it like it should be, but still haven’t made that dream come true yet. 

In the Seventies, the station suffered neglect and garishly lit ads blocked the views, the beautiful painted ceiling was covered in years of cigarette smoke and grime, and it became the haven for countless homeless people, a safe place to sleep, sheltered from the storms that raged outside. 

I still went a lot; to be honest it was a great way to spend a day with my girlfriend; like going to the movies but without the admission fee. Jane and I would stand on the balcony and watch the world below; we spent hours people-watching. One particular day, we were doing just that before heading downtown to the South Street Seaport. We faced the great Concourse as always but this time, unbeknownst to us, behind us was a photographer who was recording the station for posterity. The black and white photos he took that day would find their way into an expensive coffee table book about Grand Central’s history published some years later.

And in one of those photos, there on the right are Jane and I, young, pretty care-free, and in love.

it is fitting that we are captured in that photo for all time by an artist we didn’t even know was there. It’s a beautiful black and white photo, from a day a long time ago, in a place the world will never see the likes of again. . 

-Rob

My Track and Field Heroics!

As I have stated often in other entries, my sports abilities as a kid were pretty pathetic. Uncoordinated, clumsy and timid, I was consistently everyone’s “last pick” for any sports activity.(see blog on being picked last)

Well, by the time I had reached seventh grade I had improved significantly. By no means a standout, I was able to hold my own in most sports at this time and other kids actually wanted me on their team… a very strange and gratifying feeling.

I was attending a Catholic school in the seventh grade and was taught by the Christian Brothers. Boys and girls were separated into different classes, so my class was all boys.

The Brother who taught my seventh grade class was Brother Kevin. Brother Kevin was tall, balding and pretty athletic. He loved  sports and having a class full of seventh grade boys was right in his “Wheelhouse”.

After school on most days he would organize some kind of sports activity for us. Touch Football and Basketball in the cooler months and softball in the spring.

On one particular occasion, we were playing softball. Brother Kevin was pitcher for both teams as well as umpire.

I was playing the catcher position on the day in question. The opposing team had a runner on third base with one out. Brother Kevin lofted the pitch in and the batter hit a long drive to left field. The runner on third made a dash for home plate, thinking the ball would drop for a hit, but our left fielder made a great catch and an even greater throw home to me at the plate. The runner was half way home when I caught the throw. I ran the runner down and tagged him out. Game over;  we won. I didn’t think anything of it, other than noticing a funny look cross Brother Kevin’s face when I ran down the runner.

The next day, as school was letting out out, Brother Kevin asked me if he “could have a word with me”. That was never good. My mind raced to all the things I could possibly be in trouble for.I wondered if it would be a hard slap across the face or a weeks detention after school.I came up with nothing, but was still quite positive I was doomed.

I was very much taken aback by what he said, with that very serious look that I was all too familiar with;

“I didn’t know how fast you were until I saw you run down Warren on the third base line yesterday. I’m going to enter you in the Catholic Jr. High school track meet  for June . You’ll run the 220“ 

That was it, he gave me a pat on the shoulder and was gone.I was left standing there stunned and confused. I knew nothing about Track and Field, other than it didn’t look like very much fun. “The 220”, I thought to myself, “the 220 what??”

I went home and told Mom. She thought it was sweet that Brother Kevin thought I was fast. Sigh. I told my brother and he laughed and said I would mess it up  , even though he didn’t know what “it” was. Sigh. I told Dad and he wanted to know what I had done to make Brother Kevin mad. Sigh. Only after talking to some other guys who ran track did I find out it was basically a 220 yard sprint around half of a full sized track.

 “Wait ,” I thought. “220 yards? that’s more than twice the size of a Football field… Ummm, and I’m supposed to “sprint”????”

Brother Kevin was no help…he gave me a track suit that said Saint Bernards on it and told me I had better train a bit before the race. 

“Train”? I had no clue how to train for a race. Thankfully, a few of the same guys I had asked previously about the 220 told me I needed to run everyday to build up strength and endurance. So, everyday, like an idiot, I would run around the park across from our school with no consideration for speed, technique, or style…. I would just run until I was tired.

Almost daily, Brother Kevin would ask me if I was training and getting ready, to which I would respond yes. He would smile and tell me how good that was and how much he was looking forward to seeing me in the race. Mom was very supportive as usual, telling me that she liked my track suit and that I looked good in it. Too bad this was not going to be a fashion show. Dad had no clue about Track and Field and told me just to “run fast…. pretend the Jane Street Gang is chasing you”. Thanks Dad.

The day of the race arrived quickly and it was a beautiful, warm day at Van Cortland   Park. My event was the fourth of the day and I watched the other three events from the stands sitting next to Brother Kevin. When it was time for my event, he patted me on the back and told me “ to run fast and win”. Solid advice.

I entered the starting blocks as they announced the other contestants; there were eight of us. Four black guys from the Harlem area, three Latino guys from the East Side, and me. I looked better than any

of them in my track suit…. I wondered where the cameras were. 

The starter told us to get ready in the starting blocks and I got down into the familiar semi crouching position.

BANG! there was the sound of the starting gun! I zipped out of the blocks to quickly notice it seemed that I was standing still. The other seven contestants were already far ahead of me! I ran as fast as I could and was never even close enough to eat their dust! I finished dead last…. by a lot. The winner probably had time for a shower and meal by the time I crossed the finish line. 

Gasping for breath and pretty embarrassed and dejected I made my way back to my seat next to Brother Kevin. My terrible performance seemed have no affect on him. Ever the pragmatist, looked at me and smiled and simply said;

“Well, I guess you are not as fast as I thought you were. Oh well, let’s get a hot dog.”

Lousy race, but pretty good hot dog.

Don.

The Hudson River Piers

The Hudson River Piers

They, in their day, were magnificent. Built for the age of the Luxury Liner, long before the first plane flew, they were the starting and the ending points of countless journeys to lands far away. Some sported the name of the line they served; names like Cunard and White Star. At the height of that wondrous age of sea travel, five huge ocean liners would be docked there, welcoming passengers, bringing on cargo, waiting for that evenings high tide, so that they could begin their sojourns and arrive in far off Old World Ports. 

These mighty piers saw the departure of the US Olympic Team on its way to Berlin in 1936 carrying Jesse Owens onboard. They saw the ill fated Lusitania leave port bound for England, a normal run, but not that May of 1915. Just off the coast of Europe a U-Boat would torpedo her. And these piers waited in vain for the scheduled arrival of the Titanic on April 14th, 1912, but she would never arrive, having met disaster two days earlier. 

Celebrities arrived on the luxury liners, descending down the same piers that  soldiers embarked from, off to war countless times.

They lined the west side of Manhattan from the Village to Midtown, glorious pieces of architecture, a tribute to man’s ability to span the globe itself. But by the 1960’s with the popularity of air travel, they were mostly used as cargo depots. And by the 1970’s they were derelict relics of their past glory. 

And of course, that’s when I knew them.

When we lived on 17th street, our apartment windows overlooked a good many piers, though only early on when we first moved in did we see the big ships like the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth or the USS United States, heading for New York Harbor and Europe beyond.  And then they were just gone; we just didn’t see them anymore. Many of the piers had already succumbed to disuse, and the vanishing of the last of the Luxury Liners just hastened the same fate for all the rest. 

Now that didn’t necessarily mean there was nothing interesting to see along the Hudson anymore. One of my favorite things to do with my friend Jonathan was to go inside those abandoned hulks and snoop around, looking for pieces of the past. And there were hundreds of them: directional signs that once glowed bright directing passengers to the luggage hold, or ones that told the first class passengers to come this way, up to the high priced cabins  above, as well as the ones directing others this way, down to the cabins at the interior of the ship; no view of the ocean for them. There were advertisements, huge posters for products long gone, maladies long since cured, cars that had become classics, Broadway productions that maybe didn’t. There were paintings of men in long coats, wearing fedoras and smoking cigarettes with long holders, and their female companions decked out in gowns, giving the masses a lesson in class and style ala 1940. 

We would wander about from one to the other, each one another museum fighting  the ravages of time passing. Many parts of the roofs were missing, and the sunlight would shoot through the darkness at random, creating macabre shadows on the once pristine walls; our imaginations did the rest as the crowds came to life out of the dust, and the sound of the ships horn echoed through the buildings. It was our own private peek into another time. There (for some reason I couldn’t understand) weren’t too many others that wanted to wander through these places, having long since forgotten they were still standing I guess. And I guess it could be a little scary; sounds of hanging metal scrapping against a wall, the moan of the Hudson breeze as it swept through the myriad holes in the ceiling, the scampering of hundreds and hundreds of rats and mice, the inheritors of this fascinating wasteland. It was always a shock to step back out onto the sidewalk off Eleventh Avenue and come back to the present, all bright, gleaming and full of promise (or as much promise as the city could muster in the 1970’s anyway).  We visited these places often as well as the nearby Meatpacking District which hadn’t changed much in over a hundred years; cobblestone streets, an occasional nonfunctioning gas lamp, the stench of the trade that gave it its name. It was a favorite place for Hollywood to shoot period pieces as they didn’t really have to do much to make it look like the 20’s, 30’s or 40’s.

Most of  the buildings on the docks were eventually taken down, deemed a public hazard (they were), but the flat piers remained jutting out into the Hudson, and they quickly became a favorite haunt for the vibrant Gay community in the Village and Chelsea. There was no better place to work on a tan in all of Manhattan than the Hudson River Piers. 

Now of course the area is home to the High Line, Chelsea Piers, Hudson River Park and whatever else makes it unaffordable to live there. The Ocean Liners are gone, their berths are dismantled or transformed and the whole area is almost unrecognizable to me now. The Housing Project on 17th street where we lived for so many years still stands though; of course the city wants to sell it to private developers, knowing how valuable that real estate has become. I am not sure what is to become of the low income families that live there now. Maybe they too will just be gone one day. 

New York has a way of trying to make the past disappear, but fortunately it isn’t always successful. There are always shadows of history to explore; you just have to know where to look. Where the river meets the island is one of those places.  And if you are really lucky, you can stand listening to the soft moan of the shifting wood, and hear the distant sound of a ships foghorn, a sound line no other…….That’s the past talking.

-Rob

Autumn in New York

Autumn in New York…..

“Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?
Autumn in New York, it spells the thrill of first nighting
Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel
They’re making me feel, I’m home.”

Those are the lyrics of the beautiful, haunting , “Autumn in NewYork”. The wonderful rendition by Frank Sinatra is the one I have in mind.
Fall has just arrived, though one would never know it living in southeast Texas. This weekend, week heat indexes hit the 90’s. Not exactly my idea of “Autumn”; But, this is about the past, so let’s go there…. to Autumn in New York.

As far back as I can remember, the fall has always been my favorite time of year. As a kid, The sadness brought on by the end of what seemed to be an endless summer had begun to fade. The nervousness and anxiety associated with going back to school began to lessen …. and most of all.. the weather began to change.

There was, and still is, something about that beautiful change in weather which triggers wonderful memories. Short-sleeved shirts slowly gave to sweatshirts, and maybe even a light jacket. In those late September days the shadows began to take on a different look and the sun appeared to inhabit a new position in the sky.

In my very early school years, children would bring in samples of colored leaves from various places their families had traveled and they would be posted around the room to remind us that it was, in fact, Fall…and once the leaves changed color, our childhood minds knew that Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas were soon to follow.

That is something I will always remember about growing up in New York: the arrival of Autumn brought with it a festive feeling and that feeling hit right around the beginning of October. As an adult, as I’m sure most of you know, time seems to fly: but as a child, waiting for the holidays, it moved at a snails pace.

However,the anticipation was much of the fun.
The city took on a special glow in the Fall. The swirling winds carried with them a new, fresh chill as they blew the falling leaves through the caverns of the City. New movies and plays premiered in the autumn and, of course, the sports scene was fantastic. The baseball season was winding down with the “fall classic”, the World Series. Even if our beloved Yankees or Mets were not part of it,we were sure to watch. The fall also brought on the beginning of the football season and the excitement of seeing our Giants and Jets take the field. Madison Square Garden would soon be lit up with the marquee announcing that Knicks basketball was back as well as Rangers hockey. For the sports fan, autumn in New York was a buffet of excitement.

As I know I have mentioned, New York is a “walking city”. Sure, there were plenty of cabs , buses and subways, but to get the pulse of the City, there was nothing like walking her streets.
At the arrival of Fall, the shops, department stores, grocery stores and countless restaurants all began the process of decorating for the season. First there were the pumpkins, bales of hay , scarecrows and black cats,…. next came the ceramic and cut -out turkeys, pilgrams and horns of plenty….all this followed by the Christmas trees, snowmen , Santa and Reindeer. The autumn ushered it all in and the mood was upbeat and optimistic on the streets of New York. I couldn’t get enough of it. Sometimes we would simply walk the cobblestone streets , just to get into the mood. It always succeeded.

I miss that feeling … I miss the anticipation and excitement of a child.I miss the changing of the seasons and the walks through Greenwich Village, Chelsea and of course Times Square and 5th Avenue. I feel totally blessed that I experienced it…. that until this day, I can close my eyes, take a deep breath…and be back… back to Autumn in New York. Sadly, New York has changed quite a bit, but my memories , thankfully, are of those childhood days. As the lyrics croon;

“This autumn in New York transforms the slums into Mayfair..
Autumn in New York, you’ll need no castle in Spain
Lovers that bless the dark on benches in Central Park
Greet autumn in New York, its good to live it again…”

-Don

Taxi Driver 3: The Mystery Man

As I left off on my last entry; Taxi Driver; Ladies of the Night, I had decided to keep this part time job just a while longer. As crazy as it sounds, my brief encounter with the two prostitutes had restored  a bit of the optimism I had when I first started this job. The incident with the well respected, wealthy and powerful business man ( Taxi Driver) had deflated me, embarrassed me and made me want to quit. A short ride across town with two “hookers” had restored my hope….. odd, eh?

Anyway, I found myself working the early shift one Sunday morning. The weather had changed and it was a beautiful , crisp morning in New York. Why I decided to work on that Sunday escapes me now, as Sunday, especially early on Sunday, was not a very productive time to secure good fares.

Nevertheless, after attending 9 AM  Mass, I traveled to the garage , secured my cab and took to the streets. There were not many people out and about yet and, especially for New York, the streets seemed fairly deserted. I drove around with no real destination in mind, enjoying the beautiful morning and sipping coffee. I passed a few lone pedestrians walking to unknown destinations. Johnny Cash’s version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” came to mind. Early Sundays mornings in the city always brought this song to mind, but it echoed loudly in my mind this particular morning.

After a while of my aimless meandering around the streets, I decided to make my way to Grand Central Station to see if I could perhaps pick up a decent fare from someone coming into the city to enjoy the day; perhaps going to Central Park or attending a matinee on Broadway.

As always , there was a decent line of cabs waiting outside of the train station to pick up embarking commuters. I pulled into line and determined there were about 10-12 cabs in front of me. Normally a line of 10-12 cabs moved very quickly at Grand Central, but being Sunday morning, it took almost 25 minutes for me to reach the front and secure a passenger.

He walked up to my cab, smiled and jumped in the back seat. I guessed he was in his mid-thirties, an age that I thought was pretty close to ancient at that point of my life. He had thick brown hair and looked to being good shape. He wore a Navy Pea coat ( very popular then) over a soft looking flannel shirt. The jeans he had on looked well broken in and they went well with the hiking boots he wore. He carried no luggage other than a small, leather shoulder bag. His face was pleasant and his voice soothing.

“Let’s head to Poughkeepsie “ he stated calmly.

“ Poughkeepsie?” I thought to myself, “that’s almost 95 miles upstate… probably a two hour drive. The Taxi fare would be over $100.00”

There were ways for me to handle this that were not unusual. I could simply turn off the meter ( so the company would not know I was driving a fare and charge a flat rate), but that was clearly against policy, and I didn’t need to get fired for theft … it wouldn’t sit well at home). I could also just say nothing , turn on the meter and start driving . Perhaps this guy had no clue as to what a fare would be to Poughkeepsie. I decided to be upfront and I turned around to face him;

“Umm, Yes sir…. but do you realize that we are talking almost 90 miles , one way? that could be close to $100.00, one way…. same thing coming back … you’re looking at over $200.00 cab fare.”

He didn’t blink an eye, just smiled gently and said;

“Thanks for letting me know… that’s nice of you… but, I’m aware of the distance”.

I wanted to double check and give him another option or two.

“Ok, I said….”but you could actually rent a car cheaper or even hire a private driver “.

I had turned around again to face my steering wheel, so looked for his response in the rear view mirror.

Again, a soft smile and calm words.

“ Yep, I know  that. I would like to do it this way, but thanks again”.

By now , the cabs behind me were starting to honk their horns to get me moving and out of the line.

I glanced at his face one more time, shrugged and moved out into the flow of traffic.

City Traffic was relatively light this morning, allowing me to get to the FDR parkway pretty easily. The FDR was light as well, so I made it to the Willis Ave Bridge and crossed the Harlem River pretty quickly. I was careful to use my trusty fold out map, as I was unsure of the best route to take.However, my passenger seemed to be in no rush . He sat back gazing out the window at the passing city sites. I did try to engage in some small talk; “ You going to be in the City long”?     “You have family in Poughkeepsie?”…” Are you originally from the City?”, but his answers were very short and vague; “ No, I’m leaving right after this visit”, “Nope”,  “Yea, I was born here”. 

That was it, no expansion of the conversation, no other details. He didn’t even tell me his name after I had introduced myself. It was very apparent that he wanted to be left alone so I ceased trying to have conversation. The map took us to the Major Deegan Expressway to the Taconic State Parkway. I had fond memories of the Taconic State Parkway , as that was the route we always took when I was a kid for our family gatherings at  my Aunt Mildreds and Uncle Santinos’ house in Connecticut for a long Thanksgiving weekend. How I remembered the excitement and anticipation of those drives! It felt very different today. Driving a Taxi, in college, thinking about potential careers. For  a moment, I felt myself “missing” being that kid in the far backseat of my Aunts station wagon. 

Since my passenger was content with silence I enjoyed the leisurely ride. The Taconic is a beautiful route and the hills and trees that bordered the road were a nice change from the hectic and busy concrete streets of the City.

From time to time I glanced at the rear view mirror at my passenger. He appeared to be lost in his own memories. He clutched his small bag close to him as he gazed out the window at the lovely landscape . Whatever he was thinking about had him fully engrossed .

As we finally neared Poughkeepsie, I asked him if he could direct me to his destination as I did not know the town at all. He snapped out of his private thoughts and looked out the front window of the cab.

“yea,” he said, “Take the next exit and I’ll direct you from there.”

I nodded my assent and took the next exit. The outskirts of Poughkeepsie are very rural;country homes, farmland, etc, and the exit we took put us on a narrow county road. On either side were large open spaces of land , mostly farmland . We stayed on this particular winding road for about three miles. Not a word was spoken other than my passengers direction to “ just stay on this road”. When we came to a slight fork in the road he told me to stay to the right.Since exiting the highway,I had not  passed nor seen another vehicle.While I was enjoying the beautiful scenery,  I was also very curious as to our final destination, but didn’t utter a word. 

After taking the slight right turn we drove for about a quarter of a mike when my passenger said:

“ Here we are… pull over anywhere near that fence.

On my right was a worn and clearly old wooden fence, something like you would see in an old cowboy movie. Beyond the fence was an open field, a few cows leisurely grazing . In the distance was an old, single story home…. it had clearly seen better days. I pulled over to the fence and as he got out of the cab, said;

“Keep the meter running, I won’t be too long.”

I didn’t say a word,my curiosity building. He got out of the cab and slowly walked to the old, beat-up fence. He stopped there , planted one foot on the lower portion of the fence and just gazed at the field and the old house. I watched him from my cab, wondering what was going on. A few of the cows ambled a bit closer, probably also curious about the stranger.He remained gazing at the field for at least 20 minutes . He then slowly opened his small bag and pulled out what appeared to be a photograph. ( Remember,  this was well before cell phones with cameras). He started at the photo a few minutes and then returned his gaze to the house and field. I so wanted to get out of the cab and walk up to him and ask if all was ok, but I knew that would not be the right thing to do. After another 15 minutes or so of gazing at the photo and then the field and house, he appeared to give a deep sigh and returned  the photo to his bag. He took one more long , deep look around before slowly walking back to the taxi. I quickly whipped out a newspaper , trying to appear uninterested in the scene I had just witnessed. Somehow, I knew it needed to be an “alone moment” for him. He got back in the backseat and simple said;  “ Ok, let’s head back to Grand Central Station.As he settled in, I turned to face him and said ; “ Yes, sir …on the way”

I could not help but notice that his eyes were moist.

I badly wanted ask so many things! …Things that were none of my business .

Naturally , my mind played out all kinds of scenarios in my mind. Perhaps this was a childhood home, full of wonderful memories, but now relegated to the distant past. Perhaps his parents had died here? Or maybe this was the home of a long lost love? The girl of his dreams that never became his. Was that photo a shot of her? or perhaps his patents? Was it a photo of him as a child playing with his brothers in  that field. A brother who had died in the horrible war in Vietnam? Of course, all my speculation and guessing was just that ; speculation. I wanted to know, but that was clearly not going to happen.

The only words we spoke the entire way back was a quick question I asked him.

“Would you like me to stop for a cup of coffee or anything?” 

He said that would be nice and I pulled into a rest stop to grab a couple of cups. I jumped out of the cab quickly to buy them, while he insisted he pay, 

I told him no way was he paying for a cup of coffee on this very expensive ride. His smile seemed sad as I handed him the coffee.

That was it…. no other words until I pulled back up to the front entrance of Grand Central. The bustling around the station was in sharp contrast to the strange calm and silence of the field in Poughkeepsie. He paid the very high fare and gave me a nice tip. He got out, and looked at me through the passenger side window. He looked me straight in the eyes and simply stated.

“Thank you…. I mean it….. Thank you very much”

Then, we was gone. 

I found myself staring at the station entrance as he disappeared behind the large doors. Why had he so earnestly thanked me? For not bothering him?, for respecting his private time? I will never know.

Over the years I wondered  many times about that strange trip to Poughkeepsie . I wondered about that field and that house… who lived there? what about the photo? who was in that picture? 

it’s a been  long , long time since that day. If my estimate of his age at the time was correct, the mystery man would be close to 85 today..   assuming he is still alive. From time to time ,I still  wonder……

I hope his life was happy. If those were sad tears I saw  in his eyes that day, I hope they dried up long ago…If they were happy tears… I hope they lasted a lifetime.

You meet interesting people driving a taxi cab in New York…. very interesting.

The Jefferson Market Library

The Jefferson Market Library

It started its long life as a Courthouse in the dangerous Tenderloin District of lower Manhattan. It started construction in 1874 and was completed in 1877, and by 1885, it was voted “the most beautiful building in America”. There was an actual market there, dating from 1832 and named for the late president;  Merchant sheds that sold produce and livestock  surrounded the nucleus of the building to come, an octagonal fire tower. Once the courthouse was completed it served as the 3rd Judicial District court for years.

But as things go, by the twentieth century, it started to fall into disrepair, and by 1958 it was a derelict shadow of it’s original form.  The city proposed demolition, but instead due to some very determined community activists and preservationists; it was decided to make it into a library and to join the prestigious New York Public Library System.

The Police Courtroom became the Children’s Reading Room, and the Civil Court upstairs became the Adult Reading Section. They re-did the interior of course, retaining its distinctive architecture as well as it’s period small welcoming alcoves, and its sweeping stone spiral staircase that was the interior of its famous bell tower. It was the perfect setting for books; it had all the history and romance of any one of the volumes found on the shelves. It was contemplative, serious, mysterious, and whimsical all at once, and it was a solid part of the historical fabric of the city, as much as any other building standing.

It was listed on The National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and declared a National Landmark in 1977. And just about around that time, it was also where I worked my part time job as a Page, re-stocking shelves. And that job kept me pretty busy. Scores of books were returned every hour. Remember this was before the internet; there were no smart phones, tablets or even laptops for that matter. People read real books; lots of them. And students, when given an assignment that required research would come to the library (unless they were one of the lucky ones that had an Encyclopedia at home), The Card Catalogue was the starting point in any research quest. And indeed it was what it sounds like: drawers of index cards, each one devoted to one particular book. Each one would consist of the Authors name, then the Title, year of publication, a short description, and most importantly, where the book could be found in the library. It gave shelf and section number. People could read the books there at one of the long tables in the center of the room, or check them out for two weeks (sometimes I got to work the check-out desk and that was fun). The only books you couldn’t leave the Library with were the ones in the basement Reference Room.

Given that the Library was in the heart of Greenwich Village, I came into contact with the amazing talents of a vital artistic community. I met Writers, Actors, Teachers, Community Leaders, Politicians, Social Workers and Activists; all were welcome, all had something to impart, and each left something of themselves behind.

Most importantly for me however is that it was the place I met so many wonderful people who would become, in some cases, life long friends. We all worked together, sometimes at different shifts, and bonded together even though there may have been slight age differences. We started to do things together outside of the job and realized we enjoyed many of the same things: trips to the beach at Coney Island, going to the movies, or a museum, of batting a tennis ball around the PS 41 yard or just plain stoop sitting (a lost art of city life that I will write about more in the future); all very simple things, but so important when we were all juggling school, the job and our family life. 

But the Library was the fountain from which all these friendships, and yes sometimes romances, flowed. Without it we would have never met each other. Sometimes you don’t know where or even if you will make a friend, let alone one that lasts a lifetime, and the serendipity of it all makes it that much more special.

And those friends from so long ago grew up and had their own loving families, and more than one is a Grandparent now.

We still keep in touch. The days of stocking shelves and checking out books are long gone, but the friendships and that glorious building remain.

So this time, no one favorite memory, no one time that stands out above the others, this time this is to celebrate the everyday routine of doing a job that is made better by the people you do it with.

New York City has always re-invented itself. The new version is almost unrecognizable to me now. But there are still some unchanged gems, like the Jefferson Market Library., When I gaze upon it today, I am reminded I still have a place in that city, if only in the shadows of memory. 

-Rob

And still more…..Coney Island Memories.

I honestly forget what dumb job I had when all this happened and in fact the company’s name doesn’t matter at all to the story; what does matter is one of the people employed by the company who worked  in the Warehouse. To start, he had one of the biggest heads I had ever seen; a young guy, one of the anonymous (big) faces you run into in whatever pointless place of employment you happen to be in. I hardly had to interact with him as I worked in the office, but one of the few times I did speak to him, he mentioned that he also worked part time at Coney Island running one of the rides there. Ok, so this was common ground. I told him how much we loved going there and got a kick out of all the rides, no matter how old some of them were.

“What ride do you run?” I innocently asked.

“The Spook House” he responded and looking at him, I thought well of course that would be the ride he ran.

Now a quick note here: at the time the ride’s actual name was Spookarama; like dozens of others in the country, you sat in a moving car and went into the darkness where various hopefully scary things jumped out at you. Since then, it has been appropriately realized that that was a socially incorrect name and indeed now you will find the same kind of ride called a Fun House (depending I suppose on your definition of fun).

Anyway the conversation was ending (thankfully) and I made the mistake of saying that the next time we were in Coney Island we would stop by the ride to say hello. And in fact stupidly, a couple of weeks later, we did.

It was another beautiful sunny day when we arrived off the subway and proceeded to the essential Nathan’s for much needed nourishment; beers, hot dogs, fried clams. Then it was off to the Amusement Park. Eventually after wandering around a bit, we found ourselves approaching the Fun House. I had mentioned to Les that someone I worked with operated the ride on weekends, and while the ride itself wasn’t one of our favorites, I suggested there would be no harm in stopping by a moment to say hi to my co-worker. The ride was empty, not a soul around, and we were just about to continue on our way, when the guy stepped out of what looked like a free standing wooden closet and called to me. Damn, I thought, we couldn’t very well ignore him; I had to see him at work on Monday.

“Hey” I responded, marveling at the huge face yet again. I introduced him to Les and after making some very small talk, we tried to break away and move on with our day. But he wasn’t having it.

“Hey, c’mon….on me…no charge to go on the ride..”

I felt kind of bad for him, as while a lot of the other rides had crowds waiting in line, his was empty. I looked at Les, who shrugged ok, and we accepted his offer. And that’s when things started to get a little weird.

“Great” he said “Get in a car, and I’ll be right there, just have to check on something.” With that he returned to his wooden closet (coffin?) and closed the door. We walked over to the ride and of course picked the first car in the train. Everything was kind of sad, the paint was chipped and fading, the seats were cracked, and the whole thing could have used a good power washing. After a few moments he emerged from the closet and came over to lock the bars on our seats.

I noticed the guys face was flushed and his beady eyes, lost in all that flesh, darted this way and that. I wondered what he had to check on that changed his mood so much. And then he started to babble.

“They better be careful….pushing me like that….they better watch it”.

And with that, his hand darted to a back pocket and when it reappeared, he was holding a switch blade that would have given Crocodile Dundee pause. I heard Les mutter a “Geez” under her breath and I figured I would do the old keep them talking routine, so of course I started to agree with everything he said.

“Hell yea, they had better watch it, fooling with someone like you.”

Leslie nodded in agreement; I could see he liked that so I continued:

“Dirty bastards, where do they get off treating you like that?”

I had no idea what I was talking about and didn’t really care as it seemed to be working. He put the knife away, and I was hoping he was either going to start the ride or un-hitch the seat bars. That’s when he started shaking his massive head.

“Damn them” he said “Damn them everywhere……at work…..at home….in my head.”

With that last part I stole a glance at Les who had gone a bit pale. In his head?? Did he just say In his head??

Oh boy, I remember thinking, let’s get this ride started or forget the whole thing, anything to get away from this Loon. The problem was we were the only ones on the ride, and he was the only one working there, and this was after all the Fun House you know, dark and creepy already without having the added attraction of having Norman Bates running the damn thing! Thankfully something caught his eye and he started walking back to the box, and as he did, he punched the green button on a nearby pole that started the little train of cars on their way into the dark tunnel where ghouls and goblins, witches and skeletons awaited. No problem; bring them on! I just hoped that was all we would find in the darkness.

The ride as I mentioned wasn’t particularly scary having not been updated in thirty years or so. But that didn’t mean we weren’t scared. All these dumb skeletons and ghosts kept popping out at us on noisy rusty springs, and I didn’t even notice. I was peering into the darkness beyond, keeping an eye out for Brooklyn’s version of Freddie Kruger with the big face. The cars jerked this way and that in a whiplash inducing motion; lights flashed, recorded moans and screams echoed through the tunnel. I just kept my eyes searching for anything that wasn’t part of the ride! No way are we winding up on the front of the Daily News tomorrow, I remember thinking.

“COUPLE SLAIN BY HOMICIDAL PARK EMPLOYEE!”- I could see the headline now!

Our nerves were pretty frayed by the time I saw the Exit door ahead. Anyone who saw us as we emerged from the ride would have had to think that this must be the most frightening ride ever. Little did they know it wasn’t the ride at all. Our car slammed into the door and it swung open onto beautiful sunshine; freedom was moments away.

“SO” a voice behind me said loudly.

I jumped so high I slammed my knees into the front of the car and the safety bar pummeled my stomach. Where the hell did he come from?!

The huge head came into view, almost blotting out the sun.

“SO” he repeated “Did ya like the ride?” he growled.

My heart slowed long enough for me to nod and mutter assurances that it was definitely the best ride ever! The train came to a stop and he jumped off the car behind us and unlocked the safety bars – Great! Now we at least could run if we had to!

But of course we didn’t need to. We stood there shivering in the heat and thanked him for the free ride, and then turned to walk away.

“I was there ya know….right there with you….the whole way..”

I stopped in my tracks and turned back to him.

“What? What are you saying?” Although I was afraid I already knew.

“I was there the whole time, two cars behind you; got in when you went into the tunnel” He smiled a proud smile.

I returned a very weak one, feeling my stomach turn.

“Wow…how about that?” I said as I grabbed Leslie’s arm and started to walk away faster.

I knew what I had to do.

First: Get to Ruby’s on the Boardwalk for a couple of really big Bourbons

And Second: Go in on Monday and quit my job.

Angels and Demons; both walked the crowded corridors of Coney Island.

I got to know both.

-Rob

More Coney Island Memories.

So there were the classics, the rides we went on every time, ones that never failed to thrill; then there were the ones that were fun but certainly didn’t get the heart beating any faster. And then there were the ones we went on only once, because once was all it took to learn our lesson. These were the ones that left you pale, nauseous, dizzy, confused and in possible need of medical attention or a quick death. There weren’t many of these, but one stands out in memory. It was appropriately named……The Hell Hole.

You entered under a sign that read: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. You climbed up a short flight of stairs, then down another one before you walked through a door that opened into what appeared to be a huge barrel. You stood, side by side, spaced out along the walls in a circle facing each other. It was hot and sticky and smelly; the sweet aroma of body perspiration mixing easily with the faint but unmistakably whiffs of piss and puke.

Hey just another ride in America’s playground right?

Ok so the idea of the ride was the barrel you are standing in starts to spin, and the faster it goes, the more centrifugal force is created, the stronger it pins you to the wall behind you. I was already slightly ill from the smell but then I started to get really worried; roller coasters? No problem, but enclosed spaces that spin around? I didn’t do dizzy well, and this was becoming the Godfather of all Dizziness. I mean this was NASA training dizziness! Around and around, faster and faster; I felt my cheeks being pulled back and if I looked anything like the fools on the other side of the barrel, I was in real trouble!!

And then, just when I had finished my tenth Hail Mary, beseeching the Holy Mother to stop this Godforsaken barrel from spinning….just then, the floor disappeared!!! It just dropped away leaving nothing but a dark abyss below. WTF??!! What happens now?! I thought! I tried to turn my head to see more, but it was slammed back into the wall, the force being too tough which was probably a good thing, because just then I saw a pillow of projectile vomit go shooting by me, trapped as well, going around and around, searching for someplace to land!!

I finally sensed the ride slowing down ever so slightly, and I thought I felt my body slide just a bit down the wall….but slide into what? There was nothing there anymore.

Of course the ride was designed so that as the speed lessened and the forces ebbed, and bodies started to slide, the floor would snap back into position, as if it had never been away. I started to mumble thank you’s to God, the Lord Jesus, Mother Mary, and whomever else had a hand in getting me out of this goddamned thing alive.

But I was just barely alive.

When the barrel finally stopped its spinning, when the floor was back in place, when we all crumbled in place, and when the pile of vomit finally found a face to splat into; when all was back to the smelly normal place we had started from, then I tried to get up. I almost couldn’t do it, my legs were so wobbly. My friends and I helped each other out of the blasphemous contraption into the sunshine and Coney Island air, which at that moment smelled like the top of a glacial mountain or a garden in Hawaii, it was so blessedly welcome. But I realized I couldn’t stay standing for long, my head was sweaty and my equilibrium was shot, I was reeling this way and that, and I decided that the best thing to do was get down on all fours and crawl. I started to do just that making my way to the sidewalk outside. Kids were jumping over me, laughing, having a good time making fun of the drunk guy. I wished I were drunk!  That would sure beat the feeling I was having of being slowly dizzied to death!!

I must have looked the part, as they next thing I saw from my vantage point on the sidewalk was the dependable toes of a Policeman’s shoes.

“Now where do ya think yer going my boy?” he asked.

I tried to look up but almost threw up; tried shaking by head but thought better of it, tried to speak and heard myself gibber.

“Now son, we can’t have ya crawling around the sidewalk; not on my beat anyway. By all rights I should run ye in – Jeez drunk at one in the afternoon..”

Mustering up all the physical movement I could, I pointed a shaking finger back at the ride behind me and the sign….Abandon…..indeed…

The cop’s face cleared and I could see he understood.

“Sweet Lord, son ye weren’t fool enough to go into the Hell Hole were ya?” he laughed.

I was able to just nod the slightest bit.

“Ah you folks never learn. Here we go…stand up”.

And with that he helped me to my feet, my legs still shaking. He was kind enough to guide me to a nearby bench, where he plopped me down and sat next to me.

New York’s finest.

“Just breathe son…you’ll be alright…it takes a while”.

And I did just as he said, just sat there, breathing slowly letting my head recover.

After a few moments I heard the unmistakable sound of somebody retching nearby, and retching violently. I looked at the cop, who smiled back at me.

“Let me guess……friends of yours?”

And finally I was able to smile back.

He waited until he was sure I was recovered enough to walk steadily, and then with a tip of his hat, he strode off back into the crowds, and he too was gone, another savior in the -wilderness that was Coney Island.

-RobHH

 

 

 

 

Coney Island Memories

Coney Island was one of the “city beaches” that people from all over the city went to on those hot Summer days. There were others, but Coney Island also had an Amusement Park! The island itself was one of the Outer Barrier islands along the southern stretch of Long Island, but it ceased to become an island when early in the 20th century, a land fill operation turned into more of a peninsula. It is of course in Brooklyn. The area was discovered by Verazzano in the early 1500’s followed up by Henry Hudson, both of whom have some serious real estate named after them. Through a whole lot of land dealing, not to mention the handoff of the city from the Dutch to the English, the area became a perfect vacation spot for the ever increasingly crowded island of Manhattan.The Amusement Park soon followed and from around 1880 through the end of World War II, it was the largest one in the country. Originally it was three competing parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park. By the 1970’s however, most of them had been bulldozed for cheap housing, and only a small part remained, a sad reminder of what was once acres and acres of some of the finest and innovative rides in the world.

There are indeed a couple of rides that have survived that Golden Age of Amusement Parks: The Cyclone of course, that wonderful monster of a Roller-Coaster, is still operating. The Parachute Jump which isn’t operating any more (probably for the best as the idea was to re-create a parachute jump with a person attached to a cable with 250 feet to fall!). And the Wonder Wheel, a 150 foot Ferris Wheel that was built in 1920. The design was different from the standard Ferris Wheel which had each car or cabin attached to the hub of the wheel. The Wonder Wheel however had a few cars were not directly attached, so as the wheel rotated, the cars would also slide along a set of rails between the hub and the rim, making it feel like the whole ride was collapsing beneath you. Brilliant!! The ride has been in continuous operation since it opened, and it was designated a New York City Landmark in 1989.

Leslie and I would go to Coney Island frequently, sometimes alone, often with friends. The lure of a Nathan’s hot dog and fries with a cold draft beer was hard to resist (sometimes followed up by an order of fried clams- Heaven!). We would eat, walk the Boardwalk, and go on a few rides each visit. It was not a bad way to spend a day off, it didn’t cost much and we always felt like we had a mini-vacation! We went on the Cyclone every time; that was the only must do every visit; the other rides we chose on the spur of the moment.

There was one very special time however, unlike any other visit. This time we did the usual after the D Train dropped us off; we got in line for the Cyclone, rode that two or three times, each time more breath taking than the last (built 90 odd years ago, I still think it is the gold standard for Roller Coasters and would put it up against any modern one). After that we grabbed a couple of beers, strolled around people watching and thinking about what to do next, eat or another ride first. This time, Les suggested we go on the Wonder Wheel, which we hadn’t been on in some time.
“The Wonder Wheel?” I said “Pretty tame after the Cyclone don’t you think?”
“Come on, let’s do it. It’s the best view in town!”

She convinced me, and off we went. The place was pretty empty as a rule in those days, and besides the Cyclone, we didn’t really have to wait in line for too long to get on any other ride. So we went right up to the attendant standing by an open car, and handed him the tickets we had purchased at the booth and got in and sat down on the bench. We sat side by side, so we could view the beach from above together. The Attendant, looking bored, started to close the door, and just as he did, at the very last moment, a dog, white and tan, and kind of shaggy, jumped in the car. Where he had come from we had no idea. The Attendant, I guess assuming the dog was ours didn’t bat an eye and proceeded to close the door, locking the dog in with us. I started to call out to him as he walked away:
“Yo…Yo…the dog! …the dog!…there’s a dog….”

Too late. The ride started and we began the slow ascent into the Brooklyn sky. We looked at each other surprised and a bit at a loss, concerned for the safety of the dog – after all he wasn’t strapped in or anything, and uncertain of what we should do, as if there was anything we could do at that point. The dog however sat calmly on the bench, looking out over the park, not seeming to have a care in the world. In fact, he acted like he did this all the time, and for all we knew maybe he did!
Up we went, the ground quickly receding beneath us, and I remember somewhat stupidly starting to “calm” the dog down.
“It’s ok pal….it’s ok….don’t worry…we’ll take care of you”.
He barked happily back at me everytime I spoke. He seemed to be telling me “of course it will be alright, sit back and enjoy the ride”.
And after a few moments I did.

And there we went all the way up and at an angle where the car was due to slide down the cable, seemlingly out of control. I worried the affect it might have on the dog. I needn’t have. He simply widened his stance and with the confidence of a subway rider who refused to hold onto the strap hanger or a pole, he swayed this way and that as the car tilted. He was a pro. He would bark happily at us every few minutes, and finally we both just broke down laughing at the absurdity and the pure joy of the whole experience! There we were, 150 feet in the air above Coney Island, on a Ferris Wheel with the happiest dog in Brooklyn.

It was quite simply, perfect. Another serendipitous example of “Only in New York”.

By the time we started our descent, I was sitting next to the dog, hugging him, as he barked and we laughed, and I suddenly didn’t want the ride to end. I wanted to just stay there, riding forever around and around! And of course I had the thought that the dog needed a home and we should immediately adopt him, but Leslie, the voice of reason said:
“No, don’t you see, he lives here in the park; someone is taking care of him, he’s well fed and his coat isn’t even dirty at all.”
Damn – she was right. Still I started to object:
“But….but…” I mean after all, most dogs don’t hitch rides on Ferris Wheels with total strangers!!
“It’s what he does” she said “don’t you see…..his job is to make people happy.”
When she said that, I started to tear up. This beautiful child had certainly done his job well this day, I thought. And I envied him; after all what job is more precious and important than making people happy?

The ride stopped. The Attendant, as blasé as ever opened the door and the dog jumped down and raced off. We got off the ride, missing him already. But as if to remind us of the lesson he had imparted that day, as we started to walk away, there he was standing next to the Cotton Candy stand. He glanced in our direction, and gave one more glorious, joyful bark and then he was gone. ….

Lost in the magic that was Coney Island.

-Rob