Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Grants

There was always a segment on Bugs Bunny lifted wholesale from "You Bet Your Life" when the very Groucho-like host would ask, "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?"

The answer to older audiences should be obvious, but the younger, more paranoid mind, could spin whole paranoid histories while the animated old men whispered their answer to the host. 

I saw the tomb today, the General Grant Nationsl Memorial, a surprise white marble monument across the street from the fourth playground we tried while shopping neighborhoods in Harlem. We performed plays on the stairs and danced amid the columns, eating up time while we awaited the very unusual visiting times. 

General Ulysses S. Grant keeps odd hours. 

Starting at ten and going to four--that's not the odd part--the space is only open every other hour. The custodian and I assume Grant historian unlocks the glass door and what tourists there are file into the great, echoing atrium under the marble dome. White marble dominates. A pair of recessed alcoves opposite one another at the far wall display maps showing Civil War battles (guns) and those in which General Grant directly contributed (guns). Head down either staircase between the alcoves and you will enter the lower space, where bronze busts of other Civil War generals keep watch over Grant and what I assume to be his wife in enormous sarcophagi visible from the upper floor by a great circular hole surrounded by a white marble railing. 

The custodian/historian has a tiny corner for maps, flags and relics, which none of the visitors bothered to consult. 

How strange that we could see the tomb today, to enter a piece of history and, more importantly, to answer the age-old adage with, "Mr. and Mrs. Grant."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Green Haircut

My chores used to include mowing the lawn. I liked it best when the lawn was shaggy. I could see I was making a difference. I feel the same way about haircuts. Living with expanding mushroom cloud of salt and pepper locks in the interim is the hard part. I don't know what I'll do when I hit old age and the old head fur starts thinning, but shaving looks more attractive. That and skull caps. 

Back in Chicago, our condo had lots of living space but just a concrete alley in place of a lawn, or any greenery, really. A couple summers in, I bought planter boxes and hung them off the fence along the rear concrete walkway, planting flowers and vegetables. The squirrels got most of the produce, I think just out of spite. 

How else do you explain the number of peppers with one rodent nibble dropped on the ground? How many times does it take a squirrel to realize, "I don't like the bright growing thing. Eat it/not eat it?" before the squirrel chooses the latter. Forever, apparently. 

In college, I blazed and maintained trails, built bridges and not coincidentally contracted a severe case of poison ivy on my legs. Lesson? Always wear pants, even when the heat makes you sweat an impression of moisture shorts. 

Our fearless leader, Ken Havens, led the gang with humor and an uncanny sense of good scavenging. At some point we went from hauling gravel with a four-wheeler to loading up a heavy duty Ford truck and trailer. Ken got a lot of equipment retired--like him--from the Miami University office of facilities management. He was thoughtful, slow to speak, loved swimming and doughnuts and struggled with carpal tunnel. 

A gentleman on campus once quipped to Ken that he would have loved to buy one of the bat-winged mowers they used to turn what had once been farmland into a luxurious, tamed Kentucky bluegrass lawn. Ken thought the gentleman was hoping to buy one at Sears and didn't want to break it to him that the mower cost forty thousand dollars. 

New York City uses mowers not unlike the University's, only here in Sheep Meadow, like so much in the city, they are dwarfed by a grander plan.

I wonder if there is a grander plan for me, and if some piece of it might call for lying in this great green bed. I certainly hope whatever mower life is using to cut me down doesn't let me get too shaggy before I can. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I saw a plant spiraling up the side of a townhouse between Columbus and Amsterdam on 78th Street. The Upper West Side boasts some great architecture but the fact that somebody not only put this here but also has the patience to tend to it while it grew up the side of the building blows my mind. 

How long would it take to grow this monstrosity? (And I mean "monstrosity" in the good way, not the "I'm sucking out all your building blood" way.) The roots start in the ground and the trunk twines through the railing, in some parts growing around the irons. It peaks at the top, and looks a bit like a spiral staircase on the way up. In winter, it probably looks like some dead thing, but come springtime... wow. 

New York is an impatient city despite a history that stretches back half a millennia. People in Manhattan have time or money but rarely both. And the moneymakers don't stay put. Here, someone put down roots, and another lovely thing bloomed. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The High Line

Do yourself a favor and walk the High Line. It's an oasis of greenery built atop retired tracks sandwiched between the Hudson and the West Village and Chelsea. 

It's a great example in city planning of the Field of Dreams effect. "If you build it, they will come." The greenery added value to the surrounding buildings, which attracted investors who turned to unique design to distinguish from the comparatively blank brick and steel facades that used to line the walkway. The resultant feedback loop turned a former railway into a mile (and someday, hopefully miles) long meditation on the intersection between man and nature. 

Like anything New York City that's free and good, it will be mobbed just at the time you would most want to enjoy it. Elevators and walkways will be under construction at inconvenient times. 

This is the first place on the island of Manhattan where I was able to smell fresh cut grass. I live next to Central Park! How did I manage that? 

Monday, May 12, 2014


I invented the theory of Conservation of Scaffolding in New York City to explain the fact that, in any given moment in our neighborhood, about 25% of the buildings appear to be draped in scaffolding and fabric. I don't know what work exactly gets done on this scaffolding. Candidates include: sandblasting, window replacement, rappelling for fun and profit... (?)

Today, I saw a crew removing some of the scaffolding at the end of our block at Central Park West. Hooray! Then, walking farther west, another set of scaffolding was being erected in front of the Duane Reade at Columbus. Damn.

I love and hate scaffolding. When it rains, scaffolding gives you another shelter from the storm, a place to shake off your umbrella and watch Nature take a shot at scrubbing this city clean. Just make sure you don't bump into all of the other umbrella bearers underneath it. When the sun shines again, though, scaffolding is just one of many, many things that will remind you that you live as a Morlock now, unable to see the full might of the star that gives all things life. On the plus side, you won't worry much about a sunburn while you walk the streets.

Don't try to walk underneath scaffolding without some awareness of the kid riding your shoulders, either. While benign to all except lion hunters and NBA players, all of the wicked angles and jutting work lights pose a danger to your kid, especially after she has given up walking and refuses to walk home one more step without sixteen meltdowns. You might find yourself doing my same dance, weaving between people and vertical bars, allowing yourself to be crushed by forty pounds of pure angry as you duck below the far-more-dangerous horizontal ones.

Then just wait.

Just wait until your kid decides that all of the playground climbing was just rehearsal for the real test of body and soul as she begins to scale scaffolding despite all of your warnings to the contrary. Sometimes, I wish they would cover scaffolding with the same clear plastic spikes they use to keep pigeons from roosting and pooping on overhangs. You wouldn't even have to put it everywhere, especially if it was hard to see, because kids wouldn't know and would start to remember to exercise caution after the millionth time they sliced open their hands.

Maybe I'm wrong about the reason for scaffolding, and therefore my own reaction. Instead of getting upset that crews are hiding these historical facades and blue sky from view, I should celebrate the fact that the buildings are getting their own exoskeletons. Godzilla comes out at the end of the week. It's high time we figured out some way to defend this city against monster lizard attacks. Go, go, scaffolding!

Friday, May 09, 2014

Watch the Skies

The collision of Upper East Side and Central Park produces some strange weather. Cloudy with a chance of steel lightning. Run while you can. You need the exercise. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

O Bathroom My Bathroom

The best public restrooms in the city are widely considered to be the ones at Bryant Park. I learned this from a bus tour I took in Times Square.

Over the last year+, our family has become adept at finding and using public toilets. Finally discarding pull-ups for bedtime, Simone officially ended her potty training shortly in the new year. Hooray! Still, given that this is all a bit new to her, we are dealing with an unknown quantity when she clutches at her bladder and says, "I have to use the bathroom!"

Quickly and quietly, we enter crisis mode.

Few playgrounds in our neighborhood have public bathrooms, which is a real shame. The Diana Ross Playground just inside the park, uptown from the American Museum of Natural History was our very first, and I still remember taking Simone there during a break in the cold weather just a few weeks after moving to New York City. It's so close to the museum, though, that we have at least once used our membership just to use the bathroom. Membership also took a couple blocks off our cold walk home as Simone and I returned from an adventure at an indoor play space in Harlem.

The Adventure Playground at 69th and Central Park West also suffers for lack of bathrooms, although Le Pain Quotidien, a small cafe inside Central Park just above Sheep Meadow has some, often crowded on sunny days.  Farther down, Heckscher Playground offers one-stop shopping for swings, large boulders, sand pits, AstroTurf and rubberized terrain, water features in the summer and not one but two sets of bathrooms, one inside the official playground area and the other outside. (I don't know why they split it.)

On the east side of the park, the Billy Johnson Playground offers a huge granite slide that shows every evidence of having at one point been a water slide, a stone arch, sand pit, picnic tables, baby swings, but, alas, no bathrooms. Parents in need of immediate bathroom relief have to travel about a quarter mile south to Central Park Zoo, where (yet another) membership hath its privileges, or a quarter mile north to the cafe near the Alice in Wonderland statues.

Of course, at any time, any one of these bathrooms might be under repair, cleaned, occupied by other parents or generally genial homeless people who just need to poop. Here, it helps that Simone is starting to go to the bathroom by herself but is still small enough to accompany me in emergencies.

Near Simone's school, Bleecker Playground recently renovated their bathrooms, which are usually fairly clean and stocked with toilet paper. Neighborhood parents use the playground as a dumping ground for still-functional-but-outgrown toys, which is why I was overconfident about bringing and not locking up Simone's scooter, and also why it was ironic that that very day I had just been talking about how honest most New Yorkers are. One stolen scooter and many tears later, I learned my lesson: bring the lock.

Minetta Playground's bathrooms are the McDonald's next door. That's just how it is.

Washington Square Park also recently updated and upgraded its bathrooms. Simone and I once stood in line for the men's room as two people in wheelchairs inspected it for ADA accessibility. I'm all for fairness, but it's hard to be patient while your daughter's doing the pee pee dance on the ground next to you. They promise a family restroom soon, but not now, so their having said that to me felt like a cruel tease. The new bathrooms are a huge improvement over the old system, which was about a half mile hike to a coffee shop.

Sometimes, businesses will take pity on you. New York City real estate being what it is, not even every restaurant has a bathroom. Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side put its bathroom right next to the children's section, which to me is a win-win scenario, and vastly superior to the bathroom at the nearby McDonald's, which I hate using even if we ate at McDonald's, which Simone never wants not to do. Starbucks is the weapon of last resort, but, be warned, it's EVERYBODY'S weapon of last resort, which means (more) long lines and/or punch key or token access.