Roosevelt Island and nearby

almost from QueensI took a vacation day Monday, before my training classes midweek, to explore some offbeat places in New York. I’d never been to Roosevelt Island before, so I got that tram ticket punched. The park at the southern tip of the island was closed, but the views across the East River from just outside are just as good.

northern lightAt the northern point is a lovely, tiny lighthouse, dwarfing the Triborough Bridge in this perspective.

still a few aroundBack on the “mainland” of Manhattan, a painted advertising sign persists on 2nd Avenue. I look at the sloped lettering of PORTOVAULT and now I understand where Ben Katchor’s signs come from

In the down under

Two trip reports of illicit underground (sewers, subways, and steam tunnels) explorations of New York by Steve Duncan and Erling Kagge offer different perspectives. Jacki Lyden’s long piece for Weekend ATC is relatively straightforward, albeit with a dose of Radiolab sound effects. Alan Feuer’s diary for the New York Times, on the other hand, takes a hard left turn midway. The story turns into the story of the documentors of the project.

Wednesday, 12:15 a.m.
114 Delancey Street, Manhattan

…there are problems: the entourage has gotten too large. Everyone wants to go into the subways: me and a photographer from The Times; Jacki and an NPR producer; Andrew the videographer; even Will Hunt, the spotter. There were four of us in the sewers; now there are eight. What, I think, has happened to the intimate expedition?

Steve senses the concern and hastily announces that he, Andrew and Erling will go ahead; the rest of us can follow at a distance. I fail to see the point in exploring without the “explorers.” I confront Steve, tell him this is useless. Is this an expedition, or a media event? Disillusioned, I leave.

4:03 a.m.
West 181st Street, Manhattan

From home, I e-mail Steve and Erling: “I understand why you guys wanted to publicize this poetic adventure. … Unfortunately, the thing that wanted to be publicized was slowed down and rendered moot by the distracting number of people you brought in.” I add that it’s become impossible to describe two men on a journey when, in fact, a media army — with sound booms, cameras, video equipment — is in tow. I wish them well, offer no hard feelings.

3:32 p.m.
620 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan

An e-mail and an epiphany. The epiphany: When Ernest Shackleton went to the South Pole in the early 1900s, he himself documented the journey in a diary. Not so, in 2010, in media-soaked New York, where, it dawns on me, the crowd of chroniclers is fitting in its own way.

Another twist in Feuer’s version of the story that is more This American Life than The Gray Lady is the abrupt end to their visit with the woman known as Brooklyn, dweller in the Amtrak tunnel: B.K., her boyfriend, shows up and throws the whole lot of them out.

I’m uncomfortable with Lyden’s lack of reciprocal acknowledgment that another reporter and photographer were accompanying the urban spelunkers.

At any rate, the naturalist in me finds it interesting that one of Duncan and Kagge’s routes follows Tibbetts Brook through the Bronx, a waterway long ago confined underground by pavement.

Franzen decoded

Richard Katz has just knocked off work on a construction job on White Street, in Tribeca, on page 198 of Freedom:

Darkness had fallen. The snow had dwindled to a flurry, and the nightly nightmare of Holland Tunnel traffic had commenced. All but two of the city’s subway lines, as well as the indispensable PATH train, converged within three hundred yards of where Katz stood.

For suitable values of “three hundred yards.” If Richard is still somewhere on White Street, he can’t be both within 300 yd of the 7th Avenue IRT (under Varick Street) and also within 300 yd of the F (under Essex Street). Even if we smear Richard along all of Canal Street, he is still not that near the stations of PATH trains (which take him home to New Jersey) at World Trade Center (to the south) and Christopher Street (to the north).

But let’s be generous, and place Richard in sufficient proximity to all the lines that run in Manhattan, one way or another, south of Canal Street, leaving the L (14th Street) and the 7 (42nd Street) as the “all but two.” And we still haven’t accounted for the G: it serves New York City, just not Manhattan.

Riding the rails

When I interned in New York back in the late 1970s, my colleague/mentor Glen taught me how to ride the Long Island Rail Road in comfort. The rolling stock was fitted with five seats across, with the center aisle dividing them into a bench of three and a bench of two. Trouble was, there was really only enough room for four to sit easily. So what the two of us did, per Glen’s instructions, was to sit in the three-seat bench “and look big.”

The other thing I remember—dimly—about commuter rail in New York was the bar cars. It turns out that the tradition of alcohol service is still going strong in the New York metro, with the added assist of bar carts on or near the platforms. Michael M. Grynbaum reports on new data released by the MTA about differential tipple preferences between Metro-North and LIRR riders.

Ready for Maker Faire

Antique Trades Dept.: As A.G. Sulzberger reports, blacksmiths for New York’s parks department still hand-build hoops for the city’s basketball courts. The dare-we-say artisan rims are sturdy, and hence cost-effective.

They have survived endless rounds of slam dunks, and occasionally served as chin-up bars and, for the especially nimble, even as spectator seating. Once, the blacksmiths strung a cable around a rim inside the workshop, which they used to tow a van halfway off the ground.

Late-arriving post card from New York

Leta and I visited her cousin and various family in New York for the Thanksgiving holiday. It was a trip of initialisms: Sam explained all about TBIs; we rode the new R-160s, which are running on the Broadway line under a pilot program, which line Leta has taken to calling the NRBQ line. We found a nifty organic eatery in Brooklyn Heights called Siggy’s (Aliens eat free!); brunch with Dennis at Junior’s.

sunny daychecking the tea thingsMuseum stops for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the new Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea: works of art performed for the removal of physical or mental obstacles.

fadera world of pupsVarious gawping at the streetscape.

A mystery: 5

David Pogue prepares for a panel on taxicab technology, and along the way figures out something that I never quite understood: the difference between New York’s medallion cabs and “black car” services:

There’s a good reason why there’s no still no wireless way to let taxi drivers know you want a cab. Or, rather, a bad reason.

In the 1970’s, New York made a deal with the taxi drivers and the “black car” drivers. The rule: Black cars aren’t allowed to pick up passengers spontaneously hailing on the street; those people are for the yellow cabs only. On the other hand, in New York, you can’t call ahead for a yellow cab; that would eat into the black cars’ business.

There are, in fact, smartphone apps that let you summon a cab to your position, like TaxiMagic for the iPhone. But they can’t call cabs in New York. Why? Because summoning a taxi like this is against the law. That’s not hailing; it’s prearrangement, and that’s the domain of the black cars.

I don’t know. If I were the taxi union, I’d argue that the definition of “hailing” has to change with the times. Surely sending out an “I’m here! Come pick me up” signal, by Taxi Magic, text message or whatever, is little more than a modern-day version of sticking your arm out at the curb.

I also didn’t know that there are three times as many black cars as medallion cabs, but this makes sense when you consider the particular political-economic pressures that have affected the supply of medallions over the years.

Or, How a mistake by the fabrication shop became a design element

Via The Morning News, Paul Shaw tells “The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway” in a deliciously-illustrated nine-page essay, which includes digressions into the history of the system map, the Chrystie Street Connection snafu, and a refresher on 1970’s-era type technology.

Rogers Peet

Rogers Peet Co.I was rereading J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which Sally had graciously printed from her copy of the New Yorker archives (19 June 1965), and there on page 111 was further evidence of Sarah and Adelaide’s favorite haberdasher. Jeez Louise, if their idea of fashion on the mid-1960s was the “Eton-style cap of Arnel triacetate and cotton blend in Oxford weave” (the ugly helmet on the right), they deserved to go out of business.

Squeezing the melons

Adelaide and Sarah summon the names of a few defunct retailers in “Marry the Man Today.” Adelaide’s intro begins:

At Wanamaker’s and Saks and Klein’s,
A lesson I’ve been taught:
You can’t get alterations
On a dress you haven’t bought.

Saks Fifth Avenue (founded by Andrew Saks, and hence no apostrophe) is still with us, after the usual bewildering chain of ownership exchanges. I didn’t know that Saks had merged with Gimbel’s by 1923, but maintaining its distinct branding. Middlebrow Gimbel’s, of course, has passed on. When I was in graduate school, I bought a great sweater from the downtown Philadelphia store.

The Philadelphia institution founded by John Wanamaker, now merged into Hecht’s and then Macy’s, once had a million-square-foot flagship store in New York at 770 Broadway. Klein’s would be S. Klein, On the Square, also long gone from Union Square.

But the real poser comes in the first bridge:

ADELAIDE: Slowly introduce him to the better things, respectable, conservative, and clean.
SARAH: Reader’s Digest!
ADELAIDE: Guy Lombardo!
SARAH: Rogers Peet!
SARAH: Galoshes!
ADELAIDE: Ovaltine!

As punctuated in the libretto, Rogers Peet sounds like the name of a self-help guru from the first half of the century, someone like Norman Vincent Peale, Émile Coué, or Dale Carnegie. But it turns out to designate the merger of the businesses of men’s clothiers Marvin N. Rogers and Charles Bostwick Peet. Rogers, Peet & Co. was a nineteenth-century retailing innovator, introducing tags that identified fabric content and price (no haggling!) and a money-back guarantee. The final Rogers, Peet store closed in the mid-1980s.

Summer Garden

Naturally, Miss Dawn Astra reciprocates Ambrose Hammer’s love, because all the time she is Julius Smung’s sweet pea, the best she ever gets is a free taxi ride now and then, and Julius seldom speaks of her as an artist. To tell the truth, Julius is always beefing about her playing the part of a strip dancer, as he claims it takes her too long to get her clothes back on when he is waiting outside the Summer Garden for her, and the chances are Ambrose Hammer is a pleasant change to Miss Dawn Astra as Ambrose does not care if she never gets her clothes on.

—Damon Runyon, “So You Won’t Talk!”

The various venues known as the Winter Garden are well-known in New York, but I had never heard of the Summer Garden. So far, all I’ve been able to turn up is a 19th-century theater also known as Wallack’s Theatre. Not much on dates of operation, but by 1937 the repertory at Wallack’s seems to have moved downscale.


Ellen Barry and James Estrin follow Colin Grubel, graduate student in biology at Queens College, to Swinburne Island in Lower New York Bay. Swinburne hosts a colony of Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), whose numbers have rebounded, like those of other top predators, in response to the DDT ban. Grubel’s field work involves collecting cormorant boli, in order to determine what food items they’re taking. (And thus perhaps to foster greater acceptance of the birds by fishermen, who see them as competition.) Fortunately for Grubel, the birds are very forthcoming with their regurgitation.

“I’ve been hit on occasion,” he said. “In some ways it’s almost this great personal experience between you and the birds.”