Monday, September 29, 2008

Brooklyn's free-for-all

There are few things in New York that are free for the taking. The New York Philharmonic provides free concerts in the parks, but only in the summer and you have to contend with large crowds and people chatting while the music plays. The Staten Island Ferry is always free, but who wants to go to Staten Island? The Tour de Bronx is a free bike ride around the city's only borough on the US mainland, but you have to ride around the Bronx.

When I lived on the Upper East Side, used furniture could be found for free on the sidewalk any day of the week. The beginning and end of the month were the best times to find a slightly-used bookcase or weathered-but-still-useful futon. A discriminating scavenger might be able to furnish an entire apartment with cast-offs if there was a run of good weather. (Rain tends to devalue items left on the street.) I took full advantage of this arrangement while I lived in the neighborhood. I still have a DVD shelf that I picked up from the trash room of my old apartment building, and I left my old love seat and several discarded pieces of office furniture on the street when I moved out. They were gone within hours.

In Park Slope in Brooklyn, it's possible to find a good deal on street furniture, but it's more likely that you'll find used books, CDs, and DVDs or videotapes on apartment stoops on any given day. Park Slope has an unofficial swap meet mentality. If you have a box full of old books that you don't want to keep but can't bear to give away, you leave them on the street outside your building. Other residents know that these books are free for the taking. I've seen lots of weekend stoop sales as well, but I don't know why anyone would bother with that when you can find the same junk a block away in someone else's castoffs.

The free stuff phenomenon isn't limited to the sidewalks. Residents in my apartment building leave old books and CDs on the mail-drop table just inside the main doors. Just this weekend someone left behind two or three boxes of books and stacks of CDs. The problem is that these are usually books or CDs that no one wants. Kate was excited to find what appeared to be a Peter Gabriel box set a few weeks ago, only to be disappointed when I read the box and discovered that it was actually an old PC game (for Windows 95!) with music by Peter Gabriel. She did pick up several CDs by The Rembrandts, none of which had the theme to "Friends." Most of the time the CDs are old, crappy albums by established stars or recordings by artists I've never heard of. Since I live in a building with families with small children, there are plenty of baby books and childrens' videos left behind. I've seen multiple copies of "What To Expect When You're Expecting" (possibly the same one getting passed around) and this weekend's offering included "The Baby Whisperer." I will admit to taking advantage of the book selection: I picked up "Liar's Poker" by Michael Lewis a few weeks back and I passed up a copy of William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" only because I already own it and lent it to a friend. Leaving stuff out for free is only putting off the inevitable trashing of said items. The superintendent takes whatever doesn't get picked up by fellow residents to the trash after a day or two.

However, this weekend in addition to the books and CDs someone left the armchair seen above. (Note the "free!" sign, just in case the placement wasn't clear.) Who could resist such a find? Alas, I was running out the door and didn't have time to think about how much I would want this chair, and when I got home it was gone. I'll have to get a faux-Victorian paisley-covered armchair somewhere else.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It's about time

When I heard that Matt Millen is out as the Detroit Lions president/GM, my first thought was this Simpsons quote (originally posed to Krusty the Klown):

"Why now? Why not five years ago?"
I think I said the same thing when the Knicks finally fired Isiah Thomas.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A close call this morning

I ride my bike in Prospect Park in the mornings a few days a week. A few weeks ago, another cyclist was killed at 8th Avenue and President Street when he tried to ride through a red light and a school bus speeding down 8th Avenue struck him. That intersection is on my way home from the park. I think about that accident on all my rides, but especially the morning ones when I might be slightly less alert from just having woken up. 8th Avenue is one-way and drivers tend to treat it like a highway. I've ridden home along 8th Avenue a few times and drivers have honked and shouted at me to get out of the way as they speed by. It's frightening.

However, this morning's near-miss was not at 8th Avenue, but at 5th Avenue, and it didn't involve a speeding car but a slow-moving one. I stopped at the light on the north side of 5th Avenue, waiting to cross and ride the last half-block to my building. There was another cyclist behind me listening to music on her iPod and singing along, and a car beside me. The light turned green and I started forward. That's when I saw a white car out of the corner of my left eye. I slammed on the brakes as a police cruiser eased past me through the intersection in what was a parking lane. The squad car hadn't been there a second before the light changed, which is why I hadn't noticed it. If I'd kept going the car would have hit me, albeit at about 5 MPH, but they still would have hit me. The cop car kept going down 5th Avenue, staying in the parking lane to get around another car in the traffic lane. As I rode down President Street, slightly shaken up, a minivan pulled up next to me and the driver said "I guess your life wasn't worth anything to them." I replied "They could have turned their lights on, at least." Someone behind us honked, and that was the end of our conversation.

I've had my share of close calls since I started riding in New York, but this was the first one with the police. I hope it's the last.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

quick thoughts on the 2008 NYC Century

I had planned to write my usual long post about the Century, from waking up at 4:30 AM to riding across the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, to finishing at 6:30 PM and getting home at 7:45 PM. But that's about the entire thing in a nutshell, and if you want a more detailed breakdown, you can read the write-up I did for last year's century or the year before.

One major difference in 2008 was that with my move to Brooklyn, I was no longer a few minutes from the start in Central Park. Instead of getting up at 5 AM and practically rolling out of bed to the start, I woke up a half-hour earlier in Park Slope, took my breakfast of granola and yogurt with me, and rode up 4th Avenue to the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street subway station. I got onto a 2 train with about half a dozen other cyclists in a similar situation and rode to the start that way. At 14th Street, a group of five late-night revelers got on the train, headed home after a night of drinking and clubbing. One of them said "you know, Entourage is on tomorrow night" and I smiled because for them it was still Saturday night, but for me it was Sunday. Hey, I'd had about four hours sleep and everything was funny to me in that state. These kids asked me about the ride and my bike and I did my best to explain it to them. One of them even said he'd do the ride next year. Although he was from Boston, so he said he'd ride down first.

The other big difference from previous Centuries was that this year it was hotter than I'd ever remembered. I'm used to the Century being on a hot day, but somehow it was worse than ever. I think the problem might have been the deceptively cool winds that blew for most of the morning and early afternoon. The wind gave me a misguided sense that the temperature was cooler than it actually was, and that I was cooler as a result. For the first 50 miles I didn't drink enough water. I started to bonk around mile 40 and continued to have weird heart palpitations for the next 20-30 miles. It wasn't until I started drinking faster and took a long break at Astoria Park that I began to feel better.

For the last 25 miles, the only problems were my legs, neck, and ass all aching, and the poorly marked turns in the Bronx. I don't want to point fingers, but it seemed that whoever was in charge of the road markings in the Bronx decided that since the route hadn't changed much, the markings didn't need to be repainted. At an intersection of two greenways (the Hutchinson River Parkway and Pelham Parkway) I had to make an executive decision as to which way to go. The turn wasn't marked on the ground, and the cue sheet wasn't clear. I was the de facto leader of a small group of riders (since I was a marshal) and some of them wanted to go straight ahead, arguing that if the turn wasn't clear the ride organizers must have meant for us to keep going. But the questionable left turn looked more inviting to me. Another marshal rode ahead to scout, but before he could get out of sight five riders came back towards him. They said they'd gone about two miles that way and decided it was the wrong way. So I announced that we were going left and hoped that we'd see another marking on the road. Luckily for me and my brave band, there was another arrow on the ground about 50 feet ahead, proving that we were on the correct path. There were a few more turns like that but those all looked familiar and had faded markings, so we made it to the last rest stop just before it closed at 5:30 PM.

After I'd finished the ride at 6:30 PM and claimed my free water bottle and t-shirt, it was time to go home. I could have taken the subway home and no one would have questioned my dedication to riding. I'd already put 100 miles on the bike that day. But I had decided that I was riding back to Brooklyn, so I rode through traffic on 5th Avenue and Broadway all the way back to the Manhattan Bridge. It was a harrowing experience given my weariness and the cars and buses, but I got home in one piece before it was too dark to see and be seen. Next year I'll get a few bike lights for the ride home, just to be safe.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Scenes from a Mystic wedding, part 2: Sunday and Monday

The wedding wasn't until late Sunday afternoon, but the day started early with a hair appointment for Kate. I slept in until 9:30 AM, then jumped out of bed when I remembered I might have been needed for sound equipment setup at the wedding site. When I hadn't received any phone calls about that job, I relaxed, got some breakfast, and enjoyed the morning. I made a sandwich run for the bridal party, then I helped Kate get ready and had some time to sit outside and read my book before I got dressed for the ceremony.

The wedding was a few miles away in Groton, CT, on the local branch campus of the University of Connecticut. The ceremony took place on a hillside overlooking the water, with a hupa made of sticks and fabric, and a long processional from the reception hall further up the hill. I had the job of running the sound board and trying to keep the wind from affecting the microphones worn by the groom and the rabbi. The reception was a great deal of fun: lots of drinking, dancing, eating, and opportunities for entertaining photographs. Part of the dessert spread was a fondue "trough," and I took full advantage and loaded my plate with cookies and cake covered with chocolate. It took all of my willpower not to stick my face directly into that trough and Hoover it clean. When the reception ended at 11 PM we returned to the hotel, took over the hospitality room, and continued the party into the wee hours. Or so I heard. I packed it in around 1 AM, but I understand that some people stayed up much later, tried to get into the adjacent pool area, and were sent away by hotel management.

We got up late on Monday morning for a farewell brunch. Kate had asked me on Saturday morning if I was OK with the idea of stopping at Abbott's Lobsters in the Rough on the way back on Monday, and of course I agreed. Fresh lobster? Are you kidding me? Put me down for two. We said our goodbyes, collected our baggage and another couple who needed a ride back to New York, and drove a few miles down the road to Abbott's in Noank. Abbott's has fresh steamed lobster, lobster rolls, steamed clams, mussels, clam chowder, and a few other things on the menu, all at reasonable prices. I had a lobster roll, some chowder, and split a plate of steamed clams with Kate. She had a 1 1/4 lb lobster dinner, and finished her meal by picking up the lobster head and telling it "You were so good!" And it was. Fully sated on seafood, we got on the road back to the city, leaving behind the land of cheap drinks, delicious saltwater cuisine, and unhappy service workers.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

scenes from a Mystic wedding, part 1: Saturday

Kate and I traveled up to Mystic, CT, for a wedding over the Labor Day weekend. The groom was one of Kate's closest friends growing up, and she was a "groomsperson" in the wedding party. We drove up to Mystic on Saturday morning, leaving before 8 AM to try to get there in time for a schooner cruise around Mystic and the surrounding waterways. Along the way, I noted that my vaunted GPS had decided not to cooperate fully with our attempts to use it to navigate. It would only occasionally "acquire satellites," sometimes deigning not to see any in the sky just a few minutes after being locked on. At one point mid-morning it decided the current time was actually 8:45 PM, and it took several reboots to get the thing to switch back. Kate put up with my cursing my dysfunctional gadget, and my gadget addiction in general, and for that she is a trouper. Also, she knew the area around Mystic, so even without a fully functioning guidance system, we found the boat dock in time for the cruise.

The boat ride itself was fun once we got out onto the water and the rain stopped. But for most of the cruise a steady misting rain kept us all a little damp and chilled. Since it was August neither of us had thought to bring a jacket with us for the trip. Although the boat ride was the only time we would have needed the extra layer; the weather had improved dramatically by that evening. After the cruise we needed lunch and to do some last-minute shopping. We looked in vain for a decent dining option and when we found nothing promising, we went to The Ground Round. I don't think I'd been in a Ground Round since high school. I remembered this chain as the place where they showed old movies and gave you peanuts in the shell, and you could toss the empty peanut shells on the floor. This Ground Round had neither movies nor peanuts, but it did have the world's unhappiest bartender. The host seated us in the bar area, saying that they were busy and we'd get quicker service there. Even so, it took us almost a half-hour to get a sandwich and a salad. During our wait, the bartender complained every time the host put someone else in the bar, and, while trying to enter something in the register and talk to a poor soul applying for a job there, she told this man "could you stop talking for a minute? I can't get this drink order right with you talking to me."

Saturday night was the rehearsal dinner, followed by drinks at several bars in downtown Mystic. Mystic is a quaint resort-like town so the bar options were few and far-between: restaurants or an Irish pub. So we started with the Irish pub. It was obvious from the start that we were invading the locals' Saturday night hangout. Although I appreciated the cheap drinks and the bartender's heavy hand with the liquor, we were getting dirty looks from our fellow patrons. Things didn't improve when four of us decided to play pool on the 25-cent table in the back. We were almost done with our game when two gentlemen came over and made it clear they wanted the next game. They sat at the bar and glared at us for the next 20 minutes while we ineptly tried to finish our game. When Kate and I eventually won (on an 8-ball scratch by our opponents) these guys made a move for the table. That's when a group of girls approached them and pointed out that they had put their names on the whiteboard behind the pool table, which apparently gave them the rights to the next game. Their names had been on the board before we had started playing, so we assumed these girls were upset with us for cutting in line. But they hadn't appeared when we were playing, so we got away with a game. And it wasn't at all clear that the whiteboard was the pool table waiting list. The two guys who had been waiting went back to their seats at the bar and continued to glare at us. That's when our group decided to find another bar.

We moved the party down the street to a Mexican restaurant with strong margaritas, a sombrero we appropriated for the groom, and best of all, no unhappy patrons. About two hours later and many drinks later, six of us decided to go to Foxwoods. Our crowd was down to three girls and three guys, including the groom and one of his best friends. Kate had already retired for the evening so I was with a group of people that I didn't know that well. But when you're drinking, everyone's your friend. When we got to Foxwoods around 1:30 AM, the groom, his buddy, and his other girl friend who'd driven us there found a place at a craps table. The other two girls and I watched them play for a few minutes, then decided to walk around. After getting some food, they were ready to go home, and so was I. I'm not a casino fan. I don't gamble, I can see shows in New York, and I can't think of any other reasons I'd want to go to a casino. I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen by going there. I wasn't having a bad time, but I recognized that I was getting tired (I'd woken up at 7 AM and it was now 2:30 AM) and that if I stuck around until the groom and his friends were ready to leave, it might be a while and I'd get cranky. So we said goodnight to our friends (and our ride) and asked a security guard where we could get a cab. He pointed us toward the Grand Pequot side of the casino (visible only by signage from our location) and told us to find the valet at that entrance. What he neglected to say was that the Grand Pequot entrance was on the far side of the casino, so we walked for about 15 minutes to get there. The valet called us a cab, which blessedly appeared about 15 minutes earlier than she told me it would arrive. As soon as we were in the cab, the driver started complaining about the valet parking attendant who was taking his time moving the car in front of our cab. She said something nasty about his nationality. A few minutes later we saw a New York cab in front of us and she said something unpleasant about that cabdriver's presumed nation of origin. In other words, she was a flaming racist. We asked her about the types of people she picked up at the casino, and she told us about a drunk couple she'd taken home earlier that night. She said the husband was a fine fellow and she hadn't minded dropping him off, but the wife "talked about me like I wasn't even in the car" and she was offended. She told us she'd pulled over and ordered the wife out of the car, and that Connecticut law allowed her to do that. We were in the back woods at this point, and the three of us sitting in the back seat agreed with her so that she wouldn't find a reason to force us out of the car as well. I got back to my hotel at 3 AM. I found out the next morning that the groom and his friends got back at 4:30 AM, up $14 for the night after big gains and big losses when they started falling asleep at the table. Also, they hadn't seen any free alcoholic drinks while gambling, and one of them had a hot chocolate when he got cold. Had I known that, I might have stuck around. Who doesn't like free hot chocolate?