Bikes, Pianos and Parades

June, 2013

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One of the big stories of the month is that I acquired a pair of wheels! Okay, so it is not really my own set of wheels, they are a pair which I am sharing with about 50,000 other New Yorkers.

At the end of May, the New York Bikeshare program was rolled out with about 5,000 bikes located in 300 racks in lower Manhattan and Northern Brooklyn. Citibank bought the naming rights for the program, so the bikes carry the bank's colors and locally are referred to as "Citibikes". The way the system works is that I bought a one year membership and they sent me an electronic key, about the size and shapes of a USB memory stick. When I walk up to a rack I slide my key into a slot, the rack records who I am and the time. It then unlocks and releases a bike and I can ride it for 45-minutes without being charged. Longer rides add late fees. At the end of the ride I push the bike into another rack and the clock stops.

In forty-five minutes I can easily ride to Battery Park or Central Park or anyplace in-between. If I wanted to ride to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I could ride to City Hall, return my bike and check out a new one right away.

So now I can sprint around the middle of this city at about 15 mph, which on average is about the same speed as taxis top out at.

June 9, 2013
There is a festival on Governor's Island. The idea of a boat ride across the harbor, an escape from the paved city and a chance to lay down on grass and laze away the day was persuasive. Governor's island is about half a mile south of Battery Park, the southern most tip of Manhattan. It has been a military base for centuries, first with a fort, then a naval base and most recently a Coast Guard station. But in the last decade most of the island has been turned over to the city. Part of it is being re-developed as an entrepreneurial zone. But most of it, including a great green swath around the old fort, is park land.

There is a free ferry from an old terminal next to the South Ferry Terminal (home to the Staten Island Ferry) to the island. It has recently been renovated. We boarded and crossed in sunlight. The harbor is a busy place; water taxis, a schooner with sightseers and a swarm of helicopters, presumably returning from the Hamptons.

On the island we walked up over the fort's hilltop and found "Figment", the festival, laid out on a lawn which is about 300 meters on a side (about 20-25 acres). Figment is an organization which is dedicated to art and community. We watched birds flapping in the wind and peddled powered dragons jousting on the green. There were games for kids "of all ages" and music to dance to. As Will described it, it was like "coming home to Bard", as least the way Bardian's would imagine it.

We picnicked, lounged in the sun, read books, watched people (our favorite activity) and lazed away the day.

[ video link on youtube]

June 15 - Good Shepherd 5K race
Budd Heyman, one of my team mates from Central Park Track Club, has invited me to run a race in his neighborhood, in southern Brooklyn. So I find myself on an early morning Q-train headed towards Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park. The train rides over the rooftops here, parallel to the course for the Brooklyn Half Marathon. Everything seem so flat and short after being in Manhattan.

The race is hosted by the Good Shepherd School, a small neighborhood catholic school. The race course starts at the school, then makes two loops around Marine Park, then returns back to the schoolyard. It feels like a perfect day to run.

The race went out a bit quicker then I expected, 5:56 at the mile point, and I found myself, somehow, in forth place. It is a smallish race, 167 runners, but still, it has been ages since I have been in the lead pack. At about the mile and a half point one runner tried to brake out of the pack and the two other leaders followed him and broke away. The rest of the pack fell off, and I ran the last mile and a half by myself. I went through two miles at about 12:10. The race ends down a small neighborhood street. I glanced up and thought I was close to breaking 20 minutes, so lowered my head and pushed as hard as I could. Apparently in my delirium I was off by a minute and instead just barely broke 19 minutes. Final time, 18:59, 6:07 per mile. I was very happy.

It was a lot of fun just sitting around the school yard for the next hour talking to people. Budd introduced me to a number of other local runners, we ate hot dogs and watched kids throwing footballs and kicking soccer balls on this shady little side street where the race ended. It felt very neighborly and a number of strangers congratulated me on my race.

June 16, 2013 - 88 Pianos / 5 Boroughs
"Sing For Hope" is an artist/community organization which organized the "88 Pianoes / 5 Boroughs Project". For those of us who live in Hanover the project looked a lot like the "50 Pianos / Upper Valley Project". But let me describe it for those of you who do not know it.

Sing-for-Hope took 88 old pianos which were being discarded and gave them to local artist who painted and decorated them. They were then spread throughout the five boroughs of New York City, placed outside in public spaces, mostly in parks.

In fact during the last month you could walk down to the Chelsea waterfront, sit down at a pink and yellow upright and play to your hearts content. Recently I was down there after a rainstorm and there was a piano technician working on our local instrument. Someone had forgot to put the tarp over the piano and the inner works had come unglued. He was dissembling keys and hammers and letting them dry in the sun, then glueing them back together and reassembling the keyboard. He told me that he had a friend who did the same job at the Hop, at Dartmouth, and he had heard of the Upper Valley piano project.

Today, however, is different. It is the last day of the project and all 88 pianos have been gathered together on the plaza at Lincoln Center for one last performance before they were donated to local schools.

We arrived a half hour before that last performance and enjoyed wading our way through the crowd. Random people playing random songs. A calliope of sounds, from chop-sticks to Tchaikovsky. Classic, pop, jazz, the music tumbled over each other, like a mountain brook washing through the plaza. Intense children with talent, elderly people who seemed to remember a tune from long ago. Artist, bankers, shoppers, teenagers, retired couples even babies sat at the keyboards and tickled the ivories or hammered out the music.

Finally, 88 volunteers sat down and played Bach. Among the sound of the fountain and the traffic there was also the sound of people playing together. [my video & sound]

Thursday June 20th
In the afternoon I took a bike ride through lower Manhattan. It was a chance to play with a bike for awhile, and also do a bit of exploring. I started down the Hudson bike path, a strip of land I know well from running. I walked around the Irish Hunger Memorial, then took a second bike through the financial district and up through Chinatown, the Lower Eastside and the East Village.

When I first climbed on a Citibike, they felt heavy too me. Of course I am comparing them to my 25 pound speedster which is stabled up in Hanover. But after bumping around the city streets for an afternoon I realized why their are designed the way they are. They are build to survive both the roads and the riders. Riders who don't directly own a bike are more apt to ride through potholes and over curbs. And this city has a few pot holes which are explored by spelunkers. It also has cobbled streets, broken glass and old trolly rails poking out of the pavement. In which case the design is practical and inspired. It is a bike for a city commuter, not a highway racer.

Once I have checked out a bike I have 45 minutes to return it. So after about 30 minutes I usually start looking for a rack. Today at 35 minutes I rolled into Union Square. Just south of the square, on Broadway, is a big rack. But something seemed wrong. There were only two bikes among the almost 50 slots. Still, I pushed my bike in and watched for the green light to tell me it was locked in. It didn't lock. Sometimes that happens, and you just need to find a second slot. As my bike was rejected by a second slot a woman with a microphone came running up to me, trailed by a man with a large shoulder mounted TV camera.

"What's happening here?", she asked.

I explained that sometimes there is a rack or slot which is out of order.

"Are you frustrated?", she asked.

I told her no, I just needed to find another rack -- it looked like this whole rack was not working.

"Does this destroy your travel plans?"

Hardly, I told her. Travel always has some uncertainties. I wanted to explain to her about the difference between a tour and an adventure, something about dealing with the unexpected. However, I only had five minutes until I would be charged, so I needed to push on. I knew there was a rack over on Irving Place, two blocks away.

That evening at track practice I related this story to my teammates, several of whom also used Citibike. They laughed. There has been a lot of buzz in the local media about the system, especially by non-bikers. "She went out to find a story about the failings of the system and instead found an un-agitated rider", Budd commented. "The story was that an alien was spotted south of Union Square", added Chris.

Saturday, June 22, 2013 - Mermaid Parade / Coney Island
Coney Island is one of the most tacky places on earth, a community which styles itself after a carnival's midway. Now I know that there are a few readers who would like to nominate the Wisconsin Dells, or Las Vegas for this title. If Coney Island had only a boardwalk, the Cyclone and Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog eating contest, you might have had a case. But with the Mermaid (and Neptune) Parade, Coney Island has a lock on the Tackiest Place Title.

Not that you should avoid the place. Rather, go there expecting it to be a bit surreal. The organizers of the event call it an "Art parade". If splashing a bit of body paint on is art, then I guess it is. Or as the Master of Ceremonies kept announcing, "The most underdressed parade in America." Well over a thousand mermaids and mermen in various states of dress (or undress) seeping their way down the avenue.

A moving costume party in the street.

Sunday, June 23, 2013 - Staten Island
Staten Island is the forgotten Borough. Many people who claim to have been there got off the famous ferry, walked through the terminal, and got back on the ferry again. In fact before Hurricane Sandy it was completely off most people's radar. I would even say that a lot of people are unclear as to why Staten Island is in New York at all. It clearly lays to the west of the middle of the Hudson -- but I will leave that question to historians.

Today I am off to explore the far end of that island, and so once off the ferry I boarded the Staten Island Railroad. I was delighted to see that my metro card recognized this as part of a trip which started in Chelsea, and so signaled that it was a transfer and did not charge me. From Chelsea to Tottenville, about 20 miles; subway, ferry and train, for one swipe ($2.50). The other curious thing about the Staten Island Railroad is that there are two dozen stations, but only one with a turnstile. I think it is assumed that most of the traffic is bound towards the St. George's Ferry Terminal, so at all other stations you just walk in. You only pay, or swipe your card, when getting off at St. George.

From the train it appears as if most of the island is suburban, with a patch work of parks. One of the neighborhoods we passed through was Annadale, and since my son Will had gone to school in Annadale-on-Hudson I texted him about it.

Tottenville is the end of the line. It appeared to be a sleepy town, which made it hard to believe that I was still in New York City. I found lunch at the Tottenville Tavern which was empty in the early afternoon. However the owner and waitress were happy to talk with me as I ate. Yes this was the end of the line and occasionally they would get customers like me who came here for just that reason. However, since I had come this far I should wander down to "Conference House", a park at the southern most tip of the island.

They also told me that they were concerned because it seemed to them that post-Sandy, even the locals were a bit lethargic. There are people who have their summer homes on the water here who have not shown up this season.

I took their advice and walked to Conference House. This house dates back to the 1680's, at the time when the English took over from the Dutch. But the name refers to a meeting between General Howe, John Adams, Edward Rutledge and Benjamin Franklin during the Revolutionary War. Shortly after the British captured New York City General Howe invited the Americans to surrender. They declined the offer.

Today it is the entrance point to Conference House Park and Billop's Point. There is about a mile of undeveloped coastline here, a sandy beach occupied by the occasional fishermen, picnicker and numerous seagulls. This is one of the places hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, yet you would hardly notice. Perhaps there is a bit more flotsam and jetsam above the high water mark (below the very-high water mark), but even that is disappearing into the sand dunes and salt grass.

Once I left the wild lands of the park, the landscape was very different.

This is a neighborhood of tightly packed houses, but it seemed to me that next to many of these small homes would be an empty lot. Why would they leave that space? Of course it was because before last October there had been a house there which Sandy had taken out. Damage was more severe closer to the shore, but occasionally the coastal house survived and one up the street a bit was gone. I expect this reflected the construction techniques and not randomness of storms.

Staten Island is a collection of contrast. I am in New York City, yet strolling among the wild beach plums on Billop's Point. Grand houses (of concrete and steel) stand next to shattered summer homes. Tottenville is most certainly the end of the line, yet from here I can also watch massive ships start their voyages to the end of the Earth.