Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mudroom II: the Jackening

I got one of them jack posts, and I done rigged ’er up under the mudroom there. Gave it a couple-three twists till the joists creaked.

While I was down there under the mudroom, with my legs out on the snow and my head in the last of the autumn leaves that had taken shelter behind the recycling bins, sort of cantilevered sideways into the space so I could get purchase on the wrench, I couldn’t help but remember the frites at L’Express, down there on Park Avenue. You know, you could go in there 24 hours a day and get some pretty tasty fries and a glass or two of wine, maybe even order up some onion soup. That was a good place to go after drinking downtown. Not as expensive as you’d think. And then you’d just hop a cab late in the Manhattan night, and if you weren’t too drunk, the night might smell promising and spring might be in the air.

I inhaled deeply, lost in the memory — and realized that one of the local stray cats had marked the recycling bins as his territory not long before.

Door’s still stuck, but I figure I’ll give the post a screw every weekend till we can open it again.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Back in Business

The boat was back this morning despite the remaining ice, and tonight the announcement was made that we'd be back aboard for tomorrow's commute.


Monday, February 26, 2007

A Crank is Born

One summer in college I delivered mail. It was a great job: I had a four-minute commute, lost 22 pounds, got a (relative) tan, made friends with some, umm, edgy fellers, and could walk off a hangover by lunchtime every day.

The one dark spot I can remember came near the end of the summer, when I found, with a few legs of my route left, that I had a flat tire. Cut off from HQ, with time running out, I carried extra weight extra distance on foot, dropping behind schedule with every step, and came to the final block of my route dripping sweat, with my shoulder aching and the last offer of lemonade far in the past.

Three houses from the end of the last leg, standing at the foot of his driveway, was Bitterman McGurk, the oldest, curmudgeonliest, Social-Security-check-awaitinest WWII vet in town, whose gift for sarcasm was undiminished by the years and whose afternoon had been spent standing at the end of his driveway getting himself enraged. By the time I got there he was so worked up that his pulse was up to forty and his BP was practically detectable. And his rhetorical question was layered with so much contemptuous nuance, so polished and rehearsed, that you could tell he had been working on it all afternoon – nay, probably far longer, with early drafts unleashed on mailmen before me – and that he almost didn’t want to let it go, he had come to love it so much. But he had a job to do, and as I approached with a sympathy-seeking roll of the eyes and a theatrical wiping of the brow, he let me have it.

“What happened? Did your pony die?”

This morning, I was that man. It snowed about five inches last night. At 5:15 I was up shoveling the driveway and scraping the car, which went well. At 6:25 I headed out.

I reached the foot of my driveway to find that the main street had not been plowed in hours. Turning toward the ferry, I discovered that this secondary street had not been plowed at all. An outrage! A travesty! We never got such bad service in the last place we lived! I demanded satisfaction!

Even as I fishtailed my way along, I saw a plow heave into sight behind me, but with blade raised at a jaunty angle, well above the snow! On to more important plowing tasks, I suppose!

I have all day to hone my sarcastic comment, so I’ll probably get some work in on that. There are two problems, though: 1) the roads will be plowed when I get home, which will take a little of the sheen off my angry wit and 2) if I stand at the foot of the driveway to deliver my final polished gem, I’m gonna get blasted with a 30-mph face-full of snow and mud.

Guess I’ll leave the fist-shaking ire to the pros.

Tarzan Not Be Ignored

An extremely reliable source tells me that there’s going to be a total lunar eclipse in the northeast US and France (hello, French readers!) this coming Saturday. Or, for you superstitious types, this Saturday Numa the fearsome sky-lion will devour Goro, and only the mightiest of the mangani will be able to frighten him into spitting out his prey.

In either case, if your weather’s clear, you should get out and watch it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

L’Heure Bleu at Spuytin Duyvil

The water of the river looks like the sky above the Palisades, only wrinkled. Venus hovers. The wires are doing their dips. The Henry Hudson Bridge passes over with an elegant arch and accessible architecture; its task of bridging the island to the mainland is so self-evident, unlike, say, the Throg’s Neck, which seems to sweep out over water and land indiscriminately, an aimless, wandering bridge. It lacked focus growing up and they always said it would never amount to much. Not the Henry Hudson. Stolid, steely, blue, a single arch with a flat, straight road above. “Where you goin’?” “Right over there.”

Under it, and we turn north.

In Of Human Bondage, the protagonist has a revelation near the end of the book, right before he becomes impossibly old and dull for his age, in which he realizes that to not be an artist is allowed. That his life will weave of itself an intricate tapestry, unique among all others — that the pursuit of art will not make a more beautiful life than will being a country doctor. It’s sort of a guidebook for entering middle age, but, from the vantage point of early middle age, it rings true. It was not long after reading it that I began to chronicle my daily subway commute. Often I described the train floor in some detail.

Despite the first paragraph of this post (and other recent content), Exurbitude is not intended to be a commuter’s diary. The motto is Observation and Exploration; it’s just that work is busy, time is short, and the commute is what’s left over. So this week I’m leaning more toward observation.

In the spirit of exploration, however, let me offer a couple of tidbits from beyond the rails. 1) This morning as we passed south of Peekskill, I saw a bald eagle squatting way out on the ice. I hope I never stop being amazed by them. 2) Chimpanzees have been observed using wooden spears to hunt. Oh. Good. 3) A beaver has taken up residence in the Bronx River — the first beaver seen in New York City since Disney took over Times Square the early 1800s.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Casey Jones You’d Better

If you miss the 7:29 train out of 125th Street, you might get on the next one, which is the 7:33 bound for Croton-Harmon.

I was standing right there and didn’t see the train. Maybe it was the Invisible Express? Wonder Woman was the engineer? I don’t know. (Oh wait, yes, now I know. My train came in but it was identified on the board as the previous train. So I patiently waited for it to go. Byebye. Byebye, earlier train.)

So anyway, you get on this later train, the 7:33 bound for Croton-Harmon. And the steward waits for you to get settled and then hands you the little plastic tray with the lemon-scented hot towel on it while the conductor smiles beneficently and says “put that away, you don’t need to show me your ticket. Just relax!” And you do, you relax and recline your seat back a little and put your feet on the little footrest, and the headrest speakers are just perfectly angled, so much so that you opt against the mournful Tom Waits you usually like and you choose something peppy from the Fabulous 70s channel on the satellite radio. The reading material is pretty good; Architectural Digest and InStyle, or The Economist, Harper’s, Dwell – you name it – and when they bring the whole portfolio, you can ask them to just choose something for you because after all it’s just too too headache-making to decide. Any of it beats the reading material on your usual train, which primarily consists of the Old Familiar Suggestion scrawled over Homeland Security posters.

This train has brushed-nickel accents, high ceilings, contoured seats, electronic readouts for the station stops and an EZ-Listening automated voice offering kindly recommendations to enhance your personal safety. It runs on electricity. It stops in all the pleasant little East Bank river towns familiar from your J. Crew catalogue, where the doors open on live bluegrass music playing in the spacious heated platform shelters and the people who get off the train stop a moment to select today’s bouquet from the flower seller near the complimentary taxi stand.

You wish this were your train every day. But you’re careful because you don’t want to take having a train for granted, and you don’t want to miss a minute of the pleasant journey you’re having to the halfway point – but you can’t shake the irritation you feel at missing the last bus across the river and having to spring for a cab.

So you ride along suppressing your annoyance, because, hey, you had to go north, and you figure your next train is lumbering along behind you someplace in the night, sucking trash in its wake, its full-throated diesel engine issuing a rancid underworld smoke, each stained and torn seat displaying a deep depression from the weight of the hundred thousand hardy souls who came before you. It bowls along with its stale air and its aroma of inevitability and decay, and you know that it’s coming for you, but it’s still back there on the track somewhere, and you can keep ahead for a little while longer on this well-lit, comfortable ride.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

You Will Purchase My Painting, Thank You

The ultimate symbol of virility, potency and danger, the great white shark has evoked terror and envy in men for centuries. Sleek, powerful, deadly and strangely suave, this ancient predator speaks to all that is manly and elegant. The only thing that could possibly make the great white a more fitting emblem for you -- YOU, oh powerful advertising executive or hedge fund manager or mid-level state-employed labor lawyer -- is a testosterone-rich eight-point rack of wapiti antlers with a six-foot spread.

The meat-eating, red-blooded, hippie-dicing scourge of the deep has finally achieved a level of ornamentation commensurate with YOUR status and power. And it's time for you to take him home.

The Elusive Antlered Shark in His Gilded Frame

At a manageable 18x24 inches, but surrounded by a FABULOUS RESPLENDENT freaking AWESOME frame of the finest gold-painted resin cast in a breathtaking baroque undersea motif, your Antlered Shark will fit any room and any decor -- provided the room is made for dominating your inferiors, impressing your admirers, or frightening those who would foolishly oppose you.

$250. Comment if you're man* enough to be interested.

Your symbol awaits.

*Dear women: you too!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Calculus for the Rest of Us

There’s nothing like sitting down in one of these narrow bus seats, clad in your four layers plus two-layer coat, hat and gloves, carrying your briefcase and coffee – next to someone else done up the same way – to remind you what it was like when you were fat.

Q1: Assuming two people with more or less decent posture, seated side by side and dressed for spring, would have roughly parallel spines, what is the degree of spinal declination during the height of winter on a bus crossing the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge at quarter to seven on a Friday if the temperature is eighteen and the bus is traveling 30 miles per hour to make the 7:07 train?

Q2: For what time should you set your alarm if you decided to go to bed on Thursday instead of changing the cat box and taking out the garbage, knowing that Friday was garbage day but figuring that you’d easily beat the garbage guys out there except they had the truck in stealth mode and came at 3am so that when you crept down in the dark and collected the garbage helpfully bagged by your wife the night before and cleaned the cat box and trudged through the snow to add your bags to the neighbors’ cans you found them empty?

Q3: If DDT was outlawed in 1972 and you catch the 7:07 out of Beacon heading south at 60 miles per hour on a winter Friday in 2007, how many bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) will you see from the train window as you pass by salt marshes and fresh-water outlets at the mouths of small tributaries?

Q4: How freaking cool does Hook Mountain look from the east shore of the river when the sun hits the snow detailing its sheer stone face?

A1: Eleven degrees. A2: Usual time. A3: Four in the last couple weeks, or maybe the same pair in two different places. A4: Muy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Have an Ice Day

Last night I told the boy that when he awoke this morning, it would feel a little bit like Christmas.


I pointed out the window to the brown grass in back. "Because things will change overnight."

And lo, it came to pass. The promised storm arrived and precipitated itself upon the region. And the old feeling, the pent-up excitement, the suspension of the rules -- snow day! -- came with it. Somehow, this feeling holds more promise than the warm breeze in April or the dry-leaf smell in October. The crooked mudroom, the fear of ice dams, the question of mobility, all that could wait. It was a Snow Day.

From the beginning, though, this "snow" looked odd. And it grew moreso when I ventured out to shovel a little. It was ice. The thermometer said 12 degrees, but this was a form of sleet. Super-frozen, microscopic, rock-hard, perfectly round, and completely frictionless. Silica gel anti-moisture packets, split open, dumped from zeppelins, chilled. Nitrogen-dipped quinoa launched from confetti guns. It was heavy on the shovel.

I made a path to the car, then came back in to start working from home. And despite that, despite the fact that I still had to work, despite the fact that now I own the house with the snow all over it and the Yukonesque heating bill, despite the fact that the snow was ice and heavier than it had a right to be, despite it all, I took a little of that promise with me into the day. It helped that a couple of hours later the boy came in with blooming cheeks, runny nose, hathead and stories.

I'm going to commute tomorrow, but I've already decided: Snow Day.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Subway Movie Critic

Citizen journalism now open to movie critics.

I Feel the Earth Move, Under My Recycling Bins

A wee seismic shift has taken place in our area, apparently, because as of the other day our mudroom door frame is canted about a half-inch to the right. So it doesn't, you know, open. Which is better than it not closing, but only marginally.

Our mudroom is a small booth tacked on to the western end of the house, an add-on to the add-on that formed half the kitchen and the bathroom at some unspecified point in the past. It sits atop two projecting piers of cinderblocks which rest in turn on a concrete slab. "Tacked" is generous. The assembly has but a passing relationship to the house; it's not actually attached, as far as I can tell, except by the outer vinyl skin and some spit.

It's the slab that's the problem. I'm pretty sure they* dug down about four feet, to get below the frostline six inches, filled the shallow square with concrete, let it set, then stacked cinderblock on that, slapped a deck on it, some studs, sheathing, etc.

When we bought the place, the bottom two courses of block on the north side were detached and sinking. The slab has a crack through the middle, and the north side slopes down a little, maybe an inch or two. Enough to cause the two rows of cinder blocks to sink down and detach from the upper course, which is bolted to the sill plate. Which was essentially being held up by the sheathing, and maybe a single point of contact with the mortar on one of the cinder blocks below.

Somehow I convinced myself that it was okay; that the magical elves who lived in the stone wall would appear each night to touch the house where it hurt final price we negotiated was proportional to the house's flaws. I did a temp-to-perm fix by installing that friend to the swamp-dweller, the jack post. (And was very proud, given my tool skills. I used a level.) If your earth is flawed, screw a couple of these babies into position and adjust them every once in a while.

Until this week, the south side had been the reliable side. I had trusted the south side. If I wanted something, I could go to the north side of the mudroom and get all kinds of assurances, all kinds of sincere-for-the-moment promises, but at crunchtime, it'd be the south side of the mudroom who'd help me get the job done.

But this week, the south side let me down.

Something down there is giving way; I assume the cold is responsible, as that's the new piece of the equation. There's also a curious buildup of ice outside the mudroom, at the foot of the back steps. Which is odd, because it hasn't been above freezing in a week and a half — so how did water get there? What excellent mysteries — the kind I would love to read about someone else solving.

Home Depot's closed at the moment, but I'll be going there soon. Because you can trust a jack post to make everything level.

*They worked on your house too, didn't they? I'll bet they did. An electrician who looked inside our walls suggested that "Larry's brother-in-law" had done some of the work. Yeah, that guy. And his friend from community service. Them.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Charrette I Missed

Urban planner Andrés Duany, one of the leaders of the New Urbanism movement and lead author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, has been leading a charrette at the Newburgh waterfront for the past week. The developer granted the right to revitalize the former industrial zone, Leyland Alliance, called in their superstar to get some ideas in front of the public.

The other morning as I waited for the ferry around 7 am, I strolled over to Charrette HQ at the Yellow Bird gallery. Peering through the plate-glass windows, I could see half-eaten bags of pretzels, partially-finished cups of coffee, and everywhere large-scale sketches, mechanical drawings, CAD renderings, aerial photos marked with china pencils. Everything was half-finished — like an alien abduction at the Urban Planners Club — but the freeze-frame of frenzied activity had its own dynamic energy.

It fires the imagination, of course. Trains in downtowns! Pedestrian malls! Bike lanes! Mixed zoning! Integrated affordable housing! Green spaces! There it was! On the other side of the glass!

I was locked out, the ferry that takes me to New York crushing its way over the ice at my back.

They tried — public sessions were scheduled for 7-9pm a couple of nights — but my usual ferry arrives at 7:45, and exhaustion or the need to get home prevents civic participation.

Last night, as the return leg of my first round-trip bus ride passed the gallery, I caught a quick flash of a speaker at the front of the room, earnest listeners in a ring, desk lamps creating small circles of light…imagination, drive, money and forethought in action. I shuttled past on my own circuit, engaged in a different city.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Update: The West New York Fears Some Ice

The ever-thicker ice in this stretch of the Hudson finally proved too much for the mighty West New York, and starting tomorrow I will rejoin the ranks of the Bus People, riding a bus from the ferry landing across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge to the train station.

Today's ride was pretty cool, though, with massive plates smashing into the hull, cracking, chunks skittering along across long expanses of smooth ice. The sound has been impressive. I take my adventure where I can find it, but it will be pretty hard to pinpoint the romance of the bus ride.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Don't Cross the NYS PSC

You've been very patient about the promised update to the cellar/water/sump pump/power outage/generator post of several weeks back. Thank you for that.

Your reward:

Not long after the bailing incident, a powerful woman who lives with me wrote a scathing letter to the Public Service Commission, copying a raft of local politicians and the executives of a nearby power company. Every one of the politicians wrote back, promising decisive action against communists the power company. The PSC called about an hour after she mailed her letter.


"Yeah, hey listen. It's Louie. At the Public Service Commission."

"Oh, hi, thanks for calling."

"Waddaya need? Someone giving you grief?"

"Uhh, well, the power's been out a lot," my wife said. "Our sump pump shut down and the cellar flooded."

At this point, there was a pause. My wife heard Louie breathe out through his nose. Like maybe he was containing some anger. He spoke.

"Dese guys think they can mess."

"I -- I'm sorry, I don't under--"

"No, I'm sorry, ma'am. You shouldn't even have to call me. This was who, Central Hudson?"


"We talked to dese guys last time. It's like they don't even listen. It's like they got some kinda WAX--" and here my wife later told me she heard a side-of-beeflike palm slam down on a formica tabletop -- "in their ears."

"Yes," my wife said. "Well."

"Don't worry about nothing. Your power? On. It goes out again, you give me a call -- I tell you what, you give me a call if a single freakin' lightbulb burns out, okay? We get a guy to change it, and if he ain't there in five minutes with a yellow light flashing on his Central Hudson van, you call me again and then if you have to call me again after that you're gonna have a new power company, because they ain't gonna have any thumbs left at Central Hudson to answer the phones with."

I don't know, it was something like that. Let's just say that the power company called as soon as she hung up. They gave us a little plastic box that plugs into the wall and into the phone line. It's supposed to automatically report power failures, and we haven't had one since.

Sometimes, late at night, we hear the box mistakenly dialing in to the central computer, Tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. And we think of the PSC, and how somewhere an angel power company employee is getting its wings thumbs broke.

All Roads Lead to Up

In my quest to celebrate life, I did a 9.1 mile loop today, a course I run with a group of friends many weekends. The topography of the region is best told through its road names: TutHILL, Cherry HILL, Purgatory, FarmingDALE (yeah, you go down into that one, but you come UP the other side), RIDGE and HULSEtown (hulse=HILL in Dutch*).

It was 16 degrees at the start, probably 20 when we finished, but the snow and ice were minimal along the route (in this wintry hill country, the snow removal is an ancient art and well practiced). It's good to run with friends, pushing ourselves through winter toward spring.

*Not really. At least I don’t think so. But there is a bear of a hill on that one.