Archive for the ‘new york city’ Category

Here Is New York

January 3, 2010

I finally read E.B. White’s famous essay on New York over my Christmas break.  It did not have any groundbreaking ideas or realizations, but it was beautiful and poignant, and the perfect reading material to accompany me as a travelled around New York on the subway visiting friends and family.  Such a bittersweet vacation this was.  I don’t have any year end posts or retrospective entries about the passing decade.  I don’t have any Christmas posts or pictures.  I didn’t make any New Years resolutions.  The time I’ve spent here (2 weeks exactly)  had a heaviness to it that I can’t quite explain.  It was an emotional time, more emotional than I anticipated.  I sometimes feel guilty for leaving everything and going alway to school, so I try to downplay the difficult stuff and make it seem like it is not a big deal.  But after awhile I am forced to see the entire truth: yes, it is a big deal and it is difficult.  I cannot expect everything and everyone to be exactly the same as when I left.

Regardless, here is New York.  Here is home.

Hawks and Cholera

December 7, 2008

I am at my mom’s house for the weekend dog sitting for this guy:


This afternoon, I went for a walk along the bike paths that line the Bronx River Parkway. In the Village of Tuckahoe, the Bronx River widens into a slow moving lake-like body of water; it is my favorite walking spot because I always see all sorts of interesting creatures along the water. Today I spotted a great blue heron hanging out by the river bank. So I went on a path that goes up a ridge overlooking the river bank, putting me at eye level with high branches from the trees below. I looked down towards the river bank to find the heron, but all of a sudden, I am staring at this giant hawk that is in a branch right in front of me. The hawk could not have been more than 20 feet from me and it was right at my eye level. The hawk was facing me and I was able to look right in it’s eyes. After a few seconds, it seemed to notice I was staring at it, and it turned around to face the river, with its back towards me. Then it flew further away towards a branch closer by the river. It lifted its tail and pooped into river. Then it walked up the branch a little bit, and flew away to the other the side the river. It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a hawk before, and I was able to see one so close up, it was amazing. Because I just read Red Tails In Love I wanted my bird to be a red tailed hawk. But after some extensive Google image searches, I think it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or an immature red tailed hawk. Cooper’s hawks are smaller than red-tails. I thought my bird was big and burly, but maybe that’s because I’ve never seen any other hawks before to compare it with. It had a large white belly with some scattered brown spots, like a red tailed hawk. But my bird didn’t have the red-orange tail that is characteristic of red-tailed hawks. Its tail was broad and brown with dark stripes. Both the Cooper’s hawk and immature red tailed hawks have these types of tail markings. So I don’t know what it was. But it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen.

Moving on to books, a few days ago I finished Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I very much enjoyed. When they are kids, Florentino Ariza falls head of heels in love with Fermina Daza. As they get older, Fermina chooses to marry a prominent, wealthy physician, and Florentino waits for the day he can once again profess his love for her. Only in old age, when they are both in their 70’s, does Florentino get a second chance with Fermina. On the surface it was a moving love story, but there are some more serious undertones throughout the novel. I did some research online (meaning I read the Wikipedia page) and found one of the major themes to be “love as an emotional and physical disease”. Florentino experiences physical pain from his love of Fermina Daza; for him, love is a disease which one can suffer from that is just as real as cholera.

Florentino Ariza loves Fermina Daza to the point of obsession. He eats the flowers that smell like her (camellias). He tries to find sunken pirate treasures so he can shower her with gold and jewels. He writes to her pages and pages of love letters, he follows her throughout the city and keeps tabs on her whereabouts. He is sick with love. Fermina’s husband, Juvenal Urbino, is the exact opposite. He fights cholera outbreaks throughout the city and successfully lobbied the local government to relocated the city dumps and sewage away from the harbor and the drinking supply. He is rational, practical and methodological.

Without this entry turning into a high school book report, I will just mention something else that I found interesting: according to the Wiki page, the word cholera in Spanish (colera) not only means the disease but also can denote rage or someone who is easily irritated or angered, much like the English word choleric. So you can look at the story another way – how Florentino manages the anger and frustration he feels about Fermina’s marriage to the wealthy Dr. Urbino and about social conditions of the city that influenced Fermina to marry someone she didn’t love so she could advance her social status.

In the mid-1800’s a cholera epidemic swept through New York City killing 3,515 people in a city of 250,000 people. (In today’s city of 8 million people, that would be the equivalent of 100,000 people dying of cholera.) But the out of this epidemic came the foundations of modern germ theory and the science of epidemiology, and also the creation of the New York City Department of Health. A British physician named John Snow was apparently the first person to document the connections between the spread of cholera and contaminated drinking water. Using a map of lower Manhattan, he marked the location of city water pumps as well as individual cases of cholera – thus showing that people who got water from contaminated pumps were the people who got sick. There wass a really good article about the cholera epidemic that was published in the Times a few months ago: How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis. The article ends with this: “Cholera is still a threat wherever drinking water is polluted. But Dr. Ho says that people should no longer die of it, if they are treated promptly and properly with rehydration fluids to restore their ravaged bodies.” And yet, there is currently a terrible cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe, where the disease has already killed over 560 people.

Red-Tails in Love

November 24, 2008


When I was a kid I wanted to be a wildlife biologist when I grew up.  I wanted to be like those people who live in the woods with packs of wolves or spend years out in the ocean following migrating pods of whales.  But living in New York really put me at a disadvantage; how was I supposed to become a wildlife biologist if the only animals I saw were pigeons and squirrels?  I thought it was very unfair.  It took me a while to appreciate the wildlife that was, literally, in my own backyard.  It happened because my neighbor who lived behind us had a bird feeder in his backyard.  And from my tree-top attic bedroom window, I had the perfect view of the birds.  I couldn’t go hiking in the woods or explore salt marshes like I wanted to, but I could watch the birds.  I got myself a Peterson’s field guide and a pair of binoculars and became a bird watcher.

I don’t want to be a wildlife biologist anymore.  I went to college where I actually started caring about people and stuff, so things changed.  Sometimes I wish I was out in the woods tracking wolves instead of in this cubicle because I feel like there is still a part of me that is eternally ten years old, which is why I enjoyed Red Tails In Love so much.  This endearing and funny book is about the first nesting pair of red-tailed hawks in NYC and the bird watching Regulars who followed them.  Pale Male and his mate Lola made their nest on a windowsill of a 12th floor apartment in an exclusive 5th Ave residential building opposite Central Park (Mary Tyler Moore is a tenant, and she became one of the hawks’ biggest fans and advocates).  Author Marie Winn and her band of birdwatchers chronicle the hawks’ every move – their mating rituals, hunting places, and their attempts to start a family in the middle of the city.  When it’s not hawk watching season, Winn explores the park’s other bird visitors.  A few sightings of a rare common loon caused great excitement among the Regulars, as did a nesting pair of killdeers and green herons. 

Both my current self and my ten year old self love this book as it encourages people to appreciate the natural world around them, even if you live in New York City.  Pale Male and Lola became quite famous because of this book.  They starred in a PBS documentary and have their own website at  However, in 2004 the owner of the apartment where the birds made their nest (who’s identity remains a mystery to do this day) removed the anti-pigeon spikes that anchored the nest.  A wooden platform was built for the birds, and they did rebuild their nest but they have not hatched any new chicks since then.     

Maybe its because I spend 40 hours a week in a cubicle, but when I have days off I need to spend as much time as possible out of doors.  (Maybe this is my ten year old self yelling at my current self?)  It was this driving force and the inspiration from this book that caused me to spend this past Saturday afternoon wandering aimlessly around the nature trails of Prospect Park, despite the high temperate reaching only 31 degrees.  But in a way, it was perfect – it was bright, sunny and blustery and I was wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing.  I saw the usual winter birds – cardinals, blue jays, dark eyed juncos and mourning doves.  Its reassuring to know that wherever I am or whatever I do with my career, I can always go outside and watch the birds.

PS – Marie Winn keeps a Central Park Birding Blog: Marie Winn’s Central Park Nature News

Lush Life

September 18, 2008

I usually don’t read crime novels, but like so many other things in my no-so-lush life, I heard about this book on WNYC.  Here’s something about my job – it looks interesting on paper, but it is mind-blowingly boring 95% of the time.  So I listen to WNYC while I’m working so my brain doesn’t turn into complete mush.  Leonard Lopate usually has authors I’ve never heard of on his show, and Richard Price was one of them.  Price, who was also a writer for The Wire, was talking about the transformation of the Lower East Side.  He finds kind of crazy that young rich white people spend the same amount of money in one night partying in this neighborhood than people who life there earn in a week.  Lush Life centers around this tension between the new residents of LES: the young, rich and privileged – and the older residents of LES: the poor, the immigrants, and the residents of the housing projects that surround the neighborhood.  And in the middle of all these tensions is the main character, Eric Cash, who is not young, rich, privileged, poor, or an immigrant.  And he just witnessed a murder.

One of my favorite things in novels, TV, and movies is when there are no straight up good guys and bad guys.  I like when writers/directors can make you sympathize with their bad guys and when they show the crooked side of their good guys.  In Lush Life (as in real life) the police are flawed.  You see them patrolling the streets, trying to solve a murder, comforting the victim’s family; but you also see them making inside deals, harrassing people on the streets for no reason, and playing favorites.  Price is successful in making you respect and hate the police.

Overall, this novel isn’t really about the gentrification of the LES.  The neighborhood only provides a setting and backdrop for Price to show off his skill for writing gritty police murder mysteries.  When I first started reading the book, I was hooked and couldn’t put it down.  But then I got tired because it reads like a episode of Law and Order that just goes on for way too long.  I was glad to finish it.

Yesterday I read this interesting article in the Times about a playwright named Arthur Nersesian, who’s love affair with The Power Broker inspired him to write a series of fictional novels about Robert Moses.  A kid from the old LES, Nersesian says:

You know, there was a war fought here, a strange economic, cultural battle that went on, and I saw so many wonderful people lost among the casualties.

Work and Other Sins

September 3, 2008

New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies.  They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they’re lying.  Only dreamers come to New York.  As a matter of course, few people have control over their lives.  You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won’t let you smoke.  On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is most exciting thing there is.

And so begins Charlie LeDuff’s book of character sketches of the nobodies that inhabit the city.  I love reading stuff like this, real stories about ordinary people.  I also love reading blogs of strangers and getting a glimpse of the day to day lives of people.  Everyone has a story worth telling.  LeDuff shows that the nobodies of the city are somebodies.  Profiled in this book are local drunks hanging out in the bar, circus midgets, freaks from the Coney Island side shows, transgendered prostitutes, firefighters, aging fishermen from Sheepshead Bay, Russian showgirls from the Brighton Beach nightclubs, Polish maids from Greenpoint, homeless bums, used car salesmen, and old guys who spend too much time at the Aqueduct race track.  I love it.  These are the people who make New York the special place it is. 

This being a book profiling the lives of working nobodies, race is often a topic of conversation.  There are tensions between hispanic and white, hispanic and black, black and white, American Indian and everyone else.  But more often than not, people try to be understanding to their fellow workingman or woman, in spite of racial differences:

Two Hispanic men come in [to the bar] for a shot and two burgers to go.  They leave without saying hello.  ‘You figure these guys come to this country and can at least learn the language,’ says one road worker to the bar, lined with blacks and whites.  ‘Take it easy, bud,’ Jimmy Williams tells him.  ‘Didn’t you see their hands?  They were working men.  One of us.’

This book was reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s Working, which also celebrated the lives of ordinary working men and women, which I wrote about here and here.  This type of anthropological writing really gives value in what “ordinary” people have to say about issues more typically discussed in general media by professors and researchers.  Race, class, gender, politics; all that good stuff are in these books.  This type of writing lets people speak for themselves and allows their words stand on their own.  There is something so valuable about having the opinions, thoughts and stories of the people written down on paper (or blogged online).

Not About Books

August 21, 2008

I have been away in the mountains in upstate New York with the family.  My aunt and uncle built a house on the lake for themselves and now the entire family spends their vacations there.  We are a bunch of shameless free loaders.   But I love when all my extended family are together under one roof.  But this vacation I felt sad, I kept wondering how many more years we have together in this way.  Since I’ve moved out I’ve been feeling more like an adult, and this forces me to realize that my parents and my aunts and uncles are getting old.  Like, they look like old people.  And me, my siblings and cousins, we’re adults.  We are getting married and having babies and buying houses.  I had a total “oh my god I’m an adult now time is flying make it stop” moment. 

My dad is one of five boys.  When my dad and my uncles get together and talk, it’s the best thing in the world.  Between these men, they know absolutely everything.  They know how to build houses, fix plumbing, install electrical wiring, install heating and cooling systems, fix and replace boilers, how to build subways, how to drive trains and boats, how to put out fires, how to fix and rebuild cars.  They know everything about the city; can tell you the entire history of the public transportation system in Brooklyn, from trolley cars to electric buses to elevated subways.  My dad and uncles talk like no one else in the family.  Their Brooklyn accents, their language and skilled use of profanity, the way they tell stories (oh the stories, they have the best stories) and the way they laugh – I never get tired of listening to them talk.

My dad and my uncles grew up and left Brooklyn to raise their family in the suburbs to give their children what they never had, big houses with big backyards and all that, and I know they did this with the best intentions in mind.  But I wonder sometimes if they realize what was lost in moving the family away from the city.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something was lost.  Growing up in the city gives a person a sense of openness and honestly that comes through in the way they talk and interact with people.  And once my dad and my uncles are gone that city culture that I love is gone with them.  My siblings and my cousins and I, we are suburban kids.  We are careful and selective in what we say and how we act.  I know we are supposed to represent our family’s progress and success, but at the same time I realize that something was lost in the process.  One day I’m going sneak a voice recorder in the house to get my dad and my uncle’s voices on tape.  I cannot even imagine there will be a day when they won’t be around, when I won’t hear their big booming voices echoing through every room in the house.

Maybe this is why I wanted to move to Brooklyn.  I feel like I’m returning to the motherland.  My grandmother died in November, she lived in Brooklyn her entire life.  She was born in the same house that she lived in as adult and where she raised my dad and my uncles.  I miss her all the time.  She also represented what I love about the city, that openness and acceptance of all kinds of people. She was loving but she was honest and could crack jokes along with my uncles.  I love my little corner of Brooklyn.  It is not far from my dad’s old neighborhood.  It is not chic or gentrified or whatever you call those neighborhoods nowadays.  But everything I love about Brooklyn is here. 


Summer Snapshots

June 10, 2008

I think if you live anywhere in the Eastern U.S. you know that its summer and its really hot right now. I am not complaining about the heat. How can I when I go from air conditioned bedroom to air conditioned car to air conditioned train to air conditioned workplace and vice versa? I always used to ask my dad how he could fight fires in this heat. Imagine its the hottest day of the year in the city, with a heat index of 110 with all the humidity, and you have to go into a burning building? I thought my dad must have superhuman strength to do that. But he always told me it was much worse in the bitter cold, when water from the hose froze all over and guys felt cold for days. I’m not going to be cranky about the heat, that’s one thing about the summer that I like, is that you cannot stress out. Walk down the sidewalk nice and slow, take your time, you cannot let anything bother you or get under your skin. Because if it does, your heart rate increases and your body beings to tense up and you feel additional, unnecessary heat waves come over you. Over the weekend we put the air conditioners in our windows, something my mom doesn’t like to do until July. But after spending all day in air conditioning I just want to be outside. After work I take my book, my dinner, my dog and my glass of ice water and sit out in the porch until it gets dark and just enjoy the first heat of the summer.

Right now a thunderstorm is approaching. Our neighbors have lost power and branches fell down across the street. My mom is afraid of lightning. She has turned off the TV, will not answer the phone, placed candles around the kitchen, and is flipping through a magazine while holding on to her flashlight. We always loose power during the hottest days of the summer. Tonight one side of the train station had power but the other side was dark. When I was younger my neighborhood lost power for 2 days. Every kid on our street spent the day in our little backyard pool. Parents brought over meat they had sitting in their freezers and we barbecued every last piece of meat on the block so it wouldn’t spoil. At night the kids went to bed and the adults took over the pool. Someone brought over floating candles and someone else made the cocktails. My bedroom window looked down into our backyard and I stayed up most of the night, unable to sleep in the heat, listening to the conversations outside. I looked down into the glowing pool thinking I had rarely seen parents – moms and dads – just hanging out like that having fun without children, like normal people! They told stories and laughed and drank in the pool all night. I always sort of liked blackouts. They shake things up a little, a little deviation from the typical routine. There are two exceptions: the 2003 blackout, because after you have no power for 2 days, its not fun anymore; and the time I had to babysit two of the brattiest kids ever and there was no power. This meant no TV, no movies, no video games and two very bored, very hot, very cranky children to watch all day, for 10 hours. It was too hot to go outside, too hot to go to the park, too hot to do anything. We played battleship. Many, many games of battleship.

So lets talk about summer reading. I secretly loved summer reading assignments because I got to pick any book I wanted from my school’s summer reading list. To me, reading is more fun when you choose what book to read. This is why I hated English in school, because we had to read whatever the teacher assigned. Even though I like reading, I hated doing it for school because I had to. Yes I’m that stubborn. I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately and I’m feeling like I want to read some history and science this summer. I’d like to read something by Bill Bryson, I hear good things about him. I’d also like to read more books by David Quammen because I think he’s a great science writer. (Here’s a NY Times Review of his book Monster of God, which I read last year.) If I’m feeling especially smart, maybe I’ll try reading The Fabric of the Cosmos or The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, who organized the World Science Festival that I was so impressed with. Maybe I’ll check out Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin, which I found while browsing today, now tell me that doesn’t sound like a fascinating book?

As for reading right now, I’ve finished The Giver for my book club, then finished In Defense of Food and almost finished with Drown. So more book blogging is coming. After this heat wave is over.

Birthday Love

May 14, 2008

I turned 24 today and I had a great birthday.  I love birthdays and they should be celebrated and you should be allowed to do whatever you want for the day.  I took the day off of work.  Manny and I went to Pelham Bay Park and thanks to the maps in The Field Guide to the Natural World of NYC, we found a nature trail that went along the shore by Orchard Beach.  We saw the following birds:

double crested cormorant:

snowy egret:

great egret:

black-crowned night heron, which was exciting because i’ve never seen one before:

We also saw lots of canadian geese, mallad ducks, mute swans, woodpeckers, robins, and american goldfinches.  After walking around the park all day Manny and I went to my house.  My mom made eggplant parmesan and my sister, brother in law and my two closest friends joined us for dinner.  Everyone told embarrassing stories about me – about how I always fall while trying to rollerblade and how I walk into poles and parking meters while on my cell phone and we all had a good laugh.  My mom bought me the books Grayson and Gift from the Sea which I’ll be able to start reading tomorrow since I’ll be finished with All the Pretty Horses. 

I am really good judge of character.  As soon as I meet a person I can tell whether or not I can be good friends with them.  If I don’t think I’m going to get along with someone, I just don’t talk to them, I don’t bother or waste my time.  Of course, this attitude did not serve me well in high school.  While my peers were busy forming superficial friendships with each other in order to advance their social status, I was sitting in the alone in cafeteria listening to my walkman reading a book because I didn’t get along with most of my classmates and didn’t want to pretend like I did.  It is my judge of character that has kept my social life virtually drama-free and kept me safe from backstabbing friendships most girls go through.  And I have a few solid friends who I love like family.  I’m so glad I saw them today.  Quality over quanitity – always.

Mother of Exiles

May 6, 2008

Manny and I went on a Circle Line cruise around lower Manhattan yesterday to celebrate his birthday.  We had a tour guide named David.  We weren’t expecting much, just your typical touristy stuff, i.e. “And on your right is the Empire State Building” etc.  But no, David turned out to be insightful and knowledgeable, pointing out things even Manny didn’t know about NYC.  We were impressed.  As we cruised past the industrial Brooklyn waterfront, David repeated himself over and over: “this building used be _____ [fill in the blank with any warehouse or factory name] and now is being converted in luxury condos.”  He talked about the loss of low and middle-income housing in the city.  The loss of working class jobs.  The city used to rely on industry – factories, warehouses, importing/exporting seaports, now the biggest source of revenue is Wall Street and tourism. 

We cruised around the Statue of Liberty.  I had never seen the Statue up close before, it was really beautiful.  David gave us the basic history of the statue, but then also gave an eloquent little speech about how the waves of immigrants shaped the city, the the rest of the country, into what it is today.  And how ironic it is that today even the most outspoken anti-immigrant critics are the children of immigrants who passed through this city.  Immigrants who came through Ellis Island had answer a few questions and pass a physical exam to get into the U.S.  2% of immigrants who came to Ellis Island were not allowed into the country and were forced to return to their home countries.  25% of immigrants who entered at Ellis Island stayed in the city.  The other 75% went to New Jersey to board trains that took them elsewhere.  Trains at this terminal left every 4 minutes, all day.  In the searchable database at the Ellis Island museum under the last name Gilfeather, there is someone named Thomas J. who came from County Sligo, Ireland which is near the border of Northern Ireland.  He is my great grandfather.  He was one of the 25% of immigrants who stayed in the city, and our family hasn’t left New York since then.

David read aloud the poem by Emma Lazarus that is engraved in the Statue as we cruised past Ellis Island.  It was a really poignant moment – the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the skyline all surrounded in orange light as the sun set, and listening to the words of the poem.  I felt foolish because I had never heard entire thing, only the last four lines.  Here’s the entire poem, sort of in honor of Mother’s Day:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883

Spring Fever

April 21, 2008

Finally! It feels like spring.  This winter felt especially long.  There was not much snow but it was stayed cold for a long time.  In New England where I went to college, spring seemed to arrive really abruptly; like one day it is 20 degrees and snowing, the next day is 50 degrees and there’s mud everywhere, the next day it is 70 degrees and then its summer.   But spring comes to New York really slowly, so when that first warm sunny day finally comes around, I am just ready to burst.  It is painful for me to inside on the first spring days.  I NEED to be outdoors or I’ll loose my mind.

So, what better time to pick up The Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City?  I read most over it over the weekend.  There’s actually maps and descriptions of really neat city parks.  Not just the super stars like Central Park and Prospect Park, but lesser known places like Alley Pond Park in Queens and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which used to be the city’s first airport and now features the city’s only (legal) overnight campgrounds.  Not only do you get descriptions of the parks but Leslie Day provides directions to the park – via bus, subway or car, gives you maps of park trails, info centers, and parking sites.  This is the most helpful thing ever.  Besides Central and Propect, I haven’t really been to any other city park.  I know they’re out there, but I never knew how to get to them, what they are like, where the entrances where, where to park my car if I drive there.  Parks in NYC are just green blobs on a map.  But now finally, I have maps to navigate these green blobs and I can’t wait to go exploring and cure my spring fever.

However, the field guide to plants and wildlife is lacking and not that comprehensive.  If you’re going on a nature walk to observe wildlife, you’re better off going with a Audubon or Peterson’s field guide.  But for natural history and user-friendly info on NYC parks, this book is great.  Plus the author lives in a houseboat on the boat basin off 79th St, which is neat.