Wednesday, April 11, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Nine and Last: Coming In Second

From some ways of looking at it, it's the second-largest city in New York State, and yet I'd never really been there. The last booking of my over-long trip needed to be in a place from which I could get to JFK Airport easily, and I just assumed that'd be Manhattan. But...PriceLine wasn't being nice at all. Fortunately, Marie jumped into the fray and found me a place in (gasp) Brooklyn. Really? Brooklyn? Well, it's not like I had a choice.

What I did have was a whole day free to have lunch with a friend in Manhattan, do my last-minute grocery shopping, which probably wouldn't take long, and maybe discover Brooklyn. And then, at last, I'd catch the plane home.

Brooklyn, of course, has caught some flak recently because of its huge hipster population and the inevitable displacement of previous residents to elsewhere, the juggernaut of gentrification rolling on as Manhattan became utterly unaffordable by mere humans. I was curious what it was going to look like up close.

By some miracle, the train pulled into the station ten minutes early, as I've said, and although the trip with two heavy bags on the subway wasn't easy (particularly the last part, hauling them up the narrow stairs of the Union St. subway stop -- riding the New York subway will make you wonder how the elderly and disabled get around in the city) but the hotel receptionist was nice enough, and pointed me to nearby 5th St. as a kind of restaurant row. I wound up at a place that was having a soul food evening, but was too late to get their famous fried chicken and had to settle for what they thought was an oyster po-boy: a bunch of fried oysters in a toasted hamburger bun.

The next day I had a hamburger in a toasted hamburger bun, an almost totally perfect one near the New York Times, where my friend works, at the 5 Napkin Burger on 9th Avenue. It wasn't my last meal in the U.S., but it was, symbolically, a good end to the trip. After that, I went to 10th Avenue and 47th St. to a real live Mexican grocery store -- tiny, with a minuscule taqueria in the back -- and bought some corn tortillas so I could make enchiladas with French cheese. I wandered around some, but eventually I found myself getting on the subway back to Brooklyn, where I took care of some business and then, looking out the window, saw a photograph happening.

Sad to say, by the time I got out to 4th Avenue's median to snap this, the deepest red of the sunset had already faded. I stood there for a minute, looking at this skyscraper, reflecting that I had no idea what it was, or, really, where it was except down the street. The architectural details, including a clock tower which, unusually, actually told the right time, made me think it was a landmark, and later research proved it was the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, which Wikipedia confusingly says is either the second- or third-tallest building in the borough. Eventually, it got dark, and I walked a mile or so into unknown territory to join Marie and some friends at a bar, where I had a light meal -- only appropriate after that hunk of burger at noon.

The next day I was confronted with a problem: I had to check out of my room by noon, yet my plane didn't leave until 7:15. Fortunately, there was a baggage room, but unfortunately I had nothing to do, and no idea where I was. First things first: I hiked a few blocks to find an ATM for some cash, then back down to the corner of 4th and Sackett (I think) to the bagel bakery there. Another of my quests was fulfilled: I'd been frustrated by the bagels I'd gotten at the start of my trip, but here was a place making chewy, flavorful, large bagels -- and inexpensively. Another memory to carry with me until I get back to New York -- which won't be soon, from all indications.

After breakfast, I packed up my stuff and stashed it at the hotel. There was nothing left to do but wander around until 4:30 or so, when the hotel's car service would drive me to the airport. So I wandered. First, I headed towards the Gowanus Canal, which wasn't far from the hotel. I tried to snap some of the industrial artifacts of the past, including this garage, which was across the street from the hotel.

Thanks to Marie for Photoshop!

Still, I love those winged wheels, back from the days when America had a real romance going with the autmobile.

The canal is a sad place. One of the most heavily polluted waterways in North America, it's home to some intrepid urban voyagers who call themselves the Gowanus Canal Dredgers, and run canoe trips on what was once a historic stream. I sat at their boat launch site for a while, looking for signs of any life whatever. Some bubbles appeared from time to time, indicating the possible existence of turtles, but the general neighborhood made me think it was just organic decay, maybe a long-dumped mobster, going on.

I finally got up and started walking again, crossing the canal near the apartments shown here with the weird towers. What on earth are they? Not water-towers, not with those windows. The mysteries of Brooklyn.

A bit further down there was a kind of parking lot which contained this, and was ringed with BEWARE OF THE GNOME signs.

I crossed over the canal again and walked down 4th St. to the Williamsburgh tower, then headed back on 5th St., where I figured I'd find some lunch. Not only did I find some, at a place which curiously specialized in meatballs, but I also found the Old Stone House.

This was just what I was looking for: some local history that would show me something about where I was. And, although it's not much of a museum, I did learn about the Battle of Brooklyn, where Washington got his ass royally kicked, and how it fit into the other various local Revolutionary War battles I'd heard about as a kid, growing up not far from the famous Battle of White Plains. Miraculously, even with a victory like this one in their hands, the British still managed to blow this campaign.

I determined that other sites were too far to walk (plus, I was carrying my computer case: I wasn't going to risk leaving that at the hotel, not with the luck I'd had so far on this trip) and finally, out of options, got back to the hotel an hour early to get the ride to the airport. This was where I really got to see Brooklyn, though: the car driver barely spoke English, and sped through mile after mile of bleak industrial landscape (with living-spaces interspersed, depressing apartment buildings which indicated that Brooklyn sure wasn't 100% gentrified yet), finally arriving at JFK. I was broke, tired, and absolutely ready to get on that plane.

By 2pm the next day, I exhaled in relief: I was back in the Slum, listening to Mme. Merde upstairs screeching at her kids. It sounded great. Well, until the next day, anyway. But now I'm back.


  1. Nice report, Ed. What do they say: wherever you hang your hat, it sure is nice to come home. Welcome back to the continent....

  2. Welcome to Gowanus. The hipsters' nostalgia is sadly misplaced.

  3. Welcome home!
    As for the British and their managing to screw up that campaign, have you never heard of a particular British talent? It's one that applies equally well in a wide range of sports, actually: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory...

  4. Next time you're in Brooklyn, let me know and I'll give you the cook's tour. Extra points, though, for landing in Gowanus — definitely off the usual tourists' path!

  5. I lived for five years or so on Sackett and Fourth. Nostalgia.


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