Never Draw Straws On The N Train

JEAN_LOUIS_THÉODORE_GÉRICAULT_-_La_Balsa_de_la_Medusa_(Museo_del_Louvre,_1818-19)

[The Raft of the Medusa, painted by Theodore Gericault. (Source: Google search.)]

This afternoon, my wife and I actually left Manhattan and made a trip to one of the boroughs.  On purpose.  We rode out to Astoria, Queens (where my wife grew up) to visit my son, Brian and his girlfriend, Kristin.  We had a great visit–saw their apartment and ate a superb dinner at a place called Elias Corner for Fish at 24-02 31st St.  With the exception of my wife, I had the feeling that Brian, Kristin and myself were going to be the only three people who weren’t Greek once we arrived at the restaurant.  Before I go any further with this post, I need to explain a few things.

Yes, Mariam and I are still “on the road” to Florida.  But for several very good reasons, we have this lay-over in New York City.  Being away for four or five months is no small undertaking, so we scheduled a few doctor appointments and Mariam needs to attend a meeting or two in connection with her job.  Because of this, we’re leaving the r-Pod back in Jersey City and spending three nights in Manhattan–in a cozy hotel just a few steps from Herald Square (and Macy’s).

Just to prove that we are indeed “camping” in Jersey City, here is a photo of the pod:

RpodJerseyCity

It looked a little forlorn and lonely as we drove off to the Holland Tunnel.  I felt like we were leaving a puppy in a pound of Dobermans stricken with distemper, but silent while watching our tiny pod.

To kill a few hours today, I actually found a Barnes & Nobel that was still open for business.  It’s on Fifth Avenue, a few blocks north of the N.Y.Public Library Main Branch in case you’re interested.  I loaded up on books for our trip.  I do have and use a Kindle app on my iPad mini, but I can’t seem to forego the pleasure of a real paper book in my lap while I’m trying to stay warm in our camper.  On the way back down Sixth Avenue, I stopped at one of those souvenir shops that sell models of the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty in about twelve different sizes and NYPD tee shirts for $3.00.  In this particular shop, I located and purchased something that I couldn’t find at Macy’s or any other store–a back scratcher (it telescopes very nicely).  Do you know how hard it is to find a back scratcher?  Especially when your back is still red from the drug reaction you got from the antibiotics you took to get over the respiratory ailment you picked up at your 50th high school reunion over a month ago?

But I digress.

We were sitting in Brian and Kristin’s small but adorable apartment and snacking on crackers and hummus.  The Merlot being served had the label of ‘Help Me’.  I must say, it was full-bodied with a subtle nose and nice legs.  Mariam was having a conversation with my son about the unlikely event that the Mets would actually play the Cubs in the World Series playoffs, when I turned to Kristin and asked how Law School was working out.  She said that she was plugging away and learning a lot about Constitutional Law and is even enjoying a course on Criminal Law.  That last topic piqued my interest and naturally we fell into a discussion of important case studies pertaining to crime on the “high seas”.  I asked her opinion on a ruling that has long interested me.  That, of course, would be the outcome of The Queen vs Dudley & Stevens case.  I’m referring, as I’m sure you are aware, of The Queens Bench Division which handled the trial in 1884 [14Q.B.D.273].  Don’t be confused by the use of the term “Queens”.  We’re talking here of the United Kingdom, not a borough of New York City.

The legalities involved have been the topic of many of my researches.  The case involves the rather sticky question of when is murder justified for the purpose of cannibalism while adrift on the high seas after a maritime disaster.  I don’t want to give away any amusing surprises here, (I’m not a ‘spoiler’) but it seems that killing one’s mate(s) while attempting to stave off starvation and dehydration while drifting in a small life boat with little or no reason to believe another vessel will happen along to rescue you is okay (under specific circumstances, however).  But, and here’s the kicker.  You are more or less allowed to kill someone on board the small boat, for cannibalistic purposes only, as long as you draw straws.  If no straws are used, then the starving mariner who holds the knife and does the deed, can later be tried for murder (assuming a rescue ship comes along–otherwise it becomes a moot point, doesn’t it?).  In this situation, a passing ship did indeed pick up the emaciated survivors–two of whom were then charged with said murder.

I won’t bore you with the outcome–you’ll have to look it up in your law library.

But, it got me thinking.

After dinner, we said our good-nights on the platform of the Manhattan bound stop on the N line.  Their apartment was only half a block away.  As we stood waiting, I felt myself rethinking the case study.  As the front lights of the train approached, I thought of the long run it would make from Ditmars Blvd Astoria to fabled Coney Island.  I knew that after a few stops, we would enter a tunnel under the East River.  I’m not especially claustrophobic unless it involves pre-mature burial (which I think about a lot), but the idea of being under the water for a few minutes had me wondering about criminal law below sea level.  What if the train was stalled or held up by the Command Center (it happened to me once in 1992)?  What if we were truly stuck beneath the East River–unable to move forward at all?  What if it came down to drawing straws to decide which one of the dozens of riders could legally be killed and then eaten?

I ran through a list of concerns.  Whose straw would we use?  Who would conduct the cutting of the straw lengths?  Who would actually take charge of the drawing?  And, most importantly, would anyone really have a straw?

As I was pondering these questions, I became aware that the train was actually slowing down!  Were we stopping?  Yes, we were coming to a full stop!  All this time, I had my eyes closed to better concentrate on the potential and bloody situation we may soon be facing.  After all, I was likely to be the passenger with the most sea-faring experience.  I had ridden the Staten Island Ferry more than four times and I own a kayak.  I had also been on at least two Whale Watches out of Bar Harbor.  In addition, I’ve seen the Queen Mary while it was docked at the Hudson Piers and I have ridden the NY Waterways ferry on at least four occasions.  I’ve been to the South Street Seaport and have visited Mystic Seaport more than once.  I also like to look at sailboats while I eat a Cobb Salad at the 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe.  So I guess that nails my point of being a maritime authority beyond any doubt.

I opened my eyes.  We were in Manhattan–we were approaching the Lexington Avenue/59th St. stop on the Upper East Side.  Five more stops would put us at Herald Square–and the relative safety of street level reality.  Painful decisions in matters of life and death were behind me.  We all know that now the rules of The Walking Dead superseded any maritime legalities.

I vowed, just then, to begin carrying a straw whenever I rode the subway and especially when it went through an underwater tunnel.

I also vowed to carry a small pair of pinking shears.  That way I could, perhaps, control the length of the straw that would be cut into various sizes.

Underwater or on the high seas, controlling the variables is very important.

SubwayMap

[Do not use this illustration for navigation!  It is included for entertainment purposes only. I assume the copyright belongs to the MTA.  For full disclosure and transparency purposes, I will proudly mention that the title of this post was suggested by my son, Brian.]

 

Park Avenue on a Rainy Day

ParkAVe

I am standing in the rain at the intersection of the Mythical Avenue and Ordinary Life Street in New York City.  If there’s a map at your side, look for where E. 92nd Street crosses Park Avenue.  That’s where I am standing, safely protected from the speeding traffic, on the landscaped Mall that separates the uptown two lanes from the two downtown lanes.  In the Spring and Summer, the various block associations would pool their resources and have the Mall planted with thousands of  flowers, usually tulips…so red and so yellow that your eyes would water.  During the holidays, the small trees would be lit up in beautiful lights.  All along a quiet oasis of real earth on a strip that extends for fifty blocks to the south and another hundred-fifty blocks to the north…give or take a few. You’ve got a map, count them.

It’s a mid-January afternoon and the trees are bare and the planting areas are mulched.  I saw several faded and broken blue holiday lights remaining on one of the trees.

When I was growing up, I loved to watch old movies…those set in the ’30’s and ’40’s and New York City was the backdrop.  Park Avenue became for me, as well as with much of America, the “street of dreams” where the rich lived in enormous apartment houses.  “Penthouses” and “Park Avenue” were one and the same.  No wealthy person lived in a penthouse on First Avenue…at least not in the movies.  In these old films, the limousines would pick up the Cary Grants, the Ginger Rogers, the Ray Millands and the Grace Kellys and whisk them away to the Stork Club or the Copa.  No matter what time of day or night, the men wore tuxedos and the women carried themselves like goddesses in satin gowns, boas and ermine.

I am standing in the rain and looking south.  I can barely make out the ghost of a 50+ story building in the mist.  Once upon a time it was famously known as the PAN AM building.  Now, giant letters spell out MET LIFE.  The building sits atop the renowned Grand Central Station.  I’ve heard that Peregrine falcons nest in nooks of the giant neon letters.

South of Grand Central, the avenue becomes Park Avenue South and then ends around 14th Street.  I turn around and look North.  In only four or five blocks the avenue looses its famous allure and continues onto the upper reaches of Spanish Harlem, ending abruptly at the Harlem River Drive.  Much of the northern length is made of three or four-story walk-ups.  But, like most other sections of Manhattan, the luxury high rises are springing up everywhere.  The rentals, co-ops, and condos are growing like ferns on a forest floor.  The cost of a one-bedroom would choke a horse.

But, I’m standing along its Gold Coast.  I watch.  People on corners stick their hands out from under their umbrellas to hail a taxi.  The doormen hail cabs for their tenants.  They help unload the kids from the backseat of a giant S.U.V. or the bags of groceries from Whole Foods.  Sometimes a doorman will sneak away from his post to grab a coffee from a deli on a side street.  The deli displays pastries that would make anyone crave gluten.

A small group of high school girls cross the Avenue, talking so fast it may have been a different language.  At least they’re talking.  Not one of them is on her cell phone.  The girls are in identical kilts and knee socks…the school uniform.  They wear bright pink or green backpacks.  Three teachers lead nine children to an after school program.  The kids are holding a loop on a length of rope.  They are in pairs.  The ninth child is holding hands with the last teacher.  I hope she wasn’t left out.  I prayed she was not excluded from the other eight.  A group of five high school boys, passed the high school girls.  Their pushing and jostling stops for a few minutes.  They’re thinking of the soccer game or the rugby game…or the girls in the kilts.  One or two boys turns to get a last glimpse of the strange group of creatures…these girls.

One of the girls glances back.

There were quite a few school kids on the streets.  I checked on a street map later and found that from where I stood, there were at least 22 schools (mostly private) within an 8 to 10 block radius.  Somewhere I read that the Starbucks on the corner of 96th and Madison was centered in the largest cluster of private schools in America.  Of course.  I remembered that at least two of the girls were clutching a mocha.

A police car, with lights flashing and siren blasting is heading west on 87th.  An ambulance, with lights and siren wailing is running the lights northward to Mount Sinai.  Another, smaller ambulance, no siren and no lights is going south to 76th, toward Lenox Hill Hospital.  I hoped it was empty.  Was it traveling slowly because the occupant was beyond an emergency?

School buses of all sizes crept along the Avenue.

I looked down the Avenue and saw hundreds of red tail lights of cabs attempting to run the stop lights.  The red dots seem to go on as far as Ohio.

It came to me that there were no public buses on Park Avenue.  The only trucks were moving vans.  I surmised that this had a lot to do with the amount of rent along the Avenue and the fact that buses and trucks were not in keeping with the quality of life along one of the richest thoroughfares in America.

I thought again of the old movies.  Those were the glory years of this part of Manhattan.  The glory is still here…for those who can afford the extortion rents (or the condos or the co-ops).  The S.U.V.’s have replaced the Lincoln Town Cars, to some degree, anyway.

When I lived in Manhattan, I was an Upper West Sider.  But the private school I taught in for almost 13 years was on the far east side.  My school was so far east that the East River flowed a few meters below my home room window.  I could see Queens from that window.  I could see the abandoned asylums on what is now Roosevelt Island.

I often walked home and my walk would always take me across Park Avenue.  I would cross slowly, absorbing the history of the fabled avenue.  I was never envious of those who could afford to live in that area.  I knew that no matter who they were or what their portfolio contained, they all had their own broken hearts, pains, guilt, and illnesses everyone else had.  The people had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, the box seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium.  These were movie producers and actors.  I would see ancient ladies with their nurses who were mostly black, being pushed or helped along the Avenue.  This did not surprise me.  There is a great deal of “old money” here and it was for most of its history, a white persons world.  People of color came from the Boroughs as maids and care-givers, nannies and companions.  Many of those old folks probably have forgotten where the family fortune came from in the first place.

Park Avenue is a symbol of all that is dreamy, wealthy, opulent, poor, class-ridden, lonely and depressing in the Greatest City in the World.

Yes, I would cross nearly every school day, wiping sweat from my forehead on warm summer afternoons.  On harsh winter evenings, I would wish for a longer scarf while wading through a foot of snow and small ponds of frozen slush at the corners.

But, in the Spring, I would always stop and smell the flowers–those tulips–those dazzling tulips.

Today and for the next few days, my home was a hotel room.  It’s only a few blocks from the corner of 86th and First Avenue, where I would stand to catch the cross-town bus…when I taught here…when I called New York City my home.

I held firmly to my new blue umbrella as I stood under dripping clouds and watched life happen around me.

On Park Avenue.  On a rainy day.

 

ParkAveMall

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton in the Taxi

The Division Head in the private school where I taught was very adamant.

“All this stuff has to go, Pat.  Everything you don’t use in a year should be cleaned out.”

I looked around the Middle School lab and began to make mental notes of what needed to be tossed.  The chemicals, of course, had to be disposed of in Hazardous Waste bags.  The old equipment that had been sitting in the cabinets before I came to join the faculty was outdated and clearly obsolete.  Technology had changed the nature of a school science lab in just a few years.  Sure, we would always use test tubes and beakers, but old dusty kits of projects whose educational value was obscure, had to go.

It was then that my eyes fell on Seymour.  He hung, silently, on a metal rack facing the student tables.  I felt sorry for Seymour, he had his own special corner of the lab to himself for decades.  He had to go.  His educational potential was spent.  For years, the students (mostly 8th grade boys) would abuse him.  And, he was helpless to prevent this bullying.  Someone stuck his thin finger into his nose.  Another someone placed his hand over his pubic area.  His toes and feet had suffered being stepped upon by the passing students for years. More than once he was found by me to have something between his teeth that was either obscene or downright goofy.  Sometimes, I thought it was funny, but other times I would just shake my head and return his hands to his original position…by his side, like a doorman of an apartment building of this wealthy part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Seymour, you see, was a skeleton.  Not a real skeleton, mind you, but a plastic model colored to look real.

But, he had to go.

I just couldn’t see myself putting Seymour out with the rest of the detritus.  No, I had formed an attachment of sorts with him and I couldn’t put him curbside like so many girlfriends had done to me.  He deserved better.  I went to the Division Head and asked if she would approve the purchase of a new skeleton.  She agreed.  I then popped the question.

“Could I have Seymour?”

“Whatever,” she said, not looking up from her paperwork.

I called my wife and broached the subject.  She asked, rather directly, if I thought we had room in our one bedroom apartment for a life-sized skeleton.  I thought about it.  She was right.  On the one hand, it would be an interesting conversational piece over wine and cheese.  On the other hand, once the conservation ended, having the likeness of a dead person standing quietly in the corner could be a little off-putting.

Now, my son, Brian, lived in Binghamton.  He was in sixth grade and attended a public school.  I knew public schools were always having budget issues and within minutes I had a plan to have Seymour continue to “live” on in upstate New York.

I called Brian and asked him to check with his science teacher to find out if he would appreciate such a donation.  He did and the teacher did so it was a done deal.

Now the problem was to get Seymour out of the school and across town to our apartment for the eventual trip to Binghamton.

I hailed a taxi and told the driver to hold at the front door while I went back into school to fetch the bones.  I came out the front door pulling Seymour like a prom date on an IV drip.  I placed him next to me on the rear seat.  No trunk for Seymour.  That was a little to “mob” like for an educational tool.

The driver kept eyeing me through his rear view mirror.

“So, whose your friend, pal?” he asked with a smirk.

“Seymour,” I said.

“Hey, Seymour,” he said.  “Had a bad day, I see.”

I pushed the plexiglass sliding door closed.  I didn’t want Seymour to have to deal with off-handed remarks from a cabbie from Queens.  Knowing that my boney friend only had a view of the East River and the north tip of Roosevelt Island for many years, I decided to point out some of the interesting sights on the way home.  It’s about time he saw the city.

“Look, guy, there’s the Metropolitan Museum, this is Fifth Avenue.  Remember the song, “On The Avenue, Fifth Avenue?”.

Somewhere halfway across Central Park, he nodded off.

Seymour’s head tilted to my shoulder.  I put my arm around his bony back and held him tight so he would survive the sharp turns of the taxi.

The driver turned his radio volume up.

Harry Nilsson was singing “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me.”

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