Wednesday, August 29, 2007

She Thinks My Tugboat's Sexy

New York Press

August 29, 2007

For a day, harbor tugs push against each other, not super cargo carriers

“We generally take home one or two a year,” says the white-bearded owner of Reinauer Transportation Company, pointing at more than twenty burnished trophies lining a wooden shelf in his handsome office headquarters.
Like Bert Reinauer himself, the room conveys an aura of some consequence, owing in part to the mounted cups, whose slight dissimilarities suggest they were long in the gathering. The shelf is a bit high, so you’d have to stand on tiptoe to understand that the cups are not exactly as consequential as they appear. In fact, it’s all kind of a big game.
One day a year, the tugboat industry dresses up its hardworking vessels and parades them before judges, showing off fresh paint jobs, displaying horsepower in nose-to-nose pushing competitions and a one-mile sprint up the Hudson. Tug operators play rodeo cowboys, demonstrating their skill by roping a cleat from a moving vessel coming toward a dock.
And those are the earnest categories. Equally coveted are the trophies for best tugboat pet and best dressed crew, best crewmember tattoo (that can be legally displayed), and best mascot.
The event’s lightheartedness in no way means it is not taken seriously. Reinauer compares it to a tractor pull, and anyone who’s ever been through the middle of the country knows how the heartland loves its diesel. It would not be going overboard for a crewmember to get a tattoo specifically for the competition. “I don’t know for a fact" whether that has happened, says Reinaur, "but it wouldn’t surprise me. Some of the tattoos are really ornate and pretty unique.”
“For our industry, it’s the highlight of the year.”
The Sunday of Labor Day weekend was not always a maritime holiday.
In 1992, Jerry Roberts, who then worked at the Intrepid, decided to bring back the tugboat racing that had ended in the 60’s or 70’s when big companies started buying out family-owned tug operations, tugs started striking, and camaraderie in the business went downhill. He started calling around, and got a lot of maybes.
Companies were concerned with insurance issues, but mostly, about taking a loss by taking a day off. Cargo comes into the port every day of the year, so there are no industry-wide holidays.
“It’s difficult to pull a working vessel out of your fleet, and come in here and dedicate to a day’s events that are really non-revenue producing,” says Reinauer. “It just depends on how your schedule works out.”
Only a little bit daunted, Roberts kept plying the phones. “I really called everybody, sent out letters, and I got a bunch of them to say, ‘You know what? If we have a tugboat that day, with a standby crew, that doesn’t have a job that morning, we’ll send it. But no guarantees.’”
The night before the first race was tense.
“So that first year, I waited on the dock in the morning. We had already alerted the press, we already had some publicity. My reputation was kind of on the line because, you know, a bunch of people coming to watch a tugboat race, and if in fact no tugboats showed up, or only two tugboats showed up, I knew it would be the last year of the event.
“And I sat there watching. First one or two, and then more, and McAllister Towing Company sent five McAllister tugs. In combination with the other tugs that showed up, I think we probably had eight to ten tugs that year, which certainly was enough to have an event.”
Five years later, hundreds of tug-loving spectators were attending and tugboat companies were calling Roberts, instead of vice versa. “Because what it quickly evolved into was a great – forget the spectators for a minute – it became a great celebration within the tugboat community. And it was a chance for the tugboaters to bring their families on their tugs, deck them out with flags and stuff.”
On September 2nd, the 15th annual New York Tug Boat Race & Competition will begin at 10:30 a.m. at Pier 84 (at West 44th Street) with a parade of tugs, a fireboat spraying water and a Coast Guard Cutter.
Roberts is expecting between 10 and 20 tugs, but big as the event has gotten, the roster will never be set in advance. “They can’t tell two weeks out necessarily which tug will have gotten a job working at this pier or taking a barge to Boston or something,” says Roberts. “They’re not going to turn down a $20,000 job to race. But, they may have another tug. Or they may have a tug visiting from Galveston that they can throw into the race. So until the day of the race, you don’t know for sure.”
“Whoever can spare the tug power,” says Reinauer, “we’ll go out, rain or shine.”

The Last of the Friday Morning Drinkers

New York Press

August 22, 2007

A seaport tradition lingers though the fish guts are gone

An unread Daily News lies folded in half on the bar. I slide into a seat, order a coffee from the bartender, pick up the paper and flip through it, but not with the same Yankee-loving, Lotto-playing gusto as the guys it’s really for.
When it opened in 2004 on Beekman Street, Fresh Salt entered into a tradition as old as the seaport itself.
In October of 2004, recalls Sara Williams, the bar’s co-owner, some guys came in one morning at 8 a.m. for coffee. Then they noticed that “I was standing in front of a lot of liquor.” They ended up asking sheepishly for margaritas. Thus was born the Friday morning happy hour, a celebration of the end of the fish market’s nocturnal workweek.
There was a time, affectionately recorded in a photo album behind the bar, when twenty guys would pack in, grappling hooks over shoulders, some already on their third vodka-soda as suits headed to work on nearby Wall Street.
That was almost two years ago now. When the 180-year-old Fulton Fish Market was booted from its waterfront site in the fall of 2005 and relocated to a new facility in the Bronx, Friday mornings at the seaport got a lot tamer. “We don’t do that anymore,” says Sara, of the extra-early happy hour. Now Fresh Salt opens at 10 a.m. every day of the week. “Not too long after they moved, we were like, alright, ten o’clock.”
Which is not to say that Friday mornings at Fresh Salt are suddenly sober. It turned out that the move to the Bronx was quite a buzz kill for the guys who liked to jumpstart their weekend with the unfailing combination of many drinks on no sleep. While the new $85 million, 400,000-square-foot indoor facility is spacious and climate controlled, Hunts Point lacks any sort of early morning drinking infrastructure. As one fish guy put it: “Where can I get a margarita at 8 a.m.?”
So while it goes without saying that the numbers of early morning drinkers at Fresh Salt are of course nothing like what they used to be, it is a testament to something – perhaps the strength of friendships forged over decades, or the lure of alcohol, or both – that there is still a core that makes the weekly pilgrimage from the heart of the Bronx to the lower tip of Manhattan every week, or just about.
“Vinny’s been coming, kinda,” says Sara. “Shadow, I haven’t seen in awhile. And Bobby usually gets here around eleven.”
It may be a sign of the beginning of the end that last Friday morning, not a single one of the regulars showed up. All the patrons at Fresh Salt had clearly been to bed the night before. All were utilizing the café, none the bar, and many were typing away industriously on laptops hooked up wirelessly.
But Sara’s not concerned. It’s summertime, she says, and the guys are probably spending their weekends away at the beach or somewhere.
On a rainy Friday morning a few months ago, the scene was similar – Sara running around accepting keg deliveries and setting out muffins – but the clientele, different:
“Where’s the Daily News?” asks Bobby Lobster, as Sara pours him a glass of red wine. “I forgot it,” Sara confesses, for the second time this morning. (Shadow had wanted it, too.) Like many things, this causes Bobby to groan good naturedly. Sarah offers to go out in the rain to pick it up, but she knows they don’t want her to go anywhere. It’s clear they all enjoy each other’s company.
Shadow throws Bobby Lobster – a lobster wholesaler – the Post. Bobby Lobster turns it toward Sarah and shows her “your boyfriend,” Yankee Johnny Damon. He’s heckling her, as Yankee fans tend to do to Red Sox aficionados: Sarah is from Boston originally.
Shadow, or Spider, or Michael (but no one really calls him by his Christian name) has been at the fish market since he was 20, which was about twenty years ago. He hoists fish from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and on Sunday from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. He looks wan after his 11-hour shift loading and unloading fish, half of which was spent outdoors in the rain. Mostly, though, he looks happy to be here, sipping his second Bud Light.
He’s still got the second leg of his commute home to Marine Park, Brooklyn in front of him, but he couldn’t care less. “Don’t have to be back at work ‘til Sunday,” Shadow smiles.
“Friday,” he says, sipping his second Bud Lite, “there is no bedtime.”

Floating Oldies

New York Press

August 15, 2007

The birth of a very local holiday

“You can see the density of the towers here in the downtown financial district,” a woman’s well-rehearsed voice booms onto the decks of the Zephyr, Circle Line’s 143-foot touring yacht. “They would all develop around a tiny little street called Wall Street.”
“Too loud!” Sam Dao winces. Like 90 percent of the passengers aboard the Zephyr last Wednesday, Dao, 74, speaks too little English to be able to make out what this disembodied voice is conveying. He brings his hands up to his ears. “A little bit too loud!”
This hour-and-a-half long tour is clearly designed for American tourists, but today the sunburned father and son in Tevas make up a tiny minority. The Zephyr’s deck is crowded with almost 150 local seniors, almost all Chinese, decked out for the occasion in sunglasses and beach hats. That’s “seniors” as in old-timers, not students in their last year of school, although the energy level – the noisy chatter among cliques and the unceasing taking of photos of one another – might be expected from a group whose average age was closer to 18 than 70.
By the end of the day, a grand total of 1,200 old folks, most of them hailing from lower Manhattan, will have taken a version of this tour, on one of six outings on three different boats.
It’s not the Chinese New Year or anything. No one is celebrating their independence or even a birthday. This big to-do is the second annual Senior Sail, sponsored by Council Member Alan Gerson. Notwithstanding all the elbowing in line, it’s really just a PR event…
But what, after all, is a holiday? According to my dictionary, it’s “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done.”
Granted, these folks are by and large retired, so a day of rest in and of itself is not much cause for celebration. But a free cruise with a couple hundred of your closest friends? In this community, that’s a holiday.
Sure, it’s unfortunate that no one can understand the narration. “Which one is which one?” asks Dao, waving his hand from one imposing skyscraper to another. He and his wife Hee Yann, 73, went on the first Senior Sail last year. They enjoyed themselves immensely, but didn’t learn anything.
Dao points north at the Empire State Building. “My wife and me, we know only that one. The name of this building,” his finger aims at a skyscraper with a clock in its tower, “can you tell me?” I shake my head. I haven’t been listening, either. Dao giggles a high-pitched giggle, covering his mouth with his hand.
And yeah, it was annoying that they had to wait around for an hour and a half in ninety-plus degree heat, on account of the flooded subways, for the Zephyr’s crew to assemble. “We waited so long!” says Roger Wong, a retired senior analyst for Shell Oil Company. “Originally the schedule is 12:00. Now it’s 1:30. First we wait outside, then inside Pier 17, looking around the store.”
Was it worth the wait? “Oh yes, indeed,” says Wong. “I guess so. Yes, indeed.”
The Zephyr’s first- and second-story decks crawl with hobbyist photographers who seem to think the Statue of Liberty is Kate Moss, and it’s standing-room only in the air-conditioned indoor seating area. The only vacant block of seats is in front of the shiny black bar. The bar stools are deserted; no one’s about to blight a free holiday with the purchase of an overpriced beer.
In their anticipation, the day trippers have thought of everything, from backpacks and fanny packs containing brown bag lunches and water bottles to colorful umbrellas to shield the sun. One man even has a rolling suitcase.
Finances can be hard on retirees, says Wong, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife. “But I manage okay because I watch every dollar.”
“A long time ago, I rode on Circle Line around Manhattan,” Wong recalls. “That was over 15 years ago. You know how much Circle Line cost round trip? It was over $15 before, I guess. No, it must have been $30, I guess. I don’t know. It’s a lot of money for a retired person. This is the good deal!”
“For free!” echoes Kee, a friend of Wong’s from the City Hall Senior Center, busily taking pictures of the group. “For free!”
There is one white-haired white man in denim shorts, part of a small group of non-Chinese seniors from the Montclair Senior Center, who has splurged on a glass of white wine. Thomas Bowden gazes out a porthole in the ship’s stern. “I’m looking,” he says. “I don’t really listen too much.”
Bowden lost his son on 9/11. The body has not been found. When we passed Ground Zero earlier, “it felt a little… I didn’t want to look at it,” he says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the site.”
But Bowden’s memories today are mostly pleasant. “This reminds me of my Navy days,” he smiles. He was a seaman on a destroyer from 1960 to 1963 in Newport, Rhode Island. The blue ink on his arm reads “DD 943 / USS BLANDY.”
He, too, is in the holiday spirit, feeling spryer than his years. “I’m 66,” he tells me when I ask his age, then leans in confidentially: “which I can’t believe!”

Shvitzing it Out

New York Press

August 8, 2007

Naked, sweaty transcendence at the Tenth Street Baths

“Inga!” shouts a naked woman, hoisting a bucket of cold water above her shoulder.
A full-bodied Russian woman lying prone on a wooden slab moves her head groggily in acknowledgement of her name. The bucket tilts.
Inga moans unabashedly as cold water hits her back and runs over her butt. As the water heats up to the temperature of the room, Inga’s moaning trails off. Her head returns to its original position, forehead pressed onto a wet beige towel. Without a word Inga goes back to what she was doing: sweating.
I absorb the scene from across the sauna through half-lidded eyes. We are in the Russian Sauna, familiarly referred to as The Fiery Pit of Hell, the hottest of the four rooms steaming underneath East 10th Street. This century-old cave is heated by an oven filled with 20,000 pounds of rock that have been cooked overnight. The rocks give off a radiant heat so intense that when I first walked in I involuntarily covered my face.
There is a warning on the door not to exceed half an hour, but I can’t touch that. Five minutes in, my synapses seem to be firing at half speed. My self-consciousness over looking like a newcomer here has been replaced by grogginess and a vague worry that I will pass out, desiccate and die. My head is heavy and I feel vaguely stoned.
It takes me a moment, therefore, to process what I’ve just seen. Imitating Inga’s friend, I make my way to the white pails overflowing with icy water flowing from two taps. I lift and tilt.
If you’ve ever jumped from a hot tub directly into snow, this sensation is a lot like that, except without the painful pins and needles. There is a moment of complete numbness that encompasses mind as well as body, as if your soul is hovering just above the place where you are standing, followed by an overwhelming sensation of relief in which all your muscles melt to the consistency of marshmallow toffee.
Just like that, I had happened upon a portal to emotional nothingness – that state you aim for when you’re tossing and turning at night trying to turn your brain off. And the release could be replicated, I quickly learned, just by moving from sauna to ice cold bath to steam room to shower, until you feel like a tortured Goldilocks who wants nothing more than to find the middle ground between too hot and too cold.
If $30 for a day pass seems like a lot to be spending on self-pampering, you can rest assured you’re not paying any extra for friendly service. It’s off-putting how the men behind the front desk gruffly leave it to you to figure out protocol, letting you guess at the purpose of the key they’ve handed you (it’s for your locker, and you can also charge food, drinks and massages to your key number), and where to disrobe (one old woman with scoliosis exited the locker room naked and grimaced when she came face to face with a man sweeping the floor).

Shuffling around in my blue robe and white plastic slippers marked with someone else’s initials, with my locker key hanging from a thick rubber band around my arm, I’d felt at first like a patient in a mental hospital who’d accidentally wandered away from her bloc.
But there’s nothing like group nudity to remove interpersonal barriers. I’d purposely come on Wednesday morning, because between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. the baths are open only to women. That means you get to be naked, an opportunity that doesn’t present itself nearly often enough in the adult workaday world. (It’s men-only on Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
In short order I found myself smearing mud, allegedly from the Dead Sea, on the back of a new friend with two nose rings and a long tattoo running down her hip. I accepted a container half-full of mango from a small Jewish lesbian sporting a faux-hawk. I got shushed by a stately woman in an African turban when my conversation with a belly-dancer who grew up in a town near mine got too animated.
I wondered to myself if she would have asked the Russian regulars to gossip in six-inch voices, but I was just as glad not to speak. It’s better to lie silent, like Inga, and make noise only when the cold water moves you.

Drowning for Dummies

Our Town downtown
July 30, 2007

A surprisingly common way to go

If you spotted a dead body bobbing in the river in the last few weeks, join the club. Not one, not two, but three corpses were fished from the water between Sunday, July 15, and Thursday, July 19.
The first “floater” was pulled out of the Hudson at Pier 40, near West and West Houston streets. It belonged to Michael Dukes, a 30-year-old black male from Brooklyn whose family had reported him missing four days earlier. According to the medical examiner’s office, the cause of death was drowning. Police said he suffered no obvious signs of trauma.
The next day, the body of a 43-year-old Asian man, as yet unidentified, was spotted floating in the East River near the Manhattan Bridge. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.
Three days later, a third body surfaced down at the seaport, near Front and Wall streets. The fact that police could not determine the sex and approximate age of the victim likely means it was badly decomposed.
While three floaters in five days is an abnormal cluster, it doesn’t comprise some sort of freak phenomenon or Mafia retribution.
Between 2002 and 2004, an average of 129 New Yorkers were hospitalized each year and 109 died as a result of drowning or near-drowning, according to an advisory from the State Health Commissioner.
Although the drowning rate in New York State is actually less than half the national rate, you’re still more likely to drown here than to burn to death in an apartment fire or get popped in gang-related crossfire (unless, of course, you’re in a gang, and then the odds go way up), according to the National Center for Disease Control.
Some intuit that the river is dangerous. Take Angela Swift, the 44-year-old triathletes who, before swimming the 0.9 mile leg across the Hudson, talked with a sports psychologist because, she told the Times, “I’m petrified of this swim… I can do 60 laps in the pool, no problem. But here, I really feel like I’m going to drown.”
But more often, people underestimate the power of the current. Like Dennis Kim, a 22-year-old poet who drowned in 2004 when he jumped into the Hudson after he dropped his backpack, swam 30 yards to retrieve it and was swept away from the Christopher Street pier.
In light of all this, I acknowledge that my behavior a few weeks ago might have been a bit reckless.
A middle-aged woman who had read a Water Log about my first swim in the East River e-mailed me early this month. After living a few blocks from the East River for 25 years, she had decided it was time to go in, and she wanted a companion.
I was all in. I met her at her apartment, where I changed into my bathing suit and a pair of her swim shoes. We had two glasses of white wine apiece (I did not then know that in a study of accidental drowning by the State Department of Health, 44 percent of victims over the age of 15 had alcohol in their blood.) and we each filled a plastic cup – a “traveler” – for the road. I waved dismissively at the waterskiing rope and life preservers she had set aside, but we did each take a neon Styrofoam plastic noodle.
It was just after high tide when we climbed over the railing at 20th Street onto the tiny strip of beach that was not submerged by the East River’s high tide. The temperature was in the 90s and the water felt like an ice bath. We drifted along on our noodles, pleasantly buzzed, gazing upriver at the heliport and downriver at the Williamsburg Bridge, occasionally waving at the small crowd of curious joggers and fishermen.
All of a sudden, the spectators were the size of ants and the bridge was looming majestic. I started kicking my way back upriver. My new friend started kicking too, and coughing. When I’d made it back to our starting point, I looked back to see that she had made no progress at all. If she was headed anywhere it was further downriver.
I stopped swimming and let the tide carry me back to her, and reiterated (casually, as if it were an afterthought) that we probably shouldn’t let ourselves get too far from the beach. It took me a minute to realize that she had heard me the first time, and was trying her best to fight the current – and failing. Maybe if I had been sober, and/or better informed, alarm bells would have gone off.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t until after I had towed my coughing friend back upriver on the end of my Styrofoam noodle – a semi-arduous 15-minute endeavor – and we stood dripping wet on our little beach while I polished off my traveler and she smoked one cigarette after another, that it struck me that she’d been rattled. And I probably should have been, too, because that’s exactly how unidentifiable bodies end up circling the piers.
We have tentative plans to swim again. Maybe next time we’ll bring those life jackets.

A Man in Miniature

Our Town downtown

July 23, 2007

The accidental making of a model shipwright

Dan Pariser has no end of options, but he’ll probably end up bringing the HMS Bounty to the South Street Seaport Museum’s 15th annual New York Ship & Boat Model Festival on August 4th and 5th.
Displayed in a glass case in the bedroom, Bounty holds the place of honor in Pariser’s apartment – and in his heart. “I have a fascination with Bounty,” he admits. “I remember building a plastic model of Bounty with my father. And the story – do you know it? – it’s tragic, and ironic.”
We sit and gaze at the wooden replica, accurate down to the varying thickness of the rigging lines, as Pariser tells the strange and terrible saga of Captain Bligh. After Bligh was set to sea by mutinous sailors in “that little boat” – Pariser points to the miniaturized 28-foot launch lashed to Bounty’s deck – he performed one of history’s great sailing feats by navigating the vessel 3000 miles to Australia, only to be court marshaled for losing control of his ship.
Pariser knows exactly how the flock of tourists will react to the model.
“They’ll say, ‘Is that a pirate ship?’
And I’ll say, ‘Nooooo, it’s the Bounty.’
And they’ll say, ‘Boy, you must have to have a lot of patience!’
And I’ll tell them, ‘I use nothing but instant glue and fast-drying paint. What I have is perseverance. It doesn’t take very long to build any one part, but there are thousands of parts.’”
Whatever it is that makes a great model ship builder, Pariser’s got it.
It started as your typical lawyer’s hobby. Twenty years ago, Pariser was a successful trial attorney with his own law firm in New Jersey. He played tournament racquetball on the side. And on the side of that, he did some woodworking.
Then Pariser tore the muscles in one knee, and racquetball was out. So was using the woodworking machines, which required him to stand. Still, Pariser had to do something wholesome: “Lawyers need a hobby that’s so engrossing it keeps you away from thoughts of trial,” he says.
He fished out a wood model ship kit that someone had given him and put it together. It was fun. He bought some more kits, and then got annoyed with the kits because he realized they were inaccurate. “I’d rather make my own mistakes than fix someone else’s,” as he put it. So he started doing “scratch builds” – drawing his own plans and making everything by hand, down to miniature nails and rivets.
It’s not every day that a person finds an occupation that draws on every one of their talents and speaks to all their inclinations.
Not only was Pariser already an experienced woodworker, but he had grown up playing flute, so he had the manual dexterity to do things like lace together toy-sized planks, pin a broken mast one-sixteenth of an inch in diameter, or replace horsehair rigging with museum-quality linen.
The conservation instinct ran in his blood, along with perhaps a little obsessive compulsiveness. Pariser had grown up in a pre-revolutionary home in western New Jersey, which his mother had fanatically refurbished, turning it into one of the best private restorations in the country. She even hooked her own period-appropriate rugs for each room. Like her son, she wasn’t a fan of out-of-the-box patterns. She’d design her own patterns, practice the more technical aspects on small squares (two of which are hanging in frames in Pariser’s bedroom) and then create her wall-to-wall masterpieces.
And Pariser’s background in law had inured him to the monotony of slogging through fine print. When he started drawing his own plans for models, he bought all the back issues of two magazines devoted to historically accurate shipbuilding and read each issue cover to cover. He’s gone to England to do research and has corresponded with museums and libraries in Rotterdam, Oslo, and Stockholm.
Pariser quickly made a name for himself in the shipbuilding fraternity, but for decades it remained an enthusiastic hobby. “Then one day I looked around. Our overhead was very low. The step-kids had graduated from grad school and I was very, very tired of being a lawyer. In 2004, I retired, and started a career as a model ship builder and restorer. That’s what I do.”
Pariser is now secretary of the Shipcraft Guild and the South Street Seaport Museum’s ship model conservator. His office is a converted walk-in closet in his Brooklyn Heights apartment. “It’s so small, I have to go outside to change my mind,” he quips. Everything has its place: thirteen cans of wood stain, fifteen pairs of tweezers and pincers, a band saw, a miniature table saw, two drill presses, sanders, linen lines, metal grinders, the hand-powered machine Pariser invented that makes miniature rope, and the magnifying goggles that hang on a nail behind Pariser’s head.
When Pariser is wearing those goggles, the tiny ships expand to fill his entire field of vision, which explains how he’s able to fashion plank pins that, at ten thousandths of an inch, are nearly microscopic. “I tell people, I don’t work in miniature,” he says, leaning forward confidentially. “I miniaturize myself, and I work in full size.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Objet d’Art, and Violence

Our Town downtown
July 9, 2007

A vandalized car tells of bygone adventures, and that New Yorkers like to wreck things

I scour the roof of the parking lot at Pier 40 for a moving body. Not a soul. Silently, I flagellate myself for not being able to get my lazy ass out of bed. I’m twenty minutes late for the designated 8 a.m. meeting time. Have I missed him?
An athletic-looking guy rides up the ramp on a mountain bike. I step out of the shadows and away from the cars, to make sure he sees me.
I have absolutely no idea what I’m expecting, but from what I’ve gathered so far about Carter Emmart, I doubt he’d be as square-looking as this guy. The guy rides by, locks up his bike, and gets in his car. Not Carter Emmart.
Let me rewind. A few weeks earlier, I had gotten a call from an artist who parks in the parking lot at Pier 40, saying that I might be interested in a car there that had been vandalized. She didn’t know whom it belonged to, but this was no ordinary car.
A couple weeks later, I decided to check it out. By that point I’d lost the scrap of paper on which I’d jotted the car’s description and location. All I remembered was that it was parked on the top level, and something about a bubble in the roof. But that was all I needed.
From every angle, this car screams to be noticed. Painted on the back of the 1984 Ford station wagon is a waving American flag. The Colorado license plate reads ON2MARS. The bumper is decorated with stickers from the Burning Man festival dating back to 1993.
There is a hole in the roof maybe two feet in diameter, fitted with a Plexiglas bubble – an Austin Powers-esque sun roof.
Orange flame lick the sides, and on the hood, a faded, oversized Barbie in a body suit stands on tiptoe and watches as a mushroom cloud spreads over Los Angeles.
Neat stencil letters on the driver’s side door spell out: “LTC C. EMMART” / “PILOT.” Had this guy been driven over the edge in ‘Nam?
Inside and out, the car is in a shambles. The front windshield has been shattered and partially torn out of the frame, and two windows are missing. Both back tires are completely flat. The paint job is covered in juvenile graffiti: oversized genitalia scrawled on the hood, the word “Petafile” on the side door. Cassette tape trails from the doors and gathers around a tire like entrails.
I try the passenger side door. It’s open. I root around and find maps of Colorado, San Francisco, New York and Indiana, a bill from a Texaco in Boulder, a napkin with a couple names and phone numbers on it, and bingo: a bunch of business cards. They belong to Carter Emmart, Science Visualization/Artist for the Digital Galaxy Project at the Hayden Planetarium. I call him, he answers, we set up a time to meet, and now you have been caught up to date.
People often resemble their cars, so I had high expectations, but the Carter Emmart who shows up 45 minutes late, apologizing profusely, with traces of smeared lipstick around his mouth, and smelling of alcohol from last night’s Independence Day bash, blows them out of the water. This guy is a trip.
“PMS was here,” he sighs, pointing to graffiti scrawled on his Plexiglas bubble. He rolls his eyes and flips his long hair out of his face. “That’s creative.”
When Carter inherited this car from his uncle in the early 90’s, it was beige. “It was the only car I ever owned; I just decided I wanted to celebrate it.” At the time, he worked for NASA, which explains the Mars-inspired license plate and paint job, and the bubble (lying down in the back, he could look through the bubble at the stars). He used the car to travel between jobs, and every year, he’d make the trek to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
“The participation in Burning Man is so positive and aggregate,” says Carter, pausing to let his emotions settle down. “For the most part, people that go to Burning Man sort of understand that it’s something you add into and help others build, as opposed to destroy.”
Carter calls his car an “Ode to America,” but much of that ode, like the atomic bomb on the hood and the gas-guzzling whale of a car itself, is critical. “For me, America is a mixed message,” he says, gingerly picking up the plastic oxygen container from Barbie’s space suit out of the front seat.
It was a continual work in progress. The flag in the back was “redneck control,” so he wouldn’t get his ass kicked in the Bible Belt – and he actually got a lot of thumbs up after 9/11, which he found to be strange. Similar rationale went into the “LTC C. EMMART” / “PILOT” on his door; he was actually saluted once in Las Vegas.
A few months ago Carter lost his wallet, and had his credit card replaced. He didn’t realize that the fee for the lot, which had automatically been withdrawn from his account, was no longer being paid. The lot figured his car was abandoned, and then – no one seems to know who did it or when, exactly – vandals went at it.
“That car that’s kind of funny looking? We don’t know who did it,” the lot attendant told me. “Security’s trying to figure it out. They think it was little kids or something.”
Carter has suspicions that the lot turned a blind eye to the vandalism because they thought his car was abandoned, and it was so freaking strange to begin with.
“I’m not sure what happened, but my feeling is that obviously that car called attention to itself. I think the aspect of it that hurts me is that, I understand that it’s still New York, and it’s not as bad as it used to be in that regard, but you know, people can’t admire something without doing something to it. You know, you always got to carve your initials into some shit.”
“Well, I called her Blazing Glory,” he says, fingering the faded words he and his dad had painted just above the windshield. “And she died a spectacular death.”

A Dip of Baptismal Proportion

Our Town downtown

July 2, 2007

We swam, we bled, we fretted about infection

I have been anticipating my first plunge into the East River for so long now that ever so gradually, it has taken on the significance of a religious rite.
I had a vision of how it would be.
There was a little beach I had noticed in the East River around 20th Street, tucked away in the cove of Stuyvesant Cove Park. It was the perfect spot.
An expert would lead the way, someone I could paddle after like a brainless duckling. I emailed The Swimmer, a guy I had interviewed for this column a few weeks back who swims off of Manhattan almost daily.
He was busy Thursday, he replied, and he had just been swimming the night before.
And just like that I was thrust out into the wilderness on my own. That was a shame, but his response did put to rest, somewhat, the first of my concerns: the potential hazard of swimming in sewage.
It had rained heavily on Wednesday night. Highways were closed due to flooding, baseball games were cancelled. When it rains like that, our sewage system (which is undergoing a major overhaul) still overflows into the rivers. The Swimmer had been swimming for years, and if he was cool with swimming in the rain, that meant immersion in a sewage-tainted river didn’t have any immediately harmful effects on one’s constitution: a good sign.
My second concern was the prospect of being swept away by the current. Growing up, I spent my summers in a lake, and when it comes to staying afloat in the water, I’m perfectly competent. But I was caught, once, in the undertow in Martha’s Vineyard, and a lifeguard had to do a Baywatch-style rescue and drag me out. Recalling that powerless feeling of being tossed like clothes in a dryer, unable to tell up from down, still makes me gasp for air.
In terms of the sewage issue, it would be preferable to swim at high tide, when the cleaner tidal water would be flowing through the river. On the other hand, drowning is less of a possibility at low tide. The issue turned out to be moot, since there was a limited time window on Thursday during which our photographer and I were both free. We would meet at 3:45, just after low tide, when the river would be at its calmest but nastiest.
“I’m not going in after you,” Andrew, the photographer, laughed nervously when we met at the designated point.
We climbed over the railing separating the park’s esplanade from the beach, and dropped down three feet onto the sand. It wasn’t all that hard to get down there, and we didn’t see any No Trespassing signs, but the beach’s inaccessibility made clear that swimming was not encouraged.
Once down at water level, we could see that the concrete bulkhead had been tagged with colorful graffiti. The little beach was littered with plastic bottles and dead branches, but the sand was fine and soft between my toes. I wiggled out of my clothes and waded in.
The sky didn’t open up or anything, but it was no anticlimax, either. The water was deliciously cold. Cold water gives the illusion of crisp, clean water, so it seemed I was frolicking in a pristine mountain river.
When I got in about knee-deep, however, it struck me that the water was sliding past my legs a little more reluctantly than water should. Indeed, it was a bit viscous, like it might coat me if I stayed still too long – but not to the point of being alarming. Had I not been taking mental notes I might not have noticed it at all.
I pursed my lips, closed my eyes tight and dove in. All was silent – the tinny silence of a hundred faraway motors muted by a vast body of water. The drops that inevitably made their way into my mouth when I emerged tasted not unpleasantly brackish.
I swam out maybe thirty yards to the mouth of the cove – my fear of being swept down to the Statue of Liberty kept me from venturing further – and floated on my back over the wake of a tanker. Then I returned to shore, where a handful of people had gathered to observe my baptism, and clambered over a rocky promontory to the remnants of an old pier sticking out of the water. I was gingerly stepping between the rotting wooden supports when a Water Taxi zoomed by, kicking up a wake that made me stumble into the splintery top of one of the posts.
The scratch was superficial. The blood that trickled down my leg did not concern me – until I considered the contents of the water lapping it away. The bacteria from all that fecal matter were right now mingling with my blood cells. It was time to get out.
As we were leaving, a college-aged couple was climbing onto the beach.
“You swimming?” I asked, feeling like I’d encountered brethren.
“That’s the East River,” said the guy. “I’ll get cancer if I go in there.”
When I got on my bike to head home for a shower, I felt like a kid peddling home from the neighborhood swimming hole. The hair on my head and arms already felt stiff with salt, immune to the laws of gravity or respectability. My skin smelled like summer. The city seemed to have lost its immensity and shrunk into my own back yard.
That night, there was some redness around the scratch on my knee. A callous on my foot was itching so terribly that I was reduced to chafing my foot against the exposed brick wall of my apartment – for an hour. Right now, as I type, I can’t keep from rubbing my eyes, which feel irritated.
Coincidence? Perhaps. Hypochondria? May well be.
I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

City Kid-Captain

Our Town downtown

June 25, 2007

Pioneer is an urban ship, and that’s no oxymoron

“If we could just muster amidships,” says Captain Aaron Singh. Although his voice is not much louder than conversational, the handful of volunteers and two paid crew scattered around the deck gather around. The command is routine, but the news is dire: an engine check had revealed that salt water had seeped into the engine, which might damage the transmission. “Which would be… bad,” says Singh, 29, who has a knack for keeping things simple.
The crew droops. A class of sixth graders had taken the subway all the way from the Bronx expecting to be taken on a three-hour trawling sail. Volunteer crew had trekked in from outer boroughs for what is, for many, an addictive escape from the city routine. The ship’s educator, who arrives a minute later, introduces herself: “Hi. I’m disappointed.”
Pioneer, the Seaport Museum’s 102-foot schooner, may be the busiest ship at the seaport. She sails every day, sometimes coming in and out of port from nine in the morning until midnight. Each weekday, Pioneer takes school kids on educational sails. To subsidize the school trips, the ship becomes a charter boat in the evenings, and also takes tourists out – the crew even dresses up in pirate costumes on occasion.
So the fact that a replacement part for the ship’s English-made engine could take three to five weeks to arrive is a big deal.
But Singh’s body language is as casual as his shorts and sandals. His speech is unhurried as he lays out the immediate possibilities: either the crew will do the educational workshops with the school kids on land, or they’ll use the wet lab aboard another ship, or the class will reschedule. The class ends up rescheduling, and Singh disappears.
Within minutes, the leak has been identified, the affected part removed, the engine supplier notified. By that afternoon, the part is in the mail. “This company I found in Seattle has the engine, so they took it off one of their engines to send to us because they want to see us operate, so we’ll get it tomorrow morning and put it in,” Singh tells me later on the phone.
Disaster averted.
Singh, 29, is a city boy. He grew up in Manhattan and started sailing through the Sea Scout program out of City Island when he was 12.
One of the requirements of the Sea Scout program was that students gain experience on a larger ship than the program’s 34-foot sloop. So in 1994, Singh and his friend Jonathan Kabak, now captain of the Seaport Museum’s other historic schooner, the Lettie G. Howard, started volunteering at the seaport, collecting hours on the water, and moving up in the ranks. No social networking necessary. Once you have 360 days of time on a vessel, anyone can sit for a captain’s license with the coast guard.
Although she was built in Pennsylvania in 1885, Pioneer has been operating out of the seaport since the Seaport Museum opened up in 1967, and by now is as much a local as her captain. “It’s a city boat,” says Singh. “The boat’s operating out of New York. We are an urban boat. Our crews are from New York City. This is who needs to be crewing on it. This is the audience we need to be taking out,” says Singh.
“I always say that people don’t really know that Manhattan is an island. By sailing, we’re actually teaching by example. So a lot of the students we’re taking out, they can do the same thing. They can be a captain eventually. They can learn how to operate the boat, and do everything that we’re doing.”
The message seems to be getting through. Of the army of volunteers who help out on the boat and the slew of students who come aboard, more than 100 have gone on to make a career of sailing, says Singh. Singh calls the volunteer route “New York’s community sailing program.”
“Our biggest thing is getting people to know that we’re here. You can have a job from 9 to 5, you can have been to work and sail on a six o’clock sail or on the weekends, and not go to Long Island.”
Last year, six crew members decided to quit their day jobs and go off and sail on traditional tall ships.
“One of the appealing things about the seaport is you can escape downtown, you can escape the hustle and bustle,” says Singh. “I know for sure that I couldn’t stand working in midtown. People have to do that, obviously. But to be able to escape and be on the outer edges is definitely a relaxing thing.”
Are passengers surprised to discover that their ship’s captain hails not from Maine or Michigan, but Manhattan?
“I guess people are a little bit surprised,” says Singh, “but they shouldn’t be.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What If You Could Dive into the River Whenever, Wherever You Wanted?

Our Town downtown
June 11, 2007

This guy says you can.

“Let’s see if we can get in. Stay on your bike; we have to escape fast.” I pedal after The Swimmer onto property that belongs to the Sanitation Department. It also happens to be the Gansevoort Peninsula, which juts out into the Hudson just south of 14th Street.
“This place used to be totally abandoned,” says The Swimmer when we come to a fence that separates us from the river. “Nobody cared at all.”
I take out my notebook and begin to write.
“Wait a sec,” says The Swimmer, suddenly nervous. “Before you write anything, what’s your piece going to be about?”
Two city workers pull up in their city car. “What’s going on here?” they ask.
The Swimmer says something about how we’re just looking around.
“This is city property.”
We bike off.
The Swimmer wasn’t always this skittish. His name and photo have appeared in print before, but the heat has gotten more intense as the piers have been turned into manicured, fenced-off Hudson River Park.
“The park cops are really zealous. They’re out of control. They’re really a bunch of assholes. That’s the reason I want to remain sort of invisible. It’s just a legal monster, the Parks Department. It should be the opposite. You go to the river, dive in, be relaxed. Instead, you’re always looking over your neck.”
Ten years ago, The Swimmer, who was not yet The Swimmer, was dangling his feet off the end of a Chelsea Piers pier. No one was paying him any mind. No one gave a shit. It was high tide, so the water was pretty clear. Suddenly he was overcome by the urge to dive in. The water was just fine: he didn’t get any horrible skin diseases or grow extra digits.
Once he’d been in, he couldn’t stay away. He found all sorts of spots, like an old restored lightship called the Frying Pan at Pier 63 Maritime, where he’d use a pile of tires to climb out of the water. He swam every day when it was hot out.
“Our protection was neglect. You could go where you want.” The only rules: “Make sure you don’t hurt yourself and stay out of the way of boats.”
Then 9/11 happened, and afterward, the river “was filled with boats: police boats, coast guard boats.”
Then planning began for the ambitious Hudson River Park, which was to run along the river from Chambers Street to 59th Street. The Swimmer and his friend, who had formed a sort of swimming lobby group, went to meetings with the Parks Department, showed pictures of themselves and others swimming, and proposed ways of making the water accessible.
They had obvious ideas, like cutting a hole in the railing on a pier and building a ramp down to the water, and ingenious ones, like enclosing the area between two piers to create a safe swimming area protected from the current. (Swimmers would still be affected by the current at high tide, but they would just be pushed from one pier to the other, which The Swimmer points out might be fun.)
Not only would swimming make living in the city more fun, but it would draw awareness to the water itself, the Swimmer argued. “The more people get in the water, the more attention they’d pay to it. Environmentally, it would get cleaner and cleaner.”
It seemed like they were being heard. Like something might happen.
Then…it didn’t.
“When it came to designing it, [swimming] was excluded totally.” In fact, one of the first things included in the park’s bylaws was a ban on swimming. According to the Park’s website, “Swimming in the Hudson River along the park is only permitted with a Coast Guard-registered swim race.”
After we’ve visited a few of The Swimmer’s old swimming haunts (now he recommends the East River downtown and the Hudson in the 90s), we stop our bikes in front of a sign that displays the architectural plans for the park.
“It’s such bullshit,” says The Swimmer—but he seems baffled rather than angry. “You can see they design things to look good in a model. They love the way models look. It’s so anal, so over-controlled…Oooh, granite paving stones.”
Annoyed though he is, The Swimmer is far from beaten. He still swims, of course, although he won’t say exactly where, and he is a veritable font of ideas, from a guerilla cleanup and photo shoot of what is currently a garbage-strewn beach to a map of the “New York archipelago,” which would point out all the little islands and beaches so that people could swim and beach-hop or kayak their way around the island.
“If this idea caught on, New York would have this new identity. It’d be like water town,” says The Swimmer.
In the meantime, happy trespassing.

The Pied Piper of Words: F-R-E-E

Our Town downtown

June 4, 2007

How a summer music festival charges nothing and rakes in tens of millions

Last July Fourth, I enjoyed one of my first – and one of the few – perks of being a reporter: two tickets to a free Belle and Sebastian show at Battery Park, to which tickets were no longer available.
It’s true that I had decided Belle and Sebastian was too saccharine for my taste, a result of overlistening on my IPod. Still, there had been eyeball scratching for the free first-come, first-served tickets, followed by bitter blog-o-rants by those who had gotten to the give-away points on time to find the tickets already gone, about how “some fans DO hold jobs.” If only because so many other people wanted to go and couldn’t, I felt compelled to take advantage of my otherwise useless press creds. I invited my then-boyfriend and we sat in the taped-off press section, which was sort of far from the stage, but which had plastic chairs and a tent with a free buffet lunch and coolers full of sodas.
As we gobbled down triangular little quesadillas, the sky opened up. After they cleared the park (I think there were concerns about lightning) and then let everyone back in, we hopped over the tape into the non-press section where, if you stood, you could actually see the performers.
Sure, we complained about the rain and about how there was no beer and no place anywhere near the performance to go get beer during the rain interruption, but complaining is what we do – or did (now we don’t talk by orders of his new girlfriend and I complain about that). By the end of the show, I was clapping along and we had no choice but to admit: we had had a picture-perfect summer in the city day, which could be improved upon only by the acquisition of a beer.
Before the encore, the band announced that they’d be heading to a bar in the area called Trinity Place, where the band members would be DJing and hanging out. Well, we needed to drink – Trinity sounded fine to us.
So we beelined it up Broadway, grudgingly paid a $5 per person cover, and had – I’m going to have to estimate – maybe two beers and a whiskey apiece? I remember ogling a bottle of $10 double chocolate stout that turned out to be worth every dollar.
Then we wandered homeward, stopping to watch two young brothers do tricks on their wheeley shoes, pleased with ourselves for having scored a free meal and concert.
Little did we realize, we had paid in kind for our “free” tickets. That’s the idea.
“Once we get them down here, we try to encourage people to shop, to dine, to check out our incredible museums,” says Valerie Lewis, vice president of marketing and communications for the Alliance for Downtown New York, which orchestrates the festival.
“Not everyone is buying flat screen TV’s or Armani suits, but even if they’re patronizing a restaurant or going out for a couple rounds of beers, that’s money spent in Lower Manhattan.”
I’ll admit that I was not particularly jazzed about interviewing anyone with the title of vice president of marketing and communications, but the folks at the Alliance for Downtown New York, Inc. have got the whole thing down to a T, including an aggressive PR guy who kept… on…calling. And then, as usually happens, it turned out that there was a story here, and it wasn’t fluff. It was cold hard cash.
Roughly $35 million was spent last year in Lower Manhattan as a direct result of the festival, according to a survey by the Alliance. (The festival itself costs between $6 and $8 million to put on, depending on the year.) About 75 percent of those dollars are dropped on food and drink, the other 25 percent on shopping. To calculate that number, the Alliance asked festival attendees how much they spent, and how many people were in their party, and multiplied that per-person average by the number of people who attend the festival every year.
The festival, which launched its sixth year the first weekend of June, began as a “sort of a roughshod experiment” to jumpstart the economy post-9/11, but, says Lewis, “we’ve come a million miles since then. We’ve moved from healing the community to trying to revitalize the community with economic development to establishing an arts base here to sort of a nice combination of all three.”
Although Battery Park is overrun by tourists who are sitting ducks for marketers (see: the statues of liberty, the caricaturists, the rice grain name-writers, the fake purses, the I Heart New York T-shirts, the break dancers), this festival is not targeted at them. Last year, over seventy-five percent of festival attendees were from the five boroughs, and only 4.4 percent were international tourists.
“Cause we want to create a lasting impression about Lower Manhattan – a year-round impression,” says Lewis. “I want to bring somebody in from, say, the Bronx, who hasn’t been to Lower Manhattan in over a decade, and say, ‘Wow, I want to come down here,’ or ‘I want to live down here,’ or ‘I want to bring my business down here,’ or ‘I want to shop down here,’ or ‘I want to take kayaking lessons here.’”
Is it a bit slick, a little slimy, to lure music lovers in with the promise of a free show and an eye on their wallets? The hipsters who will take the day off work to queue up for their free tickets to see the New Pornographers on July Fourth might be unsettled to learn that the event was manufactured by a blonde in a gray pants suit from her office in a high-ceilinged office building which you need to present identification to enter.
“I think using arts as an economic development tool is one of the most important things a recovering community can do,” says Lewis. And downtown’s economy, for all it has rebounded, is still struggling. “A lot of people like to say, well it’s five years beyond 9/11, it’s five and a half years beyond – this community still has not fully recovered as far as retail and restaurant patrons.”
Lewis has no qualms about calling the festival “somewhat a PR tool, somewhat a marketing tool.” Music, she points out, has been used in that capacity “all over the country, and it’s been certainly used in New York, if you look at Lincoln Center.” Whatever you call it, there’s no arguing with the numbers: it works.

The Liminal

Author Ben Gibberd
Our Town downtown

May 28, 2007

We’re all mortal, but no one’s existence is more uncertain than the folks who subsist where the city meets the sea

The newest book in the New York City waterfront canon is not nostalgic. At least, it’s not meant to be. “You know, I tried to avoid it because I’m sort of mistrustful of nostalgia,” says Ben Gibberd, its author.
Gibberd’s 2500-word profiles of people who work or play on our shores are as sanguine as he, and the accompanying photographs by Randy Duchaine show subjects smiling or hard at work or both.
But even the author can’t stop his own book from exuding a wistfulness, not only for the salty “good old days” (which are always remembered more fondly after they’re gone), but even for the present reality. You can’t help but be aware, as you read, that what you’re reading about may already have been replaced by green pedestrian parks and luxury condos.
And while “the book is certainly not a tract, and it’s not meant to be didactic about what the future of the waterfront should be,” when it comes to nostalgia, Gibberd acknowledges: “Inevitably, there is a little bit, I think.”
Of the 21 people profiled, four have either lost their jobs because their businesses went under, or have jobs that are immediately threatened. “I guess the most important one, and in a way the saddest one, is Mike Gallagher, who was one of the owners of the New York Shipyards dry dock, which is now where the IKEA is going to be,” says Gibberd. “They have this incredible, or they did have this incredible dry dock: a 50-foot hold with these wonderful stone walls where they’d bring in these ships to repair them. There was a battle to save it, and I’m not quite sure what’s happened, but I think it’s about to be filled in for a parking lot. So that’s a business that’s gone and that will never come back, and that land is now gone for maritime purposes.”
Another four of the profile subjects are preservationists whose life’s work is to bring back a piece of the working waterfront. David Sharps bought a 1924 wooden barge and fought for the right to fix her up although she was designated “beyond repair.” He’s also a historian: on the morning of his interview he is teaching a group of school children the meaning of the word “obsolete.”
Gerry Weinstein, a steamboat fanatic, is the lone volunteer to show up on “volunteer Saturday” to chip away at his 800-ton pet project, a 1933 steamboat called Lilac. Weinstein has seen past restoration projects end up in scrapyards, and is plenty aware that this one may not get done during his lifetime.
It’s clear these people are passionate about what they do. Many of them have tossed convention and former lives to the wind in order to live outside it all. (“There was a general criteria,” says Gibberd of his subjects. “The harder someone was to get a hold of, the more they didn’t return your phone calls, the more we wanted to have them in the book.”) It’s equally apparent that they’re stalling in the face of inevitability. These ships will rot and sink. The blue collar folk who make their living fishing eels, sewing sails, or painting hulls will be displaced because there are more profitable uses for what has become our “gold coast.”
“It’s sort of hard, because we’re so close up to it, it’s hard to realize that the city in general, and the waterfront very much so, is going through such an incredible change,” says Gibberd, sitting on a wooden bench down at the tourist-busy seaport, his voice contending with Shakira’s and the rumble of the Water Taxi’s engines. “It’s nothing new to say, but it’s the new gilded age, and the city really is going through a period of growth that it hasn’t seen since the twenties.”
Of the billions of dollars of waterfront development going on right now, much is positive, Gibberd points out, like the Brooklyn Bridge Park or the revamping of Governors Island. One of his profiles is of Greg O’Connell, a waterfront developer in Red Hook who wears overalls and gives nonprofits rent-free space. But some of it, like IKEA and its parking lot, are prizes awarded to faceless hig0hest bidders.
Like adult teeth, our piers and maritime businesses are not going to grow back if we lose them. “Once you get rid of the last remnants of the waterfront, and the businesses that they serve, you’re never going to get that back again. Once the working waterfront is gone in New York, it’s gone for good,” says Gibberd. “It’s very easy to de-industrialize a city, and it’s impossible to ever bring industry back,” an afterthought that became clear on 9/11 when there was no place to load or unload emergency vessels near the disaster site.
Still, none of the book’s subjects are wiping their eyes while they build model ships inside bottles. In fact, they’re an inspiring lot. Many have discovered ways of incorporating themselves into the modern waterline, from the obvious (Teddy Jefferson swims in the Hudson, Manny Pangilinan and Josh Hochman surf at Rockaway Beach) to the ingenious (Olga Bloom converted an old steel barge into a world-class floating concert hall, Philip Frabosilo stores his fishing rods in the trunk of his taxi, Pamela Hepburn hung her infant from a snap hook in the wheelhouse of her tugboat while she operated the thing).
Next week, the waterfront will see yet another first. The book’s subjects – or the ones who check their email – its author and photographer will get together on Olga Bloom’s barge-turned-music hall for a floating book launch party and an unlikely meeting of littoral minds.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Were We Swimming in Your Drinking Water?

No, we weren’t swimming in your drinking water, but these two are.

Our Town downtown
May 21, 2007

A trip back to the ‘burbs to pinpoint the body of water in which we used to trespass

You may have read that New York City is planning to raise your water rates starting in July. Since you probably don’t pay a “water bill” – for tenants, the water charge is generally built into the rent, and for apartment owners, it’s part of the maintenance fee –you may have filed it away in the someone-else’s-problem folder and gotten no further than the headline. That’s what I did.
But then I started thinking that given the subject of my column, perhaps I should understand why our water was getting more expensive to avoid the potential for embarrassment if it should happen to come up in casual conversation.
Turns out the rate hike will be going toward some multi-billion-dollar fix-ups to our water and wastewater infrastructure.
The third-largest item on the New York City Water Board’s agenda is a $1.6 billion filtration plant underneath Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It will remove biological pathogens from the Croton Water System, which provides us with 10 percent of our water. City water has never been filtered before, but the reservoirs that feed the Croton Water System are located in Westchester and Putnam Counties, where building and population booms have apparently polluted the water to such an extent that it’s become necessary.
“Anybody can go up to Westchester and look around,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection. “There’s a lot of sprawling development.”
That’s where I’m from, and I didn’t need to drive an hour back home to know that he was right. I saw housing developments aplenty sprout up off of back roads and grow like teenage boys. When I was in fourth grade, the elementary school in my town reopened after decades of disuse to accommodate the rocketing kid population, and wing after temporary wing was tacked on until there was barely any playground left. My high school is hardly recognizable as the same place I graduated from in 2000; a huge, institutional-looking edifice ate the two-story brick building that once sufficed as Fox Lane High School.
But I did need to check on something. All this talk of reservoirs had gotten me daydreaming about a soft mucky bottom dotted with hidden sharp rocks that made you step gingerly; floating downriver beneath a canopy of fluorescent-green beech leaves; the claws of our chocolate lab, who would paddle after my brother and me and half drown us in a frenzied rescue attempt; the unpleasantness of putting socks back on wet feet.
That river we used to swim in, the one that fed a reservoir – was that part of the city’s water system? Was that what those No Trespassing signs were about? Had we grown up bathing in the water that then filled your bathtub? The idea pleased me, in a “we’re all connected” kind of way.
I called my dad, my brother – useless. This mystery called for a field trip to my hometown, beautiful but boring Bedford.
It had been awhile. In search of the entrance to the hiking trail that led to the river, I drove all the way to the next town on a winding dirt road, but a few gravelly U-turns later I was there. I parked and jogged the familiar two and a half miles to the river – passing an office retreat, three women with gardening hoes, a father and son, and finally a sign that said “DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT / PRIVATE PROPERTY OWNED BY CONNECTICUT-AMERICAN WATER CO.” – and dove in.
To pass the time as I dripped dry, I sat on a network of twisted roots and looked over the pamphlet I had picked up at the map shelter in the parking lot. It showed the Mianus River – the one I’d just swum in – flowing into S.J. Bargh Reservoir, which, according to the map legend, provides the drinking water for 130,000 residents of Rye, Rye Brook, Port Chester, and Greenwich.
You may be glad to hear that I was not sullying your water, but I was out of a column idea. Refreshed and utterly dejected, I wandered back to my car. How was I going to make this now pointless and time consuming (although admittedly pleasant) trip applicable to the city?
I did know that the nearby Cross River Reservoir was a feeder of the city system; I had looked it up the day before. And although I’ve never recreated in or on said reservoir, I’ve passed it many times and seen dozens of fishing boats on the shore. Maybe something was going on there, or if not, at least I could paddle around in a boat for awhile.
But all the boats were chained to trees to prevent against just such an outing. These were responsible boat owners: on the bench-seat of one upside-down aluminum rowboat was a bumper sticker reading, “I Fish & I Vote.”
There was no one to talk to, absolutely nothing to report. I got back in my car and gunned it New York-ward – inspiration sometimes hits when I’m moving fast – then screeched into a residential side street, grabbed my camera and backtracked on foot.
The swan couple that had caught my eye was elegant but camera-unfriendly: one would plunge its head underwater for fish just as the other’s snaking neck emerged. Despite my stealthy bushwhacking they floated away just as I approached. I waded after them, past broken tree trunks and through a screen of overhanging foliage, determined as a paparazzo after Lindsay Lohan to get a decent shot of the pair of snow white swans bobbing in the water that will course through your dishwasher.
It’s not breaking news, but it’s sort of pleasing in a “we’re all connected” kind of way.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Rock"

Me, angry, waiting for the ferry in a line thousands-long.

Our Town downtown

May 14, 2007

How Staten Island became a virtual prison for tens of thousands of cyclists and sort of ruined the 5-borough bike tour

I laid my bike down and flopped onto an unoccupied rectangle of grass in swarming Fort Wadsworth Park in Staten Island. The park marked the end of the 42-mile bike tour, a massive affair that traversed all five boroughs and involved more than 30,000 riders, officially (and probably about 60,000 altogether. As I discovered last year, there is no need to register, or pay).
After having raced a friend across the Verrazano Bridge (“It’s not a race!” old men yelled after us. Oh, but it is. Get out of the left lane!), I was winded and happy to be done peddling.
I was not as proud of myself as the fortyish-year-old woman talking on her cell phone a few feet from where I was lying: “Oh my God I am [ital] so [end ital] proud of myself. I’m going to take the day off work tomorrow and get a massage!”
But I was content, and… suddenly… despite having wolfed down free energy bars and orange slices at every rest stop – very hungry.
When the other two riders in our group finally located us among thousands of bikers and dozens of unmarked tents, we began to wander. There was a pet food display, bike demonstrations, a first aid tent and things of that nature.
But we weren’t browsing. One obsessively punctual member of our contingent had gotten up at 5:45 a.m. that morning, and it was now past four in the afternoon. We were in search of two things and two things only: food and exit.
En route to the food tent, we came across a very long line of people pushing their bikes. I have poor estimating skills, but I would venture to guess that this line, which was five thick and wove out of the park gate and down a service road, contained something like a thousand cyclists.
They were not on the burger line, they were not hanging out. Some even had their helmets on. This seemed to be the line to [ital] exit [end ital] the park.
“Are you in line to leave?” I asked a woman in white sneakers, white helmet, and jean shorts, pushing a mountain bike. She bobbed her helmet. I scoffed silently. Tourists and families could wait in line to exit a public park. We, however, would not be penned. The thought made me antsy, despite the mild spring weather and a brain saturated in endorphins.
Suddenly, finding food was second on the to-do list, behind finding a way out.
We were pretty sure that the rules could be circumvented with a bit of ingenuity. Security so far that day had been limited to some police officers and volunteer “marshals” with bullhorns who coordinated traffic and occasionally told riders to slow down, and a few intimidating-looking men in suits who “guarded” the entrance to the Verrazano, but did nothing as hordes of un-registered riders rode by.
We carried our bikes overhead and wove our way toward the fence marking the park’s periphery. I placed my bike over the chest-high fence, then started to climb over. Two security guards appeared from behind a thicket of trees, shaking their heads.
“Wait a minute,” my friend said to one of the guards. “I recognize your face.”
Good call!, I thought. But she wasn’t playing the charm card; the two of them really used to work in the same building. A little impromptu reunion and lots of smiling occurred, but the goodwill didn’t advance our cause any.
“If we let you through, they’d just chase you down and arrest you on the other side.” I can’t remember if they actually mentioned the possibility we’d get shot or if I made that up afterward.
What we hadn’t realized was that Fort Wadsworth, which had been decommissioned in 1994, had again become an active military base. There were men in fatigues moving around on the other side of the fence, even a mounted guard. According to the National Parks website, the base is currently in use by the Coast Guard.
We gave up on that escape route and attempted to leave the way we had come in, via the Verrazano. We were stopped and yelled at by police officers.
We had reached the equivalent of a dead-end in a maze, and would have to backtrack to the one and only correct exit. It was a situation you will never encounter in Manhattan.
Dejected, we made our way back to that massive line and walked our bikes along with the tourists and little kids for about half an hour, until the crowd was sparse enough that we were all able to ride – slowly – with the occasional domino-effect dismount, toward the ferry.
When we were finally within sight of the St. George Ferry Terminal, the spectacle was horrifying: there was a backlog of bikers maybe half a mile long. The sun was going down and it was getting cold. People were elbowing for room in strips of sunlight. Muscles were stiffening. The line wasn’t moving, because ferries weren’t coming, and there was no explanation as to why. A rig attached to the back of a teenage boy’s bike carrying a huge boom box blasting “Shake Your Laffy Taffy” and a stop-off at a pizza place made the wait only slightly more bearable.
Two hours later – long after many private vows had been made never to do the bike tour again, or at least to skip the last leg to Staten Island – a roar erupted: three ferries had shown up at once. We bought overpriced beer at the snack bar onboard and cheered to the end of the ordeal. We had escaped from Alcatraz, er, Staten Island.

The Floating Hospital to Float Again

Charles Lercara
Our Town downtown

May 7, 2007

Alumni of a 140-year-old city program are emerging from the woodwork for a big fat round-the-island reunion

Like a superhero who’s lost his superpower, like a poet abandoned by his muse, the age-old Floating Hospital has been stripped of the namesake barge that has acted as its headquarters for 140 years. The medical and social services clinic has been landlocked since its dock space near Wall Street was commandeered post-9/11 to make space for emergency ferries. Suddenly homeless, the program’s 180-foot barge, the Lila Acheson Wallace, was “sold upriver,” so to speak, to an entrepreneur who plans to sell it again, billing it as a potential restaurant, conference center or museum.
The loss of its vessel has not prevented The Floating Hospital from fulfilling its mission of providing health and social services to over 50,000 homeless mothers and children a year. In fact, the program has just opened a new headquarters in Long Island City. New York City’s Floating Hospital could, theoretically, follow in the footsteps of Boston’s Floating Hospital for Children, which lost its ship in a fire in the 1920’s and is, according to hospital’s website, “now anchored permanently in modern buildings in downtown Boston.”
But that’s no fun – and having a good time, with waterfront views, has always been just as much a part of the Floating Hospital’s mission as filling cavities.
Says Darla Pasteur, a spokeswoman: “We don’t want to lose 140 years of good will and good work because we don’t have a ship anymore.”
Enter the Queen of Hearts, a 540-person capacity showboat that boasts “The Largest Dance Floor on the Water.” On June 9, the charter ship will become The Floating Hospital for a day, launching from Pier 40 and cruising around Manhattan like the Lila Acheson used to do.
Onboard will be Floating Hospital alums who visited, staffed or volunteered on one of the procession of barges that acted as The Floating Hospital over the years. The Reunion Cruise will launch a series of Healthy Kids’ Cruises that will take place monthly throughout the summer.
Finding these alums, though, is tricky, since many came aboard the ship as children or young adults and have long since moved. But often it’s when you’re not looking for something that you find it.
Awhile back, two representatives from The Floating Hospital were invited to St. Anne’s on the Hill parish meeting in Flushing, to talk about the program. When they were done, Charles Lercara, now 80, felt moved to get up and “ad-lib.” At age 11, Lercara had been one of the “needy kids” for whom The Floating Hospital had offered an unprecedented field trip.
Much of the trip is fuzzy – sixty-nine years is a long interval – but Lercara remembers it being “a real get-together.” The school trip began with a tour of the Coca Cola bottling company on the Lower East Side, which he remembers vividly because it was on that tour that he had his first taste of Coke. And he remembers something else: sitting in the eighth row of a giant theater aboard the barge – “the back seats were way high up and the front seats were low,” so everyone could see – and “Mrs. Roosevelt came walking down the aisle. I was right, right there. She didn’t stop because she was walking fast,” he says, and he doesn’t remember what she said to them that day in her 20-minute health talk. What stuck in his mind was her stature. “She was a tall woman. She had this flamboyant style of clothes, like she had an evening gown on.”
Jack Kaiser knew Charles Lercara “peripherally,” from having seen him around at parish events, but when he got up and started talking about the Floating Hospital, well, says Kaiser, “that was a complete surprise.” As it turned out, the men had more in common than either of them knew. Now it was Kaiser’s turn to ad-lib.
In 1943, Kaiser, then a high school senior at St. John’s Prep and a promising athlete with dreams of becoming a pro baseball player, was recommended by an athletic coach to be a counselor aboard the Floating Hospital. His job, for which he was paid a pittance, was to “play games with the youngsters” maybe four or five days a week over a summer. The rest of his time was spent playing sandlot baseball.
Kaiser went on to play baseball, basketball and soccer at St. John’s University, where he later coached from 1956 to 1973, then served as director of athletics for 23 years, and still serves as athletic director emeritus.
Kaiser thinks maybe his decision to go into athletic education when his dreams of going pro didn’t pan out were rooted in his summer on the barge. “I have to say, it was a great great experience for me.”
Kaiser didn’t mention it when we spoke on the phone, but on May 1, St. John’s University officially dedicated its baseball stadium “in the namesake of former student-athlete, longtime coach and athletics director, John W. ‘Jack’ Kaiser.”

If you have a Floating Hospital story to tell, contact Darla Pasteur at 212-514-7440 x.220 by May 31, 2007and you’ll be eligible for a free ticket to the Reunion Cruise.

Greys’ Anatomy

Our Town downtown

April 30, 2007

The drama never ends at the ER for stranded seals, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles, and yes, the occasional whale

“One, two, three!”
Two women scoop up an angry baby grey seal in what looks like an oversized pool cleaning net. The one wearing heavy duty welding gloves wrestles it down, straddles its back and pushes down hard on its head. The other, in steel mesh gloves, forces its mouth open and shoves one dead fish after another down its throat while the seal makes frantic guttural noises.
I’m no expert, but this little seal looks pissed.
It’s “not very eager to take dead fish,” the Foundation’s director and senior biologist, Robert DiGiovanni Jr., explains. In the wild, seals like their fish alive. They’re also not partial to being force fed.
“If the doctor doesn’t tell you what he’s doing,” he says, “it’s very stressful.”
Making matters worse, this little one is recovering from a broken jaw. But then it’s done, and “One, two, three!” the seal has been scooped back into the net and hoisted into its tank. And then “One, two, three!” another seal is pinned.
It’s feeding time. This struggle happens four times a day in a quarantine room at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, housed in the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium at the far Eastern tip of Long Island. The giant warehouse-sized space is off-limits the public, so that the animals won’t get accustomed to people and start associating them with food.
The wrestling matches necessary to get the seals to eat, the growling and flopping around, are actually good signs; these animals are still wild.
In the mid-90’s, about 50 percent of the stranded animals that came to the Foundation survived to be released back into the water. Today, that number is up around 70 percent.
Ten years ago, they were a three-person, $300,000 a year operation; now they’ve got eight full-time staff, 125 volunteers and an $800,000 annual budget, as well as more tanks, a couple dedicated rescue trucks, a radiograph machine, a necropsy room, an in-house lab where they can do blood tests at 3 a.m. in an emergency. They go through 350 pounds of fish every day.
But they’ve also got more animals coming in, and they’re not sure why. “As we get bigger, we’re having more occurrences that are unusual,” says DiGiovanni. The whale that beached itself in the Gowanus last week was just another example of an odd incident. “The last few years, people have been seeing [seals] more often. They might be out molting, sunning themselves.”
The Foundation has started putting some of their resources, which come in the form of state grants and private donations (including tin cans of loose change collected by school kids) toward figuring out why they’re still at maximum capacity. They’re currently caring for four sea turtles, a harbor porpoise and 23 seals, when the season for stranded seals should be winding up.
It might be related to the pack ice breaking up early in Canada. Then again, it might not.
To figure that out, the Foundation has started satellite tagging certain animals so they can follow them once they’ve been released. They’re also doing aerial, shipboard and land-based surveys to establish baseline populations of sea turtles and whales, which are less commonly seen and therefore less fully understood.
“They’re out there, we just don’t see them on a regular basis,” DiGiovanni says of the whales off the south shore of Long Island. “If things change in their environment, we could end up seeing them.”
Preparation is key, because there is no way of predicting incidents like the January dolphin stranding off the eastern coast of Long Island or the beached whale in the Gowanus.
As the Foundation finds out more about the specific behavior of different species, they’re using something like 20 percent of their budget to make that knowledge public.
“Each species has a little different behavior,” he says. For instance, it’s normal for seals to “haul out” on land to rest, but a beached whale or dolphin is in trouble. By teaching the public about the specific behaviors of different species, the Foundation is creating an educated network that will act as its eyes and ears.
DiGiovanni points to a mural on the wall of different seals. “This isn’t a dead seal,” he motions to a beached mother. “This seal isn’t crying,” he says of one with runny eyes. “This one doesn’t have a bullet hole in its head – that’s its ear.”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The 5-Ton Underdog

Our Town downtown

April 23, 2007

For two days, a baby whale stuck in the Gowanus Canal was New York’s Rudy
I wander past the DO NOT ENTER signs into Sunset Industrial Park in Brooklyn as Tuesday fades into evening, just in time to miss all the action.
A small truck, property of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research & Preservation, is pulling out. A woman in a red windbreaker who looks like she was born to save whales rolls down the window in response to my knock. She fields my questions in the pauses of her cell phone conversation, hands me a brochure for the Riverhead Foundation, says she’ll be back at first light tomorrow and we part ways.
I don’t know where I’m going, exactly. The guys at the lumberyard a few blocks away, where I first trespassed, told me that yes, they had seen the whale earlier, and yes, he was still popping up every now and again, and yes, there was a way to get out onto the pier, but that the entrance was probably closed at this hour.
But Sunset Industrial Park, at 20th Street and the Gowanus Canal, never really closes, which is disturbing when you think of it from a national security perspective but lucky if you want to see a whale.
A Hasidic Jew is walking aggressively, talis flying out behind him, on a path that will intersect mine.
“Where is the whale?” he wants to know. “My neighbor tells me I have to come out and I will really see something.”
Around the corner? I pick up my pace so we can walk together.
We pass Pepsi trucks and SoBe trucks and trucks that carry either shredders or shredded office documents, and find ourselves on the end of the pier, with a clear view of the concrete-carrying tanker I recognize from television footage shot earlier that day.
There’s a young guy there, shuffling his feet and talking to his editor on his cell phone. This is Jimmy, the unofficial whale tour guide of the evening, a.k.a. a reporter from the Daily News.
He’s gotten good at giving the breakdown: Minke whale, 15 feet, probably disoriented, possibly by the storm, last sighting was over there, but he hasn’t surfaced in a good 45 minutes; earlier in the day there were divers, news copters, the whole nine yards.
As curious carfulls start rolling in after the evening news, Jimmy begins thanking people for coming, apologizing that the whale seems to have disappeared, offering cigarettes. The Hasidic Jew takes one; I take a drag of Jimmy’s.
“Thanks for having us,” laughs a real estate broker, then drives off.
Wednesday, I return to the pier around noon to find a man in a welding mask producing lots of sparks with a blowtorch. Save for that guy, the pier is deserted. The elusive whale has moved! – but only a few blocks north.
There’s a crowd gathered there at the sea wall, of warehouse workers and TV news crews and marine biologists and, on the far shore, tugboat operators – one still in his long underwear – to observe the first whale ever to brave the Gowanus Canal. Comparatively speaking, he’s a little guy (or she’s a little lady), whose back has been scratched up pretty bad. He or she is not making any noise – a hydrophone picked up nothing – but that is neither a good nor bad sign. Whales, unlike dolphins, are not particularly talkative.
There are quasi scientific where-will-the-whale-breach-next games being played and a feeling of camaraderie that extends even to the policemen on the police boat that is coaxing the whale southward, toward the harbor (but without much result since the whale can easily just swim around the boat).
The crowd migrates south as the whale circles back to the spot near the cement tanker where it was first spotted. Then the group settles down, some sitting Indian style on massive cement blocks, others with legs hanging over the edge of the pier. Cameras hang around necks. There’s not much to take pictures of. Everyone has gotten pretty used to the sight of our friend’s grayish-black hump and fin. The pace of this waiting game reminds me of baseball.
The senior biologist from the Riverhead Foundation, Robert Di Giovanni Jr., says that eventually they might try to be more forceful about herding the young whale out of the canal by creating a “wall of sound,” but that would require more boats and high tech equipment and permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We need to give it a couple more tide cycles before we do anything,” says Giovanni.
I take off around 3:30, looking forward to tomorrow: the fact that the whale made an absolute total of zero progress between yesterday and this afternoon suggests this show could go on indefinitely.
That night, John Quadrozzi, Jr. sends me an email. Quadrozzi – whose sweet demeanor is not what one would expect from the owner of a cement importing company – is the guy who first spotted the whale from his cement tanker, and he has been returning regularly in his black SUV to check on it. He also happened to be the one who first spotted the seal in 2003 that would be named Gowanda.
“It is with much regret that I am informing you, our Minke whale friend passed away this evening. He/she beached itself on some rocks along the Hess Terminal and died shortly thereafter.
“Unlike Gowanda who also paid us a visit back in 2003, was rescued and then set free, the Minke’s fate leaves us on a less positive note. However with all the bad news of the past few days… we can all look back and some day recall, in the midst of it all the little Minke whale who came to the Gowanus Bay, made us all smile and laugh a bit.”

Girl in a Lion’s Den

Our Town downtown
April 16, 2007

A young photographer spent four years amongst mobsters and ex-con fishmongers. What was she thinking?

Barbara Mensch is a mother now. If she had had a child back in 1979 when she moved into her loft on Water Street, there’s no way in hell she would have done what she did.
“South Street Story,” a recently released collection of Mensch’s photographs and accompanying text, is the fruit of the four frightening, lonely, frustrating years she spent wandering the docks with her camera, back when the Fulton Fish Market was the biggest wholesale fish market in the country.
Among the book’s opening photos is a series taken inside the Paris Bar, an all-night establishment frequented by waterfront workers. In one photo a white-bearded man is staring at the camera with a look that seems to be saying: Are you fucking kidding me? It was a look Mensch would get used to.
The first time Mensch went down to “the old Paris” it was 4 a.m. on a winter night. (Mensch would also get used to going out at that hour, the fish market’s equivalent of noon.)
She writes: “I could make out faces of the toughest-looking men I had ever seen. They were leaning over the bar, drinking and eating. The group sported heavy jackets; most wore pea caps or wool hats. Metal grappling hooks dangled from their worn jackets, and some of the men leaning over the bar wore blood-encrusted aprons… Suddenly, a large man stepped forward and advanced within an inch of my face. Fixing me with an icy stare, he said, ‘Get the fuck out.’”
Most people would have taken that as a standing order, but Mensch doesn’t set much store by orders. That characteristic of hers became evident as we were looking for a quiet place to do our interview at the seaport. She unhooked a chain and we walked past the DO NOT ENTER sign onto the gangway leading to the Circle Line dock. It was quiet here – no tourists – until the yacht’s intercom made us jump: “One, two! One, two,” and a few minutes later: “Good afternoon, everyone! Welcome aboard the Zephyr, and welcome aboard our first harbor cruise of the day!”
Mensch laughed, a little bitterly, at yet another example of how the seaport had turned into “Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.”
Back when this was the workplace of the hopeless and criminal, Mensch acted with the same disregard for convention. So she wasn’t wanted at the Paris – well that was too damn bad, because that’s where the pictures were. “The following night, I couldn’t sleep and decided to go back to the Paris,” she writes. This persistence in the face of disdain is what allowed Mensch to get her pictures even when she was getting the cold shoulder, and eventually, to earn a little trust from men who didn’t like having women, or cameras, around.
But that would take awhile. For a long hard year or so, she was shut out.
“I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t do it. It was off limits,” she recalls. “It was a man’s world. It was like the minute I walked into… I called it the Lion’s Den, I had to have eyes behind my back. I had to have my guard up, be totally alert.”
Being a woman meant not only that Mensch was afraid for her physical safety, but also that she was seen as a sexual play thing.
“I had to bundle myself up so they couldn’t see what I looked like. All those clothes, so they couldn’t see my figure.”
Sometimes, she would play the game, like when she bribed a boatful of men to pose for a picture by offering to do a strip tease (which she never did). But the game never ended. “You had to prove yourself, and keep proving yourself… If they decided to allow a man into that world, I don’t think they would have given him half the bullshit they gave me.”
“It’s hard for me to express,” she says as we walk back to the Water Street loft where she still lives. She is frustrated at the limitations of speech; how to convey the courage it took to walk down this street that now looks like it belongs in Universal Studios? “The men, their arms… You’ve never seen such big arms! You,” she gestures at me, “you couldn’t walk down the street here, no way. You’d be gobbled up.”
Suddenly, she is coming at me, leaning in, arms raised in what would be an intimidating posture if she weren’t slighter and shorter than me. “You gotta camera?” she says, imitating a heavy Italian accent. Her face is not an inch from my face. “Lemme see that camera.” I can’t help but laugh, but she’s not joking.
“How often did you feel fear?” I ask her.
“Fear, fear…” she says aloud, turning the word over. “All the time.”
In the early phase of her project, Mensch felt invincible, like she could do this with or without the men’s cooperation or consent.
“As the sun rose over the Brooklyn Bridge, I came face to face with a group of grizzled-looking men smoking cigarettes while standing next to their hand trucks. Looking like a pride of lions, they huddled around flames rising from large oil cans,” she writes.
“Still feeling triumphant from my victory in the Paris Bar, I started to take pictures. At that moment a chunk of ice about the size of a baseball hit my face.”
She had been warned.
Many of the photos that portray the “hate” half of Mensch’s love-hate relationship with the seaport – backs turned to the camera, paranoid stares – were edited out in favor of more commercially appealing shots. As a result, the book is more picturesque and less tough than the world in which Mensch actually lived.
But that story is there, if you look for it – especially in the early photos, like the one of the white-bearded man at the Paris.
What drove the young photographer to keep coming back? She’s fiercely competitive, for one. “I wanted to show these tough guys I could do something,” she says. But it’s not easy for Mensch to put herself back in her younger shoes. That self almost puzzles her now.
“I was just obsessed. And maybe you have to be obsessed to do something. I just could not get any peace until I got this story.”