Sunday, April 06, 2008

Regaining Perspective.

Friday evening was one of those occasions when I felt like Manhattan was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that there was. no. room. for. me.

I was expecting the commute home to be tricky. The school I work at most often, the Pratt Institute, is deep in Brooklyn. I live at the north end of Manhattan, in Harlem. What this means is a) the commute can take anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes on average, one way and b) I will be going with rush hour traffic for most of the ride. These are the constant irritations to the trip, and I think I handle them pretty well.

But then Friday, you see, there was some moisture in the air. I don't mean there was actual RAIN, mind you, though it had been predicted. Okay, to be fair I think there had been some in the early afternoon. At 5pm, when I was getting on the train in Brooklyn, however, it had been dry for a while. As I think I've written before, any kind of precipitation, indeed even the suggestion of precipitation makes the trains and a substantial portion of the population go spare. Fridays often have their own special craziness, for reasons I've not quite figured out. There just always seem to be more people on the trains on Fridays. This one was no exception.

So we all see where I'm going with this, right? I managed to make it to 59th ST (just past the mid-point of my journey) in reasonably good time, and what's more, I had been able to sit most of the way. Score! For those of you who don't know, 59th St Station is a major transfer point. When I went to the platform for my train home, it was packed to the rafters with people, to a degree that told me a train had not been along in some time. This actually happens a lot during rush hours, particularly the evening rush, in my experience. Something goes wrong with the train, that delays it even a few minutes, which means that the crowds on the the subsequent stations have time to get bigger than normal. When the train shows up, the vast majority of people will force their ways onto the already packed train, and in doing so delay it even more. Often the conductor will tell us that another train is RIGHT BEHIND THIS ONE, but for some reason only a few people believe this, or think it's worth waiting for. As you may have guessed from my snide tone and sarcastic caps, I am one of those few people. If I'm not in any hurry to get where I am going (and usually at the end of the day, I'm not), I routinely let as many as three trains pass me by before getting on. Usually the first one will be, as I said, jam-packed and lethargic, crawling from station to station, collecting more and more surly people, so even once you've made it on, you know that the trip is only going to get slower and more uncomfortable. The next train (and often it is right behind the first one, though sometimes the conductors lie, which is probably why most riders don't believe them) will still be pretty packed, the riders still pretty surly, and the ride still slow because it, of course, has to wait for the first one to clear the station. Usually by the third train, there will be seats. It will still be a slow ride, since now you're behind two slow trains, but sitting down changes everything. You can get off your feet, read, write, basically treat the time as your own in at least a few small ways.

I was fully prepared to adopt the 'minimum three train' policy on Friday. I left for work Friday morning knowing that I would probably have to adopt this policy. When I got to 59th St that night, however, I knew immediately that this was not going to be a three-train wait. Nope, I was prepared to wait for at least five, and the gaps between them would be extra long because there were that many more people getting on.

40 minutes later, after train number seven came and left bursting at the seams, Mr. Crankypants was firmly in charge, and now I would not be riding the train UNTIL I could sit down. By train number nine, I was able to, in part because I didn't mind sitting near the only slightly whiffy homeless guy who had built himself an enormous nest at one end of the train with trash bags.

Door to door, my commute took two hours, twenty minutes.

Any thought I had of going out again that evening was snorted at derisively. I also realized there was an insistent little voice in my head saying I now deserved a treat, perhaps several treats, as consolation for my miserable ride home. Said little voice seemed of the opinion that such treats should include a large order of General Tso's chicken from the local Chinese take-out (if you're not familiar with this dish, it is basically a whole lot of deep-fat fried chicken nuggets swimming in a rich, sweet, oily sauce; I'll usually get it with brown rice. You know, to make it healthy), a truck load of cookies, and I'm talking 18 wheeler, AND a vat of a nice Shiraz. Not a truck of wine, that would be tacky.

When did I become the person who cheers himself up by hardening his arteries and destroying his liver? I swear to god I never thought that way before living in NYC. I've always loved food, mind you, in all its varied and glorious forms, but I don't think I went about medicating myself with it. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I really don't think I did.

Having identified this course of action as perhaps not in my best interests, I decided I would buy a box of Entemann's chocolate-chip cookies and some chicken quarters which I would cook (gasp!) WITH THE SKINS ON. I decided against the wine; I really don't think using alcohol as a means of breaking me out of a cranky mood is a habit I want to get into. I want to enjoy my booze when I have it. Besides the liquor store was too far away.

This compromise with my little voice then led me to think "when did I become the guy who obsesses about chicken skin?" Sure, one reaches a certain age and has to recognize that cholesterol is a concern, that excess pounds gained are harder to lose, that heart attacks do run in the family, that being a grown-up means recognizing consequences... but I mean come on.

Well, navel-gazing aside, I followed through on this plan, and had a great time. I had hoped to have my roommate's assistance with at least the cookies, but he was out, thus leaving me to do some serious damage to them on my own.

And it did help. I was much more cheerful an hour later, as I shoveled cookies into my mouth and contemplated having the whole apartment to myself for another week. What also cheered me up was looking at photos I took last Sunday, during a walk with my sweet Melissa. Her new place is right across the street from Inwood Park, which is all that remains of the old growth forest that once covered this whole island. Just the idea of that thrills me. Then when one walks in it, it's very easy to forget the city is all around.

This is my sweet girl just after we've entered the forest. Already all buildings are out of sight, and most street noise is gone.
(Don't you just want to squeeze her? She gets that a lot.)

This was a carving in the rock we both liked. Despite the sharpness of the edges and the uniformity of the shape, we're both certain this was formed naturally. There is no sign of tools, and besides, why would anyone bother?

Here's a closer look. In Ireland this would be some sort of sacred well, with an ancient name and a thousand year history of magical healing.

I don't know what these flowers in the foreground are, but I can't wait to find out. That's the Hudson in the background. I'm also rather fond of that larger tree. I seem to be turning into my mother. Like her, I now feel compelled to hug trees on a fairly regular basis. One of the odd benefits of living in a big city is, when I was doing this in Central Park a few weeks ago, I knew I didn't have to worry about ever seeing again any of the people who looked at me oddly as they went by. Lately I'm particularly fond of oak trees for some reason. Mom's morning walk includes visiting, and hugging, a catalpa and an ancient pin oak.

At one point, Melissa and I found a clearing in the trees where we got incredible views of the river. The picture on the left is looking north, the one on the right looks south.

These two shots are taken in almost the same location; I've just stepped forward about two paces. Suddenly you can see the city. Again, the left one is north, the right one is south. In the latter, you're looking at George Washington Bridge. My place is just about twenty blocks further south.
This is a picture Melissa took of me, while I was taking one of the pictures above. She took this with her camera phone. That's a damn good phone. Or Melissa really knows how to work it. I'm getting a better average number of focused images with my digital baby, I just don't know how I'm doing it. Generally taking two or three shots seems to be useful; the latter ones are almost always better. My camera's ways remain a mystery to me, and contrary to his original assertion, Tommy is no help. Still, I'm having fun. You just may not want to enlarge any of my photos, if blurry images make your eyes go all wonky, like they do mine.

So once again, it's trees to the rescue in my world. I could ask myself if this is something that needs closer examination, but for now I'm just grateful to have so many places nearby that help me regain my sanity, and such good company to do it with.


Greg said...

Oh, hey...first post! Man, that commuting business really sounds potentially nightmarish...even my love of any sort of train travel would get muted pretty quick by that.

Inwood looks like the *perfect* antidote, though...such a lovely spot and great to enjoy with a lovely friend!

Is that formation a spring, actually, or does it just collect rainwater? It's certainly a cool feature. (BTW, those look like daylilies, possibly...)

Have fun with the camera...and enjoy the cookies!

Butch said...

We used to live in Chicago and I can relate with your train ride. During rush hour, when driving, one could actually read a book whilst driving! ;-) It looked more like a parking lot than Lakeshore Drive. I still think your experience coming home sounded much worse than any trip I had ever taken on the "L."

Now, you are a man after my heart mentioning "General Tso's chicken." For the reasons you mentioned, I have not eaten it in quite some time. ( I do understand how hard it is to get rid of those extra pounds when getting a wee bit older. ) ;-) I have found that they aren't going anywhere, soon.

Regarding that noble oak tree; it's probably part of your Irish lineage going way back and not unlike an instinctual act animals do without being taught. ( It sounds good whether it's true or not. )
Glad you found your centre again after the tramp through the woods.

Java said...

You look so Irish (or possibly Scottish) in that hat.
I think it is wonderful that there are so many trees in NYC. That has probably kept many a New Yorker saner than he would otherwise be. Trees can be so therapeutic.
Friday commutes are stranger than most in my experience. On the school bus Friday afternoons are often the most difficult trip of the week. Traffic in our small city gets progressively worse from Monday through Friday. I usually take an alternate route back to the bus lot on Thursdays and Fridays just to avoid the main highway.

Jess said...

So when do we get to meet Melissa? You should bring her with you, next time you pay us a visit (which I hope will be soon)!

I love the appellation Mr. Crankypants. :) But it's good that you aren't using alcohol to break out of a cranky mood. That's not a great habit to begin, so why even risk it? Cookies... well, okay, God knows I need to shed weight, but I think cookies are a lesser risk. And considering how slim you are, I'm not worried for you!

Now don't be a stranger. Trying to meet up with you in NYC hasn't worked out yet, but we quickly got used to having you around, so come visit us again!

Marc said...

Oh my god! I LOVE those Entenmann's cookies. They are the closest thing to my homemade cookies, and they are addictive...I could eat a whole box. That's why I never buy them.

Lovely pictures!

tornwordo said...

I would have been pulling my hair out if I waited for nine trains. You deserved the treats, yes you did.

Cooper said...

LOVE the hat and the coat, Patrick-me-darlin'! How amazing to have such a beautiful refuge right in Manhattan.

Cookies are manna for the soul. They heal the grumpies. I think I'll make some this evening.

Patrick said...

Greg: the hole just collects rainwater, in fact we're pretty sure it's what made the hole in the first place. At first we couldn't understand why water had been running so consistently in that spot, and that spot alone, but then we saw other, younger versions, and it made sense.

The cookies were much appreciated. Daylilies, huh? I figured an expert would be able to tell... I'll photograph them soon.

Butch: Ah yes, I think you're quite right about my love of oak trees having a Celtic influence: Druids, Kildare yada yada...they are noble beings, oak trees, and I do feel like I'm acting on an ancient impulse sometimes. Your speculation sounds good to me.

Java: I think you're absolutely right, trees have kept this city from destroying itself more than we'll ever know. A friend of mine speculated years ago that if we didn't have Central Park, there would be daily riots of epic proportions throughout the city. Not sure I view things in quite so dire a manner... but I do love Central Park, and all the other lovely ones throughout the city. I forget too often how much they help my morale. Got to figure something out there.

Interesting that the Friday worsening of traffic is not peculiar to NYC. I assumed it had something to do with people leaving town for the weekend when it came to cars... but that still didn't quite explain the increased traffic on the trains. Maybe I'm wrong about there being a jump in numbers; I don't have any actual data, it's just an impression I've had for a while.

Jess: you would adore Melissa, she is such a joy. I will see to it that you get to meet her one way or the other.

Mr. Crankypants helps me keep perspective on things. When he shows up, I know I'm not being entirely rational, or mature. It's helpful for me to have some mechanism for recognizing when anger is legitimate, and when it's just irritation.

Yes, we will get together soon. My life looks like it will be calming down in a few weeks, knock wood.

Marc: yes, I have to be careful about buying them too. Once I start seeing them as 'rewards' for having a rough day, I suspect suddenly I'll start having lots more excuses for treats. Sounds like I'd have to exercise even more caution with your cookies. Not that it surprises me; just the cheese-cake alone would have tipped me off, let alone the rest of both meals.

Cooper-dear-heart: Thanks, I love that hat and coat, always nice when other people appreciate them too (thanks to Java as well for similar thoughts). Oh yes, cookies do have therapeutic qualities, no denying. So does chocolate. So does deep-fat fried fill-in-the-blank, etc. But as with any medicine, I just must be careful of my dosages. :)

Patrick said...

Torn: Oops, sorry, didn't mean to overlook you. Yes, I felt quite justified in my reaction to the commute that night, but then I spoke to someone else who had had a far more hellish day... and I had to laugh at myself. Didn't stop me from eating the cookies and chicken though. I mean, let's not talk crazy.

somewhere joe said...

I love Inwood. I love it's name. I love that it lives up to its name. Manhattan has its pockets of mercy and respite. You're closer to that one than most. But you really must develop a reliable Brooklyn diversion to tide you over past rush hour. But once home, I think I would have opted for the Shiraz, a comfort for the soul and a tonic for heart. Don't let unnecessary scruples undermine your well-being, mon ami.

The jacket, scarf and the hat are smashing. Woodsy, mossy, taylor-made fit. I miss natural seasons of NY less than I miss the fashion seasons, heh, though they do have something to do with one another of course.

Patrick said...

Joe: Yes, Inwood is a delight in all sorts of ways. I had previously become very fond of Fort Tryon as well, and I'm even closer to that one. Morningside Park has it's charms too. St Nicholas has the advantage of being two blocks from my house, but often feels a bit more sketchy. Finding a haven in Brooklyn is not a bad idea, for the days when I really don't have to be anywhere... actually I can even get as far as Chelsea, and wait out the commute there.

Ah, my friend, you force me to make a full confession. I would have gotten the Shiraz, of a burgundy, or some nice red. The walk to the liquor store, not scruples, was the real deterent. Had I been able to get someone to deliver the cookies and the booze, I would have just gone straight home and ordered take-out. Buying the cookies meant buying more 'virtuous' chicken was just easier. My claim of examining consequences was all a hollow mockery. Just wasn't in the mood to walk to the second store.

I would have stuck to only one glass though. Well, two, at the absolute most. Seriously. I'm a cheap drunk, I mean date.

Jeff Wills said...

Oi. I relate, Patrick. Oh, how I relate.

And Oaks are sacred trees, no question about it.

Jeff Wills said...

Oi. I relate, Patrick. Oh, how I relate.

And Oaks are sacred trees, no question about it.

Melissa said...

Hello all and sweet Patrick -
I know I've said this before to you, but will now say it publicly - Love that picture of you! it has your joy of being and compelled curiosity at that dang camera written all over you!
I do love my camera phone...the lack of zoom is the one big flaw....but your camera has zoom, so I'll just steal your, um, zoom-y shots

I went for a walk in the woods this evening and had a lovely conversation with a guy named Charlie at our look-out spot-
I hope we get to find another one this to enjoy a wander - good soul stuff these here trees.

oscar said...

First off: in 2h20 you can LITERALLY drive from one side of my country to the other! That is some crazy commute!
Second: You look very handsome and smart in that picture. Especially love the coat.

I'm happy to have stumbled across your blog. I'll be back!