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A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park, Part Two

EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 5, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Staten Island, New York to West Orange, New Jersey, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This was the third of three trial walks for the project. (And this is the second of a two part report. You can read the first part here.) The collected trial walks represent only a small fraction of what will be created during the national walk. And if we don’t make it to our fundraising goal, then a national investigation of the people, places, and sounds of this country won’t happen. But your financial assistance can ensure that we can continue the Ed Walks project across twelve states over six months. We have two weeks left in our Indiegogo campaign to make the national walk happen. If you would like to see more chronicles carried out over the course of six months, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One)

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It is so easy to breeze past the grand landmarks in life that we often fail to note how change sneaks up like a drone hovering above a confused moose. The two photos above capture the same view from the Manhattan Bridge walkway, but are separated by sixty-six years. The left photo was taken by legendary photographer Berenice Abbott (who also captured many iconic images of the 1920s Parisian avant-garde community) as part of her groundbreaking project, Changing New York. More than six decades later, photographer Douglas Levere revisited Abbott’s locations at the same time of day and at the same time of year and shot updated stills for his equally exciting project, New York Changing. The right photo is Levere’s. Through one simple act of visual diligence, we see how the unobstructed panorama of the East River has conceded to concerns for safety.

Who put up the chainlink fence? When was it erected? How many leapt to their deaths before the barrier became necessary? If the fence creates an imposed safety that our grandparents never knew, then how has this affected subsequent generations? Do we take fewer risks? Are we as alive?

If Abbott had not taken the photo and if Levere had not been inspired to follow in her footsteps, it’s possible that we wouldn’t be asking these questions. Yet Abbott’s project couldn’t have happened without the Federal Art Project, which helped countless down-on-their-luck artists to excel at their craft and provide inspiring ways of seeing our nation. Seven decades later, crowdfunding is meant to pick up the slack. And while most don’t feel that these investigations into change are as “entertaining” as a new Veronica Mars movie or a $1.2 million Amanda Palmer vanity project that exploits unpaid musicians, we still have to try. It’s our civil responsibility. It’s the legacy we’ll pass to future generations.

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When Andres and I hit the Bayonne Bridge and began our carefree stroll across the Kill Van Kull, the Abbott-Levere distinction loomed large in my mind. While I had walked across the George Washington Bridge many times (one time, I confess, to recreate Parker’s march into New York in Richard Stark’s The Hunter), the Bayonne’s guardrail felt more fragile because of its junior height. And as I uploaded photos to Twitter while crossing, there was dubiety from some following along:

But I’m here to tell you that walking the Bayonne Bridge is a marvelous way of taking in a vantage point unchanged since 1928. Once you get past your modern notions of minimum acme, you swiftly appreciate the tradeoffs: a clear view of dark boats cutting white wakes across gray water, great turquoise gantries in the distance raising their cranes in salute to the sky, the odd toxic beauty of industrial muck mixing it up with water, and rusted platforms awaiting the next raise of the roadway to accommodate the widening of the Panama Canal.

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It is possible to appreciate the Bayonne Bridge too much. When Andres and I walked up, I became so excited by the toll plaza’s tight steel boxes and bluish green look that I could not resist taking the above photo. But the marvelous bridge doesn’t receive much in the way of pedestrian traffic. The sour collector working the booth did not take kindly to two cheapskates crossing the bridge for free. I waved and smiled and wished the bitter man a great day. It was the least I could do, seeing as how we were separated by cars and diamond mesh. Andres noted that a Bayonne Bridge toll collector had recently confessed to skimming thousands of dollars. I figured that any unpleasant feelings that the man in the booth developed towards us would be quickly mollified by whatever milk he liked to pour in his coffee. What I did not know was that my salutation was dangerous business.

About a third of the way up the bridge, a Port Authority Police car halted in the middle of the road. There was no siren, but a police officer emerged from the car and called to us. She put her palm into the air, stopping traffic into Staten Island with the strong sovereign touch of a holy man cutting a quirky passage for the Israelites.

She asked who we were, telling me that she was investigating a complaint. I explained who I was and what I was doing with calm éclat. The last thing I wanted was for poor Andres to get arrested. Besides, we hadn’t even hit Jersey yet.

The cars on the bridge couldn’t be held up forever. I provided my name and URL. The police officer seemed satisfied with my explanation. She duly acknowledged that people walk across the George Washington Bridge all the time. All I had to do was vouch for Andres.

I had been holding eye contact with the police officer the whole time. And as I talk up Andres as a dashing young journalist, preparing an exuberant presentation putting forth the thesis that Andres may be the next Gay Talese, I look to my right and see that Andres is smiling, aiming his camera at the police officer.

The police officer did not like this.

I suggested to Andres that he might want to put his camera down. He did this. Andres and I were able to smooth things over, but the police officer kept referring to Andres as a photojournalist.

“Well, he’s really a journalist,” I said.

“He’s got a camera, right? So he’s a photojournalist.”

I figured there were better venues to clarify the distinctions. Several minutes had passed. No car dared beep its horn, although I did see one sullen man waiting for the mess to clear. The officer allowed us to continue our journey across the bridge. A good thing too. Because if Andres and I had been arrested, we would have missed this fantastic boxing mural on the way down to Bayonne:

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* * *

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We arrived in New Jersey, where I swiftly observed the many canted solar panels secured to telephone poles. These were to remain a constant aesthetic companion throughout the walk. I asked one hearty man on his way to work what he knew about the panels, explaining that Andres and I had walked all the way from Staten Island. He was amused by this and told us that the solar panels had been placed on the poles about two years before, intended as a backup power system. I noticed a windmill in the distance.

“Any other questions?” asked the man.

I told him we were fine and thanked him. He directed us to Broadway — Bayonne’s main drag.

We walked past a sign that read “I found Iguana on the street. Please call.” I was curious about the capitalization. Had an actual lizard been located on the street? Or a priapic exhibitionist? Maybe it was someone unimaginative in the sack.

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Perhaps it was all the iguana rumination that led us to set foot inside Barney Stock Hosiery Shops — a business devoted to women’s underwear and many other items for nearly a century. Barney Stock proudly announced Spanx in the window, and Spanx was to form a dominant part of my subsequent conversation. Andres and I met Lois and Melissa, the two very vivacious women behind the counter. But they were a bit on the shy side. They didn’t want to be photographed, but they were nice enough to talk about the store’s history.

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Lois: Now this one son owns the store. Mel.
Me: Mel.
Lois: Mel Stock. And his father was Barney Stock.
Me: Uh huh. How often do you see Mel?
Lois and Melissa: (together) Every day!
Me: Every day!
All: (laughter)
Me: Wow.
Lois: He comes in every day.
Me: Is he a tough guy?
Lois: Nah. Not really. Well, he has to be to put up with it.
Melissa: To run a business, you’ve got to be tough.
Lois: I’m here 38 years. It will be 39…
Me: Wow!
Lois: It will be 39 next year.
Me: And I didn’t catch your name. What’s your name?
Lois: I’m Lois.
Me: Lois. And you’re Melissa, right?
Melissa: Melissa. Yeah.
Me: So Lois. So you’ve been here for 38 years.
Lois: Yes.
Me: What was your first day like?
Lois: I was in high school.
Me: Oh wow! You were here since high school.
Lois: Well…I left. Got a good job.
Me: You don’t look a day over 35.
Lois: Oh! Yeah.
Melissa: Right! Right! That’s what I say!
Lois: (muttering) I wish I felt a day over 35.
Me: (laughs)
Lois: Anyway, I started when I was in Bayonne High School. I worked here as a junior and a senior. Then I left and got a good job in New York. On Wall Street. Worked there. Then I left there and worked in Western Electric in Newark. Got married. Had three children. And then came back here when my children were in Mount Carmel down the block. And I’ve been here since.
Me: (to Melissa) How about you?
Melissa: Me? Six years.
Me: Six years.
Melissa: I’m not a vet.
Lois: Ha, like Lois is the vet.
Melissa: I’m not a vet at all.
Lois: But it’s a unique store.
Melissa: Very.
Lois: We have everything that you can’t get in any other store.
Me: What’s the most exotic item you have?
Lois: Just bras.
Melissa: Bras and girdles.
Lois: Girdles.
Melissa: Cobblers that nobody can get.
Me: Cobblers?
Lois: Full slips.
Me: You really do have a peach cobbler.
Lois: Eh.
Me: Sorry.
Lois: It sounds good. Anyway, we carry some men’s things too.
Me: A lot of men come in here wanting girdles?
Lois: Some! We can tell who they’re for. But we have to be polite and we do wait on them.
Me: How many units do you move a day, would you say?
Lois: I can’t even ima…every day, it’s different. Now business is slow. Because I think Broadway has changed.
Me: Really?
Lois: We used to have stores from one end to the other. Now it’s all empty.
Me: When did this change or really start to hit? Was it after 2008?
Lois: Yeah. Because they opened a mall over the bridge.
Me: Ah.
Lois: A shopping center. So a lot of stores went down there.
Me: And you guys — are you guys getting by okay?
Lois: Yeah. He owns the building.
Me: Oh, I see. So because he owns, he’s able to…
Lois: Right. He has offices. All upstairs. Yeah.
Me: What do you do to keep a newer set of customers coming in?
Lois: Well, we put in the paper ads, of course. With coupons and, you know, it’s just…Barney Stock is just — we sell Spanx!
Me: Yeah. Spanx is big.
Lois: He sells a lot of Spanx.
Me: (laughs)
Lois: Yes. A lot. And like I say, it’s all the old timers coming back here. People. We do mail orders. Because people move with their children. They’re either down the shore, out-of-state. So they’re so used to what we have that they can’t get any other place. Pantyhose. The end. We do mastectomy bras for women who have had cancer.
Me: Is there a lot of that in this area?
Lois: We get a lot of that too.
Me: I mean, it’s one of the most underdiscussed topics. The fact that there’s just so much cancer.
Lois: Yes.
Me: It really needs to be discussed.
Lois: We specialize in that. We have certified, you know, girls. So we really — if you want something, we have it. Or he’ll find it for you. (laughs)
Me: But Spanx is the big seller.
Lois: Now? Yes.
Me: Has it dropped off at any point?
Lois: No, I think it’s even more.
Me: It’s more.
Lois: So it’s a…I wish you could have met Mel.
Me: You know, I may come back another time. Just to meet Mel at some point.
Lois: Yeah. He’s the sole owner. He had a brother that worked here too. But his brother passed away. So he does it all.
Me: And he’s been here the entire 38 years that you’ve been here?
Lois: Yes. He’s been..
Me: He’s been busting your chops for 38 years? (laughs)
Lois: Right. Nah. He’s a big guy. I get along. I don’t let him bother me. I think that’s why I stay. So I open the store. And he comes in in the afternoon. And then I leave. See ya! (laughs)
Me: Well, thanks very much!

* * *

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As we continued to walk up Broadway, there were more signs of the economic hits Lois had described. I was saddened to find a rent sign in the window of the Globe Delicatessen. I felt it important to tell Andres that my interest in places like Barney Stock and the Globe Delicatessen wasn’t rooted in nostalgia. I worried about the disappearing connections sustaining community.

Andres and I made efforts to find the To the Struggle Against World Terrorism monument, called one of the world’s ugliest statues by Foreign Policy. But all roads leading to this apparent eyesore were blocked. After a bold nine miles of walking, Andres called it quits. This was a remarkable tally for a man who had never walked across a New York bridge in his life. I saluted him. We said our goodbyes. I headed into Jersey City for lunch.

I regretted skipping over much of Jersey City, but I had no choice. I was behind schedule. It was noon and I was still eleven miles away from West Orange, New Jersey. I had five hours to get to Edison Park before the gates closed.

I did not count on getting screwed by Google Maps.

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Google Maps claimed that I could simply make a left onto the Lincoln Highway Bridge. But this was a goddam lie. There was nothing at that intersection but asphalt leading up to the bridge. Moreover, despite recent hoopla over an alleged bicycle pathway between Jersey City and Newark, there weren’t any clear signs. I considered asking one of the countless auto dealerships along Communipaw Avenue if they knew anything about this, but I feared that these men would force me to test drive a Hyundai before giving me a straight answer. I wandered around. I discovered a pedestrian overpass which led me over Highway 9 into the western section of Lincoln Park.

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When you cross this overpass, you see the Pulaski Skyway in the distance, but there isn’t a single sign suggesting a route for the carless along the Lincoln Highway.

I ended up wasting an hour wandering around the park, looking for the secret passage that would lead me across the bridge. I asked a Jersey City local, but he led me the wrong way north.

I feared that my journey would reach a premature end. I could not find it within me to cheat by thumbing a ride along the Lincoln Highway. I had developed a very clear code of walking ethics. The walking route had to be done completely on foot. I was also worried that I wouldn’t make it to West Orange on time.

Fortunately, I found the way to the bridge. It turns out that you can walk from Jersey City to Newark once you cross the pedestrian overpass. You have to turn left, walk close to the Lincoln Highway, and follow the path that leads you to the eastern edge of Joseph J. Jaroschak Field. Once you reach the field’s fence, look to your left. You’ll see a modest and unmarked opening leading to a guardrail. Walk through, take a right, and you’ll hug the southwestern edge of the field. You will see this view:

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I was so overjoyed to find the way west across the Shawn Carson and Robert Nguyen Memorial Bridge that I considered dancing a jig. Then I realized that the path was more of a consolation prize than a walkway.

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Believe it or not, this thin strip on the first of two bridges into Newark is meant to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians. It’s not too bad. You get a good view of the Pulaski and emerge close to a Jersey truckstop on the other side.

It’s the second bridge that is more problematic.

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Between the two bridges, there’s a small sign that directs you to cross to the other side. So you end up walking west on the southbound side, where endless streams of semis bombard you not only with great gusts, but cause a recurrent rattle along this isthmus leading into Newark.

This was easily the shakiest bridge I have ever crossed as a walker. And I don’t recommend it for people who have a fear of heights. Frankly I’m not sure how many people actually use this passage. I didn’t see a single pedestrian or bicyclist along this route. But I did encounter three geese who were wading in sticky industrial mud. I watched a helicopter take off. Construction workers winced at me in bewilderment as I walked the little-tread path. But I made it into Newark, albeit an area of Newark that wasn’t designed for pedestrians.

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I walked under overpasses with foul detritus strewn along any surface that was not road and passed trucks lodged into deep dirt beds. I walked by an abandoned movie multiplex, where a mysterious man on a yellow motorcycle swirled around a parking lot in disrepair. After two or three miles of this, I discovered civilization in the form of streets named after presidents.

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I had developed a theory that a strawberry ice cream cone would carry me into Edison Park. I made it to Nasto’s, but there wasn’t a place to sit. This was just as well, because there was very little time. I had only a few hours to huff it through Newark into the Oranges. Six miles in two hours and much of it uphill. There was a great deal I had to pass over. So I offer considerable contrition to Newark. Alas, the U.S. National Park Service keeps very strict hours.

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I got to Edison Park at 4:40 PM. Twenty minutes to spare. The mighty water tower loomed above me. Now it was a question of getting into the lab.

I walked to the door. It was locked. So were all the surrounding buildings. I circled around the lab and peered into foggy windows, wondering if I had a chance to visit it after a twenty-three mile walk. That’s when I saw the ranger.

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Not only was Carmen kind enough to unlock the chemistry lab and permit me to see the test tubes and beakers and surfaces that haven’t shifted their position in decades, but he also agreed to a quick interview.

Carmen has worked as a ranger for three years and very much enjoys the job. Edison Park is the only place he’s ever toiled as a ranger. Before he was a ranger, Carmen worked for the military for 21 years performing aircraft maintenance.

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To my great astonishment, one doesn’t have to pull any strings to get a job at Edison Park. If a job becomes available, one simply applies. There’s no need to dredge up esoteric facts, such as the mysterious five dot tattoo on Edison’s left forearm, to get the job. Carmen says he knew a bit about Edison in advance, but Edison Park’s crackerjack staff has been doling out biographical details for quite some time.

“It’s amazing how much you learn as soon as you come here,” says Carmen. “The books you read, the interaction with the other park rangers that are here, the curators, the archivists. You really start to learn an awful lot. I was by no means an expert at Mr. Edison. But as you work here and you are ingrained in this and immersed in this, you start to pick up and learn a whole lot about what’s going on.”

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I asked Carmen if the public ever asked him unusual questions. He told me that many people ask if Edison’s house and lab are haunted: an unusual inquiry, given Edison’s commitment to science. People also want to know about Edison’s height. It turns out that Edison stood five foot seven, which matches Carmen’s height. Part of me wonders if there’s some subconscious employment requirement among the National Park Service to hire Edison Park employees who stand as tall as the namesake.

I challenge Carmen’s commitment to Edison by pointing out how the inventor ripped off people like Nikola Tesla and Joseph Swan.

“Well, that’s more of a misconception,” he replies.

“You’re going to defend the man.”

“I’m definitely going to defend the man.”

“Well, you work for Edison Park.”

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Carmen points out that Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents, more than any other figure in U.S. history.

“You think about all these 1,093. The incandescent lightbulb and the rechargeable battery. Movies. I mean, other people have all worked on that before. But his really true invention, the only invention that he really came up with, was really the phonograph. Nobody had ever recorded voices before. So you gotta look at Mr. Edison not so much as this great inventor, but as a great innovator.”

* * *

This is my final trial walk for this project. I have traveled north to Sleepy Hollow, east to Garden City, and west to West Orange. I hope that these trial walks have demonstrated my good faith, my endurance, and my limitless curiosity.

There is now one long stretch for me to walk. And I cannot do it without your support. It will take six months. It will help create a portrait of this country. This is an all-or-nothing proposition. But I believe we can do it. If you have enjoyed these reports, please donate to the project today. Thank you.

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A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park, Part One

EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 5, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Staten Island, New York to West Orange, New Jersey, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This was the third of three trial walks for the project. (This is part one of a two part report.) The collected trial walks represent only a small fraction of what will be created during the national walk. And if we don’t make it to our fundraising goal, then a national investigation of the people, places, and sounds of this country won’t happen. But your financial assistance can ensure that we can continue the Ed Walks project across twelve states over six months. We have 15 days left in our Indiegogo campaign to make the national walk happen. If you would like to see more adventures carried out over the course of six months, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part Two)

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The Staten Island Ferry is the only real free ride you can catch out of Manhattan and it has stayed this way because too many people feel contrite about the way New York was designed. The city once had the happy idea of extending the BMT Fourth Avenue Line from Bay Ridge to The Narrows. The tunnel got as far as 45 meters before Mayor John Hylan, a principled man who fought against “invisible government” and interests and damn near anyone who stood against the people, put the kibosh on interborough interconnection just before the Great Depression. Despite the Verrazano-Narrows’s long span and double deck suspension, Robert Moses never considered the people when conceiving the bridge. The cars mattered first.

In 1954, The New Yorker‘s Paul Brodeur was able to cross the bridge on foot before it opened. He described the Coney Island parachute jump as “a tower of only miniscule proportions,” Staten Island’s “rickety wooden piers, stretched for miles,” and “a gray sea that was becoming grayer in the fading light.” But these days, you can’t walk the bridge outside of marathons and bike tours and, despite vociferous demand, there won’t be a southwest pedestrian passage anytime soon.

So if you have two legs and you burn with an insatiable fire that could take you to the ends of the earth under the right circumstances, then the only way into Staten Island from Manhattan or Brooklyn is to board a 3,335 ton, triple-deck boat ping-ponging from one terminal to another all day at a speed of 16 knots.

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At six in the morning, the MV Andrew J. Barberi is a flouncing platform sashaying across the Upper Bay, ideal for the soporific. Brave bodies flatten their forms across plentiful seats. They use backpacks for pillows and ignore the soft squares shooting flickering light from above: the squares reminding them of white billowy rectangles beckoning from bedrooms, awaiting them on shore. Half the passengers who remain awake grip paper cups like asthmatics clasping onto inhalers just before an attack. It’s too early in the day to call or text or chat. So those who peer down at their phones guide virtual cars along digital raceways or maneuver hepping sprinters through tropical obstacles in Treasure Run 2. The stunning view outside is now too rote. The phoneless stretch the ends of newspapers and tighten magazines the way their mothers and fathers did. Crepuscular readers on the Barberi tend to stick with paper. And it’s good to know that a few 20th century traditions remain alive.

I see a thirtysomething’s frizzy chignon burst wild and unrepentant with flaxen highlights from a slick brown jungle, her front curls dangling like fine wires along the left side of her face. As she talks with her friend, I know this is the end of a happening evening.

This is near perfect acclimation before Saint George Terminal, where I am to meet a young reporter named Andres David Lopez, who has heard about the walk and has driven all the way out from Harlem to meet me at an ungodly hour. This is merely the beginning of an unanticipated adventure.

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Andres is a young man from South Florida: the first in his family to attend Columbia University and the first reporter to accompany me on one of my long walks. What neither of us know as the sun purrs into the promising expanse of a bluing sky is that we will spend most of the next nine miles walking together.

There’s a brief break just before eight when Andres, who has budgeted a few hours to talk with me but who ends up spending a few more, realizes that he has to reclaim his car before the baleful Staten Island parking meters begin their profitable drain on reticules and wallets. He has to hike back to Saint George to advance his car to a safe spot. He does this. And we triangulate by text and he stays on the trail with me. I see immediately that Andres is a highly dedicated reporter in the making: one that any outlet would be proud to have on its roster. “Just don’t become an aggregator, man,” I implore him. “That way is the way of demons.”

He assures me that aggregation isn’t in the cards, although I do hope that robust outlets will be around to ensure that thorough guys like Andres can deepen their craft.

Andres has worked very hard to get where he is today. He’s hanging with me because he’s writing a piece on people who walk across the country. And he’s really going above and beyond the call of duty. I very much hope that the Indiegogo campaign will be fully funded, if only so that Andres can get that happy ending securing a grand narrative arc for his piece. He’s easygoing enough to get me to gush about Guy Debord and John Steinbeck and Will Self, in large part because he makes me feel responsible in confessing all antecedents for this project. He impresses the hell out of me when he tells me that he’s chatted with Peter Jenkins, the mack daddy of long walks.

I ask Andres why he went into journalism.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be coming out of high school,” he said.

He had a lost period for a bit, but always enjoyed reading and writing. So he joined the Navy.

“I thought I’d get some adventure and see the world. And I got accepted into the Nuclear Power Program.”

This was a rather colossal commitment: a six year contract that was especially intense. Andres spent two years living in South Carolina in a college setting taking essay exams on the basics of radiation, electricity, submarines, and other lightweight topics along these lines. The program gave Andres much-needed discipline, but he didn’t quite see a future in nuclear power.

“I had to decide, ‘Well, if you don’t want to be in the Navy for the rest of your life, what do you want to do for the rest of your life?’ And I decided that I wanted to be a journalist for a lot of reasons. Because it allows me to write and improve my writing every day. I’m constantly finding stories and trying to share them. I love the idea that I’m going to have deadlines every day.”

Andres was also drawn to the public service component. He sees journalism as a noble calling, as a way of changing the world for the better and an essential part of democracy. But the big question I had was why Andres was interested in walkers. Part of this has to do with Andres taking a class which deals in human interest stories, that involves learning how to synthesize a massive story for a national wire service. He’s very well aware, like most reporters, that ever diminishing budgets prevent journalists from flying out to necessary places. But maybe if the two of us keep walking, we’ll end up running into a story. This is precisely what happens several times on Friday.

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I have never set foot inside a live poultry market in my life, but something emboldens me in Staten Island.

Me: Adam, nice to meet you. So how long have you been in the poultry market business? How does one get into this line?
Adam: Well, right now, I’ve been here for about two months.
Me: Two months? Oh wow. So you’ve been an experienced butcher?
Adam: Well, just a little bit, yeah.
Me: Okay.
Adam: I’m not really up at the top. But I’m not planning on staying here long. This is just a part-time job.
Me: A part-time job.
Adam: Yeah.
Me: Could you do this full-time or it is just…?
Adam: Not really. No.
Me: So what’s it like on a day-to-day basis to do this job?
Adam: Well, I mean, it’s not bad. It’s good money and it’s — I mean, it’s hard work. You gotta be here in the morning. You gotta clean. And then, you know, you work — it’s ten hour shifts. But it’s got to be an hour of cleaning from before and an hour of cleaning after. So it’s very hard.
Me: Wow. Cleaning is the hardest part?
Adam: No, no. Cleaning is the easiest part. Killing is the hardest part.
Me: Killing is the hardest part. But do you get used to the killing after a while? I mean…
Adam: Yeah, you get used to it.
Me: What? How do you deal with that? Do you have nightmares at all?
[A chicken flutters in its cage.]
Me: Whoa!
Adam: No, no nightmares.
Me: No nightmares?
Adam: No, not really.
Me: No guilty conscience?
Adam: I mean, it’s not like I’m killing humans or anything. It’s chickens. But it’s food.
Me: It’s food. So have you had any kind of moral qualms out of curiosity?
Adam: Nah.
Me: Nothing?
Adam: Nothing. It’s not bad. You get used to it. Sometimes it’s fun. And you get to meet a lot of people. You get to talk with them. You get to chill with them. It’s cool.
Me: Do people ever crack on this job?
Adam: Uh, some people do, yeah. Some people even go and kill. Themselves. They try it out.
Me: So this is like a testing before they came a real homicidal maniac?
Adam: Yeah. Some people do actually test it, yeah. And they’re like — well, some people like it actually. They’re like, “Oh, this is fun.”

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Me: So what actually happens? What is the process of killing a chicken?
Adam: Well, when you kill it, you’ve got to let the drain blood — I mean, the blood drain out. And then after that, you’ve got to clean it. You’ve got to take the feathers out. So we have a machine for that. That takes the feathers out. And after that, it’s — you know, it’s just just kind of from the inside. And if people want it cut up and whole, we just give it to them. Whatever they want. And it’s a lot better than what they sell in the supermarket. Cause it’s all fresh here. It’s not like what they sell in the supermarket. Different taste. Plus, it’s cheap too.
Me: Do you get any special requests? Any particular parts? Or any special butchering techniques or anything?
Adam: No. Well, like I said, some people, they have their own style of cutting in pieces. Some people want it in four pieces. It all depends on how they cook it. I’m not much of a cooking expert. But, you know, I do whatever they tell me to do. So some people want to cut it small. I think they use it for curry or stew. That’s how I give it to them. Four pieces. Grilled. Baked. That’s how I do it for them.
Me: How many clients do you have? How many people actually rely on this place?
Adam: Well, about a day, I’d say there’s over a hundred maybe.
Me: Oh, a hundred a day.
Adam: Yeah.
Me: Like a hundred chickens? Or a hundred orders?
Adam: No. Over a hundred people that come in.
Me: Oh, I see.
Adam: Chickens. This is how many chickens we kill and we have trucks coming in later.
Me: So all the chickens that are here are going to be dead by the end of the day.
Adam: Well, hopefully, yeah…
Me: Hopefully!
Adam: Well, I mean, usually — about three quarters of this is gone, yeah.
Me: What kind of trouble do the chickens give you?
Adam: You see my arms?
[Adam rolls up his sleeve. There are several scratch marks he has received from the chickens. I ask Adam later if I can photograph these marks, but he says he doesn’t want to. But he is kind enough to let me photograph him in front of the chickens.]
Me: Oh my.
Adam: That’s the only trouble.
Me: Yeah. Scrapes on the arm here.
Adam: Only scratches. Other than that, they are no trouble at all. But, you know, it’s work. You’ve got to make money one way or the other.

Read Part Two! Adventures across the Bayonne Bridge, a women’s underwear shop, New Jersey solar panels, and Edison Park!

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A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City, Part Two

EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 2, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Brooklyn, New York to Garden City, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This is the second of three trial walks for the project. And this is the second part of my report. You can read the first part here. (You can also read about the first trial walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow.)

The Ed Walks project will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. We have 19 days left in our Indiegogo campaign to make the national walk happen. If you would like to see more adventures carried out over the course of six months, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you! (I’ll be doing another walk tomorrow from Staten Island to West Orange, New Jersey and I’ll be live-tweeting the walk at my Twitter account.)

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

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The village was once called East Hinsdale. In the days when trains rattled harder than they do now and George Selden was still working out the internal combustion engine up north in Rochester, East Hinsdale was a few houses, a railroad station, a post office, and a sole store that served the surrounding farms. But in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a charismatic seed seller named John Lewis Childs would change the village’s destiny. Childs had arrived from Maine at the bright young age of seventeen. He built up a burgeoning bulb business and was so successful in hawking flora that he was able to build an impressive Victorian mansion in 1882 with a grand Gothic front and snazzy cornices. The manse was torn down in 1950 to make way for the comparatively pedestrian apartments pictured above.

Childs made several smart business decisions. Aside from taking great interest in his employees’s lives, he began naming the streets after flowers. But Tulip Avenue wasn’t enough for Childs. Childs was a man who saw the bigger picture. He bought up land faster than a trust fund kid with a limitless liquor cabinet and an expense account beyond the dreams of avarice, but with greater grace and acumen. There was pride and reputation at stake. Childs persuaded his neighbors that living in a place called East Hinsdale wasn’t nearly as inspiring as residing in a true village named Floral Park. It was a compelling argument. East Hinsdale became Floral Park in 1890. It is worth pointing out that Childs did this not long after establishing the nation’s first seed catalog business. (Many of his catalogs can be found online through the New York Botanical Garden.) But he was good enough to build a public park and the village’s first school. He even published an annual magazine called The Warbler. And he parlayed his business savvy into a political career that took him to the New York Senate.

But above all, Childs was guided by the flowers. And it seemed especially disrespectful that the place where Childs had once lived and blossomed and sprouted a town did not have a single flower for the casual stroller to admire.

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Despite the historical calumny against John Lewis Childs, Floral Park is a very pleasant village, especially if you walk along Tulip Avenue. I stumbled onto a charming establishment called Swing the Teapot. I entered through a white door with a curled floral pattern etched into the glass and found a window seat at an old Singer sewing machine turned into a table with a smooth surface. Three tiny cups dangled from a teapot hanging in the front window, draped with striped curtains. Warm browns beckoned families and retired types and tittering girls inside to fine tables near brawny brick walls. I heard concerns about an uptick in foreclosed homes. There was a young woman trying to lull her grandfather into the seedy world of social media and hashtags. It was refreshing to sit in a public place without laptops or people constantly looking down for new messages, although I felt like the biggest hypocrite when I checked my phone to ensure that I was on the right route. I was, after all, only hours away from the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York.

I enjoyed a bowl of potato leek soup and a blended pot of Thai tea that provided much needed sustenance for the next seven miles. I asked the waitress how long the place had been around. She said five years. Was it a family business? “Can you read?” she replied. “There’s a story on the menu.” Indeed, there was. Something about a guy named Jack Smith who came to America in 1929 selling tea door to door. A Floral Park legend to match John Lewis Childs, but one you won’t find in the history books.

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There were two men in the squinty distance, but I was too mesmerized by the three raceways edged with red and baby blue siding. The lined lanes devoured most of the space at Slots-A-Lot Raceway, with the king track’s inviting coils stretching some 150 feet.

The man behind the counter was Kenny. He owned the raceway and his eyes and cheeks burned with bright life. The other man was Bianco. He was the trusted techie wearing sunglasses and dark leather, perched on a tall corner overlooking the tracks. I had arrived not long after the place had opened, not long after Kenny had turned the keys for another night in raceway heaven.

Kenny and Bianco were from Brooklyn and had been pushed all the way out to Franklin Square to keep their passion alive.

“When I was a kid,” said Kenny, “the first time I’d seen a slot car raceway was in my neighborhood. It was around 1967. So it was in a store in Brooklyn called Jermaine’s. And it was a stairway that led up to second floor. So I took a walk up the steps. And when I was a young kid — maybe like about six years old or so — the first time I’d seen a slot car track was in Jermaine’s Raceway in Brooklyn, New York. On 15th Street and 5th Avenue.”

There is no trace of Jermaine’s through Google.

“So after that, it was kind of a sad story. So I saved up some money to buy a slot car. Back then, the cars were about maybe seven dollars a piece. So I saved up enough money and by the time I had that money, the raceway wasn’t there anymore. Later on in life, when I was around maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, a friend introduced me to another place in Brooklyn called Buzz-A-Rama.”

Fortunately, Buzz-A-Rama remains quite alive.

“And we went there. And I seen the place. I seen the tracks. And the rest from here to then is all the history of slot racing since 1975.”

I asked Kenny why he felt that slot racing had fallen off in recent years.

“It’s because of the space that you need to have these tracks set up in such a size building. That the rent takes over a lot of the profits of the raceway. But if you either have the building or you own it, or you can find it at a good rent, you can make it work. And if you know enough about the hobby to keep people interested — by having races, birthday parties, just walk-in customers, rental cars — and if you can do all that in the time frame that you have — after school hours from four in the afternoon to maybe nine or ten at night — and you can do that within that time, you can make it work. Because we’ve been here now almost — next year, we’ll be fifteen years.”

There are several reasons to try out slot racing in 2013, but one greatly compelling one is the fact that today’s slot cars are much faster than they were decades before. And if you’re racing open class, the lap time around the Slots-A-Lot king track is 2.1 seconds.

But the track surfaces need to be cleaned every week. The lanes need to be rebraided. There’s a DC battery system that needs constant maintenance. Because the last thing you want is a leaking cell. Fortunately, slot car supplies are secure. There isn’t much of the way of scavenging with this hobby. And that’s because Europe and South America love slot car racing more than America.

Bianco’s interest in slot cars was more recent than Kenny’s. He came from a family of motorheads. On the weekends, he’d help out his cousins with brake jobs and changing oil. The passion advanced to miniature when Bianco developed a highly addictive interest in RC cars in the mid-90s. It evolved further when he tinkered with a slot car home set.

“I went home and did some research on it,” said Bianco. “Because I saw the cars and the details and everything. And I was very amazed. And when I started doing research, I found that they made the cars in a bigger scale called 1:24, which ran on commercial raceways. So I started doing a search for commercial raceways in New York, found Slots-A-Lot, came down, introduced myself. The people here were warm, welcoming, and willing to help you get started in the hobby at a reasonable price. And I’ve been involved in the Raceway ever since then.”

Bianco helps Kenny with his computer needs, bringing in his expertise from the energy business, and he works at the Raceway for free. He loves slot car racing that much. He feels that if he doesn’t put in the time now, then tomorrow’s kids may not have a place to race slot cars.

“No matter what you go through in life, it takes you back to that happy point in your life. And that’s the passion that keeps this place going. Where guys continue to come back and the owner wants to keep the doors open.”

A lot of these guys, much like Kenny, have stayed at it since the 1960s. But Bianco says that, on a national level, slot car racing doesn’t quite cut it with today’s youth. Many raceways have been forced to close down because of the waning interest. It’s the birthday parties and the family gatherings that keep the flame alive, that keep Kenny and Bianco smiling in Franklin Square.

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It was close to 4:30 PM and time was tight. The astronaut Jerry Ross was scheduled to begin his talk at 7:00 PM. But I had miscalculated the distance. There were two additional miles to the Cradle of Aviation Museum. So I was forced to walk past The Witches Brew in West Hempstead — a notable haven for Long Island skateboarders. Hampstead was also neglected, but I loved watching the acrobatic garbage men dance in the streets and leap on the back of trucks while making sunset pickups. I felt the sun dying into my back.

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I arrived at the Cradle of Aviation Museum sometime around 6:20 PM. There were a few other people who sauntered behind me. An old school guard opened the door. I told him that I had walked 23 miles. Would it be possible to talk with astronaut Jerry Ross before his presentation? The guard said not before, but after.

“It’s up to Mr. Ross,” he said.

The guard sized me up as a man without military background. Had I possessed some arcane aviation factoid, there might have been a shot at camaraderie. But this was a place where my breakfast crepe-making skills were not welcome.

The guard let us into the Cradle’s grand lobby, where a Grumman F-11F and a Fleet Model 2 biplane were suspended above.

I was able to sit for a bit. My respite was not to last long. A queue formed near the entrance of the theater planetarium. After walking 23 miles, I stood in line. I watched an older woman with a medical walker slowly approach the front. She asked for the guard, who had retreated into the theater. She was told that the guard wasn’t letting anyone in. This did not surprise me, given his largely unsympathetic attitude to people with curious bipedal predicaments.

“Well, tell him I can’t stand!” said the woman. “I’m sneaking in.”

And she did.

A few minutes later, the sour guard emerged from the entrance.

“Did you let that lady in?” asked a man near the front.

“She threw me out,” quipped the guard.

* * *

Put any man on the road for a time and he will forge a clear gaze that tells you he’s seen it all. Magnify that quality by about six million and you have the look of an astronaut.

Jerry Ross is a robust man of sixty-five who does not waste words and does not waste time. He has clocked in nearly 1,400 hours in space, performed nine space walks, and enjoys flicking his red laser pointer around a purple planetarium screen.

“God had intended me to be in space,” said Ross before the awestruck crowd. But Ross had also been chiseled by a rock solid work ethic. “Every dollar I made baling hay on the farmers fields or whatever else I was doing, all that money went into a special account that I had established to help save money for my college education.”

Ross had built rockets as a boy in Indiana. His advancement had been swift. He went from studying mechanical engineering at Purdue to testing out ramjet missiles. He was the top graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School, which allowed him to secure a job as the lead flight test engineer for the B-1 Bomber. He flew 23 missions in the vehicle. And because Rockwell had built both the B-1 and the Space Shuttle, the cockpits for both were almost identical.

The first time that Ross had applied to fly the Shuttle, over 10,000 people jammed the mailboxes with forms. Ross was one of 210 selected to come down to Houston for physicals and interviews. But he didn’t make the next cut of 35 applicants.

“This all goes hand in hand with what I try to tell young people when I talk at schools,” said Ross. “It’s the fact that they need to pick out what their likes and dislikes and talents and capabilities are, and to set goals for themselves. To study hard, to work hard, and to not give up too easily if they don’t get things the first time they try.”

Ross was clearly a man who had a few pointers on how to walk across the country.

* * *

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I stood in line after the presentation and told Ross about my project. He was very gracious and offered me a few minutes after he had signed books. I asked Ross how spacewalking differed from regular walking.

“Well, you don’t wear out the soles of your feet, for number one,” said Ross. “And you’re just floating along. You’re not physically walking. Any walking or moving around you do there is with your hands instead of your feet. And if you can imagine, the spacesuit is pressurized at 4.3 pounds/square inch. So every time you open and close your gloves, it’s kind of like squeezing a rubber ball. And if you can imagine doing that for six and a half or seven hours while you’re outside in a spacewalk, you can imagine how fatigued your hands will get.”

Astronauts train in a water tank wearing the exact same suits that they use in space. So they’re building up the same muscles they’ll need in orbit. The astronauts also spend about the same time in the tank as they do in space: roughly about six hours.

“It takes a lot of endurance and a certain amount of strength in the upper body. But it’s more the endurance factor that comes into play when you’re out there for long periods of time.”

Ross said that this endurance was more physical than mental, although the exhaustion is just as tiring mentally as it is physically.

“Because your brain is going a thousand miles an hour. It’s trying to remember everything you’re supposed to do. It’s trying to remember where you safety tether is, what your buddy’s doing. Every once in a while, you’re trying to look and sneak a view of the ground. And your brain is just literally almost fried by the time you get back inside.”

After his last mission, Ross devoted much of his time to making sure other astronauts could walk safely in space.

“I figured that if I wasn’t going to fly anymore, I didn’t have to worry about saying something that might make somebody mad. I’d just say what I thought was right. And more than once, during countdowns, when I didn’t like something, I would either call or email somebody. And for whatever reason, either because of what I said or because one of the people said or something, they stopped doing what I didn’t like and they came back another day to launch when things were straightened out.”

It turns out that Ross is also a walker. And he’s been talking with Purdue about doing a walk across Indiana for “a stem-related thing for schoolkids.”

I asked Ross if he had any tips for a cross-country walk.

“Watch for the bulls out in the pasture.”

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A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City, Part One

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 2, 2013, I set out on a twenty-three mile “trial walk” from Brooklyn, New York to Garden City, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. This is the second of three trial walks and I have been forced to split it into two parts because so much happened. (You can also read about the first trial walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow.) The project will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you! (I’ll be doing another walk on Friday, April 5, 2013 from Staten Island to West Orange, New Jersey and will also be live-tweeting the walk at my Twitter account.)]

Other Trial Walks:
1. A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow (Full Report)
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

When you walk east in the early morn, there is no greater beauty than the sun slicing the last signs of night with the leisurely pace of a slow executioner. Dazzling white-orange light laps at the mandible of toothy square buildings. There are long stretches where you saunter ahead as blind as a blues virtuouso, with the sun swallowing the dark sky and spitting out a light blue. The white moon coughs out its last gasps as good tired souls who work graveyard shuffle homeward, swinging brown bags of breakfast. Onyx sidewalks brighten into drab square slabs and the ruddy beauty of Brooklyn brick shimmers out of the dark, beckoning humanity to bolt from bed and join the party.

I heard the jerky squeaks of rolling steel doors popped upward by small businessmen who had carefully tucked in their establishments the night before. There were twisted folding chairs and near dead portable alarms spewing feeble beeps in the street next to dead mattresses, all awaiting the pickup game of Tuesday morning’s trash collectors. There were people waiting at bus stops and dark trees pining for the fresh buds of spring. There was a man sitting on the sidewalk, his back angled against the building, his cane flat on the cement, and his right knee raised, as he smoked a thin cigarette and awaited a day of hustling that most heading to nine-to-five lives could not know. Just outside a Bed-Stuy deli, two older gents discussed how the neighborhood was changing. “More kids come from the Junction than they come from downtown,” said one. The hell of it was that the Junction was where I was heading.

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“I don’t know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant, sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air.” — Renata Adler, Speedboat

Adler also wrote about Brownsville’s “crushed, hollowed houses” and the “deserted strangeness” of a community cemented by tenants and funeral homes, although much of this has improved in recent years. Many young people who have no knowledge or interest in the city’s history before Bloomberg have taken to Adler’s 1976 novel — recently reissued by New York Review Books — as a handbook for life, much as Jonathan Franzen talked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters in a 1999 introduction (“I hoped that the book, on a second reading, might actually tell me how to live”). These are not the people who marvel at Broadway Junction, but you will find them hiding behind the latest issue of The Paris Review.

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“I can’t really let you up.”

“Here,” said the woman from the executive office who had curled around the aperture leading into the security cage, “you cannot just go upstairs to the fourth floor…”

“That’s what I told him.”

“…and interview people.”

“As much as I would like to do that,” said Gary, the good-humored man keeping watch at Surface Transit Headquarters.

The woman from the fourth floor had come down because some recent packages had disappeared. There were people coming in for interviews. I certainly didn’t want to get Gary in trouble. But Broadway Junction’s twisted wonders had rekindled my desire to know more about transit. But I had been spoiled by the hospitality I received at Yonkers City Hall.

Gary had an intimate knowledge of the city. He has contributed several invaluable articles to Forgotten New York. We talked of Chase’s troubling tendency to gobble up old bank buildings and sully them with their dreaded branding. I mentioned Pat Robertson’s religious awakening on the edge of Clinton Hill and Gary corrected my pronunciation of Classon (the correct “KLAW-sun” has been uprooted by “CLAH-sun” — it’s a hard habit to break).

That morning, Gary was working as an “extra” for the MTA, which he’s been doing for eight years. Before that, he was a bus operator for twenty years until he was reclassified into security because of health issues. He works five days a week, has no complaints about the job, and sees about 50 to 100 people a day — nearly all of them transit workers. I asked about the craziest thing he’s seen on the job.

“A dead body floating in the Hudson River at the end of the line.”

But Gary’s great passion is keeping local history alive — especially the areas that few others appreciate. He suggested that I walk the southern end of Staten Island and I thanked him for his time.

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Gary’s talk of dead bodies led me quite naturally to Cypress Hills Cemetery. I learned a very hard lesson about visiting hours at Sleepy Hollow and figured that my interest in cenotaphs and tombstones should probably be tapped early for this walk. The veterans wing contained a notice banning firearms and weapons on the property under 18 U.S.C. § 930 — largely because the cemetery was considered a federal facility. No impromptu 21-gun salutes here.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is divided by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which has faced a problematic history of poor planning and ancillary inadequacies. These design defects were very much in place as I made my way to the cemetery’s north end, where there was a paucity of passages across the parkway. I had hoped to see Mae West’s grave, which I knew was in the abbey. I had hoped that Ms. West would speak from the tomb. “Is that a joss stick in your pocket or are you happy to see me?” I had prepared a witticism for such an unlikely eventuality.

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I found the abbey. The doors were locked. There were a few vans and some red machinery. Then I discovered a pair of knockers, which were round and delectable. Since I am somewhat perverse, I knocked. I halloed on hallowed ground. I shouted “You bad girl!” and cupped my ear to the door for a reply.

A car rolled up. A man rolled down his window. He worked for the cemetery.

I asked if it was possible to see inside the abbey for a few minutes. I was told that the workers were “on a break.” How long was the break? Of indeterminate length, but possibly fifteen minutes. And even then, I’d have to persuade them to jangle the keys. The unions must be pretty good at Cypress Hills Cemetery. I thanked the man and wended my way back to Jamaica Avenue.

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I had lost time hoping to commune with Mae West. And because I still had a good fifteen miles to walk, I was forced to jet through Woodhaven. But I did make a southward drift to check out Neir’s Tavern, immortalized in Goodfellas. But I was more impressed with the breed-specific, machine-printed nature of many of Woodhaven’s residential signs. In the above case, I didn’t see any Rottweiler. I was somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t a dog who desired to tear me to shreds.

These morbid thoughts were percolating because I had eaten a light breakfast at a very early hour, which is not a strategy I would recommend for a 23 mile walk. I walked past costume shops with plus-size Supergirl costumes, a magnificent mural of a young woman in a yellow cardigan looking into a laptop, a lonely Donald Duck ride outside a supermarket, and an ancient post office. I walked past a bookstore that had been run by the late Bernard Titowsky. I walked…I walked…energy waning….I…

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…emboldened by an early lunch, I walked through the long and dark tunnel beneath endless rail just west of Jamaica Station, past JFK and the AirTrain terminal, and into the brick sidewalks with young men shivering in hoodies before storefronts.

“We got top dollar shoes. Come inside and check it out! Come inside and check it out! All sizes available! Come inside and check it out! We got…”

But the wind chill was nippy enough to stanch the barkers. Although some men stood before shops, these hopeful words of commerce flowed into the street from speakers. The incantation “Come inside and check it out!” suggested something prerecorded, and I peered inside windows hoping to find majestical figures perched inside with microphones.

* * *

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I arrived at Bellitte Bicycles at the beginning of peak bike season, which typically runs from March into October. This Jamaica shop has been owned by the same family since 1918 and it may be the oldest continuously operated bicycle shop in the United States. (The only authority for this claim is The New York Daily News.)

Every family member ends up going into the business and it’s been this way for several generations. I asked if there were any recalcitrant family members — perhaps a few stray Bellittes who shirked family destiny to become cutthroat corporate attorneys or HBO showrunners. But nobody resists. Bicycles are in the Bellitte blood. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re simply not a Bellitte.

The bicycle business is recession-proof. With rising gas prices and escalating MetroCard fares, people in the outer parts of the New York metropolitan area have sought affordable alternatives. And Bellitte Bicycles has been there to pick up the slack for some time. The shop has not seen a dip in sales throughout its history.

Nobody quite knows why Salvatore “Sam” Bellitte — the original owner of the shop — got into the bike business or why he was an early adopter. In the 1910s, Sam worked as a motorcycle and bicycle mechanic for another guy named Sam Hurvin, but there’s no trace of the mysterious Mr. Hurvin on Google. (However, I did find Hurvin in the 1920 U.S. Census.)

But the Bellittes have a very helpful book of photographs that you can look through if you’re interested in this history. They were exceedingly kind, run a very clean and well-organized shop, and are flexible enough with their stock to appeal to everyone from regular Joes to triathletes.

* * *

I was just outside Jamaica when the news jackals came at me. The crosswalk light was red. And I was confused when a CNN cameraman and some guy with wet cropped hair, sunglasses, and the sleaziest of smiles approached me with a mike. “Hey,” said the jackal with the sleazy smile, “do you know about Malcolm Smith?”

Yes. The white guy with glasses. Get him! He’s safe for our audience.

The jackal then offered a very condescending overview about Smith’s recent bribery scandal. I was bewildered, largely because the idea of asking random people in the street about their opinions on a major news story that only confirmed preexisting biases was not only lazy, but a missed opportunity. The ways that people live lives are far more meaningful and intriguing.

It was also comically unfathomable that I would be singled out as a local in a territory that was not mine.

“Actually,” I said to the jackals, “I may have a story for you.”

I told them about my walk, informing them that I was in the middle of a 21 mile* journey to meet an astronaut at the Cradle of Aviation Museum and that I had been walking there from Brooklyn all day.

“Oh,” said the jackal, “you’re not from the neighborhood.”

Then the jackals walked away.

I didn’t know if I could persuade a man who had nine spacewalks under his belt to give me a few minutes of his time. But I was too far into my walk to quit.

* * *

Part Two: Floral Park, keeping a racing pastime alive in Franklin Square, and meeting an astronaut in Garden City.

* — I did not know at the time that I would miscalculate the distance and that it would end up being 23 miles.

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A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On March 22, 2013, I set out on an eighteen mile “trial walk” from the top tip of Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. It will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!]

Other Trial Walks:
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

The Broadway Bridge rumbled hard with tardy cars hoping to beat that dreaded moment when the lift raised for a big boat hauling cargo across the Harlem River, tying up traffic into a time-consuming knot that no sailor could unravel at gunpoint. On the whole, this was a reasonable bridge, agreeable and unassuming, not unlike a workmanlike band following an act that bombed spectacularly on stage. You couldn’t help but like the Broadway Bridge after all the barbed wire coils and the industrial grit that came before. But I think I may have loved the bridge simply because I crossed it on foot.

I was walking across to meet Lisa Peet, a good soul with a wily mane and a knowing glint who had kindly agreed to be my first interview subject. We met in the Gold Mine Cafe, a former donut shop recently renovated to serve breakfast at all hours of the day. This establishment inveigled the locals with its new kitschy interior, which included a Greco ideal, his knee raised, ensnared in a vessel with a periwinkle lid. This marvelously extravagant illustration, seen only if you look to your left when you leave the joint, rightly reflected the neighborhood inconsistencies that Lisa told me about. There was also a painting of an elderly woman tempting fate with a reddish orange mass, which hung just behind the table where Lisa and I chatted:

goldminecafeart

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“No restaurants,” said Lisa of her neighborhood. “No coffee shops. No galleries. No bookstores. No nothing. There’s the Bronx Ale House, which opened up a few years ago. That’s a nice place. No takeout really. There’s Riverdale. You can get delivery from there. You have to leave if you want to do anything fun.”

I pointed to the Gold Mine Cafe’s charms, which suggested new fun in the making.

“There’s fun, but you really have to make it.”

* * *

geese

I saw the geese after I saw the coyote statue atop a rock and the slowly thawing ice rink that needed to be deliquesced out of its misery. I saw the geese after shuffling around a memorial lawn with its grave markers parked low to the grass and American flags shooting out of the soil. I saw the geese wandering near the Van Cortlandt Park baseball diamond, not far from the big track that still attracted stubborn joggers in the morning chill, and I attempted an interview.

I spent more minutes than I care to admit slowly advancing on the icy lawn, hoping that the geese might view me as more peaceful and more inquisitive than the average human. But the geese had seen humans pull this parlor trick many times before. They squawked and they sprinted in that gangly manner that only geese can and they fluttered into the air when I pursued them beyond the specified maximum distance established by the Human-Geese Accord of 1872.

The geese did not wish to answer my inquiries concerning income inequality or human-animal relations or Katy Perry’s sartorial style. Still, I was having a good deal of fun coaxing the geese to talk with me. I opted to leave them alone and file an interview request with their publicists. I did not know that there was a bigger interview ahead in Yonkers.

* * *

The idea came when I walked into Yonkers and saw Mayor Mike Spano’s name on the city limits sign. I had never been in Yonkers before. Perhaps Mayor Spano would talk with me. I had not known that Mayor Spano had just delivered the State of the City address. In fact, I knew nothing about Yonkers politics at all.

I decided to hit City Hall.

yonkerscityhall

I didn’t anticipate that Yonkers City Hall would be a fairly imposing Italianate edifice built in 1908 and situated on a rather high hill.

This did not stop me.

I walked to the side entrance and told the amicable guard that I was going to the Mayor’s Office. He seemed to believe that I knew what I was doing and directed me to the second floor. I went to the Mayor’s Office and talked with a friendly woman named Francesca. The Mayor was in Albany. I asked if there was anybody else who would talk with me, but apparently all communications people were locked in an implacable meeting. It was so quiet behind Francesca that I began to wonder if city officials were playing a long game of Spin the Bottle, perhaps over coffee and cake. I asked Francesca if she would talk with me and she said that she wasn’t authorized to do so. But she was very nice about it.

It then occurred to me that Yonkers City Hall had other floors and, quite possibly, more movers and shakers who might talk with me. Since I had gone to the trouble of walking up the rather high hill, it seemed eminently reasonable to bag the Munro.

There were a few fun-filled conversations inside the Public Works Department and the Department of Engineering, although I quickly learned that Yonkers City Hall acoustics share certain qualities with an invisibility cloak. The doors throughout the building are sturdy and loud when opened. Every lawmaker and aide knows the precise moment someone enters an office. I entered one room in search of a Yonkers booster and was alarmed to hear a man reply from his office just after I chatted with several good-natured people craning their heads out of cubicles. He had heard the whole exchange. I wondered if the man was preparing for some inevitable moment when he would overhear some vital gossip that would pull him from his chamber and into some position where he would spend the rest of his days laughing as hard as Emil Jannings.

Nearly everyone in Yonkers City Hall was kind and courteous. Maybe I was stunned because, living in New York City, I’m accustomed to city employees who give you the look of someone who wants to rip out your heart with gelid hands and watch you die. It’s also possible that city employees don’t often receive visitors or interview requests quite like this.

yonkersabe

Whatever the reason, all this bonhomie led me to believe that I could talk with someone on the City Council. My journey started at one wing of the fourth floor, where administrative types were answering telephones and sealing envelopes and trying to hold the majority leader — a man named Wilson A. Terrero — to his hectic schedule. Nerissa Peña, Chief of Staff of the Yonkers City Council, was very helpful in seeking five minutes with Terrero, who was at the tail end of a vivacious meeting with two businessmen. I thanked Nerissa and told her that I would return, once I had investigated the opposite wing.

I walked to the other side of City Hall. Several people told me that there was a man named Chuck who liked to talk. Chuck was the Council President. All spoke fondly of his gregariousness. The three women working in his office. The communications guy, who name-checked Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed when I told him about the walk. And I’m fairly certain that if I had loitered around City Hall after business hours, some wraith kicking around for decades would tell me that Chuck Lesnick is the man you need to spread the Yonkers gospel.

But Chuck wasn’t there.

It was suggested that I schedule an appointment, even though the four lovely people I talked with in Chuck’s office understood that these interviews were spontaneous.

I returned to the other wing to see if I could catch Mr. Terrero just before he was splitting for Albany. As I chatted more with Nerissa about this drop-in prospect, a calm man in a near navy sweater and a fluted gray scarf draped around his neck in a tidy coil passed along some papers for her and, eyeing the recording unit dangling across my chest with its concomitant microphone, said hello. This was Terrero himself! We came up with a plan to wait for Terrero to finish up with the two businessmen. Then I’d talk with him for five minutes before he made the two hour drive upstate.

I settled into a chair and watched the world of Yonkers politics whirl around me. The walls were white and mostly unadorned: the vagaries of city politics ensured that nobody stuck around long enough to hang a Matisse print. But Terrero had tacked his diplomas and his certificates on the wall so that any curious soul sifting through the door knew who she was dealing with. There was a Dominican flag perched behind a manilla folder and neatly arranged photos of the majority leader on a dark brown credenza: the thickest gold frame featuring Terrero in uniform, but all photos showing Terrero sharp and smooth and poised and prepared. I began to understand why he was the majority leader.

I asked Nerissa if Terrero relied almost entirely on her to keep the schedule running on time. “Yesssssssssss!!!!!” she said, the stage whisper of someone who appreciated a sharp observation.

The clock above the door pushed closer to noon.

This was now getting tight for me, especially since I still had fourteen miles to hike that day to Sleepy Hollow. So I asked Nerissa if she could chat with a few minutes.

nerissa

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Nerissa came to City Hall four years ago on the day Terrero was elected. She told me that there’s never a dull moment in City Hall. I asked Nerissa if she had any political aspirations. “Not at the moment,” she replied, which I noted was a very political answer.

Nerissa was a big fan of Tinker Bell. There was a small statuette of the famed fairy on her desk. Two interns had made a sign just before their stint was up, calling Nerissa “the best supervisor an intern could ever come across” in rainbow lettering, with Tinker Bell waving her wand in the top right corner. These days, Nerissa was sprinkling vital pixie dust for the Yonkers constituents. She said the job could get very busy, but she enjoyed the opportunity to help other people.

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Shortly before the stroke of twelve, Terrero emerged from his office and, upon saying goodbye to the two businessmen, turned to me without missing a beat. As we sauntered slowly down the stairs, Terrero told me that while his job was technically part-time, he worked full-time to serve the community.

“There is a community out there that is in need of representation. And when I say ‘needs,’ it’s basically the Latino community, which has been underrepresented for so long.”

Despite the fact that 35% of the Yonkers population is Latino, the city had been slow in electing Latinos to the City Council. This was one of the reasons why Terrero had decided to run.

“The Party was looking for someone who had been involved in the community, who was likable and electable also. And they found me. And I said, ‘Okay.’ I went to my family. I went to the community to ask them for questions. Whether you see me as a politician now. Do you think I can do a good job?”

Last year, Terrero became the first Latino City Council Majority Leader in Yonkers. It was an unanimous vote and it’s easy to see why. Despite all the meetings (four that day) and the community events that take up Terrero’s busy calendar, he has a calm and easygoing manner. And when we hit the ground floor, many city workers clapped his shoulder with affection on their way out to lunch.

Terrero has developed this quiet patience that allows him to speak with all types of people, regardless of education and background. When I asked Terrero about the greatest nightmare he’s ever faced in his political career, he told me that he loves the job so much that the excitement of a tough vote overshadows the difficulty. He’s more interested in making things happen.

“Yesterday, we called this special meeting to vote for a project I believe is very important for the city. It’s going to create jobs. Temporary jobs, permanent jobs. And the people of the city are the ones who are going to benefit. The Teamsters are going to build that housing complex. And only five of us voted for the project. And there was a discussion about it. And at the end, some people just crossed lines and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to vote for it.’ And they did.”

His day begins at eight in the morning, when Terrero exercises and showers and prepares himself for the long day. He is a former baseball player. So he’s had some practice at this. City Council meetings can stretch into the dead of Tuesday night and often across the rest of the week. And when your time is devoured by talks and votes, you need every bit of energy you can to keep the flame alive.

* * *

dogrun

I had spent more time in Yonkers than planned and there was still the matter of lunch. I walked north on Warburton Avenue, which ran along the river and the rails. I passed schools and churches and houses increasingly labeled “private.” I passed riverside dog runs and attracted barks from playful canines.

hastingsonhudson

The plan was to stop at Hastings-on-Hudson and grab something to eat there. But I became so caught up in my walking rhythm, taking in the beautiful quietude of creeks burbling into the Hudson and the wind lapping at the surviving vegetation, that I overshot Hastings entirely and ended up in a village called Dobbs Ferry.

I settled into a booth at Doubleday’s, the kind of place where a man in late middle age sits at a bar and orders a lemonade and vodka at 2:00 in the afternoon. There were many TVs blaring sports, with a slight echolalia among sets televising the same feed. None of this stopped the talk from flowing like a loose tap.

“We did fall in love with each other, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Forty years later…”

This expansive establishment was arranged like a triptych: a restaurant to the south, the bar forming the central hub, and an open room to the north for overflow on busy nights. There was talk of football pools and objects flying up from the road and scratching the insides of eyes. This was a place where you could melt away hours of your life and not even know it. I would have stayed if I did not have an appointment with Washington Irving.

* * *

villalewaro

I had only a few hours left of daylight and six miles left before Sleepy Hollow. One of the big surprises was running into Villa Lewaro, the home of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made African American millionaire. Madam Walker had made her mark with a sulfur-enhanced shampoo and donated considerable money to the YMCA and the NAACP. She even saved Anacostia, the home of Frederick Douglass. She lived in the house in 1917 and taught many other women to run their own businesses.

I knew Andrew Carnegie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which was where I was heading. Given my Indiegogo campaign, it was odd how my trial walk had me running into very charitable people. Maybe Carnegie could use a dramatic audio reading about steel. I considered hitting these two up for donations. But then I remembered that Walker and Carnegie were dead, which probably prohibited them from helping me.

washingtonirvingmemorial

Not long after Villa Lewaro, I hit the Washington Irving Memorial on the edge of Tarrytown. There were increasing indicators that I was close to Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving School. A housing project named after Washington Irving. Washington Irving appeared to have more places named after him in Tarrytown than Walt Whitman did in Brooklyn. I wondered if culture would be this kind to its literary figures fifty years from now. Would we see Joyce Carol Oates School or William Gass School? Or would tomorrow’s educational institutions be named after the likes of Brett Ratner or Sergey Brin?

headlesshorsemanbridge

“Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered.” — Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

After eighteen miles of walking, I arrived in Sleepy Hollow at around 5:00 PM, where I was overjoyed to discover the Headless Horseman Bridge or, rather, the place where it had once stood. But given how Irving had described it in the original story as “formerly thrown,” I wondered if had ever truly existed. I didn’t have a horse, but I dropped my head beneath my shirt and walked across the bridge headless. A car horn beeped back with approval. Then I turned my attention to the cemetery, the final destination of my journey, only to find this:

sleepyhollowgates

The gates were locked. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery had closed only a half hour before I arrived.

This was surely the most crushing setback I have ever experienced as a walker. I had walked so long and hard to get here. I had two choices: I could turn around and frown my sorrows into a beer or I could find a way in.

You can probably guess the option I chose. I rationalized my decision by pointing out that I was no common trespasser. These were extenuating circumstances! Nobody in American history has ever walked eighteen miles to check out a great cemetery. I found an open area and walked in.

cemeterytombs

I was surrounded by numerous tombstones: glorious gray slabs with carefully carved names that had been eaten away by the elements over the centuries. There were families now long forgotten and many of the plots were quite strange.

shc-strange

Then there was the Irving family:

irvingfamily

With the sun falling fast, I flailed around the graveyard, seeking Andrew Carnegie’s marker, but I couldn’t find it. I should note that I became so exuberant about this magnificent cemetery that I was live tweeting my finds, openly using the terms “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.” I am almost certain that these announcements of modest interloping led to what happened next.

In an effort to track down Carnegie’s grave, I tried searching online for a cemetery map with my phone. I was unsuccessful, but I did learn that physical maps existed close to the gates. I grabbed a map from the entrance, long after I had informed The Man on Twitter of my activities. Then I saw a white minivan roll up to the cemetery gates, with the driver making a move to unlock them. I decided to hightail it back to the way in. With the gate open, I saw the minivan roll slowly my way. On my way back, I heard two loud siren blurts near the Headless Horseman Bridge.

I knew that if I continued that way, I’d probably be grabbed by the cops. So I found a fence and I hopped over, landing into an unmaintained sidewalk. I heard another blurt from the police just south of me. So I walked across North Broadway and made my escape.

My eighteen mile walk had ended in a modest chase. I had gone from the noble heights of Yonkers City Hall to the unanticipated lows of being on the lam.

It was time to grab a beer.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to see more adventures and investigation into our nation like this and regularly offered over the course of six months, please donate to the Indiegogo campaign.]

edbrooklynbridge

Ed Walks: A 3,000 Mile Conversational Journey by Foot

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Today I launched edwalks.com, as well as an Indiegogo campaign for an unprecedented oral history project that will unfold in real time.

On May 15, 2013, I aim to walk 3,000 miles across America over the course of approximately six months, starting in Brooklyn and ending in San Francisco. I plan to talk with many people along the way, asking them about their lives and writing dispatches as I make my way from town to town.

When Sir George Mallory was asked why he wished to climb Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there.” When pressed on why he was walking across America four decades ago, the pioneering travel writer Peter Jenkins answered, “To get to know the country.”

The horizontal journey, with its vast stretch and uncountable hours, doesn’t always share the heroic gravitas of its vertical cousin. But while the trip upward is fueled by the thrill of being first to plant a pole in a peak, the long hike across a wide expanse demands a deeper purpose. It beckons us to learn from the land.

A 3,000 Mile Conversational Journey by Foot

I’ll be walking fifteen to twenty miles a day and pitching my tent where I can, going out of my way to visit many overlooked towns. And after I finish this cross-country journey, I will edit these conversations into a far-reaching multipart radio narrative spanning twelve states.

As I make my way west, these adventures will also be chronicled in real time at edwalks.com. Imagine a Studs Terkel for the digital age or Charles Kuralt traveling around America on foot. I don’t claim to be their equal, but these are some of the inspirations who will guide me into finding distinct insights into the everyday experiences we take for granted.

How Will Your Donation Help?

As a regular walker who has completed two Great Saunters, I believe that I can make it to the end. But a six month project like this requires financial resources, which will be devoted to food, lodging, technological services, and equipment that will keep me transmitting communications from the road. Because paying journalism outlets no longer support original and ambitious projects of this nature, I am turning to Indiegogo to see if we can make history and come to know our country better. You can help out here.

Your gracious donations will create an oral history project unfolding in real time. Your invaluable generosity, no matter what the contribution amount, will forge an unprecedented chronicle of American life in 2013. Think of this as a microbudget Federal Writers Project for the 21st century.

The perks have been designed so that many of the rewards are allocated before the walk.

If you can’t donate, then please spread the word so that others can.

What’s the Route?

The route will take me through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Some of the cities I plan to walk through include Pittsburgh, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Gary, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Lincoln, Rock Springs, Carson City, and Sacramento.

However, there are a few Indiegogo perks which could change the route.

So Once the Project is Funded, You Start Walking?

Yes. The walk is scheduled to begin on May 15, 2013. Once the project is fully funded, you will be able to read the dispatches at edwalks.com for free. And when the radio narrative of these conversations is finished, you will also be able to listen to these shows for free.

Thank you for any help you can provide.