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.”

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.