Sunday, July 30, 2006

Who Rides a Bike to Costco?

I rode to the Costco in Queens on my bike today — it’s about seven miles from my uptown address. People warned me of heatstroke and called me crazy to try such a stunt in this weather, but the trip was pleasant and without mishap. After years of driving everywhere and a lifetime of failing to use the bridges that link Manhattan to the rest of the world, little voyages like this are part of my post-automotive rediscovery of exploration. It's not normal to ride a bike to Costco, of all places, and make purchase decisions based on whether items will fit in a daypack, but it was a fun excursion.

After climbing to the middle of the 59th St. Bridge, I found myself coasting down into Queens from well above the rooftops and leafy trees. It was a peaceful entry, like dropping through a green cloud cover, until a subway train rumbled past to my left, descending in the opposite direction toward a tunnel; at the same moment, a noise-damping bulwark on my right disappeared, revealing how near and loud the cars were racing at and past me onto the bridge. Kind of thrilling.

After I hit terra firma, the ride north to Costco was brief and uneventful. I had never before ridden a bike in Queens. Apart from trips to the airport and a couple museum expeditions, I had never even been in Queens. The Clash's "Safe European Home" came to mind as it often does when I leave my usual range for terra semi-cognita, but I don't think Long Island City -- even its scruffier precincts -- remotely qualifies as a "place where every white face is an invitation to robbery." It was very benign, if run-down, and those buildings that haven’t been absurdly defaced with affordable materials were charming and impressive. And rare.

Rolling through the parking lot, I was surprised to discover a bike rack. And even more surprised to find that I wasn't the only person using it. A youthful, white-haired couple was already there chaining up, and we all laughed at the unlikelihood of finding others just as quixotic. His bike was a shocking antique: an ancient Raleigh with rod brakes and a full chain guard. The original black paint was almost invisible under rust, and the rear fender was actually rotting and falling apart.

"When, how did you get that bike?" I asked, wide-eyed.

He smiled and said slowly, "I received it for my ninth birthday." The bike was a museum piece, about half a century old. I could tell by his accent that he was from Holland, so I unleashed my usual Dutch palaver, which is remarkable in the way that a talking horse would be remarkable; it's not what the horse says but that he says anything at all. Dutch is among the least useful languages on Earth, not because it lacks great literature or movies or fine conversationalists, but because most every Dutch person you meet speaks English. And probably French and German too. So when a non-Dutchman spreekt Nederlands, the native speakers are unfailingly tickled and full of compliments for even a rudimentary fluency. Incidentally, the Dutch are committed cyclists, a national trait reinforced by the almost universal flatness of their country.

"My daughter won't ride with me. She's embarrassed by my bike," he said proudly. His wife's bicycle was also older and, like her, made in America. She seemed amused by his opportunity to speak Dutch and talk about his prize bike. We wished each other restraint in the aisles and said goodbye.

The store wasn't as well-organized or maintained as its L.A. counterparts, but it was basically the same experience, if a little smaller. Where it differs from the branches I've seen out West is how it's almost integrated into its neighborhood; true, it’s just a cluster of huge shiny warehouses plopped next to lower-middle-class houses and grubby low factory buildings, but it’s right on the East River, and it bears a passing resemblance to a picturesque cannery. A modest esplanade divides the parking lot and the river, providing benches where people speaking five or six different languages were recovering from shopping while taking the late afternoon air. Two guys had three fishing poles propped on the railing, near a fence where someone had hung a hand-written sign touting "Bait for sale."

Away from the water, heading back to Vernon Ave., a row of mature mulberry trees borders the parking lot, and the bright red berries are starting to darken and fall. If all that local color isn’t enough, the Noguchi Museum is right across the street, suggesting that after a spasm of consumption one might counter with culture. If one arrived early enough.

(I won't bore you with my shopping list, but everything I bought fit into the daypack with a little room to spare.)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

More on the Dogs of Yore

Lord Zim is not the only place to read about the so-called dogs of yore (I thought I invented that phrase, but a cursory Googling proves me wrong). Here, in an old New Yorker, is a great book review about dogs and what they may be telling us, as explained in the work of psychologist and dog trainer Stanley Coren.

Excerpt the first:
    Consider the case of Shadow, a golden retriever of unusual acuity. One day in obedience class, he was commanded by an inexperienced boy, "Come on, Shadow, sit down!" Shadow looked uncertain for a moment; then he lowered his rear end to the ground and his chest nearly as far down, and began with his front paws to drag himself in that position toward the boy, whimpering as he went. The obedience instructor was puzzled by this strange behavior, until he realized that Shadow—brilliantly, tragically—was trying to come, sit, and lie down all at once.
Excerpt the second:
    Once, Coren was telephoned by a woman named Josephine, who was having trouble with her Rottweiler, Bluto. The problem was that Bluto was too affectionate. When Josephine's husband, Vincent, was around, he would behave, but when Vincent went to work Bluto wouldn't leave Josephine alone. He would put a paw on her knee; he would gaze into her eyes; he would sit very close on the sofa and lean against her, and if she moved away to make room for him he would follow and lean on her again. Josephine would stroke him on his head, but it seemed that nothing she could do satisfied his longing for love. When Coren arrived at her house to assess the situation for himself, however, he realized that Bluto was not demonstrating affection at all. The paw on the knee, the staring down, the leaning—all these were gestures designed to convey to Josephine that Bluto was of a higher status in the household than she was. And, alas, Josephine's response—the stroke on the head—was, in dog language, classically submissive, akin to the humble lick that a low-status dog or a puppy would give a dominant dog to show that it knew its place.

The Art of Shellfishness

Yesterday after the gym, I rode to Central Fish for my weekly dozen oysters. I know, I know, never eat shellfish in months without an "R." Well, I've been doing just that all summer and nothing's nailed me yet. It was a slow day, and twenty minutes before closing time Doc was on the sidewalk and Lulu and some other guys were standing in the doorway savoring the late afternoon Ninth Avenue fumes. I slapped Doc five as I rolled past to a small hopeful tree, where I swung off the bike and locked up. Lulu smiled and went inside, and I checked in with Doc, then stepped in to choose my shellfish off the display ice. Doc came in and told me not to bother. "Lulu's taking care of you. He's got the oysters in the back, they're fresher. You're his special customer."

Can't really argue with that, so I just showed Doc the most elaborate oyster I'd chosen, a triple with several small clams hanging off it -- he wasn't impressed -- and then went to buy a beer at the African place next door.

When I returned, Lulu was opening and eating some oysters himself. He's a good-looking Hispanic guy in his mid-40s, with a wolfish grin under a shock of black hair. He saw me eyeballing the walls for a church key and said, "Let me," then opened it with his shucking knife. He's an all-purpose opener.

"OK. You ready?"

"Let's go." I took a long pull on the Guinness and accepted my first mollusk.

Was it the best one ever? No. But it was good. Not great. I don't use sauce or lemon, and I chew before I swallow, each chomp a death blow. He kept handing me oysters. They just kept on coming. I started examining them, noting the fine veins on the translucent gray sac, black frills like the front of a tuxedo shirt, the cloudy liquor pooling in the shell around the organs. And always the outside of the shell, to see if we were consigning any living things to long slow landfill deaths. After my last oyster visit, I coasted my bike down to the Hudson and threw back three live oysters plus a few hitchhiking clams.

"How's your day going?"

He shook his head. "Not so good. Slow day."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

"I like it busy. When it's slow, the boss is in a bad mood and time drags. And I don't make any tips."

I tip Lulu well, but hadn't realized he actually counted on that.

"And when it's busy, the day just goes by, boom, like that. But slow days, they take a long time."

He was keeping very busy with my oysters. I hadn't been counting, but I was slowing down. "Are we at 12 yet?"

"Oh yeah, but you had some twins."

"Twins count as one?"

"Of course," he said, eyes on his knife as it gently penetrated my next victim. I stepped back from the waist-high cutting board, my staging area, to look at the blue plastic tub below. We'd been dropping the shells through a five-inch circular hole in the board, he the first half of the shell, me the second, for at least ten minutes. Amid a few crumpled papers and bottlecaps lay countless oyster remains, some rough and gray, others white and gleaming.

All around us, guys were pulling fish off the display ice and tossing them into cold-packed plastic tubs for overnight storage. After a slow day, they were all finally busy. No urgency, just repacking the inventory. A low tide of water sloshed around the wood risers we were standing on, a few hunks of bright orange salmon drifting past in a scum of scales and other detritus.

Eventually, he announced, "Here's your last one." I accepted the final creature with relief and finished my beer. "I need a fish for dinner, too. What's fresh?"

"A lot. Snapper, porgies, sea bass, bluefish, grouper ....."

I decided on a red snapper, and Lulu went to the back to get one. He cleaned it using an electric scaler that lay at the end of a long cord like a dentist's drill; he ran its flat side up and down the fish's flanks, sending scales flying. When he was done spraying fish bits every which way, I approached the bench again.

"How long've you been working here?"

"Twenty years," he said, expertly shearing off the fins and tail and snipping away the jaws from the torso.

"Twenty years! How'd you start?"

"You know, driving, delivery, packing, whatever. Yep, twenty years. Long time." He scraped the abdominal cavity clean, teasing away the dark and reluctant internal organs.

"What's your favorite fish?"

"Filet of sole," he said, looking up. "That's my favorite. I also like white snapper -- more than the red snapper -- and I like sea bass, porgies -- I eat them with the bones," he smiled, spraying the inside of the ribcage with a hose to blast away the last shreds of bloody tissue.

I must have looked disbelieving as I repeated, "Porgies? With the bones?"

"I deep-fry. I don't bake or grill them."

Does higher heat soften bones? Maybe fishmongers have strong teeth.

He rinsed off the fish and declared, "It's ready. Is that it?"

"That's it."

Lulu packed the denatured red snapper in a plastic bag and then put that in a paper bag. "Pay Dominic. Enjoy your dinner. Thanks.

"Dominic," he called. "Fifteen dollars." Lulu rinsed his hands and wiped them on his apron and went outside.

Dominic, a squat white-haired old bird with a beaky nose and sharp eyes, stepped up to the register, another small island of human activity just behind the lobster tanks. He took my credit card and added the tip on my request, then pulled a bill from the register and dropped it in Lulu's tip can. I asked the boss about his favorite fish.

"What's my favorite fish? I like all kinds of fish. Look," he said, walking to the glass-fronted freezer. "Tonight I'm having tuna for dinner. Tuna belly," he clarified, pulling out a semi-frozen two-pound hunk of red in a honey-colored plastic bag. He set it next to the register and added, "I like all kinds of fish."

I thanked him, told him how much I like his store, which he appreciated, and then I left. I felt fine.

Too much is never enough. I went back to the African store, because my new kitchen needs spices and it seemed a perfect place to stock up. I asked the pleasant young Korean counterman when the Africans had sold the store.

"No Africans ever owned it."


"Never. Jews ran it for fifty years. And then Koreans bought it about twenty years ago."

He confirmed my notion that most of the customers are Africans or West Indians, and a few walk-on-the-mild-siders like me pop in from time to time. While I was trolling the shelves, a third type showed up. A flustered guy walked halfway in, eyeballed the unfamiliar jumble, and said, "Potato chips?"

"No potato chips," said the clerk.

"No potato chips?"

"No, no potato chips."


"No. Try next door."

He could have had a softball-sized wad of corn paste, or a whole salted and preserved tilapia, or a Lebanese sesame candy, or a box of Horlick's milk powder biscuits, or Chinese cookies the size and shape of dice, or even fresh kola nuts (four to a bag), but no, no potato chips.

Eventually I chose four condiments: a Barbadian habanero-mustard sauce (bottle), sambal oelek from Vietnam via Rosemead, CA (jar), harissa from France (can), and an oil-based African paste called -- no kidding -- Shitor (jar). There were three kinds of Shitor, and I took the one that sells the best. It's made of peppers, dried shrimp, herring, garlic, and some other stuff which I can't look up. I'll explain in a minute.

I was excited about all my new spices, so even though the fish didn't need any spices beyond those in which it was cooked -- garlic, ginger, cilantro, jalapeno -- I had to try all the new sauces on it (except the canned harissa).

At about 1:30am, I became queasy. By 2:30, my stomach gave up, and I suffered increasingly painful bouts of reverse peristalsis for about two hours. I'd hurl, sniffle, hack, gargle, brush, and then go lie down to sleep. But sleep would not come. Then I'd do it all over again. Four times, maybe five. Finally, as the sky paled over my viewless windows, I drifted off, my throat raw from acid, my stomach muscles exhausted. The accursed Shitor played scapegoat, wrapped in paper at the bottom of my garbage can. I think it put a hex on me. Or maybe I just had too much of everything.

Or maybe you just shouldn't have oysters in months without an "R."

Friday, July 21, 2006

Summer Park Amusement: The Usual Themes, Recombined

Sometimes I take a break from my usual helter-skelter approach to bike riding, unwilling to commit to the mental engagement a street like Broadway requires. This past Wednesday was just such a time, so I rolled across the Great White Way and further west to Riverside Park near Columbia.

Many areas of New York afford pleasant bike riding experiences. There's the expansive sweep of Hudson River Park, where the water rolls along beside you and the sky is wide open, neither buildings nor stoplights to block the way. There are the bridges, where the rider's suspension between water and sky is even more extreme. Lovely lanes in the West Village offer a charming sense of having left the city and even the century, a sensation reinforced by the discomfort of riding on cobblestones.

But nothing had prepared me for the almost unbearable bliss of coasting through the upper promenade of Riverside Park on a lazy warm afternoon. Even the gray cobblestones beneath my wheels offered a welcoming minimum of bumpiness as above and all around, a high canopy of bright green leaves, a cooling interlacement of trees at the upper and lower levels of the park, dissipated the last of the heatwave. The benches were sparsely populated, but most of the people on them looked as drugged as I felt, basking with eyes closed in pools of sunlight. Everybody looked beautiful.

I had stopped pedaling and was going as slowly as possible to prolong the moment. A few yards ahead, a tall, attractive woman with white hair and a white sleeveless dress was walking a calico boxer dog on an extensible leash. Though full-grown, the dog was floppy and quick in the puppy way, all darting eyes and huge paws and alive to everything. Even so, his mistress was giving him helpful suggestions and pointing out phenomena she thought he'd find interesting. Like a squirrel.

"Look!" she said, leaning down to his ear and pointing as one scurried across the path. "Look! A squirrel!"

The dog's grave yet comical head whirled and jerked until he saw the fellow quadruped, a smaller, more prey-like creature. He took off after it and the squirrel, feeling suddenly very prey-like indeed, fled across the path and up onto the wide stones atop the retaining wall, an enormous structure that divides the park's upper and lower levels and keeps passers-by from tumbling 20-50 feet. The squirrel disappeared over the edge and the dog leapt lightly onto the wall to look for it. There he perched, young legs quivering with excitement, grave head whirling, eyes wide and searching.

The woman, who had indulgently let out another 15 feet of leash to enable puppy's adventure, suddenly saw that puppy was about to hang himself.

"Oh! Oh! Get back over here!" she exclaimed, yanking him back off the wall. He jumped down and scuttled to her side, where he endured a round of alarmed chastising.

"Don't you know you could fall? What were you thinking? What was that about? It's only a squirrel! Don't be a fool!"

I rolled by laughing. She looked up, joining me in a smile, and I couldn't help but say, "Maybe he's not ready for squirrels yet."

I kept rolling, my sublime afternoon suddenly even better for the infusion of comedy. And not just any comedy, but dog and squirrel comedy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

War Drinking

Here in NYC, the war in Israel (and Lebanon and Gaza) seems as far away as the computer monitor -- it's inches from your nose but an infinity from actually touching you. Is it distracting? You bet. Whatever I'm doing, I keep going to "My Yahoo," that simulation of my interests, to see if any new news has hit the international wire. Great job they're doing over at the AP and Reuters and Yahoo -- except that none of them mentioned the rocket that landed on a beach in Caesarea -- pretty big news, Jesus Christ. D'you think we'd hear about it if a bomb hit Malibu? You bet we would. But Caesarea? I had to search the dimmest recesses of to get any info.

It’s bad enough trying to keep track of all that from seven thousand miles away. Tonight I went to the Night CafĂ© at Amsterdam and 106th with my old pal P, with whom I've hoisted many a pint at that same venue. He loves to play pool, for reasons I may never understand. It's not like he's good at it. Nor am I.

When times are calm no one pays attention to country of origin. But tonight there was a skinny dykey chick at the bar talking to the bartender. I wouldn't have paid attention to either of them beyond my drink ... but then some of the dykey girl's chunky friends came in, and after an hour or so of girl-on-girl chit-chat, one of them got into a heated thing with the mild-mannered drink-slinger ....

"You owe me some respect! My people have been here since the '20s."


"Yes! We have been here for ... (bla bla bla)"

"I'll give you respect -- when you blow yourself up at an Israeli checkpoint."



I have a few people in mind to hate right now. Liars, tyrants, bullies -- I got a list, all based on my own personal life. But when I heard that bartender invoke terrorism as a source of respect, I went beyond my usual hatred.

Wish I'd had a bomb to blow up that bar. Theory ain't shit without engagement. Look at that blowhard Said. I'm glad he's dead, but what did he ever have to do? He was an exile, preaching his gospel of theoretical hate from a theoretical pulpit to theoretical adults (students), and now he's in a very real grave, useless beyond his books and parrot acolytes.

You've read my descriptions of Caesarea and Gan Yoshiya and Gaza in this blog before. Nothing new or remarkable about my alignment, right? If you're reading this you probably know me anyway, and if you want to debate this stuff, call me up.

I wasn't sober enough to realize I should walk out on the spot. I wish I'd made a scene. But no. We finished our game, I paid and we left. Later, after P had gone home, I realized I'd forgotten my backpack somewhere, so I had to retrace my steps. The bartender was extraordinarily accommodating, but it wasn't there. In the country in question, that bag would have been blown up for safety's sake, my damp gym togs vaporized in perpetuity, but this being NYC, home of 9/11, no one batted an eyelash at my cheap nylon explosives carrier. It was stowed securely in a closet at Tap-a-Keg, a duller but closer and less politically charged drunkery, where I'd had my first drink.

In L.A. I used to go to a Syrian restaurant in S.M. called Sham, but that seems very far away. My dad, bless his crazy soul, likes to announce to the Sham waiter, "We are Israelis!" So far they haven't poisoned his hummus, but these days I think it's only a matter of time, Of course, we draw our battle lines tighter in wartime. Dad probably won't be going to Syrian places for a while. I won't.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Occupational Shanty

Someone there is whose last name is Cone-Miller, a product of parents who early adopted the hyphenated family surname. Well, I got to thinking, and when I was all done with that, I wrote her whole family a theme song for the profession they invented but have yet to pursue. You may sing this to the tune of any simpleminded sea shanty you may know.
    The Cone-Miller Song

    I’m a miller of cones, a singer of songs,
    A tiller of teetering trees
    I’m a killer of clones, a dinger of dongs,
    A spiller of ballwaxy bees.

    For ‘tis cones that I mill and
    Blood that I spill and
    Places I just will not leave.

    My pulse it don't run when I pick up a gun
    But for dozens of of ladies who grieve,
    I am the killer of sheep and the spiller of sleep
    And a good goddamn miller of cones.
Perhaps this will even inspire the non-cone-millers among you to lay down your arms and pick up your legs.