Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Something's Fishy

"I love fishing. You put that line in the water and you don't know what's on the other end. Your imagination is under there."
~ Robert Altman

New York City's East River is a fast-moving tidal strait that stretches from New York Harbor to the Long Island Sound, separating Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn. From the 1800s until about thirty years ago, its Brooklyn and Queens banks were occupied by shipbuilders, oil refineries,  chemical plants, foundries and other forms of heavy industry. Within my memory it was also a dumping point for raw sewage. I tell you this so you will understand that the poor East River, while cleaner than it once was, is an imperfect body of water that is anything but pure.

In the almost 30 years I've lived near the river in Queens, I've seen many a man with a fishing pole cast his line into its brackish, turbulent water. I always assumed it was just one of those guy things — not about catching fish but about sitting in the sun, telling stories and drinking beer.

When Gantry Plaza State Park opened in 1998, it included a pier just for fishing. From early in the morning until the pier closes at dark, men and boys and the occasional woman gather there to dangle their lines in the water.

Despite the fishing poles, despite the cormorants and egrets who live on the river's islands, the idea that real fish could find a habitat in the East River's murk was something my mind refused to accept. Until last Sunday, that is. That's one of the great things about this city. It always has another surprise.

I was walking along the shoreline on Roosevelt Island when I noticed old hewn stones in the river. I was staring at them, wondering why they were there, when it suddenly occurred to me that I was seeing into the river. It was as briny as an old pickle jar, but still translucent.

Not only that, I was seeing fish. Those tiny white blips at the top left and those inky black squiggles at the lower left were part of a large school of very small water creatures.

They were obviously too small for anyone's fishing line, but might they grow?

Suddenly determined to find out exactly what sort of creatures live in the East River, I fired up Google and quickly found my way to NYCfishing.com. The site's East River page is veritably aswim in photos of men proudly hugging rather large bluefish and striped bass — fish they've caught right there in the East River. The site also includes this video. Note to those with delicate ears: the commentary includes an F-bomb.

NYCfishing.com notes that its anglers release the fish they catch. I'm glad they let them live, but if I were a fish, I would still be annoyed. While some humans like piercings, I'm sure fish don't.

"Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Bats of Gotham

"Twinkle, twinkle little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
like a tea-tray in the sky."
~ Lewis Carroll

Let’s say it’s a warm summer night and you decide to point a Bat Signal toward the skies above Manhattan. What will you see? Why, you will see bats. Lots of bats, all darting about in the darkness in their slightly ungainly way. They’ll be minding their business, not flying into your hair. They’ll be dining alfresco on pestilence-bearing mosquitoes, doing humanity a huge favor. You simply need to know what to look for.

Discovering what to look for is one reason why, at 8:30 p.m. on the last Friday in July, a night when the moon was almost full...oooOOOOoooo...I joined twenty-five other curious people on a bat walk in Central Park. 

 A Central Park bat (the pale color is due to the photo flash — the bat is brown). 
 Photo by Matt Grayson

The walks, which have taken place three times each July since 2004, are sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). They are led by Brad Klein and Danielle Gustafson, founders of the NYC Bat Group, whose mission is promoting the scientific study and conservation of bats while also encouraging more fondness and less fear of the little critters. On the night I went, we were also accompanied by AMNH Intern Max Engel-Streich.

As we waited on the museum’s steps for the full group to assemble, one of the city's many red-tailed hawks watched from a nook in the Beresford apartments across the street. Soon, as the sky grew darker, the first bats flew out of the eves and overhangs of the Upper West Side in search of a meal. We — a motley crew of adults, preschoolers, grandparents and one teenager — set off to join them, following Brad and Danielle down Iphigene’s Walk into the park. Our destination was herb-scented Tupelo Meadow, where we sat in the grass under a patch of open sky, a canopy of trees all around us. We watched bats fly overhead until it grew too dark to see them and used bat detectors — which amplify the bats' echolocation calls — to listen in as they hunted in the night.

Later, I found this video of bats hurtling above someone’s garden — it was a bit like this. 

Bat Truth v. Bat Fiction
Most of us grew up learning a lot of bad information about bats. The Central Park event is not just a bat walk but also a fact-filled bat seminar, where Brad and Danielle try to replace myths with truths. Some basic bat facts:
  1. Central Park is home to Vesper bats. Three species are common: big brown bats, little brown bats and red bats. (It’s true, bats seem to have been named by a literal-minded three-year-old.) Three other species — northern long-eared, silver-haired and hoary bats — are also known to frequent the park.
  2. Bats are not rodents; they are members of the order Chiroptera and are genetically closer to primates (including humans) than to mice. 
  3. Bats are not blind; in fact, they see fairly well, but echolocation helps them hunt their tiny airborne prey at night and avoid those who would prey on them.
  4. Giving new meaning to the term “old bat,” bats live a long time, with the oldest on record reaching 39. 
  5. Bats reproduce very slowly, normally giving birth to one offspring a year.
  6. Bats are not creepy. Consider mother bats — such good moms. Mothers-to-be roost together during their two-month gestation period to keep each other warm. The little ones — called pups (yes, just like dogs) — live on their mothers’ milk until they’re ready to fly, which these little prodigies can do as soon as three weeks after they’re born.
  7. Bats are not a nuisance, they are a blessing. For one thing, they eliminate tons upon tons of mosquitoes every year. According to Bat Conservation International, a single little brown bat can “catch more than 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in just one hour.”
  8. While it’s true that some bats are vampires who live on blood, none are Count Dracula, and no vampire bats live north of Mexico. 
  9. Less than half of one percent of bats ever contract rabies. But wait — you say you've just read a frightening article about rabid vampire bats biting people in Peru? It's true, and as this article in New Scientist points out, experts believe it's a side-effect of deforestation. But once again, there are no vampire bats north of Mexico. Bats in these parts are docile little insect-eaters, like this fuzzy fellow.
 A silver-haired bat snuggled up for a snooze on a tree in Central Park.
Photo by Ed Lam
    Help! Bats Need a Superhero
    Right now, several species of bats — led by little brown bats — are facing extinction, and the most urgent problem is a fast-moving disease called White-nose Syndrome, which affects bats that hibernate in caves (as about half of all North American bats do). First discovered in 2006 in a single cave near Albany, New York, White-nose Syndrome has already spread to 14 states and killed over 1 million bats. A new study by Boston University predicts that 99% of little brown bats in the Northeast will be gone in twenty years.

    That finding moved the New York Times to publish an editorial calling for a sharp increase in funding for White-nose Syndrome. As the Times said, “Without [bats], the balance of nature will be changed, with potentially significant impact on agriculture and forestry, which have always depended — almost without knowing it — on the role of insectivorous bats.”

    Because some evidence suggests that cave enthusiasts have unwittingly spread the disease, the U.S.  Forest Service has closed western caves and mines to humans for at least a year.

    For more information on bats and White Nose Syndrome, visit the Bat Conservation International website.

    "On the bat's back I do fly
           After summer merrily."
    ~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    The Eye of the Beholder

    “I know up on the top you are seeing great sights, but down at the bottom we, too, should have rights."
    ~ Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories

    It's not that my neighborhood lacks scenic attractions. The view of the New York City skyline is breathtaking.

    You can find places where the sky is so vast and beautiful, it's like brushing up against eternity.

    But Hunter's Point, Queens, was never designed to be scenic. This was a working person's neighborhood. As recently as twenty years ago, it teemed with factories, foundries and steelyards. The original residences were humble, initially populated by immigrants from Italy and Ireland and later from Latin America.

    Although gentrification has come to the waterfront, the neighborhood's rugged history is still on display.

    Sunnyside Yards is the spot where the Long Island Railroad, Amtrak and NYC Transit converge. Thousands of commuters rocket through here on their way to somewhere else every day.

    We also have inexplicable architecture.

    What were they thinking?

    One might ask the same question of the people who built this new high rise with girders jutting out from the front; surely they interfere with the view from within.

    Or how about the building on the left, which offers balconies overlooking a fume-generating Queensboro Bridge off-ramp and completely ignores the skyline view to the west?

    At least we have the rooftop water towers that have always been one of my favorite sights in New York City; when I was young, I dreamed of living in one. Our local abundance is only fitting since the Rosenwach Group, which makes most of them, is also in the area.

    The local court house, first built in the 1880s and then rebuilt in 1904 following a fire, is pretty enough in the conventional way to be called scenic.

    If you have seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, then you have seen Henry Fonda inside the jail that once stood behind this court house. (It was turned into a municipal parking garage fifteen or so years ago, although the foundation walls still stand.)

    This is the amazing 5Pointz, a monument to graffiti that offers some of its best views to people riding the 7 train. Every year when the U.S. Open is in Flushing, the train fills up with out-of-towners and first-time visitors erupt with gasps as they pass it.

    Space Womb, a gallery across the street from MoMA's PS 1, continues to look a bit peculiar no matter how often one sees it. I think that's for the best.

    "Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others."
    ~ Jonathan Swift

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Andy Warhol in Brooklyn

    "I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everbody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic."
    ~ Andy Warhol

    "Self-Portrait," 1986. Andy Warhol

    Did Andy Warhol really say that? Who knows. He was both the most public and the most enigmatic of artists. He thrived on fame but remained cloaked behind his own impassive exterior and the adjutants who gave him ideas, produced his work and often spoke for him.

    In New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, Andy Warhol was inescapable. I first heard about the Factory from a high school friend who'd been there. By the time I was an art student, I'd met many Warhol acolytes — one was in several of my classes, in fact. Later, when I was working in the music business, Warhol was at every press party and event, the original man who would attend the opening of an envelope. And yet, who was he? I confess that while I enjoyed some of his work, I had a hard time separating the man from his art. It disturbed me that he surrounded himself with self-destructive people, and for many years I couldn't get past that.

    Many of my doubts and reservations faded last week when my friend Dawn and I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see Andy Warhol: The Last Decade. Dawn is another veteran of New York City's music and art scenes, and another person who developed an appreciation of Warhol fairly recently. Her conversion took place at Dia : Beacon's mammoth Warhol retrospective a few years ago, and she has gradually convinced me to see him differently.

    The Brooklyn show focuses on work produced from the late 1970s until Warhol's death in 1987. It was a time when the artist reworked old themes and found new ones. He began a series of collaborations with other artists — notably, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente — and the experience seemed to change his world. He began putting brush to canvas again. In paintings like this one, you can almost feel his heartbeat quicken.

    "Origin of Cotton," 1984. Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente

    One of Warhol's last projects was a commission to recreate/re-imagine Leonardo's da Vinci's "The Last Supper" for a new Italian art gallery. He painted many versions. Some combined pop cultural images with the subject while others stayed closer to the original. Click here to see the diversity of his interpretations. The painting below, which occupies an entire wall in the Brooklyn show, is among those that most closely resemble the original, but as is so often the case with Warhol, the image repeats.

    "The Last Supper," 1986. Andy Warhol

    In its notes about the show, the Brooklyn Museum has a rather poignant quote from Warhol about this series: “I painted them all by hand — I myself; so now I’ve become a Sunday painter. . . . That’s why the project took so long. But I worked with a passion.” He seems a bit surprised by himself. I imagine he would have had more surprises — for himself and for us — if he had lived longer.

    Andy Warhol: The Last Decade will be open until September 12, 2010. If you have the chance, go. And while you're there, drop by the fourth floor to see Kiki Smith's beautiful drawings in her show, Sojourn, also closing on September 12.

    "I'm afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all its meaning."
    ~ Andy Warhol

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Sunday Lunch

    "Missing memories, scraps of childhood undiscussed."
    ~ Raymond A. Foss, "Family Secrets"

    On Sunday I had lunch at lovely Artisanal, where dishes were a-clattering and trays a-dropping, with my sister Terry, her husband, Paul, and Mirta, a long-lost relative who recently found us while doing genealogical research. She is, as best we could figure it, a second or third cousin once- or twice-removed, a descendant of a great or great-great aunt who married a man from Cuba and moved there about 100 years ago. She sent us this photo from an old graveyard in Baltimore, where my father's family lived (in Baltimore, not the graveyard) for many generations. We got along well and before long, things were comfortably family-like.

    As I assume is common on these occasions, we swapped family stories and secrets. News of another scandal attached to my paternal grandmother was not a surprise  — she pretty much specialized in scandals. But I was extremely surprised when my sister causally mentioned our father had been a model for Arrow shirts in the 1920s. I knew our mom modeled, but dad? How could I not know that? This photograph turns out to be one of his head shots. I've always loved it, but now I have to decide whether it represents the man or his shirt. At the very least, it gives the phrase "a model father" (which he was) a new, literal meaning.

    I always feel a little light-headed, almost oxygen-deprived after an hour or more of socializing. Is this common among people who normally communicate in writing? In any case, after lunch I went for a walk to sort and process the news of the day. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a street fair.

    Block after block of crepes and lemonade, sunglasses, falafel, hats and handbags and people in shorts.

    I felt as if I were in a submarine traveling through an alien undersea world, looking out through a fish-eye lens. It's not that I'm antisocial, exactly, but I like my humans in smaller groups. It was a relief  to finally reach the quieter streets near home.

    "Writing is an escape from a world that crowds me. I like being alone in a room."
    ~ Neil Simon

    Sunday, August 8, 2010

    The Night the Stars Came Out

    "Fame (fame) puts you there where things are hollow."
    ~ David Bowie, "Fame"

    On March 1, 1975, I was a publicist in the employ of Connie DeNave, a legend of rock 'n' roll PR. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) was a major client and their high-visibility annual event, the Grammy Awards, was a big deal in every way. Preparations involved thousands of actions by dozens of people in different companies — calls made, information acquired and shared, equipment booked, make-up applied, transportation arranged, details double- and triple-checked — all directed into a focused beam of magic that would make Grammy night seem effortless to its hundreds of participants and millions of TV viewers at home.

    Now it was close to midnight. The 17th Annual Grammy Awards Show was over, and I was alone in the too-bright basement of New York's Uris Theater, in the room where the bar and snacks had been. I was smoking a cigarette and drinking a tumbler of vodka. I didn't even like vodka, but I hoped it would take the edge off the intense caffeine and adrenaline buzz that I suspected would keep me up all night. As my manic friend Kathy so often said of herself, I was jacked up and wired to the wall.

    The night had largely passed by in a blur. Everything I remember about it is wrapped up in this photograph.

    Let's start with David Bowie — that's him on the left. In 1975 he was not the Thin White Duke but the skeletal one, the man who fell to earth and became Ziggy Stardust. When I opened a hallway door that night, his wraith-like, spectral self was directly in front of me. His gait was so wobbly people were holding him up on each side. It seemed impossible that he'd make it through the evening, let alone a full life span. But people surprise you, sometimes in a good way. That's something you learn as you grow older.

    The second thing I remember is what I like to think of as my A Hard Day's Night moment. John Lennon was a guest presenter. He had played along gamely in an atrociously corny scripted piece with Paul Simon and the Grammy host, Andy Williams. See for yourself in this blurry video.

    When the TV appearance and the photo op that followed were over, it was my job to escort John and Yoko through the Uris's underground maze. Our destination was a side exit where their limousine was theoretically idling. But you know that limo wasn't there, not right away. I’m sure it took less than a minute for the car to pull into view but it seemed longer, and by then a high-pitched keening had begun to build up the block. When the car arrived, I dashed across the sidewalk and pulled opened the rear door — and caught sight of the first few fans racing in our direction. Then whoosh, John and Yoko were in the car and gone. For John, it must have seemed like old times.

    My third memory is the clearest. It happened where this yarn began, in that too-bright room. At some point I realized I wasn't alone. Paul Simon had wandered in, looking for a drink or a snack…something. He started talking, the words spilling out. He said he’d been divorced recently. His little son, who was three, was with his mother. Now he wondered if she’d let the boy stay up to watch his dad on television. He hoped so. He didn’t think so. But maybe she did. He didn’t know.

    It was one of those circular monologues anyone might get into around midnight in a bar with a friend. Except I wasn't a friend, I was a complete stranger. And so, pretty soon he looked at me and said, “Why am I telling you this?” But the reason was obvious: I was the only one there.

    As I tossed and turned that night, I thought no more about celebrities, but I did think about my dad.

    Oo little sleepy boy
    Do you know what time it is
    Well the hour of your bedtime's
    Long been past
    Though I know you're fighting it
    I can tell when you rub your eyes
    That you're fading fast. 

     — Paul Simon, "St. Judy's Comet"

    Sunday, August 1, 2010

    Ways of seeing, ways of living

    “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”
    ~ Dorothea Lange

    Last week the Denver Post set off a Twitter frenzy when it published an astonishing portfolio of color photos taken across the U.S. between 1939 and 1943. The photos are the property of the Library of Congress, so in every sense they are ours to enjoy. I'm posting three here, but to see them full size and enjoy the whole collection, head right on over to the Denver Post blog and enjoy "Captured: America in Color."

    I think of this photo, taken in Schreiver, Louisiana, in 1940 by Marion Post Wolcott, as "The Spirit of Huck Finn."

    Here, through the lens of Jack Delano, we see how the Brockton Enterprise shared the breaking news of 1940 — from the delay of "Flying Santa" to reports about the war in Europe — with members of its Massachusetts community.

    We've all heard of Rosie the Riveter and seen the poster, but here's the real deal: in Alfred T. Palmer's artful 1943 photo, a woman in Tennessee helps to build a Vengeance dive bomber.

    The Library of Congress is a storehouse of every sort of American history. The collection it calls "American Memory" extends from 1400 to the present and includes everything from maps and manuscripts to sheet music. Set aside a few hours — or days — to explore.

    “Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.”
    ~  Edward Steichen