Friday, July 31, 2009

Walking Underwater

It’s that time of year again, when the city floats into deep summer, and walking around on the weekends gets to be an oddly serene experience. Before I walk down to the gym on Saturday afternoon, I’ll usually putz around on the computer for an hour while having ice tea or Coke Zero, giving me a caffeine buzz that carries over into my half-hour walk. Sometimes when it gets this hazy, I feel like my body will float away with each step, and I’ll be hovering over the neighborhood after a few blocks.

I don’t get that high, but it’s an odd sensation: walking underwater. Sometimes I wonder if it’s safe to walk around like this – the same way I’d be leery of walking around a city on a hallucinogen. But I suspect any jolt to the system, and this place is known for its jolts, would drop me firmly back in reality. But part of the reason for the calmness is the lack of people, either going to the beach or simply on vacation, with a lot of Greeks heading home for a few weeks this time of year.

The Sunday before, I blew off a boxing class that I was going to be 10 minutes late for and instead walked from the Upper East Side of Manhattan down to 14th Street, which isn’t the mind-expanding/neighborhood-jumping experience it once was. Even the length of time I’ve been here (late 1980s), going down the east side of white Manhattan hasn't been that jolting a walk. The only big change is going through the “empty on weekends” midtown area of high-rise office buildings. The rest is affluent Manhattan – and I don’t care where you live there, it takes a truckload of money to live anywhere over there these days. You’ll find isolated pockets that are a bit more gritty, always associated with housing projects, but otherwise, forget it, you could live in a nice-sized house most places in America for what most people are spending on cramped, non-descript, one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan.

And I can feel it when I walk. There’s a blandness to the place now that’s just unforgivable. Most of the people I come across are younger folks heading out to late morning brunches after a hard night of bar-hopping. Must have seen three dozen women pulling the Lindsay Lohan “fedora and hot pants” look. Guys who look like they’re more used to doing this dance at a frat house than a dumpy, shared apartment. Seeing more of this crowd the closer I got to the Village/14th Street was truly depressing – made me miss the stroller nazis and uncomfortable families “sharing quality time” back in the 60s and 70s. Once upon a time, a walk like that would have encapsulated dozens of ethnic and socio-economic classes, all easily identifiable with their neighborhood. Now, it’s more or less a huge white wall of affluence, basically a suburb transplanted back into the city.

I have a much more interesting walk when I head back to Astoria some Friday nights – which I’ll do when daylight savings rolls around each year, weather permitting. Getting up to the 59th Street Bridge, especially during rush hour, is an annoying walk, straight across midtown. Again with the yuppies – there’s an outdoor bar in Bryant Park that really kicks into high gear for happy hour, and man, just passing by there, I can smell the faux testosterone of aging frat boys in polo shirts as I pass, again with the Lohan-inspired fashions among gaggles of red-faced, drunk girls looking to breed with guys whose apartments smell like dust, stale farts and unwashed sweatpants.

The flood of foot traffic on 42nd Street is too much – I nearly bowled over Michael Stipe the other week. Knew it was him, made eye contact with him with that “you know I know who you are” nod. He was dressed like I was, sleeveless t-shirt and shorts, as I deftly side-stepped him, which wasn’t hard as he’s a pretty small guy. Should have blurted out, “Are you guys ever going to make another good album?” But he seems like a nice enough guy, impressive to see him walking around casually like this, and not someone I’d want to hassle for no good reason.

But most people aren’t rock stars traveling incognito – we’re talking tourists, who are always like cattle, and that time of day, office workers scurrying to Grand Central or Penn Station. The streets are buzzing well through the 40s and 50s, and things don’t calm down for me until I hit the 59th Street Bridge, climbing over the annoying barrier at 60th Street to get into the walking/biking lane on the north side of the bridge. (It always reminds me of swinging one leg and then the other over the old picket fence between the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries in my small town back in PA.)

And then it’s like another world. Always windy on the bridge, and I’m never alone up there. Always plenty of walkers, most sane, but the occasional bozo tourists walking three abreast in a very crowded space. The bicyclists can be pretty bad, too. Again, most are fine, but even if 10% are assholes, that implies dealing with a dozen guys who think they’re in the Tour de France, or constantly veering into the clearly-designated walking lane, often too close for comfort and at high speed. I’ve thought of clotheslining one of these pricks to make a point, but it would be more trouble than it’s worth.

In general, the bridge is peaceful, the hum of passing cars, the East River flowing by a few hundred feet below. (The first time I did this walk was 9/11, about the only good realization to come out of that day for me.) It’s a nice experience anywhere in NYC to walk with no one around for a few hundred yards – doesn’t happen a lot, which may be part of the reason I enjoy these Friday walks so much.

Coming off the bridge used to be a grunge walk through the mangy streets on the Queens side of the 59th Street Bridge, and still is for the most part. The first thing I’ll see on my left as I come down the exit ramp is a strip club. And it’s just the nature of that area to be gritty … which doesn’t explain the spate of luxury high-rise condos that have sprung up there over the past five years, each one touting the view of Manhattan, until a new developer builds another high-rise in front of that one. I don’t know who lives in these things, if anyone. The prices are surely extortionate, and this is still a lousy neighborhood, run down on the north side, and nothing but traffic patterns and exhaust fumes in the middle. I gather the gist is proximity to Manhattan, literally one subway stop away, but that doesn’t account for living in a heavily polluted area with zero residential charm or convenience – you have kids here, you can just about be certain they’ll have asthma and other weird diseases.

That area fades out over a quarter mile or so, the last of the strip clubs dwindles into the dog end of Queens Boulevard, and I hook north, simply following the elevated N Train line the rest of the way home. The 39th/36th Avenue area is still downbeat, despite the recent influx of white college grads. Garages, warehouses, beverage distributors, the occasional bodega and hard-assed latin nightclub with bars in the windows. Fading into Broadway, where that Astoria vibe starts, vestiges of Greece, the faces grow steadily whiter. Into 30th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard, now we’re really in Astoria, every side street grows residential, huge Orthodox churches, streets a little cleaner. Up over the Grand Central Parkway in the mammoth Astoria Boulevard subway station, come down the other side in front of the Neptune Diner, and there we are, the southern end of my neighborhood, and it’s back to Ditmars with all the diners, supermarkets and newer foo-foo clubs and restaurants going after the flip-flop yuppie dollar.

By the time I’m done, my ankles are wiped – it’s at least a six-mile hike, and I haul ass every step of the way. By this time of year, my walking tan is in full bloom. You won’t see it unless you get me naked … which means Bill Repsher, the moonlight and you … or you see me in the locker room at the gym. My face is tan, and my arms are tanned from the shoulder down, where the sleeveless t-shirt stops. There’s a ring of tan around my neck, at the collar of the shirt. My legs are tan from the shorts line above my knee down to my ankles. Otherwise, I’m fairly white and hairy, eat your heart out ladies.

Physically, it’s a nice change-up from boxing earlier in the week, which is far more intense, and Saturday is my weightlifting day, which is no walk in the park after sweeping out the landlord’s property in the morning. Christ, I should be like Charlie Atlas with all the shit I do, but I’ve got to do portion control if I’m ever going to get into that sort of top shape again. Which I’d love to after years of looking like a bouncer. But life goes on, and I’m in pretty good shape. Walking’s a good mental work out, too, your mind floats along, as you stay cognizant of your environment, you have to in New York, yet wanders freely as you think about other things, and in many senses simply walk away from all those things as you go along.

I guess in some respects, I’m just like one of those tourists who spend all day walking around New York, save I know how much you walk here, have done it for years, and I’m like a mountain goat in the Alps in that respect. And I’ve learned to be acutely aware of everything going on around me – a lot of these tourists don’t seem to have a fucking clue as to their environment or how to carry themselves – a sense I carry with me wherever I go. But that same sense of wonder is still there, and I’m just as physically exhausted as they are. I have to believe if you’re a tourist coming here, there can’t be a better feeling than flopping down in your hotel room after a hard day of walking all over the city, and you know all you want to do is to get a shower, have a long dinner with a few drinks, hit the sack and sleep like a baby.

Speaking of babies, this last walk, on the Upper East Side, as I was going down a leafy block in the low 90s, I saw a father, a guy probably about my age, teaching his infant daughter how to walk. You could tell by how she moved that she must have just learned how to walk a few days ago, that stumbling sort of gait suggesting each step could end in disaster. She had her arms swinging out in front of her, like a blind man, partially for balance, but mostly to get rhythm. She’s not really looking at anything, eyes sort of rolling around her head as she looks at her feet, the tree next to her, her Dad’s hand, me, a cloud passing in the sky. I have to move to get out of her way, and for once I don’t mind doing this for a Manhattanite, as she at least has the excuse of being new to this walking thing. The kid gurgled as she passed me. I couldn’t help but think we never get past that honest stage of uncertainty, grasping for self assurance, no matter how much we bullshit ourselves otherwise. Of course, we learn to walk with more confidence, and the next time we shit our pants might be a few decades from now, barring unfortunate drinking episodes, but I can't help but think she was onto something.

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