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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Not These Fools Again, Part 2 (Vacation Day Five: Marine Park, Brooklyn, NYC and JFK airport: 8/8/2015)

I'm a little late for posting.  Sorry about that.  Where was I...?

Oh, right.

After a night of revelry and memories and drinks and bro-hugs, I was due to fly to London the next evening.  I was to meet my girlfriend's father and cousins who for two years, I have heard plenty about.  However, there was still a bit of unfinished business.

My friends were the inspiration for my first novel.  We're a tight-knit crew that can number anywhere between 4 and 12 depending on the day.  Well, this beautifully warm Brooklyn Saturday morning, there were to be four of us, Eric, Mikey, LeAnder and myself.  We used to gather together and hang out all the time.  The awkward times of childhood were spent with these guys,

I made my way across Brooklyn to LeAnder's place.  He still lived in the old neighborhood, and it was the closest I felt to actually being home since forever.  I hadn't spoken to him in quite some time, life getting in the way and all that, but it was like we never missed a beat. Thirty years of friendship will do that.  He caught me up on the happenings in the old neighborhood, who died, who moved and such.

Mikey drove up from North Carolina to join us.  He'd been there for the last few years, having grown weary of the crucible that is New York City.  Obviously, I can't blame him.  We had a few jokes, the three of us, and after a quick detour to Modell's to buy a basketball, we were off to Marine Park to meet up with Eric and do something we hadn't done in forever.  Playground ball, king of the court style.

Well, eventually.  We were all various degrees of rusty.  I hadn't played in a few weeks, and the rest of those guys hadn't played in much longer.  Eric was recovering from knee injuries.  LeAnder hadn't touched his ball shoes in the last two summers.  Mikey hadn't been on a basketball court in who knows how long.  We decided to warm up with a game of Utah.  Short explanation: one-on-all, score by fives, first to 100 wins.  We rarely ever made it to 100 when we played together back in the day because there were usually enough people on the sideline waiting to play, and we usually looked good enough on the court to make people think we'd play a good game.

Not the case this time.  This time, we all looked old.

It took me about 20 minutes to get my wind up, but the rest of my friends never quite got there.  LeAnder used to be the best all-around athlete of all of us, and he was gassed.  Eric used to be an And-1 quality street point guard, but his knee problems kept him from getting into second gear.  And Mikey, who used to be Mr. Indestructible, hurt his back before we even finished.  It used to be we'd display our skills bad get a game from the stragglers.  Today, we were just a bunch of old guys.  We laughed at that.

I called next for a game on another court for those of us that were able to play.  Mikey was incapacitated, but the Eric and Lee were good to go.  We picked up a fourth and we gave it a good go, but we lost 13-9.  And then we left.  On the way home we remarked about how we went from 6 hours a day on the court in the summer to one-and-done.

Our next stop in the nostalgia tour was our favorite Chinese restaurant, Cam Tak Express on Flatbush Avenue and Cortelyou Road.  It had long ago earned legendary status for being something kids like us could afford on a five-dollar bill, as well as for the Garlic Chicken.  They don't capitalize it on the menu, but dammit, it needs to be immortalized.  We went and we ordered Garlic Chicken and Pork Fried Rice.  It was greasy and crispy and spicy and bad for us, but dammit, we were all thrilled.

We lingered in the restaurant as long as we could but we couldn't escape the reality that this little reunion had to end soon.  I had a plane to catch, people had responsibilities.  Mikey was kind enough to give me a lift to my sister's and then to the airport, prolonging our chat, but all good things must come to an end.

All that was left was a  seven hour flight to London.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Not These Fools Again, Part 1 (Vacation, Day four part 2: Park Slope, Brooklyn, NYC)

Nyilah and I were running late.

We were supposed to meet up with my friend Kevin at a bar called Dram Shop.  I had put out a blast on Facebook, signaling people he and I both knew to join us there.  Unfortunately, due to the last minute nature of the activity, no one he and I used to work with were able to make it.  And because of my aging phone's declining battery, I was unable to keep up on Facebook with whomever could.  I knew Kev would be there though, it was his idea.  Kevin is one of the people that inspired my first novel, The Fab 5.  We had known each other a good 22 years, had worked together at various places.  He is one of the absolute funniest people I've ever met, and easily a highly ranked person on my bullet list.

The train from Coney Island had a few delays, adding 30 minutes to a 40 minute trip.  When we finally got to the bar, Kevin was nowhere to be found.  He elected to wait for us at another bar, but joined us fairly quickly once we arrived.  We picked out a booth and ordered our drinks.  Nyilah had a vodka tonic, and I only remember that because I had never been in a bar with my niece before.  So strange, having a drink with this girl I watched grow up.  Kev thought so too; it was evident when the two of them got into discussion on a topic of shared interest: music.  My niece went to school for music management, and Kev is a drummer in a band that's about to release their first studio album, as well as a producer.  I observed and intermittently participated in this conversation for the better part of an hour over drinks and appetizers.  By the way, if you're ever in Park Slope, Dram Shop has amazing wings and burgers.

After an hour we were joined by Eric, who's tangentially related to me.  He's the younger brother of my oldest nephew by my oldest sister, though neither of them has the same mother.  Through the family connection alone, he's on the bullet list, but even without that he's one of the most stand-up people I've known.  If you're in with him, everyone you know is in with him.  He's loud and brash and quick-witted, and VERY New York.  I say that as one of the highest compliments.  Eric was at my dad's funeral, which says a lot as to how close he is with my family.  Once he joined our table, it was a party.  After E got over the initial shock of Nyilah being 24 and able to drink, he treated her like part of the group, that is to say totally indifferent to the fact that she was a she.  Ah, the stories we told.

We talked a lot about playing football in the park, especially about two games in particular (more on that later).  We talked a lot about prank wars.  We talked a lot about being in my old apartment and playing cards or dominoes throughout the night.  And a lot about old girlfriends.  Periodically I would look up at my niece and realize that, holy crap, she shouldn't be hearing this, only to find her cracking up at the stories we told.  And we were loud enough that the wait staff couldn't help but laugh at our stories.

A giant shadow passed over our table and said "wassup, fellas" in a voice that was familiar, but deepened by age.  I looked up to see Vachel, a guy I literally watched grow up.  His sister went to Erasmus Hall High School with my brother, and we became friends through that, even though he was several years younger than me.  He's always been a big kid, built like an offensive lineman.  We hadn't spoken in quite some time as life gets in the way occasionally, but he had gotten married a few years back and had his first child late last year.  Both situations agreed with him.

When he got to our table the stories only got raunchier.  We again referenced football.  Two games in particular -- the game where I got hurt (where, as Kevin put it, the group tried to carry my big ass to the hospital) and the legendary "Ninja Please" game, where after some trash talking by a friend in absentia, my normally mild-mannered self responded with a high-pitched "What?! Ninja Please!"

I didn't say "ninja."

We drank for a few hours, remembering our childhoods and the time we spent together in those formative years.  We reflected on the people who couldn't make it out that night, and definitely agreed we needed to make an effort to get together more frequently.  However, responsibility crept up on my friends as time went on and while they didn't want to leave, they weren't on vacation.  We got outside and puttered around a bit before Vachel had to get back to his family, Kevin had work to do and Eric had to return the car he borrowed.  We agreed to barbecue at Vachel's place when I came back to town in a week.  After all, I had a plane to catch the next day.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

It Went Straight. Up. (Vacation, Day four part 1: Coney Island, Brooklyn, NYC)

Another day in Brooklyn started with the gym and no other particular agenda.  Ahh, that is the life.  I knew I wanted to hang with my niece, and that I wanted to go to Coney Island.  She, however, wanted to get a pedicure first.  I sometimes forget that she's 24 now, and the condition of her hands and feet are important tools in attracting men that my brothers and I would later intimidate.  Recalling that I very recently (and accidentally) shredded my girlfriend's sheets with my feet, I elected to join her.  It was relaxing, and right after we made our way to the train to Coney Island.

My niece and I went to the same high school, twelve or so years apart.  As we passed it on the train, we both fondly remembered some of the neighborhood's food options, largely consisting of bagels and pizza that I can confirm are simply much better in Brooklyn than anywhere else.  It's the tap water.  After that, we watched as the Q train pulled up past Brighton Beach and the iconic Parachute Jump came into view at Stillwell Avenue.  Welcome to Coney Island.

I hadn't been to Coney Island since 2008.  Know what?  That's too far to start in the story.

I'm a contradiction: I'm terrified of heights, but I love roller coasters.  I grew up with one of the most famous ones in the world in my own backyard, so to speak.  I last went to Coney Island in 2008 with a good friend of mine, and while the rides mostly sucked, the corn dogs were tasty and the log flume ride wasn't so bad (okay, okay, I screamed like a little girl and it was caught on camera).  But it was Coney Island, Astroland as it was called then, and it's heyday was well, well past.  Before that afternoon, I hadn't been to a real theme park, on a real roller coaster since 2004 or so.

A couple of years ago, Astroland closed and the area was almost completely razed except for the three landmarked spots: the Parachute Jump, the Wonder Wheel, and the world-famous Cyclone.  In its place was Luna Park, with upgraded and updated rides and attractions.  There were two that caught my eye: the Soarin' Eagle ride, and the New Thunderbolt.

My niece accompanied me to Luna Park, and it's nice to hang out with her as an adult. She had been like a little sister for so long, it was interesting and refreshing to finally interact with her as an adult and a peer instead of as a really smart kid.  I kept that in mind as I watched her descend into a terrified mess on the Wonder Wheel.  To be fair I wasn't much better.  It's a 94 year-old Ferris Wheel with selected cars that swing on a track.  We were on a swinging car.  I won't pretend like I was brave, but I couldn't panic the way I wanted because my niece was freaking out (Jesus, take the wheel, and such).

So after five minutes of protracted circular terror, I decided to venture on to the Thunderbolt.  Coney Island was going to be an abbreviated visit this time as we were meeting friends for drinks later that evening.  I had to decide between the Thunderbolt and the Soarin' Eagle, and the Thunderbolt looked interesting.  To me, at least; my niece decided that she would sit this one out.

Remember what I said about her being really smart?

From a distance, the Thunderbolt looked interesting.  It had a 90 degree initial ascent and a 90 degree initial descent, and loops and twists and the like.  There had been a couple of steel coasters in Coney Island's past, but they were mostly designed to scare seven year-olds.  I assumed the Thunderbolt was just a cool-looking continuation of this design sensibility.

Then I got up close and saw the thing got up to about 120 feet.  And it moved along at a pretty good clip.

Still though, I thought, this is New York City, where in the past a coaster of sufficient size and speed to actually be a thrill ride couldn't exist alongside the Cyclone, simply for reasons of not enough real estate.  How bad could it possibly be?

Spoiler alert: bad. Very, very bad.

The thing about a 90 degree ascent is that the car pointed straight up.  You were basically on your back, looking straight up.  The chain pulley towed the car straight up.  Most roller coasters drag out the terror with a gradual incline.  Even the legendary Cyclone, whose terror is based in its age and its composition (90+ years, made of wood, I believe it's the oldest wooden coaster still standing in the US) only had an initial drop of  58.1 degrees, and that drop was 85 feet. Not this nightmare.  Nope, the Thunderbolt would not delay gratification.  It went. Straight. Up.  After the hump, it went straight down.

Allegedly.  I had my eyes closed on the drop.

There were twists and turns and zero gravity sensations abound, and when it was over, all I could muster were a vacant stare and a constant drone of "Oh $#!7.  It went straight up." My niece, the smart one, laughed.

Afterward, we grabbed a quick bite to eat.  Neither of us had much in the way of food, and it was a long train ride to Park Slope, where we would meet old friends of mine for food and drink.  She had a knish, and I had a funnel cake.  Bits of happy all around.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wings. (Vacation, Day Three: Brooklyn, NY, Lower Manhattan, NY, and Hoboken, NJ)

A day that started in Brooklyn, went past the World Trade Center, cruised through North Jersey, and ended in Brooklyn.

Ah, it's much less dramatic than all that, but I did get a really good shot on my phone.

That is a picture of the Fulton Transit Hub with 1 WTC in the background.  Shot with a Droid Phone, only in New York.

So let's recap.

I spent the morning at breakfast with my sister and my niece, catching up over coffee and IHOP, expressing our differences of opinion regarding sugar vs. substitutes, organic food vs. non-organic and the appropriateness of singing in public.  If I'm being honest, there was no difference of opinion on that last one.  Singing in public is always a good idea.  We chatted and laughed and talked about all manner of fun things.  I realized I hadn't had the chance to catch up with these two in any real manner in months.  The last couple of days had I had focused my energies inward, and because of my schedule and the three hour time difference, I'm never able to catch them on the phone for any real length of time.  These two women are among my favorite people.  After breakfast and a long walk, my niece went to work and I went to sleep.  I've slept more in the last three days than I have in the last three months.

After my morning/afternoon nap, I arranged to meet with my longtime friend from college, Sara, who I haven't seen since my father's passing a couple of summers back.  On the way to meet her I got to take the Subway into Manhattan.  For as long as I can remember, I've always loved the New York Subway.  Not the cost of it, of course, $2.75 is railway robbery.  But it is beautifully efficient as a people mover.  I made it a point to take the train to Cortlandt Street, first time I had been at that station in more than a decade.  Cortlandt was one of the more heavily damaged stations in the aftermath of 9/11, and Hurricane Sandy a couple of years ago didn't do it any favors either.  It was shuttered for several years until the completion of the Fulton Transit Hub.  The World Trade Center was complete when I was last in town, but not open, so it was all kinds of cool to see people going in and out for work or what have you.  If I wasn't on the clock I would have ponied up the money to check out the observatory.  Oh well...

From there it was a trip on the PATH train to Hoboken.  I've never been to Hoboken.  Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of the station to find a city that seemed...

... well, a lot like Downtown Brooklyn.  Great views of the skyline.  Awesome seaside park. Vibrant, energetic, young.  It was cool.  I went to the W Hotel and hung out at the bar, engaging a couple of locals in a conversation about what's wrong with baseball while I waited for my friend to arrive.  It was entertaining.

Here's a little backstory: Sara is one of my oldest and dearest friends, having long ago earned herself a spot on the bullet list, the short list of people for whom I would take a bullet, largely because they wouldn't put me in a position to do so.  She was the first fan of my writing, which is what made me think "I can do this," instead of pushing for a more stable/prestigious/boring career in criminal justice.  She's been a stable friend throughout the three major deaths my family has dealt with.  I attended her wedding and congratulated her very loudly at the birth of each of her three children.  She has stated that my atheism is the only reason I'm not her kids' godfather, which is fine.  My Brando impersonation is terrible.  I'm guh make youa offa you can't refuse...

We had a drink and caught each other up on the events of our lives.  She was happy for me and my relationship, I made googley noises at pictures of her soon-to-be one-year old.  She asked about my mom, my grandma, and my family, I asked about hers.  She was supposed to be planning her kid's birthday party but her husband let her off the hook to hang out with me.  I said he should have got his ass out here too.  We laughed and talked and enjoyed company like we did 20 years ago in school.  Then we realized how old we both were.  20 years.  We are nothing like the kids we were back then.
We laughed loudly and reminisced wildly, recalling some of the misadventures we had as teenagers and young adults.  Her son Noel accelerated her maturation into a grown-up, whereas I'm just now getting my feet wet in the adulthood arena.  After a couple of hours and a brief tour of Hoboken (birthplace of Frank Sinatra, apparently), we parted company, and I headed back to my city.

Back in NYC, and eager to erase the Jersey funk off me (sorry, Jersey is still Jersey), I walked a couple of blocks around the World Trade Center area to find the one thing I had been searching for the last six years I've been in Washington... a good slice of pizza.  My vacation goals are easily attained, aren't they?  Pizza is supposed to be cheese and sauce and perhaps some form of cow, pig, or chicken product. The dough is to be made with mineral-heavy New York tap water (otherwise known as wau-tuh.  My New York tongue returns!), not whatever it is they put on it or in it on the West Coast.  It's not supposed to have anything artisanal or soy or low-fat.  Dough, sauce, cheese, meat.  In that order.  The pizza place I went to, whose name I can't remember but is right next to the New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club, had two sausage slices that I claimed as my own (I was willing to do it Ariana Grande-style by licking the damn thing).  Three long but well-spent minutes in the oven later, and I was snarfing down hot pizza while making sounds like I was really enjoying a lap dance.  I even took the long way back, so I could enjoy my slices in pizza... I mean peace.

Wow, that was a baaaaad joke.

This week, I'm learning something about being home.  It's not so much the place I miss.  Don't get me wrong, the place is awesome, and I definitely miss it some.  No, it's the people I miss.  People I associate with these places.

Tomorrow is the last full day before I take off to London. Maybe I'll finally make it to Coney Island.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"This Place Used To Be The Hood" (Vacation day two, Fort Greene, Brooklyn)

So my New York portion of my vacation continues.

I spent the morning with my niece in the gym.  My sister had gotten there after work, and had been there earlier than us.  She was on the way out as we were on the way in (sidebar: working out agrees with her.  She looks great!).  An hour and a half later, my niece and I navigated public transit back to Canarsie.  I missed the subway, I have to say.

The two of them had events in their schedule to do, so I made myself busy for a few hours (read: slept) until it was time to visit good friends of mine, Jesse and Stephanie.

I have known these two for a the better part of a decade. They're one of the most perfectly matched couples I've ever met.  Their daughter is an incredibly cute child who has an addiction to a children's show I've never heard of before today, and whose theme song I will never be able to get out of my head.  I haven't seen them since Stephanie came to my father's funeral. I've always enjoyed their company as they are funny, smart, opinionated and fun-loving.  They play games, enjoy a beer, and love life and each other.  It's quite awesome, actually.

Last year they moved from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, as many couples of a certain age tend to do these days.  They moved to Fort Greene, which in my youth was very much the 'hood.  My, how that has changed.

After a couple of hours bs'ing on their patio (and that time went QUICK) we went to a little restaurant on Greene Avenue called Prospect.  They had recommended it highly and as I said to Jesse, for the first time ever, I deferred to someone's superior knowledge of Brooklyn.  Food was phenomenal, and we sat and ate on the patio seating area..

As we ate we chatted more.  It had been two years since I had seen either of them, there was catching up to do, there was exchange of humor, there was the expression of hope that Bernie Sanders would win the presidency, and the plan for seeking political asylum in Canada if Donald Trump won.  I told them about my girlfriend who was at that moment, probably, doing something incredibly cool on a camel and how strange it was for me to be with the same woman for as long as I have.

After dinner we had dessert (I won't bore you with the details as to what, but just know that it was fantastic and awesome) and more conversation, talking about Marvel movies and Star Wars.  It was food and drink and the rambling old friends make when they haven't been in each other's company in far too long.

Six hours and 2800 calories after I arrived, we said our goodbyes and made a plan to hang out again before I went back to Bellingham.

Two takeaways: first, good friends are an awesome thing, and one should absolutely never take them for granted.  Secondly, Fort Greene has really changed from what I remember.  Putting aside the fact that I very likely couldn't afford to live there anymore, the change is profoundly positive.

Back in the Mud (Vacation, day one: Brooklyn NYC)

So I'm on vacation.

I had been looking forward to it for the last little while.  I had been working my butt off for the last month specifically so I could do this.  I haven't had a proper vacation in far too long.  My girlfriend decided earlier this year that she wanted to go to Morocco.

I decided to go home to New York.

And while she's having an absolute ball in Morocco, experiencing the people and the culture up close and personal, I'm re-immersing myself in my hometown.

And she and I will meet up in London and exchange vacation stories.

Here's how my day one went.

After working all night on Sunday and traveling all day and night Monday, I arrived at JFK Airport on Tuesday morning, having spent six hours cramped in a middle seat behind the guy who wanted to explore the range of his seat back, next to a mid-20s woman who thought my arm made a great pillow, and next to a guy who would not stop man-spreading.  I hate flying while tall. 

I got to my sister's home, which serves as home base for this week, and hung out with my niece who has most of the week off from work.  We went for a run.

And periodically during the day, I slept.  Like a rock. A week of saying "no sleep til Brooklyn," and when I get there, I sleep.  Mission accomplished.

Today, while my girlfriend was camel riding in the desert, I did a whole lot of not much.  And I loved every relaxing second of it.  This is the first time I've been back home without an agenda: no sick parent to see, no funeral to attend, no birthday celebration, no guided touring.  This part of my vacation is about reconnecting with family and old friends.

Don't get me wrong, I have a plan in place to hit Coney Island (I haven't seen it since the redo), catch a Yankee game while the Red Sox are in town, get drunk with various combinations of friends, and even hit the playground basketball scene I haven't been around in seven years.  But for today, I slept.  It'll make for a boring story when I see my lady in London (more on that in a later post), but there's something to be said about being home and sleeping.

Can't wait for tomorrow!