20 March 2010
A Journey Through Change: It Remains The Same
Today I took the longest ride I've taken since my surgery. I pedalled about 40 miles and more or less reprised a ride I did once just before Memorial Day, and once again shortly afterward. I'll probably sleep very, very well tonight!
After crossing the Queensboro (a.k.a. "59th Street") Bridge, I rode up Third Avenue to East Harlem, where I traversed Manhattan on 119th Street. Then, I pedalled along the streets that box in Mount Morris Park and made another turn onto a street full of beautiful brownstones, which I followed to St. Nicholas Avenue. I used to ride that way often when I was working for Macmillan Publishing, on 53rd Street and Third Avenue, and living in Washington Heights.
With all of the changes that have overtaken the rest of Manhattan--Most of the places in which I lived and worked are all but unrecognizable--the St. Nicholas corridor looks much as it did long ago. The people all look either very young or very old; most of the buildings are sad and worn, though seemingly not much more so than they were back in the day. Among those sooty brick tenements, on the right side (as you go uptown) of the avenue, there's a place called Alga Hotel which, remarkably, looks as it did all of those years ago. Its exterior is painted an almost-tropical shade of electric blue, which is utterly incongruous with its surroundings but wouldn't look out of place in Miami Beach or some other place with lots of warm weather and Art Deco architecture.
It has been at least twenty-five years since I first saw the place. I don't recall it painted in any other color, and it never looks particularly worn or weathered. However, it has always looked sad. It's tempting to say that the place seems sad and forlorn in spite of its bright exterior. However, I think that hue actually adds to, or helps to create, the aura of gloom because it so belies what I imagine the inside to be like: I have no proof, but somehow I have always guessed that it was and is a welfare hotel or one of those places that charges by the hour.
Anyway, the neighborhoods are much as I remember them, save for Columbia-Presbyterian's research building, which stands on the site once occupied by the Audubon Ballroom--where Malcolm X was assassinated--and always seems to be expanding. A few more blocks up, I came to the entrance ramp for the George Washington Bridge's walkway. I don't think I can recall seeing so many cyclists or pedestrians, not even in May or June. Then again, I'm not surprised: The temperature rose to about 75 F (24C), the warmest we've had in months. Many of those cyclists were, I'm sure, on their bikes for the first time this year. I haven't ridden a whole lot more than they've ridden!
From the Jersey side of the bridge, I rode past immaculate and sometimes ostentatious houses and stores that had little charm save for the fact that they line the ridge of the Palisades and offer spectacular views of the Hudson River and the city. The streets full of those houses and stores climb the rock outcroppings and end in James J. Braddock Park, a rather charming spot that features, among other things, baseball fields, picnic areas and a pond. Until I Googled his name, I didn't realize Braddock was a boxer. (Then again, I know practically nothing about the sport.) He defeated Max Baer for the heavyweight title he lost two years later to Joe Louis.
The last time I rode through that park, the sun was setting and it was Saturday night. As I pedalled through it this afternoon, the sun shone brightly and spring was beginning.
I continued my ride through North Bergen, Weehawken and Union City, where most of the signs were in Spanish and the air filled with the aroma of roasting meat and spicy sandwiches and tortillas. The next time I ride that way, I'm going to stop in one of those cafes.
Finally, I reached the Hoboken waterfront, where I slurped down an Italian ice--half wild black cherry, the other half vanilla-- from Rita's. They were giving out ice free samples, and the one I got was very good. I'll be stopping there, too, on my next ride.
I never saw that promenade so filled with people as it was today. It wasn't just an unusually warm and sunny day for this time of year, or simply the first day of spring; it was one of those days most people would have prized at just about any time of the year.
The waterfront promenade in Jersey City was also thronged. I could almost feel the Beatles' Here Comes The Sun playing in the background: People seemed joyful, or at least relieved. This winter, while colder than last winter, still was not unusually so. However, we had two blizzards and one other major snowstorm, and most of the weather between those snowfalls was simply dreary. If this winter was a war, people were acting as if they were seeing the Armistice when in fact today and the past couple of days might be more like a truce or a cease-fire.
After I left Jersey City, a fairly brisk wind began to blow from the southeast and into my face. I pedalled into that wind through Bayonne and over the eponymous bridge into Staten Island. Then, along Richmond Terrace, which winds along New York Bay-- where one can see rusted hulks of containers and the ships onto which they were loaded or from which they were unloaded-- until the road makes a sharp turn just before reaching Snug Harbor, a mansion owned by the Vanderbilts and surrounded by some of the most beautiful and interesting gardens one will find. When it's open, you can see more than 400 species of roses, among other plants, as well as one of the best views of New York's harbor and skyline.
Just past Snug Harbor was a donut shop where I've stopped on previous rides. The proprietor, an older Italian man who always seemed to remember me even when a long time passed between visits, always allowed me to use his remarkably clean bathroom even though an "Out of Order" sign always hung on its door and I saw him refuse other customers. And I would always buy a cup of tea and a pastry that looked and tasted like a cross between a pain au chocolat and a cinnamon roll for my trip on the Staten Island Ferry, which was only a couple of blocks away.
However, that donut shop is gone now, just nine months after the last time I stopped there. In its place is a "gourmet" food shop. Why does every other little convenience store have to call itself that?
And here is something else I don't remember from the last time I took this ride: the security measures you have to go through in order to get on the ferry. You're allowed through a checkpoint and ordered into a waiting area, which consists of a few benches in front of a security guards' booth, and a bicycle rack off to the side. All of this is ringed by fences, into which a guard brought what looked like a Labrador to sniff my bike. Other cyclists, who came a few minutes after me, got the same treatment. It all felt rather like entering an airport staffed by junior high school substitute teachers.
The ferry ride itself remains one of the best things in this world one can do for free. The boat docked at the ancient pier and gangplank, which led to a new ferry and subway terminal that had just opened not long before the last time I did this ride.
Now I wonder about some of the other rides I did regularly before my surgery. Will anything along those routes have changed during the months and seasons that have passed?