Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vacation summation: I love New York

It is perhaps a fitting denoument to my month of full retreat from real life: I just realized, 100 pages into the book I'd started reading yesterday, what was to be the last book of this vacation, that, gol darn it all, I've read this sucker before! Sheesh, I hate it when that happens. Especially when it takes this long, 100 pages or more, until the realization hits. Ah well. I shut the thing and pulled out another volume, which I may or may not get a chance to dive into today since I've got lots of practical stuff to attend to as well as my wits to gather in preparation for re-entry.

So there we have it: 10 books read, which averages out to one every three days, which is off the pace of previous years but reflects a nice balance of being out and about, so it's all cool. Here is the briefest of recaps.

The Passage--eh.
Sag Harbor--yay.
The Three Weissmanns of Westport--tee hee.
A Short History of Women--nah.
So Cold the River--yippee.
The Thing Around Your Neck--damn.
The Disinherited--wow.
The Song Is You--bleh.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier--oh my.
The Great Perhaps--okay.

I've already blogged about some of the out-and-aboutness of my time off. MOMA, the Morgan Library, South Street Seaport, Coney Island, the main library. I referred to but haven't yet written about my afternoon at P.S. 1 Museum of Contemporary Art; I will soon, I hope, because there was some standout work on display there in the Greater New York 2010 show. For now, a few other tidbits.

Last summer I found myself in Park Slope several times for some reason. This summer it was, again who knows why, Astoria. I spent parts of four or five days there. Strolling, eating, lolling, reading. Hanging out in Astoria Park and watching the East River flow. Shopping among the astonishingly many varieties of feta cheese, olives, Greek pastries and the like at Titan Foods (no, I don't tout for retail businesses here but yes, I love this store).

I also spent a nice long browsing (and, yes, buying) session at a great, relatively new bookstore on Broadway in Astoria, right across the street from one of our old favorite restaurants Uncle George's. Seaburn Books. It's a stuffed-to-the-rafters cornucopia of books, some new and slightly discounted but mostly used books in good condition and very cheap. This is the kind of wonderful bookshop where you can lose yourself for a good long time, reading in one of the old chairs, chatting with the owner Dr. Sam Chekwas, who also runs a small press that seems to publish a variety of books and that I intend to investigate further. Downstairs there's an event space where there are author readings and the like. This was a great find and I'm sure I'll find myself returning again and again.

Right in my own neighborhood of Woodside, a short block and a half from the train station, I made another new bookstore find, this one kind of kooky and quirky in a weirdly delightful way. Housed in a ramshackle, hot as hell tiny old garage at the absolute end of a dead end abutting on the Long Island Rail Road track, it's a funky little used book paradise. Only open weekday evenings from 6:30 to 8:00, and Saturdays from 11 to 4. Huh? I can't figure those hours out, but whatever; they buy books and they sell books, every one of them for $2, or three for $5. I went three times over these four weeks, motivated to cull my shelves a bit so I could sell some and then use that cash to buy some. There's no order, all the books just thrown onto the shelves in a haphazard mishmash, so you have to commit to standing there and sifting through all the dross in hopes of finding some gold. Which I did. It's worth the effort, because I was surprised at how many good books I found.

Best of all, though, was this. The first afternoon I was there, as I stood and browsed, a young woman came in and said to the proprietor, "Do you have any books by Tolstoy?" He replies, "Tolstoy? That's that philosopher, right?" I looked at the woman who was trying to keep a straight face as she said, "Um, well, sort of, he wrote a lot of books. Novels. I'm especially looking for one, Anna Karenina. Do you have a copy?" "Anna--um, Anna something, hmm, well, that doesn't ring a bell, but I'll keep an eye out for it." But wait, there's more. Yesterday I was hanging out with a friend and I told her about this place and suggested we go check it out together. As we walked there, I told her the "Tolstoy the philosopher" story. We were both chuckling about it as we entered the garage/bookstore. I said hi to the owner, who knows my face by now, and he starts telling me they've got a lot of great new books and how people have been telling him they keep finding unexpected stuff there. "For instance," he says, coming up to me and brandishing a copy of none other than Anna Karenina. "There's a lady who's been coming in every week asking if we have a copy of this ... this Anna Kuh-Kuh--Anna-Something-or-Other. And look, now we have it!"

I don't get it. The bookseller who doesn't know books. The bookshop that isn't open hardly ever. There's some sort of business model at work here but I'm the last one to figure it out. In any case, I hope it lasts because I'd like to keep stopping in, selling and buying and eavesdropping.

Why else do I love a New York vacation? Try this. After my lovely afternoon gazing at the water on a South Street Seaport lounge chair last week, I returned for more of the same, this time with my lover Teresa. I was afraid I'd hyped it too much, you know how that goes, but happily she loved it as much as I had. We stayed for several hours. And we had, in addition to the simple pleasure of sitting in the river's breeze, two grand new experiences.

First, after a good long time on the upper deck, we went down to the first level and sat on a bench for a final few minutes. After a while an elderly Chinese couple sat down next to us. Some employees of one of the tour boats that ply these waters came around handing out promotional fliers. The man sitting next to me on the bench took several, placed all but one aside and began doing something with the one, working with some delicacy and care on a series of intricate folds. I was trying not to stare but then he turned to me and said, "Chinese origami." Then Teresa and I watched as he created, with deft handwork that baffled me, a whale, a bird whose wings move up and down, and a frog that jumps. Created, and presented to us as gifts! It was a thrilling experience to watch his artistry and to be its beneficiary. All we could do was ooh and ah and thank him profusely and bask in one of those I Love New York moments.

Next came another. The highlight of my whole vacation, I do believe. We'd spent all that time watching various boats coming and going in the harbor, and we'd gotten curious. Many of them are tourist boats--dinner cruises, harbor tours and the like that charge an arm and a leg--but some of them seemed to be something else. So as we walked off, we stopped at one of the ticket kiosks and inquired. We found out that the next pier down, the Wall Street pier, a very short walk from the Seaport area, houses a scene that I never knew existed. A commuter ferry terminal, with boats that travel between various towns in Jersey (Hoboken, Weehauken, others) and Wall Street, between various points in Brooklyn and Wall Street, and between Queens and Wall Street. Who knew that hundreds if not thousands of workers from the financial district commute to and from work every day via boat? Well, it turned out that there was a 5:15 ferry due to leave for Hunters Point, Queens. We got to the pier in time to buy tickets, watch the bustling rush-hour scene, and board a boat for our home borough.

O.M.G. What a splendid, wondrous 20 minutes we then spent, gorgeous vista of the harbor opening up behind us, the city rising around us, sights of waterfront industry that you'd never otherwise see, but most of all the late-afternoon sun sparkling on the water like a million dancing diamonds and the sea breeze brushing our faces and blowing our hair. Utter joy.

Sure, Hunters Point, where we got off, is a godforsaken nowheresville and we had a long walk to a train station where we could enter the subway to get the rest of the way home, but it was worth it for that 20 minutes of bliss on the water.

I do love New York. Because, heat and stink and crowds and all, there are also quirky little book nooks and unexpected origami gifts and 20 varieties of feta cheese, and water all around.