A “curbside parlor” on the Upper West Side

Since I saw a tree planter bench along Riverside Drive and about 82nd Street (east side of avenue) and since observing behavior around one on 12th Street between Avenues A and B in front of Northern Spy restaurant, I’ve wanted to build a tree bench out front of our building on West 84th Street.  I call this feature and the social place it creates “curbside parlor,” inspired by Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and its sibling titles.

This is a problem.

Seems the NYC Parks Department’s Forestry Division oversees trees on streets as well, and their response was not a good one.  I called some time last year and received a response that was unchanged when our Community Board called more recently:

“Parks,” a CB7 rep told me, “said no to a bench around a tree for liability reasons and for the tree’s well-being.  DOT said they are not permitting new planters for security reasons.  There are no variances to be had, but you are welcome to come to the committee meeting and present your request.”

IMG_2194 IMG_2196My first reaction was, OK. You’re saying I can’t do this but I’m welcome to come waste my time and breath presenting the proposal at a meeting. At the same time, I relish a challenge and I love it when someone tells me “no.” I simply don’t accept it. (Call it an inherent and occasionally unhealthy disagreement with authority’s having the final say.)

My goal is to move a proposal through Community Board 7 allowing for a bench and planter that would have the result of both beautifying our “place” out front and also making a spot for more delightful conversation among neighbors, while not harming the tree or obstructing its maintenance in any way.

The tree is an American sycamore.


3-1-1 on Christmas tree disposal

Alleen should have his face on an IMDb or RottenTomatoes thumbnail photograph. Tall, dark-cocoa skin, severe jawbone, handsome and older, and gentle smile—one that could provoke sympathy from an audience. He would be a supporting actor, not the lead.  He would not be bagging New York landlords’ trash, as he does for the landlord of our brownstone. He’s been the epitome of kindness but yesterday had seen enough.

“Who did this?!” he demanded of Karen, who was carrying groceries, as he surveyed our kids’ creation. “We’ll get a $100 fine from the city!”

The three boys had taken discarded Christmas trees from along our block and lined them end to end, smallest to largest, along the sidewalk, extending perhaps thirty or forty feet.  They looked like Ukrainian matryoshka nesting dolls.

“Well, the boys did this; they said they were ‘building a forest.'”

“Yes, but who does this?!”

“Kids do! Ones who are having fun.”

“But it’s like taking your trash and putting it in front of someone else’s building.”

“No, Alleen,” Karen said, “it’s like taking someone else’s trash and putting it in front of our building.”

Karen walked into the apartment in a huff, but animated. At least she wasn’t mad at me. After hearing the story, I was glad that the boys were outside the house and not shooting heroin at the same time. In my book, that’s a check in the Win column.  She called the City’s we-answer-everything-(though-we-might-not-fix-it)-line, 3-1-1.  She described to the city employee the scene with Alleen and asked if our landlord or Alleen himself would get fined.  I heard the story rehearsed.

Karen hung up the phone and said to me, “The lady told me that next time the boys see Alleen maybe they should hide in their fort.”

Meeting Chocolate Love Affair

Chester Filbert was a kid who was about the same age as I was in the late 1960s. He lived at ‘5264 West One hundred and seventy-seventh Street,’ according to author Ellen Raskin.

He claimed that ‘nothing ever happened’ on his block, because he considered ‘happenings’ needing spies and astronauts, marching bands and haunted houses, and courageous hunters hunting ferocious lions and tigers.

Meanwhile, on West One hundred and seventy-seventh Street, as he sits on the curb and laments his case to the reader, there is a house being painted yellow; a group of children playing ding-dong-ditch on a spinster; twin sisters jumping rope until one falls and breaks her arm and is carried off on a stretcher; a thief in a Zorro-like mask being pursued by The Law and hiding behind trees; a fire; and an armored car that gets in a head-on accident and whose back doors fly open, releasing $50 bills everywhere (that’s $300 apiece in 2011 dollars).

Chester missed all this. He announced on the penultimate page, when the $50 bills are flurrying about and all his neighbors are grabbing them, even the spinster from her Victorian home’s widow’s walk, ‘When I grow up I’m going to move.’ Presumably to somewhere where things happened. The last page shows him walking up the stoop to his house. His hands are clasped behind his back in a manner befitting a 60-year-old, resigned, rather than a 6-year-old, restless.

Chester would have missed last summer’s mosquito infestation in the basements of multiple brownstones on West 84th Street and their study by intrigued scientists from Rutgers University. He’d miss that Edgar’s Café is closing tomorrow. He’d miss the white lady telling the black teenagers to move away from the front of her building and the black kids telling the white lady that she’s racist. He’d miss pretending to be a mountain goat when climbing over mounds of greying snow at the street corners in January. He’d miss meeting Carmine and her two long-haired dachshunds—Chocolate Love Affair (a ‘breeder,’ Carmine explains) and Guinness. He’d have thought nothing ever happened on West 84th Street.

And he’d be tempted to move.

Raskin dedicated the book to ‘children everywhere, except Chester Filbert.’

‘He’s just too dull.’

photo: Vankuso

It turned out to be nothing

The 12-year-old boy at the table next to ours grabbed his throat with his left hand and started coughing. His coughs turned to choking, his cheeks filling with now-threatening under-chewed food, his eyes protruding like those rubber dolls you squeeze for stress.

He looked past his father, who sat across from him, and off to an unknown horizon as his mother did what later I realized was a symptom of the problem: she slapped him repeatedly on the back. I reviewed instantly and autonomically my knowledge of Heimlich’s—where on the sternum to hold my fist, how hard to press/pull…. I would launch this food to the glass dessert case 15 feet away if necessary.

The boy somehow swallowed his food, and the mother let into him. Nagging him with a mouthful, the mother spoke in the direction of the father—“Now you’ve done it…”—while the boy took another bite and he, too, responded to her in the middle of a mouthful of food. She turned her attention to her husband and, as she spoke, her cheeks puffed outward with unchewed food and her words escaped only as through cake batter. Her consonants, especially T’s and D’s, sounded like Th’s and Dz’s. Her eating style had spawned new phonemes.

Moments passed and the husband, who I could see least, since he was parallel to me and not across, started choking and holding his napkin to his mouth to reduce the sound, which was now part of a Table Symphony that dominated the small café.

“Oh, he always does that,” the boy reminded his mother. “And it turns out to be nothing.”

The father ate through the choking, and no one died while Karen and I were there through two quiche lorraines, a cappuccino cheesecake and a chocolate mousse layer cake (no coffee, just tap water, please).

This was a family who choked a lot in public. All three. All the time. All talking with their mouths full. All the time.

You’d think they’d learn.

Had there ever been a fourth?

photo: lion kim ball

The Nurse

The old-lady in the wheelchair had hair that looked like white cotton candy, or like soft steel wool, which was blown backwards by the autumn wind, away from her dark-haired nurse, who cradled a phone in her right hand, her right shoulder cocked toward it, and whose cigarette was gently wedged between the first two fingers of her left hand.

Her body autonomically arranged her hand in this pose only when she smoked, her taut fingers forming scissors, never cutting, always nurturing, its precious ward. This hand remained relatively motionless as she spoke. It didn’t venture to expand on, accentuate or prove her words, which were inaudible to those sitting more than twenty feet away. In fact, the hand seemed to move to her mouth during drags almost as a balm during her conversation, a private succor unseen to her confidante. The hand moved to her unadorned lips, and the younger woman puckered and drew in, like a maiden accepting her lover. She dismissed the smoke, which brushed past the older lady’s candy hair, for a moment matching it in tone and texture.

The nurse sat on a granite bench outside the subway entrance at Verdi Square just north of 72nd Street and Broadway.

The white-haired lady gazed to the right of the subway entrance. She saw a man digging through a green trash can, its opening the diameter of a cantaloupe melon, until he found a half-consumed plastic bottle of blue Gatorade. He twisted the orange top and without a thought tilted it back, a thin blue stream flowing from the corner of his mouth over salt-and-pepper whiskers and onto his overcoat. Though the air temperature was not below the mid-60s, the man wore heaping gray rags that looked like layer upon layer of battle-beaten army blankets and thinning Hefty garbage bags. His tightly coiled black hair was in tufts, dusty with city grime, and had pieces of lint and paper confetti stuck haphazardly it.

He saw the older lady watching him, and he started to walk toward her and the nurse, who was still on the phone.

photo: SuperFantastic

The Terrace

I walked out onto the terrace just now and could see stars. Which was unusual in New York City and more so because I didn’t have my glasses on.

Metallic tiny pearls sitting atop the pre-war building to the west, on Riverside Drive, and to the east, over West End Avenue. Jupiter is soon to be its largest and brightest for the next 12 years.

Astronomy measures its major events not in terms of annual conferences, graduation decades from university, or even 50th wedding anniversaries, but in centuries, epochs, and eons. Nomenclature that elevates its events into one-time phenomena yet also leaves them as deceptively static, distant and therefore tiny accidents—such as a supernova, whose energy force can equal our Sun’s energy over the course of its entire lifetime, and which come to us as soothing 4-color photographs suitable as computer screensavers. Against many of these events, our world’s ignition would be like a match light in the mouth of Krakatoa.

This night there was silence, like a yearned-for commodity, brought on by the cooling late evening air, which had a soporific effect on the city inhabitants who had experienced oppressive summer heat. The blue jay that screeched its dominance over the sparrows by day was sleeping. The customary ambulance sirens—usually either St. Luke’s Hospital or Hatzolah EMS—were paused. It occurred to me that at no time this summer had I heard the baritone opera singer to the west or the soprano to the east, their voices in previous years having carried out to the block-long rectangular courtyard below as if it were an amphitheater and which often reminds me of the set from Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window.’ Did these two meet, get married, and move to a different neighborhood?

Yet tonight: silence.

The Chinese elms stood as silhouetted sentries before me and my neighbors, tall and serious and benevolent, submissive perches to the blue jays by day but eschewing their presence by night, driving them to their nests under eaves and rooftop water tanks, their leaves and branches in the light breeze whispering a lullaby to me and others who were up too late.

The canvas umbrella on our terrace filled in the breeze like a taffeta skirt as I collapsed it for the night. From outside I listened to the water gurgling through the coils of the air conditioner in our living room window.

The blue jay slept and, somewhere in the universe, the sky exploded.

photo: kris//