Archive for the ‘August’ Category

16 August 2011

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

It got very wet out here on Sunday. As recently as Monday night, when we came upon this bit of unavoidable pavement, we found every bit of it underwater. (I was surprised to find how far the water had receded in eighteen hours.) More surprisingly, the walks on the shop front in Ocean View were also under water. But as it was only a Monday night — following a dismal, stormy Sunday — there weren’t many people around to complain. The only downside for us has been that Megan and Will have been stuck in town. The prospect of traveling alone (with a toddler) on the LIRR is not encouraging. Last night, Kathleen tried to catch the 8:03 from Bay Shore. But the 8:03 was interrupted by a collision, with some tomfool pedestrian walking the tracks, of all things. So Kathleen took a taxi to Babylon, where she caught a train right away. But still!

Now I know something of what the British must have felt in 1944: we’re winning, but we’re too tired to rejoice. I’ve got about 250 pages of The Power Broker to read. This morning, I completed the three chapters that Robert Caro devotes to the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. It was harrowing stuff, and I was unable to shake the narrative’s powerful correspondence, never made explicit by the author, to the unfolding of the Holocaust — a linkage far from weakened by the fact that the East Tremont residents who were needlessly displaced by Robert Moses’s route (apparently designed to save a private bus terminal) were, for the most part, striving Jews who had come up in the world, just a bit, from the Lower East Side, whose grandparents had been harrassed by the Tsar and whose cousins had perished in the camps.

The comparison might strike some as grotesque. The residents of East Tremont were not, after all, eliminated (although, as a viable neighborhood, East Tremont itself certainly was). At the time, manyNew Yorkers would have agreed (and in fact did agree!) with Moses’s insistence that “succeeding generations would be grateful.” No student of history can read such a statement without a personal qualm, for so many of the evils that we read about in history books have lost their bite, as contexts and priorities and even modes of consciousness have altered over time. As a species, we take the world as we find it; our passion for justice, in contrast, is eccentric at best. But Caro’s account makes it clear that people were lied to and betrayed by officials up and down the city’s power pole, all of them either bent to the will of Robert Moses or silenced by superiors who were. Up to the moment that the East Tremonters found new homes that they could afford to rent, their steps paralleled the doomed Jews’ of Eastern Europe. Even assuming that improved mass transit one day makes the Cross-Bronx Expressway a pleasure to drive, no one will ever have reason to be grateful for Moses’s gutting of a lively and vital neighborhood when an obviously less destructive route lay a few blocks to the south.

What’s depressing about the material that follows the Cross-Bronx saga is that the issues of highway saturation that Caro discusses in his 1975 text remain largely unaddressed today. Yes, construction continues on the Second Avenue subway, but can we believe that it will really be running in 2017? The problem is that the drivers of the metropolitan area have been infected by Moses’s mania for private cars (he may never have driven one himself, but he was one of the first to appreciate the allure of the automobile as a moving bubble of autonomous privacy, which remains the most toxic component of the automotive narcotic). And of course the subways still don’t go to many of the parts of town that were developed in response to Moses’s roads. In the end — I’m anticipating; I haven’t finished the book yet — Robert Moses left New York in worse shape than he found it. But that’s by the way. It’s the failures of democratic process that put autocratic, unchallengeable power in his hands that arouses pity and despair. 

13 August 2011

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

When I got back to the house, after seeing Megan and Will off on the ferry, I sat down and resumed reading The Power Broker. Every now and then, I’d get up for one reason or another — to refill my mug of tea; to move the laundry through its various cycles (including the manual ones of folding it and putting it where it belongs; why isn’t there a machine for that?); to fix myself a sandwich for lunch or, later, a snack of cheese and crackers — but I always came back to the book, andas the hours crept by, I felt increasingly unhappy about being alone. At one point, I wrote a few letters, and that cheered me up, but my thoughts were too dispersed to allow anything more ambitious. I had wanted to make a pasta sauce, but now that there were no immediate mouths to feed, the kitchen was the last place I wanted to be. And so, as the long and glorious afternoon wore on, I sank into a funk that I can only label “Mosesitis.”

And I can only describe Mosesitis as grand opera without the tunes. The fantastic tensions of Robert Moses’s career — why anyone needs to read “fantasy” when there are such tales as these — are never transmuted by the grammar of music into a harmony that, even if it doesn’t render the dark contradictions of human life comprehensible, nevertheless comprehends them. What’s needed is a Wagnerian motif, like the ineffably powerful hook that connotes the fatal (but not fatal!) potion in Tristan und Isolde, a run of notes that reminds us where we are, every time the blackening hero of this astronomically ongoing story discovers even nastier means to justify ever more dubious ends. The handsome but arrogant idealist at the outset is transformed into a monster addicted to power, Dorian-Gray-like, right before our eyes. And the transformation refuses to stop. Just when you think that Robert Moses can’t possibly invent a new way of gratifying his manias, he surprises you with a genius that it would be easier to dismiss as evil, if only the public works that Moses left behind were not so familiarly beautiful or, when not that, at least problematically convenient.

A long part of what seems to be the book’s longest chapter is devoted to the construction of Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway. At its lower end, the parkway runs between the park and the river, but at its northern end it cuts through the surprisingly wild terrain of Fort Tryon and Inwood Parks. For one or two summers, I rode the parkway every morning and every evening, hitching a ride to my summer job on Wall Street in my father’s car. I’d have preferred to take the train, but my father had given up on trains. He preferred to sit in air-conditioned comfort and listen to Frank Sinatra on WNEW — for a spell, Sinatra and Mia Farrow were shacked up on a sailboat anchored just off the parkway. He didn’t mind the inexorability with which, on the homeward drive, traffic slowed to a crawl at 34th Street and didn’t open up again until past the exits for the George Washington Bridge. I hated it, but there was a reward: when we could drive fast again, it was beneath the trees of the northern end of the parkway, which, no matter how badly it actually degraded the environment, gave the illusion of a pristine landscape. As I turned the pages of The Power Broker, I saw the summer sun dappling the trees as Dad’s car sped beneath them, and I was overcome by the recollection of my father’s easy generosity (even if it was motivated by innocent vanity). The complicating overlay of these distilled memories made it impossible not to feel gratitude for the single-mindedness of Robert Caro’s anti-hero, whom a friend of mine calls “that horrible man.”

Boy, was I ever glad when, at the last light of dusk, Kathleen walked off the ferry and into my arms! That was simple.

A Shifting Cast
12 August 2011

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Megan and Will return to town this morning; this evening, Kathleen and her brother come out. I have no ambitions whatsoever for the day that I’ll have to myself. No great thoughts will be pursued; no foreign languages drilled; no Proust read (probably). I’ll wear my eyes out on The Power Broker, which piles wonder on top of wonder. I thought I’d heard everything, but apparently not: did you know that Robert Moses ran for governor of New York in 1934, and made a complete hash of his campaign, insulting almost everyone who might have supported him, and feeling insulted by those who couldn’t support him because he was running on the wrong ticket? And how did he crawl out of this abyss? With an assist from some overreaching by his archenemy in the White House, none other than FDR. Robert Caro’s study beggars the imagination.

Getting Vacant
9 August 2011

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

To bed shortly past ten, up before seven — a good start; it were better were today not the eleventh of our allotted month. So much for numbers. The days pass quickly, because nothing happens. Megan took Will for a swim in the bay yesterday afternoon, and I thought to ask her to check on the milk supply before she left, but never got round to mentioning it. Will has been drinking a lot of milk — half a gallon a day, it almost seems — and, sure enough, we were almost out. So when Megan got back from the beach, I set out for the market, and I got there quickly, it seemed, even though I wasn’t hurrying. I was back at the house in forty minutes. (More numbers and more.)

I promised Megan that I would join her and Will for the bayside swim this afternoon. She acquired a canopied float for Will that clearly requires the cooperation of two adults. To get an idea of what it looked like, she blew half of it up yesterday. When she realized that this had given Will more than an idea of what it looked like, she said, “Well, that was a really bad idea.” Blowing it up, that is. Will wanted to get into it right now, but of course it didn’t function very well on dry land, or even in the little wading pool on the back porch.

Other than that, we don’t have any plans. I’d like to clean out the refrigerator — a task that lingers in postponement — just to see what’s in there. The other night, I made the composed salad that I was talking about, and that cleared out quite a bit of wrappery and baggery. Our cuisine has been very simple. The market sells chicken parts, boneless rib steaks, hot and sweet sausages, and other meat items that don’t tempt me. There is always plenty of good, fresh corn, and plump beefsteak tomatoes. For lunch, I’m happy with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Breakfast is a slice of whichever Entenman’s coffee cake is on hand. I am thinking of making a tomato sauce for this evening’s dinner.

Every free moment will go to reading The Power Broker. It just doesn’t let up! Caro follows a suite of chapters about the darkening of Robert Moses’ character circa 1930 — “What a shitty guy!” you cry out on every other page — with “New York City Before Robert Moses,” a portrait of municipal dysfunction so sharply etched that you can’t believe that the place is still inhabited. And you know that only Robert Moses, deploying his high-handed, virulently anti-democratic, and astonishingly effective tactics will cleanse the Augean stable (and with just about as much water, too). So you find yourself rooting for the bad guy. I’m almost looking forward to reading about the later years of Moses’s career, when his works were as odious as he was. Then there will be no rooting, not for him.

Last night, it was so cool that I had to pull over a sheet. Every day of beautiful weather makes this quiet retreat a perfect gift unto itself.

10 August 2011

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

It is beautfully cool today. It’s not going to last, but I’m developing an extra set of gills just to take it all in. 

One of us is leaving today, and we have to meet an early ferry. More anon.

Anon: my wonderful new routine hit a pothole last night, in the form of sitting up late and talking and not just talking but sipping Jim Beam in tiny, too many sips.

And the cool has lasted. It’s a glorious day!

9 August 2011

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Today already feels like the first normal day. I was up before eight — I’ll be rising earlier and earlier, I hope — and when I gathered up my reading glasses, my new phone, my water bottle, and my book, to carry to the front of the house where I’d be spending a few hours, I thought to bring my laptop as well, because it is now and (as a rule) only now that I am going to be connected — not on and off throughout the day. I set my stuff down on the table and arranged it while the water boiled; by the time the tea was steeping, I had downloaded yesterday’s photographs, chosen the ones to save for use here or at Facebook, run them through PhotoShop, and even (I think) posted to an album at the social network. Then I opened WordPress and got started here. Now I can close PhotoShop and Zoombrowser, write something brief here, and decide what, if anything, I want to do next.

When everyone’s up and out of bed, I’ll put on some music and start in on the kitchen. Until today, we’ve been camping out (which completely lacks the rigor of genuine camping) — piling up stuff here and there, stocking the pantry and then forgetting what we’ve got, and letting the refrigerator descend into unholy chaos. When I sort it all out, I’m going to set aside the ingredients for a composed salad, or a dinner salad composed of leftovers. I’m going to turn the ripe avocado into guacamole. And then we’re all going to sweep.

Megan, I believe, plans to take us out to lunch in town. A nice treat! I have a short shopping list, but as it includes a box of wine, I’ll be happy to have the wheelbarrow.

I brought a few books out, not as many as you might think. A recently reissued Patricia Highsmith. The Hans Keilson novel that I didn’t read. Paul Taylor’s autobiography — as charmingly idiosyncratic as his dances, but proof that he took up the right line of work. I forget what else. I didn’t have to give my choices much thought, because I planned a bedrock of Caro and Proust. I have all of A la recherche du temps perdu, the Pléiades’ dictionary-thick paperback, and, even thicker, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. This even thicker book is what I’ve been reading with not just interest but fascination. Everyone who has ever talked to me about having read the book has praised it to the skies, but I’ve allowed myself to be put off by the backroom-politics subject-matter and the unattractive subject. But I thought that there couldn’t be a better time to read this highly-regarded 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner than a month spent on a sandbar that Moses wanted to pave into an expressway to the Hamptons. It turns out (duh) that Caro has figured out how to charge his material with real, shoot-’em-up excitement. His dogged pursuit of the details of key transactions, negotiations, and, for the most part, underhanded maneuvers is so judicious that thebook reads like a crime novel’s dénouement. And, yes — the location gives the story some extra juice.

I haven’t started in on (resumed) reading Proust yet. I’ve been saving him for quiet afternoons that have, so far, proven to be elusive. He’ll be proof that the new normal has settled in.

What’s this? For forty over an hour I’ve been sitting in front of a sliding glass door without realizing that someone closed it last night before going to bed. That’s proof of something! And now, I hear the plaints of a little boy who, if you ask me, has been uncomfortably uncertain over the past day or two about whether he’ll be going home soon or whether he lives in a new house.

8 August 2011

Monday, August 8th, 2011

The surf was so angry yesterday that a lifeguard, who appeared out of nowhere (there are lifeguards?), urged us not to go in deeper than our knees. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her keep us under surveillance as we drifted further than we ought to, and then retracted to higher ground. No one was tempted to disobey the order. There was nothing inviting about the thundering breakers, and what undertow we could feel against our legs made it very clear that trying to get out of the water, once we were really in it, would be taxing at best, and dangerous at best, too.

At a quarter to seven, those of us who were staying on kissed those who were leaving goodbye; offsetting the melacholy of the occasion, we were two trios (not counting Will) — crowds, as the saying has it, when crowds were needed. When our simple dinner was just about through, the thunder passed from the sea to the sky, and the heavens let loose a deluge that made an enormous racket on the screened porch’s corrugated roof.

5 August 2011

Friday, August 5th, 2011

There is too much to say for so calm an hour. I hear murmurs from other houses, and, from behind me, one of Brahms’sstring quartets — also a murmur. The surf pounds out its dull, arrhythmic roar. The occasional light plane — the occasional helicopter in the evening — and, every once in a great while, an airliner coming in from Europe. It is so quiet that the sunlight on the pines seems to hum.

I’d have to be Oblomov himself to claim that I have a busy day ahead of me. But that I have anything at all to do seems a bit taxatious. What it comes down to is devising a supper that will be more or less ready to eat when we all get back from the ferry. I wouldn’t miss greeting the family for the world; plus, I have a stroller for Will. The stroller proved itself to be fairly useless on the sandy stretch between Ocean Beach and Robbins Rest; carrying a bag containing little more than a feather pillow, it bogged down several times and finally had to be carried. But for the much longer walk from the edge of Ocean Beach to the ferry, it will come in handy, especially as Will will have had a very long day by the time he sets foot on Fire Island for the first time. (It will also be a first time for everyone else in the party except for Megan and Kathleen.)

Meeting the ferry means that I won’t be cooking while everyone else is approaching the house. I’ll have to have gotten most things to an advanced point, and experienced cooks will know that there are few problems as intractable as bringing a menu close to the point of completion in such a way that, an hour or so later, five minutes of last-minute stirrings and whatever kitchen voodoo is working that day are all that it takes to produce a delicious, fresh-tasting meal. The dishes that work best under such constraints — stews, for the most part — are not what one wants to be eating in August.

Although it is deliciously cool and breezy right now. I ought to go the store and do my shopping now, but I’d much rather read The Power Broker. Let me sound really dumb and say, “It’s really good!” Duh. It was really good thirty-odd years ago, when Kathleen started out in municipal bonds at Hawkins, and it was more or less assumed that everyone read Robert Caro’s study of the grand vizier of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, for which the firm wrote bond indentures. (She has yet to read it.) I’m finding it the perfect beach book, as endless as the long, monotonous days but every bit as sparkly with glittering detail.

And there’s my new phone to play with. I’ve been putting off upgrading to a smartphone for ages. I hated my last phone, which was only semi-smart; I never liked the way it worked and in fact I thought that it didn’t work. (A lot of the “not working” was AT & T’s fault, not the phone’s.) When, on Tuesday morning, the old phone’s screen flickered and went dark, it never occurred to me that a simple reboot would restore it; for one thing, I had no idea where the battery was. I was embarrassed when the salesman at the phone store told me that he’d got it working, and was therefore able to transfer all my contacts to the new Inspire phone that I had by that time purchased. Well, as I say, I’d been putting it off. Learning how to use a new phone is another activity that’s perfectly suited to oceanside living. Already I’ve sent the phone askew several times, by accidently pressing buttons or flipping switches (or whatever), and setting things to rights has required crash courses in the utter basics. 

But — how sweet it is — I have nothing better to do.