Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Outer Limits

New York City is big. For the uninitiated, it consists of five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Each of those five boroughs is also one of the 62 counties that comprise New York state. They are named Manhattan County, Queens County, Bronx County, and – don’t get smug, it gets weird now – Kings County (Brooklyn) and Richmond County (Staten Island).

When most people think of New York, they are thinking about Manhattan. Those other four places are known as the Outer Boroughs. I’ve always found that strange. If New York has outer boroughs, shouldn’t it also have some inner boroughs? I asked some New Yorkers, and by that I mean Manhattanites, about that. A few told me that Manhattan is the inner borough, but most said that there aren’t any inner boroughs. There is The City (where they are) and there are the outer boroughs. That’s it.

Maybe New York is like one of those grid drawings that they use on the Discovery Channel to explain the Theory of Relativity. You know, the one that has a big ball rolling around on it causing it to warp like a too soft mattress. The shiny ball begins to sink into it’s own depression, spiraling downward, like water draining from the bath tub, until it disappears into a black hole. Maybe that’s what happened to the Inner Boroughs; they just disappeared into a black hole.

City dwellers (Manhattanites) dread the thought of travelling to the Outer Boroughs. Like Columbus’ sailors fearing that they would fall off the edge of the earth, people in Manhattan apparently fear getting sucked into the same black hole that swallowed the Inner Boroughs.

Not all of the Outer Boroughs are equally denigrated. Parts of Brooklyn are downright trendy. The Bronx has the distinction of sounding like the plural of something, but nobody knows what. Besides, it is the home of the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers. Queens gets less respect. During introductions in swank Manhattan bars, I’ve had people back away from me in alarm when I mention that I live in Queens. Staten Island is the purgatory of New York. Nobody admits to living there. They lie and tell people they’re from New Jersey.

So next time you’re in New York, consider something adventuresome. Take a free ferry ride to Staten Island and get a good view of the Statue of Liberty on the way. Or if you’re feeling really wild, try crossing the dark, dangerous waters of the East River and venture to the other Outer Boroughs. The pizza at Enzo’s in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is better than anything in Manhattan. For authentic Greek food, you must come to Astoria in Queens and for the best Italian head up to Arthur Street in The Bronx.

And don’t worry, for a mere $2.25 you can get back into The City before nightfall. Just try not to think about those lost Inner Boroughs as your train tunnels under the river.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Pity the plight of bartenders. They are being replaced by mixologists (The word hasn’t found its way into my spell checker yet.) The expectations of the hard working, hard drinking, professional crowd in Manhattan have grown to keep pace with the obscene amount of their disposable income. No longer satisfied with a mere martini after work, they now sip concoctions such as the Buffalo 66 at Il Matto made with rosemary vodka, Worcestershire sauce, and beet juice. Yours for just fourteen dollars. If you are so plebian as to order a Martini, take comfort in knowing that it will include vermouth soaked black stones from Mongolia. I’m not sure if the stones are yours to keep.

Over at the Pegu Club they “like to think in terms of each cocktail having its own unique personality,” according to their website. While they will not condescend to tell you ahead of time what these personable cocktails consist of, they do inform that “the creative process is not something we rush” and that, for their Master Mixologists, “development of each drink takes place slowly and thoughtfully.”

Oh, give me a break! It’s just a freaking drink, not the Mona Lisa. You’re going to wait forever while they slowly and thoughtfully pour it and you’re going to get a megadose of attitude when some snooty wait person presents it and informs you that you now owe the equivalent of her next two credits in college. She will expect a commensurately large tip.

I go to bars (yes, bars, not lounges, not clubs) to socialize with friends and perhaps to meet new friends. If my main objective were to drink, I could stay home and do it far more efficiently. The bartender is not my friend; he is the guy that is between me and the bottle of beer that I want to drink. I don’t want to know his name. I don’t care if he has movie star looks and exposed pecs worthy of a centerfold. As often as not, he is going to act as if he is doing me a favor and only because the bouncer screwed up and let an old guy with a pot belly into the place. I’ll be charged seven bucks for a beer that cost the owners about forty cents. For the Herculean effort of lifting that bottle of beer out of the cooler and popping off the top, Mr. Perfection will expect a tip of at least a dollar or two.

You would think that here in the outer boroughs we would be immune to the aggrandizement trend. You’d be wrong. The current hot spot in my corner of Astoria is a lounge (not a bar) named simply enough, Mix. I’m not sure if that refers to the mixed assortment of wannabe trendy metrosexuals or the fact that they don’t pour drinks, they create cocktail art. At least we now have all the pretentiousness, price inflation, and self absorbed staff of a Manhattan lounge without the hassle of going to Manhattan to get it. Progress?

A friend of mine told me that his dad, a bar owner, once asked him how he could turn his bar into a gay bar. On a good night he would have a dozen or so guys sipping on dollar beers and two dollar shots of whiskey while the gay bar down the street would have a line outside waiting to buy nine dollar cocktails. Maybe he should have just raised his prices and replaced his affable middle aged bartender with a shirtless bodybuilder.

Frankly, I'd prefer this.
There used to be an effective strategy to counter the greed of lounge owners. You would do your drinking at home then only buy bottles of water at the bar. (Learned that trick from the ecstasy crowd, although they had far different reasons for their love of plain old water.) Unfortunately the lounge owners have caught on. A bottle of water will set you back five or six bucks. I envision the day coming soon when people who actually have to live on a budget won’t buy anything when they go out. Of course the owners will be ready for that: They will sell admission tickets outside, just like a movie theater. Ten dollar peanuts optional.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just Say No to Bullies

The recent spate of teen suicides has brought a swift, and mostly positive, reaction from Americans. The spontaneous creation of “it gets better” videos has shown that even in an ugly political climate, there is an enormous reserve of compassion. There has been a nearly universal condemnation of bullying in our nation’s schools.

But it hasn’t taken long for both sides of the political battle over gay rights to co-opt this issue. At the insistence of gay rights advocacy groups, school boards in more liberal communities across the country have incorporated messages of tolerance into their curricula. These messages are specific: tolerance of families with two daddies or two mommies, acceptance of love between two boys or two girls. These messages are being pitched to students as young as those in elementary school. Needless to say, social conservatives are outraged. They see a “hidden” agenda. They believe that gay rights advocates are exploiting the bullying crisis to promote acceptance of homosexuality.

As in all complex and deeply emotional issues, neither side is completely right. The need for a swift and vigorous response is obvious. Shaping that response is tricky. But we’ve been down this road before. Not long ago the battle lines were drawn over hate crimes legislation. In an effort to combat violence against those who are perceived to be gay, laws were passed that go beyond punishing behavior involved in a criminal act. These laws attempt to punish perpetrators for the motivation behind the act.

Isn’t it enough to have strong sanctions against violent acts without attempting to ascribe motivation? The answer is yes, if those laws are enforced equally for all persons without regard to classification. The problem is not a lack of legislation, the problem is a lack of enforcement. The solution is a zero tolerance policy for violence of any kind, in any situation, against any person. That policy must come from and be vigorously enforced by the people in charge – the mayors, the police department chiefs, the school board administrators, and everyone who reports to them.

As it turns out, all of the people who can implement and enforce such a zero tolerance policy serve as elected officials or work at the discretion of elected officials. Therefore the ultimate responsibility lies with us, the people who vote for school board members and politicians. We must demand a zero tolerance policy towards violence and we must remove those who do not work forcefully to implement it.

Each of us must exercise our individual responsibility to create a climate in which violence is unacceptable. Parents, in particular, must teach their children from the earliest age that bullying will never be acceptable behavior. If we work together, we can make a difference. We should fight our ideological battles in some other arena.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Rescue

Clusters of brown leaves fell like rain each time the breeze picked up. They scuttled across the bed of leaves that had fallen earlier and lay on the gravel base of the camp site. I sipped on my coffee. It had been a long drive from New York to the Poconos.

“Brindle,” I called. That is the name my camping buddy had given to one of the two stray cats that had inhabited the campground all season. There was no sign of her. I began to worry that my trip would not result in a successful rescue. I didn’t want to think what would happen if I failed. The wind was cold already and it was only the beginning of November. With everyone gone, there would no longer be anyone to leave food out for her. I doubted that she would survive the winter.

The first time I saw the two abandoned cats was early in July. It had been midweek and the camp was relatively quiet. They were barely older than kittens. They sauntered over to my site and immediately tried to befriend my cat, Osito. But Osito was more fearful of them than curious. Each time I returned to the campground I would see them. They were having an idyllic life. The entire campground was theirs to roam. People left food out and there were streams and a lake for water. They frolicked and played with each other or curled up together under a tool shed for a nap. But that was summer.

I worried what would happen to them when the campground closed at the end of the season. Some people think stray cats can always survive. “They’ll hunt. They will be fine,” some of the other campers assured me. But it’s a myth that abandoned cats can survive on their own. If the mother does not teach them to hunt and eat prey, they can only eat scraps from garbage or handouts from sympathetic people. How would that happen in a remote camp devoid of humans for six months?

Last Sunday was the day the camp closed. Everyone had to vacate by six o’clock. If I were going to do anything, it had to be then. The two strays had been hanging around my camping buddy’s tent. They were even in his tent for a while. They were trying to befriend his dog. I think those two young cats really missed their mother. We decided to try to catch them.

Neither one of us had any experience rescuing animals. We had no plan and no equipment. I thought we might be able to use Osito’s carrying case as a trap. We would lure them into it with lunch meat, which we had discovered they craved. Brindle was the first to take the bait. I quickly closed the end of the carrier. We had one!

Now all we had to do is get the other. We decided to try the same technique. First we had to transfer Brindle into another container. That’s when we lost her. Frustrated, but determined, we kept at it for hours. Several times we almost had one or the other. We could sometimes get our hands on one of them but they always got away. Too fast. Too agile. My friend finally left for home but I felt I could not abandon these guys.

As the sky grew dimmer I began to despair. But then I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Sunshine, the second cat, had jumped into the cab of my truck. I had left the door open by accident. As stealthily as my creaky old joints allowed, I sprung over and closed the door. Got her!

I tried for another hour to get Brindle but she wondered off. She was probably stuffed from all the ham and treats we had used. Reluctantly I called off the mission. At least one rescued cat was better than none.

Sunshine is now safely at home, in my New York apartment. She is still trying to befriend Osito who is still wary. Within 36 hours she has already allowed me to pet her. I think she will socialize well and be a very adoptable pet in no time. But I couldn’t bear the thought of her sister, now alone, back in the Poconos. I couldn’t give up on her. Not yet.

After a little networking with cat rescue people, I had a trap and some advice on how to proceed. I got permission from the camp owners to return for one day only and attempt to rescue Brindle. I headed out early this morning, confident that if I could find her, I could catch her. But would she still be there? After three days without food, and without her sister, she may have wandered away.

I first returned to the site where I had rescued Sunshine. I called and called, walking around, looking under trailers and sheds. No sign of her. So I canvassed the entire campground eventually returning to the site where Osito and I had first seen her. I called. She squeaked, then timidly approached. Her squeaking turned into a desperate wail. She was very, very hungry.

Moving quickly, I set up the trap, baiting it with tuna fish as the cat rescue people had recommended. The sent of tuna travels further than ham, they told me. She came to the trap but was afraid to enter it. She circled around, trying to get at the food, crying loudly the whole time.  I held my breath and dared not move a muscle. Desperation took over. She scurried inside.

Whack! The door of the trap slammed shut. She cried out in alarm and thrashed around inside the trap while I ran over to the truck to get the blanket that I had brought to put over the trap. Another tip from the rescue people. That calmed her down. I loaded the trap and Brindle into my truck. The adrenaline rush abated and I realized that my mission was successful. I’m not usually prone to displays of joy, but I think I let out a hoot and looked up at the sky and thanked the god that I don’t even believe in.

The drive back to New York was the calmest, most pleasant one I have ever experienced. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day and Brindle and Sunshine would soon be reunited in the safety of my apartment.
Brindle and Sunshine on my bed.