Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Five million words you’ve just gotta read

Upon reaching an entirely meaningless and inaccurate milestone on Goodreads, I've been inspired to put together a list of my favorite 50 books of all time. Ask me next week and it'll be different.

I reluctantly limited each author to only one book, otherwise I could never have winnowed the list down to just 50 entries. The books are in no particular order, but those marked with an asterisk are the ones I would, gun to my head and for highly varied reasons, call my top ten. (At this particular juncture in time.)

* Big Sur (Jack Kerouac)
One of Kerouac's later works, Big Sur chronicles the author's terrifying, thinly fictionalized descent into desperate paranoia following his sudden celebrity after the publication of the generation-defining novel On the Road. Other Kerouac works that should be on this list: Tristessa, The Dharma Bums.
Whiteman (Tony D'Souza)
A fiercely written, deeply felt novel of Cote d'Ivoire. Recommended by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer; it came out of nowhere to become one of my favorite books in years.
* The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)
Poetic, gruesome, gorgeous, unapologetically political, repugnantly zealous. One of the most amazing achievements in the history of literature. And yes, you should read beyond Inferno.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell)
The story of a Dutch clerk on Dejima, the tiny island that is Japan's only outlet into the greater world as the 19th century dawns. Other Mitchell works that should be on this list: Cloud Atlas.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In the Company of Frogs

One frog’s fountain flows forth magnificently, a glittering spuming arc in the late-afternoon light. His brother’s perpetual drool splutters out into a sad little puddle at his feet. An elderly man totters over, reaching into the weaker stream to rinse his hands. Spying him, a young boy dashes over and covers the mouth of the more enthusiastic frog, shielding the old man from an inadvertent shower. The man doesn’t notice, but I do, and I raise my polystyrene food container to the boy in salute.

Bounded by the Bowery, Essex, East Broadway and Grand, this chunk of Chinatown in Manhattan may be my very favorite part of the city. It helps that my top cheap meal—$1 pork dumplings and $1.25 veggie sesame pancakes at Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge—is here, but even at those rare times when I’m not craving pork orbs swimming in soy sauce, sriracha and soup broth, a stroll through this section of town gives me both acute relief from Manhattan’s concrete sterility and fond reminiscences of eastern travels.

Streets here could have been airlifted wholesale from Hong Kong, complete with vertical signs lettered in sharp-edged characters, boba tea outlets with names like Quickly and Kung Fu, and cross-continental walking tours of Chinese cuisine. (Including the delicious, cumin-laced lamb burger from Xi’an Famous Foods, imported from one of China's most epically historic cities.)

But on this swampy afternoon I’m not too keen on walking, so I grab my dumplings and settle into the little playground at the corner of Hester and Eldridge. I choose the corner with the frog fountains, of course, where the gurgling of water dilutes the street noise ever so slightly. At the other end of the square, the play equipment swarms with children recently released from their school shackles. The benches are staked out by chattering elders, who I imagine have been holding court since sunrise.

A little girl wobbles over to the handwashing frog, her dark kinked hair flowing in lush twin cataracts down to her shoulders. With wide-eyed toddler goodwill she’s smiling at everything—the fountains, the doting park patrons, even me. Her gap-toothed older sister keeps watch from afar.

We’re between buildings and shade settles over the square, tempering the summer heat. Fewer children venture over to the cooling fountains as I inhale my tenth dumpling. On the adjacent bench, one of a quartet of gossiping old women breaks off from her group to perch on a frog, grinning like she’s that same little girl from minutes earlier, advanced eighty years or so in body if not in spirit. She knows she’s being irreverent and juvenile, and doesn’t care one jot.

She’s living in the moment, in the company of frogs.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Subway snapshot

2011 New York City subway ridership (hold shift and click-and-drag to move the map):
2011 ridership information is taken from the New York MTA's website. Some of what I call "stations" are actually "station complexes," which are two or more connected stations--for example, Chambers Street/World Trade Center/Park Place. The MTA counts these complexes as one station in their statistics. Geographical coordinates are from Google Maps.

I didn't include shuttles, the 6/7 express trains, or night-only stops. The size of each circle is proportional to the number of riders who entered the system at a particular station, not the number of riders who pass through that station. For stations with connections--the ones that look like pie charts--the share of the pie is not proportional to each line's ridership, but is only meant to be a visual indicator of where lines cross. Mouse over each station for additional info, and let me know if I missed anything major or make any glaring errors.

The first thing that gets me about the New York City subway map is how cushy Brooklynites have it. Brooklyn has almost exactly twice as many stations/station complexes as Queens (157 versus 78), but fewer than 300,000 more people (2,532,645 versus 2,247,848). Subway stations in Queens accepted an average of 3.08 million riders each in 2011; those in Brooklyn, only 2.25 million.  (For the Bronx it's 2.16 million, and for Manhattan a whopping 7.6 million.)

And it's not just numbers. Many commuters from Queens basically have two major options--the 7 and the E/F/M/R, which run adjacent to each other for most of their length. Huge portions of the borough are completely unserviced by rail, while Brooklyn's riders have the luxury of relatively lightly-used lines crisscrossing most of its area. (Brooklyn is also around 15,000 acres smaller than Queens.)

Of course, Manhattan is where the real crush is. The borough has nine of the ten busiest stations in the system (at nearly 19 million riders in 2011, Flushing-Main Street in Queens manages a respectable tenth place), including Times Square (the busiest at over 60,000,000 riders), Grand Central (42.8 million) and three massive stations on 34th Street which together accepted nearly 90 million passengers in 2011. The large green bulges down the eastern side of Manhattan are a testament to the need for the in-the-works Second Avenue Subway line--those circles can't get much bigger than they already are with current infrastructure.

A few tidbits:
  • Only five stations connect four differently-colored lines: Times Square (red/blue/yellow/orange), Fulton Street (brown/red/green/blue), Court Square (purple/orange/light green/blue), 74 Street-Broadway/Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue (purple/yellow/orange/blue) and Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street (red/orange/yellow/green).
  • The stations furthest in each compass direction are: Wakefield/241 Street (north), West 8 Street-NY Aquarium (south), Far Rockaway-Mott Avenue (east) and Bay Ridge-95 Street (west). Yep: the most westerly station in the system is actually in Brooklyn. I'm so used to seeing the tilted and skewed MTA map that I assumed one of Manhattan's stations would take that title.
  • The system spans around .327 degrees of latitude and .275 degrees of longitude. That's about 22.6 miles north to south and 14.4 miles east to west.
  • The station with the lowest number of riders is Aqueduct Racetrack, with only 54,183 in 2011--but that's misleading since the station is only active on race days. Absent that one, Beach 105 Street on the A line in Queens is the most lightly-used with 80,580 passengers.
  • There are no lines that touch all four boroughs, nor is there any line that is completely contained within one borough. (Unless you count Staten Island's railway.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Ballad of Jesus Christmas

“Jesus Christmas. I hate this.” Bent double, rubbing his forehead, lumpy hand-rolled cigarette spraying ashes into my lap while he dances at the edge of blasphemy. “I hate this. I really do.”

I can’t tell if he wants to talk, but there are plenty of empty spots in Christopher Park that aren’t right next to me. It’s a tiny splinter in the West Village, surrounded by a nonsensical tangle of streets (West 4th intersects West 10th; Stonewall Place is also Christopher Street; segments of Waverly Place both hit the park and pass it by).

Last time I sat here to read, a man paced the park, crossing the bulk of it in fifteen steps, screaming into his cellphone. “You know when I got suspicious? When you said you were tired. You go out and spend my money, my money, then you’re too tired to see me. My money.”

At one point the connection died—“Hello? Hello, baby?”—and his timbre warmed, became almost concerned. The signal returned: “My money. You lying—

Life out in the open.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Los Angeles, NY

IMG_1995Looking north from Sycamore Cove (2006)

On hot days in New York—and after eight months here, I’ve had a few—I remember California and its beach-salt smell mixing with pollution blowing over from Los Angeles. On the hottest day in my memory—during Labor Day weekend, 2007, a dry blast of heat that for sheer Fahrenheit beat out any Philippine swelter—I hopped into my little red Civic and drove up to Sycamore Cove, a dimple in the coastline past interminable Zuma but well south of Oxnard.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Big (Green) Apple

New York has several of the tallest buildings in the world. It has the two most-visited tourist attractions on earth. It contains a single smallish island that, during the day, crams well over one percent of the entire country’s population onto its shores. Its metro system is among the busiest and most extensive anywhere. The city has more people than Switzerland.

For just those reasons, New York’s parks are all the more miraculous.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Parsnips like white elephants

New York is made out of tunnels, bridges and roads, boxy skyscrapers, green patches of park, a couple of rivers, three big islands and many smaller ones, a few bays, air thick with wireless signals and blaring horns, ringing phones, profanity, the aroma of pizza. Everything is falling apart, in an entropic sense—the brand-new floors being added to One World Trade Center are already past their prime, even as their last rivets are set. The green shoots springing up in Central Park and Flushing Meadows and even my humble Clement Moore Homestead Park have nothing in their future but autumnal amputation.

Luckily, there is an urban renewal team bent on keeping the parts of New York whole and attached. Their tools are stickers, spray cans and masticated gum. Blank surfaces are smoothed over with painted banners, hiding piecework brick behind graffiti. Plastic adhesives reinforce street signs and light poles. The city doesn’t condone these repairs, but it should be grateful for them—they distract from the ugly sameness, the brilliant glare from a billion spotless panes of glass.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

This Is the Way They Operate


“You! I’m gonna kill you!” Estelle’s finger jabbed in the direction of a middle-aged woman walking past our bench outside Espresso 77 in Jackson Heights. Rain was trailing down halfheartedly, shunted away from us by a skimpy awning, but Estelle kept her umbrella at attention anyway.

The passing woman looked startled and almost instinctively guilty, clutching the cottony evidence of a dry-cleaned shirt. Estelle glared and gibbered. I thought I was in the presence of an octogenarian lunatic—until I realized she was ranting about dry-cleaning receipts. Then I was sure of it.