Collecting Bridges (concluded)

When I worked in White Plains, a city in Westchester County north of the Bronx, I would take the subway from my Brooklyn home to the northern reaches of Manhattan and run the eight or ten or twelve miles to White Plains. That meant crossing the Harlem River. There are a number of bridges with walkways that do that, and I ran over quite a few of them, but I don’t remember their names. I did not especially enjoy these bridges. I almost always ran them going to the Bronx. The views of the Bronx were uninspiring, and often I was thinking about how it was going to be running through the South Bronx, a very tough neighborhood in those days. These bridges were utilitarian, only part of my route to get me from point A to point B.

Just as I ran over the George Washington Bridge only once, I ran over the Manhattan Bridge but once. In my running days, the Manhattan Bridge walkways were not open. The plural is correct because that bridge has walkways on both north and south sides. I call them walkways even though one is now supposedly reserved for bicyclists and the other for pedestrians. I have gone over both walkways since they opened, but by walking or biking, not running. Neither is pleasant.  Both are narrow and on the same level as the road and the subway tracks.  With trains rattling twelve yards away and cars constantly on the move even closer, the bridge is hardly a respite from the city. On the plus side, however, I like peering down into Chinatown, a place that still retains some mystery for me.

The only time that I ran over the Manhattan Bridge was in a race, put on by a newspaper that printed legal news. It was billed as a courthouse-to-courthouse run.  It started at the federal courthouse in Manhattan, went over the Manhattan Bridge on the roadway to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, turned around, back over the bridge again, and ended at the federal courthouse in Manhattan’s Foley Square. We ran on the bridge’s road, not either of its walkways, and the entire race may have been four miles. I remember nothing of what I saw.

I do remember, however, many of the runs over the Williamsburg Bridge. Those runs were not nearly as frequent as my passages on the Brooklyn Bridge, but I ran the Williamsburg Bridge frequently going to and from my office when I worked in lower Manhattan. If I wanted a short run, I ran from my home over the Brooklyn Bridge to my law school or vice versa, a three-plus-mile distance. If I wanted something longer, I went over the Williamsburg, about a 10K run.

The Williamsburg Bridge walkway was not in good shape when I ran it. It was supposed to be covered with something like tiles, but many were missing, giving a sense of decay. The path did not seem unsafe, but it was unsightly. It, however, was elevated above the roadway allowing unimpeded views. The bridge is situated at a dramatic bend in the East River. To the north, one can see to the United Nations and beyond; to the south, to Governor’s Island, the Statute of Liberty, and beyond. No bridge I had crossed before or since offered better views. If you get the chance, walk or bike or run across that bridge. But stop in the middle of the span and admire the view.

But running in New York also brought me to many other bridges because, as I said, New York City is a city of bridges. Many of the bridges are not widely known, but I have run over bridges that span the Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal; that are above waters in Mill Basin and Gerritsen Beach; and that separate the Rockaways from the mainland. I have run over bridges to get to Roosevelt Island and City Island. There are bridges in Central Park and Prospect Park.

Running has given me memories of many New York City bridges. They gave me vistas and skies and waters I would not otherwise have seen or noticed. But there was another good thing about those bridge-crossings. They often brought me to a new neighborhood, places to learn about and explore. But that is for another day.


Running the Brooklyn Bridge

Before the Marathon

Who is Othmar?

Collecting Bridges

It may not be apparent when walking the canyons of Manhattan, sitting on the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone, or gazing longingly at the single-family homes of Forest Hills, but New York City is a city of bridges. When I was younger and a runner, I experienced many of those bridges and in a different way from driving over them. Each time I ran over a bridge for the first time, I was aware it was a new experience. I felt as if I had “collected” another one.

I have both walked and run over the Brooklyn Bridge, but I have run over it many more times than I have walked it. Early in my running days, I would run over it and back at lunch time. Later I would run to and from work over the Brooklyn Bridge several times a week. I have tried to calculate the total number of trips, but those calculations are not precise. I’m guessing it was more than a thousand times. I have run the Brooklyn Bridge in the heat and humidity of summer and the cold and crispness of winter, early morning and at night, in rain and in snow, and almost every time its Gothic arches, its supporting wires’ parabolas, its views gave me some sort of thrill.

While I have been over the Brooklyn Bridge many times, I ran over the the George Washington Bridge that connects New York City and New Jersey but once. It was after seeing a doctor in upper Manhattan. I ran from the office to nearby parks on the Manhattan side of the Hudson River and then north to the bridge. I had driven over the bridge many times, and I always admired the view north up the Hudson. The Hudson is a majestic river, and I envy those who have homes overlooking it. However, I was a bit disappointed as I ran across the GWB. The walkway is on the south side of the bridge, so the view up the Hudson is obstructed. On the other hand, this walkway is higher than any of the other bridge walkways and this allowed me to feel as if I were taking my place among the birds. The sun was strong and sparkled off the water far below. The views of Manhattan were spectacular with the sun mirroring off skyscraper windows. Everything looked like a stage set.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island is also high above the water. (New York arcana: While the structure is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the water it spans is simply The Narrows.) I have run over that bridge only while participating in New York City marathons. That is hardly surprising since that bridge does not have a walkway and the only time it can be traversed on foot is during that event. I understand that it must cost extra to include a pedestrian path, and that it might be seldom used on this particular bridge, but I do think all bridges should allow for foot and bike traffic.

Running that bridge during a marathon was hardly a sightseeing opportunity. The marathon starts on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and the runners are tightly clustered. I only could see other runners, and I had to concentrate on running my pace without either being run over or stepping on someone’s heels. If there was a spectacular view of the harbor (there no doubt is), I never saw it.

The marathon goes across the 59th Street Bridge, also known as the Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Queens, too. (Now that bridge has an additional name because, for reasons not clear to me, the city or state, or whoever is in charge of such naming, adds dead politicians’ names to them.) I hated it. During the race, we were allowed to run on the roadway or the walkway. The first time I ran on the road because it was more open with fewer runners than the walkway, but the road has little metal projections, presumably to give cars more traction, but they felt like spikes and hurt my feet. In subsequent years I tried to run on the walkway, which was covered with matting.

Even if my feet were not hurt by the bridge, it was hard running. The 59th Street Bridge comes at the sixteen-mile mark of the marathon. Sixteen miles is a long way to run, but there are still ten more miles to go! It was hard not to be psychologically drained at this point, and, of course, the half the bridge uphill. That incline seemed a mile long, and that was tough to do after sixteen miles. That bridge itself was the loneliest part of the marathon. The runners by now had thinned, many were struggling, and there were no spectators to cheer us on. Thoughts about dropping out surfaced, but I struggled to make it over the bridge each marathon.

Even though I have no pleasant memories of the 59th Street Bridge from the marathon, I did run over it a few other times. When I was not so exhausted from having run sixteen miles before encountering it, it was not so bad. But still I never enjoyed it. The walkway is next to the highway, and the bridge’s structure impedes views of Manhattan and the East River. I decided to avoid the 59th Street Bridge on my runs as much as possible.

(continued on August 10.)


Running the Brooklyn Bridge

Before the Marathon

Who is Othmar?


What We Didn’t Learn from 9/11 (concluded)

The political and policy discussions after 9/11 immediately centered on security. We needed a larger military, more intelligence, more monitoring of potentially dangerous people, stricter border controls. We needed to kill bin Laden. We need to wipe out al Qaeda. These thoughts were understandable even if many of the actual responses were not justified or wasteful or simply wrong. We had little discussion, however, of what should have been evident from 9/11—the importance of a strong, efficient, creative government in non-militaristic area

On September 11, 2001, my office was eight blocks from the Twin Towers. I had come to work at eight to prepare to teach a law school class later in the morning. I took a break to go to the bank and heard the first plane go over my head and crash. I saw the hole on the upper floors of the Tower. Mesmerized, I realized that I was watching people dying. I decided that I wanted to see what the Tower looked like from the other side. As I got two blocks from the World Trade Center, the second plane hit the far side of the other Tower and flames shot out in my direction. I walked back to my office amidst crying and wailing people. I called the spouse to tell her I was ok, but the call got cut off when the first Tower fell. I decided it was time to get out of lower Manhattan.

I had driven to work. My usual routes home to Brooklyn were over the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges, both a few blocks from my office, but I knew they were closed. Picking up and dropping off people along the way, I drove to the next bridge over the East River. I was in line to cross the Williamsburg Bridge, with but two cars in front of me to get on the span, when traffic officials signaled that the structure was now closed. I went to the next crossing; got in line; and had it close just in front of me. And the next. There was no way to drive to Brooklyn. I turned around and headed south. I parked my car on a Chinatown street and walked with hordes of others over the Manhattan Bridge roadway to Brooklyn. (The mind operates on curious levels. Although I had driven over that span many times, I found myself thinking in the midst of the horror and shock of that day about the only other time I had crossed it on foot. In those days, no walkway on the Manhattan Bridge was open to pedestrians, but I once ran in a “Courthouse to Courthouse” race. It started by the Manhattan federal courts, went over the Manhattan Bridge, which had been closed to vehicles for the event, wound on local streets to a Brooklyn courthouse, and then reversed course to Manhattan. It was not a long race, but a tough one, all uphill or downhill. Now, on 9/11, it was not an organized run of a few hundred, but a solemn trudge by the tens of thousands, as if we were extras in a Biblical epic, except this was all too real.)

 In mid-afternoon, a news report stated that some East River bridges were again open. I walked a mile from home to the Manhattan Bridge where one bus stood to ferry passengers over the river. I got to my car and quickly doubted the accuracy of the news report since I kept finding bridges closed. About to give up again, I found I could cross the Tri-Borough Bridge into Queens, which, of course, abuts Brooklyn, but then I found my usual way home from that Bridge was closed. Normally I would merge off the Bridge on to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but traffic officials were blocking the entrance to the expressway. An officer told me that I would have to take local streets. I prided myself on knowing my way around much of New York City, but Queens was always mysterious. I literally drove in circles, seeing one particular building at least three times. Finally, I came upon a familiar intersection because it was one I sometimes passed when I took the NBP to tennis on Roosevelt Island. I finally knew a route home. In my wanderings, which were less than twelve hours after the first attack, I passed many entrances to elevated roadways. Every one of them was blocked, I presume out of security concerns, by government officials.  I can’t imagine how many such entrances there are in New York City, but I thought what an amazing logistical feat it was to have closed every one of them in such short order. It took a good government, a strong government, a large government (which in New York City was largely a unionized government) to accomplish this. We pay a lot of taxes in New York, but it seemed more than worth it on the night of 9/11 for the response that I saw.

Of course, this was one of the many feats, and one of the more minor ones, that New York City quickly accomplished in response to the terror. When I had gone to my car, I could see that Manhattan south of Canal Street had been effectively cordoned off—once again, a remarkable logistical feat. And in the coming days, I would learn about the efforts and coordination of emergency medical personnel and school guards and sanitation workers and firefighters and housing officials and welfare workers and much more. Volunteers stepped forward as New Yorkers pulled together, but New York would not have recovered as well as it did without the effective performance at all levels of government. And this was not the work of bureaucratic drudges. The situation required new coordination among different government branches. It required creativity. It required dedicated service.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani got lots of praise because New York performed so well after 9/11, but a salient fact was overlooked. The City government as a whole performed marvelously. Plans had been drawn for emergencies, and they went into effect. And what put them into effect was Big Government. Liberals and conservatives both praised Rudy, but the importance of all levels of governments should also have been stressed. Would other cities where the mantra is against government have performed as well? We, luckily, do not know, but a story that should have come out of that tragedy was not just the performance of an individual, but how important a strong, dedicated, and creative government can be. If that strong, dedicated, and creative government had not been there, Giuliani would not have been effective and not have been a hero. In those unusual times when New York City was generally admired (Do you remember that accurate Onion headline: “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York”?), besides the discussions about national security, lessons should have been given about the worth of the kind of government conservatives rail against. Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric was not heard in those days. It had been proved false.

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

I had hope for Trump’s presidency because he promised vast improvements in our infrastructure. I knew that the GOP would block such spending, citing deficits, if a Democrat had been elected, but I thought that perhaps a Republican president could get Republicans to maintain and improve many needed things around the country. That, of course, has not happened. Instead we got more tax cuts and ludicrous promises. We were told that the tax cuts would benefit the middle class more than the rich. False. We were told that tax cuts would pay for themselves because they would turbocharge the economy, windfalling tax receipts. Independent analysts said that would not happen. The Congressional Budget Office said that even with a better economy, tax cuts would add $1.9 trillion to the deficits. Even so, conservatives ignored these expert opinions and maintained that tax cuts would pay for themselves. Instead, deficits are up by nearly 40% over pre-tax-cut days. The conservatives eschewed learning from experience; the deficit increased after Reagan’s tax cuts of 1980s and George W. Bush’s of 2000. This was also true in Kansas when that state slashed taxes a few years ago.

The Trump tax cuts were also supported by arguments that they would lead to increased capital spending by corporations and this would lead to jobs. This, too, was a surprising argument because even before the tax cuts, corporations had been making large profits. They already were sitting on bundles of cash. If they weren’t making capital investments, it was not for the lack of money. Not surprisingly, the tax cuts have not led to a surge in corporate capital expenditures. But now income inequality is greater now than ever recorded before in this country.

Perhaps a trip chasing waterfalls to Mt. Morris and Letchworth State Park is more than just an opportunity to see natural wonders and paintings done several generations ago. Perhaps it was also to be a lesson that the government can improve this country in temporary and lasting ways that might be better than reducing taxes. Our bridges and roads need work. Our broadband needs expansion. Our energy grid is frightening. Our elections need security. If these needed things can’t be done because they will lead to deficits, then perhaps we should think about the wisdom of our tax cuts.

And a recent column about a new book, Triumph of Injustice, by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, professors at Berkeley, reveals something more that is shocking about our tax system. Now the four hundred richest families in this country pay a combined federal, state, and local tax rate lower than any other income group. (See: The overall tax rate for this group is only 23 percent. The first half of the twentieth century saw increasingly progressive taxes, and the overall tax rate on the wealthiest Americans was seventy percent in 1950. Since then we have increasingly cut taxes on the rich. Their overall tax rate was forty-seven percent in 1980 and is now half that. The pitch for slashing taxes on the rich has almost always been that the economy as a whole will benefit and everybody will be much better off. (Of course, those who advocate slashing taxes on the wealthy don’t call them rich people. Instead other terms are used, such as “job-creators.”)

The rationale has been hogwash. David Leonhardt, the columnist, states, “The wealthy, and only the wealthy, have done fantastically well over the last decades. G.D.P. growth has been disappointing, and middle-class income growth even worse.” As was true in the years before the Great Depression and now, “The American economy just doesn’t function very well when tax rates on the rich are low and inequality is sky high. . . . Which means that raising high-end taxes isn’t about punishing the rich (who, by the way, will still be rich). It’s about creating an economy that works better for the vast majority of Americans.”

(continued October 21)

Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

The spouse and I went to Mt. Morris, New York, because it is a jumping off place for the beautiful waterfalls of Letchworth State Park. Only after we got to Mt. Morris did we learn that it has a unique art trove. A tuberculosis hospital complex opened on a hilltop there in 1936. The planning for it began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was governor of New York, and Eleanor Roosevelt had a particular interest in the sanitarium. To brighten the lives of the 200 adult and 50 children patients, she had art created by the Works Progress Administration placed in the rooms.

The sanitarium closed in 1971, and the five buildings and the land were sold to Livingston County, New York, for a dollar a year later. The WPA art, over 230 paintings as well as sculptures and murals, became the property of the federal government’s General Services Administration but remained on what had been the tuberculosis campus. Livingston County partnered with the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts to create an exhibition space for the art in what had been four apartments for the tuberculosis doctors and their families. This gallery contains the largest collection of WPA art in any one place.

 The Art Gallery is open to the public and free. My guess is that, at least in September, it does not get many visitors. When the spouse and I entered we initially saw no one. We wandered through four or five rooms looking at paintings. About half were painted under the WPA, and the rest were by local artists and for sale. We were about to go when the spouse startled a person working in what might have originally been a closet. We asked her questions, but she said this was only her second day on the job writing grants for the art council and had much to learn about the history of the place.

We poked around a bit more when a man appeared. He, like men in the antique shops we had met the day before, was retired. In fact, he said, he had been retired several times. He had worked as a graphic artist for General Motors in nearby Rochester, New York. With a note of bitterness, he indicated that perhaps this retirement had not really been voluntary, but I did not inquire further. He then worked at a printing company, and apparently, he left there voluntarily. He also said that at local fairs and other events he sold tee shirts with wildlife images he had created and printed. Clearly proud of this art, he said, “I put three kids through college doing this.” (I was struck by this pronouncement because I had heard two other artists say almost the same thing in the preceding month. Both were musicians based in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Neither was nationally known, but both made a living from their music, and said that they had put their children through college with their guitar playing.)

The man in the gallery now volunteered with the arts council several days a week coming over from his home in nearby Nunda. (The spouse and I had driven through this crossroad village, which we had pronounced Nun-Duh. He told us it was pronounced Nun-Day. I have yet to find a way to introduce this new-found knowledge into a conversation.)

Like the retired men in the Mt. Morris antique stores, he wanted to talk, and we learned a lot from him about the history of the campus after its decommissioning as a TB institution. He talked about a vibrant arts community in the Genesee Valley. He explained that the gallery had the space to display only a fraction of the WPA art at any one time, that the displayed paintings were changed several times a year, and that some of the paintings needed restoration. He told us that the council was now collaborating with a local college to digitize and catalog all the paintings with a goal of having images of all the art online, and, perhaps, then prints of them would be for sale. (The spouse had especially liked one WPA painting and had asked if there were any prints of it for sale. I had liked a painting of a cow by a local artist, but I would have had to return at the end of the exhibition’s run to get it if I bought it. It would have been a long way to go for $150 painting.)

Going through the gallery, I thought about the Works Progress Administration and what it produced. I am no art critic, but the paintings seemed to be of mixed quality, and only a fraction of them may be truly lasting art. On the other hand, the WPA did many other things, including building roads, bridges, and parks in almost every American community during the Great Depression, many of which we continue to use. We had seen beautiful stonework in Letchworth State Park, and we were told that most of it had been built during the Depression. The WPA gave jobs to those who then needed them and gave us today a rich legacy.

This country has changed. Our government during the Great Recession of a decade ago did authorize work on our infrastructure but not nearly enough to meet our country’s needs. Conservatives fought to keep the funding low maintaining that the resulting deficits would be harmful. They had no sense of irony when they made these arguments even though they had assured there would be major budget deficits without infrastructure spending.

Eight years earlier the conservatives had inherited a budget with a hefty surplus. They did not pay down the debt; they did not undertake needed governmental projects. Instead they enacted rounds of tax cuts even though economists said that these would cause large deficits. But conservatives then followed the lead of Vice President Dick Cheney who was reported to announce, “Deficits don’t matter.” The deficits grew enormously; income inequality followed.

Deficits did not matter to conservatives when Bush was president and tax cuts were on the table. The deficits, however, did concern them when Obama took office and the country could have benefited dramatically from increased infrastructure spending. Only a limited amount of funding was authorized, even though our infrastructure cries out for help and even though would have given jobs to workers. Deficits apparently don’t matter when the issue is tax cuts; otherwise they do.

(continued October 18)

Unsolicited Advice for House Democrats

Democrats have the majority in the House of Representatives. They can use this power for investigations of Donald Trump, but these should not be their principal focus, for such hearings will appear to many as acts of revenge or vindictiveness that are primarily aimed at pleasing the Democratic Party’s base. They might be the Democratic equivalent of all those endless and fruitless Benghazi hearings and not much different from demagogic Trump rallies. Investigations and hearings should serve and be seen to serve some broad national purpose, not just as spectacles to rile up or satisfy partisans.

This does not mean that all Trump investigations are unwarranted. We should know whether the president, his family, or those around him have economic and social interests that could be affecting our country’s policies. Could our relationships with Saudi Arabia be colored because of financial links between that country and the president or his family? Does the expansion of certain economic opportunity areas benefit the Kushner family? Is the relaxation of auto fuel standards driven by connections between the oil industry and the administration? Unfortunately, there are many such possible topics for exploration by sober investigations and hearings, and they should be done.

The House Democrats should not, however, enter the new Congress focused on articles of impeachment of Trump. Perhaps information will come to light that would justify the removal of the president, but under the present circumstances the Senate would not convict the president. Much has been made of recent guilty pleas and arrangements with prosecutors that suggest Donald Trump broke campaign finance laws, but even so, those violations by themselves will not bring a conviction in the Senate, for surely violations of campaign finance laws are legion and others are not removed for them. And the campaign finance problems really sound as if the Democrats are going after Trump for lying about sex. Sound familiar?

The Democrats should wait for Mueller to complete his investigation and only then consider strategies. Articles of impeachment may seem satisfying to certain partisans, but if there is no realistic chance of conviction in the Senate, impeachment will only further inflame and divide the country, and probably do the almost impossible: make Trump into a sympathetic figure.

A House impeachment without a solid chance of removal by the Senate would be grandstanding, and Democrats should avoid grandstanding. Instead, they should try to legislate and govern. The House should concentrate on passing good, cogent, well-researched legislation. Okay, okay, I know that that is a radical notion. Congress, whose constitutional purpose is to pass legislation, no longer seems to be much concerned with legislating. More often, a congressional party’s primary goal is to score political points. However, Democrats should realize that legislation that would help the country can be both good for the country and good for politics.

Objections will come that working on substantive legislation is a waste of effort because nothing that the Democrats propose will stand a chance of passage. The Republican-controlled Senate will simply kill any House initiative. But not so fast. What if House Democrats concentrated on legislative measures that President Trump has promised to support. We forget that there are important areas of apparent agreement between the rivals.

On what issues do Democrats agree with Trump? President Trump campaigned on increased infrastructure spending. As with many of his promises, he was not consistent in what he pledged–500 billion dollars, a trillion dollars, 1.5 trillion dollars. Nevertheless, more infrastructure spending was promised. He loudly and proudly pledged that he would “build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, sea ports and airports that our country deserves.”

Democrats agree with that, and the House should pass an infrastructure bill for the needs most obvious to many Americans: roads, bridges, tunnels, and the like—the stuff that Donald Trump said that he was going to improve. Such a law would produce many benefits: It would show actual governing; it would improve the everyday lives of many, it would further commerce and, therefore, the economy. This is a no-brainer–is there anyone who does not think we need such infrastructure improvement?

The House, however, should not stop at the traditional hard-hat areas. Our power grid was largely built fifty or more years ago, and many have said that it is not adequate for the twenty-first century—indeed that it poses national security risks. I don’t know if that is true, but I am willing to bet that many (most?) in Congress don’t know either.

Legislative hearings can serve purposes other than trying to score political points. They can collect information about problems and can suggest workable ideas that can be turned into legislation that would ameliorate the problems. Good hearings about our aging power grid might accomplish such things. At a minimum, the hearings could help educate Congress and the country and have the added political bonus of showing that the Democrats are truly interested in governing and helping the country. From the information and proposals garnered from such hearings, the House should pass a bill that would improve our power grid.

(continued January 4)

Snippets–Sicily Edition (finally concluded)

Perhaps you already knew this, but I only learned on my recent Sicilian trip that while Archimedes may have been Greek, he was also Sicilian. He was born, lived, and was killed by a Roman soldier in Siracusa, which in English is, of course, Syracuse. Of course, his famous discovery that the volume of an object could be calculated by submerging it in water was made there, and I was told that Sircusan university students, perhaps in the days of streaking, paid homage to Archimedes by running down the streets naked shouting “Eureka!” (Every trip brings some regrets. I regret that I did not buy the Archimedes tee shirt that I spotted in Siracusa but nowhere else.)

We stayed on the island of Ortigia, which is the ancient center of Siracusa, connected to the mainland by two small bridges. Ortigia was filled with houses and businesses fronting on the narrow streets and alleys. Many of the structures had wonderful doors and sometimes glimpses through gates revealed tiny courtyards. It reminded me of the less touristy parts of Venice, but without the canals. I loved it.

I went out for a walk. Our hotel was on the water, and I thought that as I long as I could find the water, I could get back to it. I strolled along the waterfront and walked a block away from the water and then came back, easily finding the hotel. I then went in the opposite direction and walked perpendicular to the water. I came upon a major commercial street and turned on to it, looking at the shop windows and then going into a bookstore. Not surprisingly, almost everything in that shop was in Italian, but here and there was a book in English. I did not understand the organization of the store, but it looked like a good place to browse for books. I continued down the commercial street until I came to a square with a wonderful fountain. I turned and thought that I would run into the water. Wrong. I thought that the commercial street ran parallel to the water, but it angled away from it. Of course, getting a bit lost is part of traveling, but I was tired and wanted to get back and angry with myself for being disoriented. At the end of a narrow street, I saw the open doors of a church (I learned that it was deconsecrated until it was renovated) that seemed to be having an art exhibition. I went in and saw hundreds of pop art paintings of the same face. I learned that the artist was obsessed with a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation in Palermo, and this was his homage to it. But I wasn’t there for the art. I asked the woman in charge whether she could help me. And in this ancient place, she pulled out her smartphone, hit the Google map icon, and showed me that I was but a four-minute walk to my hotel.

The next evening the spouse wanted to see the commercial street. I knew how to get there, I thought. I got lost again, but after instructions from a handsome Sicilian man we found it. I went back into the bookstore and bought a novel by Luigi Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal translated into English. It cost more than I would normally pay for a book, but I considered it my souvenir of the trip. I read the book when I got home. Mattia Pascal runs away from an unhappy marriage and finds a newspaper story a few weeks later that states a decaying body found in his hometown has been identified as him. He feels liberated, but he soon finds that living as a non-person has disadvantages. The strange story is simultaneously dark and comic, and while it takes place in various parts of Italy, there are no Sicilian scenes.

I did not read any Pirandello novel or listen to any Bellini opera to prepare, but I did read some Sicilian literature in advance of the trip. I had read The Leopard by Giuseppe Lampedusa a decade ago. I remembered thinking that it was quite good, and I reread it. I now know a bit more Sicilian history, and some of the references made more sense the second time around. The book is set in the time of the unification of Italy and Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily, but it was written in the 1950s, and many of Lampedusa’s observations of the Sicilian character were seemingly meant to describe Lampedusa’s Sicily as much as that of a century before. Since many of these descriptions are not flattering, I could see why not all Sicilians venerate the book. (And now that I think about it, my image of dry, brown, and dusty Sicily comes not just from The Godfather (see last post) but also from The Leopard.)

The Sicilian writer who most whetted my appetite for the trip was Andrea Camilleri. I don’t remember how or when I first discovered his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, but it was more than a decade ago. I have not read all of them, but I have read many. The characters are complex; the mysteries good; and the Sicilian atmosphere often seems to inform. And then there is the food. The books describe Montalbano’s lengthy meals, all of which sound delicious and made me want not just to visit Sicily but also to eat as much of its food as I could. (Camilleri is not just popular in his English translations. I saw rows of his books in Italian in different formats all around Sicily.)

I had admired Camilleri long before I went to Sicily, but reading in preparation for the trip introduced me to another Sicilian writer, the wonderful Leonardo Sciascia, who was born, taught school, and died in Sicily at the age of 68 in 1989. He wrote essays, historical novels, and plays, but he is most known for his crime stories. They are not traditional mystery stories, however. The solution to the crime seems apparent early in the story but remains unresolved at its conclusion. Beautifully written with obscure and philosophical dialog, the goal is not crime-solving. Instead, the crime is the setting for Sciascia’s characters to confront the meaning of justice and to maintain morality in a corrupt political world that is haunted by its fascist past and entwined with its mafia present. Camilleri, who in his own way tackles similar themes, seems to have been greatly influenced by Sciascia. Sciascia wrote powerful stuff, and when I saw a book in English by him in the Siracusan bookstore that I had not read, I snapped it up. It now rests on the top of my to-read pile. The Sicily trip was filled with many discoveries and one of them was the introduction to Leonardo Sciascia.


As we waited for a flight to Rome for the trip home the rain dripped from the ceiling of the Catania airport into plastic containers that seemed to be in their usual places. This was not a foreshadowing. The flight was fine.

Running to Work (concluded)

When I left my job in White Plains and began to work in lower Manhattan, my running-commute continued, but now I regularly ran both to and from work. The route over the Brooklyn Bridge was a bit over three miles, which at this point was a bagatelle. When pressed for time, however, I used the Brooklyn Bridge. If I was not in a rush, I went over the Williamsburg Bridge, which is north of my home and north of where I worked. This U-shaped route was five or six miles long, and if I took the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning and the Williamsburg going home, I had put in a respectable daily mileage.

I had run the Brooklyn Bridge route so many times that most of it was boring, but the longer way brought me to neighborhoods I enjoyed going through. The route from my office to the Williamsburg Bridge had me wend through Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Sometimes I would stop in shops that looked interesting. One favorite was an old bagel shop. They mostly made bagels for delivery to other outlets, but they did have a retail counter where I would make a few purchases. My choices were limited. The shop was old school, or maybe it was alt shul.  No fifteen kinds of bagels. No pumpernickel or pesto or even cinnamon raisin. They made only a plain bagel, which was smaller and denser than what was even then becoming accepted as a bagel (the Wonder-Bread-inspired “bagels” are often correctly referred to as a BSO, a bagel-shaped object.) The bake shop rounded out their offerings only with bialys, a treat that has inexplicably almost disappeared, and a torpedo-shaped onion loaf. The products selection was limited, but all were delicious.

I also stopped in a Lower East Side store whose stock was hard to characterize. The dominant items were small appliances, but it also had a little of this and little of that. I learned not to assume that they did not have something simply because I did not see it. Ask, was the motto for this place. “Do you have a squeeze bottle with a star-shaped tip?” Or, “Do you have lefthanded pinking shears?” Often the answer was, “Let me see.” The owner would disappear somewhere for a few moments—maybe in the back or upstairs or the basement—and often came back with the requested item. I primarily stopped there to buy carbon dioxide cartridges, which were then hard to find, that I used in a seltzer bottle.

The owner and I sometimes chatted a bit. I learned that he lived on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge and often walked to work and that his father had started the business. I learned a little about his kids, but almost never heard about his wife. He asked about my work, and when he learned where I grew up, he asked about Wisconsin. He was fascinated by it, perhaps because it seemed so foreign to him, a person who seemed to have spent his life in a couple of square miles on either side of the East River. I, however, showed my unsophistication with him. It was the season of the Jewish High Holy Days, and I knew Yom Kippur was approaching. I thought that that was the start of a new year on the Jewish calendar, and I wished him a happy new year. By the look on his face, I discerned that this was not an appropriate comment. Only then did I remember that Yom Kippur was a day of reflection, fasting, and atonement, not a time of celebration. The store owner said nothing about my faux pas.

In those days, Manhattan’s Lower East Side had a strong Jewish presence. When I got over the bridge I was in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which was the home of many Hasidic Jews. Their distinctive dress makes them stand out in most places, but they were so common in Williamsburg after a while I did not notice the adults much. From having seen them elsewhere in New York I, without consciously thinking about it, assumed that none was good-looking, and all were frumpily dressed. (Does this make me prejudiced?)  I had to reassess my views. The young orthodox boys fit my preconceptions, but many of the young girls were attractive and stylishly dressed. I found that there were discounted dress shops for girls in Williamsburg, and I bought the last dress that the daughter regularly wore at one of them. But the good looks and the stylishness of those young girls seemed to decline each year as they got older. Or maybe I just got older.

I did not stop in as many stores in Williamsburg as I did in the Lower East Side. While the Lower East Side shops were Jewish owned, they seemed to cater to all those who ventured in. The Hasid shops of Williamsburg primarily seemed to exist for other Hasids. I would stop occasionally in a bakery on my way home to get some poppy seed bread, but without the beard and sideburn ringlets and in my running clothes with uncovered arms and legs, I felt unwelcome and stopped going.

My running attire, however, did not prevent me from being stopped one Friday evening by an Orthodox Jew as a ran through his neighborhood.  He politely inquired whether I was a Jewish.  I said that I was not. He pressed on and asked if my purported lack of Jewishness was because I was a lapsed Jew. Again, I said that I was not. (I don’t know if it would have made a difference to him if I then knew what one of those DNA-testing companies much later told me—I am four percent Ashkenazi Jew) After determining this pedigree, he asked if I would do him the favor of coming into the house and turning off his over. He was forbidden to do so on the sabbath. This was the only time, and it was only because of running, that I got the experience of being a shabbat goy.



Running to Work

The New York City Marathon this year is on November 4. The runners pass on the street at the foot of our block. Most years, the spouse and I go and cheer and chat with our neighbors who are out doing the same thing. Not this year, however. I will be out of the country when the marathon makes its way through my neighborhood, but the approach of that event always makes me think back to the times when I ran that marathon and about my running days in general.

Running just seems boring to many people, but I never found it so. For some, running is a form of meditation where an activity takes a person out of themselves into a different realm. On occasion I felt that. But mostly I think about the new experiences I got and the discoveries I made because I ran.

After I had run for a while, I decided to try a marathon, and I ran two marathons a year—one in the fall and another in the spring. Several months before the scheduled date, I would start increasing my weekly mileage with the goal of running seventy miles a week in the month before the race. I looked for ways to integrate running into my life so that the time it took to put in the miles would be less burdensome. An obvious way was to incorporate running into my commutes to work.

When I prepared for my first marathon, I worked several days a week in White Plains, a community north of New York City. My normal commute in the morning was to take the subway from Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal. Then I caught a train to White Plains. The subway ride to Grand Central took about a half hour. I found that I could run that distance in about fifty minutes, so, I figured, that the run only took twenty minutes out of my day. I ran with a backpack in which I carried a towel and some dry clothes. At Grand Central, I would duck into the men’s room, towel off, and put on the fresh clothes. I kept stashes of clothes in my office, and when I got there, I would shower and change into work attire.

I varied my route to Grand Central. This not only gave me different mileages on different days, but it allowed me to see parts of New York City that I did not ordinarily see, and seeing new things was one of ways to keep running interesting.

Some days I substituted running for a different part of the commute. I would take the subway to Grand Central but get off the commuter train before White Plains and run to my office from these intermediate stops. I was not very familiar with the suburbs I was running through and this added to a sense of discovery that running gave me.

I furthered to my geographical knowledge when I had extra time. I would take the subway to a stop in the Bronx, the borough north of Manhattan and south of Westchester County’s White Plains. I discovered long runs through parks in the Bronx and Westchester County, parks that I otherwise would never have known about.

These running patterns changed after a few years of working in the suburbs when I bought a car to get to my office. I often worked until 10 PM. I did not run that late, and the commute by public transportation at that hour was longer than in the morning or afternoon and, frankly, often scary. The car got me home much quicker at night, and I felt safer.

But I used that car for running, too. I would find some place in between home and White Plains to park the car, get out, and run in an area I would not otherwise have gone to.  I ran the circumference of Roosevelt Island in the East River; I ran on the paths of Bronx and Westchester Parks; I ran the narrow streets of City Island, that seaside village that, surprisingly, is part of New York City. Except for that car and the running, I am not sure that I ever would have seen it and such places as Orchard Beach and Pelham Parkway and the dam up in Westchester, all spectacular places in their own ways.


(concluded November 2)





She worked for a Brooklyn cultural institution. Her given name sounded like “Deema.” She explained that her father was Palestinian, and he had given her a name from his homeland. Her mother is of Italian and Irish extraction. She had named Deema’s sister Sarah. Sarah is a lesbian and did not use gendered pronouns. Deema likes Irish soda bread slathered in good butter, but she prefers pita bread for its versatility. Her mother is Roman Catholic. Deema, like her father, is a Muslim, although she is not a practicing one. She is an American. Hers is an American family.


The newsletter highlighted the part of the distinguished academic’s speech during which she said, “At this moment in time, we lawyers and educators of lawyers-to-be need to be building other bridges as well.” I thought that it was bad enough that the academic had redundantly said, “At this moment in time” without having some editor drawing special attention to it.


“Never part with a fact unless you’ve no choice.” Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach.


The server in the Hilton Head restaurant was from Jamaica. I asked her what foods she missed from the island. She said that there were not many because Orlando had a good Jamaican store, and when she visited her sister in Florida she brought a cooler to bring back the foods she missed, such as goatfish. She continued, however, that she missed the KFC from Jamaica. She maintained that it was better than any in the United States. She waxed ecstatic about the taste of Jamaican KFC. Her fiancée was coming to visit her soon, and she was happy that he was going to bring some for her. I wondered if there were others like him carrying that chicken from Jamaica and what the flight would smell like.


He was a few tables away in the restaurant—a large man, somewhat disheveled, maybe sixty. Perhaps his loud voice was necessary because he was sitting across from two women older than he, but it seemed as if it was his normal tone.  He was talking incessantly, and I could hear him say, “Dick Powell was a very good-looking man.” Then a few beats of silence. He continued, somewhat nervously, “I meant that as a moviegoer. Not as a man.”


“’You know the expression,’ Eddie said. ‘Don’t write if you can talk, and don’t talk if you can nod.’” Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach.


As soon as the doctor came into the examining room, I said the carpal tunnel surgery he had performed on me was as good as it could be. I continued, “I have never had a better outcome from surgery.” He beamed and responded, “Thank you.” Then he paused for a moment or two and asked, “You have had other surgeries, haven’t you?”