March 04, 2008

Birthday Weekend in New York

I'm back from a wonderful weekend in New York City courtesy of LL. This birthday turned out to be perhaps the best ever, though I've had enough of them now that it's beginning to get hard to remember them all. Still, returning to the city of my birth and places I (mis)spent my youth for the first time in so long was the best anyone could ask for. I made it a point not to spend any time online, so those who left comments will understand the delay in getting them posted and regular readers will forgive the lack of updates since Friday. This one entry will make up for all of that, though.

I'll break it all down by day for ease of writing, because there's a lot to cover.

Friday, Feb. 29
We arrived at our hotel, the Diplomat Motor Inn in Rockville Centre, at about 1:30 PM. After checking in and dropping off our stuff, we headed straight back out the door and drove to All American Burger in Massapequa. Back in my days as a teenage burnout on Long Island, I spent a lot of inebriated hours hanging out in the parking lot of this place scarfing down ridiculous numbers of their so-bad-they're-amazing hamburgers. My poison-of-choice was the double-double, which is what a double cheeseburger is called by the locals, contrary to the menu on the website. LL and I each got one and they were exactly as I remembered. LL was somewhat less than impressed, and I guess it's an acquired taste. Imagine an oversized White Castle burger and you've got the idea. For me, anyhow, this was an absolutely necessary bit of nostalgia. For LL, it was an experience akin to a root canal, I think.

When we were done eating, we headed to the neighborhood in which I lived. First, we headed over to the high school from which I graduated. It hasn't changed much, at least not from the outside. The kids still look the same, right down to a sprinkling of those who seem reluctant to let go of the heavy metal look I remember from the 80's. Yes, the big hair is still there. We next cruised past my parents' house which is now covered by bright yellow aluminum siding and entirely devoid of trees. A large silver SUV was parked in the driveway; I've no idea who lives there now. Our last stop in Massapequa was Pine Street Park, where I was once knocked unconscious with a beer bottle to the back of my head by a well-meaning friend who was trying to help me meet a girl we who was hanging out with us in the park that night. The knocking-out part worked fine, but I never did get a date with her. Ah, memories and the blank bits between them.

We took a drive around town past the former homes of people I used to know and then were done with Massapequa. On the way out of town, we stopped off at the Sunrise Mall (now Westfield Sunrise) to pick up a few things we needed, including a new hat for me. The mall no longer contains a movie theater, though there is a full-sized Wal-Mart there. Wal-Mart is everywhere.

A side trip to Amityville was necessary, too, so that LL could say she's seen the house upon which The Amityville Horror is based. People still live there (without any voices telling them to get out, I might add), and they've had a lot of trouble with trespassers taking photos of the place in the past, so I didn't do it myself. We just drove by. The address of the house has been changed and the distinctive Dutch windows removed to help discourage tourists such as myself, but being a local I still know which house it is. No, I'm not going to tell.

A little more driving around ensued and then we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. LL tried to find someplace using her laptop, but we discovered that our room didn't have a wireless connection. The only rooms that have wireless at the Diplomat, it turns out, are those right next to the lobby, so management offered us a deluxe room with a jacuzzi and we decided to take it. It was right above the lobby and came with a complimentary bottle of Sambuca di Amore and two shotglasses. How could we say no? We were completely exhausted by this point, so we decided to have dinner at the TGI Friday next to the hotel. I had a large and potent scotch and soda while we waited for our table. Needless to say I was ready for bed by the time we'd finished, and that was it for Friday night.

Saturday, March 1
We set out early for Brooklyn. The plan was to take the Long Island Railroad from Baldwin to Jamaica, then change to the subway and get to Flatbush and DeKalb for breakfast at Junior's. That didn't work; someone had either jumped or been pushed in front of a train at Jamaica. Either way, the train we needed wasn't going to be running for hours to come. We turned around and got the car and drove to Junior's instead. It was 11:30 by the time we got there, having been lucky enough to not only survive driving on the Belt Parkway but to find a parking spot right within a few yards of the door as well. If you've ever tried to find a parking spot near Junior's on a Saturday morning, you know how close to miraculous this was.

The last time I had breakfast at Junior's, I was with my long-deceased grandfather. I haven't been back since he died, but I still remember the place vividly. It was a tradition; whenever I was at my grandparents' place on a Saturday, we had breakfast a Junior's. It hasn't changed a bit, even though the place caught fire in 1991. I ordered Scotch kippers with eggs and onions and LL had corned beef hash with poached eggs. Someone told me a couple of years ago that breakfast no longer came with an assortment of mini-danishes and rolls. They were wrong; that still happens. I bit into a Junior's prune danish for the first time in a generation and it was every bit as good as I remembered it. That taste brought back so many memories of my grandfather that it was all I could do not to start crying right there in the middle of a busy restaurant. Who would have thought that a prune danish could do that? It did, though. All of breakfast was that good and that memory-laden. Junior's was also the last place, and still the only place, I'd ever had kippers.

I needed to pick up some mints after breakfast; few things make for horrible breath moreso than kippers and onions. I crossed the street to one of those literal hole-in-the-wall newsstands that dot New York while LL picked out souvenirs (I got a Junior's t-shirt and a sweatshirt, too!) It brings up a point; everyone knows the myth that New Yorkers aren't friendly, but it isn't true. I wound up in a conversation with the guy in line in front of me and then in a second one with the leathery-looking Korean woman who runs the stand. See, it isn't New Yorkers who aren't friendly... it's the people who commute into the city from Nassau County. It was true back when I lived in Brooklyn and then in Nassau County and it's still true now; New Yorkers have a tendency to be outgoing. They live with crowds and often in close quarters. Folks from Long Island bedroom communities, on the other hand, never have to develop the interpersonal skill set that makes life in the Big City not only possible but enjoyable. That's a generalization, of course, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb.

After Junior's, we drove out to Coney Island. This was one of the two big stops for me on this trip. I hadn't set foot in Coney Island for many years and I was dying to see the place again. They say that Coney Islanders get sand in their shoes and never get it out again, and that's true. Sooner or later, we all have to go back there and see what's become of the place. The Boardwalk (and let's face it, folks, there's only one true Boardwalk and lots of imitators) is our Mecca to which we must make a reverential pilgrimage at least once in our lives should we ever leave it. More than a few of us go through some life-changing experience on the Boardwalk. We might have our first funnel cake our ride our first roller coaster or even lose our virginity there (ahem), but there's always something that anchors us to that place, and so we're like spawning salmon that swim upstream to get back to the place of our birth.

Of course, when we get there we have to complain at least a little bit about how it's changed and how much it's decayed since we last saw it and why hasn't anyone fixed the place and saved our favorite landmark of youth. For me, that mostly came as the result of a trip to the "Original" Nathan's. Those quote marks are intentional, because the hot dogs served at the site where the real Nathan's once stood are now the same ones you can buy at any supermarket or food court. They're cooked in the same way they're cooked anywhere else; gone is the open grill where they once singed perfectly over fire. That grill is where the cash registers are lined up now. I got a hot dog there and you know what? It sucked. I could barely digest the thing and was sick that night because of it. There's not much point to going back there again for me, aside from maybe taking a picture of the outside of the place. It's just a fast food chain store now, no better than a McDonald's. Sad to say, Nathan's finally betrayed Coney Island.

Still, the Boardwalk itself was much as I remembered it, though Astroland has now closed down and is never to reopen. Soon, it will vanish and a casino will rise in its place. I'm of two minds about that. On the one hand, I wish that Coney Island could be what it used to be — amusement park, beach, low-brow grunge, burlesque shows, the Coney Island that started out sometime early last century and was still clinging to life when my parents lived there, and which was still at least on life support when I grew up there. On the other hand, maybe a casino is just a natural evolution. There's no way a Coney Island amusement park could ever hope to compete with a Six Flags, and would that be any better, anyhow? Who knows; maybe a casino can revitalize whatever else is left on the Boardwalk. As it stands right now, we could only find one gift shop there — and it didn't even have postcards.

Because it's still winter, everything was closed. It was still amazing to be back, though, and I took lots of photos:

1-3: Shots along the boardwalk showing LL and I and the parachute jump. I could see the jump from my bedroom window when I was a kid in Coney; it's in much better shape now than it was back then. The parachute jump is to Coney Island, and maybe to New York, what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.

4-6: Some close-up shots of the parachute jump. The last one is taken from the base of the jump toward Astroland and the Wonder Wheel.

7-9: The Wonder Wheel itself; shot #9 is in the same park as the Wonder Wheel, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park (warning: the web page is kind of a pain in the neck). I don't know if it's going to stay open when the new casino comes in or not.

10-12: A shot from the Boardwalk toward the "Original" Nathan's, the Cyclone from the New York Aquarium parking lot, and another Boardwalk shot.

13-15: Three shots of the ruins of the old public bath. I think. I'm actually not sure what this old building is. It's a beautiful bit of decay there on the Boardwalk, though, and if anyone can tell me what it used to be with certainty I'd appreciate the info.

16-18: Two shots of a very friendly walrus and a not-so-friendly electric eel at the New York Aquarium. The aquarium is almost certainly the most successful thing still standing on the Boardwalk. I used to go there a lot as a kid; I think that electric eel might be the same one I remember from when I was about 10.

There are a few more Coney Island pictures in this album if you still haven't had enough.

After our visit to the Boardwalk, I took a shot at seeing the house I lived in as a kid in Seagate, just a bit more than a mile from the Boardwalk. Back when I lived there, the "gate" consisted of a security guard in a sort of toll booth. Now it's a major piece of wrought iron with razor wire at the top and high fences going all the way around the community. There was no way even to walk in, let alone drive, so I didn't get to see the old house. Considering what an armed compound the place looks like now, I probably never will, as much as I'd like to.

After a day in Brooklyn, we headed back to Long Island and got a bit of rest back at the hotel. We ventured out again for dinner at a Thai restaurant in Valley Stream called Seeda. I was in the mood for Thai and there aren't too many Thai places in Nassau, which is probably good for Seeda. The food was adequate and the service was bad — slow, curt and inattentive. The place was crowded and noisy and even though it was small, getting the attention of the wait staff was nearly impossible. I wouldn't bother with it again. Seeda bills itself as the best Thai food on Long Island, but I have a hunch that's as meaningful a title as being the smartest person at a Bush family reunion.

Sunday, March 2
At 9:25 AM, the precise time at which I turned 42, I was standing on a platform at Penn Station and waiting for the uptown A train to take LL and I to the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum is a pivotal place in my life; it's probably the single entity most responsible for getting me interested in science, particularly in biology. I wonder how many kids it has had that effect upon over the years. I couldn't wait to get back there again after all these years.

We met up with my sister and her family there; my niece even made me a birthday card on purple construction paper:

In case you find that writing hard to read, it says:
Moo Poop Moo Poop
Moo Poop Moo Poop
Moo Poop Moo
Poop Moo Poop
Moo Poop Moo!
I mean, you'd think a 15 year old could do better than that. Then again, she's only 4 now, and in fouryearoldese I'm pretty sure that means "Happy birthday." Either that or she thought the whole thing was a bunch of bullshit. Could be either one...

We didn't get to spend much time with my sister's family, though. My niece got overtired and overstimulated and completely crashed, so they had to take her to one of the quiet parts of the museum while LL and I forged on. The displays have changed a lot since I was a kid and the whole place has largely been modernized, but it's still that same old wonderfully dusty old museum I'll always love. We stuck mainly to the biology-oriented sections, but we'll do more of the anthropology-related parts next time we go which, now that we're within easy travel distance, certainly won't take another twenty years.

Again, there are lots of photos in this album. Here are some highlights. Readers can figure out for themselves what's being shown here or ask. It's pretty self-explanatory, really.

We spent the whole glorious day in the museum, almost from opening until closing. After that, we bid our goodbyes to my sister and family and headed back out to Long Island for dinner at the Nautilus Cafe in Freeport.

The Nautilus was terrific. The food was just excellent; we started with raw oysters on the half shell and Asian calamari. The latter was perfect; spicy and sweet and enough to make me want to dive face-first onto the plate which, come to think of it, I practically did. We both got seafood combination plates with lobster tails, scallops and shrimp stuffed with crab meat for an entrée and split an order of asparagus hollandaise for a side. For dessert, I had key lime dream and LL had an almond "cake" which, as far as I could tell, contained nothing like flour and was pure, sweet amaretto with almond frosting and several other almond-flavored things. The service was flawless and friendly. The wine list wasn't bad, either. I had a couple of glasses of Italian Pinot Grigio with dinner and LL had a tawny port with dessert. Everything was solid from start to finish, and Nautilus Café turned out to be the perfect place for my birthday dinner. I really couldn't have asked for more.

We lingered there until about 10:00, then headed back to the hotel to collapse into a very, very deep sleep.

Monday, March 3
Breakfast at Bagel Cafe III at the corner of Atlantic and Ocean in Freeport was OK; they have real bagels there. We didn't want to get caught in rush hour traffic, so we passed a couple of hours at Three Streams Preserve (officially, it's called the Massapequa Preserve, but nobody called it that when I lived in the area). There's not much to say about the place, really. It has always been a popular place for teenagers to drink beer and do other things of which their parents do not approve, so parts of it are littered with old beer cans and bottles and other places are in good shape. I know I did my share of partying in the place when I was a disaffected 16 year old, and the tradition continues.

We got on the road at about 10:30 AM and took our time getting back, so we didn't get home until about 3:30 PM, when we discovered that our cable and internet services had been accidentally disconnected when our upstairs neighbor moved out while we were away. It took until this afternoon to get that fixed, and now here I am writing the longest single blog update I will probably ever write.

Our most excellent weekend has ended now. LL is fighting a cold she probably contracted while riding the subway and my fingers are falling off. Tomorrow, it's back to the grind.

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