A Midwinter Stroll

What kind of idiots would take a leisurely stroll up the East River and across the Triborough Bridge to Queens on a Monday in mid-January with temperatures barely cracking the freezing mark and a brisk northeastern wind rushing in from the sea?

It wouldn’t take much guessing to figure that I was one of them, and while I suspect he’d rather remain anonymous – having a reputation for sanity to uphold in both the academic and business worlds, I feel like I have to identify my accomplice as Joe Steinhardt, co-founder and c0-owner of Don Giovanni Records and  Ph.D. candidate at – well, let’s just describe it as “a prominent upstate university.”

Joe and I have been doing these walks for a couple years, not as frequently as we used to, unfortunately, because nowadays he’s not in the metro area as often.  Our last outing took us from the Brooklyn anchorage of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge out to Rockaway Park by way of Coney Island and Brighton Beach, and if that sounds like a summery sort of walk, it was; while most of the city was sweltering in 95° (35°C) heat, we meandered along 15 miles of breezy shoreline and barely broke a sweat.

Sweating was not likely to be a worry on our January walk, or at least you wouldn’t have thought so, but we must have been moving at a brisk pace.  Not only did we have little need for the hats, gloves and scarves we’d brought along, we actually had to slow down at a couple points to, well, not exactly cool down, but at least keep from getting overheated.

I must say  that my new approach to winter, i.e., refusing to acknowledge its existence, is working like a charm.  True, I didn’t join the Coney Island Polar Bears for their annual New Year’s swim, but I at least considered it.  From the comfort of my warm bed, it must be said, but for the first time ever, instead of thinking, “Those people are mental cases,” I found myself saying, “I could do that.”

Which is probably as far as that idea will go, but check back next winter and I might surprise all of us.  Anyway, Joe and I met in the West Village and headed across town to the pedestrian and cycle path that hugs the East River except where it takes a detour inland between Murray Hill and Yorkville, presumably so that terror-minded pedestrians and cyclists will not be able to mount a frontal assault on the United Nations.

I’ve done this trip before, on bike and foot, but that was in the halcyon days of summer, with the path often so crowded that diving into the river and swimming around the congested masses sometimes seemed like a reasonable idea.  It’s a different story in January; we had the path mostly to ourselves.  The downside was that the City had shut down whole sections, forcing us to double back several times and retrace our steps on surface streets.  Granted, they have to do construction and repairs sometime, most logically when it’s least used, but it still felt like we were being treated with the casual disregard displayed by the MTA toward night and weekend subway riders: if you’re not headed to or from work during “normal” commute hours, your time obviously isn’t important, so trains are canceled and rerouted willy-nilly with minimal consideration given to how it might impact on your no doubt frivolous travel plans.

Such was also the case when we arrived at the Wards Island Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge at 103rd Street.  Closed.  For the winter.  Or until such time as the workmen finish whatever they’re doing to it.  We found one hardhatted guy poking around the entrance ramp, and while he was pleasant enough, he wasn’t exactly a fount of information.  Basically the bridge is closed.  Until, um, whenever.

Some post-walk research revealed that closing the bridge in winter (and at night) has been the practice since the 1990s, thanks to local residents’ paranoia about inmates of the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, an old-fashioned (i.e., it looks a lot like a prison) mental hospital, wandering across into their neighborhood.  On top of that, the city is indeed doing some major construction which should be finished sometime between now and the spring of 2012 (or perhaps never, given the disastrous state of NYC finances).  All very interesting, of course, but still leaving us with the problem of how to get onto the Triborough Bridge (no, I’m not going along with its idiotic renaming as the RFK Bridge, nor, as far as I can tell is anyone else) without continuing up to 125th Street.  Which, of course, is what we had to do, the only alternative being to give up, turn around, and head back downtown.

I’ll try not to bore you with the geography, but the Triborough is set up so that each of its three legs (from the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens) touches down on Randalls Island (once a separate body, but now, thanks to landfill, virtually indistinguishable from Wards Island).  If we’d been able to cross the pedestrian bridge, we could have walked almost straight on to the Queens-bound Triborough, but having been dumped off the Manhattan branch at the far north end of Randalls Island, we wandered around in the gathering gloom, no longer sure if we’d be able to find our way to the bridge’s next leg, or if, for that matter, it too might be closed for the winter.

At least a dozen cop cars glided past in the course of our meanderings, but none took the slightest interest in us, perhaps presuming that we were outpatients (or dangerous escapees) from the aforementioned psychiatric facility.  At long last, as we were considering the possibility of being marooned on the island for the night, we discovered a visitors map near the Robert Moses Administration Building, named for the Great Destroyer of New York neighborhoods and public transportation, the man whose guiding philosophy was to make the city subservient to the needs of the private automobile.

Never mind the editorial, though; thanks to the map, we found our way onto the bridge and enjoyed a spectacular sunset walk to Astoria, while keeping an eye out for icy sections of pavement, where a misstep might have sent us plummeting to a watery demise some 14 stories below.  Apart from that precaution, this was the high point –  figuratively as well as literally – of our journey, with the sun slipping behind the Manhattan skyline and the lights, as they came on across Queens, managing to render even that most prosaic of boroughs momentarily picturesque if not downright magical.

And we talked, as we’d been doing nonstop since the West Village, about the government and the economy (fittingly, the Triborough Bridge is a legacy of the Depression, when FDR poured billions (hundreds of billions in today’s dollars) into projects that created desperately needed jobs and infrastructure; contrast that with today’s “stimulus” program, which spent even more money to little visible effect apart from tax cuts for people who didn’t need them and a public relations coup for Tea Party fanatics (I speak for myself here; you want to know what Joe thinks about this, ask him yourself).

On a happier note, we also talked about Don Giovanni Records, which despite dire predictions about the death of the music industry, has continued to grow and thrive, partly because of rising stars like Screaming Females and Laura Stevenson, but also thanks to the creative acumen employed by Joe and label partner Zach Gajewski, both of whom were also members of the short-lived and much-missed New Jersey band For Science.  And at the risk of getting started on yet another tangent, I should note that Joe is indeed “for science,” in that he’s of the school of thought that elevates and idealizes science as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge (I hope I’m not mischaracterizing him here; rest assured I’ll hear about it if I am), which can lead to some interesting discussions with yours truly, who’s not quite so sure about that.

But that will have to wait for another day; all that remains here is to plug the annual Don Giovanni showcase coming up the second week of February.  As far as I know it hasn’t sold out yet, but it has every other year so far, so you might want to look into tickets soon.  One of the highlights (especially for me) will be a rare appearance by the supposedly broken-up Steinways, who will be headlining the first night, Friday the 11th, at Death By Audio.  The following night, festivities move over to Music Hall of Williamsburg; for information about tickets to both shows, try looking here.

Oh, and let it be duly recorded that our walk, which finally finished up at the Astoria Boulevard N/Q station, racked up 15.08 miles on my sometimes-smart phone’s pedometer.  Seemed like a lot of ground to cover for what as the crow flies would be six or seven miles, but thanks to all the back-and-forthing required by closed walkways and bridges, we ended up walking just as far as on last summer’s Verrazano-Rockaway jaunt.  And in the interests of full disclosure, I should further note that the following day a snowstorm set in, followed by fiercer and colder weather that, all my bravado notwithstanding, has kept me in the house most of the time since.  Just going to show that there’s more than one way to ride out a winter.

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