City Stories #5 – Venetian Visions


13 years ago this week, my wife Susan and I spent the first three days of our honeymoon in Venice, Italy.  There is no other city like Venice, and even other cities named Venice or theme park recreations lack the accretion of human construction over centuries that makes the entire city a colossal sculpture of water and stone.  Below are snippets of my favorite memories. If you enjoy this City Story, please check out my previous writings about Brooklyn, Derry, London, and Chicago.  

 

Arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, we took the Alilaguna water bus into the city. I quickly got acquainted with the lagoon when a wave of briny water splashed through the window and soaked my shirt.

* * *

While Susan napped, I strolled blindly through Venice’s alleys ending up in Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Children were playing soccer in the square and I got involved by kicking back a ball that went astray.

* * *

In the evening we consume cones of limone while listening to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco. We try to dance in the mostly empty square, but that inadvertently prompts every flower seller in eyeshot to approach us and aggressively try to make a sale.

* * *

The next morning, Susan catches a glimpse of everyday Venice from our hotel window, watching a man and his dog pilot a work boat down the canal.

* * *

On our walk through the city, we climb the spiral stair to the top of Scala Contarini del Bovolo . We are greeted by a slim, friendly gatto wearing a jewel-encrusted collar. The view here is more intimate than the Campanile, with views of tiny Venetian backyards and clotheslines.

* * *

We visit  the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — home to a fraternal organization that performed charitable works for plague victims — and is richly decorated with religious art by Tintoretto. We enjoyed interpreting the religious themes in the dozens of giant canvases on the walls and carrying large mirrors to study the murals on the ceiling.

* * *

As the sun begins to set, we walk to get a closer view of  La Salute Church. The approach included walking through a covered alley that felt like a dark tunnel. We emerged from the tunnel and found ourselves amidst twig-thin fashion models in a photoshoot. We are certain the photographer said, “Yes! Gauche Americans are exactly what this picture needs to make the cover of Elle!”

* * *

We ride a gondola at night, and Venice looks just right from the water. In the darkness, we can peep in windows, look at the stars, and listen to the gondolier greet doormen and waiters as we pass. We laugh as the motion-sensor doors on one of the fancier hotels slide open as we glide by.

* * *

The next morning while we’re eating our breakfast at the Hotel Riva, we the same fashion models from the night before posing for another photo shoot. The whole crew come into the hotel for coffee and pastries, but the models stay true to stereotype and refuse to eat anything. More tart succo di frutti and cherry preserve on rolls for us!

* * *

On our final morning, we visit Basilica di San Marco, where the glimmer of  mosaic tiles shine in the darkened interior. After years of settling, the marble flooring rolls like the sea. The walls use many marbles of different colors — pink, green, grey, white — like a Neopolitan ice cream.

***

Those are some of our memories of Venice. Have you ever been to Venice?  What do you remember most?

City Stories #4 – Let Your Mind Do the Walking


My recent visit to Chicago brings back memories of my first visit to that city back in April 1991, when I was 17 years old.  There were things I did and saw on that weekend that made a huge impression on me.  And yet, there’s a lot of detail I just can’t remember.  I kept no journal at the time and I took no photographs, and I’ve lost contact with anyone else who I encountered. I  can’t remember the names or faces of most of the people I met there.  I’m not even sure if I stayed there for two nights or three nights.  So, forgive me if this story is a bit disjointed.  If you like what you read, check out my City Stories about Brooklyn, Derry, and London.  

The final spring break of my high school career began with the death of my father.  His health had been deteriorating for more than a decade due to Multiple Sclerosis.  So the week began with attending the wake and funeral in Brooklyn, which proved to be a surprisingly cheerful family reunion.  The week ended with me making my first ever solo trip.  I’d been accepted to the University of Chicago and was going to Chicago for the Prospective Student Weekend.  The name is a bit of a misnomer as the weekend was for admitted students who had paid the deposit to enroll in the fall. I was excited about the opportunity to attend University of Chicago, but the fact remained it was the only school I’d been accepted to that I’d never actually visited, so there was still a bit of uncertainty, deposit or no.

My mother drove me to Westchester County Airport, a small regional airport on the border of New York State and Connecticut.  At that point in my life, traveling by air was a rare event for me, at least compared with my jet setting classmates from more prosperous families. I think I’d only been on six roundtrip flights, and the most recent was seven years earlier.  So here I was getting on an airplane all by myself.

I tried stuffing my suitcase under the seat in front of me, and though it was supposed to be carry-on size, the hard sides made it get stuck halfway out. The flight attendant saw my struggle and told me “That won’t do.”  She took the bag out and stuffed it under my own seat.  She didn’t have better luck getting it to fit all the way under, but there was no one sitting behind me so I guess it was okay for it to stick out back there.  I can’t imagine any of these things happening on a flight in this day and age.

I sat back and listened to music through headphones that were just hollow tubes.  One of the radio stations played a “modern rock” mix so I ended up hearing Depeche Mode’s “World in My Eyes” repeatedly while trying to Tess of the D’Ubvervilles for English class.  I took in the view of Chicago from the window, amazed less by the skyscrapers, and more by the fact that the earth appeared to be perfectly flat.  Even Lake Michigan looked flat

Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was a culture shock after departing from the tiny Westchester Airport.  It was like a city of its own full of wonders.  A concourse lit with neon lights connected the two United Airlines terminals while a recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” blared over the speakers.  In the restroom, the toilets had a little red sensor and would flush on their own.  These became commonplace in the ensuing years, but I’d never seen an automated sensor activated toilet before so I gawked in awe and wonder like a rube from 19th century.

I took a shuttle bus for prospective students to the University of Chicago.  My first impression of the campus was walking along the expansive grassy area of the Midway Plaisance.  The Midway is a large, open park now but originated as the entertainment district of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and lends it name to the many “midways” in amusement parks and carnivals.

The Prospective Student Weekend began with a gathering where deans and faculty and students offered the usual pleasantries of welcome and inspiration.  There was also a performance by a student improve group about a potential romance between a student and “prospi” set to the music of Grease.  It final tune was a duet on “Prospi Nights” in which the male student made his move and the female prospi used a blue emergency phone to call the cops on him.  Yes, female admits were being warned to watch out for sexual harassment, but everyone had a good laugh.
For the remainder of the day (or was it that day and the next day), the prospies were able to get tickets to attend classes and other activities across the campus.  I remember sitting in on a History of the Vietnam War course which was very interesting, especially since it was taught by an Asian-American professor.  Nevertheless, since I’d awoke before dawn in another time zone, I started dozing off.  I jerked myself awake several times growing increasingly fearful that being seen as the “guy who fell asleep in class” would reflect poorly on the start of my college career. I also went to an English course, but the professor for that course was not having it. Apparently no one notified her of the Prospi Weekend and she was in a full rage at all these youngsters entering her classroom and occupying the seats.  Eventually she barred entry to any more prospective students, tickets or not, but I was one of the “lucky” ones who got to observe her angry discussion of Shakespeare.
“Wow, she was a bit nuts!” said a fellow prospi, a young man with crew cut hair and big eyes who introduced himself as Shannon after we left the class room.  We walked to the cafeteria, picking up another prospi along the way, a short bearded guy whose name may have been Randy.  Outside the cafeteria, a man with a wild beard and glasses was hawking t-shirts featuring a cartoon image of a man with a wild beard and glasses, basically himself.  As we ate we talked about the usual things – where we were from, what other colleges w applied to, what majors we were considering.  The real significance was that for my introverted self this was the longest conversation I had with fellow prospective students the entire weekend, which will gain added significance at the end of the story.
I also found time to wander the Oriental Museum and explore University of Chicago’s collection of ancient artifacts from the Near East.  And I ambled through the library, discovering the map library.  I love maps so I excitedly step past the counter to peruse the maps.  And I was just as suddenly rebuked by a map librarian for stepping across an invisible barrier that I wasn’t supposed to cross.  It was my first lesson that academic libraries and public libraries are very different things. Now that I work at an academic library I try to remember to admonish people more kindly when they stray.
The absolute highlight of the weekend was spending time with the current students.  Each prospi was adopted by a pair of roommates and got to stay in their dorm room for the weekend.  My hosts lived in a residence hall called Shoreland which was actually quite a distance off campus in a former hotel overlooking Lake Michigan.  They walked me around from room to room introducing me to other students and their prospis and our group grew as we gathered in different dorm rooms to shoot the shit.  They were the coolest people I’d ever met in my young life.
Since it was once a hotel, the rooms were carved up into different sizes and unusual shapes and the students creatively decorated them.  A pair of woman roommates had pooled together their music collections and put them on display, with over 800 cassettes and 200 CDs hanging on the wall.  I vowed to myself that one day I would also put my tapes and CDs on the wall like this if I had the chance.  By the time I actually got around to doing it though, cassettes were passe and even CDs were on their way out.
The students insisted that they needed to take the prospis to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show.   So we caravaned to an ancient movie theater somewhere on the North Side.  I had seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show on television and listened to the audience participation tape  but this was the first time I experienced the actual show.  The showing was sparsely attended but the shadow cast enthusiastically performed along with a trailer for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and a Simpsons short in addition to the actual movie.  They also made us Rocky Horror virgins march around the theater in a conga line as they sprayed us with water pistols.
On the way out of the theater I overheard one of the students rather spacily suggest “Let’s go on LSD!”  Nervous about the potential drug use, I repeated “LSD?”
“Yeah,” he said in is normal voice. “Lake Shore Drive.”  We did indeed drive back to Shoreland via Lake Shore Drive and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city’s illuminated skyline.
Well after midnight (or was it a second night?), someone suggested we go to a burrito place.  I wasn’t sure if I was up for burritos, but I was assured that they were the best burritos. I have no idea where we went that night, I just remember a long drive zigzagging through Chicago’s street grid – west, then south, then west, then south – until we finally arrived at the small Mexican cafe.  It was worth it though because they did have best burritos, and they seemed as big as your head, too.
“I wonder if someone could eat two of these?” one of the prospis asked.
“I could, if I didn’t eat anything for a couple of days,” I said.
“Your stomach would actually shrink if you didn’t eat for that long,” a student informed me.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed.  I still think I could do it.
Back at the dormitory, we sat up talking and I rested my back against the sleeping bag, pillow and sheets my hosts had set out for me.  Eventually, I just conked out in that position sitting on the floor.  I remember one of the students suggesting I could actually lay the sleeping bag, sheets, and pillows out on the floor as intended, but I was too tired to move.  I’d been awake for a full day at that point – 25 hours if you count the time zone change, so I just wanted to sleep.
The prospective student weekend ended on Saturday but my mother found the airfare more affordable if I returned on Sunday.  So I needed a place to stay Saturday night.  This came up at my father’s wake and one of my father’s old friends from New York had a son who had a best friend attending University of Chicago.  So I spent the remainder of my trip with Billy, and his roommate, and his girlfriend at their off campus apartment. I felt a bit like a fifth wheel but they were friendly, nonetheless.
I traveled home on Sunday fully expecting that I would return to Chicago begin college in August.  In fact, I would not return there again until 2004. A few weeks later, the College of William and Mary accepted me off the wait list leaving me with a tough decision.  For one thing, my family was in the process of moving Virginia, so at William & Mary I’d be close to “home” while Chicago would be even farther away.  For another thing, the tuition for one year at University of Chicago was equal to three years of out-of-state tuition at William & Mary (and in 12 months I would eligible for in-state tuition). Chicago’s financial aid package was rather stingy and not wanting to spend the money I’d recently inherited from my father all at once, I decided to go to William & Mary.  I often wonder what my life would be like if I had gone to the University of Chicago, but since I wouldn’t have met Susan and there wouldn’t be a Peter and a Kay, I don’t think of it much anymore.
In August 1991, I registered for classes at William & Mary Hall, and a few hours apart, I met up with Shannon, and then Randy.  Remember, these were the guys who were also prospective students that I had lunch with at the University of Chicago.  All these years later, the coincidence still blows my mind that the only two prospies I really talked with also a) applied to and were accepted to both University of Chicago and William & Mary, b) paid the deposit and became and admitted student at Chicago, and c) also changed their minds and ended up at William & Mary.

City Stories #3 – Such Fools We Are


City Stories is a semi-regular feature where I write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. In previous stories we visited Brooklyn and Derry.  Today we walk through Virginia Woolf’s London. 

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Clarissa Dalloway’s familiarity with her route to the flower shop meant that she could perambulate Westminster while remembering her youth in the countryside, and pondering her choice of husband.  For a pair of Americans who majored in English literature, however, we need a plan.  To plot our route, I defer to Susan who read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and has an additional graduate degree in English. She spends our flight from Logan to Heathrow highlighting passages from Mrs. Dalloway and charting a course on a map of London.

On our first full day in London in January 2004, we attempt to recreate the route that Clarissa followed eighty years and six months earlier.  On our way to the residential area of Westminster where the Dalloways lived we pass the Houses of Parliament and a statue of Oliver Cromwell.  Filled with the indignant rage of my Irish ancestry, I shake my fist at Cromwell, only to notice the closed circuit camera pointed right at me.  I was now on the the United Kingdom’s list of dangerous people for threatening a statue of one of their leaders.  But as we continue along we saw a large group protesting the war in Iraq holding pointed signs accusing Parliament of being “BABY KILLERS,” so maybe I’m low on that list.

We find the home suspected to be Woolf’s inspiration for the Dalloway’s house in a quiet residential area near the home once occupied by T.E. Lawrence.  From there we set off on our walk, not to find flowers, but the delights of London.  As the leaden circles of Big Ben’s chime dissolve in the air, we prepared to cross Victoria Street. Susan informs me that at this point Clarissa thought “Such fools we are!” while crossing the street and so we should as well. But as we start to cross a motor scooter zips by and nearly runs Susan over.  That would be a foolish way to go.

Smiling after not being flattened by a motor scooter on Victoria Street.

Safely across Victoria Street we divert from Mrs. Dalloway’s route and into Westminster Abbey. Over time this church has accrued so much statuary and memorial plaques as to become something of an unofficial English Hall of Fame and Museum. The area around Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave is known as Poets’ Corner where there are burials and monumental plaques for over 100 English writers. An egregious absence from Poets’ Corner is Virginia Woolf.

After examining every nook and cranny of the Abbey, we emerge outdoors and enter into St. James Park. There is no airplane skywriting over the park but it is a quiet respite with “the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” in the Lake. Additional birds cavorting around the lake include pigeons, geese, and most exotic to Americans, coots.  Unlike other water birds, coots do not have webbed feet but instead have long toes with lobes of skin.  A bird that’s completely out of place in London is the pelican, but the lake is also home to a flock of pelicans descended from those donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador.  One pelican has its back to the government offices, just like Hugh Whitbread whom Clarissa meets in the park.  So we decide this pelican’s name is Hugh and carry on.

We march up Whitehall past the Cenotaph and Horse Guards.  No backfiring cars startle us, but we once again diverge from Clarissa Dalloway’s route and make our way to Trafalgar Square. We visit the cheery crypt of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where we enjoy a delicious late lunch. Above, in the nave of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, we listen to a soprano and counter-tenor rehearse for that night’s performance.

In Trafalgar Square, we pick up on the route of Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old friend and potential suitor. Here Peter pondered “strangeness of standing alone, alive, unknown, at half-past eleven.”  It is much later in the day for us and as we were also unknown we join the crowds of tourists clambering up the Nelson monument to visit the cuddly lions.  We help a fellow American up behind us, but then she promptly falls on her face.  Luckily there are no injuries.  Nearby a pair of young women sit looking at the South Africa house because they say it’s helping with their homesickness.  The South Africans are traveling across Europe, visiting 11 cities in 12 days with a focus on dancing at the top nightclubs in every city.  No wonder they look exhausted.

We notice a bird of prey with a tether on its leg circling overhead and an the absence of Trafalgar Square’s famed pigeons and wonder if the two our connected.  We see two men wearing vests that read Heritage Guardians and approach them with our questions.

“Excuse me, what kind of bird is that?”

“It’s an ‘arris ‘awk.”

“Does it keep the pigeon population down?”

“The ‘awk keeps the pigeon population moving. It’s the boys with the shovels on Sunday morning that keep the pigeon population down.” He makes his meaning clear by using his hands to make the international gesture for braining a pigeon with a shovel.

Susan remembers that Peter Walsh looked up to a statue of Gordon, an historical figure he’d worshipped, but we can’t find the statue anywhere. We return to the Heritage Guards with another question.

“Do you know where the Statue of Gordon is?”

“Gordon of Khartoum?” replies one with a mix of surprise and confusion.

“No, not a cartoon!” says Susan with greater confusion. Clearing up the difference between cartoon and Khartoum, they have further questions.

“Does he ride a horse?” asks one.

“Does he wear a fez?” asks the other.

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  One of the guards thinks that the statue was moved from Trafalgar Square just after the Second World War, and directs us to the Embankment by the Thames.

“There’s a statue there, might as well be ‘im!”

Susan has an Ahab-like obsession to stand under the Gordon statue like Peter Walsh and leads us down Northumberland Avenue to a park along the Embankment.  There are in fact two statues in this park, but the problem is that they’re behind a fence and the gates are locked.  After trying to find a way into the park or verify the statues’ identity from afar, we realize that the sun is setting and our stroll should come to an end.*

We determine the nearest Tube station for a line that will take us to meet up with our host Sarah is across the Thames at Waterloo Station.  We bounce across the Hungerford Footbridge to the tune of “Take Five.” At the far end of the bridge a blonde woman busks on her saxophone.

For there she was.


* NOTE: With the help of Google Streetview, I’ve been able to locate the Charles George Gordon Statue in a park on the Victoria Embankment just one block up the Thames from where we were looking.  Not only that, but the park has no enclosure so we totally could’ve stood under the Gordon statue.  Other Woolfheads, take note!

City Stories #2 – A Throbbing, Pumping Madhouse


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist.   Today’s story recounts my visit to Derry, Northern Ireland in early February 1998.  If you want to read of my adventures as a child barfly in Brooklyn, check out City Stories #1 – The Pigeons.

 

In six weeks touring through Ireland and Britain, I travel via train, bus, ferry, bicycle, and often by foot.  Uniquely, I arrive in Derry, Northern Ireland by car.  John and Johanna, a couple I met at the hostel in Coleraine who invited me to join them on their outing to the Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim Coast, generously offer to drive me to Derry as it is along their planned route into Donegal.  I should be grateful, and I am, but there is a certain beauty to solo travel — setting your own pace, visiting the places only you want to see, and not having to yell directions over the sound of the radio to two people completely incompetent in the art of navigation.

I stew in the backseat, counting down the kilometers to Londonderry from the road signs.  I can also tell we are getting closer by increasing displays of the symbols of sectarianism.  We pass through villages painted entirely in blue and red along the curbs and up the light poles, letting us know that the residents are Unionists, the Protestants who prefer that Northern Ireland remain a province of the United Kingdom.  Then we pass through villages of the Catholic Nationalists, who wish to unite the Six Counties with the Irish Republic and paint their curbs and lampposts in green and orange.   The territories are well marked and grow increasingly so as we approach Derry, the hotbed of sectarian warfare.  As the sun sets and the skies darken, the territorial colors are less noticeable, but as we pull into the city, I notice something else.  All the windows on ground floors of the houses and businesses are covered with metal grates.  I see only a few unprotected windows and without fail, they are shattered.  The car pulls up to Steve’s Backpackers Hostel, my lodging for the next three nights.

Even after entering the hostel, I cannot rid myself of my generous yet irritating companions.  John tags along with me and collars the hostel employee on duty for a lengthy discussion regarding directions to Donegal.  It’s half and hour before I can even register at the hostel.  Instead, in that time I sit in the cozy kitchen – which as in many hostels doubles as a reception area – sipping complimentary tea, and slowly realizing that all the decorations on the walls contain scenes of political violence.  Newspaper clippings show Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) men leading baton charges against infuriated protesters, the wreckage of a burning bus, and lines of soldiers marching through otherwise peaceful suburban streets.  Steve’s Backpackers evidently wishes to make it known that Derry is not a place travelers visit for Broadway shows, exotic scenery, or pink sand beaches.  Which begs the question, why have I come to Derry?

Raised by my parents as a student of modern Irish history, Derry fascinates me as a the flashpoint of the Catholic civil rights struggle in the 1960’s and the ensuing decades of sectarian warfare understatedly termed “The Troubles.”  By visiting Derry, I hoped to see the places I’d read about and somehow make them more tangible and see beyond the black-and-white of a Catholic struggle against British repression, perhaps even see other sides of the story beyond what I learned from my parents and from books.  An additional motive is something of a false bravado.  Part of me wants to see friends’ faces light up as they exclaim, “You went there!”  I know full well that in the midst of cease-fires and peace talks, there was no safer time to be in the province.  In fact, the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement would occur just months after my visit.  Finally, I want to visit Derry for the snog.  Despite all expectations to the contrary, Derry holds a reputation as a party town with a lively pub and nightclub scene.  A sidebar in the 1998 Lets Go Ireland travel guide comically describes how at the end of the night, young men and women partner up on the sidewalks outside of Derry’s pubs for snog – the local slang for what Americans call necking.  Being painfully shy and rarely fortunate in the arena of casual romance, I reckon it’s worth a shot.

John and Johanna finally depart, and Brett shows me around the hostel.  Brett is a slender, clean-cut man of about the same height and age as myself, and like most of the people I meet in Ireland, he is from Australia.  Steve’s Backpackers is another stop for Brett as he works his way across Europe.  The hostel itself is no more than a couple of row houses joined together, the rooms filled with bunk beds.  The rooms are cozy and cluttered, no attempts at making the sheets conform to a standard pattern, and there are raggedy curtains tacked back from the windows.  The whole place exudes a comfy and casual atmosphere; well worn and comfy like an old shoe.  I love it.  The only single bed in the dorm room on the second floor is free, so I drop my bag on it to stake my claim.

In the hallway, a door is marked with a sign labeled “MAP OF BATHROOMDERRY,” the sociopolitical geography of Derry summed up in a lavatory.  A hand-drawn map replicates the bathroom, marking the toilet as Bogside, a pun on the slang term for toilet as well as the name of the working class Catholic neighborhood where Steve’s Backpackers is located.  The bathtub is marked Waterside, again a pun, as it is also the name of Derry’s largest Protestant district.  The Craigavon Floor connects the toilet and the bathtub on the map just as the Craigavon Bridge crosses the River Foyle tying together Bogside and Waterside.  In a bit of silliness, the mapmaker labeled other features of the bathroom as Sinkside and Doorside, although these lack parallels in the city of Derry.

Back downstairs, I sip another cup of tea and study my guidebook until interrupted by the hostel owner himself.  Steve, a rosy-cheeked Scot with a cherubic smile, comments on the snog sidebar and asks with a gleam in his eye, “Do you think that’s a good way to market Derry to tourists?”

“Sure,” I reply, “Why not print pamphlets that say ‘Derry, the Snog Capital of the World.'”  Together we create a marketing plan destined to draw legions of horny young adults on snog pilgrimages.  Referring back to the description in the guide, I ask, “Is it really like that?”

Steve winks, and responds, “You’ll have to find out for yourself.”

He introduces me to some other guests and I accompany them to the Rivers Inn Cellars, an historic pub within the walls of Derry – and more importantly the place where one can get the cheapest pint of Guinness in town.  My companions are Bailey, an art student from Northern California who is tall, slender and has a coif of black hair reminiscent of a New Wave rocker; Mickey Murphy of Portadown, Northern Ireland who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic Rowan Atkinson, so much so that some of our group take to calling him the “Irish Mr. Bean;” and a petite, dark-haired German woman named Jutta, an activist in the Nationalist cause making an extended residence at the hostel.

As fellow travelers to Derry, we all know a friend or family member who warned us against traveling in Northern Ireland.  We agree that it’s safer to be in a city in Northern Ireland than one in America.  The elevated police and military presence due to the Trouble make ordinary crimes less common.  Bailey declares, “No tourist has been killed here in over thirty years.”  As it to defend the reputation of his homeland for violent behavior, Mickey counters with a story of a riot he experienced the previous summer.  A French photographer, fresh from the battlefields of Bosnia, told Mickey that that violence in Derry was worse than any he’d seen in the Balkans.

“When they riot in Derry,” comments Mickey with a touch of pride, “they know how to do it.  They plan ahead!”

I ask if the snog scene in Derry is for real.  Bailey is not impressed.  “The pick-up scene is easy here, but its weird.  The other night I was snogging this Derry girl, and she kept stopping me, saying ‘Please don’t stick your tongue in my mouth,’ and ‘Please don’t put your hand on my ass.'”  Apparently, one can find snog in Derry, but will be disappointed if you want something more.

I enjoy the convivial atmosphere of the Rivers Inn Cellars with my new friends, listening to Mickey tell an amusing story about Ireland’s Gaelic Football All-Star Team’s drunken and destructive tour of America, or agreeing that “The Simpson” are the perfect representation of the American family.  Then begins the typical hipster-traveler talk that stirs my dread and envy.  Bailey tells of smoking pot and playing chess in a café in Amsterdam, and then he and Mickey compare the best cities in Europe to buy and sell drugs.  I feel relieved when someone says it’s time to move on to the Strand Bar for live Irish music, so I won’t have to discuss or defend my drug-free existence.

We exit through the main gates in the city walls into the car-free zone of the city center, a pedestrian strip lined with pubs, clubs, and shops.  As in Belfast and other Northern Ireland cities, driving in the center city is restricted to prevent car bombings.  The resulting pedestrian area is a lively place for shopping by and for partying by night, and the Strand is one of the many businesses that benefits.  This popular bar and nightclub – a “throbbing, pumping madhouse,” as Brett describes it to me the next day – contains four floors of entertainment.  We head to the basement where a band called Against the Grain plays to a throng of Derry youth.  Like many bar bands, Against the Grain draws on an arsenal of classic rock covers and traditional Irish standards, but this being Derry, their set list also includes a number of political tunes, or “Republican songs” as Jutia terms them.  A song about Joe McDonnell, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who died in prison during the hunger strikes of 1981, particularly stirs up the audience.  Sung in first person, the song relates a litany of abuses by Britain and the Unionists that McDonnell believes justify his actions in striking back.  The kicker comes in the chorus:

“And you dare to call me a terrorist

while you looked down your gun

When I think of all the deeds that you have done

You have plundered many nations divided many lands

You have terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand

And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”

As these words are sung, the crowd surges toward the stage, singing in unison, and pumping their fists in the air.  The transformation from carefree youth dancing and swaying to this demonstration of political unity is disjointing.  Even though I’d heard “Joe McDonnell” played before in America, I find myself pondering the lyrics with new insight, unable to let go of the fear and horror I find within the words even as Against the Grain and the audience swing back to happy sing-a-longs of love songs by Van Morrison.

Last call comes shortly afterwards, and we find ourselves pouring out into the street, mingling with the multitudes from the other floors of the Strand and the neighboring pubs.  This is the time to match up for snog, should Let’s Go be believed.  Still overwhelmed from the performance at the Strand, and exhausted from a day of traveling, I’m more interested in going to bed, alone, at the hostel.  That is if I can find the hostel.  I am able to pick out Jutta from the boisterous multitudes and she agrees to lead me back to the hostel.  Jutta tells me she accidentally left her jacket behind at the Strand, but the doors are locked and she can’t get back in to get it.

“I’m so angry I lost my jacket,” she says.  She speaks English with a German accent, but I can also hear an Irish lilt in her voice.

I try to be encouraging. “You can go back in the morning, it will probably still be there, don’t you think.”

“I don’t care about the jacket!  I just want the Bloody Sunday pin that’s on my coat.  It was given to me by Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin at the Bloody Sunday rally.  If anyone touches that pin…”

“Who’s Mrs. Mitchell McLaughlin?”

“She’s the wife of Mitchell McLaughlin, the party chairman for the Sinn Fein in Derry.  I met her at the rally and she gave me a pin.”

“Oh,” I said dumbly, feeling amazed that I am walking with someone who has connections with the political wing of the IRA.    We walked along in silence a bit as Jutta’s anger simmered down.

“You like that band?”  She asks.

“Yeah, they were pretty good…”

“I see them quite a bit.  I’m disappointed they didn’t play my favorite song, ‘Sean South of Garryowen,’ do you know that song?”

“Of course.”  I heard “Sean South of Garryowen,” a Nationalist anthem, numerous times at the Irish folk concerts my parents took me to as a kid.

“This band usually plays that song, but they set the words to a Protestant song, ‘The Sash.’  A Republican song to Protestant music, it’s pretty cool.”  I thank her for explaining that to me, and share her disappointment in not hearing the song, although I probably would not have recognized the irony had I heard it played without an explanation.

The next morning I set out to explore the city so nice they named it twice, Derry or more officially (depending on your religiosociopolitical leaning) Londonderry.  Doire is the name given to the area by the city’s patron St. Colmcille, named for the oak groves of his beloved home.  In the seventeenth century, under British colonialism, the capital of England was granted control of Derry adding London to the city’s name.  Today, Catholics still refer to the city only as Derry, and while some Protestants may insist on calling it Londonderry, pretty much everyone ends up calling it Derry for short.  I walk along the fortified walls of the city, never once breached in battle, granting Derry the nickname “The Maiden City.”  A lot of local lore and the ancient root of the Troubles date to 1689 when the city’s Loyalist population defended itself against a siege by James II’s Catholic forces, until finally they were relieved by the armies of King William III.

A portion of the walls are open to pedestrians and I am able to go out as far as the west wall to look out over the Bogside, gazing uphill towards the neat lines of nearly identical row houses covered with a faint haze of smoke from the coal fires that heat the homes and give so many Irish cities a perpetual scent of sulfur.   In the foreground, the words “NO SECTARIAN MARCHES” are spelled out across the balconies of a modern, concrete apartment block. The pedestrian pathway along the top of the wall ends where a metal-frame tower stands fitted with close circuit cameras to keep an eye on the Bogside.  This tower and an adjacent barracks, Bailey informs me later, stand in violation of the Geneva Accords ruling regarding the proximity of military installations to schools.  An elementary school lies a hundred feet away below the city walls.

Heading back toward the main gate, I enter the ancient defensive tower of the city of Derry, today home to the Tower Museum.  Through engaging audiovisual and interactive displays, the museum traces the history of Derry from it’s founding by St. Colmcille to The Troubles of today.  I’m impressed that a section on 18th-century emigration discusses Irish Protestants sailing from Derry to settle in colonial Virginia, my hometown of Williamsburg getting a mention.  The museum does not shy away from current history as an entire gallery is given over to a street scene much like those I saw on the drive to Derry with the curbs and light posts painted in tribal colors.  The exhibit explains the symbolism of sectarianism and oral history videos show local residents speaking candidly of their experiences during the Troubles.

Outside the walls I explore what Steve describes as Derry’s outdoor folk art museum – the murals of Free Derry Corner.  The name comes from a famed sign painted on the end of a row of houses (the rest of the houses are now demolished, but the one gable wall still stands) that states “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY.” The signs dates to the early 1970’s when the Bogside was a “No-Go Zone,” completely under the control of the IRA, the British military unable to break through for three years.  Political murals decorate much of the city’s working class neighborhoods, and Free Derry Corner is home to the most artistic murals, which cover the entire sides of three-story high buildings.  A pair of striking murals use photographic realism to show scenes from Bogside riots: a man in a gas mask holding a Molotov cocktail and women banging trash can lids on the pavement to warn of approaching police.  Many of the murals commemorate Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972 when British paratroopers opened fire on Catholic demonstrators, killing fourteen, sealing the end of the peaceful civil rights movement and the birth of the modern IRA.  These range from portraits of the dead accompanied by calls for justice, to the more subtle mural which pictures two children running around the Bloody Sunday memorial, blissfully ignorant of their home city’s tumultuous past.   Other murals that depict a more hopeful future contain pastoral scenes, a symbol of the peace that nationalists believe will come from unification with the Irish Republic.

I walk along the River Foyle to the foot of the Craigavon Bridge that crosses over to the Protestant Waterside on the east bank.  Here stands a statue of two children reaching out across a gap, a symbol of a hoped-for peace and unity between Derry’s Protestants and Catholics.  I don’t cross the bridge but explore the murals of The Fountain, a small Protestant neighborhood on the west bank of the Foyle.  The mural tradition in Derry actually began among the Protestant community nearly a century earlier, and here I see one of the oldest surviving murals, a tribute to King William III, as always depicted riding a white horse.  Several Fountain murals contain the ubiquitous Red Hand of Ulster, a hand that in both gesture and color screams “Stop!” usually accompanied by the slogan “No Surrender.”  The murals of the Fountain reflect the siege mentality ingrained in the Protestant community (a minority among the larger Catholic population of Derry) since the actual Siege of 1690.  One mural even carries the legend,

“For as long as one hundred of us remain alive we will never, never in any way consent to the rule of the irish.  For it is not for glory we fight, nor riches, nor honours — but for freedom alone, which no man should lose but with his life.”

Tributes to the Loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) picture a man in full military dress, rifle-raised in a threatening posture.  Judging by the murals, the Fountain seems to be saluting a military operation as opposed to the more community-minded efforts of the Bogside.  I find no murals in the Fountain with images of a peaceful future, just remnants of a strife-torn past.  I try to look at these murals with an open mind, but they just creep me out, and so I decide to call an end to my tour.

Back at the hostel, I discuss the murals with Brett and Mickey, and look at Brett’s photo collection of the murals.  When we get to a picture of the King William III mural I saw in The Fountain, Mickey makes the sound and gesture of spitting on King Billy.  Wondering what reaction I’d get, I tell Mickey that I actually live in a town named after King William III.  “What do they call it?” he exclaims, “Bastardsville?”  No, they don’t actually, but when I get home and tell my friends this story, the new nickname gains currency quickly.  I decide to refrain from informing him that I also graduated from the College of William & Mary.

That evening I go out to Peadar O’Donnell’s, a pub known for good traditional music.  While sitting at the bar, a short, burly man in his fifties with wisps of gray-blond hair covering his bald pate stumbles in and looks about trying to locate the toilets.  I point him in the direction of the sign that read Fir Leithras (Irish for men’s restroom).  Returning from the toilets, the man claps me on the shoulder, thanks me for saving his life, and buys me a pint of Guinness.  He introduces himself as Joren from Sweden.  I tell him my name and that I am from Virginia.  Neither of these seemed to make an impression on him. Instead he takes to calling me “Wyoming,” and begins telling me about his one visit to the United States for an anti-nuclear demonstration in Washington, DC twenty-five years earlier, repeating several times “You were not even born!”  I try to correct him on my name and home state, but am met only by reiterations of his trip to Washington.

The third telling of this story is interrupted when the door opens again and two young women enter the pub.  I’m stunned because they are the most beautiful women I’ve seen since arriving in Derry, and even more stunned when the race to bar and embrace Joren.

“There you are!  We’ve been looking all over for you!” they exclaim.   My appreciation of Joren grows as he introduces me to Olivia and Elaine, both students at the local university.

“This is Wyoming, he saved my life!”  The three had met earlier in the day at the Strand, and somehow became separated.  Olivia with short, black hair and a bewitching gleam in her eye tells me that they are from County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, and explains to me the reason why they look so different.

“We’re not like these Derry girls.  You see them with their hair all sprayed up and a lot of makeup caked on.  They like to wear clothes that show a lot of skin.”  While Olivia catches up with Joren, I switch to talking with Elaine, who has long, curly brunette hair and a captivating smile.  When she learns that I am from America she tells me she’ll be studying abroad in Boston next year.  I tell her that I’m planning to move to Boston, I am hopeful that we will meet again.  As the band strikes up the opening chords of a song, Olivia interrupts our conversation.

“I love this song,” she whispers reverently.

“What song is it?” I ask.

“‘Ride On,’ Christy Moore.” she replies.  I shake my head, not recognizing the song title.  She looks me in the eyes and sings, her own eyes reflecting the glow of the peat fire. ” Ride on, see you, I could never go with you, / No matter how I wanted to.”  I am transfixed, feeling for the moment as if she sings just for me.

The four of us emerge from Peadar O’Donnell’s laughing and capering across the pedestrian zone as Elaine and Olivia demonstrate their Irish step-dancing skills.   We return to The Strand, continuing our conversation at the bar on the lower level (much less crowded and noisy than the night before as no band is playing).  Joren takes his leave for the night, thanking me profusely one last time and acknowledging me as a Rocky Mountain state I’ve never been to.  Olivia and Elaine tell me they’re going upstairs to meet a friend, but ask me to wait down below.  I wait for a long time, and finally getting frustrated I head upstairs and find them in animated conversation with their friend.  I try to get their attention, but my efforts fail, and feeling rejected, I storm out of the pub.  I walk home to the hostel feeling drunk, lonely, and depressed.

The next day I take a day-trip to the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh.  I enjoy the museum, but being the off-season the grounds are mostly devoid of people, emphasizing my feeling of loneliness from the night before.  It feels good to return to the vibrant authenticity of Derry.  At the hostel I find most of the hostel staff and guests gathered in the TV lounge watching a fast-cut British program where ordinary men and women comment about members of the opposite sex.  One of the men on the show expresses his frustration at how another man at his university proclaimed that he would have sex with every woman in the residence and had women lining up at his door, and he wonders why women went for these bad guys.  Brett commented, “Women show respect for men by not having sex with them,” adding “I’m the most respected man in the world when it comes to women.”

Cheered by the companionship and silly conversation, I am ready to go out for the night.  After all, I came to Derry partly for the nightlife not to watch television.  I am unable to interest anyone in joining me, as they prefer to lounge about at the hostel.   I return to Peadar O’Donnell’s, half-hoping to find a Swedish matchmaker who will introduce me to Irish women.  Instead I meet Brooke, the Australian woman I’d met previously in Killarney and Dingle, freshly arrived in Derry.  We take a table and catch up on our respective travels.  Like Brett and nearly every other Australian traveler I meet, Brooke is working part-time and taking long breaks to travel around Europe.  She tells me when she finishes her circuit around Ireland she will return to London where she has a job lined up.

“Next year, I want to go to America,” she says.

“Really, which parts?”  I ask, offering my assistance.

“I’d like to go to New York and the West Coast, and maybe a side trip to Atlanta.”

“A side trip to Atlanta?”  I ask puzzled.  I pull out my pocket address book that has a tiny map of the United States.  Unfortunately, it’s so tiny that Atlanta really does look close to New York, so I have to find other ways to convince her.  “They don’t have good trains or buses like they do in Europe.  It will probably take you at least a day to get there from New York.  You’re going to want to fly if you really want to go from New York to Atlanta.”

A woman at the next table introduces herself into the conversation.  Her name is Carmel, a Derry resident, and despite her bleach blonde hair and an excess of make up, she is quite attractive.  Her sister and boyfriend, a tough looking gent from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, soon join her.  I tell him that I might stop in Newcastle later in my holiday, an he takes it upon himself to educate me in the ways of the Geordies (the nickname for Newcastle’s blue collar residents), which seem mostly to involve sprinkling one’s sentence with profanity.

“I love the American accent,” Carmel tells me flirtatiously (I swear she even bats her eyelashes), but due to the looming presence of her spit-and-sawdust boyfriend, I decide not to use that too my advantage.  Instead I decide to call it an early night, my last night in Derry, not once having “caught snog,” but still feeling happy.    I walk home to the hostel, which now does feel like home, or more so since I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve felt so at ease after three days as I do here.  And the warmth and generosity of Steve’s Backpackers makes the biggest difference.

Over breakfast, Steve tells me a story about Halloween in Derry.  Everyone in town dressed up in costumes and hit the pubs and clubs.  A group of men entered one bar costumed as terrorists, but it turned out they actually were terrorists, shooting several people.  A riot ensued, and Steve describes witnessing the surreal scene of the RUC clubbing Elvis Presley and chasing Batman down the street.  The story seems to sum up Derry: funny, a bit bizarre, and terrifying all at once.  Outdoing themselves in hospitality, both Steve and Brett load me up with advice of what do on my next stop in Belfast and then walk me to the door of the hostel.   We pose for a picture together under the hostel sign.  I find it really hard to leave, and begin making plans to return.

(NOTE: 20 years later and still haven’t made it back).

City Stories #1 – The Pigeons


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. The first City Story takes place in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

My grandparents lived in the most boring place in the world.

Correction, my grandparents’ apartment was the most boring place, set in the middle of the world’s most exciting and vibrant city in the world.  My grandparents’ apartment was on the 23rd floor of the western building of the Towers of Bay Ridge, right where the Belt Parkway splits from the Gowanus Expressway.  My sister and I spent many a childhood weekend seeking some escape from the boredom that permeated from every corner of that apartment, including through the plastic-covered sofa.

As a child visiting this apartment – especially when it wasn’t Christmastime when at least there were new toys to play with – entertainment was hard to come by.  Television was the preferred source of diversion, but it wasn’t always available to us as my grandparents were watching their programs, or otherwise forbidden us from watching. Taking out the garbage was always a welcome chore as it meant being able to drop bags of rubbish one by one down a chute to a compactor in the basement.  After disposing our trash, we could keep the door to the chute open and if we were lucky we could see trash falling from higher stories and take the chance of trying to catch some.

Once these options were exhausted, my sister and I diverged on what to do next.  She often ended up in our uncle’s former room, excavating old issues of Mad magazine that were still piled in his closet.  I made my way to the terrace – what my grandparents called the small concrete balconies that clung tenuously to the brick facade of the Towers.  From here I could get a view of  New York City’s famous skyline, bridges, and even a tiny green dot I knew was the Statue of Liberty. I could also see a massive bus yard, where half-concealed by a building, I got a tantalizing view of what looked like red London-style double-decker buses, but could never verify for sure if that’s what they were. *

Eventually, one of our grandparents would have to take us outside. If it was our grandmother, we would typically end up in the Tower’s playground. The centerpiece of this playground was a geodesic half-dome one could climb up and dangle by one’s knees, knowing that should one fall, one’s head would be protected by a thin layer of rubber spread over the asphalt.

I always preferred it when our grandfather took us out. We would escape the Brutalist hellscape of the Towers for a stroll into the more human-scaled row houses and shops along Third Avenue. Our destination was The Three Jolly Pigeons. In the official nomenclature of restaurateurs, The Three Jolly Pigeons is classified as an “Old Man Bar.” True to form, the Pigeons (as my grandfather always called it) featured a long bar of a dark wood with a line of rickety stools, lots of oak paneling, and stained glass windows and light fixtures. The back room was separated from the main bar by a particularly attractive wood-panel and stained-glass partition.

My grandfather was an old man so naturally an “Old Man Bar” suited him. But I’m going to tell you something about my grandfather that I didn’t know. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and a particularly troubled one at that. One of my earliest memories of him was visiting the hospital after he crashed his car on Brooklyn Bridge. The “car crash” and “drunk driving” didn’t connect for me until years later. Children were not allowed to visit the patients’ rooms, so instead we stood outside waving at the window where purportedly my grandfather was waving to us. I was never quite sure that I actually saw him or was even waving at the correct window.

The stories I would later hear of his drunken anger and violence never matched the cuddly old man who’d bring us to this lovely oasis, buy us a glass of Coke, and give us quarters for the arcade games that we could enjoy while he spoke to his bookie. Yes, this is the other thing that I didn’t know at the time. It was not normal for one’s grandfather to regularly meet with a bookie, and I’d learn later that the other adults in our family were not aware of this habit. This is probably because he never said to anything like “Don’t tell anyone I’m seeing my bookie,” because then we totally would’ve ratted him out rather than going along as if it were normal.

But let’s return to those glasses of Coke and arcade games. The Coke was dispensed from a fountain over the rocks into a small glass. I can’t verify this, but it is my belief that the Coke served at the Three Jolly Pigeons was the best tasting Coke anywhere. The bartender would set our Cokes at the end of the bar for us to pick up and from there we made out way through the partition to the back room.

The entertainment equipment in the back room changed from time to time, but the mainstay was a coin-operated bowling game. The shuffleboard-style game was built on a long waist-high table (or shoulder-high table if you were under ten) along which one would slide a heavy, metallic puck. The bowling pins hung from a cabinet at the far end, and the puck wouldn’t actually come in contact with the pins, but you could knock them over if the puck slid over what looked like giant staples under each pin. The surface of the table was very slick and one could make the heavy puck move wickedly fast, smashing into the wall at the far end with a satisfying crash, and rebounding into one’s palm.

Over the years, I got very good at this game. Fueled by Cokes and quarters, I smashed my way into the ranks of shuffleboard bowling greats. Or so I’d like to imagine. I never saw another game like this until about a decade later while in a pub in St. George, Bermuda. I challenged my compatriots to a game and drawing on my skill honed at the Pigeons, I won a round of beer. In another timeline, I may have gone pro as a shuffleboard bowler.

In my memory, it was always daylight when we went to the Pigeons. The late afternoon sun shone through the stain-glassed windows with the multi-color rays tinted by smoke and dust in the air. I can still see the silhouettes of my grandfather and his bookie sitting across from one another at the table by the window in a mostly empty bar. But there’s one occasion I recall being at the pigeons after dark and in a crowded room, on the day after Thanksgiving when the sun sets early. I’ve never paid much attention to college football, but while waiting for another Coke at the bar, by chance I happened to look up at the tv to see Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass. There was some celebration among the assemblage of old men and I before they returned to their beers, and I returned to bowling.

Unlike many places from my childhood for which I have fond memories, the Three Jolly Pigeons still survives in Bay Ridge. Reading the reviews online, it’s hailed as a great place to see rock bands and karaoke, two things I could never imagine in the Pigeons of my time. But I like to think that in the dying rays of afternoon sunlight, the old men still gather to nurse a quiet drink, confer with their bookie, and perhaps buy a Coke for their grandkids.

 

 

* Seriously, this was decades before double-decker buses were used for sightseeing tours in New York City. If anyone could verify if and why these buses were in New York circa 1980-1984, I will love you forever.