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).

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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.

70 Years of Instant Photographs


Today is the 70th anniversary of Edwin Land’s first demonstration of the Land camera introducing instant photography to the world. I’m currently processing a collection of Polaroid Corporation records related to Land at my place of work, so these historic moments on my mind.

My first camera as a child was a Polaroid 600-type, so somewhere I have many Polaroid photographs, most of them out of focus and poorly framed, but I don’t where they are except for one.  So on this momentous anniversary, enjoy my photograph of Shea Stadium from September 1986.

Revisiting Disney


Soon I will be traveling with my family to Walt Disney World in Florida.  I’ve previously visited Walt Disney World on three occasions (1976, 1981, and 1982) as well as once visit to Disneyland in California in 1980. So it’s been 35 years since my last visit to a Disney park, and my have things changed.

When I last visited, there was just the Magic Kingdom and some hotel resorts.  EPCOT was under construction and Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom were not even on the drawing board.  This guide and the film below show what it was like on my last visit (kind of disappointed we didn’t take advantage of the free loans of Polaroid cameras!).

Growing up in the 70s and 80s meant a different relationship with Disney than the generations before and after.  The classic animated movies were re-released to movie theaters from time to time, but weren’t shown on television (even on cable) or available on video until the late 80s, when I was a teenager and not as interested.  I do remember seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a stage adaptation at Radio City Music Hall, but other than that it was The Wonderful World of Disney and later The Disney Channel that provided glimpses of classic Disney films.  Meanwhile the Disney studios were going through a troubled period and while I loved The Fox and the Hound, most of the movies released in the 1970s and 1980s were not very memorable.  Kids who grew up during the Disney Renaissance starting in 1989 don’t know how lucky they had it.

So in a strange way, the parks were the main thing for Disney when I was growing up.  There were all these rides and characters based on movies we never saw and vaguely knew the plots.  People dressed as characters have always been part of Disney World, but planning for this trip I’m surprised to learn that they no longer walk around the park greeting visitors but instead it is required to queue up for “character experiences” and even pay good money to have diner with characters. It seems strange to me but apparently it is an extremely popular thing to do.  Luckily, my kids are interested in going on rides, which I think is much more fun.

With that in mind, here are ten things I loved at Disney as a kid.  It will be fun to see what lives up to memory, and what new things will join the list.

 

  1. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – the roller coaster so good that even my roller coaster hating mother liked it.  I remember riding it three times in a row one afternoon.  And we didn’t even need a FastPass.
  2. Contemporary Resort – also known as the hotel that a monorail goes through, which is freakin’ awesome!  We didn’t stay here, or any Disney hotel, but we did have dinner her one night, and apart from the freakin’ awesome monorail going through the lobby I also enjoyed playing in the video arcade.
  3. The Enchanted Tiki Room – audioanimatronic birds singing and telling bad jokes, what could be better?  And as my Dad noted, the birds won’t crap on you.
  4. The Haunted Mansion – a ride that is fun because it’s funny, from the stretchy portraits to the hitch-hiking ghosts.
  5. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – another funny ride I absolutely loved, from the oncoming train to the trip to hell. I suppose that might’ve scared some kids.
  6. Pirates of the Caribbean – the ride so good that they made it into a movie.
  7. The Skyway – Who doesn’t like a bird’s-eye view of the magic? (Apparently the people who decided to tear this ride down)
  8. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – It may have been a kid’s perspective, but it really felt like one was going on a submarine voyage.  Can anyone explain why Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Skyway, and this are all gone but the boring-ass Carousel of Progress still survives?
  9. Space Mountain – the coolest ride at the center of the coolest land, Tomorrowland (my impression is that Tomorrowland is not so cool these days because the future came and it’s nothing like what we were promised)
  10. WEDWay PeopleMover – I was an impressionable child and believed them when they said that peoplemovers would be the transportation system of the future in big cities.  I’m still waiting.

 

To prepare for our visit, I’m going to try to watch some animated Disney movies I’ve never seen before, so you’ll be seeing my reviews here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering W.P.Kinsella


The Canadian author W.P. Kinsella died on Friday, September 16.  H’es most famous for the novel Shoeless Joe which was adapted into the film Field of Dreams.  From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, if you’d asked me my favorite author, I would’ve said Kinsella.  It’s been a long while since I read a Kinsella book and the last time I read him as an adult I found it wasn’t as good as I remembered, but still a key figure in my reading life.

I was introduced to W.P. Kinsella in an odd way when I received his short story collection The Thrill of the Grass as a Christmas gift from my grandmother.  It seemed an example of my grandmother being clueless since I actually didn’t like baseball at this point in my life.  Also, it was clear she hadn’t read the book since there were many depictions of sexual activity that I’m sure she didn’t want a 10-year-old reading.  But maybe Grandma was a conduit for something because within a year I had become an avid baseball fan.  And Kinsella’s sex scenes were not bawdy fantasy but depictions of the complications and conflicted feelings of people in committed relationships, something a boy should learn about.

And so I became a devoted Kinsella reader, getting every book of his I could find at the library or the bookstore.  His baseball stories were easier to find than his stories about Native Americans, although I read some of the latter too.  My favorite W.P. Kinsella story is The Iowa Baseball Confederacy which involves the 1908 Chicago Cubs, time travel, an endless baseball game and a torrential downpour, and a statue of an angel (which was creepy long before Doctor Who made angel statues creepy).  Here are some other memories of Kinsella’s work:

  • Long before I read anything by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, this was my first exposure to magical realism.
  • A story of how the Catholic Church hierarchy is so removed from the people of the church, and the harm it causes.
  • Stories of First Nation people in Canada, including one where a couple disguise themselves as Indians from the subcontinent because they’d be treated better in Canada.
  • A swindler using the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate to win a bet.
  • Baseball fans use the 1981 strike to replace the artificial turf at the local baseball stadium with real grass, one square foot at a time, and the community that forms to tend the grass.
  • Tributes to J.D. Salinger, Richard Brautigan, and Janis Joplin, among others, in his works.
  • A manager has to deal with the knowledge that the Cubs will win the last pennant before Armageddon and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
  • A story in which a bunch of male friends share punchlines of jokes and the protagonist reveals to himself that he is gay, through a punchline.
  • And my favorite story of all, “How I Got My Nickname,” which is the ultimate bookish nerd fantasy in which a bookish nerd gets a spot on the 1951 New York Giants (as a pinch hitter because he can’t field, throw, or run) and discovers that all the other Giants are readers who have literary discussions in the clubhouse.

I remember being a bit irritated that Field of Dreams deviated from the book – especially regarding J.D. Salinger and the oldest living Cub – as well as being cheezy and melodramatic, but yeah, I liked it too.

Here’s to W.P. Kinsella, and the stories we tell and the memories we share.

2011 Year in Review: Memorable Events


I started a tradition back in 1996 of making a list of the most memorable events of the year.  My definition of memorable can include both the positive and the negative, but generally it’s the good things that make the list.  That first list in 1996 had exactly twenty items, so I’ve made the list a top twenty every year since.

The most memorable event this year by far is the birth of my baby girl and second child Kay on November 19th.  Everything else pales in comparison.  Here’s a photo of Kay with my son Peter.  The rest of the list follows in chronological order.

  • Snow -We had an interesting winter with several heavy snowstorms in a short period of time.  I even got to go up on the roof of our house to shovel some off.  The snow was fun, especially seeing it through the eyes of a three year old, but it got very tiresome when it wouldn’t melt away.
  • Salem – a fun day trip North of Boston by train featuring the Peabody Essex Museum and candy!
  • Boston Breakers Game / Red Sox Game – I took Peter to a Breakers’ soccer game and was surprised that he was actively engaged in the game.  So by his request I took him to Fenway for his first Sox game as well.  Looking forward to more sporting events in 2012.
  • JP Children’s Soccer – Peter started playing children’s soccer in the Spring.  It looked like so much fun that I pushed my personal comfort boundaries and signed up to coach in the Fall.   I was surprisingly successful coaching 3-4 year olds to at the very least get some experience with the ball at their feet.  Of course, the players’ favorite game was Chase the Coach.
  • Drawing Class – I took a drawing class at the Eliot School in JP, hoping to learn perspective and found I could draw a pretty good tea pot.
  • Wake Up the Earth – One of JP’s great annual events.  Peter & I dropped by to watch the parade after soccer practice and ended up participating in the procession by bike.
  • Bike Rides – Peter & I participated in three organized biking events: JP Spring Roll, Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon, & Hub On Wheels. All were fun, but the BNB event was the most memorable for taking us through parts of Boston I’d never seen and for the vibrant post-ride festival.
  • New York in June – Peter & I spent 72 hours together in the city that never sleeps visiting the Central Park Zoo, the Staten Island Ferry, Citi Field for a Mets game, the Intrepid Museum, the High Line, and lots of playgrounds.
  • Visit to Harvard Depository – kind of geeky, but I enjoyed a special tour of Harvard Library’s offsite book and records storage warehouse and wanted to take home a Raymond order picker of my very own.
  • Wicwas Lake Lodge – Our magnanimous friend Craig invited us to spend a long weekend at a lake house in New Hampshire with another family.  There was much running and giggling and splashing in the lake.  The kids had fun too.
  • Visit from a friend – Our friend Sara and her family passed throw town and spent the night on a sultry evening.  Peter and her daughter broke the ice with stomp rockets and then jumped on the bed together.  It was a good sign that Peter was ready for a sibling.
  • Two Parties in One Day – In the morning we went to a third birthday party featuring a performance by Wayne Potash.  In the afternoon, our downstairs neighbors hosted a bbq in our backyard.  Nice to have a party so close and not have to set up.
  • Davis Square Tours – This walking tour had to contend first with Hurricane Irene and then with the street bands of HONK! Fest, but it turned to be one of the best tours I’ve ever lead in an exciting neighborhood.  This Boston By Foot will return on July 29, 2012.
  • Trapp Family Lodge – The hills were alive with the sounds of Peter as Susan’s parents treated us to a long weekend at this rustic mountain retreat in Vermont.
  • Old Sturbridge Village – Peter kept asking about life in the “olden days” so I did what any history geek would do: I took him to a living history museum.  And he loved it.
  • Occupy Movement – This is an odd choice as I never spent a night in a camp but was inspired by the people who did and tried to share the best articles, stories, and opinions on my Delicious, Twitter, and Tumblr feeds.  More thoughts on Occupy here
  • High School Reunion – In 1991 I graduated from a small Catholic high school in Connecticut, the last class to graduate before the school closed.  20 years later we got back together with spouses and children for a play date, a dinner, and a tour of the old school (now an elementary school).  It turned out better than I imagined, and I had positive thoughts going in.
  • Promotion to Processing Archivist – In November, I started a new position at my library adding archival processing responsibilities to some of my earlier duties and moving from assistant to professional.  Oddly, this is the type of job I thought I’d like when I started library school, but I took an interesting, circuitous route to get there.
  • Holiday Week – The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is always eventful and we took advantage of visiting the Museum of Science, Boston Common, The Children’s Museum, The New England Aquarium, The Christmas Revels, The Larz Anderson Auto Museum and Park, and Edaville USA.

Previously:

2010 Year in Review: Memorable Events


Each year since 1996, I’ve made a list of the twenty most memorable events in my life of  the year just past.  The events may be good or bad,  silly or sad, life-changing or mundane, but mostly just memorable.

  1. Firehouse – We took our firefighting-obsessed 2-year old son in January on a visit to the East Cambridge Fire House where a friend of ours works.  There were many shrieks of delight and jumping up and down in excitement.  Peter enjoyed it too.
  2. Max – In February we adopted a 4-year old, black domestic short hair cat from a local family who had to part with him due to allergies.  A gentle and forgiving cat, Max has quickly become a beloved member of our family even if he does wake us up every night by scratching a the kitchen cabinets.
  3. Lenten postcards – I gave up Facebook (and some other social media) for Lent and instead updated my status by sending out a postcard to a different person each day from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  Although I only received 2 postcards in return it was a lot of fun to connect in an “old-fashioned” way.
  4. Professional development – work this year included managing a massive project to prepare archived case studies for scanning as well as attending the New England Archivists meetings in the spring and fall and a couple of recent ARMA Boston events.
  5. Patriots’ Day Weekend –  Three generations of my family enjoyed watching the runners in the Boston Marathon as we ate doughnuts.  I also saw the BSO at Symphony Hall for the first time that weekend.
  6. Wake Up the Earth Parade – stilt walkers, dragons, cute kids, drummers, left-wing political banners, and chickens on bicycles.  Must be spring in Jamaica Plain.
  7. Amsterdam – a wonderful family trip courtesy of the Boston By Foot Flansburgh Traveling Fellowship.  Blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5,6, 7, & 8) and a photo album begin to sum it up.
  8. Bicycling – this year I got back on my bike for commuting to work, this time with my son on board in a child seat.  We also enjoyed renting bikes on vacation in Amsterdam and Martha’s Vineyard and the great Hub on Wheels community bike ride in September.  Peter also got very good at riding his own balance bike.
  9. They Might Be Giants family concert – They Might Be Giants were one of the rock bands I ever saw in concert.  Nearly twenty years later I took my family to see them in a fundraiser for Boston By Foot.
  10. Audubon Nature Festival – Whoo cooks for you, whoo cooks for you all!
  11. Boston Pride Parade – we went to celebrate peace, equality, and justice and Peter left with a lot of loot.
  12. Independence Day Weekend – another visit from my Mom, The Greater New Bedford Summerfest, swan boats, the zoo, a Ben Franklin tour, and splashing in the wading pool.
  13. Football at Fenway – seeing the beautiful game take over the lyric little bandbox was the highlight of a soccer-filled year where I watched almost every game of the World Cup, saw the Boston Breakers in action, made a commitment to following the sport in the US and Europe, and even played a little soccer with my son.
  14. Boston By Foot Avenue of the Arts tour – For the first time, I participated in proposing, researching, and writing a tour of the month for Boston By Foot which went off successfully in July and will return on October 30, 2011.  As an added bonus, I took a tour of Symphony Hall while researching the tour.
  15. Pee Paw’s Birthday – a week long trip to North Carolina to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday.  The best part was seeing my son and nephew playing together.
  16. Providence – my son and I took a day trip by commuter rail to the Rhode Island capital and had a fun day at the Providence Children’s Museum.
  17. Martha’s Vineyard – we celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary with a family vacation to the island town of Oak Bluffs.
  18. Topsfield Fair – Enjoyed a day out with my wife, son, and mother at America’s oldest fair in October.
  19. Thanksgiving – more family travel to North Carolina and Virginia so that Peter could visit with all his grandparents and play soccer with his oldest cousin.
  20. Christmas holidays – a beautiful Christmas tree, an indoor playground, religious observance, dinner with family and friends, the Christmas Revels, a ton of snow, visiting with friends, the New England Aquarium and the Edaville Railroad.

Previously:

1908 Night


I remember the summer of 1983, because that was the year when my mother, sister and I spent almost every Friday night at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, CT.  We went in the afternoon to swim in Lake Quassapaug, swim out to the float, and enjoy a picnic supper.  Once the sun started to set, it was 1908 night, Quassy’s celebration of their 75th anniversary by selling ride tickets, hot dogs, and sodas for a quarter each.

It was a fun summer, and every time I hear certain songs it takes me back to those nights.  Here’s a sampling of the music playing on the radio as we drove to and from Lake Quassapaug:

The Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)

Eddy Grant – Electric Avenue

The Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination

The Kinks – Come Dancing

Madness – Our House

Who says there was no good music in the Eighties? The rides at Quassy are less memorable as they were admittedly rather tame.  When we went back one time in 1984, the magic was gone.  Still, it’s a fun memory to think back on 25 years later.

Songs that remind me of the 70’s


Two songs that instantly transport me back to being a five-year-old boy.  Neither of the tunes are of the genres commonly associated with the decade: disco and guitar rock (ex. – Led Zep).  But they share in common screaming horn solos.

Chuck Mangione, “Feels So Good”

Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”

Ah, right now I could be in the back seat of my Dad’s Chevy Nova heading to the Arboretum for a walk in the woods or perhaps to the Danbury Fair Raceareana.

Yes, I went to stock car races as a child.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 41: London to home


On 2 March 1998, I went home. Sort of.

I had to wake up early to make sure I made it to Heathrow Airport on time so I got promises from my French dormate Nadja and a Danish woman that they’d wake me before they left for work. I was so keyed up I didn’t need any waking and woke long before I needed to. While checking out of the hostel, I had a very friendly conversation with an Australian woman checking in. In the “go figure” department, it may have been the most promising initial conversation I had with a member of the opposite sex in the entire 6 weeks.

Earl’s Court is conveniently on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and the Tube whisked me to the airport (something Londoners tell me is not typical). The flight home on Virgin Atlantic was festive. The flight attendants gave out shots of Bailey’s and brandy (I had one of each). I watched the James Bond flick Goldfinger and the Muhammad Ali documentary When Were Kings on the Virgin TV. I distinctly remember drunken women singing “Brimful of Asha” in the rows behind me.

My sister Barbara met me at Dulles. My first impressions on being back in the States is that all the green money looked odd, and it was weird to see cars driving on the right. Barbara had taken my car in for repair while I was gone, but it had problems. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” said the auto mechanic. So my travels extended to one more night in Richmond before I made my triumphant return to Bastardsville on March 3.

This is probably where I should list my favorite parts and lessons learned, but I think I’ve bored you enough with my travelog. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this maybe I’ll tell you about some of my other trips one day.

Travel still life with cat
The end of the journey: rain jacket, passport, journal, and otter with Otto the Cat.