Monday, December 31, 2007

Open gates, open doors

I've been visiting Sandy Hook for at least 10 years now, and I pretty much figured that I'd found everything there is to explore. When I started off on my jaunt today, I figured this visit would be dedicated mostly to walking the tideline and maybe spending a half hour or so on the birding platform on North Beach. When I grabbed the binoculars from my closet, I also pulled out the camera and my new videocamera, figuring that I could get some shots of the tide or something.

Little was I to know that I'd run into several open doors.

Driving in, I stopped by the Nike exhibit -- a fenced in Nike Ajax and sample operations trailer like the one inside the base down the road. It's actually across the road from the launch facility. While the launch area was off limits, the gate in the fence around the exhibit wasn't locked, so I was able to get some close-ups of the trailer interior, albeit from the outside. I made a quick stop at the base, too, to do a quick video travelogue of the buildings and equipment one can see from outside the fence.

A little farther up the road, I stopped, for some reason, at another narrow parking area, and found that a wooden gate across the far end of the driveway was open. Seeing nobody around and no signs warning to the contrary, I drove through to find several picnic areas I'd never known were even there. They reminded me of the camping areas at national parks out west -- sheltered picnic benches, a grill and maybe a water spigot. Pictures of Boy Scouts cleaning up the Nike base were posted on a nearby bulletin board. That made me wonder if I could hike from there to the edge of the base. I parked the car beyond the gate and walked on in.

All I found was a clearing with some sort of structure surrounded by railroad ties. When I got back to the road, someone had shut and padlocked the gate I'd driven through earlier. That was a close call.

At the very tip of the hook, I stopped by Nine Gun battery, a massive artillery staging structure built in 1902 and now decaying in the ocean air. It's probably about a quarter-mile long, stretching along North Beach. Long ago the Park Service encircled it with a five-foot fence and posted signs warning explorers to stay out, but I'd heard stories of people finding ways of getting in to wander the corridors.

Oddly enough, I came upon another gate, much like the one for the backyard of my childhood home. No lock, no blocking of any sort beyond the sign reading "EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS AREA CLOSED." I checked the latch, which moved easily in my hand. I could just nudge it open, push the gate forward and walk right in. The doorways and stairs of the battery invited me in, but I thought better of exploring solo. My luck, I'd get swallowed up by it all.

My last destination was a quick ride along Officers' Row, the gorgeous old housing that's mostly been left to decay on the bayshore side of the Hook. One of the buildings has been made into a 40's era home museum, and some of the smaller ones house non-profit organizations focused on environmental issues. The others are simply sealed shut, inviting the curious to climb the rickety porches to peer in at the peeling tin ceilings and plaster walls.

Out of habit, I gazed at the houses as I passed each in turn. Then I saw an open front door. Temptation.

I pulled around to the service road and parked behind one of the houses. After a short walk I found the open door. It blew open with a passing gust, and then fell back, inviting me to approach, but I was a bit apprehensive of what might be inside, and that the porch would cave under my weight. Besides, now that the door was open, I could see from the sidewalk that it only led to a vestibule. The inner door was most likely locked, anyway.

Like a good scout, I took note of the house number and reported the situation at the Park Ranger office. Some invitations may be best accepted at a later time, when conditions have improved.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Campaign cease fire: an idea whose time has come

Columnist Fran Wood, in today's Newark Star-Ledger, gives voice to what we're all thinking: with nearly a year before we elect a new president, most voters are already weary of the campaign. And perhaps the candidates, in their own ways, feel the same way.

Fran goes on to note that Rudy Giuliani's recent run to the hospital was just the result of his body saying "enough already." Hey, I know what it's like to go full tilt for days or weeks, only to wake up one day with a crushing headache that won't let me leave my bed. It's the body's way of saying, "hey, bonehead, slow down!" Fran opines that maybe sleep deprivation isn't the best thing to encourage in the future leader of the free world, whoever he or she may ultimately be.

So, we're weary of them, they're probably weary of the campaign but won't admit it. Why don't we all take a vacation?

Hey: it could work. After, say, ten days of campaigning, all of the candidates could call a two-day cease fire. Nobody makes personal appearances. Nobody does media interviews or issues announcements. Nobody takes cheap shots at anyone else. The media caravan reports on something else for two days, like the celebri-trash of the moment. The news shows won't have any problem filling the airtime. As one of the news directors at the Rutgers student radio station used to say, if you can't find any news, go make some up.

Everyone comes back relaxed -- tan, rested and ready for the next phase. Ultimately, the time off might give everyone the chance to think a bit more about what's being said and what we all really believe in. At the very least, we'll get some relief from the constant, incessant buzz.

Friday, December 28, 2007

"Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight."

- Eleanor Roosevelt
What's old is new again

Seen at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY. A bit ironic, don't you think?

Are you playing square, W?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Festivus...

Seen in Times Square on Christmas Eve. One could only hope they didn't intend what this looks like.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Asbury Park, again

Dark, cloudy day today -- one of those days when you sense it could start raining any minute. What better time to go down the shore?

Choices were Avalon, Shellpile, Sandy Hook and Asbury Park. So I took AP, wondering how far the resurrection of the Casino had progressed since my last visit in September. Oh, and I was wondering if the Metropolitan Hotel had met the wrecking ball yet.

The Metropolitan is one of those old high-class seaside hotels, 180 sleeping rooms, a nice restaurant, lounge with entertainment, the whole nine yards. Like much of the rest of historic Asbury Park, it's fallen into hard times, having its share of failed renovation attempts, blocked by corrupt, bribe-seeking local politicians.

My exploring buddy and I had had loose plans to check out the exterior a few weeks ago, when I'd read about the impending demolition, but the trip never came to be. I honestly expected the place to be reduced to rubble, so I was a bit surprised to see it still standing.

Given that the ominous weather and general desolation of the place made me a bit nervous, I just took a few shots from the car. Check out this site for much better photos than I was able to get.

Despite everything, the boardwalk was a bit creepy, too, and the wind off the ocean was cutting, so I didn't stay too long. Looks as if they're still doing work inside the carousel house, but nothing is going on within the rest of the Casino property. Weirdly enough, the pedestrian walkway is still open; in fact, lamps have been installed to up-light some of the architectural detail of the interior plaster.

Only a few people were on the boardwalk, and all but one of the storefronts were shuttered. A newish restaurant next to the Casino has limited hours over the winter but is still open for the hearty folk who walk or run the boards for exercise. Business wasn't very good today.

After strolling the boardwalk and taking pictures for about ten minutes or so, I decided enough was plenty and went back to my car.

I stopped in the revitalized shopping district on Cookman Avenue, which consists largely of antique stores and cutely-named restaurants and coffee houses. There were a few people window shopping, more having lunch, but still, I wondered how the establishments were holding up financially.

I found a place that has, among other things, a vintage framed Two Guys bag for sale, plus some fun tchotchkes, tableware, etc. Chatted a bit with the shopkeeper, who told me that foot traffic is kind of uneven but promising. I mentioned that I visit Asbury periodically to take pictures of the Casino, and on his asking how the boardwalk was today, I replied, "Creepy."

"Well, that's what you're looking for, right?"

Gotta love a kindred spirit.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A working class cat is a fine thing to be (be bop)

An article in today's New York Times chronicled the phenomenon of bodega cats, the blue-collar felines who keep their shops free of vermin. As anyone who's lived or worked in a large city knows, where there's food, there's inevitably a rodent, so a good mouser is worth his or her weight in gold. And when compared to the cost and inconvenience of exterminators, the investment in kitty litter, veterinary care and some canned food is minimal. Felix comes in, rats disappear. It's that simple.

The New York Department of Health feels otherwise. Apparently, where they're concerned, having a cat in a corner market or a restaurant is as bad as having rats. Fines for having any kind of animal range from $300 to $2000 or more.

I can understand some of the reluctance to have a free-range cat in a restaurant kitchen or behind the deli counter, but the bodega issue doesn't make sense to me. The equations are simple:

Food = rats, inevitably
Food + exterminators = rats that crawl off and die in inconvenient places

The question isn't whether there are rats, it's where are they and how long will it take them to return between pest control visits. No matter what you do, they're a fact of life for anyone who runs a food establishment in New York.

So the choices seem to be:

  1. Ban the cats and constantly deal with rats gnawing at food packages and leaving God knows what around to spread disease.
  2. Let the cats do what comes naturally.
Anyone who's seen the video of the Greenwich Village Taco Bell rat infestation knows the answer. There, the rats looked about as big as cats and scurried around freely after the store closed for the night. One might wonder what three or four felines would have been able to accomplish there. Fast food franchisees might even want to consider rotating crews of cats to patrol their stores once a week or so.

I don' t know about you, but given the option of seeing a cat in a restaurant, or a mouse, I'll always choose Morris over Mickey. So maybe the Department of Health can come up with a compromise: let the cats stay, but require them to be tested on a regular basis for the disease and parasites rats carry. Their inspectors can check the cat's health records when they come to rate the establishment. And perhaps it will get a few more homeless animals out of the shelters and off the streets.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Help! I'm being held captive in a forced-labor Chinese fortune cookie factory!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Calling Sister Bertrille!

Apparently the latest extreme sport is flying. Like Batman, but without the Batcopter. Just a winglike jumpsuit, helmet and a parachute for a smooth landing.

My exploring buddy sent me a video of guys doing this ... saying I should give it a try. And the very next day, the New York Times runs a story on it, featuring a practitioner of the sport who is planning to do a flight sans parachute, landing on his belly. Two mentions in 24 hours. Must be something to it.

Now, is it just me, or do these guys look like the Flying Nun? You remember her. She was the 90 pound novitiate who discovered that the wacky wimple of her order had special aerodynamic qualities. It would explain why Sally Field is hawking osteoporosis meds: gotta have strong bones to land on your feet from an altitude of 500 feet.

In the interest of disclosure, I've done some skydiving, and had one ill-advised hang-gliding experience, and while the experiences were very, uh, interesting, I think I can say with some certainty that the best thing about having done both is that I can now say I've done them. After the third jump, I decided that I'd tempted fate enough, and maybe I should move on to something else meaningless and stupid. Like sailing from Portmagee to a speck of an island in the Atlantic in a 20 foot fishing boat.

But flying without a chute -- or real wings -- is going way far over the edge. Literally and figuratively. Unless your name is Rocket J. Squirrel.

Some would say that any of it is a bit reckless, but in the hierarchy of foolhardiness, skydiving doesn't even rank. First, it has some useful applications, i.e. surviving a plane wreck, landing behind enemy lines. In practice as an extreme sport, it has its advantages: you know you're headed in one direction -- down, more or less -- and the chute is just there to slow your descent. The necessary skill is the ability to slow down enough from terminal velocity to land without creating a crater.

The actual horizontal-type flying is a bit more dangerous, because you take gravity out of the equation. In other words, wings are there to keep you airborne. The potential for hitting something has just grown to include things you can fly into as well as things you could fall down onto. Danger in 3-D. How appetizing.

Having been affixed to a giant wing and towed to 2000 feet by an ultralight plane (read: giant wing with lawnmower engine and beach chair attached), I have a little insight into what it's like to fly at bird level and see the landscape for miles. It's pretty cool, if the thermals haven't kicked up for the day.

Flying over and next to cliffs is a bit different. Way too much opportunity to do a Wile E. Coyote into a cliff wall. And this guy wants to do it without a parachute, landing belly-first on the ground like a plane with malfunctioning landing gear.

Sorry - I'll pass. Even the video makes me a little oozhy.

It does remind me, though, that I have to schedule something stupid. It's been too long.