Monthly Archives: September 2016

Day Fifty-Three: August 28, 2016: The walk through Upper Harlem from 155th Street to 145th Street

I finally completed my walk of the entire Harlem neighborhood from 155th to 145th Street. I was lucky that it was a nice day with not much humidity. It has been pretty bad with the weather lately. This part of my walk took me to the area east of Jackie Robinson Park from Bradhurst Avenue to the East River. It was one of the harder sections of the city. I always felt that I was being watched by someone.

As I walked along the side street between 145th Street and 155th Streets the residents reacted to me differently. Some were smoking pot on the street and when I came back walking on the other side of the street they disappeared. One woman was having a very heated argument with a man on Frederick Douglas Boulevard that was getting pretty heavy and when she saw me immediately shut up. When I walked down the other side of the street, she and the man had also disappeared. The police in the area kept driving around looking me over and when I was walking on 147th Street, someone threw a bottle from the building that hit the other side of the street I was walking on. I never thought I ever screamed ‘cop’ before but I got a pretty good idea that that’s what the local residents thought I was that afternoon. Things really quieted down as I walked around this area.

Like all other areas of Harlem, the area is quickly gentrifying. I have never seen so many young perky white kids running around the area. All the buildings lining Bradhurst Avenue by Jackie Robinson Park especially closer to 145th Street are all brand new and there is even a Starbucks on the corner of 145th and Bradhurst Avenue which means that the neighborhood is past the ‘transition’ stage. Most of the area around 145th Street to Frederick Douglas Boulevard are new housing a lot of it catering to the CUNY students who are boldly pushing the boundaries of the campus into all parts of Harlem. They walk all over the neighborhood, sometimes much to the surprise of the local merchants.

Entering Jackie Robinson Park at 145th Street is very pleasant. There are basketball courts, a public pool, picnic and barbecuing areas that are very popular with the local residents and walking trails. The rock formations in the middle of the park not too different to the ones in High Bridge Park tell the story of how the Ice Age molded these parks for the future. The large formations are mostly covered with vegetation but still make quite an impression. The park was very busy that afternoon with kids crowding into the pool and many pick up basketball games going on. On the upper reaches of the park, there must have been four barbecues going on at once, many were having birthday parties and many of the area seniors were sitting around talking and watching what I was doing. I didn’t know that me walking around was such a topic of discussion.

It must have spread around the neighborhood because a bottle came flying down from one of the apartment buildings on 147th Street. That surprised some of the people walking around the neighborhood. Between that and the police vans trolling the neighborhood, I felt like I was being followed.

Walking down Bradhurst Avenue, the street is lined with new buildings facing the park and many new shops that have opened between the park and Fredrick Douglas Boulevard along 145th Street like Starbucks and Popeye’s that cater to the students and residents alike. As you move further into the neighborhood, local businesses line the avenues along Fredrick Douglas and Marcombs with interesting local stores and restaurants. The chain stores have found themselves up here so the services are changing in the shopping area.

At 146th Street is the Robert Clinkscales Playground and Community Park (234 West 146 Street) that was founded in the neighborhood in 1983. This small park has an active playground on one side with a cooling area in the middle and raised vegetable garden on the right side of the park with sitting areas throughout. Even on a Sunday, the playground was very active with lots of kids being looked upon by their grandparents. The vegetable garden was in full form with lots of tomato and herb plants all around the gardens. It is a nice refuge from the hot streets and a good portion of the brownstones and apartment houses that surround the park have been renovated.

I have noticed a trend in all the neighborhoods I have walked so far in Upper Manhattan. If a neighborhood puts the time and effort into Community Garden or triangle park, all the real estate around it improves. Time and time again I have seen homes renovated around these small parks and that the owners enjoy having a view of something.

As I worked my way up the side streets, the area of renovation depends on how close you are to Jackie Robinson Park. The closer you are to the park, the newer the buildings and more construction is going on. The further you get away from the park towards Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, you move towards the projects. Even the projects are going through a renovation in the neighborhood as most are under scaffolding and look like they are getting a sandblast and new windows.

The lower part of the neighborhood is dominated by a bus depot at 145th Street and Lenox Avenue. Large apartment buildings dominate around this area of Lenox Avenue and the streets can get quite busy on the weekends. A lot of residents hang out outside their buildings gossiping with their neighbors. No one seemed to pay attention to me walking by until I made my way onto their side of the road and then everyone seemed to disappear.

As I made my way onto 152nd Street, the street was dotted with many small Community Gardens. There is a real community spirit with in the neighborhood when it comes to Community Gardening.  The ‘Garden of Love’ run by the Bradhurst Garden Association at 321 West 152nd Street has beds of flowers and vegetables but locked from the outside and the 8th Avenue Garden at 301 152nd Street near Fredrick Douglas Boulevard, were small patches of green on this residential strip. The neighbors reclaimed these spots and by planting them and taking care of them really add to the fabric of the community as well as teaching the kids about gardening. Their a special touch to the neighborhood.

Walking up Maccombs Place, I saw a neighborhood that is starting a very early transition. Beautiful townhouses and apartment buildings line the street and lead into the Bronx where Yankee Stadium is located. People were smoking pot outside one of the apartment buildings when I passed and where fighting with each other and when I walked back down the street, there were long gone. This seemed to be the trend where ever I went.

The exception was Colonel Charles Young Triangle, the one big park in the neighborhood  outside of Jackie Robinson Park. This large triangle is in the corner of the neighborhood at 154th Street just off the bridge and dominates a very busy traffic corner. Many of the people in the neighborhood gather here to talk or in some cases have family parties as I had seen the three times I walked in the park. It is not well taken care of as it needs a good weeding and planting. The only thing I did was turn some heads.

Much of the upper part of the neighborhood is commercial and when you walk down the steps to 155th Street, you are facing probably the most sterile and probably one of the more dangerous projects in the city at the old Polo Fields where the NY Giants used to play. As I said on a previous day, please do not linger around here. Even the police stay in their cars in this neighborhood and the site of a preppie 6:4 guy walking around the neighborhood for a third time must have had everyone wondering what I was doing there. Trust me, I walked down 155th Street to Bradhurst Avenue as fast as I could go and then crossed down Bradhurst before the other set of stairs that leads up to Harlem River Drive and Edgecomb Avenue where High Bridge Park is located. Pretty much the park separates the two areas from one another.

My last stop on the tour of this neighborhood was dinner.  I stopped at Charles County Pan-fried Chicken on Fredrick Douglas Boulevard between 152nd and 153rd Streets and a neighborhood staple. While eating lunch, I talked to Charles, the owner, who was taking a quick break. He could not believe the makeup of his customers that day which were mostly white and some were out of town tourists. I told him that everyone reads about the restaurant on TripAdvisor and Yelp and that’s why he has such a hodgepodge of customers. There were some excellent reviews online. I just found the place while walking around earlier and checked TripAdvisor for what people were saying.

Thank God I ate there that day because Charles said  that this was his last day at this location. He had been there for over twenty years and was moving to a bigger spot on 137th Street which is closer to CUNY. He explained that he needed more room as big groups wanted to visit and he had to keep turning them down. He only had about five tables and they were all full.

The food is excellent. He really does cook his chicken in a very large cast iron pan and chicken is constantly cooking so it is fresh. They give you a big portion for a meal so bring your appetite (See review on TripAdvisor). I had the fried chicken dinner which consisted of a freshly fried chicken breast and wing, a big portion of creamy mac & cheese and candied yams that were a syrupy candied on the yams and were sweet and moist. The chicken is crisp and flavorful on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside. It was one of the best fried chickens I had in a long time.

As I was eating, I told Charles that I thought his food was excellent which he appreciated. Remember to wash it all down with their fresh lemonade. It will really cool you down on a hot day. It was nice to eat with and talk to the owner of the restaurant.

The day ended with a final walk into Jackie Robinson Park and a cool down period on this humid day. Many of the CUNY students have come to sunning themselves on the lawn on the hill off 145th Street or cooling down in the pool located in the park. After that, a quick subway ride from 145th Street back to midtown. The whole area between 155th Street to 145th Street both sides and in between had been done. It was quite a walk.

 

 

 

 

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Day Fifty-Five: The Fifteenth Anniversary of the Attacks of 9/11 and the Tenth Anniversary of my novel, “Firehouse 101” September 11th, 2016

I can’t believe that it has been fifteen years since the attacks on the World Trade Center. It seems like a lifetime ago. As the site has been almost rebuilt with the new One World Trade Center (visited earlier in my walk last Thanksgiving) and two visits to the 9/11 Memorial Museum and numerous visits to the site, I think back on my eleven years on the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department and the path I have lead to this point.

I think that the department has really grounded me in many ways and made me more disciplined. I have been able to help my community in ways that baking items for bake sales and selling Christmas trees never did even though these raised a lot of money for their respective causes. I think I have become a better person and a more aware person since joining the department. I really do think you are born a fireman. It just comes out a time when you recognize it. It was like a calling for me and I found what I was looking for in my life and I would never change it for the world.

Am I the best fire fighter or the most dedicated? That is up for debate after every call. I do know one thing, I have been able to help the people in my community in so many ways and when I hear from perfect strangers in my town or surrounding towns “I remember you. You came to my house and helped so-in-so in my family. Thank you so much for that.”, it makes me feel like a better person.

When I wrote “Firehouse 101” (part of a trilogy of books that take place in New York City, the other two being “Love Triangles” and “Dinner at Midnight”), I was at a different stage of my life and honestly if I had to write the book today, I could not do it. The book helped me grapple with what I saw and heard from other guys on the department when I got home to New Jersey from the island of Guam where I was living at the time.

Firehouse 101 Picture III

How did a ‘preppie’ like me join the fire department? I was writing several articles on 9/11 for the local paper when I got home (basically because would write for free and I volunteered) and I interviewed so many fire fighters in my town on their role on 9/11 that I got sucked in. After a three hour interview with our now former chief and a long service fire fighter that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time with the stories they told me of that horrible day, the chief turned to me and said, “Have you ever considered becoming a fire fighter?”

I really thought about it when I got home and said to myself “Why would anyone think ‘Preppie Me’ would make a good fireman?” Then it really got me thinking of a lot of times I had met firemen along the way in my life and how impressed I was by them. It stayed with me for a long time and then I was helping out with the town’s tree lighting ceremony about a year later and the fireman I interviewed was standing in line behind me for a hot chocolate and I asked how he like the article I wrote. Then out of the blue I asked “Are you still looking for more firemen to join the department?” He then took me over to meet the chief I had interviewed and I asked about joining the department. Two months later I interviewed with my company and five months after that on June 12, 2005, I became a member of Engine One of the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department and eleven years later I am still going strong as an Exempt fire fighter, member of the Bergen County Fireman’s Home Association, Department Secretary, Company Secretary, Head of our company’s annual barbecue and chicken parm dinner and still writing articles on the department. I  really do think they saw something in me that day that I did not see in myself.

As much as my brothers can drive me crazy at times, there is no other place I would rather be and when push comes to shove, they are there for me. The one true time I saw the ‘Brotherhood’ shine was when my father died and on the night of the wake, they came out for me. The fireman, who I wrote the article about, Fire Fighter Tom Rubino, who will be retiring from the department this year and is our acting Fire Chaplin, read a beautiful speech about my father, whom everyone on the department had known for years at that point and had admired his bravery and hard work after his stroke to get better. It made it even more touching that it was him that read the speech after that night so many years ago. The members of not just my company but other companies as well came out to support me and my father at a very tough time in my life and I will never forget that kindness. It is really a feeling that someone who is not a fire fighter will ever experience. There really is something to being a fire fighter and being part of a community in the fire service.

So on this anniversary of 9/11, I leave you with a section of the book when Alex Livingston, a scion of the famous Livingston family of the Hudson Valley, interviews the fire chief from Firehouse 101 in Brooklyn, New York and his tale of the 9/11 attacks. It tells the story of fire fighter Ryan Callahan, who survived that attacks that day and watched his best friend die next to him.

To all the families and friends who lost loved ones that day, my heart goes out to you. It still is not easy for any of us on the fire service no matter when we joined. I hope one day you can read my novel “Firehouse 101”. It might help you grapple with your pain. If you want to read a funny but touching article on me, read The Gazette newspaper article in 2006 on my life a year later in the fire service “So, yous want to be a Fireman?”

Excerpt from the interview with Carmen Giovanni (who I wanted it to be played in the movie version by musician and actor Huey Lewis)

What exactly happened to Ryan that day?” Alex asked. “At the school or on September 11th?” Carmen replied. “Both,” Alex said now fascinated by it all. He wanted to get the story straight once and for all. “I can only tell you what the men told me. When they got the call on September 11th, this house was the second one to respond from Brooklyn. They were going over the bridge when they saw the second plane hit the towers. The house sent seven men down plus two others who were off duty. Some stayed to man the house, while the others went down to the site. We were going through a shift change, not unlike my own house at the time, so there were lots of men milling around that morning. They got the call early and being so close to lower Manhattan they went. Hilly was never one to wait. One of the men told me that on the ride down, Hilly had said, “When we put this one out, I personally want to catch those rat bastards that did this to our city.”

“What about Ryan that day?” Alex said wanting to get back on the subject. “From what I heard he barely said a word. He was in another world by that point. Others were chatting on and on about what type of plane must have hit when the second plane hit the other tower. Then they were all quiet. Those men saw too much that day,” Carmen added. He paused for a second, looked at Alex and gave him a sorrowful look like he was waiting for a reaction. Alex sat wide eyed and continued to write.

“From what the men told me, Hilly went into the Tower Two to see what they could do and where they should go first. Since there was so much chaos, Hilly took control and helped escorting people out of the building and away from danger. They say he was pretty calm. From what I knew of the guy, he would have had everyone double step and yell at them if they didn’t do it. So he and the rest of the men helped there. From what I heard, they then got a call to help on the upper floors, so Hilly took four of the men with him and told Ryan and Patrick to stay behind to help get the infirmed or injured out of the building. That’s why Ryan and Patrick were alive that day.

The picture of Ryan and Patrick was taken ten minutes before the first tower came down. It had literally knocked their helmets off. All Ryan could remember when he came out of the coma in the hospital was that he and Patrick had gone back to the lobby to help get more people out of he building. They had been helping an older man and the next thing he knew, he woke up in the hospital a few weeks later. Carmen was calm as he explained the story to Alex.

Alex could not believe what he was hearing. It was like a TV movie. So that was the story, that’s what really happened that day. No wonder Ryan wanted to forget it, what a horrifying experience. “So what happened at the hospital when he woke up?” Alex asked.

Carmen thought about this for a minute. Should he continue on? Who was this for anyway? Carmen decided to continue thinking that Alex was a concerned friend. In actuality, Alex was trying to get an idea of the magnitude of what happened that day to one person. He wanted to know what Leslie, Ryan, and Roger were not telling him. Alex felt that he had never been that nice to Ryan the whole time he lived in New York. He began to realize that he felt sorry for himself as Ryan had for himself and what concerned Ryan was much worse.

“One of the men told me that they could not believe that Ryan made it out with just a sprained ankle and a few minor cuts. It was the way he fell. The base of a fountain protected him. Even I couldn’t believe it but that’s where they found him. He and Patrick were still alive. The man they were helping was literally crushed by the beam they found on top of him,” Carmen added. “How did they find them?” Alex asked. Some firemen from a downtown house found them and got them the hell out of there,” Carmen continued, “no one could believe that they survived the first collapse. There was no help for Patrick though; he died after they got to the hospital. The impact was more severe that it appeared, he was suffering from internal bleeding. He died before his parents even knew that he had made it to the hospital. Mr. And Mrs. Callahan had to help the two of them home.” Alex had known that the two families were very close and Patrick and Ryan knew each other since they were practically born. Carmen was not sure how much Alex knew of Ryan.

“His old girlfriend told me about that,” Alex said, “it must be horrible for any parent to bury a child under any conditions but after what had happened on September 11th, it must have been even more traumatizing, especially when it seemed like there was a chance he survived. No one should have had to die such a terrible death.”

Alex had not noticed that during the interview. Carmen’s face turned red them almost to almost purple, like he was holding his breath. Alex was worried and said, “Carmen are you okay? Do you need some water or something?” Carmen looked away then looked back at Alex. He looked him straight in the eye and started a speech that Alex would not ever dream of interrupting.

“You’re right, Alex. No one should have had to die such a horrible way because no one should have had to die that day!” Carmen shouted. “We had so many good men die that day that should not have and why? I’ll tell you why. No one was watching the signs, no one shared information. Everyone letting their egos get in the way. No one had a back up plan, no one understood the big picture. We all went in blind because no one knew. And the city, Jesus Christ, I still can’t believe it. You’d think we would have learned from the bombings in ’93, but we didn’t. We got smug. We thought they couldn’t possibly do it again. They wouldn’t even try. And we warned the city government! We said we needed new equipment but did they listen, NO!!! It was too expensive, we have no money, we have to cut the budget and wait until next year. Jesus Christ, here it is nine years later and we still don’t have it! What the fuck are they waiting for to get hit next? The Brooklyn Bridge? The Empire State Building? I would like to know what the hell they are waiting for. My own brother and I can’t even talk to each other on radio. The police can’t talk to the firemen in this city and that is so fuckin’ ridiculous!” Carmen said now screaming at the top of his lungs. Carmen took a book off his desk and threw it at the wall. He was really pissed!

Then he continued, “Nothing in this god-damned city will ever change. They will spend money on parades and on memorials and then turn around and not want to buy new radios for us because it is too expensive! Well tell me this; would the person who said it would be too expensive to buy us new radios like to explain to over two thousand family members and to over a hundred and fifty widows of fire fighters that there was no money for them? I would like to meet them myself and explain it to them!” Carmen was in a near frenzy.

“I even yelled at that stupid brother of mine to knock some sense into some of his friends in the police department to get the ball rolling. This is such a load of bullshit! When did we let out egos get in the way such that departments won’t even help each other? Do you know how many firemen are former policemen? This is our wake up call to talk to one another and be better organized. If we don’t, I won’t blame the federal government because it won’t be the government’s fault but our own pride and stupidity! We don’t need anymore god damn parades praising us. We need good working conditions. Our firehouses can’t be falling apart and rat infested, we need new equipment to do our jobs and we need better salaries so our men and women can live closer to the city they serve. Do you know that some of our men have to live at home because they can’t make it on the starting salary? Christ, that’s pathetic! Our men aren’t being subsidized by Mommy and Daddy to live on the Upper East Side!” Carmen gave Alex the conclusion to his speech when he swept everything off his desk and yelled at the top of his lungs, “NO ONE HAD TO DIE THAT DAY!!!!”