Friday, May 31, 2024

Northeast Road Trip, Part 3

We left Albany the next morning and headed south toward New York City, stopping off at the next town south to purchase a new gas cap to replace the one that we left somewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania.

There was an auto parts store right there on the main road out of town, which would have been convenient except that the old guys in the parts department refused to acknowledge us – or any other customer – in any way for a good fifteen minutes while they finished up whatever phone call and/or computer search they were on. Some people just left. But since we had nowhere else to go, we stayed and eventually succeeded in liberating a gas cap for a nominal fee.

It works fine.

We have a great many people to see in New York, and we always enjoy it when we do. Our plan was to get to as many of them as we could fit in before heading off to northern New Jersey for the night. It’s good to have friends, and if you can’t get to all of them in one trip that’s a pretty high-class problem to have.

As a native Philadelphian I’m not really supposed to say anything nice about New York but I’ve never had a bad experience there. There’s a lot to see and do, and the people are friendly once you understand the rules of the place. You just have to accept the culture for what it is and go from there. For example, when driving in New York City you get eight nanoseconds to merge lanes before someone takes the space but you do get those eight nanoseconds free and clear, unlike other places I’ve been where you either get nothing (hello Boston!) or some random amount of time that cannot be predicted or, for that reason, used (hello, Madison!).

We bludgeoned our way through traffic and across the George Washington Bridge without incident, and after a few misadventures with GPS and parking garages we deposited the minivan in a safe place and wandered over to our friends Joshua and Abby, who live in an apartment stuffed with books and theater memorabilia and whom we haven’t seen since before the pandemic. It’s always fascinating to explore the place and we got the grand tour of all the things that have been added since our last visit, including the bright new tiles on the kitchen walls which added a flair to the place that we enjoyed. Our goals were lunch and conversation and we had a lovely time achieving both of them.

We then liberated the car from the parking garage, got better directions from the attendant than GoogleMaps was giving us, and headed north up the Henry Hudson to see Ellen and Rob, whom we also haven’t seen since before the pandemic, where we hung out for a while and largely repeated those same goals, though with dessert instead of lunch. They’ve recently redone their kitchen – a surprising number of people in our lives have done that or are thinking of doing that, and you can see plans being formulated for us to do that and I am curious as to how that would turn out. For the better, I’m sure, as our kitchen is big but inefficiently laid out and there is room for improvement, but it is no small thing to redo a kitchen and that is an energy barrier. We spent the afternoon catching up and marveling at how someone managed to crash their car into Ellen and Rob’s porch a while back. The physics just don’t work out easily, is what I’m saying here.

From there we headed south, back across the George Washington Bridge, to stay the night with Trish and Joel in Maplewood. We found their house with no problems and spent a lovely evening of conversation and Chinese food (yeah, it’s kind of a theme). I had a fascinating discussion of American history with their daughter Bella, who is getting ready to take her AP exam and will likely get a 5 on it based on what I heard. It is good to see good people and the day was full of such things.

The next morning Trish and I walked over to get bagels before the rain hit, and we all sat in the kitchen happily eating real bagels (vs the steamed version you find in the midwest) and watching the deluge come down. But eventually the rain tailed off, Trish had to work, and we had to move on, so we got back in the van and headed off to Hoboken to see Keith, Lori, and Sara.

Eventually we also saw their cat Mila, who was not impressed.

I’d been to visit before back in 2021 but thanks to schedules and the pandemic Kim had not, so the first thing we did after dropping off our bags and resting for a bit was head out to Fiore’s for roast beef and mozzarella sandwiches. Hoboken is a very competitive place when it comes to mozzarella, it turns out – they have a festival every year and award medals to the best mozzarella in the city, and Fiore’s has won that now and then. Their sandwiches are worth the effort and the mozzarella is indeed very good, though I learned the last time to skip the hot peppers as they are seriously hot even for me. That’s half of a sandwich below, by the way.

After lunch Lori had to work and Sara was off doing her own thing so Keith, Kim, and I went off to explore Hoboken. Mila remained uninterested. Hoboken is a really nice place from my experiences there – it feels like someone took a chunk of one of the New York City boroughs (Brooklyn, say) from around 1900 and thoroughly renovated it. We cruised the main street, and Kim took the opportunity to get her hair cut while Keith and I found a used-book store to explore.

Afterward we met up with Lori and Sara at a barbecue place on the waterfront where there was a Trivia Night. The food was really good though the trivia was odd – there were four rounds, each with five fairly easy questions plus a multi-part bonus question that was basically impossible. Somehow we came in fourth out of the twenty or so groups, just out of the running for prizes, which I thought was impressive nonetheless.

The next day we went to Ellis Island.

For all the times that I’ve been to the New York City area and for all that I am both a professional historian and an amateur genealogist (it’s a fine line – humor me here) I had never actually been there before. I have at least four ancestors who came through it in the early 1900s, and Kim took Oliver, Lauren, Fran, and Aleksia there in 2018 but I arrived later and missed that day.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Ellis Island sits between New York and New Jersey (both states own parts of it) and from the 1880s through the mid-1950s it was the main entry port for immigrants entering the US from across the Atlantic. Some twelve million immigrants passed through it, and according to the tour guide we had that day about 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to at least one person who arrived there. The place was abandoned in 1954 and sat there for about thirty years before anyone thought to do anything with it, but now it’s been fixed up in parts and is a museum. It’s free to get in but you have to pay for the ferry ride to get there, so if you have a rowboat and strong arms it won’t cost you anything. In our case, we decided to take the “hard hat tour” (our second one this trip!) to see the hospital buildings that haven’t quite been renovated.

The ferry ride from New Jersey was pleasant and scenic, and a great deal less crowded than the one coming over from New York. You drive to what was once a combination train station and ferry station (the train part is abandoned and grown over, but interesting in its own right), go through security, and then hop onto the ferry for the five-minute ride over to Ellis Island. The ferry then proceeds on to Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty is, but we saved that trip for another day. We’ve all been there – Kim, Oliver, and Lauren in 2018 and me way back in 1979 on a school trip when you could walk up all the stairs to the crown.

The first thing you do when you get to Ellis Island is go into the big central building – the only one on the original 3-acre island and thus the only one that belongs to New York – and look around. We made a beeline to the information desk to ask about our tour and they told us to wait right there and eventually off we went.

The hospital area was a place you didn’t want to go if you were an immigrant because it meant you might not get admitted to the country. You hadn’t been immediately deported – the steamship lines were required to pay for private (i.e. quarantined) cabins for anyone sent home so they did a lot of screening for that in advance – but you either had to wait for a bit in the regular hospital or wait for what might be a very long time in the contagious disease hospital. Some people never made it out. That’s how diseases work.

The hospitals are on the expanded part of the island (27 acres), which means they belong to New Jersey. NJ owns the water off the original island, and the landfill was considered part of that.

Our tour guide took us through buildings and grassy areas, explaining it all as she went. We got to see the morgue and the laundry room, for example, and on the first picture below you can see the white marks on the bricks which marks the high-water line from the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. The place was abandoned for decades and left alone, and a lot of things are just still sitting there in various states of disrepair. Apparently it would take billions of dollars to restore it fully, so they’re just hoping to maintain a state of “arrested decay,” which makes it more poignant, I think.

A few years ago a French artist did a project there where he enlarged photos from the immigration years and put them on the walls and windows. They give a ghostly feeling to the place, and you have to love that.

One thing that really impressed me about the hospital buildings was how much thought went into passive airflow as a way to keep diseases from spreading. Wards branch off the long hallway known as The Spine but never directly across from one another. The contagious hospital hallway narrows at one end to maintain positive airflow. It was surprisingly well thought out.

The last stop on the tour was the hospice room. They made sure that these patients had the best view, which was thoughtful of them.

Eventually we got outside and headed back to the main building.

After a quick lunch we continued our explorations. The highlight for me was the big processing hall, which is actually on the second floor. You have to imagine the throngs of people who would crowd this room, all hoping and fearing for what came next.

There’s also some really nice museum displays, and if you go outside there’s a low circular stainless steel wall with about a million names engraved in it. We found Kim’s grandfather, who came through Ellis Island in the early 1950s with Kim’s grandmother and mom, and depending on how loose you are with spelling quite possibly some of my Italian ancestors as well. We also found some of Lori’s ancestors, so it was time well spent.

We got the last ferry off the island, made a short stop at Liberty Island to pick up more people (including one guy who had a tattoos in Tengwar on each forearm and if he hadn’t been on his phone the entire time I would have asked him who Beatriz Martinez was to him), and headed back to the car. As we got back to dry land Kim said that the only thing that would have made the experience more complete was if there was an ice cream truck in the parking lot and – as if by magic – there was!

Dinner that night was at an Italian place called Il Tavola, which I recommend fully. We loved our waitress for her honesty – when we asked what the difference was between the Stuffed Ravioli and the Cheese Ravioli she said “Well, it’s kind of embarrassing but they’re really the same thing except one has burrata on top and only comes with vodka sauce” and you have to appreciate that kind of transparency. I got one and Keith got the other and they were both good.

We spent the remainder of the night watching standup on television and chatting with Sara and her friend Nicola as they came and went.

For our final full day of our trip we drove south to Pennington to see Jenny for lunch. I’ve known Jenny since high school and it is good to have friends who have that kind of history and who have shared your story for so long. We got to meet her kitties and her neighbor Rob (all very nice!) and had a tasty meal at The Peasant Grill along with – wait for it! – some lovely conversation as well. Jenny also took us on a brief tour of Hopewell afterward. It’s such a pretty area!

After that it was a long drive home, though rain storms and interstates and a night in North Lima, Ohio where James the Quality Inn guy took good care of us. The next day we saw bald eagles standing in field in central Ohio and survived the tangled web that is Greater Chicago before arriving back home.

It was good to see everyone, and we’ll look forward to the next visits, either here or there.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Northeast Road Trip, Part 2

Our trip to the Northeast was one of the very few trips that Kim and I have taken where I did most of the planning, and for that reason I am frankly astounded that it turned out well.

I’m not the planner in this outfit. I tend to get overwhelmed by all the finicky little details and then one of two things happens: either I throw up my hands and decide just to stay home – which I also enjoy doing, so it’s not so much a sacrifice as it is an opportunity cost and those are easy to ignore – or I plunge ahead and make plans that just … sort of … don’t … work out … very well. Plus, while this all sounded like a great idea in March, when the semester was young and I was full of energy, by the time we got to May and finals were over it seemed like a lot to take on.

But we went and it was lovely, so there you have it. Lesson learned.

We left on a Saturday morning, heading east along this nation’s mighty interstate system with all due speed and efficiency until we got to Chicago, whereupon everything ground to a halt for a while because Chicago. Rush hour starts at 4am in that city and lasts for 23 hours and 57 minutes (five minutes less on weekends). There is always construction, with posted speed limits that not even the cops pay any attention to. It’s usually raining, in my experience. And the entrance from I-290 to I-294 (two major interstate highways, you will note) is exactly one lane wide and has an approach lane that is maybe four car-lengths long.

So that took a while.

But we made it through and eventually found our way across both Indiana (a flat state with off-putting rest stops) and Ohio (a flat state with nice rest stops) to get to Pittsburgh, where our friends Mike and Krista live. Mike was chaperoning his students’ prom when we got there because he is a Good Person, so we had dinner on the back porch with Krista and enjoyed our conversation until Mike got home, whereupon we continued to enjoy our conversation only now with all four of us.

We had breakfast the next day at Pamela’s, which has the world’s best breakfast potatoes. I did not get them, alas, but Kim did so I know this now. In fairness, the French toast was also good. As was the d├ęcor and the company.

Our big expedition that day was to the Carrie Furnace.

The Pittsburgh metro area, for those of you whose historical memory is measured in minutes, was once one of the biggest centers of steel manufacturing in the world. It was the focus of the region’s economy and it has shaped the culture of the place down to the present day. It’s pretty much all gone now, of course – the air is cleaner and the city has moved on to other industries – but here and there you can find remnants.

The Carrie Furnace – apparently they named these things after the wives of prominent management officials in the steel mills, because what could possibly be more romantic naming a vast fume-belching industrial facility for your sweetheart? – is one of the last remaining bits of the old Homestead Works just outside of the city and across the river from the Furnace. It was built in the late 19th century and abandoned in the early 1980s – they literally just turned the key and left – and eventually most of the buildings on the site were torn down for scrap and the rest were the province of bored kids, random graffiti taggers, and the occasional scavenger. Eventually the surviving structures were taken over by what is essentially an arts cooperative and turned into a heritage site that preserves not only the steel mill history of the place but also the art that followed.

You get a hard hat and a bottle of water, and they take you around the outside of the surviving buildings and show you some of the structures that are still standing.

You can climb up the building on the left in that last photo (“Tall people, watch your head!”) and see some of the unloading facilities for the ore and iron pellets. The guy with the beard is our tour guide, who kept us there for far longer than the actual tour was supposed to last but it was utterly fascinating so we didn’t complain a bit.

You bob and weave through the buildings, and if you enjoy urban industrial aesthetics, as I do, it is a great place to visit.

It’s hard to wrap your head around just how big it is if you’re just looking at the photographs. The scale of the machinery in steel manufacturing is truly mind boggling.

They also showed us a lot of the art that’s there, everything from graffiti art (which is now fairly regulated in an orderly sort of way, though they do preserve some of the older stuff from when the place was abandoned) to sculptures. The reclining rabbit was one of my favorites, in part because it had a certain attitude that I liked.

The big attraction is the deer head, which apparently predates the takeover of the place by organized groups. It was built by people who never really expected it to be seen by anyone else, and there is a certain purity to that. Like most things at Carrie, it’s huge.

We left Carrie deeply impressed and in need of sustenance. Dinner was waiting at home, but we stopped at a local libation shop to purchase snacks and reacquaint ourselves with the comedy that is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control code (“Those over there you can buy and take out, but those over here you have to drink here”). It all worked out in the end, and we spent another lovely evening on the back porch with Mike and Krista, happily immersed in conversation.

The next day we drove to Albany to meet Ewan and Jenny.

Ewan has been a commenter here on the blog for a long time now, and we’ve been Facebook friends for a while as well, but we’d never actually met in person. But he invited us to visit and we thought that would be a lovely idea, and indeed it was!

Lucy, you’re next.

We left Pittsburgh early and stopped for breakfast at an Eat & Park, which is a Pittsburgh institution although why it isn’t “Park & Eat” I don’t know. But they make very good pies, and that has to count for something. Kim managed to sit in on a phone meeting while we were in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania – a triumph of communications technology in many ways – and we got to Ewan’s house in the late afternoon. There was conversation! There were beverages! There was a tasty dinner with Ewan, Jenny, and their youngest son Keiran*, and it was very nice to meet them all in person after so long.

The next day we headed out to the Indian Ladder Trail at Thacher Park, which is astonishingly lovely. It’s an escarpment that overlooks a broad valley, and you climb down the stairs to a lower level – not all the way down – and walk along a trail for a while, marveling as you go.

You pass layers of folded rock, though not – on this trip – any of the efts who inhabit the place.

The highlight for me was the waterfalls, which apparently come and go with the seasons so our timing was good. There are several of them and they cascade down from above while you’re on the trail. You can go behind them or just hang out in the spray.

After a quick stop at a local coffeeshop we headed into Albany proper to see the place. It’s a nice city from what we could tell, though the State Capitol was feverishly busy with last minute budget wrangling, lobbying, and an entire Habitat For Humanity hammering festival out in front so parking was at a premium. On the plus side the place was festooned with food trucks, which is always a good sign in my book.

Our goal was to take the tour of the Capitol building, which meant going through the security line that is inevitable in such buildings these days and – in my case – going through it again because I forgot to leave my Swiss Army knife in the car and the guard said that rather than him confiscating it I should just go outside and put it somewhere inconspicuous and it would probably be there when I got back and you know? It was.

It's a fascinating building and we got to see a fair amount of it, including the House and Senate chambers which were in recess over the lunch hour while we were there. Opulent does not even begin to describe them, and the tour guide did a good job of explaining it all. I really enjoyed one particular room full of very odd paintings – note the last photo below – but there is no accounting for my taste.

From there we went out onto a vast concrete plaza across the street, one that had the look of either a 1960s architectural drawing brought to life or a near-future dystopian spaceport. Possibly both. They are not mutually exclusive, after all. But it was interesting in a mid-century sort of way, particularly the Egg, which is the roundish building below and which now serves as a theater. Maybe it always did, but I confess that by the time we got in I was a bit distracted.

This is where I lost my battle with a curb.

We were heading toward the Egg, and for some reason – probably because I kept stopping to take photos – I was a few paces behind Ewan and Kim. There was a raised strip about a meter wide that ran across my path and I saw the far curb but didn’t see the near one and then there was kicking and stumbling and no small amount of flailing but fortunately I landed on my hands and didn’t faceplant. A passing nurse (really! she was!) checked me out and said that if my wrist didn’t get better then it probably wasn’t just sprained like I thought and I should get it looked at.

Can’t take me anywhere.

But it didn’t hurt all that much, so we continued on with our day. We went to get lunch from the food trucks, and then back across the plaza to the New York State Museum which had some great displays. There’s an entire exhibit on 9/11, as you would expect, and it is very well done and I took no photographs of it because as a former firefighter there are some things that are sacred.

We also went to see the campus where Ewan works and he showed us around – it’s a very nice place full of breezeways and colonnades and I enjoyed seeing it, but I didn’t take any pictures of that either because by this point it was starting to dawn on me that yeah, probably not just sprained and I should go to the urgent care about it. Grumble grumble grumble silly me grumble grumble.


Fortunately as we were heading off to do this Jenny called and pointed out that there was in fact a specifically Orthopedic urgent care with an x-ray and, it turned out, we were driving right past it at that very moment! So in we went, and less than an hour later, out I came with a bright purple cast – my very first one.

Never too late for new experiences, kids!

We went back home, had a marvelous dinner and good conversation, and eventually drifted up to our beds.

The next day we went to New York City and thereabouts, but that will be another post.