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Trip 22 -- NYC-Boston Walk
Day 1: Times Square to New Rochelle
Today: 35864 steps/31.37 km/19.49 mi/5h 38m
I prepare to set out, freshly free of deadlines. I have no bus to catch, no scramble for train seats, no airport queues. Even a car trip encompasses talk of "beat the Friday traffic." I have all day to get to New Rochelle, and it doesn't matter what time I leave.
I haven't slept as much as I wanted to; thoughts about the walk left me restless. Reading a page of anything usually provides enough distraction to lull me into slumber, so I picked up the closest book to my bed: John Leach's "Survival Psychology," recommended by my father. It's much blunter than I expect any book to be. In the preface's first paragraph there's "It is one of life's paradoxes that survivorship may often be a joyless and a thankless task," and chapter one, "Anatomy of a Disaster," begins, "We live with disasters every day." A hurricane, as everyone knows, has just slammed into Louisiana. There have been countless disasters this year. Somehow I sleep.
Packing is simple. I print out the Google Maps directions of each day of my walk, smushed onto seven pages. CNN is on. An ad catches my ear: "Don't just think about where you're headed this summer. Think about how you'll get there." I look up and hope it's touting sneakers, but of course it's for outsized cars. An envelope is on the table, a piece of mail sent to my parents' house that I've collected earlier this month. It's a questionnaire from Harvard to fill out in preparation for my class's 25th reunion. I recall that the deadline is around the end of this month. Oh, look, it's today. Something to think about on the journey.
I depart at the happenstance time of 10:25 a.m. I decide that the walk itself should really begin at a New York City landmark, so I head for Times Square, about five blocks from my apartment. Below the understated lights spelling out "2020" where the new year's ball has dropped, the absolutely enormous LED display stretches down about 30 floors, screaming, "125 days 13h 25min 58sec until 2021." Even the building housing the celebratory ball can't wait for this year to end. I snap a photo. Have I ever stopped to snap a photo in Times Square? I even miss the tourists.
My fitness watch vibrates every thousand steps, and I decide that whenever that happens I'll take a picture of whatever's in front of me. Step 1000 is outside the 57th Street subway station on Seventh Avenue. By step 2000, I've entered Central Park, and my path has merged with the practice route I've been walking for weeks.
It's perfectly sunny and in the 70s. National Public Radio is in my headphones, and on Fridays at 11:05 people can call and talk to the mayor. He's short on answers, though, and he has the challenge of appeasing conflicting sides of the same dilemma. One caller says that Instacart drivers are having trouble parking because of restaurants' opening up on the street. She doesn't want the restaurants to lose their street space by any means, but can the city be more lenient when it comes to parking tickets? "Let's see what we can do," says the mayor; this is the first time he's heard this question.
Another caller mentions 100 Rikers Island detainees who have caused trouble in Fresh Meadows, Queens, after been released into a Wyndham hotel during the pandemic, and residents of Manhattan's Upper West Side have been unhappy with hotels' housing homeless in the area to allow for distancing at shelters. This is supposed to be temporary, the mayor says, and he didn't think there were that many ex-inmates at the Wyndham. But there are plenty of articles. To a restaurateur concerned with making it through the winter, he says his office will get back to him. But that won't help the thousands of others.
By now I'm out of the park and walking along Fifth Avenue. I pass the spot where, until 2018, there was a statue of James Marion Sims, a doctor whose advances in gynecology resulted from his horrific experiments on Black slaves. It's certainly time for a more honorable monument.
It's the last 20 minutes of the Brian Lehrer Show, and he asks people to call in and answer the question: What phase of reopening are you in? The city itself may be in what it calls phase four, but people are in different situations and ready for different experiences. I think about telling them about my walk, and I type in the phone number and then hesitate. If this is a city-centric show, I don't want to advertise that I'm at the phase of reopening where I'm going to leave. Then I get my confidence up, remembering that my goal is to spend some money at establishments along the way, even if only my first meal will be within the New York City limits. I'll let others occupy space at museums and outdoor spaces for now, and then I can come back and do the same. I call the number a few times and get a busy signal, and then the show ends.
A red metal staircase takes me up and over the Harlem River Drive. I write "trash!" on my printed map. There's litter all over the stairs: cans, straw wrappers, cigarette boxes. Now I'm on the Third Avenue Bridge, crossing into the Bronx, just as my step counter hits 10,000. When I come down on the other side, there's a homeless camp under the Major Deegan Expressway at 135th Street, and a Verizon truck is blocking the bike lane.
I walk up Third for a while. A tan 2001 Honda Acura is for sale. A lively fruit stand is outside of the subway at 138th Street. At 139th, a slew of businesses have shuttered, and their gates are down. There are tire shops, a church signed "JESUS SALVA," and a barber shop proclaiming that "Unique is in." At 147th, 100 people are in line for a food handout. Farther on, a woman holds a pink sign: "Where are you going to spend eternity?" Her colleague rings a bell. At 152nd, the same hotdog stand has been there for 52 years.
Now there's a program on about the Republican National Convention, and they're interviewing Mary Trump. They keep getting the name of her book wrong. I know this because "Too Much Is Never Enough" is the first-act finale of a Liberace-themed musical I worked on a few years ago. Her book is "and," not "Is." They finally get it right, just once, and then they go back to "Is."
"He's a jerk, but he's our jerk," was how her family had thought of the president. I pass a store: "99¢ Value -- Everything 99¢ Less or More -- 89¢ 79¢." It reminds me of the level of math evident in the president's final speech at the convention, in which he planned on having a coronavirus vaccine "before the end of the year, maybe sooner." When asked about the implications of four more years of Donald in the White House, Mary says, "It will likely be the end of American democracy." Suddenly I want to read the disaster book.
I'm done with Third Avenue, and I veer off onto Boston Road -- I guess it knows where I'm going. I've been walking for a couple of hours, and there's sweat in my eye. I've been taking notes as I go, walking while writing with a ballpoint pen, and there are almost-impossible-to-read notes on my page and blue lines on my finger where I've failed to stab the pen back into its cap.
I cross Louis Nine Boulevard and go slightly uphill, and at once the dusty frenzy of the Bronx becomes quiet, with houses and lawns. There's color in a rainbow created by a spewing hydrant. The subway is above Boston Road, and I cross the Cross Bronx Expressway, impossibly jammed with trucks as always. Bryant Avenue sidles up to the highway, so close you could hand off a meal to a car inching by. There's the beige brick facade of the Kol Sh'aireit B'nai Yisrael synagogue, the "S" long gone, and no sign of activity.
My watch signals 17,000 steps as a man in a wheelchair asks me for a dollar, and after I take the picture I hand one over, which he accepts with indifference. I'm focused on having lunch in Little Yemen, and I can tell I'm getting close: Macca Vivero Live Poultry has a sign in Arabic and offers live chickens and goats to be slaughtered in halal style. The goats are penned-in and tagged and eye me half-curiously as I peer in.
There are several Arabic grocery stores. I ask in one if they have Chocodates, my favorite snack -- dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in chocolate. I've only ever found them in the United Arab Emirates.
"I don't have them now," he says.
"That means you sometimes do?"
"Sometimes, yes." He's friendly. I have hope.
I reach the Bronx Muslim Center. It's one minute before prayer time, and around 50 people are on their prayer rugs in preparation. They're not separated, but they do have masks on. I don't want to intrude, so I round the corner quickly, only to go a couple of blocks and realize that that's the intersection where I was supposed to have lunch. Across the intersection is Wadi of the Oasis, and I walk in.
They're still building their outdoor seating area, so I'll have to take food to go and eat it on the bench next door. There's a recording of a solo voice singing, like a cantor. I peruse a takeout menu and look up a few names that aren't explained.
"Do you have mloukhia?"
"Yes. You know mloukhia?" asks the upbeat woman at the cash register.
"I don't know it, but it sounds good. It's like a vegetable stew?"
"And what's in the stew? I guess mloukhia is the name of the vegetable." It's a green jute, not something I'd ever tried.
"Yes. It's very good."
"Does it come with anything?"
"It comes with bread."
That's an understatement. The bread is a hot disc the size of a phonograph record. There is also a small green salad. The mloukhia is a kind of sludgy stew with the consistency of okra and a faint dark hint of collard greens. It's tasty and I can tell it's good for me. I also have a canned banana drink and a berry soda called Shani.
As I head out with the package, someone brings out a platter of giant figs, the size of pomegranates. "Here, have one," he says. The sweet, pink flesh is my first food of the trip.
"You know Arabic food?" someone asks when I take a picture of the restaurant. He's on a motorcycle, in what will be their outdoor dining area.
"Not well, but I like to try new things. I had the mloukhia."
"Yes. It's good for the liver. Or maybe the heart."
At a grocery store I buy a mint ayran (yogurt drink), and then I resume the walk, this time without headphones on. Morris Park Avenue has a few restaurants of the non-Yemeni variety that look inviting, and then I head up Stillwell Avenue and along the bicycle route next to the Bronx and Pelham Parkway. It's lovely and quiet, with a few bikers. There are several highway ramps to cross -- this is where Interstate 95 meets the Hutchinson River Parkway -- but there's not much traffic.
Now I'm walking along Shore Road and across the Pelham Bay Bridge. On a parallel bridge an Amtrak train indulges me with its presence. I approach the intersection Google Maps has refused to let me cross, and there's a ghost bike where a cyclist was killed two months ago. But all the crossings are clear and easy, and soon I'm walking through Pelham Bay Park along the East Coast Greenway, used by bikers and walkers alike. I pass an equestrian center and a golf course, and it's shaded, forested, and glorious.
I think about my Harvard questionnaire. It needs to be smart and funny. I come up with bland prose. Then I remember a bio I put together for a Light Opera of New York concert last year, and I compose:
With cabarets and concerts, I enjoy a life that's musical,
Google Maps wants me to leave the bikeway and follow Shore Road, but it's fast traffic with no sidewalks, so I stay on the path. After about 30 minutes in the park, I reach a quiet road, and there are houses.
Two people are loading up a car and speaking Hebrew. "Excuse me," I say. "Is this still New York City?"
"This is Westchester."
"What town? City? Town?" I don't want to insult them by implying the wrong importance.
"Pelham," he says. "You've come a long way?"
"I came from the city."
He shakes his head as if impressed, but technically the city could have been ten steps behind me, in the park. There was no indication of when I'd crossed the boundary.
The houses are big, with well-landscaped lawns, like my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. There are "Black Lives Matter" signs out front. One yard has a sprinkler.
I wind my way through Pelham and into New Rochelle, where the signs say "New Ro Strong" -- this was the location of the first outbreak of coronavirus in the area, before it was even prevalent in New York City.
I had wonderful things to drink at lunch, but they didn't include water. I'm thirsty and I enter a grocery selling Hispanic food. The bottles of water look dinky and whatever pink drink is bubbling in the cooler looks so enticing.
The woman is in back, on her phone. It takes me a long time to rouse her attention. "What flavor is this?"
"Watermelon. There are cups with ice in the freezer."
I take out a cup and fill it with the drink. By then she's gone and I have no hope of getting her back. There's no one else in there. I procure a straw by sticking my hand behind the cash register. I take out a dollar and decide I might just leave it there, and then I try to attract her attention again.
A different woman comes out. "Two seventy-five."
"Really?" It seems dear, but the drink is refreshing, and the ice lasts until I get to Main Street and buy another drink of fruit punch to empty into it.
I reach the Radisson hotel, though I'm not convinced I have at first. The upper floors are offices and there's no sign visible from the main road. I check in, and the receptionist offers a package of soap, shampoo, and conditioner -- these days they provide them only on request. I say I need them.
I go up to my room. The hallway is uninspiring, but the room is comfortable if spare. The bathroom looks as though they have just finished the renovations -- the sink area is empty except for a box of tissues, and it takes me a while to find the towels underneath.
I turn on the TV set and eventually find a local news channel, but I'm more tired than I realized and I close my eyes until my attention is arrested by the worst TV ad in New York. It's been playing for months, and it's for one of the restaurant delivery services -- DishDash or DoorGrab or whatever it's called. It's never mentioned in the ad, which consists of terrible electronic music, followed by someone saying "You're the man" and then applause, at which point I think it's over, but then the horrible music resumes. When I'm home I mute the darn thing immediately as soon as it starts, but here in the hotel I'm less familiar with the remote control and I helplessly have to endure a few bars of it.
I nap a bit more and then get ready to meet friends for dinner. ABC Nightly News is on, and there's a segment about today's march in Washington...and the group that walked 750 miles from Wisconsin over 24 days to attend it. And suddenly my largely self-indulgent walk of a mere 200-plus miles seems trivial and reeks of white and financial privilege. How had I not heard about their journey until now?
Dinner is at Alvin & Friends, a soul-food restaurant with a pianist, and my companions are Brian and Monique, a couple from the touring production of "Fosse" of which we were all a part 17 years ago. Brian was our trombone player, Monique a singer and dancer.
They know me to be punctual, and I am. I reach the place exactly at 7:30, and when I catch their eyes they point to their watches and laugh. They're already seated -- indoors. They'd booked a table outside, but it's started raining. New Rochelle has indoor dining; it's just New York City itself that doesn't (and where the mayor on last week's Brian Lehrer program said there is no plan to reallow it). It feels weird to sit inside.
We talk about my walk. "I have six pieces of advice," Brian says. He's always been a jokester, and he's read my bit about not wanting too much advice before my trip. They live nearby but they stayed at the Radisson a few weeks ago, when the storm Isaias knocked out their power for a night.
I order a glass of their rum punch and an appetizer of their meatballs soaked in the same punch. The punch is very sweet and the meatballs hearty. For a main, I'm interested in the oxtail, particularly because the menu mentions an accompaniment of "piklis." I have to look that up too: a condiment with pickled cabbage, carrots, and peppers. I'm excited to try two kinds of vegetable dish in one day.
Except the oxtail arrives without it. I point this out, and our waiter is helpful. "Let me check with the chef."
He comes back. "They're out of it."
I ask if there's something that can be substituted. It would be nice to have something green.
"Let me check with the chef."
He comes back. "He says you can add hot sauce."
I'm disappointed, and I explain that if I had known the piklis wasn't available, I would have ordered the jambalaya.
"Let me check with the manager."
He comes back and offers to exchange the meal. It's a deal, I say. The jambalaya arrives with everything I'm expecting, and I'm happy. I feel bad for the restaurant, but they needed to point out if a key item was missing. And I would have been happy with pretty much any vegetable substitution -- even the collard greens that came with Monique's fried chicken.
Brian says that sometimes the opposite problem happens: there's stuff available that they don't mention. He had patronized another restaurant for its jalapeno-cheese sausage, and it wasn't on the special pandemic-era menu. But there it was at the counter.
None of us in our industry has worked much since March. Monique has taught some Zumba classes via Zoom, but there's only so much Zoom one can handle. Brian is now a Broadway trombonist -- it's unlikely that will come back before February, perhaps much later.
We finish up and see that the rain has stopped and all the outdoor tables are full -- timing is everything. Next door is a hookah lounge and it's bustling inside and out. A bar is thumping in my hotel. The verge of normality is anything but normal.