Marathon Sunday

That the New York City Marathon happens on the morning we set our clocks back an hour in the Eastern time zone only makes it more special. It passes by the end of my block, just a few miles into Brooklyn from its start on the bridge from Staten Island.

More than once I’ve woken up on Marathon Sundays to the sound of cheers, but most years, like other people, I wander outside my apartment and wonder that it’s still so  early. Half the clocks are wrong. Outside at 8:30 are the usual retirees drinking bodega coffee, and families shuffling off to church, but on Marathon Sundays there are more: Cops looking bored staring into their cell phones. Tape and police cars everywhere. And increasingly between nine o’clock and eleven there are neighbors with bedhead out to cheer on the runners.

The only thing like it is when a blizzard shuts the city down. The gentrifiers and the O.G. call a truce, and we make fools of ourselves cheering. First come the wheelchairs. Then come the tears. Then I scrounge up another cup of coffee, and we wait in the damp cold for the women leaders, who run past like quiet lightning. Thirty minutes later, the men come, the biggest cheers, then a weird lull.

Then they come. The masses, thousands of them. We yell for random countries. “Go, Costa Rica!” “Go Svensk!” I break out my Spanglish, shake a few hands, try to commit some names to memory, and the neighbors say, “See you around.”

Lime Tree Arbour

I’ve been finding myself seized by a sweet, powdery smell as I walk down Brooklyn streets, day or night, this week, during the summer solstice. Something like you’d expect if you crushed Sweet Tarts® with a mortar and pestle.

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A linden tree, a.k.a. American basswood or “lime tree” catches the sun in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

I met a Spanish family at the restaurant where I work Greenpoint, and they asked if I knew what kind of tree it was, since it was wafting through the window. I’m known to carry a tree identification book on a hike in the woods, but I usually leave it at home here in the city, so I gave them a “Gosh, I don’t know,” and they started messing with their iPhones.

“It’s a lime tree,” they said, and I didn’t believe them: Limes are tropical fruits.

Well, in Spain they call them tilia, and, so say these strangers from Barcelona, they use the leaves to make a tea that calms the nerves. Researching further, I found that tilia are most often called linden trees in North America, although my Trees of New York Field Guide calls it an American Basswood. In the British Isles they call it a lime tree – which a European, whose smart phone’s search settings are more tuned into British English than American, would quickly discover, whereas I would just find “linden.”

I saw it as a happy accident, since it explained “Lime Tree Arbour,” a powerful Nick Cave ballad I’ve heard several thousand times, no exaggeration, since 2001 or so when I borrowed The Boatman’s Call from the Minneapolis Public Library (!). Like most of that 1997 album, it’s kind of a love song, kind of a hymn.

“Every breath that I breathe, and every place I go/There is a hand that protects me, and I do love her so.”

 

Now that I’ve gotten the smell in my head, I smell it everywhere, at least this week while it’s blossoming. It’s good to talk to strangers, especially ones from far away, and to make time for trees and other plants.

Thank you, Tilia americana, for all the beauty you’ve created out of dirt and sunshine this week.

John Montague, Poet from the Land of Poets

The Irish poet John Montague died last weekend, with hardly a peep around here in the place where he was born, Brooklyn. It was Montague and Seamus Heaney, specifically their selections in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, that kept the poetic flame alive inside me during a long period of estrangement.

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Glass and video have replaced “the cage” on the Clark Street 2 & 3 Train stop, formerly the I.R.T., in Brooklyn Heights, where John Montague’s father worked.

His Irish Times obituary hinted, not surprisingly, that he regarded Heaney, the more successful, Nobel Laureate face of Irish poetry, as his rival. It added, also not surprisingly, that in his final years his jealousy lifted and he quoted Heaney’s poetry with fondness.

Among his works I revisit through the years are “The Trout” (Super homoerotic! I was surprised to learn he wasn’t gay.) and “The Cage.” Though born in Brooklyn, his mother got sick when he was young, and he was raised by relatives in Northern Ireland, while his father stayed here to work.

 

The Cage

My father, the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

 

But a traditional Irishman

who (released from his grille

in the Clark St. I.R.T)

drank neat whiskey until

he reached the only element

he felt at home in

any longer: brute oblivion.

 

And he picked himself

up, most mornings,

to march down the street

extending his smile

to all sides of the good

(non-negro) neighbourhood

belled by Teresa’s church.

 

When he came back

we walked together

across fields of Garvaghey

to see hawthorn on the summer

hedges, as though

he had never left;

a bend of the road

 

which still sheltered

primroses. But we

did not smile in

the shared complicity

of a dream, for when

weary Odysseus returns

Telemachus must leave.

 

Often as I descended

into subway or underground

I see his bald head behind

the bars of the small booth;

the mark of an old car

accident beating on his

ghostly forehead.

 

I confess to ruining the mood at a dinner party one night a few years ago, when the subject of poems about fathers came up and I broke this one out and read it. I’d remembered it as a sad story of a man who’d sacrificed his happiness for a job in a literal cage. The afterthought phrase “non-negro,” to me, testified to Montague’s great love for his father, whom he accepted faults and all, with no indication that his da’ didn’t share his neighborhood’s racism. The real-life “negroes” present at this particular get-together seemed a bit like a jab to the belly had been delivered, like they might have preferred a little warning for so hurtful a subject to come up, or at least a reprieve till dessert was finished.

My own love for Irish America is complicated by this very issue, our complicity in covering up the original sin of our country. It’s very American, really, that Montague appends this phrase to his poem at all, rendered in parentheses no less, as if he needs us to know where these people stood on the epoch-making issues of their day, and to discreetly take a position himself. (He and Seamus Heaney both lived in the U.S. for decades and became celebrities here, or at least paid the bills.)

This Christmas with my family, when the beer and wine are flowing, I plan to break out another of Montague’s poems, “The Silver Flask,” a country idyll about a family passing a flask of whiskey around the car. It begins:

“Sweet, though short, our

hours as a family together.

Driving across dark mountains

to Midnight Mass in Fivemiletown,

lights coming up in the valleys

as in the days of Carleton.

 

Tussocks of heather brown

in the headlights; our mother

stowed in the back, a tartan

rug wrapped around her knees,

patiently listening as father sang,

and the silver flask went round…”

Not exactly Christmas with The Waltons, neither my family nor Montague’s. He was a poet from the land of poets. I can understand young writers feeling like Montague and Heaney are both losing their relevance, their Irish heritage a kind of thesaurus of evocative images. They’re still special to me, though, and it goes beyond their Irish-ness. Even when they’re trading in nostalgia, they keep our eyes on sad details, then hint at some universal experience, then go back to the images to let them have the final word, and that, to me is what poetry is.

Crazy Eddie & Jimmy the Greek

Crazy Eddie died last weekend – not the star of the TV commercials I loved as a kid, but Eddie Antar, the founder of the chain of Brooklyn-based electronics stores his iconic commercials advertised. His Times obituary headline identified him as “Retailer and Felon,” which seems like a gratuitous kick in the nuts of a dead man, even if he did used to fly to Israel with bundles of cash that should have belonged to his shareholders taped to his body.

I never set foot in one of his stores. I grew up far in the suburbs after all. I am not, however, the only person with a childish fondness for him. On those infrequent days when I wear my Crazy Eddie tee shirt, strangers stop me and say they love it.

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“He’s practically giving it all away!”

Eddie Antar was 68 when he died, a descendant of the famously insular Syrian Jewish community of Gravesend, Brookln. Did Eddie have to die to make room for the Syrian ceasefire, which was announced that very day, to become possible? No, that would be crazy.

But when we mourn his passing we mourn the loss of a regional-sized TV market and consumer identity. His homespun commercials remind us of a time before practically all brands were national, before “Charlie Bit My Finger.” People of regions outside New York have their own fabled marketers and, often, children’s TV shows, such as Minnesota’s Axel and His Dogthat they love. Living on the cusp of the Philly-New York markets, I was, if anything, even more fond of Philly retailers such as Ideal, whose jingle my wife and I still sing around the house.

Crazy Eddie was special though. And his legal demise years later made him even more so. There was truth in advertising in Crazy Eddie. I feel a wee bit sorry for whomever he defrauded, but, y’know, he did tell you he was crazy!

Thinking about that fact yesterday, I was reminded of another great TV personality who flamed out around the same time: Jimmy the Greek. Yesterday was the beginning of American football season (and the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, and Eid, but what can I say about that?).

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Jimmy the Greek.

I hate American football, and have hardly watched it at all since Jimmy the Greek was still a fixture of football commentary. I always found it sad that The Greek got fired for making racial comments, alleging that African-Americans are better athletes because slave owners specifically bred them to be stronger. Never mind that it’s racist bunk. Can you really fault an odds-maker for thinking in ethnic categories, when he goes by the name “Jimmy the Greek”?

I discovered an ESPN documentary, surprisingly viewed less than 10,000 times on Youtube, about Jimmy the Greek’s life. Born Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos in Steubenville, Ohio, he would have turned 98 on Friday. (What a weekend!) He was neighbors with Dean Martin as a kid, and his uncle shot both his mother and his aunt, and then himself, in a murder-suicide. Three of his five children died from cystic fibrosis, but his public service announcements about the disease have been scrubbed from public memory too.

He popularized sports gambling, for which he’s hopefully suffering some torments in hell. But he was a real personality, from a time when personality was rewarded, a time that receded a lot further in the past this week.

Little Bears Who Wash

I dreamed this morning that raccoons were in my house.

I discovered this while running water for a bath. One had knocked over a dish of cat food and was lounging in the scattered snack tray, picking at it, disinterested in me. I fetched a broom in case he gave me any guff while I chased him out, and discovered another was terrorizing the cats in the bedroom. I figured I’d better turn the faucet off, since this could take some time, and discovered a third raccoon splashing around in the few inches of bath water. I approached, and he laid his humanoid hand on the knob, as if to say, “It’s not full yet.”

Raccoons in my neighborhood are no joke. A friend of mine spent $1,000 paying a trapper to take one after another from her yard and walls. If we leave food for the outdoor cats after dark, we watch them eat it, then take in the leftovers, or else raccoons will come and finish them. Something killed our neighbor’s cat by chewing on its leg, leaving it to bleed to death. Some say it couldn’t have been a raccoon, and must have been a fox, but I’ve never seen a fox around here.

The first time I saw Grey Gardens I was struck by the raccoons in the attic. The Beales are a fallen American dynasty, like the DuBoises in Streetcar, partly because Little Edie and her mother are absolutely nuts. The raccoons were the bats in the belfry.

Raccoons

If you leave a cat dish out at night…

I can tell, in the morning, when a raccoon has visited overnight because I can see the water in the cat bowl or bird bath is dirty brown. They have a fantastic habit of washing their hands. The Italian phrase for them is orsetti lavatori, “little bears who wash.”

What does it say about me that I dream about little bears washing themselves in my house? Am I a bit crazy like Little Edie Beale? I just know it takes a lot of concentration – and it causes a very different flavor of stress – keeping the indoor animals from going out, and the outdoor animals from coming in.

 

A Neighborhood Fights For a Landmark

4th Avenue in South Brooklyn isn’t anybody’s favorite road, not to drive on, certainly not to walk on, nor even – let’s be honest – to live alongside.

Historically, 3rd Avenue was the commercial strip south of Prospect and Hamilton Avenues, until it got an expressway built on top of it just before World War II. Now, if you’re driving to New Jersey or Queens, you take 3rd, at least till you find an entrance to the highway; if you’re driving ten or twenty blocks, you take 4th.

Despite all its traffic, 4th still has a thriving retail life – bodegas, dollar stores, and affordable restaurants, good and bad, not to mention the storied Irish Haven at 4th and 58th. It’s heavier on schools and neo-classical government buildings than 5th Avenue, its more pedestrian-friendly, two-lane neighbor, but most of those buildings are from before the 1920s, when it was still a grand thoroughfare, before the subway lines got built underneath it, and before cars became omnipresent.

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The city proposes demolishing the NYPD Precinct House that dates to 1886.

4th Avenue also has two historic gems. One is the Brooklyn Lyceum way up north in Park Slope, at 4th and President. I’ve always figured “President Street” was a placeholder, waiting for another president to die, one the locals liked enough to name a street after. The Lyceum is just down the slope from the case study in gentrification, Park Slope, and it sold a few years ago for $7.6 Million.

A 30-40 minute walk to the south is the other gem, the NYPD Precinct House at 4th and 43rd. This is my neighborhood, and has been for 11 years now. I’m about 100 or so feet from 4th Avenue. Like many people who’ve been here much longer than that, I’ve been waiting for that building to come around. Sunset Park recently got named one of the coolest neighborhoods in America, whatever that means – no, I know what that means. It means college-educated people from out of town are moving in and changing the rental and retail markets.

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The neighborhood has been rooting for something special to be done with the space.

I’m no knee-jerk critic of gentrification. I’d be a hypocrite if I were, but a person has to be sensitive to the changes they’re bringing to the social landscape around them. Let’s face it, we wreak havoc on storefront churches and tire shops, and make a hard rental market even harder for working people. One of the few benefits we bring is attracting investment to historic places that have fallen vacant or need repairs.

What a shame, then, to hear that the precinct house is likely getting torn down to build a school. They found a developer for the Lyceum, but not this gem full of architectural luster,  just when the time is just getting right to do something with it. Sunset Park community activists generally have more immediate problems to worry about – rent spikes, sink holes, and broken promises politicians make about jobs in the new developments – but one did post on Facebook that the precinct house was at risk. They advised sending a letter or an email by July 15th.

The 15th is this Friday! So I emailed:

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New construction on 4th Avenue generally looks like medical parks, in Syosset.

Dear friends at the New York City School Construction Authority:

We who live in the neighborhood can see that changes, including changes in the physical environment, are coming our way, and we only have to look at 4th Avenue around 3rd Street in Park Slope to see what that will look like: Soulless, boxy condominiums that could be in Brooklyn, or could be in Piscataway or Houston, or anyplace.

We understand the enormous pressure you are under to find politically feasible spaces to build schools on, but we object to the false choice we’ve been given, to have enough classrooms or to preserve some semblance of historical integrity in our neighborhoods.

And when I say “historical integrity” I don’t mean to imply that this is some dilettante-ish desire on our part. We’re talking about those same children who would attend that school you want to build on 4th Avenue at 43rd. What kind of city are they going to grow up in? What sense of New York’s past are they going to have? What kind of respect for classic architecture and aesthetics will they have?

We know, it’s a balancing act. City administrators have to choose between meeting our other goals and saving some bits of history, but let’s agree on one principle. If a building is historically important, and another use for it can possibly be found, and it’s clearly just a beautiful site on the face of it, then let’s always err on the side of saving it.

If this were 1986, when Brooklyn was desperate for investment and public sector improvements, this choice would be a lot more forgivable than it is now. That gorgeous building did not sit empty for a generation for someone to knock it down now that construction crews have finally come back. Do us a solid, and do those future students a favor, and save that building.

Best regards,   Charles Bowe

You can email too: sites@nycsca.org

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For many of us this is our first encounter with the NYC School Construction Authority. Email them at sites@nycsca.org

 

Go Polish or Go Home

I went to the Polish butcher yesterday to do my Easter shopping. Poles, they say, are crazy for Easter, and I have found my favorite smoked kielbasa shop Jubilat Provisions, one of the few remaining Polish institutions in my neighborhood in South Brooklyn,* to have a line out the door at this time. Yesterday at noonish, not so much: Most people had already done their Easter shopping, the clerk explained, and though to the naked eye it was still sausages-a-go-go, the rye shelf and desserts were completely picked over.

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5th Avenue, Brooklyn.

I’m one of the pious who frequently says, “I don’t eat much meat,” and then goes for seconds at the brätwurst picnic. It can be so delicious, best intentions don’t always win. In recent years I’ve come to think of reducing it as an environmental obligation, and settled on the self-serving reasoning that meat consumption is okay on special occasions, like Christmas and Easter, and breaking the Ramadan fast, Rosh Hashanah, 4th of July, Thanksgiving (of course), birthdays, anniversaries, Saturdays when you’re with friends you haven’t seen in a while, uh, when you’re enjoying the hospitality of a particularly friendly Mexican  restaurateur…and you see where this is going.

I’m not one for absolutes, even while treading on what is obviously a slippery slope. Today is Easter, and to me it ain’t Easter, and nor is it Christmas, without kielbasa. Fresh or smoked – though usually smoked on holidays. Smoked, you can eat sliced and dipped in horseradish, so if the host has already decided to cook meat, like for example if your mother has already gotten a ham, then you can have it as an appetizer, and, well, it’d have been a tough month to be a pig, with or without you. (Fresh kielbasa, which lacks that smokey taste, is best simmered in sauerkraut, which gives the kraut a round, fatty-porky bass note to complement the sour treble.)

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Jubilat’s smoked kielbasa, the best in town.

Being only a quarter Polish, I could honestly let that part of me die, and might have if not for my fondness for checker-sized discs of garlicky, smoked pork with the holy trinity of Mustard, Pickle, and Beet-Colored Horseradish.

My great-grandparents Frank and Lottie Strycharski, who spoke very limited English, were health enthusiasts who liked to go for bracing swims in fresh creeks in Northeast Philadelphia. They were farm-to-table before it was a fad, and grew their own beets and horseradish, and made their own pickles and kraut. To my knowledge, they didn’t have a smokehouse, so walking into Jubilat the day before a holiday, I always feel like I’m walking in Lottie’s footsteps.

A few blocks closer to home I pass what used to be Eagle Provisions, the food Goliath of Polish and international groceries, that Jubilat the David killed. My friend Rosie Schaap wrote a very thoughtful obituary for Eagle when it closed a year ago. She said, in a way, that few of us would miss Eagle, but we were sad nonetheless to see it go.

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The old Eagle Provisions, making way for condos.

 

There’s a lot of nostalgia for a New York of the Mind floating around right now, and I plead guilty to standing up sometimes to defend something I had a hand in killing. The “Neighborhoody-ness,” the Jane-Jacobian magic element everybody proclaims to want, is something many of us would probably find stifling if we ever actually had to breathe it every day. I was a little bummed out when Eagle closed, and visited a few days beforehand, while vendors who’d bought the shelves at auction were already wheeling some out the door, and some beaten old cans of sardines and faded bottles of diet soda were marked on sale.

When Cloud Man the famous Dakota chief was hunting in a snowstorm in what would become Minnesota, he had to make a tiny tent inside a snowdrift to sleep in, and he prayed that if he got through that storm, he’d give up trying to be the last hunter-gatherer in the area and learn to do agriculture. When the last Polish store leaves the neighborhood, it’ll be for a condo in Parsippany, or Tampa.

For God’s sake, people, eat less meat…but on Christmas and Easter, go Polish or go home! Or in my case, go Polish and go home!

*(Some call it South Slope, though Park Slopers find that ridiculous. Some Sunset Park, though most Sunset residents say Sunset ends at 36th Street at the furthest. No one in his right mind ever called it Greenwood Heights. So I call it what septuagenarians call it, South Brooklyn.)

 

A Frozen Zen Garden Awaits Someone

I don’t like it when the sky dumps over two feet of snow on a city and forces it to shut down; I love it when the sky dumps that snow. It forces the inflexible to change their plans. It forces the ambitious to relax. It forces the pedestrians in the most in-a-hurry city in America to stop and let one another pass.

When the city banned cars from the road on Saturday, people on foot took to the streets, smiling and snapping photos of each other in the middle of avenues. The moon was full somewhere up in that sky, and many were inebriated – nothing was open except for bars and liquor stores, and a few bodegas and hardware stores hoping to sell a few more shovels.

The next day, I wasn’t the only person to think of going to Green-Wood Cemetery: I came across a dozen or so people, mostly in twos, but one other solo guy as well, a bat shit crazy Chinese-American ranting about a disagreement he was having in his head, who greeted my “hello” with a scared silence that lasted till he was thirty yards behind me.

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Come to mourn the loss of absolutely nothing.

I was looking for a spot I’d found the week before, one day when my wife and I were the only people who’d thought of going there. We’d come across a part of the cemetery I’d once known as a dumping ground for torn-out shrubs and piles of leaves, and then a construction site. Now the construction was finished.

Old cemeteries are under financial pressure to find more patches of ground within their gates to bury bodies in. Civil War vets don’t pay the bills. Green-Wood, I could see, had converted its biggest compost pile into a new mausoleum.

Why do we like cemeteries? What compels people to go think about life surrounded by other people’s ancestors? In most places they’re the only parks made for silent contemplation. Roller blading is forbidden. Lycra® is bad form. Reading the names of strangers whose place in the fabric of life is already final, you feel connected to that fabric.

Still – and I say this as someone who does U-turns on country roads in Pennsylvania when he sees that he’s missed a boneyard by an old Moravian church – you feel pangs of guilt about the voyeurism of it. This isn’t your great-grandparent, and it isn’t your faith. The beauty of this spot was cultivated to ease the grief of someone else.

This wall of empty space in Green-Wood provides all the contemplation with none of the distraction of the actual object of mourning. Very tastefully done too, I might add.

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Boss Tweed’s grave, worn by generations of hands.

With few actual graves in this pile of snow, it’s understandable that the crew at Green-Wood was in no hurry to dig out its paths. I would have walked right past it yesterday if I hadn’t made a mental note that it was just around the corner from Boss Tweed’s grave. I always found it curious how much corrosion Tweed’s stone has, presumably from people who’ve come to touch history. He’s not Saint Mark or Elvis Presley. He’s the symbol of something that, to those who care about it, they probably have mixed feelings about. Forgive the pun, but I guess he’s still a touchstone.

If you can find Boss Tweed’s grave, keep poking around. I’d put my rubber boots on to wade into the drifts, but only got as close as the next ridge over, about as far as it takes for a madman to feel like danger has passed so he can start ranting again. It was so pretty I didn’t want to disturb it.

This week while water trickles from underneath the drifts, one of you will break through the crust on top of the snow to find a frozen meditation garden, a place to contemplate being on this planet and what’s really important. All the things we miss while we’re doing, doing, doing.

Fair Weather Mets Fans

There’s hipster currency in the New York Mets right now, but don’t let that stop you from rooting for them this week in their playoff series against the Dodgers. Sports fanhood has all sorts of meanings to its practitioners, and your Mets may not be your neighbor’s Mets. The meaning the fans collectively give to their team, as the hero in the sports epic that’s unfolding in their respective minds, is what gives every team its personality.

The Yankees, like their fans, often have an angry air about them. “Everyone is jealous of us,” they think, “and so they underestimate our excellence, but we really are that good.” I found myself having a sandwich at a bar and grill in Milford, Pennsylvania one night this week, and three 20-something guys were huddled under the TV set rooting for the Yankees, in their final game, and an off-duty employee put “Sweet Caroline” on the juke box, and led a loud singalong. It was a big “fuck you” aimed at the Yankees (“Sweet Caroline” is the Red Sox theme song.) that was not lost on the guys at all. One of them muttered to the others, “Can you believe this shit?” in a defiantly annoyed, but supremely confident voice, wasting no time thinking any further about it.

They’re easy to hate, and yet, walk into most Latino bars in New York, and you’ll see a lot of Yankee fans among the Dominican and Puerto Rican old guard, the “Yankees” having a totally different meaning to them: pride in New York when it was down and out, and America itself, the future. How can you be against the future?

Tug McGraw's 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

Tug McGraw’s 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

To understand the absolutely unique identity of the Mets, check out the fascinating map of American baseball fans that Facebook and The New York Times published last year. Using Facebook “likes” as an indicator, which is admittedly imperfect but must mean at least a little something, it lists the few favorite teams of every zipcode, and by how much. The Mets aren’t even the favorite around their own stadium! They have no homeland. Their fans are a diaspora, a smallish minority of a relatively small, but densely populated area.

Muslims in India are only 14% of the population, but out of 1.2 billion, that’s 168 million people, more than Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia combined, and that says something Mets fans can understand. To everyone else they’re an anomaly. Only they comprehend just how vast their numbers are.

And then there’s the team history, so consistently beaten, their fans have a fellowship of hope in the face of constant suffering. About once a generation they put together a winning team. Don’t tell the Cubs fans, but that’s just barely enough to sustain them through their long droughts. All the while they endure constant comparisons to the dominant Yankees.

The Yankees are the team of “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind,” the fantasy of New York as the perfect background to one’s own terribly impressive biography, the city that thrills you, that you love because it gratifies you in return, and that makes you swagger a little just because you know your way around it. The Mets are the team of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Why do you love it? “I don’t have any reasons/ I’ve left them all behind.” It’s the fondness an old, bickering couple still has for one another.

Enter the hipsters, the huddled masses who washed ashore clutching iPhones and wrapped in duvet covers. Remaking the fabric of many places in Brooklyn and Queens since the last time the Mets won it all, they chose the outer boroughs instead of “the city,” so naturally they’re choosing the Mets. To them the Mets are the team of the grinding hunt for rent in the city that makes you weary. You see them at Citi Field: groups of three or four soft-spoken guys with beards and Mets caps, having some guy time while their girlfriends are elsewhere watching Dance. Even if a part of their hearts will always be loyal to the team they grew up with, and even if they dreamed of a loft in Tribeca before they realized that a one-bedroom in Crown Heights was actually “a better fit,” they can’t help falling for the Mets, or they have no substance at all.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map

How do I know? True confessions, don’t judge me. I grew up loving the Philadelphia Phillies. My fondest childhood memories are of the team of Schmidt and Carlton, Bowa and Boone, Maddox and especially Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. My mother’s half-Polish, and my father was fond of Polish jokes; he was prone to gruff comments, any time someone hit a double to left-center, about how anyone but Luzinski would have caught that ball, and how the Phillies would never win with “that polack” in left field. I don’t know what the Freudian term is for the satisfaction you get from your mother’s people being redeemed every time a lifetime .276 hitter smacks a homerun, but I had a persistent case of it.

Then there was Tug McGraw, a screwball-thrower who was on the Mets championship team in ’69, before moving to the Phillies mid-’70s, who must have been bitter about the breakup, because his hatred of the Mets was well-known. Tug was so lovable – He famously answered the question of whether he preferred astroturf or real grass by saying, “I don’t know, I never smoked astroturf,” and who doesn’t love an intoxicated baseball player?* – you rooted for him to get his revenge.

More importantly, I only realized when the Facebook map came out, I grew up in a very particular baseball microclimate, a suburb of Trenton. We were in the outer ring of people who read The Inquirer and watched Philadelphia news, and were divided between Yankees and Phillies, with the Mets a distant third. Yankee fans were either Italian-Americans or people who’d moved south from New York or North Jersey, and I found them intolerably arrogant. Mets fans I had a cause to dislike in an active way since we were division rivals, but I saw something of myself in them: Teams who a. resented the Yankees, b. had chips on our shoulders about the unglamorous geographical center of gravity we each revolved around, and c. were more than a bit surprised when we did win. Phillies and Mets fans are just a chromosome apart. Like Serbs and Croats, how could we possibly not get along?

Citi Field during Mets game has the best vibes of any big crowd in New York. Chill, well-informed, and generous, but with just a hint of that impatient Long Island attitude. It’s rather white, but that’s who’s still watching baseball, as Mets fan Chris Rock explains. I know there’s a hint of disdain, in the diehard Mets fans’ hearts, for the fair weather friends who tune in for the post-season on those rare years when they’re in the running. It’s natural, like the usher at a church exasperated by the bad manners of a swollen congregation on Christmas, but I hope they’ll save a little of the happiness for us too.

*I guess I’m a fair weather fan myself, since I’ve honestly spent more time this summer talking about this animated documentary by James Blagden about Doc Ellis than I have talking about any one Mets game. “High as a Georgia pine,” that guy was when he pitched a no-hitter, on LSD!

“What happened to yesterday?!”

Good Plants, Bad Plants, and “Bad Plants”

Seeing that it’s futile to grow grass in my tiny back yard in Brooklyn, I’ve decided to break it up into autonomous zones for various weeds. I slowly made the decision over the summer, and finalized it yesterday by printing labels for the most common ones, giving the tactical retreat an “I meant to do that” patina.

Labels say, "I meant to do that."

Labels say, “I meant to do that.”

 

If God intended to endow all humans with “certain inalienable Rights,” as the saying goes, then He certainly intended for every patch of dirt on the western tip of Long Island to be covered in dandelions, broadleaf plantain, clover, and lady’s thumbs, and who am I to resist His holy intentions?

It started in the neglected, odd places that aren’t quite “garden” and aren’t quite “lawn” in the American use of those words. The “taint” in a brand new sense. When I saw how hardy and goofily pretty the lady’s thumbs growing by the compost pile were, I privileged these “weeds” with a few patches, and within weeks they became a border around most of our garden. Meanwhile I was waging war against the plantain, which killed any grass I tried planting in the dirt patches. Back-to-nature sorts kept telling me the plantains were edible, but if you saw how many batteries and shards of glass I find in this soil you wouldn’t eat anything that grows in it either.

My inspiration was Stephen Dunn’s poem “Bad Plants,” one of a handful I’ve been memorizing while gardening this year. “Bad Plants” questions the absoluteness of the distinction gardeners make between good plants and invasive species, comparing them to human relationships, with “the beautiful and the dangerous/ in one package.” After talking knowledgably about a few of them, Dunn lays out his case:

“All of them are inclined

to choke out what’s native.

Bad plants? Nature of course would say, Careful now,

watch your language, let’s just see

what survives.”

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

 

Dunn ultimately concludes that, despite his soft spot for them, you can’t really afford to give them a foothold in your garden. “Never make a deal,/
 I’d say, with kudzu,/ or become purple loosestrife’s Neville Chamberlain.”

So I guess it’s against the master’s greater judgment, but I’m giving broadleaf plantain its autonomous zone, common moss its homeland, and clover its nation-state. Let’s just see what survives. I can always soak them and rip them out in the spring.