When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.
Travel: New York
March 21, 2009
It was good to be a steelworker in 1964! Mills were pumping out America's backbone, slag heaps were sexy, and China was still putting all its industrial efforts into peasant starvation. On Saturday night you could drive your 12-ton car down the main drag of your mill town and pick out the stocky, childbearing vessel of your dreams -- and if you ran over some counterculture bum, who cared? It sure wouldn't damage your car, which was made of U.S. STEEL!
So the industry was clearly in a generous mood when the World's Fair rolled around. U.S. Steel's gift to the nation -- to the planet, really -- was ... a planet.
That's the Unisphere, in Queens' scenic Corona Park. Like most great pieces of Americana, these days it's a little dinged up and mostly visited by people who were not born in America. With a few hours to kill in New York on Sunday, me and the wife stopped by. You can see it from the highway every time we stay with her family, and I have strict policy about visiting awesome things visible from highways. Also, the weekend before we went to the Decoy Museum just based on an I-95 road sign, so the bar is pretty low at this point.
The stainless steel is a little bit stained these days, and the fairgrounds are now only a plot point in "Iron Man 2." But there's still something fundamentally awesome about a giant steel globe. Mostly it's a reminder that people dreamed bigger 50 years ago, and that corporate pissing contests helped make this nation great. What company has done something THAT COOL in the last 50 years? Scholarship funds are nice, but when is Google going to step it up and build a 300-foot solid-ruby server floating over the middle of fountain? When is Comcast gonna hang a 20,000-inch HD flat screen TV off a mountain in Montana, FOR THE HELL OF IT?
Interestingly enough, right next to the Unisphere is the Queens Museum of Art, which has something big on a much smaller scale. The Panorama is a 9,500 square-foot model of New York City built by Robert Moses, right down to the individual homes. It was also built for the 1964 fair, but it was updated in 1992, so it has the World Trade Center. You walk on an elevated platform around the edge of the room, which gradually ascends as you circle -- by the time you go from Midtown around to the Bronx, you're about 20 feet high, which is the perfect height to pretend that you're Mothra.
It's another fine example of things that don't happen anymore. Now, only recluse folk artists with mild mental disorders do crap on this scale, and you only find the art in storage lockers or abandoned warehouses three weeks after the artist has died in some kind of autoerotic accident. Cities don't budget for these things because they'd rather provide "child and protective services" and "clean water."
But on the positive side, there are a lot fewer Communists running around these days. I guess it's a draw.
April 15, 2012
I like visiting graves of famous people. My wife (she's not alone in this) considers this creepy, even though graves are meant to be visited -- if no one is supposed to stand over top of what used to be a celebrity or loved one, why have a marker at all? Why not just consume their remains so that you might gain their power?
I say it's perfectly healthy and normal to stop in and say hi to the people you admire, even if they are currently a pile of decaying carbon. And as I recently discovered, it might even be a cool thing to do, because Tom Rhodes does it. You can't get much cooler than Tom Rhodes, with the possible exception of ...
... Louis Armstrong, shown above at Flushing Cemetery in Queens. It's a very blue-collar cemetery, without a lot of fancy crypts or markers. There are a bunch of ethnic sections, because it's New York City. And as it turns out, Louis Armstrong was a bit of a blue-collar guy. Seems like a fitting place for him to hide for eternity from the mobster angels he owes gambling debts. (Death is an extension of life, you see.) They only thing really missing from this charming grave was someone leaving a box of Swiss Kriss laxative in tribute. He's one of my favorite jazz musicians, and I'm glad I got to say hi to the guy.
My wife was dragged along for this visit and was slightly less enthusiastic. To be fair, there was some serious weirdness going on at Flushing Cemetery. One woman was driving around with her windows down, blaring contemporary dance music; she appeared to be some kind of meth addict. And then, there was the family having a graveside BBQ.
Seriously, they had a full roasted pig. Next to a grave. There were about 15 people.
I had never seen anything like that before, but a quick web search of "cemetery barbeque" reveals that it's common in some Eastern European cultures. These people were VERY eastern European, in that they were Asian. That web search also probably put me on one of the more disturbing FBI watchlists imaginable. If agents burst through my door next week and kill me, I ask that you all visit me in the cemetery. Just be respectful and don't cook a whole pig on top of my grave. I am a cheeseburger man, and if you eat anything other than that I will haunt the unholy hell out of every cookout you throw until the day you die. I promise you, your kebabs will never cook evenly again.
Cemetery Do's and Don'ts
DO ... walk on top of the graves. It's really not a big deal, because they're six feet down.
DON'T ... walk on top of the graves while wearing stilts. It's not about you. Rollerblades are also a bad call.
DO ... take pictures of graves. It's not morbid at all to pose with a headstone.
DON'T ... smile broadly or give the thumbs-up sign while posing with a headstone. Especially if there are mourners right next to you.
DO ... ask cemetery office workers for maps pointing you to historic graves. It's appropriate.
DON't ... ask cemetery workers where the sexy people are buried.
DO ... leave a small knick-knack, figurine, coin or penny on the headstone as a tribute.
DON'T ... leave a small, ritualistically gutted mammal or any of its bodily fluids on the headstone as a tribute. Pick your spots, OK?
June 15, 2012
It pains me to say this -- you have no idea how much -- but the New York Mets have a pretty nice stadium. It doesn't change the fact that everyone associated with the franchise will, in the afterlife, have flaming baseball bats shoved in every orifice by an army of demons in Phillie Phanatic costumes. But at least they get to enjoy their trip to eternal damnation in Citi Field.
I went to the park on Father's Day, along with superfriend Jared Stern. A Mets game isn't a natural thing to seek out, but the alternative was going to see "Newsies" with my wife and his fiancee. As much as I love watching delivery boys with rock-hard abs sing and dance about scrofula (or whatever "Newsies" is about), the Mets strangely beat out a musical based on a box-office disaster. Extra extra! "Newsies" sucks! Probably. There's a character named Crutchy. You do the math.
As to the park:
Architecture: I'll give it a B. Not a bad-looking park at all. Lots of steel and girders, which makes it look a bit like PNC Park (the best stadium in baseball) and less like the concrete palace we have in Washington. The atrium behind home plate is dedicated to Jackie Robinson, even though he wasn't a Met. But a Dwight Gooden / Darryl Strawberry coke garden would probably be offensive. I'm OK with Jackie. The outfield has the "Shea" bridge, which is basically a steel frame in the shape of ... uh, a bridge. Doesn't serve much purpose, but it looks OK. Only beef: The scoreboard is enormous, and they didn't put in many sightlines in the area. If you're on the concourse in left-center, you can't see the game. Most of the views from the councourse are a little bit cramped (overhanging balcony frames the field a bit too much) but the seat views seem fine.
Special features: Hmmm. Maybe a C. They kept the goddam home run apple. If you ever watched a Mets game on TV, even in the days of Shea Stadium, then you probably know that when a Met hits a homerun, a big apple pops out of a top hat. Because it's the big apple, get it? Whee! It's in the batter's eye now. The orginal Shea apple is actually outside the stadium, on the sidewalk leading up to the home plate gate. I appreciate the continuity, but I also hate the home run apple, and the joy of Mets fans as it is activated. Fortunately, no Mets hit a home run, so I didn't have a stroke mid-game.
Mascot: Definite F. Some horsecrap survey rated Mr. Met the No. 1 mascot in sports, and the P.A. announcer made sure to mention that fact every time Mr. Met came within 200 feet of the field. Clearly this was a rigged survey, for Mr. Met is nothing more than a man with a baseball for a head. Now, Mr. Redlegs from Cincinnati is also a man with a baseball for a head, but he's old-timey, sometimes as a kick-ass moustache, and came into existence before mascot technology was significantly developed. Mr. Redlegs gets grandfathered in as awesome. Mr. Met is just someone from a marketing department forgetting to get a presentation together, then showing a baseball to his coke-snorting bosses (as we all know, all the Mets are coke fiends) and somehow getting it approved. The thing about having a baseball for a head, is that it makes you want to hit that head with a bat. If there was a Mr. Bat, who followed Mr. Met around the concourse and beat him repeatedly in front of children, then I could get behind Mr. Met. Right now, I can only get behind him to push him onto the tracks of the No. 7 train. Which brings us to ...
Accessibility: B. It wasn't exactly pleasant, but it was easy. Jared and I got the 7 train in Times Square, and just 30 cramped minutes later we were right in Flushing Meadows Park. You may recall that John Rocker's description of the 7 train is the reason we now have "Eastbound and Down," and it wasn't all THAT bad. But it was sardine-like. I didn't drive, because driving in New York is really only an option if you have nothing to live for. I'm not there yet. Big bonus: the stadium is right in Flushing Meadows park, which puts it just a five-minute walk from the UNISPHERE!
Food: A. Lots of good options and nothing struck me as ridiculously overpriced. Jared and I had some loaded nachos that are still working their way through our lower G.I.s, and they have a nice selection of beer "classics" with some more-interesting craft brews. (I had a Goose Island.) There didn't seem to be a "signature" item, and the only thing that came close was a burger "designed" by Keith Hernandez. It had a 6 oz. patty, lettuce, tomato, and not much else. Keith's clear failure aside, they had some good eats.
Scoreboard: B+. Probably a little too big, but they put a lot of great stats up. Easy to read. No beef.
Intangibles: C. The signature memory of Phils-Mets radio broadcasts at Shea was the sound of planes taking off from LaGuardia every 12 seconds. The broadcasters hated it. Citi Field was built in the Shea parking lot, and they didn't move LaGuardia, so there are still massive jets flying low overhead every 12 seconds. It's annoying, but kind of funny at the same time. Every baseball stadium has a bunch of ads these days, but Citi has a LOT of ads on just about every flat surface. It's a little tacky, but it was probably part of their revenue plan after Bernie Madoff wiped out the Wilpons. The biggest intangible is that the Mets play at the stadium, which basically ruins the whole experience for anyone with a soul. But let's not blame that on the stadium.
Not a bad day at the park. I had to shower for 40 minutes after reaching that conclusion, but fair is fair.
July 20, 2009
New York has at least five zoos, which could explain the smell. It seems like a great thing to have so many options, but when it's go time -- when you actually have to pick a zoo to visit with your girlfriend and her parents -- you have to make some serious decisions. What am I looking for?
Personally, I am looking for a gorilla in a wifebeater and a Yankees cap drinking light beer. And so we traveled to the Bronx Zoo!
It's a pretty charming place. There's a nice central pavilion with the "old zoo" -- all the structures from the early 20th century, which are now rent-controlled, and so none of the animals ever leave. There's a small monkey house for small monkeys and a small reptile house for some gigantic pythons. And then there's a very nice woodsy portion, where you stroll past about five gift shops to see bears, then five more gift shops, then tigers, then five more gift shops, and you wrap up with a camel ride. It's like Washington's National Zoo, only not as hilly, and so the many fat people you find at any zoo are not as sweaty and panting when you're at the Bronx. It really adds to the whole experience, believe me.
I was definitely a fan of the monorail ride at the end of the day: it takes you over a small river and around a more spacious holding area where all sorts of Asian herd animals are being kept. It serves as a reminder that, give open space, majestic wild animals will mostly just look for some mud to sit in and not do all that much. Nature is very lazy, and as part of nature, I feel we must respect its wishes by sitting still upwards of 20 hours a day. Sadly, there were no animals doing "it," or even having a sloppy makeout sessions, but we did get to spot a baby rhino.
And speaking of babies, how many people take their kids to the zoo? I truly appreciate all the fine events that my parents took me to as a kid, and I feel that even if the memories aren't vivid, the impressions and inspiration to learn have stayed with me throughout my life. That said, when I have kids, they aren't going ANYWHERE. $20, plus snacks and facepainting and camel rides, for a few hours of entertainment? Cable is only $50 for a whole MONTH. And if my kid can't get the same amount of inspiration from watching "Bridezillas" on We, then that's not a kid I'm interested in parenting.
Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest
July 21, 2009
Life is mostly drudgery, with the occasional oasis created by special occasions spent with special people. Those moments are few and must be carefully chosen, and forever cherished. And so to celebrate my girlfriend's recent birthday, we watched a man eat 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
There is but one place to see such a thing: Coney Island, at the world famous Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Each July 4, the luminaries of the professional eating circuit gather by the boardwalk for their Super Bowl (and Christmas, and Apocalypse). And I'm happy to say that I was there to see these amazing athletes in action.
We got there at about 10:30, and the crowd was already pretty big -- we had a view of the stage, but there wasn't even a remote chance of remaindered hot dog landing on us, and as there were no Gallagher fans in our group, this was OK. So then, the waiting. Which involved:
-- One contestant, a 400-pound subway operator from New York, rapping several songs about how much he enjoys food. There were also several references to arterial clogging. This sounds sad at first blush, but consider that he was joined by two people in hot dog costumes, a midget in an Uncle Sam costume, and a team of cheerleaders which, if memory serves, are called the "Bunettes." The second dancing hot dog pushed it over the edge and made it a happy thing.
-- This year, members of Ringling Brothers jumping on trampolines while wearing skis, a hula hoop and a snowboard. Not all at the same time, but it was still impressive. It speaks well of Olympic trampolining that, once you have achieved gold-metal status, you can look forward to a steady career of exhibition performances at competitive eating events, wherein upwards of 30 percent of the crowd might actually pay attention. Keep reaching for that dream, young trampoliners.
-- Everyone in the crowd whooping whenever ESPN's boom camera swung by. I'm going to put this on my TV credits.
-- The Coney Island strongman lying on a bed of spikes and then getting hit with a sledge hammer by his sons. His sons then bend rebar around his neck. I cannot figure out the career trajectory whereby someone eventually says: "I would like to lie on a bed of spikes while someone hits me with a sledge hammer." It has to be a gradual thing, whereby someone accidentally hits them in the stomach with a balpeen hammer as they relax on the beach, and they think: "That wasn't so bad." Or maybe it's just a man saying "This can't be any worse than data entry. Let's find out."
-- George Shea. I cannot emphasize how good the emcee is for this event. He regularly refers to competitive eating in Biblical overtones, as in, "They say that that competitive eating is the battleground on which God and Lucifer wage their warfor control of men's souls." I'm paraphrasing there, but I'm not off by much. He called one of the contestants the leader of the "Four Horsemen of the Esophagus." He wears a Warren Harding getup (white pants, dark coat, straw hat) and started off the contest from one of those telescoping platforms that raised him about 25 feet in the air. It was awesome. I am not being ironic.
After all that, the eating itself is a little bit anticlimactic. The introductions take about as long as the 10-minute contest, and once the guys start cramming it in, there's not too much to do but stare in horror / admiration. American Joey Chestnut pulled ahead early and maintained his lead through the end, setting the record with 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. This even broke the record from when the contest was 12 minutes. Second place went to six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi, who you have to admire for showing up. Competitive eating is reportedly taking its toll on his body, and there could have been a "Natural" moment somewhere in there. He also takes a fair amount of abuse from the crowd. I did not know that we had an issue with the Japanese, but apparently hot dog eating is a very patriotic event, and we can't have foreigners taking the Mustard Belt overseas to their backwards homelands. USA!
Once it's over, it's VERY over. They announce the winner, present the belt and get those guys out of there, probably because the site of the champion barfing all over the stage would put a dent in future publicity efforts.
So from there we were free to roam Coney Island! I rode the Cyclone, which is a very old wooden rollercoaster. Despite its age still can inflict whiplash at $8 a pop. We need to protect this valuable part of our heritage, so that future generations can hive mild headaches for a week after riding, and so share in our common culture. Then we all took a tour of public housing projects and got some pizza.
It's hard to process the whole day without breaking out into "America the Beautiful."
Every eater introduced had their "world titles" rattled off. Hot dog eating may seem disgusting to you, but how about beef brisket? Sushi? Key lime pie? Ramen noodles? All those world champs were on stage at the same time. It got us thinking about what we might want to eat competitively, and I'm going with iceberg lettuce. No nutritional value, but low in calories. In fact, I am declaring myself the de facto iceberg lettuce champion of the world. I have made a leafy green belt, and anyone who wants to take this title can challenge me in person at any time. BYOL.
George Eastman House
November 27, 2007
During a trip to Syracuse, I did probably the most enjoyable thing that the city has to offer: I drove to Rochester. HA! But the George Eastman House is in Rochester. If you don't know the name offhand, he's the guy who: 1) invented Kodak cameras and dry-plate film developing; 2) was marginally insane.
He was insane in a good way, though. It mostly manifested as perfectionism. The best story: Eastman had his house built (around 1905) at a cost of $300,000. It was a swanky spread, since he was something like the sixth-richest person in America. Every morning when he was home he would read the paper in his conservatory room while listening to his personal on-staff organist (again, crazy) kick out the jams on his in-house organ. After a few years of this, Eastman decided he didn't like the dimensions of that particular room, so he came up with a plan to saw his house in half, move one half about 9 feet away, and then bridge the gap with more house. The original contractors, on hearing the plan, told him "no way in hell." So he shopped around and found a company from Pittsburgh to do it ... for $700,000, more than twice the original cost of the house. Yeah.
Next time you're in Rochester stop in. The house tour is great, plus they have excellent displays on the history of the camera and some photo exhibits as well. In the grand scheme, Eastman is propably as important to America as the Rockefellers or Morgans. He democratized memories. You can't have a cultural impact much bigger than that.
Sad epilogue: Eastman killed himself. He was suffering from fatal diseases, and so he (gulp) shot himself in the heart with a Luger. Yikes. They actually have his suicide note on display at the house. Here it is:
November 27, 2007
I went jogging twice along what Syracuse locals proudly call the most polluted lake in America! Here it is:
Nice, huh? As long as you aren't touching the water or ingesting anything that lives in it, it's actually pretty. This also marked my first attempt to transition to cold-weather running, which involves more clothes that warm-weather running. This is sad, because now I can't wear my skin-tight spandex tops and wow the ladies. But it's also happy, because now when my face turns beet red after running one mile and I'm sweating out half my body weight (not my most attractive look) I can pull up the hooded sweatshirt and run in anonymity. I am not traditionally a "jogger," but here are some of the places I've been jogging this year: Lake Huron; Lake Superior; the Tahquamenon River; Lake Onondaga (the most polluted lake in America!); the Las Vegas strip. Hmm. That list wasn't as impressive as I was hoping. Maybe it's because I left off: Uzbekistan; All up in yo' area; On a treadmill powering a mechanical heart for an orphan; the Sea of Tranquility.
Whew. Much better.
Syracuse Salt Museum
August 1, 2008
History finally stopped reschuduling our intimate lunch date, for today I finally walked through the inviting doors of the Salt Museum in Liverpool, New York. It is only one room, so I walked out 12 minutes later a changed man. I don't know that the Salt Museum and I will see eachother again, but I know we'll always have that one magical cup of coffee together. And someday, when I've found another museum, maybe something in that museum will make me smile, and think of the good times I once had staring down at a large assembly for evaporating brine.
Here's what I learned.
A Brief History of the Syracuse Salt Industry
15,000,000 B.C.-5,000,000 B.C.: Herds of dinosaurs with sodium-induced high blood pressure suffer a series of massive heart attacks while migrating through the swamps over modern-day Syracuse. Their bodies sink to the bottom of the marshes, and then salty glaciers, possibly made from the tears of dinosaurs mourning their dead relatives, plow those remains into the ground, where they decompose, leaving behind rich brine wells.
1710 A.D. - 1820 A.D.: Missionaries and settlers bring back to the coasts stories of Native Americans in the upstate region with remarkably good pickles and pastrami, and as the New York City Jewish population grows, demand for these products leads to the construction of the Erie Canal.
1848: Drunken prospectors, mistaking the Syracuse region for California, begin sinking shafts along the shores of Lake Onondaga and discover rich saltwater deposits. Powerful salted meat barons purchase the claims and begin planning extensive salt mining operations, but improvements to child labor laws over the next decade make those operations economically untenable. Kids are such sissies.
1861-1865: Plans to plow salt into the fields of the Confederacy lead to an explosion in the demand for high quality salt. Facilities which produce salt by evaporating brine are established along the entire shoreline of Lake Onondaga. Ambitious attempts to fill the lake with enough pollution to then set it on fire, thereby producing a LOT of salt, are halted halfway when someone realizes the lake is actually fresh water.
1875: Unnatural disaster strikes as more than 200,000 deer descend on the Syracuse region, tongues wagging, and begin attacking salt warehouses. More than 5,000 people are gored to death. This really happened. It was like "The Birds," but with deer. I swear.
1895: The city produces a factory to enter the lucrative salt water taffy industry. When local salt unions attempt to strike for higher wages, the Pinkertons are called in; 15 union members turn up drowned, deliciously, in taffy vats three weeks later. Other union members are beaten repeatedly with bags of salt, and taffy is used to pull out their fillings. The union retaliates by burning the factory, and the sweet dreams of thousands of young children, to the ground.
1920s: Improvements in refrigeration technology and the discovery of better salt deposits in the west crush the Syracuse salt industry. Operations are dismantled. After a series of widely publicized salt-eating conests are unable to eliminate excess inventory, mountains of salt are quietly shipped to the Midwest and dumped on farms there under cover of darkness. This causes the Dust Bowl.
1970s: The Salt Museum is opened in Liverpool, New York, firmly establishing the Syracuse region as the crown jewel of the Upstate New York Greater Tourism region. Millions of visitors flock there each year. Maybe billions. I mean, I counted 4 on a Friday afternoon, so you do the math.
The Carousel Center
November 27, 2007
I asked everyone I know from Syracuse for things to do while in town. They all said "The mall." That means the Carousel Center, which is very large and strives to one day surpass the Mall of America for the title of "most depressing white trash vacation destination."
It's going to be an interesting fight. I've been to the Mall of America (in Minneapolis), and in addition to being a very, very large mall, it has an amusement park in the atrium. There are roller coasters and everything. The Carousel Center, on the other hand, has a carousel (just one) near the food court.
Dare to dream, Syracuse.
Two things: First, there was a maternity store in the Carousel Center, and the display out front was for "sexy jeans." At a maternity store. If you're really worried about attracting a man while five months pregnant, then you have much bigger problems than a lack of sexiness. Sexy is probably what got you into this mess in the first place.
Second: How long is it OK to watch a carousel? They aren't really that entertaining, but I figured, hey, I'm at the Carousel Center, I should check this thing out. I'm too old to ride it without taking a kid along, so all that leaves is watching. But do you really want to be the guy standing by himself watching a carousel? After about 30 seconds don't other bystanders assume you're a pervert? I'm pretty sure they do.
Bonus thing! Third: From a creepiness standpoint, is it better to be the guy hanging out in front of the maternity store or the guy watching the carousel? 500 words or less, have it on my desk in the morning.
August 3, 2008
If you ask people from Syracuse what to do when you visit Syracuse, they will tell you to go to the mall. Then, after you give them a hard time for suggesting something crass and commercial and bland as a mall, which by the way you already read about online and are totally pumped to visit, they will tell you to go to Dinosaur Barbque.
It's a BBQ joint! It's a blues bar! It's a BBQ joint! It's a blues bar! It's a BBQ joint! It's a blues bar! SHE'S MY DAUGHTER AND MY SISTER!
The point is, it's both. And it's wildly popular; to get in at the busy times you might have an hour wait. Faithful readers know that I choose not to wait in line for an hour for anything that's not super cool (like the Supreme Court), and so I decided to ditch the blues part and just eat there. I went Sunday afternoon with fellow comedian and all-around swell guy Eric Lyden, shown here with a nice rack. And some ribs, too. BLADOW!
I generally do not like eating meat off the bone, because I prefer not to know my victims. Also, I spend a lot of money getting my nails did, and I don't like them messed up by sauces, or finger-licking. But this was some high-quality stuff. I had half a chicken, three ribs, cornbread, coleslaw and french fries. Our very nice waitress saw the empty plate and said I "went to town." As long as she wasn't envisioning a town named Fat Pig Junction, I'm taking that as a compliment.
If you want to work off that meal, take a nice stroll a few blocks south and check out Syracuse's world-famous monument to the 24-second shot clock. It changed the NBA, and I daresay all of our lives, forever until the end of time. Verily.
See the World