Archive for April, 2014

Lyman and I delayed starting our three day bike ride from Brooklyn to the eastern tip of Long Island because of weather:  rainy, with temperatures in the thirties.   We finally started Monday morning east of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, with a prediction that the weather would clear by noon.    A mix of drizzle and snow pelted us as we slogged through heavy traffic in the bike lane up Bedford Avenue, turning towards Queens in Williamsburg.   Trucks would park in the bike lane every couple of blocks, and we would have to swerve out into the melee.   It was a genuine good time.

Lyman sums up the three day trip:   Riding through the diverse neighborhoods beginning with Prospect Park transitioning through Chinese, Korean, Jewish, various Hispanic and what have you ‘hoods in Queens onto Long Island and ending in waspish Hamptons was interesting and intimate on a bicycle. We borrowed a sink in a Chinese tire shop. The grinning ear to ear mechanic did not speak any English. We were aliens gliding on small bikes.

We ate at the counters and engaged conversation easily with bartenders and local patrons. The Italians with those amazing heavy accents. And the women, their fashion sense so exuberant. Leather pants, high heels, painted nails out to there, huge hair and ear rings.


That first day passing through Queens,  we crossed Flushing Meadows to check out the site of the 1964 World’s Fair, also where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones chased aliens in Men in Black.  

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Chinese neighborhoods in Queens go on for miles and miles.   In  Bayside, near the border between New York City and Nassau County, we stopped for a late lunch at an Italian restaurant,  where the neighborhood was transitioning from Asian to Italian.   Most of the employees and customers looked Italian.   A sixty something gentlemen entered and sat by himself at the bar.   At the suggestion of the bartender, he ordered seafood salad.   One by one, several men in the restaurant came and greeted him like they knew him, but as someone who was owed respect, often with a kiss on the cheek.   It was like something we had seen in the movies.

Cycling further that day, we transitioned from city to suburbia.   We stuck to the North Shore, as the car traffic that a cyclist avoids is almost always safer in high income areas, where big houses sit on quiet streets.   That evening in Roslyn NY, we sat at the bar of a very expensive steakhouse, and ordered low cost appetizers.   The bartender struck me as a true professional.

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Over the next day and a half, what I can only call suburbia went on and on.   We transitioned from the wealthy neighborhoods of the North Shore to more conventional middle class tract housing.   Late the afternoon of the second day, we were sixty miles by car from Manhattan, and still really had not seen much undeveloped land;’ the sprawl continued.   We stopped for a beer at an Irish bar in a strip mall near tattoo parlors and motorcyle shops.     I spoke briefly to these women.   All three were originally from Brooklyn, but say they hardly ever go back there now.   They spoke of all the crime in Brooklyn.  (photo by Lyman)


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It was not until midway through day three that we started to see sumptuous “second homes”, interspersed, finally, with farmland and open space.     I did not know that “The Hamptons” refers to a series of towns at the end of the south fork of Long Island;  Westhampton, Southampton, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, etc.   As soon as towns started having “Hampton” in their names, we started seeing these large houses, not even necessarily on the beach.   Yes, the deer is fake.


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We had a great ride along the beach on the barrier island by Quogue “Village”.    In the off season, it was desolate and beautiful.   Lots of big ocean front summer houses.  This one would have made Tony Soprano proud.

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Southampton is a beautiful colonial town completely inundated with money.    Realtor ads in the windows downtown seriously offered oceanfront estates for over two hundred million dollars.  This spread, by the water downtown, is practically modest for this area.  And I guess most people do not even live here, these are just vacation homes!   We need higher taxes.


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If I had bothered to tell anyone where I was going for two days, the mostly likely response from friends in Chapel Hill would have been: “Why would you want to go THERE?”   But the weather was beautiful and the terrain was flat.   I drove the hour and a half to Rocky Mount on a Friday morning, parked the Ford Focus, pulled out the bike, and started riding.

Both Rocky Mount and Wilson sometimes feel like what I imagine Flint, Michigan to be like.   There are abandoned factories everywhere.  Downtown Rocky Mount at 1:00 PM on Friday does not look very busy.    It looks like an Edward Hopper painting, except this is not the middle of the night.

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Thirty miles away in Wilson, the “downtown” (meaning anywhere in the traditionally built city) feels almost as abandoned.   The government there is indeed trying to stir things up.   They are building a park around the works of local whirligig artist Vollis Simpson who had just died.

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Wilson also tried to institute high speed internet as a way of attracting business.    They were being somewhat successful, so the state legislature worked its Time Warner magic, and put a stop to the program.


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I looked very hard, and could not find one “normal” restaurant in Wilson, one that served drinks and dinner, at any price, except in what I consider the burbs.   I cycled back to the hotel after dinner in the dark, to the also suburban Hampton Inn.

But these cities of Rocky Mount and Wilson are not really dying.  At the same time they are being abandoned, new housing is still being built further out, sprouting from the fields like a new crop of tobacco.    American slash and burn urbanism.   The sign says “No City Taxes.”

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In their defense, Rocky Mount and Wilson grew and prospered and provided jobs because of local businesses, mostly in manufacturing,  tobacco, and banking.   On the other hand  Tarboro, twenty miles east of Rocky Mount, gives off a different vibe.   It is one of the most beautiful towns in North Carolina.   One gets the feeling that not much has changed in two hundred years, both for good and for bad.   Tarboro is lovely and a little unsettling at the same time.   The newspaper is called the Daily Southerner.

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