This trip had been on my bucket list of many years, to ride the length of Long Island. To a Southerner, Long Island seemed this exotic place, its New Yorkedness accentuated by its physical isolation. (Those living on Long Island essentially have to go through New York City to go anywhere else.) Was this idea true?
To find out, from my home in Chapel Hill NC I drove by myself up to Richmond VA and took Amtrak from there to New York City. Amtrak regulations allow a folding bicycle and I have taken my Bike Friday on Amtrak many times. On previous trips I was always able to put the bicycle in a set of luggage shelves just inside the railcar entrance. This time these shelves were already full. I just put the folded bicycle in the overhead rack! No one said anything.
I arrived Penn Station in Manhattan just before four in the afternoon. Most of the station is underground.
I hauled the bicycle down from the overhead and hauled it the very short distance out the train door and onto the Penn Station platform. In a few minutes I had assembled the bicycle and strapped my trunk bag onto the back. I could wheel everything away up into the Big Apple that lurked above.
I pushed the bicycle up an escalator and then through the maze of crowded hallways lined with stores that comprises Penn Station.
My brother Alex lives in Park Slope Brooklyn, about nine miles from Penn Station. My son Sam has been living in Brooklyn as well. To get to Alex’s place I first had to bicycle down Manhattan’s crowded Seventh Avenue. (Mick Jagger: “I can’t give it away on Seventh Avenue!”) This is what it looks like in front of Penn Station.
Bicycling in traffic in Manhattan is exciting but not as crazy as one would think I cut over to Second Avenue, then to the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn. I looked back at lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.
I had brought my own bicycle but New York City did institute bicycle sharing in 2013 and calls it Citi Bike. I had predicted that bicycle sharing for New York was possibly a good idea but it would be a bloodbath of tourists getting run over. I was wrong. There are currently 62,000 public shared bicycle rides in New York EVERY DAY. It was four years and millions of rides before a woman was run over and killed by a bus. You see these bicycle stands all over the city.
New York also now has bike paths. From 2007-2013 the NYC Transportation Commissioner was someone (now somewhat famous) named Jeanette Sadik-Khan. She discovered that she controlled almost no money or power to build things like bicycle trails, but had almost unlimited power to direct how existing New York City streets were PAINTED. She directed the painting of bike lanes as she saw fit and did this with abandon across the five boroughs of New York. Among many streets she had a bike path painted to narrow a prominent street in Brooklyn called Prospect Park West. Living on this street was and is Senator Chuck Schumer and his wife Iris Weinshall, herself an important politician. Iris Weinshall hated this bike path and used her considerable political influence to try to kill it. It made news to bicycle supporters all over the country that Chuck Schumer was trying to axe a bike path in front of his apartment. He failed; Sadik-Khan won, and I thought about that as I biked on that very path on the way to Alex’s apartment, Prospect Park on my right.
I had a wonderful sushi dinner that night with Alex, his teenage son Max, my son Sam, and my nephew Danny. I slept on Alex and Kristi’s sofa and parked my bicycle in their living room. In addition to Max they have a one year old daughter named Eleanor Claire.
The next morning I headed out. First I stopped by Sam’s apartment in the neighborhood of Bushwick. He is in the process of moving out, going to Vietnam.
My four days of cycling out Long Island ended up looking like this:
On my first day out I would cycle across Brooklyn, over to the Rockaways and Rockaway Beach, then Long Beach before turning back inland to Freeport.
Brooklyn has neighborhoods of lovely brownstones.
In the poorer neighborhood of East New York this guy was bicycling with his dog in one of Sadik-Khan’s bike lanes.
I followed two other bicyclists as we rode by the enormous field of apartment “towers in the park” Spring Creek Towers, formerly called Starrett City.
On the water side of Shore Parkway there is a quite nice bike path along Jamaica Bay. A bicyclist here feels divorced from the city. It was quite peaceful if you could ignore the scream of the cars and trucks on the parallel expressway.
The path leads a bicyclist by the former airport Floyd Bennett Field, now a park. I rode on a narrow pedestrian walkway across Marine Parkway Bridge that separates Brooklyn from the Rockaways.
It’s not hard, not hard to reach. We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.
All I really knew about Rockaway Beach was the Ramones song released in 1977. I have been listening to that song for over forty years but had never been to Rockaway Beach. I always felt the song was tongue in cheek, sort of making fun of the New York beach. But maybe not. I recently heard a version recorded in about 2012 by the all-female Japanese band Shonen Knife from their tribute album Osaka Ramones. Here it is performed live. Listen for a minute, it grows on you.
I have never much thought of New York City as a beach town but it really can be, apparently. On this Friday the 31st of May in Jacob Riis Park the lifeguards were out but the summer had barely begun.
The residential area of Belle Harbor it could almost pass for my mother’s neighborhood in Virginia Beach.
Eventually there was a boardwalk to bicycle on.
It is interesting that while beach real estate in and near New York City can be expensive, it is certainly not THE most expensive place to live in New York. In a few places on or near the oceanfront there is public housing, subsidized housing for the poor. Fascinating.
Big airplanes landing at JFK airport passed overhead, There were coming in from far-away places. The first photo in an Airbus 380, the largest passenger aircraft. The second photo is an almost as big British Airways 747.
I threaded mostly on the oceanfront through various municipalities collectively known as “The Rockaways” until I came to Atlantic Beach Bridge onto the next barrier island, which contains Atlantic Beach and Long Beach. For cars there is a $2.00 toll on this very short bridge.
The preponderance of tolls in New York reminded me of the longest book I have ever read, a 1300+ page biography of Robert Moses; The Power Broker, by Robert Caro.
OK, who is Robert Moses? He was never elected to any office, yet he was so powerful that even President Franklin Roosevelt was sometimes afraid to take him on. He controlled much of New York City and New York State from about 1928 to 1968. A major basis of his power was obsession with legal details, especially bond issues. He personally wrote the fine print for the bonds sold to build stuff like this Atlantic Beach Bridge. In most cases he hard-baked into the project these tolls and made them impossible to remove. He made himself director of the Authorities that controlled the toll money. Robert Moses was instrumental in building many of the nation’s first freeways, New York state parks and “slum clearance” projects. He got involved nationally in projects to promote what we now call suburban sprawl, tearing down inner cities and building freeways. Much of the public infrastructure, both good and bad, in the New York area, has the fingerprints of Robert Moses. On this bike trip I was always looking for Robert Moses projects, his 1930’s freeways and art-deco public buildings. The toll plaza above and this 1930’s looking traffic sign were among them.
On this trip I passed many of Robert Moses’ cloverleaf intersections, some built as early as the 1930’s, to Parkways that prohibit trucks and bicycles.
I walked the bike across the bridge to Atlantic Beach, then started biking east. For about a mile covering the oceanfront was a series of beach clubs. Each had the same schtick; “members only” and valet parking.
Another factoid: Sonny and Vito Corleone lived in Atlantic Beach and Long Beach, adjacent towns. The location of the the Corleone gated compound is not mentioned in the movie but is in the book. The scene where Sonny was rubbed out was supposed to have been at the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza.
In downtown Long Beach I had lunch at a “Mexican” bar / restaurant. It was quite good, in its own way. Who I assume is the owner stared at me all during the meal.
There was only one other table occupied.
I biked through Long Beach and the adjacent towns. They did not look at all Godfatherish, just a beach town look. For much of the way I could cycle on the boardwalk.
A Robert Moses legacy was that he loved to build Parkways. These were freeways that prohibit trucks and buses. I made it easier for him to keep public transport (and poor people) away from his glorious Jones Beach State Park. I wanted to but could not bicycle to Jones Beach and see the famous Art Deco bathhouse planned and built by Robert Moses. Loop Parkway that connects Long Beach with Jones Beach prohibits not only trucks but bicycles. Ocean Parkway along that beach also supposedly prohibits bicycles.
For this night and the following night I had already reserved and paid for rooms at Airbnbs. This first night would be in the “town” of Freeport. I put that in quotes because western Long Island is filled with continuous urbanism but politically divided into a series of towns. Freeport looks all-American. Compared to Long Beach, which looks all-white, it took me a while to realize that everyone in Freeport, at least everyone I could publicly see, was either Hispanic or African-American.
This is the house of my Airbnb.
My room was the front upstairs bedroom. It was clean and tidy but you clearly were staying in someone’s house. I shared the bathroom with the family, and at night when I walked out of my room to the bathroom I could see the open door to the seventy-something host couple’s bedroom. They spoke little English but were super nice and accommodating. Compared to a cheap hotel, it was totally NOT sleazy.
I am now safe to say that this neighborhood is majority Dominican, as in the Dominican Republic. A few blocks away I walked into a restaurant. I had never been to a Dominican restaurant before.
It was brightly lit. There was a bar in one corner. Being Dominican, they were watching, what else, baseball, or in this case women’s college softball.
I wanted something simple and a seven dollar bowl of chicken soup really hit the spot, accompanied by a side dish of rice and a side dish of beans.
This was my route the next day.
My ideal schedule when bicycling is to get up early, ride ten or fifteen miles, then stop for coffee and a light breakfast.
The streets in this part of Long Island are relatively well connected so I could bicycle for miles on minor mostly residential streets on this peaceful Saturday morning. I had come to Long Island expecting, I dunno, the home of My Cousin Vinny. Instead it all looked pretty normal.
New York Beanery in Amityville had a good almond milk latte and a superb egg and avocado toast.
I did see several mega-diners, we certainly do not have these in North Carolina. I consider these real cultural icons, nowhere else in the world (except maybe New Jersey!).
Note the two luxury cars in front of this one, a Range Rover and a Lincoln.
Plus this place, not exactly a diner.
I passed by a Saturday morning lacrosse practice. At the college level lacrosse is an exciting sport to watch. My alma mater Washington College in rural Maryland had and has a very competitive team and some of the most exciting sporting events I have ever seen were Washington College lacrosse games in the seventies. I learned then that a huge percentage of great lacrosse players came from either Long Island or the Baltimore area.
Apparently lacrosse is still a big deal on Long Island. I do not think most areas would have organized lacrosse for very young girls. How old do they look, about eight?
Is was able to bicycle on minor highways and most had pleasantly wide shoulders, almost like a bike path. In North or South Carolina the highway below would have stopped at the white line. Maybe in the Northeast wide shoulders are needed for snow removal.
My accommodations that evening were nice but really unusual. In an area where motels were expensive this Airbnb cost a low eighty dollars, tax included. Vectoring off the main road I biked through a normal looking upper working class neighborhood with ranch houses; pickup trucks and RVs in the driveways. Near the end of the road, in contrast to the other houses were a couple of much larger lots with wooded front yards and long driveways. I checked the address again and hesitated. Was I in the wrong place? The gate and driveway did not look well maintained. I called my Airbnb contact but no one answered. The woman finished her voice mail with mas salam malek kum, which I know to be an Arabic greeting. Whatever. I took a deep breath and bicycled up the driveway.
There were a couple of cars that looked like they had not been driven in a while, including a Lincoln Navigator.
I walked up to the front door. The trim was peeling paint and there was a old plastic water bottle on the door sill.
I sucked it up and rang the bell. Thirty seconds of silence. It was answered by a South Asian looking guy, sixty something. He smiled and said in accented English, yes, he was expecting me. Come on in. He walked me through sparsely furnished or totally empty living / dining rooms to a bedroom at the back of the ground floor. The room was huge. I took this picture after I had already messed up the bed; the room was clean and well furnished, with the kind of enormous master bathroom one would expect from such a giant house. The carpet was spotless. He had left three fresh oranges on the table. I ate one the next morning, it was delicious.
If you look at the top right of the photo above you will see water stains where the roof had been leaking.
There was a recently used looking pair of slippers on the floor, size small.
There was a large walk-in closet full of women’s clothes. Are these Middle Eastern or South Asian garments?
Being nosy, I opened the nightstand drawer on left side of the bed and it contained nothing but a freshly printed stack of paper having something to do with medical school tests or applications.
The nightstand on the other side had only the TV remote and a copy of the Quran.
Because I left early the next morning I was not able to talk to the guy again. I left the key under the mat. Regretably I never learned anything more about these people.
I did need to go out to dinner. After showering and and changing clothes I biked about a mile back to the main road and La Volpe Ristorante, which sat by itself on the highway. Sophie Loren and other famous Italians had their portraits on the walls. I love to cook and my current obsession is Italian. We do not have many good Italian restaurants in North Carolina.
I had a nice seat at the bar. The guy next to me commented on my Southern accent. Fascinating. Yes, I am from Virginia Beach and live in North Carolina but I never thought I had any kind of accent. In the South I am practically a Yankee. Only on Long Island, I guess. The bartender who served us was a real pro.
I love clams and especially prefer those from colder water in the north. The further south you go clams apparently get worse. My buddy Lyman from warm water New Orleans has an innate fear of clams. At La Volpe in the town of Center Moriches NY fresh cavatelli pasta with clams, mushrooms, beans, and arugula was the best meal of this entire trip.
The next morning I slipped out early. This is a map of my third day out. My destination was Montauk, the last town near the end of South Fork.
Out on the road on an early Sunday morning it was peaceful and slightly foggy.
Quite soon I started cycling through The Hamptons. Towns are named Westhampton, Southampton, East Hampton, Hampton Bay, Bridgehampton. On and on. Clearly real estate is worth more if the word Hampton is included.
Westhampton is the first Hampton. Almost ten miles BEFORE the actual town of Westhampton the name game begins with this development. One can tell the neighbors: “We bought a house in The Hamptons.”
In the same area, likely undocumented workers stood around waiting for a job.
In the next three hours I passed dozens of fancy houses that are probably only occupied a few weeks per year. Most do not have water views. People are apparently willing to pay millions of dollars for the privilege of having a house in The Hamptons.
I could see more detail when I bicycled off the busy main highway and onto side roads. Yes, these houses really do cost millions of dollars each.
Past East Hampton there actually is quite a bit empty pine barren. Much of this is public land like Napeague and Hither Hills State Parks.
Montauk NY. Just because of its location I have been wanting to come here for a long time. On the map it has that aura of Provincetown or Key West, a town at the end of the road. It really is just a small beach town. My friend John Soehner says Montauk is a great place. I should have brought him along to show me around.
I stayed in Daunt’s Albatross Motel.
The restaurants in Montauk are expensive. I grew up in a beach town and know that spending a lot on fancy food might not get you that much. I ate in a pizza joint, listening to two Catholic priests at the next table loudly talk shop, problems at their work, one an older white guy, the other younger and black, with an African accent.
The next morning I was really ready to get out of town, back to some kind of less touristy America.
There is an hourly ferry to Connecticut at the tip of the other fork, the North Fork, at Orient Point NY. That would be my destination this fourth day out.
I first cycled back fourteen miles back to East Hampton and and got breakfast at Starbucks. Starbucks seemed like one of the few gathering places in East Hampton for all social classes. It was a weekday, there were guys who could have been electricians alongside some very tall and skinny blond women talking some language I did not recognize.
The rest of the downtowns in The Hamptons are mostly sanitized, many storefronts turned into real estate offices advertising multi-million dollar houses.
I turned north towards the town of Sag Harbour. It looks less cutesified that The Hamptons but I now know that it is almost as expensive.
To get to the Orient Point Ferry towards Connecticut I first had to take two smaller ferries, to the south shore of Shelter Island and then from the north shore of that same island. It was a beautiful day.
It was something of a relief to arrive into the town of Greenport, that last real town going out east onto the North Fork. Compared to The Hamptons and the rest of the South Fork, Greenport looked and felt like a real town. I got a sandwich for lunch at Goldberg’s Famous Bagels.
It is nine miles further out the North Folk to the tip, Orient Point, where the ferry leaves.
On the side of the road was this beautiful saltbox house, built in 1656. It did have a historical marker but otherwise I think it is just somebody’s house.
At the end of the road there is a ferry terminal and a small marina / bar / restaurant. I stopped in for a beer.
The ferry ride to New London CT took about an hour and a half.
I had a place to go when I arrived New London CT, an Airbnb booked online.