Sunday, September 27, 2009

At the Country Fair: Time Moos On


On one of my bike rides a few weeks ago, I happened onto the Hamptonburgh Country Fair. The word “country” excited me, so I turned in.


The first thing I saw was a giant farm animal. And I mean huge—its rear haunch was higher than my head.

Actually there were two of them, hitched together. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know exactly what they were, although the big wooden yoke around their necks should have provided a hint.


For the record, an ox is generally defined as a steer (or castrated cow) that is at least four years old. Because oxen are kept to work and not led to slaughter at a relatively young age, they grow much larger than the average bull.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue.

“Wow, look at that….cow,” marveled one visitor. “Look at the size of that…bull,” gasped another.

I bet the early settlers would have been hard pressed to imagine a future in which not even the country folk would recognize a team of oxen.

Later, hoping to gain insight into what role the big animals might have played in local history, I googled “oxen in Orange County.”

The result: an 1888 New York Times obituary reporting that the last freed slave to die in the county had originally been sold to his local master for “a yoke of oxen.”

Cow Milking Contest

The fair was small, and the vendors were well spaced along the grass. I glanced at the food booths and various advocacy tables and dodged a very nice lady from Mary Kay cosmetics.

Walking the perimeter, passing the giant plastic inflatable play structure for kids, I found a tent full of materials advertising Hill-Hold and Brick House, two local museums that are working hard to enlighten people about the area’s farm heritage.

Nearby, I spotted a small pen containing two rabbits and a adorable little piglet wearing a blue leash.

A child was kneeling inside the fencing and reaching toward the piglet, which was backed up against the mesh and emitting bone-chilling squeals that sounded to me like abject terror.

I wanted that piglet, too, but I feel sorry for almost any creature in a petting zoo, even if it’s a crab or a flounder.

On the way out, I noticed one more nod to the good olde days—a plywood cutout of a cow with plastic udders and a promise of “cow milking contest” later that day.

I thought this was utterly weird—there were real cows just down the road, just across from the "Farm for Sale" sign.

But then I realized they probably got milked by machine—by robots, even.

Actual milking, with real hands on real teats, was probably as quaint to today’s kids as the old wooden stocks I used to see in my childhood visits to colonial museums.

(Hey, those seemed like fun at the time.)

Butter Factory

Returning to the main road, I spotted a historical marker. Back in the 1800s, this very fairground had been home to the first butter factory in the U.S.

That’s when the irony of the wooden milk cow and the giant mystery bovines really hit home.

Once upon a time, Orange County was famed for its dairy. The cows made the excellent milk and the farmers made the butter—which had a national reputation, and was hailed as “Goshen Gold.”

I kept trying to bring this history to life in my mind, but it was hard.


The following week I came back to take another look at the site. I hadn’t realized that there was a red barn in the background—the scene was actually quite bucolic.

Embedded in the boulder in the foreground is a plaque that reads:

This spring, with an abundance of cool water, determined the site of the first butter factory in the U.S. 1856.

I took a picture of the spring. Oddly, there’s a milk crate at the bottom of the concrete pool, and the plastic of the antifreeze container floating at the surface is an undeniably buttery yellow.


I wasn't quite sure why I set out to write this blog entry. It wasn't until I was nearly finished that I remembered—I'd spent my earliest years down the dirt road from the Durland dairy farm in Florida, New York.

Mrs. Durland was my friend. The wall of the stairs to the cellar was lined with things she'd canned and pickled. We sat on the front porch in the evening and watched the swallows gather. She taught me how to spell "Schenectady."

We left there before I was eight. Above is my photo, taken with an old Bullet camera, of the Durland cows coming in for their milking.

Seagull at JBWR

Studio cramped. Seeks 1BR.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Trip to the Loo

Like thousands of other bicyclists riding the New York City Century on September 13, I rolled out of Central Park just before seven a.m.

It was around eight when I chugged into the first rest area, in Prospect Park.

Bikes were strewn all over the grass, and hundreds of riders were milling about, chomping on bagels and chewing out orange slices.

As usual, however, I was focused on the toilet. Pushing my bike past the throngs, I followed a chalk-marked trail to the restrooms—which, as it turned out, were inside the Prospect Park Zoo!

The place wasn’t even open yet, but a cheerful guard was waving us in, directing us to the bathrooms just past the sea lion pool.

Sea lions! A deserted zoo! I felt a bit disbelieving as I strolled through the gates. It was the totally unexpected gift of a weak bladder—a wonderful urban adventure.

The other women in the restroom were happy, too. Bike rides have a way of making the things we take for granted seem almost instantly like the luxuries they truly are.

A flushing toilet, for instance, or running water.

“This ain’t no Port-a-Potty!” sang one woman, ecstatically lathering her hands over the sink.

“And they have seals,” another woman added, sounding every bit as reverential as I felt.

All the way from Manhattan I’d been counting to ten, trying to suppress my irritation with the other riders—the father and son who rode side by side and swerved unpredictably, the hotshots in mid-avenue, the hordes of supposed bike ambassadors defying the lights in ways that left pedestrians stranded.

Now, in Brooklyn, I was feeling a wave of affection for these very same people. Like me, they were lingering as they crossed the sun-dappled pavement, stealing a moment with the zoo.

The sea lions weren’t on their rocks, so there was no real excuse to loiter, but we all knew they were circling beneath the churning water. Even the idea of them was thrilling, at least to me.

I’d already passed the pool when I heard the sound: “Pfffffft!”

I stopped dead in my tracks. Elation drained away. Where a second before I’d been swelling with joy, I was now fighting the urge to weep.

It took me a moment to realize what had happened. A sea lion had come up for air—and I’d heard my gasping father, swimming his laps in our country pond.

My father, dead for six years.

One instant happy, the next filled with sorrow. The feelings seem so opposite, but sometimes I imagine that in their underlying essence they are much the same—one glass half empty, the other half full.

For a second I imagined telling the nice guard at the gate about all that had happened in my five minutes at the zoo, but of course I didn't. I got on my bike and kept going.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rolling, Rolling

Biking the Triboro (or, as it now much less usefully named, the RFK Bridge). There are signs on the span that ban photography and offer the number of a suicide hotline, but both are pointed at the cars. The bike lane runs above the motor vehicles, just as it does on the Brooklyn Bridge, but here it travels rather excitingly along the outside of the span, rather than in the middle.

Early on in its ascent the path is surrounded by high mesh fencing, but by the time you're looking down into the swirling waters of the East River the barrier has disappeared. This makes for a spectacular view, even if you can't take pictures. These photographs were taken from Astoria Park. See the bikers pedaling through the sky.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


When I was a kid and biking the country roads, I was very excited to find and identify this plant. I don’t think my father had known what it was, and he was the one who cared about wild plants in the family. I learned that in olden times, the dried heads had been used to comb wool.

Biking these roads again, I found myself thrilling to the sight of teasel once more. I felt a hint of sadness. My teenage awakening to teasel felt like one of the few really happy, spontaneous moments of exploration, discovery, and learning that I could remember in those years.

Ah, but what is true? And what are the tricks of blue memory?

Friday, September 11, 2009


Years ago, Richard Kopperdahl wrote some remarkable articles for The Village Voice. In them, he offered vivid accounts of years spent traveling along the Bowery under the influence of alcohol and mental illness.

(Those articles are old enough not to appear online, but you can get the flavor of his writing if you scroll down to the “On the Bowery” item in this New York Times blog.)

Two things have long remained in my memory from those articles—and I say this with the usual disclaimer that I haven’t reread them, so I might be wrong.

One was the boozing Richard’s habit of picking up old bottles and taking a swig in the hope that some last droplets of liquor might have pooled in the bottom and might now be drunk. I think he called this “collecting the corners.”

The other was his story of days spent walking the trails secretly marked on sidewalks by fallen cigarette butts. If they bent to the left, he turned the corner. And if they pointed straight, that’s where he went.

He was following the signs.

Lately, I’ve been doing much the same thing. All across this country, the routes for organized bike rides are marked with spray-painted symbols and arrows on the roadways.

A few weeks ago, I was upstate and following the green arrows for a 62-mile route—and then, unbenownst to me, something went awry. First there weren’t any signs, but then there were new, thicker green arrows, and finally those stopped.

I’d gotten blasé about following the cue sheet, and beyond that I’d forgotten to bring a road map, so I was lost. I began waving down drivers. They told me I was miles from the town I was aiming for—but they weren’t sure how to get there, either, at least not on the back roads.

Happily, soon after this I had a flat. My problem was solved when I walked into a plant nursery and asked them to call me a taxi, and happily both the shopkeepers and the driver knew where they were. It occurred to me later that I’d lost one bike trail and inadvertently picked up another—but who knows where that one was leading?

It happened again last week, when I went off on my own and attempted to follow the markers for the New York City Century—a trail of C’s with arrows. This time I had a street map, but no cue sheet. It all went very well for hours, and then it didn’t. I wound up riding along the access roads to the LIE and trying to find a subway.

Fortunately, it all worked out. I’ve been very lucky.

Still, it makes me think about the fragility inherent in our lives—as well as how miraculous it is that things so often go as we expect. How easy it would be to alter the signs and send us all off into the chaos of misdirection.

I follow spray-painted arrows and believe I am sane, but I might feel equally secure striding from one street to the next according to the instructions from cigarette butts—and it seems my confidence would be mistaken.

How do we know which signs are the right ones? It’s so often a matter of trust, or even faith—in our collective willingness to guide each other safely toward our destinations, if nothing else, and that seems like no small thing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coney Island: Pity the Pachyderms

At Coney Island today, I had occasion to contemplate elephants.

The season has abruptly ended, and I wanted to document the PETA billboard that’s been catching my eye all summer—the first one that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has been running its circus out by the beach. Note the tiny graphic of the elephant balancing on a ball.

The metal gates have rolled closed on many of the boardwalk’s food operations, including the Grill House complex—home to a friendly little taco stand I’d visited frequently in recent months. I found another elephant there.

I turned to a sign offering some highlights of Coney Island’s history, and there I discovered a photo of the Elephant Hotel, built in 1885. Apparently it was also a brothel. According to one Web source, “In the naughty nineties, 'Going to see the Elephant' became a Victorian euphemism for a bit of hanky-panky by the seaside!"

In 1896, according to an unofficial history of the FDNY, that elephant, seven stories high and built of yellow pine and tin, went up in flames. It took all of 30 minutes. The blaze was the first ever fought by Coney Island's new paid fire company, Engine 45.

The unexpected procession of pachyderms brought to mind the Lola Staar boutique, which, before the forces of development came into play, had been only a few steps away on the boardwalk. I remembered the day I’d debated buying one of her Topsy tees.

Lola’s Web site says: “Imagine a herd of elephants roaming free around Coney Island, and at the front of the line was the toughest of them all...TOPSY!”

True, Topsy did harm three of her handlers, but she paid the price. She was the elephant Thomas Edison electrocuted at Coney Island to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. You can find an account, with the gruesome pictures, here.

In this summer’s Coney Island elephant scandal, the local firehouse (Engine 245, nee 45, of Elephant Hotel fame) was shut to the public for half an hour because its firefighters had been called out to hose down one of the circus elephants—Suzie—as a publicity stunt.

photo credit: AP via Uniformed Firefighters Assoc.

By now, of course, I felt compelled to ride the few blocks down to Ringling Brothers’ big striped tent, which workers were busy dismantling. There I found my last elephant, behind the chain-link fence.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Monk Parakeets at Manhattan Beach

I'm riding along Sheepshead Bay, looking at all the big dead fish coming in with the tide, awash in apocalyptic thoughts. Is this the day all the fish in the ocean just die?

"There's a lot of those today," I say, rolling up beside a fisherman. "You think the fishing boats toss them overboard?"

"Yeah, maybe," he says, contemplating the floater that's passing by. "I caught one of those, hooked it with my line. I want a live fish!"

Oddly reassured, I turn my gaze inland. And there I spot a monk parakeet nest that sure does look like a fire hazard on a utility pole. But it's so cool, with its multiple round entrance holes and the birds up there weaving. These birds are optimists!

Now I really feel cheered. Me staring at the monks, and delighted to see the monks staring right back.

As I may have hinted in a previous post, there's a ton of information about these fascinating creatures on line. There's even a study (with pictures) of what seems to be this very nest, indicating that it is fabricated from the twigs of London plane trees, sugar maples, pin oaks, and woody plants.

The guy at is also an expert, and I'm happy to learn he conducts "wild Brooklyn parrot safaris" to explore various nesting sites (there's one on September 12).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rolling, Rolling

See, they do collect trash at Coney Island!

Sheepshead Bay swanathon: I counted 34.