Thursday, March 21, 2013

A cold night in New York.

The warmth of Spring--though Spring has technically arrived--is not yet in evidence in New York. There are still traces of dog and soot ruined snow in the parks and on the fringes of sidewalks, and thin sheets of ice top the morning puddles left by street sweepers.

Of course, Dame Insomnia knows no season and she jostled me awake this morning at three. I bundled up against the cold, slipped Whiskey's leash on and headed out for a walk. Of late I've been heading to an olde-timey bar I've discovered called the Tempus Fugit. But I've noticed an additional coat of carbohydrates around my mid-section, so I decided against visiting the Tempus, and instead headed over to the river for a walk.

Whiskey and I headed, as we so often do, uptown, in the direction of the Triboro and Hell Gate bridges.

These are two of my favorite bridges in New York. The Triboro was built of steel by Robert Moses during the depths of the Depression. It has no beauty. None of the sweep of the George Washington Bridge or the Verrazano-Narrows. It hasn't the detail of the Brooklyn Bridge, or the grandeur.

The Hell Gate Bridge. (Originally, the New York Connecting Railroad Bridge.)
But I love its dirty, utilitarian nature. It was built to be tough and built to work. Even its name has no grace. Triboro. It connects, as promised, three boroughs. Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens.

The Hell Gate Bridge is a railway bridge and is a simple, beautiful arch suspension. It was the inspiration for the much more famous and much more photogenic Sydney Harbor Bridge. No one knows the Hell Gate Bridge. But I award it points for both its plum coloring and its originality.

Hell Gate is in red.
We headed North, Whiskey and I and saw no one. We stopped at the widening of the waters around 97th Street, a broad expanse where the Harlem River, the Long Island Sound and the East River (which is really not a river at all, but a tidal strait) converge. This confluence results in turbulent currents and is the reason for the blunt Dutch name, Hell Gate.

There are, and have since the late 18th Century, been rumors or legend, of a ship of gold, the Hussar, carrying $2-$4 of bullion, that went down in the Hell Gate--a pay ship, serving British troops. But no one has been able to find it. And most certainly, amateur explorers have been put off by both the murk and the roil of the brine.

The Hussar in better times.
Whiskey and I stopped at 97th Street and I leaned on the delicately curved wrought iron. Whiskey lay at my feet. A man who was similarly leaning about 20 feet North of me slid over.

He began with no introduction.

"New York really turned in the late 80s. When crack came in. That's when it got dangerous."

I disagreed. "I think it was earlier," I said. "Getting mugged was like falling off a log from the late 60s on."

He ignored that and kept speaking.

"My father owned four laundromats in the Bronx. Not in the worst neighborhoods, but certainly not the best. Thing were ok until crack. When crack came in we closed the minute it got dark. The time didn't matter. When it was dark, we closed. No one went out in the dark in those days.

"In one of those laundromats, my father employed two large Puerto Ricans. Hector was about my size--a big guy. But Jose, we called "Lurch," after the butler in the Addams Family. He ran 6'4" easy and went 220 pounds.
Lurch from the Addams Family.

"One Winter we had a crazy cold spell with temperatures in the single digits."

"It's none too warm tonight," I said.

"No. This was like a high of five degrees. Anyway my old man bought us all warm clothes. Flannel-lined pants, quiltedflannel shirts, woolen hats and gloves and a 3/4-length down coat each.

"One night Lurch and Hector left the laundromat in the dark and they were mugged. They didn't hurt them--they could have killed them--but instead they took all their clothes--right down to their underwear and left them naked on the sidewalk in the cold, handcuffed to a chain-link fence.

"That's what New York was like then."

"I do remember," I agreed.

"After that Lurch started carrying a snub-nosed .38 that held five bullets. He always kept a rubber bullet in the first chamber."
A .38 snub-nose.

"Smart," I said. A good way to chase an assailant off without risking a manslaughter rap.

"One day he was riding his motorcycle and he was stopped by a cop who, of course, found the gun. That could have been it for Lurch. Illegal possession. But the cop liked the gun so much, he nabbed it and let Lurch go just for speeding. The gun was never mentioned on the police report."

At this point Whiskey was up and pulling South. The sun was coming up and it was time to leave.

I bid my friend goodbye and walked, fully-clothed and safely, home.

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