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Labor Day Special: My Laziest Story Ever!
Plus! How I Spent My Summer Vacation!! Cheese Nubs!!!
Happy Labor Day and welcome to Issue #86 of CAFÉ ANNE!
So I am back from my annual CABIN VACATION at Selkirk Shores State Park, a beautiful location on Lake Ontario overlooking the Nine Mile Station nuclear power plant.
First, sorry that I previously promised the next issue on August 28. My intention all along was a two-week break. I provided the wrong date because ANNE MATH—a calculation strategy that involves giving the first answer that springs to mind head rather than the correct answer.
In any case, I enjoyed my stay in the wilds of upstate New York, the highlights of which included:
• A St. Lawrence Seaway riverboat cruise with Uncle Sam Boat Tours, a portion of which involved our tour guide trash-talking the rival tour boat company, Rockport Cruises. His issue: Rockport plays a recorded narrative to avoid employing a live human guide like himself. I wondered if Rockport’s recorded narrative includes a segment trashing Uncle Sam.
• My six-year-old nephew, Max, wondering aloud: “What’s a newspaper?”
• This exciting dairy opportunity at Colosse Cheese in Pulaski, NY:
• My 80-year-old father complaining about paying $6 for a new light bulb now that incandescent bulbs are banned. My sister noted that the new bulbs are actually cheaper because they last many years. Dad’s response: “Christ! I’ll be dead by then!”
It was a lovely getaway. But I was happy, driving back, to spot the sign at the intersection of the I-81 and Route 17: “New York City 175 miles.” I felt so excited to be returning to my home, the greatest city in the world!
Thirty miles down the road, I got hard evidence that I am indeed a real New Yorker. Like most NYC residents, I do not own a car and know little about driving. So after accidentally triggering the hazard lights on my rented Nissan, I couldn’t figure out how to turn them off. I had to pull over and watch a YouTube video to get instructions.
In other news, huge last-open-hydrant-of-the-summer SHOUTOUTS to the newest paid subscribers, Dan E., Judy F., Elise B. and especially Maxtrainer in the UK who sent a gift sub to W. Jacobson. Nothing says “I care about you, pal,” like a gift subscription to a free publication!
I am very excited about this week’s issue, of course: I spent a delightful day at the Avenue H station in Midwood, Brooklyn which delivered some very fun surprises. Please enjoy.
A Day at the Avenue H Stop: My Laziest Story Ever!
"Charming" isn’t a term one typically associates with a NYC subway stop, but it sprang to mind the first time I saw the Avenue H station in Central Brooklyn. It’s got a shingled facade, a wraparound porch with peeled log columns and—I am not making this up—six rocking chairs.
How did they get there? Last week, I decided to not just investigate the rocking chair story, but spend an entire day relaxing on the station porch, just to see what went down. The perfect lazy end-of-summer story. Maybe!
Taking the Q train to the stop Wednesday morning, I had a few concerns. In NYC, where space is scarce, there's a lot of informal territory claiming that goes on. Chess hustlers have their regular table in the park, street vendors claim their spots on the sidewalk. What if all the rocking chairs were occupied by regulars?
Another worry: when a story relies on chatting with strangers, I typically approach folks at random in the park. This time, I'd be the one sitting down. I'd have to count on folks approaching me!
I decided on a strategy: I'd smile or wink at everyone who walked by. Especially if they looked crazy.
I shouldn't have worried. Upon arrival, I spotted two folks relaxing on the station's north porch, waiting for the rain to stop. They were happy to chat and introduced themselves as Lexii and Stephan. They live in the neighborhood and are porch regulars.
"Okay if I pull up a rocking chair?" I asked.
I tried to drag one over. It was bolted to the ground.
"It's stuck down!" Lexii laughed.
"Rocking chairs that don't rock," said Stephan.
While they look like wood rocking chairs, they are immobile and made of brass, it turns out.
"Do you think people would steal the chairs if they weren't bolted down?" I asked.
"Yeah," said Stephan, "It's still Brooklyn!"
"But I do like these rocking chairs," said Lexii. "My grandmother had one and that’s why I sit here sometimes. It reminds me of her."
"When I can't sleep, I come by," said Stephan. "I was out here at three in the morning last night."
"Even though they don't rock, they still comfortable," said Lexii. "And they sterilize the chairs. I won't sit on just anything. But they keep it clean and neat. As you can see!”
We had a nice chat about the neighborhood and the city, but when the rain stopped, they stood to leave.
"I come here when I need some peace of mind," said Lexii. "It's a comfort, sitting here. Whoever came up with this plan, this idea to put chairs here, they was real smart. They must have had a peaceful mind!"
I told her I'd find out who thought up the chairs, and whether they were peaceful.
Claiming a seat in the middle of the porch, I fired up my laptop. The Avenue H station, I learned from Wikipedia, was built in 1907 as a sales office by a real estate broker. It became a train station in 1923.
In 2003, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced plans to tear it down. The locals went bananas, of course, and managed to get it landmarked. It got a big renovation in 2011.
That's where the rocking chairs came in. The MTA decided to complete the renovation with an art installation. The rocking chairs, it turns out, are a sculptural work, “Brooklyn Bucolic.”
"Haha!" I thought. "That's New York City! Of course it's an art installation!"
So now I needed to answer Lexii's question: does Mr. Kopel have a peaceful mind?
I found his number online and gave him a ring. The architect, who works out of the fourth floor of his Boerum Hill brownstone, picked up right away and told me the story behind the rocking chairs.
He and a buddy came up with the idea when the MTA had a competition for an art installation at its Pleasantville station in Westchester.
They didn't get the job. But sometime after, Mr. Kopel got a call from Sandra Bloodworth, the director of MTA Arts & Design, which oversees public art for the whole train system. "We have a different site that might be a good place for your rocking chairs," he recalls her saying. "Let's talk!"
Upon landing the gig, Mr. Kopel had a carpentry shop construct six wood rocking chairs based on Shaker chair designs found in an old pattern book. The wood chairs were used to make molds, and a fabricator cast them in bronze.
Mr. Kopel had some trouble getting a foundry worker to refine the finish to his specifications. "I bribed him by getting him a Christmas sweater," he said. "It worked!”
I saved the important question for last: "Do you have a peaceful heart?"
"I'm a nervous wreak!" said Mr. Kopel. “But I like to think of myself as peaceful.”
By now, the sun had come out, but it was shady and cool under the porch eves, and I had an excellent view of the houses across the street. The surrounding neighborhood of Midwood is stocked with massive old homes, many featuring graceful front porches.
An older man in a hot pink tee-shirt came by, his dog trotting ahead, proudly off-leash. "Happy Hump Day!” he said. “Celebrate! It's Wednesday!"
His name was Terry Brody, I learned, and his dog, a small creature sporting a baseball cap and bandana, was named Oreo.
"He's going to be 12 years old, which means he's going to be about 109 years old in human terms," said Mr. Brody, who stops by the porch every day. "Very wise. Very wise."
I remarked on Mr. Brody's friendliness.
"I say good morning, good afternoon, good evening to everybody." he said. "If you get four or five people that actually say it back, you're doing well. Everybody is inside themselves. My thought is, you don't need to be. Everybody's out there to help each other."
"How long have you been practicing that?" I asked.
"My whole life!" he said. "It gets you in trouble sometimes."
"Why do think most people are so inward?"
"Everybody thinks that their issues are magnified beyond anybody else's," he said. "And everybody is so concerned with their own world, they don't realize that everybody is in the same boat. Nobody gets away scot free."
Case in point: Oreo has cancer.
"And he's been doing wonderfully well," said Mr. Brody. "When he starts to hurt, we'll think about medication. Maybe I'll let him smoke a little doob with me."
"So needless to say, I'm a retired teacher," he continued, somewhat randomly. "I taught for 40 years. And my wife is a principal. I sleep with the principal. That's me! Proud to be an American! And she's wonderful. We just celebrated our 35th anniversary a couple of days ago. Who would ever thunk.”
"Really?" I said.
"We have our differences. But who doesn't? I have differences with myself. Why shouldn't I have them with my wife?"
I learned a good deal more about Mr. Brody:
• He is 79, has three kids, and doesn’t know how to use a computer.
• He designed the pink feather earring dangling from his left lobe. "I make my own,” he said. “I have over 500 earrings. Probably at this point closer to 600."
• He's had 17 operations including two on his spine. Operation 18 was scheduled for Friday.
I complimented him on his good cheer despite his troubles.
"I'm enjoying my life. Yeah, life is good," said Mr. Brody. "And it is hump day. So let's enjoy the trip!"
Mr. Brody had only been gone a minute when my pal Paul Lukas, who lives just blocks from the station, came by for a visit.
Mr. Lukas is a fellow Substack writer. (Check out his amazing "Uni Watch” newsletter, devoted entirely to covering sports uniforms "in obsessive and excruciating detail.") He had me over earlier this summer for a porch sit at his home, so I thought to return the favor by inviting him to enjoy my newly adopted veranda.
"This is the first time I've sat in these chairs!" he said, settling into the middle-size rocker to my left.
"How come you never sat?" I asked.
"As a newcomer, I didn’t feel like I quite had the status," said Mr. Lukas, who moved to the neighborhood five years ago. "It seemed like a lot of the people who sat in the chairs were regulars and it was a bit of a scene—its own little subculture. I wanted to be respectful of that, and not just sort of barge in."
"I guess the flip side is that maybe it would have been more friendly and sociable if I’d invited myself to be part of it,” he continued. “But I’m glad I’m sitting here now."
We continued for an hour or so, eating peanuts and enjoying the sort of conversation you have while sitting on rocking chairs on a front porch. Then I heard someone calling my name.
It was my old songwriting buddy, Bob “Mango Man” Katz, who also lives in the neighborhood. He was on his way to a music theory class at Brooklyn College.
"I just think it's wonderful," he said of the station. "It's like they created this meeting place. It really does feel like a porch. You see people hanging out and talking and playing music. It's beautiful. It's like a little party. Sometimes I’ll come by here and they're dancing."
"I wish all stations had rocking chairs," he added.
I promised to share his feedback with the MTA.
I spent the next hour people watching. I spotted a UPS man with sleeve tattoos, a Muslim girl in full burqa with headphones over her headscarf, Latino delivery guys on e-bikes, kids on skateboards, grown men on skateboards, Mr. Asian Purple Mohawk Guy, a muscle man sporting a skirt and combat boots, West Indian Dreadlock Guy and three Hasidic boys in identical black suits riding identical black scooters.
Someone sat in the chair to my right. It was my "friend" Aharon who I'd invited to stop by because I invite him to everything.
"We vapin' or what?" he said.
He tested his chair.
"Does yours rock?" he asked. "Not mine!"
"It's an art installation," I told him.
"Nothing can just be,” he said. “It has to double as an art installation. But I'm down with it. This is a good installation!"
We had a long chat about crazy people and other fun topics. Then I had to get home to walk the dog.
"I just need to talk to one more stranger so I can get a funny ending for my story," I said. But there was no one around.
We thought for a while.
"I could get a kicker by sending a dumb question to the MTA," I said. "What would that dumb question be?"
"Dear MTA," said Aharon. "I recently spent an afternoon on the rocking chairs at the Avenue H station and had a great time. When is the MTA going to install them at every station?"
"Oh my God!" I said. "That’s the exact question I was thinking of!"
"I know!" said Aharon, "I asked myself, 'What would Anne ask?'"
I emailed my question the next morning to the MTA press office and got a call soon after from an agency spokesperson who offered a phone interview with none other than Sandra Bloodworth—the MTA Arts & Design Director whom Mr. Kopel mentioned.
"It was Kismet! The perfect proposal for the location," said Ms. Bloodworth of Mr. Kopel's design, when we connected a day later. "The chairs fit within the architectural period and style of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood loves this station. Here was this element of art that would connect and engage the people—even beyond how they were already engaged."
“So why not put rocking chairs at every station?" I asked.
Ms. Bloodworth explained that every MTA art installation—and there are roughly 400 throughout the system—is specific to the station and surrounding community: “It’s always about the place, always about the people.”
"How about installing unique art at every station PLUS rocking chairs?" I asked.
"You're being facetious, I know," she said, after a short pause. "Are you seriously asking?"
Ach! Busted for being silly again. But Ms. Bloodworth was a good sport and said she'd be up for a longer Q&A sometime soon about NYC subway art in general.
Yay! Won’t that be fun? Maybe I’ll invite her for an interview at my new favorite hangout—the front porch at the Avenue H station.
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