The whole idea of ordering groceries online and having them delivered for an extra charge (plus tip) seemed to me like the sort of thing people do in Area Code 212 and certain select sectors of 718, but not in my sector, not on Staten Island.
Besides, I told myself, I'm not the sort of person who orders from FreshDirect and never would be, no matter which area code I lived in. Except that now, I was that sort of person. I did indeed do that sort of thing.
My reasons were a wife just home from the hospital and facing a life-changing treatment regimen. An adult son who's part of our household, temporarily incapacitated from a work injury. Unending snow and ice. And a raft of housekeeping duties that I no longer shared but had to assume whole, and overnight, many involving food. These in addition to my responsibilities as manager of the small rental property we live in.
More like gifts than groceries
Right from the start, FreshDirect browsing, buying, receiving, storing and eating was not only easy and straightforward; it was fun. On the day and time I'd reserved, an unfailingly pleasant and efficient delivery person would arrive with a bounty of carefully packed corrugated boxes that seemed like gifts, not groceries.
My wife was the first to notice how beautiful everything looked, how fresh and flavorful everything tasted.
For her, it was the string beans. For me, it was a highly touted brand of grapefruit, every segment plump, juicy and delicious. Large, super-sweet tangerines with skin so loose, they practically peeled themselves. And collard greens and kale and brussel sprouts that looked, cooked and tasted like advertisements for themselves.
What we could afford
And then, all in a flash, we understood: Our working-class families had never had access to this kind of quality.Though we had always been diet-conscious, always eaten pretty sensibly, we had shopped for and eaten what we could afford. And what we could afford was sometimes, well, lesser. 'Choice,' not 'Fancy.' 'Grade B,' not 'Grade A.'
We wouldn't choose the big, beautiful, blemish-free FreshDirect apples grown in nearby orchards and sold, like jewels, in a styrofoam four-pack. Instead, we'd choose the three-pound bag containing smaller, less perfect specimens. In citrus, not the impeccable tangerine gleaming a color-corrected super-orange, but the smaller orangey-yellow one with the super-tight spider-veiny skin that's a struggle to peel.
How the other half eats
I feel it as a failure of character that while I can often taste the difference between Fancy and Grade A or between Grades A and B, I'm often unwilling to pay extra for the extra quality. Which, now that I think of it, pretty much sums up my experience with Fresh Direct.
For one month, I tasted how the other half eats. Everything was fresher, better looking and more flavorful, with fewer disappointments and less waste. The ordering and delivery processes were, similarly, nearly flawless.
Back to The Beef
But at the end of that month, I learned that perfection was unaffordable.My non-revolving credit-card bill showed that in a single month, I had spent nearly $500, which didn't include my bodega runs, or my wife's.
An item-by-item price comparison of FreshDirect with our local supermarket, Western Beef, confirmed we were indeed eating beyond our means. On a single representative order, we had spent nearly $13 more buying from Fresh Direct --- not including the delivery charge and the tip.
I remember well the first time, four or five years ago, when I sat down at a restaurant table with three friends and soon noticed I was the only one whose place setting didn't include a smartphone.
I also noticed what seemed to me like a more animated, expectant, even nervous manner among my tablemates than I was accustomed to.Their eyes in particular were more active, darting in a continuous cycle from face to food to phone, always returning to phone, more a Home to many people these days than anything brick-and-mortar.
Until that fateful meal, I had thought of what I then called cellphones as pretentious gadgets for people with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What I failed to grasp, then and for a long time after, was that cellphones/smartphones, social media and all the other products and tangible/observable effects of digital technologies are not the real story. The real story is the transformative impact of these technologies, products and effects on individuals, institutions and culture.
But of course the principal transformative impact I was concerned about was the impact on me. Particularly after my wife got an I-Phone and I was able not just to witness but to experience firsthand --- and appreciate! --- the benefits of 24/7 accessibility. With a cellphone, I realized, and even more with a smart one, all kinds of things were possible now that weren't possible before.
I was tempted; no question about it. I could feel myself laying some of the mental foundation for an affirmative decision. I pictured myself on the ferry, sitting back with my device and confronting all those apps, all that connectivity, everything in the immediate now. I imagined how cool it would be to hold up my smartphone so the Starbucks cash register could read it and deduct the appropriate amount from my debit account (I don't have a smartphone OR a debit card).
Still, I had misgivings. My older son Evan's counsel echoed in my head: "Once you get one, Dad, there's no going back." The memory of my first Meal With Smartphones kept resurfacing darkly as well. And then, right on cue, my knee-jerk nonconformism kicked in: Did I really want to join the ranks of those who, at any time and in every place, can be found staring down into the face of some digital device?
THIS FAR AND NO FARTHER
Which gets down to the real issue for me. The total-immersion-ness of smartphones. The idea that with this device, where everything you could possibly want or need is centralized and accessible, you've got it under control. When, in fact, it's got you under control. Or so it seems to me.
That's what I keep coming back to. My discomfort at the total surrender this device requires --- including walking around with a tracking device on your person, 24/7. And something more as well: my real fear of becoming addicted to the device and the withdrawal and isolation that addiction might prompt.
My office desktop and my laptop in the kitchen (which also has a cable TV connection) are already a kind of smartphone, without the phone, I guess; and I'm certainly fully addicted to those. For now, that's enough. This far and no farther. ###
No promises this time. No core idea that makes everything orderly and coherent. Like walking. Or transportation. Or both.
This time out, this fourth or fifth re-entry into bloggery, I'm treating this space as what it has always been, really --- a blank page to hurl words, and occasionally images, at.
A few things inspire my return.
First, the desire for a wider audience for my writing as a regular correspondent with long-time friends in Maine and Israel.
Second, a desire to think and write in a focused way --- as I did with walking as transportation --- about getting old and being old when all along you'd supposed the rules of the game didn't really apply to you; unaware that the ending wasn't happy or sad but simply was. ###
Walking is Transportation (WIT), which debuted in 2006, began life as a blog concerned with transportation issues --- primarily walking, but public transit and bicycling as well.
Eventually, WIT's scope broadened to include observations about Staten Island, the New York City borough I've called home since 1977; as well as architecture, art, city planning, public education and a great deal more.
During the 2008 Presidential election, I used this blog as a way to take the measure of the man who would become President Obama.
Now, four years later, with the Republican primary ended and the 2012 election season begun, I'm reviving WIT as a way to organize and express my thoughts about the candidates, the issues and the American political system, and share them with you. ###
Artist/designer EVERET's sunbrellas are available in three styles/colors, from left: "Bluebirds" (Light Blue/Turquoise); "Women Carrying Things On Their Heads" (Light Green); and "Poppies" (Lavender). Want an Everet-designed sunbrella of your very own? Contact [email protected]
CARRY YOUR SHADE WITH YOU
Guest contributor: Everet, Artist/Designer
Each year I dread the blazing sun; the only way I get through the summer is with my trusty travel companion, my sunbrella (parasol).
When I first started using it, I felt a bit odd. The few sunbrellas I saw were carried by Asian, African and Caribbean women, a way of life for them. These days I carry a beautiful light jade-green sunbrella comfortably and encourage everyone to add one to their rituals of sunscreen and sunglasses.
I create my own constant shade by facing the center of the sunbrella right at the sun and shifting it with the twists and turns of my walk. A regular small telescoping umbrella is handy to transport and easy for navigating busy city sidewalks. Dark colors block the light but absorb heat; light colors let more sun through but stay a bit cooler. There are also sunbrellas available with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) coating.
If you Google “parasol,” you’ll come across a fashionista’s approach to skin protection, how to be cool while staying cool and many images of wedding parties, the southern belle look. Talk about why carrying a parasol is not a guy thing also pops up, which is why I’m using the unisex term “sunbrella”.
On a walk during the last heat wave I noticed everyone carrying water bottles (not the scene ten years ago). I also saw at least ten sunbrellas, two carried by men. Perhaps if people see the relief it provides, in a few years we’ll be sharing this comfort, navigating a sea of colorful sunbrellas on hot city days. Scientists report the earth is becoming warmer, all the more reason to consider the sunbrella.
EVERET, who lives and works in New Brighton, Staten Island, describes herself as a self-taught artist/designer and craftsperson as well as a micro-entrepreneur. She writes, "I prefer walking to any other form of transportation. It keeps me connected to nature and the life of streets, and it helps me stay mentally, spiritually and physically fit."
It's summer, the venerable black locust next door is thick with hanging seed-pods, and the restoration work at 42 Westervelt Avenue proceeds.
At first, following a disastrous fire, with severe consequences for the owners of the house next door, we were glad simply to be rid of the crack house that had always been an eyesore until it became a nuisance and then a menace --- and a presence that defined the block.
Now, as the restoration becomes more and more visible on the exterior, we allow ourselves grander thoughts ––– of clean sidewalks, quiet tenants, routine maintenance performed, not deferred. An attractive streetscape on the opposite side of the street.
In the photos below, restoration carpenters are shown reconstructing the framework for the restored facade of this significantly altered 1872 French Second Empire-style building. The portion being reconstructed was originally an open porch. ###
In what he calls 'human landscapes,' the Brooklyn-born Staten Island painter Robert Civello, now in his late 60s, has created a collective statement he means to be broadly universal and representative. Yet he concedes he finds the finished paintings in this collective statement remote and mysterious.
Walking around Civello's studio in a converted waterfront warehouse building near the St. George Ferry Terminal, five miles across the upper bay from Manhattan, the visitor is struck by the sheer size of the paintings that make up what the artist calls his "Geography of Man" series. Civello says he's completed seven of a projected eleven multi-part canvases in this series.
The towering figures that comprise Civello's geography present themselves as pieces of the body --- heads; mid-sections; calves, ankles and toes. These pieces are meant to stack, positioned vertically so they add up to an entire person, though they never quite touch, never entirely re-assemble.
The most common joining-place is where necks broaden into clavicles and backs and shoulders --- so common, it occurred to this viewer to shuffle the head-and-shoulder sections of Civello's multi-part canvases, just to see the result.
The figures in these paintings are different from those in Civello's smaller paintings that I saw in 2008-09. The figures in those canvases often had flat, featureless faces without eyes, a lack that seemed to make the strong colors in those paintings especially compelling. Two or so years later, Civello's massive figures have eyes, but not just eyes; these eyes are hooded, clouded, averted, or piercingly present yet somehow remote.
Necks are bulkier than chests. The head of a penis protrudes from a kneecap. Some men have breasts like grapefruits; other chest-formations are merely suggested, more by the viewer's imagination than by the painter's hand. In one case, a flaccid penis hangs from its owner's breastbone.
Civello uses color not in a single surface application but through a building-up of successive layers of color underneath --- usually three layers, he says. The result is that colors, particularly colors of, on or in the flesh seem to move, combining and re-combining as the viewer looks at them. As the owner of a body long past its prime, I recognized immediately the exhausted folds and sags, the random lumps and bluish-purple discolorations that the artist catalogs on the surface of these tripartite canvases.
So Civello's is a human, or more particularly a male geography at a particular moment in time, when the body shows the cost of decades of staying alive. It is wrinkled and sagging, discolored and unlovely, un-sexy and straightforwardly sexual; even, in its unloveliness, erotic.
That makes the body as Civello renders it a purveyor of a particular human history, too, as well as a more generalized geography of gender; evidence of a particular life lived, recorded on and in the flesh.
Robert Bunkin: Touch #2, acrylic and marble meal on canvas, 10 x 12" (2003)
"YOU HAVE AN EYE," I've been told by artist friends. Not once, but many times.
But what 'having an eye' turns out to mean has nothing to do with my eye, or eyes. What the artist paying me the compliment is really saying is this:
I'm good at using language precisely, to describe not only in literal terms what I see; but also to express how what I see makes me feel and the associations that seeing a particular artwork or body of work prompts.
What has surprised me is how, often, what I describe is what the painter him/herself thinks or feels but has not found the words to convey. Though I have nothing concrete to support this view, I consider this facility of mine a kind of intuition.
That's how the short essay that is the next post came about. The need of the painter Robert Civello to see himself through an appraising eye he respected. To reveal himself to himself so as to present himself and his work to the world. To have his painter's work be the focus of a writer's work. To be, unabashedly, the subject. ###
The day before Thanksgiving last year, the landmark 1872 French Second Empire style building at 42 Westervelt Avenue, St. George (shown center left) was set on fire by a junkie who wanted revenge.
It seems the crackhead granddaughter of the landlord --- who served as the building's nominal resident manager --- shorted the junkie arsonist $4 in one of their transactions and was refusing to pay up. So for $4, the junkie headed for the back of the house, where he put a match to the clapboard and shingle structure, making a number of people homeless and disrupting the personal and professional lives of many others.
One of those others was Jay Montgomery, St. George actor and co-artistic director with his wife, actor Tamara Jenkins, of Snug Harbor's resident Harbor Lights Theater Company.
Montgomery and Jenkins and their toddler daughter, Emerson, had to flee their beautifully restored Civil War-era rowhouse next to the landmark crack house --- part of which is shown in the photo above --- eventually setting up temporary quarters in a condo in Travis.
[PHOTO: Tamara Jenkins and Jay Montgomery at the St. George Theater. Staten Island Advance photo by Irving Silverstein.]
Jay, Tamara and Emerson are now back in their landmark home as the structural and restoration work go on around them.
"It's been six months since the fire," Jay told me when I met him on the street the other day, adding how glad he and Tamara were to be home so they could focus on their next production, a "Music Man" revival to be staged at the Snug Harbor Music Hall in July. Anyone familiar with Jay and Tamara's work knows that, in their capable hands, this American musical chestnut will look and sound totally fresh, totally new.
Photo taken today Only a narrow alley separates Jay and Tamara's house from the ex-crack house next door. That narrow alley made fighting the fire (which was concentrated in that precise area on the top and middle floors) impossible.
Firefighters had no choice but to chop through the mansard roof on Jay and Tamara's house (since restored) to get access and leverage to the fire in the house next door.
After weeks of filling dumpsters, exterior restoration has begun on the cornice, top-floor, right, at 42 Westervelt. The scaffolding went up just this morning and an (obviously) expert restoration carpenter has already set about constructing the frame. A contractor who works full time for the company that owns the property tells me the building has a certificate of occupancy for 5 families. Four 2-bedroom units and one 4-bedroom unit, he says, are planned.
This is work that has been needed for more than 30 years. If not for the building's landmark status, it would simply have been torn down. Now, this building will be saved and made productive again, and Jay and Tamara will be able to stop worrying about the house next door and focus on their family and on the distinguished theater company they're building --- a gift to the Staten Island community. ###
Last night, an 1872 French Second Empire mini-mansion across the street from our house caught fire, the inevitable conclusion to a decades-long process of disinterest and disinvestment.
42 Westervelt Avenue in St. George was never as grand as the French Second Empire building pictured right, but its proportions suggest it was probably pretty impressive in its day.
Here's an incomplete record of its recent physical deterioration.
Like many larger residential properties in St. George, 42 Westervelt Avenue was chopped up into apartments some time before World War II. Under the right management, with proper maintenance and appropriate improvements, it could have continued to provide solid housing for six families.
But once the building fell into the hands of its current absentee owner, its fate was sealed. He promptly filled the building, and others he owned adjacent to this property, with friends and relatives and for a long time it was rundown but quiet and "respectable."
But that was only a temporary reprieve from this handsome building's continuing downward slide.
When these friends and relatives left, one by one, they were replaced by crack addicts and their friends. In short order, the building became a flop house whose occupants you see on the front stoop in the photo, above, dated 2008.
And so it continued through 2009, when the photo at left was taken, and well into 2010.
Until last night.
I took the photo on the left, below, through glass and a mesh screen, producing an eerie visual that perfectly represents last night's craziness,with hordes of firefighters responding to a four-alarm blaze that not only savaged 'The Crack House.' It also severely damaged the beautifully restored post-Civil War-era rowhouse to the right, separated by only a narrow alley.
I took the photo below, right, from my front porch this morning. I want to try and get the Landmarks Commission involved here, to make sure that whatever happens next, happens in a preservation context.
Just to get this on the record: Two fire marshals were here this morning and described the building as severely damaged but 'structurally sound'---their words. Just in case we need to repeat them for the benefit of those who'd rather raze it and replace it with 20 townhouses, built front to back. Landmarks protection has to mean more than that.