Are butterflies intelligent?

Yes. If intelligence is the ability to seek out nectar and pollinate flowers, yes. In terms of long-term travel to their southern climes and back, Monarchs in particular never cease to amaze.

But are they dependable? In terms of showing up when they’re expected, to bask in humans’ adoration? Not so much. 

The events of the day at Wave Hill, the century and a half old estate that is now an arboretum and horticultural center, were supposed to highlight butterflies. There was a “Nature Walk: Butterflies in the Garden” and special arts and crafts activities for families. The last expedition had just gone out when we arrived mid-afternoon, so we thought we’d go it alone.

We saw brilliant flowers.

Of all colors.

Shapes. Sizes.

Surely some that would appeal to a butterfly.

Look, there’s a monarch! said Gil. But it had vanished.

I see a little white one, said Josefa. A cabbage moth, corrected Gil.

There were some bees of different types. Where there were bees wouldn’t you expect butterflies?

We learned that Louis Bauer, the horticultural director at Wave Hill, was going to be honored at a party in a couple of days. I met Louis when I sold him a tree inventory for Wave Hill a few years ago. I remember asking him how he kept everything so beautiful in the greenhouses there. I go in three or four times a day and stick my finger in the soil to see if they have enough water, he said. Simple genius.

The greenhouses, of course, had no butterflies, but some prehistoric looking desert plants.

And a buxom cactus.

More flowers. Nothing fluttered by.

Quiet trails.

Vistas in every direction. Some of them private.

The most fabulous view out over the Hudson was getting ready for its closeup with white wedding party chairs.

We just about gave up. Not only did we not see butterflies, we didn’t see anybody looking for butterflies. Was this some colossal joke?

A sculpture on the lawn made use of succulents, moss, and a tire fetched out of the Bronx River.

Wave Hill has a pair of copper beeches to die for. One of the elephantine pair has pristine bark that you just want to go up to and pet. The other’s branches drape down to the ground and hide a trunk covered with a venerable array of  carvings. I have always liked beech bark carvings. It makes for a good place to meet a friend for a private assignation. I feel like I’ve done that sometime, in another life.

We stretched out in the adirondack chairs that make Wave Hill an even more perfect place. In the mellow shade of a white oak. The burnished glaze of fall made us collapse with thirst.

So the winged creatures missed the cameras and the oohs and ahhs. They took the nectar and ran. They had better places to hang out. They’re that smart.

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Trees are more trouble than they’re worth

to some people, but others take painstaking care to preserve them.

Meet Jimmy, one of my favorite individuals at work.

His job is exclusively to build and repair tree guards on the Grand Concourse construction site. He is, he told me, officially a carpenter by trade, as far as the union is concerned. That’s an honorable and well-paid profession. But we’re lucky to have him doing what he does. He squares up the enclosures and hammers the boards together, often standing back to scrutinize them before he starts to correctly gauge the tenor of the job.

We’re chatting.

You must get tired of this, I say, referring to the orange snow fencing, a bale of which he carries around with him much of the day. It’s constantly getting ripped from the frames and he is constantly fixing it.

No, he says. I used to be. But now I covered my house with it inside and out, that’s how much I like it.

He sees himself as a bit of a comic.

What I see is a skinny, herky jerky guy who dances down the Concourse like a leprechaun, cigarette in mouth, hammer in hand, tool belt clanking, working his magic to protect the trees from harm.

It’s good you do it, I say. Otherwise the crew would knock down the trees.

No, they wouldn’t, he contradicts. They know they’re living things. I tell them that that tree there was Jesus’ original crown of thorns.

He means the honey locust – the site has a forest of them. Tree workers hate them because they get pricked so bad.

No, says Jimmy. The guys appreciate the trees. They are sweethearts. Really.

Well, shut my mouth. Sometimes I think a particular machine operator takes some sadistic joy in breaking branches with his bucket.

Still, I know that one day these tree guards will come off and the honey locusts and American elms and London planes and amur maples will once again introduce themselves to the world, and the neighborhood will be the better for it. It takes work to preserve them, but it’s well worth it.

Jimmy is a lot of things, a philosopher, a comedian, even an arborist. I told him I appreciated what he does and he told me he appreciated me appreciating what he does.

And he may possibly an actor. A producer discovered him on the job and told him he wanted him for a bit part on screen.  Then he came back. He told Jimmy they decided they wanted him for a bigger role. He was just too good to be a cameo.

That would be great, he’d get his SAG card and hobnob with hot shots. But it would be a loss for the Grand Concourse to have him no longer nurturing the tree guards, butt in mouth, a hammer in his hand.

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Pretty in pink

is not just a creaky old John Hughes movie. Pink has become the ethos, the philosophy, the dream and the religion for girls of the elementary school age and under. Until they betray pink for purple…

This conclusion will not surprise anyone with eyes in their head over the past quarter century.

I’ve been told that in Japan, boys wear pink and girls blue. Not true, according to reputable sources (the interwebs). Males and females in that country do, though, apparently mix and match colors in their apparel, ignoring sex-related social constructs.

The stores on the Grand Concourse  have girl-pink stacked high.

Pink bikes beckon.

Stuffed animals present themselves as irresistable.

Magical.

Pink’s popularity for grown women grew over the 20th century, from the choices of Mamie Eisenhower to Jayne Mansfield to, jumping ahead, the Plastics in Mean Girls who dressed in pink on Wednesdays. Can we forget Hillary Clinton’s bright pink blazer?

The situation differs for small fry. They have all become princesses. Princesses are sweet, not solid. In fact, being a princess is nothing a child can aspire to. Yes, thy possess magic, but not with powers to make anything actually happen.

Why should anyone care? That toddler in her stroller, buried in fluffy pink, is so comfy, so cute!  And girls in pink grow up to be perfectly capable pink-attired woman, like this one awaiting her Covid shot.

Rainbows are everywhere now. Why not give girls the gift of choosing any color they truly desire? It would take  some counter-brainwashing, true, with all the material goods available, the clothing and toys and tutus drenched in pink. But it would be good if anyone could be pretty in any color.

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Hair is big

on the Grand Concourse. I pass at least one hair salon on every block, interspersed with supermarkets, household goods, bodegas, hookah shops and the goat restaurant.

The signs are not all for hair braiding. Straight hair gets its due.

Including this goofy martian coif.

But mainly the ads showcase braids.

Extravagant hair styling makes me think about novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling Americanah, described accurately by the New York Times as “witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic,”  and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013. It’s a moving story about two people from Nigeria, one of whom comes to America and one to London. I won’t tell the rest in case you read it (and you ought to). But one thing that stands out for me in the fabric of the novel is the amount of time the main character spends in African hair braiding salons. This was foreign to me. If you read Adichie, the granular detail with which she describes having her hair done could only have come from her own experience.

Scholars of African history see the practice as many thousands of years old, with braids even etched into the back of the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza. African tribes, groups and regions adorned their heads in specific ways, not restricted to cornrows. Styles date back to at least 3000 B.C., including Ghana braids, Fulani braids, Goddess braids, Box braids and dreadlocks.

On the Concourse, there are many more images of fancy hair braiding than there are actual stylings on the street. It seems to be more aspirational, or maybe done for a special occasion.

Of course there are other origin tales besides the African. Some go back to the Venus of Willendorf, thought to be 25,000 years old and discovered in Austria in 1908. 

Just 11.1-centimeters tall, this limestone beauty  seems undeniably to have a head of cornrows. If I could steal one object from a museum, this would be it. I’d have to go to Vienna, where the Venus is exhibited in their Natural History Museum

Now for an alternative narrative, possibly apocryphal. It is said that cornrows were used to help the enslaved escape their misery. Cornrows were used to transfer information; they were maps of a sort. Benkos Bioho, a radical who lived in Columbia, South America, is said to have devised the practice in the 1500s. Bioho and ten others escaped the slave port of Cartagena and founded San Basilio de Palenque, known as the “village of maroons.” Later this became the first free village in the Americas. His reward: he was captured by the government, hanged and quartered. Before that, though, he taught braiding.

iCurved braids represented roads to be traveled to escape. Also, the enslaved hid seeds in their hair to plant crops once they reached freedom. No slaveholder would ever suspect.

It’s also said that braided hair was called “cane rows” to denote the sugar cane fields in which captive workers toiled so horrifically.

This strategy recalls the red blanket hung on the line to guide those on the underground railroad to freedom.

How much of this legacy is embedded  in the hair styles of Grand Concourse? The signs advertising braiding always looked gaudy to me. It’s good to look deeper.

 

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“War is Hell,”

quoth General William Tecumseh Sherman in an 1879 speech. Stating the obvious, clearly, but a rhetorical flourish still current today.

Rivalling the predations of human warfare, though, is the battle against the flres now ravaging so much of the West, including one of the greatest beings on our planet. In the path of the destruction, the giant sequoia . So far the fire has burned though almost 18,000 acres.

How can a flimsy piece of aluminum foil save “General Sherman,” the sequoia that holds the distinction of being the largest tree in the world.

Here are just a few facts about the tree, which has endured its share of tape measuring humans over the years. General Sherman  has a volume of 52,508 cubic feet, stands 275-feet tall and is thought to be between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. It’s circumference at ground is 102.6 feet. The height of the first branch above the base is 130 feet. It is the biggest of the big. From the ground, you can’t see to the top of it.

To protect the sequoia forests from the brutal heat of the KNP Complex fire, firefighters have seen fit to wrap General Sherman’s trunk, as well as historic cabins and signs. They think it will work. Also important, the systematic controlled burning of the past 50 years, which has eliminated the brush that would become flame fuel at the base of the trees.

Fire can actually be a boon to giant sequoias, helping them release seeds from their cones and clearing land for young trees to grow. But the intensity of the fires we’re seeing now can devastate groves – The Castle fire last year killed as many as 10,600 large sequoias. Climate change will only exacerbate the destructive heat of future fires.

General Sherman, the tree, has been embraced by Americans, but that wasn’t always the case. The conifer species of the genus Sequoiadendron once grew widely across the northern hemisphere. There are fossil remains of the subfamily Sequoioidae from the Jurrassic period, not only in North America but also Greenland, Europe and Asia. Then came the Ice Age. What was left standing? The giant sequoia and the coast redwood.

Also related, the dawn redwood, from China and thought to be extinct until its chance discovery in the last century by a Chinese forester. Cones were brought to the U.S. by an Arnold Arboretum expedition and today they are often propagated by rooting woody cuttings. A handsome tree, it resembles its family members but is of manageable size.

For centuries or longer the forest surrounding General Sherman had been known by Native Americans – some tribes called it Wawona, named for the call of the northern Spotted Owl,  others designated the giant sequoia the Toos-pung-ish of Hea-mi-withic.

Then an entirely new group of people descended upon the land the Indians knew. The giants of California can first be found in hunter’s private diaries from the mid-19th century. Then, in 1852, a man chasing a  bear found himself in the forest now known as the Calveras State Park. General Sherman was called the “Sylvan Mastadon.” No one even  believed the hunter’s account. It was like finding Big Foot. So people swarmed to the phenomenon.  Tourists piled on.

What next? Loggers, of course. They had their way with the trees, traversing new roads, utilizing railroad transport. Some trees were felled to actually verify their existence – for example, the Mark Twain tree, in 1891. Slices of its trunk went to the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum of Nautral History.

Profit drove the felling of huge ancient trees. Ironically, the wood was less then useful because it splintered as it fell. Loggers would dig trenches and fill them with boughs to cushion the blow of tree limbs crashing down.

The great naturalist John Muir fought to create Yosemite Park, and the logging of the giants mainly stopped by around 1920. The founding of the Sierra Club was largely his doing. “And into the forest I go,” wrote the eminently quotable Muir,  “to lose my mind and find my soul.” The man was a respository of pithy quotes, and if you haven’t ever read My First Summer in the Sierra you have a treat to look forward to.

 Still, until 1980 younger specimens of the sequoia came under the axe. We’re talking 3,000 year old monarchs.

But what of General Sherman, the Union Army hero? How’d the foil-girded tree come by its name? First off, remember that Sequoia gigantean got its name from Sequoyah, the Native American creator of the Cherokee writing system.

William Tecumseh Sherman’s parents also bestowed upon him an Indian sobriquet — his middle moniker a Shawnee chief who built a confederacy of Ohio Indian tribes and fought with the British during the War of 1812.

 Ironic when you consider his role in the American Indian Wars, when he urged U.S. troops to “exterminate all the brutes.”

General Sherman the tree was anointed in 1879 to honor the Union general most famous for his scorched-earth “march to the sea”, devastating Georgia and the Carolinas. The story goes that General Sherman the tree was named by a naturalist who served under Sherman the man in the 9th Indiana Calvalry

But names being fungible, General Sherman the tree had already had another title. A 40-person socialist commune inhabited the Sierra Nevada’s sequoia groves from 1886 to 1892. The Kaweah Colony based its economy on sustainable logging. It named the tree Karl Marx. Karl Marx quotes Ben Franklin as saying, “War is robbery, commerce is generally cheating.” I don’t think the sequoia loggers would have agreed.

War is hell. Thank you for that, General Sherman the man. Just living for some people can be hell as well. But wildfire that decimates some of the most magnificent things we know ranks up there. So please, astoundingly brave firefighters, use aluminum foil or whatever it takes to preserve the trees, champions of champions. As John Muir said, “The Big Tree is Nature’s forest masterpiece, and so far as I know, the greatest of living things.”

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It started out a good day

and wound up even better. At 7:30 am I stood on the Grand Concourse sidewalk petting Spartacus, a dog belonging to a neighborhood guy.

This massive animal, an Italian Mastiff (or Cane Corso) was a puppy at 150 pounds and destined to grow bigger. He was gentle as a kitten.

The afternoon progressed as usual, inspecting trees and their roots in trenches, munching plantain chips, drinking too much iced coffee.

Then we head to a concert at a place called Brooklyn Steel: Black Pumas, the psychedelic-rhythm and blues band whose smash Colors has had everyone entranced in the past year.

First, to eat. A Taste of Heaven pops up as right around the corner from the concert, in east Williamsburg.

You here for the venue? says Tony, who owns the place and is chief cook. Well, yes.

Jerk ribs, cabbage, collard greens from an aluminum dish with a plastic fork. From a steam table. A quart container of mango KoolAid to slake the thirst, because everything is popping with spice.

We dine outside, no indoor seating, at a tiny table. About the best grub I’ve had recently, and that includes a fancy restaurant high in the air where you had an extraordinary vision of verdant central park stretched out in front of you. The food, not so extraordinary. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve dined out someplace supposedly fantastic and said I could do better at home.

Not here. I can’t fathom how he turned out this food in his tiny kitchen, but it is magical.

We’re number one on Yelp, says Tony, leaving his station and setting another tin of jerk ribs down in front of us gratis so we can both try them. And, in fact, checking out Tony’s boast, A Taste of Heaven stands out on Yelp as number one out of 184 soul food restaurants in New York. Unfortunately they have no dessert, but an elderly lady sitting on the one chair inside pulls a yellow supermarket cake out of her plastic shopping bag and offers to give me a slice. She urges me to take it. It’s lemon! she says.

In case you want to find a Taste of Heaven, it stands at a crossroads.

Marked by the eternally ubiquitous sneakers that hang from a wire above the street.

A short drive takes us to find something sweet, through Brooklyn’s gentrified blocks with their clean sidewalks and glossy windows. Mature willows tower over young ginkgos..

A super-spare and clean gym open to the street.

Some great band names.

Entertaining murals. Note: you can’t see JFK’s face with the naked eye, only with the camera. A mystery how it’s done.

A chocolate cone is good on this end-of-summer evening, yet brings us up close to a ghost bike, one of the shrines you find all around town to bicyclists killed in traffic. Descansos, as they’re called in the Southwest, where the victims of highway accidents are sometimes memorialized by side-of-the-highway assemblages of car parts, in addition to photos and other sentimental items.

It gave me a frisson of PTSD since I recently had a bike wreck which left me banged up and bruised and slightly concussed. All better now.

The venue was jammed, the last of a four-night stint.

And the Black Pumas?

They rock. Almost as much as Tony’s jerk ribs.

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Not to be too grandiose,

but it’s as if the universe knows it’s the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and presents us with a day that eerily resembles that day, the bluebell sky, the lovely cool of late summer, the feeling of peace and anticipation of all the good things fall will bring.

You know what comes next. And everyone has their 9/11 story, trotted out among friends and family for the occasion as if rubbing the old wound will heal it.

It’s the day before the anniversary, late afternoon, and we are on our way to an art opening on Manhattan’s southern tip, on South Street. The uneasy anticipation of the big day has begun to well up, along with excitement about the art show, which bills itself as the Independent Art Fair, and is to take place at Casa Cipriani, the swellegant restaurant we can’t ordinarily afford, situated on the upper floor of the Governor’s Island Ferry Terminal.

lThis show is where the up and comers hang their work. It’s a white hot market apparently for these comparatively juvenile artists, ones who haven’t made it yet to Upper East Side walls.

Driving down the West Side Highway toward 10 South Street, at South Ferry, we share tales of that day. How Gil and I went down to library park in Hastings, with its magnificent view of Manhattan Island, and watched the smoke plume from the towers before they fell. How I was on the phone with my father only a little later, both of us glued to the tv screen, when the first tower pancaked. Josefa’s husband was ill and she was rushing him to the hospital when she first heard about the tragedy on the car radio. A friend of ours who lived downtown abandoned her car on the FDR and ran toward the fire to pick up her kid at a preschool steps away from the flames. You have a 9/11 story too, don’t you?

So memories loom over the day before the anniversary, but can’t quell the sense that the city is coming back from its newest tragedy, the pandemic. Art as palliative.

We sit on the balcony of the Battery Maritime Building.

The Beaux-Arts building was built from 1906 to 1909 and designed by the firm Walker and Morris as the easternmost section of the partially completed Whitehall Street Ferry Terminal. It has backstage views of the Staten Island Ferry sign.

And various rushing roadways.

But you always feel the presence of another time, through design details it’s easy to overlook.

The reception is thronged with artists and patrons. If you must sit and eat dinner — and I am famished — it is delicious.

The art is relatively low-end in terms of an investment, ranging from 10 to 10,000 dollars, according to the knowledgable art dealer, Rick, who invited us. It’s quite a range.

I like some more than others.

As would anyone.

But it’s nothing to worry over, on this day before the anniversary of 9/11, a year and a half since Covid hit our city.

Humans. 

Cats.

Computer art. The toebone is connected to the ankle to the kneebone.

An homage to the early 20th century revolutionary revelatory Russian artist Malevich.

Textiles. I like that.

There is a shop at which you can buy an artist’s facsimile of her own notebooks for $25 apiece. Lee Lozano, look her up. Wow.

What a concept.

We wander among the rooms that used to be the ferry’s waiting area. You can still get transportation to Governor’s Island and Jersey City down below. People are boarding to go to Governor’s Island even now, at 7 pm on a Friday night.

Where we are, dealers are hustling, selling art.

I won’t buy any.

But it’s a kind of wonderful event, a way of marking the distance between then and now. Art flourishes, even in the wake of darkness.

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Median Cool

A raised traffic median is just a long trough with soil in it. And, of course, plantings, and sometimes trees.

The City of New York has applied its hive mind to widening the street medians of the Grand Concourse, which is what brings me here – to inspect the existing trees that might be impacted by the street construction, and to check out the importation of shrubs etc. when it takes place later this fall, in the cool planting season.

So… why is this happening? We’re talking about a raised median, which is rare in NYC. Yes, there is the West Side Highway, which I was lucky enough to tour in a golf cart earlier this year when bidding for a job to maintain its vegetation.

There’s a strip of beautiful trees and roses in season dividing two lengths of highway, all with a phenomenal view of the Hudson River.

Every median holds 24 inches of soil above the roadbed, according to the Department of Transportation Street Design guidelines. Hard to imagine this collection of construction debris materializing into a cohesive bed of plants, but that’s the plan. And crews are hard at work making it happen.

It seems that the point is not only beautifying a thoroughfare but controlling the vehicles that use it. Lane narrowing, which comes about when more space is taken up by medians, has the effect of what the experts call “traffic calming.” Sometimes cities remove an entire lane, which is known as a “road diet.” In this case the road will still be wide, 2 lanes northbound and southbound and service lanes on either side as well.

There is a famous, old traffic median in this city, running the length of Park Avenue north of the Helmsley building, which straddles it. It might be worth visiting NYC just to drive through that twisty tunnel. The median’s tulips and begonia beds date to the 1950s.

The park narrowed over the years but I’ve always found it beautiful, and obviously diligently cared for.

Back in the day, traffic was a bit unwieldy in NYC, especially at the turn of the century, when horse carts jockeyed for space with street cars, pedestrians and even some automobiles.

Pictures from the turn of the 20th century  show traffic going every which way. It definitely needed some calming! Park Avenue, though, was a respite – it was actually a pedestrian park seated in the middle of a tamer Park Avenue.

People could stroll, sit, push prams, whatever, in safety. Now the powers that be are planning a remake for Park Avenue to become more like it once was.

Designs have been sketched.

I want to go there and be calm.

But I think that the Grand Concourse will be completed first.

We have trees. Lots of honey locust.

Some of the areas farther downtown have already been finished.

It’s hard to imagine the stretch of the road where I monitor trees botanically beautified. I can’t wait to see it.

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Come for the oak trees,

stay for the polka dots.

That was my idea at the New York Botanical Garden, along with hundreds of other visitors still drying out after being pummeled by Ida.

Yayoi Kusama has been the artist in residence for months, transforming outdoor and indoor spaces, populating them with her whimsical works. Now 92 and one of the most prominent Japanese artists, she drew acclaim in the 60s for organizing happenings where the naked participants would be painted with polka dots.

This installation is a bit more tame, though it has plenty of dots.

Eschewing the rock garden, the stand of virgin forest and the rose garden – a sacrifice, with the later bloomers at their peak – we visited Kusama-world.

Some works can be found in the peerless Victorian greenhouse, designed by Lord & Burnham, the preeminent designer of glass houses in the U.S. in the nineteenth century,  in the Italian Renaissance style, which houses the Garden’s collection of tropical plants. You can find flourishing palms like this one from Brazil.

Or this quite remarkable phallic charmer, also hailing from South America.

Now Kusama can be found here as well, with a pumpkin sculpture. The Garden has cleverly included a quote from the artist with each work.

I parted a row of zinnias and reached in to pluck the pumpkin from its vine. It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner. It was still moist with dew, indescribably appealing, and tender to the touch.

Everything is saturated with color. Even the flower beds are intended to mimic her work. I am happy that I have painted flowers. There are no objects more interesting.

Step outside. The lily pool, like everything else horticulatural here, has been annotated for your edification.

Personally I think lilies can speak for themselves.

Especially in the late summer sunlight.

The koi in the pool could probably eat a man. Are they alive or did Kusama paint them?

A path leads to a little Kusama-designed hut. You are handed a sticker with an image of a poppy and are told to place it wherever in the room you like. A lot of people have obviously preceded us.

The whole “house” is awash with poppies. Some prefer to take their poppies home with them.

A memento of a day spent with Yayoi Kusama.

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Not MY Stokes,

I thought when I saw the 1905 statue that stands square in the middle of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

My Stokes, of course, is I.N. Phelps Stokes, the white-shoe iconographer and Manhattan-phile I wrote about in Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance. This was a different branch of the Stokes clan and a man famous for a completely different kind of endeavor: saving souls.

Ellwood Stokes founded Ocean Grove in the mid-nineteenth century and it rapidly became a Methodist camp  meeting community with regular revivals at over which he presided. Pastors still come to the place to share their wisdom, although the subject matter differs a bit. When we leaned into the godly precincts there was an avid audience of worshippers laughing as the minister described his wife’s morning sickness and linked it to Godliness.

If you want to find out the conditions for swimming at the delightful beach you get a biblical proverb too, something to ponder as you tan. Bruce Springsteen grew up right down the way, but I have a feeling he did not come here for spiritual inspiration.

Ocean Grove is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve been to. Totally dry, too.

Houses are almost impossibly charming. It seemed people were sleeping in the Saturday we visited, it was so quiet.

Gingerbread to die for.

Flaming crape myrtle in almost every yard.

When Stokes founded the place those houses would not have existed.

He was so proud when the 9,000 seat Great Auditorium went up.

Parishioners set up modest platform tents to be nearer to the action.

They still stand, and are a hot commodity.

The real estate in Ocean Grove is competitive, but writer-types still manage to sneak in. Introducing Nancy Naglin, who with her husband J.J. Kane first summered here and then wound up as a permanent resident.

Nancy wrote an incredible book called Orphan of the Century, a wild ride that depicts a boy born in 1923 as he roams the underworlds of Poland, China and other countries as a crack pool player – an epic story of gambling, survival, sexual identity and the dignity of the human heart.

Orphan of the Century may be purchased at Amazon and will make a fine gift for anyone who likes adventure and fun in a summer read as well as the occasional racy tweak. To quote the back, which is sometimes a good idea, the novel “is an epic story of gambling, survival, sexual identity and the dignity of the human heart.” It’s on my bedside table now. I think Ellwood Stokes would have read it in secret for some private titillation.

Come to Ocean Grove and spend an afternoon under the town’s lovely park of white pines. Nancy will sign a copy for you.

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You can’t unsee the graffiti in the Bronx

once you see it. And it is all around you.

Some surfaces would seem to be left alone. Church walls, for example. Or cars. But everything else is fair game, and especially popular are store gates, the kind that get opened in the morning and pulled down at night.

Every surface is game.

You’ll find mailboxes.

Dumpsters.

Houses.

Even lightpoles.

Self expression. It’s such a powerful human urge.

A lot of these look as if they were spraypainted by the same person, but I’m sure I’m missing the subtleties.

I happen to like the metallic images.

The runic ones.

Indulge me. When I looked on the Grand Concoure in about a four block radius, I found so many striking examples.

And my favorite, I guess.

Washington Square Arch in the West Village has chronic problems with graffiti. It was tagged one night amongst general mayhem, and by the next morning they had removed the anti-cop slogans, leaving “ghost graffiti” that would only be finally removed from the porous, delicate stone  at a later date. 

In the Bronx, nothing gets removed.

You start to see color everywhere, even where it’s ungraffitied.

Utility markouts are  really a kind of graffit. You’ll notice them on every sidewalk. Yellow means gas. Don’t dig too near or you might get blown up. Red, electric.

Some fundamental graffiti history. A while back there was a huge warehouse called 5 Pointz in Queens – it was constructed in 1892 as a factory that built water meters — that served as the canvas for dozens of graffiti artists as well has leasing studios to artists inside.

We visited, and something amazing was that after a certain viewing period one artist would cover over the work of another artist with his own work. Just wipe it away. That was the accepted method of showing as much good stuff as could be shown. Very democratic.

I was wearing a cast on my foot at the time and I asked the artist named King Bee if he would tag it.

Fast forward and of course something so impossibly cool could not last. The owner of the structure announced that he was razing 5 Pointz to put up a residential complex, and all the artists would have to leave. He had the walls whitewashed overnight. Even a plea from Banksy could not save the brilliant assortment of aerosol art. The developer got payback – a judge made him pay 6.7 million in damages to 21 artists.

The Royal “King Bee,” born Alfredo Bennett the guy who decorated my cast, grew up in this part of the Bronx and honed his aerosol chops here, in fact.  His way of “giving back” was to furnish extravagant murals at 17-50 Grand Concourse and other Bronx locations. His oeuvre, which includes madly stinging bees, is something to admire. I like it better than the paintings of some of the genteel artists venerated by collectors and museums. George Seurat, for example, or Rubens.

There is a difference between the iconic murals of George Floyd – found now in cities including Houston, Philadelphia, Portland and Los Angeles, Miami Chicago as well as Minneapolis, and so often defaced  by white nationalists – and the personal idiom of the streets.

But they both require paint and skill – perhaps some just need a taller ladder.

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The scents of the Grand Concourse,

both pleasant and foul, follow me as I walk the avenue inspecting trees to make sure they’re not injured by the major construction project underway, alerting the contractor to tree pits that have had stuff dumped in them.

First is citrus heaven, as I go past the many small produce stands where the proprietor peels oranges on a spit, afterwards bagging them for the clientele. The aroma wafts out to the sidewalk, freshening the morning.

One not so lovely, the smell of the pet store. Canine poop and pee rise like a cloud in front of the shop.

Puppy mill puppies include that little Golden in the window,  and can cost 2,800 dollars in the case of this English bulldog.

Which I would love to bring home, but can’t afford. Plus I prefer pit bulls.

Speaking of pets, the bodega I patronize just acquired a kitten named Winston, who is kept in the bathroom but has perfumed the whole store already.

Hard hats do not usually patronize shops here, but I go in if I’m interested.

I enter a nail salon to use the facilities – they really seem like every other store in the Bronx, alternating with hair braiding places – and I’m hit with dense, choking smoke from the acrylic shaping that goes on here. The bathroom is sparkling clean, as is the case in every establishment run by women here.

A relief to pass by the other big presence, the laundromat, with its sudsy air emanating from the open doors. 

The trees themselves offer a green breeze, especially if you harvest a few to determine the species – some sort of elm, as yet to be determined, with a problem as evidenced by the pin pricks.

And at the fish store, where the fish seem to have just swam in from the sea, the tangy salt breeze begs me to take home a salmon, bluefish, anything but the shark, a species which is now being overfished. In the morning they take them out of boxes of ice and line them up in an orderly fashion for choosy shoppers.

Or you can go to the cuchifritos restaurant, a hole in the wall that doesn’t even have a name in the window. The smell of the best fried pork in the neighborhood draws long lines, and when I wait I have the most delicious pina colada I’ve ever drunk.

It’s the only eatery I’ve ever patronized with a Lotto booth. Well used, too.

And finally, the garlic that hits my nose when I rip open the tostones package, its contents rich with grease and salt. Every day I promise myself I won’t indulge, a promise inevitably broken.

It’s an aromatic distinction of the Grand Concourse, one of so many. I’m going to get a bag of Tostones right now.

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Some biology etymology

for the curious, and useful in dinner party chat.

Canopy cover is vital in arboriculture, in description of those overhead limbs that weave together and block some of the sun’s rays, but what about those trees whose branches seem to avoid touching those of other trees? Do they actually exist? There are several. The phrase describing them is crown shyness, and it takes place in some forests, particularly those with lodgepole pines, eucalyptus, mangroves and some other tropical trees. Why? Botanists don’t have an answer yet, but it might have to do with a far-red (one down from infra-red) light reflected from neighborhood foliage which makes twigs at the end of branches shy away from each other.

Crown Shyness of a Rain Tree

On a completely different note, two unrelated  creatures have a similar problem and thus develop similar solutions. Like porcupines (rodents) and hedgehogs (insectivores). Convergent evolution describes how they develop similar spines. You knew that, probably.

Perhaps Illegal to Keep as a Pet

Dewlap is a word Dickens might utilize to describe the chins of an elderly person to comical effect, but in biology it refers to the wobbly flap of skin under the chin of large herbivores such as the moose, eland – African antelope —  or kouprety — a rare species of wild cattle in Asia. Iguanas also have dewlaps that fold up until they need to inflate them to impress females. As if they’re not cool enough already.

An Eland in the Sunset, Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

The cute little worm lizard, termed an amphisbaenian, is blind and legless, and neither worm nor lizard. What it has is a sharp set of teeth, and it belongs to a distinct set of reptiles found mainly in Africa and the Americas. They spend their lives burrowing under the ground. Fun! Some scientists believe they are closely related to the ancestors of mammals.

Worm Lizard Camouflaging Itself on a Human Finger

Conservationists sometimes seem to focus a little too heavily on flagship species such as the giant panda or wolves or elephants in order to gain funding. No matter how tired you might be of panda appeals (or maybe you’re not and never will be sick of pandas) it’s a good thing. The protection of their habitats protect less charismatic threatened mammals, amphibians and bird.

An Especially Fetching Panda

Batesian mimicry occurs when a harmless insect, say the marmalade hoverfly,  mimicks the markings of more dangerous insects like wasps and bees to gain protection by association. I know they would fool me. Named for Norman Bates?

Episyrphus balteatus or Marmalade Fly, a very common hoverfly.

Spiders and scorpions have book lungs, their way of extracting oxygen from their surroundings and expelling carbon dioxide. These are enclosed in under-body pouches that resemble a loosely bound book – it’s thought that they evolved from the underside of an aquatic ancestor resembling horseshoe crabs. Are horseshoe crabs edible? Just an idle query.

Scorpion (Opistophthalmus carinatus) in defensive position, Kalahari desert

Scientists have described it as the single most important event in anyone’s life: gastrulation, the moment when a simple cluster of cells folds in on itself to produce a gut, a front and back end, and the basic tissue types. In vertebrates (us, but also creatures like the starfish) that first dent in the cluster’s surface becomes the anus. In everything else it becomes the mouth.

Impossibly Beautiful Starfish

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More spooky doings

in the Bronx. A fresh length of topsoil is laid down in one of the new medians at 175 Street on the Grand Concourse. This will bring shrubbery and trees in all shapes and sizes to the neighborhood. It will, we hope, transform the lives of people here in some organic way.

Meanwhile, I happen to look up, and floating above, grey against the grey sky, is the cupola of what I am to find is a derelict church over one hundred years old.

It is all locked up so I can’t get in to see it. A fellow inspector tells me that homeless individuals had holed up in part of the building, until they were finally evicted, after years of effort.

The church was built in 1910, by Christ Congregational Church of Mount Hope, of Georgian-style red brick and white trim. Spacious and handsome, it was designed by  Hoppin & Koen of New York City, the same architectural firm that created the Albany County Courthouse and other distinguished structures. In the center of the building, the sanctuary has a domed roof of tin, painted green, and an entrance framed by a portico with four columns. I can vaguely see them behind the chain link fence. Above the portico is the square tower that is still visible, and which once held up a tiered steeple.


For decades the church had a large and worshipful congregation. There is an auditorium that can hold almost 400 people, as well as a gymnasium and meeting rooms. Recently it was owned by the Pilgrim United Church of Christ.

When things fell apart, paint and plaster peeling—supposedly because various pastors let the structure go to ruin – this was the result. It carries myriad Department of Buildings violations.

Its magnificent organ was silenced.  Made by M.P. Möller, in Hagerstown, Md. in 1914, it had a deluxe tubular-pneumatic action. It was tested in 2012 and found to be ruined.

Various residents of the neighborhood have fought so that the church would not be razed and turned into a proposed homeless shelter. The local Community Board sees potential for the building as a cultural venue for the Mount Hope locale. 1,000 people signed a petition. A determined few congregants still huddle in a side room to pray. Outside the locked gates, I meet a couple of young men who would probably be candidates for that shelter – they were standing, shuffling, seemingly waiting for someone. They inform me that the current Dominican Pastor is a fraud – they had in fact been living on the first floor and he evicted them and he doesn’t even own the 

building, they gripe. They don’t mention ghosts, but I am sure there are plenty around in the cavernous church.

They leave and the pastor arrives in his shiny red  SUV. Unlocks the gates, backs his car inside.

That must be Reverand Israel Martinez, he of the Iglesia Evangelica Los Peregrinos.

Maybe someone will succeed in saving this sad, crumbling architectural once-gem. In addition to new plantings and trees outside, the people who live in the neighborhood, could use a beautiful place to go, and to pray if that makes sense for them. It could be as beautiful as the new trees on the medians.

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New York Trashy

Should be the nickname of this small piece of the Bronx. You can’t escape the litter.

Maybe there just aren’t enough appropriate receptacles?

Someone carefully put her half-full cup on the ground. I don’t like Dunkin iced coffee either, but I don’t leave it just hanging out there.

There are guardians of the clean everywhere if you look for them.

Every day I walk past Darion hosing down the sidewalk in front of the defunct Paradise Theater.

His job is to keep the place clean, “and it’s big!,” he told me. It sure is — in its heyday it was one of the biggest in the city, if not in the country. Some of the other shopkeepers water their sidewalks, too – I like that as it cleans the soles of my workboots when I walk by.

Others use a ubiquitous small broom and dustpan to get the litter.

Tidy.

The proprietor of a juice bar told me, “You have to keep it clean. It’s better for business.” I will go in to get a green smoothie today.

First thing in the morning, 7am, they are out creating order out of chaos.

Discarded masks lay around everywhere.

What happened? Did someone just get tired of wearing it and fling it to the ground? Three quarters of the residents here wear masks inside and out, everybody, old and young. I don’t know whether this means they haven’t got the vax or that they got it and they’re protective anyway.

I engaged a sanitation bigwig in a starched forest-green uniform and badge and a driver in her streetcleaning vehicle about the trash. Number one, he intoned, there are three types of trash – homeowners, shops, and garbage on the ground (duh).  It’s much worse, he said, since Covid. Alternate side of the street parking was suspended, which I took to mean that it was hard for garbage workers to get through the cars to get the bags. He said that when they have the resources the City makes inroads with the sidewalk trash. And oh yes, he said, noting my hard hat and reflective vest, the contractors working here are responsible for much of the garbage. What else should he say when I asked him why there was so much garbage lying around. He did not wish to have his photo taken, nor did she.

I don’t think this bench/table is trash, it was simply left in front of the supermarket overnight and serves some purpose.

There are clean shiny things in the neighborhood. Scooters and sanitation vehicles.

Sometimes you have a jarringly deep glimpse of a person’s life.

What happened to this individual and how did so many important documents end up scattered on the Grand Concourse? There is a story there.

Sometimes it’s a glimpse you don’t want, like a used Q-tip.

Tree pits grow yuck as well as trees.

There I draw the line. Each tree should enjoy a pristine growing environment. Although I’m biased, of course.

And I haven’t even gotten to New York Shitty. All the kindly sweepers and washers couldn’t banish what the dogs leave behind.

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