Friday, March 24, 2006

Get Outta the House Already!

I JUST RETURNED FROM a walk. "Thanks, James, what blog should I read next," you're now thinking. Stay with me. This actually represents a break in my routine, usually as durable as lazy steel.

Upon returning home each Friday, I typically drive just over the town line to my bank to get my allowance for the next week. I was inspired to change my mode of transit to this errand by a couple of factors. First, an accident in the intersection at the head of my street reminded me just how ridiculously busy it gets on weekends and during the evening rush. A one-way street feeds into a stressed, yet short, artery of traffic, taxed further by a flux of motorists patronizing the Trader Joe's across the street from my apartment. Add to this a train crossing just beyond the intersection, and you're good for at least one fender-bender a month. It takes a silly amount of time to merge into the auto scrum that forms around 6:30 at night, so I have been in the mode of finding an alternative lately.

I got a second kick in the pants today from an observation in the paper (the Times or the Journal, can't remember which) about how New Yorkers, being resilient in the face of crisis, are dedicated walkers. Not in terms of exercise, but just to get from place to place in their neighborhoods — or beyond, as borne out by their literally pedestrian reaction to the recent MTA strike. The point of the article was to show how gyrations in gasoline prices didn't affect many New Yorkers as much as it might suburbanites or residents of cities with less efficient mass transit. The kick came when I realized that gas, which had been beaten down to nearly $2 per gallon earlier this year, had now reached $2.34 at the cheap station near me.

Because I take the train into New York, I pay indirectly for gasoline, as a percentage of my fare. My car's tank takes a while to hit zero. But this doesn't mean I like filling it when gas prices edge up for no good reason, as I believe they have done in recent weeks. This put a rebellious hair up my ass, which led to my walk. When I hit my apartment, after threading through the maze of traffic along the two streets I need to cross between this building and the depot, I decided not to screw around with the car or to waste gas, and, after changing shirts, headed right back out again.

I have taken sinfully few walks around my town. The most frequent reason I do so is when I need something from the main commercial strip, which is only a block away. But I have miles of peaceful streets I could navigate as an alternative to sharing the wee morning hours with other folks torturing themselves on the elliptical trainers. I have two nice hills I could use to get the same effect, without the distraction of ditzes on cellphones (who the fuck are they talking to at 6:00 in the a.m.?!) or some of the crappier music choices the club has (Jennifer Lopez makes the baby Jesus cry).

So in the interest of conserving gas, staving off eco-doom via megastorms and 120ยบ summers, and not threading the needle with my car amid 5,000 weekend-starved commuters, I hit the bricks. By coincidence, the train barriers came down just as I approached that intersection, granting me a leisurely stroll across an otherwise hectic crossing, and I was off.

By car, the trip to the bank takes maybe 3 minutes, minus any wait for the two intervening lights. At a walking pace, many details emerged that I would otherwise miss.

New office/residential space — Previously the site of an Irish bar, this now has two renovated apartments upstairs and two businesses, a real estate office and a bank, on the street level. I was not particularly sad to see the bar go, as I could hear their crappy music from my apartment (which faces the street I was walking along) with the windows open.

New Hertz rental office — After a long-term tenant left in 2005, the Schroeder for Governor campaign moved in. Patriotic bunting and signage covered the windows. In passing via car, I could see a conference table, probably also rented, in the center of the office. Part of me wanted to walk in, ask them who played poker in the office, and get a game going on the table. Rooking starry-eyed political volunteers out of their cash has appeal to me, especially when the beer can be charged to a deep-pocketed Republican campaign. Alas, New Jersey voters were no more enthusiastic about this Schroeder than German ones were about theirs, and the space went on the market after the primaries. A lone plant, abandoned and yellowing, sat near the entrance for a while, as though waiting to welcome its master back and receive a long-overdue watering. Soon it disappeared, and Hertz began to stamp their brand all over the space.

My barber — Actually a hair salon, but I can't really associate the ABC-simple buzz and cut I always get with the styling and coloring and other follicular architecture I place under the label of salon. When the Supercuts I patronized on Route 17 became overrun with operators barely skilled either in hair care or English, I decamped for this 'round-the-corner option. Also, the staff is female and hot. Yes, I do have my shallow spots. Masticate me.

Cinematic floral design business — Next is a pair of buildings that house an operation that supplies floral and arboreal designs for events and film shoots. One of the two buildings, a massive garage, is filled with backlot-type items used on sets. I have only had a couple of peeks into this outfit, but sometimes it seems like the entire staff is filling one of their trucks with flowered archways or faux dead trees destined for a wedding or one of the 9,283 Law and Order shoots transpiring at any given moment in the city.

Fritz Dietl ice rink — I can't skate for shit. Ice, roller, or blade, it's all a fast track between a hard surface and my ass. This denied my parents one option for dropping me off somewhere during the summer to get me out of their hair for an hour or two. The rink has been a Bergen County staple since 1958, when Austrian skating legend Fritz Dietl opened the rink. He either ran it or was an instructor there until shortly before his death in 2003 at 91. If you want to live long, it helps to be passionate about what you do. In passing the rink at a walking pace, I noticed for the first time that they had one of those combo Galaga/Ms. Pac-Man game consoles. I was tempted to stop in and play, but I considered how many quarters I had sacrificed at an establishment just up the street (see below), so I kept going.

Old arcade building — After passing an appliance store and a less-picturesque stretch of plumbing supply and carpeting stores, you hit a free-standing building with no current tenant but with an unmistakable link to its past. In the very early 80s, an ex-cop and entrepreneur decided to get into the business of operating a video game arcade. Dubbing the operation the Game Center, he painted bright yellow Pac-Men on the awnings outside, installed bike racks, and filled the joint with all the hottest games. For someone who usually had to rely on his parents' annual trips to the Jersey Shore to find large arcades, this was the equivalent of Marion Barry having a crack dealer rent his spare room. The owner had the good sense to retain older classics like Donkey Kong, Berzerk, and Venture (a primitive D&D-type adventure game) even as he debuted recent hits like Dragon's Lair and more trendy items like the Journey video game (it sucked). Eventually, increased homework and the purchase of a Commodore 64 reduced my visits, and the increase in consumer-affordable processing power that shifted the game-design talent and money to home gaming dried up the coin-op market. The business folded in the late 80s, replaced by a lawncare shop and a kitchen-design studio, both of which also failed. A new tenant seems to be coming in, and the latest sign is half off, revealing the original GAME CENTER sign. No subsequent tenant has removed the Pac-Men, however, and I hope they never do.

Last gas before bridge — Normally, you'd expect to see a sign like this in Englewood Cliffs, on the last few hundred yards of Route 4 as you approach the George Washington Bridge. Proving that even gas-station managers can have a sense of humor, this banner appears at the bottom of the main sign for the indie-cheapo Petro Two station at the border of my town. The bridge in question starts immediately after the gas station, spans a small stream, and ends after about two car lengths. Buy now while you have the chance!

Kentucky Fried Chicken — If you make a fast, hard right after the bridge — you did buy gas, didn't you? — you will enter the lot of the most recent contender in the Pascack Valley fast food market, KFC. This site was previously the site of a house and a small business, both of which sustained massive flood damage in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd turned the stream into a destructive torrent. The structures were condemned, the lot razed, and the plot inert until a few months ago, when activity surged. In record speed, a brand-new KFC had arisen, presumably on a reinforced foundation with floodguards along the stream bank. This is a direct thumb in the eye of chicken competitors Wendy's and Chicken Delight, both just up the road a couple of blocks. I haven't seen the KFC that crowded, and it's not the biggest fast-food place I've ever seen (there is a Wendy's beneath the streets of Rockefeller Center near my Midtown office that is, by comparison, a busy mess hall at Parris Island). It also lacks a drive-thru, due to the constricted plot of land and the nature of the next property up. But I'm sure it gets its fair share of daytime visitors. I believe this includes my mother. (Ma, the idea is to reduce arterial plaque. Oy.)

The bank — Because my bank has a drive-thru, it would have been impossible for the KFC also to have built one. You think my street gets accidents? Imagine the inadvertent interaction of a stream of distracted bank customers already jabbering over cellphones about their next destination and a river of starved KFC patrons making the jump to hyperspace with a couple of buckets of breading and grease in the back of the land boat. (This might have proved lucrative for the gas station's garage!) In this case, however, all I needed was the ATM, which dutifully belched forth some cash. I found the walk to the bank quite refreshing, and I thanked myself for dispensing with the iPod and letting my thoughts and eyes travel along the landscape and its usually blurred details.

For the trip back, I actually crossed to the other side of the street, which is occupied largely by a shopping plaza anchored by a Kmart. Here, I bought much-needed garbage bags, and was thanked by the worn-out cashier for having just one item. I had watched the previous customer pile a massive heap of many small items, divided into two separate orders, so I guess I was something of a relief.

There is a secret way back to my apartment building from the Kmart plaza. The other anchor store here used to be a Grand Union, which served the residents of my own complex and also those of the retirement home directly behind my house. Because a lot of these folks don't drive, they provided a path and a gate between their property and the Kmart plaza, which is how I sneaked back to my humble abode. As I passed behind the retirement home, which also happens to be where I vote (so I've got no excuse to miss it!), I spied the rec room, which featured rows of residents riveted on Kevin Spacey vamping as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea.

All told, I believe the round trip to the bank was a span of about 20 minutes. Barring beastly weather or harsh allergens in the air, I could see this becoming a habit. I spent some vital time outside, away from recycled air. By contrast, this air was cool, wet, slightly tinged with ozone from the light rain that preceded my return from the city. No insects yet — too close to the killing cold of winter — and few birds. And of course, it provided some exercise while sparing me some gas cash. Not that bad a way to begin a weekend.

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