Friday, May 11, 2007

Playing Hooky at City Island

TUESDAY MORNING, I DROVE over to my parents' house for a trip to City Island in our ancestral homeland, the Bronx. We planned to visit Johnny's Reef Restaurant at the tip of the island, a long-time weekend escape for my family long before I was born. We try to get out there at least once per open season, which lasts from May to October, but last year we didn't get the opportunity. My mother was laid up for a few weeks after surgery after the joint opened, and by the latter part of the summer, I had managed to get very low on my available vacation days. Now, being jobless and therefore more free to take a day off, I mentioned to my parents a couple of weeks ago to keep an eye out for a day to make the trip.

We had chosen this Monday, but my mother didn't feel too hot when she woke up. This is another concern. I don't know how many more times we'll be able to make this trip together. For now things are well. With elderly parents, however, one tries to grab moments when one can, while everyone is healthy. Knowing this, I had told them to keep Tuesday open as a contingency, which turned out to be necessary.

We in the New York area have been graced with stellar weather for days. Tuesday was no different. We rolled across the Tappan Zee Bridge with a view clear down the Hudson to the Citibank Building and the ominous Goldman Sachs tower in Jersey City. The Palisades behind us were greening over in gorgeous spring fashion.

Dad elected to go the 287/Tappan Zee route through Westchester County because the GWB and the Cross Bronx Expressway were jammed solid with inbound traffic. After my family moved to Jersey, we visited my grandparents in the Bronx just about every weekend. During baseball season or holiday weekends, that highway clotted like a bad coronary, and as a child I became so familiar with the details of its graffiti-spattered brick canyons, its crumbling overpasses and wreck-choked exits, the spindly Washington Bridge dangling over the Harlem River, the stripped tenements with their fake cardboard windows placed by the Koch Administration, that I still see that ride in my dreams. My dad made many a trip in and out via that road, mostly with white knuckles and a barely contained swearing fit at either the other drivers or the hourlong pileup of traffic in front of us. This was trying enough during his forties and fifties; in his seventies, he was having none of that shit. So we dropped onto the Bronx via Westchester and left the suckers backed up onto the bridge alone with their exploding forehead veins.

Traffic was minimal and we snaked onto City Island with no difficulty. Familiar landmarks passed us by after we crossed the bridge. My parents and grandparents had eaten at most of the major restaurants on the island long before my birth. The demographic of the island has changed somewhat since then. Still, I could pick out most of their old haunts despite name changes or closures. I also kept an eye out for reputed City Island resident Vincent "Big Pussy" Pastore. I don't know when his Sirius show is broadcast, but he was either there, or perhaps hunkered in the Bing and bitching about his back. I contented myself with studying the condition of the old shops, the yacht clubs, and near the end of the island, the cluster of seafood joints amid which one finds Johnny's Reef.

Johnny's Reef commands a spectacular view of Eastchester Bay, the Bronx Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges, the northwestern coast of Long Island, and the Sound. Diners usually choose from the nearly 100 tables outside to take in this grand vista, which includes several old, historic Long Island estates along the far shore. Coin-operated binoculars ring the dining area and parking lot for a closer look at the scenery. My dad, an amateur birdwatcher, packs a mean set of optics, so we could save our quarters for the other major reason to come to Johnny's: the food.

The big yellow menu boards inside were time-capsule similar to my last two or ten visits, with slight variations in prices. I went with my old standby, a hot dog and a boat of fries, with Diet Coke. Ditto for my parents. Others chose Johnny's famous fried fish or shrimp, and later that day I saw someone tote two Styrofoam containers of Manhattan clam chowder, along with corn on the cob, out to the picnic tables. Bottled beer is available at ridiculously low prices: $2.50 to $3.50 if I saw correctly . . . another reason to make this trip now, at the beginning of the season, rather than in the depths of July, when we would compete with every other hooky-playing worker and about a million kids. And that was on the weekdays. This place is a seething mass on summer weekends.

Food secured, we headed out to the picnic tables to take in the view, dine heartily, and rap about this and that. My folks will be taking a week down in Wildwood Crest in a week and a half, so this was a chance to talk to them before they got out of town for a while. I am hoping their stay down there is somewhat better than the ones they had last year, which were plagued by ill health on and off for both of them. They deserve better in this period of their lives.

After I polished off a hamburger, we decided to take the usual trip through the old neighborhood, Parkchester and the Castle Hill area of the Bronx. Dad hooked off the Pelham Bay Parkway onto Westchester Avenue, where we had our French Connection moment of the day while driving beneath the 6 train el. From there, we drove down E. Tremont Avenue, taking in the sights and noting which business were still there. We stopped making regular pilgrimages into the city when my maternal grandparents moved out to New Jersey in the late Eighties. A few stores still remained from that era, but changing demographics and the shifting tides of city prosperity had made substantial changes. These streets were also part of my dreamscape for many years after we stopped returning here.

We passed by the former homes of my grandparents on both sides, then the two locations where I and my parents lived in Parkchester. We were surprised to find many of the Art Deco terra-cotta miniatures placed during the construction in the late Thirties, like a mermaid above a doorway or a bear on a pillar, still intact in the neighborhood. Considering that maintenance of this area had been in freefall since my grandparents' departure, I was pleased to see the grounds neatly maintained, the buildings free of graffiti, and a diverse populace on the streets breathing life into the community around the old prewar structures. It amazed me that, as a 4-year-old in 1974, I used to ride my Big Wheels around this area alone. As much improved as the neighborhood is, I can't see that happening in today's parenting-via-bubblewrap era. (Shit, I can't even find a decent goddamn lawn dart these days. Candyasses.)

After touring the old turf, we snaked our way to the GWB and rolled past the still-jammed eastbound traffic to New Jersey. My parents' street seemed far quieter and spacious compared to where we used to live, which is more or less my impression when we moved into the house in 1975. I cannot entirely rule out living in the city again at some point in my life. I doubt I'd do it while my parents are alive; nobody wants to return to the days of brutal Cross Bronx Expressway weekend traffic. Still — and especially after they are gone — nothing can entirely be ruled out. You never know where my next job might need me, or if I might have a freelance position for which train access to Manhattan would be advantageous, or where I might suddenly encounter the woman of my dreams. If she lives in the Bronx, I'd have to come to a decision. At least I know there's decent Italian food on that side of the river. And hell, my dad married a chick from the Bronx, and that seemed to work out okay.

For now, and for the smart-money future, I suspect my feet will tread Jersey soil, and my returns to NYC will be as a tourist or a worker. Hopefully I'll be able to get out to Johnny's with my parents at least one more time this season, and a few more down the road. Both the food and the view are worth sharing.

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