Down to the Waterline

By Ed Staskus

   The summer Jeff Saghy and I went to New York City for a working weekend it is doubtful we would have gone to see the Twin Towers. They were just two more office skyscrapers in skyscraper city. We would not have gone to eat at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower, either. But we were staying next door, at the Marriott, it had been a long Saturday, so we walked over and took one of the jumbo elevators up into the sky.

   The hotel had been collateral damage eight years earlier. Diehard towelheads parked a rental truck loaded with 1,500 pounds of explosives in the North Tower’s parking garage below the ballroom. They weren’t interested in being martyrs, so they set the timer and left for their jihadi snacks of halvah and qahvah. The explosion mangled the lower and sub levels of the World Trade Center complex. It was more than a year before the Marriott reopened. 

   The restaurant opened 25 years before we ever set foot in it, in 1976, as a private club. Everybody not a member had to pay $10.00 in dues on the spot before eating there. New York magazine called it the “most spectacular restaurant in the world.” They put the food makers on a pedestal and gushed about the view.

   “Every view is brand-new, a miracle. In the Statue of Liberty Lounge, the harbor’s heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe. All the bridges of Brooklyn and Queens and Staten Island stretch across the restaurant’s promenade. Even New Jersey looks good from here. Down below is all of Manhattan. Everything to hate and fear is invisible.”

   We were wearing pressed slacks and our monogrammed trade show shirts. The slacks were OK, but our shirts sans jackets were verboten. The maître d’ rustled up spare sports jackets for both of us. Mine was several sizes too small. It was loud checked, the kind a burlesque comedian might once have donated to the Salvation Army.

   “All you have to do is wear it walking to your table,” the front of the room man said when I gave him an unhappy look. “Once you’re in your seat you can take it off and your server will bring it back to me.”

   I squeezed into it, making like Mr. Magoo, enduring the local yokel looks on the way to our table. It was set inside a curved half wall. The tablecloth was cloth. The waiters wore white jackets and black pants. They were soft-spoken. The dining room was large and fancy. I had a slab of salmon. The charge we put on the company credit card would have paid most of my home mortgage for the month back in Ohio.

   After we knocked back a bottle of fine wine, we stepped over to the nearest window to take in the vaunted view. There wasn’t any panorama, however. All we saw was an inky sky above us and thick gray clouds below us, down ten-or-so floors. There wasn’t a gap in them for us to see any part of the world anywhere. We ate tortes sprinkled with ground nuts and had coffee. Jeff did most of the talking. He wasn’t interested in anything I had to say, although he was ladylike about it.

   I woke up in the middle of the night with an upset stomach. The booze at Windows on the World had been good, the dinner better, and dessert even better, but something wasn’t agreeing with me. It might have been something greasy I grazed on at the trade show. I dressed and went downstairs, where I drank a ginger ale. I went for a walk. It was big-city lukewarm dark. The streets smelled bad, but I felt better. I walked down to the waterline on Liberty St., ending up at Pumphouse Park. 

   It wasn’t listed in my New York City Parks Department guidebook. It was just there, next to a marina, lots of trees and flowers around an oval-shaped lawn. I walked to where there was a grove of shrubs and birch trees. I kicked back on one of the benches. In a city of eighteen million people, I didn’t see another person for the next hour, although a tough-looking black and white cat limped past without even giving me a sideways glance.

   Jeff and I and Chris Hayes and Doug Clarke, who was the big cheese at Efficient Lighting, landed at JFK International Airport in Queens on Thursday. Construction of the people-mover system was still going on, three years along, so we walked. We checked into the Marriot and took a cab to the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Hell’s Kitchen. It was enormous, more than three million square feet of floor space. We had come to New York City for the annual International Beauty Show.

   “Stock up on all your salon needs at show-special pricing,” was the way the razzmatazz went. “Top notch education to boost your skills and business. Products and tools that will boost your business and streamline your craft. Network with like-minded colleagues and professionals.”

   We were there to showcase a new tanning bed the branch of the business under the name of Ultraviolet Resources International had developed. Chris Hayes was the nominal brains behind the Sunsource. Doug Clarke was married to Kathy Hayes, second-in-command. She was the louder by far of the couple. Her other brothers Kevin and John Hayes, and sister Maggie Hayes, were the rest of the in-charge team. Maggie was sneaky mean and always bore watching. Some more brothers and sisters from the family of thirteen came and went, hardly making a dent, except when they were at each other’s throats.

   Doug Clarke had built a state-of-the-art 45,000 square-foot multi-million-dollar warehouse and offices on nearly three acres in Brook Park, next to Holy Cross Cemetery, the year before, after ten years of leasing and outgrowing space in the Lake Erie Screw building in Lakewood. It was a new building for a new millennium. The enterprise sold lots of stuff under lots of names, commercial lighting to restaurants and municipalities, saltwater fish lights, sign lights, disinfectant lighting, but its bread and butter was tanning bulbs. We sold gazillions of the fluorescent tubes every quarter, to dealers and end users. The phones never stopped ringing. Doug and Kathy built a McMansion in North Ridgeville on the back of the bronze look.

   Doug’s wine cellar at his mansion looked like it was worth more than he was willing to pay me in my lifetime if I continued working for him the rest of my life. I didn’t like it, but I bit my tongue. I was surprised the wine he poured wasn’t better. It tasted bitter to me.

   The trade show boomed, although we didn’t. Our last-minute space was near the back of a dead-end walkway. We spent more time talking to the other vendors around us than we did talking to prospects. The end of the day Friday didn’t come soon enough. Jeff could talk all day and night, but I had long since run out of anything to say to our neighboring nail and hair folks, who weren’t selling anything, either.

   Doug and Chris were busy with other big shots, the guys who called the shots at Wolff and Light Sources, so Jeff and I went to dinner in Greenwich Village by ourselves. We didn’t know one place from another. All of them were busy. We found a table at Pico, a Portuguese eatery. The inside of the place was exposed brick and beams. We sat next to a six-foot tall wire sculpture of a rooster. Our waiter told us it was a Portuguese good luck symbol. 

   We were staring at our pemeiro prato, which included bacalao cakes with blood orange-radish salad, steamed cockles, and foie gras, when our waiter came back. He asked if we would mind sharing our table with two young women, since space was at a premium. Jeff said he didn’t mind and the next thing I knew there were two more chairs squeezing in at our table. 

   The women were in their mid to late 20s, both blonde, one of them from London and the other one from South Africa. We shared our appetizer with them while we got acquainted. The gal from London was working in NYC and living at a YWCA and the other one was visiting her friend. The South African’s family had emigrated to Savannah, Georgia from the dark continent after the Afrikaners lost their argument with the African National Congress.

   The London native had been to Pico before and recommended the Segundo prato. I ordered the dish. It included duck braised in terra cotta and roast saddle of rabbit with chickpea cake. Our newfound friends told us more about themselves, and Jeff told them all about himself. Even though he and I had worked in the same office for about ten years some of it was new to me.

   We ordered another bottle of wine midway through dinner. Before I knew it, it was after eleven. We ordered coffee and sonhos, miniature doughnuts, cinnamon-dusted puffs of dough dipped into molten chocolate and fruit fondues, for dessert. Sonhos mean “beautiful little dream” in the lingo. Nobody needs to speak Portuguese to describe their goodness.

   Jeff had been looking and talking up the cutie-pies non-stop. I didn’t like the gleam in his eye, wondering if he was angling after a farmer’s daughter in the city that never sleeps. I wasn’t a back door man, though. Besides, tomorrow was another working man’s day. I hailed a cab and coaxed Jeff into the back seat. 

   Saturday was more of the same at the trade show. We finished up mid-afternoon on Sunday. We had brought our suitcases and were ready to go as soon as soon as the whistle blew. Unfortunately, everybody else had the same idea and by the time we were out the door the plaza in front of the convention center was swarming with people. There wasn’t a cab to be had for love or money.

   We were standing around like orphans when a black man with bloodshot eyes and wearing a black suit approached us. He was wearing a white shirt, a black tie, and a black newsboy cap. He was a gypsy cabbie, driving a four-door black Volvo. 

   “Airport?” he asked.

   “JFK,” I said. 

   “$50.00,” he said.

   “Let’s go,” I said, dragging a protesting Jeff behind me. He didn’t like the black man, the black car, and the black hole of no license no regulations no insurance of the pirate transport. The man was from Nigeria. “They call our kind of driving kabu kabu there,” he said. He drove more than sixty hours a week and drove fast. He stopped some distance from the cab stand at the airport and helped carry our bags. 

   “I got to be careful about the medallion guys,” he said.

   It was just getting dark when we took off, circling northwest back over Manhattan, the lights of the city twinkling in the dusk. We flew through a booming thunderstorm that had rumbled over Ohio hours earlier and landed at Cleveland Hopkins, where our wives picked us up.

   The summer heated up, getting ungodly hot and humid on Lake Erie. I went to the office Monday through Friday and did my service work catch-as-catch-can. I would have quit my day job long since if I could have, but I needed both jobs. The office work was easy enough, and so long as I kept to myself, I could put up with my salaried co-workers. The rest of the guys and girls who punched the clock were no problem.

   My job wasn’t especially high paying since I worked for a family firm, but it was steady. Their motto was “Family First.” It meant the immediate family. We had first-class health insurance, though, and I was socking money slowly but surely away in a 401K. I got two weeks paid vacation. We went to Prince Edward Island in late August, chilling out on the north coast. Manhattan is 96 times smaller than PEI, but the borough is home to 12 times as many people as the province. We didn’t have any trouble keeping ourselves to ourselves on the ocean shore.

   We got back the second weekend of September. I took Monday off to unpack and unwind from the 22-hour drive home. The next morning, I was in line at a Drug Mart cash register when I looked up and saw the Twin Towers on a TV mounted on the opposite wall. One of the buildings was gushing smoke and the newscaster was gushing alarm.

   “Christ,” I thought. “How did that happen?”

   By the time I got to work everybody was crowded into the lunchroom eyes glued to the flat screen mounted on the wall. We found out what happened was that passenger jets slammed into both buildings. We watched the 110-floor towers collapse. The Marriott Hotel where Jeff and I stayed disappeared into a pile of rubble. It looked surreal to all of us, even those of us who didn’t know what surreal meant. Doug walked in looking somber and told everybody to go home. It was just after 11 o’clock in the morning. The last fires at the World Trade Center site were finally extinguished in December, exactly 100 days after the terrorist attacks.

   It was a sunny day, mild and pleasant. My wife and I watched the grim news on TV the rest of the day. We had never seen anything like the Twin Towers disaster happen. Even Snapper our cat sensed something wasn’t right and spent the day sleeping in the basement.

   The next day I rode my mountain bike on the all-purpose trail in the Rocky River Metropark. The only people I saw were an older couple chatting strolling aimlessly. There were no fitness walkers, baby carriages, rollerbladers, runners, or any other bikers besides me. There were no cars on the parkway. I could have ridden down the middle of the road blindfolded. I saw flashing red and blue lights of police cars on every bridge I rode under. There were military jets screaming overhead, not that it mattered. The horse was out of the barn.

   I stopped on the far side of Tyler Barn, on the other side of a small bridge, where I spotted a fisherman going after steelhead trout. I rode through the parking lot to where he was walking out of the river. He was wearing flesh-colored waders and carrying an eight-foot rod. I could see some big fish in the creel bag slung over his shoulder. He sat down at a picnic table and started gutting them on a copy of yesterday’s newspaper. 

   He was wearing a baseball cap and a week’s worth of whiskers. His left forearm, hand, and fingers were heavily tattooed. The letters ‘CALM’ were tattooed on the back of his four fingers. We shot the bull for a minute and talked about the terror attacks in New York City. I told him about having stayed at the no more Marriott.

   “I’ll tell you what partner, if folks concentrated on the important things in life, there would be a shortage of fishing poles, not no shortage of skyscrapers,” he said, sucking on a Lucky Strike without taking it from his lips. He stuck his knife into the top of the picnic table. A gust of wind wafted cigarette ash away into the early end of summer.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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Working Up an Appetite

By Ed Staskus

   New York City’s George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. More than 100 million cars and trucks cross it every year. The double decker suspension bridge spans the Hudson River. It opened in 1931, was widened in 1946, and a lower deck was added in 1962. Since then, billions of drivers have sat on the overpass, chewing the cud, their engines idling.

   The speed limit on the bridge is 45 MPH. During rush hour, when my wife and I drove across it, on our way north from Virginia to Cape Cod, it was 0 MPH, or less. There are innumerable stops and starts that stretch time out like silly putty and test a man’s patience. We were glad we had empty bladders, a full tank of gas, and weren’t on any kind of schedule.

   We were on a 2-week end of summer road trip. We first drove from Cleveland, Ohio to Chincoteague Island, planning on Cape Cod the second week. Chincoteague is a barrier island, floating on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline due east of Richmond. We did it in one day, leaving early and getting there late. All the roads in town have signs saying “Evacuation Route” in capital letters and red arrows pointing one way. When we pulled in the lady at the front desk of the Waterside Inn told us the only place still open to get a bite to eat was the Ropewalk. When we walked up to it most of the wait staff and some of the kitchen staff were on the front steps kicking a group of unruly patrons out.

   We waited for the fuss to die down and found a table. It was a sports bar with flat screens everywhere. We had walked in blind, and it looked like we were going to be blind-sided. Our waitress was from New Jersey, there for the summer with her boyfriend. She was friendly enough but hard to see, hidden behind tattoos and piercings.

   “I might stay here,” the young lady said, “except nobody can live here. It’s too expensive.” She lived on the other side of the causeway near Wattsville on Route 175. She wasn’t the first or last person to tell us there wasn’t enough island housing, and what there was of it was too expensive. There were plenty of retirees who had cashed in and old hippies who had cashed out. They had snapped up the real estate from Archie Cove to Hammock Point.

   Ropewalk was on the water. “How cute it would be to sit by the bay,” my wife said, pointing to the side deck. “The deck is closed,” our waitress said. We ate at a table next to a window. Our pints of eastern shore IPA were good, and the appetizer crab egg rolls were tasty. It went downhill from there. “This poke bowl tastes like nothing,” my wife said. Our poke bowls were tuna, corn, rice, and avocadoes. “The corn looks weird, too.” It was about as bland as could be, which was surprising in the home of cornpone.

   We went to Assateague Island the next day. My wife went running on the Wildlife Loop that goes around Swan Goose Pool while I walked some of it. I was breaking in an after-market hip and could only go so far. “No running,” my surgeon had told me. The next day, when we went back, somebody warned us not to hike on the Marsh Trail. “Too many bugs,” he said. While my wife went back on the Wildlife Loop for another 3-mile run, I tried the Marsh Trail. That was a mistake. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I didn’t know one hundred mosquitoes could land on a human being’s arms and legs all at once and all start biting at once. I didn’t know I could walk back to our car as fast as I did, hop-a-long hip and all.

   We went to Captain Zack’s that night. Their motto is “Yum Yum Getcha Some.” The deck was full of diners, so we stepped to the side where there was a take-out window. The kitchen was behind the slide-to-the-side glass. The man in line in front of us said, “Honestly, everything is good.” An older woman in a Mother Goose dress took our order. “I’ll call your cell phone when it’s ready,” she said. We waited at a picnic table on the dark side of the gravel parking lot.

   The soft-shell crabs were good. The sides were too much, literally. There was enough to feed a troop of marching men. We nibbled on some of it, although most of it was disappointing. They had somehow messed up the hush puppies. “How can something soggy be so dry?” my wife asked, adding, “They are supposed to be crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.”

   We ate at Bill’s on Main St. two nights later. It’s been there for more than sixty years, a squat brick building with windows on three sides and raised slightly up from the sidewalk. The tablecloths and napkins are cloth and the waitresses come dressed in black and white. Our waitress had apple cheeks. “I’ve worked here since I was 21-years old, which was 21 years ago,” she said. She was a single mother and lived on the other side of the causeway. 

   We had oyster stew soup, which was oysters, country ham, butter, and heavy cream. The heavy cream set the tone. The richness of the food on Chincoteague Island was by now not a surprise. It may not always have been tasty, but it was rich, for sure. My wife had crab imperial stuffed shrimp and I had flounder. The crab died drowning in the mayonnaise. The waitress brought twice as much tartar sauce as I needed. By the time we were done and looked around we discovered we were the last patrons still in the restaurant. We waddled back to our lodgings.

   We spent the next afternoon on the beach at Tom’s Cove. The parking lot butts up to the dunes and the dunes slope down to a long beach. We eventually went for a walk, picking up rocks and spiral seashells. We met a German lady from Hamburg who had moved to Virginia forty-some years earlier. “The beach is washing away,” she said. “It’s the storms. The park service brings sand in on barges most years now to keep it from disappearing.”

   Before we left, as we were brushing sand off our feet and getting into our car, a seagull walked up and started squawking. It sounded like maniacal laughter.  We had a half-bag of waffle cone bits and pieces in the back seat, and I emptied them in front of the bird. When I did the food fight was on. Twenty or thirty more birds swooped in out of nowhere and the waffles were gone in seconds. The gulls were crying for more as we drove away.

   We had coffee and croissants several mornings at the Amarin Coffee Shop on Maddox Ave. The other thoroughfare on Chincoteague Island is Main St. The coffee shop was where the causeway from the mainland joins the island. At the other end of Chincoteague Island is another causeway that leads to Assateague Island, which is mostly a sanctuary for migrating birds, wild ponies, and a standing army of mosquitoes. We were sitting on the front deck of the coffee shop when a fit trim man in his 50s sporting a couple weeks’ worth of beard asked us how we liked the coffee. He turned out to be the freeholder.

   His name was Bernard and he had been in the armed forces, specializing in counterterrorism, until he retired. He served in the Middle East and the Far East. “I was in the swamps in the south of Iraq for a while,” he said. “Our job was nabbing foreign fighters trying to sneak into the country from Iran.” He spoke fluent Arabic and knew full well how to say, “Hands up.”

   He met his wife-to-be in Vietnam, got married, and went into his new family’s coffee-growing business. It’s labor-intensive work, grown from seed. Trees take about 5 years to bear fruit. The family grew beans in the Central Highlands, north of Ho Chi Minh City. The French introduced coffee in 1857 when a priest brought one arabica tree into the country. After the Vietnam War ended the newly unified nation became one of the world’s largest coffee producers.     

   Bernard was from Grand Rapids, but when he came back to the USA he settled in Virginia, working for NASA near Chincoteague Island. When he and his wife started importing the family’s coffee beans, he set up a roasting operation. They had a food truck, too, parked in a gravel lot behind the coffee shop. Oz made the Vietnam-themed sandwiches.

   Oz was a stocky man in his 40s who had lived in Vietnam, where his father went to run a furniture factory. Oz had advanced degrees in philosophy and history. “What that means is I know all about unemployment lines,” he said. He taught English as a second language in Vietnam until the 19 virus and his impending divorce back in the homeland brought him back home. He was pining to return to Southeast Asia.

   “It’s my beautiful place,” he said, bringing us spring rolls and a crispy pork belly sandwich on a ciabatta roll. The sandwich was the best food we had in the land of cotton, even though it was the land of corn and crabs. There wasn’t a road without a field of corn planted alongside it and there wasn’t a pit stop without crab cakes.

   The food in the south wasn’t bad, except when it was, but it was too rich for our northern palates. Everything seemed to revolve around butter and mayonnaise. When we went to Steamers for our last supper, we knew enough to split the plates. 

   Steamers wasn’t anything to look at. The front of the house had a hostess station and some desultory tables. Farther inside was a bar and lots more tables. It sounded like a party was going on back there. We sat outside on a slab of concrete surrounded by aluminum fencing. Our waitress was a middle-aged black woman who had lived there her whole life. “I live across the causeway,” she said. We had littlenecks on the half-shell with breadcrumbs and bacon. Then we had flatbread topped with clam dip. We took the waitress’s recommendation and finished up sharing deep-fried rock fish. 

   The day we left Chincoteague Island we saw a Mennonite woman in a cape dress ride by on Main St. on a bicycle. We had seen them every day here and there, usually with a civilian husband in tow. Three of them with digital cameras and long lenses were on Tom’s Cove taking pictures of the surf one windy afternoon, tugging on their haubes to keep them in place on top of their heads. The weather was the same the day we left as it had been the past six days, 80 degrees, sunny, and humid.

   When we finally crossed NYC’s George Washington Bridge the traffic jam didn’t get any better. There were too few lanes and too many cars. We inched forward like snails. I started seeing pairs of Central American-looking women on the shoulders on both sides of the roadway hawking mangoes in large, lidded plastic cups. They had coolers at their feet. When our turn came, we got a cup of them. They were the right refreshment at the right time.

   Mangoes are the national fruit of India. Apples are New York’s official fruit. We didn’t see any apples in the Big Apple. Mangoes are a stone fruit. The name comes from the Portuguese word manga from back in the 16th century. The ones we ate were red, although they also come in yellow and orange.

   “Don’t sit at home and wait for the mango tree to bring mangoes to you,” Israel Ayivor once said. “It won’t happen.” He was right. We had driven a long way to get our mangoes. The Central American women had gone far out of their way to sell their mangoes. They stood on the sides of the road breathing in rubber tire fumes and exhaust fumes and dealing with tempers fuming.

   A few months earlier, on Mother’s Day, a woman by the name of Maria Falcon was arrested for selling mangoes in a New York City subway station. She didn’t have a permit to vend. “She’s served her customers for more than 10 years,” her supporters said. “Those permits can be near impossible to obtain. There’s even an underground market where permits go for up to $20,000 each.” The police threw her fruit away and let her go. “She took a few days off to recover from her ordeal but is back out there today because she can’t stop working,” said another supporter of the mango rank and file.

   It was sunny and cool when we pulled into North Truro on Cape Cod. We stopped at a fish shack and bought a pound of scallops. We cut corn kernels off the cob, sauteed them in olive oil with diced Portuguese sausage, added seared scallops, drizzled squeezed lime juice with maple syrup over the top, and sat down to eat. We had white wine with dinner. The next night we boiled a pot of fresh linguine, sauteed a bag of clams, and tossed the linguine, sliced garlic, and a handful of parsley into the frying pan with the shellfish. The following night we had pan-fried cod filets with redskin potatoes. We didn’t mix up any fat-based sauces of any kind that week. We didn’t even have salad so that we wouldn’t have salad dressing. We had cleansed our palates on the George Washington Bridge and were keeping it that way.

   We watched the sun go down into Cape Cod Bay. My wife and I had been swimming upstream like fish out of water down in Dixie but were back in the Yankee groove. When the red sky sank that night, we went to bed snug as fishermen cruising in with their holds full to the gills with fruit of the sea. 

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”