Saturday, May 2, 2009

Russians, Hasidics & Sikhs, Oh My!

What is the point of this story
What information pertains

The thought that life could be better

Is woven indelibly

Into our hearts

And our brains
Paul Simon, Train in the Distance

Saturday, April 25 - The D train reaches the end of the track at Stillwell & Surf Avenues in Coney Island. The ride from Harlem took me 1hr and 10 minutes. The walk 15 1/2 miles back in the opposite direction would take me most of the rest of the day.

The beginnings of my practice walks are always a contemplative, peaceful affair. It's usually the morning. Not many people are out . Its just me, miles of road ahead of me, the rhythmic sound of my feet underneath me and plenty of time to play with whatever thoughts squeeze their way into my mind. Those thoughts are often ordered by whatever music I'm listening to at the time. On this Saturday morning, I decided to test out listening to Pandora - an iPhone application I have on my phone which connects me to programmable Internet radio. I plug in the artists I like, and it spits out a variety of music it thinks I will enjoy.

I was still on Surf Ave. in Coney Island when Pandora played "Train in the Distance" by Paul Simon. Somehow this song had flown under my radar for my entire life until I heard it on a CD of my father's while driving back from NYC a couple years ago. The lyrics immediately grabbed me. Every time I have heard it since I've waited for those last lines which so beautifully capture why we love the sound of the train in the distance. Our ears register it as the sound of promise. It takes us out of the Present and into an imagined future where our "life could be better".

I fall into this trap as much as anyone I suppose. It's hard to live in the Present Moment, and even harder to accept that moment and our lives for what it Is, not what we Want It To Be. If the thought that life could be better is woven into our hearts and and our brains, can we ever truly be content? I pondered that in the Coney Island morning as I walked toward the boardwalk, free and unencumbered, a blue sky above me and warm breezes all around. And I thought, whatever the answer is, I'm content with my life right now. At that moment, I didn't need a train in the distance. The sound of my feet underneath would do. The Present had beaten out the Future.

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears with crying

Now I want to understand

I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding

You must help me if you can

- Jackson Browne, Doctor My Eyes

I had left Surf Ave behind, as well as the Brighton Beach Boardwalk and a good bit of Coney Island Avenue by the time Pandora dealt me a hand of Jackson Browne. My Jackson Browne repertoire began and ended with "The Pretender" until a month ago. Then I heard "Doctor, My Eyes" and I fell in love all over again. Whereas with the Paul Simon song my payoff is at the end, this one gives me what I need in the first two verses. It speaks to the human desire to fully understand our experience here on earth - both the evil and the good. I don't just want to be a participant, I want to be an all-knowing participant, so we look to doctors/preachers/mystics to help us if they can.

This puts me in mind of Samuel Hamilton from Steinbeck's East of Eden. Like me, he was an interested observer of life. He was endowed with some gifts and at the same time challenged by a few shortcomings and obstacles. Yet he always yearned to understand. For those of us who are likewise - and really, who doesn't want to fully understand - we must inevitably come up against the limits of human knowledge. How does one deal with that? I choose to accept it joyously and put down my desire for certainties in a world that will always fill me with awe and wonder. Those two currencies are enough. There will be some things that I feel certain about for a time. But I hope those beliefs never harden into the kind of certainties that block out life experiences that might cast doubt on that which I hold to be true. What separated Sam Hamilton from his wife was the juxtaposition of their unique character traits - Wonderment versus Certainty. I will put my stock with the former. Sure, the world is full of both evil and good. But isn't that one of the things that make it so interesting?

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears! Oh My!
- Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

The misfits on the Yellow Brick Road were a bit intimidated by the diversity of creatures lining their path to Oz. My path from Coney Island to Bryant Park was no less diverse, but I loved every minute of it. Let's start from the beginning. Brighton Beach abuts Coney Island and a quick stroll on its boardwalk tells you right away where it got its nickname of Little Russia. Older Russian men line each side of the wooden walk, talking, sunning themselves, looking out on the world with a slightly suspicious gaze. Once I got to Coney Island Ave and headed due north, I gradually put Little Russia behind me and entered a world of Hasidic Jews in Midwood and Flatbush. Given that it was a Saturday, most stores were shuttered. Small groups of multi-generation families walked along in their Sabbath black, chatting and laughing at a relaxed pace.

The neighborhood remained Jewish by faith but became ethnically Persian. Shortly thereafter it lost its Jewish tenor and became Syrian and Middle Eastern. I walked past a woman on her stoop in a full Burqah. By that time I was near Prospect Park. I hooked a left and headed to Park Slope, where upper middle class white folks with young kids are the order of the day. After Park Slope the neighborhoods lose a specific ethnic identity. Downtown Brooklyn is a wonderful tapestry of different people walking along busy streets lined with every kind of store imaginable.
Since I'd already walked across the Brooklyn Bridge I opted to take the Manhattan bridge across the East River. With a number of subway trains sharing the bridge with me it made for a noisy walk, but the view back toward the Brooklyn Bridge and downtown Manhattan was spectacular.

The Manhattan Bridge drops pedestrians off smack dab in the middle of Chinatown. For my two cents, Canal Street in Chinatown is the busiest pedestrian street in all of Manhattan. Trying to walk down it without bumping into two or three people each city block should be its own Olympic sport. I headed north, away from the crowds and toward Bryant Park. Chinatown was my last brush with an 0ld-school ethnic neighborhood but it wasn't my last experience with good old fashioned ethnic pride. When I arrived at Madison Square Park on 23rd & Park Ave. I was funneled into the tail end of the Annual Sikh Day Parade & Celebration. The park was awash in Sikhs from the Punjab, festooned in traditional dress. It was a beautiful sea of orange and white mixing with the usual park crowd of Shake Shack addicts waiting their turn in line for a burger.

All that was left was 15 short blocks from Madison Square Park to Bryant Park. In walking parlance, that's chump change. At Bryant Park I caught the subway home. Of all my practice walks so far, this had been the most enjoyable start to finish. Even though it was over, I wasn't yearning for any train in the distance. The D train I was on back to Harlem was just fine.

Total Distance: 15.5 miles