John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: November, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Penn Station

Recently, I rode the train into the Pennsylvania Station on my way to lunch with my son. The ancient dungeon we call the Long Island Railroad level was undergoing major renovations. The plan is to open the roof of the main corridor so that natural light will shine down from Thirty-Third Street. The construction also includes a new entrance / exit from the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirty-Third from the LIRR level directly to the street.

Temporary scaffolding has been erected to facilitate this work lowering the ceiling to a claustrophobic height. Any person over six feet tall had best approach the construction area carefully.

Newsday reported that construction would necessitate closing the retail shops that lined the north side of the main corridor. Many of the traditional vendors had been forced out several years ago by a concerted effort to attract upscale businesses.

The bookstore that specialized in military histories and other hard-to-find non-fiction subjects had closed together with one of best newsstands in Manhattan. They were both great places to browse. The newsstand carried both an abundance of newspapers, and a magazine inventory that stretched from A for aviation to Z for zombies and included practically every possible publication in between.  

Gone too were several passable pizza joints and the bar we had frequented for a late-night slice or a drink or a beer for the ride home. Terminated, gone, kaput, they were replaced by Starbucks, Shake Shack, an upscale Shushi eatery and Rite-Aid. Now they were all gone.

Only one fixture remained for me to mourn, Sole Man, a shoe-shine emporium and repair shop. Sole Man has occupied their spot since the early 1980’s. Over time they corrupted their theme but in their early years they presented a Blues Brothers motif. The shoeshine staff, both male and female, mimicked Jake and Elwood by wearing black trousers, white shirts, narrow black ties and faux black fedoras.

Beginning a day with a professional shine falls just behind starting the day with a professional shave. I rarely had the luxury or opportunity to experience the latter, so a shine remained on the top of my list.

I have availed myself of this simple luxury many, many times over the years and I have surprised friends, colleagues and customers by treating them to a shine whenever circumstances brought us close to Penn Station.

Curiously, a shoe-shine is more personal than one might expect. Our feet are sensitive, hence foot-fetishes. If you haven’t had a professional person polish your shoes, you have not encounteed that moment when they tackle your instep and you experience a sensation beyond what you expected. The sensation quickly disappears as the artist moves on making your shoes come alive using all the tricks of their trade.

I never walked away from a shoe-shine stand unhappy, the shine alone makes me feel better. Sole Man was the best. It seemed to me that their gang made the extra effort.

I decided to indulge myself one last time. The gal who claimed me went the extra mile returning my shoes to glory. Finished, I stepped down and chattered with the cashier, a young woman with a good sense of humor. The cost was three dollars, the same price as when Bill Clinton was in office.

As I turned to walk out of the shop, I stopped to thank the gal who serviced me, wished her good luck and handed her a $5 tip.

On the Outside Looking in will not be published the next two Wednesdays and will resume on December 18. Happy Thanksgiving.

Acceptable Collateral Damage

 October 29th marked the seventh anniversary of the day when Superstorm Sandy flooded the New York metropolitan area. The storm’s high tide surge drove a wall of water through the Narrows flooding coastal Staten Island and Brooklyn, burying the Battery, lower Manhattan, Jersey City and Hoboken. Sandy flooded the Hudson Valley almost as far north as Albany.

The same surge flooded most of southern Long Island’s coastal communities like Breezy Point, Broad Channel, Long Beach, Freeport, Seaford, Amityville, the Hamptons and Montauk.

A second surge followed the next high tide that raced west through Long Island Sound inundating the north shore of the island, coastal Connecticut, LaGuardia Airport, the Eastern Bronx, upper Queens and upper Manhattan.

Our tri-state congressional delegations joined in a bi-partisan effort that squeezed more than $60 billion from Uncle to address our joint recovery needs. In the last seven years most of the affected areas have recovered and rebuilt to prepare for a future event, albeit unevenly.

The top priority of restoring vital infrastructure was brilliantly achieved in short order. Rail, subway and highway tunnels were pumped out, cleaned-up and returned to service in a matter of days. Power was restored south of Thirty-Fourth St. in Manhattan and to the towns and villages Sandy had pounded in a few days to a week.

More complex remediations such as renewing rail and subway tubes inundated by saltwater remains a work in progress with several vital links put on back burners. Overall surge protection to combat future storms remains in the planning stages since they are complicated by the need to protect the environment from rising sea levels.

The original idea called for the Army Corp of Engineers to build two barriers to protect Manhattan. One would stretch from Coney Island to Sandy Hook, NJ closing the Narrows to another Sandy. The other would stretch from the Bronx to Queens across the narrowest part of Long Island Sound providing protection from the east.   

In a storm emergency, gates protecting the channels would be shut thereby protecting the City of New York from a tidal surge.

But the blocked water must to go somewhere else and the backflow, especially at high tide, would have a material effect of inundating several other communities along Long Island Sound. This would put my Port Washington home in harm’s way, a victim of acceptable collateral damage.

However, the barriers are but one of several alternatives the Army Corp. of Engineers is considering although the Corp has yet to publicly explain its design or how they will operate.

A notation in the report grabbed my attention. It stated that the proposed barriers wouldn’t provide protection from future increases in the sea level. That struck me as odd especially as I have yet to notice any responsible official or politician advancing a plan how to deal with rising sea levels? The only reference I have discovered was one from the EPA noting that rising sea levels may become an issue in the next 35 to 50 years.

I am not aware of any national initiative to cope with rising sea levels much less create an action plan to combat it. Instead it would appear that each segment of our government is content to pursue the status quo. There isn’t even consensus to address the problem much less a dialogue to develop a national solution.

All I see is the right resisting the idea of climate change while the left demands radical solutions as they proclaim that the sky is falling. Noise, nothing but noise, that is what, we the people hear. Our government has become unhinged. Both political parties are using power to incapacitate each other.

The coastline of the continental United States is 12,383 miles. This number balloons to 95,471 miles when all the bays, sounds, estuaries and islands are included. 

Inaction prevails as our leaders choose to kick this can down the road. I doubt they have that luxury this time. No one knows for sure if or when the full moon tides will begin to play havoc with our ability to continue our normal activities uninterrupted.

Here in the Metropolitan Area shouldn’t we the people demand that our leaders address this possibility now? What will be the usefulness of the new airports, train tunnels and so many infrastructure projects now being built if they are under water?

Hand wringing is not the answer.

What happened to the political will of the people? What happened to strong leaders willing to form a consensus where all sectors join in a common effort to solve this problem?

We are consumed by a crisis of government that is tearing us apart. And for what? A gotcha moment that will never happen.

Stop the madness. Focus our collective effort on solving our national crisis. To hell with trying to ameliorate world-wide climate change! Protect our homeland. That should be our top priority.

Where is Robert Moses when we need him …

Beating a Dead Horse for Fun

I have acquired an enormous knowledge about certain subjects, most of them useless for all practical purposes. My cousin, Helen, once experienced a large enough dose of my trivial inventory leading her to exclaim: “John, you might have been a smart person if you didn’t have so much junk clogging your brain.”

I didn’t disagree, instead I embraced it. When I read a book, watch a movie or listen to a radio program I take pride in knowing that the author, commentator, director or researcher got it wrong. My pulse quickens, heart beats faster and a private, “Gotcha” races through my spirit.

Most of the time, I keep these triumphs to myself, but if I find one especially egregious, I am happy to contact the offender. Usually the written word provides the easiest opportunity to reach the author. For books, it is by way of the publisher. For instance, Geoffrey Perret in “Winged Victory” wrote that Doolittle’s raiders took off from the USS Enterprise rather than the USS Hornet. I let Perret have it. As usual, no reply.

Another time I discovered an unforgivable error in a biography of General Curtiss LeMay. One chapter in a book covered the ill-fated air attack on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania by Army Air Force heavy bombers. The author maintained several times that these bombers were B-17s. In my letter that went un-answered, I sarcastically pointed out to him that if he had only bothered to look at the photos of the airplanes in his own book, he would have noticed that all those B-17s were cleverly disguised as B-24s.

My personal best involved a sports blog about the Chicago Bears written by a life-long fan of “Da Bears.” In it, he told the story of how the Bears had defeated the Football Giants in New York’s Polo Grounds in the 1963 for the NFL Championship game. The piece included his e-mail address, so I critiqued him somewhat as follows:

“Interesting piece but for the record, the Giants left the Polo Grounds in 1955 and were playing in Yankee Stadium in 1963. However, that was the least of your sloppy reporting. The sad reality is the 1963 Championship game was not played in New York. It was played in Wrigley Field in your home city!”

I included my phone number in my critique and he soon called me to object to my criticism. When I countered that he had made a huge error he tried to duck responsibility. “I had somebody else do the research.”  

“Not an excuse.” I replied. “You are trying to throw somebody else under the bus! No, you don’t, this went out under your name and nobody else’s.”

Movies are my favorite hunting grounds. Authors and their staffs usually do enough research to get it right. My experience is movie researchers are sloppy about history. They don’t care if they get it right, they want just enough accuracy so that perhaps it makes some sense.

Even I’ll admit that continuity can be trumped by the story line. Take the car chase under the elevated subway line in the “French Connection.”. The film makers used poetic license by using several different elevated lines to heighten the excitement of the chase. Still, privately I do note the filmmaker’s errors. My curse.  

Which brings me to the new feature film, “Motherless Brooklyn,” a period piece detective story set in 1957. How do I know this: The hero drives a 1957 Chevy and the Dodgers are still in Brooklyn but on the cusp of leaving. That could only be 1957.

That being established what errors did I find. Before I reveal them, I admit this is a good movie and they do get many things right. Also, it is based on a novel so poetic license is rampant. The villain is a thinly disguised Robert Moses character named Moses Randolph played by Alex Baldwin. If Caro didn’t make you hate R.M. Baldwin will.

My criticisms are historical and boring. During a car chase shortly after the start of the film, a scene includes a City bus that didn’t exist in 1957.

Later in the film, the heroine boards a subway train to take her home to Harlem. The vintage train the director uses was in service in 1957. But it only operated on the BMT lines which didn’t go to Harlem. The closest that train would have taken her to was 57th Street a long walk from her home on 148th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

The last mistake shows an elevated train that would have been a futuristic vision in 1957. I am almost certain that this was a simple case of laziness. The director used it as a quick background shot and didn’t care that the train, we see didn’t exist then.

Boring, indeed, but not to me.

My hunt continues. Next up, a new movie called, “The Battle of Midway,” The film chronicles the naval battle in the Pacific in early June 1942 that changed the course of the war,

Already, from what I’ve read, heard and saw, it is chock-a-block full of flaws and mistakes.

Don’t worry, dear reader, I will save what mistakes I find for another time and I promise to snot to report them to you any time soon.

An Eagle in Distress

The following tale is excerpted from a 2005 travel diary that I kept during a trip to Alaska. We sailed from Seward to Vancouver on board Holland-Americas’ MV RYNDAM.

We observe the scenery as the ship approaches the port of Ketchikan. It is more industrialized than Juneau or Skagway, the other two ports we visited on the Alaska panhandle. We pass a cannery, a container terminal where two tugs maneuver a barge around our ship, a small shipyard with a floating dry dock, and many marinas. Floatplanes circle the ship and land in its wake. Eventually, we pass the floating platform that acts as their terminal and where they are moored. Then we have the dubious opportunity to watch them take-off and climb as they head right for us. They do cross at an angle to pass down the ship’s left side, but one of them passes at the same height where we are sitting, Deck 8 of 13, providing a little too much excitement.

Using thrusters, our ship is docked quickly and safely without the assistance of tugboats.

 We leave the ship with Helen and Don as a tour guide directs us to a van. There are eleven of us taking this tour and we are forced to wait for a last woman to arrive. Shoshanna is our driver. She just graduated from high school and has lived here for most of her life. By this time, we have met enough residents to realize many begin to get nervous if it doesn’t rain for two or three days. Shoshanna doesn’t tell us how lucky we are that it’s not raining. Instead, she complains that it has not rained much in several days. She boasts about how much more rain they get in Ketchikan than Seattle. She is really upset making me I think to myself, “For Shoshanna, a day without cloudy skies and pouring rain is a day without sunshine.”

Shoshanna drives us to a marina where we are introduced to Christine, the young woman who will pilot us out to Orca Island. We are outfitted in life jackets in a little shelter she uses and parade across the marina to the dock where her Zodiac is moored. Shoshanna is thrilled when she calls the tour company and receives permission to join us. The trade-off for her is she will pilot our return trip back to the dock. Climbing on board requires dexterity, but we all successfully board albeit with a couple of close calls. Mary Ann remarks about how beautiful Christine is. “Tall, thin and blond,” Mary Ann says, “She’s model quality.”

You wouldn’t know it to listen to her. She is a licensed captain who has sailed boats solo from Maui to San Francisco and has assumed the rough and tumble mannerisms of a sailor or a construction worker.” Once you get your rear ends into the boat, I can blow this place.”

 Disembarking is also a study in balance. Christine drives the boat onto a pebbly beach. There, two college age young men who will be our guides hook a ladder over one side of the boat. It is at a crazy angle and when I try to descend, I almost fall off. Watching me, Mary Ann decides to descend facing out so she can see what she is doing. The guides provide a good commentary about the forest and we do learn more useless information like the difference between “witch’s hair” and “an old man’s beard.” At the end of the walk, they supply a fire for roasting marshmallows. They also serve us hot chocolate, smoked salmon cheese and crackers. (They too are looking for a tip.)

Christine returns to collect us. The four of us choose to sit near the bow and have the hell beaten out of our coccyges as Christine speeds into the wind. The worst jolts occur when the Zodiac slams down on three waves in succession. Fortunately, we soon return to sheltered water and the beatings cease. As we near the marina, she stops the boat and directs our attention to an eagle struggling in the water. “Oh, my God,” she exclaims. “Do you see that? What’s happening is the eagle has grabbed a fish that’s too heavy in its talon and it can’t liftoff. Neither can it let go of the fish because once it grabs something, its talons lock. The only way the eagle can open the talon to release the fish is by putting it down on to something solid. If the fish is too big the eagle will tire and drown.”

We watch as the bird gently flaps its wings in a swimming fashion to reach shore. Happily, it has only about twenty feet to go from the spot where Christine spotted it and it makes it to the rocks. A throaty cheer follows from our boat when the bird reaches dry land. Shoshanna (who is waiting at the dock) is thrilled. “In the eighteen-years that I have lived here, I’ve seen eagles drown, but I never saw an eagle do that.”

The eagle preens itself on the shore drying its wings so that it may fly again. While it does this, sea gulls try to relieve it of its catch, but the eagle fights them off. In an instant the eagle is gone but none of us sees if it left with the fish.

On the return ride Shoshanna entertains us with stories and tall tales. When we pass a totem pole, she says that hand carved poles cost $1,000 a foot. “I heard of a story where a man gave his wife a 25- or 30-foot totem pole for their 75th wedding anniversary. He must have really loved her.”

 This prompts Helen to observe, “Ah, now we know, silver for 25, gold for 50 and a totem pole for 75.”